Free Will and the Defense of Capitalism

I am a rational optimist. Without believing that success is predetermined or the road laid out for us as individuals or as a nation, I believe that existence, in its obedience to certain dependable laws, possesses a certain benevolence: it will not exert itself in our favor, but neither will it betray us. It is consistent, and in that consistency there is infinite space for ever-greater achievement. However, as Sir Francis Bacon once wrote, “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed,” and the success of our efforts depends at all times upon our commitment to reason and our adherence to sound principles in all endeavors. Sadly, in 2015 it seems as though the battle line of our national debates drift farther from reason and good principles by the day. As a rule, I still remain optimistic, knowing that reality is on the side of those who defend capitalism and individual rights, but the cultural barrage of unreason is enough to weary even the most ardent optimist.

Fortunately, amid a summer of controversy and senseless national debates and on the eve of our nation’s 239th anniversary, I had the opportunity to spend a week in Philadelphia, the birthplace of American government, at a conference with liberty-minded students eager to learn and discuss defenses of capitalism and individual rights. In the process, though I was inspired by their eagerness to engage the subject and their evident distaste for the expanding role of government in American society, I confirmed what I had known from the start and have often written here: that, broadly speaking, libertarians’ philosophical eclecticism is their greatest handicap in defending freedom, and that an array of philosophical errors and omissions continues to weaken their arguments and marginalize their cause. Not least of these was an issue raised by one student regarding the question of free will and the defense of capitalism.

In a final Q&A with the professors who guided the seminars, one student posed a question as to whether or not the one philosophy professor among them proponed the idea of free will over determinism and asked whether that point was instrumental in arguing in defense of liberty. The professor (who I will not name, as this is a strictly friendly point of dispute) proceeded to say that he battled with the notion of free will versus determinism, that it was a complex question with many implications, but–along Lockeian lines–that when it came to defending liberty the question was irrelevant. Whether man is predestined or possessing of his own free will, the argument went, we may not know, but whatever the case he should be left free. With respect for the professor, I could not disagree more.

The view that metaphysical predetermination is somehow irrelevant to the defense of individual rights is not only in error; it is also a distinctly libertarian kind of error. This is ironic, as the very origin of the term “libertarianism” arises in the field of metaphysics, in 1789, contained in the writings of the English political writer William Belsham. Belsham coined the term in an essay disputing the notion of determinism (then referred to as “necessitarianism”). Lacking an antonym to that view, he created one, and the idea of a “libertarian” was born. Unfortunately, it is fair to say that libertarians’ gradual divorcing of politics from the primary branches of philosophy and the broadening of the term to encompass a perilously undefined array of political views has led to a culture in which it is viewed as acceptable for one to be considered politically libertarian while maintaining strictly deterministic metaphysics–the very opposite of what Belsham set out to accomplish.

These sorts of contradictions are inevitable when modern libertarianism attempts to begin at the level of politics and answer questions as to the proper social system for man while evading important disputes in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics that underlie that challenge. How can one determine the proper social system under which man should live without first determining what kind of universe he lives in (metaphysics), the rational process by which knowledge of existence is to be ascertained and truth and falsehood determined (epistemology), and the meaning of good and evil (morality and ethics)? It cannot be done. Evading these questions, today’s libertarians lean heavily on their movement’s strong legacy of political theorists and economic thinkers and assert that if only all of society would adhere to the “Non-Aggression Principle” (a stolen concept that they never fully justify—how could they without an agreed system of ethics?), such philosophical questions would be an entirely private issue that could be debated and settled apart from the achievement of an ideal political system. Unfortunately, wishing cannot make it so, and the deepest metaphysical roots of a philosophy can poison the fruit of its furthest extremities if they are left to sour and rot.

The question is thus before us: how is determinism a threat to the defense of capitalism and freedom? Determinism, as Leonard Peikoff described it,

“is the theory that everything that happens in the universe—including every thought, feeling, and action of man—is necessitated by previous factors, so that nothing could ever have happened differently from the way it did, and everything in the future is already pre-set and inevitable. Every aspect of man’s life and character, on this view, is merely a product of factors that are ultimately outside his control.” [1]

Consider the implications of such a theory. At a metaphysical level, determinism, as an all-encompassing theory, would have to apply equally to all individuals, from the most desolate private citizen to the supreme political authority. It would lend considerable credence to—if not altogether validate—the Marxist conception of society as composed of distinct classes with their own untranslatable logics, of history as a process of inevitable struggles all moving toward one inevitable resolution, and of tyrannical leaders as those chosen by history to command unchecked power over others. Likewise, free and prosperous societies could be viewed from a dry, clinical perspective as more economically prosperous and conducive to the flourishing of human life, but their citizens and leaders could never be commended for their greater rationality or judgment. They would just as surely be mere conduits for the machinations of an overpowering universe—the favored children of history who inherit everything and accomplish nothing.

