Libertarian History Lessons

Nates began a post a few months ago as follows:

Let’s start with some common ground: the failure of standard attempts to ground liberty on some pre-social free individual. I don’t buy into this way of using social contracts, for all the reasons Josh has pointed out in previous posts. Basically, it’s turtles and sociality all the way down.

Nates and I agree that to some extent, liberty can’t be grounded in appeals to pre-social or pre-governmental notions of property rights, desert, freedom, or other similar notions.

But Nates goes on to move in another direction:

That said, I wonder how much this sort of account really captures why people become Libertarians in the first place. As a kind of sociological hypothesis, I suspect that most of them only turn to these arguments after the fact. Originally, they’re more likely to be responding to more immediate problems concerning excessive state interference in our lives. (It’s no coincidence that the Volokh family of Libertarian bloggers were born in the oppressive Soviet Union and escaped to America as children.) Once people are established as Libertarians, perhaps they feel pressured to provide a theoretical foundation for their views, which leads them to these problematic state-of-nature myths.

This sociological hypothesis sounds reasonable, but t also reveals a problem at the basis of libertarianism.  An intuition rooted in an apparent lesson taken from 20th century political history (like about the Soviet Union, for example), serves as the inspiration for grounding an account of political justice, but when that intuition is explored, it doesn’t strike me as all that coherent.

Nates goes on to lay an alternate groundwork – teleological libertarianism – but what is the motivation for seeking such an alternative?  What intuition are we seeking to explain?  What is there in the history of authoritarian regimes to inspire the need for a theory that makes its most important features the limitation of state power and the valorization of a certain kind of individualism?

Nates provides an alternate reading of that intuition, but whence the intuition in the first place?  I’ve never really felt it. I mean I’ve disagreed with some laws from time to time, and they’ve seemed unduly restrictive sometimes, but not to the point of needing to organize a whole theory around their rejection.

It has always seemed much more intuitive – to me anyhow – that most Americans are shockingly unwilling to help each other out, or contribute to the common good, and shockingly willing to punish each other either through explicit state-driven measures or (more often) through the cruelty of benign neglect.  That’s an intuition I have always deeply felt, and one I can learn as a lesson from our own history – of slavery, nativism, know-nothing-ism, Jim Crow, the Reagan revolution, the war on drugs, etc.

Many libertarians are less interested in US history (though I know they have readings – ones which strike me as rather strained, that see those failures of American history as excessive uses of state power, rather than as a problem with the dominant forms of selfishness Ayn Rand etc. make a “virtue” out of) than they seem to be in 20th century Eurpoean history.  In the early 20th century several different revolutionary groups were able to claim an extraordinary amount of political power (in Russia, Germany, Italy, Spain, etc.) and destroy an incredible number of lives.  We all agree about this.  But why does this teach us about the need to prioritize freedom over equality?  It seems to me it teaches us more about the need to respect the slow and frustrating processes of democracy, rather than succumb to the urge to elect or support charismatic leaders who are willing to circumvent those processes.  The sorts of egalitarianism advocated by those movements seem to have been far less important to either their popular success or the damage they caused in the states where they were deployed than the violent, revolutionary manner of their taking or maintenance of power.

Recently, for the first time since 8th grade, I recently re-read George Orwell’s 1984.  This was probably the first time I read it – in 8th grade, I was assigned to read it, but we all know what that often means.

I was underwhelmed.  Some of the stuff about the soul-killing nature of bureaucracy was well done, but one of the main thrusts of the novel, that a certain kind of totalizing state might someday destroy human nature as we know it, buttressed with revisionist history and a reconstructed language, well, I was just thinking “what’s the big deal?”  The novel seemed pedantic, and I understood why I’d been asked to read it in 8th grade, along with a sequence of other pedantic “lesson-teaching” novels that really almost killed any love of fiction I had developed at the time.

This book is a sacred cow for some.  I don’t mean the above to be a decisive review (it obviously is just a brief statement of my emotional reaction) but it also strikes me that the broad narrative deployed in 1984 is one that is often taken as some a prescient warning about the tendencies of the modern welfare state and something that’s often called “creeping socialism.”

I’m not really sure how this idea figures in academia – the main place I’ve encountered it is in slightly-more-intellectual popular culture, and also in politics.  An early incarnation of this idea is found in this famous Ronald Reagan anti-socialized-health care recording:

The argument is roughly this: revolutionary socialism will never happen in the United States.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried – a gradually creeping sort of socialism may present itself, and just like the proverbial frog in the slowly warming pot, we won’t even realize what has happened.  Now this isn’t anything like an intellectually rigorous argument – it’s really just a purely speculative scare tactic that deploys a big dose of the slippery slope fallacy.

Indeed “creeping socialism” has never, so far as I know, degenerated into the totalitarian state feared by the libertarians.  One might have problems with Sweden, Denmark, or even England or France’s governments, but it’s pretty forced to see them as dangerously anti-liberty, as on the verge of an Orwellian mental takeover and rewriting of history.

So what is it Volokh and others are learning from history, and why should we respect that lesson?  The refugees from many of the most 20th century’s worst authoritarian regimes have experienced all sorts of reactionary conservatism – Gary Shteyngart’s recent memoir Little Failure does a great job of describing how he exorcised those particular demons, in spite of his father’s best attempts.  Shteyngart is no libertarian – he reveals it as a kind of sickness drawn precisely from his father’s inability to process his experiences in Soviet Russia, not as a rational response to them.

