Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge

Take a very large number, say, 1 quintillion. Written out, it looks like this: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000. It can also be expressed as 1018 or 10.E+18.

I doubt that any human being has ever discerned 1 quintillion discrete objects in a single moment. Including the constituents of all of the stars and planets, there may be more than 1 quintillion particles of matter in the visible portion of the sky on a clear night. But no person may reasonably claim to have seen all of those particles of matter as individual objects.

I doubt, further, that any human being has ever discerned 1 million  objects in a lifetime, even a very long lifetime. And if I’m wrong about that, it’s certainly possible to conjure a number high enough to be well beyond the experiential capacity of any human being; 101000, for instance.

Despite the impossibility of experiencing 101000 things, it is possible to write the number and to perform mathematical operations which involve the number. So, in some sense, very large numbers “exist.” But they exist only because human beings are capable of thinking of them. They are not “real” in the same way that a sky full of stars and planets is real.

Numbers and mathematics are rational constructs of the minds of human beings. Stars and planets are observed; that is, there is empirical evidence of their existence.

Thus there are two1 types of scientific knowledge: rational2 and empirical. They are related in the following ways:

1. Rational knowledge builds on empirical knowledge. Astronomical observations enabled Copernicus to devise a mathematical heliocentric model of the universe, which was an improvement on the geocentric model.

2. Empirical knowledge builds on rational knowledge. Observations aimed at verifying the heliocentric model led eventually to the discovery that the Sun is not at the center of the universe.

3. Empirical knowledge may affirm or contradict rational knowledge. Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which is given in a paper written in 1915, says that light is deflected (bent) by gravity. Astronomical observations made in 1919 affirmed the effect of gravity on light. Had the observations contradicted the postulated effect, the general theory (if any) might be markedly different than the one set forth in 1915. (A scientific theory is more than a hypothesis; it has been substantiated, though it always remains open to refutation.)

4. Rational knowledge may lead to empirical knowledge. One of the postulates that underlies Einstein’s special theory of relativity is the constancy of the speed of light; that is, the speed of light is independent of the motion of the source or the observer. This is unlike (for example) the speed of a ball that is thrown inside a moving train car, in the direction of the train car’s motion. An observer who is stationary relative to the train car will see the speed of the ball as the sum of (a) its speed relative to the thrower and (b) the speed of the train car relative to the observer. Einstein’s postulate, which drew on James Clerk Maxwell’s empirically based theory of electromagnetism, was subsequently verified experimentally.

These reflections lead me to four conclusions:

  • Knowledge is provisional. Human beings often don’t know what to make of the things that they perceive, and what they make of those things is often found to be wrong.
  • When it comes to science, rational and empirical knowledge are intertwined, and their effects are cumulative.
  • Rational knowledge that can’t be or hasn’t been put to an empirical test is merely a hypothesis. The hypothesis may be correct, but it doesn’t represent knowledge.
  • Empirical knowledge necessarily precedes rational knowledge because hypotheses draw on empirical knowledge and must be substantiated by empirical knowledge.3

*     *     *

Related reading:
Thomas M. Lennon and Shannon Dea, “Continental Rationalism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, April 14, 2012 (substantive revision)
Peter Markie, “Rationalism vs. Empiricism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, March 21, 2013 (substantive revision)

Related posts:
Hemibel Thinking
What Is Truth?
Demystifying Science
Are the Natural Numbers Supernatural?
Pinker Commits Scientism
The Limits of Science (II)
The Pretence of Knowledge
“The Science Is Settled”
The Limits of Science, Illustrated by Scientists

1. This post focuses on scientific knowledge and ignores other phenomena that are sometimes classified as branches of knowledge, such as emotional knowledge.

2. In this context, rational means by virtue of reason, not lucid or sane. The discussion of rational knowledge is restricted to knowledge that derives from and is a logical extension of observed phenomena, as in the example with which the post begins. I will not, in this post, deal with intuition, innate knowledge, or innate concepts, which are also treated under the heading of rational knowledge.

3. Unless it is true that human beings are born with certain kinds of knowledge, or with certain concepts that can be filled in by knowledge. The article by Markie treats these possibilities at some length.


Not-So-Random Thoughts (II)

Links to the other posts in this occasional series may be found at “Favorite Posts,” just below the list of topics.


Philip Kitcher reviews Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality:

The evangelical scientism of “The Atheist’s Guide” rests on three principal ideas. The facts of microphysics determine everything under the sun (beyond it, too); Darwinian natural selection explains human behavior; and brilliant work in the still-young brain sciences shows us as we really are. Physics, in other words, is “the whole truth about reality”; we should achieve “a thoroughly Darwinian understanding of humans”; and neuroscience makes the abandonment of illusions “inescapable.” Morality, purpose and the quaint conceit of an enduring self all have to go.

The conclusions are premature. Although microphysics can help illuminate the chemical bond and the periodic table, very little physics and chemistry can actually be done with its fundamental concepts and methods, and using it to explain life, human behavior or human society is a greater challenge still. Many informed scholars doubt the possibility, even in principle, of understanding, say, economic transactions as complex interactions of subatomic particles. Rosenberg’s cheerful Darwinizing is no more convincing than his imperialist physics, and his tales about the evolutionary origins of everything from our penchant for narratives to our supposed dispositions to be nice to one another are throwbacks to the sociobiology of an earlier era, unfettered by methodological cautions that students of human evolution have learned: much of Rosenberg’s book is evolutionary psychology on stilts. Similarly, the neuroscientific discussions serenely extrapolate from what has been carefully demonstrated for the sea slug to conclusions about Homo sapiens.

And David Albert gets rough with Lawrence M. Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing:

Look at how Richard Dawkins sums it up in his afterword: “Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?,’ shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages. If ‘On the Origin of Species’ was biology’s deadliest blow to super­naturalism, we may come to see ‘A Universe From Nothing’ as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is ­devastating.”

Well, let’s see. There are lots of different sorts of conversations one might want to have about a claim like that: conversations, say, about what it is to explain something, and about what it is to be a law of nature, and about what it is to be a physical thing. But since the space I have is limited, let me put those niceties aside and try to be quick, and crude, and concrete.

Where, for starters, are the laws of quantum mechanics themselves supposed to have come from?…

Never mind. Forget where the laws came from. Have a look instead at what they say. It happens that ever since the scientific revolution of the 17th century, what physics has given us in the way of candidates for the fundamental laws of nature have as a general rule simply taken it for granted that there is, at the bottom of everything, some basic, elementary, eternally persisting, concrete, physical stuff….

The fundamental laws of nature generally take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of that stuff are physically possible and which aren’t, or rules connecting the arrangements of that elementary stuff at later times to its arrangement at earlier times, or something like that. But the laws have no bearing whatsoever on questions of where the elementary stuff came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular elementary stuff it does, as opposed to something else, or to nothing at all.

The fundamental physical laws that Krauss is talking about in “A Universe From Nothing” — the laws of relativistic quantum field theories — are no exception to this. The particular, eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world, according to the standard presentations of relativistic quantum field theories, consists (unsurprisingly) of relativistic quantum fields. And the fundamental laws of this theory take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of those fields are physically possible and which aren’t, and rules connecting the arrangements of those fields at later times to their arrangements at earlier times, and so on — and they have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story….

[Krauss] has an argument — or thinks he does — that the laws of relativistic quantum field theories entail that vacuum states are unstable. And that, in a nutshell, is the account he proposes of why there should be something rather than nothing.

But that’s just not right. Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff…. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.

