TOWARD A DIALECTICAL LIBERTARIANISM
This extended excerpt from Chris Matthew Sciabarra's Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism is published here for the benefit of the Hayek-L discussion list, by permission of the author and in cooperation with Pennsylvania State University Press. None of the text's extensive footnotes or citations are included here.
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The 2000 Full Context Interview
Euphemisms are inoffensive terms that one may substitute for those that might be considered distasteful. The word is derived from the Greek euphemos, of good sound or omen.
The main title of this book, Total Freedom, may be of good sound to some ears, since it is partially an exercise in euphemism, but it actually signifies a movement "toward a dialectical libertarianism," that is, a movement toward a dialectical approach to libertarian social theory. I am fully aware that both "dialectics" and "libertarianism" have negative connotations within certain usually opposed, intellectual circles. Nevertheless, this book seeks to reclaim radical social theorizing in the name of liberty. It stresses the necessity of context, the "totality" of systemic and dynamic connections among social problems (hence, "total") that beckon toward fundamentally libertarian solutions (hence, "freedom"). In this unity, we might give new meaning to the credo of Marxist social theorist Roy Bhaskar that "dialectic . . . is the pulse of freedom."
Admittedly, there have been many books about dialectics and many books about libertarianism. But there has never been a book that had the intellectual audacity to put these two together. This unity provokes three essential questions: Why dialectics? Why libertarianism? Why dialectical libertarianism? As a brief reply, and as a preface to what follows in these pages, let me say the following:
Dialectics -- because it is the art of context-keeping, the only methodological orientation that compels scholars toward a comprehensive grasp of the many factors at work in a given context. In my use of this word, I am reminded of Ayn Rand's comments, in her introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness: "The title of this book may evoke the kind of question that I hear once in a while: 'Why do you use the word 'selfishness' to denote virtuous qualities of character, when that word antagonizes so many people to whom it does not mean the things you mean?' To those who ask it, my answer is: 'For the reason that makes you afraid of it'." By the conclusion of this book, I hope to have dispelled all fears with regard to the use of "dialectics," for it has a rich, if misunderstood, history.
Libertarianism -- because it deserves to be taken seriously as a legitimate radical political ideology, especially in light of Communism's collapse and the end of the Cold War. After an age characterized by efforts to achieve a total eradication of freedom under statist regimes, it is time to consider a form of radicalism that aspires to go in the opposite direction.
Dialectical libertarianism -- because, in this integration, dialectics is rescued from those who view it as a totalitarian tool, just as libertarianism is rescued from those who view it as an extension of their fragmented, atomized view of reality. In this integration, dialectics is connected inextricably to the notion of freedom, and libertarianism is connected inextricably to the notion of totality. In this integration, freedom and totality mutually imply one another, for just as it is impossible to defend freedom successfully when severed from its broader requisite conditions, so too is it impossible to defend totality successfully when conjoined to illusory notions of finality and completeness, which spell the end of free inquiry.
Paradoxically, then, this vision for "total freedom" is simultaneously critical of the "totalizing" utopian trends in intellectual history and modern politics that have their barbaric political analogue in twentieth-century totalitarianism. But a dialectical approach is just as opposed to the abstract notion of "total freedom" advocated by some libertarians, who have isolated their ideal from the context upon which it depends. Ultimately, this book challenges thinkers of all stripes -- anarchists, statists, and "minarchists" (that is, advocates of limited government), left, right, and center -- to embrace the promise of a dialectical libertarianism.
It is true that this conjunction might be dismissed by some critics as an oxymoron. Indeed, like Georg Lukacs before him, Andrew Collier suggests that there is an identity, a "homology," between "transformational" or dialectical models and socialist politics, and a corresponding "homology" between Newtonian atomism and libertarian politics. Collier recognizes that, like the Left, "certain sections of the political right, sometimes called the 'libertarian right,' . . . claim to be working for human emancipation." However, for Collier, libertarians are too dependent on an atomistic theory of human nature and social structure, which reduces existence to a dualistic choice between "voluntary or compelled relations." He provokes libertarians to "an alternative defence," but proclaims that "it is difficult to imagine what such a defence might be."
This book can be considered a self-contained response to that fundamental challenge, even though it concludes a trilogy of works that began with Marx, Hayek, and Utopia and Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. Through a rereading of intellectual history, the trilogy aims to articulate the intimate relationship between dialectics and the defense of liberty. By examining each tradition and the interconnections between them, it is possible to strengthen both. It is my conviction that libertarians can provide -- and have provided -- far more "dialectical" models of social life than have previously been recognized, and that a productive future for both dialectical method and libertarian social theory is contained in this coupling.
My first two books were designed to introduce the reader to the dialectical sensibilities in the works of two major twentieth-century libertarian theorists: the Nobel-prize winning free-market thinker F. A. Hayek and the philosopher Ayn Rand. Along the way, these works raised important questions about the nature of -- and distinctions between -- utopianism and radicalism.
Marx, Hayek, and Utopia introduced the trilogy through a comparative study of the works of Karl Marx and F. A. Hayek, two theorists often situated in binary opposition to one another. Hayek's thought exhibits a dialectical mode of inquiry, or what I have often called a dialectical "methodological orientation" or "research orientation," which guides his project toward the recognition of context in any understanding of the social totality and its constituted relations. Hayekian dialectics is a bulwark against intellectual and political hubris because it stresses that our studies of -- and actions within -- a social whole must take into account the context of our distinctive vantage points. And since no human being can know everything there is to know about the whole, Hayek argues persuasively that we cannot simply redesign it anew. We are as much the creatures of our context as we are its creators.
Hayek's rejection of utopianism is, then, a repudiation of the "constructivist" rationalism on which it relies. His critique of utopianism is a critique of the utopian's "pretense of knowledge," the attempt to construct a bridge to a future society using the imaginary bricks of an abstract, ahistorical, exaggerated sense of human possibility. While some have rightfully criticized Hayek's "limited" view of reason, I think that, ultimately, he was fighting against rationalistic, "one-sided exaggeration[s]" of the rational faculty and for "reason properly used," as he once claimed.
For Hayek, utopianism is an abstract form of thought that separates its progressive goals from the sociohistorical context on which they genetically depend. Genuine radicalism, by contrast, is a form of unification. It recognizes the organic relationship between goals and context and seeks a resolution that is immanent to the conditions that exist. As such, it is opposed in principle to the deliberate construction of new institutional designs as if these were outside the historical process. It views social institutions as constituted by both human intentionality and unintended social consequences. By underemphasizing these distinctions, utopian resolutions must fail.
Elements of this Hayekian critique were anticipated by Karl Marx. Marx's singular achievement was his application of dialectics to the analysis of society. In Marx's approach, the moment of inquiry, the centrality of factual demonstration, was essential to the dialectical project. Anchoring dialectics to investigations of the real world led Marx to indict the utopian socialists for their static a priori formulations. Their rationalist contrivances were oblivious to the existential conditions necessary for the achievement of human liberation, in Marx's view. Whether one agrees with Marx's substantive theories or not, his emphases on the interconnectedness of human actors in a structured social setting and on the organic unity of theory and practice were crucial to the evolution of dialectics as a tool for understanding -- and changing -- society.
Given the provocative parallels between Marx and Hayek, I concluded that their followers could learn much from their intellectual engagement with one another: Hayekians might be surprised to see in Marx a fellow traveler in the critique of utopianism; Marxists might be shocked to find in Hayek a profound dialectical sensibility.
