Libertarianism Needs a Foundation

Peter Namtvedt's picture
Libertarianism is a bundle of schismatics, branches of white water politics, and has much potential political force. However it keeps dividing, inventing more versions. It is a wonder it has not already self-destruct. Maybe it will.

A recent blog by W. James Antle, III would lead us to believe that Libertarianism has only two faces, the comic and the tragic. I have met some of them who do have a Pollyanna view of the future, and some who are gloom and doom types. I think this simplifies the picture a bit. We have not described Libertarianism by saying it is so hilarious that it makes us cry. Let us get serious, Libertarianism has too many faces.

There are pro-self-defense Libertarians and there are anti-war, pacifist Libertarians.

There are pro-individual rights Libertarians (the majority, but inconsistent), and there are pro-society-rights Libertarians, who want to kill or curtail patent and copyright protections.

There are Left-Libertarians and Conservative Libertarians.

There are pro-abortion and anti-abortion Libertarians.

There are minimal government Libertarians, big-government Libertarians and Anarcho-Capitalist Libertarians, even paternalistic Libertarians, private school Libertarians, but also Libertarians who tolerate public schools. Some only favor vouchers, which unfortunately leads to government control of even private schools.

There are the pro-gun Libertarians, the gold bug Libertarians, the secessionists and some outright libertines who would hold that literally anything you do in private cannot be interfered with by others.

There are religious Libertarians and atheist Libertarians. I suspect that religion is the “moral foundations” for most Libertarians, which means their political philosophy depends on subjective interpretations of revelations from another world and that the core orientation is not toward a better way of living in this world.

How many more faces can Libertarianism have?

Of course, some would hail this as the true diversity, the really Big Tent.

So many faces. Not just two. Not Janus, but rather Hydra of Lerna, and if you try to cut one of the heads off, two heads grow back.

Could the problem be that the movement has no foundation? Yes, there is no unified philosophical basis for the movement called Libertarianism. At the end of the day, for an organization aiming at a correct and rational way of ordering society, the (multiple) Libertarian ways will spell DOOM. Compromises will be made with other political interests on financing government, the will try to appease enemies just when deadly force of war is not only permitted but morally required, they will fight among themselves when issues like abortion come to the forefront.

They will squabble, they will change their positions over time, and they will have trouble defending their cause. It will become more and more distorted. Prospective members will be drawn by the message of one Libertarian, only to be repelled by that of another. They will migrate from the minimal state view to anarchism, and perhaps reverse. They will join with non-libertarians to support individual issues, only to be confused by the public as agreeing in all things with the non-libertarians. As a political party, they will have more and more trouble agreeing on a platform, trimming away piece-by-piece many essential planks until only generalities remain.

The Case of the Odd Duck

The only halfway sensible-sounding defense of Libertarianism on this that I have found is that of Randy Barnett, Professor of Law at Georgetown University, in his “ The Moral Foundations of Modern Libertarianism.” Barnett is my favorite expositor of objective law, with his books Restoring the Lost Constitution and The Structure of Liberty. His failings become clear in the paper on the Moral Foundations. He acknowledges that Libertarianism has the choice of building on a sound philosophy of individual rights or on consequentialism.

That paper reveals, however, the lack of real foundations. Of the two options offered, the consequentialist is best supported through various historical sources and logical argument. The individual rights side, under the label of “natural rights” appears to be backed up only by rather ancient sources such as John Locke, whose thinking almost amounts to asserting such rights to be self-evident (echoed in the U.S. Declaration of Independence), or axiomatic. The problem with this is that the rights usually denoted by such language, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness or property, are hardly axiomatic. It is totally possible to talk about rights without assuming these.

It is worth mentioning at the same time, that Barnett is one of a few Libertarians who has a very sound understanding of the right to self-defense. It is an individual right, which extends to defense against an aggressor nation or group. Such enemies include today's totalitarian Islamists, among them the bombers of the embassy in Lebanon, the USS Cole, the World Trade Center in 1995 and 2001.

Barnett also holds that in waging retaliation against such enemies, we should go all out. You can debate whether entry into war with Saddam Hussein was among such cases of justified retaliation, however, once war is engaged our soldiers must not fight with one hand tied behind their backs in an attempt to avoid collateral damage.

Many people who subscribe to the Geneva Conventions chose to ignore the fact that we have an obligation first of all to protect our forces and to permit them to guard their own safety. The same people who hold to the so-called “Just War Theory” also forget that a nation that does not rise up against a tyrant like Saddam, and moreover, tolerate insurgents to live among them and wage guerrilla war that makes others into innocent victims, such a nation does not deserve a special treatment that weakens our military capability.

