Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Few Words on Ludwig Von Mises' "Liberalism"

Hot on the heels of the first, comes this, the second in our series of articles examining the claims of the American "Libertarians" on liberalism:

Of all the fringe oddballs and pompous windbags waved around by today's "Libertarians" as intellectual godfathers, Ludwig Von Mises wins the grand prize as the windiest. Mises' protracted prose, rendered into English, is a never-ending agony for those who naively wander into it in the mistaken belief that the author may have had something of value to say. The ugly truth about Mises is that, for all his wind, his work amounts to an intellectual vacuum. It could be safely ignored in serious intellectual circles in Mises' lifetime, as, indeed, it largely was, and, left to stand on its own merits, would have been completely forgotten decades ago, as, indeed, it largely was, outside of the "Libertarian" community and its forerunners. His continuing popularity among "Libertarians" rests solely on the fact that he peddled the nonsense they want to hear; a crank speaking, down through the ages, to his descendants.

In 1927, Mises wrote a massive tome (as was his habit) called "Liberalism," which purported to explain and intended to advance ideas Mises labeled "liberalism."

But what is this "liberalism"? Here, Mises has a problem. From his introduction:

"If one wants to know what liberalism is and what it aims at, one cannot simply turn to history for the information and inquire what the liberal politicians stood for and what they accomplished. For liberalism nowhere succeeded in carrying out its program as it had intended."

Okay, setting aside the questionable soundness of the rationale, scratch that. Where are we to turn? By the time Mises was writing, liberal ideas had a pretty long literary pedigree. Maybe to know what liberalism is, one should read what the liberals wrote?


"Nor does it any longer suffice today to form one's idea of liberalism from a study of the writings of its great founders."

Having, then, just ruled out literally everything, insofar as history is concerned, to what is one supposed to look for an understanding of liberalism?

Why, to Mises himself, of course. He tells us:

"Liberalism is not a completed doctrine or a fixed dogma. On the contrary: it is the application of the teachings of science to the social life of man."

Speaking from an understanding of the history of liberal ideas--that history the study of which Mises has disparaged--the first part of that is quite correct. Liberalism has an underlying set of principles and embraces the concept of utilitarianism with regard to artificial institutions. It's always trying to bring those institutions more in line with its principles, holding, as it does, that to do so better serves the happiness and welfare of mankind.

Mises' invocation of science, however, is a warning signal.

As a general rule, it's advisable to be very cautious when science is invoked in this sort of work. Mises, advocating a doctrine, is about to tell the reader, at staggering length, what "liberalism" is, and, as Marx did with socialism, he's invoking the name of science to cover what he's about to say. The invocation sets up the implication that liberals (as Mises chooses to define them) are scientists, and, conversely, that those who oppose liberalism (also as Mises chooses to define it) are advocating things counter to science. The social Darwinists--Mises' predecessors in trying to appropriate the word "liberalism" for themselves--did the same thing, saying they were only following "the iron laws of nature."[1] And, if it needs to be said, they weren't.

While caution about the invocation of science in such a work is advisable, in general, it is particularly advisable when the invocation comes from Mises and the "Austrian school" cult to which he belonged.

Mises and the other "Austrian school" cultists don't believe in science.

In what they label as "science," they reject the scientific method, which develops theories from observations, then tests them, rejecting or modifying them if new data contradicting the theory presents itself. The "Austrians Schoolers" place their faith, instead, in a priori "theories," which, they argue, should be developed without reference to experience, and, if believed to be logically sound, maintained as correct, even if seemingly disproven by all experience. Rather than drawing their assumptions from data, Mises and the other "Austrian Schoolers" attempt to apply their preconceived notions to data, rendering their work no different--and no more valuable--than that of "creation science."[2]

So when Mises invokes "science" in explaining "liberalism," the prudent reader should begin to reach for his wallet. Mises is alerting his readers that he's about to apply the "Austrian method" to liberalism, which is exactly what he proceeds to do. Having ruled out, in the matter of defining liberalism, both what liberals have advocated and what they have written, the author delivers this final touch, a little later in the book:

"We have already said that the program of present-day liberalism has outgrown that of the older liberalism, that it is based on a deeper and better insight into interrelationships, since it can reap the benefit of the advances that science has made in the last decades."

So much for the entire historical record, when it comes to defining liberalism. We're left with Mises alone. And that's all we get. That this is a book about "liberalism" that openly disparages the study of the history of liberalism would, alone, be rather damning, but those brave enough (or crazy enough) to wade through this torturous tome will inevitably notice what is still, even after the author's dismissals of the value of the historical record, a rather glaring omission:

The liberals.

