Libertarian History/Philosophy

This Catholic Magazine Thinks There's a Libertarian Way to Ride a Bicycle. What?

Commonweal's Alan Wolfe calls libertarianism "a total ideology, one that addresses every aspect of how people live."

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Sigh. Alan Wolfe is writing about libertarianism again. In June he complained that libertarianism was "rigid" and obsessed with "purity," under the ridiculous headline "Why libertarianism is closer to Stalinism than you think." Now he's claiming that "libertarianism embodies Max Weber's nightmare of an iron cage," whatever that means. The article is obsessed with ideological infighting, and this time he actually does manage to accuse Ayn Rand of a "Stalinesque purge" of Nathaniel Branden, her former lover and ideological partner. Thing is, she didn't have Branden killed, which is pretty much the essence of Stalinesque purges.

Yes, Rand and Murray Rothbard denounced lots of people for ideological deviation. Some fans of Ron Paul don't find Rand Paul sufficiently libertarian. I myself find lots of people insufficiently libertarian, even some who are pretty libertarian. In my observation, ideological arguments, splits, and purges are pretty common in all ideologies. How many tiny socialist and communist parties are there? In the United Kingdom, the Jeremy Corbyn left has just purged the Blairites. In the Republican party lots of movements and candidates are battling for whatever combination of purity and electability they prefer. They all want to be the Reagan guy, though in 1980 the purest conservatives rallied around Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.), the conservative alternative to Reagan. In 1972 the McGovern campaign manager Frank Mankiewicz went to a meeting of a New York City Democratic club and came out several hours later musing, "Every little meaning has a movement all its own." Ideologues argue.

I also find it amusing that Wolfe writes in Commonweal, a Catholic magazine, that libertarianism seeks to impose an orthodoxy.

But let me look at what I take to be the main point of the article:

Libertarianism, however, is not just a set of policy prescriptions, but an ideology. It is, moreover, a total ideology, one that addresses every aspect of how people live. There is a libertarian way of riding a bicycle, of taking your medicine, finding a spouse, giving blood, and even calling a cab (can you say, "Uber?").

Is he kidding? In a world that has experienced Catholicism, fundamentalism, communism, national socialism, Islamic fundamentalism, and political correctness, he calls libertarianism "a total ideology, one that addresses every aspect of how people live?" How does such nonsense get published?

Let me just say that I've written books on libertarianism, and I've never used Uber, nor do I have any idea what the libertarian way of "riding a bicycle, of taking your medicine," or of "finding a spouse" is supposed to be.

There are of course philosophies that are totalist or address "every aspect of how people live," from peaceful but prescriptive religions to theocracies to 20th-century totalitarianisms. Let's look at a more timely example, political correctness.

As Jesse Walker wrote earlier this year, the term "politically correct" began with Marxists seeking to impose ideological discipline. It gravitated to some feminist and leftist thinking between the 1960s and 1980s, also as a form of ideological discipline. Only later did it become a mocking term, first among freer-thinking leftists and then among conservatives. Note also the feminist slogan "the personal is political." That too is an attempt to regulate thought and action, bringing them into conformity with a particular ideology. It might have derived from a 1970 essay by Carol Hamisch under that title and widely reprinted. Hamisch wrote:

One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.

There's a perspective that might have created an iron cage. A philosophy of "do what you want to do, so long as you respect the equal rights of others" is something very different. But Wolfe just can't see that. He also claims:

Indeed, the libertarian conception of human nature seems curiously, even paradoxically, machine-like. Seemingly free to make our own decisions, in the libertarian utopia we would in fact be little more than slaves of rules that conform our choices to the rigidities of marketplace rationality….At a personal level, emotions such as envy, guilt, and sympathy would be forbidden us. Human nature, libertarians insist, is one thing and one thing only: the capacity to make choices based on the rational calculation of self-interest. 