Despite this commonality, Hayek and Marx part company in their assessments of the future. Although Hayek's approach has its inherent problems, his work provides an effective indictment of Marxism, not only as a statist political ideology, but also as a theoretical project. Marx recognized what I have called the "epistemic strictures" -- or limitations on human knowledge -- that utopians face. But he historicized these limitations, suggesting that history itself would resolve the problem of human ignorance. This Marxian vision of communism has two essential flaws:
(1) It presumes god-like planning and control, and a mastery of the many sophisticated nuances, tacit practices, and unintended consequences of social action. But no human being and no group of human beings can possibly triumph over these spontaneous factors; they are partially constitutive of what we mean by "sociality." Those who attempt to build a road from earth to heaven are more likely to wind up in hell.
(2) It presumes a total grasp of history. Everything that is has a past and contains within it the seeds of many possible futures. While Marxists are correct to acknowledge that studying what is must necessarily entail an understanding of how it came to be, they often attempt to study the present as if from an imagined future. When Marxists suggest that history itself can lead to a triumph over human ignorance, they actually imply privileged access to total knowledge of future social conditions. This is not merely illegitimate; it is inherently utopian and profoundly undialectical insofar as it is unbounded by the context that exists.
It is this kind of totalism that a dialectical method repudiates. At root, the desire for such omniscience is a distortion of the genuinely human need for efficacy. It is based on what Hayek calls a "synoptic delusion," a belief that one can live in a world in which every action produces consistent and predictable outcomes. Such a quest for total knowledge is equally a quest for totalitarian control. To the extent that Marxism has been a beacon for those trying to actualize such an impossibility, it has fueled a reactionary, rather than a progressive, social agenda -- the aggrandizement of the state, the oppression of individual rights, and the fragmentation of groups in pursuit of political power.
Certain intellectuals of a "New Left," such as Jurgen Habermas and Hilary Wainwright, have expressed awareness of the epistemological problems faced by Marxism, even though their own proposed resolutions have been ineffective. Taking his cue from Paul Berman, Alan Ryan notes, however, "the degree to which the libertarian, or Hayekian, defense of free markets, laissez-faire, and much-reduced government intervention appealed to the same distrust of centralized authority and bureaucratic regulation that the 1968 left had expressed."
I have been an eyewitness to the provocative convergence of libertarian and socialist political activism, especially on the issue of world peace. During the 1960s and 70s, for different reasons, libertarians and socialists burned their draft cards in protest against the war in Vietnam and the alleged garrison state it nourished. Nevertheless, socialists remained perplexed by libertarians and their apparent eclecticism. The libertarians were against what they characterized as "militarism," and for the "free market." They were against state regulation of the economy, while showing a similarly principled defense of people's rights to all consensual social activities and relationships, including prostitution, gambling, drug use, and homosexuality. The libertarians seemed to be "liberal" on some issues and "conservative" on others.
In the late twentieth century, with the rise of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and their powerfully enunciated free-market positions, libertarian ideas gained popularity with think tanks and Nobel committees alike. As a result, in the United States, the Cato Institute, the Institute for Humane Studies, the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and the Reason Foundation, among others, have become important to scholarly and public-policy debates. Several economists with libertarian views were awarded the Nobel Prize, including Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James Buchanan. The Harvard philosopher, Robert Nozick, won the 1975 National Book Award for his philosophical explorations in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, and books by Charles Murray, David Boaz, and Richard A. Epstein have further extended the discussion of libertarian ideas. And the impact of Ayn Rand continues to grow. Many of her original followers were, in fact, instrumental in the formation of a Libertarian Party in the United States, which, by 1980, had appeared on the presidential ballots of all fifty states -- even if its electoral success has been less than impressive. Yet, as Pinkerton tells us: "[W]ith the economic left in full retreat and the essentialist left mired in the trap of identity politics, with California and Arizona voting to legalize 'medicinal' marijuana, with the Internet functioning already as a government-free zone, with politicians routinely portrayed in the popular culture as fools, the moment would seem ripe for a popularizer to cobble disparate planks like these into a politically attractive platform of upward mobility for all."
Such trends are significant because they fundamentally affect the ways in which we think about politics. Given the fact that tomorrow's respectable "mainstream" often derives from yesterday's "extremists," I believe that libertarianism is an intellectual force to be reckoned with; its demands for a nonstatist, nonmilitarist, noncoercive polity have gradually shifted the locus of public debate. And to Western, especially American, culture, which has long celebrated market institutions, the libertarian's progressive agenda, with its reliance on voluntarist principles, remains an appealing radical alternative to socialism.
But libertarianism is not without its critics. While G. A. Cohen pontificates over the meaning for Marxists of Nozick's "self-ownership" theories, Brian Barry argues that not even Nozick takes his earlier work seriously anymore, and that "most of the remaining believers are holed up in the backwoods of Montana or Idaho surrounded by large caches of heavy weapons. I regard this as evidence for the contention that you have to be crazy to believe it."
Recalling the Social Darwinism of yesteryear, Menand suggests that "Libertarianism . . . is a philosophy for winners, for the same reason that 'Born Free' is a song about lions, not about the animals they prey upon." Michael Kinsley concurs that "Libertarians . . . go wrong . . . in suggesting that most other people would find [their ideal society] . . . a nicer place to live." Ultimately, most critics wonder if libertarianism is possible given existing social conditions. Is it merely one more example of the utopianism against which Hayek himself has warned? Is "[t]he intellectual leap from utopian socialism to utopian capitalism . . . not so very great," as Ryan suggests?
I have heard all these criticisms since my student years at New York University. My mentor and thesis advisor, the Marxist Bertell Ollman, had had many interactions with libertarians in the antiwar movement of the 1960s. He and the anarcho-capitalist, Murray Newton Rothbard, were comrades in the Peace and Freedom Party. Ollman, however, was fond of saying that libertarians, progressive though some of their ideas might be, were anachronistic -- or worse, irrelevant -- in their prescriptions for social change. In a 1981 debate with libertarian theorist Don Lavoie, he opined: "Libertarians are a little bit like people who go into a Chinese restaurant and order pizza." The issue here is: What's on the menu, given objective conditions and constraints? There may be lots to choose from, and wildly different alternative meals that one can potentially order in a Chinese restaurant, "but pizza isn't one of them." For Ollman, libertarians advocate a quasi-anarchistic system that is simply not within the realm of existing possibilities, for it abstracts from history and from current material and class conditions. "Society provides the necessary conditions for intentional human activity," Bhaskar argues similarly, and this "essentially Aristotelian" model stipulates that people can only fashion "a product out of the material and with the tools available to [them]." For Marxists, libertarians lack the tools because their vision harks back to the nineteenth-century Gilded Age and its laissez-faire illusion.
This criticism is ironic since the leftist vision itself harks back to twentieth-century technocracy and its illusions of social control. My own perspective, informed partially by Hayek, recognizes a double-edged sword, a need to cut both ways in our attempts to bleed the socialist Left and the libertarian Right of their utopian elements -- "the end of history" or the "state of nature," respectively. A politics for the "end of time" and a politics for the "beginning of time" are equally utopian. Whereas I have previously focused on the fatal utopianism of the Left, much of the substance of Part Two of the current work criticizes the utopian elements within libertarian thought, best exemplified in the works of Rothbard.
In many ways, my work has an autobiographical component; it is a self-conscious effort to grapple with my prime intellectual influences -- Rothbard, Rand, and Hayek among them. I have sought to explain their ideas through a critical "hermeneutic" that addresses shifting contexts of scholarship -- what Hayek has called "given climates of opinion." Through this engagement, I have derived theoretical implications that no one -- not the individual authors, or the authors' followers, or the authors' critics -- could have possibly foreseen.