Despite the books' great length and breadth, one struggles in vain to find quotes from any of them, references to them, even much in the way of a passing mention. They really only turn up in an appendix, "Literature of Liberalism," which appears to have been added in a subsequent edition of the book many years after its initial publication. And that appendix is rather telling. It isn't, the author says, meant to be a comprehensive survey, just what he calls "the most important literature." That assertion, along with the appendix itself, shows how truly shallow his understanding of the tradition really is. John Stuart Mill, easily the major liberal writer of the 19th century, is described as important, but only because, Mises tells us, he represents the descent of liberalism into socialism (and for Mises, as with so many of his latter-day followers, calling someone a socialist is the highest insult). Liberalism exploded in the 17th and 18th centuries (particularly the 18th), but Mises lists nothing from the 17th--not a single text--and virtually nothing from the 18th--while including only four books from the whole of the 18th century, Mises lists, further down, seven of his own books.[3] Outside of that appendix, the liberals are almost completely absent. It's just a monologue, in the strongest possible sense of that word. Mises' Liberalism by Mises.

What, then, is the conscientious reader to make of this strange text? A large book that purports to be about "liberalism," but discourages the study of the history of liberalism, doesn't quote the liberals, doesn't really even refer to any liberals, except in an appendix, written by an author who doesn't seem to know anything about liberalism, and who invokes science to cover what he writes but doesn't believe in science.

Perhaps its time for "Libertarians" to let this one go.


[1] Mises goes rather far in his invocation of science, offering a chapter that purports to negatively psychoanalyze advocates of "antiliberalism," a move of breathtaking audacity for a "liberal" who, only a few chapters later, praises fascism for saving civilization.

[2] In "Epistemological Problems of Economics," Mises, advancing his faith in a priori "theories," writes that "no kind of experience can ever force us to discard or modify a priori theorems; they are logically prior to it and cannot be either proved by corroborative experience or disproved by experience to the contrary... [A] proposition of an aprioristic theory can never be refuted by experience." That is, of course, why real scientists don't use that approach. In "Human Action," Mises argues that experience "can never... prove or disprove any particular theorem... The ultimate yardstick of an economic theorem's correctness or incorrectness is solely reason unaided by experience." To put a finer point on it, Mises, again from "Epistemological Problems":

"If a contradiction appears between a theory and experience, we always have to assume that a condition presupposed by the theory was not present, or else that there is some error in our observation... If the facts do not confirm the theory, the cause perhaps may lie in the imperfection of the theory. The disagreement between the theory and the facts of experience consequently forces us to think through the problems of the theory again. But so long as a re-examination of the theory uncovers no errors in our thinking, we are not entitled to doubt its truth."

[3] Perhaps the books' greatest example of its author's politics and his profound lack of understanding of liberalism comes in a chapter dedicated to praising fascism, which was just beginning to fill fill mass graves in Europe:

"It cannot be denied that fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has, for the moment, saved European civilization. The merit that fascism has thereby won for itself will live eternally in history."

Rather than seeing fascism--one of the major counter-liberal movements of the 20th century--as fundamentally wrongheaded, Mises only disagreement with the fascists, in that chapter, was over a technical question of tactics. Many years later, when his position became politically untenable, he suddenly changed it, began portraying the fascists as socialists (demonstrating that his understanding of politics hadn't improved a bit), and trashed them with the same venom as he had the Bolsheviks.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Of Means & Ends

The first in an intended series of articles from Classical Liberals aimed at examining the American "Libertarian" claims on the classical liberal tradition:

The "Libertarians" of today certainly aren’t the first. In the last century-and-a-half, various attempts have been made to steal the good name of liberalism and apply it to things that aren’t liberalism and all, and that are just as often its opposite. Herbert Spencer, the Founding Father of conservative social Darwinism, tried to rob the word in this manner in The Man vs. The State. Ludwig Von Mises of the right-wing "Austrian School" did the same in 1927 in, appropriately enough, Liberalism. Today’s "Libertarians," following in this dismal practice, are only the latest in a long line of verbal brigands [1], and they now string together these past usurpations as a "tradition"--one they, of course, designate as "liberalism."

Contemporary liberalism, say the Libertarians, has abandoned the tradition and become something that isn’t liberalism at all. The phrase "classical liberalism" itself is meant to suggest a division between the tradition and the contemporary. "...we now refer to the philosophy of individual rights, free markets, and limited government--the philosophy of Locke, Smith, and Jefferson--as classical liberalism,” writes David Boaz of the Cato Institute. [2] This division is necessary, says Boaz, because the word liberalism has, today, “been claimed by those who advocate neither society nor liberty." Boaz's agenda here, mirroring that of the other Libertarians who argue this same point, is simply to appropriate the prestige of the real tradition for themselves (and, by extension, to deny it to those to whom it rightly belongs.).

How do the "Libertarian" larcenists make the claim on liberalism?

