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.


Paul said...

Excellent points!

Furthermore, even Libertarians who profess to agree with the principle of "noninitiation of force" will often sharply disagree as to what precisely constitutes force, because they start from divergent philosophical premises. Hence, some groups like the Libertarians for Life will regard abortion is murder (because "force" is supposedly being used against the fetus), whereas others will say that it's not really force.

Or they may disagree on whether "file sharing" (trading copyrighted music/movies) is really force, because they disagree on more fundamental concepts such as "property".

Without the proper conceptual method of defining terms like "force" and "property" and appropriately grounding such concepts in the facts of reality and the metaphysical requirements of human life, such irreconcilable disagreements on more derivative political issues are inevitable.

Steve D'Ippolito said...

This is, I believe, the clearest and most accessible explanation I have ever seen of this problem.

Although in my experience *most* if not all libertarians are basically pro free market, there are disagreements around the "edges" of that (like intellectual property, abortion, and whether government has *any* reason for being) that can cause problems, and foreign policy is of course the nastiest and most contentious of the bunch. Even when a libertarian is correct on one of these issues they have no real defense in an argument with those that are not--unless, of course the libertarian has been influenced at least somewhat by Objectivism.


(I love dispensing this kind of justice!)

Steve D'Ippolito
(Past Libertarian, county LP chairman, and candidate for office three times.)

Dr. T said...

I believe you have misconstrued libertarianism and given it too broad a definition. Just because someone claims he favors individual freedom does not mean he is a libertarian. An Islamist who wants to implement shariah, a Capitalist who wants to own people (slaves), or a Socialist who wants to redistribute other persons wealth are not libertarians.

Libertarians define freedom as having the right to do anything that does not directly harm other persons, interfere with other person's freedoms, or damage or take other person's wealth or property. What is so difficult to understand about this definition? This simple definition means that people who support theocracy, fascism, socialism, or communism cannot also claim to support libertarianism. My advice is to tell anyone who claims to be a libertarian socialist that he is an Idiotist.

RT said...

Dr. T.,
Here's the problem:
"Libertarians define freedom as having the right to do anything that does not directly harm other persons..."

Harm? How do you define "harm" to another person? By donating $1/day you could save an African from starvation. Some would say that by not doing so, you are "harming" starving Africans.

What if you don't give me a job that I badly need? Doesn't that 'harm' me? Some would say that's why we need to tax the 'winners' from globalization to pay back the 'losers' who are 'harmed' by it.

"...interfere with other person's freedoms...". Hmm. This seems circular. Since you are in the process of defining "freedom" how do we know what others' freedom consists in?

"...or damage or take other person's wealth or property..."

Right. Marxists would say that's exactly what exploitative Capitalists do. They take wealth that rightfully belongs to the workers who produced it.

You need a moral code to properly define and delimit all these concepts, and a full philosophy to back that moral code. Nothing less will do. And only Objectivism can do it.

Richard said...

Well said. I noted the same for years I believe their failure to define who they are is the reason why Libertarians are not havening any political success even though we Republicans are giving them every chance.

Raman Gupta said...

First, the Libertarian Party of Canada seems to have a statement of principles that I can't find much to disagree with (although I am admittedly a neophyte objectivist):

Second, here is the US Libertarian's party statement of principles, from their web site:

Now, I agree with Francisco that the underlying philosophical position as presented by the US Libertarian web site is weak, but there is no question that the general Libertarian position is much closer to the Objectivist ideal than the populist pragmatism espoused by Democrats and populist religious pragmatism spouted by Republicans.

That there are disagreements about specific issues within the Libertarian camp, as well as individuals who falsely call themselves Libertarian, is of little relevance. I'm sure in any similar group of Objectivists when talking about practical implementations of Objectivism on specific issues, not everyone will agree on everything. In addition, there will be some who call themselves Objectivists but who actually do not hold the philosophy of Objectivism, as the Libertarian Islamist (or indeed Libertarian Christian) does not hold to the Libertarian Statement of Principles (as I read them at least). And I *know* that the label of "capitalist" does not hold the same connotation for 99% of the population as it does for Objectivists.

So in my opinion Objectivists have a few options. The first is to dismiss Libertarians completely. The second is to join and engage them and attempt to influence them in a positive philosophical direction. Based on their statement of principles, I would think one would have a much better chance of positive influence correctly based on objectivist philosophies on attendees at a Libertarian meeting than at a Democrat or Republican one. The third is put our money and effort where our mouth is and form our own political party, properly based on the philosophy of objectivism (as a Canadian, I'm not sure how difficult forming a new political party is in the US -- regardless, I consider myself an American at heart and would love to join if I could).

The first choice seems to be the current status quo. The end result appears to be very little or no political change. Objectivists continue to be a fringe population with less support, membership, and political power than even the KKK idiots, simply because we refuse to "dirty" ourselves in the political arena with people who do not hold a consistent philosophical viewpoint. The extent of our political influence will be Objectivist blogs and occasional books and articles by a few Objectivist authors, which for the most part are simply preaching to the converted.

