(Speech to Free Radical Foundation evening, Saturday April 28, 2001)
Ladies, Gentlemen & Free Radicals.
Next month marks the seventh anniversary of the publication of the first Free Radical. Issue One came out of Wanganui in May of 1994. It's been seven years of Heaven & Hell. Though I cannot speak from direct experience, I liken the arrival of each new issue to giving birth, with all the euphoria & pain that that entails.
In my inaugural editorial, I quoted a prominent businessman saying, "The problem with you, Lindsay, is that you reduce everything to an issue of freedom - hardly anybody believes in freedom nowadays."
"That," I wrote, "is what this journal is trying to change. The lack of a belief in freedom. The lack of awareness as to what freedom is. The inability to see through many of its false guises. The almost complete ignorance of its necessary philosophical underpinnings. The fact that at precisely the time when much of the globe has repudiated tyranny, more & more New Zealanders - albeit unwittingly in many cases - are embracing it. We realise that the odds against us are formidable, but defying them will be much more edifying than braying in the Coercion Chorus that most journalism, in all media, has become."
Seven years on, it's clear that everything I described in that editorial has become worse. Seven years on we have an overtly socialist government soaring in popularity, taxing & regulating everything in sight, extending the tentacles of Big Brother in all directions, avidly seeking to tribalise us totally while it cosies up to the dictatorship that runs Communist China. The Free Radical has, seemingly, failed to make the slightest impression. It is, you might say, an abject failure. After seven years, is it time to fold the tent?
The title of my speech tonight is "Reality Check." I want to take stock, to identify fallacies & pointers that have emerged over the years, to give you all something to think about as we carry the battle forward. And carry it forward we must - I for one have no intention of folding the tent.
First, there are so many more inside the tent than seven years ago. At that time it was just myself & Deborah. Now the magazine has a stable of about twenty-five writers from all over the world, a web site & an international reputation; it has the new Free Radical Foundation to help take it to greater heights; there is a political party promoting the same ideas, which garnered six thousand votes at the last election; there is, I'm told, a nationwide radio programme promoting these ideas also. Pro rata, I doubt that freedom-lovers in any other country could boast such an array of vehicles at their disposal. Seen in that light, the progress over the past seven years has been extraordinary. But we can't rest on our laurels, & - I say again - I'd like to put some thoughts out tonight based on the experience of the past seven years which should help us go forward more effectively.
Possibly the barb directed at us most often is that we're in "cloud cuckoo-land," "off the planet," "pie-in-the-sky" purveyors, hopelessly divorced from reality. This notwithstanding the fact that voluntary interaction & freedom of enterprise abound all around us right now in spite of the best efforts of governments to throttle them, & are demonstrably beneficial. Observe - here we are gathered together tonight by mutual consent on terms mutually agreed to, in a privately owned establishment eating private enterprise food & drinking private enterprise wine. See how well it works! If it weren't for government taxes & restrictions, it would work better still. In a sense, what we are proposing is not so radical after all; it's just an extension of the best of what is already here.
But I think we often play into the hands of those who say we're off the planet by succumbing to utopianism ourselves. Once the non-initiation of force principle is applied across the board, we are tempted to imagine, we shall be holding the Holy Grail in our hands; Nirvana will have arrived; all social problems will go away. They won't. To be sure, a world in which respect for reason & freedom is the norm rather than the exception will be an immeasurable improvement - but some problems will persist in some form; new, unforeseen ones will emerge. What we are proposing is simply the best framework, the best social context for dealing with whatever problems arise - one in which there is no compulsion, & everybody deals with everyone else on the basis of mutual consent. But make no mistake - there will still be crime (that's why we're not anarchists); there will still be accidents; there will still be natural disasters, there will still be conflict, there will still be error, there will still be evil - & it ill-serves our credibility (or our verity) to treat the advent of a libertarian society as the equivalent of Marx's classless communism, the Christian's Heaven or Thomas More's literal Utopia - some sort of end-point beyond which there'll be nothing to worry about! Even if such a society consists 100% of conscientious Objectivists, committed to benevolent rationality & the proposition that the interests of rational men do not conflict, there will still be ferocious disagreements. As evidence, I invite you to observe the behaviour of conscientious Objectivists now! All of the things I have mentioned are an inescapable part of the human condition - if they weren't, there'd be no drama in literature, & no opera in music, which would be rather dull - & it's a salutary part of any reality check to recognise this fact.
