A few weeks ago, a friend of mine mentioned that there were people who called themselves “socialist libertarians.” I found this to be rather astonishing and implausible at the time, but apparently true. Here’s the “Manifesto” of Socialist Libertarianism:
[...] There’s been a lot of rhetoric in American politics that equates libertarianism with capitalism, particularly from the followers of A*y*n R*a*n*d. In their minds, libertarianism is exclusively about selfishness. There’s no room for community. All that is important is the right of the monied few to make more and more money without government restriction.
I do not consider these to be true libertarians because inevitably they turn into mouthpieces for self-centered de facto despots who want no checks on their right to enslave others. They also hold that the people are stupid and that only their gods offer a true creative impulse. They point to Frank Lloyd Wright as an example of their genius, not mentioning that every one of his stylish Prarie-Style houses is falling down because he did not listen to contemporaries who warned him that they needed more structural support. They never speak up to the fact that you can be fired for criticizing your boss, that the moment you walk in your workplace in the morning, you lose your rights to freedom of speech and freedom to organize into unions. Corporations severely limit what you can say within them and what changes you make within them. Only those whose imaginations end at the board room door think that they offer ultimate freedom.
There are true capitalist libertarians, but these I have mentioned do not fit the criteria. As a socialist libertarian, I hold firm on the principle that I must not only be free to speak, but ready to listen to reasonable points of view. Where the capitalist libertarian puts the emphasis on protecting the making of money, I put it on protecting what we hold in common. I style myself after John Stuart Mill who held that it was for the good of the community that we must have freedom of speech, that even stupid points of view must be allowed their day if only to show their stupidity.
All libertarians hold that any law should be carefully considered. Is social pressure enough? Is the damage being done by the act physically real and prosecutable? The socialist libertarian goes on to ask does this law benefit only one person or the whole community? We allow no despots in socialist libertarianism, we prevent no organization of people within the greater body politic. We thus oppose not only the excesses of Capitalism, but those of Communism as well. Russia failed because it did not allow correction of its economy by free voices. It failed because it was taken over by conservative leadership. It failed because it did not respect diversity in outlook. The socialist libertarian holds that diversity is a good thing, that free markets do benefit us in some affairs, but in things we all share — water purification systems, electricity, roads, police and fire, parkland — profit can only warp and seduce us towards authoritarianism and loss of resources. A socialist libertarian does not enter the house of the man who wants to be self-sustaining in energy because there is no need to have him for the sake of profit. For this reason and for reasons of better air and water quality (things that are shared by everyone), it is the socialist libertarian who champions solar energy and other clean fuels. Only under our present system of capitalist authoritarianism are contracts made to limit energy independence. Capitalist libertarians, too, love these things, but only the socialist libertarian takes steps to allow everyone to have the means of independence in their lives, to supplement incomes and make it possible for everyone to put a solar generator on her or his roof if he/she desires. This is one of the reasons why I am a socialist libertarian: it puts all people first. It does not naively say that only through selfishness can there be freedom. We’ve seen too many despots rise on selfishness and we’re looking, encouraging other ways.
[...] Community property exists for all people. All libertarians believe that there should be some laws. The question is what do they protect first: private interest or the good of all the people?
Oh, where to begin!?!
Clearly, such “socialist libertarianism” bears no substantial resemblance to libertarianism as it is normally understood. The use of the term is a sneaky way of casting massive government coercion as genuine freedom. The same corruption has visited upon the concepts freedom, liberty, rights, censorship, and liberalism — just to name a few.
Yet we might still ask: Precisely what meaning does the concept “libertarianism” have? Is there some set of core political doctrines held in common by those commonly considered libertarians, such as Milton Friedman, John Locke, Jan Narveson, Ayn Rand, David Friedman, George H. Smith, Rod Long, Adam Smith, Friedich Hayek, Julian Simon, Ludwig Von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Thomas Jefferson, and so on? I think not. Such libertarian thinkers differ widely in the foundations of their political views: moral versus economic, egoistic versus altruistic, utilitarian versus deontological versus teleological, and so on. They differ in their substantive views of the proper political order. Some libertarians are anarchists; they seek to abolish the state in favor of private defense agencies. Others advocate a minimal state limited to police, the courts, and national defense. Others are willing to use government to solve so-called market failures, educate children, and provide for the poor. Such libertarians also often diverge in their implementation of rights, including on abortion, self-defense, animal rights, intellectual property, and more. Given these substantial and wide-ranging differences, the term “libertarianism” seems to be based upon family resemblance more than any feature (or features) common to all. Such a mixed-bag concept seems epistemologically indefensible to me… and virtually useless.
Interestingly, the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes libertarianism as follows:
In political philosophy ‘libertarianism’ is a name given to a range of views which take as their central value liberty or freedom. Although occasionally the term is applied to versions of anti-authoritarian Marxist theory (the ‘libertarian left’), more commonly it is associated with a view which champions particularly pure forms of capitalism. Libertarians endorse the free market and unfettered free exchange, and oppose paternalistic or moralistic legislation (for example, laws regulating sexual behaviour or the consumption of alcohol or drugs). Liberty, on such a view, is identified with the absence of interference by the state or by others. The legitimate state exists purely to guard individual rights, protecting people and their property from force, theft and fraud. This is the ‘minimal state’ or ‘night-watchman state’ of classical liberalism. The state has no authority to engage in the redistribution of property (except to rectify the effects of theft, and so on) or, in certain versions at least, to pursue policies designed to further the common good. Such activities are viewed by the libertarian as illegitimate interferences with an individual’s right to do what they wish with their own person or property.
