In 1986, Peter Schwartz, of The Intellectual Activist and Chairman of the Board of Advisors of the Ayn Rand Institute, wrote an analysis of Libertarianism called Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty. In it he takes apart the philosophy of Libertarianism and lays it bare. What is left is a failed movement of the left, not unlike the Occupy Wall Street protests in its chaotic makeup and distorted messages.
Just as the Occupy Wall Street movement has attracted people from all political persuasion, but primary from the left, so too the “big tent” of Libertarian movement has attracted a diverse group of people, often from competing philosophical camps.
The term Libertarian was first coined in 1857 by anarcho-communist, Joseph Déjacque. Its intellectual leaders in more modern times were people like the libertarian-socialist or anarcho-syndicalist, Noam Chomsky, and the anarchist, Murray Rothbard. Rothbard actually thought of himself as an anarcho-capitalist which is of course an oxymoronic term.
The writings of Ayn Rand, Frédéric Bastiat, and Ludwig von Mises have also influenced the modern development of the Libertarian movement but it has been the method of libertarians to pick and choose what they like in the writings of these people and reject anything that may suggest any moral instruction.
Ayn Rand was not a libertarian. She was an advocate for capitalism. Libertarians are anti-state while Rand was pro-freedom. Rand saw authority, properly defined and constrained, to be a necessary and proper element in any free society while libertarians consider any authority to be a necessary evil, but evil just the same.
To quote Rand:
“…I disapprove of, disagree with, and have no connection with, the latest aberration of some conservatives, the so-called “hippies of the right,” who attempt to snare the younger or more careless ones of my readers by claiming simultaneously to be followers of my philosophy and advocates of anarchism. Anyone offering such a combination confesses his inability to understand either. Anarchism is the most irrational, anti-intellectual notion ever spun by the concrete-bound, context-dropping, whim-worshiping fringe of the collectivist movement where it belongs.” (The Ayn Rand Lexicon)
Harry Binswanger, the Objectivist philosopher and associate of Ayn Rand had this to say of Libertarians:
“In the philosophical battle for a free society, the one crucial connection to be upheld is that between capitalism and reason. The religious conservatives are seeking to tie capitalism to mysticism; the “libertarians” are tying capitalism to the whim-worshiping subjectivism and chaos of anarchy. To cooperate with either group is to betray capitalism, reason, and one’s own future.” (The Ayn Rand Lexicon)
Libertarians have accepted many tenets of Rand’s political philosophy but have rejected her metaphysics, epistemology, but most of all her ethics. Anyone who would suggest a system of morality to a libertarian is thought of as being authoritarian and of imposing a subjective set of standards of behaviour on them. They would ask ‘who are you to decide what is the right or wrong way for a person to act?’ Or, ‘How can you say for certain what is moral?’ The Libertarian would laud Rand for her advocacy of capitalism, her politics, but they accept it only as a concrete; a system of economics and politics devoid of the fundament from which it arose.
This strikes to the heart of the fault with libertarianism. A libertarian is unable to properly defend capitalism, or even liberty for that matter, except in concrete and pragmatic terms. Their arguments defending capitalism are economic, such as having ‘sound money based on gold would prevent run-away inflation’ or pragmatic, ‘more people benefit from capitalism than from communism.’
Freedom and capitalism to a libertarian exist outside of any other philosophic context or framework. Yet it is this framework which precedes and supports the concepts of freedom and capitalism. If you refuse to understand the necessary philosophic pre-conditions for capitalism then you cannot properly defend it. Capitalism becomes just another system like any other ‘ism.’ It will be thought of as just as valid as any other political or economic system and will fall – as it is doing – due to ignorance of its moral, epistemological and metaphysical roots.
Rand spent much of her life defending the philosophic foundation of capitalism. It is an integral part of a complete philosophy which extols man as a heroic being not some hippie living in a commune where ‘anything goes’ as long as you don’t hurt anyone else. Liberty, to Rand, was a necessary condition if man was, not only to survive, but to rise to a limitless potential.
Liberty is something to be defended vigorously but it must be done properly. Liberty without a philosophic context will fall to anyone with a pragmatic excuse for abolishing it. Capitalism stands on a solid ethical foundation and to reject the foundation is to reject capitalism. Libertarians reject the foundation and therefore reject capitalism and are therefore enemies of liberty not advocates for it.
The tragic result of modern libertarian political parties today is that they attract true advocates of capitalism. These individuals are reaching out, often in desperation, to any political movement they think will promote freedom and capitalism. Unfortunately, these kinds of libertarians, the pro-freedom and not simply anti-state libertarians are not actually libertarians at all and their passion for freedom is being swallowed up by a collective of irrational leftists.
Consider the inhabitants of the big tent which is libertarianism:
- The anarchists promoting a stateless society.
- The geo-libertarians who believe that land is an asset held in common and anyone claiming any land to be private must pay a rent to the commons for the benefit of restricting entry to others.
- The left-libertarians or the libertarian-socialists who oppose capitalism and wage labour.
- And the right-libertarians who claim to support capitalism but only as an economic system not as an integrated political ideal in a greater philosophy.
- There is also a small faction of angst ridden nihilists, who claim that morality doesn’t exist. The youth of today might call them ‘emos’.
Such a large group of competing ideologies are held together by one underlying common agreement, hatred of authority.
Such a collective is no place for an advocate of freedom or capitalism. Those that stay don’t stay for long. They soon find that while they may share a common belief that we are over-governed that is where the commonality ends.
To these people I would suggest channeling your energy into promoting freedom, not tearing down government for the sake of it.
(Originally aired on Just Right #223, October 27, 2011.)