Thursday, September 13, 2007
What happens when a writer obviously ignorant about, but hostile to Ayn Rand is handed a convenient set of stereotypes by a group of people who claim to be on her side, but repeatedly demonstrate that they don't know anything about her, either?
Thanks to an email from reader Bill Spears yesterday, I learned that you get articles like this.
Like Ayn Rand, whom I admire and who repeatedly denounced libertarianism, I am not a libertarian and I will not defend libertarianism, which is an anti-intellectual movement that pretends that one can advocate liberty without even bothering to be clear about what one is talking about. Libertarianism deserves no defense from anyone who actually values freedom and capitalism.
When a political movement seeks, as libertarianism does, to expand its membership at the expense of that membership actually knowing what it is talking about or agreeing about anything important, what you get is a such a motley collection of fools -- who claim to be fans of so many random intellectuals -- that even a five-year-old could figure out how to drag intellectual X through the mud with their unwitting help.
All such a brilliant polemicist would have to do is find someone who obviously hasn't a clue about anything -- and pretend that this person somehow does have a clue about the intellectual she wishes to smear. Here is author Kay Hymowitz channeling her inner five-year-old with a libertarian stereotype:
More than perhaps any other American political group, libertarians have suffered the blows of caricature. For many people, the term evokes an image of a scraggly misfit living in the woods with his gun collection, a few marijuana plants, some dogeared Ayn Rand titles, and a battered pickup truck plastered with bumper stickers reading "Taxes = Theft" and "FDR Was A Pinko."After saying that this stereotype is "not entirely unfair", Hymowitz then goes medieval on capitalism and Ayn Rand through the convenient surrogates of libertarianism and such luminaries as Brian Doherty and Murray Rothbard.
And her attack is a moral attack against the "cultural contradictions of libertarianism". As just one example, she cites Brian Doherty, editor of Reason Magazine and author of a recent history of the libertarian movement (which also wrongly includes Rand as a libertarian):
Despite Mr. Lindsey's protestations to the contrary, libertarianism has supported, always implicitly and often with an enthusiastic hurrah, the "Aquarian" excesses that he now decries. Many of the movement's devotees were deeply involved in the radicalism of the 1960s.Had Hymowitz a deeper familiarity with Ayn Rand, she would have demonstrated some inkling that Rand made a major distinction between morality and politics, which plenty of libertarians are happy to paper over just like Doherty does above. It is one thing to uphold the political right of someone to do what he wants as long as he does not violate the rights of someone else, but it is quite another to say that it is moral to do whatever one wants to do.
Nor should this come as a surprise. After all, the libertarian vision of personal morality--described by Mr. Doherty as "People ought to be free to do whatever the hell they want, mostly, as long as they aren't hurting anyone else"--is not far removed from "if it feels good, do it," the cri de coeur of the Aquarians. To be sure, part of the libertarian entanglement with the radicalism of the 1960s stemmed from the movement's opposition to both the Vietnam War and the draft, which Milton Friedman likened to slavery. But libertarians were also drawn to the left's revolutionary social posture. [bold added]
Ayn Rand, well-known (and condemned among libertarians) as a moralist, wrote an entire book about morality called The Virtue of Selfishness. Her philosophy is unique, as Tara Smith recently demonstrated in her academic (but still quite accessible) Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist, in making a strong case for the necessity of the morality of egoism for human life and well-being.
Why does one get the impression that Hymowitz either does not know or does not care that Rand holds a radically different view of morality than the collection of hippies she tosses out in the same essay? At the very least, if one is going to call Rand a libertarian, one ought to show some modicum of surprise that this is one "libertarian" whose view of morality is uncharacteristically fastidious. Rand understood that one must grasp morality before formulating a theory of politics. This goes unmentioned, along with the fact that her ethics is just as far from the Christian morality espoused by conservatives as it is from the hedonism of hippies.
One would think that Hymowitz is afraid for her readers to learn that Rand offered a serious, rational, and revolutionary alternative to the old "choice" between mindlessly obeying allegedly divine commands -- or mindlessly doing "your own thing"!
And if Hymowitz had bothered to look more closely into Rand's moral thinking, she would have seen how it ties in with her political thinking, and furthermore how, as a result, while libertarians parrot many of the words of Rand's capitalist political theory, they clearly do not understand its actual meaning.
For example, she cites the apparent disconnect between the recent return of momentum towards the expansion of big government and the optimism of many libertarians:
[D]espite Bill Clinton's declaration that "the era of big government is over," antistatist ideas like school vouchers and privatized Social Security accounts continue to be greeted with widespread skepticism, while massive new programs like the Medicare prescription-drug benefit continue to win the support of re-election-minded incumbents. A recent New York Times survey found increasing support for government-run health care, and both parties are showing signs of a populist resurgence, with demands for new economic and trade regulation.But school vouchers are not fundamentally "anti-statist". Privatizing the educational system is anti-statist, while the government taking control of part of your (and others') income and dictating how it is spent is just another form of statism. Ditto for the government having anything whatsoever to do with the business of retirement planning. If people look askance at capitalism because of such measures, it is plainly because the word about what capitalism really is hasn't been put out quite accurately.
And yet, judging by their output in recent years, libertarians are in a fine mood--and not because they are in denial. However distant the country may be from their laissez-faire ideal, free-market principles now drive the American economy to a degree unimaginable a generation ago. [bold added]
In other words, not only is there a recent buildup of new momentum for big government, the efforts of libertarians which Hymowitz agrees are attempts to make America more capitalistic were not in fact anything of the sort!
Hymowitz is technically (and accidentally) right about libertarians not being "in denial" about any of this: How can one be "in denial" about one's asessment of the facts on the ground if one is dead wrong about how he assesses them? Libertarians advocate measures as "capitalism" all the time on the basis of nonessential details that look on the surface like capitalism. For example vouchers look good to many libertarians because they fixate on greater school "choice" -- while dropping the context of the unchallenged state near-monopoly on education and the fact that vouchers also increase state involvment in religion by sending tax money to religious schools.
Objectivists and others who actually understand Ayn Rand's ideas understand that the "anti-statist" measures Hymowitz mentions are actually quite statist, but revealingly, neither do Hymowitz nor too many libertarians. Indeed, City Journal, to which Hymowitz is a contributing editor, recently lauded a massive wave of "privatization" of infrastructure which, as I pointed out, is not really privatization at all!
To the degree Hymowitz's mischaracterization of that revolutionary champion of capitalism, Ayn Rand, carries any water, it does so because Hymowitz has a reputation as an intellectual ally of capitalism. It would seem that both her moral criticism of this intellectual giant and Hymowitz's reputation as an advocate of the free market are wide open to question.
Today: Corrected some typos.