The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Playboy, Pyramids and Ayn Rand

Hugh Hefner has been dead for two years and to this day many libertarians don’t understand what made him significant. But, not just Hefner, for the same reasons Hefner was important so were Betty Friedan, Ayn Rand, and others.

In 1943, Abraham Maslow wrote a paper called A Theory of Human Motivation, in which he posited a pyramid of needs. These needs were hierarchical in nature, with lower order needs being fulfilled first, and higher-order needs coming afterwards.

At the lowest level were basic needs such as hunger, thirst, sleep, and sex followed by safety needs, protection from harm and danger. In the center are social needs such as family, friends, affections, relationships, etc.

The two highest levels cover issues of esteem, self-respect and recognition and at the top are needs tied to self-actualization. Maslow described it this way: “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization.”

Libertarians can look at this pyramid and see something more than of what Maslow spoke. Lower order needs are solved most directly by economic freedom. Humans need to produce and keep the product of their labor in order to survive. This means protection of property rights, contracts, etc.

Higher-order needs are meet most directly by social freedom, or civil liberties — that would include equality of rights so individuals can achieve their highest potentials, equal rights to form families, and have children, it would include expression of ideas or thoughts. It is the plethora of issues surrounding what is often called “social liberalism.”

Now, in a concise sense, it’s all about liberalism in the classical tradition. It is economic liberalism when property rights are respected and individuals are allowed to profit by their productive efforts. It is social liberalism when people can marry whom they want, read whatever books strike their fancy, or hold whatever weird or esoteric beliefs they wish to hold. It is individuals becoming individuals by becoming themselves, without the need to obtain the sanction of others.

These lower order needs are common to everyone. In a sense they are needs of the tribe, or the herd. All individuals in the tribe have these same basic needs. Certainly, in tribal society every other tribe, in a world of particularly scarce resources, is a threat to every other tribe. It took the evolution of market economies for tribes to learn the benefit of economic cooperation and free exchange.

But, during the beastly years of each tribe against all, conformity was required. It was how tribes recognized friends and delineated potential foes.

But, as economic needs were filled by markets two things started happening. One is lower orders were being filled causing individuals to seek higher-order needs. The second is economic trade made human differences beneficial and not a threat—a basic point that no one in today’s White House seems to grasp.

To an important degree the three levels of human needs at the bottom of the pyramid were filled by the rise of technology married to a capitalist system of production. Then something changed — people found needs less important because they were filled and filled with lots of spare capacity. They started concentrating on higher-order needs, or social freedom.

That is the stage when the world started moving away from conformity and tribalism toward individualism — celebrating human differences and seeking happiness in very individualistic ways. There was no one path to happiness anymore. This was unnerving to conservatives wedded as they were to tribal thinking and concerned for lower order needs alone. It was okay to be different — within limits. You could like bowling instead of baseball but god forbid your difference (literally) if you were gay, or marrying another race. You were free to embrace the religion of your choice provided it was Christian, frowned upon if it was Judaism, and shunned over anything else, once they stopped arresting and executing you for such heresies, that is. As culture shifted toward higher-order needs we saw the rise of individualism and movements toward equality of rights for women, African-Americans, gays, etc.

The 1950s, which exemplified an age of productivity and prosperity, gave way to the 60s and to the rise of radical individualism.

Hugh Hefner exemplified that, along with Playboy in 1953. But, so did Ayn Rand who defended individualism in The Fountainhead in 1943 and in Anthem in 1938. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1957 was another example. It’s no coincidence Rand’s individualism was explained in her famous Playboy interview in 1964 or that she enthusiastically endorsed Friedan’s book. At the same time, the rise of the self-esteem movement was directly linked to the pioneering work of Rand’s acolyte, Nathaniel Branden and directly linked to Rand’s ideas.

Under the surface millions of Americans, satisfied with their economic conditions wanted something more. They wanted “the right to be me.” They wanted to break the chains of social convention and conformity and become individuals.

Conservatives still wedded to conformity called this rise of individualism a “culture war” and fled to revival tents for refuge. But individualism took hold anyway and, at most, conservatives can only slow down the changes, they can’t stop them. With the rise of individualism came the rise of social tolerance, another direct threat to the lower order herd mentality of conservatism.

Capitalism is still necessary, but what conservatives and libertarians often miss is levels of productivity are so high capitalism can endure a lot of abuse before anyone notices a decline. When economic surpluses in individual household are high, tax increases or the costs of economic regulations become less frightening to people and less of a concern. What they are concerned about is being happy, not starving.

This means that politically people begin to ignore economic freedoms and concentrate on social freedom. When it comes to their place at the political table libertarians have a dilemma. Conservatives are dead set against social freedoms, and still worried about conformity and economic production, but conservatives are a shrinking demographic.

In the United States classical liberals and conservatives had some agreement on economic freedom, though far less agreement since the dirigist Trump took power, and when creating surpluses were important libertarians had some influence with the Right. But now, with higher levels of living for most Americans, politics shifted to the top of Maslow’s pyramid — to the realm of social freedom. Because libertarians allied themselves to conservatives far too long they lost any influence with the Left.

So, the Right abandons the one area of agreement with classical liberalism and thus libertarians flounder while, at the same time, they burned their bridges with the Left thus losing any influence there. Libertarians, who strategically ought to control the middle of American politics, strategically blundered along until they now have influence with no one—though they should.

Libertarians need to shift their focus if they wish to influence modern politics. By embracing social freedom more explicitly they will give themselves political capital when it comes to making the case for increased economic freedom. This is especially true when we can show how tolerance, diversity and social freedom are directly linked to economic prosperity.

However, too many libertarians allied themselves with conservatives and as conservatism slowly dies out it could take libertarianism down as well. Economic freedom has a better chance of surviving if libertarianism embraces higher-order freedoms now. Social liberalism has to be a major focus of libertarians if they wish to influence political debates.

We have libertarian think tanks that emphasize economic freedom but we don’t really have any that fully embrace social freedom and make that their priority. Most are still playing kissy-face with the Right and pandering to social conservatives for donations.

Sadly, many libertarian organizations built an alliance with conservatives. So, social freedoms have a much lower priority. By emphasizing economic freedom they were able to collect donations from both libertarians and terrified conservatives — provided they didn’t talk about social freedom too much or too often. In reality that translates to not talking about it at all for many.

They don’t want to scare away conservative money so for a few shekels they sell social freedom down the river and find their influence diminishing year after year.

Here is the reality. When it comes to party demographics independents are growing and Republicans are not. Independent voters, along with most Democrats tend to support social freedom. In that realm Independents are more like Democrats than Republicans.

The Republican social conservative agenda depends on two groups, evangelical Christians and the elderly. Both those groups, which largely overlap, have demographics against them. Conservatism is literally dying out.

Younger voters, who are the future of American politics, tend to be rather rampant social individualists, advocates of tolerance and excited about human diversity. The other group that is growing is the religiously unaffiliated, who are also advocates of social liberalism. That is the future of American politics. Pandering to conservatives simply means libertarians are trading future influence for a few extra dollars today.

In many ways the modern social revolution, the rise of individualism in the social sphere, is a Playboy revolution. But it’s also Betty Friedan’s revolution and Ayn Rand’s. It is the result of lower-order economic needs being met with surpluses and individualism set free. Libertarians need to learn to work with that.

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James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.