This post from Adventures in Bowling Green raises one of those questions that comes up over and over again — are Objectivists libertarians? (Or, putting the point slightly different, is the Objectivist politics libertarian?) Given Objectivism’s advocacy of strictly limited government, free markets and individual rights, this seems like a well-duh question. Yet Objectivists, as in the letter from Paul McKeever cited in the above-linked post, argue vehemently that we are not libertarians.

I think one of the reasons that neither side is ever convinced by the other on this issue is that, in a way, both sides are right. (In a deeper way, I think the Objectivist side is right, but hear me out.) The problem is that the term “libertarian” is being used in a different sense by the two sides.

Back in the 1990’s, Leonard Peikoff gave a lecture arguing that a certain class of terms was legitimately possessed of two different types of definition, one general and the other more restrictive. The terms he had in mind were, essentially, ones connected to human choice. One sense of the term would be broad and would refer to a whole range of possibilities, the other would be narrower and would refer to the part of the range that was fully consistent with reality. Here are some examples.

Ayn Rand famously defined a value as “that which one acts to gain and/or keep.” In other contexts, however, she speaks of some things that people act to gain and/or keep as disvalues, when those things are harmful to long-term survival and flourishing. Many people act to gain and/or keep drugs such as cocaine and heroin. In the general sense, these are values — they are ends chosen volitionally as the goal of actions. But because drug addiction is harmful, treating cocaine as a value winds up being inconsistent. Pursuing it undercuts your life, and thus undermines the necessary conditions for acting to gain and/or keep anything. So in the more restrictive sense, cocaine is not a value.

Or consider the concept “virtue”. Broadly, a virtue is a character trait or principle of action that a system of morality upholds as desirable or morally good. So is humility, for example, a virtue? In a sense, yes — Christianity upholds humility as a principle of action required for living a morally good life. But again, taken in full context, humility accepted and practiced consistently undercuts the necessary conditions for moral goodness. It fails to achieve its stated ends, and so in the more restrictive sense it is properly identified as a vice, not a virtue.

Or consider “egoism”. There is a sense in which the Objectivist ethics is one of a number of egoistic ethical systems, along with the egoisms of Aristotle, Nietzsche, Stirner, etc. All of these systems advocate that individuals act so as to maximize their own self-interest. But since the broad definition leaves open the questions of what exactly a person’s self-interest consists of, and what actions will maximize it, you can have an ethical system that advocates pursuing self-interest while simultaneously advocating specific means and ends that undercut what your interests actually are. The actual effects of following such a system, even though it may have been developed with a genuine desire to achieve the pursuit of self-interest, will be counter to that goal. The system is inconsistent and, in its actual effects, not egoistic. From this perspective, the Objectivist ethics is not an egoistic ethics; it is the only egoistic ethics — the only one which, if practiced consistently, will actually lead to maximizing your self-interest.

The application of this analysis to the question of the ‘libertarian-ness’ of the Objectivist politics should be obvious. Just as in the egoism case, there is a sense in which any political system which advocates liberty can be described as libertarian. In this broad sense, the Objectivist politics clearly qualifies. But in the full, consistent sense of the term, for a system of thought to be described as libertarian, it would have to lead to freedom if implemented consistently in practice. By that standard, libertarianism as understood by libertarians fails because of its lack of foundation. No politics can stand apart from a foundation, as McKeever discusses, and libertarianism explicitly eschews the need for such a foundation by treating the NIOF principle as axiomatic. So in the restrictive sense of the term, the Objectivist politics is actually the only libertarian politics, because only Objectivism provides the necessary foundations in ethics, epistemology and metaphysics for the successful defense of the value of liberty. Ironically, the problem with libertarianism is that it isn’t libertarian.

As is often the case with perennial questions, what we have here are two sides talking past each other. Libertarians classify Objectivist as libertarian in the broad, neutral sense of the term, and they are right to do so. But the broad, neutral sense of the term isn’t the relevant one. What we are interested in is the actual effects of ideas and actions when practiced with full consistency in reality. And from that point of view, cocaine is not a value — humility is not a virtue — Stirner’s The Ego And Its Own is not a good guide to successful living — and trying to defend freedom on a non-Objectivist basis will not work.

