The Libertarians' Albatross

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

My introduction to what is generally referred to as the "libertarian" philosophy did not begin, as Jerome Tuccille wrote it usually does, with Ayn Rand. Lane Lancaster — my undergraduate professor of political theory — was the first to introduce me to philosophers with a decided preference for individual liberty. I later received an introduction to free market economics from one of my law school professors, the late Aaron Director. And in 1960, friends introduced my wife and me to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a novel that challenged the underpinnings of political systems.

In following years, I read a number of Rand’s works, and took courses on her philosophy through what was then the Nathaniel Branden Institute. While I never considered myself an "Objectivist," I found Rand’s writings a significant catalyst in the development of my thinking. After persistent questioning of Ms. Rand’s conclusions about the nature of government — views that cannot stand up to critical analysis — I managed to get myself "excommunicated," as it were from any further course work at the Objectivist sanctum sanctorum. I did find it amusing that a philosophy that espoused "reason" as its highest virtue, was apparently unable to withstand a questioning mind. Rand insisted upon obedience to her every pronouncement, a trait hardly worthy of anyone espousing individualism and liberty. Nonetheless, I continued to find her ideas a useful sounding board for my own inquiries.

I have long had mixed feelings about Rand and her ideas. On the one hand, she has undoubtedly been a major figure in the development of modern libertarian thinking, even though she would not have identified herself with any philosophy for which Objectivism was only a part. Her greatest contribution, I believe, was to confront the underlying assumptions of collectivist thinking at a time when it was considered unsophisticated to entertain such a challenge. Furthermore, she helped to rescue philosophy from the Byzantine labyrinths of academia, encouraging ordinary people to regard principled inquiries into the nature and meaning of life. She helped to give wider meaning to what Socrates praised as the need for the "examined life."

While I found her questions quite refreshing, I had numerous doubts as to her conclusions. Had she confined her life’s work to writing novels — with their important messages about the role of the individual in collective societies — her work would have had a far greater impact on the cause of liberty. Men and women could then have incorporated her fictional accounts into their own experiences, and used both to synthesize a powerful personal philosophy. But Rand insisted on putting together an abstract philosophic system — cobbled together from varied sources — which she declared to be objectively "true" principles.

Her epistemology — the base of her philosophy — is wholly untenable to anyone with an understanding of how the mind actually functions. While I believe that we live in an objective universe, none of us can ever know the nature of that reality other than through the subjective processes by which our mind organizes its experiences. We do not learn about the world in the mechanistic fashion of a video camera recording sensory impressions. Rather, we interact with our world, organizing our experiences into categories and concepts by which we make comparisons and contrasts. It is the mind, alone, that creates these categories; they do not exist beyond the boundaries of our mind. What we think of as the world is simply that: thoughts about the world. In the words of Arthur Eddington: "mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience; all else is remote inference."

We are seekers of information. The word "inform" means to give shape within. Within what, other than the mind? Gregory Bateson defined "information" as "differences that matter." Matter to whom? Who is it that notices the differences, and by what criteria — and where located — are distinctions and similarities to be evaluated? One of Ms. Rand’s strongest invectives was to call one a "social metaphysician," a phrase that overlooks the fact that most of what we know about the world derives from what others have taught us. Language is undoubtedly the greatest invention of mankind — the tool through which we understand and communicate with others. The rich content of our varied languages — as well as our differences over meanings — derives from the subjective interpretations we place on words. Are avocadoes and tomatoes "fruits" or "vegetables"? The answer to that question depends on whether you inquire of a botanist or the produce manager of your local supermarket. To imagine that there is an "objectively" correct answer to that question, is to fail to appreciate the complexity of languages that have no substantive existence beyond our minds.

We deal with the universe abstractly, as images and concepts created by our mind. We organize our lives around ideas, words, and other abstractions that never equate with reality. Alfred Korzybski’s admonition that "the map is not the territory" ought to remind us that, because abstractions are about the world but not of it, they are always subject to interpretation, a process unavoidably dependent upon how our subjective mind has organized its accumulated experiences.

Rand’s belief in objectively determined "values" is equally unsupportable, as any first year student of microeconomics will quickly attest. Dictionaries inform us that to "value" something is to "appraise" or to "rate or scale" or "to regard highly." To "estimate relative worth" or "degree of excellence" or to speak of "attributed or assumed valuation," are other definitions reflective of the subjective nature of all values.

