A Randian realizes the inadequacy of the non-aggression principle as a basis for organizing society

Roger Donway, a veteran moderate Randian who has regularly commented at VFR, writes:

In light of your recent discussion of libertarianism, I thought that you might be interested in the attached essay, which I published about a year and a half ago in The Atlas Society’s magazine The New Individualist. It shows a Randian (me) arguing his way to a conclusion very similar to yours. Although casual students of Ayn Rand may not realize it, the argument is not far distant from her thinking. For example, I once heard a libertarian give her a long-winded argument to effect that blackmail should be legal, because it did not involve force or fraud. Her total answer: “People couldn’t live like that.”

I have copied Mr. Donway’s 1,700 word essay below.

Planning for Liberty
by Roger Donway

What is the source of liberty? That should be an easy question for a political individualist. One could say, with John Locke, that all persons are God’s property and so one may not “impair the life, or what tends to the Preservation of the Life, Liberty, Health, Limbs or Goods of another.” But such a religious justification probably will not have much appeal in today’s secularist society. So perhaps one could say that each person is his own property and that such self-ownership leads to a “non-aggression” principle: No person may interfere with another’s peaceful actions, and every person has the right not to be interfered with so long as he is performing only peaceful actions. David Boaz put forward just such a theory in his book Libertarianism: A Primer.

For many years, indeed for many decades, I saw things in just about that way. Freedom is based on human nature, which is always and everywhere the same. Morality is based on certain general truths about human nature, and therefore it too is always and everywhere the same. Political philosophy—which is just an easy application of moral philosophy to the social realm—is likewise always and everywhere the same: the one and only valid, universal, and timeless political arrangement is that which proclaims individual rights and non-aggression.

Liberty and History

I first began to question that notion of human liberty while discussing the history of slavery with a friend. She had been making much of the Founding Fathers’ evil in owning slaves, and I suddenly thought to ask—to ask myself as well as her: Well, what about the great men of ancient Greece and Rome? Were they equally evil for owning slaves? Yes, she insisted, slave-owning was just as evil for them. Human nature is always the same; morality is always the same; rights are always the same; slavery is always evil.

Suddenly, the argument for timeless human rights—based on self-ownership and non-aggression—seemed less compelling. After all, the classical world produced moral philosophers of unparalleled insight and dramatists of unequaled compassion. But so far as I am aware, none—not one, ever—produced an abolitionist tract or tragedy, not even the philosopher who had himself been a slave: Epictetus. Were they all blind to this hideous evil?

That thought raised a further question. If the inhabitants of ancient Greece and Rome were evil because they owned slaves, what about the inhabitants of Jericho who lived 10,000 years ago. Would slave-owning have been equally evil for them? And if human nature and morality were truly timeless, what about those members of homo sapiens sapiens who inhabited the East African savannas a hundred thousand years ago? Would they also be evil if they owned slaves? The idea seemed absurd.

But what was the alternative? If one ruled out moral subjectivism, as I did and do, might the alternative be to say that morality has a history? That it can progress (and regress) over time? That it is anchored in human nature, but depends partly also on how men live—and partly, yes, on how they choose to live? If I adopted that perspective, I suddenly saw, I could answer a question that had long troubled me about the self-ownership argument.

Liberty and Egoism

The argument, remember, says: People may not use coercion against each other for one reason—each person owns himself. But there was a difficulty with that which had long nagged at me: What do I care? If you and I are both operating under some version of the Aristotelian ethical tradition, and the goal of your life is your own self-preservation, or happiness, or “flourishing,” you will of course want to have free control over your actions and your goods. But why should I let you have it? Why should your desire for freedom constrain my pursuit of my life, happiness, and flourishing? You may scream that my self-interested violation of your self-ownership constitutes “aggression,” but what is that to me?

My new perspective—that freedom is not based on self-ownership but on how we seek to live together in society—seemed to provide an answer. I should leave people free if, but only if, I would benefit maximally from dealing with free people. I should leave others in my society free to pursue their lives as they see fit—I should recognize their “rights”—only if I expect thereby to reap the greatest possible benefit from their lives. Their “rights,” that is to say, are nothing but the freedom of action that I grant them in my world. And of course the same logic applies in reverse: Others will leave me free to pursue my life only if they believe that they will obtain maximum benefit by doing so. My rights are nothing but the freedom of action that they grant me.

