Saturday, January 30, 2010

Libertarianism is Not Conservative

There is great deal of conflation in the mind of the public at large between conservatism and libertarianism. It is my contention that libertarianism should be thought of as a political philosophy divorced of historical particularities; and as such, cannot be "conservative," except by coincidence.

Libertarianism contends that the world should be ordered according to the moral standard of the individual's natural right to life, liberty and property. The conciseness and clarity of libertarianism can be contrasted with conservatism, which is a very slippery concept philosophically. The vaguery of the term "conservative" is exploited by both those on the political right, usually thought of as nationalists, and those on the political left, popularly conceived of as socialist-egalitarians (to borrow the terminology of the French Revolution).

Conservatism cannot specify what aspects of American politics since the founding are relevant at hand to any given issue, and as such is a blunt tool for political analysis. It is imbued with history, both justices and injustices, and as such is an inherently contentious term around which the arguments are boundless, circular, and ever increasing.

While the right assumes that conservatism is equivalent to the eventually triumphant emancipatory doctrines of the founding; the left surveys the entire history of the United States and critically condemns the founding by virtue of the accumulated injustices proceeding henceforth, namely: slavery, the delay of women's suffrage, the "genocide" of "Native Americans," the upshot of "trusts" in the Gilded Age, the Spanish-American War and the colonization of Pacific Islands, and so forth. In other words, the left composes a litany of grievances against the United States as if the recurring moral standard at any given point in history was that of an existential heaven on earth.

Libertarians' championing of the individual should not only be contrasted with conservatism, but with both the American left and right. It should be thought of as directly opposed to "progressivism," which seeks the creation of a collectivist heaven on earth, by whatever means possible. In contemporary American politics, the inegalitarian and authoritarian nature of the progressive movement throws into doubt whether it is a phenomenon of the left or the right, and indeed, its fascist tendencies suggest that it is a "third way." But this is a bit deceiving. Through examining progressivism, we might better understand libertarianism.

Though one of the best ways to think of left and right is as the difference between universalist-democrats and nationalist authoritarians, we can fruitfully think of progressivism as a form of collectivism that displays tendencies of both Left and Right Hegelianism, eventually fusing into one "World Spirit," which will be explained below. Libertarianism can easily be seen as opposed to both forms of collectivism.

To use the peculiar language deriving from Hegel, the left is the Hegelianism of Universality and the right is the Hegelianism of the Particular, if one thinks in in terms of States. Reason, and Absolute Freedom, triumph when the Universal is in the Particular, and the Particular in the Universal. In other words, Reason either triumphs when all men reflect the State, and the State all men, for the Right Hegelians; and for the Left Hegelians, when all men reflect the World Spirit, and the World Spirit reflects all men.

When Hegelianism is fused with Nietzschean ethics, which espouses the "Will to Power," we see the embodiment of Hegel's "Great Man of History" theory, which is very much akin to Marxist -Leninism, and can easily be confused with it. While Hegel cannot explain why the Particular and the Universal harmonize in a "great man" like Napoleon, who is the embodiment of the cusp of historical Idea, and the usher in of new Ages (usually with bloodshed and world trauma), the great man of history is an inspiration, and indeed, a license for narcissistic leaders on both the Left (Lenin, Stalin, Mao) and the Right (like Mussolini, Hitler, in these terms) to seek the implementation of their totalitarian plans without regard for any individual who stands in their way.