None of this is news to me. This is from my post, “The Atheism of the Gaps“:

The gaps in scientific knowledge do not prove the existence of God, but they surely are not proof against God. To assert that there is no God because X, Y, and Z are known about the universe says nothing about the creation of the universe or the source of the “laws” that seem to govern much of its behavior.

(See also the many posts linked at the bottom of “The Atheism of the Gaps.”)

Caplan’s Perverse Rationalism

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have little use for the psuedo-libertarian blatherings of Bryan Caplan, one of the bloggers at EconLog. (See also this and this.) Caplan, in a recent post, tries to distinguish between “pseudo output” and “real output”:

1. Some “output” is actually destructive.  At minimum, the national “defense” of the bad countries you think justifies the national defense of all the other countries.

2. Some “output” is wasted.  At minimum, the marginal health spending that fails to improve health.

3. Some “output” doesn’t really do what consumers think it does.  At minimum, astrology.

Note: None of these flaws have any definitional libertarian component.  Even if there’s no good reason for tax-supported roads, existing government roads really are quite useful.  Still, coercive support is often a credible symptom of pseudo-output: If the product is really so great, why won’t people spend their own money on it?

Once you start passing output through these filters, the world seems full of pseudo-output.  Lots of military, health, and education spending don’t pass muster.  Neither does a lot of finance.  Or legal services. In fact, it’s arguably easier to name the main categories of “output” that aren’t fake.  Goods with clear physical properties quickly come to mind:

  • Food.  People may be mistaken about food’s nutritional properties.  But they’re not mistaken about its basic life-preserving and hunger-assuaging power – or how much they enjoy the process of eating it.
  • Structures.  People may overlook a structure’s invisible dangers, like radon.  But they’re not mistaken about its comfort-enhancing power – or how aesthetically pleasing it is.
  • Transportation.  People may neglect a transport’s emissions.  But they’re not mistaken about how quickly and comfortably it gets them from point A to point B.

Lest this seem horribly unsubjectivist, another big category of bona fide output is:

  • Entertainment.  People may be misled by entertainment that falsely purports to be factual.  But they’re not mistaken about how entertained they are.

Caplan is on to something when he says that “coerc[ed] support is often a credible symptom of pseudo-output,” but he gives away the game when he allows entertainment but dismisses astrology. In other words, if Caplan isn’t “entertained” (i.e., made to feel good) by something, it’s of no value to anyone. He is a pacifist, so he dismisses the value of defense. He (rightly) concludes that the subsidization of health care means that a lot of money is spent (at the margin) to little effect, but the real problem is not health care — it is subsidization.

Once again, I find Caplan to be a muddled thinker. Perhaps, like his colleague Robin Hanson, he is merely being provocative for the pleasure of it. Neither muddle-headedness nor provocation-for-its-own-sake is an admirable trait.

The Sociopaths Who Govern Us

I prefer “psychopath” to “sociopath,” but the words are interchangeable; thus:

(Psychiatry) a person afflicted with a personality disorder characterized by a tendency to commit antisocial and sometimes violent acts and a failure to feel guilt for such acts Also called sociopath

In “Utilitarianism and Psychopathy,” I observe that the psychopathy of law-makers is revealed “in their raw urge to control the lives of others.” I am not alone in that view.

Steve McCann writes:

This past Sunday, the Washington Post ran a lengthy front-page article on Obama’s machinations during the debt ceiling debate last summer.  Rush Limbaugh spent a considerable amount of his on-air time Monday discussing one of the highlights of the piece: Barack Obama deliberately lied to the American people concerning the intransigence of the Republicans in the House of Representatives.  The fact that a pillar of the sycophantic mainstream media would publish a story claiming that their hero lied is amazing….

What I say about Barack Obama I do not do lightly, but I say it anyway because I fear greatly for this country and can — not only from personal experience, but also in my dealing with others — recognize those failings in a person whose only interests are himself and his inbred radical ideology, which as its lynchpin desires to transform the country into a far more intrusive state by any means possible….

… Obama is extremely adept at exploiting the celebrity culture that has overwhelmed this society, as well as the erosion of the education system that has created a generation or more of citizens unaware of their history, culture, and the historical ethical standards based on Judeo-Christian teaching….

The reality is that to Barack Obama lying, aka “spin,” is normal behavior. There is not a speech or an off-the cuff comment since he entered the national stage that does not contain some falsehood or obfuscation. A speech on energy made last week and repeated on March 22 is reflective of this mindset. He is now attempting to portray himself as being in favor of drilling in order to increase oil production and approving pipeline construction, which stands in stark contrast to his stated and long-term position on energy and reiterated as recently as three weeks ago. This is a transparent and obvious ploy to once again fool the American people by essentially lying to them….

[T]here has been five years of outright lies and narcissism that have been largely ignored by the media, including some in the conservative press and political class who are loath to call Mr. Obama what he is, in the bluntest of terms, a liar and a fraud. That he relies on his skin color to intimidate, either outright or by insinuation, those who oppose his radical agenda only adds to his audacity. It is apparent that he has gotten away with his character flaws his entire life, aided and abetted by the sycophants around him; thus, he is who he is and cannot change.

Obama: Sociopath-in-Chief.

Poetic Justice

Newspaper Ad Revenues Fall to 60-Yr. Low in 2011

“Nuff said.

Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism

Michael Shermer writes about political philosophy and human nature in “Liberty and Science” at Cato Unbound:

In the Realistic Vision, human nature is relatively constrained by our biology and evolutionary history, and therefore social and political systems must be structured around these realities, accentuating the positive and attenuating the negative aspects of our natures. A Realistic Vision rejects the blank slate model that people are so malleable and responsive to social programs that governments can engineer their lives into a great society of its design, and instead believes that family, custom, law, and traditional institutions are the best sources for social harmony. The Realistic Vision recognizes the need for strict moral education through parents, family, friends, and community because people have a dual nature of being selfish and selfless, competitive and cooperative, greedy and generous, and so we need rules and guidelines and encouragement to do the right thing….

[T]he evidence from psychology, anthropology, economics, and especially evolutionary theory and its application to all three of these sciences supports the Realistic Vision of human nature….

6. The power of family ties and the depth of connectedness between blood relatives. Communities have tried and failed to break up the family and have children raised by others; these attempts provide counter evidence to the claim that “it takes a village” to raise a child. As well, the continued practice of nepotism further reinforces the practice that “blood is thicker than water.”

7. The principle of reciprocal altruism—I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine”—is universal; people do not by nature give generously unless they receive something in return, even if what they receive is social status.

8. The principle of moralistic punishment—I’ll punish you if you do not scratch my back after I have scratched yours—is universal; people do not long tolerate free riders who continually take but almost never give….

11. The almost universal nature of within-group amity and between-group enmity, wherein the rule-of-thumb heuristic is to trust in-group members until they prove otherwise to be distrustful, and to distrust out-group members until they prove otherwise to be trustful.

12. The almost universal desire of people to trade with one another, not for the selfless benefit of others or the society, but for the selfish benefit of one’s own kin and kind; it is an unintended consequence that trade establishes trust between strangers and lowers between-group enmity, as well as produces greater wealth for both trading partners and groups.

So far, so good. But Shermer then goes off track: “I believe that the Realistic Vision of human nature is best represented by the libertarian political philosophy….” He defines that philosophy earlier:

Libertarianism is grounded in the Principle of Equal Freedom: All people are free to think, believe, and act as they choose, so long as they do not infringe on the equal freedom of others. Of course, the devil is in the details of what constitutes “infringement”….

(See also the Harm Principle, which is a corollary of the Principle of Equal Freedom.)

