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Notes and Commentary

By RONALD N. NEFF

 

1. February 1793.

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2. In the late 1960s, Godwin's book was not in print in the United States, and in any case there was no copy of it or abridgement of it in Childs's library during the time I had access to it (and, for a few months, had charge of it), viz. 1971-72. I believe that he gained his acquaintance with Godwin's work from a collection of excerpts from anarchist writings, to wit, Leonard I. Krimerman and Lewis Perry, Patterns of Anarchy (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966). We free-market anarchists of the late 1960s and early 1970s prized this volume highly (and, indeed, we still do) for its selections from the individualist anarchist tradition, some of which continue to be otherwise out of print. Both of the Godwin passages Childs cites are to be found on page 187.

While at the State University of New York in Buffalo, Childs took a special seminar on anarchism under Lewis Perry. It is possible that Perry had a copy of Godwin's book and that Childs could have had access to it; but there are two reasons for thinking Childs was drawing on the Doubleday volume instead of Godwin. One is that he makes the same mistake Krimerman and Perry make in giving the name of Godwin's book. The correct title is Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Modern Morals and Happiness. Another is that the same ellipsis appears in the Krimerman and Perry passage as appears in Childs's quotation.

The editorial commentary preceding the Godwin material also takes note of Godwin's unusual starting point. After noting that Godwin held that the state produced the very moral and legal evils that it was supposed to prevent, it continues:

Godwin's argument is noteworthy in a second way: it supplies an epistemological premise to establish his moral conclusion. This appeal to the concept of knowledge (to its internal relation to independent judgment) and to the sources of human ignorance and error, most clearly distinguishes Godwin from other anarchist thinkers. (p. 186)

An edition of the Enquiry, abridged and edited by K. Codell Carter and containing a few appendices from Godwin's other writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press [Clarendon], 1971), was reviewed in Books for Libertarians (March 1975, pp. 2, 4) by Childs, who called the book, "the magnum opus of one of the great minds of the 18th century." The theme of the review was Godwin's evaluation of "the universal exercise of private judgment" as a doctrine "unspeakably beautiful."

In 1976, Penguin Books (New York and London) issued a one-volume edition of the book, edited (but not abridged) and with an introduction by Isaac Kramnick. The two quotations Childs cites are to be found in that edition on pp. 200 and 198-99 respectively; Childs quoted the second passage again in his review of the Oxford edition.

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3. I have been unable to find any formal definition for the term "floating abstraction" that was generally available at the time Childs was writing, which is not to say that there was none. In 1969, a fair amount of "official" Objectivism still existed in the form of series of taped lectures, which were, for the most part, unavailable commercially. The acrimonious Rand-Branden split of 1968 complicated the copyright status of that material, and, withal, its availability, despite the release of the Basic Principles course by Academic Associates as a large set of LPs. And, of course, very little of the Objectivist canon as it existed in 1969 has been made available on the Internet.

The term has no index entry in Rand's Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (first published in eight successive issues of The Objectivist, July 1966-February 1967, and in 1967 as a paperback [New York: The Objectivist, Inc.]; superseded by the expanded 2nd edition, Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff, eds. [New York: NAL Books, 1990]); and there is no entry for it in The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z, edited by Harry Binswanger (New York: New American Library, 1986).

It seems to have been given formal definition by Leonard Peikoff in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991): floating abstractions are

concepts detached from existents, concepts that a person takes over from other men without knowing what specific units the concepts denote. A floating abstraction is not an integration of factual data; it is a memorized linguistic custom representing in the person's mind a hash made of random concretes, habits, and feelings that blend imperceptibly into other hashes which are the content of other, similarly floating abstractions. The "concepts" of such a mind are not cognitive devices. They are parrotlike imitations of language backed in essence by patches of fog. (p. 96)

The definition for "floating abstractions" in Ayn Rand, Glossary of Objectivist Definitions, edited by Allison T. Kunze and Jean Moroney (Gaylordsville, Conn.: Second Renaissance Books: 1999) stops at the words "concepts denote."

Objectivism's technical terms can pose a difficulty: in addition to providing an idiosyncratic philosophical vocabulary, they sometimes double as extended terms of abuse. Sometimes, as Peikoff's definition suggests, they perform both functions in a single context.

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4. Childs's use of the phrase "pro-life" parallels that of many Randians, with their adherence to the principle that what sustains or enhances life is good and what destroys or impoverishes it is evil. This essay having been written before Roe v. Wade was decided, Childs's comments should not be understood in the context of the anti-abortion movement or its designation as "pro-life."

