Or, If Libertarians are Adolescent, then Non-libertarians are Downright Childish

by Don Boudreaux on April 22, 2011

in Civil Society, Hubris and humility, Myths and Fallacies

Here’s a letter to the Washington Post:

Michael Gerson writes that “But both libertarians and Objectivists are moved by the mania of a single idea – a freedom indistinguishable from selfishness” (“Ayn Rand’s adult-onset adolescence,” April 22).  I can’t speak for Objectivists (save to say that Mr. Gerson’s portrait of them is a caricature).  But I can say that Mr. Gerson’s understanding of libertarianism is comically erroneous; he has clearly not read the best libertarian scholars, such as F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, David Boaz, Sheldon Richman, or David Schmidtz.

Were Mr. Gerson to bother himself actually to read the works of such scholars, he would find that libertarianism is grounded both in the value judgment that individual freedom is a worthy end in itself and in the theoretical and empirical proposition that government poses the single greatest threat to individual freedom, as well as the single greatest threat to the prosperity that non-libertarians desire no less than do libertarians.

Does such a stance reflect a “mania” of single-minded “selfishness”?  Is it “adolescent” to want to be free to peacefully pursue one’s own ends and to want everyone else to have such freedom in equal measure?  Of course not.  True adolescent arrogance and selfishness is reflected, not in libertarianism or in Objectivism, but in those political philosophies that justify Jones’s itch to interfere in Smith’s personal affairs and to confiscate some of what belongs to Smith.

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux

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{ 107 comments }

Justin P April 22, 2011 at 10:02 am

Don,

Do you really expect anything but partisan drivel from the WaPo? That’s like asking for a balanced analysis from Krug, your never going to get it.

jjoxman April 22, 2011 at 10:08 am

Is it just me, or is this post and much of the stuff in the May Freeman about defending the ideal of freedom from chowderheads that think it is all about selfishness?

Frank33328 April 22, 2011 at 10:33 am

Selfishness is the ultimate strawman, since it is by definition impossible to act in any way that is not selfish. If you value an end goal, whatever that goal happens to be, it is selfish because YOU value it. To value altruism is no more or less selfish than to value wealth. Selfishness is not and cannot be the problem (or complaint), rather it is a disagreement on what SHOULD BE valued. The charge that selfishness is evil is more correctly phrased; what you value is evil while what I value is good. The charge of selfishness always comes from someone who believes they know how to run YOUR life.

Economiser April 22, 2011 at 10:55 am

*Like*

JohnK April 22, 2011 at 10:57 am

Just as the charge of greed is never leveled at the “altruist” who want to give away that which does not belong to them, it is leveled at the person who objects to their property being taken by the “altruist”.

David Shaw April 22, 2011 at 1:34 pm

On a blog consistently marked by a noble and thought provoking commentariat, this stands out. Exceptionally stated Frank.

crossofcrimson April 22, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Ironically, I think this is the main contention Ayn Rand has with altruism – at least as it’s commonly understood. Most people are not altruistic in the literal sense. But, of course, the caricature that people create regarding Rand’s view of “altruism” is that she was saying you should never do anything you value for people you value…..which is roughly the opposite of what she was implying.

It’s a strange world.

Damien April 22, 2011 at 5:36 pm

Exactly. This is a disagreement about what should be valued. And this is how ordinary people understand selfishness and altruism. If you do what benefits other people but not you, you are being altruistic. If you do what benefits you with no regard for other people, you are being selfish.

Apart from Objectivists, nobody defines selfishness as pursuing an end goal you value. “If you value an end goal, whatever that goal happens to be, it is selfish because YOU value it.” is NOT the way selfishness is typically understood. If an Objectivist says that, it won’t convince a by-stander because they’ll just say ” wait a minute… this is not what we mean when we say that someone is selfish”… And a statement like “To value altruism is no more or less selfish than to value wealth” would be absolutely meaningless to someone who is not already a “believer”.

Frank33328 April 23, 2011 at 8:25 am

I think I would reword the point as:
- If you think you should run your own life and that others should run theirs, then you’re selfish
- If you think you should run other people’s lives and that they in turn, should run yours, then you are not selfish.

Actually I think this is really the primal question that will ultimately determine your politics, economics, etc. I really don’t think that any logical argument can ever sway someone to switch sides on this.

Stone Glasgow April 25, 2011 at 8:36 pm

Great insight Frank, and I think you are correct. These two world views have been called a few things, like the “contrained” and “unconstrained” visions (Thomas Sowell), and the “utopian” and “tragic” visions (Steven Pinker).

I think your summary is a very good one.

Steve Fritzinger April 22, 2011 at 10:23 am

AFAIK, I’m the only libertarian in the world who really dislikes Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged. It’s bad economics. It’s bad philosophy. It’s bad art and it makes it too easy for chowder headed statists like Gerson to paint us as selfish brats.