Their "analysis," if the word can, without losing all meaning, be sufficiently degraded to cover what is essentially a flim-flam show, aims primarily at reading backwards into liberalism the various marginal strains of thought--often blatantly illiberal strains of thought--which make up their own ideology.

One of the ways in which they go about this is by confounding the ends of liberalism with the means; the mechanics by which its principles are affected for the principles themselves. A liberal, using this approach, is reduced to the simple purveyor of a program, someone who advocates Policy A, B, and C, rather than someone who holds to Principle A, B, and C and tries to craft policy based upon said principles. The policy prescriptions used to represent "classical liberalism" are, of course, carefully cherry-picked to reflect contemporary "Libertarian" concerns (the far more numerous ones that would conflict with those concerns are just as carefully avoided). Obviously, a policy prescription designed for a given set of circumstances at a given point in history may not be valid or even relevant under different circumstances, but one of the defining characteristics of "Libertarianism" is its strong preference for ephemeral abstractions over concrete, real-world considerations, and the "Libertarians," in making their claim on liberalism, generally eschew the proper context. The policy is said to be the substance of classical liberal thought, and constructed in place of the eschewed original reasoning for it is the melange of bizarre and marginal strains of thought that make up the ideology of the "Libertarian" larcenists; strains of thought which the early liberals would have found utterly alien and quite disagreeable. By the end of this flim-flam, the views of noxious social Darwinists, "Austrian School" cranks, the Objectivist cult, right-wing economists of the "Chicago School," and the like--the actual forefathers of the American "Libertarian" movement--are said to be the inheritors of the liberal tradition.

The late Jefferson scholar Eyler Robert Coates identified this practice in the attempts by Objectivist "Libertarians" to co-opt Thomas Jefferson into an ideological forefather:

"Orthodox Objectivists--those who adhere strictly to the original teachings of Ayn Rand--do not treat Jefferson's thought as a complete philosophical system. Rather, they treat his writings as a resource from which they can extract a few isolated thoughts and use them to support their own positions. This causes them to ignore other thoughts of Jefferson that do not fit their purposes, and that put those more acceptable statements of Jefferson in a different light."

Coates politely but thoroughly debunked these efforts in a series of essays, "Objectivism and Thomas Jefferson." Similar essays could be written about the efforts of each branch of the "Libertarians" to co-opt the liberals. The liberals, who placed a premium on reason and experience and voraciously consumed history in an effort to uncover its lessons for the present, would be horrified by the wholesale rejection, by the denizens of the "Austrian School," of experience in guiding policy.[3] The Spencerite social Darwinists offered, as rationale for their policy prescriptions, an ideological construct that reinvented exactly the same sort of absolutism against which liberalism originally arose in opposition. And so on.

Amy Sturgis offers a revisionist survey of liberalism [4] that throws the early liberals under the same "classical liberal" banner as the later "Libertarian" larcenists, purporting to trace the tradition of liberalism from the former to the latter. She applies four criteria "to determine if an idea or individual fits within this intellectual tradition":

"An ethical emphasis on the individual as a rights-bearer prior to the existence of any state, community, or society; the support of the right of property carried to its economic conclusion, a free-market system; the desire for a limited constitutional government to protect individuals' rights from others and from its own expansion; and the universal (global and ahistorical) applicability of these above convictions."

Sturgis doesn't quantify items like "free-market system" or "limited constitutional government," but the "individuals and movements" she identifies as her survey moves through the 19th and into the 20th century certainly did. They're the usual suspects--Austrians, Objectivists, etc.--and though their views are at odds--often violently so--with the legitimate liberal tradition, she manages to include nearly all of them.

Perhaps as telling as these inclusions, though, is an exclusion.

Sturgis wholly excludes the early Utilitarians from the classical liberal tradition because of their utilitarianism; they "accepted limited rights and market economics as long as they provided the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Classical liberal ends thus served as convenient means to them, but the eventual ends they sought betrayed an intellectual collectivism incompatible with the above criteria."

Is it truly incompatible with classical liberalism, though? Hardly. The body of thought rightfully encompassed by the title "liberalism" is vast and varied, but it's born of assumptions that came to prominence in the Enlightenment, the foremost one being that man has intrinsic value [5]. His happiness and welfare matter, and, by extension, form the yardstick against which the institutions of society are to be measured. Those institutions are created to promote his happiness and welfare, and if they fail to do so, it is his right to change them or to dismantle them altogether and erect, in their place, ones that will. This is the utilitarianism for which Sturgis would excommunicate Jeremy Bentham & co. from liberalism, and it appears in the work of the classical liberals from the beginning.[6]

It’s right there in the American Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying it’s foundation on such principles, and organizing it’s powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness." [7]

