Skip to comments.THOMAS FLEMING: Abuse Your Illusions
Posted on 02/04/2002 12:00:14 PM PST by ouroboros
Walter Block is a libertarian without guile, a theorist who refuses to confine his classical-liberal analysis to strictly economic questions. Liberty is liberty, he would argue, and value is value, whether we are deciding a question of zoning or a case of censorship. Honest man that he is, he opposes both zoning and censorship as acts of government infringement upon our liberties and as the forced substitution of other peoples values for our own. In a recent online editorial, Professor Block offers us a rigorously libertarian (to be accurate, we should say liberal) answer to the moral questions raised by stem-cell research.
Block is well known for defending the indefensible, and he takes the novel position that recycling fetal parts for research and medicine is morally acceptable, so long as the parents (i.e., those who supplied the genetic material) are unwilling to rear the child and there are no other takers for the fetus.
As a good libertarian, Block takes it as a given that we have no positive obligations to other people except not to harm them deliberately. Unborn babies, even from the point of fertilization, represent human life, but they are in the position of a wild cow that no one has homesteadedi.e., domesticated and claimed ownership of. Therefore, if the parents choose not to rear the child and offer it up for adoption but find no one willing to assume the burden, they have the right to kill itjust as they would have the right to kill a born child.
Blocks morally revolting conclusion is not the problem. Many libertarian arguments lead to repugnant conclusions about marriage, drug use, pornography, and common civility, and their conclusions do not always remain in the realm of speculative theory. It is what Block (and perhaps most libertarians) take for grantedthe underlying assumptionsthat are really horrifying. Let us begin with the obvious: the ease with which human beings are equated with animals, not to mention the unproved assumption that human relations can be reduced to homesteading. In fact, the entire concept of homesteading requires us to regard human social life as consisting of unrelated individuals who find themselves on a frontier where there are no kinfolk, no laws, no customsin other words, in a Lockean state of nature that has never existed.
Notice, too, the blithe indifference to facts of law in the treatment of his bovine metaphor. An animal coming out of nowhere is an uncommon experience, and childrenwhether the identity of mother and father is knownhave two parents. In fact, the proper point of comparison is with calves that belong to the people who own the cow and the bull. Such calves are not at all open to homesteading, which would amount to rus-tling. In Ireland, the broad application of such a principle started a war, when St. Columcille refused to surrender a copy he had made of a biblical manuscript. The high king declared the calf went with the cow, but neither the saint nor his powerful clan agreed, and when the carnage ended, the horrified Columcille went off to Iona to found a monastery and save civilization.
But the principles of law and the facts of history are of only the slightest interest to libertarian theoreticians such as Walter Block and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who are both to be applauded for their candor and for the rigor with which they have applied libertarian principles beyond the point of common sense. Timid ideologues grow fainthearted as they approach the abyss, but purists keep on marching until they have revealed what lies at the end of the road. Just as the 19th-century classical liberals, in pursuing the principle of radical individualism, led Europe and America straight to socialism, they are now leading us down the road to Soylent Green.
Libertarian theory, as Ludwig von Mises insisted, was a morally neutral science. Certain courses of action might well be regarded as suicidal, but praxeology and economics do not tell a man whether he should preserve or abandon life. If some libertarians find the conclusions offensive, they might begin to reconsider the premises.
Most American conservatives (and many self-described libertarians) would say something like this: I agree with the libertarian analysis of money and banking and economic liberty, but on social, cultural, and moral questions, I defend traditional moral values. This was, more or less, what was meant by fusionism in those distant ages so long ago when there was a conservative movement whose chief theoretician was Frank Meyer at National Review. Quite apart from the obvious problem that fusionism simply did not work (there are scarcely any fusionists under 60 years old), it isor rather wasbased on a false distinction. As Walter Block and other true liberals are fully aware, libertarian economics is only an application of libertarian social and moral theory. Mises makes the point emphatically in the introduction to Human Action, a work which is widely regarded as the libertarian bible. Economics, says Mises, is the application to markets of praxeology, a science of human behavior, based on the subjective theory of value which converted the theory of market prices into a general theory of human choice.
