The conversation between libertarians and Randians continues here in Colorado. In my last post on the topic, I mentioned that I'd received an email from Ari Armstrong of the Colorado Freedom Report. Because his comments were contained in a private email message, I did not feel free to discuss them in my weblog. However, Ari has now posted an extended consideration of the issues, so I'm happy to link to his essay and reply in kind.
First, a factual error: in framing the discussion, Ari states that I am Objectivist (that's the "official" self-description for Randians, although I think the latter term is more accurate, which is why I use it in my postings). Although I read an extreme amount of Ayn Rand in my teenage years and I used to consider myself an adherent of her school, I have not considered or called myself an Objectivist for many years. At this point I am, if anything, a Rand scholar, since I do continue to publish essays about her work and its place in intellectual history. (Naturally, just because I don't consider myself a Randian doesn't necessarily mean in reality I'm not a Randian; but I'll leave answering that question up to biographers and intellectual historians, if I ever rate discussion by such.)
Ari's thoughts contain a healthy realism about political movements. He notes that progressive movements tend to contain more than their share of free-thinkers, who may also be "free-doers" in many areas of life (and those areas may include the use of recreational substances). He also notes that small movements "tend to attract the nuts, those who just don't fit in anywhere else and want to move to a smaller pond" (I'm not sure it's fair to call such people "nuts", but I do think this phenomenon lends the libertarian movement a rather motley appearance). Yet his most important point is this:
Yet we needn't treat any group as if it were an undifferentiated whole. And what's most important are the ideas, not the people who claim membership in the group.
I wholeheartedly agree that no group is an undifferentiated whole; after all, just about the only "ism" I'll still own up to is individualism. Yet the principle of individualism does not exclude drawing conclusions about the tendencies exhibited by a group of individuals. After years of experience with both Randians and libertarians, I've drawn some broad conclusions about what individuals who self-describe using these two labels tend to be like (not ignoring that there are exceptions and sub-groups and hardliners vs. moderates and so on). And I've drawn even stronger conclusions regarding some of the established institutions within the Randian and libertarian worlds, such as the Institute for Ayn Rand Studies, The Objectivist Center, the Cato Institute, and the Libertarian Party. And specifically I've come to rather negative conclusions about the LP, based on several years of active involvement and many more years of interested observation. Unfortunately, at this point I think the onus of proof is on those who would argue that the LP is a positive and productive vehicle for freedom, given that one could spend one's time and energy on the kinds of efforts I discussed in my last post. As I say, I wish the reality were otherwise, because I don't like feeling politically homeless; but the "commitment to reason, rational persuasion, and honest self-criticism" that Ari notes is fundamental to both Randianism and libertarianism leads me to these conclusions based on the evidence I've accumulated over a span of many years.
Putting aside the particulars of party politics, Ari also addresses the issue of the appropriate relationship between theory and practice (or philosophers and activists) in political movements. Actually WalterInDenver raised this first, and Diana Hsieh discusses it at length, too. I was a philosophy major so perhaps my views are suspect, but I do agree with Diana that theorists are too often comfortable in their thinking chairs and don't even try to imagine the life of an activist. My concern with the libertarian movement is not that people within it are a-philosophical, but that in the main they are anti-government rather than pro-freedom, negative rather than positive, lacking a well-thought-out and well-presented vision of the benefits of a fully free society. In my experience this objection extends to Randians as well, although Rand herself at least protrayed a positive ideal in her novels (despite the fact that it is often mixed in with a great deal of vitriol and negativity).
To me the fight for freedom is a progressive movement, indeed a modern extension of the progressivism that brought civil rights to minorities in the USA. Some libertarians and Randians hark back to the 19th century, but I see that as deeply wrongheaded. The fight for freedom is a fight for the future and for human progress (material, scientific, political, ethical, spiritual). It is, as today's progressives claim, about peace and justice: "If you want peace, work for justice." Yet a specifically libertarian progressivism further recognizes that "If you want justice, work for freedom." It is the job of libertarians to work out what that means, to show how freedom is a truly and radically progressive cause in the 21st century. I have not seen libertarians do a good job of that, but then again I haven't quite done so either. Perhaps, to use the terminology of open-source software, this is an itch that I need to scratch....
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