Philosophy of CFR [COFREE]
The Colorado Freedom Report is a journal of culture and politics in the Colorado region from a libertarian (free market, classical liberal) perspective. The philosophy of CFR is here laid out so that potential subscribers can know what to expect in its pages. In addition, those who might wish to submit articles to CFR for publication will have a better idea of the ideological slant of the journal. Finally, the general reader unfamiliar with libertarian ideas might find this essay a useful introduction to those ideas.
In CFR "libertarianism" refers to a belief in the efficacy of free markets and in the desirability of voluntarism in all human relations (permitting the use of force only for self-defense). This definition is intentionally broad, omitting consideration of ethical foundations. The ethical foundations of libertarianism are critically important, to be sure, and CFR's editor approaches libertarianism from the influence of Objectivism (the philosophy of Ayn Rand), but the purpose of CFR is not to debate foundational ethics. CFR is a journal of regional culture and politics, so the history of ethical theory within regional groups as it pertains to liberty may be covered, and of course ethical implications of particular policies may be explored.
The following material is divided into three main parts. The first discusses the meaning of "freedom" and the nature of property rights, the second differentiates CFR's brand of libertarianism from other sets of ideas, and the third discusses the nature of "radicalism."
The Meaning of Freedom
The importance of the concept of "freedom" to The Colorado Freedom Report is indicated in the very title of the publication. The problem with the term is that it can mean very different things to different people, so it is in danger of meaning nothing much at all.
In the context of CFR, "freedom" indicates a concern with eliminating or at least limiting oppression by one or more people over others. "Oppression" again can be an ambiguous term. In the libertarian sense, "oppression" refers to the use of force (or fraud) to control the person or property of others, excepting cases of self-defense of one's own person or property.
Immediately the issue turns to the definition of "property." In the Marxist sense, the laborers "own" the "property" they create, regardless of who legally "owns" the capital or business. Thus, for Marx, it is the owners of capital property who by the very nature of their ownership "oppress" the workers, because the product is really the property of those workers, stolen by the capitalists. A Marxist, then, would consider "freedom" to be when the "workers of the world have united" to overthrow their capitalist "oppressors."
Obviously, this is not how libertarians view property. Libertarians do not see capital goods and consumption goods as significantly different, in terms of how ownership applies. Within the libertarian framework, a person owns material goods in any of three situations: 1) the person has created goods from "virgin" (previously unowned) resources, 2) the person has created goods from materials previously owned by that person, or 3) the person has received goods from another's voluntary transfer of ownership, either by gift or by trade.
In the first case, the creation of goods from previously unowned resources, libertarians will say that the creator gains the rights to the property by "first in time" use. For instance, a person who flew a spaceship to Mars could gain "first in time" property ownership of any resources there (land, water, etc.) simply by being the first person to use these resources. The emigrant couldn't simply claim ownership over the entire planet in an arbitrary way, as many States have done with terrestrial land, but rather would have to actually use the claimed resources to acquire them as "property."
A person also owns all goods he or she creates from resources previously owned by that person. For instance, if I own a computer, a printer, and paper, I also own the manuscript I type into the computer and print on the paper. Of course, this situation may change if I voluntarily contract away the manuscript. For instance, if I agree to trade $100 for the manuscript, then the manuscript belongs to the trading partner. This invokes the third way property can be owned: by voluntary transfer.
The libertarian system of property encounters at least a couple serious difficulties. The "first in time" system of ownership can be ambiguous; what exact "uses" constitutes the acquisition of property from "virgin" resources, and what exactly is the range of resources acquired? Given a system of owned resources, often it is unclear just what constitutes a violation of another's property rights. Clearly, dumping trash on a neighbor's yard is such a violation. But what about burning a fire which causes smoke to float into the neighbor's yard? What about loud noises or bright lights? The present essay must defer such complications to legal theorists and to the courts and potential libertarian courts. Such problems are not debilitating to libertarian theory, but they do suggest a need for continuous legal development.