While it may be comforting to pretend that the universe is organized around my belief system, the values that I espouse as "principles" are, I believe, nothing more than reflections of my subjective, inner sense of proper ways of living. They are not external to me, but come from deep within my very being, as expressions of what it means to be a human being. They relate to an internally-derived estimate of worthiness of both myself and you, and of the social conditions I regard as essential to that sense of worthiness.

On the basis of a peculiar mix of our emotions, experiences, genetic predispositions, formalized learning, reasoning, and other factors that energize our inner sense of being, we evaluate and make judgments about the world, other people, and social practices. So strong is this subjective sense that, when we put it into words, we mislead ourselves into believing that we have discovered some universal truth, whereas what we have really discovered is our sense of self. Those who speak of their principles as the outgrowth of "reason," forget that, to reason, is but to enunciate "reasons" for one’s choices. But what are the influences that lead some to rationalize one set of principles while others rationalize an opposing set?

Objectivists are fond of defending logical methods of reasoning, forgetting that the underlying premises of their philosophy as well as Marxism can each be logically extended to opposite conclusions. Rand understood this in her oft-quoted admonition to "check your premises." But what are the factors that produce different underlying assumptions in different people? Are these not to be explained in terms of subjective forces?

Rand’s attempt to extend her sense of "objective" values into the realm of aesthetics became a give-away to the fallacy upon which her philosophy was built. What she extolled as "objective" artistic taste came down to nothing more than the kinds of music, paintings, literature, sculptures, and architecture, that appealed to her eyes and ears. She apparently even elevated a popular dance step to the realm of objective correctness. That she could delude herself into believing that her subjective preferences equated with objective truth should have been a red flag to her ardent followers, who were busily buying up Victor Hugo and Mickey Spillane novels, Rachmaninoff recordings, and miniatures of Michelangelo’s statue of "David."

We are not simply the seekers, but the creators of our material, moral, and aesthetic measures by which we live. We are, as the poet Seamus Heaney expressed, "the hunters and gatherers of values." He might have added that we are also traders of values, as we negotiate in social relationships for the boundaries of propriety in our dealings with one another.

Whether in terms of our understanding of the physical world, or of our value judgments, the Objectivist philosophy seems immune to the insights of Heisenberg’s "uncertainty principle," which tells us that the observer is the observed; that the act of observing influences what it is we see. No matter how honest and accurate we try to be in our reporting, we can only "see" the world through so many lenses, filters, decodings, and translations, all of which have been constructed in our subjective mind from prior learning. The world does not inform us of its meaning — if, indeed, there is "meaning" to existence. Rather, we project onto the world the patterns we have put together in our separate minds that best explain our experiences in the world. In the words of Anais Nin, "we don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are."

An awareness of the inevitable information loss between our abstractions and the reality they are supposed to represent, should be sufficient to exchange an arrogant hubris for a more tolerant humility regarding our understanding of ourselves, one another, and the world that we seem intent on destroying. After tens of thousands of years of varied and contrary belief systems that have dominated human thought and behavior — each of which carried with it a certitude of undeviating truth, and many of which have later been rejected in favor of more fashionable models — how can any of us have the arrogance to insist that our beliefs correlate with an objective reality? Is it possible for us to act in the world on the basis of focused, philosophic principles while, at the same time, retaining a sense of healthy skepticism arising from an awareness of our lack of omniscience?

The belief in absolute truths — unburdened by doubt or skepticism — fuels the self-righteousness that is destroying mankind. There appears to be no lacking of men and women prepared to forcibly destroy some people and their social systems, and to impose new ones that satisfy their own visions of how the world should perform. Such efforts have always been undertaken by persons who are smugly self-assured that their purposes and understanding of the world are grounded in objective truth. These sentiments have driven wars, religious persecutions, inquisitions, heresy trials, Stalinist purges, genocides, witch trials, lynch mobs, holy wars, holocausts, race riots, and all other forms of organized violence and murder.

Having no doubts as to the certainty of their views, absolutists exhibit little tolerance for nonconforming behavior or beliefs. And why should we expect otherwise? If "truth" and "moral principles" reside beyond the individual, why should those of absolutist persuasion not want to mandate uniform, standardized social systems and practices to forcibly direct people to comply with such external and transcendent principles? Why should such people be expected to show any tolerance for those whose ideas or conduct differ from the alleged objective truths?

One would have hoped that the Objectivist philosophy — with its stated emphasis on "reason," "individualism," "liberty," and hostility to "collectivism" and "statism" — might have provided a base for understanding and resisting the collective insanity of our politicized world. But such, alas, has not been the case, for Rand’s philosophy is infected with the same virus as other destructive belief systems: the insistence upon the doctrine of absolute truth.

