Friday, February 23, 2018

A misconceived attack on libertarianism

Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have produced a Manifesto Against the Enemies of Modernity. There is much to agree with in it but at least one part is thoroughly misconceived, which is the attack on libertarianism.

Such an attack is a strange thing to read in such a manifesto, for if any ideology seems a product of modernity it is libertarianism, an intense form of liberalism. The heroes of libertarianism are very much modern figures, with the earliest thinker being regularly invoked being C17th philosopher John Locke. Some of the more historically minded might cite the Salamanca School, but for their economic reasoning, and perhaps some of their natural law reasoning, not their Catholicism.

Indeed, the most potentially fruitful lines of attack on libertarianism would be to accuse it of being a particularly autistic manifestation of modernity. "Dissident right" blogger Zman let's loose with a blast along those lines here.

Yet Pluckrose and Lindsay line up the libertarians (or at least a significant strain of such thought) with the premodern right:
Premodernism valorizes simplicity and purity that it imagines in terms of Natural roles, Laws, and Rights. It feels these have been subverted by the growth of institutions and complex social structures. It also deeply distrusts expertise for a wide variety of complicated reasons, including a certain self-assured and yet self-pitying resentment of sociocultural betterment, the undermining of “Natural” roles, the questioning and challenging of traditional values, and engineering in the social, cultural, and political spheres.
In the case of libertarians, particularly, a major influence is the political theory of Friedrich Hayek, who saw the increasing centralized regulation by government in the more recent Modern period as a gradual return to serfdom which threatens to bring about totalitarianism. In The Road to Serfdom, he argues, mirroring the postmodernists, that knowledge and truth is, in this way, inextricably linked to and constructed by power structures. Here and in The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek levied influential but profoundly dubious criticisms of rationalism in the forms of the expertise used in the planning and organization of socio-economic programs because, he argued, man’s knowledge is always limited. He warned that rationalism pushes a form of destructive perfectionism which disregards older traditions and values and restricts individual liberty.
The Road to Serfdom is not a very long book, yet remarkably often gets misrepresented. It is not a screed against regulation, still less against the welfare state, but against centralised economic planning. And if you think there is something wrong with the thesis that command economies and free societies (including democracy) are incompatible, I refer you to the right-in-front-of-our-eyes case of Venezuela.

It is many years since I read the book, but I do not remember any "mirroring the postmodernists" about knowledge and truth. Hayek's point was that command economies, by their nature, suppress and distort information, a key claim in the economic calculation debate.

The dispersed nature of knowledge was a key part of his thinking, distilled in his classic (and highly influential) 1945 essay The Use of Knowledge in Society.  Hayek's point about the limitations of states as users and shapers of information have since been revisited by James C. Scott (no libertarian he) in his contemporary classic Seeing Like A State.

Modernity or modernism?
It is useful to distinguish between modernity, well characterised by Pluckrose and Lindsay, and modernism which can be distilled down to the presumption that new is always better. That before the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, before the rise of modernity, humanity had failed to discover any useful about the human condition or human societies, it was all a fog of ignorance and superstition which needs to be rejected root-and-branch. It is an arrogant vice of modernity, which has been at times highly destructive and given us the recurring horrors of modern architecture.

To point out that our ancestors were not morons and failures just because they lived before modernity got underway is not to reject modernity. As some of those pre-modern legacies include Roman Law, the common law and Parliaments, not to mention Euclidean geometry and the Pythagorean scale, we are not entitled to such arrogance. Indeed, the Enlightenment itself was yet another dipping into the memory well of the Classical legacy, a feature less than entirely absent from the Scientific Revolution itself.

Limits and confidence
To explore the limits of reason and knowledge, and the limits of the human, is not to reject reason or knowledge. And there clearly are information limits on what states can manage to effectively do. The entire history of command economies is a lesson in that, which is precisely why the Beijing and Hanoi regimes have so profoundly wound back their command economies, to the great benefit of their citizens. 

One of the reasons libertarianism attracts such animus is precisely because it casts doubt on the capacities of the state, which threatens confidence in many people's favourite social transformation toy. That does not remotely put libertarianism outside the realm of modernity, still less make it premodern.

