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What Austrian Economists Can Learn From Roger Scruton

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Britain, Conservatism, Economics, Essays, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, liberal arts, Libertarianism, Literature, Philosophy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on June 17, 2020 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in The Imaginative Conservative. 

The room is alive with happy discussion, the clanking of plates and silverware, hearty laughter, and the pitter-patter of smartly dressed servers buzzing about the room. Wine flows. We’re on the final course, awaiting dessert and coffee, when suddenly the lights dim, leaving dancing candlelight on the tables and the illicit glow of cell phones. On an enormous screen behind the stage comes a loud, hoarse voice: “It is a great honor to be named Defender of Western Civilization.”

I look up, puzzled. There before me in magnified form, filling the screen, is Sir Roger Scruton, sitting beside a lamp, his face framed by a flux of flaxen hair, his chair squeaking as he readjusts himself.  It’s evening, both here and in England, and the sun is down, so the faint light beaming on his face through an obscured window betrays the disappointing reality that we’re watching a recording, not a live feed. The moment, at any rate, is exciting. Scruton goes on to ask, “What is a civilization?”  And to answer: “It is surely a form of connection between people, not just a way in which people understand their languages, their customs, their forms of behavior, but also the way in which they connect to each other, eye to eye, face to face, in the day-to-day life which they share.”

That, anyway, is how I recall the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s 14th Annual Gala for Western Civilization that honored Scruton, who, because of his chemotherapy treatment, was unable to attend.

Sir Roger, as he’s affectionately known, departed from this world on January 12, 2020.  This erudite philosopher of a bygone era raises grave questions about the compatibility between traditionalism and classical liberalism, custom and markets, the individual and the state, convention and innovation. From Scruton, we can, I think, learn the following. That a society of modest scope and scale functions optimally when its people are good and virtuous, when they voluntarily organize themselves into charitable communities, fearing the eternal consequences of wickedness. That free societies thrive where crime is rare and private property rights are both recognized and respected, where families work hard and support one another and leaders are classically and rigorously educated, having wrestled with the greatest thinkers and texts from across the ages. That lasting social harmony develops in cohesive communities where solidarity involves kindness and benevolence and members do not superciliously dismiss received wisdom and norms.

Scruton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands—first published in 1985 as Thinkers of the New Left, reworked and rereleased in 2015, produced in paperback in 2016, and reissued in 2019 as yet a newer edition—demonstrates that Scruton wasn’t tilting at windmills as conservative pundits and talking heads on television and popular media seem too often to do. Scruton’s chief targets were, not senseless and sycophantic politicians, but ideas. He traced these ideas to particular leftist luminaries: Eric Hobsbawm, E. P. Thompson, J.K. Galbraith, Ronald Dworkin, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, Antonio Gramsci, Edward Said, Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Źižek. His concern was principally philosophical and cultural. He took ideas seriously and didn’t simplify or exploit them merely for entertainment value.

Scruton acknowledged that the term “Left,” referring to the object of his opprobrium, covers a wide range of intellectuals and ideological movements, but that all of these, to some degree, “illustrate an enduring outlook on the world, and one that has been a permanent feature of Western civilization at least since the Enlightenment, nourished by … elaborate social and political theories,”[1] namely those which hold “that the goods of this world are unjustly distributed, and that the fault lies not in human nature but in usurpations practiced by a dominant class.”[2] The word “Left” or “leftist,” then, suitably encompasses a multiplicity of views that, although singular in their particulars, hang together as a classifiable category at a certain level of generalization.

Scruton added that leftists “define themselves in opposition to established power, the champions of a new order that will rectify the ancient grievance of the oppressed,”[3] and that they pursue two abstract goals: liberation and social justice. The liberation Scruton refers to is not necessarily a libertarian version of personal autonomy; rather, it refers to “emancipation from …. ‘structures,’” e.g., from “the institutions, customs and conventions that shaped the ‘bourgeois’ order, and which established a shared system of norms and values at the heart of Western society.”[4] The Left seeks to deconstruct and dismantle historic associations (families, churches, clubs, sporting leagues, etc.) that provide order and stability in the absence of overarching government rules and regulations.

If that’s “the Left” in a nutshell, then what’s “the Right,” according to Scruton?  In short, the Right is a community of individuals believing in the primacy of those personal relationships, prevailing norms, and controlling institutions that precede government, mediate between private actors and the State, and celebrate the intrinsic worth of every human being. “The right,” explains Scruton, “rests its case in representation and law,” advocating a “civil society that grows from below without asking permission of its rulers.”[5] The Right, accordingly, treats government as accountable to its citizens in light of its dangerous capacity for mischief and violence. The Right also recognizes the sinful, flawed nature of human beings and, therefore, attempts to offset or neutralize—rather than to amass or centralize—power.

By contrast, the Left promotes institutionalized coercion and centralized power. Its attempts to realize concretely the abstractions of social justice and equality necessitate the use of a forcible apparatus, controlled by a select group of people, to press resistant communities into compliance. “Who controls what and how in the realm of pure equality,” asks Scruton on this score, “and what is done to ensure that the ambitious, the attractive, the energetic and the intelligent do not upset whatever pattern it is that their wise masters might impose on them?”[6] No true and absolute equality of talent or wealth can ever be achieved in tangible reality because humans are wonderfully and brilliantly diverse, even as they are made, universally, in the image of God.

Given a binary choice between the Left and the Right so described, libertarians ought to side with the Right, cultivating a literate society characterized not only by self-ownership, free markets, and private property, but also by aesthetic appreciation, religious worship, obedience to successful and constructive customs, and concern for the souls and material wellbeing of the generations not yet born. Libertarians and conservatives can agree that everyone is plugged into vast networks of commerce and activity, however remote their neighborhoods or habitats. They can agree with Scruton that self-regulating, disciplined communities of caring individuals administer felt, proportional restraints more fairly and efficiently than do faraway government bureaucrats or impersonal agencies of mechanical functionaries who enjoy a compulsory monopoly on the implementation of force.

Scruton suggested that the Right, more than the Left, benevolently esteems the multiplying, bewildering variety of human behavior and interests. Whereas the Left reduces human beings to determined products of intractable systems and rigid social structures, the Right marvels in the mystery of quotidian experience, mining the past for evidence of good and bad decisions, prudent and imprudent courses of action, and workable and unworkable approaches to difficult challenges and exigent circumstances.

There can be no freedom, however, absent some authority. Conservatives and libertarians alike may locate that authority in mediating institutions of modest size, recognizing the importance of consent and localism, family and place, to good government. Scruton’s example shows that certain conservative cultural conditions enable market-based economies to flourish. Conservatives and libertarians may agree that, in Scruton’s words, “[Ludwig von] Mises and [Friedrich] Hayek between them destroyed the possibility of a socialist economy,” giving the “conclusive argument against it.” Mises’s and Hayek’s argument, a tenet of the Austrian School of Economics, involves the recognition that humans are fallible creatures with limited knowledge and perspective who prosper when society writ large values humility over hubris, and economic exchange over warfare or coercion.

Despite the rancor between them lately, conservatives and libertarians need each other. Dividing them unites the Left. Scruton was no libertarian, but his ideas, if thoughtfully considered by libertarians, could enable a more fruitful, contemplative, and beautiful libertarianism to emerge.

[1] Pg. 1.

[2] Pg. 3. Note: I have Americanized Scruton’s spelling so that, for instance, “practised” has become “practiced.”

[3] Pg. 3.

[4] Pg. 3.

[5] Pg. 286.

[6] Pg. 274.

Alcohol to the Rescue!

In Economics, Humane Economy, Libertarianism on April 8, 2020 at 6:45 am

This article originally appeared here at the American Institute for Economic Research on March 21, 2020.

The world, it seems, is full of bad news.

The disorienting coronavirus pandemic has occasioned an upsetting parade of horribles: Government-imposed shutdowns of business. Bans on public gatherings. A national lockdown. Restricted travel. Shortages of testing kits and hospital beds. Mass layoffs. Social distancing. Martial law. Strained supply chains.

There’s even talk of recession and depression.

Should we panic? Should we despair?

Of course not! How would that help?

This unusual moment, however stressful it may be, teaches us about the wonderful workings of spontaneous order in society, and of the innovative ability of ordinary people—not of presidents, dictators, chancellors, generals, or prime ministers—to improve lives and institutions in disparate communities across the globe.

Take the example of craft distilleries, which, of course, make liquors and spirits. Today they’re distilling a different concoction: hand sanitizer!

One estimate is that 75% of craft distilleries in the United States have considered producing hand sanitizer, which, because of panic purchasing, has been difficult to find in grocery stores and pharmacies. Bottles of hand sanitizer can sell for hundreds of dollars. Yet many distilleries are now giving them away!

Right down the road from AIER, where I’ve spent the last week as a visiting scholar, Berkshire Mountain Distillers is selling hand sanitizer for a mere $6 per bottle. And, folks, these aren’t little bottles.

Back home, where my family anxiously awaits my return, John Emerald Distilling Company is converting its facility into a “disinfectant depot.” It’s providing hand sanitizer in large spray bottles.

