Objectivists and Libertarians

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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.

My flip-flop was largely the result of my total lack of contact with purely Libertarian Party folks. I'm no neophyte to the libertarian movement, but my associations have been almost entirely though think tanks like The Cato Institute. (In fact, my only prior LP event was the Colorado LP's annual banquet last fall.) So, up until very recently, any big-L Libertarians I knew were also either Objectivists or super-smart policy wonks. Of course, I had heard all the usual stuff about the suits and freaks of the LP. But I expected the vast majority of attendees to be at least fairly well-educated about the substance of libertarianism. But many more than expected seemed to be fairly clueless. (Don't get me wrong: I'm not looking to bash LP folks as a whole, as lots of people there were clearly smart and informed.) Most noticeably, far too many people seemed to be more anti-government than pro-freedom...

Also noteworthy was the fact that ending the war on drugs seemed to be a top priority for a great many people. Let me rephrase that: gaining the freedom to get high seemed to be a top priority for a great many people. Now, I'm all for ending the drug war. People have the right to put whatever substances they want into their bodies. And the drug war, like prohibition before it, promotes crime and fosters the worst in government. But the drug war is hardly the worst violation of rights we suffer here in the US. So by focusing heavily on the drug issue, Libertarians come off as a bunch of druggies just looking for an easier high. Of course, I suspect that that's precisely what a great many of them are. Overall, I have to admit that I left the convention underimpressed with a great many of the participants and with the Libertarian Party as a whole...

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...

Political movements take all types. Go to a gathering of Democrats and poll them on the theories of Keynes. See how many respond, "Who?" Try a similar experiment at a Republican convention. Ask them if they've read Goldwater's 'Conscience of a Conservative.' The libertarian movement needs philosophers and intellectuals, but it badly needs activists, people who have a positive viceral reaction to libertarian ideas, even if they don't care much about the deep thinking behind those ideas. Count me as one who falls into sort of a middle ground. I appreciate the philosophy, but I'm more concerned about the nuts and bolts of creating a libertarian society. For example, I love reading Ayn Rand, I could care less about objectivism. I missed Diana's lecture, sadly. From a brief reading of the summary of the speech, I can't say that I agree with it. There are many ways that a person can come to a generally libertarian viewpoint, that people have the right to do as they please, as long as they don't interfere with others' right to do the same. Her viewpoint seems to be a bit more rigid...

I can think of only one government program that does more damage to human rights than the drug war. (The income tax, of course.) I am very interested in hearing Diana's explanation for that last sentence. Perhaps gun prohibitions are a close third.

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.

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