John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, as "Cato," put the same proposition this way:

"Where the interest of the governors and that of the governed dash, there can be no stated judge between them… if they themselves do not amicably determine the dispute between themselves, heaven alone must. In such case, recourse must be had to the first principles of government itself; which being a departure from the state of nature, and a union of many families forming themselves into a political machine for mutual protection and defence, it is evident, that this formed relation can continue no longer than the machine subsists and can act; and when it does not, the individuals must return to their former state again. No constitution can provide against what will happen, when that constitution is dissolved. Government is only an appointment of one or more persons, to do certain actions for the good and emolument of the society; and if the persons thus interested will not act at all, or act contrary to their trust, their power must return of course to those who gave it." [8]

The assumption is always that, if the institution doesn’t serve its proper end--to effect the safety and happiness of the people--it could be torn down and replaced with one that would. "The equal rights of man and the happiness of every individual are the only legitimate objects of government," so says Jefferson. "Cato" put it this way: "All governments, under whatsoever form they are administered, ought to be administered for the good of the society; when they are otherwise administered, they cease to be government, and become usurpation."[9]

If one lacks the freedom to pursue happiness, one isn’t likely to ever find it, so inherent in this formulation--the thing which makes it "liberal"--is the belief that liberty is a necessary component of human happiness and welfare. The "natural rights" liberals held to this; their Utilitarian liberal cousins, whom Sturgis would excommunicate, held to it, as well.

The liberals’ advocacy of, broadly, a limited constitutional government came not from the thin air, as Sturgis would have it, but from the analysis just outlined. "We ought to consider what is the end of government, before we determine which is the best form. Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government…. From this principle it will follow, that the form of government which communicates ease, comfort, security, or, in one word, happiness, to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best" [10]. A limited constitutional government was believed to be the best means to serve this end, but always implicit is the idea that, if it didn’t, something else could be--indeed, should be--tried. [11] "Whatever the form or Constitution of Government may be, it ought to have no other object than the general happiness. When instead of this, it operates to create and increase wretchedness, in any of the parts of society, it is on a wrong system and reformation is necessary."[12]

The liberal’s argument for a property right, to use Sturgis’ other example, was premised on this notion as well, that it was an institution they believed would serve these ends. Indeed, the ability to maintain property, held the liberals of the "natural rights" school, was one of the central reasons man had abandoned the "state of nature" and formed governments. Property, they felt, was insufficiently secure in a "state of nature," but needed to be secured for certain reasons. The most obvious is survival--as Locke says, "men, being once born, have a right to their preservation, and consequently to meat and drink and such other things as Nature affords for their subsistence" [13]. Then there was the matter of "those advantages which flow from agriculture, arts, science and manufactures" [14], which the liberals held couldn’t be maintained in a "state of nature."

In setting aside the question of why liberals supported such things, Sturgis leaves the reader with the impression that liberalism is nothing more than the mechanical espousal of prefabricated prescriptions for government, fixed in time and unresponsive to evolution. Presumably, Sturgis’ "liberalism" simply fell from the sky one day, fully grown and never aged thereafter. Containing it in this manner allows it to be employed as an ideological weapon, without any of the potential consequences of allowing its real ideas a fair hearing. This goes a long way toward explaining the popularity of this approach among "Libertarians." Sturgis has been singled out, but her work is typical of Libertarian revisionism in this area. They support a certain form of government. They support a right to a certain form of property. Their mangling of liberal theory is simply an attempt, through an appeal to the reverance in which the classical liberals are rightly held, to remove from the scope of debate any questions about the dimensions and the legitimacy of these things; to create a way to advocate them without having to argue in their favor; to make them ends unto themselves--a form of absolutism, no different than the Divine Right of Kings [15].

All in the name of liberalism, no less!


[1] The very word they use to describe themselves today, libertarian, is stolen, cynically appropriated in the 1950s and 60s from the anarchists, who had provided the political meaning of the word for a century prior to that.

[2] The Cato Institute is a Libertarian think-tank which takes its name from Cato's Letters, a series of essays from the 18th century by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon.

[3] In fact, the Utilitarian liberals' perceived disrespect for the lessons of history frequently sent the "natural rights" liberals into conniptions.

[4] The Rise, Decline, and Reemergence of Classical Liberalism (1994)

[5] This alone excludes immediately the "pro-capitalist" ideologies that emerged in the Industrial Revolution, claiming to hold the title of liberalism but in reality utterly rejecting this basic premise and substituting in its place the idea that man has only market value. Whether under the title of "social Darwinist" or "Libertarian" or any other, the premise of these ideologies is always the same, and never is it that of liberalism.