Yes, the devil is in the details, as Will Wilkinson explains in “The Indeterminacy of Political Philosophy“:

[E]very conception of freedom or liberty when stated in broad outlines is relatively indeterminate. In order to arrive at a recognizably “libertarian” version of a conception of freedom requires filling out the conception in not-at-all obvious ways. This is true even of the classic libertarian conception of liberty as non-coercion. Generally, libertarians rely on a tendentiously loaded conception of coercion that simply stipulates that commonsense forms of emotional, psychological, and social coercion aren’t really coercive in the relevant sense.

Wilkinson goes too far when he indicts “emotional, psychological, and social coercion,” which he does at greater length here. It would not be far-fetched to say that Wilkinson finds coercion everywhere, even in the exercise of property rights, which are so well established that only a Marxist (I had thought) would consider them an instrument of coercion. It seems that Wilkinson — like most of the so-called libertarians who frequent the internet — yearns for super-human beings who are devoid of basic human traits and impulses.

The fact is that — psychopaths and dictators excepted — we are all “coerced,” not in Wilkinson’s sense of the word but in the sense that we must often constrain our behavior and make compromises with others (i.e., become “socialized”) if we are to live in liberty. This is a point that I made in my first post at this blog (“On Liberty“), and which I have repeated many times:

[T]he general observance of social norms … enables a people to enjoy liberty, which is:

peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior

That, simply stated, is liberty or something as close to it as can be found on Earth.

Peaceful, willing coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior can occur only among actual human beings, with all of their inborn traits and impulses. Yes, peaceful coexistence requires human beings to curb those traits and impulses, to some degree, but those traits and impulses cannot be suppressed entirely. If they could, there would be no need for discussions of this kind: “When men are pure, laws are useless….” (Benjamin Disraeli).

And so, coexistence is shaped by human traits and impulses, just as spacetime is shaped by the masses of gravitational bodies. The conditions of coexistence are as inseparable from human nature as the curvature of spacetime is from its contents. If liberty is to be more than a slogan, it must account for human beings as they really are. That is to say, liberty must account for human beings as Michael Shermer describes them. Thus:

  • Liberty is a modus vivendi, not a mysterious essence with an independent, timeless existence (like a Platonic ideal).
  • Liberty arises from in-group solidarity, which is based on shared customs, beliefs (including religious ones), and a moral code that defines harmful acts and requires voluntary, peaceful cooperation among members of the group. (This means that there are many groups whose customs, beliefs, and moral codes are not libertarian, even though such groups may evince solidarity and cooperation.)
  • Liberty is possible (but problematic) where there are many such interconnected groups under the aegis of a minimal state — one that exacts justice for acts that all groups consider harmful (e.g., murder, theft, rape), keeps the peace among groups, and protects all groups from external predators. (The federalism of the original Constitution fostered liberty, but only to the extent that individual States enforced their Bills of Rights, enabled local governance, and forbade slavery.)
  • By virtue of geography, a state’s client groups may include some that are predatory, either economically and socially (seeking subsidies and other privileges) or criminally (acting violently toward other groups and their members). A minimal state that is dedicated to liberty will deny privileges and give no quarter to violence.
  • Resistance to trade and immigration across international boundaries — as social stances taken in full knowledge of the potential benefits of trade and immigration — are legitimate political positions, except when they are held by trade unionists and their political allies, who seek to deprive other Americans of the benefits of trade and immigration. (Economists who presume to lecture about the wisdom of trade and immigration are guilty of reducing what can be deep social issues to shallow economic ones.)
  • Because liberty is a manifestation of in-group solidarity, it is legitimate for groups that are comprised in a state to question and resist actions by the state that require the acceptance, on equal terms, of persons and groups (a) whose mores are not in keeping with those of extant groups and (b) whose influence could result in the enforcement by the state of anti-libertarian measures.
  • Liberty, in a phrase, begins “at home” (the state willing) and extends only as far as the social boundaries of a group that coheres in mutual trust, respect, forbearance, and aid. There is a slim possibility of state-fostered liberty, but it can realized only where the state exacts justice for acts that all groups consider harmful, keeps the peace among groups, and protects all groups from external predators. (In those respects, there is a promise of liberty — but a promise not kept — in the Constitution of the United States.)
  • But liberty is less likely to be found “at home” (or anywhere) because the social fabric has been sundered by the state’s impositions (e.g., usurping charitable functions and discouraging them by progressive taxation, the anti-religion trajectory of judicial holdings, the undermining of swift and sure justice by outlawing the death penalty and making it difficult to enforce, allowing abortion that borders on infanticide, mocking and undermining the institution of marriage).

Liberty, in other words, is a product of social intercourse, not of abstract principles, and certainly not of ratiocination. The last-mentioned, which often yields agreement between “liberals” and “libertarians” on such matters as abortion, defense, immigration, and homosexual “marriage,” also finds them deeply divided on such matters as property rights, regulation, and various forms of redistribution (Social Security, Medicare, humanitarian aid in the U.S. and overseas, and so on). Ratiocination, in other words, is unlikely to transcend the temperament of the ratiocinator. (Wilkinson essentially agrees, in “The Indeterminacy of Political Philosophy,” but seems not to heed himself.)

To put it another way, the desirability or undesirability of state action has nothing to do with the views of “liberals,” “libertarians,” or any set of pundits, “intellectuals,” “activists,” and seekers of “social justice.” As such, they have no moral standing, which one acquires only by being — and acting as — a member of a cohesive social group with a socially evolved moral code that reflects the lessons of long coexistence. The influence of “intellectuals,” etc., derives not from the quality of their thought or their moral standing but from the influence of their ideas on powerful operatives of the state.

In short, the only truly libertarian intellectual stance is anti-rationalism. As Michael Oakeshott explains, a rationalist

never doubts the power of his ‘reason … to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a ‘reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration….

… And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. (“Rationalism in Politics,” pp. 5-7, as republished in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays)

An anti-rationalist refuses to view life through the formalistic lens of  “rights, freedoms and personal empowerment,” to lift a phrase from Leon Kass’s “The Wisdom of Repugnance.” An anti-rationalist trusts the wisdom that is accrued in social norms, and thinks very carefully before trying to change those norms. As Kass puts it, in the context of cloning,

repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it….

Repugnance … revolts against the excesses of human willfulness, warning us not to transgress what is unspeakably profound. Indeed, in this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done, in which our given human nature no longer commands respect, in which our bodies are regarded as mere instruments of our autonomous rational wills, repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.

Related posts:
On Liberty
What Is Conservatism?
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
The Principles of Actionable Harm
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Accountants of the Soul
The Unreality of Objectivism
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
Rawls Meets Bentham
More about Consequentialism
Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”
A Moralist’s Moral Blindness
Society and the State
Undermining the Free Society
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
On Self-Ownership and Desert
In Defense of Marriage
Understanding Hayek
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
What Is Libertarianism?
Nature Is Unfair
True Libertarianism, One More Time

Understanding Hayek

In an earlier post, I deployed the following statement by Michael Oakeshott:

How deeply the rationalist disposition of mind has invaded our political thought and practice is illustrated by the extent to which traditions of behaviour have given place to ideologies, the extent to which the politics of destruction and creation have been substituted for the politics of repair, the consciously planned and deliberately executed being considered (for that reason) better than what has grown up and established itself unselfconsciously over a period of time…. This is, perhaps, the main significance of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom — not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine. A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics. And only in a society already deeply infected with Rationalism will the conversion of the traditional resources of resistance to the tyranny of Rationalism into a self-conscious ideology be considered a strengthening of those resources. (From “Rationalism in Politics,” in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, new and expanded edition, pp. 26-7.)

