Saturday, October 20, 2012

Reclaiming Libertarianism, Part 2: An Asylum of Libertoonists

The political philosophy that holds individual rights, and liberty to exercise them, as the highest political value dates back at least as far as John Locke, the French Physiocrats, Adam Smith, and the American founders.  It’s an extremely important and respectable intellectual tradition.  It’s hard to overestimate its importance – even the highly doubtful conceptions of “human rights” and “positive rights” held by today’s progressives depend in part on it. 

The original name for this line of thought – liberalism – was taken by leftists and progressives and changed to mean something quite different, hence the need for terms such as “classical liberalism” and “libertarianism.”  Modern incarnations deal with new issues – you won’t find John Locke discussing drug laws (there weren't any) – but libertarianism is an important and serious intellectual tradition, and libertarian ideas are a fundamental component of Western political thought, even among people who do not identify themselves as libertarians.

It’s most unfortunate, then, that some of the most vocal of today’s exponents of libertarianism have turned it into a caricature of itself, a “libertoonism,” bordering on a quasi-religion,* rather than a carefully reasoned political philosophy.

Who are some of the worst culprits?  My own “preferred” list starts with Lew Rockwell and those associated with him – the Ludwig von Mises Institute,, and the bloggers on Rockwell’s own site.  They are closely connected with Ron Paul – one of the most libertarian members of Congress, but oftimes something of a libertoonist himself...far too closely associated with Rockwell and LvMI.  I’ve often documented here how crazy this crowd can be (e.g. here and here, and I’m hardly the only person to do this.  There are other libertoonists, though – the Independent Institute has some very clear-headed libertarian scholars, e.g. Alvaro Vargas Llosa.  Unfortunately, they also keep at least one prominent libertoonist on board, Robert Higgs (his series of haiku lamenting the death of Osama bin Laden and suggesting this would lead to the destruction of the United States by nuclear weapons is a case in point).  FEE – the Foundation for Economic Education – the oldest and I think most venerable of the free market think tanks – strikes me as a sound organization, featuring lecturers no less than Israel Kirzner, and promoting work by serious economists such as Sanford Ikeda.  But as PL of the Post Libertarian blog has pointed out, FEE too has been infected by the libertoonist virus, particularly with some of the crazier stuff former Freeman editor Sheldon Richman promoted. 

Speaking of “venerating,” another “libertarian” organization off the rails is the Ayn Rand Institute, whose leaders “ex-communicated” philosophy professor David Kelley for daring to suggest that Rand’s philosophy is not a “closed system” but an open one, i.e. one that can be challenged, added to, corrected... in short, subjected to rational analysis.  Kelley even went so far as to suggest it would be acceptable for Objectivists to enter into friendly debates with non-Objectivist libertarians, rather than simply condemning them as evil.  The conclusion of the ARI was that Kelley wrong, Rand’s is a closed system not open to further inquiry, and the Rand must be “venerated.”  It’s hard to find a clearer example of libertarian ideas being turned into a religion, although the Rockwellites come close in some of their statements concerning the work of Murray Rothbard.  (They also do this with Mises, while studiously ignoring what Mises actually said.)

I provided this short list just in case some readers aren’t sure who or what some of us mean when we talk about “transcending the madness.”  (It’s exclusively my own list, BTW.)  The main message, though, isn’t “here’s a list of the crazies.”  Libertoonism is a mindset, and it’s wherever you find it.  Any of us libertarians, including “us” at Unforeseen Contingencies, can fall for it to one degree or another, and we need to check our own thinking to guard against it.  I've fallen prey to the virus at times, and it's something I need to guard myself against.  

Furthermore, it’s certainly not something unique to libertarians at all – I’ve had numerous discussions with progressive and farther left academics that leave it obvious, sometimes even to them, that their political convictions are unfounded, irrational religious dogma.  The same goes for conservatives (although some brands of conservative seem to strive for unfounded, irrational religious dogma as a virtue).

But I don’t give a tinker’s dam about conservatism, progressivism, and the far left – these philosophies have much deeper problems than this.  I do care about getting libertarianism back “on the rails” because it’s a crucial set of ideas, and deserves much better treatment than the libertoonists give it.  Frederic Bastiat once observed that more harm is done to a good idea by a bad argument for it than by a good argument against it. ("The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.") Here's just one example of how the kooky advocates of libertarianism discredit it.

For my birthday my ultrarunning friend Fran Z. gave me the wonderful book, An Exaltation of Larks, and I’m now reading it.  It’s about terms of venery, i.e. names for specific collections of objects.  So let’s play the Game of Venery.  Tom Palmer already coined the term “a fever swamp of Rockwellites.”  Perhaps without realizing it, PL of Post Libertarianism has invented “a madness of Szasz-bots.”  May I now offer “an asylum of libertoonists?”

Next stop, a visit to that branch of the asylum that supposes libertarianism includes theories of physical science.
* In most of the links here to my own UC articles, the comments sections contain a number of "rebuttals."  Save for the one post on the misguided economics of the LvMI (in which several people tried seriously engaging me with rational but mistaken arguments) the comments are invariably angry, nasty, and without any substance or coherence.  I've committed a sin against the faith and they condemn me to hell for it.

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