When it comes to spreading the ideas of liberty, how do we reach those people who like to dominate others or be dominated themselves?

by Joey Clark

[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]n October of 2015, I had the pleasure of attending my first regional conference put on by the organization Students for Liberty in Birmingham, AL. Peace. Love. Liberty. This is a slogan SFL brands over much of their material, including the information packets and teal t-shirts they passed out to attendees. And though I do not question SFL’s noble motivations for attaining peace, love, and liberty throughout the communities dotting this dear planet of ours, SFL members are still human beings with other motivations — namely, the personal desire for power and agency over others. Or, the will to power. Sticking strictly to the theory, the libertarian appeal for power is peculiar when compared to other political worldviews. Whereas other political theories claim flatly the right to rule and dominate others, libertarianism seems reluctant to rule whatsoever. But reluctance is not quite synonymous with stalwart resistance. And, of course, the theory itself is not reluctant; the people who embody it are.

As one of my friends said to me jokingly after I shared with him my desire to see political control diminished as much as possible, “Joey, you say that, but even if it’s true, I still think you are one of the most controlling people I know.” His joking tone drew a cynical chortle from me in the moment, but now that time has passed, I realize his jesting drew blood as well. My friend had seen through the facade of my theory only to witness my bare personal longings to empower my desires, as noble as they may be. I do want to control people, just in a very limited fashion.

I had this personal episode come to mind when listening to the conference’s first speaker, Dr. Art Carden. Being the opening speaker for the day, Carden covered standard libertarian fare as a primer, sharing both utilitarian and moral arguments for liberty. His suggestion was to understand how to “message” the cause of liberty in any way possible–economic, moral, practical, or otherwise. At one point, he hinted at the “otherwise” by posing a question on the more psychological theme of having power over others: given the fact most of the people in this room do not intimately know me or one another, would you surrender your life to be governed by me or someone else here?

The question piqued my interest, so after his speech, I posed a follow-up question of my own to the good doctor and the crowd assembled. I began by saying I assumed most, if not all, the people in the room would answer his earlier question with a “no,” and that I would answer it with a “hell no!” This is what one can expect from a room full of liberty lovers; they will at least profess their aversion to being governed by others. Then I got to the meat of my question: what if we go outside this room, Dr. Carden? Have you not found in this weird wild world of ours that there are many people who like to dominate others? And even worse, that there is an even larger group of folks who like to be dominated? Dr Carden, how do we reach those people who like to dominate or be dominated? And at risk of contradicting my earlier assumption, could some of these people even be in this room?

Without missing a beat, Dr. Carden responded, “Well, Joey, first of all, I think there are websites out there for things like that,” which drew raucous laughter from everyone, myself included. Who doesn’t love a good BDSM joke? Carden then proceeded to give a more serious answer, but again, it was the joke that drew the most blood. And it got me thinking about the sadomasochistic nature of tyrannical state structures: if only people kept their BDSM in the bedroom or online, if only they kept their personal power fantasies just that — personal fantasies to be carried out by the willing — then the state would surely dissolve.

This brings me to what I humbly see as a weakness in current libertarian discourse. On page thirty of For a New Liberty, Murray Rothbard writes about the three ways one may ground the non-aggression principle or axiom:

“Roughly, there are three broad types of foundation for the libertarian axiom, corresponding to three kinds of ethical philosophy: the emotivist, the utilitarian, and the natural rights viewpoint. The emotivists assert that they take liberty or nonaggression as their premise purely on subjective, emotional grounds. While their own intense emotion might seem a valid basis for their own political philosophy, this can scarcely serve to convince anyone else. By ultimately taking themselves outside the realm of rational discourse, the emotivists thereby insure the lack of general success of their own cherished doctrine.”

Broadly understood, libertarians call for people to be governed as voluntarily and as little as possible, but governed nonetheless whether through classical liberal constitutional government, Ayn Rand or Nozick’s nightwatchman state, or Rothbard’s private defense agencies. It is common to hear all three forms of governance defended or criticized according to Rothbard’s call for solely rational discourse, i.e. on either utilitarian or natural rights grounds. And though Rothbard disagrees with the utilitarian approach, he respects it, devoting much space arguing why his natural rights approach is superior. But when it comes to “emotivism,” he dismisses it with the wave of his hand. I think he is much too swift in doing so, that in fact our emotions can serve to convince others of our cause. So allow me to revise Rothbard’s statement and throw it right back at him: by ultimately cloistering themselves within the realm of rational discourse, the consequentialists and deontologists thereby ensure the lack of general success of their own cherished doctrine.

