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April 2005
Volume 19,
Number 4


Who's Your Daddy?
Authority, Asceticism, and the Spread of Liberty

by Michael Acree

Why are conservatives and liberals so resistant to the logic of liberty?

"Why Doesn't Libertarianism Appeal to People?" This was the wry title of an informal talk by Robert Nozick to a libertarian supper club in Cambridge shortly after the publication of "Anarchy, State, and Utopia" (Basic Books, 1974). (I'm sure Nozick would have been aware of the implied slur on libertarians.) My memory is that he saw himself as raising an important question more than offering definitive answers. The question remains as important as ever, but has attracted surprisingly little serious attention since then.

Michael Acree is a research specialist in the Department of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco.

The various explanations that have been offered mostly boil down to the contention that people are jerks — consumed by envy, by needs to control others, or whatever. There is obviously some truth in these claims. The difficult point about such explanations is the implication that libertarians are not afflicted with similar character flaws — that we are more saintly or mentally healthy than the rest of the population. Anyone who has experience with libertarians in person, however, will have (or should have) trouble swallowing that conclusion. There must be more to the story.

Naturally, I do not suggest that what I say here is what Nozick would have come up with had he returned to the question. Nor do I consider this to be a definitive treatment of the question. I merely bring a few ideas which I have not seen applied to this question before.

It is obvious to everyone that political beliefs — other people's political beliefs — are not altogether rational. The evidence in favor of laws against, say, guns or cocaine is simply not compelling enough to support the fervor their advocates commonly exhibit. Yet political discussions are commonly conducted as though political beliefs were determined by logic and evidence. That is why they are so frustrating. Libertarians, especially, are given to what Nozick would later* call "coercive logic": hit them over the head with an irrefutable argument, and socialists can do nothing but capitulate to capitalism. Few among us have failed to note how seldom it works that way, even as we continue to insist that education is the key to political change.

Possibly the most profound work thus far on understanding political differences is Thomas Sowell's "A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles" (Morrow, 1987). Sowell integrates a wealth of observations into a remarkably even-handed characterization of two "visions," constrained and unconstrained, of human nature and society. He says little (as yet) about where these visions come from, and libertarians interestingly cut across this particular distinction. The other major work in the area, George Lakoff's "Moral Politics" (University of Chicago Press, 1996), has been more neglected by libertarians; I shall have more to say about it.

My own approach is a little more psychological than either of these. Psychological analysis of political beliefs can help us understand not just where people of all persuasions are coming from — and thus more effectively how to reach them — but to understand some other phenomena that are puzzling to libertarians, such as the widespread tolerance and excuse-making for government atrocities, the asymmetrical appeal of libertarianism to left-liberals and conservatives, and the professed hostility of liberals to lowering even their own taxes.

Explanations for the lack of appeal of libertarianism mostly boil down to the contention that people are jerks, but such explanations imply that libertarians are not afflicted with similar character flaws.

Psychological analysis of political beliefs is a delicate task, however. The very suggestion that the beliefs being analyzed may not be fully rational understandably gives offense. At the very least it is obligatory that any such analysis be self-reflexive. Understanding why libertarianism appeals to us may help explain the limited appeal it has to some conservatives and left-liberals.

Ambivalence About Asceticism

Start with the most famously transparent case of psychological motivation for political beliefs: the obsessive campaign of conservatives against pornography, which elicits a knowing smile from everyone else. Susie Bright, noted author of erotica, says that the Report of the Meese Commission on Pornography was the best jill-off book she had ever read, the Commission having gone out of its way to procure the kinkiest stuff. Look today at the amount of coverage given by WorldNetDaily, to pick on just one popular publication, to sex scandals, child prostitution, and other titillating topics. Without their diligent reporting, many pedophiles might never have considered the opportunities in contemporary Afghanistan. Leftist intellectuals smugly infer suppressed desires from this righteous crusade, but their own positions may be vulnerable to a similar analysis.

Consider the odd resistance of left-liberals to lowering even their own taxes. The very idea is as offensive to them as relaxing laws against prostitution is to conservatives. That doesn't mean they are indifferent to money, but it is important to them to appear indifferent to money. Most of my liberal friends are wealthier than my conservative friends, but they would sooner die than be thought of as wealthy. They refer to themselves as "comfortable" — where "comfortable" means having a home in the Berkeley hills, an SUV and a sports car, and enough money for either private school tuition or a condo in Aspen. But the insistent denial of concern for wealth, we may suspect, betrays an underlying obsession.