It was in this spirit that I approached the second part of my trilogy, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. While the debate surrounding this book is beyond the scope of the current work, it helped to elucidate some of the central themes in Marx, Hayek, and Utopia. Rand's integration of a profound dialectical sensibility with a realist-egoist-individualist-libertarian theoretical content provided an answer to one of the foremost questions raised by my earlier book: To what extent do the strictures on human knowledge preclude rational, efficacious, social action? Rand recognized the context-sensitivity of human existence and knowledge. She argued that people living under concrete historical conditions could achieve efficacy in their own lives by shifting toward a greater articulation of their tacit or implicit social practices. For Rand, philosophy was the vehicle of such articulation. But Rand's recourse to philosophy was not a one-sided, "monistic" emphasis. She was a rich and subtle thinker even if her theatrical rhetoric was anything but subtle.
My study of Rand's thought uncovered an important dialectical dimension in the works of a key libertarian social thinker. This, in turn, prompted many of my critics to question the value of characterizing any thinker on the libertarian right as "dialectical." After all, if Rand and other libertarians had rejected Soviet "dialectics," then they could not be dialectical thinkers. But Rand and her libertarian contemporaries mistakenly equated "dialectics" and "dialectical materialism" (diamat), with its Hegelian and Marxian overtones. Diamat is an undialectical historicist ideology. In fact, Rand had never repudiated formal dialectical methodology. Her use of that mode of inquiry is on display throughout her whole system of thought.
In the face of such criticism, however, I knew that if I were to defend the very notion of a "dialectical libertarianism," it would be incumbent upon me to examine not just the synthesis, but also each concept taken separately.
Total Freedom operates as a triad, in which two allegedly opposed projects are brought into relations with one another. Part One centers on the dialectical component, while Part Two centers on the libertarian component. It might seem that the parts are dangerously close to being two separate works. Indeed, for those who are intensely interested in the libertarian project, Part One might seem a bit strange. All this talk about the totality, but what about freedom? It is impossible to grasp the complex nature of freedom, however, without first possessing the tools by which to understand it from many different vantage points. Likewise, for those who are interested in the dialectical project, Part Two might seem a bit strange. All this talk about freedom, but what about the totality? Ultimately, however, I ask the reader's patience, for the book points toward an integration that champions the movement within libertarian social theory toward multidimensional dialectical models of understanding.
Part One examines the history and meaning of dialectics through a dialectical strategy: The very meaning of the concept is open-ended. It can be grasped only by a consideration of the dynamic and systemic contexts within which it has been embedded. We need both to trace its incarnations historically and to place it in a broader system of classification.
Dialectics is a thinking style that emphasizes contextual analysis of systems across time. As a methodological tool, it has been used in the analysis of systems of argumentation, linguistics, ethics, philosophy, culture, history, psychology, political economy, social theory, social practice, and so forth. Given its broad application, it is impossible to survey, in the current work, the entire history of dialectics or its subtle appearance in the works of every thinker, from the classicists to the postmodernists. Because it has been so widely used by so many thinkers in so many disciplines from so many different traditions, it would require several encyclopedic volumes adequately to discuss its significance.
Short of this requirement, I had to define a context that would enable me ruthlessly to streamline the discussion. Context is no less important to the theory of dialectics than it is to the exposition of the method itself. Since every study requires a delimited focus, my choices -- of commission or omission -- should not be interpreted as an endorsement or an indictment of any thinker's works. My overall aim is to situate historically the dialectical modes on display within classical liberalism and libertarianism, and to connect these modes to the larger tradition of dialectics. In the process, I seek to capture the essence of many key dialectical approaches throughout intellectual history, something that has, to my knowledge, not been done to this extent in any other work.
Thus, the historical segment explores dialectics from its earliest beginnings in antiquity through its manifestations among people in the classical liberal tradition, including Herbert Spencer, the great British sociologist, and Carl Menger, the father of the Austrian school of economics, who was a prime contributor to the marginalist revolution in political economy. By weaving together original and secondary literature into a coherent whole, we emerge with a fuller understanding of the shifting contexts within which the concept of dialectics has evolved. I argue that dialectics is not a peculiarly Hegelian or Marxian legacy; it is, in its origins, deeply Aristotelian, and it is the birthright of anyone who seeks a more realistic understanding of society than that offered by arid, one-dimensional, ahistorical models of human behavior.
The focus of the historical survey is not textual exegesis but an appreciation of the various contributions from the dialectical perspective defined and defended in Chapter 4. In that chapter, I define the general form of dialectical inquiry as a methodological orientation, quite apart from its solely dialogical uses in philosophical argumentation. In an age of context-dropping and static modeling, dialectics brings the study of structure and history, of systems and processes, to center stage. It provides theorists with analytical tools that give priority to the study of systemic connections and their dynamic evolution. And since process is so crucial to this project, dialectical theorists are as interested in the future as they are in the past and the present. Such an orientation predisposes one to appreciate the reciprocal linkages between theory and practice -- intertemporally, in the past, in the present, in the future. How we engaged and interpreted the world in the past has had implications for what exists today. What exists has implications for our interpretation of past theories and practices. And how we theorize about our current predicament will have consequences for the theories and practices we adopt tomorrow.
In Part Two, I turn to an examination of libertarianism at the crossroads. Through a case study of the works of one of its chief exponents, Murray Rothbard, I attempt to separate the radical (and dialectical) wheat from the utopian (and undialectical) chaff in contemporary libertarianism. While I examine the ideas of many libertarian thinkers throughout the book, including Buchanan, Mises, and Nozick, it is Rothbard's wide-ranging system that provides the most significant and explicitly anarcho-libertarian analytical model yet devised, with all its peaks and pitfalls. It demands critical engagement on this basis alone.
Since his death in 1995, there has been growing interest in this underappreciated intellectual. His mammoth two-volume history of economic thought from an Austrian perspective and a two-volume collection of his essays in political economy have been published to much fanfare and critical commentary. As Boaz proclaims, Rothbard played a profound "role in building both a theoretical structure for modern libertarian thought and a political movement devoted to those ideas. . . . Libertarians compared him to both Marx, the builder of an integrated political-economic theory, and Lenin, the indefatigable organizer of a radical movement."
I had the privilege of knowing Murray Rothbard. He had the strongest personal impact on my libertarian education. He gave me indispensable advice and intellectual guidance for my undergraduate history honors thesis on the Pullman strike, and he provided me with many hours of pure joy in theoretical discussion. It was under his influence that I went through a bona fide "anarchist" phase. To this day, I continue to struggle with many of the issues raised by my involvement with Rothbardian anarchism, as will become clear.
The study of Rothbard's works serves as one means for a broader exploration of libertarian ideas. Rothbard's defense of market institutions was no mere reactionary apologia for the status quo. He echoed Marx's desire for a stateless, classless, non-exploitative society -- despite an essential distinction in the definition of such -- and employed a kind of inverse Marxism as the means for achieving it. Whereas Marxists view the political absorption of the market as the first step toward the "withering away of the state" and the triumph of human freedom, Rothbard views the market's absorption of the state's legal and judicial functions as the first step toward a stateless, fully voluntary society that transcends "coercion" as a social relation.
I argue that Rothbard's work was guided predominantly by dualistic and monistic assumptions, quite typical of many libertarians. Rothbard posits an external relation between politics and economics, an antagonistic dualism that he resolves monistically through a utopian construction. This dualism extends to his conception of personal ethics and political morality, libertarian ethos and cultural dynamics, "voluntarism" and "coercion," "market" and "state." Sensing these dichotomous tensions, perhaps, Rothbard, near the end of his life, moved toward a greater dialectical sensibility. Much of this movement, however, was fueled by a problematic cultural conservatism.
