Viewpoint: Some Points in Defense of Purism


Perhaps in every ideological movementin each school of thought that generates supporters who work to implement some of the principles derived from that school's framework of analysisthere are purists and not-so-purists. Among those who support the free society there is ample evidence of the belief that some are in one, others in the other camp. I am concerned only with a couple of matters in this connection.

One is the distinction between those who maintain that one and only one line of reasoning gives the conclusive support for the claim that a free society is best for human beings, and those who think that unless someone employs that argument, he or she cannot be a sincere, honest, productive advocate of human liberty. I belong in the first category. I admit that what the best argument for freedom (or a link at some particular stage within it) is may not as yet be fully worked out. I have independent grounds for thinking that if some conclusion is true, there can be a best way to show that. But I do not believe that everyone is responsible to know what that is.

Another issue concerning purism is that those who object to it most have a logical problem right off. As not-so-purists (which means: not committed to the position with which I associated myself above), these individuals believe that many (even any or no) avenues of argumentation can give equally good support for some conclusion. Still they object to the purists! But if an indeterminable variety of avenues can support the conclusion, the purist's idea that only one can do so best may be among those many. So there can be room for offense taken at, but not for a clear case against, the purist from the not-so-purist's viewpoint.

All this is meant to lead me to a beef I have against some people who are not-so-purists. Recently a lot of people have been climbing on to the libertarian platform. There are hedonist/subjectivists who don't accept natural law, objective morality, natural rightsonly some "opposite force" that may be as good or as bad as "we" are. There are positivists who think that we have only preference, not sound moral and political judgment, on "our" side when we stand for human liberty. There are reductionists who claim that free will does not exist and society will just automatically evolve toward human freedom. Still others have begun to link libertarianism to scientology, arguing that the human spirit is separate from the human body; autonomous and thus "completely free" (even of the laws of nature). Some think that accepting homosexuality as just one of many valid forms of sexuality is intrinsically tied to libertarianism. Then of course there are anarchists who claim that libertarianism entails the rejection of any kind of government, even law. The pacifists, who think protecting your own property (except when it is in your direct physical possession) involves moral evil of some sort, are yet another "authentic" libertarian group. And I haven't even come to the libertarian socialists, communists, and other "ists."

Granted, all these groups may find the political conclusion of libertarianismthat the free society is best for human beingscompatible with defending and pursuing their special values, ideas, ideals, projects, etc. That is, after all, one of the values of such a societybeyond a commitment to human liberty its laws do not demand anything of its members. But to establish that society, even to maintain it, more than that limited (political) commitment is required. The opposition's arguments must be met. Especially when one isn't starting with those who are politically tabula rasa. Their arguments can only be met with the best that defenders of human liberty can offer. Weaknesses in the case for liberty will allow the opposition's case to come off better, even if freedom could be given the best of all defenses.

So I have no personal beef with the not-so-purists and hangers on. In fact it is gratifying to know that libertarianism can accommodate many adherents of viewpoints different from what is the best in its behalf, just as predicted within libertarian political theory. No one need fear those who insist on finding the best case for human liberty, so long as he does respect its tenets and implicationson whatever grounds. I do want to make the appeal that some people join the effort to develop the best case. Without that we simply won't have libertarianism (or liberty) to hang on to much longer, even in the meager measure we can now encounter it.

A final note. I am interested in discussing the issue of purism versus not-so-purism, but not in pseudo-psychological terms. Those who want to brand purists like me psychologically "hung up" will do well to consider that a person who does have psychological hang-ups really doesn't like to be told about them in the course of an argument in which (he believes, rightly or wrongly) some substantive topic is being investigated. So there simply is no value in such "information" for purposes of resolving the issue I have been discussing. It is so tiresome to hear about your motivation when the merits of your suggestions and support for them are what is at issue. I say this from experience involving many others interested in resolving problems but meeting with amateur psychologists instead of bona fide interlocutors.

Tibor Machan teaches philosophy at SUNY-Fredonia. Dr. Machan's viewpoint appears in this column every third month, alternating with the viewpoints of Murray N. Rothbard and David Brudnoy.