Participation, Cooption, and Knowing What's Right


Anyone with integrity has faced the problem of working with people and institutions opposed to one's ideals. When a culture is predominantly geared towards goals one knows to be wrong the problem is intensified. It would be useful to thresh out some of the details of this problem.

In private life it is not impossible to avoid working with people and institutions that stand in one's way. Many of us have faced the problem of standing up to parents or friends whose moral and political ideals we could not accept. Sometimes we had to simply sever relationships, some of them quite rewarding as far as they went. Learning of the price we were expected to pay—attend church, abstain from commenting on political issues, refrain from criticizing someone's ideas on race relations, etc.—it became impossible to continue without serious compromise. But in these personal matters the choice to simply leave, however emotionally taxing, is available to most people. The same is not the case with respect to a person's involvement with the legal and political features of his community. As our society is governed, a person cannot refuse cooperation with the business of the State. So those convinced of the primacy of liberty in political and legal affairs must come to grips with cooperating and working in the system.

The State today is involved, more or less, in all realms of human life. Artists, educators, engineers, airline pilots, foundation presidents—any person at work or at leisure must cope with the State or very likely perish. In contrast to disagreements with parents or business associates, it is impossible to just wait a while and walk away from the State. A person who wants to solve political problems must be attuned to the fine art of uncompromising yet unself-destructive cooperation within the system. The particulars of the complex contours of such cooperation are too numerous to list or even categorize. Each day, in every person's life, new instances of facing the problem emerge. Some of the more obvious questions one has to face concern paying taxes, using government funds made available by immoral legislation, utilizing governmental monopolies and special privileges, "contributing" to immoral military efforts, and so forth.

The questions are not simple and no a priori principle can provide precise instructions as to the correct answers. Each individual has to think through the problem in the light of the central goal we all face in life: to succeed, within our individual contexts, as human beings; to be happy; to sustain our self respect. The details could only be worked out after the closest possible scrutiny of a person's circumstances and goals.

One point is important to mention. Simply adhering to a political ideal will not equip anyone with the means for handling the problems under discussion. Being a libertarian or political individualist means to be committed to the principles of liberty in human interaction, to treating oneself and others as ends, not means to others' goals. One virtue of such a political position is its strictly limited scope. The principle of liberty, which identifies the limits of human interaction, does not serve to solve the problems we face where liberty is not at issue. When a person cooperates with another in producing a very bad play or airplane or whatever else, there is nothing in libertarianism that will guide one as to whether such conduct is right or wrong.

Nor can the question of how one should cope with existing coercion be answered by resorting to libertarian principles. When is overt tax-resistance appropriate? When would it simply incapacitate a person and ruin chances for more effective moves against oppressors? When should one join one's opponents so as to change their policies or at least hinder their destructive progress? When would this serve to make the opposition seem more tolerant, even accommodation to one's ideals?

Some argue that consistency—moral integrity—requires that an advocate of liberty totally withdraw from the works of the enemy. The refusal to participate in any measure is considered to be the only morally justified approach as some view the matter. Yet we need to know by what moral position is this considered the correct approach. Surely those who value human life, including, first of all, their own, would argue against this pacifist approach. By their code a spy could be a very responsible, good person. For them even a thief's help could be welcome in the attempt to overcome a murderer.

In recent months issues such as those in focus here have surfaced within the ranks of dedicated libertarians. Views on both the more general problem and some specific cases are surprisingly divergent. Thus, for instance, Ayn Rand has condemned wholesale the Libertarian Party, Robert LeFevre has denounced those engaging in politics, and Murray Rothbard has chided Alan Greenspan for the latter's participation with the Ford Administration. Outside these better known cases there are many less obvious but similarly focused feuds in libertarian circles, political or otherwise.

The explanation for a good deal of this seems to be the failure of many people to realize just how much work it takes to discover whether people are conducting themselves immorally. Those who consider it possible for people to learn what is morally and politically right fail, at times, to realize just what this view entails about particular moral and political judgments. The antiskeptical claim amounts to putting moral and political matters on the same footing with the various sciences. And it is clear enough that knowledge is by no means cheap where science is concerned. Hard work is required to identify principles and particular facts of reality. To pronounce someone immoral is to take on an enormous burden, in many ways comparable to charging someone with a crime. To make the charge stick usually requires elaborate proof.

Of course some cases of conduct are obviously immoral. This is comparable to the obviousness of certain facts, especially once general understanding of some field has been reached. But whether it is immoral for a person to join the Libertarian Party, to participate in political elections, or to go to work in some government institution—these are not among the obvious within the purview of morality.

To take just one case, Alan Greenspan is barely known to most of us. He published a few articles supporting the free society and he is known to be a personal friend of Ayn Rand. At present he is chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors in the Ford Administration, Since he has assumed that post, he has made clear his convictions about the best economic system and the kind of government he considers morally justified. He has been interviewed on public television and has said nothing in that interview that contradicts his free market views; quite the contrary!

Of course Greenspan has done little to turn the present statist tide in Washington. Could he have done more? What should he have done? What should he be doing? What are the right ways to act in his position? Should he have refused the post? To answer any of these questions one must have a firmly grounded moral position, know the alternatives that faced Greenspan when he was called to Washington, know how much knowledge was available to him about the position he was to take, know the constraints on his job, know the kind of people he must deal with, and so on, leading into the particulars of Mr. Greenspan's situation.

It is possible to know what is right. It is possible to know whether another person has done the right thing in some situation. But anyone who does claim to possess that knowledge must stand ready with the arguments to show that he does know. Otherwise the claim is but an empty assertion, fostering antagonism, resentment but no understanding or progress.