Most people’s impression of libertarianism comes from the Objectivist jerk down the hall in college. Heck, my impression of libertarianism was from the Objectivist jerk down the hall before I stumbled onto Cato. Many people who might have been our natural allies are so turned off by that guy, they never get over it.

We would win more minds if our public face was more like the one Steven Horwitz describes in this excellent Freeman article:

http://www.thefreemanonline.org/headline/left-alone/

And less that that project by a narcissistic, speed-freak with her own personality cult.

E.G. April 22, 2011 at 10:29 am

You’re not the only one.

dave smith April 22, 2011 at 10:34 am

Certainly, you are not the only one. Rand is boring and wrong.

John V April 22, 2011 at 10:55 am

I’ve never read any works by Rand and only became familiar with her AFTER I became more libertarian.

And I still have no desire. No offense to Rand. I just have better things to do.

Slappy McFee April 22, 2011 at 11:02 am

BINGO

J Cuttance April 22, 2011 at 7:57 pm

same here, except I’ve tried reading her stuff and it’s bloody hard going, frankly.

Nick April 22, 2011 at 11:04 am

Not all of us that find value in Objectivist philosophy are equivalent to the jerk down the hall in your college dorm room. What particular points about Objectivist economics and philosophy do you disagree with?

Steve Fritzinger April 22, 2011 at 11:52 am

For Objectivism, it’s been roundly and accurately criticized elsewhere. I pretty much agree with those criticisms. It also tends to turn its most vocal promoters into “Homo unius libri”, which I find hard to take personally (though I can’t say if Objectivism is a sieve or a model here).

For the econ of Atlas Shrugged, I’ll give Rand her due. She’s at her best when writing her villains. The decline of newly socialized 20th Century Motors rivals Orwell and Cuffy Meigs’ rabbit foot and gun perfectly characterizes the combination of force and stupidity so often found in collectivists.

But her heroes are a whole other matter. The idea that 20 odd supermen make the modern world possible (the most salient message of AS, even if you account for Rand’s Russian Romanticism) is ridiculous. Her supermen, living alone in a valley, would be wearing grass skirts and eating twigs inside a month, even with a perpetual motion machine and an infinite supply of oil, iron and copper buried just 2 feet deep. There simply isn’t enough man power there to build all the tractors, mines, railroads, houses, etc.

Compare Galt’s Gulch to Kling’s Patterns of Sustainable Specialization and Trade to see how cartoonish her ideas are.

I wrote two overly long reviews of AS last year, plus a drinking game, here, if you want my “deep” thoughts on Rand:

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2009/12/6/811414/-A-Libertarian-Reads-Atlas-ShruggedPart-1

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2009/12/8/811778/-A-Libertarian-Reads-Atlas-ShruggedPart-2

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2009/12/09/807430/-Atlas-Chugged:-The-Ayn-Rand-Drinking-Game

Don’t let the dKos URL scare you off. Kos won’t get too much $$ from 3 clicks.

Economiser April 22, 2011 at 11:04 am

The underlying thread of both Horwitz’s libertarianism and Rand’s objectivism is the voluntary nature inherent in both philosophies. Rand’s characters may look down upon charity or religion, but they would never attempt to stop others from engaging in them. The two communities could live side by side in mutual peace while being totally consistent with their philosophies. Those who would use force to achieve their ends could not. To me, that’s the key difference, and that’s why I’m happy to be labeled either a libertarian or an objectivist.

Nick April 22, 2011 at 11:11 am

Agreed. Rand was much more concerned with having a society free of compulsion than she was about how individuals spent their own money.

SaulOhio April 22, 2011 at 11:33 am

Your portrayal of Objectivism and Ayn Rand is as bad as Gerson’s. He can only paint Objectivists and Libertarians as selfish brats by distorting and misinterpreting everything she ever said.

So do the other people replying to Steve. Even Economizer, who is sympathetic to Rand, gets her wrong. She did not look down on charity. In fact, she believed it could be an expression of a person’s deep values. It should simply not be justified altruistically, or forced by the government.

Allan H April 22, 2011 at 12:26 pm

BELIEVE me, you’re not the only one. Ayn Rand made some great observations in my humble opinion on the virtues of greed as an intrinsic value of humanity. But in terms of collectivism I think she gets completely skewered…

Steve Fritzinger April 22, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Actually, it’s her no-holds-barred attacks on collectivism that I like best about Rand.

It’s her descriptions of capitalism that are off the rails. I’m usually the most free-market guy in the room and I don’t want to live in Galt’s Gulch!.

Sam Grove April 23, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Nobody wants to live in a hideout (Galt’s Gulch), it’s something people do out of perceived necessity.

Randy April 22, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Steve,

Re; “chowder headed statists”.

The “chowder headed” part is unnecessary. They are statists, and as an individualist that is all I need to know. An understanding of the fact of their existence and of their nature is useful, but their rationalizations are not. I.e., it is useful to know about their taxes and regulations, but not useful to hear their stories about why they tax and regulate. I already know why they tax and regulate – because they can.

