Thursday, July 19, 2007

Why I no longer identify myself as a Libertarian

Since I first learned about libertarianism, I knew that it was my political inclination. There are many ways to characterize it; socially liberal and fiscally conservative, for freedom in both the personal and economic realms, for free minds and free markets, etc. So why would I want to dispense with the label? Have I turned into a liberal or a conservative? Not a chance! I am still as pro-freedom as ever! So why stop calling myself a libertarian then?

My misgivings come from the anti-conceptual nature of the libertarian movement. It is true that my values are the same as those espoused by libertarians, but do we really mean the same thing when we say that we want freedom? That sounds like a silly question, but complicated abstractions like freedom are very much dependent on the conceptual framework used to build up the concept. If you are a socialist, a communist, a fascist, a christian, or an islamist, your concept of freedom will be very different to that of a capitalist. No social movement believes itself to be against freedom, as evidenced by the fact that all armed rebels call themselves freedom fighters whether they happen to be fighting for communism, fascism, islamism, democracy, or capitalism.

Libertarians say that they want freedom, but they never bother to define it, so they leave the definition up to each individual. So a libertarian Islamist may want the freedom to submit to Allah under shariah, a libertarian anarchist may want to achieve freedom by ending all government, a libertarian socialist may want freedom from hunger and disease, a libertarian hedonist may want the freedom to do whatever he feels like doing, a libertarian communist may want freedom from oppression by the institution of private property, a libertarian slave owner may want the freedom to keep his slaves, etc. And all of these people from very different ideological backgrounds could properly call themselves libertarians because the libertarian movement has not defined freedom. Would you want to be associated with ALL of those people?

The type of freedom I want is that which is clearly defined by objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand. This is the type of freedom that can only be implemented through capitalism, that is, the system of government that respects and protects the rights of individuals. To paraphrase Harry Binswanger, in order to defend freedom one must defend capitalism, in order to defend capitalism one must defend individual rights, in order to defend individual rights one must defend egoism, in order to defend egoism one must defend reason, and in order to defend reason one must accept that reality exists independent of our consciousness. So a proper understanding of freedom, which is necessary for defending it, must involve the conceptual integration of concepts from politics (capitalism), ethics (egoism), epistemology (reason), and metaphysics (objective reality). In other words, the concept freedom implies a whole philosophical framework behind it. Without a clear understanding of the philosophy behind it, the concept of freedom is malleable and easy to subvert.

So why is this a problem? Couldn't we get together anyway for political action? After all libertarianism is much closer to what I want than conservatism or liberalism! The problem is that the differences between my conception of freedom and that of another individual would become apparent once we try to reduce freedom to practice. We might sound like we agree because we are saying similar things using the same words, but we are in fact talking about very different concepts. For instance, the following questions will have very different answers depending on what one means by freedom: If smaller government is always better, isn't it best then to have no government at all? When a big corporation has too much power, doesn't that interfere with the freedom of those oppressed by that corporation? Is abortion a violation of the right to freedom a fetus has? Is a preemptive attack to a hostile country an illegitimate initiation of force and therefore contrary to freedom? Was the federal government interfering with the freedom of the citizens in the southern states to govern themselves when it forced them to end slavery? Does my right to freedom entitle me to build a nuclear weapon in my back yard? Is freedom consistent with life in a commune where private property and government have both been abolished? Is pure democracy consistent with freedom? Can you have freedom without democracy? Should we have a free market of competing governments, defense agencies, and courts?

As these examples illustrate, labelling oneself a libertarian doesn't really provide much of an explanation on what one's political principles are, and it opens the door to being misidentified. If I tell a person I meet on a business trip that I am a libertarian, and then this person meets a communist who also calls himself a libertarian, he will judge me according to what he learns from the communist libertarian. Also, if the libertarians ever win, it will be an internal battle between all the different factions instead of the unified ideology that capitalism provides. So, instead of calling myself a libertarian, from now on I will call myself a capitalist or an objectivist, depending on the context.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Objectivist Conferences rock!

I was out at the Objectivist Conference in Telluride last week, I had never been to one before, and what a treat it was!

Objectivism is the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Unlike other philosophies you might have encountered before, Ayn Rand's philosophy is very practical, in her words it is "a philosophy for living on earth". We had courses available on all subjects, ranging from pure philosophy to math, physics, economics, politics, law, and art.

The main general session was by Dr. Leonard Peikoff, where he presented his DIM hypothesis on how the method of integrating observations into concepts gives rise to different cultural products in art, science, politics, etc. He identified five modes of integration that give rise to five categories of cultural products in a wide range of fields. Beside the general sessions, I took optional courses in the objective basis of mathematics, economics, the scientific method, the science of selfishness, the corporation, the philosophy of Kant, and Atlas Shrugged as a work of philosophy.

I was impressed with the quality of the speakers, the degree of scholarship in their courses, and the quality of the attendees. Besides learning a lot, I also made many new friends. It is not often that you have so many smart people who are interested on ideas together, so I spent a lot of time talking to people, and not too much time sleeping. I figured I'd sleep when I got back to Denver.

I'll write some more later about some of the specific things I learned. Now my next order of business is to apply to the Objectivist Academic Center at the Ayn Rand Institute, so I can really master objectivism as a supplement to my current studies in Applied Math.