I have a long comment on a post by Jacob Levy (at Bleeding Heart Libertarianism) on the ethics of intellectual exchange. My comments there prefigure what I’ll be saying in the forthcoming parts of my series on Objectivist intellectual culture. They also have some obvious relevance to what I say below.
I’ve previously mentioned and criticized the ad hoc nature of the Ayn Rand Institute’s (ARI) approach to libertarianism. This item takes ad hocracy to new lows. Once upon a time, ARI’s position was that libertarianism is a form of nihilism involving a wholesale rejection of Ayn Rand and Objectivism. Now, supporters of ARI are defending the view that libertarianism has made a “moral shift” from Rand to Hayek and Rawls via Bleeding Heart Libertarianism. Can’t quite make up our minds, can we? The incoherence is a predictable result of a pseudo-ideology based on a pseudo-historiography. It’s also a predictable result of a form of moral zealotry which consists in demanding strict adherence to rigid moral principles–while always conveniently managing, in its own case, to confect a new principle for every “difficult” situation.
Feel free to listen to the Hsieh/McCaskey interview on the subject near the bottom of the third link above. I found it singularly slapdash and unilluminating, and I think most political philosophers and historians would agree with that assessment (and might even regard it as charitable). The one thing it doesn’t do is provide any real evidence of a wholesale shift of any kind within libertarianism–whether from nihilism to non-nihilism, or from “Rand to Hayek and Rawls,” or from any one thing to any other thing. In fact, the interview doesn’t even characterize the kind of evidence that would be needed to make claims about libertarianism as such, much less “shifts” in the nature (or “essence”) of libertarianism, which is what a defense of the ARI position requires. A fortiori, it doesn’t give a moral justification for ARI supporters like John McCaskey’s dealing with libertarians after having spent the last two-and-a-half decades supporting their demonizers. But McCaskey doesn’t just “deal” with libertarians. He’s employed (or recently has been employed) by the Political Theory Project, run by John Tomasi, a well-known bleeding heart libertarian. I’d be interested in hearing a direct justification from McCaskey for this rather cozy dispensation. He’s certainly voluble enough on the subject of libertarianism to spare a moment or two to discuss it.
It may be worth reminding ARI’s supporters (and ourselves) what it is that ARI supports, and what it is that needs a defense before ARI-associated people start engaging in collegial fashion with supposed libertarian colleagues (and vice versa):
IS LIBERTARIANISM AN EVIL DOCTRINE? Yes, if evil is the irrational and the destructive. Libertarianism belligerently rejects the very need for any justification for its belief in something called “liberty.” It repudiates the need for any intellectual foundation to explain why “liberty” is desirable and what “liberty” means. Anyone from a gay-rights activist to a criminal counterfeiter to an overt anarchist can declare that he is merely asserting his “liberty”—and no Libertarian (even those who happen to disagree) can objectively refute his definition. Subjectivism, amoralism and anarchism are not merely present in certain “wings” of the Libertarian movement; they are integral to it. In the absence of any intellectual framework, the zealous advocacy of “liberty” can represent only the mindless quest to eliminate all restraints on human behavior—political, moral, metaphysical. And since reality is the fundamental “restraint” upon men’s actions, it is nihilism—the desire to obliterate reality—that is the very essence of Libertarianism. If the Libertarian movement were ever to come to power, widespread death would be the consequence. (For elaboration, see my essay “Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty.”)
Justice demands moral judgment. It demands that one objectively evaluate Libertarianism, and act in accordance with that evaluation. It demands that one identify Libertarianism as the antithesis of—and therefore as a clear threat to—not merely genuine liberty, but all rational values. And it demands that Libertarianism, like all such threats, be boycotted and condemned.
Suffice it to say that being employed by someone isn’t compatible with boycotting and condemning them.
The excerpted paragraph comes from Peter Schwartz’s “On Moral Sanctions,” still the official position of ARI, and one of several ARI attacks on libertarianism, all in the same vein. Note well Schwartz’s claim that nihilism is the essence of libertarianism (a term he dishonestly and confusingly capitalizes). The claim is one about libertarianism as such, not some specific brand of it, and is not consistent with the ad hoc embrace of libertarianism when political convenience requires it (followed by equally ad hoc pseudo-empirical hand-waving about how libertarianism has recently undergone a change of essence worthy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses). The question is how a doctrinal essence can reverse its moral valence from being all-out evil and unworthy of cooperation to being not-evil and therefore worthy of cooperation. If the new ARI view is that nihilism is a feature of some very specific sort of libertarianism, they should admit that they’ve repudiated their old party line (which ascribes nihilism to the doctrine as such), and have come to embrace the exact position that David Kelley defended in Truth and Toleration more than two decades ago.
Bottom line: those associated with the ARI position on libertarianism are morally obliged publicly to repudiate it and apologize for having endorsed it. It surprises me that some libertarians will accept less than that. But justice demands otherwise. And nothing less than justice will do.
P.S., May 22, 2013: The Ayn Rand Institute and Foundation for Economic Education “are teaming up to explore” questions pertaining to “the morality of capitalism” at a student conference two Saturdays from now. Apparently, one of the questions to be discussed is “how to defend” capitalism. At a bare minimum, shouldn’t tough questions about the issues discussed in this post be part of any such discussion? (hat tip: Roderick Long)