Archive for February 2008

A Bit of History

February 28, 2008

When I first heard the term “libertarianism” in the early 1950s, I mentioned it to Ayn Rand as a possible name for our political philosophy. She was suspicious of the term and inclined to dismiss it as a neologism.  “It’s a mouthful,” she remarked.  “And it sounds too much like a made-up word.”

          I answered  “Maybe so, but what alternative do we have?” 

          She said, “We’re advocates of laissez-faire capitalism.” 

          I answered, “Sure, but that’s kind of a mouthful too–it’s not a one-word name–and besides, it puts the whole emphasis on economics and politics and we stand for something wider and more comprehensive: we’re champions of individual rights. We’re advocates of a non-coercive society.”

       I suggested that “libertarianism” could convey all that by means of a single word–especially if we were to define “libertarianism” as a social system that (a) barred the initiation of force from all human relationships and (b) was based on the inviolability of individual rights.  

          Ayn considered this suggestion briefly, then shook her head and said, “No. It sounds too much like a made-up word.”  

          Later, when many advocates of laissez-faire took up the word, and some of them were anarchists (notably Murray Rothbard), Ayn felt vindicated at rejecting a term broad enough to include Objectivist advocates of pure capitalism, on the one hand, and “anarcho-capitalists,” on the other. She did not realize that the majority of people who called themselves “libertarians” were advocates not of anarchism but of constitutionally limited government (in essence, the Objectivist model), and that she could have fought for her interpretation of the term “libertarian” just as she fought for her interpretation of the word “selfish. “There was no good reason to surrender a much-needed word to the opposition.

        Later still, when she saw that libertarians often supported their position with aspects of her philosophy, without necessarily subscribing to the total of Objectivism, she became angrier still and decided that all libertarians were, in effect, and in her own inimitable style, “whim-worshipping subjectivists.”

       Being a more balanced and reality-oriented teacher of Objectivism than Leonard Peikoff, David Kelley addressed libertarian groups with the aim of persuading them that Objectivism was the best possible foundation for their political beliefs. For this he was denounced by Peikoff as a traitor to Objectivism. .

       In any event, today libertarianism is part of our language and is commonly understood to mean the advocacy of minimal government. Ayn Rand is commonly referred to as “a libertarian philosopher.”

          Ladies and gentlemen of an Objectivist persuasion, we are all libertarians now. Might as well get used to it.

Self-concept is Destiny

February 15, 2008

I met her when she came to a workshop I was conducting on “Self-esteem and the Art of Being.”

            She was thirty-two years old, pretty, and worked as a receptionist in a law firm. Early in life she had decided that she knew what she was—“a bad girl.” How else could she explain the endless screaming reproaches of her mother, and the emotional coldness of her father, and a home that lacked any trace of love, affection, or kindness? As an adult, she supported the claim that she was a bad girl trough sexual promiscuity, and an inability to remain faithful to any lover or boyfriend.

            I met him at the same self-esteem workshop as the one where I met her.

            He was thirty-five, athletic, and worked as an artist in an advertising firm.  He had come to the United States from Norway.

            Months later—when he became a therapy client—he would tell me their story as he saw it.

            When he was six years old, his mother had deserted him and his father to run off with another man. He knew what this meant.  “If your own mother doesn’t love you, what can you expect from another woman?”  He decided that he was unlovable.  With the help of his embittered father, he also learned that no woman can be trusted, all women are sluts, and to love is to be hurt.

            Picture about one hundred-and thirty people in a hotel meeting room   I give an opening talk of about ninety minutes, then there is a fifteen minute break, and then I ask the group to stack the chairs against the walls and sit on the floor in circles of four.  “Do not sit with anyone you know,” I say.

            I take the group through a sentence-completion exercise. Then I invite them to share their experiences and what they may have learned.  I stand on the stage scanning the room, and I notice a young couple whose hands and other aspects of body language suggest an immediate connection.

            I ask the group to stand up, stretch, and then move into new circles of four, but only with complete strangers.  “Don’t sit with anyone you sat with in the previous circle,” I say.  I see that this couple ignores my instructions and moves together into a new group.  This happens two more times as I keep “reshuffling” the groups until the evening program ends. Then I see them standing near the exit, until their bodies convey a kind of tension that is unmistakable in its meaning. “How in hell can it happen so fast?” I ask myself, fascinated.

