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Is Ocasio-Cortez Right About Rights?

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, Civics, Conservatism, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on August 29, 2018 at 8:45 am

This article originally appeared here in The Intercollegiate Review. 

Colin I. Bradford writes fawningly that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, reaffirms “the centrality of the individual, individual rights, liberty, and freedom in which respect, trust, fairness and responsibility loom large.” He depicts Ocasio-Cortez as the embodied union of individualism and collectivism, someone who, in his words, “sees the individual as both a solitary being with certain inalienable rights and as a citizen and member of society.”

There’s much to unpack in Bradford’s frightfully grand statements, but let’s briefly consider some historical context for them.

“Modern Western ‘democracies,’” says John W. Danford, “are actually better described as liberal commercial societies. They rest on principles of individualism and individual rights—especially legal rights—which are more fundamental than democracy, and also much newer.”

Individual Rights Came from Christianity

The belief that humans by their nature possess “rights” against which governments may not transgress has not always been commonly held. Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (2014) made the compelling case that natural rights theories are distinctively Christian in origin. He presents the ancient pagans as tribal and patriarchal, characterized by fierce loyalty to kin and clan and lacking conscientious differentiations between public and private life. (The operative differentiation was between public and domestic life.) Inequality was accepted as a given; the notion of rights was practically nonexistent. What mattered was the family unit: secure lineage, child bearing, and glorification of the paterfamilias as the powerful hero. Cities emerged from familial corporate associations around which property relations were structured according to class hierarchies.

Correlated with the rise and spread of Christianity in the West was the proliferation of the concept of the individual as a rights-bearing creature with inherent dignity, which any legal order properly so called must recognize and protect. The teachings of Jesus Christ and St. Paul redirected political thought away from the material, phenomenal world and toward the afterlife, eternity, and the soul. The message that grace through Christ was available to anyone, not just rulers or the highborn, underscored the autonomy of the individual, the self-aware subject. A Christian emphasis on personal moral agency and responsibility, moreover, undercut Greek and Roman aristocratic culture and its attendant traditions of ancestor worship.

Siedentop contends, therefore, that Christianity, not the Renaissance, was the fountain of individualism. If the Enlightenment was the height of philosophizing about the relationship of the individual to society, then it was also the natural outflow of earlier eras shaped by Christianity. This narrative runs counter to the portrayal of medieval Christianity as closed and authoritarian and of the Enlightenment as predominately secular. It illuminates Danford’s description of modern liberal societies as fundamentally committed to individual rights embedded in the law.

Mutual Submission, Similar Ethics

A distinguishing feature of Enlightenment thinking was social contract theory, which is particularly important to the Anglo-American legal tradition as manifest in Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689), the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), the Declaration of Independence (1776), and the U.S. Bill of Rights (1789–91). These documents enshrine the principles of equality under the law, basic human dignity, rule of law, consent of the governed, popular sovereignty, and natural rights.

The most celebrated delineations of social contract theory belong to Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. A simplistically synthesized account of their three hypothetical origins of political society runs like this: humans once existed as free agents in an ungoverned state of nature and eventually banded together in protective social units to enforce claims to property and defend against outside threats; voluntarily entering into these social units required individuals to give up unfettered liberty by consenting to the authority of a superintending body—a government— that exercised only those powers to which the individuals in the society corporately assented, either expressly or impliedly.

The social contract for a mature, successful society involves a collection of individuals wise enough to appreciate the reciprocal advantage of mutual submission and similar enough in ethics and morals to prescribe the proper scope, limits, and structure of the approved ruling authority. The U.S. Constitution, in theory, represents a social contract: a pact between citizens and its rulers that restrains government, divides power, and sets competing interests against one another with offsetting effect.

U.S. Supreme Court “Expansions”

The U.S. Supreme Court, in cases regarding the Fourteenth Amendment, began in the twentieth century to evaluate claims of unremunerated, allegedly fundamental rights in light of the history of judicial safeguards. A purported right was deemed presumptively fundamental if it enjoyed an established tradition of formal recognition by Anglo-American courts. Under this interpretive scheme, when the Supreme Court determined that an alleged right was nonfundamental, the alleged right would not be incorporated (via the doctrine of substantive due process) to apply against the states. The Supreme Court, however, gradually recognized particular suspect rights within broader categories of long-established rights. The so-called right to privacy, for example, that had valid antecedents in the common law was repurposed to include phenomena unknown at the common law.

The tendency of the Supreme Court in the twentieth century to expand (and, in some cases, to limit) the scope of alleged rights reveals, I think, that a privileged group of robed lawyers are inadequately equipped to philosophize about rights. The validity of alleged rights accrues socially, from the bottom up, when they can be traced over time to long-standing, if not immemorial, usage, customs, mores, and traditions, and when their practical applications have been tested by successive generations. Certain rights are natural, that is, prior to government promulgation, but their intelligibility is deeply historical, rooted, contextual, situational, and embedded.

Rights or Privileges?

One could argue, and Siedentop suggests, that Christianity’s institutionalization of rights discourse created the conditions necessary for secularization, in effect that Christianity ushered in a culture that led to its gradual removal from civic society. Siedentop postulates, in other words, that the success of Christianity eventuated its demise in the Western public sphere. The story of rights discourse in U.S. Supreme Court decisions lends credence to this perspective, revealing that prevailing notions of rights have grown to encompass what were once merely privileges.

If institutions follow culture, however, then a constitution that contemplates individual rights is only as good as the people it controls: a populace without extensive virtue will weaken or decline regardless of its organizational governance and administrative framework. Christianity may not have promoted ideas that caused its erasure from our governing institutions; rather, the people of the United States may have drifted away from the Christian ideas that made those institutions effective and stable.

Bradford recognizes that “individualist values of liberty, property rights, freedom and sovereignty worked well in the 20th century as the foundations of competition, free markets, democracy and the nation state.” Yet he sees these concepts as inadequate today, lacking something he believes Ocasio-Cortez can supply, to wit, a form of collectivism that in his representation facilitates community and social harmony. He simply fails to see that the unique individualism that emerged out of Christianity generated the community and social harmony he now desires.

There is no individualism absent the recognition that every human life, anywhere and everywhere, is precious and important. It follows from that premise that no one may violate the rights of others who themselves have not violated another’s rights. This principle, extended to society writ large, creates the conditions necessary for community to flourish. Individualism in Christian societies aided the growth of cities, institutionalized the dignity of the human person as a bearer of rights, and challenged rather than empowered abusive government. Ocasio-Cortez should not hope to eradicate this kind of individualism, for it has accomplished more good for humanity than the socialism she purportedly embraces.

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Transcendental Liberty

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Emerson, Essays, Ethics, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Property, Rhetoric, Western Philosophy, Writing on January 15, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This essay originally appeared here in The Freeman.

“The less government we have, the better.” So declared Ralph Waldo Emerson, a  man not usually treated as a classical liberal. Yet this man—the Sage of  Concord—held views that cannot be described as anything but classical liberal or  libertarian.

None other than Cornel West, no friend of the free market, has said that  “Emerson is neither a liberal nor a conservative and certainly not a socialist  or even a civic republican. Rather he is a petit bourgeois libertarian, with at  times anarchist tendencies and limited yet genuine democratic sentiments.” An  abundance of evidence supports this view. Emerson was, after all, the man who  extolled the “infinitude of the private man.” One need only look at one of  Emerson’s most famous essays, “Self Reliance,” for evidence of his  libertarianism.

“Self-Reliance” is perhaps the most exhilarating expression of individualism  ever written, premised as it is on the idea that each of us possesses a degree  of genius that can be realized through confidence, intuition, and nonconformity.  “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your  private heart is true for all men,” Emerson proclaims, “that is genius.”

Genius, then, is a belief in the awesome power of the human mind and in its  ability to divine truths that, although comprehended differently by each  individual, are common to everyone. Not all genius, on this view, is necessarily  or universally right, since genius is, by definition, a belief only, not a  definite reality. Yet it is a belief that leads individuals to “trust thyself”  and thereby to realize their fullest potential and to energize their most  creative faculties. Such self-realization has a spiritual component insofar as  “nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind” and “no law can  be sacred to me but that of my nature.”

According to Emerson, genius precedes society and the State, which corrupt  rather than clarify reasoning and which thwart rather than generate  productivity. History shows that great minds have challenged the conventions and  authority of society and the State and that “great works of art have no more  affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous  impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of  voices is on the other side.” Accordingly, we ought to refuse to “capitulate to  badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.” We ought, that is,  to be deliberate, nonconformist pursuers of truth rather than of mere  apprehensions of truth prescribed for us by others. “Whoso would be a man,”  Emerson says, “must be a noncomformist.”

