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Libertarian Holism

Max Borders

My position is not incompatible with urging that we try to extend our sense of "we" to people whom we have previously thought of as "they."

—Richard Rorty on solidarity

One day, my son Sid and I were looking at the various rocks in his collection. He was about six at the time. I used to get frustrated at that bucket of rocks. He'd put any old rock in there and find a new one practically every day. The collection got heavy.

“We have rocks coming out of our ears,” I said. So I asked him about his collection, pointing out certain rocks to see why he liked them. Each time he would find some little detail—a color, or glint.

"You might not think this one is that great," he said, picking up a plain one, "but look at that peach color." It really did have a beauty if you looked close enough.

"All right,” I replied. “But what about this one? It's boring."

Then he looked at me and said, "You're looking the wrong way, Dad. Don't use your eyes." He put it into my hand. It was the smoothest stone I've ever touched.

Starting Points

My son had taught me something important that day. His fresh look at the world had involved getting me to shed certain assumptions. As with rocks, so it is with people.

Most who read this publication self-identify as freedom-lovers. If there is anything we have in common, it’s that. But what if we were to ask ourselves why we love freedom?

Some might claim their logic guided them from first principles to a place where they simply found their social-political orientation. This is the case for many in our community. They’ll say they reasoned, starting with some axiom like a principle of non-harm. If we start with non-harm, we can either move to consequences about peaceful states of affairs, or we can simply hang the axiom on some duty to respect people, a sacred and solemn duty of all. Fair enough.

Accepting all this for the sake of conversation, let us also suppose there are people who become freedom-lovers for very different reasons. It might seem to many that the only proper way to arrive at our worldview is via some reasoning process like the above. But let’s suppose there are other ways people come into the light.

Perhaps they started out with a completely different set of concerns, what we might call personal or emotional values. Such values might include a sense of fairness, concern for the poor or oppressed, a sense of possibility and promise, or some other emotional touchpoint. Maybe they learned that, despite what they’ve always been told by various well-intentioned statists, our true liberalism—as a system—is the best route to satisfying those values they showed up with, which all depend in some way on freedom. So, when asked, these freedom-lovers will report something like, “Hey, I used to think I was a rabid progressive, until I learned that international trade and open markets have lifted more human beings out of abject poverty than any other system we’ve ever seen.” Their starting point was a deep desire to lift people out of poverty.

Suppose also there is some other group who arrives at libertarianism through talk of being excellent and/or realizing one’s concept of happiness. These eudaimonic types sound more like Aristotle than John Stuart Mill, and their emotional values have to do with people realizing their own dreams, or being the best they can be. Such sentiments might attach to religious teachings about divine plans, or they might be freestanding emotions that terminate in the sense that we only get one shot at this life, and that it’s just not cool to let others squander our lives for someone else’s righteous cause. After all, we have our own righteous causes. We can find overlaps with others who have similar causes. We can collaborate. Together or apart, we can pursue our ideas of happiness and the good. And we can become the heroic beings we admire.

There may even be more seemingly bizarre emotional starting points—bizarre, that is, from someone else’s point of view. Buddhist writings lead one to think of the sacredness and interconnection of all life, which prescribes a peaceful orientation toward others. (One can see strands of this philosophy in the writings of FEE founder Leonard Read.) Yet another starting point might be that a man falls in love with a freedom-loving woman and simply wants to accommodate her worldview and so eventually adopts it as his own. Remember: These are starting points. It could be that someone reads a Robert Heinlein book (or Ayn Rand, or Tolkein, or the Illuminatus trilogy), finds it resonates emotionally for reasons he can’t explain, and reads more.


For many, I’d speculate, the emotional value centers are already there (inborn) and a mentor, a book, or a life event activates these centers and the person starts to build an intellectual latticework around them. As E. O. Wilson writes of John Rawls and Robert Nozick in On Human Nature,

Like everyone else, philosophers measure their personal emotional responses to various alternatives as though consulting a hidden oracle.

That oracle resides in the deep emotional centers of the brain, most probably with the limbic system, a complex array of neurons and hormone-secreting cells located just beneath the "thinking" portion of the cerebral cortex. Human emotional responses and the more general ethical practices based on them have been programmed to a substantial degree by natural selection over thousands of generations.

How’s that for an axiom?