            I see them finding each other with the terrifying accuracy of two guided missiles meeting in space.           

            Within a week, as I learn later, they were on fire with love.  They felt born to a new innocence.  All feelings of guilt, sinfulness, or weighted sadness were washed away in the cleanliness of a love liked nothing they had ever experienced.  They did not feel that they were unlovable.  They felt that they were the essence of love.

            Then the time bomb that lay sleeping in both of them began to tick—the sense that they were in danger, that love such as they imagined is illusion, that to love is to be hurt.

            Anxiety awakened first in him and then in her.  He became a little impatient with her, a little critical, and she responded by becoming defiant, contemptuous of some of his mannerisms—each of them gearing up to defend against the rejection they dreaded and felt to be inevitable.

            In one moment, she would complain of being “suffocated” in their relationship and in the next she would beg for more time and attention because, she would say, “I don’t know how to live without you.”  Then he would suggest that perhaps he had not paid enough attention to how few books she read.  She would say, bitterly, that she was not an intellectual, and he would mutter under his breath that she could say that again.  Then he would weep, “I love you so much.”

            It lasted a few months longer—until the day when one or both of them were no longer able to believe their relationship was salvageable.

            As he would tell me later, on the day that was the “official” end of their “romance,” they stood on the steps of the building where she lived, and they hugged each other, and then she watched him walking away and she cried “Why? Why? We were so happy together! What was wrong with us?”  He did not turn around, but merely shrugged.  Then, once again, she shouted “Why?”

            Self-concept generates life scripts.

Marx, Freud, and Freedom

February 12, 2008

This is part seven of a seven part series, with a new post each day. Each post will be linked to the preceding post. The essay in its entirety can be found on the “Page” titled “Politics and Social Philosophy” which will be posted on 2/12/08.           

       My own view is that the philosophical and the moral and ultimately the psychological are the base of everything in this sphere. And I’ll give just one concluding example of the psychological. When people think of the disintegration and deterioration of a semifree society such as we’ve had, they think of Marx as a very negative influence, which of course he was. They are much less likely to appreciate the relevance of a man from my own profession, Sigmund Freud.            What could Freud have to do with the welfare state? My answer is, plenty. It was Freud and his followers who were most responsible for introducing into American culture and spreading the doctrine of psychological determinism, according to which all of us are entirely controlled and manipulated by forces over which we have no control, freedom is an illusion, ultimately we are responsible for nothing. If we do anything good, we deserve no credit. If we do anything bad, we deserve no reprimand. We are merely the helpless pawns of the forces working upon us, be they our instincts or our environment or our toilet training.          Freud, whatever his intentions, is the father of the “I couldn’t help it” school. (Perhaps credit should be shared with behaviorism, the other leading school of psychology in this country, that propounds its own equally adamant version of determinism.) The inevitable result of the acceptance of determinism, of the belief that no one is responsible for anything, is the kind of whining, blame shifting, and abdication of responsibility we have all around us today. Any advocate of freedom, any advocate of civilization, has to challenge the doctrine of psychological determinism and has to be able to argue rationally and persuasively for the principle of psychological freedom or free will, which is the underpinning of the doctrine of self-responsibility.  

           My book “Taking Responsibility” addresses the task of showing the relationship between free will on the one hand and personal responsibility on the other as well as exploring the multiple meanings and applications of self-responsibility, from the most intimate and personal to the social and political. And that I see as the much wider canvas and much wider job still waiting to be done: to provide a philosophical frame so that people will understand that the battle for libertarianism is not, in essence, the battle for business or the battle for markets. Those are merely concrete forms. It’s the battle for your ownership of your own life.

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The Animus toward Business

February 11, 2008

This is part six of a seven part series, with a new post each day. Each post will be linked to the preceding post. The essay in its entirety can be found on the “Page” titled “Politics and Social Philosophy” which will be posted on 2/12/08.  

           For a very long time in virtually every major civilization we know of, there has been a terrific animus toward businesspersons. It was found in ancient Greece, in the Orient, everywhere. The trader, the banker, the merchant, the businessman has always been a favorite villain. But if we understand that the businessman is the person most instrumental in turning new knowledge and new discoveries into the means of human survival and well-being, then to be anti-business is in the most profound sense to be anti-life.

