Reflections on a decade of agitation

It is roughly ten years now since I was first exposed to, and started intellectually pursuing, the philosophy of libertarianism. I look back on the college freshman Jeremy in Political Science 102, aspiring to join the foreign service, and marvel. This body of thought has taken me places and discovered within me passions and truths that I did not know existed. There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that, whatever else I accomplish in life, advocating for greater freedom and responsibility for the human individual will always be a deep calling for me.

While I still identify as libertarian after all this time, the evolution of thought that brought this initial shift about has not slowed or moderated. Learning about and growing within the libertarian tradition has not rendered my mind settled nor my concerns and dilemmas totally addressed. I have gone through many phases and made (what I consider now to be) many errors.

I started out as a pretty milquetoast libertarian, forming clubs in college and debating my fellow students. As I started to learn more about the depth of the tradition and philosophy, I went full circle to become, of all things, a leftist, a socialist, and even an anarchist. While liberty and peace are my goals, what changed was not my end but what ideas, attitudes, and approaches I thought coincided best with that end. My mind, through the honest study of history, ideas, and fellow humans, turned not towards perfecting our union as a society and its institutional mechanisms, but of finding some strategy to get all of that the hell out of the union's way.

This preface addressing my history is only included to assure the reader that I understand the gravity of what I am about to say. It is also to assure you that, though I believe this statement, I do not think myself infallible. I may yet learn and adapt - indeed, this sentiment drives the statement I'm about to make.

I am finished utterly with rights, principles, and rules. Whatever humans are and are not entitled to, and whatever the source from which it arises - mystical, natural, or legal - I am committed from this day forward to not assert some abstract, platonic argument for it that compels you to accept it. If I believe something is right, just, or defensible, I shall provide a reason, not least that I wish for it to be so. And then I will respect your equal (I have no reason to doubt it is equal) power to disagree with me. Rather than render libertarian philosophy mechanistic and disinterested, I am proposing a libertarianism that is personal - an expression of personality, of humanity, of consciousness.

I have witnessed the motivating desire for people to be free turned in every direction possible in the name of liberty,libertarianism, and even anarchism. I'm sick of it. There may be principles, natural rights, what have you. But how on earth do we convince each other of them? Shall we wait until everybody adopts a single cosmology and metaphysics before we advocate for freedom now? Or is something holding us back from seizing liberty outright?

And, in practice, and with a heartfelt acknowledgment of libertarians' honesty, we have stalled ourselves with endless debate, not over items of action, but over principles and other mental fictions. I've seen this debate break down into mere rhetorical battle, fluffing egos while leaving our common enemy unscathed. The often unspoken reason for this is that, until we have arrived at a solid and moral foundation in unswerving principle, we cannot act. One wonders whether the humans, the fallible, imperfect, often conflicted humans that occupy this planet are good enough for the morally impeccable, completely principled libertarian activist force that is supposed to emerge.

I'm resolved to embrace these humans, for all their bumps and errors and pettiness and stupidity, and give up trying to say that the way I think things should be, must be, or I'm taking my toys and going home. I'm not saying there's no room for discussion - authentic discussion would be wonderful! - but I want to move beyond the need for validation from others as an expression of my political identity. I'm certainly (and necessarily) not saying others should follow me.

This preoccupation with first principles and an internally consistent framework for life built on that foundation is getting us absolutely nowhere. God forbid we ever do anything that contradicts first principles! We would have no basis for our actions other than our feeble, fallible minds! We might actually find that the world is bigger than the capacity of our minds to model it. We might find we've constructed this elaborate hierarchy of rules for ourselves, only to have spent that life judging everybody else by them. And we might find that the comfort this gives us is positively frigid.

And here's the kicker: meanwhile, while tie ourselves in intellectual knots to advance our views as more complete than the others', nobody cares and nothing changes. People continue to pursue their ageless philosophy of doing what they want. Intellectuals have provided people a variety of ways to justify their heart's desire by locating the responsibility in some "natural law" or tradition or institution or narrative outside of themselves, floating in the platonic ethers, more real than their own reason. What's great about this externalization of responsibility is that you can then simply "follow the rules" - whatever principles or dictates this externalized authority offers - and never have to examine yourself and the complexities of the human condition. The triumph of the head over the heart will not ever yield a world I want to live in.

The reality is that people choose their values and pursue their interests accordingly - and try to make sense of it all. None of us have it all figured out. The least we can do is not hold each other hostage to abstractions like the state and natural law and try to live here and now. We can acknowledge error in one another, and ourselves, and still talk.

Furthermore, I think this approach to politics has vast implications for one's role in the political ecosystem. For if we internalize our concepts of right and wrong, good and bad, desirable and undesirable, and take responsibility for our concepts and preferences, we can understand ourselves better. If a voluntary order is what we want, how do we achieve consensus with others and harmonize the motivations of countless neighbors when our own motivations are unexamined?

Political issues appear to always decompose into personal expectations we have of the outer world. Yet in training our attention on the world without us, seeing ourselves as victims of conditions we have no control over, too often we ignore the world we do have control over: our own minds, our own expectations, our own senses of self. It is these unexamined expectations that ultimately keep us enslaved; Robert Anton Wilson provided an example of this when he said, "The fear of death is the beginning of slavery".

Our expectations of the world are ultimately arbitrary, I believe. But our arbitrariness, our lack of duty to justify our desires to others, is what makes us sentient beings; it's the end that one means when he says people are "an end in themselves". We are not mere automata reacting to external conditions. It is our subjective judgments that rule our experience, regarding certain conditions as acceptable and others unacceptable. If we feel constrained in our actions, it is only because we have judged their likely consequences as unacceptable.

This is an interesting idea, because it suggests that "freedom" is not an external condition, but an internal "state of mind". And if we're serious about individualist society, where true community grows from free people, perhaps it's time we backed off the problems of the world a bit, and started going within a bit more. After ten years of agitation for external change, I find the most progress has occurred in my own understanding of myself. I'm going to follow that feeling, and let it take me to a freedom no political body or activist group can bestow upon me.

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Written on Thursday, May 22, 2008