I attended a Liberty on the Rocks function a short time ago in which one group of gentlemen gathered together during this affair to discuss philosophy. The discussion went from when one owns their body (using the drug war as an example) and then turned to the subject of rights.
During the discussion on this subject, I asked a libertarian participating in the exchange what an individual right was. He gave me a blank stare at first but after thinking about it said something you own. I politely explained the error in his answer pointing out what individual rights are and moved on elsewhere in the party.
The experience I have with libertarians being unable to answer specific questions about certain aspects of their philosophy is not unique. Unfortunately, in a general sense and many cases libertarians treat individual rights as some abstract, subjective concept. They can articulate individuals have rights but have little knowledge about the details and how they apply in specific instances. Some disregard a rights-based approach to liberty altogether and prefer consequentalist or semblances of utilitarianism.
Despite ultimately siding with the notion that people have rights libertarians know little about them, do not know or do not adequately articulate it leaving an inqusitive outsider with more questions than answers. Subjective claims or incomplete answers about individual rights or libertarian ideas stand no chance of winning over people already steeped in subjective, anti-individualist ideologies like religion, statism, skepticism, and radical environmentalism.
It should come as no surprise that critics refer to libertarians as Republicans who want to smoke dope or Democrats who like to own guns. The concept libertarians espouse is that of doing whatever one pleases without interference from government, society, collectives, etc. Yet this (albeit falsely) conjures up claims on the part of our enemies and opponents of people engaging in wild parties involving large amounts of drug use, orgies and other nihilistic activities. What is mostly ignored not just by our rivals but libertarians as well are heroic acts of rational, productive achievement and success on the part of individuals that have brought about all the benefits the Westernized world enjoys today.
It is true that the non-aggression principle that Ayn Rand articulated is the center piece of libertarian thought and action (i.e. no individual may initiate physical force against another). But, as Luke Setzer points out, this principle is neither an axiom nor a self-evident truth.
As Setzer rightly observes, Ayn Rand understood this and properly detailed a long chain of reasoning that led her from basic axioms of reality (existence, consciousness, and identity), through the necessity of reason as mankind’s means of survival. This, in turn, leads to the Aristotelian ethic of human life as the standard of values, the individual as an end in him or herself, and to the inevitable, logical conclusion that laissez-faire capitalism is the only moral social system.
He goes on to point out that, if taken objectively and logically, this line of thought leads to the non-aggression principle. It accepts that a this-worldly life is good ethic with reason as the method of obtaining and maintaining it. As a result, each person must be left free to follow his own mind without interference from government, society or collective consciousness.
Libertarians need an objective, moral basis for why individuals should have the right to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. Instead of reality, ethical subjectivism is the basis for libertarian ethics and many other facets of libertarian philosophy including how libertarians conduct themselves. In light of this it is not surprising that people hyphenate the word libertarian with other sets of belief systems such as christianity, anarchism or even come up with odd terms like conservatarian. Rights grounded in subjectivism will not win over the populace to full embrace liberty until and unless they are shown why claims to the contrary are immoral.
As Objectivist scholar Peter Schwartz points out in his essay Libertarianism the Perversion of Liberty, the absence of a rational, moral defense of individual rights would lead to the death of liberty. Such axioms are necessary foundations for any movement that advocates individual rights. That's why Ayn Rand created Objectivism to encompass many areas of philosophy to help people who study it not only to think but also to live and prosper.
To borrow from Setzer's wisdom, we all know that liberty is not license. However, the vision of a nation based on nihilism will not inspire the average person or win over people normally on the fence on certain social or even economic issues. The idea of a world filled with rational, healthy, productive people who trade freely with others like them will. Inspirational role models populate the pages of Ayn Rand’s fantastic fiction novels continue to enjoy strong sales decades after their first printings and that Ms. Rand's ideas continue to survive and thrive even to this day.
What American culture and the libertarian movement needs is another Renaissance that embraces a widely renewed respect for reason and achievement in this life and on earth. Emulating Rand's charachters is an excellent way to start and, in my view, Objectivism is the best philosophy to help achieve this with the beauty of libertarian thought and ideas to help compliment it.
If you would like an example of success in a venue Objectivists and libertarians both appreciate (the market place) you need look no further than the banking giant BB&T and Koch Industries. BB&T has established Objectivism as its official corporate philosophy while Koch Industries uses Austrian Economics as the basis for the company's corporate philosophy known as market-based management. CEO Charles Koch touts his company's philosophy as contributing to its success. He has not only written a book on the subject but has funded a think tank to culminate and expand upon Charles Koch's approach in hopes of influencing other companies to adopt it. As a result their success as organizations both BB&T and Koch continue to grow.
I also echo Luke Setzer's sentiment that if Objectivism is good enough to drive the success of multi-billion dollar companies, it also makes sense to use it to drive the success of a political philosophy and groups erected to further it.