Self-Interest and Conviction

For Emerson, as for Ayn Rand, rational agents act morally by pursuing their  self-interests, including self-interests in the well-being of family, friends,  and neighbors, who are known and tangible companions rather than abstract  political concepts. In Emerson’s words, “The only right is what is after my  constitution, the only wrong what is against it.” Or: “Few and mean as my gifts  may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of  my fellows any secondary testimony.”

It is not that self-assurance equates with rightness, or that stubbornness  is a virtue; it is that confidence in what one knows and believes is a condition  precedent to achieving one’s goals. Failures are inevitable, as are setbacks;  only by exerting one’s will may one overcome the failures and setbacks that are  needed to achieve success.

If, as Emerson suggests, a “man is to carry himself in the presence of all  opposition, as if everything were titular and ephemeral but he,” how should he  treat the poor?  Emerson supplies this answer:

Do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my  obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell  thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent,  I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is  a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for  them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities;  the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain  end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief  Societies;—though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar,  it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.

These lines require qualification. Emerson is not damning philanthropy or  charity categorically or unconditionally; after all, he will, he says, go to  prison for certain individuals with whom he shares a special relationship. He  is, instead, pointing out, with much exhibition, that one does not act morally  simply by giving away money without conviction or to subsidize irresponsible,  unsustainable, or exploitative business activities. It is not moral to give away  a little money that you do not care to part with, or to fund an abstract cause  when you lack knowledge of, and have no stake in, its outcome. Only when you  give money to people or causes with which you are familiar, and with whom or  which you have something at stake, is your gift meaningful; and it is never  moral to give for show or merely to please society. To give morally, you must  mean to give morally—and have something to lose.

Dissent

Emerson famously remarks that a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of  little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Much ink  has been spilled to explain (or explain away) these lines. I take them to mean,  in context, that although servile flattery and showy sycophancy may gain a  person recognition and popularity, they will not make that person moral or great  but, instead, weak and dependent. There is no goodness or greatness in a  consistency imposed from the outside and against one’s better judgment; many  ideas and practices have been consistently bad and made worse by their very  consistency. “With consistency,” therefore, as Emerson warns, “a great soul has  simply nothing to do.”

Ludwig von Mises seems to have adopted the animating, affirming  individualism of Emerson, and even, perhaps, Emerson’s dictum of nonconformity.  Troping Emerson, Mises remarks that “literature is not conformism, but dissent.”  “Those authors,” he adds, “who merely repeat what everybody approves and wants  to hear are of no importance. What counts alone is the innovator, the dissenter,  the harbinger of things unheard of, the man who rejects the traditional  standards and aims at substituting new values and ideas for old ones.” This man  does not mindlessly stand for society and the State and their compulsive  institutions; he is “by necessity anti-authoritarian and anti-governmental,  irreconcilably opposed to the immense majority of his contemporaries. He is  precisely the author whose books the greater part of the public does not buy.”  He is, in short, an Emersonian, as Mises himself was.

The Marketplace of Ideas

To be truly Emersonian, you may not accept the endorsements and propositions  in this article as unconditional truth, but must, instead, read Emerson and  Mises and Rand for yourself to see whether their individualism is alike in its  affirmation of human agency resulting from inspirational nonconformity. If you  do so with an inquiring seriousness, while trusting the integrity of your own  impressions, you will, I suspect, arrive at the same conclusion I have  reached.

There is an understandable and powerful tendency among libertarians to  consider themselves part of a unit, a movement, a party, or a coalition, and of  course it is fine and necessary to celebrate the ways in which economic freedom  facilitates cooperation and harmony among groups or communities; nevertheless,  there is also a danger in shutting down debate and in eliminating competition  among different ideas, which is to say, a danger in groupthink or compromise, in  treating the market as an undifferentiated mass divorced from the innumerable  transactions of voluntarily acting agents. There is, too, the tendency to become  what Emerson called a “retained attorney” who is able to recite talking points  and to argue predictable “airs of opinion” without engaging the opposition in a  meaningful debate.

Emerson teaches not only to follow your convictions but to engage and  interact with others, lest your convictions be kept to yourself and deprived of  any utility. It is the free play of competing ideas that filters the good from  the bad; your ideas aren’t worth a lick until you’ve submitted them to the test  of the marketplace.

“It is easy in the world,” Emerson reminds us, “to live after the world’s  opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he  who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of  solitude.” Let us stand together by standing alone.

Thoughts on ‘The Road to Serfdom’: Chapter 5, “Planning and Democracy”

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Economics, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Politics, Pragmatism, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on September 20, 2013 at 7:45 am

Slade Mendenhall

Slade Mendenhall is an M.Sc. candidate in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, with specializations in conflict and Middle Eastern affairs. He holds degrees in Economics and Mass Media Arts from the University of Georgia and writes for The Objective Standard and themendenhall.com, where he is also editor.

This article is the sixth entry in a chapter-by-chapter analysis of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Previous chapter analyses can be found here: Introduction, Chapter 1, 2, 3, and 4.

The fifth chapter in Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom looks at the reciprocal relationship between economic planning and democracy, detailing the institutional and ideological interaction of the two, the ways in which democratic socialism leads to the further centralization of power in committees and dictators, and the ways in which even partial attempts at planning necessitate further and further interventions until, unless opposed, a totalitarian system arises. In the process, Hayek makes many worthwhile points about these institutional trends, describing and explaining their trajectory. He again offers the sort of brief and destructive detour into moral philosophy that we have learned to expect from the book thus far, but in this sense the author shows us nothing new. Finally, he addresses the subject of democracy itself and the misconceptions surrounding it, with observations that sound conspicuously familiar to today’s political and academic culture.

Hayek’s argument against planning is again an inadequate one that relies upon a functional, pragmatic approach. His case, however, still affords us some valuable insights—most notably regarding what can be referred to as the ‘knowledge problem’ of central planning. “It would be impossible,” he writes,

“for any mind to comprehend the infinite variety of different needs of different people which compete for the availability of resources and to attach a definite weight to each… it is impossible for any man to survey more than a limited field, to be aware of the urgency of more than a limited number of needs” (44).

Thus, he writes, efforts by central planners to coordinate the economic activity of a whole society are fundamentally flawed and doomed from the start. The limitations of planners’ knowledge and their inability to reconcile conflicting wants among different groups within society leads both to plans based on insufficient (and, furthermore, unattainable) knowledge of individuals’ and groups’ values and a system that necessitates the sacrifice of some parties to others. To this extent, Hayek notes the problem well.

In support of this, however, he offers an argument that both fails to challenge the collectivists’ ethical premise and reaffirms the skepticist moral approach observed in his earlier chapters. In reference to the collectivist moral premise, Hayek writes,

“The ‘social goal’ or ‘common purpose’ for which society is to be organised, is usually vaguely described as the ‘common good’, or the ‘general welfare’, or the ‘general interest’. It does not need much reflection to see that these terms have no sufficiently definite meaning to determine a particular course of action” (42).

Hayek is correct in acknowledging that the terms are non-objective. What he fails to do is to challenge their validity as ethical concepts, repudiating the very notion of a “common good” or of the “general interest.” An objective, rational defense of individualism is not made by simply proclaiming the functional superiority of individualism over collectivism, as that superiority has been made clear throughout history, and avowed collectivists have long-since proven themselves disinterested in actual consequences and results. The ultimate defense of individualism must challenge the very existence of any alleged collective good that is apart from and contrary to the good of the individuals who constitute it.

Hayek’s only moral challenge to collectivism, rather than refuting the notion of the “common good”, is to challenge the possibility of any complete system of values. To be clear: Hayek does not challenge the imposition by force of a complete system of values; he challenges instead that one can even exist:

“The conception of a complete ethical code is unfamiliar and it requires some effort of imagination to see what it involves. We are not in the habit of thinking of moral codes as more or less complete. The fact that we are constantly choosing between different values without a social code prescribing how we ought to choose, does not surprise us, and does not suggest to us that our moral code is incomplete… The essential point for us is that no such complete ethical code exists. The attempt to direct all economic activity according to a single plan would raise innumerable questions to which the answer could be provided only by a moral rule, but to which existing morals have no answer and where there exists no agreed view on what ought to be done” (43).

Thus, for Hayek, the problem with central planning is a problem of moral absolutism. Failing to condemn the collectivists’ reliance upon force to achieve their ends or their violations of individual rights (a concept he has yet to mention for five chapters and counting), he instead asserts that the fallacy of their schemes arises from the assumption that all people share the same hierarchy of values and a “complete ethical code in which all the different human values are allotted their due place” (43).