          That doesn’t mean that one glamorizes business or denies the fact that businesspeople sometimes do unethical things, but we do need to challenge the idea that there is something intrinsically wrong about pursuing self-interest. We need to fight the idea that profit is a dirty word. We need to recognize that the whole miracle of America, the great innovation of the American political system, was that it was the first country in the history of the world that politically acknowledged the right to the pursuit of self-interest, as sovereign, as inalienable, as basic to what it means to be a human being. The result was the release of an extravagant, unprecedented amount of human energy in the service of human life.

          We cannot talk about politics or economics in a vacuum. We have to ask ourselves: On what do our political convictions rest? What is the implicit view of human nature that lies behind or underneath our political beliefs? What is our view of how human beings ought to relate to one another? What is our view of the relationship of the individual to the state? What do we think is “good” and why do we think so?  

          Any comprehensive portrait of an ideal society needs to begin with identifying such principles as those, and from that developing the libertarian case. We do have a soul hunger, we do have a spiritual hunger, we do want to believe and feel and experience that life has meaning. And that’s why we need to understand that we’re talking about much more than market transactions. We’re talking about an individual’s ownership of his or her own life. The battle for self-ownership is a sacred battle, a spiritual battle, and it involves much more than economics. Without the moral dimension, without the spiritual dimension, we may win the short-term practical debate, but the statists will always claim the moral high ground in spite of the evil that results from their programs and in spite of their continuing failure to achieve any of their allegedly lofty goals.

         I don’t think that there is any battle more worth fighting in the world today than the battle for a truly free society. I believe that we really need to think through all the different aspects from which it needs to be defended, argued for, explained, encouraged, supported; and then according to our own interests and areas of competency, we pick the area in which we can make the biggest contribution.  

To view previous parts of this essay please click on the following  link – Part 1, Part 2 , Part 3 , Part 4 , Part 5We welcome your comments, but please read our comment guidelines.

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Self-Responsibility

February 10, 2008

 This is part five of a seven part series, with a new post each day. Each post will be linked to the preceding post. The essay in its entirety can be found on the “Page” titled “Politics and Social Philosophy” which will be posted on 2/12/08.

            Another great value that was once central to the American tradition, and that has now all but disappeared, is one very close to my heart as a psychologist, namely the practice of self-responsibility. We began as a frontier country in which nothing was given and virtually everything had to be created. We began as a country of individualism in which, to be sure, people helped one another and engaged in mutual aid, but it was certainly taken as a foregone conclusion that each individual adult bore primary responsibility for his or her own existence. If you helped people, it was to get them back on their feet. The assumption was that the normal path of growth was from the dependence of childhood to the independence and self-responsibility of adulthood.

             That vision has all but vanished, if not from our culture, then from the intellectual spokespersons for this culture. We hear more and more stories about the insane things that happen when people are no longer held to any kind of accountability or self-responsibility. You may have heard of the agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who was found to be embezzling money from the bureau to feed his gambling habit. When he was discovered, he was fired. He sued the FBI under the Americans with Disabilities Act, arguing that he was being discriminated against because he had a disease, namely gambling addiction. The judge ordered him reinstated on the job. Has there ever been a civilized society in which it has been easier to avoid responsibility?  

             As a psychologist, I am keenly aware that in working with individuals, nothing is more important for their growth to healthy maturity than realizing that each of us has to be responsible for our own life and well-being, for our own choices and behavior, and that blaming and dependency are a dead end; they serve neither self nor others. You cannot have a world that works, you can’t have an organization, a marriage, a relationship, a life that works, except on the premise of self-responsibility.  And without that as a central cultural value, there is no way for people to really get what libertarianism is all about. One of the main psychological, ethical underpinnings of libertarianism is the premise that we must take responsibility for our own lives and be accountable for our own actions. There is no other way for a civilized society to operate.  

             For thousands of years, to turn to an ethical dimension, people have been taught that self-interest is evil. And for thousands of years they have been taught that the  essence of virtue is self-sacrifice. To a large extent that is a doctrine of control and manipulation. “Selfish” is what we call people when they are doing what they want to do, rather than what we want them to do.  