My goal in Part Two is not to judge the substantive validity of Rothbard's work or to evaluate his various definitions of the state, the market, civil society, classes, and so forth. Rather, I aim to examine Rothbard through the lens of methodology. Despite conflicting methodological orientations within his corpus, it is my conviction that Rothbard exhibited crucial dialectical tendencies, especially in his grasp of economic cycles and class dynamics. He provided a theory of structural crisis that was simultaneously historical, political, economic, and sociological, while developing the foundations of a non-Marxist theory of class. These tendencies cannot be ignored, for they have inspired a later generation of thinkers who are on the cutting edge of libertarian scholarship. Such scholars, armed with a multidimensional, integrated approach, are moving libertarianism into the pantheon of radical social theory.
Though I am the first writer to identify these tendencies as explicitly dialectical, I am not, by any means, the first or the only libertarian theorist to use a dialectical approach. Chapter 9 briefly surveys the growing dialectical trend among such libertarian thinkers as Peter Boettke, Douglas Den Uyl, Don Lavoie, Douglas Rasmussen, Mario Rizzo, and many others. I have merely put a label on it; but in so doing, I am wresting dialectics from its exclusive contemporary association with the Left. I do not pretend, however, that any of the aforementioned thinkers so characterized would self-identify with this label.
I want to be clear about my own political commitments here: None of the books in this trilogy has attempted to validate libertarianism in any of its manifestations. Yet, I operate on the substantive premise that libertarianism as a social theory, broadly understood, is valuable -- that it offers a valid perspective on the nature of the crisis in modern society and that voluntary social relations, with all their preconditions and effects, are morally and consequentially preferable to the status quo and to statism in all its varieties.
This does not mean that libertarian theorists have always presented the best formulations or arguments in support of their principles. In many cases, they have not provided fully convincing explanations of -- or persuasive alternatives to -- the social conditions that exist. Moreover, much empirical and historical work needs to be done in order to "test" the validity of accepted libertarian theories. Jeffrey Friedman has characterized this "post-libertarian" work as essential, if viability and truth in social science is our goal. It is also the case that one can find conflicting, and sometimes inadequate, formulations in the works of Hayek, Mises, Nozick, Rand, Rothbard, and other libertarians. For the most part, I sidestep these controversies, not because the conflicts are uninteresting, but because of my belief that a fully developed dialectical orientation is a crucial component in the resolution of such conflicts.
I offer in these pages, not a full blown social theory, but a metatheoretical foundation upon which to build such a theory. I offer a means of structuring the basic outlook of social inquiry, rather than a sustained argument for liberty. If my book seems to end short of a solution, this is deliberate. By radically reconstructing libertarianism on a dialectical foundation, without offering new substantive arguments in support of libertarianism, this book will frustrate those readers searching for more. That is all well and good. My goal is to challenge the reader to think differently, to think dialectically; only then can we begin to engage anew the complex substantive arguments about the validity and desirability of freedom.
Dialectics might help us to escape the quagmires that exist in libertarian thought. It demands of libertarian social theorists an examination of problems on different levels of generality, from different vantage points, and by a systemic and dynamic extension of their analytical units. The ideal of human freedom that might result will be one informed by a contextual emphasis on those principles and institutions necessary for its achievement and sustenance. Ultimately, I aim to move the libertarian research program toward a "sociological" analysis that is not socialist, a focus on "totality" that is not totalitarian. It is said that we must go out on a limb, if we are to get to the fruit of the tree. This book, together with the others in the trilogy it completes, pushes the radical project out on a dialectical-libertarian limb. The fruits need not be forbidden.
* * *
After Sciabarra's Introduction, Part One surveys the history of dialectical thought before turning to a formal definition and defense of dialectical method. Chapter One examines Aristotle's contribution as the "fountainhead" of dialectics; chapter two focuses on the period from Aristotle to Hegel, and chapter three focuses on the post-Hegelian period. Toward the end of that chapter, Sciabarra discusses Menger, Mises, and Hayek, among others.
* * *
... Within this historical context, Menger emerged to embrace many of the same Aristotelian essentialist and teleological themes that Hegel himself celebrated. Menger was a hero of liberal capitalism. Along with W. S. Jevons and Leon Walras, Menger is credited as a founder of the marginalist revolution in economics. But unlike Jevons and Walras, whose expositions were steeped in mathematical modeling, Menger presented a more qualitatively focused discussion. He repudiated the classical labor theory of value and saw valuation as the product of a relationship between an individual's needs and preferences and an objective reality.
Menger may not have come out of the Hegelian tradition explicitly, but his world operates through many of the same mechanisms. "Hegel's world is ultimately one of spirit," says Alter, "while Menger's world is literally much more down to earth. . . . But the driving force in Menger's world is the same entelechial process as in Hegel's." For Alter, there is a "stunning" likeness between them. Both grasp social life as an organic totality, teeming with living institutions and processes, such as language, religion, law, the state, markets, competition, and money. Both see this totality as a result of "natural" and spontaneous forces that generate "unintended consequences" from intentional human actions.
The parallels between Marx and Menger are even more pronounced. Alter goes so far as to characterize these thinkers as intellectual relatives, for "when we compare the conceptual apparatus of Marx with that of Menger we can easily see that Menger is much closer to Marx than any other bourgeois economist. The kinship between the two is, indeed, so strong that one could easily talk about Marx and Menger as distant cousins." Menger's methodological techniques parallel Marx's, insofar as they deepen understanding through a hermeneutic spiral: returning to the object of one's study from different vantage points and on different levels of generality. This assessment is not unique to Alter: Smith has emphasized that "Marx and Menger share an Aristotelian antipathy to atomism," and O'Driscoll and Rizzo recognize that "Marx's conception of social science was, of course, similar to Menger's."
In his works, Menger showed great familiarity with Aristotle, Plato, Mill, Descartes, Kant, Fichte, and Hegel. He charted a dialectical course between the extremes of strict atomism and strict organicism. His "methodological individualism," as it became known, viewed "individuals not as isolated, independent atoms, but as nodes in different sorts of complex cross-leaved relational systems. Society and its institutions (including the market) are not merely additive structures; they share some of the qualities of organisms."
This methodological individualism, using a "compositive" method, sought to penetrate the complexity of organic wholes, not as aggregates of unrelated parts, but as "structurally connected" totalities, with "interdependent elements." At no point can Menger be characterized as a reductionist. The essence of his "individualism" can be found in his Aristotelian conviction that "what is general does not exist in isolation from what is individual."
Like Hegel, Menger reveres Aristotle as "a splendid speculative thinker [and] . . . an indefatigable observer." And following in Aristotle's footsteps, Menger begins with "organic social theory" or "the organic understanding of social phenomena." But he "refuses to accept the unqualifiedly 'conservative' conclusions that emerge from the argument of some organic theorists." He offers a genuinely organic perspective that is fully liberal in its political implications.
One of Menger's most significant contributions to our understanding of methodology is his identification of methodological orientations -- or, as he calls them, "orientations of research." This genus has inspired the development of my own taxonomy, presented in Chapter 4, even though my categories differ somewhat from Menger's. Such orientations have as their "object the determination of the types and the typical relationships of the phenomena" we study. There are two main orientations in Menger's view: the individual and the general, the former centered on the analysis of individual components as they appear in concrete historical circumstances, the latter centered on a theoretical appreciation of the general principles entailed. Menger suggests additional categories, including the exact and the realistic-empirical orientations.
Just as Menger seeks to unite theory and history, so too does he seek to unite "atomistic" and "organic" frameworks of analysis. It is instructive that Menger often places quotation marks around these terms, to highlight their misuse by the German Historicists. The Historicists often condemned economics as "atomistic," renouncing all its theoretical explanations. But this rejection of theory endangered the very possibility of social science. Similarly, their application of the term "organic" is almost always collectivistic and, therefore, "conservative," in Menger's view. It might be said that Menger's subversive usage of both terms is an instance of the hermeneutical "negotiation" of meaning, in which the terms themselves are placed in an entirely different context and given a new theoretical legitimacy.