Hayek’s words can be taken either of two ways. In the first, he could be suggesting that collectivists are wrong for assuming unanimity in values throughout a society, that all individuals share the same ethics. Alternatively, he could mean that collectivist beliefs are misguided for normatively believing in a set hierarchy of values and ethical code that should be applied throughout a society. His meaning is unclear. What is clear, however, is that whichever way Hayek intends these words, they are a flawed explanation for the evils of collectivism.

As to the first meaning: one would be hard-pressed to find any collectivist, modern or historic, who asserts that all individuals in society share the same values and ethical code. For the amount of effort totalitarian regimes devote to suppressing resistance and dissent, it is impossible to believe otherwise. Collectivism does not rest on the assumption that all parties in a society share the same values, but that the individual minds that hold such values are inconsequential fodder in their grand design. It is not evil for assuming that a set of values is unanimously held throughout society, but rather for its utter disregard and disdain for the rights and freedoms of individuals to choose their own values.

The second interpretation of Hayek’s statement—that collectivism is wrong for maintaining a set hierarchy of beliefs that should be applied throughout society—goes beyond the historiographical error of the first interpretation. It suggests that the error of collectivism arises from its attempt to uphold a universal code incorporating and prioritizing man’s values. This interpretation is more in keeping with Hayek’s skeptical, subjectivist moral views (as well as those of other libertarians) explored in earlier chapters. It implies that the belief in an absolute morality leads directly to the forcible imposition of that morality on society in general and, conversely, that peace and freedom rest on a subjectivist morality of self-doubt and proclaiming the impossibility of acquiring absolute moral truth. In essence, it suggests that the natural consequence of upholding a set system of values is to forcibly impose it, and that the only means by which we restrain ourselves from such forcible imposition is through the belief that there are no certain moral truths.

That such a morally subjectivist view should precede a faulty defense of individualism is to be expected. The fact that, as Hayek wrote earlier, “it is impossible for any man to survey more than a limited field, to be aware of the urgency of more than a limited number of needs” establishes, according him,

the fundamental fact on which the whole philosophy of individualism is based. It does not assume, as is often asserted, that man is egoistic or selfish, or ought to be. It merely starts from the indisputable fact that the limits of our powers of imagination make it impossible to include in our scale of values more than a sector of the needs of the whole society, and that, since, strictly speaking, scales of value can exist only in individual minds, nothing but partial scales of value exist, scales which are inevitably different and often inconsistent with each other. From this the individualist concludes that the individuals should be allowed, within defined limits, to follow their own values and preferences rather than somebody else’s, that within these spheres the individual’s system of ends should be supreme and not subject to any dictation by others” (44) [Emphasis mine.]

Having established in the last chapter his flawed view that the basis for freedom arises from the need to leave room for unexpected growth, Hayek now states his defense for individualism as based on man’s non-omniscience. That is: individuals are the primary unit of political consideration not because they have any natural rights, but because the attempt suppress and control them is forever limited by the knowledge problem of their would-be masters.

Conversely, one can assume that if such masters were able to attain perfect knowledge, he would have no arguments with which to oppose their collectivist system. The battle between individualism and collectivism is thus, for Hayek, reduced to a pragmatic debate between those who doubt the efficacy of totalitarian systems and those who claim that, despite the history of failure in socialist systems, this time they have the right answers.

Certainly, parting words by Hayek to the effect that “[i]t is this recognition of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends, the belief that as far as possible his own views ought to govern his actions, that forms the essence of the individualist position” (44) sound promising, and invite us to support and be inspired by his argument. However, when placed in the context of what he says elsewhere, such language is revealed to mean less than we would have hoped. Hayek is not defending individualism based on the right of man to judge his own values and ends, but rather on the basis that incomplete information as to individuals’ values and the inability of planners to reconcile conflicting values between individuals leads to a conflicted, inefficient system. Yet again, Hayek is passing off a pragmatic, unprincipled defense of freedom in bold, triumphant language.

Hayek is thus unable to offer us a sufficient defense against oppression. He might, however, provide us some valuable descriptive insights into how the process of establishing socialist systems is conducted and how socialist democracies drift toward dictatorship. “[P]lanning,” he writes, “leads to dictatorship because dictatorship is the most effective instrument of coercion and the enforcement of ideals” (52). The trend, as Hayek describes it, arises from the fact that once socialist policymakers presume to control a society, the profundity of that task is highlighted and exacerbated by democratic inefficiency. This spurs a drive toward consolidation of power into committees and, ultimately, into a single dictator capable of taking decisive action. He writes,

“The inability of democratic assemblies to carry out what seems to be a clear mandate of the people will inevitably cause dissatisfaction with democratic institutions. Parliaments come to be regarded as ineffective ‘talking shops’, unable or incompetent to carry out the tasks for which they have been chosen. The conviction grows that if efficient planning is to be done, the direction must be  ‘taken out of politics’ and placed in the hands of experts, permanent officials or independent autonomous bodies” (46).

Many democratic socialists would, no doubt, challenge the determinism of this trend by touting the goodwill of legislators and their commitment to enacting solutions. But “[t]he fault,” Hayek observes, “is neither with the individual representatives nor with parliamentary institutions as such, but with the contradictions inherent in the task with which they are charged” (47). The immensity of the task and its contradiction of man’s nature and means of acquiring and applying knowledge forbid such a system from ever successfully matching the successes of a capitalist system.

Certainly a belief to the contrary is not unique to Hayek’s time, but pervades modern political thought. When Hayek writes, “The belief is becoming more and more widespread that, if things are to get done, the responsible authorities must be freed from the fetters of democratic procedure” (50), any observer of modern American regulatory culture and the expansion of executive branch power will undoubtedly note some parallels.

Another parallel to be observed between Hayek’s portrayal of his time and today’s political environment is in his depiction of the cultural preoccupation with the idea of “democracy” and the popular tendency to attribute to it an intrinsicist admiration, as if the institution of democratic systems and procedures was, in and of itself, a guarantee or safeguard of freedom. Hayek is not susceptible to such illogical leaps, however.

“Democracy is essentially a means, a utilitarian device for safeguarding internal peace and individual freedom. As such it is by no means infallible or certain… and it is at least conceivable that under the government of a very homogeneous and doctrinaire majority democratic government might be as oppressive as the worst dictatorship” (52).

Hayek is not without his own misconceptions as to the true nature of democracy, though, nor the relationship between democracy and capitalism: “If ‘capitalism’ means here a competitive system based on free disposal over private property, it is far more important to realise that only within this system is democracy possible. When it becomes dominated by a collectivist creed, democracy will inevitably destroy itself” (52).

To say that democracy is possible only within “a competitive system based on free disposal over private property” ignores the fundamental nature of democracy. Despite the typical usage of the term today, democracy in its pure sense entails no protection or recognition of rights whatsoever. As it was designed, democracy is a system of unlimited majority rule.

Capitalism does rely upon certain legal and political necessities such as individual rights and objective law. What is perceived as the hallmark of democracy—the ability to vote—is not, however, sufficient to secure democracy and may, in the absence of the other two features, destroy it. True, there exist milder democracies throughout the world today that do recognize rights, but their regard for rights does not derive from their nature as democracies. The recognition of rights is only an adjunct to—and, furthermore, a limitation on—the democratic system. The more that alleged “democracies” alter their nature to accommodate individual rights, objective law, and the principles of capitalism, the more they shed their democratic nature and acquire the qualities of a representative system suited to capitalism: a republic.

Though he fails to properly define and conceive of democracy, Hayek does acknowledge the rampant, dangerous popular preoccupation with it and the propensity for those consumed with the idea to invite a tyranny of the majority clothed in democratic language and ideas.

 “It may well be true that our generation talks and thinks too much of democracy and too little of the values which it serves… The fashionable concentration on democracy as the main value threatened is not without danger. It is largely responsible for the misleading and unfounded belief that so long as the ultimate source of power is the will of the majority, the power cannot be arbitrary. The false assurance which many people derive from this belief is an important cause of the general unawareness of the dangers which we face” (52).

Hayek’s “Planning and Democracy” is thus an average of what we have seen thus far from him: poor ethics and incomplete defenses of liberty mixed with some valuable insights as to changing political processes and the reciprocal relationship between a socialist state and society as the state seeks to deliberately mold the activities of its population, but finds itself transformed in the process. As much can be expected in our next analysis as Hayek addresses the subject of “Planning and the Rule of Law” in Chapter VI.

