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The Importance of Blacklisting

The Importance of Blacklisting

8 Mins
May 30, 2011

August 30, 2002 -- Objectivism distinguishes between errors of ignorance and errors of morality, and libertarianism distinguishes between immorality and crime. As a result, Objectivists exercise moral toleration toward those whose ideas are innocently mistaken and political toleration toward those whose immoralities are non-coercive.

But exercising moral and political toleration does not mean that Objectivists can use nothing but arguments against those who are destroying the remnants of our Enlightenment culture. Ideological foes require matériel and men, as well as a message. And nothing in the virtue of toleration forbids the use personal and social action to diminish our foes' resources and recruitment.


On July 1, Slate's Timothy Noah (writing under the name of Chatterbox) published a column about one Michael Italie, who had been fired by Goodwill Industries of South Florida because of his affiliation with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The affiliation came to light on October 18 when Italie, appearing in a televised debate as the SWP's mayoral candidate, called for a "workers' and farmers' government" and declared, "I support the Cuban Revolution." On October 22, he was fired. A week later, Dennis Pastrana, chief executive of Goodwill in South Florida, told the Miami Herald: "His beliefs are those of a communist who would like to destroy private ownership of American enterprises and install a communist regime in the United States."

Many people apparently believe that Goodwill did wrong in firing Italie. Even Reason magazine listed the case on the negative side of its feature "Balance Sheet." I believe Goodwill did precisely the right thing.

After admitting that he had first been drawn to the case because of his childhood friendship with Italie, Noah wrote: "A less sentimental factor that draws Chatterbox to Italie's case is Chatterbox's belief in the First Amendment." But no one prevented Italie from exercising his First Amendment rights, from expressing his views, or even from acting on them (by running for mayor). Clearly, Noah does not understand that censorship requires coercion. Nor does he understand that legally forbidding Goodwill from firing Italie would compel the firm's owners to act in contravention of their political ideas. The issue, however, goes beyond Goodwill's economic freedom. By firing Italie, Goodwill was performing the politically worthy act of lessening an avowed socialist's resources.

Another statement, no less confused than Noah's, came from Megan Smith, writing in the University of Pittsburgh's Pitt News: "Apparently, the Red scare might be over, but a person's right to be a communist (or a socialist for that matter) isn't entirely protected." But no one violated Italie's right to be a member of the Socialist Workers Party. Indeed, he still is one. Clearly, Smith does not understand what are the important questions here. First: "Does a person have a right to be employed by Goodwill, despite the wishes of those who run it?" The answer to that is clearly no. When two parties are engaged in buying and selling services, freedom requires that both parties willingly agree to all the terms set down for the exchange. The second question is: "Should one offer the benefits of free economic exchange to someone who is actively campaigning to destroy the system of free economic exchange?" Again, the answer is (usually) no. And Goodwill, to its credit, said no.

A third reaction to the case came from Ronald Radosh, a founding father of the New Left who has become a noted anti-communist author. Interviewed by Noah, Radosh said: "Everybody has a right to run for mayor on the SWP ticket. [The firing is] a clear-cut infringement of civil liberties." But of course Italie did run for mayor on the SWP ticket and no one tried to infringe his right to do so. Radosh, evidently, in his journey to the Right, has failed to jettison the Marxist belief that economic power is coercive. It isn't. All that Goodwill did, and rightly did, was to refuse to provide its would-be destroyer with the benefits of free economic exchange.

The central issue of the Goodwill case has nothing to do with the right of free speech or the right to run for office, for those rights were not touched. The central issue of the Goodwill case is nothing but the right of citizens to weaken their destroyers by refusing to fund them. Of course, when alumni and employers withdraw their money, Marxist professors and anti-capitalist employees will whine, "Don't I have a right to my own opinion?" To which the proper answer is: "Yes. And I'll be happy to debate your opinion, if I have time. Meanwhile, I decline to support those who attack the political-economic system that makes my support possible."


The reference above to academics suggests an extension of the reasoning involved in defunding the Left. Political collectivism like Italie's is not now the biggest threat to our Enlightenment society and has not been since the collapse of the Nazi and communist empires. The greatest threat today is more intellectual and more insidious. It is the enemy within that Lionel Trilling called "the adversary culture."

To understand that term requires some history.

The philosophic destroyers of the Enlightenment—Hume, Rousseau, and Kant—gave rise to the nineteenth century's anti-Enlightenment philosophy of Romanticism. (See Stephen Hicks's "What Kant Wrought," Navigator, October 1999. ) This Romanticist philosophy was furthered by such German thinkers as Hamann, Herder, Schopenhauer, Schelling, and Hegel. Culturally, the movement was carried to the educated classes by "down-with-reason," "back-to-raw-nature" poets and essayists; "enthusiastic," evangelical preachers; and communalistic and statist social reformers. Drawing more or less directly on German thought, these artists, authors, and intellectuals propounded an epistemology of feeling, a morality of authenticity, and a politics that was populist and anti-capitalist. Through their art, they flouted the canons of aesthetics; through their behavior, they violated the standards of decency. Through their works and their lives alike, they launched an "adversary culture" against the then-dominant bourgeois, capitalist culture.

