Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Problems In The Liberty Movement Part 2: The Absolutists

"Freedom is a tenable objective for responsible adults only. We do not believe in freedom for children or madmen." -- Milton Friedman, in Capitalism and Freedom.

Among the worst aspects of any sort of ideology is its penchant for "mission creep." An ideology -- that is, a coherent system of ideas aimed at explaining some aspect of reality -- is inherently a partial thing. No idea born in the mind of Man can explain everything. All ideas have a proper domain of application, outside which they produce perverse results.

Libertarian ideology is no exception.


I wrote some time ago:

Where would the libertarian postulates of individual rights and individual responsibilities fail to apply? Three generic places:

  1. Where the atoms that interact are not individuals, but collectivities;
  2. Where the "individual" under discussion is incapable, either from innate incapacity or from injury, of understanding rights and responsibilities;
  3. Where rights clash in an absolute and irreconcilable way.

Important specific topics that fall within these categories are:

  1. National defense and foreign dealings;
  2. The protection and restraint of the immature and the mentally diseased;
  3. Abortion.

It is noteworthy that clashes between libertarians and ordinary conservatives have tended to concentrate on those three specific topics. The argument is never over what produces the best possible outcome, but over premises. It's equally noteworthy that the phrase "Check your premises" is the emission of one of the most absolute absolutists associated with the liberty movement, the late Ayn Rand.

When the application of a particular premise produces consequences clearly less desirable than the starting conditions, it's time to examine the premise for consistency with the metaphysically given facts of reality. Many a hardcore libertarian cheered for Barack Hussein Obama's weakening of the American military. After all, he might have reasoned, war is horrible, it's an activity of governments, and it's conducted by military institutions; therefore, winnowing down the military will reduce the frequency and horror of wars. That, to be gentle about it, has not been the case.

Similarly, quite a number of libertarians wholeheartedly cheered for the evisceration of the laws that permitted states and localities to confine those who are visibly, self-destructively irrational. While the laws had problems -- they made involuntary commitment far too easy to effect -- some of the individuals thus confined were genuinely dangerous to themselves, and in some cases to others as well. No one gains from allowing them to roam freely.

A premise released from its proper domain can kill. What else is a partial-birth abortion -- defended not just by liberals but by many libertarians as merely the exercise of "a woman's right to choose" -- but murder committed with legal sanction?

Persons sensitive to the consequences of ideological overextension would shy back from doing so. But ideological absolutists will not. Their embrace of their ideas is akin to religious commitment. Considering what proportion of such persons are avowed atheists, that has a particularly ironic cast.


Certainty is attractive. Persons certain of their beliefs can marshal great passion to their proselytizing. As many persons less certain of their convictions will happily delegate the responsibility for "getting it right" to one whose faith is absolute, they often become leaders.

But quasi-religious certainty makes it very difficult to admit to error. Absolute certainty can render one incapable of even seeing the evidence of error. There's too close a coupling between the ideas and the holder's identity. If you need a practical example, consider how assiduously Barack Hussein Obama refuses to accept responsibility for any of his errors. He even blamed the 2010 electoral setbacks his party suffered on inadequate messaging -- in other words, failure to make us benighted ones understand how good his policies were for us.

No, Obama is not a libertarian; very far from it. But his absolute certainty that he knows what's best -- "the right thing to do," in his phrasing -- illustrates the hazards of absolute certainty better than any other sitting politician.

Contrast Obama with Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Paul is willing to change his mind and say he's done so. For example, he recently admitted that he had incorrectly evaluated the threat from ISIS, and would now endorse American military action against it. This, too, is an attractive characteristic, especially in a man who is forthright about his principles. One of Paul's stances is that American military power must be reserved to those theaters in which its use is in the American national interest. He didn't see that interest in the rise of ISIS, until the beheadings showed him otherwise.

That is the happy medium between having no principles whatsoever and having principles supposedly applicable to problems of any sort. Constitutionalism as expressed in the United States Constitution embeds that stance: the prescriptions and proscriptions of the Constitution are quite explicit, but it also contains provisions for amendment. Those provisions were the Founders' admission that as proud as they were of their creation, they made no pretense to infallibility, and that conditions they could not foresee might arise long after they were gone.

Absolutist libertarians often denigrate politicians for "flip-flopping." While announcing a change of mind can indicate a lack of principles and a willingness to say whatever the speaker thinks will win him votes, it can also be a simple admission of having erred, especially if accompanied by a clear, cogent explanation for the change.

Liberty-loving politicians are few today. Should they proliferate, they will only make headway if they possess the degree of humility required to admit to error, and to "not having all the answers," if we're ever to mount a serious drive at restoring Constitutionally limited government to these United States. This applies with equal force to other libertarian activists.

2 comments:

  1. No, the real irony is not the degree of religious zeal that self-described atheists attach to ideological notions (after all, they lack the honest answer we of faith can give, to such all-consuming notions: "no thanks, I already have a religion"). It's the fact that supposedly liberty-minded people often don't realize that the whole POINT of liberty is our own fallibility.

    After all, if you really DO have all the answers, with absolute certainty of correctness and applicability in every domain whatever...well, why SHOULDN'T you be dictator?

    The only reason our demand for liberty makes sense is that no such men are available. Nor, humans being what we are, will any such ever be.

    Christians will concede that one such person did once walk the Earth for a period of several decades...but that was a couple of thousand years ago, and those speaking on His behalf ever since have proven themselves prone to error at nearly every turn since. (And it is noteworthy that, when offered the job, He turned it down.)

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  2. I believe that if one is an absolutist and thinks that they have "all the answers" based on the simple philosphy of the ZAP/NAP, then they can't be a libertarian.
    They've tried to extrapolate too much from something that should be kept simple and flexible.

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