I hereby retract my implied endorsement of Oakeshott’s view of Hayek as a rationalist. Hayek’s “doctrine” consisted of a reasoned, well-founded warning against central planning. That is no more a doctrine than a highway sign that warns of sharp curves ahead.

Hayek was very much an anti-rationalist. (The use of reason, in itself, is not rationalism, which values only reason and the ordering of socio-economic relationships by the use of reason.) For example, Peter G. Klein writes that

…Hayek’s later emphasis on group selection and spontaneous order is not shared by Mises…. A clue to this difference is in Hayek’s … statement that “Mises himself was still much more a child of the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment and of continental, rather than of English, liberalism . . . than I am myself.” This is a reference to the “two types of liberalism” to which Hayek frequently refers: the continental rationalist or utilitarian tradition, which emphasizes reason and man’s ability to shape his surroundings, and the English common-law tradition, which stresses the limits to reason and the “spontaneous” forces of evolution. (“Biography of F.A. Hayek,” at Ludwig von Mises Institute)

As for The Road to Serfdom, Peter Boettke explains that it

was conceived of as part of Hayek’s Abuse of Reason project.  It was a political tract for its time, but it was also much more than that.  A careful reader can see in the book both where Hayek attempts to move beyond the political issues of his day to address more timeless issues of social cooperation….

Hayek’s basic thesis in The Road to Serfdom is that the lure of socialist ideology has the unintended and undesirable consequence of economic depravation and political tyranny when countries follow its policy agenda.  The reason for this is that the task of socialist planning requires economic planners to assume a level of responsibility for economic life in a country which is both cumbersome to the point of impossible, and powerful beyond any reasonable limit that could be safely trusted to any one individual or group of individuals….

Hayek’s book was not a deterministic one, but rather a warning to those countries of the West who were enamored with socialist ideology, that the implementation of socialism would tend to undermine the beliefs that were at the core of Western civilization….

…[S]ixty years on, we are still celebrating Hayek’s achievement with The Road to Serfdom.

Most of this celebration of Hayek, admittedly, is ideological in nature and confirms Hayek’s status as an iconic figure for the world-wide conservative and libertarian movement. I do not deny the importance of this in explaining the popularity of Hayek’s work, but I also think those who rely on this explanation exclusively relegate Hayek’s work to the status of a “coffee-table book” — a work to be seen as in one’s possession among the intelligentsia but not read.  Rather, I want to stress the analytical contribution that Hayek makes in his work….

Hayek sought to demonstrate in a manner persuasive to the public and the intellectual elite that the consequences of the policy choice of socialism would lead them down a path that they themselves would never want to go if they made their choices in full knowledge of the consequences of their choice.  It is a tragic tale he is telling in The Road to Serfdom, not one of determinism or even opportunism.  “Is there a greater tragedy imaginable,” Hayek asks, “than that, in our endeavor consciously to shape our future in accordance with our highest ideals, we should in fact unwittingly produce the very opposite of what we have been striving for?” (“On reading Hayek: choice, consequences, and The Road to Serfdom“)

Hayek was out to slay the rationalistic dragon of market socialism:

economic systems where the means of production are publicly owned, managed and operated for a profit in a market economy…. Theoretically, the fundamental difference between a traditional socialist economy and a market socialist economy is the existence of a market for the means of production and capital goods under market socialism.

On that point, Boettke writes:

[Hayek] never impugns the character of those he is arguing with, instead he points out how their intellectual error leads to results that would make these individuals shudder with fear. To reiterate …, the market socialists thought their model of socialist planning could be reconciled with consumer sovereignty, but their position was untenable due to the organizational problems of socialism in terms of aligning incentives, utilizing information, and discovering knowledge.  Neither Lerner nor Durbin [two leading market socialists] ever admitted that Hayek had refuted their claim to have squared the circle.  Of course, they believe in individualism and not authoritarian government. But their theory if put into practice would have resulted in a march toward serfdom as special interest forces would be unleashed to agitate for greater and greater government control over resources and the allocation of labor. Either consumer sovereignty would be suppressed, or planning would have to be abandoned — but the two could not be reconciled. (Id.)

Boettke concludes:

Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom at a crucial stage in the 20th century. The Nazi threat to western civilization had just been defeated, but the Communist system had grown in legitimacy in the process.  Communism had avoided the Great Depression, and whatever problems might exist, Stalin did mobilize the resources in the Soviet Union to transform a peasant society into an industrial power in a generation and effectively enough to help the allies defeat Hitler.  Hayek’s argument was that our fascination with the Communist ideal will prove to be our undoing unless we recognize the warning signs.  He stood there and could do no other, but to pen this warning.

The Road to Serfdom made Hayek a famous man, but it also partially discredited him among his fellow academics and the intellectual elites in the west.  But he was not deterred and his career post-1944 focused increasingly on the issues of social philosophy and political economy….

…Hayek’s emphasis [was] on how alternative institutional arrangements, through their properties to align incentives and utilize dispersed information, impact the choices people make…. (Id.)

(For more by Boettke, see “Hayek’s the Road to Serfdom Revisited: Government Failure in the Argument Against Socialism,” and “Hayek and Market Socialism: Science, Ideology, and Public Policy.”)

Hayek, in short, was prescriptive only to the extent that his understanding of human nature and social relationships enabled him to issue well-founded warnings about the unintended and undesirable consequences of rationalistic schemes — like socialism.

As for Hayek’s Abuse of Reason project, here is Bruce Caldwell’s outline:

In late August 1939 Hayek sent a letter to his friend Fritz Machlup saying that … he would begin work on a new project, tracing the decline of reason from Saint-Simon to Hitler. The plan of the work was contained in an outline prepared in the summer of 1940, titled “The Abuse and Decline of Reason: The Reflections of an Economist on the Self- Destructive Tendencies of Our Scientific Civilization.” The introduction was to be titled “The Humility of Individualism.” Part 1, called “The Collectivist Hybris,” would trace the topic through French, German, English, and American phases. Part 2 was to be called “The Totalitarian Nemesis.” In a slightly later outline, the first chapter of part 1 was to be “Scientism.”

The Abuse of Reason project would tell a very different story from that of the steady side-by-side progress of socialism and democracy that Webb and others espoused. In Hayek’s alternative tale, the steady growth of scientism and of the planning mentality engendered the (in Hayek’s view, false) hope that scientific advances would allow the creation of a new planned socialist society. Scientism and socialism grew up together. Hayek would trace out the pedigree and history of the ideas that he felt had led the western world to totalitarianism. (“Hayek on Mill”)

In sum, Hayek’s work is anti-doctrinal. Its implications for policy are negative ones. As Francis Fukuyama writes,

Hayek’s skepticism about the effects of “big government” are rooted in an epistemological observation summarized in a 1945 article called “The Uses of Knowledge in Society.” There he argued that most of the knowledge in a modern economy was local in nature, and hence unavailable to central planners. The brilliance of a market economy was that it allocated resources through the decentralized decisions of a myriad of buyers and sellers who interacted on the basis of their own particular knowledge. The market was a form of “spontaneous order,” which was far superior to planned societies based on the hubris of Cartesian rationalism. (“Friedrich A. Hayek, Big Government Skeptic,” The New York Times, May 6, 2011)

So far, so good. But Fukuyama later discusses “two major critiques of Hayek’s arguments”:

The first comes from the left. Hayek provides a very minimalist definition of freedom as freedom from coercion, and particularly coercion by a central government. But as the economist Amartya Sen has argued, the ability to actually take advantage of freedom depends on other things like resources, health and education that many people in a typical society do not possess. (Id.)

