Blogs > Liberty and Power > Introduction & Provocation

Jan 12, 2004 6:51 pm

Introduction & Provocation

I want to thank David Beito for inviting me to join Liberty & Power for a week. I know some of the members of the L & P roster fairly well, and others not at all. I'm dork enough that a number of my most treasured friendships began on the internet. So I hope I come out of this with more couches in other cities where I could in principle crash.

A little about me... Until the middle of November, I worked at the Mercatus Center in the Mason Law School building. Before that, I was a program director at the Institute for Humane Studies, and I still direct IHS's Social Change Workshop for Graduate students each summer at the University of Virginia. I bailed from Mercatus to try to finish my PhD work in philosophy at the University of Maryland, where I'm concentrating on political philosophy (contractarian political philosophy in particular.) This semester I'll be teaching an introductory aesthetics course at Howard University, a few blocks from my house in DC. Right now I'm scrambling to put together a syllabus, since the gig just dropped in my lap in a couple days ago.

I have to admit to a skoche of trepidation at visiting L&P. I may be among the few to work at IHS for two-ish years and come out of it rather less libertarian, in the traditional sense at least. I started out in philosophy and politics under the sway of Ayn Rand, like several others here, but my intellectual trajectory has led me to be fairly skeptical of the cogency of most of the usual arguments that purport to justify a libertarian social order. More and more I'm finding unacceptable the usual terms of debate in political philosophy, and particularly among libertarians.

The upshot of this is that although I have deeply libertarian intuitions, I'm not sure exactly what I think any more, although I'm sure of what I don't think. Relative to this crowd, I am, without a doubt, a squish. (Yes, I'm even up in the air about heroin vending machines for tots.)

I hope this week to air a few questions I've been grappling with and to provoke some productive argument.

Let's start with this worry... Does libertarianism, understood as an ideal for society, require, in order to be feasibly realized, that all or most members of society accept and endorse a certain set of moral and political premises? If so, how is this convergence in views to be produced? Through reasoned argument? Rhetoric? If some level of agreement on basic premises is not required, how is it possible for a libertarian order to emerge and sustain itself? What I'm asking is: Can we get there from here? And if there is no feasible path to the ideal, then isn't the ideal utopian, and shouldn't we stop aiming at it?

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Steve Horwitz - 1/13/2004

Horwitz's First Law of Capitalism: "No one hates capitalism more than capitalists."

Will Wilkinson - 1/13/2004

We're freer in the ways Steve mentions. We're also more free is the slightly different sense of having a larger number of choices available to us.

Kevin Carson - 1/13/2004

If libertarians succeed in pushing this society in a less statist direction, it will probably be through ad hoc coalitions with people who are instinctively libertarian on particular issues, rather than consistently libertarian in principle. Of course, it is vital to find out what things are special concerns of each person, and show how government intervention in society actually promotes the evil he is concerned about.

I find it's very productive, for example, to show people on the left that most of the evils they object to in corporate capitalism result from state capitalist intervention on behalf of big business, and not from the free market. The free market, in contrast, is the worst enemy of big business.

Steve Horwitz - 1/13/2004

I'd more or less agree with Wil's claim that in many ways we're freer now than we used to be. Ending slavery is one biggie, of course, as is the near-elimination of state-sanctioned discrimination against women. More generally, on cultural issues, people can speak, write, and depict things they couldn't do in the past. They can engage, legally, in sexual activities they could not before. No doubt we've lost ground on the economic/regulatory side, but technological advancement keeps throwing up ways around those interventions that have minimized their impact, in much the same way that lowered communication and transportation costs allow us to evade them in other ways. On net, we may well be freer than we were 100 or 150 years ago (especially if one counts slavery).

Leonard - 1/13/2004

I agree with you that America is unrepeatable. All history is. My point in mentioning that was just to say that liberty (more or less) happened once, so, it is possible. Whether or not it can happen again is another matter. I see no compelling reason to think not.

As for whether America was libertarian or not: I am taking libertarian in that context to mean libertarian (== minimalist) political institutions and their (minimal) power over people. I certainly don't think we are freer now in most important respects. In fact I am curious as to in what ways you think we are freer now (in a libertarian sense -- free from coercion by other men -- not in the pop meaning of "free" as "empowered").

Leonard - 1/13/2004

I take issue with your notion that "the best feasible future is the only ideal worth caring about". What? Let's assume that you know, by divine revelation, that the human race is going to blow itself up in the year 2010. Does that mean you should give up your libertarian values, perhaps becoming a hedonist? Can you give up your ideals of justice and commit crimes guilt free, knowing that the victims you are hurting are going to be dead anyway in a few years so what's the difference?

Ideals are not just instruments of human utility seeking. Ideals are part of who we are - they are to some extent ends, not means. I am reminded of Nozick's experience machine - would you live your life in a machine which was a complete and total simulation, if you could be a king in the sim? I wouldn't. The reason is, I aspire to be something in the actual real world. Ideals are a part of that. The libertarian memeset, even if it never shapes reality, is beautiful, and right. It is, in a word, art. It's worth something in its own right, completely outside of what's going on in reality.

Will Wilkinson - 1/13/2004

OK, I'll suppose that there were times past in these United States when some parts of the society had a fairly libertarian cast (slaveholding states must be categorically excluded). But the fact that we've been there may have very little bearing on whether we could get there again. Our society is increasingly pluralistic, comprising many hundreds of different religious, cultural, and philosophical traditions. And market fragmentation insures that there will be no hegemonic culture. Insofar as we were once libertarian (I actually think we're freer in most important respects now, but I'll let it go), it seems like that may have been an unrepeatable accident of history. Rather than attempt to recreate a notional golden age, we need to start from where we are, identify the set of possible futures we are most likely to face, and create a strategy for maximizing the probability of the future that looks best according to our values. The best feasible future is the only ideal worth caring about. And that might not match up with an ideal that abstracts overmuch from the real constraints on social change.

Leonard - 1/13/2004

It is certainly the case that people must agree on many sorts of general things in order to form viable institutions. That's true of all institutions. Imagine trying to run a company where none of the workers speak the same language. Imagine trying to run a company using employees time-transported from the Golden Horde. It wouldn't work.

In order to form a society at all, there must be at least a modest amount of commonality. But so what? Many societies have formed, historically. It's possible. And furthermore, several societies have formed with attractive libertarian features. In particular the USA when they were several, before Lincoln. Can we get there from here? I don't know, but I do know that they once did get there from... whereever they were.

In any case, I don't agree that hopeless idealism is a bad thing. For one thing, you don't know the future, and neither do I. For every argument you can make to say that people are hopeless socialists, I can make an argument that socialism must collapse. We don't know the conditions for forming, reforming, nor collapsing states or societies. So hope is not unreasonable.

But what if there was ironclad proof, perhaps from divine revelation, that there would never be an ideal libertarian society ever? Would that mean it is hopeless to hold ideals and propound them? No. It may be the case that the mass of men never realize any ideal, but they get close sometimes, but they'll only approach ideals that intellectuals actually talk about and care about. If that is true, then in order to as much good as possible, even though the ideal society never happens, we must hold onto ideals.