Just ask Nelson Hultberg:
In conclusion, Ayn Rand gave libertarianism a spectacular beginning, and Murray Rothbard was certainly a brilliant economist. But the primary philosophical thrusts of these two thinkers are totally wrong for the cause of liberty.
I will get to exploring some of his reasons shortly; however it seems rather bold to state that these two contributors to libertarian thought (despite Rand’s protests, she did contribute to libertarian thought) could be “totally wrong for the cause of liberty.” Ayn Rand has sold millions of books; Murray Rothbard’s philosophy undergirds two of the most popular liberty-oriented websites of today, LewRockwell.com and Mises.org.
To the extent there even exists a liberty movement today, most adherents would point to one or both of these two as foundational to their arrival on this underpopulated spot on the political spectrum. But, according to Nelson Hultberg, they are “totally wrong.”
If Hultberg wants to put out such a significant and controversial claim, he better back it with overwhelming evidence. Let’s take a look, shall we?
NB: I come at this with an already jaded opinion regarding Mr. Hultberg’s views on freedom and liberty. One of many reasons: he advocates that the Fed can be managed, to hold to a 4% growth of money. Pure folly.
In order to build credibility, Hultberg offers several favorable recommendations for his book on this topic, including one from Mark Skousen: "The Golden Mean is an extremely important book that...is destined to be a classic." NB: having a recommendation from Skousen only adds to my doubts that freedom is the objective; the reasons are too many to list.
OK, now let’s get to Hultberg’s views:
This is the paramount question that we as libertarians and conservatives must ask: Have Rand and Rothbard given us an undergirding philosophy of rationality upon which to fight for freedom? Or have we launched a freedom movement upon a ship resplendent in sail, but possessed of a leaky hull and faulty tiller?
I guess Rand is the leaky hull and Rothbard the faulty tiller?
Everyone, I'm sure, is familiar with the idea of a political spectrum…. The notion of a political spectrum with three poles of left, center, and right has come to us as a legacy from Aristotle's idea that virtue consists of the "rational course" that lies between two opposite and natural extremes of defect and excess.
I will play along.
As examples, Hultberg offers:
The virtue of courage is the rational mean between the defect of cowardice and the excess of rashness. Ambition is the rational mean between sloth and greed. Likewise with liberality and self-control. These virtues are all means between defect and excess…. You see here the basic triad that Aristotle defined – vice, virtue, vice.
Hultberg follows this with a few examples of the “rational mean” of his own:
What is so beautiful about Aristotle's doctrine is that it shows all the noblest and most desired values of our existence to be means – such as loyalty, faith, love, peace, order and freedom. All the things we value most in life are "means" between two opposite vices.
“The things we value most in life”…let’s see: regarding a wife that one might value, one extreme would be for a very intelligent, hard-working, beautiful wife; this as opposed to the other extreme of an imbecilic, lazy, ugly wife. So, I guess I would most value…a non-descript blob? Regarding money that one might also value, one extreme is to have an easy job that pays more money than imaginable, and the other extreme is to have a back-breaker of a job at $5 an hour. I choose the office typist job for $12, I guess.
Let’s look at a couple of Hultberg’s examples:
Strife-Peace-Humdrum: isn’t there only strife and peace? Is there more peace than…peace?
Slavery-Freedom-Anarchy: again, is there more freedom than freedom?
Hultberg is stretching very far to try to convince – stretching so far that I am tempted to stop here. But I won’t. Try as he might, he can’t deter me from wanting to understand why Rand and Rothbard are “totally wrong.”
He then applies this thinking to the political spectrum as he sees it:
(Excess) (Mean) (Defect)
TOTAL GOVERNMENT LIMITED GOVERNMENT NO GOVERNMENT
Socialism Welfarism Capitalism Anarcho- Anarchism
Doesn’t Hultberg realize that limited government, his desired “mean,” was tried in the most fertile soil ever available to it in the history of the world, and it didn’t last one generation?
When we combine Aristotle's Doctrine of the Mean with Locke's contractual theory of limited government, we gain an irrefutability of political theory that has never before been achieved in history…
I guess he does realize it. Yet this is his goal.