2 Responses to “Libertarians and Objectivists”
  1. Noumenalself says:

    This is an interesting take on the libertarianism question, but I don’t think it works. Let’s compare the examples of “value” and “liberty.” (I don’t remember that Peikoff says the same thing about “egoism,” and there’s probably a reason for this.)

    You’ve explained well how “value” can have both a generic and specific definition. Something can be a “value” in the generic sense of simply being an object of pursuit, or in the specific sense of being an object of pursuit that actually furthers your life.

    We use the generic sense to designate facts about other people (and their philosophies). Important things follow from the fact that people have objects of pursuit. If we identify their values, we can predict, within a certain range, their thoughts and action. So it is cognitively useful to form a generic concept of “value.”

    Does the same apply to “liberty”? Well there’s an important difference between “value” and “liberty.” The first describes dispositional/relational states of other people wihch are useful for predicting their behavior. But the second is a concept that primarily describes a feature of political systems, not someone’s beliefs about political systems.

    Now “libertarian” is a little different, still. It putatively refers to “anyone who advocates liberty.” That’s more like “value.” But it’s parasitical upon an understanding of “liberty.” I think we can talk about a generic concept of “libertarian” only if there is an equally generic concept of “liberty.” I’m not sure that there is one in the relevant sense.

    If there a generic concept of “liberty,” it’s extremely generic and of no relevance to politics. I’m talking about the sense in which “liberty” refers to the absence of any factor of interest. Actually “freedom” is the better term here. We can say that some food is “free” of preservatives, or that a building is “free” of termites, or that a political system is “free” of coercion. “Liberty” doesn’t work quite the same way, it means specifically a kind of political freedom.

    So then the question is, does the political specificty of “liberty” allow any degrees of generality? Can we say that Marxists believe in liberty in one sense, liberty of the proletariat from the capitalists, whereas Lockeans believe in liberty in another sense, liberty of the capitalists from the Marxists? Perhaps we can say that, but then that generic sense of “liberty” does not map onto a generic sense of “libertarian,” because everybody would a libertarian in that sense and the term wouldn’t pick out anything interesting.

    That leaves the question, is “libertarian” perhaps a legitimate concept when taken only in the specific sense? In other words, could we say that only Objectivists are the real libertarians, because they advocate the full philosophic system that is necessary for defending real liberty? That would at least be a more meaningful use of “libertarian” in that it would actually contrast one political position from another.

    But I don’t think that even that is justifiable, for several reasons. First of all, it’s an overly negative way to classify a political theory. It says that a political theory does not believe in coercion. OK, but what does it believe in? Objectivism doesn’t just reject coercion, it also upholds government and its protection of rights, and all of the systems of laws that are required for this purpose. “Capitalism” is a better concept here, because it denotes more of these positives.

    Second of all, and most importantly, even if it were acceptable to designate a political philosophy by a negative concept like “liberty,” “libertarian” would be the wrong word for this concept. It’s wrong because a) it’s less elegant than “liberal” and b) it’s already been coopted by a philosophy that doesn’t believe in liberty, and we don’t want to associate ourselves with it.

    So I don’t think there’s any sense in which we should say Objectivism is libertarian.

  2. Burgess Laughlin says:

    Taking value as an example, is the essential issue here generic vs. specific?

    For Objectivists, “value” has a particular meaning within a particular philosophy, an objective philosophy which includes life as a standard of value, a philosophy which sets the context for everything thought and said. That meaning of value is indeed specific to Objectivism. Outside that context there can be many types of values because there can be many types of standards. False (nonobjective) alternatives outnumber uniquely objective solutions.

    So, yes, value for heroin users is more general, and value for Objectivists is more specific, but the generality and specificity are nonessentials not essentials. That is, generality and specificity are consequences not causes.

    I would suggest the essential issue is objective vs. non-objective. “Libertarianism” as I usually hear it used is not objective; its adherents boastfully disconnect it from a philosophical base. Libertarians are not Objectivists. Objectivists are not libertarians.

    Of course, in any conversation, one needs to find out exactly what other speakers mean by the terms/ideas they use. Surprises usually follow.

    Burgess Laughlin

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