And yes, I am a fan of Ayn Rand. And if you don’t get the point, then it seems to me that you too can be dismissed as a statist. Nothing personal – its just that the issue isn’t really complex.

Francis Borchardt April 22, 2011 at 12:47 pm

Absolutely you are not the only one. I do not even consider objectivism and (my Smith-Hayek) libertarianism to be all that close to each other. There might be some of the same rhetoric, and some of the same conclusions, but the fundamental view of the world and of humanity is entirely different.

no one important April 22, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Values really are subjective. That’s not to say values cannot be criticized as absurd on objective grounds (and Rand does a pretty good job of that in many instances), but Austrian subjectivists are more convincing than Rand’s word games about philosophy in general.

Methinks1776 April 22, 2011 at 7:32 pm

I actually didn’t care for Horowitz’s piece, which is unusual.

I don’t feel compelled to cater to people who have a childlike understanding of what is meant by “leave me alone” and spend their lives perpetually traumatized by an objectivist jerk in college.

Ken April 23, 2011 at 11:14 pm

I read it and liked it, though I wouldn’t call it great literature. I liken Ayn Rand to an Old Testament prophet…or maybe John Adams, in the sense of being “obnoxious and disliked.” ;-)

Plac Ebo April 22, 2011 at 10:28 am

How long are we going to have to wait until we see a real world example of that prosperous libertarian utopia you keep alluding to.

Don Boudreaux April 22, 2011 at 10:30 am

Perhaps you meant to reply on some other blog. Neither Russ nor I have ever predicted a “utopia,” libertarian or otherwise.

Plac Ebo April 22, 2011 at 10:46 am

Don’t you think you are being disingenuous here? It seems to be a reasonable conclusion with your endless one-sided harangues against anything “government.” Perhaps you could share how your ideal society would be structured.

JohnK April 22, 2011 at 10:53 am

“Perhaps you could share how your ideal society would be structured.”

Who said anything about structuring society?

Get the central planners out of the way and leave society free to structure itself.

John V April 22, 2011 at 10:56 am

He misses the forest for the trees.

Isaac Morehouse April 22, 2011 at 11:03 am

Arguing something is really bad at achieving it’s own stated ends does not require also arguing for exactly how those ends would be achieved another way.

The state is awful at achieving the ends it claims to be working towards, and instead makes progress in the opposite direction. Pointing this out, and attempting to stop the bad ideas and institutions is fine, and does not require any kind of utopianism. It is realism.

If the provision of groceries were monopolized by the state, it would be correct for an economist or a clear thinking person to point out, theoretically and empirically, why it’s such a poor system for providing enough quality food (see Soviet food supply). They would not be required to claim that, absent state provision everyone in the world would eat whatever they want for free, not would they be required to describe in detail how civil society could handle food provision (it is not possible to foresee exactly how it would be done).

Yet what has emerged in the (mostly free) food market is astounding and far superior to any government system. Theory will tell you this, but it can’t tell you how exactly it will look. History will show you this by showing how states fail when they try, and how civil society has done it in the past; but it cannot show you exactly how it will be in the future.

Pretending to know precisely how civil society will provide something is an overreach. We can’t know. We can know when government is doing a really bad job, and why, systemically, the incentives do and always will produce these bad results, and how civil society has done similar things before in better ways, etc.

It’s never perfect – no world is. Scarcity exists. We must examine what institutions are best at dealing with the human problems arising from scarcity, both with sound theory (that accepts scarcity, and accepts humans as they actually are: flawed, limited in knowledge, self-interested, etc.) and historical examination. That’s the task of a good economist.

Michael April 22, 2011 at 12:27 pm

Very well said.

Harold Cockerill April 23, 2011 at 8:58 am

Like

Don Boudreaux April 23, 2011 at 9:56 am

Like!

Ken April 23, 2011 at 10:14 am

Hear, hear!

Matt April 22, 2011 at 11:11 am

Have you ever visited this site before? Or have you just stumbled upon it and began typing random thoughts that popped into your feeble mind?

brotio April 22, 2011 at 11:05 pm

PlacEbo drops in every few months.

Sometimes, he (disingenuously) claims a desire to know what libertarians think and believe when he drops in. Other times are more like the posts in this thread.

The only real difference between PlacEbo and Yasafi is that PlacEbo can spell.

Rugby1 April 22, 2011 at 1:03 pm

“Perhaps you could share how your ideal society would be structured.”

That sentence seems to smack of central planning, which of course is the anti-thesis of libertarianism. So maybe try again.

crossofcrimson April 22, 2011 at 2:14 pm

” It seems to be a reasonable conclusion with your endless one-sided harangues against anything “government.””

It would probably seem reasonable to a person who finds the need/want to artificially/forcefully create such a utopia. As far as I know, statists are the only one clinging to that notion.

