Objectivists and Libertarians
by Ari Armstrong, July 19, 2002
Some Objectivists argue that right-thinking Objectivists ought not associate with libertarians because of the mixed philosophical premises of those in the libertarian movement. (Peter Schwartz of the Ayn Rand Institute wrote "Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty.") I've never quite understood that argument, because those same Objectivists seem to have little trouble voting for Republicans, who on the whole are much less philosophically consistent than Libertarians are. The schism is basically rooted in a personality conflict between Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard.
Fortunately, the New York wing of the Objectivist movement, represented by David Kelley and The Objectivist Center, actively associates with libertarians and LP members. In his August 2002 review of Kelley's *Truth and Toleration* for Liberty Magazine, David Ramsay Steele, who is overly harsh on Kelley, nevertheless makes some sensible observations. Kelley was purged from ARI for giving a lecture to Libertarians. Steele writes, "Just how it can be admirable for Rand to appear on *Donahue* and fence coyly with its socialist host, telling him what a fine fellow he is, while it is unconscionable for Kelley to lecture a libertarian audience on why they ought to become Objectivists, is a riddle I will leave to the adepts of the most arcane rites."
If libertarianism is roughly wanting government only to protect property rights, then Objectivism is a type of libertarianism, despite the protestations of some Objectivists. And certainly a lot of people out there claim to be both libertarian and Objectivist. Nevertheless, a certain tension remains.
Diana Hsieh and Peter Saint-Andres both came to (parts of) the state Libertarian Party convention in May. Both are Objectivists. Peter performed music on Friday night, while Diana gave a wonderful speech about capitalism on Saturday. Both have my deepest thanks for their contributions to the convention. But both left with some reservations about the LP.
Diana wrote on her web page (July 15, http://www.dianahsieh.com/blog/2002_07_14_weekly.html#85251096),
Before I arrived at the convention, my basic worry was that I was presuming too little, that these philosophical issues [in the speech] would be old hat to most people. But after a few casual conversations and a sampling of the other lectures, I began to worry that perhaps I was presuming too much, that these philosophical issues would be foreign and undigestible to many.
On July 16, Peter added (http://www.saint-andre.com),
Further thoughts on America's feckless political party. Sadly, I must agree with Diana Hsieh's report on the Colorado Libertarian Party convention. There's a reason the LP is so feckless: they don't have a positive program of any kind, and they're more interested in legalizing drugs than in clear thinking or creative achievement. I played guitar at the opening reception, and during that time two people came up to me and asked me if I wanted a joint. Hey, I'm all in favor of decriminalizing drug possession and the War on Drugs is deeply harmful to society, but I've never even so much as smoked a cigarette and there are a lot better things to do with one's all-too-brief span on earth than smoke weed. Yet another reason I still feel politically homeless.
Feckless? Ouch! Walter Schlomer, a Colorado Libertarian, responded on his web page at http://www.colorado.blogspot.com.
[Peter] says he was offered marijuana by a couple of people. That's news to me. I've been to many dozens of LP functions. I don't think anyone so much as offered to buy me a beer at any of them. Maybe Peter is just more of a socialite than I am. Don't give up on the LP so easily, Peter...
I agree with Walter that drug prohibition is a serious problem and that most Libertarians are motivated to repeal it because of the damage it causes to society and to our rights. I also agree with Walter that every political movement has those who specialize in theory and those who specialize in activism.
But Walter is too quick to excuse visceral politics and a lack of deep thinking. To some, the LP is little more than a social club or the equivalent of a sports team. It's hard even to say somebody's a "libertarian" if he or she doesn't understand the intellectual foundations of the principles.
Just because people can specialize, doesn't mean the activists can totally ignore the philosophers. If people claim to be libertarians only because of a "visceral reaction," they will likely float easily to other, incompatible views. They will be unable to defend libertarianism, and they will tend to perpetuate unstable arguments that others can easily topple.
And Walter's characterization of Diana's speech is totally off-base. Her speech had nothing to do with "how a person can come to a generally libertarian viewpoint." Instead, Diana explained how certain philosophical errors tend to lead to specific forms of statism. For instance, as she states, "The rejection of the harmony of interests leads to the egalitarian state." In terms of presenting new material that advances libertarian theory, Diana's speech was far and away the best presentation at the convention. Her views are not "rigid" -- they are sophisticated and insightful. They are "rigid" only in the sense that they are intellectually consistent and they adhere to the forms of good argument.
Walter and everybody else should read Diana's excellent speech -- it is at http://www.dianahsieh.com/philosophy/politics/meta-politics/philosophical_underpinnings_of_capitalism.html.
Here's how I responded to Peter:
It's been my experience that the large majority of Libertarians are not motivated to repeal drug prohibition so that they themselves can legally purchase drugs. Instead, they recognize the great harm caused by prohibition. For instance, federal gun control laws came into existence largely because of alcohol prohibition and they are worsened partly because of drug prohibition. Economist Jeffrey Miron of Boston U. estimates the murder rate is 25-75% higher because of prohibition. A lot of these deaths are gangsters killing each other. Some of them are innocent bystanders killed in the cross-fire. Finally, if it's fair to evaluate self-professed Libertarians as a whole based on the actions of a few, is it also fair to evaluate self-professed Objectivists as a whole based on the actions of a few? Off-hand, I'm not sure which group attracts a higher percentage of weirdoes. (I think both groups attract a lot of talented, intelligent people, and obviously there's some overlap between the groups anyway.)
I'd like to expand on that last point. Many minority movements tend to attract progressive-minded individuals, people who like to think for themselves and who aren't unduly influenced by the opinions of others. (This group can include pot smokers, by the way.) But small movements also tend to attract the nuts, those who just don't fit in anywhere else and want to move to a smaller pond.
Yet we needn't treat any group as if it were an undifferentiated whole. And what's most important are the ideas, not the people who claim membership in the group. Libertarian principles are good and noble and correct, thus I will seek to work within the libertarian movement to advocate a better society. Nothing says we have to build relationships with every libertarian or sanction what every libertarian does. The same goes for the Objectivist movement.
Personally, I'd rather hang out with thoughtful and well-meaning socialists than with reactionary, shrill libertarians or Objectivists. At least there's an opportunity to share ideas with the first group. Socialist ideas, when put into practice, are very dangerous indeed. But more important than the policies a person advocates, is a commitment to reason, rational persuasion, and honest self-criticism. At root, both libertarianism and Objectivism foster those values, and neither can survive for long without them.
Diana responds to Walter at http://www.dianahsieh.com/blog/2002_07_14_weekly.html#85265758.
Peter responds to Ari at http://www.saint-andre.com/blog/2002-07.html#2002-07-21T21:37.
Peter responds to Walter at http://www.saint-andre.com/blog/2002-07.html#2002-07-19T20:00.