How many libertarians would it take to save America? There is a tricky question. I have no idea what the answer is, but I am sure that it is directly proportional to the quality of person involved. If every individual who now considers himself a “libertarian” were possessed of the brains, dedication, and winning personality of Professor Rothbard, then the task would long since have been complete. On the other hand, if libertarians were mostly an assortment of low-life bums, it would require about 150 million of them. I present this calculation to explain what might otherwise seem to be a gratuitous attack upon some of our friends who are “out of it” culturally.
Why be concerned with aspects of taste? Nothing is more basic to the libertarian credo than the right of any man to live like a slob if he does so peacefully. True enough. But as a question of strategy, even died-in-the-wool-slobs could be asked to forgo their immediate gratification as a short-term sacrifice. For example, if removing the plastic slipcovers from living room furniture would improve the rate of conversion in home meetings, then it might be worthwhile. When freedom is won. The plastic slipcovers could go back on, there to remain, day and night forever. The same is true of gaudy jewelry. No matter how fetching it seems to the wearer. He might take it off to help the cause. I have personally encountered individuals who showed great potential as libertarians. But who fell away from libertarian circles out of fear their backs were not strong enough to sport the mandatory ten pound gilded dollar sign.
Too many libertarians turn off potential converts by demonstrating, retarded cultural awareness. While the veracity of economic arguments is in no way affected by cultural taste, sociology tells us that the rules of assortive mating apply to all voluntary associations. Well educated people, as a rule, do not prefer to associate with folks who applaud between movements of a symphony or drink from a finger bowl. Such behavior has down-home populist appeal. But the down-home populists are not the opinion leaders and intellectuals who must be convinced I before freedom is accepted in our present society. If the stereotyped libertarian is a cultural clod, then severe inhibitions against advocating libertarian ideas will slow the progress of the movement.
The noticeable craze for “science fiction” in libertarian circles provides a good case in point. One can hardly hand a copy of a libertarian journal to a sophisticated reader without apologizing for the imitation Iieinlein drivel which too often accompanies sound economic, philosophic and historical analyses. The literature of fantasy has a place somewhere but it need not be incorporated as an integral part of libertarian thought.
(It is as if all libertarians were involved fanatically in the sport of metal detection. If jabber about metal detectors and treasure hunts filled libertarian publications the result would be enhanced satisfaction of a few readers, with the permanent alienation of everyone else.) More telling still is the fact that science fiction appeals invariably to individuals who have never studied serious literature. These are emphatically not the opinion molders and influential intellectuals who must be reached.
One can make a case that much of what passes for received culture is ridiculous. And so it may be. But in order to make that case effectively, one must know what received culture is. A passing acquaintance with the major literary figures is essential to any convincing case against them.
When libertarians reveal their literary ignorance, as many do, their other opinions are discounted as well.
Much of the blame for identification of libertarianism with schlock culture must be laid upon Ayn Rand, a woman of undoubted intellect who is nevertheless flamboyantly ignorant of many areas of human achievement. As Professor Rothbard has trenchantly noted, Miss Rand’s cultural preferences, justified with elaborate mumbo-jumbo, boil down to nothing more than a fondness for the literature and music which were in vogue when she was growing up in Russia after the turn of the century.
This is perfectly understandable nostalgia. But Ayn Rand’s girlhood memories hardly provide the basis for discerning persons interested in literature and music. Russia, after all, was and is a cultural backwater.
The 18th century never happened in Russia. The 17th century, a time of great achievement in English literature, was still the Middle Ages east of Germany.
Libertarians who depend upon Miss Rand’s shaky cultural guidance, neglect the more plausible identity between libertarian principles and classical literature for an identification with the wooly excesses of Romanticism. The virtues of a John Milton, for example, a true libertarian, are downplayed on behalf of the sentimentalism of 19th Century French Romantics. This is in spite of the fact that almost all intellectual historians agree that the true significance of Romanticism was to further collectivism. Even conservative Romantics such as Joseph de Maistre. Chateaubriand, and de Bonald were enthusiastic advocates of absolute state authority and subordination of the individual.
The irrational content common to all Romantic thinking has been thoroughly identified. Professor Stephen Tonsor, the eminent historian, has made the case that the philosophy of Karl Marx is best explained as an incorporation of typical Romantic attitudes. So why be blindly attached to Romanticism? Its philosophic appeal should be almost nil for a perceptive libertarian. Certainly, one ought not to feel that a consistent friend of freedom is obliged to like Romantic writers in order to keep his self-esteem intact.
A similar case could be made against Ayn Rand’s taste in music. She is fond of Romantic music, which has many appealing qualities. But Rand’s, philosophizing about musicology is even more shaky than that of the Marxist critics who profess to identify bourgeois deviations on the basis of note intervals and sequences. The fact that the music which is popular in Communist Russia today is largely similar to that which Rand advances as ideal for libertarians ought to give one pause.