In general terms, then, individual rights are agreed-upon rules for “living together” in a society—living as individuals, but doing it together, with each person’s process of living directly or indirectly benefiting others’ attempts to live. Libertarians may wish to argue that other people’s lives are a benefit to one’s own process of living, directly or indirectly, so long as those others do not use coercion against one. But that is now an argument that has to be made. It is no longer a metaphysical deduction from human nature. Quite the contrary. If a large number of people in a culture find “peaceful” acts such as polygamy or animal cruelty to be utterly intolerable; if they say of those acts “not in my world” (to use a phrase coined by TNI editor Robert Bidinotto); if they do not want to “live together” with people who engage in those acts; then the rights protecting those acts collapse. Liberty is not the freedom of action that a people is morally obligated to put up with; it is the freedom of action that is left over after a people has put a stop to all the actions it considers intolerable.

The Manifestations of Liberty

This new understanding of liberty began to produce illuminations, I thought. For instance, it showed me why the writings of Murray Rothbard had always seemed so utterly ridiculous. Rothbard starts with the non-aggression principle—he calls it an “axiom”—and proceeds to play philosopher-king from his armchair. He tells us, by means of his non-aggression touchstone, that libel is merely speech; that blackmail is merely trade; that bankruptcy is merely theft; and that military desertion is always permissible. I had always sensed Rothbard’s complete detachment from reality, but being myself committed to something very like the non-aggression principle, I could not quite articulate its source. Here it was: Liberty is how we do in fact choose to live together; it is not how Murray Rothbard imagines the “non-aggression principle” would have us live together.

A second illumination also followed from this new perspective: If one considers all legalized acts to be part of the process of “living together,” then no legalized act will long be seen as profoundly despicable. That, I began to see, was the reason that classical liberals had proved unable to hold onto their own core distinction between the legal and the moral. They insisted: We must distinguish the two realms. They said: You can hate a practice and yet believe that people should be free to perform it. They maintained: It is not the function of law to express a culture’s outrage, even when that outrage is justified. And yet, over the decades of my experience, I had found, again and again, that libertarians who argued vociferously for the legalization of some permissible-but-despicable practice came gradually to describe the practice as less and less despicable.

Recreational drugs are perhaps the best-known example of this process, but a more recent instance has been prostitution. When I was a youthful libertarian, some forty years ago, it was taken a matter of course that prostitution was both an utterly degraded act and one that should be legally permitted. And to me it is still unthinkable that any woman of self-esteem would willingly be a prostitute. Yet, in the aftermath of the Eliot Spitzer scandal, Reason senior editor Kerry Howley wrote: “Sex work is work, and it strikes me as no more inherently degrading than many other kinds of physical labor.” If the desire to legalize an act is, at some level, the desire to make it part of our “living together,” then it will not long be looked upon as utterly despicable—which of course is quite contrary to the libertarian view that the realms of morality and legality are distinct.

“Plans Must Be Made for Men”

The personal reconsideration of political philosophy which I have here described would not be complete without a tribute to the wisdom of a man I have long slighted and who might have saved me years of muddled thinking: Edmund Burke. In 1791, he wrote a lengthy letter to Fran├žois-Louis-Thibaut de Menonville, a member of France’s National Assembly and the French translator of Burke’s Thoughts on the Revolution in France. Menonville, who had written to Burke to point out some factual errors in the Thoughts that had led French critics to dismiss it, decided to ask Burke if he would go beyond his previous reflections and supplement his critique of France’s condition with some suggestions for a “remedy.” In declining to offer any such proposal for French political arrangements, Burke said:

I must see with my own eyes, I must, in a manner, touch with my own hands, not only the fixed, but the momentary circumstances, before I could venture to suggest any political project whatsoever. I must know the power and disposition to accept, to execute, to persevere. I must see all the aids, and all the obstacles. I must see the means of correcting the plan, where correctives would be wanted. I must see the things. I must see the men. Without a concurrence and adaptation of these to the design, the very best speculative projects might become not only useless, but mischievous. Plans must be made for men.

Just so. Plans—even plans for liberty—must be made for men, for specific living men, embedded in highly specific nations, societies, and cultures. It is not a job for armchair philosopher-kings.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at November 19, 2010 05:10 PM | Send

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