[This letter is included because it responds to certain thoughtful criticisms of Murphey’s theory in his book Emergent
The discussion is important to the theory of a free society.] Man. December 15, 1969
I certainly enjoyed receiving your letter of December 7 and your comments on Emergent
You are right; I do appreciate a critical discussion of the thinking involved more than I do a letter that is merely laudatory (or otherwise). Man.
I have given some thought during the past few days to the points you have raised. I have wanted to consider them on their merit rather than merely set up a defensive reaction as an author is wont to do. I am, however, persuaded that the formulation I made in Emergent Man is still the soundest when all is considered.
Let me start, first, by analyzing your substitute formulation and then I’ll look at certain other considerations about my own.
1. You have said that the definition of coercion on page 70 would apply to all human action. This would be so if it were not for criterion #4. The huge difference is between altering a man’s alternatives as an inducement (which involves an improvement of his alternatives when judged from his own point of view) and altering them as a detriment (which involves an impairment of his alternatives, again from his own point of view). One or the other of these is involved in most human action, but only one of them is coercion as I have defined it.
2. Following Ayn
Rand’s lead, you have defined coercion as “physical force” (where not used to protect rights). But why choose only physical force? Let’s assume there were ten men on a desert island and nine of them decide to boycott economically the tenth. He can starve and die just as readily that way as where physical force is involved.
What I am pointing to here is not a mere bickering over definition, but rather to a concern over certain substantive problems—and the problem of, say, boycott is one that deserves inclusion in our analysis.
3. I think you are yourself aware that by introducing the concept of “rights” in the definition of coercion you are merely shifting the substantive intellectual questions from the word “coercion” to the word “rights.” We are back where we started, except that now we are trying to define “rights” to determine the meaning of “coercion” rather than trying to define “coercion” to determine the meaning of “rights.”
4. This leads me to my main point about these matters of definition.
Ayn Rand has made a very important and valid point in arguing against the obscurantism that befogs the mentality of our times. I agree with any suggestion that words ought to “mean something” and that we are talking about something more here than simply what meaning to attach to a given combination of letters.
But it is crucial, nevertheless, to realize that when we are defining such a word as “coercion,” which we then make central to our theory, it is not the word itself that is of paramount importance; it is, instead, the substantive considerations that enter into the definition that are paramount. And we must keep these considerations in mind as we define the central word, and continue to realize, even afterwards, that those considerations, and not the word, must remain determining.
The most important thing is that the substantive considerations be kept in view. The definitions give the argument its verbal form, but they should not become the tail that wags the dog. Since the theory cannot be fully expressed in the definitions, it is very important that anybody reading or thinking about such a book make his primary intellectual focus the underlying considerations, and not just the definitions.
My definition forms an important part of my theory. Your objection, however, is that it is not serviceable in that it requires such ensuing imprecision as is evident in the words “maximize,” “minimize,” “tends,” “lessen,” and “reduce.” To a Randian, because of the non-obscurantist emphasis of Objectivism and her own adamant style, this is to be avoided. I have given serious thought to this objection. I do not join in it, though, for a couple of reasons.
First, because so many people tend to think about these subjects with an iron-clad deductive technique without maintaining an awareness of the substantive considerations that enter into the initial definitions and axioms, I think there is much to recommend a terminology that frustrates that mental tendency. If I could come up with a set of definitions that would themselves include the whole theory, then such deduction would be all right; but until I do, and I can hardly imagine its possibility, I would rather that my reader be aware of the continuing need to recur to first principles and not simply to the words themselves.
Second, because the application of libertarian principles is far better to be considered an act of “balancing” and “accommodating” competing interests, than a hard-and-fast act of absolute deduction. There are, indeed, a vast number of “gray areas.” I was hoping that after Ayn Rand finished writing novels, which involve excellent caricaturization, she would write straight philosophy in which she explained her position on those gray areas. She has disappointed me in failing to do this, since she has continued to paint things in pure black and white even in her essays. For example, I cannot see that for a libertarian the issue of anti-trust laws is an easy one to resolve; she, though, makes it appear open-and-shut. This is, perhaps, my primary intellectual difference with her and makes my theory sounder than hers from an intellectual standpoint, although hers lends itself better to polemical presentation. Indeed, the tendency to look at things as blacks and whites involves a very considerable intellectual pretension, even though superficially it seems to comport better to a non-obscurantist epistemology. But pretension, where unjustified, is itself ultimately a form of obscurantism; it leaves us with the need to pierce the pretension to arrive at reality.
Obviously the whole matter could be gone into in much greater detail… I am sorry that in giving my answer I have unavoidably become involved in some criticism of Ayn Rand, since she is certainly one of the greatest philosophers of liberty of all time. Her emphases on the heroic potential of the free man, the spiritual meaning of liberty, and on the destructiveness of obscurantism are all vitally important contributions. Her political theory, however, is more a direct picking up of the thinking of Ludwig von Mises (whom I also revere) and Frederic Bastiat without much addition of her own, and their approach is not without the problems I have mentioned. ……….