Purging by Pretending Not To

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Via Glenn Reynolds, I have come across the latest tiff breaking out among the Libertarians. Given their refusal to rigorously define what, exactly, they mean by "liberty" (and the consequences of that refusal), it really doesn't matter what this argument is about. So, no. I didn't follow the link. What I found noteworthy was the argument by the commentator at QandO.

As is usual, there appear to be several things going on at once. For one thing, "McQ", the author of the QandO post appears to be objecting to someone mischaracterizing some of his views. For another, judging by the excerpts, it seems that the author disagrees with his fellow Libertarian on whether we should be fighting in the current war. Fair enough.

But there is a difference between objecting to having one's opinion mischaracterized -- or disagreement over the application of principles -- and this:

As dependable as sunrise, there always arises in any movement some who think they are more pure than others and, of course, then hope to use their purity as a means of ostracizing others within that movement who don't reflect the same purity. We see them in religion as well as politics (ideology) and philosophy. In religion we call them fundamentalists. A lot of them are the newly converted and there is no greater fervor than that of someone who has suddenly discovered "the truth".

Those who have made this great discovery usually want others to either convert to their point of view or get out of the movement or religion (or at least not be identified with it). So they attempt to define, or redefine, their movement in such a way as to place these others of whom they don't approve outside the lines they're redrawing. In a word, to make them apostates. [link dropped, bold added]
Left completely out of the entire post is whether the "fundamentalist's" views represent Libertarianism or not. This is partly, of course, because Libertarianism is essentially the repudiation of philosophical principles as such. And this repudiation is, as I have also noted before, rooted in the fact that so many Libertarians simply do not grasp how to apply principles. To wit:
Me? I'm a neolibertarian who believes in libertarian principles but understands that we can't pretend the rest of the world doesn't exist nor pretend we don't face threats to which we have to respond. If that puts me "in the tank" for whatever, so be it.
A clear implication of the above is, that McQ agrees that "libertarian principles", which he "understands" and supports, would preclude the United States from defending itself against Islamofascism! If so, why is he a Libertarian?

Another Libertarian, Ilya Somin (last link), provides the answer:
If you are a deontological absolutist who believes it is always (or almost always) wrong to violate such rights regardless of consequences, then that gives you a logical reason to oppose virtually any war, possibly excepting a strictly defensive one, with "defense" defined very narrowly. By contrast, if you take a maximizing approach, you will be more willing to accept some rights violations now in order to reduce the total incidence of violations in the long run.
Both clearly think of principles in the same way that a fundamentalist views a scriptural injunction: as some arbitrary commandment imposed completely out of context that can only be followed, blindly to its consequences in reality, or selectively ignored, without bothering to check it against reality. (In fact, if a principle is correct, its application to reality will not always be simple or obvious. If not, then some serious thinking is in order to uncover the error that led to its adoption. No hint of that from either of these authors....)

It is clear that neither appreciates the revolutionary work done by Ayn Rand in the field of epistemology with her approach to the age-old problem of universals, which the Ayn Rand Society summarizes as follows:
Rand defines reason as "the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses" (VOS hb edn. 1965, p. 13). With our senses we perceive entities (including their attributes). Reason identifies these existents by interrelating them. For example, Newtonian physics interrelates the perceived motions of falling apples and wandering planets. To grasp such far-flung connections we need to deal with a vast quantity of information. However, Rand observes, we are only able to hold a limited number of discrete items in mind at once. This limitation creates a need for "unit economy," which is fulfilled by concepts, the basic units of thought.

A concept, Rand holds, is a man-made integration of similar existents in the form of a single mental entity -- a unitary awareness of indefinitely many existents of the same kind. The concept "man," for example, enables us to think and learn about all men (past, present and future) at once; and to call someone a man is to bring the whole of our knowledge about men (medical, psychological, philosophical, etc.) to bear on him.

Rand presents her theory of concept formation in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (ITOE), published first as a multi-part series in The Objectivist in 1966-67, and then as a monograph in 1967. Properly formed concepts unit-economize by integrating similar existents. Rand analyses similarity as a matter of variation in degree or measurement along a quantitative axis. Two items are similar, relative to a third, when their differences in measurement are comparatively insignificant. We form concepts by isolating a group of similar existents (or "units") by differentiating them from foils, and then integrating the units by omitting their particular measurements. In omitting these measurements we do not turn our attention away from their differences to some underlying sameness. Rather, we interrelate the units (and a potential infinity of other units) by projecting a range along the quantitative axis. The integration is retained by means of a word, and the units' differentiation from all other existents is maintained by a definition in traditional genus-differentia form.

Our first concepts are formed by integrating perceived entities or their attributes. These concepts then form the basis for wider integrations and more precise differentiations, resulting in a complex conceptual hierarchy. ...
Thus a concept like "liberty" (The condition of being physically and legally free from confinement, servitude, or forced labor.), which is quite abstract, ultimately derives from lower-order concepts. That being the case, if one "understands" and supports this notion, how is it that one can simultaneously believe that fighting a war to protect freedom contradicts this support?

In short, by not understanding where principles come from and thus how to apply them.

One concept pertinent to liberty and war that constantly trips up Libertarians is the "initiation of force" principle, the idea that for man to act upon his best rational judgement, he must be free from threats made and harm done by others. As far as I can tell, many Libertarians -- the ones who do not selectively ignore it altogether when it is convenient -- take this notion in isolation and conclude that only pacifism is consistent with advocacy for liberty. All the while, they variously ignore such other relevant philosophical context as (1) self-defense against someone who initiates force is not itself an initiation of force, (2) that the right to self-defense can (and should) be delegated to a government most of the time, and (3) that warfare by a government against another nation is thus simply another species of self-defense.