This sketch of libertarianism seems fairly reasonable, in that it encompasses a fairly narrow and definite range of political views. It explicitly appeals to individual rights. It excludes both anarchism and state intrusion to futher “the common good.” It references particular freedoms endorsed by libertarianism. Of course, it doesn’t mention the philosophic foundations of rights and minimal government. But must it do so? In keeping with the orthodox Objectivist view, I regard a proper metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical foundation as indispensable to politics. Yet I also wonder whether the concept “libertarianism” can abstract away from such foundations in much the same way that the concepts “egoism” and “selfishness” seem to do.
In the introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand discusses the ways in which the term “selfishness” has been subject to a particularly nasty package-deal. The term actually means “concern with one’s own interests” but is used so as to evoke the image of “a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.” She advocates redeeming the concept by returning it to its genuine meaning of “concern with one’s own interests.” Notably, Rand is not advocating the creation of a new, more positive package-deal. She acknowledges the reality of irrational, subjectivist forms of egoism in which “any action, regardless of its nature, is good if it is intended for one’s own benefit.” She notes that her own ethic requires not merely selfishness, but also “a rational, objectively demonstrated and validated code of moral principles which define and determine his actual self-interest.”
Given the existence of forms of selfishness and egoism deeply opposed to the rational type advocated by Objectivism, the fact that someone is an egoist will not tell us much about the truth of his ethics as whole. The person might be radically mistaken about the nature of his self-interest, opting for predation rather than production and trade. Worse still, he might appeal to deeply faulty epistemological methods to determine self-interest, such as emotion or authority rather than reason. So the mere fact that someone advocates egoism will not make them an “ethical ally,” so to speak.
Similarly, a profession of libertarianism might indicate little about the rationality, consistency, or truth of a person’s political views as a whole. Due to weak, confused, or outright false philosophical foundations, a libertarian might advance arguments and advocate views which are deeply flawed and ultimately destructive of liberty. (Examples would include subjectivist, religious, and altruist versions of libertarianism.) So on this view, even though the Objectivist politics is a form of libertarianism, Objectivists ought not ally themselves with any and all libertarians. They ought to be careful in their political alliances by attending to the philosophical justifications for liberty offered.
On the surface, this argument from analogy is fairly plausible. But in explicitly formulating it here and examining the details of Ayn Rand’s analysis of the concept “selfishness,” it now seems to me that the that similarity is only skin deep. The argument about egoism only works because the beneficiary of an action is only one aspect of a total moral theory. As Ayn Rand herself writes, “the choice of the beneficiary of moral values is merely a preliminary or introductory issue in the field of morality.” In contrast, libertarianism is supposed to be a fairly comprehensive political theory, not merely one aspect thereof. So any substantial differences between versions of libertarianism would have to arise out of substantial differences in the underlying philosophy. And major differences in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics would indicate that the political theories really aren’t all that similar in the end, such that to classify them all as “libertarian” would be to focus on inessentials. However, substantially similar political theories with substantially similar philosophical foundations could be justly united under a single concept. For the reasons outlined here, I would say that any concept which included the Objectivist politics would at least require foundational adherence to reason, egoism, harmony of interests, and mind-body integration.
Many people do opt for a different approach, namely that of reducing libertarianism to a single principle: the rejection of the initiation of force. As an example of this view, the oath required to join the Libertarian Party is merely: “I certify that I do not believe in or advocate the initiation of force as a means of achieving political or social goals.” This approach is untenable, even dangerous, because it strips libertarianism of the content which gives it meaning, such that it can become just about anything to anybody.
The basic problem is that what does or does not constitute coercion is radically dependent upon prior notions of the range of actions to which an individual is entitled. If I am not entitled to the money I earn, then the government is not coercing me by redistributing it to the needy. If I am not entitled to self-defense, then I am initiating force in warding off a rapist. If I am not entitled to my car, then anyone may use and abuse it. My friend Jimmy Wales has argued this point nicely in answering the question “how does forcing a property-owner to do without his property by taking it from him without his consent, in itself, constitute ‘coercion’?”
It is not possible to define coercion in this context without appeal to a theory of rights. Cutting it down to the most bare bones example, consider yourself and a common thief. The thief wants to take your television. One of your desires will be frustrated. He’ll either get your television, or he won’t. If you keep your t.v. (perhaps tossing him out of your house before he can grab it) have you initiated force against him? Or did he initiate force against you by trying to take it in the first place?
The only way to answer these questions is by an appeal to *moral right*. That is, who has a morally rightful *claim* to the television. And why?
The Objectivist claim is that *you* have a morally rightful claim to the television, assuming you acquired it through honest production and trade. The source of this right is ultimately in the nature of humans, and the essential requirements for human survival in a society. You have a *moral* right, says Objectivism, to pursue your own values, to work and keep the product of your efforts. And you have a *moral* right to defend these values from people who would attempt to take them.
So by stripping a rich political theory down to a single principle which is not even comprehensible in isolation, the focus on the non-initiation of force principle lends credence to the claims of socialists, communitarians, and other statists that they are the true libertarians. After all, they too are opposed to the use of force. They just simply understand what does and does not constitute force quite differently from you and me. And so we find the “Socialist Libertarian Manifesto” which began this post.
I suspect that it is possible to form and define the concept “libertarianism” in an epistemologically respectable way. However, if done, then many people who are widely regarded as libertarians will no longer be so, leading to chaos in communication. So perhaps it is best to avoid the term altogether. But really, it would be nice to have a single term to describe Ayn Rand’s politics, since it does share many basic features with the politics of earlier thinkers like John Locke and some of the US Founding Fathers. In that case, “classical liberalism” would be a good general term. Yet Ayn Rand’s philosophic foundations differ substantially from even those original classical liberals. So where does that leave me? Honestly, I’m not entirely sure.