Ethically, the implications of determinism are equally horrendous. To apply the theory consistently, if all is predetermined, there can be no morality, no right and wrong. There is only what is. Morality rests crucially upon volition. We recognize this implicitly in our judgments of others and ourselves. Individuals are commended for giving to charity and supporting good causes when they do so of their own choosing. No one wastes a headline recognizing the benevolence of a single taxpayer in a welfare state for his gracious contribution to his neighbor’s well being. It is understood that the man who gives by choice is acting on benevolence and the taxpayer, regardless of his political views on the merits of that welfare state, is acting out of a desire to not be imprisoned. Furthermore, held consistently, determinism would serve as a post-hoc justification for any action by any individual, group, or social system. Nothing could be rationally subject to scrutiny or criticism, and the attempt to do so would be a fallacious imposition of artificial standards on a world that would never conform to them. In the end, that which is—is right.

In the moral void that determinism would necessitate, there is likewise no room for a rational self-esteem. No man could admire himself for traits that he was destined to possess, accomplishments that were thrust upon him by fate, or choices that were illusory. To the contrary, man would necessarily be reduced to viewing himself as a plaything of existence, helplessly subject to powers unseen and beyond his understanding. The same would be true at a cultural level. Societies improved by Enlightenment philosophy could be seen only as different from—but not morally and intellectually superior to—the totalitarian powers of the twentieth century. Cultural relativism would, by necessity, rule the day.

Thus, where does determinism leave man? Adrift in history without anchor, compass, or sail on a ship with other men who speak only in tongues; beholden to a captain whose power is its own justification; stripped of self-efficacy; bowing his head in deference to the right of every new wave that seeks to crush him; and left to believe that his death or survival is a foregone conclusion that he can only learn but never alter.

That is, if determinism were true. Fortunately, that is not the nature of life on Earth. Nonetheless, it is the conception of life towards which a belief in determinism directs man as he develops—explicitly or implicitly—his understanding of existence. It is the conception of life that is nurtured in him by the teachings of modern philosophy and humanities departments that preach Marxist polylogism and post-modernist discourse theory. It is the conception of life necessary to destroy man’s self-esteem and to prime him for dictatorship. By gradual erosions, it teaches him that conflict is a necessary part of human association, that his understanding of the world is flawed and uncorrectable, that he is bound by fate to whatever collective identity is being thrust upon him (class, race, ethnicity, gender, nation), that those who wield power over him are there not by accident but by destiny, and that the only way of changing his condition is not through idealistic conceptions of the good but by demonstrating—with brute force—that his is the way favored by history. By that process, determinism forms the metaphysical root of the doctrine that “might makes right.”

Free will and state control are incompatible. Forever seeking to expand its power, statism of every stripe creeps its way into every open crevice, leaving no room for dispute or open challenge against the prevailing authority. The belief in free will instills in man an efficacy and a belief that through proper thought and action he might improve his state and that, together in collaboration with his fellow man, they might conspire to develop a way of life that aligns their interests and defends the rights of each against encroachments by the other. Correspondingly, determinism and capitalism are irreconcilable opposites. Capitalism forbids man from coercing others into his service and defends him from their coercions. It leaves him free to pursue his values and goals in an open society in which others are forbidden from violating his rights, all with the promise that the greater his reason and ability in each endeavor, the surer he is to succeed. Determinism teaches man to accept his state and to forget idealistic notions of what should be. It tells him that what is is what should be and that no amount of logic will liberate him like the muzzle of a gun. Against the evidence of his senses and the proof of his ability, it subjects him to the cruelty of a Shakespearean fatal flaw, negating the perfection of his reason, the singularity of his purpose, and the power of his self-esteem.

If libertarians seek to justify and defend man’s right to political freedom, they must begin by embracing the fact of his metaphysical freedom. They must embrace a conception of man as a being whose fate is his own to shape and direct. After all, every collective is nothing more than the sum of the individuals who fill its ranks, and if it is the fate of a nation that we wish to change—indeed, the fate of Western civilization—then to believe in the power of our cause, we must believe in the ability of individuals to change themselves. Whether they will or not, whether we as a nation are to repair our mistakes or to fall by them, only time will tell, but no movement can long endure without a belief in the possibility of success. As for myself, I remain an optimist.


[1] Peikoff, Leonard. “The Philosophy of Objectivism,” Lecture 1.

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