Why Moral Theory is Needed in the Fight for Liberty, Not Just Economics and the Non-Aggression Principle

The Statue of Liberty. Lady Liberty needs moral theory for support.Many libertarians will tell you that moral theories have relatively little to do with their advocacy of libertarianism. They think that liberty is morally neutral. Their thinking for why this is so is basically that liberty enables people to live by all sorts of different moral ideas. It doesn’t favor any morality over others, they think, so liberty itself must be morally neutral.

To the extent that some libertarians think that morality is involved, it’s usually just conventional ideas that you shouldn’t harm others, steal from others, etc. So they think that all one has to do in arguing for liberty is to talk about something like the Golden Rule or the Non-Aggression Principle, and show that liberty has good economic consequences.

Or, if they’re doctrinaire students of Austrian economics, they may think that the need of liberty can effectively be derived from praxeology–a “purely descriptive discipline” studying human action–without any need to resort to moral ideas.

But in this essay, I will argue that a controversial moral theory is deeply involved in any advocacy of freedom, and that in order to be persuasive on a cultural scale and achieve a lasting victory, advocates of liberty must make a deliberate break with today’s conventional morality. They must advocate for a full moral theory based on reasoning, not just the “conventional wisdom” that’s widely accepted without thought.

Statists are Guided by Moral Ideas, not Economic Ones

The argument from “good economics” is a very common one among libertarians: Free market policies lead to economic prosperity, and therefore we should enact those policies.

But what if the people you’re arguing with don’t really value economic prosperity? What if they value other things above prosperity? Whatever lip service the political left gives to economics and prosperity, the fact is that they don’t value it–not really. What they actually value are things like “fairness,” “equality,” and “social justice.” To see evidence of this, pay attention to what they talk about first, what they get passionate and angry about. Watch virtually any Bernie Sanders campaign speech, and you’ll find that his main focus is on wealth inequality and “social justice.” In virtually every speech, he will say that large wealth inequality is wrong, immoral, and not what America should be about. He links inequality to economic problems, but his economic arguments are shaky. They don’t really support the use of the government to “equalize” wealth, and most of them have been refuted. (See Equal is Unfair for details on how the arguments against wealth inequality fail.)

Bernie Sanders and many other leftists keep pushing for a higher minimum wage, even though it is very well known among economists that it is bad economic policy and will cause unemployment among the very people it’s supposed to help. (Paul Krugman is an economist who used to know better, yet he has flip-flopped to say that minimum wages should be raised.) Leftists keep trying to implement greater degrees of socialism, even though socialism has been tried countless different ways and has failed to produce economic prosperity again and again. There’s a clear correlation between economic freedom (with property rights protection) and economic prosperity, and the Left has been working against economic freedom and property rights for centuries.

Leftists–for the most part–are not complete idiots, and they’re not insane. So there’s one conclusion left as to why they have kept pushing for policies that destroy economic prosperity: they’re not really after economic prosperity. What are they really after? Take Bernie Sanders’ speeches as a clue: a more “moral” governmental system.

And what about social conservatives who want to legislate against “sins” and what you can do with your body in private? Well of course, this is even more obviously guided by morality.

Libertarians’ Political Ideas Depend on Controversial Moral Ideas

So deep down, statists, both left and right, are focused on morality. But should we be, as advocates of liberty? Should we try to get statists to forget about morality and focus on economics? Well, it turns out that ideas about “good economics”–as well as every other governmental policy capitalists might advocate–ultimately presuppose and depend on moral ideas, whether people are aware of it or not. So moral issues cannot be escaped in political advocacy.

Case in point: What do capitalists mean when we advocate “good economic policies?” Do we mean policies that encourage suffering and famine like in Soviet Russia? No, we mean the policies that will enable people to achieve economic prosperity. And what do we mean by “economic prosperity?” We mean the material conditions that lead to the sustenance and flourishing of human life in this world.

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Gary Johnson: Better than Clinton and Trump in 2016

Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump-Gary Johnson-2016 Election-Third Pary

The Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee, former governor Gary Johnson, is definitely not a perfect candidate from an Objectivist perspective. But he has been doing well in the polls, and I think he’s a much better alternative to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. You can take a look at his website at GaryJohnson2016.com and watch his interviews on YouTube to get a sense of his qualifications and policies.

By and large, libertarians advocate limited government and property rights in a way that approximates the founding principles of the United States, and the Objectivist political viewpoint. But they are not Objectivists and they lack a good, consistent philosophical foundation for their political ideas. Thus they don’t provide the best arguments for liberty and often advocate certain political ideas that are at odds with Objectivist politics. The lack of a consistent, reality-based philosophy also means that libertarians will not be able to sustain liberty in the US in the long term.