There will be difficult challenges - situations where how to apply the non-initiation of force principle is not immediately clear, & will be hotly debated. How, for instance, would a libertarian society deal with an outbreak of foot-&-mouth disease? Those of you on the Libertyloop will recall the intensity of the disagreement among libertarians on this very matter, some arguing that it is a government function to deal with it, others protesting vehemently that it is not - both sides repairing to the non-initiation of force principle to validate their arguments. Another example - how quickly should we strive to ditch compulsory taxation? That one caused World War Three on the Loop, with gradualists & immediatists, as I called them, bitterly divided. I took the side of the gradualists, but also observed that it was really futile & premature to be overly concerned with such details of implementation just yet. It's important that we remind our critics and ourselves that what we are offering is not a detailed blueprint, for utopia or anything else. Such a thing is neither possible, desirable nor appropriate. A political party like Libertarianz must have a programme, of course, but the details of it - the nuts & bolts - will always be up for debate. What is not up for debate are the ideas underpinning it.
Following on from this, it ill-behoves us to obsess about single issues, even though there is a strong tendency among the population at large to do just that. Single issues can be useful for purposes of political activism, as the anti-NaZis On Air tax campaign demonstrated, but even when participating in such campaigns, we must continue to see the forest for the trees. Like me, you've possibly been driven mad over the years by people demanding, "What would you do about the roads?" This is the reason I have less hair than I used to have - being asked what I would do about the roads so often has caused me to tear it out. Personally, I wouldn't do anything about the roads, since it wouldn't be over to me. The broad answer is that the roads, like everything else apart from law courts, the police & defence forces, would be owned & run privately. That, of course, is not nearly enough for the "What about the roads?" brigade. They want to know who will own & run them, for what price & by what means we will hand them over, what the system of charging will be, what will be done about those who can't afford the charges, etc.. Instead of getting their own brains into gear & figuring out their own proposals, they then treat the absence of a single, definitive answer as an excuse not to support libertarianism at all. It's important that we don't let such people dictate the terms of debate. We mustn't accept the premise that it's the job of a political party or a magazine to do people's thinking for them. That premise is on a par with the notion that it's the job of a political party or a magazine to live people's lives for them - & I'm sure I don't need to remind this audience what harm that idea has done. It's the political equivalent of the epistemological view - epistemology being the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge - that because we can't know everything we can't know anything: and, if this were a philosophy lecture I could spend the entire evening telling you what harm that idea has done.
The Free Radical has run, & will continue to run, articles about the roads; about the transition to voluntary taxation; about the myriad matters that arrest people's attention in public discourse. But these will always be one libertarian's opinion on how best to address such questions. Other libertarians will often have different solutions. What we mustn't do is become bogged down in such disagreements & allow them to obscure the big picture. This I regard as a major challenge in an age dominated by what Ayn Rand identified as the "anti-conceptual mentality," whereby details get people's juices flowing but principles don't. This mentality was best epitomised for me some years back by a member of Libertarianz who said, "Forget all that philosophy shit!" It was second-best epitomised by Bob Jones, who told me to "stop putting all that Ayn Rand stuff" at the front of each Free Radical. The "Ayn Rand stuff" he referred to was the declaration of editorial policy which graces each issue, & will continue to do so. I remind you of it now:
"This publication upholds each individual's sovereignty over his own life - i.e. his right to sustain his life & pursue his happiness as he chooses. We maintain that he possesses this right not by permission from God, society or the government, but by virtue of his nature as a thinking, choosing entity. As a corollary we advocate the elimination of compulsion from human affairs. We promote the belief that all adult interaction, in whatever sphere of life, should be voluntary. We defend a free market not just in the realm of commerce, but universally. We are neither left nor right wing. We are as opposed to the censoring of personal intellectual & moral values, favoured by the Right, as we are to the regulation of economic activity extolled by the Left. We believe that the only act that may properly be banned in a free society is the initiation of force or fraud by one party against another; that the only laws which may properly be imposed are those which ban the use of force or fraud - e.g. laws against murder, rape, assault & theft; & that the sole legitimate function of government is to define & enforce such laws."
That is what I publish in each issue, & I can tell you now that Hell will freeze over before I stop doing so. That is the essence, the very life force, of The Free Radical. It is a simple statement with which a conceptual mentality should have no difficulty. If some people find it beyond their grasp, I regard it as their problem, not mine. Except that I - & all of us - have to live with the consequences.
"A major symptom of a man's - or a culture's - intellectual & moral disintegration," said Ayn Rand, "is the shrinking of vision & goals to the concrete-bound range of the immediate moment. This means: the progressive disappearance of abstractions from a man's mental processes or from a society's concerns. The manifestation of a disintegrating consciousness is the inability to think & act in terms of principles. A principle is 'a fundamental, primary or general truth, on which other truths depend.' Thus a principle is an abstraction that subsumes a great number of concretes. It is only by means of principles that one can set one's long-range goals & evaluate the concrete alternatives of any given moment. It is only principles that enable a man to plan his future & to achieve it. The present state of our culture may be gauged by the extent to which principles have disappeared from public discourse, reducing our cultural atmosphere to the sordid, petty senselessness of a bickering family that haggles over trivial concretes, while betraying all its major values, selling out its future for some spurious advantage of the moment."