Wait, you might ask, what about those pesky regulations that prohibit distilleries from generating hand sanitizer? Well, the federal government has waived them. Makes you wonder: were these regulations even necessary?

It’s fascinating that distillers found a simple solution to a pervasive problem before the bureaucrats did. While governments investigated and arrested alleged price gougers who “stockpiled” hand sanitizer, industrious individuals invented practical substitutes.

Hubris and arrogance deceive government leaders into believing that only the most qualified experts among us can centrally design and maintain a mass, uniform plan to mitigate if not contain coronavirus. Meanwhile, despite government red tape, entrepreneurial forces quietly operate to supply consumers with the products they need during trying times.

Come to think of it, I don’t remember owning or using hand sanitizer when I was a kid. Presently, though, it seems so essential to quotidian experience that stores can’t keep it on the shelves. How quickly and innocently we grow accustomed to everyday possessions that would have amazed us just decades ago.

The current crisis, if that is the right word, affirms F. A. Hayek’s proposition that a spontaneous order constitutes “an adaptation to the multitude of circumstances which are known to all the members of that society taken together but which are not known as a whole to any one person.” Each of us, despite government action or inaction, as the case may be, has changed our lives to respond to this rapidly evolving situation. We’ve made sacrifices and compromises, adjusted our habits and routines, and imaginatively resolved unforeseeable challenges.

That’s what the market is: the free, aggregated actions and decisions of innumerable buyers and sellers within their unique settings and particular contexts. The market isn’t some monolithic evil bent on elevating certain classes of people at the expense of others. It isn’t the embodiment of a single, undifferentiated intent or an unvarying scheme to enrich some homogenous group.

Perhaps the invisible hand metaphor, though well meaning, is misleading. We human beings are not wooden chess pieces that a deific Mr. Market moves from square to square on his playing board. We’re complex, conflicted, loving, and curious agents exercising our reason and judgment to help our families, friends, and neighbors—and to discover needed goods and services as well as the viable means for delivering them.

People are, sadly, suffering and dying because of coronavirus, the harms from which are planetary in scale. We should remember, all of us, amid hardships and confusion, isolation and loss, disruption and sorrow, to appreciate the small, entrepreneurial miracles that have widespread and salubrious effects—like turning vodka into pocket-sized, germ-killing gel!

To distillers everywhere, let’s raise a glass. Cheers! Salud! Yamas! Kanpai! Prost! Saúde! Chin chin! Noroc! Skål! Ganbei! Geonbae! Gesondheid! Santé! 

Thank you, and here’s to your health.

What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Human Connection

In Arts & Letters, E.M. Forster, Economics, Humane Economy, Humanities on April 1, 2020 at 6:45 am

This post originally appeared here at the American Institute for Economic Research on March 19, 2020.

Only connect!” reads the epigraph to E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End. That phrase possibly encapsulates Forster’s entire philosophy.

It is also contrary to the current commands of our authorities and the mass media: Stay home! Keep inside! Close down! Quarantine! Be afraid! Socially distance! Don’t gather in groups!

However prudent they may be under the circumstances, these imperatives seem strange, confusing, and unnatural. Most of us don’t like alienating ourselves from others for lengthy periods. In times of trouble, we want to help others. We want to do something. If the coronavirus has harmed our psychology, if it has bothered or disturbed us, it is probably because we feel so helpless and vulnerable in the face of its transmittable power. The only thing we can do is….nothing.

Perhaps there is a silver lining. Absent tangible contact with others, we find communities online and via information technologies. Can’t visit your elderly parent or grandparent in the nursing home? Here’s a web camera. Can’t make that meeting in Boston or Atlanta? No problem: chat on Skype or Zoom or Google. Can’t visit the Met? Happily, that opera is livestreamed!

None of this would have been possible, let alone conceivable, a century ago. Free markets and the innumerable innovations of countless entrepreneurs have improved our lives and institutions in ways we take for granted. As bad as circumstances seem, they could be much worse.

It is popular in some circles to caricature those who celebrate free markets as cold, utilitarian ideologues promoting a radically technocratic vision of society that is characterized by atomized individuals ruthlessly committed to wealth maximization at the expense of the less fortunate. Nothing could be further from the truth. Markets are about freedom, coordination, cooperation, collaboration, association, peace, commerce, prosperity, and exchange. They bring people together. They incentivize trade and honest dealing over violence and war, and voluntary consent over coercion and compulsion.

As the stock market tumbles and businesses shut down, as we quit spending money on everyday goods and pleasures, as we restrict travel and shutter restaurants and bars, perhaps we will begin to more fully appreciate the beauty and joy that a free economy enables.

I have spent the last week as a visiting scholar at AIER, enjoying the company of kind, hospitable colleagues while living in the grand and elegant Edgewood Estate. In sharp contrast to the coronavirus hysteria and panic I’ve seen in popular media, life here has been calm, friendly, warm, and studious. We dine together for each meal, maintaining the appropriate distance of course. We help each other clean rooms and wash dishes. We meet for cocktail hour each evening after a long day of rigorous research and writing. On these occasions we discuss our work, seek advice and feedback, exchange information and data, and test our theories and arguments. The ideas we bandy about don’t end right then and there. They form the basis of articles and of interviews for television and radio. They find their way onto AIER’s website, the traffic for which, this week alone, has hit unprecedented levels.

I have noticed during my time here, gradually and by slow degrees, something far more infectious than coronavirus: ideas. Even in self-imposed isolation, the keen intellects at AIER have managed to reach people across the globe, providing unique perspectives and key economic insights to those who most want and need it. A communicable virus has nothing on communicable ideas. AIER has met a negative force with a positive one that is stronger and more lasting.

As governments close borders and impose curfews, as militaries take to the streets to enforce martial law, as universities cancel in-person classes and companies send their employees home, it is important to remember how formidable, vigorous, and enduring ideas can be. Deirdre McCloskey’s seminal trilogy—Bourgeois VirtuesBourgeois Dignity, and Bourgeois Equality—surveys the places and periods in which culture, shaped by ideas, facilitated human flourishing to an astonishing extent. Rhetoric and the concepts it conveys are, in her account, the vital factors that explain economic growth in the modern era.

Imagine what could be accomplished if we proliferated ideas about freedom and liberty more widely and quickly than any contagious virus could ever spread. One person comes into contact with another, transmitting an idea, which is passed on to yet another, who shares it with friends and family. Before long the idea has captured the minds of hundreds, then thousands, then millions, then billions. The contagion is academic, not pandemic. It is good, not bad. It is transmissible through any communicative network and doesn’t require face-to-face proximity for its rapid diffusion.

Only connect!

This morning, over coffee, I watched the sun rise above the rolling hillsides and heard exuberant birds chirping in the trees. I realized, sitting there, taking in the sights and smells and sounds of the coming spring, that this pandemic, like all upheavals, will pass. Exhilarated, I sensed with growing intensity a feeling not unlike what William Wordsworth must have felt when he wrote that “in this moment there is life and food / For future years.”

For many, this is undeniably a dark, sad, and scary hour of sorrow and hardship, loss and pain. You may be mourning or suffering. You may be comforting a sick loved one. You may be locked away in your room. But take solace: light always drives out the darkness, and hope springs eternal.

On Patrick Deneen’s “Why Liberalism Failed”

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Christianity, Conservatism, Historicism, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on August 28, 2019 at 6:45 am

The original version of this piece appeared here in the Journal of Faith and the Academy. A later version appeared here at Mises Wire.

Only the bold would title a book Why Liberalism Failed. Patrick Deneen, the David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, has done just that, proposing that such failure has actually occurred and setting the unreasonable expectation that he can explain it. His operative premise is that liberalism so called created the conditions for its inevitable demise—that it is a self-consuming, self-defeating ideology only around 500 years old. (p. 1) “Liberalism has failed,” he declares triumphantly, “not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded.” (p.3)

Deneen doesn’t define the term liberalism, which isn’t in his index even though it’s littered throughout the book. I have it on reliable authority that one of the peer reviewers of the pre-published manuscript recommended publication to the editors at Yale University Press, provided that Deneen cogently defined liberalism and then cleaned up his sloppy references to it. Deneen ignored this advice, leaving the manuscript as is. His genealogy of liberalism is all the more problematic in light of this refusal to clarify.

Deneen presents a seeming paradox, namely that liberalism, under the banner of liberty and emancipation, produced their opposite: a vast, progressive, and coercive administrative state under which individuals have grown alienated, amoral, dependent, conditioned, and servile. “[T]he political project of liberalism,” he claims, “is shaping us into the creatures of its prehistorical fantasy, which in fact required the combined massive apparatus of the modern state, economy, education system, and science and technology to make us into: increasingly separate, autonomous, nonrelational selves replete with rights and defined by our liberty, but insecure, powerless, afraid, and alone.” (p.16)

One hears in this line echoes of Sartre, and indeed existentialism recommends a certain kind of individualism: the freedom of the rational agent, having been thrust into existence through no choice or fault of his own, to will his own meaning in an absurd and chaotic world. But existentialism is a different species of individualism from that which motivated Hobbes, Locke, and Mill: chief targets of Deneen’s ire. It’s true that Mill disliked dogmatic conformity to custom, but that is a customary—one might even say conservative—position to take. One must preserve, or conserve, after all, a critical mode for undertaking difficult questions without assuming to have already ascertained all suitable solutions. Every age must rework its approaches to perennial problems. There’s plenty of Mill to dislike from a Christian perspective, but his unlikable conclusions do not necessarily follow from his method of inquiry or openness to examining afresh the puzzles and issues with which our ancestors struggled.

