Saturday, February 5, 2011

Libertarianism, Liberalism, Conservatism and the Dangers of Idealism

Reading Murray Rothbard can, in a sense, be comforting to someone with libertarian leanings.  This is because Rothbard recognizes that the libertarian view has its origins in what was called classical liberalism, and is antipathetic to authoritarianism in all its forms, theocratic, feudal, aristocratic, collectivist, mercantile.  This is comforting because Libertarianism has come to be associated with Conservatism (note the capital letters) and Conservatism, at least in these dark times, is unattractive in several respects.

This is not to say that what is now called Liberalism is particularly attractive, and certainly not when compared with classical liberalism.  Both Liberalism and Conservatism as currently practised in what remains of our great republic seem overwhelming concerned with controlling us, in one way or another, for our own good, of course.  And both seem intent on manipulating the government to do so, albeit in different ways.

Liberals have for some time thought that only government can save us from those who have the power to enslave us, and some of them appear to believe that we can only avoid this enslavement if most all aspects of our lives are regulated by the government.  Conservatives, while claiming that we must have less government, seem sometimes to feel primarily that less government means less government authority to prevent us from acceding to certain social and religious standards.  Federal government, and particularly the federal courts, should not have the power to prevent us from living as we feel appropriate, nor should it have the power to prevent us from requiring others to live as we feel appropriate, something it is believed can be achieved most readily through local government.

Rothbard notes that for those who prize liberty, there is little difference between the kind of collectivism associated with "communism" and the authoritarian government which arises through a partnership of the government with great business interests, sometimes associated with organized religion as a not very silent third partner.  This may be called fascism by some, but I hesitate to use the term as it is used so commonly these days that I'm uncertain it is meaningful in any useful sense.

I view Liberalism and Conservatism (and other things as well) as ideologies disassociated from the practical in the sense that they're dependent on certain ideals which are unquestionable, notwithstanding facts or circumstances to the contrary.  And it seems to me that the reliance on such ideals is the result, in part at least, of certain kinds of philosophical idealism.

John Dewey once gave a series of lectures at around the time of the First World War which were subsequently published under the name German Philosophy and Politics.  In those lectures he opined, with many a caveat, on the relation between German Idealism and the German Politics (and it should be said militarism) of that time.  It's an interesting read, if only because he is on occasion witty, indeed wry and sardonic at times, and at least in my reading of him this is unusual.  That it should come at the expense of German Idealism is perhaps not surprising in a pragmatist, and is in any case enjoyable to me as I'm not fond of German Idealism and the German Romanticism I think comes with it almost necessarily.

As I understand him, he sees in this idealism a kind of substitution of Divine Providence with the a priori.   Humans in a way impose on nature certain forms or categories, and these may include moral concepts such as duty.  These do not result from experience, nor do they result from God.  They are not of divine origin, but they are nonetheless supersensible, and it seems that certain German thinkers feel that Germans, whether due to their language or their unique aspects are particularly good at understanding them.  Others tend to think empirically only; they base their judgments purely on consequences or utility, for example.

Even when the a priori is claimed to be rational in some sense, viewing such knowledge or morality as distinct from what we experience--as something which experience is formed by, something which facts are to fit within as necessary--can lead to the belief that they should be controlling regardless of facts, regardless of consequences.  And therein lies the danger, as when we begin living our lives, or demanding that others live their lives, regardless of consequences according to certain unquestionable ideals which cannot be corrected or modified even if problems result in the "real world" we can be very dangerous indeed.

Making judgments based on reasonable methods shown to be successful rather than ideals, and allowing for modification of judgments based on circumstances and results, abjuring certainty, may not be inspiring or glorious, but it may be the only way we can live our lives freely, neither dominating nor dominated by others.


  1. libertarians are nothing but a joke - get real

  2. Well, it's a comment, true enough.