Martin Larson (1897–1994) is described on Wikipedia as “an American populist religious freethinker and Christian historian specializing in its origins and early theological history, best known for his assertion that Jesus Christ and John the Baptist were Essenes.” He published widely on topics ranging from The Religion of the Occident to tax protests.
36 East 36th St.
New York City
July 15, 1960
Dear Dr. Larson:
Thank you for your letter of July 1 and for the copy of your revised article on my ethics [an apparently unpublished article for The Free Humanist magazine]. I deeply appreciate the fact that you have revised the article and that your corrections were reasonable and fair. Whether we agree philosophically or not, I thank you for your consideration and your courtesy.
In regard to the general questions discussed in your letter, you say that you are puzzled by my answer to the question of whether I am a conservative. In my letter of June 21, I said the following: “I am certainly not a conservative, if you meant the definition given to that term by publications such as NATIONAL REVIEW.” I gather that you are not aware of the manner in which such publications (and professional religionists in general) are now trying to subvert that term: they are clamoring that a “conservative” is a defender of religious traditions (of “revealed truths”), not of capitalism, that his basic primary is “the preservation of continuity with the past,” etc. In other words, according to them, a “conservative” is a champion of the “status quo,” which, today, happens to be capitalism; in 1800, he would have been a champion of absolute monarchy, in 1500—of feudalism. By that sort of definition, I most certainly am not a “conservative.”
In present-day usage, a “conservative” is an advocate of capitalism—but people use “capitalism” as a rubber word that can be stretched to mean anything, including the messiest types of “mixed economy,” such as the one we have today. Therefore, I prefer not to describe my position by any of the loose, journalistic terms which can mean all things to all men. I am an advocate of “laissez-faire” capitalism. If, as you say, you take this to mean a “reactionary,” then I am a reactionary.
Now to answer the numbered points of your letter:
1. Humanism. I agree, in a very general way, with the
paragraph you marked on the cover of the July issue of THE FREE HUMANIST, the paragraph that begins with the words: “The Humanist philosophy declares that the cosmos is devoid of immanent, conscious purpose…” But this paragraph is specific only in regard to a negative: the rejection of the supernatural. In regard to the positive, it is so generalized that I disagree with it, as a matter of epistemological principle: I consider it dangerously misleading ever to use value-terms, such as the “good” or the “higher development,” in a declaration of one’s stand, without stating by what standard of value one determines what is the “good” or the “high.”
The consequences of vagueness on this point become apparent right on the reverse side of the same cover. Under the heading “The Aims of the Society,” you have marked paragraph 2, which reads: “To develop a secular, ethical philosophy, based upon need, responsibility and the unselfish advantage of human beings;…” (the underscoring is yours.) I do not know what the Humanists mean by those terms, but surely you know that both THE FOUNTAINHEAD and ATLAS SHRUGGED are devoted to proving why the concept of “need” is vicious when applied to ethics, why the concept of “unselfishness” is vicious in any context, and why men should live by a morality of rational selfishness.
2. Ethical Relativism. No, I did not conclude from your article that you believed in Ethical Relativism; I merely objected to the passage which seemed to ascribe that belief to me—and I appreciate the fact that you have corrected it.
3. Socialist Sympathy. You say that you do not understand how I concluded that you were ascribing sympathy with socialism to me—and why I thought that you join with men who believe that Russia is a noble experiment. In regard to the first, I concluded it on the ground of the passage in your article which alleged that I would deny that I am “conservative or reactionary.” As there is no middle ground between freedom and compulsion, so there is no middle ground between capitalism and socialism; a “mixed economy” is merely a process of destruction, it is merely capitalism being gradually undermined and corrupted by socialistic regulations; therefore, anyone who does not advocate full capitalism, is, to that extent, pro-socialist.
In regard to the second part of your statement (sympathy with Russia), I was referring to the Humanist movement as a whole. I know that there are many different groups with many divergent views who are loosely united by the general designation of “Humanism.” (As far as I am able to gather, the
only common bond among them is a negative: the rejection of the supernatural.) These groups include such men as Corliss Lamont.[*] I do not ascribe their views to you, but I hold that such groups are not proper allies for those who wish to champion reason and freedom.