If the general theory is false and evil, the economic version of it must behowever much we might want to believe otherwiseequally false and equally evil. Suppose we reached that conclusionwhat then? Would we all become socialists or national mercantilists or Green agrarians? That is, apparently, what libertarians want us to believe: Either sign on to their ideology or be declared an enemy of human freedom. Such a fate, however, is reserved only for people who cling to the slender reed of classical liberalism as the sole support of a free society. People loved liberty, even economic liberty, long before Adam Smith (much less Ludwig von Mises) ever propounded his fallacies. Our search is for truth, not for a comforting ideology, and the things we love that are real and trueour wives and children, the freedom to buy, sell, and compete in the marketplacecannot be defended with illusions.
Unfortunately, much of the liberals credo is summed up in the Guns n Roses album title, Use Your Illusion. Rather than taking up actual transactions between real human beings, liberals take their stand on abstract concepts like the Market, Freedom, and Value. Freedom to do what? we ask. Freedom to choose, answers Professor Friedman. Choose what? we persist, like rude children. Whatever you like, they answer (provided you do not harm anyone, thoughas we see in Professor Blocks casethey have a rather narrow construction of harm that can exclude the death of innocent people.) It comes down to a question of value, which (at least for adherents of the Austrian school) is entirely subjective. You like Greek vases; I like baseball cards. I would not give a nickel for your black-figure pot signed by Euphorion, and you would give less than that for an original Joe DiMaggio, unless it still had the bubble gum.
This theory of subjective valuation is, perhaps, the linchpin of the Austrian/libertarian approach, though not all liberals (particularly left-liberals such as John Rawls) have achieved the terrible simplicity of Ludwig von Mises, whose entire science of economics and praxeology is based on it. Ultimate ends are ultimately given, says Mises, they are purely subjective. Now, Mises might simply be uttering a fatuous tautology of the type, I want what I want what I want . . . , but since he is at pains to defend his position as a breakthrough in the history of thought, we have to assume that he thinks he is saying something important, not just about economics but about human nature.
The breakthrough seems to boil down to this: In assessing human behavior, we are not entitled to go beyond the fact of human actions, which are assumed always to be carried out rationally in the pursuit of what the individual wants. Some of what he wants and pursues might be self-destructive, but the notions of abnormality and perversity . . . have no place in economics. At first glance, this seems to be the typical sophomores reductionism that insists that man has no free will because there is a material cause for everything, to which the juniors usual response is to ask why materialist ideology is not subject to the same analysis. In the case of subjective valuation, the juniors might ask Mises why the theory of subjective valuation should not be viewed as merely a means for accomplishing Mises own desire for money or prestige.
Mises might answer by arguing (as he does in Human Action) that human rationality, the mental mechanisms by which we achieve our desires, has evolved through natural selection to conform to the nature of realityand that is the best answer a materialist can give. However, if Mises were really interested in human nature, as he says he is, it is strange that he gives no evidence of having studied history, biology, or anthropology. Even his psychology is of the crudest typehe quotes Locke as an authority.
The problem is that there are two Ludwig von Miseses: the Mises who claims to be offering a scientific account of human action (particularly in economic terms), and the Mises who fervently believes in the principles of 19th-century liberalismminimal government, human individualism, the elimination of such obstacles to individual fulfillment as the Church, aristocracy, traditions, etc., the right to do as one chooses, even if society or other people regard it as perverse. Amazingly, it turns out that Misesian methods of analysiswhich are purely rational, objective, and scientificconfirm the liberals value-free vision of society down to the last detail. His philosophy, in other words, is actually propaganda in the service of ideology.
Mises liberal bias is very clear whenever the subject of morals or religion comes up. Ethical doctrines . . . intent upon establishing scales of value . . . claim for themselves the vocation of telling right from wrong. People who believe in right and wrong are obviously fools. So are Christians whose economic ideals, he advises us, are similar to Marxs. As indifferent to moral theology as he is to history, Mises conflates the teachings of Pope Pius XI, a reactionary as hostile to socialism as he was to liberalism, with those of Archbishop William Temple, a modernist as well as a liberal-socialist Anglican.