Throughout his corpus, Menger revolts against what he calls "one-sidedness." It is "gross one-sidedness," he says, to stress any methodological orientation to the exclusion of another. Like Aristotle, Menger objects to the universal application of a single orientation, for the nature of the subject matter will help us to determine the research models that are most appropriate to our investigation. He recognizes interconnections between economic, social, and political dimensions and warns against "the most extreme one-sidedness" of trying "to explain and make us understand a complicated phenomenon of the life of nations or indeed a set of such phenomena merely by one single propensity of human effort or even exclusively by one single factor in the shaping of history." He opposes the monistic reductionists "who undertake to construct the historical facts from one-sided propensities."
Menger's critique reached its zenith in the Methodenstreit, a grand struggle against the German Historicists whose historical relativism, he suggests, was "a one-sided monstrosity." But Menger's opposition to partiality extends to "one-sided rationalistic liberalism" as well, which he thought apparent in the works of Adam Smith. In such rationalism, there is an "impetuous effort to do away with what exists, with what is not always sufficiently understood . . ." Predating Hayek and Popper, Menger fears the intellectual hubris of those who would attempt "to create something new in the realm of political institutions -- often enough without sufficient knowledge and experience." Still, this is no rejection of social change. For Menger, we must steer between a liberal Scylla and a conservative Charybdis. If the rationalist liberals aim for an unreachable utopia, the conservatives applaud "organically developed" institutions as if they were "unassailable," a product of a "higher wisdom in human affairs" that is always better, as if by definition, than any "intended ordering of social conditions." Implicit in Menger's approach is a radical-liberal alternative that transcends "the one-sidedness and shortcomings" of either school. As we will soon see, it is a paradigm that continues to inform today's libertarianism.
For Menger, science demands that we shift our levels of analytical generality so as to expand our "understanding of a specific side of the real world." He proposes to examine the social totality along theoretical and historical lines, stressing the interconnections of the parts within a system and their evolution over time. His approach is considered "causal-genetic" insofar as it searches for the dynamic origins of real-world processes. He relies heavily on the organic metaphor:
The normal function of organisms is conditioned by the functions of their parts (organs), and these in turn are conditioned by the combination of the parts to form a higher unit, or by the normal function of the other organs. . . . Organisms exhibit a purposefulness of their parts in respect to the function of the whole unit, a purposefulness which is not the result of human calculation, however. . . . There exists a certain similarity between natural organisms and a series of structures of social life, both in respect to their function and to their origin.
Even in his use of organic analogies, Menger does not lose sight of the importance of purposefulness in human life. Through the purposeful action of real individual human actors in a social setting, institutions emerge. The "admirable functionality of all parts with respect to the whole . . . is not, however, the result of human calculation," writes Menger, "but of a natural process." Such institutions are not the realization of legislative intentions; they evolve spontaneously as the "unintended results of historical development." This is not to deny the fact that designed changes can be implemented. But Menger sees such constructed change as an instance of mechanistic, rather than organic, principles. This tie between conscious planning and mechanism is important; it was fully explicated by later Austrians, including Mises and Hayek.
In praising the "organic orientation of social research," Menger seeks an integration of micro- and macro-approaches. The former, disparagingly called "atomistic," can never "deny the unity of organisms." Menger aims to investigate the complex origins and functions of "real unities." His micro-level analysis is not opposed to the organic orientation; it is opposed to "collectivism," which fails to grasp "human social unions" and seeks explanation in a reified "common will." Menger's dialectical approach mirrors the Aristotelian-Hegelian synthesis that one finds in the Marxist tradition, a synthesis that grasps "the reciprocal conditioning of the whole and its normal functions and the parts, and vice versa. As a natural result of this fact we are met with a special orientation of social research which has the task of making us aware of this reciprocal conditioning of social phenomena."
In Menger's view, such a dialectical research orientation must highlight and explain the "mutual causation" in social phenomena. Moreover, this reciprocal conditioning is never a static functionalism, but a fully dynamic evolutionism, what Vaughn calls, appropriately, the "primacy of process." "A process of change," Menger explains, "involves a beginning and a becoming, and these are only conceivable as processes in time. Hence it is certain that we can never fully understand the causal interconnections of the various occurrences in a process, or the process itself, unless we view it in time and apply the measure of time to it." This intertemporal element became one of the most important cornerstones of Austrian theory in the twentieth century, as developed in contradistinction to the mechanistic and static models of neoclassical economics.
The Mengerian marginalist revolution was carried on in the twentieth century by the Austrian economists, Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek. Far beyond their achievements in economics -- in the debate over economic calculation in a socialist society, and in monetary, banking, and business cycle theory, especially -- these thinkers worked toward a full-fledged, integrated, dialectical case for individual liberty. This is not to say that Mises and Hayek are always dialectical, or that they are self-consciously so. However, along with Ayn Rand, they constitute the ascendancy of a veritable dialectical tradition in libertarian thought. . . .
. . . Mises was an organic thinker who fought gallantly against scientism, mechanism, positivism, and historicism. He recognized that "economics necessarily must be a complete and united whole," and that when one attempts to abstract any part, "one must do so on the foundation of a theory that comprises all the problems." These problems could not be grasped by the "beautiful equations and curves" of the mathematical economists, Mises argued. These mathematical figures assumed a static equilibrium unrelated to the real world. This same erroneous assumption of "the stationary condition" permeated "socialist theories and Utopias." For Mises, economics studies "motion," dynamic process, a system of interrelationships across time. Within this system, "the notions of a whole and its parts are correlative."
Mises' portrait of the price system as thoroughly organic is consonant with his Mengerian roots. In his descriptions of the dynamic changes among prices in an interrelated system, he adopts a kaleidoscopic metaphor similar to that found in complexity and chaos theory. Viewing the pricing process as a "whole in which all gears work on one another," Mises explains that market factors are
a concatenation of mutually interdependent phenomena. It would be absurd to look upon a definite price as if it were an isolated object in itself. A price is expressive of the position which acting men attach to a thing under the present state of their efforts to remove uneasiness. It does not indicate a relationship to something unchanging, but merely the instantaneous position in a kaleidoscopically changing assemblage. In this collection of things considered valuable by the value judgments of acting men, each particle's place is interrelated with those of all other particles. What is called a price is always a relationship within an integrated system which is the composite effect of human relations.
Like Menger, Mises does not fetishize market institutions as reified things; he views them as organic relational structures constituted by human actors. Indeed, like Menger before him, and Hegel before Menger, Mises views society itself as an organism of sorts, not an organization. Hegel derides as immature those who think mechanically. Mises tells us similarly that "[t]he primitive thinker always sees things as having been organized from outside, never as having grown themselves, organically." The organism is "natural," and it is as different from the mechanisms of organization "as life is from a machine, as a flower which is natural from one which is artificial." Expanding on a verse from the gospel of Hegel, Mises tells us that "[i]n the natural plant each cell lives its own life for itself while functioning reciprocally with the others. . . . In the artificial plant the separate parts are members of the whole only so far as the will of he who united them, has been effective." Whereas "mutuality" is the modus operandi of the organism, "authority" defines the organization.
This emphasis on the organic whole in Mises never translates into any notion of organic collectivism or synoptic totalism. In Mises, the use of organic categories is always coupled with a commitment to methodological individualism. His individualism, like Menger's, is not atomistic, for "man is a social being. . . . Man is inconceivable as an isolated being, for humanity exists only as a social phenomenon . . ." Structural processes are rooted in the organic relations among fully social, purposeful individuals, who think, value, and act. Methodological individualism, Mises proclaims, focuses on the "becoming" and the "disappearing" of wholes, "their changing structures, and their operation." These are not, and can never be, disembodied wholes. Mises would have agreed with Sartre, who suggested, in his defense of Marxism, that "there are only men and real relations between men."
