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Liberalism vs. Objectivism

Liberalism vs. Objectivism

5 Mins
January 26, 2011

Question: I understand Objectivism 's robust arguments against some components of current American political conservatism, e.g., mysticism, religiosity, etc. I also have a foggy understanding of the differences between "classical" liberalism and current American liberalism (identified with portions of the Democratic Party).

While I understand that Objectivism argues against statism and promotes individual responsibility, I would like to hear some Objectivist arguments against the portions of American liberalism that Objectivists hold with disdain that are equally as robust and logical as those focused against conservatism.

Answer: Ayn Rand criticized both the “liberal” Left and the “conservative” Right poles of American politics. She identified both major political coalitions as mixed-up hodgepodges, tied together by fashion, history, and the pull of particular interest groups. Underneath both of them she saw the clash of contradictory principles: a confused appreciation for the individual and limited government admixed with strong commitments to irrationalism and self-sacrifice.

In a rough sense, the Right in recent American politics stands for control over speech, thought, and sexual relations, combined with support for big business and lower taxes. The Right tends to promote ideas of economic freedom, such as deregulation and freer international trade. But it campaigns strongly against private acts it regards as immoral. It is against drug legalization, has been cavalier about government wiretaps, has a strong anti-immigration wing, opposes abortion rights, and is staunchly against legalizing gay marriage. There have been inconsistencies in this pattern, but all the policies I’ve mentioned have found a home on the Right over the last 50 years. The Right, as Ayn Rand put it, wants to chain the mind and set free the body.

Ayn Rand criticized both the “liberal” Left and the “conservative” Right poles of American politics.

The Left, for its part, wants to chain the body and free the mind. Still speaking roughly,  the “liberal” Left has stood for freedom of speech, thought, and sexual relations, combined with distrust of business and support for economic controls. The Left has tended to be the home of people open to diverse lifestyles: it is the home of the gay liberation movement, people who advocate relaxed drug laws, and has long opposed racist intolerance toward minorities. The Left is concerned to protect citizens against abuse by the police or federal agents. But on economic issues, the Left tends to be for greater government control and higher government expenditure. Environmentalism is a Leftist issue, and the Left has a strong anti-technology wing, one that distrusts most forms of energy production and favors “simple living” techniques such as organic farming. While the Left opposes racism and sexism, it favors affirmative action, a policy that, in the end, defines people by their race and sex.

2009 sees the Left in power, with the Democrats controlling the House, Senate, and the Presidency. Their policy agenda may be blunted by the economic crisis, but we can look forward to proposals to extend government control deeper into the health care market, new initiatives to restrict carbon emissions (rather than, say, reduce atmospheric carbon technologically), new subsidies for favored “green” technologies, greater restrictions on energy exploration, and increased taxes on high income earners. Some of the staunchest supporters of the Democratic Party are the public employee unions, such as the teachers union, and we can expect increased funding for any project staffed by these unions, such as mass transit and traditional monopoly public schools.  

Objectivism stands for both economic and personal liberty, just as it stands for unity of mind and body. For particular Objectivist criticisms of favorite Left-liberal policies, see the links at left.

For a book-length critique of a key “liberal” idea, see David Kelley: A Life of One's Own: Individual Rights and the Welfare State.

I would hope for greater consistency in both parties: the Republicans at least have a “libertarian” wing. Why isn’t there a wing of “small government Democrats” who favor services for the poor but also see the need for greater economic liberty? Couldn’t we have a debate where everyone agrees we have too much government regulation of the economy and too much intrusion into our personal lives? Instead, our debates today mostly assume we have too little.

Sadly, it seems to me that the parties are coming together in agreement over a new Paternalism. Democrats now urge regulating tobacco as a drug, rather than liberalizing drugs to treat them more like tobacco is. Republicans line up to support increased Medicare benefits and government funding of political campaigns. Republicans propose strong powers for the war on terror, regardless of civil liberties, and many Democrats bustle forward to show their support. With the economic crisis, everyone wants to be next FDR. The message from both sides is: “Trust the government to run things best. Who can’t be trusted to be responsible? You can’t, that’s who.”

To an Objectivist, the new Paternalism looks like a case of the philosophic chickens coming home to roost. Politics is derivative: a political position cannot hold against strongly opposed moral and epistemological premises. Barack Obama achieved national fame at the 2004 Democratic National Convention by praising the principle that “you are your brothers’ keeper.” This is hardly a principle that the Christian Right can deny. Both Left and Right are dominated by the social ethic of altruism, which holds that the noblest acts we can make are those that serve others. Since individual liberty compels no one to serve anyone, it makes altruists on both the Left and the Right very uncomfortable.

“Liberals” are supposed to stand for liberty. Somehow, since the time of John Stuart Mill, the Left wing of the old classical liberal coalition has come to embrace the view that (economic) freedom is slavery and that it is only when all must pull together that we really have freedom. To recapture its soul, American liberalism needs to put the individual first again. It needs to embrace a non-mystical view of the world that sees human happiness as the greatest good to be achieved, and that looks at government as critically as it looks at business.

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Political Philosophy
History of Philosophy
Values and Morals
Ayn Rand's Ideas and Influence