Friday, August 04, 2006

Another Answer....

I only have a couple of questions left to answer from Ask Me Anything!. Here's one that I've been mulling over quite a bit:

What is your beef with libertarians and objectivists (objectivist weirdo aside), and with the pilosophy of objectivism?

Well, I hope I don't offend Scotty with my answer to this, since he has laid claim to adhering to both Libertarianism and Objectivism and since he's a good egg. But the question deserves an honest answer.

To start with libertarianism: I think that a libertarian impulse is a very useful one, and it well behooves us to always ask if legislation is really the best way to deal with a certain problem. Many times, the answer will be no, if only because of unintended consequences that can result from passing legislation too hastily that impinges on one freedom or another. But as the bedrock foundation of a person's entire political outlook, libertarianism bothers me. A lot. And thinking about why it bothers me, I keep coming back to one answer: freedom is a wonderful thing and an admirable goal, but it's not the only goal. It seems axiomatic to me that sometimes attaining equality and justice involve curtailing someone's freedom, and really, so be it. We should always strive to minimize the curtailing of freedoms, but when I see a libertarian pontificating in full voice, I am always left with a series of questions: Why are they almost fetishizing the concept of liberty? And is their concept of liberty really one that I share? Libertarianism, at first glance, always seems like a genial, "live and let live" kind of outlook. But when one makes Libertarianism a central principle of a political philosophy, watch out.

I also don't share the libertarian fascination with "the market", or "the free market", or "unrestricted capitalism", or "universal privatization", or whatever else they want to call it. The idea that there should be no public property at all is completely alien to me, and whenever I try to envision how it would work, I find myself at a total loss. I hear libertarians talk about how taxation is theft, and I wonder, Who is going to build the roads in your society? Who is going to put out the fires? Who is going to defend your borders? Who is going to prosecute murderers?

Libertarianism, to me, always seems to profess a belief in The Free Market that I don't think is well-founded. Either it is asserted that The Free Market can solve all problems better than governments, or it is more perniciously asserted any problem that can't be solved by the functioning of The Free Market actually isn't a problem at all, because if it were, the Free Market would solve it. But when I look at what I know of human nature, and when I conclude that in a system of unrestricted capitalism you'd see a lot more Enron's and a lot fewer [insert good corporate citizen here], I have to wonder why on Earth I should think that the response to more Enron's would be to shrug and say, "Hey, that's not a bug, that's a feature!"

The libertarian disdain for government and adulation of The Free Market doesn't really add up, in my mind. Would the Free Market have put men on the moon? Would the free market have created the infrastructure to launch the satellites that make our nearly-instantaneous global communication possible? Would the Free Market have built the Panama Canal? Would the Free Market have spearheaded the first development of digital computers? Would the Free Market have then gone on to investigate the feasibility of a large-scale and uncentralized computer network? Would the Free Market have stopped Hitler? I don't think so. I really don't.

Ultimately, what I don't like about Libertarianism is that it seems to be an ultimate endorsement of the idea that each of us is only looking out for number one. I like to feel that I am part of something beyond just myself and my own little concerns and my own little freedoms, and whenever I hear a really ardent libertarian speaking, I don't get any feeling for that at all. Instead I hear, "I want everybody to live behind a fence and never bother anyone else except to exchange money."

(Here's an earlier post of mine that I wrote in response to a Libertarian I heard on the radio.)

Now, on to Objectivism. I know that full-bore Objectivists tend to insist that they're not really Libertarians, but frankly, after interacting with a number of 'em over the years, I basically find that Objectivists are Libertarians with some special cultism thrown in. I always hear the exact same refrains that I hear from garden-variety Libertarians (taxation equals theft, the only property should be public property, there is no social contract, et cetera) with some stuff from Ayn Rand thrown in for good measure (references to John Galt or Howard Roark, irrelevant citations of the "Law of Non-contradictory Indentification", accusations of "Subjectivism" directed at interlocutors, et cetera). I already find Libertarianism in itself to be entirely unconvincing; I find Objectivism to be downright annoying.