Mises' opposition to the reification of the collective is coupled with a rejection of metaphysical monism and dualism. This requires some explanation, for Mises was also a proponent of what he called "methodological dualism." In actuality, Mises tired of the "interminable" metaphysical disputes among monists, dualists, and pluralists. These doctrines are "devoid of any scientific foundation," says Mises, given our current context of knowledge. Until we know more, the nature of the ultimate constituents of reality remains an open question. Mises' own adaptation of a "dualism" between the natural and the human sciences is simply an application of the Aristotelian insight that different objects require different analytical techniques. The nature of an object will dictate the scientific approach that we use to study it. Mises' own version of "dualism" is entirely free of "any proposition concerning essences and metaphysical constructs." Since he remains uncertain about how external stimuli affect human existence, he remains opposed to any "unified science." For Mises, all forms of a priori reductionism, including "materialist monism," must be repudiated. Because human beings are purposeful thinking and acting creatures, they cannot be treated as inanimate objects. The study of human beings involves less controlled experimentation than one would find in the study of inanimate objects. But the human sciences benefit from our greater personal knowledge of social facts. As Boettke states: "We have access to information as social scientists because we are what we study."
Given this distinction between the natural and human sciences, Mises entertains no such dualisms within the human sciences, especially between the theoretical and the historical dimensions. Lavoie observes that, for Mises, "theory and history are . . . two inescapable aspects of what is ultimately one integrated intellectual endeavor." Theory allows us to understand history, just as history informs the directions of our theoretical formulations; "insufficient attention paid to one or the absence of either produces unsatisfactory results." Mises aimed to create an integrated science of human action. It was a model that would have a profound impact on one of his premier students, Murray Rothbard, whose work is the focus of Part Two.
While the Misesian model differs somewhat from the Hayekian one, both carry on significant aspects of the Mengerian tradition. F. A. Hayek, the Nobel laureate economist, commends Menger for offering the "best discussion" of the organic "process of social growth" and for providing outstanding guidelines in "general sociology." He credits Menger for reigniting evolutionism in social theory, extending a tradition of "Darwinians before Darwin" that began with the Scottish Enlightenment, Edmund Burke, and the continental historical schools of Herder and Savigny.
The impact of Scottish sociology on Hayek must be appreciated, for this same Scottish Historical school of Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, William Robertson, David Hume, and John Millar, profoundly influenced Karl Marx. As Boettke observes, Smith and his contemporaries understood that "history matters," and that spontaneous social processes can only generate order "within the confines of a very specific institutional configuration." But even that institutional context evolved and matured over time. These thinkers pioneered a broad theoretical synthesis that integrated history, political economy, and moral philosophy -- as did Marx. Hayek absorbed from this school a belief in the efficacy of organic institutions that are the result of human action, but not of deliberate human design. In contrast to the French rationalists, the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment recognized the authoritarian impulses that guided those who sought to construct a system down to its last detail, as if they could control for the vast unintended consequences of their actions. Smith derided the constructivistic "man of system," who
is apt to be very wise in his own conceit, and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it: he seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board; he does not consider that the pieces upon the chess board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it.
Hayek likened Smith's "invisible hand" to his own concept of spontaneous order. Both concepts are similar to, though less metaphysical than, Hegel's notion of the "Cunning of Reason." In Hegel's view, individuals become the unconscious agents of an Absolute Spirit, by which they are led to rational end states unrelated to their intentions. In Smith and Hayek, the process is not teleological; it is simply an outgrowth of social practices. Hayek celebrated the spontaneous order, while repudiating the epistemic arrogance of utopian attempts to change this order. The science of economics arose out "of the investigation and refutation of successive Utopian proposals -- if by 'Utopian' we mean proposals for the improvement of undesirable effects of the existing system, based upon a complete disregard of those forces which actually enabled it to work."
Hayek's critique of utopianism reveals the essentials of a dialectical methodological orientation. He objects to strict organicism and the "synoptic delusion" that casts its spell on the utopian mind. He disputes those totalists who argue that society can only be studied "as a whole" from a synoptic vantage point. On the one hand, it is impossible to grasp "all aspects of society," which is why "specialisation . . . in the social sciences" proceeds apace. On the other hand, such "specialisation" is useless when it is disconnected from the "whole field" of social science, history, and philosophy. Knowing only economics, for example, is not a value, says Hayek; "good, perhaps, for writing articles for other economists to read, but for nothing else."
The obvious point is that we are not omniscient. But just because we can't know everything does not mean that we can't analyze anything. We may not have developed "the art of simultaneous thinking," but we can grasp the facts of the real world through a process of abstraction. "We never act, and could never act, in full consideration of all the facts of a particular situation," Hayek writes, "but always by singling out as relevant only some aspects of it." It is for this reason that the "totality," as such, eludes our understanding. It can be comprehended only through "certain selected aspects" identified by successive shifts in our perspective. An organic unity resides in the whole, Hayek suggests, but the whole is not an aggregation of "single observable things." It consists of "structures of relationships" understood through the lens of theory. These structures are "persistent" and lend themselves to an organic analogy. In the same vein as Menger, Hayek explains: "As in the biological organisms we often observe in spontaneous social formations that the parts move as if their purpose were the preservation of the wholes. . . . In the social sphere these spontaneous movements which preserve a certain structural connection between the parts are, moreover, connected in a special way with our individual purposes."
In recognizing the analytical integrity of structured totalities, Hayek defends what Madison calls "the hermeneutical priority of the 'social'." Hayek borrows from Menger's "compositive" individualism and its preoccupation with the structural complexity of interdependent elements; he eschews atomist, mechanist, empiricist, and positivist decompositions of the whole into "simple parts." For Hayek, Madison explains, it is nonsensical to speak of "which is prior -- the individual or society?" In grasping their reciprocal simultaneity, Hayek adopts a "fruitful" and "properly dialectical approach." And through a "dialectical interchange," our understanding of the meaning of the whole and its parts is modified and deepened.
Hayek's approach contrasts starkly with the utopian mind-set and its reliance on constructivist rationalism. The errors of the constructivist, Hayek maintains, "are closely connected with Cartesian dualism, that is with the conception of an independently existing mind substance which stands outside the cosmos of nature and which enabled man, endowed with such a mind from the beginning, to design the institutions of society and culture among which he lives." It is important to emphasize this link between constructivism and dualism. Hayek gives substance to Rescher's belief that "an anti-Cartesian animus" is at the core of a dialectical approach. Constructivists see order as something that can only be created "exogenously" from a position "outside the system." They have no conception of an "endogenous" process, in which the internal relationships among complex factors create equilibrating tendencies, even if the dynamics never cease.
Hayek is not oblivious to the inspiring role of utopian ideology. But no advance toward progressive goals is possible from without. It requires a process of "immanent criticism." The technique of criticizing a system from within -- recognizing that we are always a part of the context we seek to alter -- is a cornerstone of Hayek's defense of reason as a critical, evolutionary faculty, in contrast to the naive rationalism of the constructivist approach. This is extremely significant: Hayek opposes the acontextual and ahistorical notion of reason, disconnected from historical and cultural specificity and from the real world. His enemy is not reason, but the constructivists who have "historically again and again given birth to a revolt against reason." Identifying "rationalism" and "constructivism," Hayek describes his position as "antirationalistic," which is not to "be confounded with irrationalism."
