Rationality, Freedom and Subjectivism

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September 25, 2006

(Note: This column is a response to Jim Davies' "Libertarians, Both Academic and Real".)

No doubt many of us libertarians have spent a lot of time and effort trying to convince our friends and family of the superiority of liberty over statism. And no doubt most us wonder why so little progress has been made, even in the face of airtight logical arguments and irrefutable evidence. Some answers lie in the most fundamental lessons of our own intellectual tradition, and the pitfalls that await us if we attempt to sidestep them.

Who's Rational?

A great shibboleth of many libertarians, especially those of atheist and Objectivist bents, is that cold, emotionless logic must be our only guide toward the light of freedom. Emotion must be swept aside, as it can only hinder the development of a shining edifice of thought that, once perfected, will irresistibly sweep everyone up. The establishment of a truly free society would then naturally and immediately follow. In my view, this will not and cannot come to pass.

In his previous column, Davies is not quite correct in stating that "there is no rational alternative to the free market," because this depends on a very narrow definition of "rational." Rational for whom? By what standard? A lot depends on how "rational" is defined. Davies' definition ignores the subjective theory of value, a cornerstone of radical individualism and Austrian economics. Based on the fact that everyone's knowledge and experience is unique and limited, one's world-view is necessarily also unique. It follows that people could arrive at very different concepts of just what is rational and logical.

Because value judgment and decision making are ultimately subjective in nature, it also follows that emotion, and not logic, is at the center. Noted negotiation coach Jim Camp correctly points out that all decisions are 100% emotional. This squares neatly with the Austrian view that the prime motivator of all human action is the replacement of the subjective feeling of uneasiness with that of satisfaction. Our challenge is to ensure this emotionally driven process is firmly guided by both sound logic and libertarian ethics.

Let us be perfectly clear: Logic is the servant, not the master. It is the trusted advisor to the boss (emotion), but it is decidedly not in command. Unfortunately, we find that our servant is not always capable, or indeed present. For better or worse, this is the truth of humanity's mechanism for decision making. No matter how flawless the logical argument for liberty is, the decision to reject statism can result in the boss getting a severe beating. It's no wonder that approaches directed exclusively to the mind (logic) don't have a bigger impact. The boss has too much to lose, and simply doesn't want to hear the bad news. Faced with this, our servant, no matter how competent, is sent packing.

It is precisely these high emotional costs and their effect to emasculate the power of logic that efforts like TOLFA and the LP have not lived up to the expectations of their creators. This doesn't necessarily mean that these endeavors are pointless, only that their potential for changing people's minds should be reconsidered. TOLFA is still a good tool to open certain people's minds, but their numbers will be limited to a tiny minority.

In order to reflect these truths of human action, a better definition of "rational" is then "whatever action that is judged to be in the best interest of the actor." Using this broader definition, we can readily explain why some people seem to behave so "irrationally" from our own viewpoint. Contrary to Davies' claims, all people are "real people," because all people reason qua their humanity, albeit sometimes with bad premises, sloppy logic, and poor ethics. We must not rush to condemn those who are presently incapable of thinking and acting more like ourselves. Their individual knowledge and experience to this point have not permitted them to do so, and we cannot expect them to easily pony up large sections of their ego to think and act more like us. Demoting these people from the ranks of Homo sapiens on these grounds is therefore indefensible. If anything, they deserve our compassion and support whenever possible. Whether or not we can successfully sway their opinions is not subject to our control, though we should try in every appropriate way.

Life in an Unfree World

The rebuttal to my previous column sent me back to my library to re-read the late Harry Browne's How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, which I hadn't pulled off the shelf in some time. I'm glad I was motivated to do so, and for that I sincerely thank Mr. Davies. This book, though written over 30 years ago, is as inspiring and relevant today as it was when originally published. If you haven't read it yet, I strongly encourage you to do so.

While I have no indication of how free Mr. Davies personally feels himself to be, his statement that "most of freedom's benefits are realizable only when the rest of society joins us to throw off the curse of government" indicates to me that he feels his freedom is severely curtailed by the lack of a truly libertarian society in which he can live. To quote from the Prologue of How I Found Freedom:

Most books dealing with freedom present an involved plan that depends upon the support of other people. These usually urge you to pass the book on to others, sell the idea to a great many people, and gain the support of the public in order to be free. This isn't that kind of book.

Browne later details this kind of thinking in chapter 6, The Group Trap. In the first section of this column I've already detailed how falling into what Browne calls The Identity Trap (chapter 1) can land one in hot water. Please read the book to find out more details. In a nutshell, Browne's thesis is that your freedom is in your hands. It's up to you to recognize that and start living a better life.

Many of us may think that the external constraints placed on us by government are the main (or perhaps the only) obstacle that stands in the way of our liberty. To the contrary, the most brutal gulags, the most oppressive taxes, and the most insufferable degradations are perpetrated not by some external government, but by our own minds against ourselves. The suffering that people bestow on others arises directly from the suffering that they inflict upon themselves. This goes a long way to explain why humanity is still shackled to government. Without first extinguishing our own internal suffering, we cannot help but to inflict it on others. If anything, humanity has consistently found new and better ways to magnify this suffering over the centuries, and the modern democratic nation-state is arguably the most highly evolved mechanism to accomplish just that.

The quest for freedom, then, is redefined as a highly introspective, personal journey of self-discovery and enlightenment. The eradication of government is not necessary for one to be free. To the contrary, one must first attain freedom in order to be rid of government.

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Tony Sampognaro's picture
Columns on STR: 4

Tony Sampognaro is a medicinal chemist and student of economics. He lives in Connecticut with his family and two dachshunds.