Quick Roundup 232

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Case Against Libertarianism

In the process of answering a commenter , Amit Ghate has made the best plain-language and relatively short case against libertarianism I have ever seen.

[F]aced with an unsupported or improperly supported answer, no one in the sciences would say: "who cares, we have the same result, so why can't we all just get along and ignore the 'trivial' difference in how we arrived at it." Anyone with any regard for science guards the process and methods much more fervently than he guards any one particular result -- because only with the proper method can one arrive at truth and advance knowledge (including rooting out any innocent errors that one may make along the way). Without method -- or even worse, dismissing method, data, premises and logic as irrelevant -- one not only has no claim to the term "conclusion", but more importantly, one becomes the wholesale enemy of knowledge itself. And this is precisely the case with the libertarian movement....

The only "Objectivist twist" on all of this is that, in this day and age, only Objectivists seem to apply the principles generally accepted within the sciences to the humanities. That is, Objectivists holds philosophy to be a field of knowledge and as such maintain that it must arrive at its conclusions by a proper method. The essence of this method consists in abstracting concepts from their referents in reality, initially via sense perception, and then continuing with new identifications and wider abstractions and generalizations, all the while ensuring that the growing body of knowledge is logically verified and integrated. Acquiring knowledge is thus a painstaking and demanding task, but nothing less can result in truth or meaning.
This ties in quite well with a short comment I made recently regarding the problem of intellectual context for aphorisms and with a more lengthy discussion of my own regarding the snide comments libertarians often make about disputes within the Objectivist movement.

"Impediments" to the Libertarian Movement

As if to provide an example in support of Amit Ghate's point, Mark Hendrickson of FrontPage Magazine bemoans the divisiveness within the libertarian movement, citing the many incompatible philosophic beliefs (and conclusions) of its various adherents and asking, basically, "Why can't we all just get along?" in the process.

The fact that there is only one actual meaning of "liberty" and only one philosophic way of getting to it lends a certain surface credibility to Hendrickson's charges that more consistent libertarians are hurting the cause of freedom by arguing for greater ideological consistency. After all, when so many people are wrong in so many ways, those who want to wish away the need for objectivity in political thought have an easy time dismissing arguments as such as unimportant because of all the confusion they can point to.

This provides cover for one of the movement's greatest sins: confusing the virtue of political tolerance with the vice of epistemological tolerance (i.e., sloppiness). To insist on another person meaning the same thing before allying with him in a movement is a far cry from wishing to quash dissent through the apparatus of the government, and yet many libertarians draw analogies between the two all the time.

Pretending that ideas that would destroy freedom if put into practice are compatible with promoting liberty will not, as Hendrickson puts it, "quit allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the better." It will merely allow the incorrect to continue being the enemy of the good.

The libertarian movement, with its rejection of objectivity in the realm of political philosophy, is an impediment to liberty. It is too bad that its impotence in the political realm is not matched by a lack of influence on the public debate. Alas, it is easier to destroy than to build. The confusion they sow makes it far more difficult for those of us who actually do promote liberty (because we really know what it is) to gain and keep the enormous value that is political freedom.

Hilarious Video

Stop by Spark a Synapse and see an idiot who drives with a horn rather than a brain get what's coming to him.

-- CAV


Apollo said...

That article you linked to reminds me of the whole “atheist movement” happening on youtube and in the “outer world” in general headed by Hitchens, Dawkins, Sam Harris’s ect.

On youtube there was this guy called “The Amazing Atheist” who wanted to start a group for atheists called “Atheist Scum United”. But after a while it all fell apart because of to many disagreements between all the Atheists, the Atheist Scum wouldn’t Unite.


But how could it have not failed? Just to give an example, The Amazing Atheist attacks Ayn Rand in many of his videos. There go the Objectivists . . .

I don’t think that any movement based on promoting atheism can ever succeed, because it is based on promoting a negative (disbelief in god), not a positive (belief in something else).