The classical liberalism or libertarianism to which Christian individualists adhere promotes peace, cooperation, coordination, collaboration, community, stewardship, ingenuity, prosperity, dignity, knowledge, understanding, humility, virtuousness, creativity, justice, ingenuity, and more, taking as its starting point the dignity of every human person before both God and humanity. This individualism prospers in fundamentally conservative cultures and does not square with Deneen’s caricature of a caricature of a caricature of “liberal” individualism. This conservative individualism, a creature of classical liberalism, advocates liberty in order to free human beings to achieve their fullest potential, cultivate widespread ethics and morality, and improve lives and institutions through economic growth and development. And who can deny that the market economy with which it is bound up has, throughout the globe, given rise to improved living conditions, technological and medical advances, scientific discovery, intellectual curiosity, and industrial innovation?

Deneen wishes to rewind the clock, to recover the virtuous “self-governance” of the ancients that, he believes, was predicated on “the common good.” (p. 99) He sees in antiquity a social rootedness that aligns with Christianity as exemplified in the modern world by Amish communities.(p 106-107) His celebration of the traditional liberal arts adopts, he says, “a classical or Christian understanding of liberty” (p. 129) that emphasizes situated norms and localities, embedded cultures, and institutional continuities. This, however, is a curious take on antiquity, one that flies in the face of the anti-Christian features of classical and ancient thought extolled by Friedrich Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, and Julius Evola, who valued the pagan elements of “the ancient commendation of virtue” (p. 165) and disparaged the modern world as being too Christian.

Deneen is not interested in liberalisms, i.e., the multiplicity of concepts that fly under the banner of liberalism. He prefers casually to lump together varieties of generic ills (everything from industrialized agriculture to the infatuation with STEM, diversity, multiculturalism, materialism, and sexual autonomy) as products of the one common enemy of everything good that the classical and medieval periods had to offer. He then gives that enemy a name: liberalism. He would plunge us back, if not into antiquity, then into medieval tribalism, into periods in which the accused were tried by ordeal or combat, when blood oaths and kinship rather than trust, goodwill, or economic exchange determined one’s loyalties and allegiances.

It isn’t correct that liberalism “requires liberation from all forms of associations and relationships, from family to church, from schools to village and community.” (p. 38) On the contrary, liberalism frees people from the tyrannical and institutionalized coercion that prevents them from enjoying local associations and relationships, including those in families, churches, schools, and communities. Liberalism properly understood empowers people to group themselves and define their experience by their own customs and mores. Thanks to liberalism, Deneen himself enjoys the freedom to critique the rapidly growing government that increasingly attempts to impose on him standards and rules at odds with his own.

Extending the individualism that characterized classical liberalism to twentieth century progressivism and modern identity politics, as Deneen does, is misguided. Modern identity politics is about collectivism in the name of self-definition, self-awareness, and self-constitution, about choosing which communities (Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ, the Democratic Socialists of America, neo-Nazis, etc.) embrace the physical (e.g. ethnic or racial), ideological (e.g., pan-nationalist, Marxist, ecosocialist, feminist, anarcho-syndicalist, white supremacist), or normative characteristics (e.g. social justice or egalitarianism) around which one forms group associations.

The truth is that individualism thrives in moral, virtuous communities, and that the common good and group associations flourish in societies that acknowledge and understand the inherent worth and dignity of every individual. Of the interdependence and mutually strengthening nature of freedom and order, of the individual and society, Frank Meyer proclaimed that “truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it; and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon brings about conditions that pave the way for surrender to tyranny.”1 To those who insist that individualism is antithetical to religious belief, which is itself indispensable to conservatism and the common good, M. Stanton Evans stated, “affirmation of a transcendent order is not only compatible with individual autonomy, but the condition of it; […] a skeptical view of man’s nature [i.e., as inherently flawed and prone to sin] not only permits political liberty but demands it.”2

In a free society, entrepreneurs and producers are looking to others, to communities, to determine basic needs to satisfy. The rational self-interest motivating creativity and inventiveness is fundamentally about serving others more efficiently and effectively, about generating personal rewards, yes—but personal rewards for making life better and easier for others. The Adam Smith of The Wealth of Nations is the same Adam Smith of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Human beings are wired both to look out for themselves, protecting their homes and loved ones, and to feel for, and empathize with, others. Beneficence and generosity are principal aspects of the liberal individualism that Deneen maligns.

The “second wave” of liberalism, in Deneen’s paradigm, is Progressivism. (p. 142) Yet modern progressivism and the Democratic Party have almost nothing to do with classical liberalism. Curiously and, I daresay, lazily, Deneen wishes to connect them. He cannot draw a clearly connecting line between them, however, because there isn’t one. The alleged connection is the supposed ambition “to liberate individuals from any arbitrary and unchosen relationships and remake the world into one in which those especially disposed to expressive individualism would thrive.” (p. 143–44) Should we take this assertion to mean that Deneen would prefer our relations and interactions to be arbitrarily coerced by a central power in a closed society where subordinated individuals habitually follow the unquestioned commands of established superiors?

F. A. Hayek once stated that, “[u]ntil the rise of socialism,” the opposite of conservatism was liberalism but that, in the United States, “the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense.”3 Is Deneen so immersed in American culture that he cannot recognize this basic distinction? Deneen prizes the common, collective good as manifest in local communities, blaming rational self-interest for the allegedly universalizing tendency of liberalism to stamp out venerable customs and cultural norms. But he seems befuddled by the American taxonomy into which liberalism has fallen and would do well to revisit the works of Ludwig von Mises, who explained, “In the United States ‘liberal’ means today a set of ideas and political postulates that in every regard are the opposite of all that liberalism meant to the preceding generations. The American self-styled liberal aims at government omnipotence, is a resolute foe of free enterprise, and advocates all-round planning by authorities, i.e., socialism.”4

A comparison of Deneen’s speculative political theory and its abstract narrative of decline with Larry Siedentop’s deeply historical, ideologically neutral Inventing the Individual (Belknap / Harvard, 2014) reveals critical flaws in Deneen’s argument, starting with the proposition that the individualism key to liberalism is merely 500 years old. Siedentop undercuts the common portrayal of a medieval Europe gripped by poverty and superstition, monarchy and tyranny, widespread corruption and early death from which the Renaissance and, later, the Enlightenment allegedly rescued us. Siedentop sees, instead, the rise of Christianity—long before medievalism—as the cause of the rise of liberal individualism, which, in fact, has roots in the teachings of St. Paul and Jesus Christ. Whereas Deneen theorizes individualism as recent and anti-Christian, Siedentop traces its actual history as distinctly Christian, mapping its concrete features over time as it proliferated and supplanted ancient pagan cultures and customs that lacked a structural understanding of the dignity and primacy of the human person.

Siedentop attributes liberal individualism to Christianity; Deneen treats liberal individualism as inimical to Christianity. Both men cannot correct, at least not fully.

Walking back some of his grand claims, Deneen acknowledges in his final pages that liberalism, in certain manifestations, has in fact been around longer than 500 years and that it has much in common with Christianity:

While liberalism pretended to be a wholly new edifice that rejected the political architecture of all previous ages, it naturally drew upon long developments from antiquity to the late Middle Ages. A significant part of its appeal was not that it was something wholly new but that it drew upon deep reservoirs of belief and commitment. Ancient political philosophy was especially devoted to the question of how best to avoid the rise of tyranny, and how best to achieve the conditions of political liberty and self-governance. The basic terms that inform our political tradition—liberty, equality, dignity, justice, constitutionalism—are of ancient pedigree. The advent of Christianity, and its development in the now largely neglected political philosophy of the Middle Ages, emphasized the dignity of the individual, the concept of the person, the existence of rights and corresponding duties, the paramount importance of civil society and a multiplicity of associations, and the concept of limited government as the best means of forestalling the inevitable human temptation toward tyranny. Liberalism’s most basic appeal was not its rejection of the past but its reliance upon basic concepts that were foundational to the Western political identity. (pp. 184–85)

Forgive me for being confused, but I thought Deneen had set out to criticize liberalism and chart its failure, not to exalt or defend it, and certainly not to tie it to an ancient lineage associated with Christianity. This passage represents the discombobulation at the heart of Deneen’s book. Liberalism is not to blame for the massive administrative state and its networks of agents and functionaries that coerce local communities. Deneen is part of the problem he describes, championing ways of thinking and organizing human behavior that undercut his hope for the reawakening of traditional values and familial or neighborly bonds on local levels.