[6] The Utilitarians were attempting to create a practical, applied version of the "natural law" liberals' formulation--that which produces the greatest happiness to the greatest number of individuals is what should be done. The implication of Sturgis' comments, on the other hand, is that the "natural law" liberals would have endorsed institutions that were blatantly destructive to the people's happiness and welfare!

[7] The Declaration of Indpependence (1776)

[8] Cato's Letter #59: Liberty proved to be the unalienable Right of all Mankind

[9] Ibid.

[10] John Adams, Thoughts on Government, 1776. The unanimity on this point can’t be overstated. Adams, whose liberal tendencies were fleeting, at best, held to it, as did William Godwin, who represents the opposite (radical) end of the liberal spectrum: "…the only regulations which any political authority can be justly entitled to enforce are such as are best adapted to public utility… One form of government is preferable to another in exact proportion to the security it affords that nothing shall be done in the name of the community which is not conducive to the welfare of the whole. The question therefore, What it is which is thus conducive, is upon every account entitled to the first place in our disquisitions." (Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice, Book II, Ch. 1, 1793)

[11] Sturgis is quite correct in her comment that the liberals believed that, for government to serve this end, it must protect individual rights.

[12] Thomas Paine, The Rights Of Man, Book 2, Ch. V, (1792)

[13] Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Ch. 5 (1690).

[14] Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice, 1798.

[15] The Libertarians, while making "property rights" absolutist in this way, have allowed the category itself to expand exponentially, placing more and more power under the shield of absolutism. Their version of the concept today is a monstrosity the liberals wouldn’t have recognized.


Comments, as always, are welcome.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Church & State: A Task Before Us

Back around the end of 2007, U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, a cretinous imbecile of a Republican that the 4th District in Virginia has viciously chosen to inflict upon its country, created a noxious little resolution "affirming the rich spiritual and religious history of our Nation’s founding and subsequent history..." The resolution went about "affirming" that with a very long series of "whereas" clauses about that alleged history. These are, in the words of Chris Rodda, who ably dismantled the text last year,
packed with the same American history lies found on the Christian nationalist websites, and in the books of pseudo-historians like David Barton.
Barton is the #1 source in the U.S. for this sort of pseudo-historical garbage. Rodda mentions Barton, and even notes things in the resolution that are quoted all-but-verbatim from Barton, but, in my view, the degree of Barton's influence over the total document is underplayed. Nearly all of the phony factoids Forbes employs have been used by Barton over the years--I suspect he is Forbes' direct source for nearly all of them. Forbes certainly shows no evidence of having done any original research.

A few years ago, I wrote a pretty good piece about Barton's lies with regard to James Madison. I think it's one of the better articles on Barton. Not because I think I'm a better writer than anyone else--the article was banged out relatively quickly, and has plenty of shortcomings--but because it demonstrates Barton's method in a more comprehensive manner than any of the other many articles about him. Barton's critics tend to focus on single aspects of his method, such as his use of phony quotations or phony anecdotes. My own shows how he systematically warps the entire historical record to support his predetermined conclusions.

And that's exactly what we're seeing in the Forbes proposal.

Barton's fingerprints are all over it, both in the individual details and in the overall picture it presents. Barton is a propagandist in the worst sense of the the word. He distorts real history beyond recognition, ignores facts that undercut his conclusions, and outright fabricates with no concern at all for accuracy. He and his followers aren't just peddlers of phony quotations. They offer, to a far-too-large segment of the public, a comprehensive view of history, one that serves their reactionary political ends perfectly, but which bears little or no resemblance to actual history.

This is a formidable obstacle for those of us who seek to combat this sort of revisionism, much more formidable than I think many of us have credited it with being. In the "history" offered by "Christian nationalism," we aren't just dealing with some false factoids that can be individually exposed. We're dealing with a vast and comprehensive mythology, one that has taken decades to build. It has proven to be so persistent because, in part, the sane among us don't challenge it in a more comprehensive manner. It's like Lear's lesson; a single arrow is easily broken, but a bundle of them are much tougher. We break the hell out of single arrows--the phony quotations, the bogus anecdotes, the removal of context, etc.--but that doesn't bring down the mythology itself. Expose a James Madison quote as a phony, the nationalists either ignore you and continue to repeat it (and those are the hopeless ones who don't care about the truth), or they merely chuck it, believing that one phony quotation does not amount to a challenge to the overall picture they've been led to believe. That Forbes resolution isn't merely 70-odd isolated pseudo-factoids; it's a representation of that mythology.

Those of us who would defend a policy of religious liberty do have to be able to make the usual philosophical and practical arguments in its favor, but we also have to be mindful of these historical distortions, and we must develop means to deal with them in a more effective way. In this, the internet can be our greatest ally or our greatest enemy. It gives us the means to disseminate information more quickly and more widely than ever before, but it allows misinformation to spread just as easily. I hope we can make of it a friend.

