Though the culture has in many ways degenerated to an even lower state than it occupied in the 70s, there has been noticeable political-economic improvement since then, both in America and abroad. This caused me to wonder: might a gradual, incremental movement towards the free market end us up in laissez-faire or something close to it–even if it takes forty or fifty years? After all, the lesson that freedom is practical and moral is contained in and reinforced by each step of the incremental process.
A minute’s thought made me realize that, alas, the answer is: No.
First of all, the “lessons” of the value of freedom, in order to be grasped, still require a conceptual approach–a mind that is thinking in principles. I see no evidence of such a mind among the intellectuals on the current scene. Quite the contrary.
Further, what one considers a value depends on one’s standard. The altruist standard of value is, from what I can judge, completely unshaken in our culture.
Consider the following thought experiment. Imagine that tomorrow morning we magically woke up to find that, existentially, America was a laissez-faire utopia. But the culture’s philosophy is unchanged. Imagine, further, that no one recalled the previous political situation–people thought that America had always been this way; the political and economic state of affairs was taken as a given.
The question is: what would happen next?
Within a week someone in the media or in Congress would suggest that we put a small–almost unnoticeable–tax on just the very richest individuals in order to finance some altruistic project–say a re-training program to ease the transition for those who have to find new, more technological jobs. He would argue, “These people are the deserving poor, who only need a little help in order to meet the challenges of the age; and the only cost is that a few tycoons will have to buy slightly smaller diamond cufflinks.” Who would object? On what basis?
Then, in a week, there is some natural disaster, say mudslides in California. “Society has to help,” would be the cry. Disaster relief would be provided, out of tax money.
Then, in two weeks, someone would observe that opera cannot survive on its own, and needs a government subsidy.
Then, in three weeks, the price of something goes higher than it had been (gasoline, milk, sugar–it doesn’t matter what). Well, the solution is obvious: have the government set a ceiling on the price.
Each of these interventions creates both its own problems and a precedent for the next step away from laissez-faire. The process feeds on itself. After all, America did have near- laissez-faire after the Civil War. The intellectual causes of its progressive abandonment would have the same effect again, even if somehow we woke up in political utopia tomorrow.
In a way, this is what’s wrong with libertarianism. Libertarianism is premised on the idea that the value of capitalism is self-evident. Libertarians assume that if people could ever just see what happens under laissez-faire, they would unhesitatingly endorse it. Well, they didn’t in 1886, why would they in 2006? Or 2036?
We can improve a little politically, and that’s not something to be sneered at: each improvement makes our daily existence better and buys us time for the intellectual battle. But we can’t stumble into the ideal. And even if we could, we couldn’t remain there for more than a month.
There will be no real and lasting political-economic improvement until the metaphysical, epistemological, and moral principles underlying capitalism are firmly grasped and understood in a first-handed way by at least a sizable minority of the intellectuals.
A value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep. The value of freedom can neither be gained nor kept without a proper philosophical base.
Bottom line: I’m increasing my donation to The Ayn Rand Institute.
Latest posts by Harry Binswanger (see all)
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