Deneen airs his opinions with such maddening certitude that he comes across as haughty and tendentious, as a zealously anti-libertarian manqué with an axe to grind. He lacks the delicacy and charity with which reasonable scholars of good faith approach their ideological opponents. He does not entertain the position of those who, like me, believe that liberal individualism is a necessary condition for the flourishing of local communities, the cultivation of virtue and responsibility, the forming of mediating institutions and bottom-up political associations, and the decentralization and diffusion of government power. He just can’t grasp the possibility that liberal individualism creates a vehicle for the preservation of custom and heritage, the family unit, and social bonds on local levels.

“Statism enables individualism, individualism demands statism,” (p. 17) Deneen insists with little proof beyond his own ahistorical speculative theories—ironically given his call for “smaller, local forms of resistance: practicesmore than theories.” (pp. 19–20) Here’s an alternative proposition: liberal individualism and the community bonds it generates are best protected in a Christian society that is solemnly mindful of the fallibility of the human mind, the sinful tendencies of the human flesh, and the inevitable imperfection of human institutions.

Reading Why Liberalism Failed, one might come away questioning not whether Deneen is right, but whether he’s even sufficiently well-read in the history of liberalism to pass judgment on this wide-ranging, centuries-old school of philosophy that grew out of Christianity. What an unfortunate impression to impart for someone who writes with such flair about such important trends and figures. The reality, I think, is that Deneen is erudite and learned. His tendentious depiction of liberalism is thus disappointing for not putting his erudition and learning properly on display, for promoting an idiosyncratic take on liberalism that could ultimately undermine the classical and Christian commitment to liberty that he wishes to reinvigorate.

  • 1.Frank Meyer, “Freedom, Tradition, Conservatism,” in What is Conservatism? (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2015), p. 12.
  • 2.M. Stanton Evans, “A Conservative Case for Freedom,” in What is Conservatism? (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2015), p. 86.
  • 3.F. A. Hayek, “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” The Constitution of Liberty: The Definitive Edition, Vol 17, The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek(Routledge, 2013), p. 519.
  • 4.Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism in the Classical Tradition (1927) (The Foundation for Economic Education and Cobden Press, 2002) (Ralph Raico, trans.), pgs. xvi-xvii.

What Can Libertarians Contribute to the Study of Literature?

In Arts & Letters, higher education, Humane Economy, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on April 10, 2019 at 6:45 am

Interview with the James G. Martin Center regarding English Departments, Higher Education, Marxism, and Legal Education

In Arts & Letters, Economics, higher education, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on March 13, 2019 at 6:45 am

La defensa de Hayek de las comunidades descentralizadas

In Arts & Letters, Christianity, Conservatism, Economics, Essays, Humane Economy, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature, The South, Transnational Law, Western Philosophy on January 30, 2019 at 6:45 am

Originally published (and translated into Spanish) here at Mises Wire.

Mi charla de hoy trata sobre descentralización y epistemología. Para comenzar, deseo rechazar cualquier experiencia especializada en este tema. Soy un abogado de formación que ama la literatura y obtuvo un doctorado en inglés. Sería una exageración llamarme un filósofo o un teórico político, por lo tanto, esta declaración de responsabilidad de anclaje me impide navegar en los mares filosóficos.

He dividido mi argumento, tal como es, en dos partes: lo impersonal y lo personal. El primero es un caso filosófico de descentralización; el último involucra consideraciones privadas sobre relaciones humanas íntimas en torno a las cuales las comunidades de propósito común se organizan y conducen. Al final, los dos enfoques se refuerzan mutuamente y producen, espero, consideraciones benévolas y humanas. Sin embargo, presentarlos como señales separadas a diferentes audiencias cuya tolerancia a la apelación de los sentimientos puede variar.

Lo impersonal

El argumento impersonal se reduce a esto: los sistemas descentralizados de orden son más eficientes y, por lo tanto, más deseables, porque explican y responden mejor al conocimiento disperso en diversas comunidades con costumbres, ambiciones y valores únicos. Los sistemas de abajo hacia arriba, heterogéneos y gobernados por instituciones locales que reflejan el conocimiento, el talento y las opciones nativas sirven a la humanidad con mayor eficacia que los sistemas de arriba a abajo centralizados que no responden a las normas y costumbres locales.

La ley policéntrica, o policentrismo, es el término que uso para describir este arreglo organizativo. Otros nombres que se sugieren no expresan el dinamismo del policentrismo. El federalismo, por ejemplo, confunde debido a su asociación con los primeros federalistas estadounidenses. Además, presupone, incluso en su articulación por parte de los antifederalistas inadecuadamente denominados, una autoridad central demasiado fuerte, en mi opinión, debajo de la cual las autoridades locales sostienen que son subordinados iguales. El localismo, por su parte, sufre de asociaciones con políticas económicas proteccionistas y anticompetitivas. Otros nombres, como confederación, ciudad-estado o anarcocapitalismo, también tienen sus inconvenientes.

Así que me quedo con el policentrismo como la etiqueta operativa para el sistema de trabajo de las autoridades pequeñas y plurales que busco describir. El principal valor de este sistema es su propensión a moderar y verificar la ambición natural y el orgullo que lleva a los humanos no solo a las aspiraciones de poder y grandeza, sino también a las instituciones coercitivas y las maquinaciones que inhiben la organización voluntaria de los individuos en torno a normas y costumbres compartidas. Un orden policéntrico óptimo consiste en múltiples jurisdicciones en competencia de escala humana y razonable, cada una con sus propios poderes divididos que impiden la consolidación de la autoridad en la forma de un gobernante o tirano supremo (o, más probablemente en nuestra época, de un directivo, administrativo, y burocrático Estado) y cada uno con un documento escrito que describe las reglas e instituciones que rigen al mismo tiempo que afirma un compromiso central con objetivos comunes y una misión orientadora. Sin embargo, hablar de un orden policéntrico óptimo es problemático, porque los órdenes policéntricos permiten que distintas comunidades seleccionen y definan por sí mismas el conjunto operativo de reglas e instituciones que cumplen con sus principales ideales y principios favorecidos.

La teoría de precios de F.A. Hayek proporciona un punto de partida útil para analizar los beneficios de los modos de ordenamiento humano descentralizados y de abajo hacia arriba que representan el policentrismo. Esta teoría sostiene que el conocimiento está disperso en toda la sociedad e incapaz de ser comprendido por una sola persona o grupo de personas; por lo tanto, la planificación económica centralizada fracasa inevitablemente porque no puede evaluar o calcular con precisión las necesidades sentidas y las actividades coordinadas de personas lejanas en comunidades dispares; solo en una economía de mercado donde los consumidores compran y venden libremente de acuerdo con sus preferencias únicas, los precios confiables se revelarán gradualmente.

La teoría del conocimiento de Hayek se basa en la falibilidad y las limitaciones de la inteligencia humana. Debido a que la complejidad del comportamiento y la interacción humana excede la capacidad de una mente o grupo de mentes para comprenderla por completo, la coordinación humana requiere deferencia a órdenes emergentes o espontáneas, arraigadas en la costumbre, que se adaptan a las necesidades y preferencias dinámicas y en evolución de los consumidores cotidianos. La articulación de la teoría de los precios de Hayek contempla la sabiduría colectiva y agregada, es decir, el conocimiento incorpóreo o incorporado, y advierte contra los grandes diseños basados ​​en la supuesta experiencia de una clase selecta de personas.

Michael Polanyi, otro político y un ardiente antimarxista, expuso teorías relacionadas sobre el policentrismo, el orden espontáneo, la planificación central y el conocimiento, pero se centró menos en la teoría económica y más en el descubrimiento científico, la investigación independiente y el intercambio libre y sistemático de investigación e ideas. Desde su punto de vista, el avance científico no procedió a medida que avanza la construcción de una casa, es decir, de acuerdo con un plan o diseño fijo, sino mediante un proceso análogo a, en sus palabras, “la disposición ordenada de las células vivas que constituyen un organismo pluricelular.” 1 “A lo largo del proceso de desarrollo embrionario”, explicó, “cada célula persigue su propia vida, y sin embargo cada una ajusta su crecimiento al de sus vecinos para que emerja una estructura armoniosa del agregado.”2 “Esto”, concluyó, “es exactamente cómo cooperan los científicos: ajustando continuamente su línea de investigación a los resultados alcanzados hasta la fecha por sus colegas científicos”.3

Polanyi trabajó para demostrar que “la planificación central de la producción” era “estrictamente imposible”4 y que “las operaciones de un sistema de orden espontáneo en la sociedad, como el orden competitivo de un mercado, no pueden ser reemplazadas por el establecimiento de una agencia de pedidos deliberada.”5 Describió las ineficiencias de las estructuras organizativas puramente jerárquicas dentro de las cuales la información se eleva desde la base, mediada sucesivamente por niveles posteriores de autoridad más altos, llegando finalmente a la cima de una pirámide, a una autoridad suprema, que luego centraliza dirige todo el sistema, comandando las órdenes hacia la base. Este proceso complejo, además de ser ineficiente, es susceptible de desinformación, y de una falta de conocimiento confiable en el terreno de las circunstancias relevantes.