What really mattered was Mises singleminded commitment to eliminate all objective judgments of value. This is the opposite of what all Christians and traditional conservatives believe, and it is by no means unfair to Mises to point out that his principles are entirely inconsistent with Christianity. When Russell Kirk complained that the Mt. Pèlerin Society, whose central figure was Mises student Friedrich Hayek, taught dogmatic liberalism and opposed Christianity, the best that its defenders (George Stigler among them) could do was to cite the presence of several Christians in the group. This is a little like defending the Nazis from the charge of antisemitism on the grounds that there were a few Jews in the party.
Like Marxists and Freudians, liberals have created a closed system in which every question is answered before it is asked. If all moral, social, aesthetic, and political questions can be reduced to what an individual happens to prefer, then there is no objective basis for truth, beauty, and right. I think we all know where this gets us, because we are living in the amoral world that liberals created. Rejecting the really valuable contributions made by liberal economists and political analysts, we have completely accepted their childish and dangerous philosophy. Far from representing an innovative principle subversive of the regime, Mises theory of subjective valuation is the highly respectable platitude on the lips of guidance counselors, therapists, and pornographers. It is the Playboy philosophy for college graduates.
It is not that there is no subjective aspect to value, but, if we step outside the hermetically sealed system, most of us acknowledge that much of what we valuefood, shelter, clothing, weapons, tools, good health and good looksare essential to survival and reproduction. Individuals who do not value food simply die and eliminate themselves from the discussion, and societies that fail to value weapons (or sex) quickly disappear. In crude termsI am scarcely a better philosopher than Misesvalue has what Darwinists would describe as an adaptive element.
Mises concedes this point only to trivialize it, but a student of human nature might construct a theory of valueand of moneyout of sociobiological research. What is money, after all, but a measure of value, and if there is an adaptive significance to value, why could money not be treated as marking increments of adaptive success? X amount of gold might be the equivalent of so many children (or percentages of children) begotten or, more precisely, the units of caloric energy expended on the mating process. In lower species (such as hummingbirds), there is research that shows a male bird has to invest so much caloric energy into acquiring the food it needs to survive. The surplus value (i.e., the excess of energy) can be converted to mating and territorial behavior. Although human beings are almost infinitely more complicated than birds, a similar calculus might be developed that would firmly set material human values in a biological framework that would fulfill the liberal dream of reducing human life to the dimensions of the mathematical sciences. It would also, unfortunately, explode all the human fantasies based on illusions like economic man and expose the hollow pretensions of such libertarian slogans as free markets/free minds.
A moderate liberal might retort: Very well, then, but even in the matter of food, clothing, and shelter, different people want different things. Of course they do, but how much of what they want is really based on individual preference? Hans drinks beer, and Pierre prefers wine: Is it an accident that the German is a beer-drinker, while the oenophile is French? Ah, says our moderate, but some Germans do drink wine. Yes, and many of them come from regions that historically produce good whites. If we take the case to the extreme, we shall have to concede that the tastes of the average American, for example, are nearly always determined by the general culture of America and by the regional or ethnic or religious subcultures to which he belongs. Only a few trivial pointsa fondness for pink shirts or skinny necktiescan be attributed to his individual eccentricities or peculiar experiences. For the most part, then, what Mises regards as judgments of subjective valuation are really an expression of either natural necessity or broader social values. The individuals subjective contribution would seem to be negligible. The necessary conclusion to this line of reasoning would be to recover, in all our social, political, and economic thinking, a healthy balance between the autonomy of individuals and the stability of the society that actually creates those individuals. The libertarian project of setting individuals free from the constraints of families and communities could then be seen for what it isas subversive of individual liberty itself as of society.
Liberals are fond of ridiculing the utopian projects of Marxists, who thought they could build a world without social classes, and of traditionalist conservatives, who are accused of yearning for the simplicity and community of a medieval social order. What they conveniently choose to ignore is the fact that the liberals had their chance. In the second half of the 19th century, liberalism was the dominant ideology of the West. Britain, the United States, Austria-Hungary (and, at times, even France and Germany) pursued the liberal agenda. They lowered tariffs, whittled away the privileges of the Church and the nobility, and gradually bled social institutions and moral traditions of their vitality. Britain undoubtedly prospered as a whole; the bourgeoisie became rich, and, for the most part, wages and working conditions for the lower classes improved.
