LIBERTY: FROM RAND TO CHRIST
by Joseph R. Peden
retrieved from The Libertarian Forum VOLUME III, NOS. 6-7 July-August, 1971
In the midst of what appears to be a renaissance of libertarian thought, and a period of rapid increase in the numbers of its adherents -especially among the young college activists - it might be well for us to devote some attention to a remarkable personal testament entitled "Road to Freedom - Or to Nowhere?" published in Rough Beast #4 (1522 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D. C. 20036). The author Warren Carroll, formerly publisher of Freedom's Way, a pioneer libertarian publication, has produced a rare document - an analytic repudiation of libertarianism by a onetime true believer.
Although Carroll is familiar with several schools of libertarian thought - that of the individualist anarchists such as Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorov and the Rampart College group, and the limited-government classical liberals of The Foundation for Economic Education, he tends to identify libertarianism with Objectivism. As a former Randian Carroll knows the strengths and weaknesses of Objectivism intimately and his detailed and often perceptive critical analysis and disillusionment is colored by this personal experience.
Carroll begins his analysis by pinpointing a basic dilemma which besets Objectivists: how can they most effectively create an objectivist social order? If they plunge into the political cauldron they are bound to compromise or sacrifice intellectual consistency - the hallmark of Objectivist morality. If they refrain from political action, they remain intellectually chaste, but doom their movement to perpetual ineffectiveness". To Carroll this dilemma is a fatal short-coming" of libertarianism. Moreover, faced with this inner conflict, the libertarian is likely to be assaulted by a sense of despair that mankind in general will ever have the same passion for intellectual consistency that he has.
"By definition, the existing pattern of government everywhere prevents the realization of the libertarian dream, and the trend of current history sets steadily toward more and more concentration of power in government. Participation on any significant scale in either the political or economic system now existing entails compromises of principle that most libertarians find unacceptable. Increasingly they find themselves hemmed in and blocked on every side by their own philosophy. What was to have been a road to freedom becomes, in the real world, a cage."
"As the realization grows...that he is caught in a trap, ...increasingly his thought turns either to violence or to flight. Those who succumb to violence are quickly absorbed by the New Left and cease to be libertarians; those who turn to flight - to desert isles or nomadism or hermitage -thereby affirm the utopian character of libertarian philosophy. "In these two swamps of failure the libertarian movement in all its forms is being swallowed up."
Clearly Carroll knows whereof he speaks. He seems to have undergone the great intellectual crisis he so accurately describes. The sordid public dispute between Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden seems to have precipitated a decision by Carroll to flee to the uninhabited waste of Tasmania. There he was further traumatized by finding the few isolated inhabitants gathered around a TV set watching the Ed Sullivan Show and the Australian government firmly in control of all uninhabited lands. His faith in libertarianism as a workable moral philosophy was finally
From this disillusionment, Carroll now sees three fundamental errors and a "still more fundamental failure of vision which taken together are fatal to the libertarian dream".
First of all, says Carroll, there is a "drastic misapprehension of the nature of man". Libertarians view man as naturally good and rational but corrupted by institutions i.e. the State, the schools, the family, etc. But equally, libertarians know that institutions are merely individuals acting in concert in accordance with their interests, instincts or traditional ways. Therefore, the responsibility for the evils in society cannot be placed upon institutions but upon the individuals acting within the collective behavioral frame-work we call an institution. "But if men got themselves into their present state through their own corruption, how then do libertarians expect to bring them out of it? The failure of all their specific programs gives the answer to that question: they cannot".
Here one should note that Carroll raises the very crucial question of the nature of evil in man - a subject of the greatest philosophical and practical importance which deserves serious analysis by libertarians. But he also asserts that because of their inadequate theory as to the true nature of man, the specific programs of libertarians have, historically, failed and in fact cannot succeed. Since he does not give further detail or example to illustrate what he has in mind, one hesitates to comment further than to say that as no fully libertarian society has existed in European civilization since libertarian philosophy first emerged in the age of the Enlightenment, one can hardly prove or disprove Carroll's sweeping judgement as to its pragmatic effectiveness. One can only point empirically and historically to the fact that since the 18th century there has been a continual expansion of individual liberty as an ideal and social reality in a host of areas of human thought and action, I would give Carroll's indictment a Scottish verdict of "Not Proven".
A second error, according to Carroll, is the libertarian's "optimistic misreading of history", his assumption that "his system has never failed because it never has been tried, while in fact it has never been tried because it would certainly fail! The failure of the approaches to a libertarian society which were made in the past, particularly in the 19th century, is the proof we have that a fully libertarian society would be even shorter-lived and less successful." I have already stated my belief that Carroll's historical verdict on libertarian efforts in previous centuries is not proven. But his accusation of misplaced optimism is central to the condition of despair which permeates his entire attitude towards libertarianism. As a professional historian Carroll shows a surprisingly crude appreciation of the complexity of human society and of the process by which societies undergo change. Libertarian philosophy is largely the product of the 19th century drawing inspiration from the intellectual legacy of the enlightenment. Does he really think that scarcely two centuries would see the triumph of so radical a moral, social and economic philosophy? Christianity as a wholly integrated moral and practical philosophy has been with us for two thousand years and its failures are at least as glaring as those of libertarianism. Does the failure of Christians and their society to conform to the ideals of the philosophy of Christ mean that their "system" would totally fail if ever tried? Are both Christians and libertarians hopeless Utopians? I think not. They may well be the only true realists. Only a person of the narrowest historical perception could dismiss libertarians as guilty of "optimistic misjudgement of history". They are simply not historical determinists and they recognize that a century is but a minute in the history of the human race. They do have faith in the ultimate value of and vindication of their philosophical insights - as do believing Christians.