Thoughts on ‘The Road to Serfdom’: Chapter 2, “The Great Utopia”

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Britain, Economics, Historicism, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on September 13, 2013 at 7:45 am

Slade Mendenhall

Slade Mendenhall is an M.Sc. candidate in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, with specializations in conflict and Middle Eastern affairs. He holds degrees in Economics and Mass Media Arts from the University of Georgia and writes for The Objective Standard and themendenhall.com, where he is also editor.
This article is the third installment of a chapter-by-chapter analysis of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Analyses of Hayek’s introduction and Chapter I can be found here and here, respectively.

Hayek’s second chapter opens with several important reminders about the nature and history of socialism: that its rise was achieved not by the West having forgotten liberal ideas or the historical consequences of collectivism, but by an active campaign of persuasion against liberalism as an ideal; that it has roots in the French Revolution as an authoritarian answer to that movement’s more individualistic elements; and that only through the democratic influences of the revolutions of 1848 did socialism shed its authoritarian origins and assume a democratic veneer.

From there, it proves somewhat of a novelty to one accustomed to today’s concrete-bound, anti-conceptual political rhetoric. The chapter is, fundamentally, a brief lesson in political epistemology, dealing with the historical abuse of concepts that facilitated the popular adoption of socialist ideas.

Chief among the distortions Hayek notes is the socialist reconfiguration of the notion of liberty itself. The alleged “new freedom” introduced by socialists “was to bring ‘economic freedom’ without which the political freedom already gained was ‘not worth having’” (19). Hayek astutely describes this distortion of the concept of freedom:

“To the great apostles of political freedom the word had meant freedom from coercion, freedom from the arbitrary power of other men, release from the ties which left the individual no choice but obedience to the orders of a supervisor to whom he was attached. The new freedom promised, however, was to be freedom from necessity, release from the compulsion of the circumstances which inevitably limit the range of choice of all of us, although for some very much more than for others. Before man could be truly free, the ‘despotism of physical want’ had to be broken, the ‘restraints of the economic system’ relaxed… The demand for the new freedom was thus only another name for the old demand for an equal distribution of wealth” (19).

Hayek recognizes the epistemological methods by which socialists attained power, consisting largely of equivocation and anti-conceptual thinking, lumping together disparate concretes and attaching to them a single label—“freedom”—in order to pass off an intellectual package-deal on the general public, persuading them to embrace a contradiction. Though he does not go into this kind of detailed description of the process, Hayek at least acknowledges that the methods by which such intellectual smuggling is carried out form too large a subject to be discussed in the context of the chapter, and does not claim to have thoroughly explained it as a philosophical process but only as a historical one.

He proceeds to assess more recent, twentieth century distortions of the concept of socialism itself and how it has become muddled and confused by “progressives” who view fascism and communism as fundamental opposites, failing to recognize that both are merely species of the same genus. The processes of evasion and distortion, fueled by an excessive focus on concrete particulars at the expense of fundamentals, are thus seen to wreak as much havoc in the thinking of those twentieth-century advocates of socialism in their understandings of themselves and relations to one another as they did in the minds of nineteenth-century liberals who were persuaded to adopt socialist ideas. That statists are as much the victims of their own illogic as those they seek to oppress soon becomes clear.

In what might be one of the greatest compliments one could offer to liberalism, Hayek then points out, both in his own words and quotes by socialists themselves, how history and socialists’ experiences have shown time and again that despite their alleged fundamental opposition to one another, fascists and communists are known by the other to be prime targets for recruiting, fueling and perpetuating the hatred between them as each views the other as a competitor for the same pool of minds, but both are well aware of the immunity of true liberals to the propaganda of either. Liberals are viewed as resistant to their persuasions and unsuitable for the culture of perpetual compromise that characterizes socialist politics.

Again, in the end, Hayek effectively ties the subject back to contemporary Britain and how these same ideas, once prevalent in Germany between the two wars, are alive and well across the channel. “[I]n this country,” he writes, “the majority of people still believe that socialism and freedom can be combined… So little is the problem yet seen, so easily do the most irreconcilable ideals still live together, that we can still hear such contradictions in terms as ‘individualist socialism’ seriously discussed” (23).

Perhaps the only flaw in this second chapter consists of Hayek’s uncritical acceptance of the term “democracy” as being in any way synonymous with freedom or liberalism—a common error (even more so in today’s world!), and not one that deprives the chapter more generally of valuable insights, but one that it could have benefited from correcting. Hayek writes admiringly of Alexis de Tocqueville’s work, “Nobody saw more clearly than de Tocqueville that democracy as an essentially individualist institution stood in an irreconcilable conflict with socialism” (18).

Democracy, however, is not an essentially individualist institution. It is, in fact, not essentially anything except inclusive of a political process that allows for the popular, institutional expression of political preference and ideas. Democracy allows people to vote. Whether that vote is limited by a founding document protecting individual rights or any other principle is not inherent to democracy itself, and to think it so leads to many of the befuddled responses of policymakers today when they observe the imposition of democratic processes having failed to ensure peace, justice, or any other virtue of great political societies.

Let it not be forgotten that the first democracy in human history, that from which the concept derived and upon which its essentials rest, was Ancient Greece, where the life of a man such as Socrates could be voted away on grounds no more substantial than his having propagated ideas unwelcomed by the majority.

Democracy is thus neutral with respect to individualism, only upholding it when the republican qualities of a constitution, bill of rights, and limitations on the majority will are imposed. This leaves the phenomenon of democratic socialism, which Hayek sees as an oxymoronic distortion, rather justified in formal logic, if not in any rational morality or political ethic.

Overall, Hayek’s second chapter, “The Great Utopia”, is a dramatic improvement from his first. It sets out with a direct purpose to illustrate the epistemological errors that have aided the rise of socialism, and, with skilled application of political concepts and supporting evidence, it succeeds in that task. Whether this upward trajectory continues into his next chapter, “Individualism and Collectivism”, as he addresses subjects at somewhat of a conceptual middle-range between those of his first and second chapters, we shall see in the next installment.

Thoughts on ‘The Road to Serfdom’: Chapter 1, “The Abandoned Road

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Britain, Economics, Epistemology, Essays, Ethics, Historicism, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Modernism, Philosophy, Politics, Pragmatism, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on September 11, 2013 at 7:45 am

Slade Mendenhall

Slade Mendenhall is an M.Sc. candidate in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, with specializations in conflict and Middle Eastern affairs. He holds degrees in Economics and Mass Media Arts from the University of Georgia and writes for The Objective Standard and themendenhall.com, where he is also editor.

This analysis is the second installment in a series of chapter analyses of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. The previous analysis of Hayek’s introduction can be found here.

If Hayek’s introduction gave us a brief summary of the ideas and practices he is setting out to oppose and contextualized the progression toward a socialist political culture in the last half century of Europe’s history, his first chapter, “The Abandoned Road”, firmly roots his grievances in the present and the problems facing England at the time of his writing and seeks to explain how England (and the West more generally) arrived there. He describes the intellectual evasions, distortions, and faulted epistemology—often consisting of poorly defined key concepts —that led to and are, in his time, perpetuating the state of affairs he observes. He then proceeds to address the subject of liberalism and how socialists who misconceive of their own system do so at least as much with its antithesis. In the process, Hayek makes many excellent observations, but also succumbs to several dangerous philosophical errors and unsubstantiated claims against laissez-faire capitalism that tarnish what might otherwise be an outstanding defense against government controls.

Hayek begins the chapter with one of the most argumentatively powerful, poignant approaches that one can take in opposing socialist ideas: illustrating to those who support more moderate, tempered versions of statist controls that though they may differ in degree from those statists they oppose, the philosophical fundamentals they advocate are the same. “We all are, or at least were until recently, certain of one thing,” he writes,

“that the leading ideas which during the last generation have become common to most people of goodwill and have determined the major changes in our social life cannot have been wrong. We are ready to accept almost any explanation of the present crisis of our civilisation except one:  that the present state of the world may be the result of genuine error on our own part, and that the pursuit of some of our most cherished ideals have apparently produced utterly different results from those which we expected” (8).

Hayek’s point is well made and much needed at a time when such widespread, utter contradictions were even more severe than they are today. Writing to Britons in the 1940s, but with as much truth to offer Americans who stumbled over the same contradictions in the 1960s and 1970s, as the platitude “we are all socialists now” manifested on Nixon’s lips as “we are all Keynesians now” (and with less fundamental difference between them than Keynesians would have you believe), he asks us to recognize that “the tendencies which have culminated in the creation of the totalitarian systems were not confined to the countries which have succumbed to them” (8-9). Nor, for that matter, are they confined to those times, and Hayek’s message to this effect—the importance of recognizing the same fundamental ideas across contexts—is as much needed today as it was then.

