Is There a Psychology of Liberty?
[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Libertarianism and Psychology II"]
In a previous article, "Libertarian Psychology," I made a few very brief remarks on the importance of psychology for libertarians and sketched the lives, careers, and ideas of two particular intellectuals: the libertarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz and the libertarian psychologist Timothy Leary, both born in the year 1920. Now I'd like to add a few comments on a couple of later libertarian psychologists, one born in the 1930s and another born in the 1940s.
The first of these two psychologists, Nathaniel Branden, was born on April 9, 1930, in Brampton, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto. Or so you might say today — though perhaps you'd say a place that's called home by around half a million people is too big to be considered a suburb. But neither was it any kind of suburb back in 1930, when Nathaniel Branden was born. Back then, you probably had to cross at least a little bit of country if you set out to travel the 20 or 25 miles that separated Brampton from Toronto. Brampton was a small town of not much more than 5,000 souls at the beginning of the first decade of the Great Depression. It may have been half again as large as that — maybe 7,500 residents — when Nathaniel Branden left the Toronto area behind to begin his undergraduate studies at UCLA a few years after the end of World War II. In the years in between, when he was a high-school student in Toronto, young Nathan Blumenthal (for so he was known at the time) had read a novel called The Fountainhead by a Russian-American novelist who signed herself Ayn Rand. The book had a big impact on him. "Between the ages of fourteen and eighteen," he wrote 40 years later, during the 1980s, when he was himself in his 50s, "I read and reread The Fountainhead almost continuously with the dedication and passion of a student of the Talmud."
By the time he was 19, Branden recalled in the '80s, "anyone could read [aloud] any sentence in The Fountainhead and I could recite the essence of the sentence immediately preceding as well as the sentence immediately following. I had absorbed that book more completely than anything else in my life." Little wonder, then, that, shortly after he arrived in Los Angeles in the late summer of 1949, he wrote a letter to Ayn Rand, asking her various questions about the philosophical implications of passages in The Fountainhead and her earlier novel, We the Living.
Barbara Branden, in her 1986 biography of Rand, reports that Nathan believed back then that he had identified "philosophical inconsistencies" in Rand's work and wanted to get to the bottom of them. Somewhat to his amazement, Rand answered his letter, inviting him over for an evening of conversation. And so began one of the most famous partnerships in the history of the libertarian tradition.
Over the next 18 years, Branden read Atlas Shrugged in manuscript before it was published, developed a 20-lecture course, Basic Principles of Objectivism, on Ayn Rand's philosophy, and offered that course for a decade under the auspices of the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI), unquestionably the largest and most important libertarian organization of the 1960s in terms of its impact on younger libertarians of the time and its influence on the subsequent development of the libertarian movement.
Once Branden's relationship with Ayn Rand ended in 1968, he returned to Los Angeles, where he established an extremely successful independent practice as a psychotherapist, did some lecturing, and published a long series of books on topics in psychology. His name is known today to millions who know nothing of his youthful association with Ayn Rand. To these readers, Nathaniel Branden is a psychologist, a principal figure — perhaps the principal figure — in the self-esteem movement in contemporary humanistic psychology. "Of all the judgments we pass in life," Branden wrote nearly 15 years ago in his book The Art of Living Consciously,
none is more important than the judgment we pass on ourselves.… Self-esteem is the disposition to experience oneself as being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness. It is confidence in the efficacy of our mind, in our ability to think. By extension, it is confidence in our ability to learn, make appropriate choices and decisions, and respond effectively to change. It is also the experience that success, achievement, fulfillment — happiness — are right and natural for us. The survival-value of such confidence is obvious; so is the danger when it is missing.
Back in 1969, in the first of his psychological books, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, when he had first offered this idea as the key to any theory of human psychology capable of withstanding close scrutiny, Branden had noted that
the establishment of Wilhelm Wundt's experimental laboratory in 1879 is often regarded as the formal beginning of scientific psychology. But when one considers the views of man and the theories of his nature that have been put forth as knowledge in the past hundred years, it remains a moot question whether the starting date of the science of psychology lies behind us — or ahead.
The relevance of Branden's concept of self-esteem to libertarianism seems obvious enough. If people lack the self-confidence he describes, they can hardly be expected to welcome the idea of a free society, a society in which they would be, literally, on their own — responsible for the consequences of their own decisions and actions. But there's more to it than just that. As far back as the late 1950s and early 1960s, Branden was telling his students at NBI that
if there is one infallible test of self-contempt, it is a person's willingness to live under force — his willingness to accept, as a moral principle, that others have the right to dictate his thoughts and his actions — his willingness to submit his mind and his life to the arbitrary power of a gun. The man who submits to force when he has no choice is not immoral, provided he identifies his plight as evil. But the man who considers it moral, considers it right, that others should force him, deserves what he gets.