What liberals and conservatives have in common, I suggest, is having publicly subscribed to an ascetic code in which they are not wholeheartedly committed. They have simply focused on different aspects of Christian asceticism (an asceticism shared by most other religions) — money or sex. Morality, in the cynical view, was probably invented as a system of social control: the intellectually powerful use guilt to control the physically powerful. Happy people are hard to control noncoercively. There is a limit to what we can offer them as inducements to behave differently. Guilty people, on the other hand, offer a conspicuous lever. Do as the moralists say, and your sins will be forgiven and you will experience eternal bliss. (Some gullibility is required, but not an extraordinary amount.) The ideal moral code, from this point of view, is one that is set against human nature, that people can hardly help violating. Thus the historically successful codes, including those prevailing in Western culture, are ascetic, particularly with respect to sex and money. Tellingly, perhaps, it is rare to find prohibitions on power over other people.

Left-liberals are not indifferent to money, but it is important to them to appear indifferent to money.

As mechanisms of social control, moral codes were designed to be accepted but not to be observed. If everyone cheerfully followed them, there would be no guilt to manipulate. Guilt is an effective lever just because, as Nathaniel Branden has famously argued, perhaps the most important value we are all controlling for is a sense of ourselves as good people. Morality becomes political through a second value for which we control nearly as strongly: a sense of justice. What is intolerable is to feel as if you are paying a price for adherence to an ascetic code, and seeing other people — whether capitalist pigs or queers — flouting the rules and getting away with it.

Self-acceptance, or its lack, is key in both cases. Con-servatives who live comfortably within the bounds of their narrow code are generally less agitated and zealous in their disapproval of transgressions. Not feeling especially deprived by their moral choices — feeling, perhaps, that their moral choices are their own, rather than imposed from without — they have no reason to envy others their greater freedom of action. Similarly with those left-liberals who are comfortable with a very modest standard of living. I think, in fact, that the range of peaceful behaviors we are comfortable with in others is a pretty good index of our own self-acceptance.

For left-liberals and conservatives alike, political beliefs derive much of their obduracy from being rooted in morality and self-concept. Conservatives can tell they are good people by the strictness of the standards they espouse, and by the zealousness of their advocacy — which generally means efforts at imposing those standards universally. Challenging conservatives' political beliefs will generally not get very far, because those beliefs are linked to conservatives' sense of what is good, and of themselves as good people. Anyone who has entered into political discussions with left-liberals has tasted the similar righteousness of their position. They believe their commitment to redistributionist policies shows them to be good people; challenges to those policies will likely be experienced as challenges to left-liberals' sense of the good, and of themselves as good people.

But notice that both left-liberals and conservatives focus not so much on becoming virtuous as on forcing other people to adhere to the standard they believe they are supposed to uphold. They are quite willing to submit to coercion on issues they feel they need help with, so long as everyone else is similarly coerced. It is easy to imagine Al Gore feeling he needed some extra help (in the form of coercion) to meet his standards for charitable giving when his tax return showed a total of $353 in charitable deductions (especially compared with the more recent figures of $68,000 for Bush and $330,000 for Cheney). The common conviction of liberals and conservatives that they are committed to what is good makes it easier for them to dismiss the hardships their policies impose on others. Advocating universal standards, in fact, serves importantly to relieve us of responsibility for judging whether we are generous enough, or overindulgent. Better to have someone else decide what the limits are — so long as they decide for us all.

As mechanisms of social control, moral codes were designed to be accepted but not to be observed.

These ascetic codes, and the efforts at social control to which they lead, are addictive: they generate their own justification. Because of them, we acquire a view of ourselves as needing external constraints on our behavior ("I don't know if I would contribute that much to charity"), which will lead us to resist any suggestion that the constraints are not necessary. There are few psychological challenges greater than changing one's conception of the good, given a lifetime of investment in constraints that may have been unnecessary. Perhaps the most insidious and destructive legacy of our traditional reliance on external controls, whether moral or legal, is the undermining of personal responsibility. We come to believe that, if social controls were relaxed, everyone, including ourselves, would run wild, indulging every whim. That expectation feeds the demand for ever stricter controls. And we end up confusing opposition to enforcement of moral codes with immorality.