I think it was Steven Den Beste who put it best when he noted that when people ask him "Have you read anything by Ayn Rand?" they tend to ask it in the reverent tone of other people who ask, "Have you spoken to Jesus lately?". I read Rand over a decade ago, in the year after I graduated college. At that time, I had only a vague notion that there was this highly-regarded author named Ayn Rand who'd written a few philosophical novels. What struck me about her writing (I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged) wasn't the startling originality of her ideas, or their compelling truth, or the way they sprung from a font of Reason so pure that their logical divinity could never be questioned. What struck me, frankly, was her crappy prose. Reading Rand, I found myself often invoking one of my favorite lines from the Steve Martin movie The Jerk: "Somebody open a window!" She doesn't create characters, so much as embodiments of whatever point she is trying to make; she doesn't give them dialogue, but speeches of varying dullness; she doesn't write vivid descriptions, but great piles of adjectives.

Philosophically, I'm on less certain ground, since it's been over a decade since I either read Rand or practiced anything resembling serious philosophy, but my sense is that Rand wasn't particularly original in her thinking (a lot of it just springs from Aristotle), and her reduction of every single possible philosophical issue to a binary state struck me as absurd. This behavior, though, I see often enough from Objectivists to this day: their righteous conviction of their own rationality makes them almost utterly impossible to converse with. Just try to get an Objectivist to admit a logical error, no matter how glaringly obvious, and you'll get vicious denial (since how can they, absolutely committed to Reason as they are, possibly make a logical error?), shifting of the goalposts, and a simple changing of the subject.

The more one encounters Objectivists and looks at their philosophy, the more creepily cult-like it appears, and that's not even taking into account Objectivist shibboleths that I find highly questionable in the first place (that morality is objective, that Reason by itself can tell us things about the world, that capitalism is the only just social system, that altruism is not a virtue).

Here's a whole lot of anti-Objectivist linkage, and here's a recent AskMeFi thread about Rand. Toward the end of the thread, someone notes that Atlas Shrugged is worth reading for non-Objectivists in the same way that the Bible is worth reading for atheists (I'd broaden that to "non-Christians"). I don't agree: the Bible is worth reading for everyone simply for its language and poetry. I shudder for anyone who reads Ayn Rand just for her prose alone. Here's Whittaker Chambers on the subject:

The news about this book seems to me to be that any ordinarily sensible head could not possibly take it seriously, and that, apparently, a good many do. Somebody has called it: "Excruciatingly awful." I find it a remarkably silly book. It is certainly a bumptious one. Its story is preposterous.

That's about right, I think.

UPDATE: Here are a couple of links I found by Googling the phrase "Why I am not a libertarian": this person provides some bullet points, and for those who would argue "No, that's not real Libertarianism you're talking about" (much like the extreme Leftists who always say that we've never really given Communism a chance on this planet), this person responds to actual planks from the platform of the Libertarian Party.


LC Scotty said...

Interesting! First, I am not offended. Thanks for taking the time to compose this answer. You raise some excellent points, ad yuo also raise a few I'd like to discuss further. Rather than post "War and Peace" in your comments, I'll address them over at my place.

Anonymous said...

Libertarians do value liberty highly. It is a live and let live approach as you say. I fail to see how it is necessary to curtail someone’s freedom in the cause of equality and justice. Equality refers to equal opportunity not redistribution of wealth schemes. Libertarians do advocate a minimal set of laws preventing harm to others. Outside of harming others, what other curtailments to freedom would be necessary for justice? Liberty is the absence of coercion of a human being by any other human while causing no harm to others.