That's a striking distortion of Ayn Rand's philosophy. It has, as far as I can see, no relationship at all to non-Randian libertarianism. I suppose it's true that libertarians discourage envy as a guide to action. But guilt and sympathy "forbidden …at a personal level?" The point of libertarianism is to respect each person as an end, not just a means; to allow persons to think and act as they please, so long as they respect the rights of others; and thereby to encourage human flourishing. You won't find much scope in that agenda for forbidding personal emotions.

This is all very sad. You can tell that Alan Wolfe has read a lot of libertarian writings. Yet with all his reading, he has not got understanding; apparently his aversion to free-market economics blinds him to what libertarians are actually saying. Wolfe might want to reflect on something he wrote about modern Americans in his book One Nation, After All:

Above all moderate in their outlook on the world, they believe in the importance of living a virtuous life but are reluctant to impose values they understand as virtuous for themselves on others; strong believers in morality, they do not want to be considered moralists.

That just might be a description of many libertarians.

If The Princess Bride's Inigo Montoya was here, he would say to Alan Wolfe, "Libertarianism? You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

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  1. Guess you guys may as well convert to Objectivism. You’re going to be treated like us anyways, and at least this way you’ll know the Objectivist way to ride a bike (awesomely).

    1. The Objectivist way to ride a bicycle is in a circle, round and round.

  2. Ah, yes, the Catholic church and its long history of fighting against materialism and free markets. Alan Wolfe merely follows a long tradition of fascist ideas among Catholics.

    The struggle against a materialistic philosophy for the creation of a true community serves the interests of the nation as well as our Christian belief.

    we are enemies of today’s capitalistic economic system for the exploitation of the economically weak, with its unfair salaries, with its unseemly evaluation of a human being according to wealth and property instead of responsibility and performance, and we are determined to destroy this system under all conditions.

    1. Speaking of wealth and property, and fighting against materialism – anybody got any idea what the Church’s real estate, art and antiquities holdings are worth these days? Offhand I can’t think of any non-political institution historically guiltier of exploiting the weak and the ignorant than the Roman Catholic Church.

    2. “…with its unseemly evaluation of a human being according to wealth and property instead of responsibility and performance…”

      That’s a double stacked pallet of pure derpity derp derp right there. That he doesn’t/can’t/won’t see the connection between wealth and performance is telling. It’s magical thinking like this that will lead to unskilled and entry level workers making $15/hr, then being replaced with machines. Brilliant.

  3. Sadly, I think Alan Wolfe has libertarianism confused with objectivism.

    1. He definitely tries to confuse the two. Whether he himself is confused is another question.

    2. He definitely tries to confuse the two. Whether he himself is confused is another question.

      1. Squirrels is confoozed, it seemz.

    3. No. What he describes has no relationship to either libertarianism nor Objectivism. Its gibberish, as if he was claiming Hitler was a pacifist or Ghandi a gluttonous materialist.

  4. “I also find it amusing that Wolfe writes in Commonweal, a Catholic magazine, that libertarianism seeks to impose an orthodoxy.”

    Just so you know, Commonweal is against *even their own Church* imposing an orthodoxy.

    They feel free to follow their own analysis and don’t want to be corrected by the Vatican. Instead, they want to be free to develop their own unorthodox religious ideas.

    Which is fine, if you’re into that sort of thing.

    Except for the part where they call themselves “Catholic” – that tends to confuse people.

  5. This Catholic Magazine Thinks There’s a Libertarian Way to Ride a Bicycle. What?

    Boy, the staff of Reason must really have taken that suggestion that they would better get the message out by adopting the vapid style of such respectable publications as Jezebel and Salon to heart!

    1. Support your local Orthodoxy! Because there’s a shortage of /sarc/ tags around here!

  6. Really? Catholics attacking others for following a dogma (which Libertarianism isn’t), following it’s leaders devoutly, and attacking those with similar views who differ from them. Isn’t that the entire history of the Catholic Church?

    /personally a religious individual who follows a strict religious creed on how to govern my life and I do follow specific religious leaders for my spiritual needs. But those are completely separate from my political beliefs.