Being "objectively" true, Rand’s philosophy has shown little tolerance for alternative views. Those who differed with Ms. Rand’s conclusions were labeled "irrational." Those who saw in a given situation the possibility of various courses of action might be tarred as "whim worshipers." Those who believed their subjective minds capable of comprehending reality and providing moral insights were called "mystics," a strange characterization for a philosophy allegedly devoted to individualism!

It has been in response to events of 9/11 that the contradictions inherent in Objectivism became most evident. For a philosophy with a basic tenet of opposition to the "initiation of force," and considering that Saddam Hussein’s regime was never a threat to America, one might have expected to find Objectivists in the forefront of opposition to the war against Iraq. But Yaron Brook, the executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute, co-authored an article criticizing America for its "self-effacing and compassionate" war against the Iraqis. "Soldiers have strict orders to avoid the risk of killing civilians," while "military operations have been timed to avoid alienating Muslim pilgrims on holy days. By confessing doubt about its moral right to defend itself, America has encouraged further aggression." (Italics added.)

An Op-Ed piece on the Ayn Rand Institute’s website illustrated just how the processes of "reason" can be employed to "rationalize" self-contradictory conclusions. Titled "Peacenik Warmongers," the article declared that anti-war protestors "are acting to make war more frequent and deadly." The writer then asks: "what should the United States do to obtain a peaceful relationship with the numerous hostile regimes, including Iraq, that seek to harm us with terrorism and weapons of mass destruction?" When statements regarding Iraq’s alleged threats to America are contradicted by the facts, one can only wonder how an epistemology grounded in "objectively" derived truths can have so failed to inform this man’s judgments. How do people who profess a reality-based philosophy manage to synthesize their stated beliefs with the fact that the war against Iraq was grounded in a cascade of lies and deceptions? When does reality come into play in all of this?

Another very prominent devotee of Rand recently wrote that "voting for George W. Bush is the most libertarian thing we can do," and that "a continued Bush presidency . . . might well succeed in preserving Western civilization." Kerry "will weaken our military establishment," he went on, quoting favorably from a statement made by Rand, in 1962, to the effect that paying 80% for taxes was justified "if you need it for defense." Such a statement on behalf of the state’s confiscation of the bulk of one’s income is a remarkable contradiction, coming from a woman who professed support for the private ownership of property!

By far, the greatest voice for the irrelevance of Objectivism to the cause of peace and liberty has come from the founder of the Ayn Rand Institute, Leonard Peikoff. Following the attacks of 9/11, Peikoff ran a full-page ad in the New York Times in which he stated the following:

A proper war in self-defense is one fought without self-crippling restrictions placed on our commanders in the field. It must be fought with the most effective weapons we possess (a few weeks ago, Rumsfeld refused, correctly, to rule out nuclear weapons). And it must be fought in a manner that secures victory as quickly as possible and with the fewest U.S. casualties, regardless of the countless innocents caught in the line of fire. These innocents suffer and die because of the action of their own government in sponsoring the initiation of force against America. Their fate, therefore, is their government’s moral responsibility. There is no way for our bullets to be aimed only at evil men. (Italics added.)

What better defense of collectivist thinking could be made than this? The "innocents suffer and die" because of what their governments do; Americans have no "moral responsibility" for the death and suffering they inflict upon such innocents. Furthermore, Peikoff conflates an individual’s right to self-defense with a collective authority exercised by the state against innocents. As I stated at the beginning, Rand’s greatest contribution to the cause of individual liberty was to confront the dehumanizing idea of collectivism, and yet here is one of her closest spokesmen defending the proposition that men and women may rightfully suffer because of their collective identity with an offending state.

"The risk of a U.S. overreaction," Peikoff continues, "is negligible. The only risk is underreaction." He then adds: "Mr. Bush . . . must send our missiles and troops in force, where they belong. And he must justify this action by declaring with righteous conviction that we have discarded the clichés of our paper-tiger past." (Italics added.)

There are doubtless many men and women of Objectivist persuasion who see the contradictions between their philosophy and the state’s most ambitious program of power, namely the war system. But that so many other Randians can eagerly — and with "righteous conviction" — defend such butcherous practices is revelatory of the dangers implicit in any philosophy purporting to rest on objective truth. Such absolutist thinking makes it understandable why so many Objectivists support Bush: each finds comfort in simplistic propositions such as dividing the world into "good" and "evil," or asserting that "if you’re not with us, you’re against us." Such playground reasoning befits minds troubled by the complexities and uncertainties inherent in life itself.

