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Don Watkins on libertarianism


While I’m digging up the problematic views of various ARI-affiliated people on libertarianism/Libertarianism–Peter Schwartz, Leonard Peikoff, John Allison, Yaron Brook, Harry Binswanger, John McCaskey (well, once-affiliated)–I should draw attention to the views of their equally meritorious peer, Don Watkins. He is, after all, a Facebook-certified Public Figure.

For those of you who might think that 1989-90 is too far back in the past to bother with, here is Watkins telling us, in 2004, that libertarianism is on par with Islamism. Oh, excuse me; I got that wrong. Here he is comparing “accepting a speaking invitation for a libertarian function with accepting a speaking engagement for an Islamist function.”

I did not compare libertarians with radical Islamists. I compared accepting a speaking invitation for a libertarian function with accepting a speaking engagement for an Islamist function. Is there a degree of difference between those two groups? Sure, but it’s the principle that’s important. And the relevant principle is the issue of lending one’s moral sanction to destructive ideas.

Oh, well that clarifies everything. When you compare accepting a speaking invitation for an X-function with accepting one at a Y-function, no comparison of X to Y is involved or intended. Imagine that libertarians are not at all comparable to Islamists. Now compare speaking at a libertarian function with speaking at an Islamist one. Apparently, there is some similarity there–the destructiveness of both ideas, libertarianism and Islamism–but that similarity has nothing to do with either idea, libertarianism or Islamism. If anyone can make Watkins’s thoughts on this subject even semi-intelligible, feel free to enlighten me in the comments.

Also feel free, if you have the time, inclination, and patience, to read the whole comment thread from beginning to end. Here you will learn from Don Watkins that it is definitely not OK to sanction libertarianism. Meanwhile, it was OK for Leonard Peikoff to speak at the libertarian Laissez-Faire Supper Club. No sanction there! But it was not OK for David Kelley to speak at the same organization–because there was sanction there. You’ll learn that Kelley was not expelled from ARI or the Objectivist movement for speaking to libertarians–even though Schwartz made explicit reference to the evil of speaking to libertarians in a document that explicitly attacked David Kelley, and even if speaking to them is the reason why Don Watkins feels the need to anathematize Kelley on a purely private, ex post facto basis in 2004. You’ll learn that while it was evil for Kelley to make a one-time speaking appearance at a libertarian function, it is not evil for Objectivist philosophy professors like Robert Mayhew to sign years-long employment contracts with Catholic universities (Seton Hall), even Catholic universities that conceive Catholicism as an explicit part of their mission statement. But read it yourself. I don’t want to spoil the fun of discovery.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out what “principle” is involved in Watkins’s claims above. Whatever that “principle” is, it evidently doesn’t apply to contexts where Don Watkins himself lends his moral sanction to a libertarian organization. Why would it? That action involves a completely different principle, the Don Watkins-a-career-opportunity-is-waiting-for-me-so-I-better-quietly-turn-on-a-dime-and-hope-no-one-notices principle.

If at this point you invoke the magic talisman of “context” and repeat it very loudly to yourself, followed immediately by “Abracadabra Peikoff Schwartz Brook Ayn Rand moral sanction capitalism!” you will discover how all of Watkins’s claims manage to coalesce into a coherent and integrated whole. Don’t forget the exclamation point. It won’t work otherwise.

While we’re exploring the various avenues of evasion and rationalization: is the Foundation for Economic Education really a libertarian organization? The name doesn’t have “libertarian” in it, after all, so maybe they’re not. Perhaps they make an assiduous effort to avoid the word “libertarian” in anything to which they lend their moral sanction? Well, anything–except all the hits that come up when you plug the word “libertarian” into their search function. I must confess that I didn’t count the hits because I didn’t get to the end of them. I stopped after the thirty-fourth page.

In fairness to him, Mr. Watkins has his own worked-out position on libertarianism. He doesn’t like it. Never mind that this dislike contradicts the official ARI view that “libertarianism” is improving.

