Monthly Archives: March 2015

Libertarianism and Objectivism

Is the term “libertarian” an accurate description of the Objectivist politics? If we were coining an entirely new concept, “libertarian” would be ideal. However, since that word has long been in circulation, two factors determine what its actual referent is.

The first is the spread of an ideology now held by a significant number of people. It is an ideology of “non-interventionism,” an ideology which declares, in effect, “Who is the  government to tell people what they should or shouldn’t do?” While it is not an ideology of explicit anarchism—it nominally accepts the institution of government—it nonetheless opposes legitimate functions of the state, particularly in the area of military defense. It is an ideology that, with one rationale, seeks to bar government from engaging in both initiated and retaliatory force. It is a recognized, even somewhat reputable, ideology—and it needs a concept to name it. Unlike, say, the concept “selfish,” which we should try to rescue from its illegitimate use, “libertarian” has a legitimate function: it refers to something real (albeit false) that needs to be conceptualized. 

The second factor is that the term “libertarian,” as employed in general usage, now in fact refers to that ideology. For example, Ross Douthat, a New York Times op-ed columnist, writes about events abroad that “will empower the Republican Party’s hawkish establishment at the expense of the party’s libertarian/anti-interventionist wing— . . . throwing new obstacles in Rand Paul’s already difficult path to the nomination.” Libertarianism, in other words, is “non-interventionism.”

Even though the term “libertarian” once stood for free-market economics, it now refers to a perverse ideology. And it would be a serious mistake, therefore, if Objectivists adopted that label. It would be like clinging to the term “liberal”—which originally meant pro-freedom—to describe our views, even after it took on an opposite referent.

It’s important to realize that libertarianism endorses not simply a false theory—i.e., a dismissal of the philosophic roots of freedom—but a false practice. The protection of individual rights has two necessary components: a government that refuses to initiate force against its citizens, and a government that willingly uses force to repel any threats—whether domestic or foreign—against those citizens. Libertarians regularly oppose the second, thereby making freedom impossible.

It’s unfortunate that the term is no longer available for use by us, but it’s been appropriated by a cause antithetical to ours. To call yourself a libertarian with qualifiers—to say: “I’m a libertarian who doesn’t endorse a policy of ‘non-interventionism’ ”defeats the point of having a concept that stands for your viewpoint. It is like saying: “I’m a liberal, but I oppose any government involvement in the economy.” Or, more to the point, it is like describing oneself as an Objectivist but who does not believe that reason is man’s means of knowledge. Such a person is not an Objectivist—just as someone who rejects “non-interventionism” is not a libertarian.

As to identifying the Objectivist political position, there simply is no term in today’s culture that would be self-explanatory. Since you’re going to have to explain yourself anyway, call yourself a pro-capitalist. If you’re not enamored of that term, call yourself a radical for capitalism. That will certainly pique the interest of your audience, and you can then proceed to make clear what you mean.

But with respect to libertarianism, the best self-descriptive use of the term is through a negative declaration: “I am not a libertarian—I value liberty.”♦♦

Shackling the Internet

The issue of "net neutrality" is just one aspect of a much bigger, more ominous, story: the FCC takeover of the Internet. From now on, the Internet will be treated the way the telephone industry was in the '60s and '70s, before deregulation removed the suffocating grip of government. If you remember the antiquated days of Ma Bell, that's what the Internet companies can look forward to hop over to this site

The new regulations, based on the 1934 Communications Act, empower the FCC to prohibit whatever it regards as having "harmful effects" through the Internet. 

In a Wall St. Journal article, "Liberals Mugged by ObamaNet," L. Gordon Crovitz offers an indication of what might have resulted had the government been in control of the Internet from the start: 

"What if at the beginning of the Web, Washington had opted for Obamanet instead of the open Internet? Yellow Pages publishers could have invoked 'harm' and 'unjust and unreasonable' competition from online telephone directories. This could have strangled Alta Vista and Excite, the early leaders in search, and relegated Google to a Stanford student project. Newspapers could have lobbied against Craigslist for depriving them of classified advertising. Encyclopedia Britannica could have lobbied against Wikipedia.

"Competitors could have objected to the 'fast lane' that Amazon got from Sprint at the launch of the Kindle to ensure speedy e-book downloads. The FCC could have blocked Apple from integrating Internet access into the iPhone. Activists could have objected to AOL bundling access to The Wall Street Journal in its early dial-up service."

As to the future, Crovitz writes:

"Among the first targets of the FCC’s 'unjust and unreasonable' test are mobile-phone contracts that offer unlimited video or music. Netflix, the biggest lobbyist for utility regulation, could be regulated for how it uses encryption to deliver its content."

According to one of the dissenting FCC commissioners, Ajit Pai: “If you were an entrepreneur trying to make a splash in a marketplace that’s already competitive, how are you going to differentiate yourself if you have to build into your equation whether or not regulatory permission is going to be forthcoming from the FCC? According to this, permissionless innovation is a thing of the past.”

"Permissioned innovation"—a scary prospect.♦♦