Our institutionalized world has about played out the simplified model of vertically structured social systems, wherein human behavior is presumed capable of being organized and managed by centralized authority. The collapse of the Soviet Union was, perhaps, the most dramatic example of how our world is becoming increasingly decentralized. The Internet; on-line and on-demand book publishing; blogs, with their immediate responses to news events; political secession and other separatist movements; decentralized systems of business management; cell phones; alternative systems of schooling and health care; cable and satellite television and satellite radio; and the rapid growth of documentary film production, are other expressions of the social centrifugation now challenging traditional top-down systems.

The modern "libertarian" movement is the most focused philosophic expression of this undercurrent of change, for it is grounded not only in a distrust of power, but in the confidence that a free and peaceful social order can arise only out of the spontaneous and autonomous behavior of individuals. Libertarian thinking also reflects the pluralistic assumption that a condition of liberty will produce a variety of tastes, ideas, social practices, and behavior; and that only a respect for the inviolability of the lives and other property of individuals can produce such ends. My wife expressed the point very well: "libertarianism is the only philosophy that respects each person."

Unlike the lockstep thinking that Rand tried to enforce upon her followers, libertarian thinking is far more open. Religious and anti-religious views are tolerated; differences of opinion are heard on the question of whether political action is an acceptable way of depoliticizing our world; while discussions abound as to how various services — now dominated by the state — might be provided through voluntary, rather than coercive, means. Above all, one finds among libertarians a sense of confidence that free men and women will do a much better job of providing for their individual and social needs, once they learn to trust their own authority.

There is, however, a threshold point whose transgression can never be tolerated by those who value peace and liberty: support for wars. To defend the war system is to defend statism in its most vicious and dehumanized manifestation. "War is the health of the state," declared Randolph Bourne; and those who are aware of the dynamics of how political systems actually operate — instead of spending their time making logical deductions from unexamined premises — will, if peace and liberty concern them, make no concessions to such practices. Indeed, the post-9/11 responses of self-styled "libertarians" became a watershed for testing the depths of their commitments. Many, it is sad to report, immediately caved without much struggle.

I cannot pretend to know the thought processes these various people went through in deciding to support the Afghan and/or Iraqi wars. Human beings express their opinions and other preferences from a variety of perspectives, a fact that makes a condition of unfettered liberty both creative and enjoyable. But I suspect that much of the backing for these wars — and certainly that coming from acknowledged Objectivists — derived from the kind of self-righteous and absolutist thinking provided by Ayn Rand.

As I write this article, I am informed that the British medical journal, The Lancet, is reporting that as many as 100,000 Iraqis — many of them women and children — have thus far been slaughtered in America’s war of "liberation." Nor does this account for the more than 1,100 American soldiers killed and many thousands more wounded in a war that should rightfully be named "The War of the Third Law of Motion." As I read this news story, I am reminded of the comments of Ayn Rand’s confidante, Barbara Branden, who condemned libertarians for being critical of Bush’s "war on terror." She notes the "sick irony" of America — which she calls "the most decent and generous nation that has ever existed" — being damned by "most of the countries of the world," when it is "the one country that has invaded other countries only in order to free them."

There is little hope to be found in a philosophy that can generate the kind of twisted thinking that so many leading Objectivists openly express. Collectivist assumptions that readily accept the systematic slaughter of so many innocent people need to be confronted by a sentiment rarely voiced by Objectivists: love for the humanity of which we are all part. Perhaps, deep within their subjective beings — if they are willing to explore there — may be found a kind of love for others that need not be justified as "shared rational values" nor condemned as "altruism."

As I stated at the outset, Objectivism provided a valuable catalyst for those of us interested in individual liberty. In the questions it raised — inquiries that were previously unasked in polite society — it helped many thousands of people to transform their thinking. But to men and women of individualistic persuasion, an autocratically dictated philosophy was bound to be troublesome. At a time when the processes of decentralization confront the institutional forces bent on resisting change; and when the state transfuses our blood into its war machinery in an effort to preserve its health; it is time for those who cherish liberty to abandon the monster Objectivism has become.

If libertarians are to become catalysts for the further decentralization of society, and are to help transform destructive and murderous social systems into those based upon peace and liberty, they must free their minds from the albatross of Objectivism, whose moralistic self-righteousness has turned it into everything it purported to oppose: irrationality, collectivism, state violence, and disregard for truth. Its absolutist doctrines no longer inspire, but only embarrass, those whose minds and spirits insist upon individual liberty; men and women who are unable to rationalize the dehumanized and violent political models willingly embraced by so many leading Objectivists.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare
  • LRC Blog

  • LRC Podcasts