Political Prioritization & Why Libertarians Are Bad At It

Time is perhaps one of man’s most precious resources. Man’s life is limited; were he immortal, he would have eternity to pursue his values. As the time man has to live is limited, one of the fundamental aspects of man’s life is value prioritization: the process of organizing one’s values hierarchically and devoting one’s time and effort first to pursuing those values which are most important.

Value prioritization is no less important in politics than it is in one’s daily life. It is irrational to assume that the United States (or any nation) can achieve any ideal overnight — much less one so exacting as capitalism. Not only is man (properly) limited by being able to cast solely one vote per office each election, but politicians themselves only have so much political clout to offer at one time. Naturally, politicians want to be re-elected – this is the proximate goal on which all political goals depend (whether passing legislation, satiating a personal power lust, or what have you) – and capitalists should want sympathetic politicians to be re-elected. Given the contested nature of America’s political culture, to expend a given politician’s good relationship with his electorate by pressuring him to act on relatively trivial issues is to waste a much greater opportunity for him to have done something more substantive; advocates of freedom would be ill-served should a free-market-leaning politician lose his seat to an unabashed statist for having supported policies which, ultimately, did little to address much more fundamental problems in the United States today.

By virtue of their severity and the pace at which they worsen, some problems demand more immediate attention than others. Despite that the only truly moral government is the one which respects and protects individual rights fully, not all violations of individual rights are equal. One of the clearest legal concretizations of this principle in the United States is the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Some violations of individual rights are objectively more egregious than others – the justice system does not punish pickpockets as murderers, nor should it. The level of punition should be proportional to the seriousness of the crime committed, and the Supreme Court (despite its other faults) has upheld as much for the last several decades, with varying degrees of rationality in its justifications.

The same basic principle – that some abrogations of man’s rights are more harmful than others – should be applied when addressing political usurpations of man’s rights in the same manner as individual transgressions. An executive order to ban “sedition” (i.e. criticism of the government) is an objectively more dangerous policy than, for example, a local one percent sales tax to maintain the highways. The time and resources that one intends to employ to address these issues should be apportioned accordingly.

As always, the standard of value in determining the severity of an attack against man’s rights is man’s life. “As man’s life is the value without which man can possess no values whatsoever, it is the only ultimate value possible to man, the only metaphysical end in itself” (“Absolute Liberty: Defined”). Therefore, those policies which produce the greatest hazard to man’s life are those which must be mitigated as quickly as possible; policies that negatively impact man’s ability to think, produce, pursue his happiness, and live least can and ought to be addressed later.

Why Libertarians Are Bad At It

There is an observable trend among libertarians which demonstrates a severe inability to properly prioritize their political goals. More often than not, libertarians’ priorities are in direct conflict with their long-term, rational self-interests. The most obvious and recent example of this failure is the insistence of many libertarians that they would rather vote for Gary Johnson – a candidate with no possibility of winning the presidency – than for Mitt Romney who, though not a capitalist, is a better option than President Obama and has a chance to unseat him.

But there are numerous other examples. Their often disproportionate indignation towards bans on raw milk, drug laws, and mandatory chicken pox vaccines for school children practically turns libertarianism into a satire of itself. To be sure, libertarians like Congressman Ron Paul do well to contest the United States’ immense debt, the inflationary policies of the Federal Reserve, and the existence of America’s entitlement-welfare system. But given the seriousness of the second set of issues, are the first really that pressing?

In actuality, focusing on such relatively superfluous issues in the midst of so many others which threaten the very structure of America’s Constitution and republican form of government undermines opportunities for legitimate progress. Such focus turns unconvinced voters off to talk of liberty – legitimate or not – by pushing policy changes which, by and large, few find important. Moreover, it requires more-rational actors in the American political sphere to engage in damage control, redirecting public focus toward the actual message of liberty and a rational course of action.

This is primarily due to libertarianism’s underlying philosophy (or, rather, its lack of one):

“In terms of philosophic hierarchy, the libertarians put the cart before the horse in the sense that they attempt to argue for the political supremacy of liberty while ignoring the underlying philosophic foundation requisite to reach that conclusion.

Libertarianism holds liberty as an ultimate political end – what liberty means is, adhering strictly to subjectivist dicta, for each man to determine on his own. More simply, libertarians do not define their terms. They agree that “liberty” is the goal which they should pursue in a political context, but they make no distinction between one libertarian’s understanding of liberty and another’s. So long as “liberty,” free from context or explanation, is an individual’s political goal, then the libertarians will count him as one of their own.

It is this sort of a priori intrinsicism which places liberty as a supreme value, to be pursued in and of itself, that allows libertarians to arrive at any number of incredibly dangerous, deeply irrational policy positions…”

In philosophy, the field which determines man’s values, their hierarchy, and the means by which he pursues them is the science of morality. Politics, however, is a derivative of morality – before one can determine what institutions should be created (if any) to properly manage relationships between men and what proper management entails, one must first understand what interactions are right or wrong.

But libertarians forgo morality. As with all rationalist philosophies, they begin with their conclusion (“liberty is good”) and attempt to derive the premises from it (what “liberty” and “good” mean). Because they lack any objective standard from which to judge the legitimacy of different definitions of “liberty” (whether the Marxist notion of “liberty from private property,” or Nietzsche’s “liberty from reality,” etc.), they make no distinction – indeed, they cannot, as they lack the philosophic tools to do so. Even defining “liberty” as the “removal of initiated force from human relationships” is entirely insufficient if one cannot properly identify what constitutes initiated force. Even the nihilists at Occupy Wall Street say they are opposed to “initiated force,” arguing that owning wealth, in itself, demonstrates an act of “force” against those who are not wealthy.