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5. It is one of the scandals of the modern libertarian movement that the Tannehills and their work are not better known. Morris Tannehill, a prodigious letter-writer, sent many letters to Childs, to me, and to others, and he was constantly refining his definition of rights. Sometimes he would scrap it and start over, and at other times he attempted to avoid the term altogether: for example, he and Linda Tannehill do not make use of the concept in their Liberty via the Market ("The United States of America": self-published, 1969). (The quotation marks around the place of publication are the Tannehills'.) The definition Childs is quoting here predates the publication of the Tannehills' Market for Liberty (Lansing, Mich.: self-published, 1970), so it probably comes from one of those letters, if not from a copy of an early draft of the book; he is not quoting exactly the definition that they ultimately used in The Market for Liberty (p. 11), but it does not differ substantially from it.

In a letter to me dated January 7, 1970, Childs said that he was "becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the definition of 'rights' offered by Morris Tannehill, since I cannot fit it into my general derivation of rights tightly enough...." In "Anarchism & Justice," Part 1 (The Individualist, May 1971), he says of the Tannehills' definition that it is a true statement about rights, but that it is not a definition. The definition he offers there is: "A right is a principle defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context." (p. 5)

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6. The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: New American Library, 1964), p. 102. "Collectivized 'Rights'" first appeared in The Objectivist Newsletter (June 1963, pp. 21, 23-24).

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7. The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 107. "The Nature of Government" first appeared in The Objectivist Newsletter (December 1963, pp. 45-46, 49-50) and later as an appendix to Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: New American Library, 1966), pp 295-303. Childs had also mentioned this disagreement in his Open Letter (see note 9). In his letter of January 7, 1970, he reiterated it, but offered no new definition of his own.

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8. The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 108; Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 297; Objectivist Newsletter, p. 45. In all original sources, a new paragraph begins with "The use of physical force ..." Childs is quoting either from Capitalism or from the Newsletter; in Virtue, the phrase "gang rule" appears as an open compound.

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9. The Open Letter is reprinted in Joan Kennedy Taylor, ed., Liberty Against Power: Essays by Roy A. Childs, Jr. (San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1994), pp. 145-56. The title used in that book, "Objectivism and the State," was the subtitle of the Open Letter when it appeared in The Rational Individualist (later The Individualist). The actual letter carried the date July 4, 1969.

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10. Virtue of Selfishness, p. 103; Objectivist Newsletter, p. 23. Emphasis in the originals. In both sources, a new paragraph begins with the words "The citizens of a free nation ..."

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11. Childs's discussion of agency is heavily influenced by Lysander Spooner's No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority (Larkspur, Colo.: The Pine Tree Press, 1966), a copy of which he had in his library and which the SIL Book Service sold. (The essay can also be found in The Collected Works of Lysander Spooner in Six Volumes, edited with a biography and introduction by Charles Shively, vol. 1 [Weston, Mass.: M & S Press, 1971], with the original pagination; and in The Lysander Spooner Reader, with an introduction by George Smith [San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1992], pp. 77-122. It also may be found on any number of Websites.

No Treason also figured in his arguments in his debate with Jeffrey St. John ("Anarchism vs. Limited Govt.," Audio Forum Sound Seminar #173 [Guilford, Conn.: Jeffrey Norton Publishers, Inc., 1971]); and in "Anarchism & Justice," especially in his discussion of Mortimer Adler (Part IV, The Individualist, October 1971, pp. 14-29).

Childs was so convinced of the fundamental soundness of Spooner's insights that when he managed the SIL Book Service he refrained from promoting a book about the Declaration of Independence that had been stocked since before the publication of the Open Letter. The book was titled They Signed for Us. He said he was opposed to the view that anyone could bind others by their signatures and that he would delegitimize the idea that they could whenever he had the opportunity.

Editor's note. Readers may be interested in visiting LysanderSpooner.org, a site that "explores the life, history, scholarship, and influence of Lysander Spooner: one of the most provocative, eclectic and prolific American legal writers of the Nineteenth Century."

A book that later expanded Childs's thinking about representation was Robert Paul Wolff, In Defense of Anarchism (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1970), which the SIL Book Service promoted in its June-July 1971 advertising bulletins and which Books for Libertarians (BFL) carried for several years afterward. Wolff likewise highlighted the absurdities inherent in "representation" and dwelt on the contradiction between political authority and personal autonomy, although he seemed completely unaware of Spooner. In the May 1973 issue of BFL, not because of any change in his own views but rather because of his delight in intellectual exchange, Childs published Tibor Machan's review of Jeffrey H. Reiman, In Defense of Political Philosophy: A Reply to Robert Paul Wolff's "In Defense of Anarchism" (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1972). Wolff later published a second edition of In Defense of Anarchism (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1970, 1976) containing a 30-page discussion of Reiman's arguments.