  7. I like riding bikes. No, wait,I had a point, somewhere. Where the hell did I put it?
    Oh yeah: The funnest thing about being a libertarian is all the dumbasses explaining to you what libertarians really believe.

    1. The second funnest thing is watching Hihn explain why what you believe is not what real libertarians believe.

  8. Again, Commonweal is strongly against the idea of *even their own Church* imposing any dogma on them.

    The magazine has praised a theologian who was denounced by the Vatican for contradicting fundamental Catholic teachings.

    The former editor is into artificial birth control, and they just called for letting non-priests anoint the sick.

    Fine if you’re into that sort of thing, but don’t be confused if the person saying such things claims to be Catholic.

    If you don’t like what Commonweal is distorting libertarianism, welcome aboard – Catholics don’t necessarily like how they’re distorting Catholicism.

    1. don’t like *that* Commonweal…

    2. So, the message this guy is sending to Commonweal’s readers is that libertarians are *just like* those Catholics who follow the traditional teachings of the Church – and this is not meant as a compliment.

    3. Again, Commonweal is strongly against the idea of *even their own Church* imposing any dogma on them.

      It’s the Catholic church imposing Catholic dogma on non-Catholics that is of concern to us.

      1. I just explained that there’s no cause to worry as far as Commonweal magazine is concerned.

        They’re your *friends.* They don’t want to impose traditional Catholic doctrine on *anyone.*

        They’re fighting the good fight for you.

        You really ought to appreciate them more.

  9. There is a libertarian way to ride a bicycle though: it’s with no handles and no helmet.

    1. Yes – and no teeth either.

      1. Mountain Bikes only. Because – NO RAODS.

    2. No, the libertarian way to ride a bicycle is while smoking a joint, sitting on the seat post with no seat, with a Mexican sitting on the handlebars.

      1. Can’t I just ride my unicycle instead and skip all the rest?

  10. I tried in vain to Google how I’m supposed to ride my bicycle. If you happen to know the proper Ayn Rand approved way, please fill me in.

    1. First, you ride a bike whose beauty is a result of its superb functionality. You add no tassles on the end of the grips, nor playing cards to create noise as the spokes strike them.

      You ride the bike as an anthem to the giant intellect who created it. Such a bike challenges you to be great.

      You ride it for your own purposes and needs, not for any other’s. Your happiness in getting from point A to point B is all the justification you need.

      You ride it effortlessly and yet with a skill that borders on the erotic.

      You do not let anyone else borrow it unless they are worthy and the borrowing provides you with value.

      1. Well played, sir.

      2. Sounds about right.

    2. If George Wallace were still alive, he might be able to show you how to “park a bicycle straight.”

  11. There is indeed a libertarian way “that addresses every aspect of how people live”.

    The libertarian way to do anything is any way the individual wants do it in voluntary association with other individuals, subject only to the constraint of the non-aggression principle.

    Statists naturally object to the libertarian way of doing things. They want things to be done collectively in the way chosen by an elite of a coerced collective that is free from the constraint of the non-aggression principle.

  12. “At a personal level, emotions such as envy … would be forbidden us.”

    What part of “Thou shalt not covet” does this knucklehead not understand? The Ten Commandments expressly command that people suppress the emotion of envy. Everything else in the Commandments relates to words and deeds.

    Since he is writing for a Catholic magazine, is it possible that he would be unfamiliar with their 9th and 10th Commandments?

    1. “Cafeteria Catholic” aka “American Catholic”

  13. Damned fascist libertarians and their fascistic obsession with individual freedom and responsibility.

    Wait, I get it, we’re supposed to put God first, and God, as interpreted by whatever gang of scheming priests happens to be in power, isn’t that into freedom.

  14. Liberty is tyranny!

    1. Yes, it is callous to force people to make choices and live their own lives.

  15. Perhaps it’s the naked bicycle thing they do in San Francisco? Is it probable that could be construed as libertarian? Maybe.

  16. “Don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff.”

  17. Just in case you didn’t get the memo…we ride our bicycles with two feet on the pedals, that way we keep our foot(s) out of our mouths.