Si bien Polanyi señala casos mundanos de ordenación espontánea, como pasajeros en estaciones de tren, sin dirección central, parados en plataformas y ocupando asientos en los trenes, 6 también examina formas más complejas de adaptación de comportamiento a las interacciones interpersonales que, a lo largo del tiempo y a través de la repetición, emerge como hábitos y reglas entendidos tácitamente que ganan aceptación por parte del cuerpo corporativo más grande.

La centralización concentra el poder en menos personas en espacios más pequeños, mientras que la descentralización divide y distribuye el poder entre vastas redes de personas en espacios más amplios. Bajo el gobierno centralizado, las personas buenas que disfrutan del poder pueden, en teoría, lograr rápidamente el bien, pero las personas malvadas que disfrutan del poder pueden lograr rápidamente el mal. Debido a los peligros inherentes y apócrifos de esta última posibilidad, el gobierno centralizado no debe ser preferido. Nuestras tendencias como humanos son catastróficas, afirmándose a sí mismas en los comportamientos pecaminosos que ambos elegimos y no podemos ayudar. Hay, además, en un rango considerable de asuntos, desacuerdos sobre lo que constituye lo malo y lo bueno, lo malo y lo virtuoso. Si las preguntas sobre la maldad o la bondad, el mal y la virtuosidad se resuelven de forma simple o apresurada en favor del poder central, las comunidades resistentes (amenazadas, marginadas, silenciadas y coaccionadas) ejercerán finalmente su agencia política, movilizándose en alianzas insurreccionales para socavar la central. poder. Por lo tanto, el poder centralizado aumenta la probabilidad de violencia a gran escala, mientras que el gobierno descentralizado reduce los conflictos a niveles locales donde tienden a ser menores y compensadores.

Las órdenes policéntricas producen comunidades auto-constituidas que se regulan a través de las instituciones mediadoras que han erigido voluntariamente para alinearse con sus valores, tradiciones y prioridades. Su alcance y escala prácticos les permiten gobernarse a sí mismos de acuerdo con reglas vinculantes que generalmente son aceptables para la mayoría dentro de su jurisdicción.

Un hombre solo en el desierto es vulnerable a las amenazas. Sin embargo, cuando entra en la sociedad, se combina con otros que, con intereses comunes, se sirven y protegen mutuamente de amenazas externas. Si la sociedad crece y se materializa en vastos estados o gobiernos, las personas que viven en ella pierden su sentido de propósito común, su deseo de unirse para el beneficio y la protección mutuos. Surgen facciones y clases, cada una compitiendo por el poder. Las personas en las que supuestamente reside la soberanía del poder central pueden perder su poder y ser marginadas a medida que prolifera la red de funcionarios burocráticos. Las personas son desplazadas por armas y agencias del poder central. Aunque no se puede lograr progreso sin una competencia constructiva entre los grupos rivales, las sociedades no pueden prosperar cuando sus habitantes no comparten un sentido fundamental de identidad y propósito común.

El poder centralizado a primera vista puede parecer más eficiente porque su proceso de toma de decisiones no es complejo, ya que consiste en comandos de arriba hacia abajo para subordinados. Teóricamente, y solo teóricamente, la máxima eficiencia se podría lograr si todo el poder fuera poseído por una sola persona. Pero, por supuesto, en realidad, ninguna persona puede proteger su poder de amenazas externas o insubordinación interna. De hecho, la concentración de poder en una persona invita al disenso y la insurrección. Después de todo, es más fácil derrocar a una persona que derrocar a muchas. Por lo tanto, en la práctica, el poder centralizado requiere la autoridad suprema para construir burocracias de agentes y funcionarios de manera leal y diligente para instituir su directiva de arriba hacia abajo

Pero, ¿cómo genera el poder central un sentido de lealtad y deber entre estos subordinados? A través del patrocinio y los favores políticos, las pensiones, la búsqueda de rentas, el tráfico de influencias, las inmunidades, el compañerismo, el injerto, en definitiva, fortaleciendo el impulso humano para el auto-engrandecimiento, elevando a personas y grupos seleccionados a posiciones privilegiadas a expensas extraordinarias para personas o consumidores comunes. En consecuencia, la centralización como una forma de organización humana incentiva la corrupción, la mala conducta y la deshonestidad mientras se construyen redes complicadas de funcionarios costosos a través de los cuales se media y se distorsiona la información. El resultado es una corrupción generalizada, malentendidos e ineficiencia.

Incluso asumiendo arguendo de que la autoridad concentrada es más eficiente, facilitaría la capacidad de llevar a cabo el mal, así como el bien. Los supuestos beneficios del poder consolidado presuponen una autoridad suprema benevolente con un amplio conocimiento de las circunstancias nativas. Los posibles beneficios que se puedan obtener a través de una toma de decisiones hipotéticamente rápida se ven compensados ​​por los daños potenciales resultantes de la implementación de la decisión como ley vinculante. El conocimiento limitado y falible en el que se basa la decisión amplifica el daño resultante más allá de lo que podría haber sido en un sistema descentralizado que localiza el poder y por lo tanto disminuye la capacidad de las personas malas para causar daño.

Por lo tanto, la eficiencia, en su caso, de las órdenes de mando y la política de establecimiento de un modelo de arriba hacia abajo se neutraliza por las ineficiencias resultantes y las consecuencias perjudiciales que podrían haberse evitado si los planificadores centrales no hubieran presupuesto el conocimiento de las circunstancias locales. En ausencia de una autoridad de compensación, cualquier poder centralizado puede, sin justa causa, coaccionar y molestar a hombres y mujeres pacíficos en contravención de sus distintas leyes y costumbres. Naturalmente, estos hombres y mujeres, combinados como comunidades resistentes, disputarán una tiranía injustificada e indeseada que amenaza su forma de vida y la comprensión de la comunidad. La perturbación de la armonía social y la reacción violenta contra la coerción injustificada hacen ineficientes las operaciones supuestamente eficientes del poder central.

Después de una larga consideración, se hace evidente que, después de todo, los modos centralizados de poder no son más eficientes, que de hecho son contrarios a la libertad y la virtud en comparación con sus alternativas descentralizadas. Pero esa no es la única razón por la cual el modelo descentralizado es superior.

El personal

No disfrutas del buen vino simplemente hablando y pensando en él, sino bebiéndolo, olfateando sus aromas, girándolo en tu vaso, mojando tu lengua y cubriendo tu boca con él. Una verdadera apreciación del vino es experiencial, basada en el placer repetido de probar y consumir diferentes variedades de uva con sus componentes de sabor distintivo. La mayoría de las personas desarrollan sus amores y prioridades de esta manera. No aman las abstracciones, pero aman a sus vecinos, familias y amigos. Priorizan los temas que les son cercanos y diarios. Lo han hecho desde muy temprana edad. “Es dentro de las familias y otros arreglos institucionales característicos de la vida del vecindario, la aldea y la comunidad que la ciudadanía se aprende y se practica para la mayoría de las personas la mayor parte del tiempo”, dijo Vincent 7Ostrom. “El primer orden de prioridad en el aprendizaje del oficio de ciudadanía aplicado a los asuntos públicos”, agregó, “debe enfocarse en cómo hacer frente a los problemas en el contexto de la familia, el vecindario, la aldea y la comunidad. Aquí es donde las personas adquieren los rudimentos para autogobernarse, aprendiendo cómo vivir y trabajar con los demás”.8

Aprendí a aceptar la derrota, no de las campañas electorales nacionales, las guerras en el extranjero o los bancos demasiado grandes para quebrar que fracasaron, sino del béisbol de ligas menores, cuando mi equipo de tercer grado, los Cardenales, perdió en las semifinales, y cuando mi equipo de baloncesto de primer año perdió en la final. Todavía sueño con ese campeonato de baloncesto. Mi entrenador me había puesto en el juego con el único propósito de disparar triples, mi especialidad, pero la defensa me hizo un doble equipo. No pude conseguir un disparo claro. Cada vez que pasaba el balón, mi entrenador gritaba “no” y me ordenaba que disparara. A principios de la temporada, antes de que supiera mi habilidad detrás de la línea de tres puntos, gritó “no” cada vez que tomaba un tiro.

Aprendí sobre la injusticia cuando mi maestra de primer grado me castigó de una manera desproporcionada con mi presunta ofensa, que hasta el día de hoy niego haber cometido, y sobre la gracia y la misericordia cuando mi madre me perdonó, sin siquiera un azote. Por una ofensa que había cometido definitivamente.

Aprendí sobre Dios y la fe mientras desayunaba en la mesa de la cocina de mi abuela. Ella mantuvo una Biblia sobre la mesa al lado de una estantería llena de textos sobre temas y enseñanzas cristianas. En el centro de la mesa había un pequeño frasco de versículos de la Biblia. Recuerdo que metí la mano en el frasco y saqué versos, uno tras otro, fin de semana tras fin de semana, leyéndolos y luego discutiendo con ella cuál podría ser su significado. Este modo de aprendizaje fue íntimo, práctico y me preparó para experimentar a Dios por mí mismo, para estudiar Su palabra y descubrir mis creencias acerca de Él cuando más tarde me retiré a lugares de soledad para contemplar en silencio. Estas experiencias significaron mucho más para mí que las palabras de cualquier televangelista lejano.

