Article

Confessions of a Reformed Libertarian

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I’ve been forcefully denouncing libertarianism for a few years now. It took me some time to connect the dots–and let my subscription to Reason lapse. Longtime readers of BSJ might remember some of my libertarian-leaning rhetoric from years ago. And anyone who takes the time to look will find I haven’t scrubbed those pages. I’m not afraid to show a bit of intellectual evolution. I wouldn’t be much of a shadow warrior if I hid from my past, would I? It’s better to claim it, to admit I learned something than to pretend perfect consistency. “Guilty with an explanation” is better than a whitewash. While many strands fed into my political philosophy, I now realize my libertarianism was both a reaction against the social conservatism and ironically a continuation of the anti-communism of my church. It was also a manifestation of legitimate revulsion at the conditional nature of forced religious altruism.

In the 1980s, Rush were my musical heroes, and they flirted with Ayn Rand in their Farewell to Kings/2112 period, dedicating the latter album to her. I eagerly lapped up Neil Peart’s lyrics praising the virtues of self-interest: “Well I know they’ve always told you selfishness was wrong, yet it was for me, not you I came to write this song.” Genius! I devoured Rand’s novella Anthem, which was the inspiration for the naming of Anthem Entertainment, the music publishing company for Rush. I was thrilled by Equality 7-2521’s discovery of the word “I.” And who doesn’t love the individual vs. the state heroism of one of the greatest rock-operas of all time 2112? With monochromatic intensity, the Priests of Syrinx pummeled the aspirations of the helpless protagonist. After his suicide, “Attention all planets of the Solar Federation, we have assumed control…” is the terrifying finale (and the end result of unfettered state power). Expressed in these terms, self-interest is an absolutely compelling imperative.

As I’ve often repeated to anyone who will listen, Rand was not wrong, just incomplete. She was caught up in her own reaction against the abuses of collectivism in the Soviet Union, and I don’t blame her at all. Her father’s business was expropriated by the Bolsheviks and her family left destitute. Fleeing the chaos, she was lucky to get out of the “worker’s paradise” alive. When you have the experience of taking off the golden handcuffs of an everything-provided-nothing-allowed religious community as I did, or forced collectivization as Rand did, you look for some alternative–some rational approach to dealing with other human beings. Whether it’s Equality 7-2521, Rearden or Roark, Rand’s heroes embody everything that’s good about self-interest and personal excellence. And their refusal to compromise their principles leads them to self-discovery which affords them great power. Rational self-interest makes for good boundaries and even better self-discipline.

The larger-than-life heroes can also teach us a valuable lesson about expressing our ego. It’s not just the state which tries to crush the individual, but also other people and their discomfort with social outliers. Anyone who’s ever decided to produce and publish anything realizes this. As soon as you start a blog, write a book, make a film, compose a song, or take a stand for anything, you will inevitably face “who-do-you-think-you-are?” opposition. People like others to “go along to get along.” On the web, this is less of an issue than it used to be since nearly everyone now tweets and posts their every whim. But “narcissism” and “navel-gazing” are still pejoratives for self-expression in some quarters. The right-wing is constantly denouncing “no-talent” celebrities. But this is incoherent, since celebrity is democratically defined as popularity, and “talent” is always eclipsed by hard work. New agers also babble incessantly about “getting rid of the ego,” the “human mind” as the enemy, “being in the moment.” I have little respect for either of these anti-individualist attitudes.

I hold that self-interest within the individual is absolutely necessary, that ego is healthy and we need more authentic ego expression–not less. Self-interest becomes problematic only when it draws its circle of empathy too narrowly or disregards the long-term. And when self-interest is extended to become the organizing principle for society–it translates directly into social Darwinism and vicious dog-eat-dog politics: Hobbes’ war of all against all. It’s a political philosophy which works really well for the young, the connected, the strong, the wealthy, and the dominant. What Rand’s work misses is that human beings naturally balance self-interest with communitarian values. Anyone with an ounce of self-awareness realizes that no matter how strong or rich we are, all of us will eventually become weak, get injured, lose our job or home, get sick, get old, and die. In their hubris, libertarians are loathe to admit that though they may have long ago left behind their diapers and pureed food, it’s overwhelmingly likely at some point they’ll take them up again.