Under the same point 3 of your letter, you say that I should have stated my views on labor unions in full detail in Galt’s speech. I hope that you did not say it seriously. Galt’s speech deals only with basic issues: it presents, in the briefest form possible, the essentials of a full philosophical system, from metaphysics to epistemology to ethics to politics. It states explicitly that no man has the right to initiate the use of physical force against other men, and that all social relationships must be based on every participant’s free, voluntary, un-coerced choice. This applies to all actions of all men, to all organizations of all men, to workers as well as employers, to labor unions as well as to corporations, associations, fraternal orders or ladies’ clubs. And the only proper function of a government is to protect men from physical force, which means: to use force only as retaliation against those who initiate its use.
Now what would a detailed treatise on labor unions do in such a speech? I would no more dream of including it than I would dream of including a detailed treatise on business corporations, traffic laws, concert programs or dinner menus. Do you consider labor unions a metaphysical primary? I don’t.
My views on labor unions are implicit in and covered by the basic principle stated above: workers have the right to organize into unions, if they, individually, so choose—and nobody, including the government, has the right to stop them by force. By the same principle, nobody, including the government, has the right to force men to join unions, if they do not choose to do it voluntarily—and nobody has the right to force employers to deal, bargain or negotiate with a union, if they do not choose to do it voluntarily. In other words, nobody has the right to dictate human relationships at the point of a gun. The only objective law pertaining to human relationships is the Law of Contradiction: those who initiate the use of physical force cannot demand or expect the right not to be answered by physical force.
4. Metaphysical Belief. You say: “You call yourself an Atheist; I do not prefer that appellation, for I consider it negativist, and I prefer something which is positive.”
I do not call myself an “Atheist” as an identification
of my metaphysical position; I call myself an “Objectivist.” But I do use the term “Atheist” in the appropriate context, such as, for instance, in answer to the queries of religionists or of those who spread verbal confusion by claiming that “a belief in natural laws is a belief in God,” etc.
I agree with you when you say that the center of one’s concern should be “Man.” But as I stated in my first letter, it is a difference of life or death whether one takes the concept of “Man” to mean the individual or the collective. If the Humanists leave this issue open and admit advocates of both meanings into their camp, they are guilty of so enormous a contradiction that their declared intellectual stand becomes meaningless.
If men wish to unite for the purpose of upholding reason, the fundamental principle on which they must agree before they can validly declare themselves to be champions of reason, is: the non–initiation of physical force. No advocate of reason can claim the right to establish his version of a good society, if such society includes the initiation of force against dissenters in any issue. No advocate of the free mind can claim the right to force the minds of others. If the Humanists wish to be champions of reason, they should consider the following: just as they would not admit mystics into their camp, since no rational discussion is possible with men who substitute supernatural revelations for rational evidence—so they cannot admit advocates of force into their camp, because no rational discussion or agreement is possible with men who substitute guns for rational persuasion.
5. Secular vs. Religious Tyranny. You made it clear that your intention is to oppose both kinds of tyranny. But since you do not accept the fundamental principle stated above: the non-initiation of physical force among men, it means that in some issues you hold some considerations as superior to the freedom of man’s mind. If so, then, no matter how good your intentions, your social ideas will lead to tyranny sooner or later—because you will never find a moral principle to justify the right of some men to initiate force against others. “A little bit of force” is like “a little bit of cancer.” Observe the political history of the world in the last hundred years.
6. My statement of ethics in WE THE LIVING. By what incredible stretch of the imagination do you take my statement that “Every honest man lives for himself” to mean that “Every honest man is an ethical relativist or subjectivist”?(!) “Relativism” and “subjectivism” mean a
metaphysical doctrine that denies the concept of an objective reality—a reality which exists independently of a perceiving consciousness and/or which is knowable to such consciousness. A “relativist” or a “subjectivist,” therefore, acts without reference to or in defiance of the facts of reality. If a man lives for himself, and not for others, does it mean that he lives by the guidance of subjective whims? Is it to his selfish interest to defy or to fake reality? Do you equate “personal” with “non–objective”? “To live for oneself” means that the goal of one’s actions is one’s own benefit; it does not mean that one’s own benefit is to be achieved in defiance of reality by means of subjectivist delusions.
7. The role of government and society. You state that “some laws are necessary, not only to prevent crimes of violence and embezzlement, but in other fields of human inter-relationships.” Your questions indicate that you mean something wider than the laws which formalize contractual relationships: you mean laws which compel men into certain relationships. I will answer you only: by what right?