A useful book to explore Hegel's ideas is a collection of his lectures entitled, "Reason and History." From the Introduction:
Morality is more a collective than an individual matter for Hegel; , and the great man becomes, if "necessary," an immoral force. Here the modern totalitarians can and do take their departure; libertarians like Mill get nauseated, and Hegel, in so far as he becomes a historic hero himself, for the prophets of Left and Right totalitarianism, the father of immoral deeds (xxxvii).
The libertarian is not sympathetic to either the Left or the Right; whether in the terms of the French Revolution, or in the terms of Hegelian dialectics. The libertarian is not conservative in most senses of the term, for conservatism implies a continuation of the status quo due to the inability of human beings (and by implication, societies) to adjust to radical changes. We can see a ready conflict between Burkean conservatism and the libertarianism of Frederic Bastiat, in this following excerpt from The Law:
It is so much in the nature of law to support justice that in the minds of the masses they are one and the same. There is in all of us a strong disposition to regard what is lawful as legitimate, so much so that many falsely derive all justice from law. It is sufficient, then, for the law to order and sanction plunder, that it may appear to many consciences just and sacred. Slavery, protection, and monopoly find defenders, not only in those who profit by them, but in those who suffer by them. If you suggest a doubt as to the morality of these institutions, it is said directly—“You are a dangerous experimenter, a utopian, a theorist, a despiser of the laws; you would shake the basis upon which society rests.” (8, see PDF).
Libertarianism can thus be seen as radical to the Burkean as well as to the Nationalist conservative, though libertarianism can be seen as overlapping with many of the ideals of the American founding. Yet libertarianism should be seen as independent of History, and as such, cannot be "conservative." The moral standard of life, liberty and property, co-extensive with the Natural Right of the individual to sustain his own life, is synonymous with Justice.


Reaganx said...

Yes, conservatism is a very vague and therefore dangeous term - just as liberalism. In Europe liberalism means almost the same as conservatism in the US, while in the US they're opposites.
I myself started out as a "liberal" (not in the US sense, of course, but in the "conservative" sense), then proceeded to "libertarian" and then found even that term too vague (because of the irrational inclinations of some libertarians)and then switched to "Objectivist."

Reasonsjester said...

You make a good point about the vagueness of the term libertarianism in some contexts. Objectivism is more specific, but also more obscure. You have to make a trade off when addressing a broader audience, or introducing people to core concepts. I could go off on a rant about Ayn Rand, but people who haven't read her works closely or seriously won't get it.

Reasonsjester said...

Here is some argument about this post:

Firstly, I don't think a movement can be divorced from it's historical particularities and still remain relevant. How does one maintain any kind of perspective on what they believe and why if they divorce themselves from the events ideas that created that perspective in the first place? If someone does not know where they came from, they very likely don't know where they are going either. That's part of the reason liberals are so eager to destroy our history. If they destroy our history they can write our future, to borrow a bit from Stalin. I don't see how libertarian thinking can be placed anywhere but solidly within the conservative branch of classical liberalism as I understand it. The very essence of conservatism as it arose out of classical liberalism is summed up as life, liberty, and property (Jefferson threw in the pursuit of happiness as a part of property. I suppose it's debatable if owing property is a subset of the pursuit of happiness or of the pursuit of happiness is a subset of owning property.)

The imperfect nature of humans should be a point to the arguments of conservatives. Humans are corruptible and fallible. Our very nature suggests that we should limit the authority of government. The sins of “conservatives” is nothing in comparison to the sins of liberals. Besides, we allow liberals too much freedom in defining what we are. We have let liberals write our history and mischaracterize events. I feel it's too much of the same PR campaign liberals play by trying to switch identities to simply give up the the name conservative because they have tried to tarnish it. Liberals have called themselves so many names it's not funny. Progressive is making a comeback as the favorite self descriptive term for liberals, but I'm perfectly confident in defending conservatism that I don't feel the need to reinvent myself by adopting a new term that means the same thing anyway. We should simply take charge of our own history and our own destiny. We should also remember that just because someone gets called a conservative or calls themselves a conservative, that does not mean that they hold true to what conservatism really is. Liberals love calling Hitler a conservative even though he was an extreme liberal. This is part of the point I was making in the other debate that's been somewhat deleted. The Republican party does not define conservatism, the historical events and philosophy summed up by the likes of Locke and others and which we might call Natural Law defines conservatism. I believe I define conservatism the way you are trying to define libertarianism

So, if we take a scale of the most conservative to the most liberal, then we will find that there are people in the middle who hold principles from both the right and left. They have some conservative ideas but yet hold to some big government Utopian ideas. We might look at George Bush or John McCain for simple examples. I do not consider these people to be true conservatives. They are too far to the left of the scale, though they hold to some conservative ideas. Or we might look at Lieberman for a liberal example. He's solidly left but he holds a few conservative ideas. However, these men do not measure the scale of conservatism, they are measured by the scale. George Bush's collectivist ideas do not discolor conservatism because they are not conservative ideas. I would classify libertarians as being further to the right on the scale of conservatism and more true to it's principles.