I don’t consider the Libertarian Party the “party of the future,” in the sense of being a political expression of a future ideal society. That would be something like the nascent American Capitalist Party. But I do think that the movement away from the corrupt, decaying, proto-fascist Democrats and Republicans, toward a libertarian third party is a step forward. It at least brings the critically important issue of personal liberty versus authoritarianism of all sorts, into the foreground of debate. Instead of just two parties bickering over whether to regulate people’s economic lives more, or personal lives more, you will have a major third party calling into question the need to heavily regulate either sphere. You will have a major party standing up for personal choice and against government coercion in all major areas of life.

I’m continually amazed at people’s capacity to hold inconsistent philosophical ideas for long periods. American conservatives have voted on a mixture of religious faith–which logically leads to authoritarianism–and a semblance of economic freedom for over a hundred years. American leftists have voted on a mixture of Marxist economic totalitarianism and personal freedom of lifestyle for just as long. Libertarians too are a mixture: political liberty in general (mostly) and a moral outlook largely composed of altruism and subjectivist emotionalism. This mixture is at least closer to what the US had culturally in the early 1800s. So from an Objectivist perspective, the Libertarian Party is not a long-term fix to US politics and culture. But what it represents–in its better forms–is a partial turning back of the cultural clock.

Ayn Rand was born too late to stop the American slide into the present collectivist-altruist-statist cultural milieu.  But she influenced the libertarians politically, and libertarianism has been growing. If libertarianism becomes dominant, Objectivism gets a second chance to transform the culture to one of reason, individualism and egoism. I would much rather be arguing with a culture of libertarians that their political ideas require Ayn Rand’s philosophy to be properly grounded, than desperately fighting for my right to speak against Marxists or religious zealots.

Even if libertarianism doesn’t become dominant, but only more culturally significant, that should have a positive impact on how many people read Ayn Rand’s works and how seriously they take them. And it is Ayn Rand’s works that truly point the way forward, to a future of lasting freedom and prosperity.

Let’s get Gary Johnson seriously noticed this election! Feel free to share the image above.

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Related Posts:

Introduction to Objectivism

Other People as Egoistic Values Versus Other People as Objects of Self-Sacrifice in Ayn Rand’s Philosophy

Why “Selfishness” Doesn’t Properly Mean Being Shortsighted and Harmful to Others

Why a Proper Ethics is Not a Set of Social Rules, But a Complete Way of Life

The Wages of Altruism: Domestic Abuse

“Bill Nye: The Tyrant Guy,” by Michael J. Hurd, Ph.D.

American leftism/progressivism is the established way of thinking. It did not win by reason or persuasion; merely by default, or in the absence of any principled, rational alternative. The leftist agenda of a weak defense; unsustainable national debt; fostering dependence …

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Source: Bill Nye: The Tyrant Guy | Michael J. Hurd, Ph.D. | Living Resources Center

What is Individualism? What is Collectivism?

German man refusing Nazi saluteModern political debates, from the 18th Century up until today, are full of appeals to the ideas of individualism and collectivism, whether open or merely implied. People speak of “the common good” or “public goods” or “obligations to society” on one hand, and of “individual rights” or “individual freedom” on the other.

The late novelist and philosopher, Ayn Rand, is well known today for being an arch individualist who was very opposed to any form of collectivism. But what does it really mean to be an individualist or collectivist? Are the two views mutually exclusive? Is one or the other right, or is the reality a mixture of both? Here I will discuss what individualism and collectivism mean, which one or mixture represents the truth, and what the major implications of each of the views are for today’s moral and political debates.

Life is the Active Pursuit of Self-Sustaining Goals

The issue of individualism versus collectivism does not arise out of thin air. It arises out of the observation–whether explicitly stated or implicitly understood–that life consists of organisms that pursue goals that keep them alive. Lions find watering holes and hunt gazelles, eagles catch rabbits or fish, termites dig and build mounds for shelter, etc. The ultimate goal of this activity for any given organism is its continued life as the type of organism it is. (The origin of organisms in evolution has ensured that reproduction is a natural part of the life-pattern of each nonhuman species–i.e. reproductive behavior is part of an individual organism being the type of organism it is.)

The question of individualism versus collectivism is the question of what the living unit is for human beings–that is, what is the human organism that acts toward self-sustaining goals: is it the individual, or some group?

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Ayn Rand on Christmas

Ayn Rand, novelist and philosopher of Objectivism, a philosophy for living on Earth.

Ayn Rand – novelist and philosopher

Ayn Rand, the novelist and philosopher, really enjoyed Christmas.

