December 4, 2012 essays

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Instead of a Review: A Commentary on Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Jason Brennan, Part 2

Smith criticizes Jason Brennan’s view of the origin of “hard libertarianism” and his treatment of Ayn Rand.

In Part 1 of this commentary, I indicated that my remarks about Jason Brennan’s book, Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know, would consist of two parts. But having read the book again, and having concluded that my disagreements with Brennan run deeper than I initially believed, I have decided to extend my commentary to at least three parts, possibly more. This is necessary if I am to do even a modicum of justice to a number of important issues, such as Brennan’s defense of “positive liberty.”

Before diving into those deep philosophical waters, I will first address some of Brennan’s points about the origins of “hard libertarianism,” as well as his comments about Ayn Rand.

Brennan (p. 94) claims that hard libertarianism (i.e., what most people think of when they think of libertarianism) “originated with three women: Ayn Rand, Isabel Patterson [sic], and Rose Wilder Lane.” This is incorrect, of course; hard libertarianism preceded Rand, Paterson, and Lane by more than a century. Indeed, it would not be stretching the point to trace the origins of hard libertarianism to the English Levellers of the mid-seventeenth century.

In contrast to Rand, neither Paterson nor Lane originated much of anything. One might as well say that some of their male libertarian contemporaries, such as A.J. Nock, originated hard libertarianism. That statement would be equally false; such early to mid-twentieth century writers popularized libertarian ideas that had been around for a long time. Although they sometimes drew from different currents of libertarian thought, such as Jeffersonian individualism (in the case of Paterson) and Georgism (in the case of Nock), they were not original theoreticians, for the most part. It was with good reason that Nock characterized himself and other libertarians of his day as the “remnant.”

Ayn Rand falls into a different category, for she was far more than a popularizer of earlier libertarian ideas. But if anyone deserves to be called the originator of modern (hard) libertarianism, that person would be Murray Rothbard, not Ayn Rand. It is primarily to Rothbard that we owe the integration of various elements into what we now associate with libertarianism. These elements include the natural-rights thinking of Lockean liberalism; the radical individualism of Spooner and Tucker; the economic theories of Menger, Mises, and other Austrians; the anti-militarism of eighteenth-century Radical Whigs; the anti-imperialism of nineteenth-century Cobdenites and other “Little Englanders”; and the isolationism of the Old Right in America.

It is exceedingly odd that Rothbard is mentioned only once (p. 11) in Brennan’s book—and then only in passing, as an example (along with Rand and Nozick) of a hard libertarian. Rothbard’s name does not even appear in Brennan’s discussion of libertarian anarchism (pp. 57-60), even though Rothbard was the principal architect and advocate of that position. Nor are any of Rothbard’s writings, such as For a New Liberty, listed in “Suggestions for Further Reading.” Paterson’s The God of the Machine—an eccentric treatment that quickly faded into oblivion and had virtually no lasting influence—made the list of five recommended books under the heading “Hard Libertarianism,” but we find nothing by Rothbard.

Let us now turn to Brennan’s treatment of Ayn Rand, who is mentioned numerous times in his book.

It is clear that Brennan is not a fan of Ayn Rand. This is fine, of course, but it does not excuse some of his remarks about her. In the Introduction (p. xiv), Brennan writes:

Chapter three investigates issues about personal morality and ethics. It is largely meant to correct mistakes about libertarianism, in particular, the mistake of thinking that most libertarians are followers of Ayn Rand.

I cannot say who makes this mistake, since Brennan does not tell us, but he does concede (p. 21) that Rand “is influential.” Nevertheless,

Rand does not represent the mainline of libertarian or more broadly classical liberal thinking. Rand was a “hard libertarian,” and hard libertarianism is not the mainline of libertarian thinking.

In other words, it is false to say that “most libertarians are followers of Ayn Rand” because Brennan identifies the “mainline” of libertarian thinking with classical liberalism, not hard libertarianism. If one accepts this view, which I do not, then there is no effective objection to be made against Brennan’s linguistic coup.

The fact is that when most people talk about Rand’s influence on the libertarian movement, they are thinking specifically of hard libertarianism, not of a diffuse tradition called “classical liberalism.” Nevertheless, even most hard libertarians do not view themselves as followers of Ayn Rand. To be influenced by a philosopher does not make one a “follower” of that philosopher. Despite my disagreements with Rand, I have been influenced by her and I admire her, but I don’t consider myself one of her “followers.”

