Libertarianism versus libertarianism

 Posted by on 27 March 2003 at 9:19 am  Uncategorized
Mar 272003

I’ve been involved in a debate over the past few days on the Nathaniel Branden Forum on the nature of libertarianism. (Basically, the debate has been between the positions of Peter Schwartz’s “Libertarianism: the Perversion of Liberty” and Nathaniel Branden’s Objectivism and Libertarianism.) My basic argument was presented in my first post:

There is a world of difference between libertarianism as a political philosophy and the Libertarian Party. In my experience, the LP tends to more anti-government than pro-liberty. Far too many of its participants are motivated by a rebellion against authority and a desire to smoke dope et al legally than a genuine regard for individual rights. I have neither love nor respect for the LP.

Small-l libertarianism is a political philosophy of individual rights and minimal government. Some attempt to justify it in wrong ways, but that doesn’t make libertarianism itself any more problematic than egoism is as a moral theory. And without a doubt Objectivism’s political philosophy is a libertarian one. However, that doesn’t imply that Objectivists must accept the arguments of non-Objectivist libertarians, although many of them are compatible with Objectivist and worth attending to. The point is merely a descriptive one.

So I’m not a Libertarian, but I am libertarian — and so are other Objectivists, whether they recognize it or not.

Chris Sciabarra then posted some interesting historical details:

I appreciate and agree with the points made by Dr. B. and Diana. I was once intrigued by the fact that Ayn Rand had told writer Joan Kennedy Taylor that her politics was “libertarian.” And, at one time, Rand had little or no problem describing it as such or drawing parallels with it—whatever her discomfort with the word (as so well expressed in Nathaniel’s essay). Just yesterday, in fact, I heard a very interesting interview with Rand.

In contrast to conservatism, which she rejected as “futile and disastrous,” Rand states in that interview: “People like the libertarians, [Ludwig] von Mises or [Henry] Hazlitt [both of whom Rand knew and highly recommended to her readers], do not advocate a mixed economy. The so-called libertarians are much better in that respect.”

Note: She wasn’t condemning the group as a whole—the way Peter Schwartz did—as a bunch of whim-worshipping tribalists. She goes on:

“The libertarians are a loose group; they do not have a specific program; the differences will vary from individual to individual. In a general sense, our main differences from the libertarians is in the fact that the libertarians are concerned primarily, and some of them, exclusively, with economics and politics. When it comes to their philosophical frame of reference, it varies from man to man, and we are usually in disagreement with their philosophical framework, but in agreement with most of their economic theories. Now, Objectivism is not a political-economic movement, at least not primarily. Objectivism is primarily a philosophical movement, which means that we derive our politics and economics from a certain philosophical framework . . . We do agree with much of their political-economic views.”

(See “Conservatism versus Objectivism: An Interview with Ayn Rand” circa 1963-64)

I suspect that the debate over the use of “libertarianism” reached fever pitch because of the anarchists within libertarian politics. But describing Objectivist politics as “libertarian” is no different than describing Objectivist ethics as “egoist.” OBVIOUSLY, Objectivism has enormous differences with other forms of libertarianism and other forms of egoism, but that doesn’t make it any less libertarian in the political sphere or egoist in the ethical sphere. It’s all a question of classification.

And since libertarianism as a political doctrine is simply the 20th century equivalent of classical liberalism, and that use of the word “liberal” in today’s political culture has been preempted by its use to describe “welfare statism,” I, quite frankly, do not see what the big deal is.

I am not now, nor have I ever been a member, of the Libertarian Party. I’m a registered independent. I occasionally vote for LP candidates when I despise the choices among the major parties. Whatever my voting patterns, I can certainly attest to the fact that small-l libertarianism is much broader than upper-case Libertarian Party Politics.

Of course, as Monica Pignotti noted, Rand did certainly later condemn Libertarianism. She might have had good reason to equate the Libertarian Party with the political philosophy of libertarianism at the time, but these days, libertarianism is a thriving political philosophy completely separate from Libertarian Party.

Update: My views on these topics have changed significantly since I originally wrote this post. The details can be found on my web page on The Many False Friends of Objectivism. In particular, see the second half of my blog post Stinky Garbage on Islam and my husband’s essay The Fable of the Cardiac Surgeon and the Organization of Health Practitioners or Why I Don’t Support Libertarian Organizations.

  • Chris Cathcart

    I don’t take issue with the “libertarian” label per se, but Rand’s intellectual acumen is on display in her choice of label: radical for capitalism.

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