Sen is talking about “positive liberty,” which I have addressed here (among other places):

In other words, it is not enough to have “peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.” That kind of liberty — liberty in the fullest sense — encompasses the acts of love, affection, friendship, neighborliness, and voluntary obligation that help individuals acquire the “power and resources” with which they may strive to attain the fruits of liberty, insofar as they are willing and able to do so.

That should be enough to satisfy the proponents of positive liberty … but I suspect otherwise. I would be more sanguine were they proponents of a proper definition of liberty, but they are not. Thus, armed with an inchoate definition of liberty, they are prepared to do battle for positive liberty and, I fear, the positive rights that are easily claimed as necessary to it; to wit:

  • A lack of “power” entitles certain groups to be represented, as groups, in the councils of government (a right that is not extended to other groups).
  • A lack of “resources” becomes the welfare entitlements of various kinds — for personal characteristics ranging from low intelligence to old age — which threaten to suck ever more resources out the productive, growth-producing sectors of the economy.
  • The exercise of “free will” becomes the attainment of certain “willed” outcomes, regardless of one’s ability or effort, which then justifies such things as an affirmative-action job, admission to a university, a tax-subsidized house, etc.
  • “Classism,” “sexism,” “racism,” and now “beauty-ism” become excuses for discriminating against vast swaths of the populace who practice none of those things.

With respect to the final point, a certain degree of unpleasantness inevitably accompanies liberty. Legal attempts to stifle that unpleasantness simply spread injustice by fomenting resentment and covert resistance, while creating new, innocent victims who are deemed guilty until they can prove their innocence.

In sum, the line between positive liberty and positive rights is so fine that the advocacy of positive liberty, however well meant, easily becomes the basis for preserving and extending the burden of positive rights that Americans now carry. (“Positive Liberty vs. Liberty”)

Positive liberty and positive rights are aspects of social justice, a concept that Hayek rightly rejected. If some are granted positive rights in the name of positive liberty or social justice, others must perforce be denied liberty — at the whim of the state. Those who presume to decide who is deserving and who is not are arrogant accountants of the soul.

Fukuyama, ends by echoing (unwittingly, I suspect) Oakeshott’s critique:

In the end, there is a deep contradiction in Hayek’s thought. His great insight is that individual human beings muddle along, making progress by planning, experimenting, trying, failing and trying again. They never have as much clarity about the future as they think they do. But Hayek somehow knows with great certainty that when governments, as opposed to individuals, engage in a similar process of innovation and discovery, they will fail. He insists that the dividing line between state and society must be drawn according to a strict abstract principle rather than through empirical adaptation. In so doing, he proves himself to be far more of a hubristic Cartesian than a true Hayekian. (Fukuyama, op. cit.)

William Easterly responds:

To say Hayek’s skepticism about government was based on “great certainty” is not just wrong, it is so much the opposite of  Hayek, it’s like accusing Michele Bachmann of excessive belief in the Koran.

Hayek’s view of knowledge was that it was partial and dispersed among many. The market gave individuals the incentives to apply this knowledge, and coordinated the uses of this local knowledge in a way that rewards each of us who knows best about any particular narrow area…. Government usually lacks both the incentives and the coordination mechanism. In government we don’t know who knows best, so which knowledge wins the argument could often be wrong. (“Saving Private Hayek”)

A good summation is found in a blog post by Peter Boettke:

Hayek [in The Road to Serfdom] was not diagnosing the situation in Russia and Germany, but offering a warningto the countries of the West that they could in fact go down the same path as Russia and Germany if they didn’t resist the lure of socialist ideology.  And critical to his argument was that democratic institutions were not a robust bulwark against the excesses that logically result from socialist planning.  In short, even a civilized attempt at democratic socialism will have unintended and undesirable consequences.

Another way to think about this is that Hayek begins his work with full knowledge (and acceptance) of Mises’s critique of socialism, but he is examining a world where political leaders and intellectuals do not accept that critique and so they will pursue the socialist plans anyway.  They think the problem with Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany is the non-democratic nature of the political systems, and not the economic planning being pursued.  So planning advocates in the West, wanted to pursue economic planning within the context of a democratic political system.  Hayek is just pursuing the logic of what results given the nature of economic planning….

Critical to the current discussion on Hayek, Keynes and Planning is not the liberal credentials of the two thinkers, nor their intentions, but the logical tracing out of the intended and unintended consequences of economic planning.  As Keynes’s letter to Hayek about The Road to Serfdom reveals, he believed that he and Hayek were in essential agreement about the horrors of Soviet and Nazi planning, but in disagreement about the question of whether planning is the problem.  Instead, Keynes argues we want more, not less, planning provided that the planning was being done by men of high character.  In essence, Keynes didn’t get the point about the Mises-Hayek critique of socialism. (“What Was the Argument in The Road to Serfdom?“)

And so it goes. In the 67 years since the first publication of The Road to Serfdom, Americans have been herded (often willingly) down that road. Why? Because of economic illiteracy (a widespread belief in the “free lunch,” for example), the interest-group paradox (the belief that I can have my “free lunch” but I will not have to pay for the “free lunches” of others), and the kind of “soft despotism” (fascism’s friendly face) that was foreseen by Alexis de Tocqueville.

Hayek was not a rationalist. He was a profound realist and, unfortunately, a prescient one.

*   *   *

Related posts (most of the posts listed at the following links):
Liberty and Rights in Principle and Practice
Basic Economics
The Economic and Social Consequences of Government
Political Incorrectness — Antidotes to “Liberal” Cant

Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism

In “Our Enemy, the State,” I explain that economic behavior is just an aspect of social behavior. The long-standing treatment of economics as a statistical-mathematical phenomenon exemplifies the rationalism that dominates “learned” discourse. It is my sad duty to report that “liberals” do not hold a monopoly on rationalism.

A rationalist, as Michael Oakeshott explains,

never doubts the power of his ‘reason … to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a ‘reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration….

… And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. (“Rationalism in Politics,” pp. 5-7, as republished in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays)

Thomas Sowell puts it this way:

One of the things intellectuals [his rationalists] have been doing for a long time is loosening the bonds that hold a society [or a nation] together. They have sought to replace the groups into which people have sorted themselves with groupings created and imposed by the intelligentsia. Ties of family, religion, and patriotism, for example, have long been treated as suspect or detrimental by the intelligentsia….

Under the influence of the intelligentsia, we have become a society that rewards people with admiration for violating its own norms and for fragmenting that society into jarring segments. In addition to explicit denigrations of their own society for its history or current shortcomings, intellectuals often set up standards for their society which no society has ever met or is likely to meet. (Intellectuals and Society, pp. 303, 305)

Sowell’s attack is aimed at left-wing intellectuals, but it could just as well be aimed at pseudo-libertarian sophists.

Nowhere is the rationalist mindset more evident than in a contribution by “libertarian” Brink Lindsey to a Reason debate, “Where Do Libertarians Belong?” Lindsey argues that libertarians — as he defines them — should once and for all back away from Republicans and conservatives:

[A] clear-eyed look at conservatism as a whole reveals a political movement with no realistic potential for advancing individual freedom. The contemporary right is so deeply under the sway of its most illiberal impulses that they now define what it means to be a conservative.

What are those impulses?