Family Models of the State

Tacit resistance to ascetic codes is but one of several related axes of political difference, however. For those whose ascetic focus is on sex (and drugs and related sins), morality tends to be primarily a private matter, to be maintained with a rigid, disciplinary self-control ("Don't touch yourself," "Save yourself for marriage"). For those whose ascetic focus is on money, morality is primarily social ("Share your toys," "Take care of the less fortunate"), and is to be supported by cultivating and nurturing a sense of public-spiritedness — altruism and collectivism.

Here we reach the distinction George Lakoff takes as fundamental. Lakoff is a Berkeley linguist best known for his work on metaphor. The language of the state, in case anyone had failed to notice, is very much the language of the family, whether the Fatherland, Uncle Sam, or Big Brother. Patriot and father have, of course, the same root.

Lakoff opens his book "Moral Politics" with a question he believes reliably distinguishes liberals from conservatives: if your baby cries in the night, do you pick him up? A conservative may say, "No, you're only teaching the kid to cry more. Sooner or later he has to grow up; he might as well get used to it now." A liberal may say, "Of course. How cruel to let the child feel abandoned, as though no one cares for him." The point is not that we need an elegant new device for classifying political beliefs, but rather that we carry these parenting styles over to the state. Conservatives hold a disciplinary parent model of the state, seeing its role as policing "undesirable" behavior; liberals hold a model of the state as nurturing parent, whose role is to ensure that everyone is taken care of, and that the bigger siblings don't take advantage of the weaker ones.

For Lakoff, the choice is a slam-dunk: empirical research in developmental psychology shows that the nurturant approach works better, hence the liberal society is the better one. To libertarians, however, the question is beside the point: we reject any model of the state that sees citizens as children, and bureaucrats and politicians as the only adults. It is remarkable that Lakoff misses entirely the possibility of noninfantilizing social arrangements. He considers libertarianism a species of conservatism. I think he is not entirely to blame for that impression. Lakoff, a thoughtful, fair-minded scholar, did his homework, and consulted libertarian sources; and, in fact, a conservative orientation in libertarianism today is apparent in many ways, including recently the prevalence in libertarian circles of hawkish attitudes on the war on terrorism, where punishment and retribution emerge as the paramount concerns.

It is intolerable to feel as if you are paying a price for adherence to an ascetic code, and seeing other people — whether capitalist pigs or queers — flouting the rules and getting away with it.

It might be supposed that the claim that conservatives are attached to a disciplinary-parent model of the state is refuted by their opposition to the United Nations. I think however, that conservatives really do want a dominant power in the world; they just want it to be the U.S. rather than the UN — or anybody else. A case can be made, as it was many years ago by Leopold Kohr in his book "The Breakdown of Nations" (Dutton, 1957), that peace and stability are better served by a homogeneous distribution of size and power than by an arrangement where some political entities are very much larger and more powerful than others. And the foreign policy of the Bush administration, the full effects of which are yet to be felt, would seem ample confirmation. But conservatives can be counted on to oppose moves that would diminish the hegemony of the U.S.

Lakoff generously subtitles his book "What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't." He is referring to conservatives' "knowledge" that government is inherently about morality. Perhaps it is, for better or worse; but I would say the more relevant thing conservatives know that liberals don't is that government is inherently disciplinary. I wish Lakoff had been less modest and had acknowledged what liberals know that conservatives don't: that legislating morality doesn't work. Enforcing public morality — nurturance by compulsion — doesn't work any better than enforcing private morality. It furthermore ceases to be experienced as nurturant either by recipients, who come to take it for granted as an impersonal entitlement, or by donors, who come to resent it as a demand. If Lakoff understood what both liberals and conservatives know, he would have cut the ground entirely from under both.

The parental model of the state helps to explain the extraordinary tolerance and excuse-making exhibited by most Americans in relation to government atrocities like Waco, or their hostility toward those who question official accounts — the treatment of Robert Stinnett's "Day of Deceit" by the Wall Street Journal, for example. Think of the well-known phenomenon of children clinging to abusive parents and adults remaining with abusive spouses. There may be many factors involved here, but surely a major one is the psychological difficulty of acknowledging that the powerful figure in whom we've placed all our trust is actually corrupt or unreliable.

