Thursday, January 12, 2017

On the Barber/Binswanger Debate: ‘Freedom: For Whom and from What?’

The second in a series of debates between intellectuals of Demos and the Ayn Rand Institute titled "First Principles: The Moral Debates that Drive Today's Politics” is called Freedom: For Whom and from What? The debate pitted Benjamin Barber against Harry Binswanger. I will not review the debate in full here. I will just give some of my observations on it. So, before you read on, I suggest that you watch the debate or, at the very least, you read the written synopses of the debaters, from which I’ll occasionally quote.

First, I want to present a couple of Barber’s claims side-by-side with what Ayn Rand actually said, just to give you the flavor of how the debate actually went.


The debate about freedom is really a debate about how we define human nature - as individualistic or social - and how we define social relationships – as always coercive (and hence freedom-robbing), or cooperative (and hence freedom-producing).

Libertarians and anarchists and Randians (yes, I know they are not the same) all start with the abstract philosophical premise that men and women are solitary individuals defined by their separation from others in an abstract "state of nature" that is the human condition.

Rand never understood individualism as some sort of solitary confinement separate from other human beings. Individualism and cooperation are perfectly compatible, Rand believed, so long as all renounce initiatory physical force; i.e., so long as the cooperation is voluntary for all participants, rather than coercive. This view is evident throughout her novels. In the 1972 essay “A Nation’s Unity,” Rand wrote:

Man gains enormous values from dealing with other men; living in a human society is his proper way of life—but only on certain conditions. Man is not a lone wolf and he is not a social animal. He is a contractual animal. He has to plan his life long-range, make his own choices, and deal with other men by voluntary agreement (and he has to be able to rely on their observance of the agreements they entered). [emphasis added]

Rand didn’t reject social relationships. Nor did she ever consider an uncivilized, ungoverned lone wolf existence as the proper human condition. She advocated non-coercive social relationships. Barber doesn’t just misrepresent Rand’s view here; he completely ignores it.


The libertarian/Rand position sees government as contrived, coming "after" the natural state of liberty, and thus as inherently coercive. If individuals are free, a government that constrains them - even if only through laws - is coercive. More government equals less freedom, a concept neo-liberal conservatives and the Tea Party enemies of "big government" argue nowadays.

The democratic position sees no liberty in the lives of isolated individuals who live in a fictional world of natural coercion ruled by the right of the strongest. Such “free” people in practice live lives that are nasty, brutish and short.

Again, Barber ignores Rand’s view. While Rand, like the Founding Fathers, does consider rights to precede government, Rand never considered government to be a necessary evil. She considered it to be a vital component—a necessary good—of a civilized society. Barber’s second paragraph indicates clearly where Barber is coming from. Where is the third option that is neither democratic absolutism nor jungle anarchy dominated by strongmen? Apparently, there’s no room in Barber’s worldview for a constitutional republic of free people whose government protects but does not violate individual rights—the original American system. Here is Rand, again from “A Nation’s Unity” first published in The Ayn Rand Letter:

The problem of human predators is as old as recorded history, or older. When men learned to hunt or plant, some men learned to avoid that effort: to seize the products of others by force. The early forms of human associations , such as primitive tribes, were prompted in large part by the need for self-protection against the attacks of human enemies. . . How to organize protection against the use of force was – and is – man’s fundamental social problem. . .

The need for organized protection against force is the root of the need for a government.

[T]he only rule of conduct men must accept – if they wish to achieve peaceful coexistence – is the rule that none may initiate the use of physical force against others. The rest is a matter of consistent implementation – the first step of which is to delegate to the government the right to use force in retaliation, and only in retaliation. (This is necessary in order to take the homicidal power, force, out of the reach of human whims and human irrationality, and place it under the control of objective laws.)

Note the highlighted passages. Does this sound like an enemy of government and law? Or does it sound like the advocate of a government that, as the Declaration of Independence states, is “instituted among men” to “secure” man’s “unalienable [individual] rights.” Barber evades the fundamental question, “What is the proper role of government?” and merely substitutes the premise, “If you are against rights-violating government, you are against government” and thus for anarchy. This utter misrepresentation rises to the level of a complete strawman. Barber is an intellectual. His misrepresentations can’t be excused as mistaken. There is only one explanation: Barber is a liar so he can evade the necessity of answering Rand’s ideas.


Now, here are some thoughts on the debate.

