November 02, 2003

In Praise of Contextual Libertarianism

[Added 11/26/05: As I had occasion to do several days ago, I very gratefully acknowledge that I have a number of new readers now. Because I have yet to republish many earlier essays written over the last three years, I've received more than a few recent inquiries about my views, and more particularly about my overall intellectual orientation. Many of the questions can be summed up very simply: "You're a libertarian? Really? But look at the kinds of issues you discuss, and the way you discuss them. You can't be a libertarian!"

As you may gather, such inquiries are intended as a compliment, and I thankfully accept them in that spirit. I view these questions as eminently understandable, particularly in the blog world. With the proliferation of self-proclaimed "libertarians," who are now so numerous that they appear to be bred in petri dishes, such questions are unavoidable. Most of these contemporary libertarians and "libertarian bloggers" could much more accurately be described as "libertarians for Bush," or perhaps "libertarians for Bush's foreign policy and American worldwide hegemony at the point of a gun." To say that such "libertarians" have corrupted the term's meaning to an extent deserving of criminal punishment understates the problem severely. But the profound contradictions, the corruption, the crime, and the confusion are their doing, not mine. Most of them seem unaccountably proud of their "accomplishment." I myself would not be so eager to lend my support to a policy as indisputably destructive as the one they have embraced, or to a president who seeks to destroy the very foundations of liberty. Nor would I boast about helping to trash and destroy a very important and previously respected intellectual tradition. If they were the only ones to suffer the consequences of their unforgivably careless and indefensible intellectual irresponsibility, I wouldn't care. Unfortunately, others also suffer the results of their criminal recklessness.

To begin to answer these questions, I'm reposting an earlier essay, written a little over two years ago. I must emphasize two points: I consider this to be only part of a fuller explanation. A more complete answer will require at least one additional essay, probably about the same length as what follows. This is, in effect, only the first half of the current state of my thinking about these issues. Since two years have passed and I have continued to reflect on these questions, that is only to be expected.

Along the same lines, I must further qualify the already qualified endorsement of Ayn Rand's ideas in what follows. As you'll see, even two years ago, that endorsement was already more focused on the methodology she sometimes employed, as opposed to the specific content of her narrower solutions to certain problems. Although I have only written about very limited aspects of my further thinking in this connection (in essays still to be reposted here), I have grown progressively more critical of Rand's approach and many of her ideas. In fact, and I plan to write much more extensively about this when I have time, I am now deeply critical of both Rand's overall approach and many of her specific formulations. I cannot endorse either in any meaningful way. All of that will require a much longer explanation.

In this essay, I spoke approvingly of a certain methodology Rand employed. Now I have to say that Rand's use of that approach was the exception rather than the rule, and I don't think it can be viewed as at all typical of her manner of analysis. I refer to Chris Sciabarra in the following essay, and I include some of his comments on these and related issues. However, in what follows, I stress that I speak only for myself, and not for him to any extent at all. Thankfully, Chris can and does speak for himself -- with great and notable eloquence and brilliance. Visit his website to see the wonderful books and countless articles he has written on these and many other subjects, and you can judge his views based on his own work. I cannot recommend that work highly enough: it is a feast for the mind, at a time when we too often can feel we are on the verge of starvation.

None of this is to say there are no aspects of Rand's novels and non-fiction that I find valuable or that I enjoy. There are -- but in truth, compared to what I now consider the grave dangers in Rand's thought, dangers that are magnified to a genuinely alarming degree by many of her most ardent contemporary admirers, the positive aspects of Rand's achievement pale into insignificance. As for my statement below that I agree with "Rand’s particular conclusions with regard to the most fundamental issues": the particular conclusions to which I referred are not unique to Rand, and I think other writers and philosophers provide defenses for them that are sometimes more comprehensive and better than Rand's, and those other defenses and explanations also do not involve the dangers that accompany Rand's views. So even that statement must be read more narrowly than I had originally intended, in terms of my views today. That, too, requires a longer explanation.

With that said, and with more to come on this subject, here is the essay that was first posted on November 2, 2003. As will be true with all earlier essays that I repost here, I've added very brief comments in brackets where I thought they were needed for clarity. I have deleted one parenthetical aside that concerned a somewhat technical point about Rand's views, since it detracted from the flow of the argument and I now consider it unnecessary. In all other respects, the essay is unchanged.]

What follows is a description of one part of the intellectual journey I have taken over the last year. What concerns me most here, and what has largely been the impetus for these explorations, is an issue I have been struggling to understand for quite a while now: the nature and causes of what appear to be unusual and unexpected alliances between formerly opposed political groups.