There is an important asymmetry between liberal and conservative models of the state, however: the nurturant-parent model is much harder to give up. It is true that, through a process that is all too familiar, children with tyrannical parents can grow up to be tyrants themselves; but the disciplinary-parent model still inherently invites resistance. Under the nurturant-parent model, on the other hand, we grow up, at least in theory, to be benevolent protectors rather than tyrants. The fact that the nurturant-parent model is thus more seductive is surely one reason why libertarianism has attracted more conservatives than liberals.

Whence the Parental Model?

The pervasiveness of the two parental models of the state raises the question of their source: why should such models be so compelling? Dorothy Dinnerstein offers one interesting potential explanation for our attraction to parental models of the state which has been largely overlooked by libertarians.

Many observers, of different orientations, have interpreted the human history of repeated subjugation to authority, plausibly, as an "escape from freedom." Dinnerstein, in her classic book "The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise" (Harper and Row, 1976), goes a little deeper, to consider the question of why such an escape should appear to be possible. She observes that, throughout history and across cultures, child rearing (not just child bearing) has been monopolized by women. The significance of women's monopoly in child rearing lies first in the fact that all the rage and frustration of infancy, of unmet needs and the struggle for autonomy, are directed against women:

"It is obvious that we all have character traits which make us less than perfectly parental. What is not faced head-on is the fact that under present conditions woman does not share man's right to have such traits without loss of human stature, and man does not share woman's obligation to work at mastering them, at shielding others from their consequences. Woman never will have this right, nor man this obligation, until male imperfection begins to impinge on all of us when we are tiny and helpless, so that it becomes as culpable as female imperfection, as close to the original center of human grief. Only then will the harm women do be recognized as the familiar harm we all do to ourselves, not strange harm inflicted by some outside agent. And only then will men really start to take seriously the problem of curbing, taming, their own destructiveness." (p. 237–238, original in italics)

Both left-liberals and conservatives focus not so much on becoming virtuous as on forcing other people to adhere to the standard they believe they are supposed to uphold.

But the split in gender roles also makes it possible for us to project the different sides of a number of fundamental ambivalences onto each gender. This "solution" generally insures that one side or the other is disowned, that each is alienated from the other and hypertrophied in its expression, and that the ambivalence itself is never recognized or dealt with, as it would have to be if both sides were represented in each of us.

One of the things we feel ambivalent about is the process of growing up. Dinnerstein writes:

"Few of us ever outgrow the yearning to be guided as we were when we were children, to be told what to do, for our own good, by someone powerful who knows better and will protect us. Few of us even wholeheartedly try to outgrow it. What we do try hard to outgrow, however, is our subjugation to female power: the power on which we were dependent before we could judge, or even wonder, whether or not the one who wielded it knew better and was bossing us for our own good; the power whose protectiveness — although we once clung to it with all our might, and although it was steadier and more encompassing than any we are apt to meet again — seemed at that time both oppressive and imperfectly reliable.

Having escaped that power, or at least learned how to keep it within bounds, all but a few of us have exhausted our impulse toward autonomy: the relatively limited despotism of the father is a relief to us." (188–189)

If men, however, bore equally the burden of those infantile feelings now attached to women, then subjugation to authority — male authority — would not hold the appeal that it does for us:

"If a different, apparently blameless, category of person were not temptingly available as a focus for our most stubborn childhood wish — the wish to be free and at the same time to be taken care of — we would be forced at the beginning, before our spirit was broken, to outgrow that wish and face the ultimate necessity to take care of ourselves." (189, original in italics)

Regardless of whether Dinnerstein is right in her gendered interpretation, the wish for someone to be in charge remains nearly universal. Most often it is expressed as a need to control unruly others, but I've also heard many people say, in different contexts, that they didn't trust themselves to do what they were supposed to without the threat of external sanctions. On some level, they really didn't think of themselves as responsible adults. Naturally I think the source of most of that distrust is the unrealistic, ascetic codes by which they are judging what they are supposed to do. If all the fruit weren't forbidden, they wouldn't have acquired an image of themselves as so vulnerable to temptation to engage in illicit behavior. But in any case, if people don't trust themselves, they certainly aren't willing to trust others to do better.

If I have made it sound as though social order can be achieved simply through members of society trusting one another, many readers will be eager to insist that I'm making a crucial but obviously false assumption: that adults are adults. Indeed, the media are full of reports every day to remind us, with respect to both private individuals and public officials, of the falsity of that assumption. However, it is just because chronological adulthood doesn't entail maturity or responsibility that we should oppose investing any person or group with too much power over all others.