Reasonsjester said...

My response:

I appreciate your perspective, Ryan, and should clarify that I am viewing libertarianism from a particular Objectivist bent, which derives morality from life and objective reality. As such, I do not view morality as "historically rooted," but philosophically rooted. Ayn Rand's "The Virtue of Selfishness" explains this position particularly well.


I don't see why this can't be reconciled. I agree that morality is not inherently rooted in history, but the philiosophy and processes by which we understand morality are rooted in history.

Though, if we are to talk about enlightened self interest, I don't deny it exists. I don't even deny that this is a good thing. I just deny that altruism is always bad. I just can't imagine the suggestion that we humans are so inherently evil that we can't ever do anything just because it's good and that somewhere in the back of our minds we are sitting around calculating how it will help us in the end. That's getting off topic though.

Reasonsjester said...

My response:

That's not too far off topic. Did you read Rand's "The Virtue of Selfishness"? She explains her position in a systematic way that makes sense. Altruism has the specific meaning of self-sacrifice in her schema. Loving others and helping them is not ruled out, as long as one does so selfishly. It is the idea of sacrificing for faceless others that Rand objects to.


Yes, I get that. So does that mean that a soldier with no family is foolish if he finds himself in a situation of almost certain death? His sacrifice can not help himself in any way, though he may have sacrificed for the good of others. He is dead and he has no family to enjoy the society he protected. I reject the idea that good can only come from selfishness.

I think Rand's rejection of higher truth is the source of this problem. I do not reject a higher authority. I would rather go with Plato than Rand on this point. Rand is absolutly correct that we bennifit ourselves and others much when we practice enlightened self interest, but there is an exteranal principle of good which exists ouside selfishness.

If I donate to Haiti relief efforts I can expect nothing in return. I seriously doubt Haiti will ever be able to provide anything to me, and I have no reason from experiance to expect that the rest of the world will be inspired by my and other American's giving if we undergo a disaster here. However, I do not suggest people stop giving to Haiti because we in the US will never get anything in return. Anyone contributing to Haiti is in effect acting altruistically.

Reasonsjester said...

My response:

I don't believe it is a source of virtue to sacrifice oneself for others. One can choose to be a soldier, if one prefers fighting with the risk of death to slavery. One may also choose to sacrifice oneself for the "higher cause" of a nation, but Rand would condemn this as a fool's trade-off. One may fight to defend oneself along with others as part of a nation, because he selfishly loves it. Sacrifice is done out of a sense of obligation to the collective, defending oneself and one's freedom in a just nation is done out of selfishness. These are different matters and not idle words.

There is a reason that American soldiers in World War II tended to fight bravely and honorably after being attacked by the Japanese, while Russian soldiers were often reluctant to participate in the "human waves" of the Russian commanders, including under Marshall Zhukov. There is a reason that 300 Spartans under Leonidas were able to fend off a Persian slave army at Thermopylae. It is not just that these elite soldiers were so well-trained, but that they loved Sparta with all their heart and soul and would never live to see the day that they and their families would be quislings under the Persian king Xerxes. There are many more examples throughout history where a culture of "sacrifice" leads to death, defeat, and destruction; while selfishness, pride and love of freedom means prosperity, victory, and success.

In regards to Haiti, there is something to be said for charity in cases of natural disasters, when people have no chance of avoiding a catastrophe by their own actions. It is when people have a chance to avoid personal trials and tribulations that one should not "help" them.

