Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Debate on Government (and the Nature of Man)

I very much enjoyed watching today's First Principles debate between Ayn Rand Institute President Yaron Brook and Demos President Miles Rapoport on "Government: What is its proper role?". The event was announced, advertised, and livestreamed on Facebook, yet another example of the many benefits of this at times maligned forum.

As an aside, it is interesting to recall that back in the 1980s John Ridpath, Harry Binswanger, and other Objectivists would participate in debates. However, the debates were between Objectivists and Marxists. Watching the debates back then (which were also quite good) I always thought that a much more relevant debate would be between an Objectivist and a welfare-statists, i.e., a liberal. Well, the views of Mr. Rapoport were indeed those of an run of the mill welfare-statist. We have come a long way from debating Marxists.

But something else struck me about this debate. Mr. Rapoport kept coming back to the issue of rich vs. poor. A free society (free of regulations) would allow only a few rich people to flourish. It seems clear that Mr. Rapoport thinks that the majority of individuals in society are helpless without the endless series of government programs and regulations that he supports and would either die or live out their miserable lives in severe poverty unable to rise above subsistence that the only rich might grant them. Yaron Brook had a far more optimistic view of human capabilities.

This contrast reminded me of Dennis Prager's oft repeated contention that one of the basic differences between liberals and conservatives is that liberals think people are basically good, while conservatives are considerably less sanguine about the inherent nature of man. I have never quite accepted that that was in fact the basic difference between these two camps. It always seemed to me there were other, more important issues here. The contrasting views of Brook and Rapoport have given me a lead to what I think is a more basic issue, at least between liberals and Objectivists.

Liberals think man, the individual, is weak and helpless. Yes, there might be a few "supermen" out there who could flourish under any conditions but the vast majority of people cannot fend for themselves or stand up for their rights without the protection of a gang. That gang is government and if one takes altruism as one's basic moral code (as all good liberals do) then government must do everything it can to help the majority weak as against the minority strong. Thus force is necessary to fight off the strong who would otherwise walk all over the weak.

By contrast, Objectivists think that man, at his essence, is strong and capable. Yes, there might be a few men who cannot fend for themselves but they are easily taken care of through the generosity of the vast majority of strong, independent men. Most men will flourish by their own actions and via trade to mutual advantage with other men. The only issue that government must address is the banishment of force from human relations so that only free voluntary cooperation is allowed. The banishment of force, and thus, protection of individual rights, follows naturally from an egoistic ethics in which the moral purpose of each individual is the fulfillment of his life, and therefore the role of government is limited to the protection of the free action of each individual in pursuing of his own happiness.

It is heartening that the debate was well attended online there were upwards of 850 viewers of the live stream. I am very much looking forward to the next debate which will take place on April 7, 2011 and in which the topic will be "Freedom: For Whom and from What?".


Anonymous said...

We need to start calling them progressives instead of liberal. The word liberal has connotations from a previous historical meaning, while the term Progressive was coined with the same meaning it has today. As a bonus, they are willing to call themselves Progressives, so it sounds like neutral language if we use it to describe them as well.

Anonymous said...

The term liberal is definitely a misnomer for reasons anonymous stated; but progressive is worse; it's far too kind. Leftist ideals are not new, nor do they hold anticipation of promise. Socialist, is a more appropriate name, for all I hear coming out of the left is regurgitated bromides of collectivism huddled around the premiss of altruism. The only progress the left can offer is casting civilization back into the Middle Ages. Thanks, Gene