Despite Hayek's attempts to legitimate a contextual concept of reason, his own approach is not without its problems. I have discussed these elsewhere. Suffice it to say, Hayek proposes a theory of natural selection among competing traditions that leaves too much to the evolutionary forces of history and not enough to the role that people can play in modifying institutions. Moreover, Hayek does not provide us with an objective standard by which to judge the "desirable" or "undesirable" consequences of spontaneous orders, and he often fails to recognize that, without such a standard, nonliberal institutions can have as much claim to being products of evolution as the liberal institutions he glorifies. As Jonathan Rauch makes clear, the Hayekian position on the rightness of evolutionary order, when taken to an extreme, might lead one to conclude "that because in the past slavery was customary in almost all human societies, it should not have been forcibly abolished." To oppose slavery, as Hayek did, is not enough, for this ushers in, through the back door, "a moral platform from which to judge social rules." It is simply not possible to abstract "social debate from moral concerns."
Regardless of these significant problems, Hayek contributes much to the ascendancy of a dialectical libertarian sensibility. One of the most underappreciated aspects of his book, The Road to Serfdom, is its movement toward a multilevel social analysis. Hayek argues that "the most important change which extensive government control produces is a psychological change, an alteration in the character of the people." This social-psychological corruption is a very slow process, in Hayek's view, but no less insidious. "The important point," he states, "is that the political ideals of a people and its attitude toward authority are as much the effect as the cause of the political institutions under which it lives." This reciprocal connection between social psychology and politics must not go unnoticed:
Freedom to order our own conduct in the sphere where material circumstances force a choice upon us, and responsibility for the arrangement of our own life according to our own conscience, is the air in which alone moral sense grows and in which moral values are daily re-created in the free decisions of the individual. Responsibility, not to a superior, but to one's conscience, . . . the necessity to decide which of the things one values . . . and to bear the consequences of one's own decision, are the very essence of any morals which deserve the name. That in this sphere of individual conduct the effect of collectivism has been almost entirely destructive is both inevitable and undeniable. A movement whose main promise is the relief from responsibility cannot but be antimoral in its effect, however lofty the ideals to which it owes its birth.
Hayek maintains that under conditions of advancing statism and government control, the culture at large will tend to promote social practices that undermine individualism and self-responsibility. He reminds us that the movement toward a free society must be matched by a "slow and gradual change in morals . . . which takes a few generations." Without such a cultural change, the market economy is "bound to fail," in Hayek's view.
Noting the dialectical interconnections among economics, politics, social psychology, morality, and culture, Hayek embodies a radical perspective. He sees radicalism as a distinction of honor, for it means that "we are bound all the time to question fundamentals." On that basis, he proclaims that "[w]e must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage."
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After completing his discussion of the history of dialectics, Sciabarra examines the meaning of dialectics. He views it as a "methodological (or research) orientation." A methodological orientation "is an intellectual disposition to apply a specific set of broad ontological and epistemological presuppositions about objects of study and their typical relationships to particular fields of investigation." The five orientations that Sciabarra discusses are: strict atomism ("an orientation toward analysis by separation and isolation of a system's components"); strict organicism ("an orientation toward 'synoptic' analysis of a system and its internal relations"); dualism ("an orientation toward analysis by separation of a system's components into two spheres"); monism ("an orientation toward analysis of a system's components as manifestations of a single factor"); and, finally, dialectics ("an orientation toward contextual analysis of systemic and dynamic relations of components within a totality"). (For an online discussion of these themes, see Sciabarra's Critical Review essay in response to David MacGregor.)
In Part Two, Sciabarra turns to a comprehensive critique of the work of Murray Rothbard, a thinker in whose work Sciabarra finds both dialectical and nondialectical elements. (The most important dialectical elements in the Rothbardian schema are on display in its theories of structural crisis and class dynamics.)
In Chapter 8, he examines critically Rothbard's vision of anarcho-capitalism, which would require the imposition of a Libertarian Law Code in order to function in accordance with libertarian principles. Sciabarra questions the efficacy of such an imposition since it does not take into account the complex philosophical, cultural, and historical context upon which libertarian principles depend.
* * *
... What Rothbard opposes most in the conservative [Hayekian] evolutionist tradition is its obsession with unintended consequences and spontaneous order. While "[i]t is a happy accident of history that a great deal of private law and common law is libertarian," it is also the case that much of evolved law "was anti-libertarian." In some respects, even slavery and the state might be viewed as products of social evolution. Such evolution does not require us to grant moral sanction to every emergent institutional form. "In practice," argues Rothbard, "this means taking the largely libertarian common law, and correcting it by the use of man's reason, before enshrining it as a permanently fixed libertarian code or constitution. And it means the continual interpretation and application of this libertarian law code by experts and judges in privately competitive courts." Law is a theoretical process that "implies the use of man's reason, to establish a code . . . that will be an unbreachable and unflawed fortress for human liberty."
But if law is a theoretical process, it is equally an historical process. Johnston observes that "spontaneous orders," such as the market, are "maintained, characteristically, by relations of mutual adjustment, give and take, and reciprocity rather than by relations of command and obedience." This reciprocity requires "the existence and enforcement of a framework of rules," Johnston argues, for "some organization is a presupposition of any spontaneous order." Rothbard would construct this framework exogenously by simply instituting a Libertarian Law Code. He is comforted by the fact that the code itself has historical roots in an endogenous common-law process, and that "the market could provide endogenously the infrastructure that would govern its operation." However, if a common-law process is required for the emergence of a Libertarian Law Code, and if the code itself is required for the emergence of a just market, it is clear that the establishment of a libertarian society is as much an historical, as a theoretical, project. Any framework for political ethics and institutions of law must be comprehended in terms that are relevant, understandable, and applicable to the specific society within which it is manifested and developed. Severing principles from the context they require, and within which they gain meaning, freezes the living dynamism of the process itself.
And yet, in his earlier writings, Rothbard seems profoundly distrustful of this historical process. He rejects evolutionism because it shattered "the purity of the goal [and] the consistency of the principle," leading libertarianism toward "gradualism," with "scorn" for the non-aggression ethos, which stands as a permanent check on tyranny and oppression. As Grinder asserts, the "exultantly optimistic spirit" of libertarianism is "missing" in Hayekian evolutionism. "A movement devoid of that spirit and devoid of a genuine concern for its members' eternal yearnings to be free, a movement which is devoid of the conviction that it is possible to succeed in its quest to achieve the free society . . . is doomed from the start -- and . . . it probably does not deserve to win."
But Hayek championed liberalism as a "living intellectual" movement, empowered by a "belief in the power of ideas . . ." For Hayek: "If politics is the art of the possible, political philosophy is the art of making politically possible the seemingly impossible." Nevertheless, he was crucially aware of the need to uplift the human imagination. He wished to "make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage," and sought "a programme" for "a liberal Utopia," that was not simply a "defense of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the susceptibilities of the mighty . . . which is not too severely practical and which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible." Indeed, the new radicals "must learn from the success of the socialists . . . that it was their courage to be Utopian which gained them the support of the intellectuals and thereby an influence on public opinion which is daily making possible what only recently seemed utterly remote."
If Hayek's was the voice of one crying in the wilderness, then it was Rothbard who answered that call boldly and proudly. He also understood the difficulties inherent in any movement for social change. He argues that, praxeologically, anarcho-capitalism is the only stable system. "Praxeologically, yes; psychologically, the issue is in doubt. The unhampered market is free of self-created economic problems; it furnishes the greatest abundance consistent with man's command over nature at any given time. But those who yearn for power over their fellows, or who wish to plunder others, as well as those who fail to comprehend the praxeological stability of the free market, may well push the society back on the hegemonic road." As Jan Narveson observes, the "[p]rospects for anarchy, then, are not good," precisely because "[s]uperior force has a way of winning the battles." But the prospects are slim primarily because the framework for utopias -- the Libertarian Law Code -- requires a broader context for its sustenance. At the very least, the efficacy of that framework depends upon a deeper understanding of the personal and cultural factors that promote structural relationships of power.
