Libertarian Package Deals

Libertarian Package Deals

Eugene C. Holloway

7 Mins
January 26, 2011

April 2008 -- Editor’s note: I’m pleased to yield my usual editorial space this month to Gene Holloway, director of operations and development for The Atlas Society, which publishes The New Individualist. Gene submitted a thoughtful essay that—like Roger Donway’s superb column this month—offers a lot of insight about issues that have generated much controversy in these pages recently.

But because it also bears on the editorial outlook of the magazine, as well as the objectives of its publisher, I think it belongs here.    —Robert James Bidinotto

Most readers of The New Individualist know that the senior staff and trustees of its publisher, The Atlas Society, are Objectivists—proponents of the philosophical point of view defined and advanced by novelist Ayn Rand . And while the magazine’s readership is growing more intellectually diverse every day, quite a few of its readers are Objectivists and libertarians. But it is clear from the reaction to the previous issue of the magazine (see this month’s letters) that some of these readers don’t readily recognize that there is a difference.

In a sense, all “isms” are “package deals”—presentations of philosophical ideas that are defined or offered up as a whole. Ayn Rand wisely counseled against unquestioning acceptance of intellectual package-deals. She argued that one should always first acknowledge reality and certain irrefutable and self-evident axioms, and then derive the principles that logically follow from both. Accordingly, we at TAS constantly encourage individuals to understand Objectivism by continuous, rigorous study—from its very basic and self-evident premises through its theories of knowledge, ethics, and politics—all the time checking its ideas and claims against the objective facts of reality, and with a questioning mind on full alert.

The Atlas Society’s founder, David Kelley, has argued that libertarians could better support their political ideas and efforts by calling upon Objectivism as a philosophical foundation. That’s because libertarianism adopts, as its starting point, the “downstream” political principles of freedom and nonaggression, which Objectivism regards as philosophically derivative. Objectivism holds that without antecedent philosophical principles “upstream”—such as reason, self-interest, and individual rights—on which to base political principles such as freedom and nonaggression, libertarians are left without a consistent guide as to how to interpret and apply their political ideas. As a result, their claims about these two main principles of freedom and nonaggression often become incoherent and contradictory.

As Rand would put it, they need to check some premises.

For example, because some libertarians treat the notion of “freedom” as a first principle, they tend to emphasize hostility to government more than they do the protection of individual rights. More than a few even assert a subjective right to retaliate personally during conflicts and/or to privately provide for their own defense, according to codes and standards of their own devising.

Objectivists, by contrast, regard “freedom” as a derivative concept, not a primary one. People can’t just do anything they feel like in society, or they will inevitably encroach on the lives, liberties, and property of others. In the Objectivist view, the principle of individual rights is a practical means of implementing rational self-interest in social circumstances: It establishes the proper moral-legal boundaries for the exercise of each individual’s freedom to act in society.

If liberty is to be protected for all, no individual can regard himself as above or apart from the legal processes that define and uphold the moral-legal boundaries established by the principle of individual rights. Objectivism thus rejects anarchism. To protect, apply, and enforce individual rights implies the establishment of a government: an institution holding legal monopoly on the use of force, which serves as the final arbiter of disputes over the meaning and exercise of “freedom.”

However, having a legal monopoly on the use of force doesn’t mean the government gets to do whatever it wants. Since government’s only legitimate purpose is to protect individual rights, it must be constitutionally limited in its powers and scope, so that it doesn’t violate the very rights it is established to protect.

Starting from a philosophical position of rational self-interest and individual rights, most Objectivists favor strong national defenses and local police forces—and vigorously enforced prohibitions against violations of individual rights by the government itself. By contrast, because “freedom” tends to be their intellectual starting point, many libertarians (though not all) tend to favor the latter more and the former less. They view government as a liability and a threat, rather than as a necessary bulwark of our liberty and safety.

Let’s consider national defense and proper military action, where Objectivists and libertarians often apply their political principles in ways that conflict.

Among libertarians and Objectivists there appear to be four distinct views on national defense: (1) the military and police should be abolished (libertarian anarchists), (2) military operations should be restricted to our national territory and confined to defending our territory against attack by foreign invaders (some libertarians), (3) military operations outside our borders should be reactive and only in retaliation for attacks against our territory (many libertarians and some Objectivists), and (4) the defense of our citizens sometimes requires pre-emptive or prophylactic military action outside our borders against a palpable threat to our territory (some libertarians and many Objectivists).

