Monday, October 23, 2006

A Personal History of Political Freedom

My journey towards personal, political and philosophical freedom has been a complete and total circle. When I first began to explore philosophy in my mid-teens, I started with the usual suspects – Ayn Rand, Aristotle, Plato and so on. I fully accepted all of the theoretical principles inherent in a rational and empirical approach to analyzing truth. When I first heard the proposition that “taxation is theft,” I accepted it with the same equanimity I felt when I was first told of the world was round – not immediately evident, but perfectly sensible upon reflection.

And so I began my journey towards the heart of truth – and away from the vast majority of the people around me. The pursuit of philosophical truth, political freedom and personal authenticity has always been a somewhat lonely task – though spending time unwise people is always lonelier – but when starting my journey, I had no idea how far it would take me from my starting point. It has been very much like the line from the TS Eliot poem:

“At the end of all our journeying, we will return to the place of departure and know it for the first time.”

Now I am far from the end of my journey of course, but I really feel that I have gained a new appreciation of the ideas that set me on my path those many years ago.

Because I had no idea of the distance I had to travel when I started, I made far too many compromises along the way. These compromises have taught me about the great value of integrity, which was sorely lacking in me. I wanted friends, I needed my family, I wanted to date and make love, to get a graduate degree and move ahead in my career. In order to achieve these false goals, I created within myself two worlds. The first was an inner world where philosophy, integrity, honesty, virtue and truth all ruled supreme, and I was beholden to the goddess of philosophy in a purely removed and Platonic sense (this of course despite being an avowed anti-Platonic philosopher!). The second world was the world outside myself, where practical considerations like ambition, companionship, money and sex all held sway.

There was precious little connection between these two worlds. I dreamt in one, a soul without a body. I lived in the other, a body without a soul…

Throughout my late 20s and early 30s, I pursued the external world of ambition, wealth and status. I co-founded a software company, worked and traveled endlessly, and grew it to a multi-million dollar business. As the company grew more and more successful, it attracted corrupt people who wished to use it to transfer money from gullible investors to their own pockets. As a technologist, I averted my eyes and clung to my ignorance about the financial aspect of the business. After selling the company, I stayed on despite increasing evidence of the increasing corruption around me. I told myself it was for the sake of my employees, but in truth I was greedy for money and status and worldly success.

My conscience, however, trained and strengthened by years of philosophical examination, ultimately rebelled, and I ceased to be able to sleep. The contradictions between my values and my actions, my ethics and my companions – my virtue and my family – overwhelmed me, though I did not understand what was happening at the time.

Desperate to regain my equilibrium, I plunged into an extraordinarily rigorous self-examination, entering therapy and keeping a voluminous journal about my dreams and emotional experiences. Crossing the chasm between these two worlds – the world of the inner integrity and outer actions – proved an enormously difficult task. Taking the ideas that I had loved was so long with all of the seriousness that they deserved proved an unbelievably hard challenge. But I learned an important lesson. Talk is cheap. Integrity will cost you.

As I began to really live my values, one by one, friends, family and lovers all began to drop away from me. Despite my love of rational philosophy, I had accumulated friends who were statists, friends who were mystics, friends who were irrational, friends who were immoral, friends who were empty, friends who actively opposed the pursuit of truth and wisdom – and let's not even bother going over my familial and romantic relationships, I'm sure you get the picture! I debated with everyone, but it meant nothing – it was like two television sets pointed at each other. I strongly disagreed with friends who advocated the use of statist violence, but my moral opposition had no relation to our friendship. My ethics had no fundamental impact on my real life.

As a market anarchist, I do face some very challenging moral conversations with people around me. For instance, if a man tells me he is in favor of taxation, I now have little choice but to remind him that if he is in favor of taxation, it he is in favor of the government shooting me. I am always willing to discuss alternatives to the violence of taxation, but if this man proves unwilling to alter his opinion, then he is a man who wants me to be killed. When I was younger, I would ignore this. Now that I'm a little wiser, I do not.

Once, my wife's boss came over dinner, and brought her husband with her. He was an outspoken supporter of the invasion of Iraq. I tried reasoning with him, but his worship of the military “ethic” was immovable. I then said to him “Well, if I cannot change your mind about the virtue of invading Iraq, will you at least support my right not to fund a war I believe to be morally abhorrent?” He had a great degree of difficulty understanding what I meant of course, since taxation is so ingrained into our culture, but he did eventually understand that I should not be shot for withholding my financial support from a war I believe to be evil. Fortunately, he agreed with this position, helping us avoid a very awkward situation!

I face a similar challenge with Christians. Both the Old and New Testaments constantly command Christians to murder unbelievers. I do not pursue these conversations, since they tend to be very explosive, but if a man tells me that he is a Christian, I do have to ask him if he supports me being put to death for being an atheist. Very few Christians have actually read the Bible all the way through, so they are generally very surprised to hear that God instructs them to kill nonbelievers (of course they also believe that Islam is a violent religion!). They try to find any number of excuses to get their deity "off the hook" for making such evil commandments. They point out the virtues of certain Christians, or that the Bible is mistranslated, misinterpreted, misunderstood and so on. However, I point out that a black man may be forgiven for feeling animosity towards the Ku Klux Klan, even of Klan members do put on a good barbecue and sometimes give to charity – and that is how a rational atheist views Christianity, and most other religions.

All these conversations are challenging enough – however, that the most challenging philosophical conversations I have are those involving the family. My wife practices psychology, and has really helped me to understand the role that the family and early childhood experiences play in molding a person’s thinking. If a man rails against the power of the state, but submits to cold, offensive or aggressive family relations, he understands as little about morality as, well, I did in my twenties! I now firmly believe that the state gains the vast majority of its power, influence and credibility from unjust family authority. In their essence, governments are just parents writ large.

I only really understood this years after I had broken with my own family – which was quite a shock for me. I always believed that wisdom came from reason – but sometimes, wisdom can be provoked by decisive action. When I ended all my unpleasant and negative personal relationships, I thought I was near the end of the book of truth. Not so! I turned the page expecting to find an index, but instead found a new table of contents. Dealing with my family taught me more about morality than twenty years of studying ethical theories. Thoughts and books alone are a sort of prison. Freedom only really comes alive in action.

We can do precious little to free ourselves from the near-omnipotence of state power – however, we can take great strides to free ourselves from the more relevant and invasive tyrannies of corrupt personal relationships. The motto of my radio show – Freedomain Radio – is ‘The Logic of Personal and Political Liberty’ – and the sequence is not accidental. Personal liberty must always come first.

It can be sometimes a grim, lonely, and dispiriting business, talking about moral philosophy from first principles, and refusing to associate with people who wish you evil. However, the rewards are more than worth it! I have wonderful (though few!) remaining friends, a glorious relationship with my lovely wife, and through my work at Freedomain Radio, I have gathered many new friends, and thoroughly enjoy sharing ideas with a truly brilliant crew!

In taking this time to think back more than 20 years over my philosophical journey, I am really amazed at the impressive circularity of my path. Except for small aspects of statism, I cannot really think of any moral principles that I accepted in my teens that I do not actively practice now. The difference, of course, is that rather than just thinking about philosophy in the abstract, I actually practice it in the here and now, in my own life, every day. Bringing philosophy to life in this way has made all the difference in the world.