As we have seen, there are structural obstacles to the success of liberty. Even if libertarianism is in the interest of the vast majority, Barry observes that it is pure "chance [that] a coalition of interests [will] emerge which will meet with the prescriptions of libertarian rationality." In the present American system, coalitions are constructed ad hoc, because the fragmentation of groups usually sets off a process in which "strategic 'bribing' of the electorate [occurs] through privileges that any government can grant." Since fragmentation is a by-product of this privilege dispensing, the emergence of a coalition of groups seeking the end of privilege is highly unlikely. In the end, "competitive party democracy must systematically undermine the public interest," since it fuels parochial interests and balkanization. But if American democracy, with its "permanent libertarian legacy," cannot actualize that legacy, what are the prospects for any libertarian resolution within cultures that lack this tradition? If the realization of a libertarian framework only requires the exercise of "human will," as Rothbard describes it, if all that is required is "convincing people" of the morality and efficiency of liberty, then libertarians have their work cut out for them.
One interesting example of this preoccupation with the "problem of human will" is provided by Rothbard's observation that "[t]he [Great] Depression existed and men were moved to think about this striking event[,] but that they adopted socialism or its equivalent as the way out was not determined by the event; they might just as well have chosen laissez-faire or Buddhism or any other attempted solution. The deciding factor was the idea that people chose to adopt." Historians may weigh a complex set of variables to understand "what led the people to adopt particular ideas." Stressing the centrality of reason, Rothbard argues that the historian must "always stop short at the ultimate freedom of the will."
True. But Rothbard would not have been such a provocative historian if he had argued that the Depression put America at the crossroads of decision making, offering a choice between, say, "transcendental meditation" and "vegetarianism." Indeed, Rothbard's analysis of "interventionism" suggests that the dynamic of state power generates a "need" for further intervention to resolve the internal contradictions of the process. In complex systems, where factors interlock, serving as preconditions and effects of one another, there is a strong tendency toward "inevitability," and an equally strong possibility for vibrant analysis of class dynamics.
As Hayek has pointed out, a contextually internal relationship exists between historians and their subject. In this sense, historians cannot escape from their own values. Indeed, "at the very beginning, in deciding which questions are worth asking, individual value judgments are bound to come in. And it is more than doubtful whether a connected history of a period or of a set of events could be written without interpreting these in the light, not only of the theories about the interconnection of social processes, but also of definite values."
Rothbard was not primarily a victim of his subconscious premises. His radical historical and social vision was a testament to consciously articulated values that were reflected in every aspect of his thought. Echoing Lord Acton, Rothbard stressed the primacy of volition and values, since every "historian, in the last analysis, must be a moral judge." For Rothbard, "[i]n the field of justice, man's will is all; man can move mountains, if only men so decide." This singular emphasis on choice, however, external to the context that might condition the alternatives open to one's choice, led Rothbard to stress libertarian goals "without considering the probability of attaining them." Such "goals are 'realistic' in the sense that they could be achieved if enough people agreed on their desirability, and that, if achieved, they would bring about a far better world. The 'realism' of the goal can only be challenged by a critique of the goal itself, not in the problem of how to attain it."
But the "problem of human will" obscures the greater problem of context. Peter Breggin, a psychiatrist convinced of the libertarian ethos, stresses that "[l]ibertarian philosophy is based upon the conviction that liberty is the highest . . . value and the context within which human beings thrive." Yet, the libertarian framework for utopias is itself in need of a context. That context must recognize the various extrapolitical forces that might "push society back on the hegemonic road," as Rothbard has warned. Breggin declares: "The personal and the political are inextricably intertwined. . . . Oppression must be simultaneously attacked within both the personal and the political arenas. We must develop a renewed commitment to political freedom, and at the same time we must develop a better understanding of personal sovereignty and personal freedom. True political freedom may not come for hundreds of years. Perhaps it will never come in the history of the earth and humankind. But the individual can nonetheless keep his or her ideals alive and can make the most of whatever freedom can be maintained or created during his or her own lifetime."
That Breggin reiterates a feminist-inspired slogan -- that "the personal and the political are inextricably intertwined" -- is instructive. The original slogan is usually rendered as: "The personal is the political." May remarks that this adage, implying "that politics is everywhere," emerges from the feminist and poststructuralist intellectual movements. Some commentators, such as Charles Krauthammer, have argued that in the late 1990s, "the personal [had indeed] become the political," leading to a situation in which "the political has become personal, very personal." Krauthammer adds: "Politics is now an enterprise not of social change or even restoration but of mass therapy; feeling . . . is its means and end. . . . truth counts for nothing, . . . [and] politics is psychic gamesmanship."
Rothbard had rejected this "common leftist chant" that "'[t]he personal is the political'," for he believed it was "a formula for totalitarianism, for regimenting every aspect of our daily life." He argued against the trend toward imbuing every personal action with political significance. Under such conditions, for example, individuals might use the doctrine of "political correctness" as an ideology to control the actions of other individuals. Rothbard seems to recognize correctly that such ideological usage has totalist or strict organicist implications.
However, Breggin's reiteration of this slogan is simply a restatement of what individualists have always known: that ethics and politics have reciprocal implications for one another, something a bit more complex than a rigid identity. The later Rothbard was more in agreement with this position, as we will soon see. Long explains that when feminists declare that the "personal is the political," they seek to make transparent those "relations of domination and subordination" within society that are outside the sphere of state, but that have still relegated women to second-class status. One need not accept every aspect of the feminist critique to appreciate the fact that cultural practices will often perpetuate exploitative relations, and that an exclusive focus on politics will not be enough to overturn any given individual's subordination or the subordination of the society at large. To focus on both the "personal" and the "political" is not to blur the lines between them, but to grasp their mutual implications for existing power structures and for the extraordinarily difficult task of altering them.
Still, the radical project is larger than any single individual's journey to self-realization. If the personal and the political are intertwined, then so are the other factors -- the culture, history, traditions, principles and rules governing any given society -- that constitute the context upon which any libertarian ethos must be built. Without this supporting edifice, the enforcement of a Libertarian Law Code can become a futile attempt to institute a "rule which nobody has the power to make effective," as Hayek would say. By making politics purely a "problem of human will," Rothbard sidesteps crucial questions: How might the acceptance of a libertarian ethos depend on subtle factors of personal, cultural and historical significance? How can such an ethos be applied cross-culturally? How can it be made culturally relevant?
Rothbard abstracts a single principle of nonaggression and creates a dualistic tension between theory and reality. Armed with his principled social philosophy, Rothbard stands, like Archimedes, on the outside looking in. He sees state institutions at odds with human nature as he defines it, and seeks to bridge the gap between "what is" and "what ought to be." That bridge, that construction -- that constructivism -- is the essence of his Libertarian Law Code. . . . Given his lack of attention to the vast context within which such principles might exist, evolve, and thrive, Rothbard stands on the precipice of utopia.
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Sciabarra concludes his book with a survey of promising dialectical trends in libertarian theory -- looking primarily at theorists in the neo-Aristotelian tradition (Rasmussen, Den Uyl, and others); the dialogical tradition (Hoppe, Kinsella, Lavoie, Madison, and others); the Austrian tradition (Rizzo, O'Driscoll, Horwitz, Boettke, and others); and the Objectivist tradition of Ayn Rand, who viewed relations of power through a three-tiered structure of analysis.