The second and third choices have, in my opinion, a better chance of changing the landscape of freedom in America in the long term.

Francisco, your post focuses on the label that you use to describe yourself. So I have the following question for you -- now that you have stopped calling yourself a Libertarian, have you also decided to disengage completely from the Libertarian movement, or are you still trying to influence it in the philosophical direction you believe is correct? If disengagement, what are you going to do instead?

Mike Hardy said...

This article says:

"Libertarians say that they want freedom, but they never bother to define it, so they leave the definition up to each individual."

Really? I think most avowed libertarians would define freedom according to Rand's non-agression principle stated by John Galt in _Atlas_Shrugged_. At any rate, saying libertarians "leave the definition up to each individual" is clearly a simple-minded attack on a straw man.

If there's a problem with using the non-agression principle to define liberty, as generally done by libertarians, you need to establish that by argument before you proceed from that point.

johnnycwest said...

I will make this brief - Francisco is absolutely correct. Supporting the Libertarian Party or calling oneself a libertarian is the last thing an Objectivist should do.

I do not believe any argument will persuade any Objectivist - I was doubtful myself of Ayn Rand's disdain of the libertarian movement. I was skeptical that 3/4 of a loaf would be so much worse than 1/4. I was wrong. I did not realize my error until I engaged in some questions and debate with explicit libertarians over an article written by Arnold Kling. The brief discussions I had, made it crystal clear that libertarianism is dangerous. Many libertarians question the need for an objective system of justice, a state police force, or a defensive army. True libertarianism would lead to anarchy.

If you engage in discussions, ask questions of, and debate with libertarians, you will soon discover the profound differences between Objectivism and libertarianism. If you still support libertarianism, you should question your belief in Objectivism - the two are fundamentally incompatible. It is one or the other.

Moreover, if libertarianism co-opts or brands the concept of freedom as its own, it makes the path to Capitalism that much harder. It will lead people to misunderstand the true nature of political freedom based on Objectivism and objective ideas. It will damage and divert the movement to true political freedom.

Finally, we are engaged in a philosophical and cultural struggle - not a political struggle. We are wrestling over the steering wheel - the back wheels will surely follow. Do not concentrate on the back wheels where politics can be found.

Raman Gupta said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Raman Gupta said...


Presumably your reply was directed primarily at me. Unfortunately, you missed my points completely.

First, I don't disagree that Franciso is correct. I am not advocating calling oneself a Libertarian when what one believes in Objectivism. I am however, advocating engaging Libertarians and educating them, whenever possible (perhaps even from inside the party). I believe this is part and parcel of the philosophical and cultural struggle you mentioned.

Your example of why 3/4 of a loaf is worse than 1/4 is a hasty generalization. From the Libertarian's own statement of principles, section III.1: "Government exists to protect the rights of every individual including life, liberty and property." This seems completely at odds with your assertion that Libertarians believe in anarchy. Why don't you argue based on their published principles instead of what some specific Libertarians may have said to you?

"You will soon discover the profound differences between Objectivism and libertarianism". Perhaps, but since you seem to know them already, please expand on this with actual factual information as opposed to normative statements. And refer to the Libertarian statement of principles, not random people you meet who call themselves Libertarian.

Libertarianism is not the first, nor will it be the last, group to co-opt the brand/concept of freedom. Libertarianism will also not be the first group, not the last, to have members that hold beliefs explicitly denied by the group. In the philosophical and cultural struggle we are engaged in (here I wholeheartedly agree with you -- Gus Van Horn posted a roundup today to this effect as well), we should not ignore politics. To do so simply marginalizes our own contribution.

johnnycwest said...


My comments were not directed specifically to you, but it was largely a response to your post. I am not, and was not making a specific argument designed to prove my point.I was stating the conclusions I have come to, which are shared by others. I invite others to do their own investigation.

Libertarianism is a dead-end. I simply invite people to look at libertarian discussions and ask questions and see if they don't arrive at the same conclusions. I know I resisted seeing the truth of Ayn Rand's condemnation.

And, while it is true that 3/4 of a loaf can be more valuable than 1/4, it will not and cannot last if there is not a firm philosophical base to support the politics. This is why the Western World, and the U.S. has moved away from the principals of freedom and individual rights as much as they have. I do not believe that libertarians will even come within a sniff of any crumbs of the loaf - they are shooting blanks. (How is that for a mixed metaphor?)

Further, few libertarians explicitly believe in anarchy, but their underlying philosophic principals lead inevitably to it. They have no basis to defend a central state with an objective justice system to protect life and liberty. This would lead to competing police forces and court systems, as many libertarians seem to support or at least tolerate. To me, this resembles gang rule more than rule by law.

I am convinced that the libertarian movement is not a constructive one, even though the desire of many libertarians for greater political freedom is largely a noble one. Unfortunately, true lasting freedom and individual rights cannot come from a bad or no philosophy. For me that is axiomatic - for references and proof, please see the works of Ayn Rand.

Fräncisco the Free said...

First of all, thanks to Diana for promoting my post in NoodleFood, and thanks to everybody who read it and left me comments. I hadn't had time to sit down and write a reply until now, so I am going to try to address the points raised in the comments.

