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