Now, for the sake of discussion, can we safely agree these emotional values can indeed be starting points? I think so. However we might admire the first quarter of Mises’s Human Action, we can pretty safely admit that reading it is not the only starting point. Whether we like it or not, there are multiple entry points, and thus a diverse set of paths from which people can arrive at the freedom philosophy.

Here We Are

Here’s where things get really important: Freedom-lovers want the world to be a freer and better place. Can we also admit that the world would be freer and better if more people loved freedom? I think so. I hope you do too. If you don’t care whether more freedom-lovers are in the world, you can stop reading now. This is not to insult anyone, it’s simply not useful for you to read on.

Now, accepting that you want more people to be freedom-lovers, the questions become: Which do you care more about? How people arrive? Or that they arrive at all? If you care only about the former, you might be a one-trick pony. That is, your only approach to persuasion might be to tell people to read Human Action. And there is nothing wrong with that approach, per se. I’ve suggested Mises to many. But I also realize that a lot of people might not be willing to take such a long detour through Vienna to get to our picnic—and that’s assuming they’re curious about our ideas at all.

That means it may be time to expand outward from single starting points. Your liberalism or mine works great when we can agree on a starting point. But we must first acknowledge that people don’t always start from the same point. In fact, if you believe Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, that can be quite rare.

“Morality binds and blinds,” writes Haidt. “It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”

It doesn’t matter if you think that people have inalienable natural rights, or that the consequences of this ruleset or that will be positive, or that dispositions to the classical virtues provide the bases of our worldview. What matters is that those who are listening will come into any contact with you carrying certain ideological baggage. They will be disposed differently. To bring them around to your way of seeing things is to understand them, to empathize with them—at least in part. It requires pulling them into solidarity with you by helping them to reweave their web of beliefs.

Masters of Persuasion

The masters of persuasion are libertarian holists. Holists are fluent in multiple value languages. It’s not easy. Even the most accomplished people might not be fluent across such languages. It doesn’t matter how smart some economics professor is, for example. The breadth and depth of his thinking may be constrained by his specialization or by his starting points. He may be an accomplished scribe in a long tradition of economists, but have only a rudimentary grasp of concepts like virtue, deontology, and rhetoric. Likewise, the philosopher may make great stepwise syllogisms, but he may not have the gift of gab, exude the charm, or shake the brightest feathers that can pull an intellectually curious person into our orbit. True masters of libertarian holism are rare. But they are vital.


I hesitate to introduce yet another dichotomy (thick or thin, brutalist or humanitarian), but I would suggest that the other end of the continuum from the holist is the solipsist. This person is content in the echo chamber, sometimes even being alone with his principles. Solipsists can be valuable stalwarts for movement solidarity, because even though they operate in the echo chamber, they can help hold it together. A healthy libertarian solipsist will remind you in a reasonable way when you might be straying too far from the reservation. And they are good at finding other proto-solipsists—that is, those who share their particular starting points. But an unhealthy solipsist is strident, rabid, axiom-obsessed, dogmatic, or linear. Many are simply enamored of the idea of being in an exclusive club.

So, I would argue that more of us should either aspire to be libertarian holists, or at the very least respect those who are going about skinning this cat in different ways. Because after a certain point, libertarian solipsism is only good for indulging some adolescent urge to get attention. Anyone who wants to win—to persuade a critical mass of human souls—has to be prepared to diversify, to think across multiple perspectives, and to understand the values of those who start at different points. Those who can do that will rise to the soaring heights of our movement.

Two Forces

It takes a lot more effort to have a conversation across great ideological gulfs than to fire missiles across them. But we have to make the effort. Because there are certain, though perhaps unsettling, human truths we all have to face. First, there are only two forces of social change in this world that matter: persuasion and coercion. One can have all the principles and axioms she likes but the people with the jails, the guns, and the jackboots may not care about your principles. Second, those committed to peaceful means of social change have only persuasion at their disposal. So if we think using violence is wrong, we’d better become master persuaders—libertarian holists—willing to stare through other lenses and find a way to connect with their values before the people with the guns, jails, and jackboots do.

With all this, libertarian solipsists may accuse me of being a relativist. But those who do will be missing the point. We are only effective to the degree we can grow our ranks, lock our arms, and build our free world in parallel with the crumbling power hierarchies of the twentieth century.

Being a holist is about searching for all the reasons people ought to love freedom, celebrating them, and sharing them. This more complete, multifaceted movement will be more powerful than any State one day, because the people it comprises will be able to open others’ eyes to subtler colors and smoother surfaces.

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