(There is a fifth view, stated by at least one prominent Objectivist, that we should take early aggressive military action against known and intractable enemies before they can even develop the capability to attack us effectively. While this arguably might be a wise military move, it is not a view held by Objectivists as such, and most libertarians are appalled by it.)

The first two views clearly ignore the need to protect the rights and safety of individual citizens against foreign threats, upholding instead the abstract principle of nonaggression as a kind of “axiom” or end in itself. The sort of isolationism suggested by these two views has been thoroughly discredited by history and ignores the facts of the modern world, which can be a very dangerous place.

The third and fourth views try either to incorporate or to balance the two considerations mentioned above: a strong, viable national defense, and a limited view of government powers. However, libertarians try to address potential conflicts between these two considerations without reference to any higher principle, which makes resolutions problematic or ad hoc. Objectivists, by contrast, aim to resolve any such conflicts by reference to the higher moral principle of rational self-interest. By that overriding moral principle, the government is obligated to protect the individual rights of its citizens against the initiation of force by others (including criminals, terrorists, foreign invaders, and the government itself). But whether merely balancing two competing considerations or referring to a higher principle, each individual’s application of principles to the facts should determine his judgment in a particular case.

Almost all evaluations of the necessity for military action are extraordinarily complex factual matters about which reasonable people can disagree. It follows that officials who are in a position to apply the use of force should deliberate carefully when deciding to do so, marshalling all of the facts available to support their judgment that the individual rights of citizens are in jeopardy. Even when that is done, error is possible. And when we need to move quickly, the risk of error is higher.

The Vietnam War, which developed shortly after my graduation from the Naval Academy and during my tenure as a naval officer, is illustrative. After leaving the service, I actively opposed that war because, after evaluating the facts available to me, I concluded that the protection of the rights of U.S. citizens did not warrant military operations there. I concluded that the “domino effect” theory being used to argue that the Vietnamese communists were a threat to the ultimate freedom and safety of our citizens was too attenuated to support the expenditure of U.S. lives and treasure there. I was not convinced that the takeover of Vietnam by the North Vietnamese would represent an expansion of Soviet hegemony, which in my view was a threat to our individual freedoms in the U.S. I was not persuaded that U.S. citizens had any interests in South Vietnam sufficient to justify large-scale warfare. And I opposed, and still oppose, the expenditure of U.S. lives and taxpayers’ money in any military venture that is merely an altruistic endeavor to help people in faraway nations.

Other reasonable people disagreed, but from my perspective they were unable to present sufficient facts for me to alter my conclusions. However, I did not join the pacifist, collectivist “peace movement.” Instead, I met quietly with congressmen and spoke at college campuses against the draft, always making a pitch at the conclusion of my talks for voluntarily joining a military service—a respectable profession committed to defending individual rights.

In contrast, the U.S. efforts to find and eradicate al Qaeda in retaliation for the attacks on our territory are fully justified by the facts of the attacks and the terrorists’ unrepentant threats that they aim to continue. Moreover, the expressed desire of that terrorist group to eliminate the lives and freedom of U.S. citizens, and their regular use of fanatical, suicidal zealots to kill innocent people, make them a palpable threat to our freedom here. Further, they have demonstrated a relentless irrationality and cannot be reasoned with. So, as a person who holds the fourth view presented above, I have concluded that we need to take the battle to them, as our declared enemy, and to permanently neutralize their capacity to kill us—or they will kill us.

I believe that the Bush administration correctly notified other countries that if they harbor or support al Qaeda, those countries will be considered al Qaeda allies and a threat to the rights and safety of U.S. citizens. Some libertarians would disagree with me, believing that attacks on the U.S. should be treated as a domestic police matter; but I am not persuaded that extraterritorial military action against these attackers impairs the individual rights of U.S. citizens at all. To the contrary, it protects them.

The matter of Iraq is much more complex. And the “facts” seem to have changed. At first, it was said that Saddam Hussein held existing weapons of mass destruction and had demonstrated that he would use them against his neighbors, just as he did against the Kurds and Iranians. He was said to be completing the development of a nuclear-weapons capability. And he did nothing to dispel those claims, despite the imposition of economic sanctions. Most importantly, he was said to be harboring al Qaeda. But even at the time, it was unclear that he was doing so as a participant in a plot against the U.S., or even that the presence of any al Qaeda agents in Iraq was significant or could be linked to any weapons of mass destruction.