    1. chewing gum…blowing a bubble. POP!

    2. Why do you hate amputees?

  18. The is a Libertarian way to ride a bike or take your medicine … it’s called “however the hell you want!”

  19. Indeed, the libertarian conception of human nature seems curiously, even paradoxically, machine-like.

    Machines have that penchant of doing what they think is best for them, after all!

    Wolfe not only shows he is clueless about the subject he tackles, he is also showcasing his own clumsy discourse. if there is one thing that could be the total opposite of a mechanistic process is precisely the market. The market itself, as a system, behaves much more like an organism and much less like a machine. Wolfe can’t get his definitions straight, so how can he even have the gall to argue anything?

    Seemingly free to make our own decisions, in the libertarian utopia we would in fact be little more than slaves of rules that conform our choices to the rigidities of marketplace rationality

    Because people trading with each other is just too[…] mechanistic! Too rigid!

    Instead, cooperation [which in the mind of the statist is robbing people to pay for free shit] is much less rigid and thus more appealing!

    1. Indeed. If anything is mechanistic, it is how statists treat markets as things which can be mechanically understood and controlled; and furthermore, they fuck it up as if speedometers were control levers, not readouts, and moving the needle would actually do something useful.

      1. “if we only had enough computing power, we could determine prices better than the market can, and thus centrally-plan the economy!”

        The dream of tyrants is precisely being able to control people as if they were machines. Marxians and left-wing fools tend to accuse others of wanting to create a world they themselves are striving for and this guy is no different.

    2. Yes, it is so *restricting* to not be able to use coercion against other people! After all, what if people don’t want to do what you want them to???

    3. I quote Hayek in “Fight of the Century: Keynes vs. Hayek, Round II”

      The economy’s not a car,
      There’s no engine to stall.
      No expert can fix it.
      There’s no “it” at all.
      The economy is us,
      We don’t need a mechanic.
      Put away the wrenches,
      The economy’s ORGANIC!

  20. I hate to think that I may have been riding a bicycle in a non-libertarian way all these years! 😉
    And now, what about my kickbike?

    http://www.kickbike.com

  21. Why are such simple ideas as the non-aggression principle so hard for some people to understand? How do they come up with this nonsense? Where did he get the idea there is a libertarian way to ride a bike? Seriously! Where did he get that idea?

    1. Umm, his ass?

    2. He was probably just being absurdist to get his point across.

  22. Can someone PLEASE link to the proper “libertarian” way to ride a bike! I fear I’ve been doing it like a liberal all this time.

    1. If the Libertarian Purity Police didn’t come for you, it’s because they don’t think you’re really libertarian! 😉

  23. It is most interesting to me when some ignorant pundit actually tries to get down to the ideological level of libertarianism in order to denigrate it.
    There are certainly things that libertarianism has some difficulty in translating ideology into practical application, but NONE of the things Wolfe complains about or attempts to characterize about libertarianism comes even close to reality, or of any fundamental problem with the political philosophy – whether ideologically or practiceably.
    So, Wolfe doesn’t even have the knowledge or mental tools to properly criticize libertarianism, and his whining is easily rebuffed as simply silly and inaccurate.
    I will worry a little more when someone who actually understands libertarianism, and objects to it politically, comes along to criticize it at its weakest points.

  24. But libertarianism DOES affect every aspect of one’s life.
    If it breaks my bones or picks my pocket, I can defend myself, or do so by government proxy.
    Everything else, leave everyone alone, get out of their way, let them work out if they want to trade or interact between themselves, and only if contracts get into trouble will government get involved.

    We tend to forget that omission is often more powerful than commission.

    When we try to manage forests or other ecosystems. They have super-fires, half the species go extinct, or somehow trying to have a bureaucrat calculating the proper rabbit to coyote ratio never ends well.

  25. “Commonweal’s Alan Wolfe calls libertarianism ‘a total ideology, one that addresses every aspect of how people live.'”

    If you’ve never met libertarians who act like that, then I envy you.

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