Social issues cannot be discussed or judged in terms of random concretes; they can be discussed only in terms of principles. My fundamental social principle is: that no man may demand or expect anything from other men, except by their voluntary, uncoerced agreement, which means: by contract. Therefore, men are free to make any contracts they choose, provided such contracts do not involve the initiation of physical force against anybody. And there is no principle by which some men could ever justify their right to impose by force on an individual man their idea of what contract he may or may not make.
You write: “You say you don’t believe in the Wagner Act, the Right-to-Work laws, etc. Well, do you believe that there should be no copyright laws? That there should be no laws of any kind concerning the relationships of men and women, marriage, children, etc.?” Observe the confusion in the listing of these examples: the issue is not that all these examples involve human relationships. The issue is: which of these examples involve the initiation of force by the government?
The Wagner Act, the Right-to-Work laws and all similar legislation grant to the government the right to dictate the terms of a man’s employment, the right to prescribe the kind of contract that men may or may not make, which means: the right to initiate force against men who have reached a voluntary agreement.
What is involved in the copyright laws? The government does not compel an author to copyright his work; he is free to publish it without copyright or to give it away to any and all comers. But if an author wants to publish his work only on condition that his readers do not make any unauthorized commercial use of it, then the government protects his right to his own property, in the form of a copyright. A copyright (or a patent) is merely a public contract, between an individual and the rest of society—a contract stating the condition on which the owner is willing to offer his product to others. Observe that the copyright law does not prescribe the terms, conditions or minimum royalties on which an author must sell his work; it merely forbids the use of the work without the author’s consent, leaving the author free to consent to anything he chooses. The copyright law is not directed against the owner of a work, but against those who would attempt to seize his property without his consent.
As to marriage, children, etc., marriage is a contractual relationship and should be treated as such. The government may formalize the terms of what is to be regarded as a marriage contract, but it may not forbid people to live together on other terms, it may not compel people to marry or to stay single or to breed children or not to breed them, whatever the case may be.
In these examples, the government does not forbid alternatives, and the choice is up to the individual. But in labor legislation, the government assumes the right to dictate the conditions of employment, leaving men no choice and no alternatives; this means that men have no right to earn a living, no right to offer or accept employment, except on the government’s terms. And you do not call that socialistic?
You ask: “Do you think there should be no laws dealing with tenant-landlord relationships?” Same answer: no laws except the laws of contract and the laws against fraud.
You write: “I believe that it is wrong for employers to use thugs or conspiratorial pressure to prevent a worker who wants to organize for his economic improvement from ever having a job again.” Yes, of course, it is demonstrably wrong to use thugs. But one cannot equate the use of thugs with “conspiratorial pressure.” One involves physical violence, the other is a peaceful policy-decision. What is “conspiratorial pressure”? In this context, it is merely the right of employers to agree on a certain policy, to organize for what they believe to be their economic interests.
Why do you grant that right to workers, but not to employers? (I hope that you do not unite “economic power” and “political power” into a single, meaningless package-deal labelled: “power.” The power of production is not the same thing as the power of coercion by physical force.)
Incidentally, I do not believe that many employers would engage in such “conspiracies” nor that it would work for long, but this is not the issue. If all employers engaged in it openly all of the time, it would still be their inalienable right. Nobody has the right to tell them how to run their own business—and they do not owe employment to anybody. In a free society, competition corrects those employers (or workers) who adopt foolish or irrational policies. But the bad judgment of any specific employers (or workers) does not grant the rest of us the right to correct their judgment by force. We may disapprove of blacklists (or of the “Closed Shop”); we have no right to forbid them by law. We are free not to deal with those of whom we disapprove.
I have explained this in detail in order to demonstrate the impropriety of your accusation, when you state that I “set (my) face against individualism and personal responsibility in the union movement and in society.” If my denial of anyone’s right to initiate force against others constitutes “opposition to individualism,” and my insistence on every man’s freedom of choice constitutes “opposition to personal responsibility”—then what constitutes collectivism and irresponsible tyranny?