Cada vez que me quedaba en la casa de mis abuelos, mi abuelo se despertaba temprano y encendía la cafetera. Mi hermano y yo, al escucharlo abajo, corríamos a su lado. Compartió secciones del periódico con nosotros y nos permitió tomar café con él. Nos hizo sentir como adultos responsables, dos niños pequeños con el periódico y el café en la mano, reflexionando sobre los acontecimientos actuales y emitiendo juicios sobre las últimas tendencias y escándalos políticos. Esta educación indispensable no provino de la difusión pública o de algún proyecto costoso de alfabetización cívica orquestado por la Fundación Nacional para las Artes o la Fundación Nacional para las Humanidades. Venía de la familia, en espacios familiares, en el calor de un hogar amoroso.

La señora Stubbs me enseñó modales y decoro en el cotillón, aunque nunca logró enseñarme a bailar. Aprendí la etiqueta en el campo de golf donde pasé los veranos de mi infancia jugando con grupos de hombres adultos, compitiendo con ellos mientras aprendía a hacer preguntas sobre sus carreras y profesiones, guardando silencio mientras giraban o ponían, no andando en sus líneas, sosteniendo el flagstick para ellos, otorgándoles honores en el tee cuando obtuvieron la puntuación más baja en el hoyo anterior, rastrillando los bunkers, caminando con cuidado para evitar dejar marcas de picos en los greens, reparando las marcas de mis bolas, etc.

Me enteré de la muerte cuando una niña con la que viajé a la iglesia falleció de cáncer. Tenía solo cuatro o cinco años cuando murió. Luego vino la muerte de mi bisabuela, luego mi bisabuelo, luego mi abuelo, y así sucesivamente, lo que hasta el día de hoy se me acerca. En el Sur aún abrimos nuestros ataúdes para mostrar cadáveres y recordarnos la fragilidad de la vida y la inevitabilidad de la muerte. Este ritual solemne nos mantiene conscientes de nuestro propósito en la vida, nos acerca a nuestros amigos y familiares y nos asegura que contemplamos las preguntas más graves y más importantes.

Mis dos abuelos significaban el mundo para mí. Ambos llevaban trajes y corbatas para trabajar todos los días. Se vistieron profesionalmente y con responsabilidad para cada ocasión. Los copié a temprana edad. En la escuela secundaria, mientras los otros niños se entregaban a las últimas modas y modas, usaba camisas abotonadas metidas cuidadosamente en los pantalones. Pensé que no obtendría puntos con mis compañeros disfrazándome para la clase, pero en poco tiempo muchos de mis amigos adoptaron la práctica cuando empezamos a pensar en nosotros mismos como hombres pequeños en busca de una educación. Debido a que éramos atletas, nuestra ropa no solo fue tolerada sino que finalmente se imitó. Cuando los otros equipos de baloncesto se presentaron en nuestro gimnasio, los conocimos con abrigo y corbata mientras llevaban camisetas demasiado grandes y pantalones sueltos que se hundían debajo de las puntas traseras. Nuestro equipo podría haberlos asustado por nuestro atuendo formal. Pero los sorprendimos aún más después de que nos trasladamos al vestuario, nos pusimos nuestras camisetas, irrumpimos en la cancha y luego los derrotábamos.

Podría seguir. El punto es que la experiencia sentida define quiénes somos y da forma a cómo nos comportamos. Como señaló el juez Holmes, “Lo que más amamos y veneramos en general está determinado por las primeras asociaciones. Me encantan las rocas de granito y los arbustos de agracejo, sin duda porque con ellos estuvieron mis primeros gozos que se remontan a la eternidad pasada de mi vida”.9 Lo que dice a continuación es más importante:

Pero mientras que la experiencia de uno hace que ciertas preferencias sean dogmáticas para uno mismo, el reconocimiento de cómo llegaron a ser así deja a uno capaz de ver que otros, las almas pobres, pueden ser igualmente dogmáticos respecto de otra cosa. Y esto de nuevo significa escepticismo. No es que la creencia o el amor de uno no permanezca. No es que no lucharíamos y moriríamos por ello si fuera importante; todos, lo sepamos o no, estamos luchando para crear el tipo de mundo que nos debería gustar, sino que hemos aprendido a reconocer que los demás lucharán y morirán. Para hacer un mundo diferente, con igual sinceridad o creencia. Las preferencias profundamente arraigadas no se pueden discutir (no se puede argumentar que a un hombre le guste un vaso de cerveza) y, por lo tanto, cuando las diferencias son lo suficientemente amplias, tratamos de matar al otro hombre en lugar de dejar que se salga con la suya. Pero eso es perfectamente consistente con admitir que, por lo que parece, sus argumentos son tan buenos como los 10nuestros.

Tomo estas palabras como precaución, como un claro recordatorio del horroroso potencial de la violencia inherente al intento de un grupo de personas formado por ciertas asociaciones para imponer por la fuerza sus normas y prácticas a otro grupo de personas formadas por asociaciones diferentes. La virtud distintiva de la policentrismo es dar cabida a estas diferencias y minimizar las posibilidades de violencia al difundir y dispersar el poder.

Conclusión

El orden policéntrico que defiendo no es utópico; es concreto y práctico, y está ejemplificado por las instituciones mediadoras y las autoridades subsidiarias, tales como iglesias, sinagogas, clubes, ligas pequeñas, asociaciones comunitarias, escuelas y membrecías profesionales a través de las cuales nos expresamos, políticamente o de otra manera, y con cuyas reglas voluntariamente aceptamos.

Cuando encendemos nuestros televisores por la noche, somos muchos de nosotros de esta parte del país, perturbados por el aumento de la conducta lasciva, la retórica divisiva, el comportamiento malicioso y la decadencia institucionalizada que son contrarias a nuestras normas locales pero sistémicamente y fuertemente forzado sobre nosotros por poderes extranjeros o externos. Apagar la televisión en protesta parece ser nuestro único modo de resistencia, nuestra única manera de disentir. Disgustados por la creciente evidencia de que nuestros políticos han reunido el aparato del poderoso gobierno federal para alcanzar la fama y la gloria personal, muchos de nosotros nos sentimos explotados y sin poder. Sin embargo, frente a las burocracias estatales masivas, las grandes corporaciones, los medios parciales, los periodistas tendenciosos y los militares al mando, ejercemos nuestra agencia, brindando alegría y esperanza a nuestras familias, amigos y vecinos, atendiendo a circunstancias concretas que están bajo nuestro control directo. La promesa de comunidad nos revitaliza y refresca.

Recientemente paseé por Copenhague, Dinamarca, un brillante domingo por la mañana. Aunque las campanas de la iglesia sonaban por las calles, haciendo eco en los edificios y las aceras de adoquines, silenciando las conversaciones y sobresaltando a algunas palomas, las iglesias permanecieron vacías. No vi adoradores ni servicios de adoración. Algunas de las iglesias habían sido reutilizadas como cafés y restaurantes con camareros y camareras pero no pastores ni sacerdotes; los clientes bebían su vino y comían su pan en mesas pequeñas, pero no había rituales de comunión ni sacramentos.

Un mes después, también un domingo, volé a Montgomery, Alabama, desde Dallas, Texas. A medida que el avión descendía lentamente bajo las nubes, las pequeñas figuras de casas de muñecas y los edificios modelo debajo de mí cobraron vida, convirtiéndose en personas y estructuras reales. Contemplé las docenas de iglesias que salpicaban el paisaje plano y ensanchado, que crecía cada vez más a medida que nos acercábamos al aeropuerto. Y observé, sentado allí, el stock todavía impulsado a través del espacio, que los estacionamientos de cada iglesia estaban llenos de autos, que había, a esta hora temprana, cientos, si no miles, de mi gente allí antes que yo, adorando al mismo Dios. Adoré, el mismo Dios que mis padres y abuelos y sus padres y abuelos habían adorado; Y sentí, en ese momento, profunda y profundamente, por primera vez en años, un sentimiento raro pero inconfundible: esperanza no solo para mi comunidad, sino también para la comunidad.

  • 1.Michael Polanyi, La lógica de la libertad: Reflexiones y réplicas (Indianapolis Liberty Fund, 1998) (1951), pág. 109.
  • 2.Ibid.
  • 3.Ibid.
  • 4.Ibid en 136.
  • 5.Ibid en 137.
  • 6.Ibid. a los 141 años.
  • 7.Vincent Ostrom, The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997), pág. X.
  • 8.Ibid.
  • 9.Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. “Natural Law”. Harvard Law Review, vol. 32 (1918-19), p. 41.
  • 10.Holmes a los 41.

Hayek’s Case for Decentralized Communities

In Arts & Letters, Christianity, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Religion, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Western Philosophy on January 16, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at Mises Wire.