First and foremost, a raving, anti-intellectual populism, as expressed by (among many, many others) Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. Next, a brutish nationalism, as expressed in anti-immigrant xenophobia (most recently on display in Arizona) and it’s-always-1938-somewhere jingoism. And, less obvious now but always lurking in the background, a dogmatic religiosity, as expressed in homophobia, creationism, and extremism on beginning- and end-of-life issues. The combined result is a right-wing identity politics that feeds on the red meat of us versus them, “Real America” versus the liberal-dominated coasts, faith and gut instinct versus pointy-headed elitism.

Lindsey, in his next (metaphorical) breath, confirms his identity as a pointy-headed elitist and a rationalist, to boot:

This noxious stew of reaction and ressentiment is the antithesis of libertarianism. The spirit of freedom is cosmopolitan. It is committed to secularism in political discourse, whatever religious views people might hold privately. And it coolly upholds reason against the swirl of interests and passions. History is full of ironies and surprises, but there is no rational basis for expecting an outlook as benighted as the contemporary right’s to produce policy results that libertarians can cheer about.

And yet, just a few paragraphs earlier, Lindsey was cheering:

Without a doubt, libertarians should be happy that the Democrats’ power grabs have met with such vociferous opposition. Anything that can stop this dash toward dirigisme, or at least slow it down, is a good thing. Seldom has there been a better time to stand athwart history and yell “Stop!” So we should rejoice that at least some conservatives haven’t forgotten their signature move.

To put it baldly, Lindsey wants to piggy-back on conservatism’s renewed resistance to big government, but he wants to be sure that no one mistakes him for a Palin-esque, Beck-ish kind of conservative. Have no fear on that score, Mr. Lindsey, for you are not even a libertarian worthy of the name. You have revealed yourself as a politically correct, pseudo-libertarian, thought-nazi.

Is it not a tenet of libertarianism that people ought to be free to speak their minds, so that their listeners can make up their own minds about the issues under discussion? Why then, should anyone — libertarian or otherwise — stifle his views about religion and matters related thereto? In order to save you the embarrassment of hearing about things you don’t want to hear about? How libertarian of you!

Let us examine the robustness of Lindsey’s objections to the Palin-esque, Beck-ish side of conservatism:

  • “a raving, anti-intellectual populism” — I don’t know about the “raving,” but if it is anti-intellectual to resist and criticize the emissions of the leftist-dominated academy, the leading lights of which have resulted in the bloodless near-victory of communism, anti-intellectualism in the defense of liberty is no vice.
  • “a brutish nationalism, as expressed in anti-immigrant xenophobia (most recently on display in Arizona)” — If it is “nationalistic” to oppose illegal immigration and its consequences for the safety and tax burdens of citizens, let nationalism reign. Lindsey, like too many libertarians, wants a borderless world because he imagines that liberty is something that just happens, absent the protection of a limited government. It would surprise Lindsey and his ilk to learn that many Americans cling to “nationalism” precisely because they prize liberty and wish to preserve what little of it has been left to them.
  • “it’s-always-1938-somewhere jingoism” — Here’s another pseudo-libertarian theme: Only war-mongers prepare for war. Well, it was “1938” in 1941, when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, encouraged by vocal isolationism and lac of preparedness on the part of the U.S.; in 1950, when Truman’s foreign policy invited North Korea to invade South Korea; in 1961, when JFK’s withdrawal of support for the anti-communist invasion of Cuba led to the installation there of Soviet missiles aimed at the U.S.; in 1979, when Iran’s radical Islamic regime took Americans hostage, knowing Jimmy Carter’s fecklessness; in 1993, when the bombing of the World Trade Center by terrorists was treated as a criminal matter and not as a hostile attack on the U.S.; in 2001, when the official U.S. response to the WTC bombing and other terrorist attacks emboldened Osama bin Laden.
  • “dogmatic religiosity, as expressed in homophobia, creationism, and extremism on beginning- and end-of-life issues” — I wonder if, in Lindsey’s brave new world of pure libertarianism, there would be any room for religion or the public expression of religious views. I wonder if he understands that the enforcement of “gay rights,” will most assuredly lead to the denial of the right of conscience, as has been the case with contraception and abortion. I wonder if he truly believes that it is “extreme” to defend life against arbitrary termination. Or should we leave our fate in the hands of the very kind of irreligious leftists that have brought about the near-victory of communism and who are itching to make the world (or at least the U.S.) safe for genetic cleansing through late-term abortion, post-term abortion (i.e., infanticide), genetic engineering, and death panels (i.e., single-payer health care)?

Then there is Lindsey’s charge that

[m]odern conservatism has always had an illiberal dark side. Recall the first great populist spasms of the postwar right—McCarthyism and opposition to desegregation—and recall as well that National Review founder William F. Buckley stoutly defended both.

McCarthyism” may have been excessive in its methods, but it was aimed in the right direction: the identification of a threat to Americans and their liberty. After all, to the Lindseys’ of this world, there are no threats, just the dire imaginings of those “jingos” for whom it’s always 1938. Inconveniently, for that point of view, the information unveiled by the Venona project

show[s] that the US and other nations were targeted in major espionage campaigns by the Soviet Union as early as 1942. Among those identified are Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; Alger Hiss; Harry Dexter White,[18] the second-highest official in the Treasury Department; Lauchlin Currie,[19] a personal aide to Franklin Roosevelt; and Maurice Halperin,[20] a section head in the Office of Strategic Services.

As for segregation, it is anti-libertarian when it is a government-ordered way of conducting one’s life and business. But segregation as a fact of life is just that, and nothing more. Lindsey practices a kind of segregation when he distances himself from Republicans and rightists. And, like the rest of us, he probably practices other kinds of segregation with respect to where he lives and with whom he associates.

Desegregation, properly carried out, removes the influence of government and renders it neutral with respect to race. But desegregation is neither neutral nor libertarian when it is used as an excuse for depriving persons of liberty by denying their freedom of association, freedom to work, and property rights. Is it any wonder that conservatives opposed the way government went about desegregation?

It’s interesting that Lindsey should point to what he calls the “illiberal dark side” of modern conservatism. Perhaps there’s a bit of projection at work there; in the next paragraph he recalls with fondness the “good old days” of censorship by the media cartel:

To be visible at all in the nation’s public debate, conservatism was forced to rely on intellectual champions whose sheer brilliance and sophistication caused the liberal gatekeepers in mass media to deem them suitable for polite company. People such as Buckley, George Will, and Milton Friedman thus became the public face of conservative ideology, while the rabble-rousers and conspiracy theorists were consigned to the shadow world of mimeographs, pamphlets, and paperbacks that nobody ever reviewed.

How “liberal” of you, Mr. Lindsey! It was all right for “liberal gatekeepers” — many of them beholden to the FCC — to inundate the unwashed with their left-wing views, as long as they kept those same unwashed from hearing conservatives of whom you disapprove. Perhaps you would like the federal government to suppress right-wing talk radio and equivalent web sites. Would you then find public discourse sufficiently civilized?

I have encountered Lindsey’s type before. It is left-libertarian, which is to say not libertarian at all. A left-libertarian wants “liberty,” but only if it yields outcomes favorable to certain groups, and to hell with the liberty and property rights of others. Theirs is a dangerous flirtation with political correctness (PCness), which includes unblinking support of open borders, head-in-the-sand opposition to defense spending, “gay rights,” and premature infanticide. (In what follows, I borrow heavily from an old post.)

Some “libertarians” have become apologists for PCness. Will Wilkinson, for example, suggests that

most PC episodes mocked and derided by the right are not state impositions. They are generally episodes of the voluntary social enforcement of relatively newly established moral/cultural norms.