I have barely even begun to scratch the surface, but you get the idea. One cannot genuinely be said to understand or advocate an idea if he does not know what facts of reality are subsumed by it. Furthermore, one cannot apply that idea -- i.e., guide his actions in reality with reference to that idea -- to a given situation without giving cognizance to context.

Is Israel waging an all-out war against Lebanon the proper action for an advocate of freedom to support, or is it not? Assuming this is what it would take to eliminate Hezbollah as a military threat, it would be. Furthermore, this is a decision that one who understands the meaning of the term "liberty" can make quickly, but only if he has considered many other issues, such as: the moral difference between Israel and Lebanon, whether the Lebanese people are "innocent", and whether it is OK for Israel to harm some innocents (as it will) in the course of defending itself. This doesn't contradict the principle that to live a life proper to man, man must be free.

But, apparently, McQ thinks so, so he tosses out this principle for the sake of convenience.

And, not to defend the man he attacks in his post, but.... I have to point out, as one who cherishes freedom, that on the basis of my insistence on knowing and understanding what it is that one speaks of before launching a crusade in its favor, McQ has implicitly branded me as an ignoramus. He has chosen to attack someone not so much for his views, but for bringing up (however imperfectly) a matter of principle. McQ's approach is thus a clear attempt to preclude meaningful debate about political principles. It is indeed a "purge" from the public debate of those who might -- er -- engage in actual, meaningful debate.

If a principle is important enough to spend so much time advocating, is it not important to for other advocates to understand it more completely? Would not debate (or at least a more thorough presentation of the principle of liberty) lead to the truth, or at least the proper application of said principle? If your nom de blog happens to be McQ, you don't give a rat's behind about the answers to such questions. Revealing.

In light of McQ's purge, if I were a Libertarian, I would take this as a sign that something is not quite right with the movement and leave it to him and his ilk. If it is "fundamentalism" to insist that the supposed friends of liberty at least mean the same thing, then fundamentalism is a badge of honor.

If McQ wants to show us a "fundamentalist" of the religious kind, he need only stand up. His finger-pointing is superfluous and, in any case, it will be unguided by rational principles.

-- CAV


Xrlq said...

You need to re-read McQ's post. He's not trying to purge anybody. Mona, the woman you call the "man" he attacks in his post, is.

Gus Van Horn said...


You've missed my point. McQ's whole post is much more against the idea of the Libertarians having "litmus tests" (i.e., standards) than it is against Mona's criteria for "purging".

And if there aren't criteria for considering oneself a Libertarian, then what does it mean really?

(A parallel case is the UN, which obviously has no rational criteria for membership, and yet supposedly exists to promote peace. We saw the end result of that lack of standards this week when it reigned in Israel rather than allowing it to reign in the Party of God in Lebanon....)

As for my use of the masculine gender generically, I admitted up front not having read Mona's post as it was not necessary to do so for me to make my point. I know she was trying to purge and McQ supposedly wasn't. The last adverb is crucial to my point.

Perhaps I should have titled my post, "In Defense of Purges -- but not Libertarians".


Gus Van Horn said...


Well, then, I see that the feeling is mutual!

While we're swapping reading recommendations, might I recommend Peter Schwartz's "Libertarianism: The perversion of Liberty"?


Nicholas Provenzo said...

Dead on Gus--I read the same articles and reached the exact same conclusion.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you, sir! I'm glad somebody understood what I write!


Xrlq said...

Good God, Gus. Are hubris and lousy reading comprehension skills among the "standards" Objectivists like to impose on each other, or do y'all just play dumb every now and then to grab other people's attention? Political litmus tests are not "standards" in any meaningful sense of the word, as they measure nothing except the person's stance on the particular issue on which the proverbial "litmus" is based. This particular test - which you arrogantly assumed you didn't need to read about before weighing in on - was laughably over- and underinclusive. It's overinclusive because it defines as a "libertarian" any knee-jerk liberal who opposes NSA wiretaps, no matter how profoundly indifferent or even overtly hostile that person may be to the cause of individual liberty overall. Even Russ Friggin' Feingold, for chrissakes, is described in another post by the same author as "libertarian enough for me," despite having garnered a D rating from the NRA and an F rating from anyone who cares a fig about freedom of political speech. On the other hand, it's also grossly underinclusive, as it excludes from libertarianism any person who takes national security seriously, regardless of how strong their position may be on issues more directly relating to individual liberty.

But perhaps I really did miss your point. If your real point was that every standard is a good standard, and every attack on any standard, however stupid, arbitrary or self-serving that standard may be, should be treated as though it were an attack on standards generally, then in that case I agree it was not necesary to read figure out what Mona's "standard" was before making your point. It was, however, an extremely stupid point.

Gus Van Horn said...


I never claimed to support Mona's standards. But I support her in one respect: Unlike most Libertarians, she attempts to have standards at all.

So if, as you say, the issue is an incorrect standard, then why drone on about "purges" as such? Assuming the term "Libertarian" really meant anything, either Mona would be demonstrably correct or demonstrably incorrect. I

And as for being "inclusive" to any degree ... wouldn't you need some way to tell whether someone is a Libertarian?

Careful. Some might call that a "litmus test".


Xrlq said...

OK Mr. Standards, for starters you could try spelling my name right. I don't pretend to know what the perfect definition of "libertarian" is, if indeed there is one, but I do know that Mona's ain't it, and a stupid and meaningless standard is worse than having none at all. But since neither McQ nor I has advocated that there be no standards, that's really just a red herring anyway.

Gus Van Horn said...


Whatever you say, Mr. Tolerance.