Discussions of Past Eras

Jason Kuznicki and Timothy Sandefur offer a defense of Libertarianism against a detractor who cites the 19th century example from an earlier post as an example of error. The detractor (Matt Zeitlin) critiques this passage of Mr Kuznicki’s in this essay (from June 1).

Indeed, one of the book’s others strengths is that it gets the nineteenth century just about entirely right: In its first chapter, it addresses the old canard about the Gilded Age as the great American experiment with laissez-faire. Put simply, it wasn’t. The great majority of people were miserable, and they were miserable from both economic realities (you have to make wealth before you can have it) and from political inequality (Jim Crow and the legal inequality of women, for starters). The few who got rich mostly did it by squeezing favors out of the government or by engaging in outright fraud against their customers. Libertopia this isn’t.

Yet the stereotype remains that the nineteenth century was the age of unbridled capitalism.

Mr Zeitlin’s critique, in my (admittedly un- or at best self-tutored) impression is I think wrong. But … not for the reasons that Mr Kuznicki claims they are wrong. Mr Zeitlin holds that power in the 19th century shifted from being used for the rich for their enrichment to one being used (by progressives) by essentially the liberal socialists (my term).

Mr Kuznicki’s rebuttal (reinforced by further examples by Mr Sandefur) to Mr Zeitlen is to cite notion that Libertarians have been consistent in their position regarding the application of state power whereas the liberal has in fact not. They hold the the thesis that the liberals are inconsistent in their application of power, from the Libertarian perspective, in that they don’t really cite injustice as the reason for disputing the application of power, e.g., Kelo but that they think it should applied differently.

Below the fold, I’m going to expand on what I mean by noting that Mr Zeitlen and Mr Kuznicki miss out one the “big action” occurring with regard to personal freedoms regarding economics and government, I’ll also take the opportunity to try to engage the Positive Liberty crew to explain Libertarianism a little more by pointing out what I think is missing in it, and I’m going respond to a uncharitable dig by Mr Sandefur regarding Conservativism.

The big event from an economic perspective in the 19th century was the unfolding of land-reform and the rise of the small business. The conversion of the large landholder/tenant model in Virginia and similar territories to small farms held independently as well as the small business cropping all over in small towns throughout the Mid-West (and then moving West) from the point of insuring our collective prosperity and a defense of our individual liberties was perhaps the “big” unsung event of the age. Certainly the Golden age from an economists standpoint is one of the celebrated union and rail-baron/stock-market shenanigans so well characterized so memorably in that little show seen in episodes during my youth watching The Age of Uncertainty by Mr Galbraith. That is the stereotype to which Mr Kuznicki refers, which he holds as false. But from the “big capitalist” point of view, i.e., Rockefeller, the Rail Barons, Carnegie it was an age of fairly unrestrained capitalism and more importantly the century quietly eliminated large land holdings from the scene. In the 19th century of course there was also that little event toward the middle, the Civil War. I find it hard to believe that it didn’t contribute in a major way toward the development of the relationships between people, economy, and political power.

Libertarians suffer from the accusation of being non-serious and ivory tower theorists. A bit ago, I had quoted Mahoney:

Contemporary academic political theory, especially in the United States, is dominated by a largely sterile debate between liberals and communitarians. Academic liberals affirm the moral autonomy of the individual and the priority of rights over a commonly shared understanding of the good life. To a remarkable degree they take for granted the moral preconditions of a free society — those habits, mores, and shared beliefs that allow for the responsible exercise of individual liberty. Raymond Aron’s forceful retort to Hayek applies equally to other currents of academic liberal theory: they “presuppose as already acquired, results which past philosophers considered as the primary objects of political action.” Contemporary liberals fail to see that “a society must first be, before it can be free.”

This error is, I think, one of the fundamental ones for the Libertarian. They have no construction for a society to be. And lacking a “way to be”, one might find that the society might soon cease … being.

Mr Sandefur, toward the end, writes:

But for all their talk about freedom, they [note: he refers here to liberals] are not basically interested in liberty—they, like conservatives, are interested in liberty for those of whom they approve, but not of those they don’t like.

Who are the “conservative political” theorists or theories to which Mr Sandefur alludes? Jouvenel or Solzhenitsyn don’t seem to fit that bill, those conservative theorists I’ve read of late. I haven’t read Leo Strauss seems to fit the bill in a more conventional sense. For that a summation of Mr Strauss’ political view via Wiki might serve here.

While modern liberalism had stressed the pursuit of individual liberty as its highest goal, Strauss felt that there should be a greater interest in the problem of human excellence and political virtue. Through his writings, Strauss constantly raised the question of how, and to what extent, freedom and excellence can coexist. Without deciding this issue, Strauss refused to make do with any simplistic or one-sided resolutions of the Socratic question: What is the good for the city and man?

I think the reading that “conservatives” are only interested in “liberty for those they approve” is one of the most uncharitable readings of the conservative point of view as one might imagine. In general this shows a methodological error. Mr Sandefur mistake in the faulting the methods of conservatism is that he takes compares apples and oranges. Libertarians view politics via liberty, that is the goodness of policy, society, and politics is judged by how much it produces liberty or freedom. Liberals, I think (not being one, I might be in error) view politics via class and equality, that is they judge the correctness of policy by how much economic, gender, and other classes can be made in some measure “equal”. Conservatives view on the other hand by virtue, that is they judge a policy, society, and politics by its effect production of virtue. To address one category from the point of the view of the other must be preceded by a method and at least an admission of what one is doing in making such odd comparisons. It seems an odd exercise to judge say, libertarian theory by how much equality it creates as it might for to judge it by how much virtue. There may be use in arguing which method is best, but judging each by the fruits of the other seems less than useful.

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  1. […] great debate continues. Mark Olson writes, Mr Zeitlen and Mr Kuznicki miss out one the “big action” occurring with regard to personal […]

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