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Orthodoxy: Liberty's Other Enemy

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I am typing this in Miami, where I have had the privilege of sharing ideas of liberty with some new Americans who know more of its antithesis than almost anyone on this Continent -- Cuban exiles of Castro's regime. One of them, Normando, has spent seven years in prison for the crime of criticizing the quality of government-manufactured Cuban bread.

A conversation with Normando over breakfast on the day of my second lecture caused me to throw out the lecture I was going to give and replace it with one entitled, "Why Changing Minds (and Hearts) Is Difficult," which is full of empirical psychology, epistemology and neurology. It attempts to explain why it is hard not only to interpret reality accurately but even to see reality when it conflicts with what we already "know" -- regardless of whether our knowledge is right or wrong. (Its opening quote is from Goethe: "We see only what we know".) I am referring not so much to the changing of others' minds as to the changing of our own.

At the end of my lecture, I asked my audience who among them had read 1984. Some of them had -- although more of them had lived it than had read it.

I suggested that the book is, from its opening page, set in a near-complete tyranny. In the political sense, the world of 1984 is as hopeless as any dystopia that has been imagined in literature. You read it without much sense of hope for anything. Isn't it strange, then, that there would be any palpable sinking of the heart when you get to the end, when Winston, taken to Room 101 is finally broken by the destruction of his ability to believe for himself; to think for himself, even to perceive for himself? Why does your heart sink? Because at that point, all hope truly is lost. The ability to see his world as it is has gone, and with it, the possibility that he could ever experience his true self.

Before that -- throughout nearly the whole book -- Winston was a victim of tyranny -- but not, apparently, without all of his freedoms: he retained what might be called the final freedom, or (better, perhaps?) the first freedom: the one that resides inside -- the freedom to think. The freedom that makes him human. For lovers of political freedom, this mental freedom is the most precious of all because it is the one that an individual must ultimately call upon in pursuit (or recovery) of all other freedoms.

Normando was in the audience as I asserted all of that in my lecture, nodding in agreement.

Of what did Winston become a victim of in Room 101, of which he had not been a victim throughout the rest of the book? The answer is not tyranny, as he was already a victim of tyranny on page 1. Rather, he became a victim of orthodoxy -- tyranny of the mind.

There are many orthodoxies -- religious, political, philosophical and more. Like all other tyrannies, they seek conformity. Orthodoxy is to the mind as tyranny is to the person.

I am relatively new to the American liberty movement, but no one can say that I haven't done my fair share in support of it. Yet, I have never called myself a libertarian, which still, as a label, makes me uncomfortable.

Some who adopt it -- a minority but enough to matter -- seem to be invested in one or other "orthodoxies of liberty" -- a series of positions that they are convinced are the only reasonable outcomes or implications of the broader principles of liberty they espouse. Here are a few that I have come across -- and I have been personally castigated by a few libertarians for not agreeing with some of them.

A life is fully human at conception. A life has no moral value until it can exist outside the womb. Churchill was a warmonger. Lincoln hated liberty. There can be no recovery of American liberty through the Republican party. The only possible recovery of American liberty is through the Republican party. The ends never justify the means. Rand Paul is not one of us. (This one arises from what I call the method-as-intention fallacy: that a difference in methods implies a difference in fundamental principles or goals.) Ron Paul's views are the gold standard for liberty. The knowledge/experience/ideas of those who do not share our views about liberty should be discounted a priori. Marriage is between a man and a woman, by definition. Marriage is between any people who want to get married. A Constitutional Republic is not a tyranny but a Constitutional Monarchy must be. Taxation is the exact equivalent of theft. Ayn Rand is a panacea. And worst of all, two people who really understand liberty could never disagree about any of these.

There are plenty more.

You'll notice that some of the above contradict each other -- which rather goes to the point.

The price paid for a libertarian orthodoxy of any flavor is the success of the very principles for which all of us in the liberty movement claim to stand. Orthodoxy reflects a tacit assumption that one's own understanding of principles is as sacred as the principles, themselves. And it divides our house against itself.

Orthodoxy is not consensus. A single person can exhibit an orthodoxy. It is a state of mind: it is the idea that there is only one right set of views that liberty can support, when, in fact, the idea that there is only one right set of views is at odds with the notion of liberty, itself.

Until we win, liberty activists are political deviants. If I may be thoroughly unorthodox for one sentence, and quote Anton La Vey, "There is less room for deviance in deviance, than in any other human endeavor." Having been highly active in the movement for two years, my greatest hope is that this never becomes true of us. (We are already displaying the signs.)

If there is one group of people who are not entitled to make an orthodoxy out of their views, it is we who claim to fight for liberty. Why? Because "orthodoxy of liberty" is a contradiction in terms. The belief in freedom, including freedom of thought, should prevent us from judging others who are exercising that very freedom to think about freedom, itself.

Orthodox libertarianism may be less dangerous than other orthodoxies, such as religious orthodoxies, just because it has much less power and reach, but it is fundamentally worse because it is self-contradictory and so makes liars out of its practitioners.

I love being a part of the American liberty movement. Never have I had so much meaning in my life, nor had so much to play for. But as someone who still remembers what it feels like to be politically situated elsewhere, may I suggest that when self-identified libertarians put others down for understanding their freedom in a way of which they do not approve, those others feel nothing of the expansiveness and the glory of the human spirit that the very idea of liberty, shared with Love, invariably brings.

Are you pro-choice? Great. Are you pro-life? Great. Are you pro-GOP? Great. Are you pro-Libertarian Party? Great. Are you pro-Churchill? Great. Are you anti-Churchill? Great. Given our imperfection, the incompleteness of our knowledge, and our diverse life experiences, you can be any one of those things and believe in them precisely because you love liberty - even though they are contradictory. It is only when you set yourself apart from another because he or she disagrees with you on one of your litmus tests for liberty that you elevate that issue above the principle of liberty, itself.

I had been thinking about writing this article for months, but I couldn't crystallize it until my breakfast with Normando.

Through his wife, who speaks a few words of English, Normando told me that he was freer in prison than he had ever been before he was locked up. To check that I had understood his meaning, I pointed to my head and asked, "Free in here?".

"Si", he said, with a smile.

The death of liberty is not tyranny. It is orthodoxy.