I see the spectrum as something much simpler: I have authority over my life and property, or others have authority over my life and property. What is the “mean” between these two extremes? Limited government (an impossibility) is only one form of “others” having authority over my life and property.
So Hultberg has lost me for a second time already.
Yet, I press on. I will focus on two of these: capitalism and anarcho-capitalism, as this is where Hultberg’s point will be won or lost, given his construct. Hultberg identifies the Laissez Faire America of the 19th century as an example of “capitalism” (which he also labels “constitutional republicanism,” but why capitalism requires constitutional republicanism he does not explain); he identifies customary law societies of the early Middle Ages as an example of “anarcho-capitalism.”
This is already confusing. I will start by assuming that by “government,” Hultberg means the formalized monopoly of violence that has been prevalent through a decent part of man’s history. The problem is that there are other types of governance – of the family, of the culture, of the church, of a community, of the market.
Capitalism cannot exist without governance (nor can any other form of human interaction), but it can exist without government as Hultberg means it: in other words, with governance but without government it would be called anarcho-capitalism.
Hultberg even identifies that such a system existed in the Middle Ages (I would say not exactly anarcho-capitalism, but a foundation that if built upon would likely have left both Rand and Rothbard in obscurity). Does he know that this system thrived for centuries during the Middle Ages – far longer than his limited-government capitalism? When were those Alien and Sedition Acts passed? In how many decades did this “constitutional republicanism” turn on itself and result in the deaths of 700,000 of its citizens?
This then is the total political-economic spectrum that makes up reality. You can't go any further left than communism, and you can't go any further right than anarchism. All systems fit in between these two extremes of total government and no government.
Again, what is meant by government? The Middle Ages had plenty of government – it just wasn’t a coercive monopoly; the closest thing to a “sovereign” was the law. It certainly wasn’t the king. Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism also offers plenty of governance – mostly by the market, but also not disallowing governance by other voluntary societal institutions. (I have written about one such possible societal structure here, expanding on institutions already functioning in society.)
Hultberg goes on to identify the “mean” – capitalism – with objective law and equal rights; anarcho-capitalism and anarchy are identified as holding arbitrary law and special privileges.
As we see with this portrayal of the spectrum, all ideological systems, other than laissez-faire capitalism, are either excessive or defective because they evolve into some level of arbitrary law and special privileges.
To the extent capitalism (constitutional-republicanism) ever offered objective law and equal rights – well, I have yet to find a single moment in history where this was so. As to anarcho-capitalism (the Middle Ages), law was most-certainly not arbitrary; it was a system that lasted for up to a thousand years and more in some parts of Europe.
Certainly there were special privileges in the Middle Ages – what did you negotiate and to what or whom did you swear your oath? The law followed the individual, not the geography. What is less arbitrary and more objective for the individual than this – being bound by his oaths? Yes there were serfs, yet serfs were not slaves – slavery being a key feature of the period lauded by Hultberg. And serfs carried a far smaller burden for their lord than just about any of the individuals ever burdened with the load of a constitutional-republic.
What anarcho-libertarians miss is that any movement on the spectrum to the right of the Golden Mean would also bring about the destruction of objective law.
This anarcho-libertarian doesn’t “miss” this point. In the most fertile soil ever given to man for the nourishment of Hultberg’s dream system, objective law disappeared within moments – some would argue that objective law was still-born in 1787 (I tend to agree). A monopoly power tends not to want to stay restrained.
Instead of the government conveying privileges to its favored factions, though, it would be ruthless warlords seizing privileges for themselves.
The Middle Ages was not characterized by rule of “ruthless warlords.” There were lords & nobles; there was a king. The king was just another noble who had only one function as king, setting him apart from the others – to uphold the law, the old, good (customary) law. If he went beyond this – either violating the old, good law or creating some new law – he could be vetoed by any of the lords. Each individual vested with veto power; it doesn’t get much more objective than that.
It is this point that libertarians and conservatives must grasp fully if they are to understand the political-economic crisis now consuming our country – this powerfully simple fact that there is only one spot on the spectrum where equal rights for all citizens prevail.
