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Peikoff on the Right to Act Irrationally

One of the things I have always liked about Objectivism was its moral defense of economic and personal liberty. The objection to antitrust law, for example, is based on the right to engage in non-aggressive action, including attempts at collusion and price-fixing, say. It’s not based on the economic case against antitrust law. Similarly, there is a right not to give to charity, a right to discriminate in one’s business, and so on–even if we can expect people to be charitable and for irrational discrimination to be penalized and wither away on the free market; the case for these rights is not dependent on these subsidiary observations. It’s principled, not consequentialist.

Thus I was a bit surprised to hear Leonard Peikoff, in his latest podcast (no. 87, around 9:00), provide an argument for personal liberty similar to that of Milton Friedman’s flawed rationale for being libertarian. As I noted in Friedman and Socialism (and alluded to in n. 53 of Hoppe’s “The Western State as a Paradigm: Learning from History“):

While I cannot help but admire Friedman’s general pro-free market message and work, I was struck by a passage in something he wrote in his July 1991 Liberty article, “Say “No” to Intolerance”. I don’t have a copy any more (if anyone does, please fax it to me at 281-966-6988 and I can post it) but I recall he said that he was in favor of liberty and tolerance of differing views and behavior because we cannot know that the behavior we want to outlaw is really bad. In other words, the reason we should not censor dissenting ideas is not the standard libertarian idea that holding or speaking is not aggression, but because the we can’t be sure the ideas are wrong. This implies that if we could know for sure what is right and wrong, it might be okay to legislate morality, to outlaw immoral or “bad” actions. This line of thinking has always bothered me a great deal, more so than the fact that Friedman, like most free market proponents, compromises on this or that concrete issue.

In Peikoff’s podcast, he takes a question from a listener who asks whether he should sue a tennis club who denies him entry based on his race. Peikoff says no, they should not be sued; that they have a right to form their club on whatever terms they want–even if this rule or use of their property is “irrational.” But then he says:

and who is to judge what’s irrational? It’s going to come down to the courts, the government, and then what rights or freedom do you have? Every totalitarian dictatorship will give you the rights to do what’s proper as it chooses. So the right to behave irrationally is inherent in property rights, in liberty itself.

I think he’s basically right, but the way he words this seems to imply that a problem with outlawing irrational behavior is you can’t trust the government, especially a bad government, to objectively determine what’s irrational; that if the government were an Objectivist one, there would be no problem with it outlawing “irrational” behavior. I doubt Peikoff really believes this but the way he worded this (admittedly, he was speaking in a more or less informal setting, on the fly) does remind a bit of the very problematic Friedmanesque defense of liberty.

Update: I located a copy of the Friedman article, it is here and I have added it to this post, Friedman and Socialism, with selected quotations.

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  • Jayel Aheram November 9, 2009, 11:29 am

    It was at a meetup when I realized that I am ideologically at odds with Constitutionalists.

    They want the same results, but their argument for whatever issue that is important to them was distinctly statist. That is, their arguments against a particular law or policy always seems to be that “it is not in the Constitution.”

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