My talk today is about decentralization and epistemology. At the outset I wish to disclaim any specialized expertise in this subject. I’m a lawyer by training who loves literature and earned a doctorate in English. It would be a stretch to call me a philosopher or a political theorist, hence this anchoring disclaimer to prevent me from sailing too deep into philosophical seas.

I have divided my argument, such as it is, into two parts: the impersonal and the personal. The former is a philosophical case for decentralization; the latter involves private considerations about intimate human relationships around which communities of common purpose organize and conduct themselves. In the end, the two approaches are mutually reinforcing, yielding, I hope, benevolent and humane considerations. Presenting them as separate, however, signals to different audiences whose tolerance for appeals to feeling may vary.

The Impersonal

The impersonal argument boils down to this: decentralized systems of order are more efficient, and hence more desirable, because they better account for and respond to dispersed knowledge across diverse communities with unique customs, ambitions, and values. Heterogeneous, bottom-up systems governed by local institutions that reflect native knowledge, talent, and choices more effectually serve humanity writ large than centralized, top-down systems that are unaccountable to local norms and mores.

Polycentric law, or polycentrism,is the term I use to describe this organizational arrangement. Other names that suggest themselves fail to express the dynamism of polycentrism. Federalism, for example, confounds because of its association with the early American Federalists. It presupposes, moreover, even in its articulation by the inaptly named Anti-Federalists, too strong of a central authority, in my view, beneath which local authorities contend as coequal subordinates. Localism, for its part, suffers from associations with protectionist, anticompetitive economic policies. Other names such as confederation, city state, or anarcho-capitalism likewise have their drawbacks.

So I’m stuck with polycentrism as the operative label for the working system of small and plural authorities that I seek to describe. The chief value of this system is its propensity to temper and check the natural ambition and pride that lead humans not only to aspirations of power and greatness, but also to the coercive institutions and machinations that inhibit the voluntary organization of individuals around shared norms and customs. An optimal polycentric order consists of multiple, competing jurisdictions of humane and reasonable scale, each with their own divided powers that prevent the consolidation of authority in the form of a supreme ruler or tyrant (or, more likely in our age, of a managerial, administrative, and bureaucratic state) and each with a written document outlining governing rules and institutions while affirming a core commitment to common goals and a guiding mission. To speak of an optimal polycentric order, however, is problematic, because polycentric orders enable distinct communities to select and define for themselves the operative assemblage of rules and institutions that fulfills their chief ideals and favored principles.

F. A. Hayek’s price theory provides a useful starting point for discussing the benefits of bottom-up, decentralized modes of human ordering that represent polycentrism. This theory holds that knowledge is dispersed throughout society and incapable of being comprehensively understood by any one person or group of people; therefore, centralized economic planning inevitably fails because it cannot accurately assess or calculate the felt needs and coordinated activities of faraway people in disparate communities; only in a market economy where consumers freely buy and sell according to their unique preferences will reliable pricing gradually reveal itself.

Hayek’s theory of knowledge is predicated on the fallibility and limitations of human intelligence. Because the complexity of human behavior and interaction exceeds the capacity of one mind or group of minds fully to comprehend it, human coordination requires deference to emergent or spontaneous orders, rooted in custom, that adapt to the dynamic, evolving needs and preferences of everyday consumers. Hayek’s articulation of price theory contemplates collective and aggregated wisdom—i.e., disembodied or embedded knowledge—and cautions against grand designs based on the alleged expertise of a select class of people.

Michael Polanyi, another polymath and an ardent anti-Marxist, exposited related theories about polycentricity, spontaneous order, central planning, and knowledge, but he focused less on economic theory and more on scientific discovery, independent inquiry, and the free, systematic exchange of research and ideas. Scientific advancement, in his view, did not proceed as the construction of a house proceeds, namely according to a fixed plan or design, but rather by a process analogous to, in his words, “the ordered arrangement of living cells which constitute a polycellular organism.”1 “Throughout the process of embryonic development,” he explained, “each cell pursues its own life, and yet each so adjusts its growth to that of its neighbors that a harmonious structure of the aggregate emerges.”2 “This”, he concluded, “is exactly how scientists co-operate: by continually adjusting their line of research to the results achieved up to date by their fellow-scientists.”3

Polanyi labored to show that “the central planning of production” was “strictly impossible”4 and that “the operations of a system of spontaneous order in society, such as the competitive order of a market, cannot be replaced by the establishment of a deliberate ordering agency.”5 He described the inefficiencies of purely hierarchical organizational structures within which information rises upward from the base, mediated successively by subsequent, higher tiers of authority, arriving ultimately at the top of a pyramid, at some supreme authority, which then centrally directs the entire system, commanding orders down to the base. This convoluted process, besides being inefficient, is susceptible to disinformation and misinformation, and to a lack of reliable, on-the-ground knowledge of relevant circumstances.

While Polanyi points to mundane instances of spontaneous ordering, such as passengers at train stations, without central direction, standing on platforms and filling seats on the trains,6 he also examines more complex forms of behavioral adaptation to interpersonal interactions that, over time and through repetition, emerge as tacitly understood habits and rules that gain acceptance by the larger corporate body.

Centralization concentrates power in fewer people in smaller spaces, whereas decentralization divides and spreads power among vast networks of people across wider spaces. Under centralized government, good people who enjoy power may, in theory, quickly accomplish good, but evil people who enjoy power may quickly accomplish evil. Because of the inherent, apocryphal dangers of the latter possibility, centralized government must not be preferred. Our tendencies as humans are catastrophic, asserting themselves in the sinful behaviors we both choose and cannot help. There is, moreover, on a considerable range of issues, disagreement about what constitutes the bad and the good, the evil and the virtuous. If questions about badness or goodness, evil and virtuousness are simply or hastily resolved in favor of the central power, then resistant communities—threatened, marginalized, silenced, and coerced—will eventually exercise their political agency, mobilizing into insurrectionary alliances to undermine the central power. Centralized power therefore increases the probability of large-scale violence whereas decentralized government reduces conflicts to local levels where they tend to be minor and offsetting.

Polycentric orders produce self-constituting communities that regulate themselves through the mediating institutions they have voluntarily erected to align with their values, traditions, and priorities. Their practical scope and scale enable them to govern themselves according to binding rules that are generally agreeable to the majority within their jurisdiction.

A man alone in the wilderness is vulnerable to threats. When he enters into society, however, he combines with others who, with common interests, serve and protect each other from outside threats. If society grows large, materializing as vast states or governments, the people therein lose their sense of common purpose, their desire to unify for mutual benefit and protection. Factions and classes arise, each contending for power. The people in whom the sovereignty of the central power supposedly resides may become disempowered and marginalized as the network of bureaucratic functionaries proliferates. The people are displaced by arms and agencies of the central power. Although progress cannot be achieved without constructive competition among and between rival groups, societies cannot flourish when their inhabitants do not share a fundamental sense of common purpose and identity.

Centralized power may at first blush seem to be more efficient because its decision-making process is not complex, consisting as it does of top-down commands to subordinates. Theoretically, and only theoretically, ultimate efficiency could be achieved if all power were possessed by one person. But of course in reality no one person could protect his or her power from external threats or internal insubordination. In fact, the concentration of power in one person invites dissent and insurrection. It is easier, after all, to overthrow one person than to overthrow many. Therefore, in practice, centralized power requires the supreme authority to build bureaucracies of agents and functionaries loyally and dutifully to institute its top-down directive

But how does the central power generate a sense of loyalty and duty among and between these subordinates? Through patronage and political favors, pensions, rent seeking, influence peddling, immunities, cronyism, graft—in short, by strengthening the human urge for self-aggrandizement, elevating select people and groups to privileged positions at extraordinary expense to ordinary people or consumers. Accordingly, centralization as a form of human organization incentivizes corruption, malfeasance, and dishonesty while building convoluted networks of costly officials through whom information is mediated and distorted. The result is widespread corruption, misunderstanding, and inefficiency.

Even assuming arguendo that concentrated authority is more efficient, it would ease the ability to accomplish evil and mischief as well as good. The purported benefits of consolidated power presuppose a benevolent supreme authority with comprehensive knowledge of native circumstances. Whatever conceivable benefits may be obtained through hypothetically quick decision-making are outweighed by the potential harms resulting from the implementation of the decision as binding law. The limited and fallible knowledge on which the decision is based amplifies the resultant harm beyond what it might have been in a decentralized system that localized power and thereby diminished the capability of bad people to cause harm.

The efficiency, if any, of commanding orders and setting policy on a top-down model is therefore neutralized by the resulting inefficiencies and harmful consequences that could have been avoided had central planners not presupposed knowledge of local circumstances. Absent an offsetting authority, any centralized power may, without just cause, coerce and molest peaceful men and women in contravention of their distinct laws and customs. Naturally, these men and women, combined as resistant communities, will contest unwarranted, unwanted tyranny that threatens their way of life and understanding of community. Disturbance of social harmony and backlash against unjustified coercion render inefficient the allegedly efficient operations of the central power.

It becomes apparent, after long consideration, that centralized modes of power are not more efficient after all, that in fact they are inimical to liberty and virtue when compared to their decentralized alternatives. But that is not the only reason why the decentralized model is superior.

