Van Jones and Philosophical Warfare

In a March speech foreshadowing the philosophical and political impact of the then upcoming presidential election, political and social activist (and now CNN contributor) Van Jones made a bold statement that strikes at the very root of whether individuals, and governments, survive, flourish, or eventually destroy themselves. His statement was in no way an attack on one political party or another, nor was it merely expressing opposition to some policy or event that he does not agree with. It was attack on an entire philosophy and way of life, an attack against which many Americans will find themselves on the defensive over the next four years. Mr. Jones claimed,

"I hear a lot about liberty now from the so-called libertarians and they say the only thing that matters in America is liberty. That's what they say. They say America has only one value: liberty. Economic liberty. My economic liberty and if you stand for any other value you're anti-American. And they've taken their despicable ideology, and they're using it as a wrecking ball that they've painted red, white, and blue to smash down every good thing in America."

Van Jones does show some recognition that philosophy is the core that essentially determines the fate of individuals and their society. But a closer analysis of his claim may reveal that his attack on the libertarian philosophy he disparages is fatally flawed.

To begin, it would probably be best to define libertarianism. The Merriam-Webster dictionary states that libertarianism is " [to] advocate of the doctrine of free will. A person who upholds the principles of liberty especially of thought and action." To further clarify, liberty is defined as "the state of being free from despotic or arbitrary control." So Van Jones clearly does have one thing correct. Libertarians care most about liberty. This implies that libertarians hold the position that their lives should be not be dictated by someone, or something, using force on them to determine their actions or beliefs. It follows that they themselves also do not have the right to use force on someone else to force action or beliefs upon other individuals. Instead, libertarians typically hold up the use of reason, defined as the ability to think and draw conclusions based on objective reality, to pursue one's own personal happiness. These principles were perhaps put most elegantly by Thomas Jefferson in his statement that "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

While Van Jones does not provide specific examples for what makes this foundational viewpoint despicable, as he puts it, or propose any specific examples of something superior to it, the antonym to liberty is restraint. Restraint on whom or what? The people and their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? The implication is that too much liberty is dangerous and must be controlled. Restrained by whom or what? Naturally, by someone, perhaps like Van Jones himself, who thinks they know what's best for individuals and society as a whole. This brings us closer to the central issue and what it implies from a practical perspective. It's evident that Van Jones puts emphasis on economic liberty and that, to him, is what is despicable and acting as a wrecking machine to destroy America. So to understand Van Jones' philosophy, and the libertarian philosophy he despises, we must delve into the building blocks of economic theory and its relationship to philosophy.

Provided that libertarian philosophy is the belief of being free from arbitrary force imposed by others, libertarians logically embrace the economic application of this principle as being best exemplified in laissez-faire capitalism. Here we must pause. It is typically thought that modern America exists in a capitalist society and many argue that our economic and social perils are derived from it. However, most of these people simply do not know what capitalism actually is. While there are numerous definitions, in essence capitalism is an economic system based on individual and property rights where government intervention is minimal. In other words, all work engaged in by humans, all wages, all profits earned from that labor is strictly owned by individuals. Individuals, and companies, are responsible for their own decisions and cannot be bailed out, assisted through legislation, or financially subsidized by any government entity.

We now come to the crux of the matter. Why attack the libertarianism philosophy as a whole? Why not just take away the capitalism, which we don't even have, that Van Jones feels is unethical and replace it with a different system? Some form of a more centralized mixed economy would surely fill the gap and society would move on. His aim, to turn man against the idea of his own liberty, however, is something else entirely. A man in who believes in liberty must also believe that the use of reason, and reason only, dictates his life. He must, therefore, reject the notion of others ruling him in any fashion, no matter how intelligent, no matter how wise, and no matter how well intentioned they are. Man must be left to achieve and fail on his own. A man who rejects liberty must accept the notion that reason must in turn be rejected. The man who rejects reason is the man who rejects his means of survival and as such has rejected his self-evident rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Those three things are now forfeit to whichever master appears to offer the most security. The use of force, on every level, becomes an acceptable action once the concept of liberty is cast away.

In the novel The Fountainhead, Ellsworth Toohey says,

If you learn how to rule one single man's soul, you can get the rest of mankind. It's the soul, Peter, the soul. Not whips or swords or fire or guns. That's why the Caesars, the Attilas, the Napoleons were fools and did not last. We will. The soul, Peter, is that which can't be ruled. It must be broken. Drive a wedge in, get your fingers on it --and the man is yours.

The real struggle in human history has never truly been about the strength of militaries, political parties, or petty differences among cultures. It has always been, and will always be, a war of philosophy. There are those who believe in the ideas espoused by the likes of Jefferson and there are those like Mr. Jones who advocate for forms of collectivism which state that individual man has no right to his own life or liberty, but must instead focus on pursuing happiness for the group as a whole, or for the common good. For the latter, they have already been intellectually crushed by the thinkers ranging from Aristotle, Rand, Hayek, and so on. Therefore, they understand the use of deception and force are their key weapons. To use force, they must deceive people into believing it is moral for others to use force on them. That is why Van Jones, and those like him, cannot achieve their goals if that one dreadful word that libertarians hold, liberty itself, is the primary value of the American people. 

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