I think Dr. T's comment was brilliantly addressed by RT, so I don't have anything to add to that.

Raman Gupta asks a good question, am I only changing the label, or am I disengaging from the Libertarian movement altogether? Well first of all I was never directly engaged in the Libertarian movement because I am not a citizen and I won't be eligible to apply for citizenship until two years from now. So as a non-citizen I think it would have been illegal for me to engage directly with a political party in the US. But that didn't stop me from helping indirectly. I would always identify myself as a libertarian, tell my friends to vote Libertarian and try to convince them why, get people to take the smallest political test and help them "discover" if their preferences went actually in the libertarian direction, etc.

But what I plan to do different now is talk to people about capitalism, egoism, and Objectivism, straight up, undiluted, without trying to sugar coat it. Liberty is basically acting as a sugar coat in this case, it is a something everybody thinks they want. After all, leftists call themselves "liberals", and conservatives want to "fight against the godless enemies of democracy and liberty". Starting the discussion with liberty allows one to avoid having to deal upfront with things like selfishness and atheism, which are very unpalatable to the majority of the population. The problem with libertarianism is that it never actually gets to selfishness and atheism, so it is like dispensing the sugar coat without the contents, it may be gratifying, but it is ultimately ineffectual. So I think I could have more of an impact spending my time talking about Objectivism straight up, than beating around the bushes with Libertarianism.

After I am a citizen and I am allowed to vote, if there is no Objectivist or Capitalist party by then, I will try to convince other Objectivists to help me start one. Until that is successful, I will register as an Independent. I definitely could not bring myself to join the Republicans or the Democrats, and I thought that I could join the Libertarians, but I realized that I was wrong. To paraphrase Michael Badnarik, the Libertarian candidate for the past presidential election, the lesser of three evils is still evil. So, I think that Independent is the only position that does not endorse evil.

As far as specific candidates and elections, I might vote for the best person, or I might vote against the worst person, depending on the context of that particular race. I would have no problem endorsing and voting for a Libertarian candidate if he is the best available in a particular election, same for a Democrat or a Republican. That would be the choice of a particular (I am voting for a candidate that happens to be Libertarian), rather than the choice of a category (I am voting for the Libertarian candidate).

And to answer Mike Hardy, it doesn't matter if Libertarians define liberty with the non-aggression principle, because how do they define aggression then? If aggression is left undefined and left for each individual to define, then the derivative concept liberty is also by implication left undefined and left for each individual to define. To avoid this problem, liberty has to be defined "all the way down" to perceptions and validated conceptually via reason. For a better explanation of this look at the first post by Paul where he addresses that point specifically.

Finally, I encourage everybody to read Paul Hsieh's Fable of the Cardiac Surgeon and the Organization of Health Practitioners which made this point brilliantly in 2004, but I didn't really "get it" until now. Reflecting as to why I didn't get it, I think I was stuck on the false dichotomy of theory vs. practice. I thought that his objections were right in principle, but that a slight compromise in order to move a lot forward in politics was an acceptable trade off. Now I see that the compromise would eventually be our undoing, and that's why I changed my mind on this issue.

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Vincent White said...

I have read this same Objectivist argument against Libertarianism before and it is indeed a strawman. This Objectivist defense just keeps on turning into a slippery slop. So far Libertarians cant define, "Freedom", then they cant define "Force" and then they cant define "Harm". Did Ayn Rand ever have to define harm, or force? She may have tackeled freedom, but Libertariansm is not about soem vague notion of "freedom", its principal rests on non initiation of force. This is a self evident and self explanatory term. You have evoided this statement by changing the argument to revolve around other words, and then you also ignore the fact that Ayn Rand never herself defined such words, because the definitions to them are pretty well agreed upon by most people. The Libertarian movement would not lead to anarchy if enacted. The Libertarian Party has a platform. The Libertarain presidential cadidates have been explicit about their positions. There is nothing vague going on here, the Objectivist objection is very weak and foundationless. Like a previous post stated there is no way in which a nazi, islamic fundamentalist, terrorist, or communist could be a libertarian. This would violate the non initiation of force. To use the word freedom changes the subject. This attitude which is rampant in Objectivism is dangerous. It is a faith based attitude. Objectivism cliams it is against faith, but then it tries to hold a monopoly on the words "reason", "truth", "rationality", to the point where anyone who disagrees with the Objectivist must be in disagreement because he is an irrationalist. You dont need Objectivism to get the non initiation of force principal. People are not either rational or irrational. Almost everyone is at times rational and at times not. Aristotle was the foundation which Ayn Rand used as her own philosophy, and he believed that the use of currency was an abomination. He wanted a society which would stagnate. He was the example which Rand held aloft as the worlds greatest philosopher. To say that Objectivism is the one and only answer and everyone else must be wrong is a faith based attitude. Just because other people dont see things the same way that you see them does not make them irrational. Force is immoral, beliefs are not. Only when force is used do beliefs become immoral. The problem with the world is people who want everyone to think like them. Objectivism is contributing to this problem.