Ron Paul, Murray Rothbard, and the loss of freedom

Libertarian and conservative critics of progressives seem to endlessly repeat the same refrain that progressives are opposed to freedom and liberty. This generally baffles progressives as they see themselves as the defenders of civil liberties such as free speech, marriage equality, and religious liberty. Listing examples of the liberties they defend does nothing to quell criticism from libertarians, however, as the concepts of liberty that libertarians hold is quite different from the concepts of liberty progressives hold.

For libertarians, all liberty stems from property.  In short, if you have little property, you are not entitled to liberty. Murray Rothbard, who wrote the introduction to Ron Paul’s book, puts this idea quite succinctly in The Ethics of Liberty, saying, “Human rights, when not put in terms of property rights, turn out to be vague and contradictory, causing liberals to weaken those rights on behalf of ‘public policy’ or the ‘public good.’” In other words, when progressives seek to ensure that all people enjoy the same rights, Rothbard and other libertarians claim this actually denies human rights as it causes some individuals to lose some of their property.

So, your right to free speech, for example, depends on your owning enough property to exercise your speech. Otherwise, it depends on the goodwill of some property owner to permit you to speak. As Rothbard puts it, “There is no such thing as a separate ‘right to free speech’; there is only a man’s property right: the right to do as he wills with his own or to make voluntary agreements with other property owners.” And, of course, libertarians feel that all property should be privately held.

So, when Occupy Wall Street protesters are chanting “Whose streets? Our Streets!”, they are going directly against the beliefs of libertarians. Protesters have been evicted around the country on the basis that they are on “privately held” public spaces. You can try protesting conditions in Foxconn plants outside an Apple store to test how much freedom you have on privately held property. Progressives seek to establish publicly held property to ensure that everyone (or as many as possible) has an opportunity to exercise the right to free speech. The same applies to public airwaves and Internet bandwidth.

If you want to be able to speak publicly, you must be a property owner. To have a significant voice, you must own a great deal of property. When the Supreme Court ruled that unlimited political contributions were a matter of free speech, this is really the underlying theme to their proclamation. When George Carlin declared that the owners of this country were the only ones with any freedom, some regarded him as a crazy conspiracy theorist.

Philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously helped distinguish between two kinds of liberty. Negative liberty is the freedom from interference from others. Positive liberty is the ability to act in the way one chooses. Progressives hold that liberty is meaningless to a person who has no means to act or make choices. Libertarians hold that all liberty is negative (freedom from coercion) and all rights are negative (no one is obligated to ensure that you have positive liberty).

When libertarians and progressives talk to one another, they should at least try to understand how the other is using basic terms such as rights and liberty. As for me, I completely understand why wealthy people would be libertarian. I find it much harder to understand why people who have little property (and that is most of us) would embrace these libertarian ideas.

Religion and Morality: You could do more

Immanuel Kant said, “Morality is not properly the doctrine of how we may make ourselves happy, but how we may make ourselves worthy of happiness.” In the past I was of the opinion that if a moral system makes people miserable, it is not a useful moral system at all, but I think perhaps I’m finally starting to grasp Kant’s meaning. Sometimes it takes me longer than I’d like to get things.

It seems to me now that there are two ways of viewing morality. First, we may seek out systems that give us guidance on how we may improve ourselves. Second, we may seek out systems that validate how we already are.

Over the past few decades (or is this problem much older?), we appear to have embraced a massive self-esteem movement that compels us to seek self-validation rather than self-reflection and self-criticism. Christian mega-churches now teach people that God wants them to be happy, so they should pursue whatever makes them happy: luxury homes, cars, vacations, or other possessions. No more are congregants taught the value of restraint and humility. Thus, immediate and intense gratification is combined with the arrogance of ones who must not be questioned. It is not that I want to see medieval flagellants in the streets, but humble servitude and stewardship might be a nice change. I do realize, of course, that such meek worshipers still exist, but they are too quiet to gain so much notice.