Many hard libertarians would say the same thing. It was therefore unnecessary for Brennan to make his point by defining “libertarianism” so broadly as to relegate hard libertarians to a minority status within libertarianism.

Brennan (p. 21) has more to say about Rand.

In her later years, Rand styled herself as a philosopher, but most philosophers, including most libertarian philosophers, regard her philosophical work as poor.

The first thing that struck me about this remark is why Brennan decided to include it. It seems a gratuitous swipe that reflects little more than a camouflaged way of stating Brennan’s personal opinion.

Although I don’t know where Brennan got his information, he is probably right about how “most philosophers” view Rand. It is also quite possible that most philosophers regard libertarianism itself as a poorly reasoned and unjustifiable political philosophy.

Such speculations cause me to wonder why any libertarian should care about what most philosophers believe about these matters. After all, we are dealing, in the main, with a class of state-subsidized intellectuals whose economic interests frequently conflict with the free-market educational proposals of libertarians—proposals that would almost certainly bring about a dramatic thinning of the quasi-monopolistic herd of credentialed academics in philosophy, sociology, and other “soft” disciplines, whose primary beneficiaries are the teachers, not the students. (Adam Smith made a similar point in his Wealth of Nations.)

In short, I would no more expect to find a high opinion of Rand in a typical academic philosopher than I would in a typical government bureaucrat.

I am far more skeptical about Brennan’s claim that even most libertarian philosophers have a low opinion of Rand’s philosophical work. That may be true of Brennan’s small band of “neoclassical liberals,” but it is not true of many libertarian philosophers, such as John Hospers, Tibor Machan, Randy Barnett, Eric Mack, Doug Rasmussen, Doug Den Uyl, Ellen and Jeffrey Paul, and many more.

Given Brennan’s low opinion of Rand, we might expect his summary treatment of her ethical theory to be less than satisfactory. And we would not be disappointed.

It’s difficult to characterize Brennan’s presentation of Rand’s egoism. Although not exactly wrong, technically speaking, on some points, it is slanted in a manner that makes her egoism seem wholly implausible. Consider this passage (p. 44-45):

Rand argues that selfishness is a virtue. She believes that every person has only one moral obligation: to promote his or her own self interest. On its face, this theory of ethics is clearly false. If ethical egoism were true, then, if torturing babies would benefit me ever so slightly, I would be permitted to do so. However, it’s clearly wrong for me to torture babies to get a slight benefit for myself, and so ethical egoism is false.

This sort of facile analysis, complete with the specter of torturing babies, is something we might expect from an undergraduate student who knows nothing about the history of ethical egoism, but I was surprised to find it stated by an accomplished philosopher.

It is not true that ethical egoism is clearly false on its face, just as it is not true that utilitarianism is clearly false on its face because it might justify the sacrifice of innocent people for the sake of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. It could also be said that philosophy is useless on its face, because philosophers merely discuss the same problems over and over again while rarely reaching a consensus on vital issues pertaining to morality and politics.

Brennan goes on to say: “However, this may not be fair to Rand.” May not? He continues: “Rand has an esoteric conception of self-interest.” On the contrary, Rand’s conception of self-interest is quite similar to that found in many earlier philosophers, especially among the so-called British Moralists of the eighteenth century.

Brennan then writes: “She does not seem to mean what most people mean by ‘selfish.’” True enough, but then Brennan does not seem to mean what most people mean by ‘libertarian”—so the problem of using terms in a somewhat idiosyncratic fashion was not confined to Rand.

Brennan continues: “For instance, Rand seems to believe it is logically impossible for a person to benefit on net from taking or acquiring something he does not deserve.” This is just flat wrong. Rand never characterized such possibilities as logically impossible. Nor, contrary to Brennan, did Rand believe that it was “logically impossible for a person to benefit on net from aggressing against, abusing, or exploiting others.”

Brennan’s slipshod manner of summarizing Rand’s theory of egoism indicates, to me at least, that he didn’t make much of an effort to understand her ideas. Fortunately, his subsequent remarks—e.g., that “Rand thinks selfishness requires that we respect others’ rights”—are more accurate.

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