Critics may contest libertarian theory by noting that in fact present-day property rights have not perfectly arisen from "first in time" acquisition; probably most property in existence today can at some point be traced back to an instance of theft. (For instance, much land and other property in the United States was stolen by Europeans from Native Americans.) Libertarian theory answers that we must basically accept the present order of property, unless clear instances of theft can be proved and individual victims found, and attempt to preserve the system of "first in time" and voluntarily traded property into the future. As Ludwig von Mises counters, the criticism from past theft "offers not the slightest proof that the abolition of ownership is necessary, advisable, or morally justified" (Mises 32). He continues:
We who only see the effect of Law -- which is to make peace -- must realize that it could not have originated except through a recognition of the existing state of affairs, however that has arisen. Attempts to do otherwise would have renewed and perpetuated the struggle. Peace can come about only when we secure the momentary state of affairs from violent disturbance and make every future change depend upon the consent of the person involved. (Mises 35)
Marxism and libertarianism are similar in that both seek to create freedom from oppression, though they define "oppression" in very different ways. Not all political ideologies are concerned with "freedom from oppression." Today's welfare-liberals (prominent in the Democratic party), the political children of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, hold as a main political goal "freedom from need." Freedom from hunger, freedom from the expenses of health care, freedom from homelessness. Critics of welfare-liberalism would say, "freedom from responsibility." Welfare-liberals do not follow Marxists in calling for the "socialization" (political take-over) of capital goods. Rather, they call for numerous government programs to provide a "security net" for those who might otherwise suffer. Thus, we in the United States have Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, regulated health insurance, housing subsidies, assistance for all sorts of poverty, and so on.
Marxism conflicts with libertarian property rights by calling for the forcible take-over of capital goods. Welfare-liberalism (and aspects of Marxism) conflicts with libertarian property rights by calling for the forcible re-distribution of wealth from the relatively wealthy to the relatively poor. Welfare-liberalism can be partially compatible with libertarianism, however. For instance, many welfare-liberals want to maintain property rights where they concern issues of free speech.
Most welfare-liberals do not want a perfectly egalitarian society, only a limited redistribution. Welfare-liberalism significantly alters the libertarian definition of "property rights," though, by permitting "pragmatic," allegedly "humanitarian" abbreviations of property rights in order to stave off human suffering. In an important sense, the poor gain rights to the property of others, simply by virtue of being poor, within the doctrine of welfare-liberalism.
Libertarians are not insensitive to the plight of the poor, nor do we pretend that early industrial labor was all peaches and cream. Instead, we argue that a libertarian society will enable individuals and voluntary organizations of individuals to create wealth at unprecedented rates. Libertarians predict, based on historical research and what we know of the people around us, that charity will thrive within a free society; indeed, that charity will actually tend to help poor people rather than trap them in poverty, as so many of today's welfare programs do. Libertarians also blame the government itself for unemployment, as the government controls the monopolistic Federal Reserve system (thus causing the boom-bust cycle) and heavily regulates the employment market. (The purpose of this essay is not to substantiate these contentions, but merely to make readers aware of their existence. A broad libertarian literature attempts to support the claims with historical research and economic theory.)
If Marx accurately described problems with industrial labor in his time, it is the free market elements of our system, not socialism, which has continually improved working and living conditions. This is the libertarian view; welfare-liberals will argue that it is government social programs which have bettered conditions. The welfare-liberal position ignores the simple fact, however, that the standard of living cannot improve without an increase in capital goods (and an increase in real production in the economy). It also ignores the fact that wages, determined by competition within the free market, tend to increase with the increase in capital goods. As George Reisman stresses:
What must be realized is that while it is true that workers would be willing to work for minimum subsistence if necessary, and that self-interest makes employers prefer to pay less rather than more, both of these facts are irrelevant to the wages the workers actually have to accept in the labor market. (Reisman 614)
Rather, Reisman argues, employers must out-bid others for the services of workers. As production increases because of the increase of capital and technology, real wages of workers will tend to increase.
Libertarians, then, don't blame difficult working conditions of early industrial society on the free market, but rather simply on the lack of productive capacity in the economy, the lack of capital goods, a situation which can best be improved in an economy unfettered by government controls. Capitalism inherited problems of poverty from earlier times, and rapidly improved conditions to the present day, when nearly every person owns at least one automobile, lavish accommodations, technological wonders of all kinds, and ample food. (See Rand for a more detailed presentation of this view.) The true wonder is that the free market elements of our system could survive the political leeches, the high tax rates, and the stifling government regulations to continue to increase living standards impressively.
Libertarians, then, fundamentally call for "freedom from oppression" and security in property rights. The end result of secure property rights, though, is an economic system capable of meeting human needs better than any welfare-state.