Most Libertarians do acknowledge the need for a limited government to perform some basic services. Whether that includes building roads and putting out fires is debatable. Let’s assume for a moment it does not, just for the sake of speculation. In this type of libertarian world I hardly think people would just stand by and watch their houses burn down. There would be a need to address. Many communities across this country function quite well with volunteer fire departments. The main tenant of libertarianism regarding government is that it has grown vastly beyond its necessary scope. This has had a stifling effect on real economic growth and innovation. The issue of public property is debatable and is more a matter of degree. Saying there should be absolutely no public property is an extreme statement not representative of all libertarians. That being said, there are many instances of public property leading to abuse by the government and being detrimental to the citizens. A perfect example would be our un-developed waterfront that has been owned by the NFTA for many years. Had the area been private property, I am sure that a free market would have developed it long ago. Private property has value and the market responds to real value. Public property has no real value because the people in charge have no risk or financial incentive to develop the property. The current plans for development have resulted from years of voters’ disgust with the lack of progress. The motivation is re-election. As it is, another government bureaucracy has been created to oversee (good patronage jobs here) the development.

Overall, the free market solves problems more efficiently and in a less costly manner than the government. Enron is more an example of government gone bad than it is the result of a free market economy. The problem was not the lack of government involvement with Enron, but rather the close relationship between Enron and government. Enron in fact was deeply involved with the federal government throughout the 1990s, both through its lobbying efforts and as a recipient of large amounts of corporate welfare.

While you speculate on whether or not the free market would have put men on the moon, you need to answer the following question. Was there a need to put men on the moon? If the answer is yes, the market would have responded. As far as satellites and global communication goes, the free market would have done it quicker and cheaper. The same goes for digital computers and the internet, which just happens to be facing more threats of government regulation and interference. Those example are exactly the type of innovation a free market thrives on. I am not going to get into the Hitler question now, it is much too complicated and my response is already lengthy. I will only say that the factors leading to Hitler’s rise to power predate him by many years and resulted from policies of government interventionism.

The concept that Libertarians are only looking out for number one is a myth, mainly due to a lack of understanding. No individualist or libertarian denies that people influence each other all the time, and surely there is nothing wrong with this inevitable process. What libertarians are opposed to is not voluntary persuasion, but the coercive imposition of values by the use of force and police power. Libertarians are in no way opposed to the voluntary cooperation and collaboration between individuals: only to the compulsory pseudo-"cooperation" imposed by the State.

Kelly Sedinger said...

Thanks for the comment, but I am in no way convinced. The market is not rational because people are not rational, and the idea that the market will rush in to fill every need strikes me as little more than hand-waving faith. Governments are imperfect because people are imperfect; governmental imperfection does not imply that the market is better.

Also, the idea that the market can always do things quicker or cheaper than the government is at odds with established history (the market tends to be largely ambivalent about the kinds of basic research that often end up underpinning unforeseen technological developments many years later) and, well, an unprovable article of faith. Sure, you can look for some partial governmental cause for just about every problem that faces a society, because societies always organize themselves into governments.

(You'll note that despite my refusal to adopt a Libertarian faith in the free market, I've never claimed that government is always better or more efficient at doing things than the free market. Your example of the Buffalo waterfront is a perfect example: all they need to do to develop that area is set some zoning requirements so we don't end up with a big pile of crap out there, sell off the land, and let the developers go to town.)

Anonymous said...

Imperfection is never going to be eliminated. The best one can hope for is a system that exploits people the least. The main reason I believe the market can do things faster and cheaper than government is that government, through the act of regulation, creates a new level of bureaucracy. That has both direct and indirect costs which affect development and the cost to consumers. If you look at most major inventions throughout history, I think you will find that there was no government involvement or very little. The atomic bomb is a notable exception to my previous statement, governments are very good at developing destructive weapons. The government also creates the needs for those weapons.

Even though you haven't endorsed a libertarian free market philosophy, the dialogue you have sparked is a relevant and useful one. Your perception of the current short-comings of our government helps to focus on the cause rather than typical band-aid solutions. You mentioned unintended consequences in the original post and that is one of my biggest criticisms of government solutions.

Anonymous said...

He he. You opened a can of worms. :)

When you say:

"Who is going to build the roads in your society? Who is going to put out the fires? Who is going to defend your borders? Who is going to prosecute murderers?"

I would point out that our nation managed to accomplish all of this, and more, for over 130 years, without picking the pocket of the common man. The income tax was not introduced until 1911.

Hence the "stolen money" line you hear so often.