--j. of j. and Jenn

(Part of our Classical Liberals site is Church & State Issues, a modest little project aimed at combating, in a more comprehensive way, Christian nationalist historical mythology.)

Friday, December 26, 2008

Democracy & the Liberty Papers

Tuesday, the Liberty Papers, an American "Libertarian" blog, offered an illuminating rant against "democracy worship.", illuminating in its comments on a "Libertarian" view of democracy, at least.
It’s not that I’m opposed to majority rule; I’m opposed to unjust rule. Unjust rule is far more difficult to defeat when it is justified by "the will of the people."
It's also far less likely to occur in the first place. Trouble always follows a major disconnect between the government and the public.

The comment I've quoted, there, points to what is, from a liberal perspective, a bizarre quirk in American "Libertarian" thinking (perhaps "thinking" should be in quotes there, as well, in this instance). The theorists of liberal democracy wouldn't deny that unjust things can happen under democratic rule; they would, however, deny that an anti-democratic system was even capable of being "just rule." One is forever left with the impression that the ideal government as envisioned by American "Libertarians" is a dictatorship, one they'd regard as benevolent, that unvaryingly enacts their ideology, and over which the public has no say. Contrary to this, liberal theorists would argue that having a say in their own government is a fundamental right of every individual. Liberalism, as it emerged from the Enlightenment, is the eternal enemy of absolutism. A government over which we have no say is, by definition, unjust.

--j. of j. & Jenn

Monday, December 22, 2008

Social Darwinism, Conservatism, Liberalism

The body of ideas behind the branch of conservatism that would later come to call itself Libertarian first congealed into a comprehensive doctrine in the work of the social Darwinists of the 19th century. This is the school from which the streak of Libertarianism still to be found within conservatism is largely descended. "Descended," suggesting, as it does, a progression, is perhaps the wrong word--it hasn't really changed that much over the years (Rush Limbaugh, for example, is an almost purist exponent of social Darwinist ideas). When making a claim on the classical liberal tradition, these are the ideas those Libertarian conservatives most frequently associate with it, improperly reading them backwards into the liberalism of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The early SDs, in the time honored tradition of all conservative movements, created an ideology that justified the existing order of power and privilege, of ruler and ruled. In this respect, it was new only in that it made a pretense of giving these relations the imprematur of science (rather than resting it on, for example, religion). The way it worked was simple: society was said to be an organism that evolves by a process of "survival of the fittest." The existing order of rulers and ruled is, thus, "natural," having resulted from this process. The wealthy and powerful were said to be wealthy and powerful because they were the most economically fit. Want proof? Hey, they're wealthy and powerful! Similarly, someone mired in poverty is mired in poverty because he has proven unfit, and similarly the proof was that he was, in fact, mired in poverty. The wealthy and powerful must be allowed their wealth and power because to do otherwise would be to interfere with the "iron laws of nature" (preventing the species from progressing). The poor, on the other hand, must be left to their lot for the same reason--to do otherwise would be to preserve that which has proven "unfit." The SDs thus favored the doctrine of "laissez faire," advancing a notion of government neutrality with regard to economic matters, in order to allow people to rise or fall based on their merits.

The holes in this are more numerous than can be easily listed. The most obvious is that government isn't capable of neutrality. The rules it establishes, and, indeed, the premises that underpinned its form in the first place, allow certain outcomes and disallow others; codify certain interests and not others. SD doctrine assumes, without really saying, that those premises and those rules are as close to perfect as they could be: everything else is to be allowed to evolve--government is not. Even thinking about any substantive changes, in that area, was to be regarded with hostility--nothing drew forth more furious venom from an SD than a "reformer." SD doctrine is anti-democratic, pseudo-scientific, anti-historical, status-quo-affirming in the extreme, and doesn't even follow its own rules. Liberal and radical writers picked its bones clean over a century ago, yet we're still plagued by this body of discredited nonsense. Today's SDs offer only a minor shift in tone as the only real evidence those devastating critiques ever existed (they sometimes tend to be less blunt than their progenitors).

SD doctrine, if it needs to be said, is not classical liberalism. It's as alien to the liberalism of the 17th and 18th centuries as was the Divine Right of Kings (which it resembles). This will no doubt be a subject of much discussion here as time goes on. For the moment, though, here's a taste of the original SD vintage, some excerpts from WHAT SOCIAL CLASSES OWE TO EACH OTHER, by William Graham Sumner, at the time (1883) the foremost American prophet of the movement:


Certain ills belong to the hardships of human life. They are natural. They are part of the struggle with Nature for existence. We cannot blame our fellow-men for our share of these. My neighbor and I are both struggling to free ourselves from these ills. The fact that my neighbors have succeeded in this struggle better than I constitutes no grievance for me.