Everyday Anarchist April 22, 2011 at 2:24 pm

Look around. Almost everything good in life is the result of voluntary cooperation; the free market. Many bad things are the result of theft and aggression; the state.

Emil April 22, 2011 at 10:53 am

It sort of seems to me that we have plenty of examples of how libertarian principles work better than statist ones…

- China (that is improving since beginning to privatise and open up its economy)
- North Korea
- Cuba
- DDR
- Sovjet Russia

And about every other too statist country that has ever existed – they have nearly always (at least in the longer run) kept their population in poverty and repression

John V April 22, 2011 at 11:06 am

Yeah…but people like Plac ebo and muirgeo want black and white absolutes when talking about libertarianism. It makes their strawman easier to grasp and rebut.

Truth is that there is no exact society based on any one philosophy.

These fools like Plac and muirgeo and Dung like to look at their ideal countries elsewhere in the world and just claim that that reflects their philosophy. Problem is that these countries are all very different in their own right. They only seem the same from a distant and ignorant POV. When I look at Sweden and Denmark, I see stark contrasts for every similarity there is. In some ways, either is more like the US in good and bad ways than like the other.

Social democracy is vague and is not an opposite to libertarianism in my book. Yes, they all the countries that fit this idea have commonalities but they also have differences. The commonalities are so vague that many fit the description of the US. So what does that mean? It means social democracy is a vague catch-all that allows the speaker to make it what he wants it be.

Then again, people can often do the same thing with libertarianism….especially people who want to make it out to be something weaker than it really is.

Ike April 22, 2011 at 11:11 am

Plac and muir both make assumptions about the necessity of a Structure for there to be Perfection.

Plac and muir both make assumptions about the necessity of Perfection for there to be Egalitarian Happiness.

Plac and muir both make assumptions that Egalitarian Happiness can only exist when we are all content with having the same things everyone else has, because having more or less would lead to imbalance and envy.

In the process, Plac and muir tell us a LOT about themselves and their values… and it is little wonder that either can be happy while greedy individuals elsewhere might be even happier.

Plac Ebo April 22, 2011 at 11:10 am

Not disagreeing that many libertarian principles are necessary for a prosperous and free society. The dispute is where the line is drawn.

John V April 22, 2011 at 12:15 pm

OK. That’s vague and defensible enough. So, now that you’ve stated such a platitude, we’ll all be sure to hold you more accountable when you start again with your broad-brushing strawmen and stereo-types.

Slappy McFee April 22, 2011 at 11:09 am

I am unfamiliar with any such agreed on view of a “utopia” under any particular political theory. Being as that each individuals utopia differs from every other human vision on Earth, there can be no such “utopia” regardless of the ideology. It is a crutch of the weakminded that any such civilization, where its members are prone act on emotion, can ever be centrally planned. Save your strawmen for somewhere else, we’re all full here.

SaulOhio April 22, 2011 at 11:34 am

Ad Don said, we do not expect utopia. Also, before we see the results of free market policies, we do need to actually have free market polices.

Sam Grove April 22, 2011 at 12:36 pm

How long will we have to wait to see the democratically enabled utopia?
Or even something halfway decent from a government “of the people”?

Is this it?

Justin P April 22, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Utopia is a pure Leftist idea.
Most of all Libertarians I know and read, are fully aware that Utopia will never exist.

Gil April 22, 2011 at 11:46 pm

So they quite happy to see the West slowly morph into a Soviet-style system?

Sam Grove April 23, 2011 at 12:48 pm

You have a really strange perspective.

Ken April 24, 2011 at 2:16 am

What does this even mean, Gil? The Soviet Union had an out of control government consuming the countries resources. Libertarians fight against this constantly, trying to reduce government size and control at all turns.

Regards,
Ken

vikingvista April 24, 2011 at 1:40 pm

And yet the lefists’ gold standard for judging liberty is precisely utopia.

JohnK April 22, 2011 at 10:31 am

Libertarianism has a place for [voluntary] charity while Objectivism does not.

In that respect I do think Objectivists can come off as selfish adolescents.

E.G. April 22, 2011 at 10:59 am

Why don’t we try sticking to “classical liberalism”. Its a much more meaningful term than “libertarianism”, without the negative connotation it has for a lot of people who associate it with Rand and some others.

Slappy McFee April 22, 2011 at 11:11 am

Currently reading a book, “The Science of Liberty”, and the author uses liberalism throughout. He is referring to classical liberalism, but I can’t help but have the hair stand up on my neck everytime I see the word. I guess talk radio has conditioned my response, ala Pavlov.

Don April 22, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Actually, that would be 100 years of Progressive talking points saying how “liberal” their policies are. It’s just re-branding of the feudal mindset that pushed the early twentieth century Progressive movement.