For all but the most perceptive student of philosophy, music has no literal meaning. Where scholars have attempted to demonstrate an objective content to music, as Deryck Cooke did in The Language of Music, the attempt in no way resembles Miss Rand’s arguments. More persuasive than the ideological explanations is the fact that Miss Rand and Russia’s present rulers grew up together, listening to more or less the same music.
The suggestion that it is any more rational to prefer Tchaikovsky to Bach is ludicrous. It is merely a preference. To dress it in pseudo-philosophic trappings is to invite ridicule. The spectacle of Randians drooling in unison over the same composers turns off disinterested observers. One could easily detest Chopin and admire Claude Gervaise Thomas Merely. John Dowland, and William Byrd. This delectation would provide no clue to philosophic understanding. No one who thinks otherwise among libertarians is sufficiently educated to make the case which would be necessary to sustain his position.
There are other idiosyncrasies among libertarians which tend to limit their effectiveness in spreading ideas among the intellectual, and opinion-molding class. Many libertarians dress in poor taste. This defies the predisposition of most persons to like others who are most like them.
When libertarians who dress like engineers try to persuade an editor of their position, they have two strikes against them at the outset. In order to be acceptable to opinion makers, libertarians should be indistinguishable, by appearance, from the people one would find normally in association with opinion makers. The suggestion here is not that one ape fashion trends, but merely be aware of the dress of those he intends to influence. Chances are that dressing sensitively is more important than a half a dozen syllogisms.
Many similar complaints about bad taste among libertarians could be extended. But it would be futile to elaborate the argument further. Most persons do not value freedom, and have never thought about anything.
When someone is an exception to those unhappy generalizations it is probably too much to hope that he will also have a sense for public relations. Even more futile is the hope that the average libertarian, in addition to having a winning personality, will have the dedication and brains to elaborate libertarian theory on his own. Few persons will ever be philosophers. In spite of the pretensions of Randians that man is a rational animal; even most Randians have never had an original thought in their lives. Their rationality in solving proximate problems does not contradict this. It can be likened to the actions of a cat avoiding a car in the street. The fact that they act and act rationally promises nothing about their capacity for philosophy. The vast majority of men, libertarians no less than others, enjoy a free ride because of the mental efforts of a few individuals.
It is useless to develop arguments in epistemology for persons of normal intelligence, regardless of their dedication to freedom. All they will ever understand is the fleeting highlights; the conclusions which are enough. Let those who are not philosophers leave philosophy in peace.
Observation of the proven principle of the division of labor would suggest that good thinkers do the thinking and those who are not, but interested in promoting freedom, provide whatever their skills and disposition allow.
If that means hustling for converts, it could also include casting off the cheap, schlock dollar sign jewelry, buying some new clothes, burying the plastic slip covers: turning from Mickey Spilane to John Milton, listening to Bach, and otherwise conducting oneself as fittingly as one can to strike up contacts among persons it would be important to convert.
Hopefully (from the point of view of hastening the day of ultimate success) many of the libertarians scattered through America, even those with the worst of taste, are persons of genuine intellectual potential. For those who can understand a philosophic argument well enough to make something of it, I have a suggestion whereby they could stick with the element of fantasy which they love in science fiction, while reaching an important and neglected group of intellectuals. Throw away the science fiction magazines and subscribe to The Journal of Theological Studies (c/o the Clarendon Press, Oxford) and The Harvard Theological Review.
This is absolutely the best way of purging residual Randism. Reading these two journals, both of which boast works of superb scholarship, you will notice an amazing thing. There is just as much libertarian content in some religions fantasy as there is in Heinlein. But it is far better for you.
The arguments of the theologians are still drawn out with Thomistic rigor, and scholarly skill. Since it is common knowledge that most theologians don’t believe in God, few of the arguments will be offensive to other than militant atheists. But even better than the fantasies of the science fiction writers, is the earnest and profound concern of the theologians for great issues: the well-being of the individual man in his ultimate geopolitical environment. This high moral concern is exactly what one needs to be a libertarian. The a priori mode of argument is a familiar one to those who have studied libertarian economics. The disposition, then. among theologians is not more unkind to the progress of libertarian thought than is the case among science fiction fans.
If more libertarians would fall in among theologians, the result could be a progess of pro-freedom arguments among that group with a still-considerable influence. And the theologians might do us the favor of introducing the narrowly educated libertarians to the broad outlines of Western culture. They might even hook a few Randians on Bach.
By James D. Davidson
The Libertarian Forum
VOLUME V, NO. 10 OCTOBER, 1973