I think that Carroll is so frustrated by the collapse of his own utopian libertarianism that he has lost historical perspective. As Paul Goodman has pointed out, the libertarian revolution is not the work of a day - or a decade - or a lifetime. It is a continuous process through the ages. The focus of the struggle changes from time to time and place to place. Once it involved the abolition of slavery; now it may be women's liberation; here it may be a struggle for national independence; there it may center on civil liberties; at one moment it may require electioneering and party politics; at another armed self-defense and revolution. Carroll expected too much too soon. There is a tendency among many libertarians to look for an apocalyptic moment when the State will be smashed forever and anarchy prevail. When they realize that the great moment isn't about to come in their time, if ever, they lose faith in the integrity and plausibility of the libertarian philosophy. Like a Christian awaiting the Second Coming of Christ when the reign of Justice shall be established and evil men receive their just punishment, the libertarian awaits the corning of the rational and anarchic age. But to lose one's faith in the validity of Christianity because evil continues to thrive in the world makes as much sense as losing one's faith in libertarianism because the New Order has not yet triumphed over the Old. Such attitudes are naive and not be be expected from mature sophistfcated men of learning. Carroll's experience should warn us that libertarianism can quite easily become merely an adolescent fantasy in minds that are immature and unseasoned by a broad humanistic understanding. It should not be an idee fixe or magic formula, but a moral imperative with which one approaches the complexities of social reality.
In his discussion of what he considers to be a third fatal error, Carroll gives further clue to what ultimately repelled him in libertarianism - the "fundamental inadequacy of the materialistic value system which, in essence, they all accept". Crediting Ayn Rand with at least attempting to transcend the obvious limitation of materialism by setting up life itself as the source of value, Carroll accurately perceives that "objectivism in practice measures the value of life in material terms, by the financial profit or the personal satisfaction that can be realized from it". It is one of the great ironies that Leftists who philosophically are materialists are psychologically quite ready to sacrifice life, liberty and personal comfort for the Cause; yet Objectivists who are rhetorically preoccupied with morals, concepts, dialectic and reason are notoriously adverse to anything that smacks of idealistic altruism. Wealth and the bitch goddess success are the household dieties of the Randian cult. Who else but a Randian would sport a dollar sign as a personal fetish or totem? If they were not so narrowly chauvinistic the Randians might have chosen the more universal symbol of their cult - the golden calf. Worshippers of wealth and success, and hedonists, are seldom very attractive people. They are incapable of either love or true friendship for both are founded upon disinterested loyalty and self-sacrifice to the needs of another. It is not surprising that an audience at a West coast convention should wildly applaud a young man who openly bragged that he had betrayed his fellow students to the police and his only regret was that he had not done it for money! Or as an ex-Randian once put it, the only poetry that will ever come from the Randians will be an Ode to Greed.
Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that Mr. Carroll has abandoned libertarianism (which he tends to identify with Objectivism) and sought elsewhere for a new certitude and a new basis for his moral values. Indeed, it is to his credit that he did so. He has found a new faith; he has become a Christian. The great tragedy here is that he fails to perceive that libertarianism is not incompatible with a Christian world view. Libertarianism is not the atheism, materialism and unrestrained egoism of Objectivisrn or of Stirnerism or other variant schools. It is essentially the belief that voluntarism is the only just basis for human social relationships; that man is a creature whose inherent worth and dignity is beyond price; that man should live in conformity to his nature as perceived through the light of reason; that you should do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Is this at all incompatible with Christianity? The Christian is, I would argue, a natural anarchist by faith. He has a profound respect for life and human dignity; he governs himself by the inner law of conscience illumined by the teachings of Christ; he denies the State as a source of good or truth - at best it is a punishment placed upon men for their evil deeds; and he accepts moral responsibility for the consequences of his acts. The Christian finds true liberty by living his life in conformity to the will of God as manifest in the law of nature and the revealed wisdom of the great poets, prophets and sages of all ages. If Tolstoy, Dorothy Day, the Anabaptists, and Jehovah's Witnesses are not libertarians and Christians, the words are meaningless.
Carroll has done us a great service in underscoring the ultimate inadequacy of Objectivism as a social and personal philosophy, and the danger of equating libertarianism as a social philosophy with obiectivism's often perverse and anti-human values. The Randian value system is a potential millstone around the neck of the libertarian movement. Many observers have noted that Objectivist rhetoric is repellent to many people otherwise attracted to libertarian voluntarism, decentralization, and even the market economy. Carroll's experience should alert us to the spiritual bankruptcy of that particular school of libertarian thought, and direct us to introduce young libertarians to alternative ethical value systems - such as Christianity - which are rationally and historically compatible with essential libertarian principles.