Saturday, October 18, 2008

On Being Dismissed

Tibor R. Machan

Those who occupy seats of power, whether intellectual or political, can deal with challengers in a variety of ways. Ignoring them is popular—it saves one the trouble of having to deal with the question of whether one’s favored position is morally justified, well founded, intellectually defensible. Just don’t bother and hope the annoying pests will vanish. Dismissing them as inconsequential is nearly the same ploy but here it is evident that those in power are a bit worried because they want to give the impression that their views while being given some voice do not really matter and aren’t worth investigating. Then there is a more decent approach of actually taking up the challengers’ ideas and arguing against them. But this runs the risk of making those ideas seem worthy of discussion, maybe even palatable.

Over the years that I have championed the fully free society—no exceptions, no compromises within the legal framework of the system—I have experienced all these treatments both personally and as a member of the small group of defenders of classical liberalism or libertarianism. For the first part of the several decades involved most intellectuals at the colleges and universities with which I was connected tended to ridicule my views and those of my fellow travelers. I recall how at my undergraduate institution, where I began to go on record with these ideas (in the student and the local newspaper), I was mostly ridiculed by both classmates and some professors, although there are a few who did show some interest and even respect. Then at the graduate schools I attended the fierceness of the rebuke got more intense even though my skill in defending my ideas also improved, which sometimes showed up in my winning over a few adversaries.

Once I managed to go through all the hoops to obtain my degree and even found decent jobs in my discipline, the situation changed once again—many critics began to use the one-upmanship method, while some actually engaged in proper debate. But I found that most of my adversaries preferred star gazing, paying attention only to prominent advocates at the prestigious institutions. Still, I kept holding up my side of the discussion and got published in decent, sometimes even outstanding, journals and that opened some doors to publish books, get included in various readers on ethics and political philosophy. Because in the meanwhile a few professors at very prominent institutions came out with views somewhat similar to mine, defending libertarianism in their own ways, it became a bit more difficult for detractors to simply ridicule or even dismiss my libertarian ideas.

In the general culture, though—outside the academy—libertarianism made some but not very many inroads. By now the view is pretty well known and at times even treated as a legitimate contending alternative answer to how society ought to be organized. Yet there are quite a few among the big players, folks who contribute to major publications, who deploy the more unsavory methods I mentioned above.

For example, in a recent article for the journal World Affairs, Max Boot, who is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations and a policy adviser to the John McCain presidential campaign, proclaims without seeing any need for argument, that “Aside...from a few extreme libertarians, few conservatives would contend that the kind of limited protections envisioned by Teddy Roosevelt—and ultimately brought into being by his cousin, Franklin—were incompatible with free enterprise or personal liberty.”

So, the New Deal is supposed to be acceptable to other than such extremists as libertarians, argues an advisor to Senator John McCain Those who would challenge this view need not be answered! They don’t even deserve a few points countering their skepticism, their conviction, for instance, that the New Deal gave rise to just the sort of irresponsible statism that the country is paying for right now, with financial meltdowns and the saddling of today’s and tomorrow’s taxpayers with inordinate debts. These so called “ultimate safeguards of the capitalist system,” as Boot calls New Deal policies, were just fine, never mind how they did violence of individual liberty and to political prudence.

Ah, but scoring points with such verbal acrobatics seems to be the way to promote a failed policy of welfare statism. One can only wish that in time the ruse will be fully detected and sounder policies, more in line with the American Founders’ ideas of limited government, reasserted. In the meanwhile libertarians must simply push on, not allow such disrespectful, highhanded treatment to deter them.

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