Philosophy against Misosophy


Ayn Rand




Essays by Me

Essays by Others


Robert James Bidinotto


I once thought this was an important question.  This review of Robert James Bidinotto's Libertarianism: Fallacies and Follies records a few thoughts that survive controversies which events have rendered moot (notably the devolution of Peikoffian Objectivists into war propagandists).  The review followed several months of correspondence between Mr. Bidinotto and me.  (The old-fashioned way: by typing and mailing physical letters.)  This is a slightly modified version of what appeared in The Voluntaryist, No. 20, July 1986, 5-7.

Auburn University Philosophy Professor Roderick T. Long, who delivered the Rothbard Memorial Lecture at the Austrian Scholars Conference on March 17, 2006, also has had the pleasure of corresponding  with Mr. Bidinotto, but more recently (2003) and the 21st Century way.  See Long's blog for his incisive and brilliant "Anarchism as Constitutionalism" in criticism of Bidinotto.

Anthony Flood

Modified June 29, 2006


Is Libertarian-Objectivist

Collaboration Impossible?

Anthony Flood

Review of James Bidinotto, Libertarianism: Fallacies and Follies. Broadsheet Publishers, c/o 422 Park Avenue, New Castle, PA 161202.  $4.00 for a 23-page transcript, $6.95 for the audio-cassette version. [Contemporary product information] 

Readers of The Voluntaryist who long ago settled their accounts with Ayn Rand and Objectivism will probably greet news of this Objectivist critique of libertarianism with either a yawn or an anxiety attack.  But if they still find themselves reluctantly sparring with the ghost of one of their ideological godmothers, they should get themselves of copy of James Bidinotto, Libertarianism: Fallacies and Follies, for there is much in it for them to argue about.

     For Bidinotto, “libertarianism” is a “floating abstraction” referring to a mixture of incompatible ideologies united only by a name, an enemy, some slogans posing as “axioms,” and a political strategy whose incoherence dooms it to failure.  Libertarians make liberty, not man, an end it itself because they cannot agree about the nature of man (or even that he has one).  As the origins of their movement recede from the present, Bidinotto contends, libertarians will feel less obliged to maintain recognizable links to the rational (Objectivist) source of their inspiration.  This ensures that libertarianism will continue to drift aimlessly and lose whatever cogency it may ever have had.

     Bidinotto places the blame for the degeneration of Objectivism into an orthodoxy and its teachers into heresy hunters on the shoulders of those who led the Nathaniel Branden Institude (NBI), the official forum for Rand’s thought in the 1960s.  Frustrated by the NBI’s authoritarianism, some of its students mistakenly thought they could lift the Objectivist goal of a free society from its philosophic moorings and still have something viable to build a mass movement around.  And armed with what they picked up from their Objectivist courses, and bolting from the Young Americans for Freedom in 1969, many of them tried to do just that.

     Bidinotto’s admission that “Ayn Rand committed the one great strategic error in her career” by permitting the founding of the NBI is fascinating.  Either Objectivists are becoming more self-critical, or this is an example of “damage control,” a strategic ploy to limit criticism of Rand and shift the blame for their past dogmatic excesses to the Brandens and others.  It would not be the first time that by means of a concession of allegedly minor “error,” the guilty have sought to lighten history’s judgment on them.  But I will have to leave to others the assessment of libertarianism’s genesis.

     Fearful of creating an authoritarian cult, and desirous of creating a mass movement for liberty, the new libertarians reduced their commitment to a name, “libertarianism,” and an enemy, “the State.”  “Philosophy was chucked out, root and branch,” Bidinotto writes,

and what remained was a politics which began with an asserted “axiom,” known as the “non-aggression principle.”  The principle—usurped verbatim from Atlas Shrugged, where it was not presented as an “axiom”—declared that nobody had the right to initiate force against anyone else.

     Why does one not have such a right?  Libertarians cannot answer with one voice, and that is because they subordinate theory to their political goals.  For libertarians to define their epistemological ground is to risk sundering the fragile unity of tax reformists, tax abolitionists, monetarists, gold advocates, life extensionists, recreational drug users, Christians, atheists, pro-choice advocates, anti-abortionists, isolationists, interventionists, anarchists, monarch-ists, pacifists, survivalists, etc.  Consequently, “libertarianism” can never be more than a hollow “ism” without identity, for a “political philosophy is an ideological system, not an ideological slogan.  A mere premise—non-initiation of force—is not a political philosophy.

     Much of what Bidinotto says rings true, but hardly applies to libertarians outside the Libertarian Party (LP), whose activities are not dictated by coalitional concerns and whose theoretical work does extend to philosophy.  Since I agree with Objectivism on the primacy of philosophy – though still skeptical of its claim to be the philosophy needed – I wish to see Voluntaryism develop into a systematic philosophy.  This may perhaps require dropping the name “Voluntaryist” one day, since it refers primarily to a philosophical derivative rather than a primary.  Systematic philosophical development should help prevent the Voluntaryist insight from ever falling prey to political “emergencies.”  At the moment Voluntaryism is an ethical intuition drawing its inspiration from several incompatible philosophical schools.  (The arguments of George Smith, Etienne de la Boettie, Gene Sharp, Robert Le Fevre, Mohandas Gandhi, Benjamin Tucker, etc., do not easily form a system!)  Voluntaryism is capable of being developed in several ways, but it must be developed in some way if it is to have an identity.

