18 June 2014

Libertarianism: ideology or dogma?

In the latest New Republic Mark Lilla bemoans the global surge of forms of libertarianism, arguing that they represent a dumbing down of political imagination. While I tend to think of libertarianism as an ideology, in at least a broad sense, similar to liberalism or Marxism, Lilla argues that libertarianism doesn't even rise to that level. To make the distinction, he defines ideology as a way of seeing the world that "holds us in its grasp with an enchanting picture of reality." More objectively, ideology "takes an undifferentiated visual field and brings it into focus, so that objects appear in a predetermined relation to each other." Most importantly, it "tries to master the historical forces shaping society by first understanding them." Libertarianism is a dogma, in Lilla's scheme, because "it sanctions ignorance about the world, and therefore blinds adherents to its effects in that world....It has no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going." This certainly doesn't match libertarians' self-image; they most likely see themselves as the most curious, if not the least ignorant because they're the most practical. But Lilla argues that libertarianism is dogmatic because libertarians refuse to think about anything that might challenge the primacy of individual liberty. By contrast, "Maintaining an ideology requires work because political developments always threaten its plausibility. Theories must be tweaked, revisions must be revised." This isn't automatically a point in favor of ideology, since most of this "work" boils down to rationalization. But Lilla seems to mean that ideology is falsifiable in a way that dogma, and thus libertarianism, isn't. It still looks a little like semantic hair-splitting that tells us little more than Lilla's contempt for libertarianism.

Lilla's on safer ground when he attempts to explain the dumbing down of the political imagination, the process that has resulted in libertarian ascendancy, since the Cold War. It seems to be a byproduct of the Manichean imagination of "freedom" and "tyranny" at opposite poles of political possibility, engaged in an eternal tug-of-war. In the U.S. especially, Lilla sees a failure of political science, the loss of an ancient understanding that multiple forms of political organization were possible and even acceptable depending on circumstances. "[S]cholars convinced of democracy’s absolute and unique goodness abandoned the traditional study of non-democratic forms of government, such as monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, and tyranny, and took instead to distinguishing regimes along a single line running from democracy (good) to totalitarianism (bad)," Lilla writes, " [I]n the mind of America’s political and journalistic classes, only two political categories exist today: democracy and le déluge." This has left us unable (if not just unwilling) to comprehend why anyone rejects liberal democracy and accepts options that leave people less free by our standards. Lilla claims to know better, pointing to a pejorative sort of American exceptionalism:

No peoples are as libertarian as Americans have become today; they prize goods that individualism destroys, like deference to tradition, a commitment to place, respect for elders, obligations to family and clan, a devotion to piety and virtue. If they and we think that they can have it all, then they and we are very much mistaken. These are the rocks on which the hopes for Arab democracy [for instance] keep shattering.

Across the American political/ideological/dogmatic spectrum, Lilla sees a stubborn refusal to consider that liberal democracy may not be the best option for every nation at every moment in history. If someone says that some culture isn't "ready" for liberal democracy, it "smacks of racism to the left and defeatism to the right (and both to liberal hawks)." Lilla seems to be saying that all Americans are dogmatic libertarians if they're incapable of "abandoning the dogma that individual freedom is the only or even the highest political good in every historical circumstance." Lilla blames this for the disasters that have followed the American rush to "democratize" countries around the world. This is 21st-century hubris: the libertarian assumption that "all we have to do is stick to our “democratic values” and economic models and faith in the individual and all will be well."

Lilla himself is a liberal. He believes in "the rule of law and a respected constitution ... professional bureaucracies that treat citizens impartially ... the subordination of the military to civilian rule ... regulatory bodies to keep economic transactions transparent." But he doesn't believe that every culture will acquire all of them at once, and he doesn't believe that we should take an "all or nothing" approach to democratization. Liberals have to do more than concede that forms of authoritarianism will endure; they should start thinking of how to make authoritarianism "compatible with good governance." One problem, of course, is that you can't talk about the trade-offs other countries might make without it being thought that you're asking your fellow Americans to make a trade-off. To say that some form of authoritarianism is okay in some places is to imply menacingly that authoritarianism would be okay in the U.S.A. If individual freedom is not the "highest political good in every historical circumstance," then individual freedom is in danger everywhere. If you can imagine these responses, that's what Lilla is writing about -- what he sees as a refusal to think. That imposes more responsibility on him; he ought to follow this article with an essay that actually challenges the primacy of individual liberty in the American political imagination, whether on pragmatic, moral, or other grounds. Let's have him propose when people should submit to leaders, or when they shouldn't even complain. Let him make a needed distinction between acceptable dissent and unacceptable obstruction, or a distinction between reasonable deference and shameful submission. Most importantly, let him assert the priority of society, the thing libertarianism, following Margaret Thatcher, denies the most. In our defense of liberty, we've too readily rejected the idea of either an inherent or an imminent collective whose claims could overrule the so-called laws of nature upon which notions of individual liberty are based. If there's a major flaw in Lilla's essay, it's his underestimation of libertarian commitment to these laws and the justifications they provide for intransigent individualism. Having surveyed the field, it's time for thinkers like Lilla to take the offensive, if they dare.

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