This is not to say rational discourse should be done away with or even put on the back-burner in favor of emotivism — that would certainly doom the cause of liberty to failure — but unfortunately, human beings are not always rational creatures. Though man is the “rational animal,” he is still an animal all the same marked by, as Darwin put it, “the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” And more than the spontaneous order of our bodily frames, our lowly origins find their way into our most basic emotions, in particular our desire for power over others.

Such is the crux of the question I posed to Dr. Carden. Those people who wish to dominate or be dominated, in fact, exist in human society and probably come by their libido dominandi honestly, even libertarians. And I worry the flickering candle of reason may not be enough to light the way against such primordial passions for power. I worry some day the devil may come down not to Georgia, but Alabama, looking for a soul to steal. But instead of looking for a battle over who can carry the best tune on the fiddle, he comes across a young libertarian in the heat of an intellectual debate over how to best govern society. The young man’s logic is impeccable to the point where anyone who challenges his position is made to look like a fool.

Suppose then, the devil approaches him and says, “Boy, let me tell you what. Your logic is as secure as Christ’s position in heaven, seated to the right hand of his Father. But I still think you’re quite mistaken in your views. So, I’ll make a bet with you. Let us both go out and try to shape the world to our respective likings. You go out armed to the teeth with your logic and appeals to man’s mind. But that is all you may use. Whereas, I will go out and appeal to man’s fear, envy, and lust. Whoever gets the most votes and devotees wins. You win, and I will no longer torment the poor souls of earth. I win, and your soul will be mine to torture for all eternity.”

So I ask: who would win? Would you take this bet?

I would not because I would not win. No one could win such a bet in my humble opinion. Take away appeals to man’s emotion, and you will find yourself speaking to deaf ears, especially in the realm of politics.

For example, I’m sure some of you have had the experience of trying to talk a friend in love out of pursuing a torrential love affair you know will only hurt them in the end. It is quite difficult to say the least — difficult to talk them out of it and difficult to understand why they are acting so moronically. “I can understand companionship. I can understand bought sex in the afternoon,” says Gore Vidal, “but I cannot understand the love affair.” There is a reason we see people in love acting so foolishly and single-mindedly as well as a reason why it is so hard to understand: their emotions are running the show. And though we may be able to empathize deeply with them, we cannot actually feel what they are feeling nor change their feeling no matter how well-reasoned our arguments may be. If someone is in love, the best approach is to make them fall in love with something or someone else, to bathe them in song, poetry, food, and generally, a rip-roaring good time. Trust me. I know from experience.

But, if love — one if the better aspects of our nature — can render a man a fool, how about power?

Well, power renders him a savage beast.

George Orwell tells us the secret of all power is “in inflicting pain and humiliation.” The man to whom Orwell is so often compared, Aldous Huxley, tells us, “Idealism is the noble toga that political gentlemen drape over their will to power.” Their respective novels, 1984 and A Brave New World, have been compared to one another and lauded for decades. Both men have been hailed as prophets of the coming political status quo, but I see them less as prophets and more as psychologists who understood the “lowly origins” of man. They both foresaw the way to gain and keep power is by manipulating the deep emotions, the subconscious of man through propaganda, sex, drugs, wealth, and ultimately, a promised share in power’s trappings–until, as Huxley put the matter to Mike Wallace in 1958, “making him actually love his slavery.”

In the end, Orwell’s Winston Smith does come to love Big Brother. When his deepest phobia of rats is used against him, Winston betrays his love, and is finally broken after a long battle against the sadists in Room 101. Huxley’s John too endures for a while. Through his “savage” ritual of self-flagellation, he tries to withstand the death of his mother as well as his tortured love and sexual passion for the over-ripe Lenina. Endure he does for a while, but once John’s masochism is perverted by being broadcast beyond his own personal sphere as a spectacle for the world to see — an “orgy of atonement” as the papers call his ritual — John leaves the brave new world by his own hand.

Peace. Love. Liberty. I wish for this message to win the day, but let us be honest with ourselves. If we are to win any devil’s bet, we must appeal to and be ready to defend against our subconscious urges. And we should not fool ourselves; power is here to stay. The will to power underlies even our most heavenly ideals. The question then is this: how should our desires for power over others be used?

Reluctantly, voluntarily, and personally, but used all the same.

And if you refuse to use your power in even such a limited way? Well, that is your choice, but don’t blame me too much when I admit I am tempted to call you a masochist in the making who will one day learn to either “love” Big Brother or shake off this mortal coil by your own hand.

Peace, love, and liberty aren’t simple ideas to be defended intellectually. They are to be lived. They are a visceral reality, seemingly abstract, but sensual in the end–the music that soothes the savage beast within each of us to give up his war, hatred, tyranny, and serfdom.

Sing it from the rooftops.