Did you ever hear New Zealand's contemporary political scene better described? Think of the furore over the selection of the Prime Minister's husband to head an inquiry into the health reforms of the past decade. What did the opposition parties, National & Act, supposedly committed to the principles of free enterprise, have to say about this? That there needn't & shouldn't be such an inquiry (compulsorily funded by the taxpayer), that the government should be removing itself from the area of health as fast as feasible? No. Rather, that the Prime Minister's husband was the wrong person for the job. And what a stink they kicked up about it. Senseless bickering over trivial concretes for spurious, momentary advantage indeed!
So another component of a reality check, then, is to remind ourselves of the crucial importance of principles - principles derived from reality, to be applied to reality.
Humour is crucial also - as a polemical tool, & a means of enjoying our own lives. Never trust a man, I have always said, without a belly-laugh. He who is incapable of humour, or afraid of it, has the temperament of a totalitarian, rather like H. L. Mencken's puritan obsessively concerned that somewhere, somehow, somebody might just be managing to enjoy himself. What is Howard Roark, hero of The Fountainhead, doing when Ayn Rand introduces him right at the beginning of the novel? Laughing! And he's naked to boot! Spare me the pedantic, nit-picking, po-faced "Randroid" type of Objectivist - & haven't we all encountered them? - who's had a sense-of-fun bypass. If we can't have fun fighting for freedom, then we should fold the tent. One of the funniest periods of MY life was during the ABC road show debates, when Adrian Chisholm, I & assorted libertarians travelled the country debating property rights with candidates from other political parties. We all still erupt into gales of laughter recalling some of the incidents that occurred during this time. Perhaps the most hilarious meeting was the very first one, at Pukekohe. It was packed & passionate. Tempers ran hot; participants, including Act President Roger Douglas & National MP Warren Kyd, stormed out in a huff. National's main speaker that night, now an MP, was one of the slimiest individuals I've ever encountered. He made an especially egregious speech trying to defend his party's appalling record of property rights violations. He was so despicable I couldn't bring myself to shake his hand. As it happens, he was a gynaecologist by profession. It amused me very much to tell people that I wouldn't shake his hand because I knew where it had been. Similarly, I like to ensure that each issue of The Free Radical has its share of fun, laughter & mischief. One of my favourite accolades for the magazine came from Texas economics professor Larry Sechrest, who called it, "daring, witty & ruthless."
This raises a broader consideration that I want to include in this reality check. Our battle is primarily a spiritual one (I mean "spiritual" not in any supernatural sense but in the sense of pertaining to the material, intellectual, psychological & emotional totality that is a human individual). We seek a free society not just to balance the books & achieve greater economic growth (those these will certainly ensue); The Free Radical is not the print arm of Act or the Business Roundtable. We seek a free society because freedom is man's proper estate; it leaves each person free to exercise his judgement, select his values & pursue & savour them unimpeded; it leaves him free not merely to survive, but to flourish. It's vital that we realise this, embody it in our own lives as much as we can, & present our case accordingly. GDP graphs & OECD reports are not, in my view, going to motivate people to man the barricades; a vision of total freedom, if I may borrow from Chris Sciabarra, is. As Nathaniel Branden said in Issue 21 of the FreeRad, "People have not only material needs, they have spiritual needs. And it is the spiritual needs that will have the last word. Until the libertarian vision is understood as a spiritual quest & not merely an economic quest, it will continue to face the kind of misunderstandings & adversaries it faces today."
Which brings me to the final reality I want to hit you with tonight. This quest can only ever be an active one. Nothing comes from nothing. If you don't act, you won't achieve. Even though, to reiterate my first point, it's not Utopia we are seeking, 'tis still a far, far better thing that we do fight for. I don't know whom I despise more - our avowed enemies - or our professed friends who do nothing. To quote Nathaniel again, "I don't think that there is any battle more worth fighting in the world today than the battle for a truly free society." Who could realise that & not take up arms? If not us, who? If not now, when? Yet, unbelievably, there are such people. It pleases me to call them "UINs" - Useless, Inert Nothings. And I regret to report that they outnumber those at the front lines. Worse, some of them choose to carp from the sidelines, presuming to tell the battlers what they are doing wrong. As anyone on the Libertyloop will tell you, I hold such creatures in utter contempt. For their edification, & everybody else's, I want to close with two quotations - the first from Theodore Roosevelt:
"It is not the critic who counts, nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust & sweat & blood, who strives valiantly, who errs & comes up short again & again because there is no effort without error & shortcomings, who knows the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows in the end the high achievement of triumph & who, at worst, if he fails while daring greatly, knows his place shall never be with those timid & cold souls who know neither victory nor defeat."
And this, from the 19th century anti-slavery campaigner, Frederick Douglass:
"Those who profess to favour freedom, & yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder & lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral & physical; but it must be a struggle! Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, & it never will."
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