Rand's philosophy is an ideal-type, and a direct answer to the collectivists who exploit "altruism" to lead a civilization toward destruction. Countering the left with historical mirages is a losing battle, like trying to grasp an enemy made of sand. One can only box the enemy in with unfailing principles, putting him in a situation where he can squirm and engage in sophistry, but he will not be able to convince you that 1 +1 = 3.

Reasonsjester said...


I don't view sacrifice for the higher cause of freedom goodness or what have you as a fool's trade-off. Of course I don't think that a soldier should sacrifice themselves for nationalisim as a goal in of itself. Like I said, I don't have a problem with enlightened self interest in itself, It's just that I think that it's taken to a bit of an extreme.

It is irrational to do something for emotional reasons, which is how liberals try to manipulate altruism, but the very fact that they can manipulate it proves it exists. If people were not capable of being altruistic, then liberals could not use it.

I think it's better to recognize that people wish to do good and temper it with reason and enlightened self interest rather than ignore human nature. The path to Hell may be paved with good intentions, but that does not mean good intentions are bad. Only ignorant good intentions are bad.

Reasonsjester said...

My response:

Just because Rand condemns altruism, doesn't mean it doesn't motivate people. Rand condemns action motivated out of anything but rational self-interest. I agree with her on the whole because I view altruism as being dangerous when it is systematized by the collectivist; such as the case with Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and possibly Obamacare.

Now, what difference does it make if a lowly individual thinks these social welfare programs are inefficient and ineffectual and won't benefit that person in the long-run? The altruist says, "Well, don't you think these people deserve their retirement pension, medical care, etc.?" What should be that person's response, "No, they don't"? If one answers yes, by the standard of altruism, he is obliged to waste as much of his money, time, and ultimately his life, as the state asks of him, due to the transcendental ethics of altruism he has just subscribed to. He has fallen victim to the moral imperative; he has sacrificed himself for irrational reasons, and once one does that, one has no rational reason to object to his exploitation from that point forward. That may not bother someone who rests easy with arbitrariness and pragmatism; but such an attitude truly makes one a leaf on the historical and philosophical breeze.

To draw a distinction between pragmatism and objectivism, let us look at what one's reaction should be to a coup by a fascist regime. If fascism became the ruling principle of the government, pragmatism dictates that one should make common cause with that or risk liquidation. Self-interest, unguided by reason, would seek to exploit the situation. Rational self-interest would indicate that such regimes lead to oppression and mass murder, which is incompatible with a world where one can pursue personal happiness in freedom without risk of reprisal. (This point of view is not compatible with hedonism, which would suggest "whatever makes you happy, goes"). Therefore one should not cooperate with the state if at all possible. Objectivism would indicate that one should oppose the state due to its immorality; which is determined by that state's collectivist ethics. Objectivism is more radical in its import than the doctrine of rational self-interest, and is thus more controversial.

Reasonsjester said...

Response (Different member):

As you choose to describe Libertarian, RJ, I would describe it as just this side of anarchy, as a thumbnail description. I would so classify grossly the Constitution of these various States United.

As to the popular definition of Conservative, or Liberal, these meanings change with the wind! As Liberal becomes Nanny State, Conservative swings toward anarchy. Stay with an old definition whenever possible!

Reasonsjester said...

My response:

For a contrast between anarchism and libertarianism, see my recent post A Nineteenth Century "Rules for Radicals."

Reasonsjester said...

Ha ha, we are going to have to end this discussion fairly soon. The previous discussion thread got so compressed it would not let me reply without starting a new sub thread

I think it's safe to say that we agree on most things, but I have to maintain that Objectivism is a seriously flawed and incomplete philosophy. I also think that there is a serious misrepresentation of altruism.