Many people have taken note of this phenomenon – for example, with regard to the unusual combination of forces opposed to certain provisions in the Patriot Act. It’s not every day you see conservatives, moderates and liberals opposed to the same developments, and in significant part for the same reasons.

It’s also been widely remarked that those opposed to the Iraq war, and to our current foreign policy in general, also constitute an unusual combination: certain libertarians now find themselves much more comfortable with many liberals than with Republicans or conservatives, at least with regard to this issue. Aside from their general opposition to our foreign policy, what has been interesting to me is that these opponents of the Iraq war have often focused on the same elements. One of those major elements is the crony capitalism that lies at the heart of many aspects of our foreign policy, the crony capitalism that is now one of the most important factors influencing how the occupation of Iraq is playing out.

This corporate statism is noted, and condemned, by certain libertarians, but ignored for the most part by many other libertarians, and by almost all Republicans and conservatives. But almost all liberals and Democrats have discussed it at length. To be sure, much of that criticism from liberals and Democrats might be motivated by partisan concerns. But, to judge from a number of commentaries I have read, there are also many liberals and Democrats who condemn it on principle, and understand how dangerous this corporate statism is, regardless of which party happens to be practicing it.

But the question I have been wrestling with is this: why exactly are certain libertarians and liberals focused on certain issues – while many other libertarians and most conservatives are seemingly oblivious to them? What is the mechanism involved? What is the process or method that explains it?

Just the other evening, I think I finally began to understand what it is. It was an exchange with a liberal blogger that keyed me in on it – but, as is always the case in such matters, the final pieces only fell into place as a result of my having written and thought about many of the relevant issues over the past year.

These issues are very complex, so I will state the main point very briefly to begin with: there are two basic methods of thinking that we can often see in the way people approach any given issue. One is what we might call a contextual approach: people who use this method look at any particular issue in the overall context in which it arises, or the system in which it is embedded. Liberals are often associated with this approach. They will analyze racism or the “power differential” between women and men in terms of the entire system in which those issues arise. And in a similar manner, their proposed solutions will often be systemic solutions, aimed at eradicating what they consider to be the ultimate causes of the particular problem that concerns them.

The other fundamental approach is to focus on the basic principles involved, but with scant (or no) attention paid to the overall context in which the principles are being analyzed. In this manner, this approach treats principles like Plato’s Forms, as will become clearer shortly. I will use an example from a discussion here to illustrate the point, a discussion about certain cultural aspects related to homosexuality. I should note that, as a libertarian, I do not advocate any “special” rights for gays and lesbians; I want only those rights which everyone should have – and foremost among those is the right to be left alone by the government. For that reason, I am opposed across the board to any laws which criminalize consenting behavior between adults.

But, in addition to that issue, I also have spent a considerable amount of time discussing the cultural aspects of common views about gays. In this post, for example [to be reposted], I discussed my own teenage years [in the 1960s] in the context of Santorum’s comments about the Supreme Court case which ultimately struck down the Texas sodomy law. At the end of that post, I said the following:
The major reason for my writing this is to make the more personal point, though. This is not simply an academic debating exercise for me, even though I have tried to address the substantive issues in previous posts. And it is not a debating exercise for gays and lesbians in general. You’re talking about our lives – and many of those lives have held a great deal of pain, in large part because of prejudices and ignorance of the kind revealed in this latest episode.

People ought to remember that before they give voice to uninformed, baseless and indefensible views. We do; we cannot help but remember it – it’s part of the fabric of our lives. Next time, think about all this before you speak – and think about the number of gay and lesbian teenagers who kill themselves, or try to, or at least seriously think about it, as I did 40 years ago. Views like Santorum’s have consequences, and costs, and some of them are terrible to contemplate.

I hope that the God Santorum believes in will forgive him. I can’t – and I won’t.
In a followup post, I discussed those “terrible consequences” further. In the heated debate which followed, Chris Sciabarra made some comments, which I added in an Update (this is only part of what Chris said [these earlier entries are still to be reposted]):
However, just because we must not break the inextricable link between personal action and personal responsibility does not mean that we must ignore the very real cultural issues that such actions entail. Arthur is putting his finger on something very important that too many individualists, and too many Objectivists, seem to forget: culture is crucial. And those who claim Ayn Rand as their intellectual mother must start reclaiming Rand’s emphasis on the cultural as of crucial significance in our analysis—or projected solution—of any social problem. ...

There are clear implications to Rand’s emphasis on the cultural: Cultural ideas and trends are often absorbed by individuals throughout society by a process that largely by-passes conscious awareness or explicit articulation. The whole point of Rand’s maxim, “Check your premises,” was that every individual has the personal responsibility to engage in the kind of introspection that makes these premises clear. And if the premises prove to be unfounded, it is the responsibility of every individual to work toward their long-term resolution. ...

