Q&A on Libertarianism

Has ARI changed its position on libertarianism?

No. But the meaning of the term “libertarian” has been changing over the decades. Consequently, individuals or organizations that today call themselves “libertarian” may or may not hold the ideas we oppose.

The libertarianism we oppose is a specific set of ideas, the essence of which is a dedicated, thoroughgoing subjectivism. Libertarianism in this sense was spearheaded by Murray Rothbard and his followers in the 1960s and 1970s. Its political expression is anarchism, or “anarcho-capitalism” as they often term it, and a foreign policy of rabid anti-Americanism (which they pass off as “non-interventionism”).

The “libertarians,” in this usage of the term, plagiarize Ayn Rand’s non-initiation of force principle and convert it into an axiom, denying the need for and relevance of philosophical fundamentals—not only the underlying ethics, but also the underlying metaphysics and epistemology.

This is the anti-objective, anti-philosophic position that, in 1985, ARI’s then-chairman of the board, Peter Schwartz, properly denounced in his essay “Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty.” That comprehensive critique of libertarianism exposes the movement’s essence: nihilism. (A condensed version of this article is published in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought under the same title.) We agreed with and continue to agree with the essence of Peter Schwartz’s analysis.

As Mr. Schwartz demonstrated at length, this libertarianism declares that the value of liberty and the evil of initiating force are self-evident primaries, needing no justification or even explanation—leaving undefined such key concepts as “liberty,” “force,” “justice,” “good,” and “evil.” It claims compatibility with all views in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics—even subjectivism, mysticism, skepticism, altruism, and nihilism—substituting “hate the state” for intellectual content.

This is why Ayn Rand opposed it from the start.

In print in 1972 Rand issued this warning to individuals interested in defending capitalism:

Above all, do not join the wrong ideological groups or movements, in order to “do something.” By “ideological” (in this context), I mean groups or movements proclaiming some vaguely generalized, undefined (and, usually, contradictory) political goals. (E.g., the Conservative Party, that subordinates reason to faith, and substitutes theocracy for capitalism; or the “libertarian” hippies, who subordinate reason to whims, and substitute anarchism for capitalism.) To join such groups means to reverse the philosophical hierarchy and to sell out fundamental principles for the sake of some superficial political action which is bound to fail.

— “What Can One Do?” The Ayn Rand Letter, Vol. 1, No. 7

For more of Rand’s comments on the libertarian movement, see “libertarians” in the Ayn Rand Lexicon and Ayn Rand’s Q&A on Libertarianism .

ARI has always viewed the movement holding this set of ideas and attitudes as an enemy of capitalism and freedom, and we continue to do so. We will never sanction, cooperate with, or collaborate with any organization that advocates “libertarianism” in this sense. This policy is required both as a matter of integrity and in intellectual self-defense. The principle involved was identified by Ayn Rand: “In any collaboration between two men (or two groups) who hold different basic principles, it is the more evil or irrational one who wins.” [“The Anatomy of Compromise,” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal]

When this subjectivist approach to philosophy and politics dominated the libertarian movement in the ’70s and ’80s, ARI refused to cooperate with anyone belonging to it. Such cooperation would have constituted a sanction of the anti-ideology of libertarianism. However, today we see evidence to suggest that there is no longer a cohesive libertarian movement. The movement has become fragmented and leaderless (intellectually as well as organizationally), and the term “libertarian” is progressively losing its former meaning.

Thus when someone or some organization today calls itself, or is called by others, “libertarian,” one should not assume that this means the person or organization is part of the anti-philosophical libertarian movement. What matters, in evaluating these individuals and organizations, are the ideas they actually hold and advocate.

The term “libertarian” has been used increasingly over the last few years to mean a vague leaning toward liberty rather than government control. Many people, including reporters and commentators, sense that neither “liberals” nor “conservatives” are advocates of freedom. Commentators need a different term to describe those who seem to be more on the side of liberty and will often use the term “libertarian.”

However, none of the three political terms—“liberal,” “conservative,” or “libertarian”—has a clearly defined meaning, because there exist no clearly defined ideologies. Consequently, the fact that today someone calls himself or is called by others a “libertarian” says virtually nothing about his political viewpoint: he could be a religionist, an anarchist, a laissez-faire capitalist, a middle-of-the-roader, etc. In the current terminological confusion, we look to the content of the ideas advocated, not just to the label attached to them.

What is the Objectivist political position, if not libertarian?

Objectivism is not liberal, conservative, or libertarian. Objectivism has a clear, well-defined, and unique view of political principles, which exist as outgrowths of their philosophical foundations. The best way for an Objectivist to describe his social-political position is to use the terms “pro-capitalist” and “laissez-faire capitalism.” Capitalism, in Rand’s definition, “is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.” [“What Is Capitalism?” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal] As Rand herself wrote in 1962 to describe her position:

Objectivism is a philosophical movement; since politics is a branch of philosophy, Objectivism advocates certain political principles—specifically, those of laissez-faire capitalism—as the consequence and the ultimate practical application of its fundamental philosophical principles. It does not regard politics as a separate or primary goal, that is: as a goal that can be achieved without a wider ideological context. . . . Objectivists are not “conservatives.” We are radicals for capitalism; we are fighting for that philosophical base which capitalism did not have and without which it was doomed to perish.

— “Choose Your Issues,” The Objectivist Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 1

Of course an advocate of Rand’s philosophy can also simply use the term “Objectivist” to describe his political ideology, naming “individual rights” as the essential political principle. These terms are in much wider circulation today, thanks to increasing public familiarity with Rand’s thought.

What are some considerations that inform ARI’s decision to deal with another organization, especially one that describes itself as libertarian?

There still exist organizations committed to the inherently corrupt anti-ideology of libertarianism, in the earlier sense of the word. ARI does not deal with such organizations. Although dealing with an ideological organization does not necessarily imply ideological agreement (as, say, when ARI co-sponsors a debate), it does imply that one considers the organization legitimate—which, in the case of the anti-ideology libertarians, we do not.

But ARI does seek to work with other organizations on select issues or projects in order to increase ARI’s reach and impact. We assess whether it is proper, and beneficial to our mission, to work with a particular organization, and if so, in what form and under what conditions. For many years now, and especially as ARI has grown to enjoy the resources and manpower necessary to do so, we have been dealing with outside scholars and organizations.

Some of the guidelines ARI applies in deciding whether or not to deal with another organization are:

  1. Since ARI is an ideological organization—indeed, our mission is to advance a new and radical philosophy—we pay special attention to the ideological nature of anyone we deal with and any joint activities we engage in. We try to ensure that our actions do not unintentionally promote philosophical ideas or concrete policies we oppose. We do not expect complete agreement, but we never work with organizations that directly smear Ayn Rand or Objectivism.

  2. It is vital in our dealings with other organizations that we not imply agreement when there is none. Because we advocate a new philosophy—as Rand said, Objectivists are radicals for capitalism, fighting for the philosophical base which capitalism has never truly had—deep ideological agreement is very rarely present. Even at the level of policy, it is rare for us to be in complete agreement with the position of another organization, because we do not view policy positions as independent of philosophy. Consequently, we must take care to ensure that collaboration engenders no confusion about what we hold.

  3. There are many organizations that are not primarily ideological in mission or activities, but are instead more interested in affecting law and policy. In deciding whether or not it is proper for us to deal with such organizations, we assess, in addition to points 1 and 2 above, the legitimacy and value of the policy and legal changes they are trying to bring about.

Judging whether to work with another organization, even for a specific and delimited project, is often difficult. ARI does not take such decisions lightly.