This leads to further considerations of "freedom." Freedom is not and end in itself, something valuable for its own sake. Rather, it is valuable partly because it enables people to create wealth for themselves (and for others if they so choose). But that is only one aspect of freedom in the libertarian sense -- freedom also is a necessary condition for living the most self-responsible, emotionally fulfilling life possible. Libertarians believe that government paternalism -- laws against non-violent activities and laws mandating the redistribution of wealth -- perpetuates a culture of mindless wards of the State, people who can't and don't want to think for themselves and lead their own lives.
If we are forced to give charity, we don't have to take responsibility for thinking about the poor, and we don't have to think about why some people are poor in the first place. If we can force others to give us charity, we don't have to take responsibility for our decisions, we don't have to plan our lives, we don't have to live mindfully. If we are forced to abstain from certain substances or activities, we don't have the opportunity to make our own decisions. When we are required to fill out reams of paperwork for the IRS or the licensing boards or whatever government agency, our time becomes the State's, not our own. When we are required to pay around half of the value of our labor to the various national, state, and local taxes, that much of our lives is controlled by politicians and bureaucrats, not ourselves.
The security of libertarian property rights is important for our ability to produce the wealth we need to live and thrive, and it is also important for our ability to remain in control of our lives, to be independent actors, rather than mere possessions of others.
How ironic that welfare-liberals are frequently so strongly in support of those property rights which lend themselves to free speech, and then so strongly opposed to property rights which lend themselves to free living. Why is the ability to publish a critique of Bill Clinton with one's own property more important than the ability to say, through one's actions and expenditures, "I do not support the slothful lifestyle. I will not help people trap themselves in poverty through ill-conceived transfer programs," or, "I believe Organization X does a better job of providing charity with my money than does the State?" Why is the right to flap one's lips more important than the right to spend one's time building one's own life, pursuing one's own projects, accumulating wealth for the goals one's self finds important? Why do we have to live for the goals of those in Washington, D.C. and the State-house? With dedication and perhaps a little luck, the rights of free speech we retain will help us to fully achieve our other rights.
Taxes and government regulations turn whatever parts of our lives they touch into the property of the State. Human beings are by nature thoughtful and purposeful. We cannot live as human beings to the extent that the thoughts and purposes of others are forced upon us.
What CFR is Not
CFR is not dogmatic. A "dogma" is a passionately held belief unsupported by evidence and logic. Many libertarians have traditionally treated their system of beliefs as a dogma. A common form of this tendency has been to treat libertarian property rights as an "axiom," the fancy name for "unproved, unjustified assertion." Not only must libertarian property rights be defined and contrasted with other definitions of property rights, but they must be justified as the best system of property rights available to us. This requires extensive research into history, economics, sociology, psychology, and so forth. Refer to Jeffrey Friedman's essay in Critical Review, What's Wrong with Libertarianism, for an excellent review of the history of dogmatic tendencies within libertarianism.
CFR will seek to maintain open dialogue between libertarians and those who oppose libertarianism. The hope is that we're right and that we'll be able to convince others of this fact, but we must remain open to new ideas and new research from others which may conflict with our ideas. If we happen to be wrong on some point, we can improve the theory; if we are right, we will better understand the theory and grow in our abilities to apply it. Holding ideas with passion is a virtue, so long as one also holds the ideas with evidence and good reason.
CFR is not utopian. CFR is radical but not utopian. Chris Matthew Sciabarra explains the difference between the two tendencies: "[T]he radical is that which seeks to get to the root of social problems, building the realm of the possible out of the conditions that exist. By contrast, the utopian is, by definition, the impossible (the word, strictly translated, means 'no-place')." The utopian is concerned with "rationalist abstractions" rather than real-world, workable proposals (Sciabarra 1-2).
Part of disdaining utopianism is holding realistic expectations for the free market. Some libertarians tend to reify the "market," thinking of it as something more than the voluntary relationships between individuals, something capable in itself of righting all social wrongs. But "the market" is simply the name for the system of voluntary, as opposed to coercive, relations between people. Just because people can act cooperatively, doesn't mean they will act wisely. True, the free market will tend to create incentives for acting responsibly. If charity is voluntary rather than forced, the givers are not as likely to fund wasteful spending and sloth. However, the wise course is not the necessary one; people can be just as stupid in a free market as they can be under Statism.