He goes on to recognize that the conflict between the Axis and Allied powers in World War II is fundamentally a conflict of ideas: “The external conflict is a result of a transformation of European thought in which others have moved so much faster as to bring them into irreconcilable conflict with our ideals, but which has not left us unaffected.” He is quick to point out, though, that “the history of these countries in the years before the rise of the totalitarian system showed few features with which we are not familiar” (9).

Such an appreciation for the motive power of ideas in human conflict was not so unique in Hayek’s time. In fact, the Allied leaders superlatively acknowledged the enemy they faced as “fascism” and condemned it explicitly (though the economic and social policies of FDR, along with his earlier overt flirtations with such ideas, may have made the condemnation somewhat ironic). If Hayek has a lesson to teach to this effect, it is most needed in today’s world, when the significance of philosophy is so frequently cast aside by the influences of multiculturalist nihilism and the failure, even in academia, to appreciate the role of broadly held cultural ideas in deciding man’s fate. At a time when the mention of a “clash of civilizations” invites accusations of oppressive Western chauvinism, Hayek’s acknowledgement that conflicting fundamental ideas may lead to actual conflict is a welcome reminder.

Much of the chapter appropriately looks to fundamental ideology as the cause for the rise of Nazism, seeing the rejection of individualism in favor of collectivism as a necessary prerequisite to the “National-Socialist revolution” and a “decisive step in the destruction of that civilisation which modern man had built up from the age of the Renaissance.” The spirit of this argument is undoubtedly sound. However, the method by which he proceeds to argue it leaves much to be desired. Hayek proceeds down a path of questionable historical interpretations, a half-cocked swipe at moral philosophy (that, as we shall see, is flawed but not unfamiliar to readers of this site), and ultimately an incomplete defense of the liberal policies he hopes to defend—showing the consequences of that brief glimpse of skepticism we witnessed in the introduction.

In his historical contextualization of the trends he observes, Hayek writes,

“How sharp a break not only with the recent past but with the whole evolution of Western civilisation the modern trend towards socialism means, becomes clear if we consider it not merely against the background of the nineteenth century, but in a longer historical perspective. We are rapidly abandoning not the views merely of Cobden and Bright, of Adam Smith and Hume, or even of Locke and Milton… Not merely the nineteenth- and eighteenth-century liberalism, but the basic individualism inherited by us from Erasmus and Montaigne, from Cicero and Tacitus, Pericles and Thucydides is progressively relinquished” (10).

Hayek’s invocation of these great names in the history of liberal thought is, in most instances, not misplaced. It is true that all emerged from Western civilization and that to varying extents they all fit well into the liberal, individualist tradition he means to illustrate. One would be wise to regard the inclusion of Hume and Montaigne, paragons of skepticism, as only conditional points on such a list, though Hayek’s own skepticism and that of many libertarians in his tradition would certainly allow them.

More broadly, however, it must be said that the individuals mentioned, no matter how great their contributions to political and social thought, were not often the rule in their place and time, but the exception. One can admire the works of Pericles, but should bear in mind the fickle reception he received among the Athenians. Likewise, Cicero may deserve praise above any in his time, but for those virtues we might praise he was slaughtered without trial by a dictator who faced no consequences.

Thus, as admirable as Hayek’s examples may be, to suggest that they were the norm throughout most of Western civilization is unsubstantiated. They may have embodied those qualities that most distinguished Western civilization and have been most responsible for its progress, but it was a progress often achieved by much-abused minorities. The Renaissance, Enlightenment, and nineteenth century were the high-points of individualism and Western ideals, and Hayek is right in singling them out. However, he also runs the risk of obscuring the philosophical roots of National Socialism, itself the product of contrary trends in Western thought, by engaging in careless generalization from those high-points and distinguished individuals to Western history in general.

Departing from this somewhat problematic historical interpretation, Hayek moves through a favorable discussion of the benefits of economic and political freedom on scientific innovation. His recognition and argument that “[w]herever the barriers to the free exercise of human ingenuity were removed man became rapidly able to satisfy ever-widening ranges of desire” is incontestable (12). He also anticipates the common objections by socialist apologists today who characterize the Industrial Revolution as a period of oppression by citing the difficult living conditions of the urban poor. He rightly rejects this by contextualizing the period in the experiences and expectations of those who lived through it, writing that

“[w]e cannot do justice to this astonishing growth if we measure it by our present standards, which themselves result from this growth and now make many defects obvious. To appreciate what it meant to those who took part in it we must measure it by the hopes and wishes men held when it began… that by the beginning of the twentieth century the working man in the Western world had reached a degree of material comfort, security, and personal independence which a hundred years before had seemed scarcely possible” (12-13).

What proceeds from there is where Hayek seems on unsteady footing, as he briefly undertakes the task of trying to explain what ideas diverted man from the individualist course set from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century. Inexplicably, Hayek credits an excess of ambition as responsible for the turn toward socialism. He writes,

“What in the future will probably appear the most significant and far-reaching effect of this success is the new sense of power over their own fate, the belief in the unbounded possibilities of improving their own lot, which the success already achieved created among men. With success grew ambition—and man had every right to be ambitious” (13).

He returns to the idea again later, writing that,

“Because of the growing impatience with the slow advance of liberal policy, the just irritation with those who used liberal phraseology in defence of anti-social privileges, and the boundless ambition seemingly justified by the material improvements already achieved, it came to pass that toward the turn of the century the belief in the basic tenets of liberalism was more and more relinquished” (14-15).

It is here that Hayek’s inadequacy in analyzing philosophical ideas, and perhaps an economic bias toward looking at matters purely as a function of supply and demand, begins to show. The notion that an inadequate or insufficiently rapid provision of living standards by capitalism is to blame for the introduction and spread of socialism is baseless, as it not only commits the philosophical error of attributing a total change in fundamental beliefs to external conditions, but also ignores the fact that the introduction of socialist policies preceded the slowdown in quality of living improvements in the Western world—and, furthermore, that the slowdown still wasn’t all that slow, as anyone who looks at world history from 1870 to 1928 will readily observe.

Thus, Hayek’s notion that “ambition” is somehow to blame is irrational. If we accept the notion that capitalism was responsible for man’s improved quality of living, then the only function that ambition should serve in this context is to drive men back toward capitalism and its fundamental values—not toward socialism. To the contrary, it is not an excess of ambition that drove men away from capitalism, but the fact that the philosophical principles that underlie and empower capitalism were not consistently established in the minds of its practitioners in the first place. That is: those who lived under capitalism had not explicitly embraced reason as man’s means of acquiring knowledge, nor rational egoism as his proper ethical system, and thus lacked the fundamentals on which individualism rests. Thus, ultimately, the individualism that Hayek admires was present in the West, but not firmly rooted enough to survive the philosophical revival of Plato in the forms of Kant and Hegel. Undercut by their philosophies, in the face of Marx and Engels the West was a pushover.

Hayek’s invocation of excess ambition as an explanation for socialism shows that though he understands the role of political ideology in man’s fate, his ability to explain how that ideology stems from deeper levels of philosophy is severely lacking. Unfortunately, he does not allow this lack of expertise to stop him from making such baseless speculations as to the roots of socialism being in man’s ambition, nor from making a similarly arbitrary and more dangerous conjecture: that the essential quality that animated the Renaissance and Western civilization’s embrace of individual man was “tolerance.”

“Tolerance,” he writes, “is, perhaps, the only word which still preserves the full meaning of the principle which during the whole of this period was in the ascendant and which only in recent times has again been in decline, to disappear completely with the rise of the totalitarian state” (3). Hayek offers no further explanation to support this statement or the implication that tolerance was the animating virtue of these times, or at the very least played some crucial role in it. Nor does he illustrate the point with citations or examples. The claim stands alone.

We are thus left to speculate as to his actual beliefs on this point. However, a look at a somewhat younger contemporary libertarian economist who dabbled in political writings such as this and who shares certain philosophical fundamentals—namely a skepticist epistemology—may shed some light on the claim. Milton Friedman similarly cited ‘tolerance’ and, more specific to Friedman’s case, “tolerance based on humility” as the fundamental basis of his libertarianism. That is: the rejection of statism based not on the rights of individuals but based on the fact that no one can rightly initiate force against another since the initiator has no basis by which to know whether the cause in whose name he would initiate that force is right or wrong. Put simply, it establishes a social system in which peaceable relations between men depend upon the impossibility of establishing objective principles. In which ignorance, not knowledge, is man’s saving grace. In which moral certainty is perceived to be the root of all tyranny.

(I will not go further into Friedman’s confused moral philosophy here, though it is encouraged that the reader reference my article “The Failures of Milton Friedman” for a fuller explanation his views and the dangers they entail.)