            The world is changing. Imagine, for example, that a speaker was addressing a room full of women, only women, and he said, “Ladies, the essence of morality is realizing that you are here to serve. Your needs are not what is important. Think only of those you serve; nothing is more beautiful than self-sacrifice.” Well, in the modern world, such a speaker would rightly be booed off the stage. Question: What happens if the same speech is made to a mixed audience? Why is what’s wrong with it different if men are also in the audience? We need to rethink our whole ethical framework. We need to rethink and realize that it is the natural right of an organism, not only to defend and to sustain its own life, but to fulfill its own needs, to pursue its own values, bound by the moral obligation not to violate the rights of others by coercion or fraud, not to willingly participate in a coercive society. 

To view previous parts of this essay please click on the following  link – Part 1, Part 2 , Part 3 , Part 4 

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Spiritual Needs

February 9, 2008

 This is part four of a seven part series, with a new post each day. Each post will be linked to the preceding post. The essay in its entirety can be found on the “Page” titled “Politics and Social Philosophy” which will be posted on 2/12/08.

            People have not only material needs, they have psychological needs, they have spiritual needs. And it is the spiritual needs that will have the last word. Until the libertarian vision  is understood as a spiritual quest and not merely an economic quest, it will continue to face the kind of misunderstandings and adversaries it faces today.

          So I’m enormously interested in what has to be understood if a free society is to survive and flourish. A free society cannot flourish on a culture committed to irrationalism. And 20th-century philosophy has witnessed a virulent worldwide rebellion against the values of reason, objectivity, science, truth, and logic — under such names as postmodernism, poststructuralism, deconstructionism, and a host of others.

         It’s not an accident that most of the people doing the attacking also happen to be statists. In fact, I don’t know of any who aren’t. You cannot have a noncoercive society if you don’t have a common currency of exchange, and the only one possible is rational persuasion. But if there is no such thing as reason, the only currency left is coercion. So one thing that libertarianism in the broad philosophical sense has to include is respect for the Western values of reason, objectivity, truth, and logic, which make possible civilized discourse, argument, conversation, confrontation, and resolution of differences.  

To view previous parts of this essay please click on the following  link – Part 1, Part 2 , Part 3 

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Warren Brookes, in his book “The Economy in Mind,”

February 8, 2008

 This is part three of a seven part series, with a new post each day. Each post will be linked to the preceding post. The essay in its entirety can be found on the “Page” titled “Politics and Social Philosophy” which will be posted on 2/12/08.

 The late Warren Brookes, in his book “The Economy in Mind,” told a relevant story:

[Ernst] Mahler was an entrepreneurial genius    whose  innovative ideas and leadership, over a period of about 20 years, transformed [Kimberly Clark, a] once-small, insular newsprint and tissue manufacturer into one of the largest paper corporations in the world, which gives prosperous employment to more than 100,000 and produces products (which Mahler helped to innovate) that are now used by more than 2 billion people. Mahler became enormously wealthy, of course. Yet his personal fortune was insignificant when compared with the permanent prosperity he generated, not only for his own company but for the hundreds of thousands who work for industries which his genius ultimately spawned and which long outlived him — not to mention the revolutionary sanitary products that have liberated two generations of women, or the printing papers that completely transformedinternational publishing and communications for fifty years.  I can safely predict that you have never heard of him up to this moment. Not one person in 100 million has. Yet his contribution has permanently uplifted the lives of millions and far exceeds in real compassion most of our self-congratulatory politicians and “activists” whose names are known to all. 

              The moral of the story is that a relatively small number of inventors and capitalists have made incalculable contributions to human welfare and human well-being and yet are not what most people think of when they think of leading a moral life. They are not factored into the moral equation. We live in a culture that teaches that morality is self-sacrifice and that compassion and service to others are the ultimate good. We don’t associate morality with ambition, achievement, innovation; and we certainly don’t associate it with profit making. But if the standard by which we are judging is human well-being, then whatever the enormous merits of compassion, they do not compare with the contributions to well-being that are made by the motivation of achievement.

             One of the great problems of our world, and the ultimate difficulty in fighting for a libertarian society, is the complete lack of fit between the values that actually support and nurture human life and well-being and the things that people are taught to think of as noble or moral or admirable. The calamity of our time and all times past is the complete lack of congruence between the values that, in fact, most serve life and the values we are taught to esteem most. So long as that lack of congruence exists, the battle for freedom can never be permanently won. 

To view previous parts of this essay please click on the following  link – Part 1, Part 2  

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