Tuesday, November 18, 2008

An attempted response.

Mike poses an important question, and one I've been struggling with lately.  The most depressing feature of the bailout--besides, of course, its existence--was the incredible disconnect between its facts and its normative import.  When we say something is "too big to fail," what do we mean? We mean that the sheer size and force of a company make it indispensable and thereby places it above the normal schema we employ when thinking about questions like this.  Undoubtedly, most said, there should be no handouts; undoubtedly, it is bad policy in terms of moral hazard and really bad policy in terms of blatant disregard for property rights--undoubtedly, we would never do this under normal circumstances.  Unfortunately, these aren't normal circumstances--this company and that company are too big to fail.  I remember the night the bailout passed, there was a Frontlines special on oil companies on PBS, and I remember them talking about this offshore oil platform Exxon had built that cost something like forty billion dollars.  Forty billion! Here's a private company with a single tool that costs forty billion dollars! And I thought, "this company is too big to fail."  I also wondered whether freedom was even possible in a world of companies as big as Exxon.

I teach political theory for a living.  I teach classical liberal theory for a living: Locke, Smith, Hume, Montesquieu, Madison, Tocqueville, Mill--you name it.  I teach this stuff because I think passing these thinkers and their ideas on is vital to the preservation of a free society.  Yet, some days I wonder why we don't just dump this stuff in the trash can and quit pretending it matters.  Locke's theory of property, Tocqueville's ideas about civic freedom, even Madison's ideas about checks and balances and limited government--these seem like a joke today.  Few people read them, fewer people believe them, and even fewer are willing to do anything more than nod to them when things are going well.  We're a nation of Locke-lovers and Founder-worshippers when things are going well, but, oh buddy, when things go wrong! Don't talk to me about the Second Treatise when my 401k is tanking; don't talk to me about limited government when my entitlements are about to be cut. 

Which is why I've always taken a certain pride in being affiliated with groups like Reason and IHS, why I've always taken a real pride in seeing Cato's latest press release--because these guys mean it, and they mean it as much as I do.  In the face of ruin, these organizations stuck to their principles--a set of ideas about property and the extent of government that, despite its unpopularity and despite its hard lessons in liberty, remains the single best framework for organizing society.  I was proud to be a classical liberal, even as I despaired at living in such a world.

This has become rather long-winded. 

If there is one thing for which I fault libertarians more than anything, it is their abandonment of the public sphere.  What is most galling about the abandonment of all things public is that many libertarians wear it as a badge of honor: "I certainly don't engage in politics, because that would be coercive; I don't engage in politics, because they just want my money; I don't engage in politics, because that's where the corruption/sin/evils of the world lie."  The sanctimony in the libertarian rejection of the public sphere is equaled only by its irrationality and unjustified disregard for every single member of the classical liberal canon.

I blame this on two shifts in the liberal tradition: the rise of Ayn Rand in the normative sphere, and the rise of the Austrian school in the economic sphere.  I've read the Rand oeuvre, and it was Rand that brought me to libertarianism in the first place; her work is of tremendous value and that is not in question.  But Rand was a wildly inconsistent philosopher for the simple reason that she mistook her own art for reality (and this, even though her own aesthetic theory should have made it clear to her that she dealt in works like Atlas Shrugged with a world that was nothing more than an idealized version of our own).  The problem with Rand is that freedom looks really, really easy; the good guys win because reality dictates that they must.  This is absurd.  To put this another way: Rand can so unequivocally endorse freedom in her own work because, in the world of Atlas Shrugged and the Fountainhead, fate itself is a libertarian! My beef with the Austrian school is less epistemological: it is, simply, that the Austrian school conflates growth with freedom, a conflation that normally goes unnoticed but which produces a real tension between principled liberals and Austrian utilitarians when the chips are down.  Tyler Cowen, for whom I have immense respect, was consistently for the buyout, and almost always for some bedrock value akin to "happiness," a word utilitarian liberals like to trot out even as they acknowledge its hopeless ambiguity and ultimate meaningless.  Tyler might not even be an Austrian, so maybe I should retract that.

What am I driving at? I'm driving at the fact that, to a man, the classical liberals conceived of liberty as something that could be realized only with some difficulty.  Liberty means responsibility.  It means sticking to your principles--namely, the principles of liberty--even when they are not convenient.  It means this further: that we are willing to embrace liberty in our lifetimes even if we knew, as a matter of fact, that something less than liberty would yield greater economic or utilitarian returns.  Why? From what position can we say that liberty is worth sacrificing well-being, that liberty is actually, really the greatest good and not just an instrumental good?

From the perspective that associates liberty with, to use an unpopular term, manliness.  Perhaps it is better to say that I equate liberty with adulthood.  The classical liberals, to a one, supported this liberty: a manly liberty that stressed above all else independence, individual responsibility, personal restraint, and an unwavering willingness to take care of one's affairs.  This is why liberals can tell overextended "homeowners" that, sorry, no handouts here: because to do otherwise would be to treat them like children.  The sad part is, of course, that they want so, so badly to be treated like children.

Where this all comes back to the question is on the matter of the public sphere.  Managing one's private affairs is a sign of adulthood--that much is clear.  What is just as clear, but has been apparently forgotten by libertarians for some time now--is that taking care of one's public affairs is just as important.  The public sphere is not some necessary evil--it is not some concoction of the simple-minded evil-doers who want a way of coercing the good, industrious, freedom-lovers who just want to be left alone.  This is a myth, and the faster we destroy it, the better.  Nowhere, and I mean nowhere, is the "right to be left alone" invoked, endorsed, or otherwise sanctioned by any classical liberal before the Randian/Austrian revolution in the 20th century.  Perhaps I overstate.  No classical liberal suggests, pace Rousseau, that attention to the public sphere should be required, that's true.  But none of them, not one, produces the fantasy of a perfectly self-regulating public sphere, a fantasy libertarians cling to with reckless disregard.  As soon as you acknowledge that there is such a thing as "public business"--and it is impossible and irresponsible to deny the existence of common problems (at least, such a denial has only emerged in the last seventy years)--then the notion of manly liberty compels everyone, including libertarians, to tend to this public business. 

Thus, my suggestion to libertarians everywhere: run for office.  Write an op-ed.  Tend to the public sphere.  It is your manly duty. 

1 comment:

Mike Griswold said...


I think you are on to the key tension among liberty-loving types.
You assert "liberty is actually, really the greatest good and not just an instrumental good" I think you are saying individual liberty forces one to accept the consequences of ones actions, and the this leads to virtue (or IS virtue). This leads me to believe that the desirability of liberty is axiomatic to this system. Am I right, or does the value of liberty flow from something else? If it is axiomatic, how does one argue with anyone who does not accept that axiom? How does one counter plausible ideas about group responsibility, or the role of chance in outcomes, etc.? I think this is why many are drawn to this idea of happiness, or utility, or fulfillment as the end, because it least most everyone can agree that this is the desired outcome. Once that is agreed upon, it is possible to make arguments both on a theoretical and factual level about why liberty produces the best outcomes in pursuit of happiness, utility, etc. Even in Ayn Rand's world, man is the end, and not liberty. She can then argue that man cannot be man unconflicted without said liberty.

I have huge trouble reconciling these things for myself. Could you suggest some further reading along these lines? It seems especially important when thinking about how to be a positive force in the political sphere--how does one make honest, consistent, moral arguments for liberty which are capable of convincing those who do not hold liberty as the ultimate value? Or, alternatively, must that argument be settled before anything else?