While we’re on the name game, if I read correctly, the term “Progressive” was invented by Marx to describe those political leaders who would push policies to “progress” us into the communist way. No wonder the progressives ran screaming from the term after Red October, but they did not, unfortunately, run screaming from the ideas or methods.

Nick April 22, 2011 at 11:06 am

Objectivism absolutely has a place for voluntary charity. Rand said many times how charity can be a value to an individual, and that one should pursue their own values. There is nothing inconsistent about that.

vikingvista April 24, 2011 at 1:45 pm

“Objectivism absolutely has a place for voluntary charity.”

That isn’t true. Objectivism has no place for altruism. It has no place for sacrificing one’s own values. It is all about promoting one’s own rational values. That means it has no place for randomly sacrificing a portion of your child’s education fund to some raggedy stranger on the street who may very well be the next looting politician, or petty thief. But if you see someone who can be an asset to your life, the return on investment by providing them with a meal or employment or something else, may very well be rational and self-serving.

SaulOhio April 22, 2011 at 11:41 am

You are mistaken. Ayn Rand believed that real charity could be an expression of a person’s personal values. Its just that we shouldn’t delude ourselves that it is based on altruism, and it should not be coerced by government.

Please learn what she actually said on the subject before commenting about it. I suggest starting with what it says about charity in the Ayn Rand Lexicon, then going on to David Kelley’s “Unrugged Individualism”. Ayn Rand’s views on charity are much more nuanced than simple rejection.

JohnK April 22, 2011 at 12:07 pm

etfoom

crossofcrimson April 22, 2011 at 2:22 pm

I’m not an Objectivist or a Randian by any strict measure, but the contention you raise couldn’t be more to the point. It’s almost more distressing that people who hold conservative/libertarian values dismiss Rand based on the common caricature of her views on altruism. As you point out, her views are typically much more nuanced that people want to accept – and they rarely take the time to even try to get her views right.

http://crossofcrimson.blogspot.com/2011/04/defending-rand-why-bother.html

vikingvista April 24, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Well said. I wish I had read your comment before I posted my comment.

Sam Grove April 22, 2011 at 12:45 pm

The problem with ‘objectivism’ is similar to the problem with ‘communism’ or ‘socialism’ is that when college age youth get hold of these ideas, they often jump off the deep end with their new found comprehension, thinking that they now know all they need to know, and being adolescent, they often still are fond of showing off their prowess.

It’s not a good idea to judge philosophies by the behavior of such acolytes. One must make the effort to evaluate ideologies after investigation and comparison to other ideologies and in the light of reality.

E.G. April 22, 2011 at 8:57 pm

Agreed. However it shares another thing in common with communism and socialism. It tends to be a philosophy mainly found in college age youth. And whether one wants to waste time discussing the merits or nuances of what Rand or Marx said or didn’t say, the real issue is that to most people, there’s negative connotations associated with both, precisely because of who these ideologies attract. So “we” have the choice of becoming like the Marxists who spend their days arguing whether Marx said this or that and whom amongst them practices it better, and thus become completely irrelevant…or realize that the ideology of a single person doesn’t define “us” and isn’t the end all.

vikingvista April 24, 2011 at 1:54 pm

“they often jump off the deep end with their new found comprehension, thinking that they now know all they need to know, and being adolescent, they often still are fond of showing off their prowess.”

That is a very good characterization. The young are like that with new discoveries. But in the intellectually putrid setting of a University, the excitement of suddenly being lifted out of the latrine you were submerged in and into the sunlight, is simply more than the inexperienced can politely bear.

Campus Objectivists do mellow out with age, and they are forever better for having discovered Rand. Her passion is an excellent tool for rescuing young minds.

whotrustedus April 22, 2011 at 10:58 am

Gerson further writes:

“…This unbalanced emphasis on one element of political theory — at the expense of other public goals such as justice and equal opportunity — is the evidence of a rigid ideology…”

That reminded me of Russ’ interview on Econtalk in 2007 with John Allison, the then CEO of Branch, Bank, & Trust. One of the highlights of that interview was Allison’s definition of justice: “Those that produce the most should receive the most.”

Presumably everyone of every political stripe will attest that they believe in justice. But each of us has our own definition of the term.

I do think Gerson is right that many libertarians can trace their inspiration to Rand’s novels. I know I do. But it is just that, inspiration, no more. I’ve gone back to Atlas Shrugged a few times since I was younger and I find the book wooden & cartoonish. And I’ve read about Rand the person, I find much about here unappealing. But I was still inspired by her writings at the time and they eventually led me to Hayek & Mises & Roberts & Boudreaux & others. (What do you think about putting those 4 names in the same sentence?) For that, I’m grateful.

Nick April 22, 2011 at 11:09 am

I must be one of the few people for which it is in reversed. I considered myself libertarian/classical liberal (having read Friedman and Hayek) before I read Atlas Shrugged. For me, I thought that Objectivism was able to provide a stronger backbone to why those libertarian ideals that I believe in are justified.