Every society in human history has found some way to deal with its weaker members. In early nomadic cultures, a person went out to die when they could no longer move fast enough to stay with the group. There was simply no choice. It was a question of group survival. But every society with sufficient wealth or roots has since cared for its vulnerable members. In many parts of the world this still involves the keeping of multi-generational households. Or the building of religious orphanages and hospices. As religion and family ties have waned in modern democracies, the state remains the only actor strong enough to fulfill this role. Hate the burden of taxes or Social Security deductions? Imagine having absolutely no choice but to spend your entire youth taking care of your ailing grandparents or an injured sibling. Imagine if it was the church collecting tithes instead of government taxes. And remember we’re only a few generations removed from that harsh reality–and only our taxes which fund the safety net and allow the separation of church from state. It’s a price I’m very, very happy to pay.

We all know we have a 100% chance of suffering the great misfortune of death. Even if we live to age 100 or more without problems–no one on Earth gets out alive. Betty White is a shining example of a 90-year-old with elan. But she’s the exception, not the rule. Most people will count themselves fortunate to have 70 years of reasonably good health. But many will get far less. The social contract is therefore about how we manage inevitable human injury, misfortune, or decline with dignity. It is not a contract that it’s possible to opt in or out of. It is a condition of our birth.

Libertarians sneer at the social contract. “I never signed anything,” they say. But in the same breath they talk about human beings born with “natural” or “God-given rights.” I’ve personally brought three children into the world, and I examined them all very closely. None of them came with anything resembling “rights” attached to their bodies. They were protected by the good will of doctors, nurses, and their parents, and by extension the entire American society. Had they been born elsewhere in the world, they might not even have had the so-called “right” to avoid being killed by senseless violence or preventable childhood diseases. From this example, it’s clear human “rights” can only be provided by other human beings. They don’t exist in the abstract or the natural world. Like “rights,” wanting dignity is not the same as having it. We must make dignity for others if we want it for ourselves. It’s not enough to proclaim empty slogans like “libertarian” means we stand for liberty. To fully drink of the fount of liberty, we mush embrace our responsibilities to others as much as our rights. If we think our rights are valuable enough to talk about, we must recognize that we lose access to them as soon as we fail to protect them with a strong government.

NEXT: Libertarians vs. the commons.

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Comments (23 comments)

John / January 20th, 2012, 6:21 am / #1

Nicely said, this piece is especially relevant in light of our political climate.

TPO / January 20th, 2012, 9:58 am / #2

I too flirted with Libertarianism at one point in my life but it never quite took. Good piece! I look forward to reading more.

Doris Tracey / January 22nd, 2012, 1:22 pm / #3

Libertarianism is just another sophisticated word. Deeds not words speak louder. The ego in all of us must be developed first and of course we all have a superconscious ego.How does one enter that next step?

Hi Sean it's Doris…

jack / January 29th, 2012, 11:13 pm / #4

"As soon as you start a blog, write a book, make a film, compose a song, or take a stand for anything, you will inevitably face “who-do-you-think-you-are?” opposition. People like others to “go along to get along.”"

Jim / February 1st, 2012, 10:44 am / #5

I'm not that much into any organized political group. I always say I'm a lower case libertarian, not a Libertarian. I suppose I really should say I lean toward lower case libertarianism positions on some things. By the same token, I enjoyed reading Rand's Atlas Shrugged many decades ago, but I have always thought that those who espoused Objectivist thought were a bit on the creepy side of being cultists. However, I do think that Reason is an interesting magazine (although I must confess that the mail carrier has not brought one recently, so perhaps my subscription has lapsed as well).