But it is important to appreciate the role of ascetic codes in bringing about this state of affairs. I've already suggested that a state of chronic deprivation leads us to expect that everybody is about to explode into narcissistic self-indulgence, and consequently that strict external controls are necessary. We might well expect some movement in that direction if existing controls were suddenly removed; on the other hand, our fears might well be exaggerated. I'm sure there were many parties the night Prohibition was repealed, but if there was a prolonged national orgy of drunkenness, I've never heard about it.

Authoritarianism vs. the Market in Epistemology

Phenomenological method advises us to test any analysis in a neighboring domain, and it is indeed illuminating to consider the epistemological implications of ascetic codes and parental models. The impact of asceticism in knowledge and science is evident in the automatic dismissal of personal experience that standard conceptions of the scientific method demand: the discounting of self-reports, the disparagement of subjectivism — indeed, the loss of the distinction between "subjective" and "merely subjective." The prevailing scientific norm of epistemological altruism sets us up for epistemological authoritarianism: having cognitively disenfran-chised ourselves, we need someone or something to tell us what to think.

We have celebrated as progress in both epistemology and politics the depersonalization of authority — the shift from investing authority in a particular political or religious figure to investing authority in a set of impersonal rules governing behavior and thought. In politics, the concept of authoritarianism applies to bureaucracy, however, no less than to monarchy; either, as anyone with any experience of the IRS knows, can be despotic. Similarly, epistemological authoritarianism pertains as much to impersonal systems as to personal or spiritual authorities.

The parental model of the state helps to explain the extraordinary tolerance and excuse-making exhibited by most Americans in relation to government atrocities like Waco.

The alignment of the disciplinary-parent model with a moral and epistemological authoritarianism is perhaps clear. The social orientation of liberalism, on the other hand, leads philosophically to a commitment to openness to other points of view, to an emphasis on the social construction of language and thought, and to philosophies like relativism and postmodernism. (It hardly needs to be added that the commitment, like the commitment to material ascetic codes, is often merely philosophical. As liberals are not necessarily more generous than conservatives, so they are not necessarily more open-minded. They can be every bit as rigid and intolerant — for instance, of smokers or gun owners — as conservatives, and even more annoying thereby.) So it is hardly surprising that some philosophers have embraced a more libertarian perspective here than have libertarians themselves. Paul Feyerabend, in his book "Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge" (Verso, 1976), argued that scientific progress has often come, not from following, but from breaking rules, and that the only rule that wouldn't inhibit the growth of knowledge is "Anything goes." Simple-minded critics have taken his claim as implying that anyone's opinion is necessarily as good as any other, but epistemological anarchism actually places more responsibility on individual knowers than does a philosophy which conceives of knowledge production as a matter of mechanically following defined rules. There are no rules to hide behind, to shift responsibility onto, no substitute for our own judgment.

Epistemological anarchism does not entail the rejection of logic or any particular methodological rules. It merely recognizes their inadequacy as arbiters of dispute and governing authorities of thought. How often do we say: "Oh, you're right — I see now that I had an undistributed middle term"? Knowledge and understanding, like the conduct of our lives, call for more sophistication than that — or perhaps more courage.


The analysis of libertarianism is complicated by the fact that the label, as is well known, really comprises two groups. The majority, who are responsible for the perception, by Lakoff and many others, of libertarianism as a species of conservatism, want a disciplinary-parent state which will somehow constrain itself to observe specified rules. Emotional vestiges of right-libertarians' attachment to both parental models and ascetic codes are apparent in the wistfulness often discernible in their attitude toward government — the feeling, for example, that it is too bad that drug prohibition doesn't work; it would be nice if we could force people to do what we want. Those, on the other hand, who want to abolish the state altogether might well be considered true libertarians.

Very many of the "classic core" of the modern libertarian movement grew up on Ayn Rand, and thus are unusual in this culture in rejecting both forms of asceticism. Lacking these two sources of envy and attendant complications in our interactions with others ought to give us an advantage, making social relationships more rewarding. Unfortunately, rejection of ascetic codes can also be crassly interpreted as justifying insensitivity and indifference to others, as though religion (on the Right) or redistributionism (on the Left) were the only possible bases of caring. That is part of what has given libertarians a bad name. Some years ago I met a distant relative at a family funeral, who expressed surprise at seeing a Clark for President bumper sticker on my car: "At last I've met a nice Libertarian." I'm sorry to say I knew what she meant. The one political philosophy based on respect for others ironically attracts some of the least respectful people (perhaps taking Rand as a personal model), who make correspondingly ineffectual advocates. It is remarkable how seldom it occurs to many libertarians to be nice even instrumentally: the idea that it might actually be helpful to the movement if libertarians were popularly perceived as friendly, cooperative, and generous.