Binswanger clearly defined his definition of freedom in his opening remarks. After listening for an hour and a half, I still don’t know Barber’s definition of freedom. That is, apparently, by conscious design, as Barber considers freedom to be beyond the ability of science, reason, or empirical observation to explain “in some objective fashion,” as he says in his synopsis. So, right off the bat, one wonders how there can be a debate about freedom if one side claims freedom is unexplainable—which to me implies undebatable.

Perhaps that explains why Barber, appearing at times to be animated by a seething anger, seems more interested in attacking Objectivism by erecting straw men than seriously addressing the subject at hand. For example, Barber hammered repeatedly at the false claim that rampant fraud is inherent in laissez-faire capitalism and that Objectivism upholds unfettered fraud as a valid part of freedom. There are other straw men, such as Barber’s completely unfounded assertions that Objectivism is anti-government—or at best considers government to be a necessary evil and inherently antithetical to freedom—and that Objectivism cleaves to the view of individualism as a lone wolf devoid of and incapable of social relationships. As an Objectivist for nearly half a century, I must say I barely recognize the Ayn Rand/Objectivism portrayed by Barber. Either Barber doesn’t understand Objectivism, as he claims he does, or he’s engaging in deliberate misrepresentation. Either way, it’s dishonest. One wonders why anyone would so blatantly misrepresent the views of someone whose actual views are so readily available for examination in her works, which are all still in print, and for quick reference on the free Ayn Rand Lexicon.

In place of a meaningful contribution on the title question, Freedom: For Whom and from What?, Barber lurches into the Hobbesian notion of the “social contract,” which is supposed to save us from the law of the jungle. But this social contract looks like nothing more than jungle law elevated and organized into law. It certainly is not freedom. In Barber’s social contract, democracy reigns, featuring political factions fighting for dominance over other factions, with the government as the hired gun, and the individual as the hapless subordinate to the collective will, as determined by the vote of an unconstrained majority.  

But here is the crucial question, which Binswanger repeatedly but unsuccessfully implored Barber to answer: In Barber’s democratized jungle law, if each individual is legally bound under the social contract to whatever the majority grants the government the power to do, how does one limit the power of the majority over the individual? When aggressive force is unleashed on society—Barber approves of aggressive government force as long as “the people” authorize it—what’s to prevent “the armed robber from winning over the pickpocket, and the murderer from winning over the armed robber,” as Binswanger puts it?

Barber advocates for some undefined “balance” between the collective will and individual liberty. But he never defines that balance. Where is the dividing line between the “will of the people” and individual rights? If “the people” as represented by a voting majority can establish a regulatory welfare state by force, under which the government can seize and redistribute private wealth and establish a massive administrative state with the open-ended power to dictate how we run our businesses and our lives—a state of affairs that we more or less have now—what’s to stop “the people” from ordering a minority group into overt slavery, like blacks in the antebellum South, or exterminate a minority group deemed to be a threat to the social contract, like the kulaks in Russia or the Jews in Germany? What mechanism exists in Barber’s social contract to limit the power of the majority to authorize aggressive state force? What principles? Since Barber explicitly rejects moral absolutes—which he derides as “either-or” dogmatism—he doesn’t and by definition cannot point to any limiting principles.

But without guiding principles, what mechanism can possibly exist in the social contract to stop the pickpocket; to prevent the armed robber from winning over the pickpocket; to prevent the slave owner from winning over the armed robber; and to prevent the eventual victory of the murderer over everybody else? What, in Barber’s worldview, is to prevent democracy unconstrained by the absolutism of the moral principle of individual rights—which purpose is to protect us from aggressive, or initiatory, physical force—from devolving into a totalitarian state?

The answer to these questions presupposes the answer to the question, “What is freedom?” Barber flippantly brushes aside the question: “[Freedom’s] core meaning is in dispute at a deep level that cannot be refereed by science or reason in some objective fashion. . ., [nor] can [freedom] be subjected to empirical observation.” (Emphasis added) What’s left? Whim. Whim as the absolute ruler, as embodied in the majority of the moment. Barber’s Hobbesian vision of society simply replaces the random predation of “the natural state of liberty” in a governmentless wild with organized predation of the totalitarian, democratic socialist state. There is another name for this social contract. It’s called the tyranny of the majority. Without objectively defined principles of individual freedom, only some form of tyranny is possible. And that, perhaps, is the goal of Barber, as it is of the Left.

Related Reading:

Gary Moore vs. Ayn Rand: Or, the Battle for America's Soul

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