What is more equal than each individual developing his own law via agreements one voluntary makes with others, all within a context of old and good customary law? What is less equal than initiating force in relationships via Hultberg’s desired government structure?
Yet it is this initiation of force that Hultberg advocates:
Once we understand this point – that the mean is the only place where objective law prevails – then a major problem confronting libertarianism is solved, which is Ayn Rand's controversial Non-Aggression Principle. In other words, her taboo on all initiatory force that she articulated so powerfully in her novel Atlas Shrugged.
This principle is a “major problem”? What is controversial about this principle? Yes, I understand the application is at times difficult; debates on such matters are often carried out in libertarian circles. But what is controversial about “do not initiate aggression,” well, unless you happen to be an advocate for monopoly violence as is Hultberg. The non-aggression principle is only controversial for those who desire to not be bound by the non-aggression principle.
As Roy Childs and Murray Rothbard demonstrated in the late 1960s, Ayn Rand's taboo on all initiatory force leads philosophically to anarcho-capitalism. If you can't initiate force, then you can't have a government. You must privatize the military, police, and courts of law. This is why most libertarians today have become anarcho-capitalists.
It is the only logical conclusion (I will avoid commenting here regarding my disagreement with the term “privatize,” as it is secondary to this post).
And, having built his entire case (by which he intends to cut Rand and Rothbard down to size) on faulty premises – that freedom is not the opposite of slavery, but a middle-ground between slavery and anarchy; that peace is not the opposite of strife, but a middle-ground between strife and humdrum; that the political form of the aggression taken by the sovereign is the critical differentiator – he goes on to conclude:
But as we have seen, anarcho-capitalism violates the Doctrine of the Mean and thus it cannot maintain objective law, which is the all-important foundation for freedom. Without "objective law" you cannot have a free society. Thus Ayn Rand's non-aggression principle and Murray Rothbard's anarchist politics are serious fallacies.
I bet if he told that to Rand’s face, she would put her cigarette out on his cheek. Murray? He would probably laugh hysterically. Each reaction is rather objective, don’t you think?
There you have it: Hultberg concludes “serious fallacies” based on faulty premises and a poor understating of both history and human nature.
Hultberg goes on to an equally tortured application of this type of analysis to “Two Primary Moral Ideas: Altruism and Egoism.” While he sees Rand’s denunciation of altruism as correct, he sees as flawed her views regarding egoism. He sees as the proper “mean” the Judeo-Christian ethic as exemplified in the Golden Rule.
Of course, this Golden Rule is not found only in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and to label it as such immediately and unnecessarily turns off perhaps three-fourths of the world’s population:
Rushworth Kidder notes that the Golden Rule can be found in the early contributions of Confucianism. Kidder notes that this concept's framework appears prominently in many religions, including "Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and the rest of the world's major religions". According to Greg M. Epstein, " 'do unto others' ... is a concept that essentially no religion misses entirely." Simon Blackburn also states that the Golden Rule can be "found in some form in almost every ethical tradition". All versions and forms of the proverbial Golden Rule have one aspect in common: they all demand that people treat others in a manner in which they themselves would like to be treated.
I won’t argue with Hultberg, other than his labeling this “Judeo-Christian” and other than my preference for the Silver Rule – a reasonable extension of the Golden Rule.
However, I also will not argue with the egoist as Rand portrays – as long as the egoist practices the non-aggression principle what do I care about his views on the world? I will go a step further and not even disagree with the altruist – to each his own; just don’t tread on me.
Don’t initiate aggression and I really don’t care where on the egoist / altruist scale you land.
Hultberg, however, does not appreciate the egoist-heroes in Rand’s novels:
…their flaw is that they are ceaselessly concerned only with themselves, even in their charitable ventures, which gives a sort of unbalanced distastefulness to their personalities.
Look, I don’t agree with every word from Rand’s mouth or pen (same with Rothbard). I agree that Rand’s heroes are harsh. I used to think that she wrote them this way to hammer home her points – shock value and all. Well, I thought that until I heard her speak.
