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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This overlooks the foundation of the Objectivist critique of libertarianism: that the content of beliefs (generally speaking) is conditioned by the context by reference to which they are justified. This becomes especially true when you consider the conceptual reduction necessary (within the Rand's framework) to tie higher-order abstractions back to the level of axioms. If a Christian libertarian and an Objectivist support the same particular policy (or set of policies) this does not mean that they are in agreement with each other. In this scenario, the entire conceptual apparatus that provides each party with justification for supporting the policy is distinct; thus, it is argued, the resulting beliefs about the policies are distinct regardless of their superficial similarities. If you're going to shut down the Objectivist critique, that's the basic place you'll want to start.
Moreover, it could be argued that "libertarian" is importantly ambiguous and has separate senses within academic philosophy, politics, and the Objectivist critiques (and arguably within the "ordinary language" community) so there's the possibility that you're equivocating a bit in your argument - or that Rand equivocates in her criticisms. But whatever...

9:35 p.m.  
Blogger P. M. Jaworski said...

I appreciate your comment, Brandon. I roughly agree. The point, however, is that libertarianism is a superficial position in the following sense: Just like "Christian" doesn't tell me why you believe it, or what the rest of your conceptual framework looks like that led you to this conclusion, so, too, does "libertarian" tell you none of those things.

If a Christian libertarian and Objectivist support the same policy, that means that they are in agreement with respect to that policy. Of course it doesn't mean that they agree about *other* things, but they do agree about this particular policy.

And that's the point. There's a set of policies that Objectivists are libertarian about. The reasons why they agree is an interesting and important topic, but it's pure linguistic nonsense to try to pretend that, because they disagree about A, and B, that they disagree about C, when they both believe that C.

2:24 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Philosophy has 5 major branches: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics & aesthetics. Objectivism has something to say about each branch. Libertarianism deals only with one branch, namely: politics.

Libertarianism is the name for the political component of Objectivism.

There are many people who are libertarians but don't share the Objectivist views of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics or aesthetics.

As someone who is about 80 percent Objectivist, I am willing to work with others who share my political philosophy (libertarianism) even if they don't share the rest of my philosophy, in order to achieve my political goals, ie. greater freedom from government.

However, when it comes to my closest friends,I generally choose them from among those who agree philosophically on a much broader spectrum of subjects than just politics.

5:41 p.m.  
Blogger Paul McKeever said...

Dear Peter,

Your blog entry was forwarded to my attention via e-mail and, given the subject matter, I though it fitting for me to respond.

If my guess is correct, you were “listening and sort of watching” me in a video titled “Rand vs. Libertarianism” (URL: ) in which I discussed – on the fly - various topics while driving to my office. I will not distance myself from anything I say in that video, though I would say that it was not intended as a serious analysis or critique and so may, in many ways, be lacking in detail and precision.

In your blog entry, you suggest I say that “libertarians” are wrong about a number of things. Although everyone is certainly wrong about a number of things, care must be taken to understand that my comments were about “libertarianism” itself, not about people who think or call themselves “libertarian”. That said, those who share my understanding of libertarianism, and who still self-identify as “libertarian”, are most certainly subject to the same criticism as libertarianism itself.

You suggest that I speak of what is required for a “true defence of liberty”. With respect, that perception, on your part, almost proves my point. In my view, the defence of liberty is precisely what libertarianism claims to be about, but it is definitely not what objectivism claims to be about. In respect of political philosophy, objectivism’s primary concern is not with “liberty” per se, but with consent: objectivism holds that all relations between individuals must be consensual. The focus is on consent because objectivism regards a person’s own life as his highest value, his own happiness as his highest purpose, and rationality (as opposed to, for example, popular consensus or divine revelation) as the only means by which a person can pursue happiness in this life (the only one you have, and the only one you ever will have). To an objectivist, liberty – a lack of restraint upon an individual’s rational conduct – is but a means to an end. The end is: acting upon rational decisions. By using physical force to defend your life, liberty and property from those who would seek to obtain control of them without your consent, you can ensure that you will be able to act upon your own rational decisions, and thereby pursue happiness in life.

In describing my critique, you correctly characterize me as saying that metaphysics, epistemology and ethics “precede our political philosophy”. In fact, it is broader than that: metaphysical, epistemological and ethical philosophical commitments precede and dictate every political philosophy. For example, the person who does not believe that reality exists in any objective sense (who, for example, thinks reality is just a subjective product of the mind) logically places no value on reason, because reason is of no use to anyone if the things about which one is trying to reason are just hallucinations. He who believes that reason is of no use in living will found his ethics on some other source of alleged knowledge. Most of the time, the chosen source will be “faith” in the alleged dictates of an allegedly omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient (and often supernatural) being: Allah, Yahweh, God, the Pope, the Ayatollah, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, the Ontario Ministry of Education, etc.. Alternatively, the chosen source of alleged “knowledge” will be “popular consensus”, on the theory that “there is wisdom in the counsel of many”. The chosen source of alleged knowledge will be that which man seeks to protect with political philosophy, because each man considers the knowledge so obtained as the means of determining what one should do and should not do. In other words, the resulting code of ethics (i.e., one founded on godly commandments, or one founded on popular consensus) will then dictate what should be the mode by which people interact with one another (i.e., ones code of ethics dictates ones political philosophy).

The man who believes that his highest virtue is “obedience to the will of god” will regard that obedience as the founding principle underlying all matters of political philosophy: “Only by obeying God’s will happiness be pursued”, thinks such a man, who may (depending upon which alleged god he reveres) then consider it politically acceptable to surgically extract his daughter’s clitoris. The man who believes that his highest virtue is “obedience to the whims of the majority” will regard that obedience as the founding principle underlying all matters of political philosophy: “Only by obeying the whims of the majority will happiness be pursued”, thinks such a man, who may then see nothing wrong in demanding - with the majority of his countrymen - that all Jews be forced to wear yellow stars of David on their clothing. But the man who considers his own rationality to be the only means of obtaining knowledge will regard obedience to his own rational conclusions as the founding principle underlying all matters of political philosophy: “Only by thinking for myself will my own happiness be pursued”, thinks such a man, who will then see nothing wrong in allowing others to think for themselves too.

Rand was not first and foremost a defender of capitalism, freedom, or even egoism. She was, first and foremost, an advocate of defending man’s sole means of knowing how to survive and pursue ones own happiness: reason.

Libertarianism, however, has no particular concern for reason. A libertarian can be a person who passionately believes that “we must all have liberty, because god commanded it”. A libertarian can be a person who passionately believes that “we must all have liberty, because most of us think so” or because “liberty just feels right”. Libertarianism is no more concerned with the defence of reason than it is concerned with the defence of faith or popular consensus. It has no commitment to any particular ethical, epistemological or metaphysical philosophy at all. It is a floating political concept, willing to take all comers regardless of their ethical, epistemological or metaphysical philosophies. Libertarianism’s only care is for liberty itself. In fact, even that gives libertarianism too much credit, because – considering all advocates of liberty to be libertarians regardless of their ethical codes – libertarians’ definitions of “liberty” vary widely, from libertarian to libertarian.

Rand was concerned about people who say they are advocates of “capitalism” or “freedom” but who try to justify those things with anti-rational rationale. For the advocate of “god-given rights” to stand up and say “Capitalism is right” is for someone impliedly to say that “Capitalism is right because God said it is right”. For the advocate of pragmatism (cue Peter) to stand up and say “Capitalism is right” is for someone impliedly to say that “Capitalism is right because it works”. For the advocate of utilitarianism to say that “Capitalism is right” is for someone impliedly to say that “Capitalism is right because it provides the greatest happiness for the greatest number” or because it provides for “the greater good”. Libertarianism, by grouping under its banner those very same theists, pragmatists and utilitarians (to name just a few), praises Capitalism without providing any particular rationale for doing so. And, in the process, it completely misses the point: that, in demonstrable truth, Capitalism is the only system compatible with the living of a rational life, and it is incompatible with altruism. And, failing as everyone (conservatives, libertarians, etc.) always do to convince people that Capitalism is somehow altruistic, or “for the greater good”, or “empirically proven to be efficacious” (query, Peter: to what end?), capitalism itself comes to be seen as indefensible. In other words: capitalism is necessary for a rational life, but those who try to defend capitalism with irrational arguments defame capitalism and make it even more difficult for capitalism to prevail. Without the prevalence of capitalism, the living of a rational life becomes more difficult, if not impossible.

Objectivists are not libertarians, precisely because actual libertarians – properly defined – are people who agree with libertarianism; who agree with the strategy of defending an underdefined and ambiguous concept of “liberty” even at the cost of promoting the idea that obedience to divine revelation or to popular consensus is one’s highest virtue, and that thinking for oneself is not important. Objectivists regard liberty as a thing justified by a rational ethical system.

Objectivists regard liberty as a thing that must be defended with physical force from those who would seek to deprive one of it. But, to objectivists, one defends liberty for one reason: to ensure that one can act upon ones own rational decisions.

I close by saying that I only wish that I had more time to write this response to you. Perhaps the future will allow a more polished and complete answer.

Warm Regards,


Paul McKeever, B.Sc.(Hons), M.A., LL.B.
Leader, Freedom Party of Ontario

6:12 p.m.  
Blogger P. M. Jaworski said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Paul.

I'm still not moved, however. I agree that Objectivists believe what you say they do. Once upon a time, I considered myself one, and I've studied Objectivism extensively. That's how I became friends with, for instance, Chris Matthew Sciabarra, and why I went to visit the Objectivist Center when I was in D.C. a month ago (and hung out with David Kelley, who is awesome).

But the question is one of the purpose and definition of the word, "libertarian." Christian and libertarian are synonymous in the following sense: they both offer you the conclusion of an argument, without telling you why you believe it, or what reasons you have for it.

That many people, for many different reasons, reach libertarian conclusions does not mean that each libertarian believes in it for whatever (random) reasons. We say that someone is libertarian about politics when they think the government should do very little. This is why Objectivists *are* libertarians when it comes to politics, the occasional (and irrational) hissy fits of some Objectivists notwithstanding.

Let me quote you:

"Objectivists are not libertarians, precisely because actual libertarians – properly defined – are people who agree with libertarianism; who agree with the strategy of defending an underdefined and ambiguous concept of “liberty” even at the cost of promoting the idea that obedience to divine revelation or to popular consensus is one’s highest virtue, and that thinking for oneself is not important."

This is not true. Libertarianism does not include a belief about strategy. *All* it tells us is that government should be small. It *doesn't* tell us what strategies are appropriate. We might be libertarians *and* believe that God will tell us this or that, but the right conjunct is no part of the definition of "libertarian."

This is almost like saying that Jones is not a baseball player, but a pitcher, because a "baseball player" is a vague concept that includes left fielders, right fielders, shortstops, catchers, designated hitters, and so on, and does not particularly specify the purpose and function of a pitcher only.

Let me ask you this, though: Why do you accept calling the ethical system "egoism," when you know that that term refers to people like Friedrich Nietzsche, and a host of others? Perhaps you will say that you use "rational egoism" to further delineate your position, as compared to those others. So why not say that you are an "Objectivist libertarian," rather than denounce and decry the word "libertarian" while accepting "egoism" as an accurate label? Something's not consistent here...

9:12 p.m.  
Blogger Paul McKeever said...


I suppose the first thing is to put the term "libertarian" in its proper historical context. Until Murray Rothbard began referring to his amalgam of anarchism and capitalism as "libertarianism", the only people calling themselves "libertarian" were anarchist communitarians. The term was created by the leftists prior to 1900 because calling yourself an anarchist could get you killed or imprisoned. Rand began discussing her philosophy through books she published as far back as 1936, over a decade before Rothbard borrowed the leftist term "libertarian" for his own purposes of promoting anarcho-capitalism. The "Libertarian Party" was formed in the 70s, and included a mish mash of "liberty" lovers of various stripes: pragmatists, utilitarians, theists, etc..

The truth is there is no such thing as a "libertarian conclusion". Is "anarchism" a "libertarian conclusion"? Not to "minarchist libertarians". Are pre-emptive military strikes a "libertarian conclusion"? Not to libertarian pacifists and libertarian reactionists. There is no such thing as a "libertarian conclusion" except in the sense that biologists with directly opposing conclusions both hold "biological conclusions".

The reason is simple: "libertarianism" is not a philosophy. It is a political movement comprised of people holding DIFFERING political philosophies, perhaps with a bit of dogma thrown-in...and it HAS to be dogma, because dogma is all that is possible for a group with differing rationale. In that sense, the libertarian movement is exactly like a religion - you keep referring to it by analogy to Catholicism: it tells you WHAT you have to believe, but not WHY. It expects OBEDIENCE, but doesn't particularly care about UNDERSTANDING. It is "Freedom for Dummies", if you will. It is the exact OPPOSITE of what objectivism stands for: THINKING for yourself, and thinking RATIONALLY.

You write: "*All* [libertarianism] tells us is that government should be small." Dogma. Small how? Small why? Should government have a small police force? A small army? What is the PURPOSE of government?: libertarianism gives conflicting answers, with some libertarians concluding "TO OPPRESS"...which leads them to the conclusion that we must "SMASH THE STATE!!!". The reason: libertarianism doesn't care about the answers to these questions. Any answer will do, for the libertarian, provided that everyone just obeys the commandment: "Thou shalt not initiate coercive physical force". Why not in initiate coercive physical force? "It doesn't matter" answers the libertarian, "any reason will do. Just support the "axiom"/commandment and you're a libertarian."

What about the fact that theft involves no physical force at all? "Well, that's kind of the same as coercive physical force". What about fraud? "Ditto, it's all physical coercion by other means", answers the libertarian. Well, no, it's not. Theft and fraud are not uses of coercive physical force, period. They ARE wrong, but the libertarian doesn't know why and doesn't want to: ethics is irrelevant to libertarianism, which is a political movement lacking any given ethical philosophy. For the libertarian movement, everything must merely relate back to the "axiom" that isn't axiomatic: the non-agression "axiom". Well, that's just silly, but that's the kind of silliness that results from not founding the non-aggression principle (and it is a principle, not an axiom) on a metaphysical, epistemological and ethical base. What do theft and fraud have in common with the initiation of coercive physical force? The answer: all are simply means of avoiding the need to obtain a person's CONSENT. Why is consent important? Because a rational man can survive by acting rationally ONLY if others obtain his consent before taking any control over his life, liberty, or property. When a man's consent is subverted, the man's mind - his rational faculty - is subverted. Why defend ones life, liberty and property with physical force? To ensure that no man can take control of ones life, liberty or property without ones consent.

Consent, not "liberty" per se, is the objectivist's political requirement. As soon as we elevate liberty to an end in itself - as do libertarians - consent too becomes irrelevant. Where does that leave libertarians? It leaves them arguing that it is right to pimp-out ones 7 year old child in order to have the money to feed the child (read Walter Blocks libertarian response to objectivist Peter Schwarz). It leaves them without any moral compass, and without any way of applying the non-aggression "axiom" except in the most obvious of situations. It leaves them as pacifists, arguing that Iraq should have to have bombed the USA before it could be right for the US to dethrone Hussein.

You write: "We might be libertarians *and* believe that God will tell us this or that, but the right conjunct is no part of the definition of "libertarian."" Quite so. But you might just as appropriately have written "We might be libertarians and believe that reason is man's sole means of obtaining knowledge, but the right conjunct is no part of the definition of libertarian". And, with that, reason becomes irrelevant. Which, you see, is why objectivists are not libertarians. Libertarians will take liberty "for any reason at all". Objectivists are committed first and foremost to reason, and see liberty as merely ONE of a number of things that must be defended to ensure that man is free to live a life of REASON (which is another way of saying: to ensure that a man can live and successfully pursue his own happiness).

You write: "This is almost like saying that Jones is not a baseball player, but a pitcher, because a "baseball player" is a vague concept that includes left fielders, right fielders, shortstops, catchers, designated hitters, and so on, and does not particularly specify the purpose and function of a pitcher only." No. It is like saying that it is wrong to call Americans and Russian Stalinists "freedom fighters" simply because they both want Hitler to be defeated. Libertarian does EXACTLY THAT: it takes people who are dramatically opposed to one another on MORE fundamental levels - metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical - and treats them as the same because they share some superficial political similarities. One might just as well lump everyone together - communists, liberals, conservatives, enviro-cultists, yogic flyers and the like - and form one great big party called "The Justice Party" because, after all, they all agree that the government should have to prove its case in a court of law before imprisoning an accused person. Libertarianism is EXACTLY that arbitrary a grouping.

You ask why I accept calling Rand's ethical system "egoism," when I know that that term refers to the philosophies of people like Friedrich Nietzsche, and a host of others? I do so because Rand's ethical philosophy is (a) a philosophy, and (b) it is egoist. Objectivist ethics differs dramatically from Nihilism, but it shares with Nietzsche and others the commitment to the self as the primary beneficiary of ones actions.