Working men, nonetheless, were un-impressed. Torn up from their rural and regional roots, stripped of their allegiance to nobility and the Church, indoctrinated with the grim teachings of utilitarian and liberal philosophies that told them to look out for number one, the lower classes began turning to socialism before the end of the 19th century. Liberalism was dead in England before World War I and in America before 1932, and its doctrines were only to be revived, briefly and in adulterated form, in the years of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who have both been followed by socialists and state capitalists. Nothing could be more utopian and more naive than to believe that the failed liberal experiments of the past will be tried again in the near future. If Mrs. Thatcher, who regarded Hayek as a prophet, could not make it work, no one can.
Neither Thatcher nor Reagan were liberal dogmatists; both had their conservative sides, and both were willing to maintain a high level of socialism in their countries. Mises apart, it is hard to find a pure liberal. The greatest critics of liberal dogma in the glory years of the Victorian Age were themselves disgruntled liberals like Sir Henry Maine and Fitzjames Stephen, and even such radical individualists as John Stuart Mill, Albert Jay Nock, and the great Murray Rothbard were intellectual or social elitists who had to compartmentalize their beliefs: here, a radical commitment to individual liberty; there, a set of convictions about good manners, classical education, and moral responsibility. The really thoroughgoing liberalssuch as William Godwin or Ayn Randwere disgusting and unreliable people.
Economic liberty and political liberty are part of the good life to which many of us aspire, but they are not universal givens or precious jewels picked up by the first men living in a state of nature. They are the hard-won cultural achievements of the Greek and Roman, English and American political thinkers who discovered and expounded them and of the soldier-farmers who defended them. In other societies, freedom is as little prized as the principles of logic, and in abandoning the Wests moral, social, and cultural traditions, liberals make it im- possible either to defend the liberties we have left or to recover those we have lost, and so long as conservatives attempt to base their defense of liberty on liberal grounds, they will continue to fail as miserably as they have failed over the past 50 years.
Mises most famous student came to understand part of the problem. Although he professed high moral standards, Friedrich Hayek had little problem, apparently, in dumping his wife of 23 years and abandoning his children. His Arkansas one-sided divorce (which was really an act of repudiation) drove Lionel Robbins, one of his closest friends and colleagues, to resign from the Mt. Pèlerin Society. In the years that followed his divorce, however, Hayek increasingly came to realize that economic liberty itself had to be rooted in some principle that lay beyond subjective value, and at the end of his lifeand against the wishes of some of his libertarian friends (so one of them told me)he published The Fatal Conceit, a book that permanently gives the lie to liberal amoralism. But even Hayeks search for the moral and cultural preconditions for economic liberty put the cart before the horse. The free market is not an end in itself but a partalbeit an important partof the good life. Trapped in the constrictive mind of Enlightenment rationalism, Hayek could not solve the problem he set for himself, but his thought represents a major step away from the nihilism of 19th-century liberalism and toward the sane grasp of reality held out by those who seek a truth that lies beyond the whims of fashion and the promptings of our glands.
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Fleming starts off by dismissing Walter Blocks (admittedly-bizarre) theory of fetal ethics by claiming that mothers and fathers are property. An animal coming out of nowhere is an uncommon experience, and childrenwhether the identity of mother and father is knownhave two parents. In fact, the proper point of comparison is with calves that belong to the people who own the cow and the bull. Of course he never answers the obvious questions. Who are people the property of? Does the owner have the right to do what he wants with the foetus? Whatever you might think of Blocks case, this is not a refutation, unless you accept the argument that all people are slaves.
Having thus disposed of Block, Fleming then sets him up as a strawman who he uses over and over again to impugn all of libertarian theory. His refutation of Block lead inexorably to if the general theory is false and evil, the economic version of it must behowever much we might want to believe otherwiseequally false and equally evil. Neither the premise nor the conclusion is correct. He did not refute the general theory and, even if he had, the specific theory could still hold true.
Having now proven to his satisfaction that all of libertarianism is false, the next statement follows easily. People loved liberty, even economic liberty, long before Adam Smith (much less Ludwig von Mises) ever propounded his fallacies. This is the articles only reference to Smith and his fallacies.