But back to Hultberg’s complaint: Ragnar Danneskjöld was concerned only with himself? Hardly. John Galt? He established the foundations of a community for like-minded individuals. I would say he was quite concerned about bringing as many such individuals to this community as he could – he spent every one of a thousand pages on this project.
Furthermore, these egoists were not solely concerned with themselves in other spheres. They each served customers. They did plenty of service for mankind. Well, Hultberg points to Howard Roark in disagreement:
Howard Roark's way, however, is to create only for his own happiness and sense of accomplishment. The client's needs and desires are of no concern to Roark. In The Fountainhead he states emphatically to the Dean of Stanton College, "I don't intend to build in order to serve or help anyone."
Why does this bother Hultberg? Roark, for a time at least, got what the market said he deserved – no customers. Isn’t this sanction enough for Hultberg? Does he want a law forcing Roark to build in a manner counter to his choosing?
It is here that Randian egoism falls short and can never be the ethical foundation upon which to build a movement to restore individualism and freedom, because egoism is not the proper goal of a trader.
Every egoist in Rand’s novel was a trader – depicted by Rand in almost too stark an application of the term. How much more trader does Hultberg want than Rand’s description of the trade in a relationship?
A trader gets caught up in other people's lives as well as his own. This is the basis of capitalism: serving one's fellow man in order to serve oneself.
Almost everyone with whom I trade doesn’t give two-cents about my life, nor I about theirs (beyond general human compassion). Most of them I don’t even know – the products at the local grocery store were produced by strangers; Amazon and e-Bay are faceless portals to me; I cannot name a single person who built my home or my car – or pretty much everything else I own. If I died tomorrow, none of them would notice, or care.
What is wrong with this system? Must I get on the couch to suffer my grocer’s attempts at psycho-analysis before buying? He wants to sell, I want to buy – must we also know each other’s fantasies and depressions? If either of us prefers to not engage in commercial activity with the other, we do nothing more than exercise control over our respective property – others will fill the void.
Rand's egoism and Rothbard's anarchism are anathema to capitalism and the vision of the Founding Fathers.
Anathema? Wow. Hultberg isn’t messing around:
1. a person or thing detested or loathed; 2. a person or thing accursed or consigned to damnation or destruction; 3. a formal ecclesiastical curse involving excommunication; 4. any imprecation of divine punishment; 5. a curse; execration.
I am having a hard time deciding which of these five definitions is the least damning. Hultberg is trying to drive a stake through the heart.
These are only an anathema to capitalism in the faulty way Hultberg has defined it – capitalism does not require the government of Hultberg’s faulty “mean.” As to an anathema to the founding fathers? Who cares? They were scoundrels. Besides, their system didn’t even survive the first generation, even the first day. That is worth worshipping?
Are our basic premises rational and irrefutable? Because if they are not, we will lose our fight and will have lived lives of wasted purpose.
Rand and Rothbard lived wasted lives? Is Hultberg delirious?
We will have built nothing but an obscure footnote to history, rather than a formidable force in history.
If liberty is to be achieved, one must actually advocate, oh, I don’t know…liberty – something Hultberg avoids and denounces, and something well established by both Rand and Rothbard. I will suggest that it is Hultberg who will go down as an obscure footnote in this history.
If the objective is the impossible dream of limited government, Hultberg need not wait for too many of us influenced by Rothbard to join – those influenced by Rand on this point will find common ground, but given Hultberg’s attacks my guess is they will wait for the next train. If limited government is the final destination of Hultberg’s train, I won’t waste money on a ticket. If others hold claim and authority to my life and my property, it is not a project that I want to work on.
He believes in a pipe dream – one that has, by his own admission, never been achieved in history – a monopoly government will check its own power. At the same time, he has identified a successful anarcho-capitalist model – one that survived for centuries – and dismisses it without understanding or exploring it.
It is impossible to imagine that there would be any form of liberty movement today without Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard. It is possible to imagine a liberty movement today without the contributions of Nelson Hultberg because…well, you don’t really have to imagine this as it is today’s reality.
Posterity will laugh at us, rather than revere us.
Hultberg need not wait for posterity. I am laughing now.