Economiser April 22, 2011 at 1:58 pm

I’m similar. I was a libertarian before reading Rand. At the time I thought it was not imperative to read Rand because I already accepted her premises.

Atlas Shrugged didn’t convert me to objectivism, but it gave me another foundation to get to basically the same place as libertarianism. I wouldn’t want to live in Galt’s Gulch (still not sure how they lived as well as they did with nonexistent infrastructure), but I do think the world would be a far better place if everyone were an objectivist. Or if everyone were a libertarian. From their actions alone I think it would be hard to tell them apart.

Nick April 22, 2011 at 6:31 pm

I don’t want to live in Galt’s Gulch either — but I think it’s fair to argue that the characters in her novel didn’t necessarily want to either. They did it to escape oppression. If it was between totalitarian socialism and Galt’s Gulch, I’m taking the Gulch.

Don’t forget they return to rebuild society at the end of the story.

Slappy McFee April 22, 2011 at 11:13 am

I still have the same question I had from my first philosophy class. How does a human act in an unselfish way?

Jason Williams April 22, 2011 at 12:07 pm

Slappy, I think that the question is an interesting one. Certainly there is a way to characterize any action as selfish. Even the apparently most self-sacrificial actions. However, sometimes the simplest explanation is the correct explanation, and I think that there are some actions that are best explained by positing that the person behind the action was acting for altruistic reasons. Suppose for example that I really enjoy my life, and I have a wife and 5 kids whom I really love, but I work as a Secret Service agent and step in front of a bullet to save the president. One could plausibly argue that my action is based on selfishness, but I don’t think that it is the most obvious or simple explanation. It is more likely that I simply see protecting the president as my duty to society, and that even though I really don’t want to die, I feel that self-sacrifice is a duty.

crossofcrimson April 22, 2011 at 2:32 pm

“One could plausibly argue that my action is based on selfishness, but I don’t think that it is the most obvious or simple explanation. ”

It’s not the most obvious – that much is for sure. But Rand’s beliefs regarding altruism were almost praxeological in nature (not by intention, I’m sure). He took the bullet because he valued that person’s life, or his honor/duty (whatever it is) more than continuing his life. But it’s his valuation…..literally. If he was truly being selfless he would act on the whims and motivations of others without any consideration of his own values; which is a pretty rare occurrence unless it’s forced upon us. And that’s where people commonly misunderstand Rand in my view. Simply doing things for others is not inherently selfless. It’s only selfless if you give no weight to your own preferences – at least in the sense that she’s using the terms “selfish” and “selfless.” Although, she very obviously and famously would not sit and nitpick about it with people who tried to castigate her for her “selfishness” who didn’t take the time to parcel out exactly what she meant by those terms.

Slappy McFee April 22, 2011 at 5:27 pm

Jason –

My problem with people regarding human actions as unselfish is because we are supposed rational beings. Even it what seems to be a reaction, the pros/cons of action are measured against each other. It is this weighing of options, that the “selfishness” is realized. I am not one to pretend that running into a burning building to save someone isn’t a selfish act, because had I not done it, I couldn’t have lived with myself.

SaulOhio April 22, 2011 at 12:13 pm

By turning off his brain, and pretending he does not exist.

Slappy McFee April 22, 2011 at 5:23 pm

If we don’t really exist — I do not have to turn off my brain. More blue pill please. Or the red one, whichever is the right one.

Kurlos April 22, 2011 at 12:00 pm

http://www.leary.ru/download/watts/Book%20On%20The%20Taboo%20Against%20Knowing%20Who%20You%20Are.pdf

“Briefly, the thesis is that the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin is a hallucination.”

Alan Watts, “On the Taboo of Knowing Who You Are”

Sam Grove April 22, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Knowing who you are isn’t nearly the dilemma that it has been presented to be. The answer to that question if relatively easily answered but not so profound as the question “what am I”.

We are separated egos as first person experience informs us. But we are also identical in that regard, and we all have identical root natures, that is, we are urged by our natures to engage in behaviors of survival and avoidance of discomfort.

Beyond that, what glorious variety.

Johnathan Pearce April 22, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Some strange comments here. Steve Fritzinger claims Rand championed “bad economics”. She favoured the free market, property rights, etc. Sure, she was arguably wrong about intellectual property rights, but that’s about it.

Objectivists don’t object to charity, as someone said. If giving to some charity is a positive value for the giver, then that is just as “selfish” as choosing to use something for something else. The point about “selfishness”, in the Randian formulation, is that it is about the right of a person to live life for their own’s sake, and not expect others to sacrifice their happiness in return.

Like Nick, I started as a libertarian and came to objectivism later. I have my disagreements with Rand, but I also think that her rational, Aristotelian morality provides classical liberals with a stronger backbone.

And it makes me smile when I see some libertarians bash Rand. Sour grapes, is how I see it. She sold millions more books than most of the rest of them. She played a big part in creating the libertarian movement that exists today.