The credibility of the Libertarian movement will be determined by the public based on the unified image, philosophy, reasoning and common conclusions drawn by the participants. This means they have to stop being a movement of big-tent conglomerations of Hippies, ready to accept everything and anything that offends Democrats and Republicans. This means the movement must build a proper philosophy as a foundation and hold consistently to all of the consequences, a replete, full platform, with relentless defense of all of the details.

The Solution

Individual rights need to have soundly established, yes even proven foundations! The most interesting faction I find in the movement: Libertarians who support Objectivism and the Ayn Rand Institute. I do not mean any organization that advocates revising Objectivism (like David Kelley's "open system"), or associate with the dishonest pseudo-advocates of Objectivism (most notably David Kelley, Nathaniel Branden, Barbara Branden, and Chris Sciabarra [who claimed Ayn Rand was a Hegelian]). It is immoral to take a philosophy created and named by someone else, and change it without renaming it.

Here you will find not only the right political philosophy, but also the proper moral foundations.

It means adopting Objectivism.

Objectivism, as Ayn Rand created it, holds that existence exists and that all existents have their identity and specific causality, that human consciousness is capable of knowing those existents, and that human nature requires the use of reason to survive, that the use of reason requires freedom and preventing the initiation of force.

The non-aggression principle must be understood in that context: that every human is an end in himself and that the use of force (physical harm, the threat thereof and fraud) throttles reason and prevents choice. While the initiation of force is forbidden, it is possible and even required that retaliation be made to prevent coercion and/or to end it.

This right and moral requirement does not just apply to an individual, but extends to one's family and valued friends. The right to retaliate or self-defense is an individual right. A foreign nation or group that initiates destructive force against us should be sought out and destroyed. It should be attacked if there is evidence of a credible threat of planning to attack us. Such a rogue group or nation has no right of protection under the non-aggression principle. No groups have rights, only individuals do.

Making the non-aggression principle (NAP) out to be an axiom and the only foundation of a cultural and political movement is a huge mistake. It has clearly led to a multitude of versions of the main thoughts and derivative conclusions, a disparate and conflicting set of principles. NAP is a principle that is dependent on and derived from the ethics of rational self-interest and Objectivist epistemology.

The concept of no one having the right to initiate coercion against another is a laudable political principle, hower, it is not an axiom. By itself it will not stand against arguments that “Might is Right” and “Individuals must sacrifice for the common good.” The NAP must have a solid philosophical foundation, a basis in the facts or reality judged by logic.

The need for freedom is based on the need to reason. Force and the threat of it, and the threat of fraud throttles reason. Reason is the uniquely human means of dealing with reality in order to flourish, yea, in order to survive. If reason is shut down by fear of force, man is rendered almost helpless, he has no choices. Chaos could then ensue.

Why is the threat of force and the use of force itself so harmful? It reduces one's choices to nothing. Retaliation is required, but is not always possible. Sometimes one must wait until an appropriate authority can intervene.

The ethics of Objectivism is the only proper foundation for an individual rights political movement. In turn, that ethic needs to be founded on the solid ground of Objectivist metaphysics and epistemology.

Libertarian does not have such a foundation. You, who call yourselves Libertarians, must find such a foundation. You must return to your Objectivist roots.




Libertarianism to Objectivism

Well said.

I had considered myself to be a Libertarian since I read J.S. Mill's "On Liberty" but as a soldier I could never reconcile my belief in freedom with the libertarian ideal on absolute passivity.

In addition after visiting some Libertarian forums the hodge podge of concepts and competing values made for a splintered fractious collective which seemed to exist only to argue with one another.

Then I discovered Objectivism, the solid practical and reasoned basis of the philosophy took everything that had attracted me to Libertarianism and placed it in a rational, human and knowable package... I was finally home.

I do have some regrets though. It seems to me that Libertarians have a "lets get it done" attitude that so many in the Objectivist philosophy lack, even if because of the multi-polar nature of Libertarian morality nothing will eventually be accomplished (ex. the Minerva Project).

Objectivists want to change the philosophical system, they want to bring the world from a collective view to rational self interest and the majority of them believe that no change is possible till that happens.

There is a small (very small) minority in Objectivism that believes an example of a Laissez Faire Capitalist country should be created to serve as an example to the world of what can be done though. But that minority is very small and all the good places are already taken.


Libertarian to Objectivist

A goodly contingent of Objectivists started in 2008 to foment activism, primarily writing articles and letters to the editor. They comment on their local papers' wayward articles, current events and books. A major spike in sales of Atlas Shrugged has taken place (#1 at Amazon).

Their goal is to educate a sufficient portion of the American population to gain enough traction and momentum in the next twenty years that would take them close to critical mass. The goal is a working Objectivist majority. Perhaps it won't be a numeric majority among voters, but strong enough to bring about change, one government program at a time, to make a Minerva unnecessary.

Best regards

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Peter says:

The road to hell is paved with good intentions...

Peter also writes for Ada Byron's Blog.