Saturday, February 25, 2006

I pledge allegiance ... to what?

As I do not terribly infrequently, I'm about to address a matter of some controversy within the Libertarian Party: "The Pledge." And, as always, I'm going to issue a few disclaimers so that there's no misunderstanding of where I'm coming from:

- I am an anarchist. Please, make no mistake about that. Given my druthers, this here society would be stateless starting some time yesterday. I'm not going to argue that libertarianism and anarchism are incompatible, nor am I going to argue that they're identical, because they are, in fact, neither. Anarchism is a subset of libertarianism; many of its adherents plausibly claim that it is the only such subset which is consistent, either internally or with reality, and I tend to sympathize with that assessment, but a car with a blown engine is still a car.

- I am, for better or worse, a political libertarian. I often veer toward the anti-political, but two things drag me back into electoral politics. The first, I'm ashamed to say, is addiction. I can't stand to be on the sidelines when the teams are on the field. I love working on electoral causes and for electoral candidates and campaigns. I'm not going to stop doing so until and unless electoral politics as such ceases to exist (and I don't expect it to do so in my lifetime). The second is that since it exists, and since I expect it to continue to exist, it makes sense to me to influence it as best I can to produce the best possible outcomes from the standpoint of increasing freedom and decreasing the size, scope and power of government.

- Because I am an anarchist, I have no problem with certifying that I oppose the initiation of force to achieve political or social goals (which is the content of the Libertarian Party's membership "pledge"). However, since I want the Libertarian Party to achieve political success -- to elect its candidates to offices from which they can more effectively work to increase freedom and decrease the size, scope and power of government -- I don't believe that it's wise to exclude from party membership those who aren't anarchists and who will, if they understand the provenance and meaning of "the pledge," decline to sign.

The recurring debate, of course, is whether "the pledge" is actually anarchistic (or at least minarchistic to the exclusion of, say, coercive taxation), or whether it means something else entirely. I despair of ever putting this argument entirely to bed, but it doesn't hurt to go on record with the facts every once in awhile and hope that some of the disputants take notice. This morning, in the course of arguing the subject on an email discussion list, I had occasion to do a wee bit of jackleg historical research, and I think it's worth sharing.

The context: Often, when debating the meaning of "the pledge," Libertarians cite David F. Nolan, the "founder" (with a few others, but generally recognized as the prime mover in the founding) of the Libertarian Party, to the effect that "the pledge" was simply intended to let the FBI know that the members of this new political party weren't bomb-throwing revolutionists who would shortly be assaulting the Nixon White House with molotov cocktails.

Now, as a matter of fact, I'm uncertain (and have been unable to easily determine) when "the pledge" was adopted as a membership requirement. It may have been later, at one of the LP's more organized conventions during the Ford, Carter or Reagan administrations, in which case, Nolan's opinion of its meaning may carry slightly less weight -- although there's no doubt that he was a moving force in the party throughout that period, as he continues to be. But I'm willing to provisionally accept the notion that "the pledge" was adopted at or around the time of the party's formation, either some time in its first year or possibly even around the table in Nolan's Denver apartment at its first organizational meeting. Let's use that timeline as a starting point.

I've stated the content of the pledge. In every form I've seen, it includes the very specific phrase "initiation of force." That's important. That phrase has a history which pre-dates the formation of the LP by at least a decade-and-a-half and possibly longer. It is a phrase which carried great weight among the adherents of two particular schools of libertarian thought throughout the 1960s: The Objectivists and the Misesian "anarcho-capitalists" (i.e. the disciples/compatriots, respectively, of Ayn Rand and of Murray N. Rothbard).

Nolan -- or at least those who cite him -- expect the rest of us to believe that the occurrence of the phrase in the LP's membership pledge was a mere coincidence: That it did not arise from the ubiquitous use of that phrase within the movement from which the party emerged. Even at first blush, that assertion looks pretty untenable. Nonetheless, earlier today, George Phillies took it a bit further (on the aforementioned list), which inspired my little research binge.

Quoth George: "[In the 1960s, I did] however, note that except in a few places objectivism had a peculiar cult status, and it is therefore not surprising that Nolan, the author of the party pledge, might not have taken the phrasings of the objectivists or their politics foes, the anarchists, seriously."