You cite the example of an inventor who lost the right to his invention because he had signed an agreement that all his works would belong to his employers—and you ask me whether I would call it fair. Of course, it is fair. Nobody forced him to sign such an agreement; if he signed it—because, by his own judgment, it served his own interests, because he needed the job—he had no right to abrogate it unilaterally. (If he did not know what he was signing, his error cannot be used as an excuse for imposing controls on other inventors.) Such contracts are frequent in research institutions or in Hollywood scenario departments, or in any profession where a man is hired to exercise his creative inventiveness. Otherwise, what would prevent an employee from spending all his salaried time and thinking effort on inventions which he never delivers to his employer, but uses independently on his own? Creative thinking is an activity which is hard to divide between public day work and private night work. What is the solution? An inventor or a scenario writer should not engage in private scientific research or private writing while
employed by an industrial concern or a movie studio, unless his contract permits it by agreement with his employer; if his contract forbids it, he should wait until he can quit his job and work on his own time.
If this is not fair, by what standard would we determine “fairness”? What would be “fair”? The use of force by the government? The principle that the government is the owner both of the inventor’s mind and of the employer’s mind?
You preface your remarks on this issue by asking: “Do you think that inventors should be protected in the ownership of the product of their genius?” Observe the contradiction in your principles: it is precisely because an inventor is the owner of his product that the government has no right to tell him on what terms he may or may not dispose of it. Ownership is the right of use and disposal. If the government were to dictate the conditions under which an inventor may or may not dispose of his products, what contracts he may or may not sign, it could do so only on the principle that the government is the owner of the products, that the inventor is mentally incompetent to judge his own best interests and needs a guardian to make his decisions for him. Is this your idea of “protection” for men of genius?
I cannot comment on your statements in regard to Westinghouse and Edison. These are issues of fact, which cannot be judged (and should not be alleged) without full, specific, objective, legal, public evidence and proof.
As to your statement that “laissez-faire” capitalism is the cause of depressions—this is an issue of economic fact and is simply untrue. The cause of depressions is government interference into economics. For proof, I refer you to such books as CAPITALISM THE CREATOR by Carl Snyder, ECONOMICS IN ONE LESSON by Henry Hazlitt, HOW CAN EUROPE SURVIVE by Hans Sennholz, and the works of the great economist Ludwig von Mises.
In your concluding paragraphs, you state that you believe “in law, in the minimum necessary for the regulation of human inter-relationships” and that you think I do also. I hold no beliefs which I am unable to define objectively and specifically—and I will never hold as a belief, on any subject, such a loophole-definition as “the minimum necessary.” Necessary—to whom? By what standard? Who determines what constitutes a “minimum”?
I have stated the specific principle of law which I advocate—and I advocate no other. Please do not ascribe to me the opposite of my statements. I do not know what principle you advocate. I know only that a formulation such as “the minimum necessary” can be claimed by any social theorist in defense of any system, from a timid, middle-of-the-road Republican platform writer to a communist or any totalitarian statist: after all, even a dictator can claim that he imposes only “the minimum necessary” controls—necessary, that is, to his purpose.
I shall preface my next statement by the following reminder: you are free to hold any convictions you choose; but you have no moral right to ascribe them to me and to assume my agreement by means of ignoring everything known to you about my convictions. I am referring to your paragraph before last. You have no moral right to say to me, in the form of a blanket, arbitrary, unsupported assertion, that we must “find something” to establish “the best possible society,” with the suggestion that that “best society” should be based on the very evil I am dedicated to fighting.
I shall leave that paragraph of yours without an answer. I shall say only that I do not consider any form of the idea it contains—the idea that human ability is a threat to the less able, or that men of ability are to be held down or restricted or controlled or chained or enslaved for the sake of the incompetents—I do not consider any such idea as morally debatable. I will not help anyone to pretend that ATLAS SHRUGGED has never been written.
It is obvious that there is a basic disagreement between us. If you wish to discuss it further, it will have to be discussed in terms of principles, not of random, unevaluated concretes. The meaning of concretes cannot be judged or evaluated except by reference to a principle as a standard of value-judgment.
I shall order a copy of THE RELIGION OF THE OCCIDENT and shall read it with great interest. I must apologize in advance that this will take me a long time, because I am a very slow reader.
*Corliss Lamont (1902–95) was a socialist philosophy professor, chairman of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship in the 1940s and long-time director of the ACLU. He is considered one of the main philosophers of the American “humanist” movement.