Libertarians Against Liberty: Introduction

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Libertarians Against Liberty: Introduction

by Ari Armstrong, April 12, 2005

Something is deeply wrong with the Libertarian Party (LP) and with large elements of the broader libertarian movement.

I wrote a reply to Peter Schwartz a year ago May. Schwartz is the Objectivist author of "Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty," an essay that has been published in a couple different forms. Then in July I ended my affiliation with the Libertarian Party of Colorado, but not with the national party. Now I believe that the problems Schwartz described two decades ago are widespread.

In his essay as published in The Voice of Reason, Schwartz writes, "Libertarianism has no philosophy. To put this more accurately: it renounces the need for any intellectual basis for its beliefs" (311). Last year I argued that self-described "libertarians" need not suffer this problem, and what Schwartz describes applies only to certain elements of libertarianism. And I stand by that evaluation. There's a huge gulf between the quality of ideas among the best libertarians and the worst. Yet for too long I looked at the libertarian movement with unwarranted optimism.

Recently I received three publications that further show the problems Schwartz describes are real and widespread: the spring newsletter of the Libertarian Party of Colorado, the April newspaper of the national party, and the April edition of Liberty magazine, which contains an essay by David Brin. I decided to discuss the two party publications and the essay by Brin, in several related pieces, linked below. Here I want to explain the basic problem in a bit more detail.

When Schwartz claims that libertarianism has no philosophy, he doesn't mean there is no set of related ideas behind it. Indeed, he recognizes that libertarians treat as axiomatic certain assumptions (313, again from The Voice of Reason). Further, Schwartz acknowledges that, to have any coherent view whatsoever, some philosophical ideas have to be brought in, even if implicitly. He writes, "If Libertarianism were consistent in its avowed rejection of the realm of morality, if it stopped smuggling in implicit value judgments to give its statements a deceptive veneer of coherence, it could say nothing in favor of liberty" (315). So what Schwartz is claiming is that libertarianism self-consciously denies the need for an integrated philosophy to achieve good political goals. (Schwartz's critique is compatible with the view of some Libertarians as "intellectual masturbators" who sit around coffee parlors and debate endlessly. Schwartz is advocating an integrated philosophy on which politics is based, not bull sessions for irrelevant technicalities, utopianism, and ideas divorced from reality. Sophistry is not a good substitute for mindless activism.)

In my earlier reply to Schwartz, I summarized the assorted difficulties to which an "axiomatic" treatment of libertarianism leads. Briefly, holding that liberty is intrinsically good, and that it is compatible with whatever set of values one might hold, tends to lead to an incoherent understanding of liberty, to a hostility toward moral standards, and to an anti-state reactionism in which the government is seen as the greatest evil. (Ironically, Ayn Rand is sometimes said to have come up with "axiomatic" libertarianism along with Murray Rothbard. While Rothbard can rightly be so blamed, to treat Rand's political ideas as similar to axiomatic libertarianism is to utterly miss the point of Rand's entire approach.)

Schwartz in his concluding page claims that libertarianism is simultaneously hostile toward Objectivism and parasitical on it. He writes, "Objectivism is incompatible with Libertarianism on every philosophical issue. Objectivism says: live by reason, follow a rational code of morality, practice self-interest as a virtue, establish the principles of limited government to define the appropriate use of retaliatory force... Libertarianism's relationship to Objectivism is not merely that of an enemy, but of a parasite... It is Objectivism that has offered a moral defense of liberty -- which Libertarianism has stolen and mutilated" (332).

It is of course important to notice that many people defended free markets and individual rights long before Rand. Rand herself praised people like John Locke and America's founders. And today many people respect Rand without accepting her complete philosophical package (though they generally share certain core ideas with her). Nevertheless, while some personal animosity might be detected behind Schwartz's claim, it is substantially true. Libertarians indeed often expresses disdain for Rand's philosophical ideas even as they depend on her popularization of those ideas. This is a minor point, but it helps to demonstrate the way libertarians sometimes smuggle in ideas that are incompatible with their expressed views.

What I can add to Schwartz's analysis are the particular ways libertarianism often manifests the problems he describes. First is a focus on activism rather than on intellectual argument. For example, Norm Olsen, who remains the chair of the state LP until next month, told me outright he wanted the party to focus on electoral politics rather than intellectual discussion, and he wanted the newsletter to focus on party activism rather than the ideas behind liberty. One of the ways this trend has played out in Colorado is to treat the LP as some sort of tribe in which loyalty to the group takes precedence over loyalty to correct ideas.

Second is a focus on salesmanship and "persuasion," the tactic popularized by the Advocates for Self-Government. Of course learning rhetoric is a good idea, but the motivation for the focus on salesmanship is evidently a suspicion of philosophical ideas and their value to individuals. How this attempted substitution of activism and salesmanship for philosophy plays out is the subject of the other articles in the present series.

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

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