The key is to unite people based on something more fundamental, they don’t even bother to ask why are you an atheist? Are you an atheist because of nihilist hatred? Or based on philosophical skepticism? Or based on reason, logic, and the facts of reality (or lack of)?

I’ve come across atheists that believe in reincarnation and karma and others that are just plain nihilist subjectivists, like the Amazing Atheist. You can’t unite that. They all come to the same conclusion, but its just coincidental.

The only proper way to “promote atheism” is to promote respect for reason, science, logic and individualism. But then you are not promoting atheism, you are promoting reason, and Atheism is just a secondary incidental consequence.

The same phenomenon seems to be happening with libertarians.

Gus Van Horn said...

That is an excellent point. Thanks for posting about it.

Amit Ghate said...

Thanks for the link Gus! And BTW, I really liked your point on tolerance, I agree people equivocate on the two very dissimilar meanings all the time.

Gus Van Horn said...

You're welcome, Amit.

Dismuke said...

""It is too bad that its impotence in the political realm is not matched by a lack of influence on the public debate."

I am not sure I understand. What influence has the libertarian movement had on the public debate? I cannot think of a single example.

The movement has been around for well over 30 years now and it is obscure as ever in terms of mainstream visibility. My off-the-cuff guess is that it's peak was sometime around the 1980 election and has become increasingly more marginal ever since and has rapidly moved more and more to the outer fringes since 911. Liberals and Conservatives alike regard them at best as being a bunch of utterly impractical eccentrics and more often as a bunch of kooks.

The only impact I see is some of the better Conservatives sometimes describe themselves as being "socially libertarian" in order to differentiate themselves from the Religious Right. But those individuals are actually using the word in its original and correct meaning and rarely do they have much regard for the modern libertarian movement. In most cases, I rather doubt that their opposition to the Religious Right is a result of the libertarian movement.

The libertarian movement absolutely has had the effect of confusing people who are new to Objectivism. But I only wish that such confusion was part of the public debate.

If what you mean is that that, had the libertarian movement not existed, Objectivism might get a higher level of visibility from those who are receptive to a pro-freedom message - well, with that I agree.

On the other hand, I tend to regard movements such as libertarianism and tolerationism as unfortunate and unavoidable temporary side effects of Objectivism's increasing visibility and success.

If you think about it, without Ayn Rand, neither movement would have ever been possible in the first place. And what both movements have in common is a desire to approach Objectivism in an a la carte sort of manner.

I really don't think that there is any way to avoid such movements from springing up. Objectivism is a very radical philosophy. In some cases, people are going to be recognize the virtues of parts of it but be utterly clueless of being able to grasp the larger philosophical issues that give rise to the concrete positions that they value. In other less innocent cases, some people are simply unwilling to challenge or give up certain conventional ideas they grew up with. So the result will be that the more visible Objectivism becomes, there will naturally be more people who will be motivated to come up with or support some sort of watered down alternative version.

If you notice, both the libertarian and the tolerationist movements seem to be fading away. Many of the better sorts of people who supported those movements during their height have since disassociated themselves from them. This is the inevitable result of the many contradictions which are inherent in both movements. Those contradictions become more obvious over time which enables the better people to see through them and recognize their errors. What remains is a hard core of nihilists who joined the movements based on what they were against and not they claimed to be for.

When I was a kid, the libertarian movement primarily appealed to people who leaned towards the right and were outraged by the growth of government over the economy and into people's personal lives. Today the movement is increasingly taking on the look of the militantly pacifist "Angry Left" and I have even seen comments on the web here and there by people who characterize themselves as libertarians say nice things about Cindy Sheehan and Michael Moore.

Thus they truly HAVE become what Ayn Rand said they were: the hippies of the right. Of course, they have ALWAYS been that. But in 1980, one could easily have pointed to a lot of rank and file supporters who did not fit that mold and who would never have supported what that movement has since become.