And many people who claim to be interested in Buddhism say that it helps them stay centered. By this, they mean, as far as I can tell, that it helps them cope with the stresses life throws their way. But Buddhism as I understand it teaches discipline and awareness of the suffering of life. Suffering is universal, and relief from suffering must also be universal. To relieve your own suffering, you must stop believing in your “own” suffering and work to relieve universal suffering through loving kindness that pervades all your actions, words, and thoughts.   Your relief comes from the kindness you show others and your restraint from pursuing selfish desires, not from freeing your mind of unpleasant thoughts.

Finally, those who are not religious often turn to moral philosophy as a source of comfort. Rather than evaluating a moral system to see how sound it is and what advice it can offer for living a life that is good, proper, and noble, we read for a philosophy that exalts someone who is very much the way we already are.

When corporate leaders and other public figures are criticized for immoral behavior, they often react angrily and declare that it is their critics who are acting inappropriately. Of course, not all criticisms are valid, so sometimes they are correct, but imagine a world where the same people responded with an air of humility. We’ve entered an age where we constantly demand apologies of anyone in the public who says something we don’t like. I find apologies on demand to be extremely unsatisfying. I would much rather hear someone say, “I try to be a good person, but sometimes I make mistakes. I would ask you to show me the same forbearance and forgiveness that I promise to show you.” And maybe we can all set to the task of improving ourselves and our world.

Why my students love Ayn Rand

I think my Introduction to Ethics class is fairly typical. We start with Epicurus and work our way through Aristotle, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Immanuel Kant. After those heavy hitters, I try to lighten things up with some essays from contemporary philosophers (in the most general interpretation of the term). So, after reading some Kant, I move to an interview with Ayn Rand for a little break.

This may not be such as good tactic. When I first chose the assignment, I did so because the interview reveals Rand’s beliefs in a way that is stark and easily digested. I assumed anyone reading it would agree with me that her philosophy is reprehensible, and I would be serving the greater good of humanity by having them exposed to it. I try not to reveal my biases in class, and I really don’t want to tell them what to believe. I just hope they will hate Rand. I’m less concerned about what they will like.

Nonetheless, I always have a few students who declare that Rand is the first reading they have liked. I ask probing questions hoping to find that maybe they didn’t really get what she was saying, simplistic as it is, but I generally have to concede that they really do like what she says. As a result, I think I have created a small band of ardent Rand supporters over the years. The Tea Party can thank me. And I think I’ve identified the two reasons she is so popular with students:

1. As I mentioned, the assignment is easy to read and digest. After slogging through Mill and Kant, I can certainly understand why they would be relieved to find something they can understand on the first pass, even if the reading completely flies in the face of their supposed religious convictions. But the second point is more meaningful to me.

2. Rand is easy in another sense as well. She really doesn’t demand much of her readers. She tells them they must be selfish and pursue only what is truly gratifying to them. Now, Epicurus said that they should seek a pleasurable life through contemplation and serious examination of the world around them with great respect for their community. Aristotle tells them they must practice constantly to become virtuous in a way that will enable not only their personal flourishing but the success of their society. Mill tells them to seek their own pleasure but that they will derive the greatest satisfaction from pleasures that require much practice and refinement to achieve. And Kant tells them they can’t lie under any circumstances. Furthermore, they must help people who are worse off than they are. To follow Kant or any of the others, they would have to put out a great deal of effort to change how they live, but to follow Rand’s advice they don’t see that much more effort is required. In their minds, at least, they are already living Rand’s ideal life. And, they get to feel pretty self-righteous comparing themselves to recipients of government aid (my students do not consider low community college tuition to be a form of government support).

I suppose I am hopelessly naive to think my students will take my class looking for hints on possible self improvement. They are seeking validation for their current lifestyles, not ideas on how to improve.

Except when they are not seeking the easy way. It is easy for teachers to get discouraged and forget all the talented and hard working students who are in constant search of new information and new challenges. Many of my students have now gone on from the community college to universities and graduate school. They have admirable careers in fields such as law, science, health, and social work. I am humbled by them.

For further reading:
1. 10 (insane) things I learned about the world reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged
2. How Ayn Rand Seduced Generations of Young Men and Helped Make the US into a Selfish, Greedy Nation