Whether Hayek’s implication in citing “tolerance” as the great virtue lost by the rise of collectivism is in line with Milton Friedman’s connections of “tolerance” and libertarianism is unknown, but the fact that the two men share a skepticist epistemology and both ultimately land at the same word to describe the virtue that they see to be animating their ideals cannot be ignored and provides a possible explanation for Hayek’s unsupported statement.

Where skepticist epistemology and haphazard forays into moral philosophy are found, an incomplete defense of freedom usually follows. So it is here with Hayek, who shows us precisely his conception of freedom and how it should be fought for, writing, “There is nothing in the basic principles of liberalism to make it a stationary creed, there are no hard and fast rules fixed once and for all. The fundamental principle that in the ordering of our affairs we should make as much use as possible of the spontaneous forces of society, and resort as little as possible to coercion, is capable of an infinite variety of applications” (13).

I will not engage with this statement directly, as it has been soundly argued elsewhere in other essays from this publication such as “The Philosophy of Capitalism” and Brian Underwood’s “Political Capitalism”, as well as in Ayn Rand’s essays “Man’s Rights”, “The Objectivist Ethics”, and “The Nature of Government.” I will observe simply that for a man accepted by many to be symbolic of twentieth century liberalism to take such a pragmatic, unprincipled approach to the defense of freedom stands as much as a symbol of the unsteadiness and lack of a moral basis in that movement as it does a condemnation of the man himself. What’s more, it shows that no sound defense of liberty can be based on a skepticist epistemology. A defense of man begins with an admiration for man and his nature as a rational, efficacious being. Whoever hopes to undertake a task so daunting and so crucial as a defense of man’s rights against oppression cannot enter the fray with a puttering “Who knows?!” as his battle cry.

It is the inevitable fate of such pragmatists that they should ultimately abandon a strict conception of liberty and that they should shrink principles down to the level of momentarily expedient guidelines to be cast aside at the first sign of opposition. We must be immensely grateful that the Founding Fathers of the United States had the moral basis to recognize and firmly assert the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, yoking future statesmen to these principles rather than settling for such a shrugging recommendation that they “make as much use as possible of the spontaneous forces of society.” We must be proud that Jefferson swore “an oath upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man”, and not merely an oath to “resort as little as possible to coercion.”

The distortions, sadly, do not end there. Hayek confounds our expectations further by seeking to balance his critique of socialism with a contrary charge against advocates of full individual rights, writing that “[p]robably nothing has done so much harm to the liberal cause as the wooden insistence of some liberals on certain rough rules of thumb, above all the principle of laissez faire” [emphasis mine] (13).

Hayek’s ambiguous accusation against advocates of laissez-faire, that they are somehow partly responsible for the rise of socialist policies, apparently rests on the capitalists having viewed the principle as a “hard and fast… rule which knew no exceptions” (13).  He goes on to explain that the downfall of liberalism is explainable by reference to the liberal’s strict adherence to the laissez-faire principle, finding it “inevitable that, once their position was penetrated at some points, it should soon collapse as a whole” (13).

At this point, Hayek quickly reveals several key implications: that advocates of laissez-faire are partly responsible for the rise of socialism, that laissez-faire is a flawed system, and that its legitimacy has indeed “collapse[d]” through being disproven. He continues, “No sensible person should have doubted that the crude rules in which the principles of economic policy of the nineteenth century were expressed were only a beginning, that we had yet much to learn, and that there were still immense possibilities of advancement on the lines on which we had moved” (14).

To be clear: Hayek is not referring to changes in application or translation of the existing principles, but a shift in principles as such. ‘What’, one must ask, ‘could have fundamentally changed so drastically in the period in question, to make the basic principles of economic freedom no longer relevant or applicable in one period as they had been in the previous one?’ According to Hayek, it was the inevitable result of having

“gained increasing intellectual mastery of the forces of which we had to make use. There were many obvious tasks, such as our handling of the monetary system, and the prevention or control of monopoly, and an even greater number of less obvious but hardly less important tasks to be undertaken in other fields, where there could be no doubt that the governments possessed enormous powers for good and evil;” (14)

Thus, Hayek posits that our “increasing intellectual mastery” (though I can think of a century of economic instability primarily brought by government controls that would refute this alleged “mastery”) is to credit for government intervention in the economy. He implies that the belief that governments could regulate the economy by force somehow translates to the presumption that they should do so—a significant leap that Hayek does not and cannot, without reference to philosophy, explain. Not only does this misconceive of the problem; it carelessly implies that those statesmen of earlier times did not intervene in the economy because they could not conceive of how to do so. To the contrary: earlier liberal thinkers did not plead ignorance in the face of proposed interventionism—they opposed it on principle, and suggesting otherwise is a discredit to their defenses of liberty.

Hayek’s passing statements apparently endorsing the “control of monopoly” and his suggestion that “the governments possessed enormous powers for good and evil”—that is, that good could be achieved by force just as surely as evil—only add layers to the disappointing picture established thus far. He goes on to make an unconvincing argument that the slow pace of economic progress under liberalism was to blame for people having turned away from it—a confounding claim to make about a century that witnessed the most rapid and dramatic rise in quality of life in the history of humankind, and one that even Marx himself would likely have disputed as unsubstantiated.

Finally, he ends the chapter on an agreeable note with a brief description of how the geographical flow of ideas—from Britain and the US east to continental Europe—reversed at this period in history and the prevailing current turned westward, exporting German socialist ideas to the Atlantic. He astutely summarizes how the ideas of Marx, Hegel, List, Schmoller, Sombart, and Mannheim overtook the intellectual tone set by the English after 1870. He ends on the essential point that it was ultimately the lack of confidence in their own convictions by Western thinkers that made this shift possible. In this effort—narrating the history of philosophical and cultural trade balances—Hayek is excellent and displays the power of which he is capable when he remains in his purview, capitalizing on his unique perspective.

After a promising introduction, the first chapter of Hayek’s book has proven shaky at best. The flaws are numerous and fatal: a questionable interpretation of the histories of both liberalism’s origins and socialism’s ascendance, a dangerously inadequate grasp of the role of moral philosophy in the histories he details, a desire to blame liberalism for its own destruction with insufficient substantiation, a skepticist rejection of principles that leads to a pragmatist’s approach to policy, and, finally, a rejection of laissez-faire capitalism.

To his credit, Hayek is overall favorable on matters of economic history, arguing effectively for the role of capitalism in promoting scientific progress and advances in standards of living. However, his suggestion that advancement in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was slow, and that this slowness of progress is to blame for the West’s acceptance of socialism, is largely without a supporting argument, is contrary to the unrivaled history of economic progress that we know to have characterized that period, and, incidentally, indulges a determinist philosophy that we saw him as likely to avoid in the introduction—a serious point of inconsistency.

Overall, Hayek’s first chapter is a dramatic step down from the introduction and a disappointment considering the reputation of the book. It is, in its own way, an abandonment of the road, if in a slightly different direction than those whom Hayek criticizes. Though future chapters may redeem the work to some extent, the fact that so much ground is lost in the first few pages is a severe blow, but one that is in keeping with the suspicions which we noted in assessing the introduction and which we warned to be on the lookout for. It illustrates well the consequences of even small cracks in one’s intellectual foundation and confirms the value of critically applying careful philosophical detective work in reading works such as this, no matter their reputation.

Rugged Individualism in Slave Narratives

In American History, Arts & Letters, Emerson, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Slavery on August 1, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

The transcendental idealism of Emerson and Thoreau found its most illuminating expression and drew its most ardent followers before the Civil War would temper the spirits of many Americans.  Emerson and Thoreau both advocated for removing oneself from the constraints of society and for realizing an inner drive and power for epistemological, spiritual, and political purposes.  This individualism had more credence in New England than it did in the Southern states, and it is therefore not surprising that 19th century slave narratives would seek to appropriate that discourse of individualism in order to explain and condemn the realities of slavery.  Slavery could be cast as a symptom of the collective mindset, an evil that clearly could be seen as such if only individuals would separate themselves from conformity with the social unit and prevailing ideology.

Frederick Douglass, in both Narrative of the Life and his later work My Bondage and My Freedom, reveals that his childhood in slavery was relatively relaxed compared to that of other slaves, yet as he moved from master to master and was denied education—that is, as he grew into a man—the regulation of his body became harsher and more violent.  Douglass, who, as a lecturer, impressed upon his listeners a sense of rugged masculinity, uses his narratives to show how an individual can stand up to an entire institution.  In both narratives he vividly depicts his battle with Mr. Covey, a vicious overseer who was determined to train Douglass into docile submission by means of overwhelming violence.  It is an inner will as much as brute strength that brings about Douglass’s triumph over Covey, and it is Douglass’s determination to read and to learn that allows him to circumvent white law to achieve the literacy that made both of these works possible.