There is no possible definition of a "poor man." A pauper is a person who cannot earn his living; whose producing powers have fallen positively below his necessary consumption; who cannot, therefore, pay his way. A human society needs the active co-operation and productive energy of every person in it. A man who is present as a consumer, yet who does not contribute either by land, labor, or capital to the work of society, is a burden. On no sound political theory ought such a person to share in the political power of the State...

The man who has done nothing to raise himself above poverty finds that the social doctors flock about him, bringing the capital which they have collected from the other class, and promising him the aid of the State to give him what the other had to work for.

In all these schemes and projects, the organized intervention of society through the State is either planned or hoped for, and the State is thus made to become the protector and guardian of certain classes...

Society... does not need any care or supervision. If we can acquire a science of society, based on observation of phenomena and study of forces, we may hope to gain some ground slowly toward the elimination of old errors, and the re-establishment of a sound and natural social order. Whatever we gain that way will be growth, never in the world by any reconstruction of society on the plan of some enthusiastic social architect. The latter is only repeating the old error over again, and postponing all our chances of real improvement.

Society needs first of all to be freed from these meddlers--that is, to be let alone. Here we are, then, once more back to the old doctrine--laissez faire. Let us translate it into blunt English, and it will read, Mind your own business. It is nothing but the doctrine of liberty...

We never supposed that laissez faire would give us perfect happiness. We have left perfect happiness entirely out of our account. If the social doctors will mind their own business, we shall have no troubles but what belong to nature. Those we will endure or combat as we can. What we desire is that the friends of humanity should cease to add to them. Our disposition toward the ills which our fellow man inflicts on us through malice or meddling is quite different from our disposition toward the ills which are inherent in the conditions of human life...

There is a beautiful notion afloat in our literature and in the minds of our people that men are born to certain "natural rights." If that were true there would be something on earth which was got for nothing, and this world would not be the place it is at all. The fact is, that there is no right whatever inherited by man which has not an equivalent and corresponding duty by the side of it, as the price of it... Something for nothing is not to be found on earth.

If there were such things as natural rights, the question would arise, Against whom are they good? Who has the corresponding obligation to satisfy these rights? There can be no rights against nature, except to get out of her whatever we can, which is only the fact of the struggle for existence stated over again. The common assertion is that the rights are good against society; that is, that society is bound to obtain and secure them for the persons interested. Society, however, is only the persons interested plus some other persons; and as the persons interested have by the hypothesis failed to win the rights, we come to this, that natural rights are the claims which certain persons have by prerogative against some other persons. Such is the actual interpretation in practice of natural rights--claims which some people have by prerogative on other people.

This theory is a very far-reaching one, and of course it is adequate to furnish a foundation for a whole social philosophy. In its widest extension it comes to mean that if any man finds himself uncomfortable in this world, it must be somebody else's fault, and that somebody is bound to come and make him comfortable. Now, the people who are most uncomfortable in this world (for if we should tell all our troubles it would not be found to be a very comfortable world for anybody) are those who have neglected their duties, and consequently have failed to get their rights. The people who can be called upon to serve the uncomfortable must be those who have done their duty, as the world goes, tolerably well. Consequently the doctrine which we are discussing turns out to be in practice only a scheme for making injustice prevail in human society by reversing the distribution of rewards and punishments between those who have done their duty and those who have not....

The yearning after equality is the offspring of envy and covetousness, and there is no possible plan for satisfying that yearning which can do aught else than rob A to give to B; consequently all such plans nourish some of the meanest vices of human nature, waste capital, and overthrow civilization. But if we can expand the chances we can count on a general and steady growth of civilization and advancement of society by and through its best members. In the prosecution of these chances we all owe to each other goodwill, mutual respect, and mutual guarantees of liberty and security. Beyond this nothing can be affirmed as a duty of one group to another in a free state.


--j. of j. & Jenn

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Founders & "Libertarianism"

The American Revolution was the first largescale experiment in putting into practice the liberal notions that emerged from the Enlightenment. It's a juicy prize for revisionists seeking to appropriate its prestige for their own contemporary ends. There are claims made upon it all the time, but few are as persistent as those of the Libertarians, that odd splinter of American conservatism that emerged in the 1960s. We've been writing about this for several years, now. Here's a vintage piece on the subject from more than 8 years ago, slightly revised for our purposes here:

Fri., 9 June, 2000

"The American Founders." Despite the reverence in which they're held by most Americans in the abstract, we find that, when we get into the details, we're really only celebrating a handful of them. In their prescience, their wisdom, their analysis of events, Jefferson and Madison seem almost godlike at times. Gouverneur Morris, by comparison, was very nearly worthless on the best day of his life.