Good conduct, like good science, is not a matter of following rules. But rejecting the rules doesn't mean that it makes no difference what we do! Reliance on formalized, ascetic codes has obscured the need for all of us to cultivate attitudes and skills of sensitivity and respect, and of integrity and responsibility toward the animate and inanimate world. The good life is a more interesting challenge than we have made it seem.

Very many of the "classic core" of the modern libertarian movement grew up on Ayn Rand, and thus are unusual in this culture in rejecting both forms of asceticism.

As we might have expected rejection of ascetic codes to confer a psychological advantage, so we might also expect rejection of family models of the state to signal the achievement of a high degree of autonomy and responsibility. Once again, however, we need to be mindful of the occupants of the tub as we are dumping the bathwater. Jennifer Roback Morse has written a whole book ("Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn't Work," Spence, 2001) lamenting that many libertarians have rejected the family model of the family. Russell Means might agree. Following his defeat for the presidential nomination of the Libertarian Party in 1987, a core group of about 30 of his supporters met to form an organization to try to ensure that the values they emphasized — community, the environment, and other left-libertarian issues — weren't lost to Libertarians focusing more exclusively on economics. As we were drawing up a statement of principles (essential in any libertarian undertaking!), Russell insisted on only one point: including reference to "family values," by which he meant things like being responsible for ourselves and taking care of our own. The reaction, among his strongest supporters, was nuclear. One fragile-looking young woman appeared to be speaking for most of those present as she gathered her courage to say, "The family is just the first tyranny we have to escape." I was wishing her family had been more nurturant than it evidently had been. Morse appears to be coming from a conservative position, focusing as much on the need for discipline as for nurturance. But she is right, in any case, in picking up a peculiar lack of connection — as though, for many libertarians as for Sartre, hell is other people. A familiar species of libertarian, in fact, appears to exhibit (I won't say "suffer from") a disorder of autonomy: every concession to the wishes of others — the ordinary gestures of social lubrication, like showing up for meetings on time, complying with requests regarding smoking, attire, or noise — is experienced as a violation of autonomy and integrity, to be resisted as a matter of principle. The Libertarian Party is at least a natural draw for those who experienced their family of origin as intrusive. If the ease with which many core libertarians reject family models of the state derives from their having rejected family ties in general (supported, again, by the model and rationale of Rand), that unfortunate circumstance does not necessarily confer a psychological or moral advantage. A civil society isn't formed by people backing into each other as they withdraw from others, or structuring every interaction as a contest of wills.

A major factor in understanding libertarianism as a movement is the simple fact that, in our cultural context, self-identifying as libertarian entails a willingness to be perceived as deviant. There are undoubtedly many people who would join the Libertarian Party if most of the people they knew belonged. The importance to most people of not being perceived as deviant is apparent in the obsession of very many LP members — especially those coming from the Right — with "mainstream acceptability" (where "mainstream" refers to the conservative heartland), and with downplaying or even eliminating planks on issues like gay marriage or the War on Drugs. Experience with another dimension of deviance doesn't necessarily help: Very many lesbian, bisexual, gay, or transgendered people are quite capable of recognizing that, compared to Michael Badnarik, John Kerry is no champion of gay rights, but are unwilling to relinquish the support of the one community — about 99% Democratic — where they feel at home. Those of us, on the other hand, who have a higher tolerance for being perceived as deviant, and have consequently formed much of the core of the Libertarian Party from the beginning, thus tend to be social isolates. Rand would indeed have authorized us to wear our social deviance as a badge of honor. Important as such pioneers are in getting a new movement going, they may not be its most effective ambassadors later on. And if the movement grows, social deviance will recede as a distinguishing characteristic of libertarians.

It seldom occurs to many libertarians to be nice even instrumentally — to help the movement by causing libertarians to be perceived as friendly, cooperative, and generous.

