Wednesday, June 15, 2005

A spiritual quest

Two inspiring reflections on libertarianism came to mind as I was putting together this piece, a rather mechanical argument for libertarianism put together to answer a critic, as I explain here.

What the merely mechanical arguments miss is the idea that the battle for freedom is a 'spiritual quest.' It's true. Author Nathaniel Branden puts the case in his essay'Foundations for a Free Society' (which appeared in 'Free Radical' #21):

[p]eople have not only material needs, they have psychological needs, they have spiritual needs. And it is the spiritual needs that will have the last word. Until the libertarian vision is understood as a spiritual quest and not merely an economic quest, it will continue to face the kind of misunderstandings and adversaries it faces today.
... A free society cannot flourish on a culture committed to irrationalism. And 20th-century philosophy has witnessed a virulent worldwide rebellion against the values of reason, objectivity, science, truth, and logic — under such names as postmodernism, poststructuralism, deconstructionism, and a host of others.
It's not an accident that most of the people doing the attacking also happen to be statists. In fact, I don't know of any who aren't. You cannot have a noncoercive society if you don't have a common currency of exchange, and the only one possible is rational persuasion. But if there is no such thing as reason, the only currency left is coercion.

Further,

We cannot talk about politics or economics in a vacuum. We have to ask ourselves: On what do our political convictions rest? What is the implicit view of human nature that lies behind or underneath our political beliefs? What is our view of how human beings ought to relate to one another? What is our view of the relationship of the individual to the state? What do we think is "good" and why do we think so?
Any comprehensive portrait of an ideal society needs to begin with identifying such principles as those, and from that developing the libertarian case. We do have a soul hunger, we do have a spiritual hunger, we do want to believe and feel and experience that life has meaning. And that's why we need to understand that we're talking about much more than market transactions. We're talking about an individual's ownership of his or her own life. The battle for self-ownership is a sacred battle, a spiritual battle, and it involves much more than economics.

All very true, and all too easily forgotten. Ayn Rand summed it up in her 1938 novella Anthem (her own 1984/Brave New World), first published in England one year before World War II:

I am neither friend nor foe to my brothers, but such as each of them shall deserve of me. And to earn my love, my brothers must do more than to have been born. I do not grant my love without reason, nor to any chance passer-by who may wish to claim it. I honor men with my love. But honor is a thing to be earned.
I shall choose friends among me, but neither slaves nor masters. And I shall choose only such as please me, and them I shall love and respect, but neither command nor obey. And we shall join our hands when we wish, or walk alone when we so desire. For in the temple of his spirit, each man is alone. Let each man keep his temple untouched and undefiled. Then let him join hands with others if he wishes, but only beyond his holy threshold.

If you enjoyed reading this small sample, you might enjoy hearing the climactic speech of the book in MP3 form. The executive producer of the audio recording, Bob Bidinotto has the sample here.

2 Comments:

Blogger Richard said...

Ha, I thought you opposed "self-ownership"? ;)

Seriously though, I'm in full agreement that autonomy is an important value. (Just see my frustrated argument with an authoritarian, here.)

I'm very much a social libertarian. But that's precisely why I'm not an economic libertarian: because I recognize that substantive freedom is what matters, and poverty can seriously impede that.

Our aim should be to enable as many people as possible to live the lives they want to live. To that end, we must ensure access to education, healthcare, and basic human needs like food and shelter, since all of these are essential prerequisites to any form of freedom worth having.

Autonomy doesn't exist "in a vacuum". It doesn't come from nowhere. It must be nurtured and developed, as with a flower or sapling. If you condemn a child to be raised in poverty, with no access to adequate healthcare or education, then he is not going to grow into a flourishing autonomous adult.

How is it that libertarians fail to see this?

6/15/2005 02:27:00 pm  
Blogger PC said...

Richard, you said, "Ha, I thought you opposed "self-ownership"? ;)

Yes, I felt sure you would pick that up. :-) It is an excellent shorthand metaphor, don't you think? Shame it's so easily misunderstood.

"I'm not an economic libertarian: because I recognize that substantive freedom is what matters..."

Freedom in the political context is not freedom from reality, no matter what label you want to put on it; as I've said before, freedom in the political context means no more nor any less than freedom from physical coercion.

It does not mean freedom from the laws of nature. If I am stuck down a well and there’s no one around to throw me a rope, no matter how you try and spin it that does not represent any lack of political freedom; it represents a lack of intelligence on my part in getting stuck down there.

"Our aim should be to enable as many people as possible to live the lives they want to live. To that end, we must ensure access to education, healthcare, and basic human needs like food and shelter, since all of these are essential prerequisites to any form of freedom worth having."

But these things don't grow on trees; they must first be produced by someone, and there's only two ways to get all those 'someones' to follow 'your aim'-- either by asking nicely, or by forcing them.

If for example 'your aim' is 'to ensure access' to shelter by insisting that builders be forced to provide it, then you haven't advanced freedom at all -- instead you've just enslaved the builders. If this is what you mean by 'ensuring access' to 'basic human needs' then your aim is not in fact freedom of any sort, it is slavery.

How is it 'social libertarians' fail to see this? :-P

6/15/2005 03:46:00 pm  

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