By the 1930s, the intellectuals' adversary culture was combining Marxism with aesthetic Modernism, a combination satirized by Ayn Rand in her depiction of Ellsworth Toohey's avant-garde artists. In the fifties, the adversary culture added major doses of existentialism, drugs, jazz, and sexual immorality. In the sixties, the movement spread from a small but influential group of intellectuals and artists to America's colleges, and so to the best-educated members of the baby-boom generation.

With the aging of those elite boomers, the adversary culture's attitudes, tastes, and morals entered into the governing outlook of America's leading institutions: the top universities, the national media, the federal government, the great foundations, and the most prestigious law firms. The obvious case study here is President Clinton and his "anything goes" Friends of Bill. But even many businessmen, David Brooks has argued, now embrace the adversary culture's anti-bourgeois morality, and the appalling lack of integrity recently shown by certain business leaders suggests that he is right.

How do libertarians propose to ensure that a free society will not become a society rife with self-destructive and socially destructive behavior?

This massification of the adversary culture presents libertarians with a special problem. For libertarians declare, endlessly, that to make a behavior legal in no way implies that the behavior in question is moral. And that is true. But when people are considering what abstract rules should govern their society, they want to know: What sort of society will these rules produce in practice? So, even for people inclined to accept libertarianism, even for people who concede that the legality of some non-coercive behavior does not imply the morality of that behavior, one important fact and one important question remain. The fact is that the adversary culture was absorbed by a significant number of our citizens, during and after the sixties. The question is: What mechanisms do libertarians propose to ensure that a free society will not become a society rife with the adversary culture's self-destructive and socially destructive behavior?

The temptation for libertarians, given the massification of the adversary culture, is to reject the question entirely. The temptation is to adopt a hippies-of-the-Right approach and sell capitalism as the political expression of a "do your own thing" morality, thus appealing to the adversary culture in terms of the values it already holds. But this tactic has a drawback: If we are to judge by history (and that is our only reliable guide), there are no grounds for thinking political individualism can be based on any foundation other than the Enlightenment's bourgeois culture, with its ethical pillars of rationality, personal responsibility, and productiveness.

Consequently, I believe that libertarians should openly align themselves with the philosophical advocates of bourgeois morality, whatever the cost in popularity may be. They should point out that a major virtue of abolishing government regulation and subsidies will be a greater need for rationality, personal responsibility, and productiveness; a greater need for prudence, sobriety, and thrift; a greater concern for one's own reputation and a greater reliance on the reputations of others, with a corresponding esteem for those behaviors—patriotism and cultural assimilation, marriage and child-rearing, decorum in conduct, speech, and appearance—that are commonly thought to be indicators of personal solidity.


But libertarians should go further still. They should also urge plausible, non-political mechanisms—ostracism, boycott, and blacklist—that will impose severe costs on those who flout bourgeois standards. I have mentioned amoral power-seekers, one of Pragmatism's gifts to the adversary culture, as an obvious target for ostracism. But who could not quickly add a dozen more? Apologists for terrorists and criminals. Class-war and race-baiting demagogues. Executives who perpetrate frauds and Ponzi schemes. Performers and executives who produce pornographic and hyper-violent entertainment. Advocates and glamorizers of sexual perversion. Thuggish and drug-abusing athletes.

The point of such instruments as ostracism, boycott, and blacklist would not be to punish moral guilt. Dealing with an individual's morality or immorality, insofar as one is aware of it, is an entirely separate issue. And, in any case, there are doubtless innocents in the adversary culture, just as there are wicked people in the bourgeois culture.

Nor are such social instruments intended to bring black sheep back into the bourgeois fold. Potential penitents should be given every assistance and consideration. But until a member of the adversary culture expresses doubt about his stance, he should be treated as an intellectually serious opponent.

The point of such instruments, rather, is to send a message to those still outside the adversary culture who might be tempted by its Romantic aura. And that message is: "Think twice. There is no law against the life you propose to live. But that is no reason we should not make you pay a high price for it." The intention, of course, is to lessen the number of recruits—and particularly young adults—that the adversary culture will seduce into its self-destructive and socially destructive lifestyles.

In sum, through ostracism, boycott, and blacklist, libertarians could help to defund the Left and deplete the ranks of the adversary culture—valuable ends indeed. But the very advocacy of those instruments is also important to libertarianism, for two reasons. First, such advocacy would dispel the common suspicion that libertarians' opposition to the legal regulation of private behavior is simply a cover for moral relativism. Secondly, it would reassure libertarians' listeners that a wholly free society would retain adequate means for sustaining liberty's philosophical, cultural, and social foundations—and that it would retain the determination to fight back against people who would destroy them.

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