She was not a materialist; nor was she a mystical spiritualist. She held that there is no conflict between genuine spirituality and the enjoyment of material things. Human beings need material products to survive, and an abundance of material wealth–used under the guidance of proper moral principles–enhances human life and happiness dramatically. Wealth allows people leisure time: Instead of working about 12 hours a day from sunrise to sunset, 6 days a week, having a short supper and going to bed as most people did before capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, most Westerners can now afford to work 8 hours a day, while pursuing hobbies, recreation and friendships after work and on the weekends. People have a greater ability to balance vocational productive work with other pursuits that also contribute to happiness and spiritual contentment.

Rand also held that voluntary trade in a free market is a good, benevolent, win-win interaction: Both parties benefit from the trade, by their own judgment (or they wouldn’t pursue it, assuming they’re not acting self-destructively.) There is no need for anyone to sacrifice the interests of others for his own supposed benefit in free-market trades. (And in fact, sacrificing others cannot bring real benefits, but is self-destructive, all things considered.)

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Why the Philosophy of Objectivism is Still Relevant and Needed in the Age of Modern Science

Barred spiral galaxy in space. Represents science and philosophy.Many people distrust abstract philosophical ideas and ideals. There are a couple of related reasons for this: 1) They hold that abstract ideas “oversimplify” reality, ensuring that they always fail to properly capture it, and 2) They think that abstract ideas outside of the natural sciences are generally faith-based dogma, or “armchair” speculation. (In either case, this means they think the ideas are put forward without sufficient supporting evidence.)

In regard to Number 1, I’d like to point out that all human concepts “simplify reality” in a sense: they all ignore differences between particular objects to focus on features common to a class of objects. For example, the concept “chair” refers to every particular chair you have ever encountered or will encounter. This means that it omits the countless differences between any two particular chairs. (Even if two chairs look identical at a macroscopic level, they almost certainly have countless differences at a microscopic level.) All other concepts function in a similar way: they ignore certain differences between things, for the sake of classifying them and integrating them into a single mental unit, represented by one word (“chair,” “dog,” etc.)

Yet the similarities that proper concepts such as “chair” capture are real and important, and it is not an oversimplification to say that all things called “chairs” (without qualification or modification) are made to allow someone to sit on them. Virtually no one accuses ideas about chairs of “oversimplifying reality”: Someone who speaks of chairs typically understands that he can always give more information about a particular chair by providing a description.

Classifying and simplifying reality by means of concepts is the human way of dealing with reality in thought, and it is very powerful, when done properly. Human beings have used the simplifying concepts of the natural sciences to cure diseases, increase food production per farmhand manyfold, extend the average human lifespan by over thirty years, build skyscrapers, and land on the moon. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that simplifying concepts stop working at any level of abstraction (breadth of generalization) or at any level of complexity. The simple principles of Einstein’s relativity are highly abstract: they apply to all physical phenomena in the known universe, (when the scale under consideration is not too small) and to all the immense complexity of gravitational interactions between visible objects and light rays in galaxies. Continue reading

Why “Selfishness” Doesn’t Properly Mean Being Shortsighted and Harmful to Others

Carpenter Working with Pencil and HammerThe definitions of the terms we use have consequences for our ability to think and communicate clearly.

Imagine for a moment that your friend told you that he defines “carpenter” as “one who shapes wood by shooting it with a gun.” You’re baffled and you ask him what word he uses for someone who shapes wood by other means, such as a saw, lathe and sander. He says that he really has no word for this. He has a couple of synonyms for “carpenter,” but they also carry the implication that the person shaping the wood used a gun.

Hopefully, you can see that the problem with this hypothetical situation is not merely that you and your friend are using terms differently: shooting wood with a gun is a terribly impractical way of shaping it into useful forms. If the only concepts you have of wood shaping mean using a gun to do it, then you can’t really talk about those who shape wood using the practical methods in their profession.

Ayn Rand held that the common concept of “selfishness” is in an exactly analogous position to your hypothetical friend’s use of “carpenter.” At root, “selfishness” means pursuing one’s own interests and well-being. But the common use today adds in a second element: “pursuing your interests/well-being by means that are shortsighted and hurtful to others.” In today’s culture, the approximate synonyms of “selfishness,” such as “egoism” and “self-interest,” tend to be regarded with the same connotations of shortsightedness and harmfulness, so they are not much different.

Yet Ayn Rand rejected the idea that being shortsighted and hurtful to others is inherent in pursuing one’s interests and well-being. In fact, she recognized that the pursuit of one’s genuine interests in everyday life is specifically the opposite of “shortsighted and hurtful to others.” An individual’s genuine interests require long-term planning to fulfill, and his well-being is not served by doing harm to others. Attempting to pursue one’s self-interest by shortsighted and hurtful means is like trying to shape wood into a beautiful chair by shooting it with a pistol: utterly doomed to failure.

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