Following the same thread, libertarianism’s lack of a philosophic moral base precludes libertarians from organizing their political priorities. Again due to the lack of a standard of value, there is no clear way to determine which policies are more important to pursue and which are less so. It produces a sort of fallacy of division in which one kind of “liberty” is as important to seek as any other since “liberty” is an end in itself. As far they are concerned, a deadbeat’s inability to do heroine is just as tyrannical as the expansive regulations on the financial, medical, and insurance industries passed under the Obama Administration. To suggest that one concern is more important than another is to issue judgment, a great offense to those who believe “liberty” is built on skepticism and the belief that no man can know better than any other what is “best” or what is “right” (see Slade Mendenhall’s “The Failures of Milton Freeman” for elaboration).

Returning to the issue of the 2012 election, such is why so many libertarians are diametrically opposed to the notion of supporting Mitt Romney over Barack Obama in the election. As they maintain that all man’s rights are equally important, so all shortcomings across both candidates’ platforms are equally damning. Though it is indisputably true that both of our nation’s major parties have pushed us ever further towards statism, the notion that both parties are the same – let alone both of the presidential candidates – is severely lacking in philosophic depth.

Whatever his positive traits, Ron Paul exemplifies this error clearly enough. When discussing Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, Paul stated that they “represent a one-party system” without any real differences between them. It is this sort of philosophic short-sightedness which causes individuals to ignore the variants and degrees of statism supported by each candidate, the consistency with which he supports it, his reasoning, and his philosophy in general. Certainly, there are clear differences between Romney’s undirected, pragmatic path towards tyranny and Obama’s clear, purposeful nihilism. By overlooking these variances in these two candidates’ policy positions, libertarians irrationally conclude that one candidate is just as bad as the other and so, too, is supporting him. Thus, they decide to essentially not vote, instead casting their ballot for a third party candidate who, by virtue of our electoral structure, simply cannot win.

Those with a rational hierarchy of values, however, would make no such mistake, instead opting for the candidate which best serves their long-term, rational self-interests.

Rational Disagreements

Simply because one’s values ought to be arranged hierarchically does not at all mean that rational individuals must or will arrive at the same conclusion in regards to what political policies ought to be pursued first. Rational men can, and often do, disagree on these points. They agree on the same principles and the same ends, but disagree on the order in which those ends should be sought.

Take, for example, America’s current immigration issue. Capitalism and the rational morality on which it depends requires the free flow of labor across borders – no law abiding man, regardless of his national origin, ought to be kept from pursuing his self-interests by attempting to live and work here in the United States. (As an aside, immigration is not the same issue as naturalization; the process by which he enters the country to live and the process by which he is entrusted with the ability to participate in its political system are two different situations and should not be conflated.)

However, two doctors of philosophy, both Objectivists no less, disagree on how to properly approach the issue. Drs. Andrew Bernstein and Leonard Peikoff agree that man’s rights are not determined by his place of birth, and therefore that no government – whether his own or another – has the right to prohibit him from living where he chooses as long as he himself respects the rights of others. Under a capitalist system, both men agree that the government must respect this right; how to recover that lost right is another matter.

The current condition of America’s welfare state is such that many unearned goods and services are doled out by the government irrespective of whether they go to taxpayers and citizens. Dr. Peikoff is thus concerned that a massive, unrestricted influx of new immigrants to the United States would hasten the arrival of the fiscal cliff. Though he would welcome high levels of immigration under happier circumstances, he concludes that reducing the size of the welfare state (in the sense of eliminating entitlement spending and other government handouts) ought to take precedence over deregulating immigration. Even more than that, he argues that capitalists should curtail their current efforts to achieve open immigration for fear of causing more harm than good by addressing the issues in the wrong order.

Dr. Bernstein disagrees. “Some argue,” he says, “that because of America’s current welfare state, the country cannot afford an open immigration policy. This is false for two reasons.” The first is that the welfare state is harmful to both those involuntarily financing it and those leeching off it; the second is that anyone who would leave the only place they have ever known to come to the United States is, more likely than not, a rational individual not looking for a handout. These factors coupled with the money the government currently spends to keep immigrants from crossing our southern border which it would otherwise save in a system of open immigration lead Dr. Bernstein to believe that now is as good a time as ever to pursue a capitalist system of immigration.

Far apart from the libertarians, these two men do possess an explicit set of principles from which they determine the hierarchical importance of the values. Both the values and the principles are constant for both men, so from where does the disagreement arise?

As it is, the key difference between the arguments of both Dr. Bernstein and Dr. Peikoff is their contrasting evaluations about the nature of reality. Though they both share the same fundamentals – an objective reality, an epistemology of reason, a morality of rational self-interest, and the conclusions of capitalism that follow from them – but secondary considerations are in contention, primarily: would a policy of open immigration exacerbate the much more imminently threatening issue of the fiscal cliff, or would it work to remediate it?

This is what the two men debate, with reality itself as the final arbiter.

Disregarding the debate itself, the point to draw from the example presented here is that there is room for rational debate on political priorities. But whatever those priorities turn out to be, the need for setting priorities remains unchanged.  There is only so much man can accomplish politically in any legislative term, presidential term, or election cycle, and the 2012 election cycle is no different. One should always examine the available courses of action in any political context, and then choose rationally. Not only does the future of our country depend the correct choice, but also, and more important, the future of our own lives.

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