At the time, the Bush administration failed to factually prove its initial case for a war in Iraq in almost every respect. They broadcast their intentions for months. They publicized troop movements and numbers. And they allowed the other side ample time to hide any evidence of nefarious activities. Moreover, the administration vastly understated the long-term manpower requirements for restoring stability to the region—either because they were negligent and stupid or because they felt it necessary to conveniently overlook them in order to gain political support for an invasion.

Once in Iraq, and having failed to find adequate hard evidence to support their initial reasons justifying the commitment of our troops, the Administration shifted gears. It argued that the U.S. would bring “democracy” to the Middle East and that democracy would have a stabilizing effect on the region—a notion that flies in the face of history. Nazi Germany began as a democracy, for goodness’ sake, and the population in Iraq is much more pliable and fanatical than were the people of Germany in the 1930s. Finally, the administration’s ability to communicate, to justify and explain their rationale for almost anything, is downright abysmal.

The Bush administration thus did not persuasively link the safety of people in the U.S. to launching the war in Iraq, except by attenuated reasoning based on evidence that somehow did not materialize. And it has not effectively justified our continued presence there, except to argue that we are in Iraq because we are there, and that the Iraqis are not yet able to achieve stability on their own. While that might be the case, that alone as a justification does not go far enough without further linking it to the safety of U.S. citizens.

In the present circumstances, continued U.S. involvement in Iraq is looking more and more like an altruistic endeavor, whether or not it was intended to be such from the outset. Some political candidates argue that, having invaded the country, we now have a duty to secure stability for the Iraqis. And others argue that “interventionism” is bad. But few if any have made any serious attempt to connect our presence there to the individual rights of U.S. citizens and to persuade Americans that we should be there for that reason.

It is very important that a precedent be set for evaluating the propriety and wisdom of going to war by reference to the individual rights and safety of U.S. citizens.

I would like to hear a discussion about the extent to which Iraq has developed into another haven for al Qaeda terrorists—regardless of whether that circumstance was precipitated by U.S. action in the region—and other facts that might bear on the safety of our citizens. It is in the context of these and all other relevant facts that politicians need to propose and debate policies and actions. But eschewing facts and pandering to the “hate America” crowd, to knee-jerk isolationists, to pacifists, and to “anti-imperialists” does not contribute positively to the debate. Nor does the theory that noblesse oblige requires us to save everyone in the world from misery and oppression, regardless of whether they have any understanding of the source or nature of individual rights or the ultimate need to protect them.

There are many reasonable libertarians who understand that the defense of our freedoms is a difficult and complex undertaking. Our defense needs to be guided by the principle that our government’s function is to protect its citizens’ individual rights to life, liberty, and property—rationally, carefully, and thoughtfully. This means that our policies need to be strategic and to take the long view: to prepare for and to thwart an attack within our borders or on our citizens and their property.

It would be easy to leave such matters to the experts like George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. But remembering that our military endeavors should be strictly limited to defense, Americans should be ever-vigilant to monitor government activity and be sure that those who hold the reins of power do not rationalize as legitimate defense some altruistic enterprise, some strained strategic theory, or some imperialistic ambitions.

That is the kind of rational self-interest that every citizen needs to pursue; that is why the Founders gave us a First Amendment; and that is why we need to continuously engage not only in civil discourse among ourselves, but in rough-and-tumble debate in public forums about the extent to which the government should be allowed to apply military force on behalf of our citizens. The positive benefits of discourse and debate, which flush out facts and subject reasoning to critical scrutiny, will not be realized when people bail out of the debate because they encounter someone with whom they disagree.

And this brings me, finally, to the controversy that has raged recently in the pages of this magazine.

The Atlas Society is not a monolith, and The New Individualist is not a magazine that parrots a party line. None of us avoids challenging, in a civil manner, ideas that we think are incorrect, even the ideas of a friend or supporter. The editorial policy of the magazine, and its status as a forum for intelligent articles based on principles most of us share, is stated in each issue. We hope that readers will appreciate that and participate.

Some of the magazine’s writers are not Objectivists or even libertarians. And while their articles are required to be on topics that might interest our readers, they occasionally express an opinion or tenet that we are all invited to dispute or to point out to the editors.

Engaging in vigorous but civil discourse, with well-supported argument, provides us an opportunity to check our own premises, to focus deeply on an issue, and, we hope, to constructively influence the sound judgment of others. That’s what makes The New Individualist a magazine that is always intellectually fertile and fun to read.