Despite denying higher principles, Rand must construct an imperfect higher principle that she denies is a higher principle. Her ultimate principle is individual happiness. This is very much like an individualist version of Utilitarianism. It suffers from the same faults as Utilitarianism as well. It may be true that freedom actually provides the most happiness to the most people, but if I'm Joe the want to be dictator, what moral principle is going to convince me that I should not seize power if it becomes available? I'm sure that I'm willing to try absolute power as a path to my happiness. After all, there is no higher purpose than my own gratification and if I hold absolute power, what's anybody going to do about it? It is not logical to assume that if personal self interest is our highest principle with nothing else to guide it, that people will hold to freedom if they think they can assure their own gratification without much risk. Washington was faced with this, and he altruistically declined power. He did this not because it served his interests, but because it was out of step with God's law.

Enlightened self interest is good, but it's only part of a true moral principle. It's incomplete by itself. It can only work when combined with the notion of goodness and natural God given rights. It would never work by itself as a moral principle in a society that denied that there was such a thing as objective good and evil.

The denial of good and evil, the denial of God, will inevitably lead to the will to power trumping all else. I think this is probably where we can smell the strongest stench of Nietzsche filtered through Rand. The Nazis did not make an argument based on a grand Godly crusade, they argued from utilitarian self interest. They argued that society would be better for us all if we did it this way. Liberals argue that if we adopt nationalized healthcare we will all be happy. It will be cheaper and we will all get something for less. When the liberal is says, 'Well, don't you think these people deserve their retirement pension, medical care, etc.?' That is not an altruistic argument. That self desire disguised behind altruism. The liberal thinks that they themselves are going to come out smelling like roses from the deal. Liberals don't give to charity as much as conservatives because of this unenlightened self interest hidden behind Utopian dreams, not because they are actually altruistic.

The enlightened altruist would recognize that nationalized health care is a mess that will hurt many people and that it's outside of the natural law we can recognize through reason. Therefore, even if I suffer for my opposition, then it must be opposed. The altruist recognizes that not only will more be happy without nationalized health care, they also know the moral reasons above self interest which lead to this conclusion, which is natural law summed up with life, liberty, and property.

Reasonsjester said...

My response:

I understand your objections to Objectivism, but your response cherry picks certain points from Rand's thinking without addressing her entire philosophy.

According to Objectivist ethics, Joe the Dictator can want to be a dictator all he wants to, but he would be relegated to building sand castles on the beach and playing with "Lil People" to recreate his megalomaniacal fantasy. If other people agree with Objectivist ethics, they will recognize Joe's self-serving BS, no doubt draped in altruist ethics, or in terms of "I know better than you what is best for you" (also rejected by individualist rationality), and he would be refuted, possibly threatened with commitment in a lunatic asylum if pressed further, and then finally shipped off to jail if he attempted to usurp others' individual rights.

In addition, I agree with Rand that any appeal to God as a justification for a political system is as flawed a method of argumentation as humanly conceivable. Since one cannot prove the existence of one's God, let alone what God thinks or desires for man, the conflict that one incites by appeal to "God" is virtually insoluble, except by conquest or by homogenization of religious views. To prevent interminable religious conflict, the First Amendment is clear in the prevention of the state's establishment of an official religion. One's conscience is sacred; the Constitution does not require obeisance to a specific God. To be a productive citizen in America, one need only obey (just) laws, not practice the "correct" religion.

So what does that mean for Natural Rights, if one need not recognize a given God? Rand essentially seeks to place the foundation for Natural Rights on demonstrable ontological, empirical, and moral grounds. And I agree wholeheartedly with such a project. Furthermore, I find the implication that men revert to amoral beasts in the absence of religion to be a fallacy. For example, socialism and communism are evil not because they are atheistic, but because they are secular religions. The ancient Greeks of the fourth century were not particularly religious, at least, as we would conceive of it (they did generally practice rituals and pay homage to certain gods), yet the Greeks had a relatively successful civilization, with innovations in many fields.

It is my view, and the view of most Objectivists, that it is rationality that civilizes people; and religion, especially when unmixed with a strong component of rationality (Thomas Aquinas' writings, The School of Salamanca e.g.) that leads to superstition, social conflict, prolonged wars, oppression, and even torture and mass murder. A free people who value individuality never engage in such evils on any considerable scale.

Reasonsjester said...

Questions, comments, suggestions?