The hope is that, in a free market, absent the coercive oppression of Statism, people will be better able to build good lives for themselves and more encouraged to act responsibly and intelligently. We have no absolute promise that such will be the case, but it is a reasonable prediction. At least the State will not prevent people from acting wisely, as it too often does today.
Certainly the free market will be no panacea. Some people will continue to perform ugly acts in libertarian society. Some businesspersons will continue to make poor investments and waste wealth. The hope, again, is that the system will be better than the current one, not the institution of Heaven on Earth.
CFR is not fundamentally reactionary. Of course, CFR like all intellectual camps will seek to criticize opposing positions. However, the primary goal of CFR is not to criticize the State and political controls, but rather to advocate the further development of human freedom and all the fruits that come with such freedom. Attacking political controls is not and end in itself; it is the means to removing what libertarians see as a road-block to a better way of life.
Those who are fundamentally reactionaries, those whose main goal is to tear something down rather than to build something up, tend to resort to unsavory methods in their pursuits. If the emphasis is subversion, positive values are frequently subverted along with the central "enemy."
To name perhaps the most extreme example, Timothy McVeigh, in his hatred of the State, killed hundreds of innocent people. He is more of a murderer than the Feds who invaded the Waco compound, the event to which McVeigh reportedly reacted. In his blind reactionism, McVeigh became a greater foe of libertarian property rights than Janet Reno ever will be. Libertarianism is at its core a respect for other people.
Common among anti-State reactionaries (NOT among libertarians) is a tendency to reify the State. That is, some wrongly think of the State as some entity in itself, capable of will and action. They see the State as a monolithic "evil" which needs to be destroyed. But that's not what the "State" is. The State is a collection of laws, of myths, of allegiances, of thousands of disparate individuals acting largely independently. Perhaps the tendency to reify the State is what enabled McVeigh to see his bombing not as an attack on real people, but merely an attack on the "Great Evil State." But fooling one's self through reification does not excuse one's actions, which affect the real world rather than the world of the imagination.
When we avoid reifying the State, we cannot help but to see people who work for the State for what they are -- real people, with real minds and ideas and feelings, usually with a real concern for their fellow man. Just because one FBI agent murdered a man's wife and child in cold blood at Ruby Ridge, doesn't mean that all or even a significant number of FBI agents are evil (part of that "Great Evil State"). Rather, nearly all FBI agents are probably very decent human beings. I would guess that even nearly all IRS agents are basically good people. It can serve no good purpose to vilify people over what amounts to intellectual disagreements. I'm sure that many IRS agents believe that the taxes they collect serve a good purpose. I personally don't see how anyone could stand to work for a national bureaucracy, and I'm all for using persuasion to convince these agents to find productive work, but we cannot just automatically vilify these people as pure evil because they work for the State.
Make no mistake -- it is wrong to collect taxes for the State or to perform other duties which seize control of others' lives. But one error does not make a person bad to the core. I remain supremely hopeful that the enlightenment of rational discourse will convince the agents of the State to find a satisfying, productive life in civil, free society.
CFR is not supportive of the political-industrial complex. Many on the left, and most popular journalists, conflate "capitalism" or the "free market" with the present political-industrial complex. (The "political-industrial complex" is the "military-industrial complex" extended to industries besides the military. It is the unholy marriage of politics with business.) "Free market" reforms are struggling in Russia and in other countries, we hear. However, State-funded and controlled industries have nothing to do with a libertarian "free market." Libertarians oppose all State funding and all State regulation of industry. In the (real) free market, businesses which serve their customers thrive, while businesses which fail to serve their customers go out of business. There is no "corporate welfare" or regulatory favoritism.
Marxists and libertarians both condemn the political-industrial complex. Both camps see the arrangement as oppressive and in service to the interests of the politically elite. Marxists, though, blame the evils of the system on "capitalism," while libertarians blame the problems on the State. Get the State out of business, libertarians hold, and business will return to its task of serving the needs of people, its customers.
CFR is not part of the "Religious Right." Some conflate libertarianism with "right wing" politics. However, libertarians OPPOSE military pork, social controls, the drug war, the war on prostitution, censorship of all kinds, anti-immigration policies, controls over gambling, the control of the State by religious factions, and, in most cases, controls over abortion. The thought of Pat Robertson as president gives this writer just as many shivers as the thought of Bill Clinton as president.
A Note on Radicalism
The Colorado Freedom Report is a self-professed "radical" journal. It advocates "extreme" views and "extreme" changes.
