Friday, September 23, 2005

On Libertarianism

Since this is a relatively new blog, I think I have to make an obligatory post on libertarianism lest anyone misconstrue my view on economics as supportive of the libertarian political platform. I wish I had some revolutionary new insight into the substantive issues explaining why Libertarianism is such a dangerous and false view -- but since I don’t, I’ll simply refer any interested reader to the best resource on the subject: Peter Schwartz’s article, Libertarianism – The Perversion of Liberty. As a follow-up, I highly recommend Don Watkins’ debating and chewing of the issue seemingly anywhere it comes up on the internet. (I don’t know which I admire more, Don’s intellectual ability or his boundless energy!)

Nor do I have much to say on David Kelley’s “Anything Goes-ism” (including his hijacking the term Objectivism to temporarily attract an audience he could never get on his own merits). On this topic, the best theoretical resource is Dr. Leonard Peikoff’s Fact and Value, to which Diana Hsieh’s False Objectivism page serves as a valuable adjunct by examining many specific issues that help concretize Dr. Peikoff’s points. (As an aside, when reading Diana’s page, I find it fascinating to note just how much of what has since transpired in Kelley’s organization was predicted in principle by Dr. Peikoff from the very outset.)

With those references given, I do however wish to say something about the claim that criticisms of Libertarianism amount to a straw-man argument (I again refer you to the “all comments” section of Diana’s blog for repeated examples of this claim). The basis of this charge is that since libertarianism is not a single cohesive doctrine, no single (i.e. essentialized) criticism of it can be valid.

Now, in my opinion, it is not the fault of the critics of Libertarianism that the doctrine itself is so anti-system, anti-structure and anti-hierarchy, that it is difficult to define. In a way that is one of its defining characteristics, both in method and in results, and much of Schwartz’s criticism is aimed at this very point. Yet despite their approach, there is one clear message coming out of the Libertarian camp, and that is that any government is bad, and by extension anarchy is the ideal to be fought for. Contrary to some libertarian’s protests, this is not a fringe viewpoint, but the core of the mainstream movement. As an illustration of this, note that the president of the Mises Institute, which is one of the leading, if not the leading, libertarian organizations, proudly presents as their new catch phrase: “Government is the negation of liberty”. (In thinking about this, consider that Lebanon and Somalia would fit their view of a free society, but that 19th century America would not. Or, if analogies help, imagine your response to a man, who on seeing some water escaping through a crack in a dam, advocates knocking down the dam to eliminate the leak!)

But back to the issue at hand. In the same article, the Mises Institute’s president gives a longer explanation of freedom. Pay particular attention to the first two sentences, and note that because they have no method, libertarians are comfortable with a definition in the form of a negation, as well as with overt circularity (government is negation of liberty, liberty is the absence of government):
The definition of freedom is not complicated. Freedom means that which the government does not control. You are free when the government cannot steal your income, when it cannot tell you what to say or with whom you may or may not associate. You are free when the government cannot take your kids and send them to far-flung wars to kill and be killed. You are free when you control your life, your property, your church, your business, and your future. You are free when the government cannot inflate away your savings, tax away your profits, lay waste to your dividends by regimenting corporate life, or controlling how much of what you buy and sell and from where.
This quote appears in a column entitled the Definition and Defense of Freedom, which reads much like a fund raising letter for the institute. As such it does not seek to sneak in an agenda unbeknownst to the majority of the movement’s supporters. On the contrary, it is a document which presents the essence of the program the Institute will implement on the subscribers’ behalf. And it is a message re-iterated throughout the writings on their site. Thus I maintain that the criticisms leveled by Mr. Schwartz do address the heart of the libertarian program and cannot be dismissed out of hand as some libertarians claim.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Resident Egoist said...

Concerning the current intellectual atmosphere at the Mises Institute, I truly do think that it is a tragic situation, for what is happening there is nothing short of intellectual fraud.

Mises was an advocate of constitutional, republican government -- and he explicitly rejected anarchism in all its forms as the false and naive doctrine that it is. He certainly would have never lent his name to the advancement of "anarcho-capitalism," anymore than he would have lent to the advancement of anarchistic communism.

Nonetheless, these Rothbardian frauds do not shy away from this fact; yet all it takes to see the nature of their deed is to imagine the existence of a Karl Marx Institute that promotes the idea of limited government!

But of course, the engineers of this intellectual abomination have found a more subtle way to perform their deed: and this is, hiding behind the authority and true economic ideas of a great man to promote their own false political ideas -- which otherwise no one would have spent two seconds to entertain.

As I said somewhere else, these people should cultivate some honesty and go ahead with the erection of a Murray Rothbard Institute, where their ideas would rightfully belong.

11:33 AM  
Blogger Amit Ghate said...

I definitely second your call for renaming the Mises Institute, and while we're at it, let's see if we can get Kelley to rename his "Center"...

12:08 PM  

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