A misconceived attack on libertarianism

By Lorenzo

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 as 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?

In-betweens

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 from Thinking Out Aloud.]

5 Comments

  1. Roger
    Posted February 23, 2018 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    I had similar thoughts when I read the essay (which I thought was excellent overall), but you helped me to clarify my objections to this part.

    I feel like they are confusing rationalism with top down planning. I do agree that libertarians can often tend to be too focused on liberty at the expense of other values, and that the anarchist wing takes the attack on government to an extreme.

  2. Posted February 24, 2018 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Thanks. Yes, there are plenty of grounds for critiquing libertarianism, either in whole or in some of its wilder strains (let’s discuss the achievements of stateless societies, shall we?), but being against modernity itself is not one of them.

  3. Ruben
    Posted February 25, 2018 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo, thanks so much for the post.Really thank you! Great.

  4. Helen Pluckrose
    Posted March 11, 2018 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this balanced criticism of our manifesto. Having heard from many reasonable libertarians on this, and particularly on our treatment of Hayek, we have qualified our stance on libertarianism’s role among the pre-modernists. We discussed this a little on Russ Robert’s EconTalk podcast.

    James lives in the American South where he is surrounded by a particular kind of Libertarian and frequently encounters his most decidedly anti-modern views among them. They tend to be anti-intellectual, anti-expertise, Utopian, go on madly about guns and religion and cite Hayek as justification of not trusting science or government or expertise on principle. Some of them find us on Twitter too so I have encountered them, though British libertarians are very different and often left-wing, and we have had to mute several Twitter users with ‘Hayek’ in their tag for going on endlessly against rationalism and knowledge in a way very similar to Foucault.

    Nevertheless no group should be judged by their lunatic fringe (and they all have them) and no thinker should be judged by how other people use his ideas. The number of smart and reasonable people who have told us that they think we misjudged libertarians generally and Hayek in particular and explained how they would read him and how they perceive modernity has convinced us that whilst some libertarians do belong among the pre-modernists, there are many more of them among the defenders of modernity.

  5. Posted May 29, 2018 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    Helen @4. And that is how conversation among reasonable people is supposed to be.

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