As Branden saw it 50 years ago, "living in society can contribute to the survival of an individual," but
only to the extent that [the members of that society] are rational and productive.… Do you need — is your survival enhanced by — men who think? Yes. Do you need — is your survival enhanced by — men who refuse to think? No. They have nothing of value to offer you. By the same principle, you have need of — your survival is enhanced by — men who produce, men who have objective values to offer you in exchange for the things you have produced. But you certainly do not need men who produce nothing. You certainly do not need men who attack you and feed off you as parasites, offering you no value in exchange for that which they take. Is your survival … enhanced by living among looters, robbers, criminals? Clearly not. You profit from dealing with producers. You do not profit by dealing with … men who instead deal with you by … physical force or fraud.
Men who "produce nothing," who "attack you and feed off you as parasites, offering you no value in exchange for that which they take," who "deal with you by physical force or fraud." Sure sounds like the state to me. But Branden did not have the state in mind when he formulated these phrases. He acknowledged, in the first of the three lectures in the Basic Principles of Objectivism course that concerned themselves with political economy, that "throughout history, most governments have acted on principles diametrically opposed to their proper function and their only moral justification," for "instead of acting as men's defenders, governments have acted as men's oppressors." Yet, like Rand, whose ideas he was, after all, presenting, he insisted that, though
it may sound ironic, when one considers the extent to which most governments in history have inverted, perverted, and corrupted their function … men need a government for the purpose of protecting them from physical force and arbitrary whim, and of upholding objective principles of proper action.
To many young libertarians of the time, this sounded, not only ironic, but outright paradoxical. In Branden's defense, however, it must be acknowledged that very few libertarians of our sort in the 1960s were anarchists. The most popular version of libertarianism back then was a very austere version of what Sam Konkin later unforgettably dubbed "minarchism" — and it was this version of libertarianism that Nathaniel Branden presented in his NBI lectures. If there were unavoidable implications in certain of his statements about the "willingness to live under force" — what, 400 years before, the French writer Étienne de La Boétie (1530–1563) had called "the will to bondage" — well, so be it: that was for his mostly youthful students to sort out for themselves.
After all, Nathaniel Branden had never set out, in the beginning, to be any sort of political philosopher. He was interested in political philosophy and later used the word "libertarian" to describe his thinking on that subject. "In a general sense," he told interviewer Brian Lamb on the Booknotes program on C-SPAN in 1989, 30 years after first delivering the lectures on political economy from which I've been quoting, "I'm a libertarian … if you mean by that … an advocate of laissez-faire capitalism. I'm not an anarchist as some libertarians are … [just] an advocate of individual rights and a very minimalist view of government."
Still, political philosophy had never been Branden's idea of a career. He had decided in high school that he wanted to be a psychologist. He had earned a BA in psychology at UCLA, then had earned an MA in that same field at New York University, all during the same years in which he was reading Atlas Shrugged in manuscript. He had begun practicing as a psychotherapist while still living in New York, lecturing on Objectivism and running NBI. It had not been until the late 1960s, after what I suppose you might call his "divorce" from Ayn Rand, that he had finished up his PhD and begun devoting himself full time to psychology and psychotherapy, but it had been in the background the entire time. So if Branden's discussion of anarchism, in his NBI lectures of the 1960s, seems inadequate — even laughably inadequate — by today's standards, we should probably cut him a little slack.
He said of anarchism back in the early '60s, for example, that "strictly speaking, [it] is not a political theory, but a rejection of political theory. Anarchism claims that men need no government, no political system, and that any man should be free to do anything he pleases in relation to other men." And this is certainly not what anarchists of our sort were claiming then or around a decade later, when, in the form of books like Murray Rothbard's For a New Liberty and David Friedman's The Machinery of Freedom, it began to attain a somewhat wider circulation. But plenty of his younger students ended up anarchists a few years down the road, in any case.
One case in point is the libertarian social psychologist Sharon Presley. Born in 1943, during Nathaniel Branden's freshman year in high school, Presley grew up all over, dividing her own high school years in the late 1950s and early 1960s between Central High in Kansas City and Belmont High, less than a mile from Los Angeles' celebrated MacArthur Park. She graduated from Belmont in 1961 and set off to study psychology in Berkeley. A year later, in the summer of 1962, between her freshman and sophomore years at the University of California, at the age of 19, believing herself to be "totally apolitical," she discovered and read Atlas Shrugged.