My guess is we are going to see the rise (and fall) of other similar movements as time goes on of people who attempt to find some sort of compromise between Objecitivsm and more mainstream views that people hold dear and find difficult to give up. Yes, it is always a bad thing if someone seeks to water down and bastardize the philosophy. But consider the alternative. If people didn't seek to cash in on it and bastardize it, it would probably be a sign that people are no longer paying attention to it.

Ergo said...

Amit's post is superb! A very succinct identification of fundamental differences.

Gus, I just want to point out something minor. Epistemological tolerance (I don't like using the word tolerance, but I'll explain that later) can not just indicate tolerating sloppiness but also tolerating honest errors of judgment or identification. In that sense, it's not a vice as opposed to the virtue of political tolerance.

Now, with regards to the use of the word tolerance, I wrote a post about it on my blog. Notice how the word "tolerance" never needs to be used in relation to that which is objectively identified as good or moral.

Nothing good ever needs to be tolerated.

Therefore, if you are being asked to tolerate something, then you are essentially being asked to either accept a compromise on the good or deal with something outrightly wrong.

In cases where the degree of differences is minor (like political differences among Objectivists or libertarians), I'd like to avoid using the word "tolerance" and instead use acceptance or some such related concept.

In cases where the degree of differences is significant and fundamental (say, between Objectivists and fascists), to say that one tolerates the differences is actually a vice, and intolerance and condemnation is the proper virtue.

One can accept the good, but one never tolerates the good. Thus, when I see that I never need to use the word “tolerate” in relation to something I have identified as a good or a value, I begin to realize that the *only* instances when I *do* need to use the word “tolerate” is in relation to something I do not approve, have not identified as good, and perhaps is a threat to what I hold as good. For all other minor differences of opinion, there are proper alternatives to use, such as "acceptable" or "permissible."

Gus Van Horn said...


thank you for the thoughtful comments regarding Libertarianism.

All I meant by the comment you wrote about was that because Libertarianism is making it harder, by sowing and perpetuating confusion about the need for the principles underlying freedom (and the principles themselves), that movement is making it harder for those of us who know what they are to wage the intellectual battle that needs waging.

Whle it is true that, were it not for libertarianism, there would be something like it, that does not mean that the movement isn't hurting the intellectual cause for freedom.

Given the importance of ideas in guiding the course of history, I see such a hindrance to be much greater than anything they ever did in electoral politics.


I think you're missing my point.

"In cases where the degree of differences is minor (like political differences among Objectivists or libertarians), I'd like to avoid using the word 'tolerance' and instead use acceptance or some such related concept."

You also argue that "tolerance" could be taken to mean not morally condemning honest errors, which is, of course, part of the proper way to react to error.

Libertarians are all about pretending that fundamental principles are unimportant.

While I, as an Objectivist, could side with even those I substantially disagree with on some narrow issue where it is easy to avoid confusion (e.g., some church that was in the right opposing, say, a new zoning ordinance), that is a far cry from the libertarian approach, which would be to count that religion as some sort of intellectual ally regarding property rights after their preacher says that the Bible tells us that man has a right to property.

So what I decry here as "tolerance" is not the recognition that I share some political conclusion with someone else, but the evasion of the fact that in cases where we seem to have arrived at the same conclusion through two entirely different philosophical paths, at least one of us does not really know what he's talking about.


Jim May said...

On the other hand, I tend to regard movements such as libertarianism and tolerationism as unfortunate and unavoidable temporary side effects of Objectivism's increasing visibility and success.

Absolutely true. As the ideas spread from the source out into the world and mix with competing ideas, they will be misunderstood, mocked, modified, satirized, bastardized -- you name it. From libertarianism to Bioshock, it can only be expected to get worse as a direct consequence of our success, since individuals have free will. You can't hustle without kicking up some dust.

Our job is to ensure that Objectivism itself is clearly understood as the original brand, The Real Thing(tm), What Started It All.

Gus Van Horn said...

Amen, so to speak!