Lindsay and Pluckrose continue their attack on libertarianism:
This dim right-leaning view of individual liberty is paradoxically shared in considerable degree by the more culturally permissive premodern branch of anti-modern libertarians. Libertarians, particularly American ones, are distinguished by their insistences upon individual liberty being an unrivaled good. Yet theirs is a peculiar view of liberty that, despite being based in many of Modernity’s values, is overly narrow in its focus only upon restrictions of liberty issued by the state and thus rapidly ceases to be compatible with the institutions that enable Modernity. The oft-quoted epigram on the rattlesnake-bearing Gadsden Flag, “don’t tread on me,” is a good summary of their naively optimistic view of society: just leave them alone and everything will be fine. A similar mentality is found in the kind of Brexiter who focuses on the big themes of “independence” and “sovereignty” (going light on the details), whilst accusing everyone still unhappy about it of being undemocratic.
Which may make such folk wrong or misguided, but does not remotely make them enemies of modernity. Trying to insist that everyone line up in the "right sort" of modernity is quite different from a broad-based defence of modernity and is, in fact, somewhat antithetical to such a defence.

Modernity grew up in a period when states did far less than they currently do; in fact less than most contemporary libertarians (and certainly less than Hayek himself) would be comfortable with them doing. The claim that libertarian's "peculiar view of liberty"  "rapidly ceases to be compatible with the institutions that enable Modernity" is a deeply dubious one. The notion of spontaneous order that such view of liberty typically rest on may well be overstated, but is not remotely an anti-modernity idea: on the contrary, it is one of the ornaments of the Enlightenment. Yes, it has some premodern precursors, most obviously in the Tao, but only those suffering from the modernist arrogance would see that has somehow disabling. 

Antipathy to commerce
There is a long tradition of academics and intellectuals being antithetical to commerce. The superficial forms of the complaints change according to prevailing intellectual fashions, but the underlying complaints are remarkably consistent -- merchants are amoral, they make outrageously more money than decent moral folk (such as academics and intellectuals), they get in the way of (the current scheme for) social harmony. 

Commerce is indeed dynamic, risky and generates high income variance as a result. But it would be nice if intellectuals and academics could get over their angst about it: though, at two-and-half-millennia and counting, they probably won't. But that angst spills over into denunciations of that dreaded contemporary bug-bear neoliberalism and, in this case, libertarianism.

Reading Lindsay and Pluckrose's critique, I fail to see characteristics of actual libertarianism. One can read magazines such as Regulation, and the other publications of the Cato Institute, or Reason magazine (note the title) in vain for some attack on, or rejection of, modernity. To contest the direction of public policy, even profoundly, is not to reject modernity. Indeed, contesting the direction of public policy is almost a defining aspect of modernity.

About that state
What makes Pluckrose and Lindsay's attack on libertarianism even more misconceived is that they complain that postmodernists are a "tiny minority" yet wield disproportionate power. Indeed, and how do they do that? Primarily through the ever-expanding organs and networks of the diversity state, notably hitchhiking on "diversity" operating as a managerial ideology.

The recent memo from the US National Labor Relations Board that stated that referring to psychometric literature on sex differences is "discriminatory and sexual harassment" is a direct attack on use of scientific evidence in debate from within the bowels of the diversity state. The attack on due process in campuses Laura Kipnis so amusingly skewers came directly from the famous US Department of Education Title IX "Dear Colleague" letter.

Where do the indoctrinated products of PoMo social constructionist university education go? Into University administration, the organs of the administrative state, and corporate HR departments working off legal mandates. All those mid-level bureaucratic positions that the administrative state multiplies so steadily. Are Pluckrose and Lindsay still going to imply that modernity requires confidence, apparently expanding confidence, in the capacities of the state for social betterment?

Having made these way-overplayed critiques of libertarianism, that critique subsequently disappears from the essay. Libertarians have nothing to do with the patterns critiqued in the rest of the essay.

This is hardly surprising, as libertarians are something of an “in between” group, tending to be economic and social liberalisers. Pro-migration, pro-free trade, pro same-sex marriage, pro drug legalisation, police-power-sceptical: in terms of the left/right divide, this is something of an “offshore balancer” role. It clearly does not intensify the left-right debate and there is nothing in this list which is, in any way, anti-modernity.

Pluckrose and Lindsay's critique of libertarianism smacks of a lack of genuine familiarity with what is being critiqued intermixed with ideological antipathy that sits poorly with underlying message and intent of the essay which, in its own terms, is to encourage a broad coalition in defence of modernity. Sounds good to me, but let's include libertarians in, where they belong.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]


  1. C. B. Macpherson was a political philosopher who placed a genuinely novel interpretation on the history of political thought in The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke when the book appeared in 1962. Macpherson was a Canadian philosopher who influenced quite a few young scholars in the 1970s in North America and Great Britain. Macpherson offered the basis of a strong critique of a certain kind of liberalism -- the liberalism that places essentially the whole normative weight on the value of the individual and his/her liberties, and essentially no emphasis on the social obligations we all have towards each other. A first wave of criticism of narrow liberalism took this form:

    The repair that was needed [to liberal theory] was one that would bring back a sense of the moral worth of the individual, and combine it again with a sense of the moral value of community, which had been present in some measure in the Puritan and Lockean theory. (2)

    But Macpherson feels the need to go further:

    The present study … suggests that the difficulties of modern liberal-democratic theory lie deeper than had been thought, that the original seventeenth-century individualism contained the central difficulty, which lay in its possessive quality. Its possessive quality is found in its conception of the individual as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them. The individual was seen neither as a moral whole, nor as part of larger social whole, but as an owner of himself. The relation of ownership, having become for more and more men the critically important relation determining their actual freedom and actual prospect of realizing their full potentialities, was read back into the nature of the individual. the individual, it was thought, is free inasmuch as he is proprietor of his person and capacities. The human essence is freedom from dependence on the wills of others, and freedom is a function of possession. Society becomes a lot of free equal individuals related to each other as proprietors of their own capacities and of what they have acquired by their exercise. Society consists of exchange between proprietors. (3)

    1. ... It is worthwhile drawing out the connections between possessive individualism and conservative libertarian political groups in the present. The Tea Party seems to be a contemporary descendant of this ideology. Taxation is theft; the state has no legitimate role beyond protecting individual security and property; government regulation of private business activity is an immoral intrusion on liberty and property; individuals possess liberties and property that the state cannot limit; individuals deserve what they own and owe nothing to society or other citizens. Justice is served by simply protecting the possessions of individual citizens. Robert Nozick seems to have represented many of these values in Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

      Those who favor a more expansive vision of a democratic society have several core values that conflict with these: Individuals have obligations to other members of society; government has the responsibility of protecting the wellbeing of the least advantaged in society; government has the responsibility of protecting the public good against harmful effects of private activities; decisions about public policies can and should be made through effective institutions of democratic self-determination; inequalities of wealth and power need to be restrained to ensure the political voice of the whole of society. Taxation is legitimate for at least three different reasons: it is a legitimate policy tool for limiting wealth inequalities to levels consistent with democratic equality; it is a legitimate vehicle for redistributing income to satisfy the requirement of providing a social minimum; and it is legitimate as a source of revenue needed to accomplish the public functions of the state, including provision of public goods and regulation of environment, labor, air safety, food safety, and the like. Justice is served by creating a system of legislation and policy that ensures the dignity and democratic rights of all members of society. John Rawls expresses most of these value in Justice as Fairness: A Restatement.

      Our political sphere could still use a powerful and unifying theory providing a justification for these social democratic ideas. So Macpherson's voice is still relevant, almost fifty years later."

      Pluckrose and Lindsay's critique of libertarianism, therefore, stands.

    2. There is a difference between saying that there are grounds to critique libertarianism (obviously true) and that libertarianism is anti-modernity. Nothing in what you adduce demonstrates the latter.

    3. Sure it does.

      "Modernity is worth fighting for if you enjoy and wish others to enjoy the benefits of a first-world existence in relative safety and with high degrees of individual liberty that can express itself in functional societies."

      Can you name one prominent libertarian political party that is both economically and socially liberal, in the exact opposite way that the right-libertarian Freedom Party of Austria, for instance, is economically liberal and socially conservative? Because for the life of me, I sure can't think of one. You see, the key here is "individual liberty that can express itself in functional societies", not just in theory. One could argue that it is possible in theory for a Muslim society to be both Muslim and modern, as evidenced by the countless books with the words "Islam" and "modernity" on its front covers. But one would be hard-pressed to name even one actual example of a real, functional Muslim society that is, in fact, modern, if by modern one means what we all usually mean: pro-gay rights and pro-women's rights. That the most prominent American elected official who identifies as libertarian is also anti-abortion and anti-gay plainly demonstrates the "functional" difficulties of your theoretical assertion that libertarianism is not anti-modern.

  2. The platform of the Libertarian Party of the USA is both economically and socially liberal (though not 'liberal' in the bizarre US sense).

    The UK or US in the later C19th or early C20th were functional societies and busy being very modern. The notion that an extensive welfare state is required for functionality is bizarre. Would we claim that Hong Kong is not a modern society or a functional one?

    1. I said "prominent." The US Libertarian Party is a negligible entity that holds virtually no power at any level of the US government. It has never controlled a state or the federal senate, a state assembly or the House of Representatives, a governorship or the presidency.