     One does not have to be an Objectivist to agree that the philosophical incompatibility of many of the elements in the LP is a factor in its inevitable doom.  But Bidinotto’s citing Rand’s “non-collaboration principle” helps us give credit where credit is due: “In any collaboration between two men (or groups) who hold different basic principles, it is the more evil or irrational who wins,” and that is because, Bidinotto writes, the “more rational elements in any coalition have nothing to gain from the irrational except a share in the disasters which irrationality brings (including the bad publicity).”  Is further comment necessary?

     Bidinotto is less successful when he tries to discredit the anarcho-capitalist argument against the State.  After stressing the Objectivist view of rights as “moral principles, devised by men, to safeguard their objective well-being and self-interest in society” and contrasting it with the anarcho-capitalist view of rights as “axiomatic ‘givens’ that are intrinsic to human nature,” Bidinotto charges advocates of the latter with substituting the notion of “competing governments” for that of limited constitutional government’s legitimate monopoly on the use of retaliatory force.

     Bidinotto is right when he says that rational social living requires the use of force to be “socially constrained under objective procedures and strict uniform rules of criminal evidence and proof” (assuming a non-collectivist interpretation of “social constraint”).  But it does not follow that

Without a legal monopoly on retaliatory force held by a final arbiter—i.e., without government—rational self-interest in society becomes impossible.  Thus a properly-limited government is a morally necessary social institution, which protects individuals against arbitrary force.

     This is a non sequitur.  It is morally necessary that there be objective rules for resolving interpersonal disputes: individuals should not feel free to act as judge, jury and executioner after a crime has been committed against them.   George Smith, an anarchist libertarian, has defended at length precisely this position.[1]  It is not morally necessary that one corporate body of individuals, calling itself “government,” and appealing to the above-cited necessity of objective rules for enforcing rights, to have non-challengeable status in perpetuity to enforce those rules in a given territory.  What is morally necessary is for landowners to be free to decide, not what the rules of justice are—that is for reason to discoverbut which corporate body of individuals perform what aspect of the administration of justice on their land.

     Objectivists insist that arbitrary force must be excluded from human affairs as a precondition of making free market transactions and that therefore the exclusion of force must not itself be subject to market choice.  But this implies that some social relations—those between citizens and their “governors”—must be imposed by force so that other such relations may be free.  Competition in the provision of rightful retaliation does not necessarily lead to natural lawlessness any more than competing electrical companies are bound to ignore safety codes.  Market processes ensure objectivity in both cases, weeding out incompetents and fraudulent transactors. Admit the arbitrary just a little, and where do you stop?  How does an Objectivist government get established, and over whose land, without violating rights?  Somehow.  Blankout.

     In a debate with an Objectivist (Jeffrey St. John), Roy Childs spelled out the dilemma facing a “limited government” advocate: either the provision of a particular government service is a morally valid activity or it is not.  If it is, then the government has no moral right to insist that only one group of individuals, namely itself, may be paid to provide it.  If its service is not morally valid, then nobody has a right to provide it.  In either case, no group of individuals has a morally valid monopoly on the provision of that service.  Where is the fallacy or folly in such reasoning?

     I regret to note another departure from Bidinotto’s stated intention not to engage in a “collective smear” of libertarians.  He claims that libertarians

never bothered to define conceptually the distinction between “anarcho-capitalism” and such kissing cousins as fascism, feudalism or today’s mixed economy––each also proposing the marriage of State and Economics.  What, for example, is the difference between “anarcho-capitalism” and feudalism––or the Mafia?  What distinguishes conceptually the “compet-ing governments” of libertarianism from the “competing governments” of Lebanon?  Libertarianism cannot say: conceptual issues are part of epistemology––part of the taboo realm of philosophy.

     Why Bidinotto pretends that he has no idea how a libertarian might answer such rhetorical questions, I have no idea.  Is anarcho-capitalism a “kissing cousin” of fascism? When he accuses unnamed libertarians of “proposing the marriage of State and Economics,” he must be relying on an abbreviation understood only by his fellow Objectivists for the total separation of State and Economics is precisely the anarcho-capitalist goal (such separation leads to the asphyxiation of the State).  Perhaps Bidinotto believes that any sale of a service “properly” monopolizable by government is evidence of the “marriage” of State and Economicseven when there is no longer a Stateand that the separation is possible only when a given service is not for sale.

