The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

The Wider World of Libertarianism

One of the differences, I think, between the old classical liberals and modern libertarians is many of today’s libertarians have tried to divorce the case for liberty from the larger framework in which old liberals saw the world. The classical liberal case for liberty wasn’t value-free. It was based on the assumption that human flourishing is good and certain basic principles about life were important.

Liberalism was one aspect of the Enlightenment. Reason was another. The liberal revolution was one that fought to give reason supremacy over all aspects of human life, as opposed to revelation or faith-claims. They fought for human freedom because it resulted in human flourishing, not because it simply was more profitable. Yes, it was more profitable, but in every way possible.

In 1990 I had Milton Friedman at a banquet I gave as a speaker. We announced that parking vouchers were available and he leaned over to me and said: “Make sure I get one of those.” I said, “Dr. Friedman, really, you don’t have to worry about it. We will be happy to pay your parking.” (Given that he did the talk as a favor, free of his usual significant honorarium, this was NO issue for me.) He responded: “Oh, I don’t mind paying. I just don’t want to pay full price.”

I joked as I handed him the voucher: “Well, this has to be the cheapest honorarium you have received.” He responded, “A good economist will tell you that there is more to profit than just monetary gain.”

That really is it. There is more to profit than just monetary gain. The case for freedom does not rest on the economic benefits of depoliticized markets alone. It rests on the ultimate goal — the right of each individual to flourish as best they can, seeking their own happiness, in their own way. Freedom allows that.

There is a scene in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead which exemplifies this. Peter Keating has come to Howard Roark to beg him to design the Cortlandt housing project and allow Keating to take the credit. Keating immeadiately offers Roark cash for his cooperation, “You can have all the money they pay me. I don’t need it. You can have twice the money. I’ll double their fee.”

Roark tells him, “You know better than that, Peter. Is that what you wish to tempt me with?” After a couple other arguments Keating finally says to Roark, “You will love designing it.” The response, “Yes, Peter. Now you’re speaking my language.” Elsewhere Roark turns down a major project telling them, “I don’t build in order to have clients, I have clients in order to build.” Clients, are the source of profit, so in essence Roark is saying, “I don’t build in order to have profits, I have profits in order to build.” His goal is his joy in building, profits are the means necessary to achieve his wider goal.

Liberals were first concerned about human good and saw markets as a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

Thus liberals were interested in such things as freedom of thought before they were fighting for freedom of trade. The classical liberals argued for human well-being when they demanded the end of slavery, not a more favorable spreadsheet.

This is why I think Rand had more in common with the classical liberals than many people think she did. She argued for a wider view of what it means to be human. She talked about the essential nature of man; the role his mind plays in his life. She talked about reason and the pursuit of rational self-interest and values. A lot of libertarians today want to cut out all the liberal values on which liberty is based. They want to argue that all values are consistent with liberty — but all values are NOT consistent with liberty. Some values are very illiberal and lead to significant illiberal results. This is not to say force can or should be used to stamp out those ideas. But, libertarians lose their way when they forget how some important, fundamental values underpin liberty.

In this sense an old classical liberal has something in common with conservatives. But, this is also why they so fundamentally differ with conservatives. The values conservatives extol are not the same values to which classical liberals adhered. The liberal said reason was the prime method of knowledge, not faith. The liberal said human emancipation was the goal, not conformity. The liberal trusted individuals to find their own way, the conservative believed people needed superiors to guide them. Liberals encouraged rebellion against the norm — the creative destruction liberty allows. Conservatives promoted obedience to authority. Liberals talked about the well-being of the individual while conservatives promoted the state, the church, the volk, the race, etc.

Worse than the libertarian who has no larger moral vision is the “libertarian” who embraces the conservative vision. And, there are such people. The moral values they promote lead away from liberty, not toward it. No matter how strongly they try to justify these values, reality doesn’t support them.

Consider the racist view of life. It is inherently collectivistic. It is against individual uniqueness. As Rand warned: “If you preach that it is evil to be different — you teach every particular group of men to hate every other group, every minority, every person, for being different from them; thus you lay the foundation of race hatred.” She said: “Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. it is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage…”

Now, there are libertarians who think being racist is consistent with liberty. While you might find a racist who doesn’t want to infringe the rights of people he hates, the nature of racism itself is not so tolerant. Racism is imperialistic; it seeks new territory to conquer. Racists who are satisfied with mumbling their hatred in their living room get much braver, and less tolerant, when in a mob with similar values. The man who would be horrified at the thought of hanging another man, may lose his sense of morality when a lynch mob is surrounding him braying for blood.

As racist ideas spread they create a “social sanction” for even more extreme views, and even actions. When intolerance receives sanction from the wider society it does not stop at thought, it springs into action. We see this in many Islamic nations where the wider society sanctions extreme intolerance. We saw this same thing in Christian history as well. And, I might add, if the Old Testament is even partially correct, the same sort of extreme intolerance was practiced by Judaism.

Once a social sanction is given, ideas become actions. The anti-Semite is no longer happy spewing hatred, he wants to smash shop windows. The racist just doesn’t spew his theories about why he is superior to another man because of the color of his skin, he wants the law to force the “inferior” man to sit at the back of the bus. The anti-gay bigot doesn’t just want to denounce LGBT people as sinners, he wants to limit their rights, if not make their very existence a criminal offense. And the remaining liberals often find themselves unable to stop it. Once a hatred reaches this level of social sanction libertarian platitudes will not stop the culture from violating the rights of others.

That is why I think libertarians need to embrace the wider Enlightenment values of liberalism, and cease pretnending that liberty alone is sufficient for our species.

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A blog for the Moorfield Storey Institute: a liberaltarian think tank.

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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.