Watkins: I don’t like the term “libertarian”—it’s too vague and imprecise—and I definitely don’t want to be associated with Ron Paul. By contrast, I stand for pure, uncompromised laissez-faire capitalism, which has meant the same thing since the term was invented in France in the nineteenth century: “Hands off!”

The U.S. economy would fare well under freedom. When people are free to produce, trade, and keep the results, prosperity results. It always has.

Isn’t not “liking” something a confession of subjectivism about it? And isn’t this shabby, rote recitation of the new (approximation to the) party line an anemic come-down from Watkins’s comparison, eight years earlier, of libertarianism to Islamism? By parity of reasoning, are we to infer that Watkins doesn’t “like” Hamas, Hezbullah, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda? Is “Islamism” too “vague and imprecise” for him?

Coming the other way around: How did libertarianism go from unsanctionably immoral to “vague and imprecise” in the space of eight years? What facts are supposed to induce us to believe in this magical transformation, and why are no such facts ever adduced when the transformation is invoked? Could it be, perhaps, that “vague and imprecise” characterizes the volitionally-induced mental processes of the people who would like to believe the new ARI party line, rather than any fact about the semantics of the term itself?

I hesitate to cast further aspersions on the premier exponents of “the uncompromised case for capitalism,” and on self-described “voices of reason.” I only wonder: if this is their idea of a morally uncompromised defense of capitalism, what would happen to us if–as inevitably happens–they were someday to take power and find that they had to make compromises in the name of realpolitik? If you reflect a bit on this question, you may find yourself realizing that it might be preferable to be governed by the first thousand or so names in an old-fashioned phone book than by Yaron Brook, Don Watkins, and 998 of their closest friends and supporters.




  1. stpeter says:

    It sure sounds as if Watkins and his ilk are throwbacks to that early 20th-century school of ethics known as emotivism: when they say “libertarianism is evil” they mean “Boo Libertarianism!”

  2. irfankhawaja says:

    Yes, but followed immediately by cautious qualifications like, “But they’re improving, so don’t take our denunciations too seriously when you see us at Cato events. We wouldn’t want our emotivist analysis to interfere with our equally powerful desires for political influence.”


  3. Matt Faherty says:

    Watkins has also spoken to numerous college libertarian groups, including my old group at Lafayette College, the year after I left.

    Out of curiosity, I broached this subject on the Objectivism Online forum I frequent, which has a lot of members I really respect. The responses I got were sharply split, with defenders sounding exactly like Watkins and trying to rationalize their way out of the contradiction:

  4. irfankhawaja says:

    Thanks. Yes, I’d read that one myself before posting the Watkins post. And rationalizing their way out of contradiction is the best that the defenders are going to be able to do. What Objectivists and others sympathetic to it need to ask themselves is: can a moral defense of capitalism based on an initial contradiction and rationalization possibly succeed at anything worth achieving? If this is the brazen disrespect that these Objectivists will show for reality, reason, and other Objectivists right at the outset, is it any wonder that they have trouble convincing non-Objectivists to renounce redistribution and regulation and embrace a limited government on moral grounds?

    Imagine that you see your self-interest as bound up with a welfare state–as many people do. Along come Yaron Brook and Don Watkins to say: “No, no, it isn’t. Your self-interest is really promoted by a limited state. Ditch the welfare state, and your life will flourish.” It’s a momentous decision to have to make. A person’s life depends on the choice. Most Americans doubt that their lives would flourish under pure capitalism. Could anyone make a decision of this nature–welfare state vs. capitalism–with a clear head while wondering simultaneously whether or not he was dealing with con artists?

    People are taught in school that capitalism failed. Brook and Watkins are disputing that traditional story. An obvious question people will ask is: is their approach to intellectual debate to be trusted? Are they themselves trustworthy people? These questions are crucial. If you don’t earn the trust of honest people, how can you convince them to give up the material things they undeniably get from a welfare state in exchange for liberty in the name of morality? But how can you earn the trust of honest people by dishonesty? This is the obvious dilemma that Brook, Watkins et al have never seriously confronted. But until it’s confronted, there is no point in waging a “moral battle for liberty.” You may as well aim your “weapon” directly at your foot and pull the trigger.


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