Libertarians Against Liberty: Brin and Browne

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Libertarians Against Liberty: Brin and Browne

by Ari Armstrong, April 12, 2005

The problem with the libertarian movement is illustrated (unintentionally) by David Brin, who attacks Harry Browne in the April, 2005, edition of Liberty magazine, pages 17-18. Brin is a writer of science-fiction and future trends; Browne is a two-time Libertarian candidate for president and the author of several books about investment and politics. Neither writer defends a political theory that would pass inspection by Peter Schwartz, who argues that libertarianism is the "perversion of liberty."

Brin purports to discard Browne's "purist party line" in favor of pragmatism. Of course, Schwartz and other Objectivists hate pragmatism and argue strongly against it. But neither do they respect Browne's approach of treating political theory as distinct from a broader philosophical foundation.

Brin thinks the Libertarian Party (LP) has failed. "Libertarians are not only on the fringe. We are pathetic," he writes. Brin believes he can explain why this is the case. He laments he was unable to debate Browne "about pragmatism vs. idealism." Here Brin names two philosophies that Objectivism regards as false. Briefly, pragmatism is the philosophy -- perhaps better described as an anti-philosophy -- that regards the world as chaotic and ethics as seat-of-the-pants advice to treat each new situation as something to be handled without reference to a deeper set of principles (save the principle that principles are impossible). Idealism treats liberty as if it were a Platonic form, something perfect only in the supernatural realm.

Actually, it is Brin's view that depends on idealism, only Brin argues that, since we can't approach the perfection of liberty in its ideal form, we must therefore water down our principles and pragmatically apply them piece-meal to the "real" world. And Browne is not an idealist at all (but more on that later).

Brin described presentations by Browne as "monologue pulpit sermons." Brin writes, "I grew frustrated listening to calls for perfect fealty to the precise liturgy of Received Faith..." To Brin, Browne insists "we must stick to a purist party line that the American people have relentlessly rejected." Brin believes Browne's approach "has all the hallmarks of a religion..."

Brin offers an alternative. Brin writes that Browne's views offer "[n]o gradualist proposals for free-market alternatives that might compete with statist solutions" and "[n]o concessions to an American consensus that the best-educated people in world history have generally ratified in biannual elections for three generations."

Brin offers a dramatically different notion of what constitutes "libertarianism" than do most libertarians. He argues "that the deeper problem is not just government," but "[o]ther enemies [who] also undermine individual initiative and sovereignty." Who are these enemies? Brin lists "the professional classes" and "commercially-centered professions." I.e., government is not the only threat to liberty; market organizations can be "at least as much" of a threat.

So Schwartz again is proven correct. If libertarianism can include both the view that government force, along with criminal force, is the only threat to liberty (Browne's view) with the view that commercial organizations pose the greater threat to liberty, then libertarianism can mean anything, which suggests it means nothing. True, Brin leaves ambiguous whether he is referring to commerce as a free-market force or as a state-driven one. But it is precisely the ambiguity that allows him to dramatically depart from traditional libertarianism.

Brin claims to respect "individual sovereignty." By "sovereignty," he means that individuals have a right to create any governmental structure they see fit. (Brin doesn't discuss the sovereignty of minorities forced to live under various regimes.) Here is Brin's key passage: "If libertarians cheered up and stopped ranting about dismantling consensus institutions that the American people consented to for three generations, and instead began offering incremental alternatives to those institutions," then Americans "might vote Libertarian." Brin continues, "Private services might first compete with paternalistic ones, and then gradually replace them, without much protest from the American people...The people have seen that sort of thing happen. They understand it and don't fear it, the way they legitimately fear all-or-nothing fanaticism."

So let's unwind Brin's theory a bit. Some institutions -- say, for instance, the welfare state -- are "consensus institutions" created by an educated, sovereign people. Note that Brin confers moral legitimacy to such institutions. There seems to be some advantage to certain "private services," though not others, over "paternalistic" policies. The way to move toward these private services is to begin to compete directly with the government in providing these services. However, it would be wrong to insist on "all-or-nothing" private services; that would be "fanaticism" and contrary to pragmatism, which is the correct approach (argues Brin).

Brin, of course, does not bother to explain the difference between a good "private service" and a bad "commercial organization" or "profession." Nor does he explain which private services are good, or which governmental ones are good, or how the appropriate balance might be reached. The entire point of pragmatism is to avoid answering such questions.

There is another oddity to Brin's approach. He bases his remarks on the premise that it would be a good idea to get more votes for the LP. But then he concludes the way to achieve more "private services" is to "compete with paternalistic ones." What does that strategy have to do with politics? Brin argues that people are smart enough to implement the correct "consensus" policies that have withstood the test of time. Politics, Brin argues, can't change that: only competition can. So Brin's advice should be to quit the LP and start competing against "paternalistic" services (whatever those are). Brin pushes for the success of the LP, but he implies the LP is entirely irrelevant to affecting political change.

