Monday, April 23, 2007

What do you have to believe to be a libertarian?

As I write this, I'm listening and sort of watching, Paul McKeever talk about the difference between libertarianism and Objectivism (the philosophy of Ayn Rand). Paul explains why libertarians are wrong about a lot of things. In particular, libertarians don't hold the right metaphysical, epistemological and ethical views. More specifically, libertarians "don't have a single philosophy" and are too broad. They try, according to McKeever, to be a "big tent" and capture whoever believes in liberty. Hippies, radish-worshippers, druggies, and so on. Just so long as someone claims that they like liberty, that's enough, according to McKeever. But a "true" defence of liberty requires "the right" ethics, "the right" epistemology, and "the right" metaphysical views. In fact, these views logically precede our political philosophy.

Libertarianism is, in short, too narrow in forgetting to focus on foundational philosophical issues and, because of this, get things exactly backwards.This criticism is akin to many others. I find it disconcerting that the main group of people making this criticism are Objectivists. Ayn Rand, in one of her more moody moments, railed against libertarians for stealing her ideas, for being overly broad, for being disintegrated (a giant sin), and so on. She was particularly steamed at the Libertarian Party because, uhm, at the time, the Republicans REALLY needed to win, in her mind, to keep George McGovern from the presidency. Ho hum, diddly do. And a profound "Yawn."

I did some searching around, and came across this same debate on facebook.

A few things. First, it's ironic that Rand should be railing against anyone for stealing ideas. While she was original, you can find all sorts of precursors to her views in John Locke, in Frederic Bastiat, and in a whole host of other sources that she didn't bother to cite. One of the main criticisms of Rand, in fact, is her lack of footnoting and citing earlier sources that said just about the same things she said. But leaving that aside, here's my rejoinder to the Objectivist criticism of libertarianism, in a nut shell.

Libertarianism is broad and "lacks" foundations not because libertarians don't hold foundational views that would exclude many others, but because the word "libertarian" applies to the conclusion of an argument, and not the argument itself. For the sake of an argument, you can define your terms in special ways for special purposes. But when you are using the ordinary notion of "libertarian" you are referring to people who share the belief that government should be massively restrained (for whatever reason--including consequentialist and deontological reasons). More particularly, government's proper functions include (but are not limited to) national (self)defence, law courts, and police. Some libertarians, like Miltion Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, think the state should provide some social safety net. Other libertarians, like Murray Rothbard and Lysander Spooner, think we should have no government at all.

The Objectivist critique of libertarians is the same, in all essentials, to, say, a Catholic claiming that "Christians" are all confused because they don't all have the same metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical commitments. But of course they don't. "Christian," like libertarian, is a broader concept that captures a group of people who might have more particular beliefs about ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, and so on, including Catholics. This is why Objectivists, regardless of what they say, are libertarians.

I find it strange that libertarians should be saddled with this nonsense, whereas other political philosophies get a friendly pass. Consider. To be a conservative, you needn't follow Leo Strauss, or think Ronald Reagan was awesome, or that Christianity is the way to go. Roughly, all you need is to believe in low taxes, the family, and a smaller government. You don't have ultra-specific conservative views that claim to be the only true views about conservatism. To be sure, you have many people who argue that this or that path is the best path to conservatism, that this or that philosophy is the best way to ground and justify conservatism, but you don't have anything like the distaste the Objectivists have for the libertarians.

The same is true of liberalism. You needn't be a Rawlsian, or think Bill Clinton was the bomb, to be a liberal. You can believe all sorts of different things. So long as you think that we should be neutral on the good life, provide some amount of resources to allow each to live a life that each judges best, and place some emphasis on equality of outcome, you're a liberal. Some will call themselves Rawlsian liberals to make plain what they think is the right way to ground and justify liberalism. Others can call themselves other sorts of liberals. And that's fine.

I call myself a libertarian. I'm a strange sort of libertarian, however. I don't believe in natural rights as metaphysical facts. As far as I'm concerned, they're just legal entities with no status apart from the law. I don't agree with Rand on just about anything (although there is much that I agree with, and, for full disclosure's sake, I passed through Rand to get to where I am now). I take a dim view of deontological ethics in general, and any a priori approach to, uhm, anything.

Instead, I take a more-or-less Rawlsian approach to political philosophy. Take our intuitions about ethics, mix them up with some considered judgments, throw in historical data about how certain institutions operate, and see if you can't get "reflective equilibrium" between all of these views. For that reason, I call myself a Hayekian libertarian. Hayek, for those of you who don't know, thought that Rawls was just about exactly right in terms of method, and just about exactly wrong about the conclusions that he reached. The empirical date, said Hayek, just doesn't support a bloated role for the government. That is, even if it really is our responsibility to take care of our neighbour, we shouldn't look to government as the institution that realizes that responsibility. It will do a poor job of it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

LSS & Macleans 50

Nearly 10 per cent of the Macleans 50 is made up of Liberty Summer Seminar speaker alums!

The Macleans 50 are, "A diverse field of Canada’s most well known and respected personalities from journalists to politicians offering their comments on the issues of the day, everyday."

That means that, when you go to Macleans online, you can see their comments on news stories.

Who are they? They are: Tasha Kheiriddin (LSS '05), Danielle Smith (LSS '06), Gerry Nicholls (LSS '05 and '07), and Stephen Taylor (LSS '06 and '07).


Thursday, April 12, 2007

LSS Theme Song

Yes, believe it or not, the Liberty Summer Seminar (happening August 18, 19) has an official theme song. A theme song. You know, like a TV show. Lindy, who rocks, put this song together yesterday, and I did my best to put together a slide show for everyone (can you do better? Help us by putting together a video for the song yourself!)

You can check it out here (YouTube):

Or here (Google Video):

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Monday, April 09, 2007

More on Nicholls

Below this post is my take on the recent firing of Gerry Nicholls. I don't like it, and I've said so. I also don't like the NCC claiming that Gerry "decided" to go his own way and, when pushed by the Toronto Star, said that Gerry and the NCC will go their separate ways. They should have said that they were making Gerry go his own way from the start, not try to paint this as some sort of mutual decision or, worse, a decision by Gerry himself.

But Gerry is refusing to let the NCC's decision slow him down. I watched him on Mike Duffy, and I just now found out that he was on the radio earlier today (too late for me to listen in). Yesterday, meanwhile, Gerry opined in the Toronto Star on what the Liberals should do to move up in the polls. What's that advice? Check it out:

"To regain their status as the "Natural Governing Party," the Liberals must become less like 21st-century liberals and more like 19th-century liberals.

What does that mean?

Well as any historian will tell you, 19th-century liberals stood for free trade, minimal government, and individual freedom.

Somewhere in the 20th century, however, liberalism got mixed up with socialism ultimately resulting in ... well, in Pierre Trudeau.

Also in the 20th century, anyone opposing big government, the encroaching welfare state and high taxes became known as "fiscal conservatives."

And here in Canada, these fiscal conservatives have never really had a political voice."

Yup, that is what they should do. And they should take Gerry's advice, and become a "Liberal" party like, say, the Australian Liberal Party. Socially liberal, fiscally conservative, or, more to the point, classically liberal (honest-to-goodness liberal, that is) or libertarian lite.

There is no doubt in my mind that moving in a libertarian direction on fiscal and social matters together would be consistent with what a very significant proportion of Canadians would most want anyways. That means legalizing pot, supporting gay marriage (or removing the government from being involved in the whole marriage business), cutting taxes (a lot), eliminating regulations, and slashing bureaucracy. That's a strong brew. A delicious brew. A great brew, like Maudite. Yum!

But this post isn't about why Gerry is right to advise the Liberal Party the
way he does. This is good advice for all political parties (although the Liberals and Conservatives might have the best historic reasons to move in a direction like this). It's about Gerry staying active.

So I have an exciting announcement to make, which I'll make again a month or two from now. The day I heard Gerry was no longer working with the NCC, I thought it would be good to ask Gerry to come to the Liberty Summer Seminar and give a talk to all the kids about liberty (the specific topic will be decided soon). And he agreed.

Gerry has spoken at the LSS before, in 2005 in fact. You can listen to his talk here (MP3), where he discusses the election gag law and the NCC's opposition to it. He calls the LSS an "incredible event" and gives a great talk. It's really worth listening to. It is interesting to hear the sincerity in his voice when he talks about the mission and function of the National Citizens Coalition.

Of course, we will roll out more speakers soon. You can let us know you're coming on our Facebook site, and, soon, we will have registration up on our regular old Institute for Liberal Studies website. (But do sign up via Facebook. It's nice to see all of those faces on there of people who plan on coming out).

(Yes, Gerry will get the Peter M. Jaworski "Medal" of Freedom (TM) at the LSS this year. That's a photo opportunity if ever there was one!)

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Nicholls and the vendus

Word has it that Gerry Nicholls, the man who headed up the NCC after Harper left, has been told to move on by the organization.

This is a terrible shame, and a big mistake the NCC is making.

I've met Gerry on a number of occasions. He spoke at the Liberty Summer Seminar, and hung out with the gang before and afterwards. It was Nicholls who made me finally join the NCC, and it's Nicholls' departure that has me cancelling my membership in the NCC.

He emailed me to let me know he wasn't going to be at the NCC any longer, and he told me it wasn't his decision. He didn't want to leave, but he has to. I asked him why he was made to leave, and whether his criticism of the Harper Tories, which has been pretty fierce, had anything to do with it. He told me he can't say, since lawyers are involved. But the newspapers are speculating that this really is the reason, and I'm inclined to agree.

Gerry is a rare bird. As head of an organization with plenty of partisan Tories as members, it takes a certain amount of gumption and courage to criticize the federal Tories when they abandon what they have stood for. It's surprising and encouraging to see a man in his position stand up for small government when it would be much easier to ignore all of the pork barelling and focus on the three or four items in the budget that sort of, kind of, maybe, if read in the right way, gesture in the direction of small-c conservative or classical liberal ideas.

Taken as a whole, the budget was a disaster. It's ironic that the Tories are pushing ads in Quebec that use the word "vendu." Vendu, I'm told, has a double meaning. That second meaning that the Tories are hinting at in the ads is "sell out." Specifically, vendu is used against francophones who supported staying in Canada, but now sort of means a sell out to the cause in general. The only vendus I see are the federal Tories.

I guess I'm particularly upset with Jim Flaherty. He was Mike Harris' right-hand man. When Harris was doing what should make every conservative proud, it was Flaherty who delivered the message. And when I got drunk with him in Toronto, we had a nice long conversation about the importance of sticking to principle, even when it isn't terribly popular, and to doing what really is best for Canada and Canadians in the long run. I told him that I hoped he was really a libertarian in conservative garb, and he winked and nudged and hinted that he at least had strong leanings in that direction.

Strong leanings? And you deliver this budget? And you deliver it like you're proud of it?

What's that french word again?...

Many people have told me that, although they are small-c conservative, they can't help but find classical liberal or libertarian ideas terribly persuasive. They tell me they have strong leanings, just like Flaherty. Gerry Nicholls told me this a few times. And damned if he doesn't mean it.

Nicholls was one of the most prominent conservative commentators to call a spade a spade, and rip into the federal budget. Andrew Coyne was another. Nicholls said he couldn't tell what political party tabled it. It was something a Liberal would be proud to put forward, or a Dipper. He wondered out loud whether part of the motivation for the budget was to help Charest gain a minority in Quebec. Thank goodness, he said, that the Tories weren't trying to garner a majority for Charest. That would have bankrupted the country, he said.

Thank goodness, I say, that Andrew Coyne isn't heading up some small-c conservative think tank or advocacy organization. The vendus in charge would have been scrambling for small pink paper.

What are these people supposed to be loyal to, exactly? When working at the Western Standard, I had many a long conversation with Ezra and Libin and Steel and the gang. We wondered what would be best for the Standard in terms of a federal government. With the grits in charge, the Standard has a great target, and more grist for the Western Alienation mill. Alienation is good for circulation. But they all said that the point and purpose of the magazine isn't merely to sell print, and efficiently convert softwood lumber into glossy colourful eight-by-ten pages. The point is to make Canada better.

Their's is an environmental agenda, in a sense. Take down some maples and firs for glossy pages in the hopes that it'll keep the feds from taking down their own bigger corner of the forest for wallet-sized vanity pics of Elizabeths, and Lauriers, and MacDonalds, and spindles and spindles of red-tinged tape.

Conserve the forests! Eliminate pages from the regs!

And that's the point. It isn't that Harper is a swell guy and we should all be loyal to the Big Blue Machine. It's what the Machine is supposed to stand for that we should support (if you think it's worth supporting). Forget that, and all you're doing is the equivalent of supporting a team because it's your team. You're treating politics like sports.

Be loyal to your Maple Leafs or Flames or Oilers or Canucks or Habs, even if all the players change, even if they move ice rinks, even if their uniforms change, even if they lose, so long as they stay in the same city. City is to sports teams what policy is to political parties: the salient feature that defines it, that makes it sensible for you to support or not support. Everything else is bows, frills, and public relations.

Some people don't forget that it isn't about personalities or your history with the team. Some people can spot vendus and call them out.

I attended the NCC's Colin M. Brown Medal of Freedom ceremony when Harper was given it a few years back. I found that kind of funny back then. Taking nothing away from Harper, who, up to then, did some great work, but I couldn't help but feel like this was some sort of nonsense.

I'm no Colin M. Brown. I haven't founded any long-running and successful Coalition or Institute or Foundation. And I don't have the stack of money necessary to be giving away a fancy medal that'll spark some media attention and publicity.

But, for whatever it's worth, I do have a Peter M. Jaworski "Medal"* of Freedom to hand out too. And guess who's getting it?

If you guessed "Stephen Harper" you haven't been paying attention. If you guessed "Gerry Nicholls" then you are a clever sort.

Here's to you, Gerry Nicholls. You're the first to receive this "Medal"*. The Medal can be taken away at my whim, I'm afraid. No vendus allowed.

* By "medal" is meant a bottle of Liberty Ale from Anchor Steam Brewery. You can drink the beer, then keep the cap. 'Cause that's the medal part of it.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Help Lindy Win a Contest

ILS' good friend Lindy Vopnfjord has entered a contest. He's entered his band, MajorMaker, co-fronted by Todor Kobakov, into Yahoo's "Up Yours" music contest. The reward is a stack of money, a contract with Universal Canada, studio time, and other goodies. You can help them win and get more attention (which they richly deserve).

How? Watch their video, rate them, and leave a comment. Then send the link to your friends, and encourage them to vote too. Here's the vid (follow this link if this doesn't work for you):

Lindy played the 2004 and 2006 Liberty Summer Seminar (and has agreed to come and play at this year's Liberty Summer Seminar on the August 18, 19 weekend--check out our facebook group and let us know you're coming!).

Do help. His stuff is awesome.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Institute for Liberal Studies

Here I am, on YouTube, talking about the Institute for Liberal Studies.