Nick April 22, 2011 at 6:40 pm

It makes me smile too. As far as economics goes, they’re essentially identical… as far as politics goes, they are similar as well, with perhaps some foreign policy disagreements. And I am happy to consider myself both despite my minor disagreements with them.

No one is going to agree with anyone 100%. One problem with Objectivists and libertarians, from my experience, is that many are quick to dismiss anyone who doesn’t agree with them 100% as being statist. I’ve heard devoted Hayek fans dismiss Friedman as being statist because of differences over monetary theory, and Rothbardian anarcho-capitalists dismiss just about everyone as statist.

E.G. April 22, 2011 at 9:04 pm

“Libertarians” and anarcho-capitalists acting in such a way? Say it ain’t so! Its yet another similarity they have with communism and religions; its about ideology not about reality.

Sam Grove April 22, 2011 at 12:57 pm

It’s interesting to be called adolescent by those who see that state as the perpetual parent for all subject to its power.

What could be more childish than to suppose that adults need perpetual parenting?

Ryan Vann April 22, 2011 at 2:08 pm

If I were a self perceived patriarch of humanity, and realized my tried and true fairytale of the state was being challenged by a growing yet still underpowered niche of society, I too might call them adolescents. Adolescents of course symbolize the struggle for self actualization and freedom from the family unit. Not much of an insult really.

SweetLiberty April 22, 2011 at 1:04 pm

Michael Gerson has a point.

The libertarian (or objectivists as I understand them) want, as Don says, “freedom in equal measure.” The modern liberal wants “equality by coercion”. Neither (other than perhaps fringe proponents) promises utopia. The argument then becomes one of degrees – which industries to privatize, which laws to create, etc. Both often speak from a “global” philosophical principle of stateism vs. liberty, but the vast majority recognize the benefits of state control of some things versus freedom in others. They just disagree about which things, even amongst their own groups. So I second Plac Ebo’s desire to see a libertarian/objectivist consensus given that both value freedom and liberty.

While the words freedom and liberty make for great philosophical fodder, I agree with the columnist Michael Gerson that libertarians and objectivists are adolescent when they make simplistic statements like Don, “the theoretical and empirical proposition that government poses the single greatest threat to individual freedom, as well as the single greatest threat to [...] prosperity” and JohnK, “Who said anything about structuring society? Get the central planners out of the way and leave society free to structure itself.” Unless Don and JohnK are both complete anarchists who believe in NO government, comments like these contribute nothing to the real debate of what the true role of government should be and precisely how far its reach should extend for each specific policy.

JohnK April 22, 2011 at 1:14 pm

“Unless Don and JohnK are both complete anarchists who believe in NO government, comments like these contribute nothing to the real debate of what the true role of government should be and precisely how far its reach should extend for each specific policy.”

Government is force. That’s it. Nothing more.

When is the use of force legitimate?

The answer to that question is the answer to what government’s role in society should be.

Ryan Vann April 22, 2011 at 2:14 pm

Sam seems to leave 0 and 100% out of his spectrum of reasonability, with no particular justification; I’m curious about why this is.

Sam Grove April 22, 2011 at 8:39 pm

???

Gil April 22, 2011 at 11:52 pm

So what if the answer is 0%? The world will still be the same tomorrow and the day after.

Sam Grove April 22, 2011 at 1:29 pm

Libertarians have long held that the only valid functions of government are to defend the individual’s rights from violation by other individuals by imposing criminal sanctions against force and fraud (courts and police), to organize for defense against foreign invasion.

You got something else in mind?

Gil April 22, 2011 at 11:53 pm

The Vatican wishes there were no contraceptives and abortion services available throughout the world too but that doesn’t change anything.

SweetLiberty April 22, 2011 at 2:45 pm

JohnK,
“When is use of force legitimate?” I can’t answer that beyond my subjective preferences, so you tell me. But make sure your answer is universal and incorporates all values and perspectives, from Don Boudreaux to Paul Krugman. When you can get those two to agree on when force is legitimate, then perhaps you are on to something. Otherwise, it’s simply preference.

Sam,
The originators of the Constitution (generally considered libertarians or classical liberals if you prefer) DID have something else in mind besides your very short list, including (but not limited to)…
Section. 8.
The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;
To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;
To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;
To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;
To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;
To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;
To establish Post Offices and post Roads;
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;
To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;
To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;
To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;
To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;
To provide and maintain a Navy;
To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;
To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;–And
To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

Where is your Constitution? I’m really asking – not just being aggressive. If libertarians wish to present a blueprint from which they believe society will achieve optimal efficiency, then they need to provide their version of a Constitution which clearly defines the role of government as they see it. I don’t think that any libertarian on this site would argue that the U.S. Constitution as it stands now is broken – flawed by ambiguous terms such as “general welfare” and a commerce clause which has been exploited beyond all recognition. But I have yet to see any unified counter-proposal the likes of which Don Boudreaux, Russ Roberts, John Stossel, Ron Paul, et al. would all agree to. It’s one thing to play armchair quarterback (which admittedly I am doing) by picking apart arguments, but it’s quite another to propose an actual all-encompassing policy and open that to honest scrutiny.