What about Browne's views? Does Brin accurately describe them? Not really. (Ironically, Browne's early approach is similar to Brin's approach: Browne once argued that politics is futile and one should seek out whatever freedom one can alongside the existing political structure.) Here's how Browne describes freedom in How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World: "The urge for freedom is so much a part of human nature that it can never be suppressed by laws, slogans, or commandments... The unfree person can never fully suppress his urge for freedom -- whether he considers his jailer to be his family, his job, society, or the government" (11). (Note also that Browne, like Brin, also pointed to non-governmental threats to freedom.)

But that book was written in 1973. Have Browne's views changed since? As is implied by his entry into politics, Browne does now think it's possible to change politics through direct political action. He also sees the threat to liberty as squarely coming from government: hence his phrase, "government doesn't work." Unlike Brin, Browne has little tolerance for fuzzy pragmatism, so he believes consistently that government doesn't work. Thus, I suspect that Browne finds it annoying that Brin characterizes him as religious. If it's true and always the case that government doesn't work, then that's what we should argue, and the goal toward which we should work is to get rid of government.

Yet Browne's core theory is the same as it was in 1973. In his most recent book, Liberty A to Z (published by the Advocates for Self-Government), he argues, "When using the soundbites in conversation, the most important point to remember is that arguing gets you nowhere. Winning an argument is of no value. What you want is to win a convert. And people who lose arguments are more likely to beef up their current convictions instead of converting to your way of thinking. The person you're talking to almost certainly wants to be free as much as you do. He wants to control his own life -- keep the money he earns, raise his children by his own values, make his own decisions -- just as you do. He just isn't as aware as you are of how possible that freedom is. He believes there are drawbacks to letting everyone be free... He believes many things that need to be recognized, respected, and dealt with. And you deal with them most effectively when you realize that you and he are on the same side. You both want to be freer than you are now" (15-16).

Brin, then, sees people as "sovereigns" who are able to create a prudent political structure. The structure may be more "paternalistic" than it need be, so the way to counter that is to demonstrate the effectiveness of alternatives. Central to Brin's theory, then, is social consensus. It's good if people agree that it's good. Browne, on the other hand, sees freedom as a primal urge that can be released if only ideological snags can be "dealt with." The purpose of communication, then, is not to win arguments, a worthless endeavor, but to create "converts." Central to Browne's theory is subjectivist feeling. We all feel like we want to be free, if only we don't let dumb ideas get in the way of our true emotions.

So the views of Brin and Browne are similar in that both are forms of subjectivism. Brin advocates social subjectivism, while Browne advocates individual subjectivism.

Browne's aversion to ideology -- particularly to the view that politics must be grounded on a coherent philosophy, as Schwartz argues -- is apparent in another passage (15). Here's part of the soundbite: "[The government's] War on Poverty has expanded poverty and its War on Drugs has escalated drug use. If the government conducted a War on Abortion, probably within five years men would be having abortions." Browne adds, "I used this approach constantly from then on [after coining the line]. I found that it was very persuasive to fundamentalist Christians who were strongly anti-abortion." To Browne, then, fundamentalists of all religious stripes are equally candidates for conversion to libertarianism. The fact that Browne's "soundbite" is obviously bullshit -- nobody actually believes a "War on Abortion" would lead to men having abortions -- is beside the point. The grain of truth to the soundbite is that government programs are often ineffective. But this sort of argument will not convince anybody who seriously believes abortion is immoral and contrary to the will of God.

Both Brin and Browne are fundamentally wrong. It's just not true that people, even educated people, are inherently likely to achieve a good "consensus" politics. If most people accept the doctrines of socialism, then they will adopt socialism. If they accept some fundamentalist religious dogma, then they will adopt theocracy. Nor is it true that people inherently want to be free. Browne is correct to a certain point: people generally don't enjoy being physically restrained or tortured. But this hardly leads to the libertarian conception of "freedom." People don't have some primal urge to resist paying taxes, abolish the welfare state, etc. Often majorities of voters impose higher taxes. In America, the urge to be free is mostly a cultural leftover from the era of the founders. Soundbites are not sufficient to convert people to the cause of liberty, because political beliefs are rooted (either implicitly or explicitly) in more fundamental theories of the world and of ethics.

Ayn Rand is right: ideas drive the culture and thus the politics of a culture. Ideology matters. Politics divorced from an integrated philosophy leads to chaos, both intellectually and practically. Neither subjectivism nor pragmatism nor idealism can lead to a politics of liberty. Indeed, such false approaches cannot even lead to a coherent understanding of "liberty."

Liberty is possible only in a culture in which people widely accept the basic philosophical views that reality is objective, that people understand reality by means of the senses and reason, that people properly pursue their own rational self-interests based on the standard of a happy life, and that the proper goal of politics is to protect individual rights. That is but a summary, of course, informed by Rand's philosophy. Self-professed libertarians who attempt to divorce their politics from such an integrated philosophical system can do little to advance actual liberty, and much to harm it.

Intro | Brophy's Tribe | Social Security
LP News | Brin and Browne

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