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12. In The Objectivist Newsletter, August 1963, p. 31; and in Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: New American Library, 1966), p. 113. At one time Alan Greenspan was one of a close circle of friends of Ayn Rand, and a few of his articles appeared in her publications. So far as the public is concerned, Greenspan's rise to power began with an advisory position in the 1968 Nixon campaign. After the election he "served" on the President's Commission on an All-Volunteer Force, which gave us first the transitional "19-year-old draft," then the transitional lottery, then the all-volunteer force. All functioned and were intended to function as methods for selecting young men to fight in unjust wars and invasions; to kill soldiers, rebels, and civilians in countries posing no threat to the liberties of Americans; and to face being killed or maimed themselves, for all of which they were paid from the proceeds of extortion and robbery. Greenspan was chairman of Gerald Ford's Council of Economic Advisers, and as Ronald Reagan's chairman of the National Commission on Social Security Reform he oversaw the designing of a tax scheme that weighs most heavily on the poor and middle class, the purpose of which is to sustain the fraudulent Ponzi scheme that is Social Security. As chairman of the Federal Reserve System, he has propped up the tyrannies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Like Milton Friedman and so many other economists and "champions of freedom" who have helped to streamline the state and solidify its power, he will have many crimes to answer for, come the Day of the Rope.

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13. Murray N. Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State: A Treatise on Economic Principles (Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1962). Murray Rothbard did not serve on presidential commissions and never held any government position. Despite his being well known to Ayn Rand and her circle of friends, none of his articles ever appeared in an Objectivist publication, and none of his books was ever made available or sold by an Objectivist book service. Like so many economists and champions of freedom who lived out their lives in honest labor, ignored by the state's "consensus universe" and never serving it, Murray Rothbard, not having many crimes to answer for, had nothing to fear from the Day of the Rope.

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14. Childs is drawing on Objectivism's discussion of the fallacy of the stolen concept, though he does not use that term.

The fallacy of "the stolen concept" is implicit in much of Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged and is central to many Objectivist critiques. The term "stolen concept" appears in Galt's speech, without technical definition: "As they feed on stolen wealth in body, so they feed on stolen concepts in mind, and proclaim that honesty consists of refusing to know that one is stealing. As they use effects while denying causes, so they use our concepts while denying the roots and the existence of the concepts they are are using." Rand, For the New Intellectual (New York: New American Library, 1961), p. 154; Atlas Shrugged (New York: Random House, Inc., 1957), p. 1039; paperback ed. (New York: New American Library, 1957), p. 964. Rand's discussion of this fallacy in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (pp. 3 and 59) is not presented as a definition. (The corresponding discussions in The Objectivist are at July 1966, p. 98, and December 1966, p. 181.)

Nathaniel Branden, "'The Stolen Concept,'" in The Objectivist Newsletter (January 1963), pp. 2, 4, supplies what seems to be the only formal definition of the fallacy ever given: "the act of using a concept while ignoring, contradicting, or denying the validity of the concepts on which it logically and genetically depends." His definition is one of the few Branden-originated elements of the Objectivist "vocabulary" to remain in use.

As central as it is in Objectivist critiques, even Leonard Peikoff, in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, does not define it in his discussion of the fallacy (pp. 136-41), which is amusing given how much is made of precise definitions in Objectivist literature. Peikoff does define it in a footnote to Rand's essay "Philosophical Detection," as it appears in her posthumous book, which he edited, Philosophy: Who Needs It (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1982), p. 26; and in paperback (New York: New American Library, 1982), p. 22. There, in a footnote that was absent from the original essay (The Ayn Rand Letter, January 28-February 11, 1974, pp. 285-93), he supplied a definition that is almost exactly Branden's. He gives the source of the definition as The Objectivist Newsletter, but of course does not name Branden, leaving the reader who does not check, which is to say, leaving nearly all his readers, to suppose that it was Rand's definition ... as, I am sure, he intended.

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15. In the "Intellectual Ammunition Department," The Objectivist Newsletter, February 1965, pp. 7-8; reprinted in Leonard Peikoff, ed., The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought by Ayn Rand (New York: Penguin Books, 1989, pp. 17-22). Excerpts can be found at http://www.freedomkeys.com/ar-whodecides.htm.

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16. Objectivist Newsletter, p. 7; Voice of Reason, p. 18, where the hyphen is omitted.

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17. Rand, For the New Intellectual, p. 178; Atlas Shrugged, p. 1058; paperback ed., p. 982.

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18. P. 8, in The Objectivist Newsletter, where "power-seekers" is hyphenated; pp. 21-22 in The Voice of Reason.

