Viewpoint: Libertarianism

Has its time really arrived?


Not long ago Ayn Rand decried certain features of the libertarian movement. I only heard about this, so I cannot give a completely reliable account, but the idea seems to have been simple enough: the theories required to sustain a libertarian political movement had not yet been assimilated, integrated, and understood (by those calling themselves libertarians) to the degree necessary for political purposes. Perhaps, I responded—at least I didn't have the information to confirm this, or to deny it.

But now news of the goings-on at the New York City Libertarian Party Convention has come my way and I have recalled Miss Rand's reported doubts. No, I still do not feel certain that her pessimistic prognosis is valid. But some of the hoopla of the convention did indicate to me that not all is well with the membership of this party whose future is supposed to have arrived by now.

A case in point: when presidential nominee Roger MacBride declared certain proposed VP candidates as unsuited to the purposes of the LP's presidential campaign—presumably attracting attention to the central political themes of libertarianism and gaining support thereby—he received both eloquent and not so eloquent harangues for his decision. "Immoral!" Why, just because one of those proposed as the VP nominee had failed to observe an admittedly immoral law it is surely unjust to deny him a place on the ticket! And how about rejecting someone who is gay? Isn't it obvious that such conduct violates libertarianism in a most thoroughgoing fashion?

Let's consider these charges. Is it unjust to deny someone a place on the ticket who has violated an unjust law? Well, if that were the reason for "nixing him," one may well find it unjust. But the decision must be evaluated on the basis of the purpose the candidacy is supposed to serve. I do not know whether the chances of attracting attention to libertarianism's central themes are lessened by running someone for office who has violated some existing law. Judging by the quality of journalism as it comes through in the nation's various media, the suggestion has plausibility, at least. What is clear, however, is that there is no a priori moral principle in terms of which no one with a record of tax avoidance should be denied a place on the party's ticket. Libertarianism is not an ethical system; it is a political theory—one pertaining to the proper organizing principles of a human community. Libertarianism includes principles that should govern the administration of political or legal justice, not principles that should govern all private conduct.

To represent the Libertarian Party is not itself a political act or an activity of the government of a human community. It is basically a job, a (private) business position. And for purposes of running a campaign so as to bring libertarian political philosophy to the attention of people, the proper and improper moves cannot be evaluated by reference to libertarian political principles. To attempt to do so is to commit an error some philosophers call the category mistake. Imposing the ethics of government on the conduct of private individuals is to confuse the issue very seriously indeed.

Mr. MacBride may have been wrong to refuse to accept as his VP candidate a person who has violated some tax law—but not because he ought to treat all potential VP candidates alike. Such egalitarian mumbo-jumbo is not becoming of individuals who are supposed to understand libertarian political theory. Equality is a principle of the administration of justice, not a principle of private life, of extralegal affairs among human beings. Sometimes one should treat others as equal—as when fathers provide for their children's well-being, or a married couple allocates chores around the house. But when the issue is how we should produce some perfectly legitimate goal (e.g., spreading libertarianism), that purpose and not some unfounded egalitarian theory of moral conduct is the test for determining what will count as a rational decision.

The same goes for gays. Homosexuals are due equal protection of their rights from those administering and enforcing a (libertarian) legal system. They are not owed anything from private citizens except the respect of their rights. In special circumstances, having nothing to do with homosexuality, gays could be owed certain conduct from others—e.g., when a promise has been made to them, it should be kept. But there is no such thing as a moral principle in terms of which one should treat everyone else as equally deserving of consideration for some job or gift or recognition. So when a homosexual wishes to obtain the VP post on the LP ticket, the question is: How well will the purpose of the campaign be served by that person's presence on the ticket?

Imagine that someone who weighs 350 pounds wanted the VP post. MacBride's plane could be overloaded by such a weighty person, so he would have to nix the selection. Is this immoral? In this case some other aspect of the campaign would have been suffering from the selection. (I don't know if the case fits, but it could fit.) I personally have done numerous things in my life that would make me unsuitable for the job—and some things simply happened to me (e.g., not having been born in this country) which could serve as diversionary issues. So if I got it into my head to run for office on the LP ticket, the wise decision of those choosing would probably be to nix me.

Sure. There will now be cries that Machan is a pragmatist, a dirty utilitarian, one who has no moral backbone. Well, this is an interesting charge because it says that those making it have never really gotten away from the type of thinking that they oppose when it culminates in a political theory. They still believe that morality means sacrifice at any cost. That to be morally good, to have moral character, one ought to have no regard for consequences.

Which takes us back to Miss Rand and her philosophical archenemy, Immanuel Kant. It was Kant who advocated a pure deontological morality, one where virtues could have nothing to do with the consequences of one's conduct, only with the pure basis of its motivation. By the example of what occurred at the LP Convention, it is apparent that a great many libertarians are Kantians at heart. They hold onto certain "intuitive," purely formal moral principles and ask everyone to stick by them, come hell or high water. For them, lying to an SS officer during the Third Reich, about where one's Jewish friend is hiding, would constitute an immoral act!

Personally I salute Roger MacBride for not being bamboozled into the trap of Kantianism, even by some rather formidable adversaries. He realized that his goal, the advancement of liberty, is of greater significance than abiding by the unrelated practice of treating all people as equally deserving of what he might have to offer.

It seems Rand may have been right. The philosophical underpinnings of libertarianism simply have not taken root among many libertarians. If people who choose to differ from others, or who happen to be different from most, still demand total acceptance by those they are different from, they haven't the backbone to live with their choice or identity. Individualism, indeed! We've got a long way to go.

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.