If government ended with those things, the libertarians would most likely shut up. I would. But it's when you're filling out a form to ask the government if you can keep a bit more of your income because you spend some of it in way that they approve (and saved the reciepts) that you start to ask yourself, "Is this how free people live?"

Jayne said...

Thanks for this post and for articulating your excellent points so well. This has made me think twice before cavalierly invoking libertarian ideals . . .

Anonymous said...

Jaquandor, your attempt to understand Libertarianism is interesting.
I see one misconception that stands out loudly to me regarding the free market.
You associate the likes of Enron as being free market, as I would think you would say the same with Halliburton, Big Oil or something closer to home like NYSEG or National Fuel.
To a Libertarian, these corporations are not anything like free market, since they are all firmly in bed with government by choice or by the entrapment of regulation. They more resemble the old English mercantilism where the government guarantees its favorites a virtual monopoly in their industries in exchange for it being a cash cow for the politicians.
The free market exists only outside of government intervention. Corporations that exist and grow by way of government sanctioned monopoly, cartels or Corporate Welfare cannot be free market since they are essentially immune to the risks and responsibilities of market competition. In Enron’s case, it shows they are also more easily prone to corruption and waste just like government.
Are farmers who take federal subsidies free market? Are U.S. corporations that get guaranteed sales from foreign countries paid for with taxpayer dollars by way of so-called foreign aid free market?
The key to understanding the true meaning of the free market these days is understanding the difference between a Market-Entrepreneur (Capitalist) and a Political-Entrepreneur (Neo-Mercantilist). The failure of conservatives and modern liberals alike is not understanding there is a difference at all.
When a Libertarian say’s taxation is robbery, he is correct in that a majority of our tax dollars do not go to fund the legitimate operations of government, they are simply forced transfers of our wealth to politically connected corporations and special interest groups who vie for government largess and protection from competition.
The problem with people is they don’t recognize when their pocket is being picked, like a talented pickpocket, the government has been picking everybody’s pocket repeatedly in so many ways without most people even realizing it.

Kelly Sedinger said...

Wow -- this may be the most content-filled comments thread ever on this blog! I should diss the Libertarians more often! (Though I'm surprised I haven't been attacked by any Objectivists yet. Come on, Randroids of the world! Here's something to get you started: a thing can be A and not-A at the same time!)

Anyway, just a couple of brief responses to points made above:

1. I don't think that the fact that Enron did lots of business with the government really makes a difference. My point wasn't to suggest that Enron was an example of the free market in action, but to point out that even in today's regulatory climate, a big company screwed a whole lot of people because it had a profit motive to do so. Remove regulation, and more big companies will screw more people.

2. I'm not sure that the fact that we didn't have an income tax until 1911 makes a difference -- did taxation only become theft on that date? Did government do only good works with their tax receipts before 1911?

3. Of course we had roads and stuff before the income tax. We also had a markedly different kind of economy (more agrarian based than industrial), different social structures (people would live out their whole lives within miles of a certain location), and different styles of commerce (much more highly localized). To suggest that the unregulated market worked just fine way back when the horse and wagon was the main means of transportation seems to me like suggesting that since a screwdriver works to do this job, it should be sufficient to do that job too. Never mind the fact that the carpenter knows that that job really calls for a sabre saw, a block plane, and a file. (And that's assuming I even grant the premise in the first place that everything was hunky-dory with the functioning of the Free Market back then, which I don't. The robber-baron era was not something I'd like to see recreated in today's economy.)

3. I'd like to reiterate that I'm not a blanket "government is better" liberal. There are many times when a market solution is preferable (see a perfect example upthread, Buffalo's waterfront). But again, I reject the notion that the Free Market can solve all problems, as well as the notion that a problem that can't be solved by the Free Market isn't a problem at all.

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Anonymous said...

Taken as a whole, yur post is an excellent brief for conservatism-the sensible middle ground between "liberals" (a misnomer if there ever was one, since true liberals believe in limited government), who think all problems are solvable by means of federal legislation, and libertarians, who see little need for any government.