Fleming then spends several pages expounding on Mises theory of value. Mises theory was actually quite simple, almost a tautology. People want what they want and they make choices based on their wants. Flemings description of Mises is reasonably accurate, if loaded with negative buzzwords and phrases. Personally I find it almost impossible to see how someone could argue with Mises characterization. It is a self-evident truth, an axiom of the behaviour of the reasoning man.
Fleming does argue though because, as we all know, people are property like cattle.
This is where he starts to seriously get off track. He claims that people make decisions, not based on their wants, but on their values. Only a few trivial pointsa fondness for pink shirts or skinny necktiescan be attributed to his individual eccentricities or peculiar experiences. For the most part, then, what Mises regards as judgments of subjective valuation are really an expression of either natural necessity or broader social values. The individuals subjective contribution would seem to be negligible.
This actually is true. But it is in no sense a refutation of Mises. What is the difference between a value and a want? Why do people hold the values that they hold? Fleming never asks these questions, let alone answering them.
Instead he says that in abandoning the Wests moral, social, and cultural traditions, liberals make it impossible either to defend the liberties we have left or to recover those we have lost. (Notice the conflation of libertarian and liberal, a sleight-of-hand in which Fleming indulges repeatedly. The modern liberal is really a bastard son of classical liberalism - AKA libertarianism - and Rousseau's theories of the benevolence of the state).
But Fleming has it completely backwards. It is in abandoning liberty that conservatives make it impossible to defend those Western moral, social, and cultural traditions we have left or to recover those we have lost.
Which leads inexorably to his final and greatest error: his complete misunderstanding of the message of Hayeks The Fatal Conceit. By the end of his life Hayek had become a humble individual. He rejected both the labels conservate and libertarian, describing himself as an Old Whig. By this, he meant that he was a believer in the ethics of our ancestors, taking the year 1800 as a snapshot of history. Fleming may well agree with Hayek on this point. This is why some conservatives claim Hayek as one of their own.
There is, however, a key difference between Hayek and modern conservatives like Fleming. Hayek did not believe in the old traditions because they were right. He believed in them because they were. Fleming says They are the hard-won cultural achievements of the Greek and Roman, English and American political thinkers who discovered and expounded them and of the soldier-farmers who defended them. Maybe so, but why did they achieve these particular values and fight for them?
Hayek has the answer with yet another apparent tautology. They chose them because they work, and he believed in them because they chose them. So how do we know they work? Because they were tested in the marketplace of ideas and cultural memes. Hayek said between our instincts and our reason, we have our tradition. Our traditions are the distilled wisdom of the ages. That which works is that which survives to be re-used by other men. That which doesnt work disappears into the dustbin of history.
The grease that the marketplace uses to sort good ideas and bad ideas is called liberty. Men must be allowed the right to determine what works best by trial and error. Successful ideas and memes flourish. Bad ones die.
Frank Meyer understood that libertarianism and conservatism worked together. He failed, though, to understand why. Liberty is not more important than other values. Family, community and what used to be virtue are all more important. Conservatives understand this, as too many libertarians do not.
While other values may be more important to running our lives, liberty is unique in it is the foundation on which the other values stand. Unless an individual has the liberty to determine what is right and wrong for himself, he is not a man. What's more he ceases to be virtuous and his faith in his family and community fade. Lose liberty and you lose all.
I would argue, and I think that Hayek would agree, that the decline in Western values over the last two centuries is due precisely to the lack of marketplace discipline. The West has become fat and lazy because of the huge advance it enjoyed over other civilizations. As new cultural memes are introduced, they spread without check. The state abets the spread of those memes which have the most popularity or the most political influence. The issue of whether they actually work is secondary if, indeed, it is considered at all.
The fundamental mistake of modern conservatism is to turn to the state that tool of the socialists to impose that which is moral, instead of leaving it up to the market to do so. No Burkean would ever have claimed that the answer to drug abuse is to imprison the abusers.
I suppose the philosophy of liberty really has some folks worried.
Worthy goals certainly. But it is very important to get across the message that the only way to achieve these higher goals is through freedom. Both Mises and Hayek were utilitarians. They believed in freedom because it works, not because it's a right. Coercion never works and always leads to still more coercion. That was the message of Hayek's most important work The Road to Serfdom
One thing I do notice about some libertarians: the theory is always uppermost. On subjects like immigration libertarians sometimes act like the last supporters of the theory of the Ptolemaic theory of the universe, with planets and stars moving in circles around the earth. The math doesn't add up, so they add ever more circles, circles within circles with in circles in the hope that it will come out right, rather than scrap some of their theoretical assumptions.