ELEAZAR SOLOMON / March 15th, 2012, 3:34 pm / #6

Eleazar Solomon Goldman / March 12th, 2012, 2:53 Pm / #95
Eleazar Solomon, a Jew in Guanauato, Mexico, to past or present members of the Summit Lighthouse
A number of times in my life, I was either handed material published by Summit Lighthouse teachings, or met people involved with Elizabeth Prophets’ teachingsI . I was never attracted to the material or the leader of Summit Lighthouse. Or Dianetics/Scientology. Or Mormonism or the teachings of the Witnesses, among many other deluded groups and their leaders. After reading all the various comments on this website thread, I am saddened by the obvious fact that she was very delusional and had misled so many people to believe her assertions of being a “messenger for ascended beings”. Some of you apparently suffered much more than others and have even “thrown the baby out with the bathwater”, meaning that ALL spirituality, even the existance of G-d is discounted along with the delusions asserted by the leader.
BUT, I have to tell you that yes, there is a way to find out whether G-d exists, whether higher worlds exist and the beings who live within those worlds. SEAN “BlackSun” in particular, I feel suffered very deeply as her son, and has rejected the whole gamut of “spiritual” subjects because they “can’t be quantified or otherwise determined by scientific (materialistic) methods”. I’m very sorry that he feels he must take this position. At the same time, I feel this website is doing an invaluable service to those who either have been part of the “community of believers”, or who still are and maybe need some clear guidance out of the delusion they became a part of. ALL of our life experiences and decisions partake of the spiritual dimension, whether we see it or not. Or choices determine whether we advance or fall back, and must retrace the steps again. Wisdom is gained one step at a time, very very slowly.
I too have come across similar “leaders” of so-called spiritual groups that were self-agrandizing, intentionally deluding their followers, but highly effective speakers. I would say that maybe 98% of all religious groups that I have met in life are deluded about what they believe, but that the real good that the followers get is from having a community of people to relate to.. I think Nancy Couick shows a very balanced way of dealing with what went on within the community: while clearly realizing the unreal aspects of what occured and condemning it, she also has taken the good and useful elements from her experience and acknowledges them too. For her, both the “good” and the “bad” were learning experiences that she sees as valuable.
I have studied nearly everything I could find on esoteric teachings, and gradually acquired a personal library of over 500 books on subjects related to those teachings. While very interesting and informative, intellectual study alone will NOT gain admission into higher worlds or “G-d’s presence” sadly. There are and always have been individuals that have attained that “clairvoyance” or “inner vision” that many of the followers believed Ms Prophet had. Those that can sense the subtle realms clearly are very few though. And, it probably “takes one to know one”, which means that when determining who really has messages from higher beings/worlds requires that the person have a certain level of spiritual development already.
For all of us who are “seeking”, there is an appropriate level of teachers, events, or books/writings that will help us on our way and that comes to us as we evolve or devolve. But, going from an extreme of immersion in gullibilty/false leaders to a complete rejection of everything spiritual is only, in my opinion, a temporary defense mechanism for the pain that one suffered (as was clear from reading these remarks by some people). May we all progress on the PATH with discrimination, and get up again when we fail to find the ultimate reason for our existance.
For all of you that have left the fold of Summit Lighthouse teachings, you’re now ready for your next adventure, having learned the profound lesson of spiritual discrimination (and very painful one also) in this last adventure with ECP, as you call her. I hope you do NOT give up seeking true spirituality wherever you may find it. It’s not easy to live at the end of the KALI YUGA, the end of the MAYAN GREAT CYCLE, the END of DAYS of Judaism, where the greatest darkness is all about us, before the cycle brings great change.

rab neutrino / April 5th, 2012, 9:35 am / #7

The Middle English word diaper originally referred to the type of cloth rather than its use; "diaper" was the term for a pattern of small repeated geometric shapes, and later came to describe a white cotton or linen fabric with this pattern.

pkayden / May 22nd, 2012, 3:55 pm / #8

Great post. Do you think that this whole "it's great to be selfish" meme is based on a desire not to support the undesirables: minorities, immigrants, single mothers, etc? I notice that Europeans and Canadians (grew up in Canada) seem to have no problem with creating a strong safety net.

L Furman / June 21st, 2012, 12:26 pm / #9

The graphic says it all. Children, as you note, are not born "with anything resembling 'rights' attached to their bodies. They were protected by the good will of doctors, nurses, and their parents, and by extension the entire American society. Had they been born elsewhere in the world, they might not even have had the so-called “right” to avoid being killed by senseless violence or preventable childhood diseases."

We stand on the shoulders of others. The laptop with which I can view your post and comment is derived from work done by the people who designed and assembled it, and also Turing, Von Neumann, Boole, Pascal, and others - back to Aristotle, Plato, & Socrates.

ManYunSoo / August 18th, 2012, 4:44 pm / #10

Good job implying that all abstract concepts are nonsense, because you can't see them written on newborns. The fact that rights are routinely violated does not make them nonexistent. I admit that nothing I've said here gives evidence that rights DO exist, though.

BlackSun / August 18th, 2012, 5:11 pm / #11

Correct. That is because actual rights are only granted by either mutual consent or by governmental authority. The principle that we believe a human being should have inalienable rights exists. But in practice the rights themselves do not, unless defended by force or threat of use of force.

plaza hoteis / September 9th, 2012, 9:37 pm / #12

good job w/ this text. tranks

wygantsh / October 22nd, 2012, 11:53 am / #13

You mentioned that the principle that a human being should have inalienable rights exists. Then you mentioned that in practice those rights do not unless defended. From reading these two statements I am left with the question of whether we are talking about latent rights or expressed rights. There maybe a difference however drawing a distinction seems moot since many of the rights we exercise in our daily lives go unchallenged. Yet, it seems that one very fundamental right frequently is abrogated without being defended and that is the right of a parent to have a relationship with his or her children following a divorce. Some parents are denied access to their children following a divorce through the actions of an embittered ex-spouse and in some jurisdictions this denial goes on for years without any sua sponte efforts on the part of the court system to enforce the parent and child's right to freedom of association under the 1st amendment.