     While I welcome Bidinotto’s naming many of the problems besetting libertarianism, I am waiting for Objectivists to discuss openly the problems they face.  Even if we take Bidinotto’s analysis at face value, what precautions have Objectivists taken to ensure that they will not again evolve into an authoritarian cult that goes counter to the letter and the spirit of Objectivism?  Until then, it is perhaps still too soon for libertarians either to roll over and play dead or convert to Objectivism.  I see Objectivism as a main tributary leading to “the philosophy man needs,” but I do not see Objectivists as providing the context for doing anything other than promoting Objectivism.

Bidinotto believes libertarianism is epistemologic-ally incapable of forming a concept of “right.”  Even “those few intrepid libertarian souls who have ventured onto the thin ice of epistemology,” Bidinotto notes, “have gone crashing though the holes of intrinsicism or subjectivism.”  Intrinsicism, readers will remember from the Peikoff lectures, is the false alternative to subjectivism in epistemology.  Whereas subjectivism denies any reality to rights, assigning to them only the utility of social convention, suspendable for reasons of greater utility, intrinsicism elevates rights to metaphysical attributes.

     As metaphysical essences, natural rights can only be intuited, no doubt with the help of Lockean imagery (and alchemy) of man’s “mixing his labor” with nature, and reinforced by the dogmatic postulation of the “axiom” of “self-ownership.”  Bidinotto rightly points out that ownership is an activity of an individual human self, not an attribute of his nature.  A right is not a metaphysical fact, but a man-made principle enhancing man’s rational pursuit of value, which is no less natural for that reason.  This idea, partly involved in Wendy McElroy’s discussion of Benjamin Tucker’s view of ownership as a “problem-solving device consonant with man’s nature,[2] satisfies both principles of nature and utility which are needless at war in some libertarian circles.

     Bidinotto’s charge that by making liberty, and not man, an end in itself, libertarians necessarily subordinate man to their abstraction, raises a genuine issue I had not considered before and which I would like to explore a little before ending this review.  A libertarian who believes in a moral code independent of man’s likes and dislikes faces a difficulty when asked to defend someone’s right to perform a non-rights-violating action that the code condemns as immoral.  Libertarians tend to follow Rothbard, who in turn follows Sadowsky, in defining A’s right to do x in terms of B’s duty not to interfere with A’s doing x.[3]  For any objectively immoral, but non-aggressive, action x to be performed by A, it is ipso facto morally worse for b to interfere with A’s performance than to permit it.  Now this principle seems to require that some individual C be more morally concerned about B’s interference with A’s action than about the action itself.  That is, a libertarian would justify C’s applying force to restrain B but not A.  On what basis do we so discriminate among immoralities?

     Let’s flesh out our example. Murray Rothbard holds that: (1) the right to perform an action does not depend upon a given exercise of that right being moral,[4] and (2) a man’s life is of primary, unquestionable, and objective value to him.  Proposition (2) implies that suicide, while not violating anyone’s rights, is a gravely immoral action.  Nonetheless, given proposition (1), Rothbard should allow that one has the right to commit suicide.  Now suppose Rothbard witnesses the following: a young man, blind and confined to a wheelchair for life, believes that this life has no further meaning and decides to commit suicide.  As he begins to apply a kitchen knife to his wrist, in walks his friend who attempts to overpower him and prevent the suicide.

     My question is: which action, the suicide or the intervention, must Rothbard the morally objectivist libertarian try to prevent, either by direct physical action or verbal exhortation?  Rothbard’s writings give me the impression that the immorality of one’s own prospective rights-violation looms larger in his moral economy than an immoral act, however, grave, committed by anyone else.  It would seem, therefore, that the forcible prevention of the suicide is more objectionable than the suicide itself.  In other words, when an actual life is pitted against an abstract principle—the “axiom” of self-ownership, which presumable includes the “right of self-disposal”—the principle wins.  Now this is not quite the reductio ad absurdum an anti-libertarian like Bidinotto would like to make of it, but I think it does bring into relief one of the consequences of divorcing rights from the concept of a life proper to man.  I would like to see libertarians clarify (or dispel) this problem.  And I thank Bidinotto for provoking me to think about it.

     In spite of Bidinotto’s occasional lapses into rhetoric, his essay hits home on almost every page.  I recommend it to libertarians because I believe they can learn from it and generate an important and useful discussion around it.  Libertarianism remains for me a context within which all the issues Bidinotto raises, and more, can be freely addressed.  That almost every major libertarian “began with Ayn Rand” is a tribute to the enduring force and clarity of her thought.  That some of her disciples do not and will not foster philosophical dialogue and collaboration is an avoidable tragedy.  I prefer to interpret Bidinotto’s essay as a feeler for such mutual enrichment until both he and my libertarian friends convince me I’m wrong.




[1] George Smith, "Justice Entrepreneurship in a Free Society," The Journal of Libertarian Studies, III:4, Winter 1979, 405-26. [See Smith's replies to critics.]

[2] The Voluntaryist, June 1985.

[3] Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1982), 23-24. [Second Edition, New York: New York University Press, 1998, 24.][Note added May 20, 2006: Rothbard cites Sadowsky's "Private Property and Collective Ownership," available on this site.]

[4] Ibid., 24.

[5] Ibid., 32.