Is Libertarianism compatible with Humanism?
Originally published on the Bluegrass Skeptic’s blog (now defunct) in 2015.
Modern Libertarianism is based largely on the works of Ayn Rand. A glance at the philosophy section of the Ayn Rand institute and you’ll see it nearly mirrors the philosophy of the Libertarian Party. Both espouse civil liberties for all, and both desire Laissez Faire Capitalism. In the realm of skepticism and education, Rand’s philosophies begin good enough, but once she gets to economics, politics and ethics, not so much. But are these ideals compatible with Humanism?
A great philosopher, I forget which one, once mused that philosophy is the art of starting with premises no one rejects, and coming to conclusions no one accepts. This is (or should be) the case for Objectivism, Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Or as those past the age of 15 call it “being a selfish, spoiled brat.” Perhaps that is a little harsh, but only if you do not look into Rand’s philosophy. To do so is to see that at first, Rand’s philosophy is seductive to Humanists, but on a closer look, her philosophy is quite incompatible with Humanistic thought.
Ayn Rand’s ideas begins innocently enough, she asserts that reality is real (no brains in a vat), and that the observable universe is all that there is. For a Secular Humanist, we are good so far. Though a Sectarian Humanist may depart ways here. Rand’s philosophy leaves no room for God or other superstitions. For Rand, since the only reality is the observable universe, we must all face facts, no matter how uncomfortable and think critically to make use of those facts. For the skeptic, this is spot on. For those with a soft spot for children (like me) we know a few comforting words can soothe a distraught child. For instance, I would never tell a child that mittens had to be gassed to death, rather I would say they had to put her to sleep. Though I draw the line at kitty heaven claims.
Either way, none of the above are incompatible with Humanist thought. However, things begin to break down once we get to the rest of Rand’s philosophy. Rand’s work in ethics begins nice enough by claiming that divine command theory, getting our morals from a godhead, is wrong. Her conclusion on morality is that what is good moral behavior is what is in our own self interest. Since humans have no natural code of conduct, we must act in accordance to our needs. Sounds sexy, right?
It almost sounds Humanistic. However, even though Humanists hold that morals definitely do not come from God, that is were the similarities end. The selfish principle, or Egoism, is where Humanists part ways with Rand and the Libertarians. A Humanist’s base for morals is ending the needless suffering of fellow humans. In Rand’s philosophy, such an endeavour is only moral if it is in your own self interest. Rand would be all for MMR vaccines for all so her children wouldn’t get sick (thus causing Rand to spend more money). For a Humanist, vaccination is important to decrease the suffering of children for their own sake. See the difference?
Another contention, is that Rand’s ethics are highly relative. She claims that humans have no natural ideas of morality or “automatic codes of survival”. While there are issues with this, it really has nothing to do with Humanism, so I will leave it for another day. However, with Rand’s philosophy it is perfectly moral to manipulate people into supporting you. You would be using your talents to their fullest potential to meet your needs. If someone is out a few bucks, then they should face the facts and learn to think more critically. In Rand’s philosophy, it is the often victim’s fault.
When we examine Rand’s economic philosophy, the part that Libertarians extol, we see a continuation of her selfish principle. Rand believed in full Laissez-Faire Capitalism, a complete separation of Corporation and State. The only role the Government should have is to provide courts for law suits, and a police force to keep the rabble in line. Laissez-Faire Capitalism not only doesn’t work, but in incompatible with Humanistic thought. The reason is not just the distribution of wealth, but that of power too.
In Rand’s ideal State, and the ideal Libertarian State as well, the government is subservient to the corporation. This is because the corporation has more power. The EPA, USDA, FDA, SEC? Forget them. If human arms ground up in hamburger, useless drugs, flammable lakes, and insider trading are bad, then “the market” will correct the mistake. Of course, the market means the myth of the free market. I have already written about the “Free Market” here so for the sake of brevity I won’t recap the myth of the free market.
In ancient Greece both Hedon and Epicurius based their philosophies partly on self interest. Rand was not claiming that we should be Hedonists. That is the eat-drink-and-be-merry style of freedom. Nor was she advancing Epicurian thought, which rests on the same basic principles as Hedonism, but valued long term happiness through education and understanding and not in the moment pleasures. However, both philosophers acknowledged and respected that other people have the same rights as anyone else. What Rand proposed, what Objectivism amounts to is a form of Might Makes Right.
To Rand, if a person can leverage you into doing their will, then they have the right to do so. If a corporation (which is an extension of the people running it) can exploit its employees then it is because the employees are weak and deserve it. If an entrepreneur destroys the environment to obtain wealth, then those in the environment who are too weak to stop it can simply move, or they too deserve to get what they get. One must wonder what then Rand would have thought about rape and institutional racism.
A refugee from Stalinist Russia, Rand rejected only the Communist limitations on the economy, but in reality she championed and tried to justify Stalinist authoritarianism. Stalin leveraged his way to the head of the Communist Party, and used his power, his strength to run the USSR according to his whim. This is precisely where Rand’s philosophy takes you. It is also why Social-Darwinists love her so much. Ironically, Rand hated Stalin and his USSR, and yet a Stalinist style of government is where it ultimately leads. The only difference is that Stalin would have began as a CEO and not as a lackey to Lenin.
The goal of Humanism is the exact opposite of this. The primary principle of Humanism can be summed up as “alleviating unnecessary suffering of our fellow humans”. All endeavors should be towards this end. This means we must protect the planet (our environment), feed the hungry, educate the youth, etc. etc. etc. To ensure that everyone has access to opportunity, and necessities, they must be enfranchised equally within the government, which necessitates limits on personal power, and at times wealth. While such a state may sound socialist, it is not necessarily so. Humanism itself does not concern itself with economic ideals in so much that the economic system does not contribute to suffering. This makes Humanism pragmatic, and not idealistic, like Objectivism.