As an anti-slavery advocate in the North, having attained his freedom, Douglass expressed his individualism in a variety of ways, not least of which in his insistence to remain independent of William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionists with whom Douglass had, as it were, a falling out.  Douglass also articulated a desire for blacks to embrace the ideal of personal responsibility and to look to their own personhood as a means for pulling themselves out of their unfortunate condition.  His enabling rhetoric was intended to be inspirational and to imitate the rhetoric and values of New England whites, without whose support neither he nor other slaves could mobilize political action.  Other authors of slave narratives such as William Wells Brown (who, it should be mentioned, had a falling out with Douglass) employ similar tactics and strategies regarding the appeal to individualism.  Brown also promoted himself as a masculine figure who realized his autonomy and drew strength from his own will to deliver himself from bondage.

Harriet Jacobs’s narrative couches individualism in more ambiguous terms.  She gives herself the name Linda Brent in the narrative, which is addressed explicitly to the “women of the North.”  Her narrative is replete with apostrophes to these women readers and, therefore, with signals and coded references meant to gain sympathy and provoke anger at the institution of slavery.  When Linda’s master attempts to take her in as his sex slave, she goes so far as to have an affair with a white man, Mr. Sands, as a form of resistance.  Knowing the decorum of her audience and the precariousness of her status as a freed slave, Linda repeatedly acknowledges the sinfulness of her act but stresses, too, that she cannot be held to the same standards as white women, who enjoy the freedom to make moral choices.  In a system of slavery, Linda suggests, there are no moral choices because one is reduced to selecting between one bad act or another.  Like Douglass, Linda finds freedom in the North, and, like Douglass, she spends time in England, where, she indicates, freedom flourishes, at least in relation to the United States.  Jacobs’s narrative can be taken as an urgent statement on the agency of slaves in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and the image of the strong woman that she cultivates (not just in herself but in the person of her grandmother) resonates as a powerful trope that others would pick up on. Read the rest of this entry »

Emersonian Individualism

In America, American History, Art, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Emerson, Epistemology, Essays, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Santayana, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on April 4, 2012 at 6:48 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following essay originally appeared here at Mises Daily.

Ralph Waldo Emerson is politically elusive. He’s so elusive that thinkers from various schools and with various agendas have appropriated his ideas to validate some activity or another. Harold Bloom once wrote, “In the United States, we continue to have Emersonians of the Left (the post-Pragmatist Richard Rorty) and of the Right (a swarm of libertarian Republicans, who exalt President Bush the Second).”[1] We’ll have to excuse Bloom’s ignorance of political movements and signifiers — libertarians who exalt President Bush, really? — and focus instead on Bloom’s point that Emerson’s influence is evident in a wide array of contemporary thinkers and causes.

Bloom is right that what “matters most about Emerson is that he is the theologian of the American religion of Self-Reliance.”[2] Indeed, the essay “Self-Reliance” remains the most cited of Emerson’s works, and American politicians and intellectuals selectively recycle ideas of self-reliance in the service of often disparate goals.

Emerson doesn’t use the term “individualism” in “Self-Reliance,” which was published in 1841, when the term “individualism” was just beginning to gain traction. Tocqueville unintentionally popularized the signifier “individualism” with the publication of Democracy in America. He used a French term that had no counterpart in English. Translators of Tocqueville labored over this French term because its signification wasn’t part of the English lexicon. Emerson’s first mention of “individualism” was not until 1843.

It is clear, though, that Emerson’s notion of self-reliance was tied to what later would be called “individualism.” Emerson’s individualism was so radical that it bordered on self-deification. Only through personal will could one realize the majesty of God. Nature for Emerson was like the handwriting of God, and individuals with a poetical sense — those who had the desire and capability to “read” nature — could understand nature’s universal, divine teachings.

Lakes, streams, meadows, forests — these and other phenomena were, according to Emerson, sources of mental and spiritual pleasure or unity. They were what allowed one to become “part and parcel with God,” if only one had or could become a “transparent eyeball.” “Nothing at last is sacred,” Emerson said, “but the integrity of your own mind.” That’s because a person’s intellect translates shapes and forms into spiritual insights.

We cannot judge Emerson exclusively on the basis of his actions. Emerson didn’t always seem self-reliant or individualistic. His politics, to the extent that they are knowable, could not be called libertarian. We’re better off judging Emerson on the basis of his words, which could be called libertarian, even if they endow individualism with a religiosity that would make some people uncomfortable.

Emerson suggests in “Self-Reliance” that the spontaneous expression of thought or feeling is more in keeping with personal will, and hence with the natural world as constituted by human faculties, than that which is passively assumed or accepted as right or good, or that which conforms to social norms. Emerson’s individualism or self-reliance exalted human intuition, which precedes reflection, and it privileged the will over the intellect. Feeling and sensation are antecedent to reason, and Emerson believed that they registered moral truths more important than anything cognition could summon forth.

Emerson’s transcendentalism was, as George Santayana pointed out in 1911, a method conducive to the 19-century American mindset.[3] As a relatively new nation seeking to define itself, America was split between two mentalities, or two sources of what Santayana called the “genteel tradition”: Calvinism and transcendentalism.

The American philosophical tradition somehow managed to reconcile these seeming dualities. On the one hand, Calvinism taught that the self was bad, that man was depraved by nature and saved only by the grace of God. On the other hand, transcendentalism taught that the self was good, that man was equipped with creative faculties that could divine the presence of God in the world. The Calvinist distrusted impulses and urges as sprung from an inner evil. The transcendentalist trusted impulses and urges as moral intuition preceding society’s baseless judgments and prevailing conventions.

What these two philosophies had in common was an abiding awareness of sensation and perception: a belief that the human mind registers external data in meaningful and potentially spiritual ways. The Calvinist notion of limited disclosure — that God reveals his glory through the natural world — played into the transcendentalists’ conviction that the natural world supplied instruments for piecing together divinity.

The problem for Santayana is that transcendentalism was just a method, a way of tapping into one’s poetical sense. What one did after that was unclear. Santayana thought that transcendentalism was the right method, but he felt that Emerson didn’t use that method to instruct us in practical living. Transcendentalism was a means to an end, but not an end itself.

According to Santayana, Emerson “had no system” because he merely “opened his eyes on the world every morning with a fresh sincerity, marking how things seemed to him then, or what they suggested to his spontaneous fancy.”[4] Emerson did not seek to group all senses and impressions into a synthetic whole. Nor did he suggest a politics toward which senses and impressions ought to lead. Santayana stops short of accusing Emerson of advancing an “anything-goes” metaphysics. But Santayana does suggest that Emerson failed to advance a set of principles; instead, Emerson gave us a technique for arriving at a set of principles. Emerson provided transportation, but gave no direction. This shortcoming — if it is a shortcoming — might explain why Bloom speaks of the “paradox of Emerson’s influence,” namely, that “Peace Marchers and Bushians alike are Emerson’s heirs in his dialectics of power.”[5]

For Emerson, human will is paramount. It moves the intellect to create. It is immediate, not mediate. In other words, it is the sense or subjectivity that is not yet processed by the human mind. We ought to trust the integrity of will and intuition and avoid the dictates and decorum of society.

“Society,” Emerson says, “everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” Society corrupts the purity of the will by forcing individuals to second-guess their impulses and to look to others for moral guidance. Against this socialization, Emerson declares, “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.”

Emerson’s nonconformist ethic opposed habits of thinking, which society influenced but did not determine. Emerson famously stated that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. What he meant, I think, is that humans ought to improve themselves by tapping into intuitive truths. Nature, with her figures, forms, and outlines, provides images that the individual can harness to create beauty and energize the self. Beauty therefore does not exist in the world; rather, the human mind makes beauty out of the externalities it has internalized. Beauty, accordingly, resides within us, but only after we create it.

Here we see something similar to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism stripped of its appeals to divinity. Rand believed that reality existed apart from the thinking subject, that the thinking subject employs reason and logic to make sense of experience and perception, and that the self or will is instrumental in generating meaning from the phenomenal world. Read the rest of this entry »

2011 in Review

In America, Arts & Letters, Communication, Conservatism, Economics, Essays, History, Humanities, Justice, Law, Libertarianism, News and Current Events, News Release, Philosophy, Politics, Rhetoric, Television, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on January 1, 2012 at 9:54 am
By Slade Mendenhall and Brian Underwood
 
 
Slade Mendenhall is a founding editor of themendenhall.com. He is a student at the University of Georgia majoring in Economics and Mass Communications. His writing interests include screenwriting, fiction and essays on the subjects of philosophy, capitalism, political thought, and aesthetics. His New Years resolution is to progress in the completion of an as-yet-untitled novel (his second).
 