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19. Nathaniel Branden, "Basic Principles of Objectivism," was made available as a 20-lecture set of cassettes by Robert Kephart's Audio Forum; they were reviewed by Childs in the August 1974 issue of Books for Libertarians, pp. 1-2, in which he called the series "the most serious and systematic attempt so far to present a comprehensive antidote to the poisons in the intellectual cultural life destroying Western Civilization." Oddly, he began one paragraph, "Listening to these lectures now, for the first time ..."

Childs may be quoting from the set of LPs issued by Academic Associates in late 1968 or 1969. Whether the course as recorded in LP format was identical to the course Branden used to deliver at the Nathaniel Branden Institute (and by reel-to-reel tape at the various Institute outposts throughout the country), I cannot say. I believe the same masters were used to produce both the LPs and the cassettes (Audio Forum Sound Seminar #561-80 [Guilford, Conn.: Jeffrey Norton Publishers, Inc.]).

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20. Liberty via the Market was published in March 1969 (see above), so Childs may be referring to it. But I suspect rather that this idea grew out of his correspondence with Morris Tannehill. In their Acknowledgements in The Market for Liberty, the Tannehills credit Skye D'Aureous and Natalee Hall — two California libertarians who published The Libertarian Connection, the mimeographed forerunner of all Internet news groups — with having brought to their attention "ideas on data banks for intellectual property, educational TV, and the interest of insurance companies in medical and drug safety...."

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21. Author's revised text begins after "anti-life." The original text reads:

It is to attempt to morally disarm the victims of an aggressor, which is morally equivalent to sanctioning the criminal and helping him to get away with his crime. The moral stature of any such individual is obvious. It is not necessary here to go into the question of libertarian tactics; it is not necessary to provide a road map of how to attain liberty. All that I have been concerned with here is providing a moral justification for the use of retaliatory violence against individual aggressors in the state apparatus, which means: a justification for revolution. This, needless to add, is a valid position regardless of whether or not one is an anarchist.

In any case, this is the epistemological basis of anarchism. What it comes down to is nothing but an understanding of the objectivity of moral principles. Briefly, my case has been this: either the functions monopolized by the state are morally legitimate, or they are not.

If they are not, then the state is an immoral institution, since it is performing improper functions.

If they are morally legitimate, then there is no justification for the state's use of coercion to prevent others from doing the same thing. So long as the state uses aggression to maintain its monopoly over physical force in a given area, it is immoral. When it stops and allows others to compete for customers by supplying the same, legitimate service, it is no longer a state.

This is the alternative faced by the advocate of government. To consistently apply his moral-epistemological principles, or to evade the reality of the contradictions he advocates. To a man of self-esteem, the choice should be obvious. To those who prefer not to think about the matter — they have chosen their own course of action, and will have to live with it. I do not morally condemn them. They may very well have legitimate reasons for not considering the issue. That is their choice. But if they do not — and they alone know whether this is true or not — then I do not have to say anything. The moral principles which they advocate say everything that needs to be said.

To those who have considered the issue and are free-market anarchists (no matter what twists of rhetoric they go through to avoid the only logical term to classify them with), I can only say: you have taken the first step. Integrate what you have learned, and other steps will come in time. Principles are not irrelevant to man, or to life on this earth. It is principles which make both possible.

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22. The only subsequent essay dealing with anarchism per se that ever appeared was "Anarchism & Justice."

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23. At first, limited-state libertarianism was being abandoned. The efforts to meet Childs's arguments of the Open Letter were few and ineffectual. But it is now apparent that Childs was wrong in thinking that the way to defend limited-state libertarianism was to meet his arguments.

When libertarianism began to gain ground, its two major focal points — the Libertarian Party and the Cato Institute — both, for different reasons, prevailed on libertarians to drop the subject. Since arguments were the only weapon free-market anarchism ever had, once they were silenced it gained no more ground. Today, nearly all libertarians are limited-state libertarians. As David Boaz, vice president of the Cato Institute, wrote: "Libertarians are not 'anti-government.' Libertarians support limited, constitutional government — limited not just in size [or strength] but, of far greater importance, in the scope of its powers." (CATO Policy Report, July/August 1998, p. 2) Indeed, many so-called libertarians can now be found who oppose certain forms of tax cuts (called "junk tax cuts") and who are willing to rationalize certain forms of gun control, enhancement of the FBI's surveillance powers, the INS (the forerunner of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a "component" of the Department of Homeland Security), and government aid to schools (and therefore government control of schools) through vouchers. Moreover, all plans to privatize Social Security, including those promoted by libertarians, will obviously entail federal oversight of the stock market.

There are even some well-known Objectivists who have been so eager to support the so-called War on Terrorism that they are unwilling to categorically denounce a national I.D. program's going into effect or the continuation of tax-supported, government foreign aid to Israel. One likes to think that had she lived to see it, Ayn Rand would have denounced them with all the vituperation of which she was capable.

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