Parents and children who have experienced this know and understand how important rights are and why they should not be taken for granted. The concept of an inalienable right to the freedom of association is of course man made however it hold up to strict scrutiny analysis under the concept of property rights and the right of privacy.

BlackSun / October 22nd, 2012, 12:12 pm / #14

What is a latent right? It certainly doesn't help anyone if it cannot be expressed. The custody of minor children is a good example of how the law trumps a supposed latent human right of free association. And the custody rules are written not just for the parents or children, but also to protect the state from having a bunch of abandoned children to take care of. Also, many rights conflict, (private property vs. public right-of-way or interest, etc.) and it is up to the law to resolve those conflicts.

I'm not saying the outcome is always just, but as soon as people begin to interact, they lose some "rights" which they might have if they lived on a planet by themselves. The very concept of rights can therefore only be defined relative to the rights of others.

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Peter Paul Fuchs / April 15th, 2013, 12:46 pm / #18

Sean,

You seem well-inofrmed so I am sure you know already that the genesis of the sort of tropes your mother used was in fascism, and not in any sort of of libertarian reaction to collectivism. One can draw a straight and ion broken line between the ideation of CUT back to the Ballards, and thence to the American fascist group Silver Shirts. The dialectics and hyper intellectualism that existed in the Soviet collectivist world had no parallel in the fascist cultures, which were very anti-intellectual in general (except for a tiny elite).

How it was in this country that libertarianism got mixed up with fascism is a complex tale indeed. But we can see it in the hyper-patriotism of the Ballards. Your mother's innovations seem to have been to bring in a more counter-cultural vibe, but curiously transmogrified with some of that same libertarian-hyper patriotism. It seems this was a shot-gun marriage, to say the least conceptually. If we look at the doomsday ideation that surfaced later, it is legible culturally as the result simply of that strange marriage of two divergent cultural skeins.

Lastly, one thing really interests me in regard to all this, and it relates to a true story anecdote from my own llife, which is my only personal experience of your mother's group. When I first moved ito DC I used to walk everywhere around the city. One day I was walking home from downtown, and my route took my past the the Capital Hilton on 16th Street. Suddenly, I saw big placards with your mother's face on it, and the posters invited people in to see the convention of the group which was taking place at the Hilton. I couldn't resist going in because of my grandmother's I AM background. What surprised my was that the slogan all around was, if memory serves, "On the Stump" . And the whole convenition seemed geared not so much for "conversions" but as is someone was running for President. I was actually so creeped out by it that I left quickly. But I have always wondered if the de facto theme at the time was one of real political ambition for a time. Of course that would have been pure delusional thinking. But if instead of facing that delusion, it was later turned into doomsday ideation, then the etiology of the whole think in delusional political ambition. I would love to know if this is close to the real issue.

Lastly, my husband has a brother who was married and raised five kids with the daughter of famous sic-fi writer Ray Bradbury. I know the kids, and have often joked with them that if Ray Bradbury had had other ambitions he could easily have started a religion. Ray was a real right winger, and I am glad he didn't. Speaks well of him.

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Heating Oil prices / August 27th, 2013, 10:03 am / #21

>>" Had they been born elsewhere in the world, they might not even have had the so-called “right” to avoid being killed by senseless violence or preventable childhood diseases."

Great post. Its true that we have some of the greatest Healthcare facilities in the world and value for human life in this great country but with the recent passing of Obamacare, I wonder how long it'll last. The current run up in Oil prices coupled by the relentless spending of taxpayer money by our government makes one wonder how long "upward mobility" and the founding virtues of libertarians will last in this country!

Dougald / February 22nd, 2014, 7:16 pm / #22

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tazman / April 10th, 2014, 5:54 am / #23

All I can say is that if Ayn Rand was your basis for your "liberterianism" then you were never a liberterian at all, you were more of a libertine. Ditto if Reason magazine was your lighthouse of liberterianism. Liberterianism is not how you describe it in your article, though I can appreciate your self-reflection. Liberterianism means only one thing really…the adherence to the non-aggression principle. That is it, that is all there is to it. Liberterianism is not politics or moral code nor individualism….it simply says that you agree not to agress against other persons or property and, in return, they agree not to agress against you. I suggest you read Murray Rothbard, von Mises, Hayek and Lew Rockwell.

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