Rand fought for a rational culture—one that undermines irrationality, prejudice, mysticism, and the use of brute force—because she recognized correctly that culture shapes, and is shaped by, individuals. To fight the culture of hate, the war must ultimately be won by each individual, acting on the judgment of his or her own mind. But to act as if culture has no power to influence individual behavior is to blot out the whole cultural dimension of Rand’s radical vision. This is a cultural war that must be fought. Nothing less will do.
And then, in still another post on all this, I discussed the different kinds of moral judgment involved, how ideas influence and affect a culture, and I quoted from one of Rand’s most moving, and very short, essays, “Through Your Most Grievous Fault,” about the death of Marilyn Monroe.

That post brought a response from someone I will call an “atomist libertarian,” and this is part of what he said:
[Silber] reaches for the bottom shelf of Rand’s collected works and pulls out one of the dumbest pieces she ever wrote. ...

This is a strange piece by Rand, and a lousy one. It’s strange because it’s one of the few times she had anything truly warm to say about a child - except she’s not talking about a child but rather an adult who lived as a child. It’s a lousy piece because Rand shouldn’t be idealizing a child who failed to grow up. ...

I don’t have anything against Marylin [sic] Monroe. I take pleasure in her films as Rand did, from the sense of life Monroe brought to the screen. But it’s dumb to hold Monroe up as a tragic victim of culture and it’s just plain ridiculous for Rand to write that Monroe was hounded to death for being true to her best nature. As a grown woman Monroe had an inescapable responsibility to herself to be more than a candle in the wind. It’s ridiculous for Rand to hold her up as an ideal.

I’m probably well behind the curve here, but I didn’t know until today that Marilyn Monroe is a bit of a gay icon and that Candle In The Wind is in fact a bit of a gay anthem. There’s no getting around the fact that this entails an identification with Monroe as a helpless victim of society.

So while Rand didn’t have anything sympathetic to say about gays she demonstrated uncharacteristic sympathy for a helpless victim in the case of an idealized Monroe.

Surely this is why Silber gives Rand a pass; this is why he doesn’t hold her to the same standard as Santorum.
First of all, I do not give "Rand a pass" in this manner at all, as will become clear in the next few weeks. ... [A subsequent essay, which makes very clear indeed that I do not give "Rand a pass," also needs to be reposted here. In fact, I condemned certain of Rand's errors very harshly.]

More importantly, these comments reveal as clearly as anything I have seen a complete disregard, even a disdain, for the importance of culture. For this writer, it appears that all of us grow up in a vacuum, or that at least it is our responsibility to act as if we could. And if we fail, it’s our own damned fault. End of story.

Nothing that I have written can possibly be reasonably construed as a denial of individual responsibility. But it is not a denial of that responsibility to acknowledge the simple, uncontestable reality that culture matters. It matters a lot. But for many libertarians, none of this is to be discussed.

And libertarians wonder why they aren’t more successful. With the opportunity for this fuller explanation, I will say something I have only mentioned to a few friends until now. If my choice were only between a fully free society – but a society populated solely by “atomist libertarians” with sensibilities of the kind exhibited in the comments above about Marilyn Monroe – and the world we live in today, I’ll take this world any day. It’s not even close. On the most fundamental level imaginable, these “atomist libertarians” are not my kind of people at all. Fortunately, that is not the choice. I can live in this world, and continue to fight for the kind of world I would like to see.

To return to the more general point: many libertarians espouse this “atomist” view of society. For them, it is as if the society in which one lives is completely irrelevant to an analysis of any problem at all. For them, all one must understand are the fundamental political principles involved. For them, that is the entirety of the discussion.

In only one, extremely narrow sense, I would agree: certainly, I remain opposed to “central planning” efforts at eradicating mistaken views, or private discrimination. For example, while I view a private employer’s refusal to hire gays or blacks simply on the basis of that fact as irrational and immoral, I also consider that to be his right in a free society. As I have said before, being free must necessarily include the right to be irrational and mistaken. When we seek to impose our own views of “proper” and “moral” behavior on others, using the force of government to do so, we proceed down the road to dictatorship, if such views were carried to their logical conclusion.

But that does not mean that the cultural aspects of these problems are irrelevant and not worthy of attention. Far from it. Those cultural issues are profoundly important. We do not grow up or live in a vacuum; we grow up and live in a particular society at a particular time. All of us are influenced in countless ways by the world in which we live. To maintain otherwise, one would have to advocate a psychologically untenable degree of repression or denial. I further think this point is so obvious that it doesn’t even merit a lengthier defense or explanation.