Wilkinson grossly simplifies the complex dynamics of PCness. His so-called “newly established … norms” are, in fact, norms that have been embraced by insular élites (e.g., academics and think-tank denizens like Wilksinson) and then foisted upon “the masses” by the élites in charge of government and government-controlled institutions (e.g., tax-funded universities). Thus it is no surprise that proposals to allow same-sex marriage fare poorly when they are submitted to voters. Similarly, the “right” to an abortion, almost four decades after Roe v. Wade, remains far from universally accepted and meets greater popular resistance with the passage of time.

Roderick Long is another “libertarian” who endorses PCness:

Another issue that inflames many libertarians against political correctness is the issue of speech codes on campuses. Yes, many speech codes are daft. But should people really enjoy exactly the same freedom of speech on university property that they would rightfully enjoy on their own property? Why, exactly?

If the answer is that the purposes of a university are best served by an atmosphere of free exchange of ideas — is there no validity to the claim that certain kinds of speech might tend, through an intimidating effect, to undermine just such an atmosphere?…

At my university [Auburn], several white fraternity members were recently disciplined for dressing up, some in Klan costumes and others in blackface, and enacting a mock lynching. Is the university guilty of violating their freedom of expression? I can’t see that it is. Certainly those students have a natural right to dress up as they please and engage in whatever playacting they like, so long as they conduct themselves peacefully. But there is no natural right to be a student at Auburn University.

Long — who describes himself as a “left-libertarian market anarchist” (whatever that is) — makes a clever but fallacious argument. The purposes of a university have nothing to do with the case. Speech is speech, except when it really isn’t speech, as in sit-ins (trespass), child pornography (sexual exploitation of minors), and divulging military secrets (treason, in fact if not in name).

Long is rightly disgusted by the actions of the fraternity members he mentions, but disgust does not excuse the suppression of speech by a State university. It is true that there is no “natural right” to be a student at Auburn, but there is, likewise, no “natural right” not to be offended.

Steven Horwitz is a kindred spirit:

Yes, legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 involved some interference with private property and the right of association, but it also did away with a great deal of state-sponsored discrimination and was, in my view, a net gain for liberty.

Well, some parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, together with its progeny — the Civil Rights Acts of 1968 and 1991 — did advance liberty, but many parts did not. A principled libertarian would acknowledge that, and parse the Acts into their libertarian and anti-libertarian components. A moral scold who really, really wants the state to impose his attitudes on others would presume — as Horwitz does — to weigh legitimate gains (e.g., voting rights) against unconscionable losses (e.g., property rights and freedom of association). But presumptuousness comes naturally to Horwitz because he — like Lindsey, Wilkinson, and Long — stands high above reality, in his ivory tower.

Wilkinson is sympatico with Horwitz in the matter of state action:

Government attempts to guarantee the worth of our liberties by recognizing positive rights to a minimum income or certain services like health care often (but not always) undermine the framework of market and civil institutions most likely to enhance liberty over the long run, and should be limited. But this is really an empirical question about what really does maximize individuals’ chances of formulating and realizing meaningful projects and lives.

Within this framework, racism, sexism, etc., which strongly limit the useful exercise of liberty are clear evils. Now, I am ambivalent about whether the state ought to step in and do anything about it.

Wilkinson, like Horwitz, is quite willing to submit to the state (or have others do so), where state action passes some kind of cost-benefit test. (See “Utilitarianism vs. Liberty.”)

In any event, what more could the state do than it has done already? Well, there is always “hate crime” legislation, which (as Nat Hentoff points out) is tantamount to “thought crime” legislation. Perhaps that would satisfy Long, Horwitz, Wilkinson, and their brethren on the “libertarian” left. And, if that doesn’t do the trick, there is always Richard Thaler’s “libertarian” paternalism (with its statist slant), and Cass Sunstein’s proposal for policing thought on the internet. Sunstein, at least, doesn’t pretend to be a libertarian.

Pseudo-libertarianism — as it is found in the writings of Brink Lindsey, Will Wilkinson, Roderick Long, and Steven Horwitz (among others) — is no better than any other kind of rationalism. It simply posits a sterile, abstract standard of conduct — one that has nothing to do with the workaday world of humanity — and finds wanting everyone but those who pay lip-service to that standard of conduct.

That is not libertarianism. It is sophomoric dream-spinning.

Where is libertarianism to be found? In conservatism, of all places, because it is a reality-based political philosophy.

But what does conservatism have to do with libertarianism? I have in various posts essayed an answer to that question (here, here, here, and here, for example), but now I turn the floor over to John Kekes, who toward the end of “What Is Conservatism?” says this:

The traditionalism of conservatives excludes both the view that political arrangements that foster individual autonomy should take precedence over those that foster social authority and the reverse view that favours arrangements that promote social authority at the expense of individual autonomy. Traditionalists acknowledge the importance of both autonomy and authority, but they regard them as inseparable, interdependent, and equally necessary. The legitimate claims of both may be satisfied by the participation of individuals in the various traditions of their society. Good political arrangements protect these traditions and the freedom to participate in them by limiting the government’s authority to interfere with either.

Therein lies true libertarianism — true because it is attainable. Left-libertarians believe, foolishly, that liberty is to be found in the rejection of social norms. Liberty would be the first victim of the brave new disorder that they wish for.

It is fitting and proper to close this post with my version of Russel Kirk’s six “canons” of conservatism (summarized here):

  1. Belief that political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.
  2. Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and egalitarian and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.
  3. Conviction that civilized society requires order.
  4. Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic leveling is not economic progress.
  5. Faith in traditional mores and distrust of “sophisters and calculators.” Tradition and sound prejudice provide checks upon man’s anarchic impulse.
  6. Recognition that change and reform are not identical.

A Moralist’s Moral Blindness

Bryan Caplan restates his version of the Golden Rule, which is that “we” ought to be treated just as “we” would treat others. (My take on Caplan’s earlier post is here.) Much as I like the Golden Rule, for its civilizing influence on humans, I am not a simple-minded moralist like Caplan and other libertarian purists.

Caplan objects to the “double standard” by which Americans, for example, would praise the killing of enemy civilians, were it a necessary act of war, but condemn the killing of 3,000 Americans by an enemy who proclaims his act necessary in the service of some objective. I wonder if Caplan would object to the “double standard” when faced with the prospect of his children being among the 3,000 Americans killed.

The Golden Rule also is known as the ethic of reciprocity, and for a good reason. For the Golden Rule to operate effectively, it must be accompanied by a reasonable expectation that your mundane acts of self-restraint and helpfulness will be returned in kind by persons whose lives touch yours, or with whom you share a bond of kinship or culture.

The Golden Rule simply doesn’t operate very well across personal, familial, or cultural boundaries, Caplan’s wishful thinking to the contrary. (Consider, for example, the rudeness that often prevails in anonymous encounters over the internet and on the highway.) And there is no inherent reason that the Golden Rule should operate well across those boundaries, just because Caplan (or any other intellectual) asserts that it should. Who died and left him (and his ilk) in charge?

There are other moral considerations at work, aside from reciprocity. One of them, which I discussed in my previous post, is the ethic of mutual defense:

[W]ho better to help you defend yourself than the people with whom you share space, be it a neighborhood, a city-state, a principality, or even a vast nation? As a member of one or the other, you may be targeted for harm by outsiders who wish to seize your land and control your wealth, or who simply dislike your way of life, even if it does them no harm.

If, like Caplan, you are willing to allow an enemy to obliterate some of your fellow citizens because you have obliterated some enemy citizens, you are not to be trusted. You might as well be an enemy.