Economiser April 22, 2011 at 4:03 pm

You have one small but critical flaw in that post: the line “including (but not limited to).”

The powers of the federal government are quite clearly limited to those enumerated powers. The perverted nature of modern constitutional debate is evidenced by the common viewpoint that Congress may act except where it infringes on an enumerated right, instead of the clear textual reading that Congress only may act in support of an enumerated power.

See Amend. X: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

JohnK April 22, 2011 at 7:57 pm

“I can’t answer that beyond my subjective preferences, so you tell me.”

I’ll defer to Bastiat.

http://bastiat.org/en/government.html

“But make sure your answer is universal and incorporates all values and perspectives”

No. I’m not a politician. I couldn’t care less about consensus.
I don’t care about principals, I care about principles.

BTW you need a different moniker. You are a disgrace to the concept of liberty.

Sam Grove April 22, 2011 at 8:37 pm

What, among the various items listed, cannot be covered under the shorter list I wrote, (other than the post office, an obvious mistake to permit the government to handle that.)

Ken April 23, 2011 at 9:40 am

“Where is your Constitution? I’m really asking – not just being aggressive. If libertarians wish to present a blueprint from which they believe society will achieve optimal efficiency, then they need to provide their version of a Constitution which clearly defines the role of government as they see it.”

Permit me to suggest gently that you check your premises (to borrow a line from Rand). Personally, I don’t argue for liberty from a consequentialist perspective: “My prescription is better because it produces better results.” I argue for social organization founded in the zero aggression principle not for its utility, but for its morality.

Ken April 24, 2011 at 2:21 am

SweetLiberty,

“they make simplistic statements like Don, ‘the theoretical and empirical proposition that government poses the single greatest threat to individual freedom, as well as the single greatest threat to [...] prosperity’”

Simple statements don’t necessarily mean that they are adolescent. The fact that you think so shows what a dumbass you are. It is a verifiable fact taht “government poses the single greatest threat to individual freedom, as well as the single greatest threat to [...] prosperity”. It really is as simple as that and why we need to constrain government at all times.

Just because you’re too stupid to undestand history and numbers doesn’t make those who do adolescent.

Regards,
Ken

Everyday Anarchist April 22, 2011 at 2:36 pm

Adults support themselves. Children rely on adults for support. The state relies on the private sector for support through taxation.

Sam Grove April 22, 2011 at 8:45 pm

“But both libertarians and Objectivists are moved by the mania of a single idea – a freedom indistinguishable from selfishness”

IAC, the charge is pure ad hominem and not a serious critique of libertarian ideas and it’s a second hand charge at that, I’ve heard that critique for many years. This from people who are enamored by the idea of managing people by an agency of extortion…directed by the “right people” of course.

Troy Camplin April 23, 2011 at 1:37 am

Isn’t it in fact childish in the most literal sense of the term to want government to take care of you and everyone else — as though you were a child?

Tim April 23, 2011 at 3:37 pm

If libertarianism, defined as opposition to state coercion, is selfishness, one necessarily has to conclude that state coercion is the only viable instrument for at least certain forms of generosity. It’s amazing how often supposedly intelligent political commentators want to argue for the first statement but not own the second.

vikingvista April 24, 2011 at 1:58 pm

Selfishness in the libertarian context is not what you think it is.

State coercion is the only viable instrument for the form of generosity that is characterized by a person having to labor to undermine his own values.

Chuck April 25, 2011 at 6:42 pm

It doesn’t take much use of the googles to find out that Rand was not a Libertarian. She felt that many of her ideas were being pauperized by them etc. I’m a HUGE Rand fan and it’s clear that her philosophy is geared towards individuals and making philosophy practicable in their lives. Many of her ideas in the realm of the individual of course overlaps with libertarianism. It’s obvious why the two are easily confused sometimes. But to equate Rand and libertarianism in his summary paragraphs is just plain wrong.

His misunderstands her notion of selfishness, for one thing. Gerson would say that Madoff was selfish, but Rand would say he is unselfish. If he was selfish, he wouldn’t have made himself into a criminal by stealing property he didn’t earn. A selfish person is someone who only wants what he/she has properly earned, both in terms of giving it proper thought and context, and then having used their productive work to EARN it. That is a “selfish” person in Rand context. How horrible and adolescent a person that is…

Chuckarama April 26, 2011 at 12:00 am

I should also say that his comments smack of the Big Brother, Nanny State mentality that is so prevalent these days. You’re not capable of taking care of you and yours, because your selfish, so we’ll decide how to do it for you. Jeez. Thanks dad.

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