The Personal

You don’t enjoy fine wine merely by talking and thinking about it, but by actually drinking it, sniffing its aromas, swirling it in your glass, wetting your tongue and coating your mouth with it. A true appreciation of wine is experiential, based on the repeated pleasure of tasting and consuming different grape varieties with their distinctive flavor components. Most people develop their loves and priorities this way. They do not love abstractions, but they love their neighbors, families, and friends. They prioritize issues that are to them near and daily. They have done so from an early age. “It is within families and other institutional arrangements characteristic of neighborhood, village, and community life that citizenship is learned and practiced for most people most of the time,” said Vincent Ostrom.7 “The first order of priority in learning the craft of citizenship as applied to public affairs,” he added, “needs to focus on how to cope with problems in the context of family, neighborhood, village, and community. This is where people acquire the rudiments for becoming self-governing, by learning how to live and work with others.”8

I learned to accept defeat, not from national election campaigns, foreign wars, or too-big-to-fail banks that nevertheless failed, but from little-league baseball, when my third-grade team, the Cardinals, lost in the semifinals, and when my freshman basketball team lost in the finals. I still dream about that championship basketball game. My coach had put me in the game for the sole purpose of shooting three-pointers, my specialty, but the defense double-teamed me. I was unable to get a clear shot. Every time I passed the ball away my coach yelled “no,” commanding me to shoot. Earlier in the season, before he knew my skill behind the three-point line, he shouted “no” whenever I took a shot.

I learned about injustice when my first-grade teacher punished me in a manner that was disproportionate to my alleged offense, which to this day I deny having committed, and about grace and mercy when my mother forgave me, without so much as a spank, for an offense that I had most definitely committed.

I learned about God and faith while having breakfast at my grandmother’s kitchen table. She kept a Bible on the table beside a bookshelf full of texts on Christian themes and teachings. At the middle of the table was a little jar of Bible verses. I recall reaching my hand into the jar and pulling out verses, one after another, weekend after weekend, reading them to her and then discussing with her what their meaning might be. This mode of learning was intimate and hands-on and prepared me to experience God for myself, to study His word and figure out my beliefs about Him when later I retired to places of solitude for silent contemplation. These experiences meant far more to me than the words of any faraway televangelist.

Whenever I stayed at my grandparents’ house, my grandfather would awaken early and start the coffee pot. My brother and I, hearing him downstairs, would rush to his side. He shared sections of the newspaper with us and allowed us to drink coffee with him. He made us feel like responsible adults, two little children with newspaper and coffee in hand, pondering current events and passing judgment on the latest political trends and scandals. This indispensable education did not come from public broadcasting or from some expensive civic literacy project orchestrated by the National Foundation for the Arts or the National Foundation for the Humanities. It came from family, in familiar spaces, in the warmth of a loving home.

Mrs. Stubbs taught me manners and decorum at cotillion, although she never succeeded in teaching me to dance. I learned etiquette on the golf course where I spent my childhood summers playing with groups of grown men, competing with them while learning how to ask questions about their careers and professions, staying silent as they swung or putted, not walking in their lines, holding the flagstick for them, giving them honors on the tee when they earned the lowest score on the previous hole, raking the bunkers, walking carefully to avoid leaving spike marks on the greens, fixing my ball marks, and so on.

I learned about death when a girl I carpooled with to church passed away from cancer. She was only four or five when she died. Then there was the death of my great-grandmother, then my great-grandfather, then my grandfather, and so on down the line, which to this day approaches me. In the South we still open our caskets to display corpses and remind ourselves of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. This solemn ritual keeps us mindful of our purpose in life, draws us closer to our friends and family, and ensures that we contemplate the gravest and most important questions.

My two grandfathers meant the world to me. Both of them wore suits and ties to work every day. They dressed professionally and responsibly for every occasion. I copied them at an early age. In high school, while the other kids gave themselves over to the latest fads and fashions, I wore button-down shirts tucked neatly into slacks. I thought I wouldn’t score points with my peers by dressing up for class, but before long many of my friends adopted the practice as we began to think of ourselves as little men in pursuit of an education. Because we were athletes, our clothing was not just tolerated but eventually mimicked. When the other basketball teams showed up at our gym, we met them in coat and tie while they wore t-shirts that were too big and breakaway pants that sagged beneath their rear ends. Our team might have startled them by our formal attire. But we startled them even more after we removed to the locker room, put on our jerseys, stormed the court and then beat the living hell out of them.

I could go on. The point  is that felt experience defines who we are and shapes how we behave. As Justice Holmes remarked, “What we most love and revere generally is determined by early associations. I love granite rocks and barberry bushes, no doubt because with them were my earliest joys that reach back through the past eternity of my life.”9 What he says next is more important:

But while one’s experience thus makes certain preferences dogmatic for oneself, recognition of how they came to be so leaves one able to see that others, poor souls, may be equally dogmatic about something else. And this again means skepticism. Not that one’s belief or love does not remain. Not that we would not fight and die for it if important—we all, whether we know it or not, are fighting to make the kind of a world that we should like—but that we have learned to recognize that others will fight and die to make a different world, with equal sincerity or belief. Deep-seated preferences can not be argued about—you can not argue a man into liking a glass of beer—and therefore, when differences are sufficiently far reaching, we try to kill the other man rather than let him have his way. But that is perfectly consistent with admitting that, so far as appears, his grounds are just as good as ours.10

I take these words as cautionary—as a stark reminder of the horrifying potential for violence that inheres in the attempt of one group of people formed by certain associations to impose by force their norms and practices on another group of people formed by different associations. It is the distinct virtue of polycentricity to accommodate these differences and to minimize the chances of violence by diffusing and dispersing power.

Conclusion

The polycentric order I advocate is not utopian; it’s concrete and practical and exemplified by the mediating institutions and subsidiary authorities such as churches, synagogues, clubs, little leagues, community associations, schools, and professional memberships through and with which we express ourselves, politically or otherwise, and to whose rules we voluntarily submit.

When we turn on our televisions in the evening, we are, many of us from this part of the country, disturbed by the increase of lewd conduct, divisive rhetoric, mischievous behavior, and institutionalized decadence that are contrary to our local norms yet systemically and vigorously forced upon us by foreign or outside powers. Turning off the television in protest seems like our only mode of resistance, our only manner of dissent. Disgusted by mounting evidence that our politicians have marshaled the apparatus of the mighty federal government to achieve personal fame and glory, many of us feel exploited and powerless. In the face of massive state bureaucracies, large corporations, biased media, tendentious journalists, and commanding militaries, we nevertheless exercise our agency, bringing joy and hope to our families, friends, and neighbors, tending to concrete circumstances that are under our direct control. The promise of community reinvigorates and refreshes us.

Recently I strolled around Copenhagen, Denmark, on a bright Sunday morning. Though the church bells rang through the streets, echoing off buildings and cobblestone sidewalks, silencing conversations, and startling some pigeons, the churches themselves remained empty. I saw no worshipers or worship services. Some of the churches had been repurposed as cafes and restaurants with waiters and waitresses but no pastors or priests; customers drank their wine and ate their bread at fine little tables, but there were no communion rituals or sacraments.

A month later, also on a Sunday, I flew into Montgomery, Alabama, from Dallas, Texas. As the plane slowly descended beneath the clouds, the little dollhouse figurines and model buildings beneath me snapped to life, becoming real people and structures. I gazed upon the dozens of churches dotting the flat, widening landscape, which grew nearer and bigger as we approached the airport. And I observed, sitting there, stock still yet propelled through space, that the parking lots of each church were full of cars, that there were, at this early hour, hundreds if not thousands of my people there before me, worshipping the same God I worshipped, the same God my parents and grandparents and their parents and grandparents had worshipped; and I sensed, right then, deeply and profoundly, for the first time in years, a rare but unmistakable feeling: hope not just for my community, but for community.

 

Notes:

  • 1.Michael Polanyi, The Logic of Liberty (Indianapolis Liberty Fund, 1998) (1951), p. 109.
  • 2.Ibid.
  • 3.Ibid.
  • 4.Ibid at 136.
  • 5.Ibid at 137.
  • 6.Ibid. at 141
  • 7.Vincent Ostrom, The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997), p. x.
  • 8.Ibid.
  • 9.Oliver Wenell Holmes Jr. “Natural Law.” Harvard Law Review, Vol. 32 (1918-19), p. 41.
  • 10.Holmes at 41.

The American Bar Association: An Economic Perspective

In Academia, America, American History, Economics, History, Humane Economy, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Libertarianism on October 18, 2017 at 6:45 am

Free Exchange with Dr. Donald Livingston of Emory University

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, Economics, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Southern History, The South, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on January 18, 2017 at 6:45 am

In 2014, Dr. Donald Livingston sat for an interview for “Free Exchange,” a program of the John W. Hammond Institute for Free Enterprise at Lindenwood University.  The interview appears below. Dr. Livingston is Professor Emeritus in the Philosophy Department at Emory University, President of the Abbeville Institute, and Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

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