You ask why I will not say that I am an "objectivist libertarian". My answer: because libertarianism is a political movement that says that rationality has nothing in particular to do with good governance. It counts among its number all number of vocal irrationalists, all of whom yell "liberty!" and who, as a result, associate liberty with all number of irrational things: pimping, NAMBLA (child sexual assault), pacifism, escapism (in various forms, including drug abuse) etc.. When the irrational defend liberty, liberty's desirability is brought into question. Moreover, for an objectivist - and advocate first and foremost of reality and reason - to band together with irrationalists who happen to share a like for liberty, is for the rational to give credibility to the irrational. None is deserved. None should be given. Libertarianism tries to cure the disease by treating one symptom. It is like a man that treats the bleeding but who refuses to acknowledge that the problem is a hemorrhagic virus. The enemy of freedom is not "a lack of liberty". The enemy is irrationality. There is no way in which libertarianism can fight irrationality if it is a movement comprised of irrationalists.

12:05 p.m.  
Blogger P. M. Jaworski said...

I will try to keep this short (although it's hard to do that).

For one, the term "libertarian" can be seen as the following conditional: *if* you believe x, y, or z, then you *are* a libertarian. There is no obligation to believe x, y, or z. It's like this: *If* you believe a, b, or c, then you are an Objectivist. There is no obligation to believe a, b, or c.

(Actually, to be precise, there may be a *normative* or *rational* obligation to believe a, b, or c, or x, y, or z, but no obligation in the imposition sense. I hope that's clear...)

The etymology of "libertarian" is interesting, but it's not a substantive reason for choosing or preferring one word over another (to think otherwise is to be guilty of the genetic fallacy). What I'm interested in is the current common understanding of the word. I want to communicate that I am favourable to liberty, hold government in disfavour, give prima facie deference to individual freedom, etc., efficiently and without being anal.

Above, I used "x, y, or z," to refer to the conclusion of an argument. There seems to be terrible confusion probably in my explanation. I think this because the second part of your criticism is unfair, uncharitable, and false.

A libertarian may or may not be dogmatic, it depends on the kind of libertarian that you are. An American may or may not wave a flag, it depends on the kind of American you are. But you *are* an American provided you meet some conditions (like born in such-and-such geographical area, someone who went through the process of getting citizenship in that geographical area, and so on).

It is only in *this* sense that I mean, "the conclusion of an argument."

Jan Narveson, for instance, is a libertarian with a coherent and complete rationale, explanation, and justification for libertarian conclusions. He is a contractarian when it comes to ethics (placing normative primacy on rational consent), which serves to explain and justify his position (he claims, rightly, I think, that the only thing rational contractors would agree to under a hypothetical original position is that we won't kill each other, and we won't take one another's things. Further, he has a story about what justifies and demarcates "mine and thine" as well. And, at least as I see it, he doesn't think much of a priori "axioms" like the "axiom of nonaggression. Just like me. Not all libertarians are Rothbardian, or agree with the axiom of nonaggression.)

What makes Jan a libertarian is this: The government should do very little (if anything at all), and if it's going to do something, then it better protect people's property and security against force and fraud, both domestic and foreign. If you agree with this, then you *are* a libertarian.

Pre-emptive strikes may or may not be justified (it depends), but the libertarian position is that, if it is justified, it has to somehow reduce to defending persons and property against threats. "Threats" here would be a complicated probabilistic story. Why? Because if you point a gun at me, say nothing, and I have reason to believe that I am being threatened, I am justified in firing first. It's a bit messy, but it doesn't hinge on a "nonaggression axiom."

Okay, we agree about this: Libertarianism is not a complete philosophy. It does *not* tell us why or what for, just *that*. The term tells us that you believe x, y, and z. You can frown on those libertarians who treat this as automatically justified, or in need of no further support. I do too. There is, of course, no reason to believe x, y or z apart from a philosophy of ethics. Political conclusions are merely floating abstractions without ethical underpinnings.

What are Objectivists? Are Objectivists moral realists (do they believe that there objective facts about ethics?): Yes. But so are certain kinds of religious types. Just because there are those who are dogmatic about their moral realism, does not make Objectivists not moral realists because, well, on paper anyways, they are not dogmatic.