"Oh, my God, what a revelation!" she recalled thinking, discussing her memories of the event some 30 years later with interviewer Rebecca Klatch in A Generation Divided: The New Left, the New Right, and the 1960s. "What [Ayn Rand] did for me was get me thinking about … things in those kinds of philosophical terms that I never had … before." For Presley, "it wasn't until Rand that I had some kind of explicitly articulated theory or set of principles that made sense to me." On the whole, reading Atlas Shrugged "was a major, major influence on my life." According to Klatch, Presley "began attending Objectivist lectures [NBI lectures] in San Francisco and meeting other like-minded people." But it wasn't long before some of those "like-minded people" had led her away from Objectivism completely. "By 1967," Klatch notes, scarcely five years after her ecstatic discovery of Atlas Shrugged, "Sharon identified as an anarchist."
By this point, Presley was in graduate school at San Francisco State. Five years later, in 1972, armed with a new MA in psychology, she set out for the East Coast to find a PhD program she felt was a good fit for her interests. After a brief time in Washington, DC, she landed in New York City, where she embarked on her doctoral studies under Stanley Milgram at the City University of New York, cofounded Laissez Faire Books in her spare time, and began attending the libertarian conferences and conventions that were beginning to be a familiar feature of the movement landscape in those years. In the nearly four decades since then, she has made impressive contributions to the libertarian tradition in three distinct ways: first, as an intellectual historian specializing in individualist anarchism; second, as an advocate and activist for libertarian feminism; and finally, as a social psychologist.
A good example of how Presley looks when she's wearing her intellectual historian hat is Exquisite Rebel, the best of the currently available scholarly books on Voltairine de Cleyre. A good example of how she looks wearing her libertarian feminist hat is freely displayed at the website of the Association of Libertarian Feminists. And a good example of how she looks wearing her social psychologist hat is her recent book, published last year, Standing Up to Experts and Authorities: How to Avoid Being Intimidated, Manipulated, and Abused.
"We live in a culture," Presley writes, "that encourages deference to authority and discourages critical and independent thinking. We are motivated to be seen as competent and we seek social approval." At root, these are "the reasons that people are so easily intimidated by experts, so deferent to authority, so unwilling to stand up and question." She cites the sociologist Robert Bierstedt, however, crediting him with
a distinction that I think is useful. Experts, he says, use persuasion. He points out that expertise — skill and knowledge in a particular area — is something we are free to accept or not. Authority, however, uses coercion. Authorities are those who have power over us whether we agree to it or not, for example, government bureaucrats or police officers.
It seems to me that the implicit (though unstated) premise of Presley's book is the same as the one that implicitly underlies Branden's books: the premise that people who lack self-confidence, people who suffer from low self-esteem, aren't likely to support efforts to achieve a free society or even to understand why a free society is a desirable goal, and that the best solution to this problem of sheeplike people is guidance and advice designed to persuade them that they would benefit by being more self-assertive and engaging in more critical thinking about the claims of experts and authorities — and to help them gain access to other resources they can use to become less sheeplike in their thinking and behavior. These are, by the way, my own words. Neither Presley nor Branden ever refers to anyone as "sheeplike." Presley does, however, recommend Branden's books. She calls him "the expert on the psychology of self-esteem," who "not only discusses why self-esteem is crucial to healthy psychological functioning," but also "gives practical steps on how to increase your self-esteem."
Presley sniffs disdainfully at "the many superficial, simplistic books of rah-rah affirmations of dubious value." Nathaniel Branden, she maintains, does not write such books. Neither does she. Standing Up to Experts and Authorities is partly a running description of pertinent research on deference to authority (complete with informative notes that enable any reader to look up Presley's sources independently) and partly a compendium of sensible advice, more or less in the spirit and tradition of the late Ann Landers, for people who are dismayed at how quickly and easily they lie down and serve as doormats for authority figures and are determined to change.
By the way, some readers might be interested to learn that the quotations I've presented from Nathaniel Branden's lectures on Objectivism — the NBI lectures created in the late 1950s and early 1960s — were taken from another recently published book, The Vision of Ayn Rand: The Basic Principles of Objectivism by Nathaniel Branden, published by Cobden Press, one of those worthy small publishers by whom the libertarian tradition has again and again been well served during the past century and a quarter. This first-ever print edition of Branden's NBI lectures — one of the most influential works in the history of the modern libertarian movement — will be of immense value to anyone interested in the history of libertarianism.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.