Commentary

Objectivists and Libertarians

This article appeared in IOSJournal, August 1997.
I thank Bob Bidinotto for his many generous remarks about Libertarianism: A Primer, and I congratulate Bidinotto and the Institute for Objectivist Studies for their continuing commitment to a constructive dialogue between Objectivists and those libertarians who are not Objectivists.

I might begin by noting that the very notion of a conflict “between libertarians and Objectivists” is flawed, as it seems to me that all Objectivists are necessarily libertarians, though not all libertarians are Objectivists. That is, anyone who believes in individual rights, free enterprise, and strictly limited government—and I assume that includes all Objectivists—is a libertarian. An Objectivist libertarian might well not belong to any particular party and might part company with some other libertarians on a wide range of philosophical and other issues, but at the level of political philosophy Objectivists are libertarians.

And that gets us the crux of our disagreement. Should all libertarians be Objectivists? Or, put another way, must libertarianism rest on the Objectivist philosophical system? I believe that libertarianism, as a political movement and a political philosophy, is a sort of coalition. Libertarianism is compatible with a wide variety of philosophical, ethical, and religious beliefs. It is clearly compatible with Objectivism. It is also compatible with most religious faiths, as many libertarian Jews, Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and Muslims can attest. And certainly there are libertarians who feel a primary moral commitment to the value of individual freedom itself.

None of this is to argue that there isn’t a best defense of capitalism and individual rights, or that one philosophical defense of individual rights isn’t ultimately true, or that Objectivism is not that truth. The argument here is simply that people of different moral values can agree on libertarianism as a political philosophy so long as they don’t want to impose their religious or moral values on others by force. I have argued that libertarianism should be a “second-best” political philosophy even for people who would like to impose their own moral philosophy on others. One could very well reason, “I would like to make religious fundamentalism [or secular humanism, or worker solidarity, or anti-clericalism] the law of the land, but I may not have the political power to do that. If so, I would rather live in a libertarian society than in a world where my cultural or moral adversaries can impose their values on me.”

In Libertarianism: A Primer, I wrote, “Libertarianism is a political philosophy, not a complete moral code. It prescribes certain minimal rules for living together in a peaceful, productive society—property, contract, and freedom—and leaves further moral teaching to civil society.” I think that’s the proper defense of a political philosophy of liberty, and I think it’s one that Objectivists should feel comfortable embracing, even as they believe firmly in the importance of the correct derivation of libertarianism.

I agree with many of Bidinotto’s points, and sometimes I’m not sure I see the disagreement that he perceives. For instance, Bidinotto writes, “By insisting that liberty requires a proper base rooted in morality, … Boaz concedes the fundamental point that Rand and other Objectivists have been making all along.” But where is the concession? As Bidinotto writes in the next sentence, “This view is widely shared by other leading libertarian thinkers and writers.”

Bidinotto complains that my “key concepts of libertarianism”—individualism, individual rights, spontaneous order, the rule of law, limited governments, free markets, the virtue of production, natural harmony of interests, and peace—are not presented as “building blocks in a structured argument.” Well, I do see a degree of progression here: from individualism to individual rights to the rule of law to limited government. A second line of argumentation, positive rather than normative, flows from spontaneous order to free markets.

But the key concepts do contribute to libertarianism in complementary ways, and I think that’s a strength. Objectivists have tended to put too much emphasis on conceptual analysis and logical deduction and too little on experience, history, and social science. I agree with Objectivists that we can outline a proper rights theory from basic principles. But many of the elements of a free society cannot be deduced; they have developed through experience. Federalism and the separation of powers, for instance, are important aspects of a free society that were not the products of logical deduction; they are a product of history, of trial and error, of learning, and of reflection on that experience. The importance of the rule of law rather than reliance on the benevolence of properly educated rulers is something we have learned through hard experience. The American Founders derived much of their political philosophy from their reading of history. We have more historical experience to examine now, and we can refine their concepts of freedom and limited government. Of course, philosophy gives us a conceptual framework within which to analyze history.

The different arguments for liberty reflected in that list of key concepts should be seen as a strength of the case for liberty, not as a failure to put everything into a hierarchy. As my colleague Tom Palmer wrote in his bibliographical essay in the companion volume, The Libertarian Reader,

The source or justification of rights has always been a contentious issue among libertarian thinkers. Whether individuals have rights in virtue of their utility, their correspondence to the demands of pure reason, divine revelation, or for some other reason may indeed matter in debates over particular policy issues, but rather than seeing different kinds of justifications arriving at the same general conclusion as a problem, I prefer to see it as a kind of “fail-safe” mechanism: If many different non-exclusive arguments all converge on the same conclusion, we can be more sure of its truth than if only one of those arguments led us there, and the others led to other conclusions.

In any case, in the history of political thought, “natural law” arguments and arguments from “utility,” for example, were not generally seen as in opposition, for one comes to understand nature only indirectly, through experience, whether in the physical sciences or the moral sciences, and the sign of a good institution is its good consequences, or utility.

On the issue of rights, I agree with Bidinotto—and, I might add, Immanuel Kant—that “the moral principle of rights is the conceptual bridge between individual and social ethics, between personal and public morality.” I’m not sure what his distinction between “objective” and “inherent” rights is. Rights are not metaphysical essences, they are moral principles. They define our relationships with one another, and in the libertarian conception they are necessary to make peaceful human interaction possible. I am frustrated by the inability to persuade most people to believe in rights as I understand them; and much as I admire Ayn Rand’s essay “Man’s Rights,” I find that it rarely persuades people who do not already “intuitively” grasp the case for individual rights. (But I am very sorry that the Estate of Ayn Rand would not allow me to include “Man’s Rights” in The Libertarian Reader; it’s a very unfortunate absence.)

As for Bidinotto’s complaint about the word “other” in my sentence, “The ethical or normative basis of libertarianism is respect for the dignity and worth of every (other) individual,” I concede that that formulation fails to achieve what I had intended, and I am grateful to Bidinotto for bringing its inadequacy to my attention. Certainly I believe that each person should believe in his own worth. My intent there was to point out that a free society requires us to respect not only our own dignity but also that of every other individual. A purely egoistic theory has to answer the challenge, Why is it good for me to respect your rights? Why shouldn’t I achieve my values by aggression if I can get away with it? Bidinotto legitimately challenges me to offer a better defense of some of my arguments; I wonder whether Bidinotto has a compelling answer to this challenge to egoism.

Finally, I agree with Bidinotto that non-Objectivist libertarians and Objectivist libertarians can work together, with both contributing their particular strengths to the struggle. I hope many Objectivists will become professors of philosophy, promoting and further developing Rand’s philosophy in the academy. I hope they will also draw on history and economics, on Smith and Hayek and Friedman and Jefferson and Madison and, yes, even Hume, in making the argument for a free society. And I hope they will join non-Objectivist libertarians in the political movement for a free society known in our time as libertarianism.

Meanwhile, non-Objectivist libertarians should remember the importance of a moral defense of liberty, and we should draw wisdom and inspiration from Ayn Rand’s powerful and passionate presentation of the morality of freedom.