      The UK or US in the later C19th or early C20th were governed by libertarian parties? But I suppose one could argue that they were "functional societies and busy being very modern" indeed, but let's not forget why: "'slave-generated profits were large enough to have covered a quarter to a third of Britain’s overall investment needs.' Without the slave plantations, it is unlikely that Britain would have been able to industrialize, or to forge an empire, as it did." Ditto with the US.

      As for Hong Kong, the question, of course, is functional for whom?

  3. I never said they were governed by libertarian parties: you were trying to argue that somehow an extensive welfare state was a necessary part of modernity: the history shows clearly not. And you keep missing the point, which is not that any of these societies were perfect, or that libertarianism is beyond criticism, but that it is not anti-modernity, a claim which none of your arguments successfully sustain.

    1. I asked you for a simple thing: "name one prominent libertarian political party that is both economically and socially liberal" -- that is to say, "modern" -- and you couldn't. Centuries of modern political history and you couldn't. So maybe what's "misconceived" here is not their attack on libertarianism, which is grounded in reality, but rather your defense of it, which is grounded in mere theory. Indeed, for a critic of postmodernism, you sure act like a postmodernist. Mimetic rivalry, perhaps?

    2. So



    3. I know, right?

      Brought to us by the modern Democratic Party. See, Lorenzo? It's actually quite easy when reality's got your back.

    4. Libertarianism is too recent a political philosophy to have centuries of anything. Which rather goes to its modernity. And it does indeed have a weak political presence, which makes targeting it as some enemy of modernity even weirder. That some libertarians are pro-life does not make them enemies of modernity (and, even if it did, most libertarians aren't). As for same-sex marriage, that was brought by the Supreme Court and a longstanding campaign which the Democrat Party was late to.

      None of what you cite shows Libertarianism to be an enemy of modernity. Disagree with it all you like, but that is an entirely different matter.

      Defining modernity so narrowly that more and more people are outside it is both false and dumb politics. Taking same-sex marriage as a defining characteristic of modernity is just silly, as it was a non-issue until the last couple of decades.

    5. No weirder than claiming credit for something libertarians qua libertarians did not do ("The UK or US in the later C19th or early C20th were functional societies and busy being very modern").

      Brought by the liberal justices of the Supreme Court, most of whom are Democratic appointees, courtesy of the infamous "judicial activist" (read: liberal) reading of the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which is abhorred by libertarians and conservatives alike.

      Oh, and I never said same-sex marriage was a defining characteristic of modernity. I just gave a real example of a real achievement of a real political party that is really, in fact, modern -- something you can't seem to do for libertarianism, probably because not only is it not, in fact, modern, more often than not, it has also allied itself with the sworn enemies of modernity, which, come to think of it, might very well account for its well-earned obscurity. Talk about "false and dumb politics."

    6. When push comes to shove,

      pro-free trade (money) > pro-migration, pro same-sex marriage, pro drug legalisation, police-power-sceptical #Libertarianism101

      And they have the audacity to consider themselves modern.

    7. What is libertarianism, after all, but conservatism in new clothes?

      "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." --John Kenneth Galbraith, Statesman of the Democratic Party

      Peace out.

    8. Now that is just getting silly.

  4. I have a copy-editing bone to pick.

    "Indeed, the most potentially fruitful lines of attack on libertarianism would be to accuse it of being a particularly autistic manifestation of modernity."

    Wasn't it awesome when "retarded" was an acceptable thing to say? Wasn't it peachy-keen when it was the done thing to describe anything you didn't like as "gay"?

    Speaking as someone with as ASD diagnosis, I was wondering whether you might like to rephrase that.

    1. The term has a specific usage in economic debates.

  5. 'And if you think there is something wrong with the thesis that command economies and free societies (including democracy) are incompatible, I refer you to the right-in-front-of-our-eyes case of Venezuela.'

    Funny how littler attention this fact gets. Especially since Venezuela is today living the nightmare that Chile avoided in the 1970s, by ending the Allende regime. Cuba being the power behind the throne in both cases.

    1. Quite. My wider thesis is that one only starts getting bargaining politics if there is sufficient private control of surplus. In a command economy, the government controls all the surplus, so no bargaining politics (except power struggles within the state apparatus).

  6. Excellent exposition. Would never be allowed in one our universities.

  7. I think in 50 years, or whatever it is, when top secret files get cleared, we will gain a lot of insight into what happened in Benghazi. That was some crazy cia hideout, god knows what they were doing there.Libertarian Caller Attacks

  8. this is part of the problem with conspiracy theorists.. they believe that government is really really incompetent.Then when it comes to things like Benghazi all of a sudden they are master minds.happy halloween images

  9. I really like and appreciate your post.Thanks Again. Keep writing.