Neverthless, 1984, the Volokh story, even Ayn Rand’s, serve an important ideological function: they are used to chasten egalitarian socialists with a “be careful what you wish for” sort of reasoning that sounds like mature, world-weary skepticism, a sort of real-life confirmation of Michael Oakeshott’s central argument in Rationalism in Politics  – but the personal experience of admittedly sccarred individuals does not seem like a motivating basis for its own theory of justice.  It works well, of course, for pro-business conservatives, in much the same way that the “small farms” narrative helps the agricultural-industrial complex to avoid regulation or the “death taxes” fear to prevent reasonable regulation of inheritance.  But it doesn’t deserve the free pass or sense of intellectual seriousness it often receives.

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3 Responses to Libertarian History Lessons

  1. Nates says:

    OK, but the stuff about Soviet refugees is just a parenthetical point in my post. (Literally.) The motivation I emphasize is a more general concern about excessive state interference in our lives. Anyone who was shocked and disappointed to learn that the US government spies on its own citizens’ emails and phone calls should be familiar with the worry. It’s not hard to come up with further examples.

    You then add: “It has always seemed much more intuitive – to me anyhow – that most Americans are shockingly unwilling to help each other out, or contribute to the common good…”

    Well, yes. The goal of T.Lib. is to satisfy both intuitions, so that we don’t have to choose between them. I’m convinced that there is an unexplored common ground between Libertarianism and Liberalism. Admittedly, I’ve been completely unsuccessful in convincing anyone of this so far. That might well reflect the inadequacy of my theory. But a part of me also suspects that most people don’t want to find common ground.

  2. Josh says:

    I tried to emphasize that your argument doesn’t rely upon the “history lesson” for its validity – sorry if I didn’t do that well enough. I was more interested in discussing the misuse to which those history lessons get put, and also wonder what the intuition is at the core of libertarianism, other than economic selfishness (something that you certainly can’t deny IS at the root of a lot of libertarian theorizing, though certainly not all of it).

    What I was trying to say about state interference is that it’s bad but not the sort of thing upon which to found a theory. We don’t have theories founded on the intuition, that, for example, governments use buildings, even excessively so, and so we should place at the center of our theory a wariness about government building construction. What’s so dangerous about things like spying, drug laws, etc. that they deserve more consideration than more run-of-the-mill problems with collective social endeavors? Large groups of people working together tend to do these things to each other.

    It also seems fair to point out that under more libertarian sorts of governmental arrangements, other large groups of people (like corporations or civic organizations) start doing the things which the government has been blocked from doing. The danger of government doing it doesn’t seem decisively worse than the private sector doing it, with the possible disadvantage (seen all over the place now) that when, say, Google does something like this, you can’t “throw the bums out” the way you can in government. Think about all the BS pulled by insurance companies, and how much less of it would be tolerated it if were the “government” doing it. The Obamacare website (basically a minor problem that’s more or less dealt with now) is small potatoes compared with what people are forced to endure from private insurance companies, but it’s much harder to go after them.

    One more point (obviously repeating something I’ve said before) I really do think even if liberalism doesn’t make this an exclusive priority it honors it to the greatest extent that it can be without sacrificing the legitimate demands of economic equality and the common good. It sees liberty more as a political/civil concern (i.e., freedom of speech, the right to vote, etc.) than it does as an economic one (i.e., the right to property). I continue to think liberalism IS the common ground you’re describing. It makes room for liberty and equality, rather than suggesting one is the only worthy pursuit.

    Since this is like the 3rd time we’ve come to this impasse, maybe a good question is: what would I need to show to convince you that I’m right about what I just said about liberalism’s place for liberty? I’m not expecting I would convince you, but even just for the sake of argument/discussion, and to give me something to write. What would count?

  3. Nates says:

    Josh writes: “I continue to think liberalism IS the common ground you’re describing. It makes room for liberty and equality […] [W]hat would I need to show to convince you that I’m right about what I just said about liberalism’s place for liberty?”

    Yes, this seems like a good avenue to pursue. In my proto-theory, I offered a theoretical grounding for limiting state authority: namely, a notion of human flourishing that depends on choosing your own goals and achieving them (in significant part) through your own efforts. (Of course, this is only half the theory–it’s balanced by a justification for state authority insofar as it creates conditions of autonomy in the first place.)

    My further claim was that the constraints on state authority we find in Rawls (or other liberal theorists) are not nearly as robust (especially in the economic arena), and thus don’t sufficiently respect the conditions of human flourishing. (This point came up previously in our discussion about Rawls’ focus on equality as the default position, from which we can depart only for very specific reasons–none of which seem to involve the value of achieving one’s ends through one’s own labor.)

    So, you could counter this claim in one of two ways. Either: (a) challenge the conception of human flourishing I put forward; or (b) show how Rawlsian theory can ground constraints on state authority that are adequate to this conception of human flourishing.

    I know I may be coming across as contrarian, but I’d be happy to be convinced of (b). I think it’s less likely you’d convince me of (a), but I’ll certainly consider what you have to say there.

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