More generally, Caplan’s moral blindness betrays his Rationalism. As Michael Oakeshott explains,

the Rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason … to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a ‘reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration….

… And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. (“Rationalism in Politics,” pp. 5-7, as republished in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays)

Thomas Sowell puts it this way:

One of the things intellectuals [his Rationalists] have been doing for a long time is loosening the bonds that hold a society [or a nation] together. They have sought to replace the groups into which people have sorted themselves with groupings created and imposed by the intelligentsia. Ties of family, religion, and patriotism, for example, have long been treated as suspect or detrimental by the intelligentsia….

Under the influence of the intelligentsia, we have become a society that rewards people with admiration for violating its own norms and for fragmenting that society into jarring segments. In addition to explicit denigrations of their own society for its history or current shortcomings, intellectuals often set up standards for their society which no society has ever met or is likely to meet.

Calling those standards “social justice” enables intellectuals to engage in endless complaints about the particular ways in which society fails to meet their arbitrary criteria, along with a parade of groups entitled to a sense of grievance, exemplified in the “race, class and gender” formula…. (Intellectuals and Society, pp. 303, 305)

Sowell’s attack is aimed at left-wing intellectuals, but it could just as well be aimed at libertarian purists like Caplan and his ilk.

Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”

Judge Vaughn Walker’s recent decision in Perry v. Schwarnenegger, which manufactures a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, smacks of Rationalism. Judge Walker distorts and sweeps aside millennia of history when he writes:

The right to marry has been historically and remains the right to choose a spouse and, with mutual consent, join together and form a household. Race and gender restrictions shaped marriage during eras of race and gender inequality, but such restrictions were never part of the historical core of the institution of marriage. Today, gender is not relevant to the state in determining spouses’ obligations to each other and to their dependents. Relative gender composition aside, same-sex couples are situated identically to opposite-sex couples in terms of their ability to perform the rights and obligations of marriage under California law. Gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage; marriage under law is a union of equals.

Judge Walker thereby secures his place in the Rationalist tradition. A Rationalist, as Michael Oakeshott explains,

stands … for independence of mind on all occasions, for thought free from obligations to any authority save the authority of ‘reason’. His circumstances in the modern world have made him contentious; he is the enemy of authority, of prejudice, of the merely traditional, customary or habitual. His mental attitude is at once sceptical and optimistic: sceptical, because there is no opinion, no habit, no belief, nothing so firmly rooted or so widely held that he hesitates to question it and to judge it by what he calls his ‘reason'; optimistic, because the Rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason … to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a ‘reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration…. But besides this, which gives the Rationalist a touch of intellectual equalitarianism, he is something also of an individualist, finding it difficult to believe that anyone who can think honestly and clearly will think differently from himself….

…And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. (“Rationalism in Politics,” pp. 5-7, as republished in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays)

At the heart of Rationalism is the view that “a problem” can be analyzed and “solved” as if it were separate and apart from the fabric of life.  On this point, I turn to John Kekes:

Traditions do not stand alone: they overlap, and the problems of one are often resolved in terms of another. Most traditions have legal, moral, political, aesthetic, stylistic, managerial, and multitude of other aspects. Furthermore, people participating in a tradition bring with them beliefs, values, and practices from other traditions in which they also participate. Changes in one tradition, therefore, are likely to produce changes in others; they are like waves that reverberate throughout the other traditions of a society. (“The Idea of Conservatism“)

Edward Feser puts it this way:

Tradition, being nothing other than the distillation of centuries of human experience, itself provides the surest guide to determining the most rational course of action. Far from being opposed to reason, reason is inseparable from tradition, and blind without it. The so-called enlightened mind thrusts tradition aside, hoping to find something more solid on which to make its stand, but there is nothing else, no alternative to the hard earth of human experience, and the enlightened thinker soon finds himself in mid-air…. But then, was it ever truly a love of reason that was in the driver’s seat in the first place? Or was it, rather, a hatred of tradition? Might the latter have been the cause of the former, rather than, as the enlightened pose would have it, the other way around?) (“Hayek and Tradition“)

Same-sex marriage will have consequences that most libertarians and “liberals” are unwilling to consider. Although it is true that traditional, heterosexual unions have their problems, those problems have been made worse, not better, by the intercession of the state. (The loosening of divorce laws, for example, signaled that marriage was to be taken less seriously, and so it has been.) Nevertheless, the state — pursuant to Judge Walker’s decision — may create new problems for society by legitimating same-sex marriage, thus signaling that traditional marriage is just another contractual arrangement in which any combination of persons may participate.

Heterosexual marriage — as Jennifer Roback Morse explains — is a primary and irreplicable civilizing force. The recognition of homosexual marriage by the state will undermine that civilizing force. The state will be saying, in effect, “Anything goes. Do your thing. The courts, the welfare system, and the taxpayer — above all — will “pick up the pieces.” And so it will go.

In Morse’s words:

The new idea about marriage claims that no structure should be privileged over any other. The supposedly libertarian subtext of this idea is that people should be as free as possible to make their personal choices. But the very nonlibertarian consequence of this new idea is that it creates a culture that obliterates the informal methods of enforcement. Parents can’t raise their eyebrows and expect children to conform to the socially accepted norms of behavior, because there are no socially accepted norms of behavior. Raised eyebrows and dirty looks no longer operate as sanctions on behavior slightly or even grossly outside the norm. The modern culture of sexual and parental tolerance ruthlessly enforces a code of silence, banishing anything remotely critical of personal choice. A parent, or even a peer, who tries to tell a young person that he or she is about to do something incredibly stupid runs into the brick wall of the non-judgmental social norm. (“Marriage and the Limits of Contract“)

The state’s signals are drowning out the signals that used to be transmitted primarily by voluntary social institutions: family, friendship, community, church, and club. Accordingly, I do not find it a coincidence that loud, loutish, crude, inconsiderate, rude, and foul behaviors have become increasingly prominent features of “social” life in America. Such behaviors have risen in parallel with the retreat of most authority figures in the face of organized violence by “protestors” and looters; with the rise of political correctness; with the perpetuation of the New Deal and its successor, the Great Society; with the erosion of swift and sure justice in favor of “rehabilitation” and “respect for life” (but not for potential victims of crime); and with the legal enshrinement of infanticide and buggery as acceptable (and even desirable) practices.

Thomas Sowell puts it this way:

One of the things intellectuals [his Rationalists] have been doing for a long time is loosening the bonds that hold a society together. They have sought to replace the groups into which people have sorted themselves with groupings created and imposed by the intelligentsia. Ties of family, religion, and patriotism, for example, have long been treated as suspect or detrimental by the intelligentsia, and new ties that intellectuals have created, such as class — and more recently “gender” — have been projected as either more real or more important….

Under the influence of the intelligentsia, we have become a society that rewards people with admiration for violating its own norms and for fragmenting that society into jarring segments. In addition to explicit denigrations of their own society for its history or current shortcomings, intellectuals often set up standards for their society which no society has ever met or is likely to meet.

Calling those standards “social justice” enables intellectuals to engage in endless complaints about the particular ways in which society fails to meet their arbitrary criteria, along with a parade of groups entitled to a sense of grievance, exemplified in the “race, class and gender” formula…. (Intellectuals and Society, pp. 303, 305)

And so it will go —  barring a sharp, conclusive reversal of Judge Walker and the movement he champions.

Related posts:
“Equal Protection” and Homosexual Marriage
Social Norms and Liberty
The Fallacy of Particularism
History Lessons
On Liberty
Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”
Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection