Why I Am A Libertarian

by Peter Saint-Andre

Those who have been influenced by Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism often resist voicing agreement with libertarianism or supporting the Libertarian Party -- in fact, Peter Schwartz and other exponents of "official Objectivism" have argued that it is immoral to do so. I herewith question their premises. Originally published in the November 1994 issue of Full Context, this article has been somewhat influential. However, I now disagree with much of what I wrote here.

On Election Day of 1992 -- the day that Bill Clinton was elected the 42nd President of the United States -- I joined the Libertarian Party.

Reconciling Objectivism and Libertarianism has traditionally been a difficult task, at least as far back as Ayn Rand's denunciation of libertarians as "hippies of the right" in the final issue of The Objectivist (September, 1971) and again in her article "What Can One Do?" (The Ayn Rand Letter, January, 1972). Peter Schwartz' article "Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty" (published in 1985 in The Intellectual Activist) was taken by many Objectivists to be the final word on libertarianism and the Libertarian Party -- the death-knell for commitment to libertarianism by Objectivists. The most recent manifestation of this tradition that I have read was an early article in Full Context by David Oyerly, entitled "Why I Am Not a Libertarian".

Among Objectivists, I have encountered three basic objections to voting for the candidates of, or becoming a member of, the Libertarian Party. These are: 1. You shouldn't vote; 2. If you do vote, you shouldn't vote Libertarian; 3. Even if you vote Libertarian (at least some of the time), you shouldn't join the Libertarian Party. I shall address in turn each of these objections, as well as the reasons behind them.

Why I Vote

In 1990 and 1991, I visited and then lived in Czechoslovakia, which at that time had only recently emerged from over four decades of communism. In fact, during my sojourn there I witnessed the first and second free elections in that nation since 1948. Until that time, I had voted but once, and that only to vote against an anti-pornography referendum in my home state of Maine. However, seeing the elections in Czechoslovakia made me realize how precious is my right to vote, and I vowed to exercise that right consistently from then on.

I have had Objectivist acquaintances object that, by voting, I am granting unearned legitimacy to the state. The objection is similar to that of the voluntaryists, who hold that voting grants sanction to the power of the state, and that political and social change is best pursued through completely voluntary means (such as education), not through seeking to influence or control the levers of power. However, what the voluntaryist objection misses is that the state is not the same as statism. By voting, it seems to me, I am indeed giving sanction to "the system": however, what I am giving sanction to is the "regime" of democratic choice, not to those aspects of government that are unconstitutional or beyond the bounds of government's proper role. By voting, I am exercising my individual right to vote, enshrined in the Constitution. I grant sanction to statism only by voting for statist candidates -- not by the act of voting.

Why I Vote Libertarian

The conservative and liberal candidates who are our main alternatives in contemporary America are (in basic principles) statist candidates. As Ayn Rand so brilliantly recognized, conservatives and liberals each want to control different aspects of our lives. The conservatives want to control our spiritual lives, and the liberals want to control our economic lives, but there is a common denominator: each wants control. The mainstream of the Republican Party is conservative and the mainstream of the Democratic Party is liberal, so that each of these parties is, essentially, statist. Thus, even though the best Republican candidate tends to be better (i.e., less statist) than the best Democratic candidate -- and even though I am almost always more likely to vote Republican than Democratic, when there is no Libertarian alternative -- I would still maintain that by voting Republican or Democratic, one is indeed sanctioning statism.

But what of the mainstream of the Libertarian Party? Isn't the LP dominated by anarchists? That is the contention of Peter Schwartz and other Objectivist critics of libertarianism, but the evidence of my senses does not show it to be true. I have been observing closely the Libertarian Party at the national, state, and local levels for over two years, and as far as I can see the mainstream of the Libertarian Party is not anarchist. There do exist those on the fringes of the Party who sound like anarchists, but they are not nearly as influential as Objectivists have been led to believe. Most important, the anarcho-capitalist faction associated with Murray Rothbard and his followers has forsaken the Libertarian Party and formed an unholy alliance with, of all people, Pat Buchanan and the Christian Right!

As far as I can ascertain, many Libertarians lack knowledge of the best philosophic basis for libertarianism (i.e., Objectivism), and therefore often sound as if they are merely anti-government or even anarchist. However, the true position of almost all Libertarians that I have come into contact with, and of the Libertarian Party itself as expressed in its platform, is not anarchism but limited government and laissez-faire. (I have come into contact with a few people who I think harbor anarchist tendencies -- the current editor of the LP newsletter in my state is one, for example -- but my policy is to do what I can to oppose them and expose them as non-libertarian.)

Even if the Libertarian Party is not a cover for lurking anarchists, there are many Objectivists and others who refuse to vote for the LP because they do not want to "waste their vote". This is especially true in close races between Republicans and Democrats, when Objectivists tend to vote for the lesser of two evils -- i.e., the Republican -- rather than vote for a Libertarian candidate and therefore "steal" a vote from the Republican (and thus letting the greater evil -- i.e., the Democrat -- gain office).

I call this "the fallacy of the wasted vote". The Republican and therefore ostensibly less statist candidate -- I say ostensibly because Republican officeholders have done some of the greatest damage to our liberties (from Nixon's wage and price controls to Bush's Clean Air Act) -- is not therefore good. A statist is a statist, and evil is evil, no matter to what degree. That is why voting for Republicans (or Democrats, for that matter) is in fact the true waste of your vote. Your vote is your sanction. By voting for a Republican candidate, you sanction those who want, among other things, to restrict or abrogate the right to abortion, put a stop to immigration, and vigorously prosecute the neo-prohibitionist "war on drugs" no matter what the cost to individual rights. By voting for a Democratic candidate, you sanction those who want, among other things, to impose politically-correct thought control, nationalize 14% of the United States economy through health-care "reform", and raise taxes to confiscatory levels. It seems to me much safer, morally speaking, to vote for someone who wants, on principle, to eliminate government controls and restore individual liberties across the board: the Libertarian candidate.

Why I Joined The Libertarian Party

Okay, you may say, perhaps I should vote for a Libertarian candidate or two. But why in the world would I want to join the Libertarian Party -- wouldn't that mean "getting into bed" with people who are, at best, well-meaning but a-philosophical advocates of limited government?

In a word, yes. But I think that there is at least one good reason for doing so, and I will attempt to explicate that reason here.

There is underway a significant phenomenon, which for want of a better phrase I call the radicalization of American politics. By radicalization I mean the ascendancy within each party of those who hold the philosophical premises that underlie each party's political program. The radicalization of liberalism took place over twenty years ago with the absorption of the cultural left by the Democratic Party. The result has been the development of "relativist liberalism" -- a liberalism that shows its philosophical roots by championing, and supporting through government, such things as avant-garde art, affirmative action, and politically-correct education.

The radicalization of the conservative movement and of the Republican Party has taken place more recently, and therefore has received greater attention. In fact, the process of radicalization on the right is still taking place, in the form of the ascendancy of the "Christian Right" or what is perhaps more accurately referred to as religious conservativism. Religious conservatism shows its philosophical roots by championing so-called family values and advocating policies such as allowing prayer in the schools and restricting or outlawing abortion. At last count, religious conservatives had gained control of eighteen Republican Party organizations at the state level, and were a strong force in thirteen others. It is only a matter of time, I believe, before the entire Republican Party is dominated by religious conservatives, just as the Democratic Party is dominated by relativist liberals. When that happens, the left will consist of relativist liberals and the right will consist of religious conservatives -- and those who understand the American experience will see that the true center of American politics (both in history and in the future) is libertarian.

In other words, the radicalization of American politics will make it plain that the philosophical basis of conservatism is a religious world-view, and that the philosophical basis of liberalism is a relativist world-view. On the positive side, each of these views has its merits: religous conservatism at least expounds a system of morality, and relativist liberalism is, at least, secular. Unfortunately, neither the Left nor the Right in American politics is based on a secular vision of morality, which will doom us to ever more radical swings between one form of statism or the other.

However, libertarianism is based on a secular morality, because (as David Kelley brilliantly argued in his talk at the Laissez Faire Supper Club) the only valid philosophic basis for libertarianism is the Objectivist world-view. Despite the existence of both religious and relativist libertarians, it is only Objectivism that can provide a consistent philosophical base for libertarianism.

The Libertarian Party has not yet undergone a process of radicalization, as the Democratic Party has done and as the Republican Party is now doing. The Libertarian Party is the last of the three largest political parties in America to "go radical". There are many reasons for this, some related to the peculiar history of Objectivism and Libertarianism. Indeed, it is not at all clear that the Libertarian Party ever will become radicalized, because it is not clear that Libertarians will ever accept Objectivism or that Objectivists will ever get involved in the Libertarian Party or the libertarian movement to any great extent. However, I firmly believe that the radicalization of the Libertarian Party is the only hope for the future of American politics -- especially given a world in which the Republican Party is dominated by religious conservatives and the Democratic Party is dominated by relativist liberals (and in which the only other likely alternative is pragmatist authoritarianism, of which Ross Perot is merely a rather tame prototype).

The only way for libertarians to accept Objectivism as the valid philosophic basis of libertarianism is for Objectivists to get involved in the Libertarian Party (or at least the libertarian movement). Libertarians understand the political philosophy of Objectivism, but they need help in understanding the philosophic foundations for that political philosophy. And it is here that Objectivists are needed: to oppose the anarchist remnants on principle, to encourage libertarians forward to greater understanding, to teach when necessary, to inspire when possible. It was to fight for freedom in this way -- and to fight for the Objectivist foundations of libertarianism -- that I joined the Libertarian Party on the day that relativist liberal Bill Clinton was elected President. I hope that it does not take the election of a religious conservative or a pragmatist authoritarian to convince more Objectivists of the wisdom of getting involved in and working for the libertarian future.

Postscript, July 1995

There are two clarifications I would like to make regarding my essay "Why I Am A Libertarian". The first concerns my statements about the "evil" of religious conservatives and relativist liberals, a point raised by David Oyerly in the January 1995 issue of Full Context. I do not like the language of demonization, nor do I lightly use the word 'evil'. What I meant was that the choice between "the lesser of two evils" in the form of the Republicans and the Democrats is no choice at all (what we need is a consistently pro-freedom choice, namely the Libertarian Party). However, I should have made it clearer than I did that I do not consider individuals to be evil by dint of involvement in (or, especially, merely voting for) one of the established parties -- I should have chosen more carefully the words to express my moral estimation of such individuals. One must meet an extraordinarily high (or low) standard to merit being labeled 'evil', and I have known only one individual in my own life to whom I would attach that label. It is more accurate to say that rank-and-file liberals and conservatives are seriously misguided, and that the more consistent exponents of each view (e.g., Pat Buchanan on the right and Hillary Clinton on the left) are willing and eager to use government power over others for their desired ends, and therefore can be adjudged unethical power-lusters. That's bad enough, I think.

Second, I do not hold that Objectivism is the only basis for libertarianism, nor that only Objectivists are true libertarians. In that sense I have not spelled out the correct relation between the two creeds. Libertarianism, as I understand it, is the political philosophy that the initiation of force is never a proper means for achieving social ends. Many different ethical systems can underlie that political philosophy. For instance, there is a budding humanist movement within Islam, which argues that all forms of coercion are immoral and expressly forbidden by the Koran; presumably some individuals within that movement could come to hold libertarian political views. Such people would be just as much libertarians as those who base their libertarian conclusions on premises of utilitarianism, Kantianism, Taoism, Confucianism, or Zoroastrianism. As long as such people are consistently libertarian in their political philosophy, they are libertarians, in my view.

Does that betoken a heedless latitudinarianism? Am I a mindless subjectivist for accepting Zoroastrians or whomever as libertarians? No. Many ethical philosophies are used to support the libertarian political philosophy, but not all of them are equally valid philosophically or equally as strong practically (even though those libertarians who subscribe to such ethical philosophies may be perfectly consistent in their political beliefs and behavior). Appeals to religion and to relativism are sometimes used in an attempt to ground libertarianism. But, as David Kelley has argued, Objectivism stands as the best, most philosophically consistent, most true-to-reality basis for libertarianism -- and, I might add, as the most popular: sixty percent of respondents to a poll conducted by Liberty magazine reported that Ayn Rand was of substantial importance in their intellectual development, and Rand garnered the highest "influence rating" in that poll.

Popularity contests are not determinants of truth, and by no means can it be said that I have put forward a foolproof argument that Objectivism is the strongest, most valid basis for libertarianism. I will perhaps attempt to do so in a future essay.

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