Viewpont: On Tolerance and Humility


Back in 1971, the Society for Individual Liberty published an essay or two in defense of "ideological purity" that struck me as rather presumptuous, but they declined to print my answer. In a symbolic gesture, they dropped the word "rational" from the title of their magazine Rational Individualist, and proceeded to publish Murray Rothbard's unbalanced assault on Milton Friedman. Attempts by David Friedman and me to reply to Rothbard were rejected, so I sent the piece to a journal that Rosalie Nichols had mentioned—REASON. Roy Childs, then editor of Individualist, wrote to REASON, essentially pleading with them not to publish my piece. They didn't listen, so here I am.

Now, we have Edith Efron ["Viewpoint," February] urging a boycott of Ed Crane's Inquiry and Roy Childs' Libertarian Review for reasons that leave me almost as uneasy as those earlier attempts to narrow the range of debate, purge the opposition, and license the definition of "libertarian." Yet there is enough substance in what she says to warrant close examination.

The great virtue of REASON has been its willingness to open its pages to a reasonably broad variety of interpretations of applied libertarian thought, and to serve as an entry point for new writers (myself in 1971). These virtues have been the source of the journal's strength, and its ability to outlive several libertarian journals that have come and gone in the past few years. The others, by contrast, typically served as vehicles for advancing the similar views of a rather narrow sub-set of established authors.

The whole idea of a cult of individualists is patently absurd, yet such cults clearly do exist. Edith Efron endorses Ayn Rand's description of libertarians as "a random collection of emotional hippies-of-the-right who seek to play at politics without philosophy or consistency." Yet that seems as petty a generalization as labeling classical liberals (Friedman) as "statists," or (as Efron did in The Alternative) ascribing to all conservatives the collective opinions that James Burnham arbitrarily hung on them years ago. Indeed, the danger of lumping diverse ideas under any label is that it may provide a convenient excuse for ignoring those that may sound intuitively distasteful.

An informed libertarian should surely read Rand, Rothbard and Friedman, and also Burke, Marx and Keynes. There is nothing to be feared from exposure to many sources of knowledge, and there is enough brilliance in all of these sources to reward the time invested in understanding what they have to say.

Efron's central theme is that libertarians should not make political alliances with those opposed to economic freedom and in favor of egalitarian coercion. They should instead recognize their ancestry as children of relatively libertarian "conservatives," and strengthen their bonds with the so-called "neo-conservatives." As a tactical matter, I am in complete agreement, although I am not too happy with her vague supporting remarks about "the necessity of a national culture, the value of a government," and all that.

Yet there are also threads of individualist ethics used, however inconsistently, by those civil libertarians who have been habitually allied with collectivist economics. And it does seem tempting to try to bend that sort of disenchantment with statism into a comparable position with regard to voluntary economic choices. When it has been tried in the past, however, as in a defunct journal called something like Left and Right, the compromises always seemed to pull in a leftward (statist) direction.

Having not seen Libertarian Review, I'll confine my comments to a couple of April issues of Inquiry. I, too, have been asked to write for Inquiry, and to avoid those risky "buzzwords"—"capitalism, the free market, and the price system." The journal describes itself as "outspoken," but there are those modest constraints.

The Left, apparently, has a freer hand. Peter Schrag is free to lambast "agents of corporate capitalism." No buzzwords there. Marcus Raskin can blast "connections between the rich and the powerful" and bless Andrew Young's support of "liberation movements" and "higher taxes for the rich." Jim Morrel can complain about IMF loans to South Africa and Chile, yet beef about US opposition to similar loans for that citadel of human rights, Vietnam. And it's okay for Stephen Arons to quote brilliant remarks about "competitive and warring economic enterprise."

Let's be fair. There is some good stuff here. A nice little piece on "Defecting to the Private Schools," a plausible critique of the Criminal Code Reform bill, a "Diary of a Polish Dissident" which could scarcely be described (in Efron's words) as "anti-anti-communism." But there are also some unconvincing bits of conspiratorial gossip: "Could it be that David Truong—an ambitious and by some accounts manipulative—operator…fell into a trap the government had wanted to spring for years?"

On balance, Inquiry seems a little light on analysis or evidence, a bit heavy on unsupported rhetoric and opinion. I find it dull so far, but others might not.

Above all, I see no risk that Inquiry is, as Ms. Efron worries, "going to represent libertarians to the…intellectual community." For one thing, the word "libertarian" is one of those frightening catchwords that have been purged from its pages. For another, it just isn't a libertarian magazine. Although Efron hints that the editor planned "to smuggle in a little free-market economics," (even Harper's does that) there isn't a word of it in the two issues I have seen (can't fault them, really, since I was invited). If the magazine has a theme, it seems to be isolationism, but isolationists, by definition, are not interested in reading about global political and military affairs. The rest is mostly filler.

Still, I am put off by Ms. Efron's instruction that libertarians "refuse" to buy or contribute to Inquiry. I might buy the thing if they put more substance into it. I certainly see no reason for refusing to write for any journal. The readers of The Progressive or Village Voice, for example, could probably benefit more from libertarian analysis than the readers of REASON. Plenty of aspiring dictators have written for the New York Times, yet that does not keep me out of their pages.

I am haunted by the way Winston Churchill (not one of my favorites) lost the election after World War II. All of the socialists pooled their efforts behind the Labor Party, and the anti-socialist camp splintered into numerous factions based on personalities, religion, and assorted trivia.

We don't need to dissipate limited readership and funds among a lot of new journals; we need to strengthen those that have passed the test of market survival. We don't need to make a religion of either Chicago or Austrian economics, nor of Objectivism or anarchism. We don't need to deceive the Left, nor censor the Right. We only need to maximize individual choice and minimize collective coercion with the very best intellectual ammunition we can and must gather from a variety of sources.

There is one journal that has passed these tests against amazing odds, and you should consider yourself fortunate to be reading it.