Libertarians and Culture: A Challenge

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