For many libertarians, however, it appears that these cultural dimensions are not worthy of attention – and more than that, they appear to think that paying any attention to them constitutes a positive danger. They could not be more wrong in my view. While these cultural aspects may not alter the basic political principles one advocates – which they do not for me, despite my attention to them – they are crucial to understanding the world in which we live. If one wants to understand the specific manner in which policy debates are being conducted, and if one wants to understand why people think and act as they do in this or any other society, one has to understand the overall cultural context in which these issues arise.

The failure of many (if not most) libertarians to do this consistently is, I think, one of libertarianism’s greatest failings – and one of the key reasons that libertarian ideas have not had greater success in appealing to many people. Many libertarians treat political principles in the manner of Plato’s Forms: as abstractions floating in the ether, unconnected to the particulars of this world. But that is not the manner in which anyone lives, despite the protestations of many libertarians to the contrary. As a result, many people write off many libertarian ideas as “impractical,” or “idealistic,” or “unworkable.” That is a mistake in my view, but given libertarianism’s failing in this regard (speaking generally), it is a very understandable mistake.

Leave aside for this discussion the fact that liberals and libertarians have very different views about the causes and solutions to many of today’s problems. I am not focused here on the specific content of these groups’ ideas, but on their methods of analysis. Liberals generally employ a contextual, systemic approach – they focus on the overall society in which problems arise, and propose society-wide solutions. Libertarians generally focus only on the political ideas that are implicated – with virtually no attention at all paid to the cultural context in which those ideas are to be applied, or in which opposing ideas have arisen. (Interestingly, many conservatives might argue that they, too, focus on cultural, systemic issues – with their emphasis on the “culture war,” and on issues such as homosexuality and school prayer. My answer in brief is that, yes, they may be focused on systemic issues, but they are fighting for the completely wrong culture. And what they want, in fact, is a theocracy.)

My own solution is clear at this point: I think both approaches are necessary and required. For me, the discussion begins with an identification of the principles involved – but once those have been identified, one must analyze the context in which those principles are to be applied, including the relevant cultural context. After all, the point of identifying the principles involved is to apply them to this world – to apply them to particular people in particular situations. Individuals are the ultimate components of reality; there are no others. Political principles, as such, do not exist in the world as tangible objects.

Thus, a libertarian who approaches policy debates in the manner I do is likely to feel much more comfortable in a certain way with liberals, than with libertarians who utilize the “Plato’s Forms” approach. It is not that I agree with liberals about the specific content of the policies they propose. I almost always do not. But my methodology is much more similar to theirs than to that of many libertarians. As I noted in an earlier post about Rand’s methodology, while I certainly agree with Rand’s particular conclusions with regard to the most fundamental issues, it is not the conclusions themselves which constitute Rand’s most important contribution in my view. Rather, it is the methodology she employed – a methodology which focuses on both ideas and their particular context, and is constantly moving back and forth, from one to the other, to determine the myriad ways in which they affect and interact with each other.

And that is, in fact, the way the world works. We are always applying a principle in a particular context, and that context influences the manner in which the principle is utilized. It cannot be otherwise.

And thus, as another example, the alliance between libertarians who use an approach like mine to liberals with regard to the war on terrorism. We tend to focus on the complex systemic issues involved, on the corporate statism, on the unlikely success of any effort to “plan” the development of other countries. Many pro-war libertarians focus only on our right of self-defense, and on our need to destroy our enemies – without considering the system in which those principles will be applied, the nature of the players involved, and how that system itself may render all such efforts unsuccessful, and will likely hasten the growth of an even more destructive and powerful central government here in the United States.

To sum up, then: we can see two very different methods of approaching any problem. We have a method which focuses on contextual, systemic concerns, and always keeps those issues in mind when analyzing any problem and proposing solutions to it. And we also have a method which focuses almost exclusively on principles, but employs principles in the manner of Plato’s Forms, unconnected and unmoored to a specific context or culture. As I said, my solution is to employ both methods, separately and together, constantly going back and forth – and to endeavor never to forget either.

All of which brings me to a new term which I think I will use in the future to describe my own political convictions. I am a contextual libertarian. The libertarian part is obvious: I base my political convictions on the supremacy of individual rights, and think that government should be concerned solely with protecting those rights, on both the domestic and foreign fronts. But the contextual element is just as important for me: the principles I advocate can only be applied in a specific context at a specific time. The overall context, including significant cultural factors, must always be kept in mind as well.

I hope the term contextual libertarian catches on – and if you like it, I hope you will adopt it, too.

(This entire discussion obviously owes an enormous debt to Chris Sciabarra, and his extensive and enormously valuable advocacy of “dialectical libertarianism.” For that, and for his wonderful friendship, I extend my deep gratitude, once again.)