Brian Underwood is a second-year student at the University of Georgia where he studies history and political science as majors and philosophy as a minor. Originally a strong supporter of the Republican Party, Brian moved away from allying himself with the Republicans in politics towards a more “policy over party” position following the 2008 election. As a result, he became an avid reader of historical, philosophical, and other academic works. Moving ever further towards the “libertarian” end of the Nolan Chart, he eventually joined the Objectivist Club and the Young Americans for Liberty after arriving at UGA. Now, he simply defines himself as a “Capitalist.” His main writing interests include philosophy, politics, history, and economics.
 
The following post originally appeared over at themendenhall.
 
An endeavor to measure the shifts and turns of a nation’s ideology can only be compared to an attempt at sensing the turning of the Earth beneath one’s feet. It is at once ubiquitous and elusive, all-encompassing and indistinguishable. Yet, there are, on occasion, times at which one is struck by sudden jolts of rapid motion and change so disruptive that it forbids all attempts at understanding what course or direction it is taking. Swept up, we must at once answer the questions of where we are, to where we are going, and how we are to get there. We must either repair our faulted ideologies or face the consequences of our own contradictions. It may well be that 2011 is to be remembered as such a year. True, it lacked the singular purposefulness of 2010’s drive to repudiate the health care legislation, rid Congress of its unrestrained desire for ever greater government controls, and nullify the Obama administration’s oppressive regulatory policies wherever possible. Different times, however, call for different spirits. 2011 was the time for the promises of the 2010 congressional elections to be put into act, the time to put that ideology to work. The result was often well-intended but imperfect, hindered by the lingering Democratic control of the Senate and complicated by a perpetual series of compromises that left no one satisfied and sent congressional approval ratings to all-time lows of 12.7% at year’s end. As the unemployment rate stagnated, Americans were given a grim look into the engine room of partisan politics where principle is so often held subordinate to considerations of loyalty and appearance.Though it has yet to reflect in our economic condition, things are, politically, better than they were twelve months ago. For the first time in generations, there is a growing sector of average Americans who believe, both practically and ethically, in the merits of political and economic freedom. The challenge now will be carrying the enthusiasm they have cultivated since 2010 forward, through the brutish struggles in Washington’s backrooms and the uncertainty of Iowa’s ballot boxes, toward the elections of 2012 and, with hope, an era of ever-greater victories for the principles upon which our nation was founded. As always, winning our future means understanding our past. It is with that consideration that we look back on the events of the last year as we say goodbye to 2011.
 
A year of trouble and turmoil, 2011 has been as much affected by conflicts abroad as it has by the struggle between the changing tides of American ideologies and the onerous traditions of politics past. Scarcely had the year begun when it was upended by a sudden explosion of conflicts in the Middle East, beginning with the public suicide of a young man in protest of the Tunisian government which transpired to an international wave of political uprisings now known as the Arab Spring. That movement would incite conflicts in nations from North Africa to Syria and bring about the fall of such corrupt dictators as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi. Though the movement wages on in the bloodied streets of Syria, where rebels come to blows daily with a brutal and oppressive regime, its ultimate results and effects on American interests are as yet undecided. Much will depend on the current and future political struggles within those now shaken nations, and history could as easily come to see these events as a vacuum from which emerged a newly energized and vindicated rise of Islamic Totalitarianism as it could the pure and heroic struggle for freedom that the Western media so actively portrayed it to be.
 
  One consideration in particular must be made in regard to that circumstance, however: the nature of those revolutions, the violence in Egypt against Coptic Christians, the presence of Al Qaeda factions among the ranks of Libyan rebels, and the recent political victories of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt portend a dark future for those nations. If popular revolutions can be divided among those most akin to the American Revolution and the French Revolution, that which has transpired in the Middle East this year is definitively the latter. They are not movements based primarily on principles of individual rights. Were they, groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood would have been ousted along with Mubarak. Instead, they are less a push for freedom than they are a push against an oppressor, complicated by the fact that this is a part of the world which has never been exposed to true political freedom or come to accept the philosophical principles which are prerequisite to its realization. Tragically, the American media proved in its coverage of these events its dire inability to make that distinction.
 
In this publication’s view, the Leftist elements of the media were motivated by a desire to vindicate their long-expressed views on America’s Middle East policy since the beginning of the Iraq war. Doubtless, there are a myriad of arguments against our having gone to war in Iraq — most reputably that which states that Iraq was not the greatest or most immediate threat to American security, that the very costly armed welfare mission into which that conflict devolved was in no way carried out in the best interests of American soldiers or citizens, that our efforts would have been better served elsewhere. However, this is not the logic or sentiment which is most fervently held by these advocates. Since the beginning of that war, there has been a considerable segment of the Left which has argued against it on the grounds that the principle of self-determination grants nations the right to practice any form of oppression and denial of individual rights they please, so long as they hold majority support; that political freedom is a Western product that we happen to have chosen, but that any other nation’s choice of tyranny is equally valid because they chose it. Fast-forwarding to this year’s Arab Spring, these same advocates are some of the movement’s most ardent supporters, on the grounds that it shows that, left to their own devices, the peoples of such nations will eventually throw off their own shackles and choose freedom without Western support or guidance. Were this the case, the nations of the Middle East which have undergone revolutions this year deserve our commendations. However, we remain dubious that this is the case. Those who believe that freedom and prosperity are the predestined results of these revolutions will, we fear, be demonstrably proven wrong by whatever variant of oppressive control emerges in these very fragile regions in the coming years. What future instability or, worse, stability under dangerous conditions will mean for America’s interests in the region remain to be seen, but it is a problem that should be carefully observed to maintain our security and best interests.Ironically, in their advocacy of these revolutions, the Left has inherited a trademark intellectual error from the Bush administration: the belief that popular elections and a system of democracy are the source and cause of freedom. This is a grievous inversion that leads man to the conclusion that institutions and their organization can effectively supplant the role of ideas in the guidance of his actions. Though popular elections are an integral part of a free political system, they are its product, not its cause. Only a rational political philosophy of individual rights can ever be the cause of true and lasting freedom. Returning to our previous comparison, in the case of America, its revolutionaries had inherited roughly a century of Enlightenment thought in which they were well-versed and whose principles they explicitly understood. That knowledge of the Enlightenment values of reason and individualism led those men to the design of a government meant to acknowledge and secure them. France’s exposure to Enlightenment thought was quite equal to England’s, but its revolution was driven less by intellectuals and more by a mob, inspired less by a circumspect outlook upon what could be than by the violent, angry rejection of what was. In short: less talk of ideas, more guillotines. To which do the current uprisings in the Middle East better compare and what does that suggest about the political future to be expected there? It is significant that those here in America, the nation of the Enlightenment, are today so unaware of the role of philosophy in its beginnings… and its future.Despite the rather grim prospects of revolutionaries in the Middle East to establish any long-term system of freedom and prosperity, the ideological struggles waged in America this year have proven that its intellectual foundations are alive and well here in the States. What’s more, there are signs that they could be experiencing a popular– and lasting– resurgence. The Tea Party candidates around the country were inaugurated to their congressional seats in January after having run their campaigns on the principles of a free market, fiscal responsibility, and constitutionally limited government. Joining them were welcomed conservative state officials throughout the nation in such volumes as had not been seen since before the Great Depression.  Their rallying cry: to oppose the unyielding growth of government and its power over the lives of private citizens. Their victories were numerous and significant (if as much for what they prevented as what they created), though it seemed, at times, that every victory had its casualties and every two steps forward saw one step back. Democratic power in the Senate made for unproductive compromises and grand-scale debates that evinced more in theatrics than tangible results.This was never more clearly displayed than in the summer debt and budgetary crises, with the tantalizing threat of government shut-down looming over our heads. Americans bore witness to the paltry efforts of Congressto wean itself from excessive outlays, where merely promising to increase spending at a decreasing rate was portrayed as “budget cuts” and an unwillingness to abolish or defund a single government bureaucracy left the fundamental problems of America’s  leviathan state firmly intact. Unsurprisingly, though shut-downs were averted and compromises reached, the political instability over so crucial an issue led to the first downgrade of America’s debt to below AAA. In ensuing months, as compensation, we were offered  another grand spectacle in the form of a “Super-Committee” convened to tackle the problem of America’s mounting foreign debt. Tragically, it was stacked with the most diametrically opposite representatives from Left and Right and, predictably, politics yet again trumped the interests of American citizens’ well-being. Read the rest of this entry »
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