Unfortunately, the popular media has taken to using the terms "radical" and "extreme" to describe violent groups. CFR certainly isn't violent. (Libertarianism is the antithesis of violence, except for self-defense.) The conflation of "radicalism" and "extremism" with violence is nothing short of the attempted annihilation of all forward thinking and all serious criticism of the State. Follow orders, do what you're told, think only what everyone else thinks, or you're an evil "radical!" CFR will not be caught in this Orwellian semantic trap.
The Random House dictionary defines "radical" as, "of or pertaining to roots or origins, fundamental; thoroughgoing or extreme; favoring drastic political, economic, or social reforms." All of this fits CFR perfectly. The same dictionary describes "extreme" as, "of a character or kind farthest removed from the ordinary or average; going to the utmost or very great lengths in action, opinion, etc." Nothing about this implies the use of violence. To be sure, one sub-set of "extremism" is violent action, such as the 1998 burnings of Vail structures by eco-terrorists and the 1998 murder of an abortion doctor by religious terrorists. CFR is extremist in a way that shuns violence.
CFR follows Barry Goldwater's great insight, that extremism is pursuit of liberty is no vice, and that moderation in pursuit of justice is certainly no virtue. Others have described "moderates" as people who don't know what they think. Of course, "moderation" is a necessity if one considers only the "alternatives" of Republican and Democratic politics, in which one side would enslave the human mind, the other, the body, as Ayn Rand has put it, if one group or the other were given full reign. Outside of this limiting context, though, CFR calls for the maximum, the extreme level, the radical bounds, of human freedom.
Radicals, however, are well-advised to advocate change while paying heed to the nature of the culture around them. Obviously, the Colorado legislature is not going to eliminate state taxes altogether during its next session. Radicals must be aware both of long-term goals and of short-term potentialities. Goals cannot be accomplished by pie-in-the-sky utopianism. On the other hand, far-off goals should not be discounted as impossible, either.
CFR does not advocate violent struggle against the state, or even non-violent civil disobedience such as tax-evasion. The State has become quite adept at punishing deviants. However, our rights of speech remain relatively unabridged, so CFR seeks to take advantage of this viable right in the hopes of moving the culture via persuasion closer to the acceptance of a fully free, civil (libertarian) society.
That said, we do well to remember that our country, still the greatest on earth, was founded in violent revolution. Our forefathers took up arms -- and used them -- over taxes so insignificantly small they would make today's politicians laugh. Revolution in those days must have seemed simple, if daring. There weren't FBI files and a thousand Federal tracking devices. There was no CIA, FBI, NSA, or internet monitoring station. The fight was clean, out in the open, and one didn't have to worry about mysterious "accidents." We're a lot closer to 1984 than we were then.
We're also a lot freer in many respects, though. Women now have rights of property ownership equal to men as well as the right to remain free of the violence of men, and they can seek out work of their choice and lead an independent life. People of African descent hold rights on par with those of European descent, with notable though relatively minor exceptions. We can say whatever we please about our political leaders without fear. We can believe what we want, say what we want, usually go where we want. The process of voting partly keeps in check the excesses of the State. We're doing well, truly. We live in the freest, wealthiest place in history.
But we can do better yet. The old argument, "Move to Russia if you don't like it here," just doesn't pass. Is our state of affairs acceptable, so long as it is better than everyone else's? These relativistic comparisons show nothing, for the history of humanity is largely the history of war, brutality, and oppression. We should want to live good lives, the best lives possible, not just lives which are better than the worst. CFR is committed to the means of rational persuasion to further the goal of human liberty. The road to a peaceful, civil, voluntaristic society has been long and sometimes painful, and it is bound to stretch far into the future. So let's get moving.
-Ari Armstrong, Editor, The Colorado Freedom Report, November 1998
Friedman, Jeffrey. What's Wrong with Libertarianism, Critial Review. Critical Review Foundation, Vol. II, No. 3, Summer 1997.
Mises, Ludwig von. Socialism. Liberty Classics 1981.
Rand, Ayn. Capitalism, The Unknown Ideal. Signet Books, New York, 1967.
Reisman, George. Capitalism. Jameson Books, Ottawa, Illinois, 1996.
Sciabarra, Chris Matthew . Marx, Hayek, and Utopia. State University of New York Press, Albany, 1995.