Skip to comments.THOMAS FLEMING: Abuse Your Illusions
Posted on 02/04/2002 12:00:14 PM PST by ouroboros
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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.
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