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The Freeman: Dialectics and Liberty

The September 2005 issue of The Freeman includes my essay, "Dialectics and Liberty," which offers an introduction to dialectical method and its role in the works of such writers as F. A. Hayek and Ayn Rand. That essay finally makes its cyber-debut today! Another in a series of essays and interviews on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the publication of my books Marx, Hayek, and Utopia and Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, the article is available as a PDF here:

"Dialectics and Liberty"

Comments welcome. Cross-posted to L&P, with comments here. Also noted at Rational Review.


Great article! I've posted some extended remarks on my blog. Click Here

Mike, I just wanted to thank you for your detailed commentary at your blog. I'll answer briefly here and for the benefit of our readers, I'll reproduce a few of your sentences for the sake of continuity:

You write: "First, you are making a critique of libertarian methodology and while I agree with you in principle, it is not immediately clear why liberals/libertarians should abandon the simpler, atomistic analysis in the first place. If the static approach is compelling and to some extent valid, why abandon it?"

In reply, let me say that I think it is all a question of "level of generality." The point of dialectics is not to obliterate "atomist" or even "organicist" alternatives, but to show that each of these might indeed be useful---in a particular context. I think much can be learned, in a certain context, by deriving the logical implications of so-called "Robinson Crusoe" economics. But the implications therein are still only one aspect of a larger picture.

You write: "You are making one assumption that libertarians in general do not. That is: the how matters. The nature of the analysis, the ability to explain as well as critique, and the overall robustness of a theory is important. So convincing us that a methodological change is necessary is a critical part of your argument, and to the extent that one already values completeness in theoretical constructs, I think they will be compelled by your case. However, you maybe underestimating how many libertarians value a 'comprehensive' approach to libertarianism."

In reply, let me say that I don't think many libertarians do value such a "comprehensive" approach---which is why Sciabarra-ian Dialectics hasn't exactly caught on. :)

You write: "What are the practical implications of a methodological reevaluation? If as you mentioned the state has a psychological impact on the population, isnít it problematic to assume that simply removing this state interference makes the problem go away? Is this a possibility libertarians are willing to consider?"

In reply, I do believe that it is problematic to assume that the removal of state interference is a panacea. The problem here is that there are dynamics that drive each level of generality---and these often reciprocally presuppose one another. Even a so-called "atomist" such as Rothbard admits that while eliminating state interference might be wise, "praxeologically speaking," there are many factors that would drive a society right back down the "hegemonic" road toward statism. Those factors are often cultural and socio-psychological, which is why we need to focus on them, in my view.

You write: "Moreover, most libertarians seem to be very attracted to the notion of truth as static. Truth exists for sure, but my point (and the your point I presume) is that truth is a much more complicated affair than we suppose. Ironically, by believing in static truth libertarians are committing the fatal conceit so scorned in rationalist/socialist theorizing."

Indeed, I think too often they try to counterpose "static" conceptions with "relativist" conceptions---not recognizing that there is a "contextual" alternative here. (Rand used to criticize the former as "intrinsicist" and the latter as "subjectivist," offering her "Objectivist" view as a third-way.)

You write: "Which naturally, brings me to my second point. Libertarians, in general, are too committed to the conception of libertarianism as a 'political theory'. The political nature of the theory is quite attractive because it allows interlocutors to 'agree to disagree' about the meaning of life but agree to leave each other alone. This fear has been driven by an inability to properly connect the concept of freedom to a theory of meaning. Ayn Rand, of course, understood the necessity of such connections but her rather spectacular failure, I think, has discouraged others from taking up this noble charge."

Putting aside our evaluation of Rand's efforts, I do think it is true that even among those who initially would have embraced the "agree to disagree" presumption, there has been a movement toward some kind of "theory of meaning." The Hayekians embrace tradition and even the Rothbardians eventually moved toward "paleolibertarianism"---because, they argued, certain cultural forms were necessary for the sustenance of a free society.

So, ironically, I think more and more people do appreciate the fact that the battle is ultimately cultural: It requires therefore a more in-depth discussion of culture---not just for our domestic politics, but globally too: especially given the political desire to bring "democracy" to the rest of the world.

You write: "The point is that dialectical libertarianism implies a 'comprehensive' understanding of liberty, which would include a deeper understanding of the role liberty plays in the 'meaning of life,' for lack of better terminology. To the extent that this is a source of some resistance to your approach, it might be worthy of some consideration."

Well, I certainly agree that it is a source of some resistance. But I think one way out is to admit that theories of meaning cannot be removed from the circumstances of a particular place and time. We need to understand those circumstances if we are to propose ways of promoting voluntary social relations in vastly different contexts.

You wrote: "Dialectical libertarianism, to some degree has to accept the notion (which Hayek accepted) that at least part of the human experience is shaped by non-rational forces (notice I did not say irrational). I have come to believe that libertarians are irrationally afraid of such a suggestion for fear it undermines homo economicus which plays such a huge role in libertarian philosophy. To what extent does your methodological shift open the door to the non-rational?"

I think it opens the door... in fact, it pushes the door WIDE open. I think the notion of "nonrational" is important, as distinguished from "irrational." (Indeed, despite the fact that so many people have criticized Hayek as an "irrationalist," it was Hayek who once said that he fought against rationalism because he fought for "reason properly used.")

You write: "A more robust theory of libertarianism must embrace the notion of man as a developmental being and the role that the non-rational plays in human life."

I agree. But then it means that more robust theory actually will require empirical investigation to understand what is "nonrational," how it develops, and what role it plays. This is by no means an easy task.

You write: "To summarize, while I think the direction of your thought is right on track, I fear there are more 'radical' philosophical issues that are implied in your critique that can, and should be addressed head on."


Thanks again for your comments.