The good thing, though, is that some times an open and honest airing of differences can have a positive effect. The hard core in both camps won't be swayed, but some of us in between will take both sides into account and maybe make a better judgment.
The reason for the falling out between conservatives and libertarians that we see at Free Republic is that, at least in the sphere of ideas, socialism has lost and markets have won. Given such a situation, it was inevitable that the two camps would turn on each other over which really had the very best answer.
If the idea of increased state power really is coming back, some conservatives and some libertarians will find that they have more in common with each other than with the other side. But then some may find themselves on "the other side" if we are too enticed by the new government programs.
The terms of the conflict won't be over whether markets alone are sufficient, though, but once again over whether the state is too large and intrusive. So we'll find out that we were friends all along (bitter debates over drugs will continue, though).
Whether I'm happy with the status quo is irrelevant. Each person or party must be judged on its absolute merits without regard for the worst standards of comparison. To substitute one kind of insanity for another makes little sense.
Fleming's overlong treatises always give me the mental picture of a man carefully reading and analyzing several long works on economics, political theory and history, then deciding to write about what he has absorbed and stopping to huff some airplane glue before sitting down at the keyboard.
Will libertarianism make us better or more virtuous? Will it restore or renew Western civilization? Try it and see. Make an experiment and see how it works out.
I'm skeptical. Some people will be virtuous anyway. Some may find that bearing all the consequences of their actions makes them more responsible and ethical. Others will remain as they are, with the virtues and vices that have been common to human beings in all ages and under all systems. Some may find out that they will be able to get away with more under libertarianism and become more vicious.
There will be those who see their opportunities and take them, and others who recognize that they will finish last in the competition, and act accordingly. Probably, as in Victorian times -- or today -- society would split into one group that is industrious and responsible and another that is unindustrious and improvident.
A libertarian order would have the same trouble with criminals and with disputes between individuals. Would the law courts be any less crowded? Would the prisons? A libertarian "society" would have a political opposition which desires to establish its own order and values, as any society does. Or would proclaiming the libertarian order set it in stone and deny the citizenry the right of changing it. In that case, new problems would also arise. If political disputes are denied other channels for the redress of grievances, revolts would arise. The dissolution of government might bring armed camps or warlords.
What is meant by libertarianism is problematic. If it's a movement to decrease the size of government when possible and effective, most Americans would probably agree with that. What's often meant is a utopian moral or religious faith that doing away with government or trimming it down to a shadow will solve long standing human problems. And this is much more doubtful.
Those who are familiar with socialism and its faith that abolishing private property will make people community-minded and virtuous, have grounds to question whether this form of libertarianism abolishing forms of all forms of coercion of the individual will make people virtuous and responsible. To the extent that we are know about life before the welfare state, we can also be skeptical.
Human beings are too varied and human nature too strong and deeply rooted to assume that such automatic transformations will occur. That's not to say that such knowledge means that we can authoritatively assert that libertarianism won't work, just that we have plenty of reason not to say that it will definitely produce the effects its supporters claim for it.
On the surface, a fair political argument, but a libertarian who thinks about the issue will not start downward like a gun-grabber asking a 2nd Amendment Absolutist whether they support individual ownership of nuclear weapons. The libertarian would structure the question as, should individuals be free to leave, i.e. Is an 'exit tax' Conservative? (Republicans support an exit tax for individuals but not corporations, but that is common ground for paleo's and libertarians alike.)
I think that line of thought will reveal some true differences between Conservative and Libertarians on equal political ground rather than a battlefield of the authors choosing where he makes the libertarian seem like a utopian fool.
And yes, for full disclosure, I'm a Chronicles subscriber.
...you can make use of your liberty to contribute to the discussion...
There is the problem...You want to tell me what to do with my liberty. I'll do as I wish with it, thank you very much! Ogre! That is why it is called liberty.
How about a full belly laugh next time instead of a snicker? Would that be better?
BTW...you ask good rhetorical questions too.