Over the years, Americans have disregarded these specifics, though, preferring, instead, to mash a diverse body of ideas--some great, some debatable, some deplorable--into an inchoate lump, and to elevate the concept "Founding Fathers" into a sort of god, its worship into a sort of national religion.

As the devil can quote the Bible to his own ends, opportunists of various stripes routinely take advantage of this religion. Suddenly, anything a "Founding Father" said bears the stamp of wisdom, becomes authoritative, and represents a significant hurdle that must be overcome by anyone trying to challenge the point in question. Comments by "Founding Fathers" grounded in an historical context are brutally ripped from that context and made to appear as universal absolutes. This is hardly a substitute for reasoned analysis, but that's exactly what it's often made to serve as.

One of the major offenders, in this regard, is the peculiar breed of conservatism that has, in recent decades, claimed for itself the title of Libertarianism. The Libertarians ride the gravy train by claiming to be intellectual descendants of the "Founding Fathers." Their claim here is a blatant appeal to the religion, not a genuine affinity based on an analysis of what any of the founders actually said and meant (or why). Ignoring the very real differences between the founders (in the same way far too many of us do), they say they are inheritors of "the philosophy of the Founding Fathers" (as though such a unified philosophy existed), adopting this as simply another abstraction into which they can pour whatever they want. That Americans hold to the religion of the "Founding Fathers" makes this an extremely effective appeal.

What do the Libertarians use to fill this abstraction? By and large, it's the capitalist ideologies that developed in the Industrial Revolution, read backwards into the mouths of the founders in an attempt to give them added weight. For example, Libertarians often claim Jefferson's conception of rights, but Jefferson wouldn't recognize anything they say in this regard. Rights, Jefferson held, should be inalienable because they were "natural," which is to say inherent. Granted by God. However one wants to express it. The conception of rights as simply another function of the market is a product of the 19th century, when social Darwinism replaced the older liberal notions, removing from consideration the idea that people have any intrinsic value. By this perspective, there was only market value. This is the view adopted by Libertarians, and not the Jeffersonian view.

Befitting it's nature, much of the appeal to the religion by Libertarians is entirely symbolic. Portraits of Thomas Jefferson, for example, can be found scattered throughout Libertarian websites, yet the words of Jefferson are just as generally excluded from these sites. Digging around a bit, one finds a thing called "the Jefferson School," whose tagline is "The intellectual voice of capitalism on the net." For a "school" that takes the name of Jefferson (especially in THAT way), I've been unable to find a single reference to Thomas Jefferson anywhere on the site. Admittedly, I didn't spend a good deal of time there, but I spent enough to find multiple references to the "usual suspects"--the same old crap you find on any other Libertarian sites (Austrian schoolers, Randroids, etc). This is significant, because, despite their appeals to the religion, Libertarians find precious little in the work of the founders to actually quote (except various founder's general comments about "liberty"). When David Boaz of the Cato Institute assembled THE LIBERTARIAN READER, the founders were conspicuous mostly by their absence (as I recall, there was only the Declaration of Independence, a Federalist Paper, and a pair of selections from Thomas Paine).

Associating the founders with their own economic notions is particularly disingenuous for Libertarians. "Capitalism" as we know it didn't exist in the 18th century, and the Industrial Revolution, mass migration, and the development then closing of the frontier fundamentally altered the circumstances in which Americans lived--and in which the views of the founders were originally developed. The early U.S. had it's share of wealthy aristocrats--many of the founders being prime examples--but it was rich in resources and a huge open frontier. The "economy" as it existed was based on artisan production, people were by and large able to acquire the means to become self-sufficient, and capitalist property relations as they developed in the 19th century weren't even a dot on the horizon. For many years, Jefferson hoped this state of affairs would continue, arguing, in 1787, that:

"I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they remain chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt, as it Europe."

Ayn Rand's reference to "the original American system, Capitalism" is more than a little disingenuous, particularly when one considers what she means by that.

--j. of j. & Jenn


Today, in the United States, conservatives, reactionaries, "Libertarians" and even the religious right often claim to be the real inheritors of the classical liberal tradition, a tradition they insist contemporary liberals have abandoned. The generous funding these elements have made available for the propagation of this myth, while no doubt facilitating its spread, makes it no less a myth. For several years, through wind and rain, over choppy seas, in darkest night, and on bucolic afternoons when the sun shines and nothing much happens at all, we've maintained a site dedicated to providing an informal examination of the history and ideas of the classical liberals, a sort of primer we hope helps debunk these various claims on the tradition, which we regard as fundamentally fraudulent. We're launching this blog in conjunction with the site, as a forum to expand upon our work, there.

Comments are most welcome. Providing a place for them is, in fact, one of the points of this exercise. Use the comment feature here or our email address, which is, as always,

--j. & Jenn