Whether the movement becomes more libertarian or conservative, however, depends on a more fundamental, enduring attitude among the members it attracts. That orientation is usefully revealed in our view of knowledge. We have already noticed among leftists a horizontal décalage between their authoritarianism in the political sphere and their libertarianism or anarchism in epistemology. That décalage is important to recognize because it offers a potential lever for influence, especially since most leftists would strongly resist being labeled "authoritarian." Brute force just happens to be the unavoidable means of implementing their egalitarian social goals, but the use of guns is something to be masked, to be left implicit, at the level of threat rather than murder. Leftists bridle at the arrogance of fundamentalists, especially at righteous attempts to impose their values on the whole society, yet remain blind to the equal arrogance of their own political authoritarianism. There are thus grounds for an appeal to consistency, to bringing the attitude of humility from epistemology around to displace their arrogance in the political realm. One might expect, for example, Nozick's model of utopia as a "framework for utopias" to hold some appeal to leftists, as the political equivalent of postmodernism.

Now, the position of libertarians, curiously enough, tends to be the mirror image of that décalage exhibited by leftists. Libertarians, again under the obvious influence of Rand, have characteristically been rabid fundamentalists in epistemology, vesting their security in deductive systems. It goes without saying that they would resist the label "authoritarian" as fiercely as their counterparts on the Left, but the arrogance of libertarians, especially Objectivists, in asserting the infallibility of their deductive systems is a match for the arrogance they denounce in efforts at socialist planning. Where socialists ironically tend more to trust the market with respect to ideas, in a more dynamic vision of knowledge and science, libertarians are more inclined to appeal to fixed notions of objective, universal, timeless truths. They are particularly inclined to insist on the importance of "objective," well-defined rules in the legal realm: it is essential for everyone to be able to know in advance whether a given action is legal or not; the potential and actual evils of discretion, in the hands of a powerful judge, are all too obvious.

The problem, however, is that judgment is always required in the application of any rule, and a great deal of mischief can be perpetrated by pretending otherwise, by claiming that decisions are given automatically by the rules, without human involvement. If the ambiguities and pitfalls of inference weren't apparent from ordinary discourse, we have a library of textbook examples to remind us. The following modus tollens, due to Ernest Adams, prompts us, for example, to reflect on how much we assume about what the meaning of "if" is:

If it rained, it did not rain hard.
It did rain hard.
Therefore it did not rain.

Even in a structured domain as uncomplicated as horse-racing, it is difficult to specify all the rules unambiguously. As Michael Polanyi noted in "Personal Knowledge" (University of Chicago Press, 1962, p. 20n), the photo-finish camera was believed to have obviated human judgment there, until a photo was taken where "one horse's nose is seen a fraction of an inch ahead of another's, but the second horse's nose extends forward by six inches or so well ahead of that of its rival by virtue of the projection of a thick thread of saliva." For every horror story involving discretion on the part of a judge, there is another involving the attempt to impose a simple rule blindly, without regard to context or circumstances. Philip Howard has amassed a collection of those in his book "The Death of Common Sense: How Law Is Suffocating America" (Warner Books, 1994).

The source of this dilemma, of course, is the investment in someone of arbitrary power — in other words, a monopolistic justice system. Arbitration agencies in a free market are obliged to reach decisions that will be perceived as fair by all parties. An agency which was perceived as favoring wealthy clients, for example, could attract business only from disputants who perceived themselves approximately equal in wealth — a rather specialized market niche. The "marketplace of ideas," in epistemology or law, doesn't privilege one authority over another, and that works better than the assumption that there is one fixed rule or correct answer, and that we — or the government — know it and are applying it.


Returning, in any event, to Nozick's question, I think one reason why (a thoroughgoing) libertarianism doesn't appeal even to many who call themselves libertarian, is that it doesn't leave anyone in charge — to keep ourselves and others forcibly in line with ascetic codes we still believe are necessary. More and more Americans in the last century have been willing to abandon the idea of Someone up in the sky who is in charge of everything — so long as there is somebody running everything from Washington. Everyone, not just libertarians, will resist the hell out of authority wherever it asserts itself — but, like adolescents, we still want it there to rebel against.

People have a harder time reaching libertarianism from the Left, just because they are giving up on a model of the state as a good, nurturing parent. But once they do, they appear more likely than those coming from the Right to go all the way to anarchism. Conservative libertarians retain the family model of the state; they are merely looking for a better parent. But that is not the same thing as growing up.

*  In "Philosophical Explanations," Belknap Press, 1981.


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