Are Objectivists ethical egoists? Yes. But so are others, some of which are dogmatic, others are just selfish (in the bad sense where they don't care what they do to get ahead or get whatever their latest whim is). But because there are those who don't fall lock-step in line with the Objectivists who also call themselves ethical egoists does not make Objectivists not ethical egoists.

Are Objectivists political libertarians? Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes.

You keep referring to "libertarianism" as a political movement. I am referring to it as a political philosophy, not as the movement. And there is not one movement anyways, there are many.

If having courts of law and getting the government to present evidence before convicting people was under attack, then it would make sense to come up with a "Justice Party" or a philosophical position called, say, courtism. In that case, all those people you mentioned would be courtists. When talking in a specific context, it would make sense to use "courtist" and, say, "anti-courtist." So I accept your analogy, but think it proves my point, rather than not.

Something is a forest if it meets a set of conditions. Someone is an egoist if they believe so and so and such and such. Someone is a courtist if they hold to this or that. And someone is a libertarian if they believe that the government should be small, and think individual freedom should be given prima facie (sometimes total) deference.

As you say, libertarianism is not an argument, it is merely a catch-all term to designate that group of people who believe the above. It doesn't tell you why you should believe it, because it is not that kind of a word. It merely describes someone, it does not purport to tell you what to think, it does not command obedience, it does not say anything about reason, or ethics, or whether to put all your money into cheese-doodles. It only says one thing: Individual liberty is important and government should be small (well, I guess technically those are two things). If you believe that libertarianism, as a *word* is missing a third conjunct (*and* this all has to do with the singular importance of reason), then specify the sort or type of libertarian that you are, an Objectivist libertarian. Or continue to call yourself an "Objectivist" while understanding that, just as it includes the belief in ethical egoism, moral realism, objective reality, and so on, so, too, does it include political libertarianism.

Objectivists are political libertarians, Paul. They are. That some libertarians, and some people, confuse the word with the movement, confuse the irrelevance of the origin of words with their current meaning, confuse the political philosophy with the political party, confuse one particular theoretical underpinning for the only theoretical underpinning, and a host of other confusions, does not change the fact. Which is what it is. A fact. A is A, after all. Whim-worshipping mystics may try to persuade us otherwise, but Objectivists are political libertarians because they think the government should be small and individual freedom is important.

That's what's similar about me and Objectivists, and Objectivists and me, and Objectivists and Narveson, and Objectivists and Rothbard, and minarchists, and members of the Libertarian Party, and Bureaucrash, and John Stuart Mill, and the Founding Fathers of the U.S., and Jacques Chaoulli, and a host of others.

You know, there really is only one good way to solve this. Liberty Summer Seminar, two bottles of Liberty Ale. What say you?

3:45 p.m.  
Blogger Paul McKeever said...

I'm always up for an ale.

Cheers Peter.

9:56 p.m.  
Blogger William Joseph said...

I'm probably not smart enough to comment here, but this back and forth with Peter & Paul has to be the most interesting string of blog comments I have ever read!

Actually who cares if I'm not smart enough to comment. I think I have to agree with Peter on this. Libertarian describes the basic political philosophy that a person can have, it doesn't have to say anything about how you arrived at these positions or your preferred method of implementing these with political action.

Paul had said that libertarianism may not state exactly the size of the police force, but I don't think you need a political philosophy to define exactly what everyone thinks on every single issue. This logic would seem to imply that you cannot call conservatism a political philosophy because not all of them agree if contraceptives should be sold. I call myself a libertarian as a very basic label, which can be useful to quickly explain what I essentially want the state's role to be. It does not imply my underlying reason for wanting this, nor does it have to.

10:44 p.m.  
Blogger WE Speak said...

"I will try to keep this short (although it's hard to do that)."

BTW, having read through the post and subsequent comments, I'm glad you kept it short. :)

An interesting discussion to read nonetheless.

5:10 p.m.  
Blogger Chris Dainton said...

I feel smarter just having read this thread, Peter.

8:03 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's fun watching you and Paul go back and forth, and I'd like to chip in... but it's that time in the semester when everything is going to hell because you have 16 papers for seminars due and your eyes are bleeding for lack of sleep. So I'll just say that we'll pick this up for sure sometime in the future... of that I'm pretty much damn-near certain.

4:09 p.m.  
Blogger EUGENE PLAWIUK said...

"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."

Which is why left wing libertarians can agree with our right wing comrades. And why we object to Rand.

6:32 a.m.  

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