The following is an extended and revised version of my reply:

Nolan himself says that he did take them seriously. In the very first paragraph of the article which he wrote in 1971, promoting the formation of the Libertarian Party ("The Case for a Libertarian Political Party," published in the July-August 1971 issue of the Society for Individual Liberty's "The Individualist" magazine, available online at, Nolan describes the movement to which he belongs, and which he hopes to form into a party, as a coalition of "Randists, Miseists (sic), and elements of the old 'radical right.'"

If Nolan didn't take the Objectivists (Randists) and anarchists (Murray Rothbard was the de facto leader of the Misesian anarchists) seriously, why did he describe them as the core of the party he wanted to establish? And given the fact that he did describe them in such terms, why the hell should anyone believe that the use of a term of art with specific, explicit meaning to those two groups would meaning something entirely different when adopted as the membership criterion for such a party?

Nolan's biography at the Advocates for Self-Government site specifically lists Ayn Rand as a writer who "cemented his innate libertarianism." Is it possible that someone who regarded Rand in such terms, and whose libertarianism took the form of political action, would entirely miss the core principle of the political branch of her philosophy?

"Whatever may be open to disagreement, there is one act of evil that may not, the act that no man may commit against others and no man may sanction or forgive. So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate -- do you hear me? No man may start -- the use of physical force against others. -- from Galt's Speech in Atlas Shrugged (1957), and For the New Intellectual (1961), by Ayn Rand

The recognition of individual rights entails the banishment of physical force from human relationships: basically, rights can be violated only by means of force. In a capitalist society, no man or group may initiate the use of physical force against the others. -- from "What is Capitalism?" in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966), by Ayn Rand

Next let's look at Rothbard -- leader of the second faction which Nolan wanted to form a party around. The specific phrase "initiation of force" or "initiate force" seems to be less prominent in his earlier writings, but his followers (who mixed it up with the Objectivists quite a bit) used the phrase to describe his holdings and to contrast them with what they considered a heretical Randian reading thereof, and which are summarized as follows in this quickly found, pre-LP, pre-"pledge" quote:

The fundamental axiom of libertarian theory is that no one may threaten or commit violence ("aggress") against another man's person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory. --- from "War, Peace and the State" (1963), by Murray N. Rothbard

The actual phrase "initiation of force" seems to have crept into Rothbard's personal vocabulary later rather than sooner, but by 1973 (when he also became involved with the LP, according to Justin Raimondo's biography, An Enemy of the State, although he'd certainly been active in circles including LP activists before that) -- after the LP was created, but I'm pretty sure before the pledge was codified in the bylaws -- he'd published a book based on and flowing from the following premise:

The libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. This may be called the "nonaggression axiom." "Aggression" is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else. -- from For A New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto (1973), by Murray N. Rothbard

Rothbard had previously explicitly described this "libertarian creed" extensively, including in a 1971 editorial in The New York Times. While he may have been fairly obscure within the context of 1971 America, he was by no means obscure within the libertarian movement. He could even be reasonably described as a founder of that movement. He had been a prominent figure within that movement for two decades and he'd contested status as the most prominent figure within that movement with Ayn Rand since the mid-1950s.

It strains credulity well beyond the breaking point to state with a straight face that David Nolan, the other people around his table in Denver, or the 85 "founding" members of the LP -- let alone those who presumably subsequently gathered in convention and passed bylaws incorporating "the pledge" -- were blithely and completely unaware of the history and tenets of the movement which they were trying to take into the political arena, of the identities or ideas of that movement's intellectual leaders, whose writings had largely formed their own views.

Taken in its obvious historical context, the pledge clearly derives from a Randian and/or Rothbardian worldview and therefore -- at a bare minimum -- clearly and indisputably binds its takers to a no-coercive-taxes approach (which even the "Randian minarchists" held to), and less clearly and less indisputably (but still arguably) to Rothbardian anarchism.

The only way to get around that conclusion is to assert that the framers of the pledge were a bunch of drooling morons who in some strange trance state spontaneously and collectively forgot the entire content of the ideas they stood for, while simultaneously functioning efficiently enough to put together an organization to politically support said ideas -- even running a presidential ticket as early as a year after the party's formation -- and who just happened to randomly pick words out of the dictionary which were identical to nearly two decades of predominant phraseology relating to those ideas, for the purpose of saying something entirely different.

As the folks at Alcoholics Anonymous like to say, the first step in recovery is admitting that one has a problem. Likewise, the first step in dealing with the issue of "the pledge" -- whether one wants to keep it, alter it or abolish it -- is to treat it as what it is, rather than what some, at this late date, would like it to be seen as.

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