UPDATE: Niclas Berggren’s “Does Belief In Ethical Subjectivism Pose a Challenge to Classical Liberalism?” seems relevant.
I hadn’t updated this blog in a while, which is not such a bad thing since I am behind in my other responsibilities. Unfortunately I have not used the time I saved for those purposes, and it’s not entirely because I’ve been a bit sick either (perhaps the subconscious reason I delayed buying some Nyquil was that I knew I’d feel guiltier for not being productive without an excuse). One of the things I read when I had better things to do was this essay by Bryan Caplan. Here is the intro:
Ayn Rand is well-known for her view that philosophers' positions in political philosophy are a logicalconsequence of their views on more fundamentalphilosophic questions. While this theory does notalways hold up, no clearer illustration of it couldbe found than in Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan. Thispaper briefly outlines Hobbes' positions on importantquestions of metaphysics and ethics. It then shows how these positions tend to imply andcohere with a political philosophy of the total state.
What are his positions that Caplan has a problem with? They are the titles of the sub-sections “Materialism and Determinism”, “Ethical Relativism” and “Depravity”. That last one is not to say that he was depraved but that he disagreed with Rousseau on whether human beings are naturally good. Caplan thinks the positions that mesh with libertarianism are “a dualistic philosophy of mind, free will, moral objectivism, and an optimistic view of human potential”. On each point I am on the side of Hobbes against Caplan, and yet I am a libertarian. Caplan does admit that libertarianism has been combined with those positions, but I would still like to discuss it. So given that I agree with him on so much, why am I not a Hobbesian politically?
Perhaps I’ve been wrong all this time. Perhaps I should be a Hobbesian (I know a took a similar tack in my diversity post, and I intend to continue being unoriginal). My stated reason for libertarianism (and Mencius’ for formalism) is that it tends to minimize violent conflict so we can get on with our lives, however we perceive “the good life” to be. Hobbes used the same goal to advocate for Leviathan. Let’s not dismiss him out of hand. Stephen Pinker explains here how much more violent that past was compared to the present, despite how bad we think things are. One of the plausible explanations he gives for the decline in violence is Hobbes’ Leviathan. The rise of strong central states seemed to have put a damper on strife, and most conflict today takes place in barely governed “failed states”. John Robb of Global Guerrillas talks a lot about this and almost seems enthusiastic when he talks about big dumb states not being able to handle this future. Conservatives (and sometimes those on the left) often accuse libertarians of focusing too much on liberty at the expense of its prerequisite, order. As Douglas North puts it, we often assume away the issue and say “non-aggression [principle | axiom]” as if that magic phrase will actually do the work of ensuring itself. I haven’t gotten around to reading Proudhon yet, but I don’t find it completely credible to say “liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order”. That’s why I’m a minarchist. I want some entity to have a monopoly on violence within a geographic territory (which is not to say it will prohibit self-defense or security services) in order to fill the power-vacuum. I think the state is inevitable. The opportunity is simply too attractive to think it will sit out there like a twenty-dollar bill on the sidewalk without anybody picking it up. Peter Leeson and Bruce Benson can talk all they want about little stateless societies in the past, but states are everywhere I look, or at least where I’d like to live (which for now excludes the ocean and outer space).
Thomas Hobbes and his thoughts are not held in high regard today. My high school was hardly partial toward libertarianism, but they made sure we knew John Locke was the good guy and Hobbes was the villain. I can’t blame this all on their un-Pinker acceptance of the “blank slate”, since they didn’t like Rousseau either. Most educators of acceptably left or right nature still accept some American political theology, where there is something near-sacred in our humanist traditions. Many would not admit that this reverence for proper political order rather than divine providence would not have been feasible without Hobbes (though satirists in the style of Bernard Mandeville existed even in the classical civilizations). Partly this is because, as Pinker explains, we live in much less violent times. It is hard to separate Hobbes from the English Civil War. Unlike what is referred to in America as “the civil war”, it was an actual civil war in which the seat of government was fought over rather than a war of secession. Promoters of anarchy are not fond of the conditions that prevail during a civil war, but they may be said to be anarchic in some sense. There is no longer an unchallenged monopoly of authority but competition in violence. Giving absolute power to the current government is one way to avoid it. Those in power generally try quite hard to crush any possible rivalry. R. J. Rummel would tell us that “power kills”. He calls this democide. Matthew White refers to the great 20th century killings as the “Hemoclsym“, although a large part of this is civil war in China. Pinker concedes all these have happened in our century of war, but the past was even bloodier. Then warfare and massacre were not aberrant events that people mourned but a normal part of life, and participation in it was a glorious thing that brought a man great benefits (as long as he killed the other guy rather than being on the receiving end). The present is much less violent and we see peace as the norm. Herbert Spencer said there will come a time when men no longer see the need for the state and then they will have none. Libertarianism cannot exist unless peaceful order with voluntary cooperation seems feasible.
I could just leave it at that and say something like “He was raised in Egypt so he’s a Muslim, I was raised in Italy so I’m a Catholic”, but then you get to wonder what’s so special about your own circumstances that makes me think I’m right and the other guy is wrong. For one thing I live in the present and he lived in the past (in case you are wondering, the switch-over from one period to the next occurred when Sputnik was launched) . I know about events he couldn’t have known about. As Bertrand de Jouvenel pointed out, even in the age of “absolute monarchy” there wasn’t anything like the totalitarianism we see. All Hobbes really wanted to state to do was enforce contracts, while today it does all sorts of crazy things. I’ve seen how far the state can go and on the margin I want to move it back to something Hobbes would have preferred if he could see North and South Korea. Furthermore, I think there really are conditions in the world today less conducive to violence than those of Hobbes’ time. Aside for Mutually Assured Destruction, there is what Steve Sailer calls the “dirt theory of warfare“. The Hobbesian logic of all-against-all doesn’t apply anymore in our idyllic post-Malthusian age of information sector & human-capital driven commercial prosperity. All we have is our primate instincts making us do stupid things like invading Iraq, although things are so great it’s not actually that big of a loss (just think of Croesus or Napoleon 1 & 3 or Hitler for comparison). The United States in particular has oceans to thank for its isolation (even moreso than England the happy isle). Think Canada’s going to invade? Pssh, they’re just Americans that don’t realize it yet. Mexico? Their military can barely handle the drug-runners, and despite what Robb claims they don’t have that much political ambition. They want to sell, not pillage. Within America we’re content enough with killing people in virtual worlds to put off doing it in meatspace. I think liberty could be sustainable (achievable in the first place is a different story, as I don’t see opinion changing to the extent that secession would not be necessary), especially if Patri Friedman’s seasteading idea takes off.
I originally intended this to focus more on the connection between the positions Caplan points out and political beliefs. I don’t know whether the beliefs I share with Hobbes lead one away from libertarianism, but I know I did not adhere to them at the time I adopted libertarianism. I was optimistic in hoping that the challengers to liberalism had failed and the way forward was clear (even if I though Fukuyama’s “End of History” was overly historicist/Hegelian and reminded me of those awful atheist political theorists). I was confident in my Christianity and believed that there was an objective Good, which was just what God declared it to be and we gleaned from the Bible, though unbelievers could also participate in our liberal order. I was angry at liberals for denying free-will (and I still have a Szaszian position on personal responsibility) which now seems a bit odd since I was an ultracalvinist that believed in predestination. I know I believed we had souls, but I don’t think that really had much of an impact on my thinking. It was pretty much like accepting what your parents told you what were popular shows on when they were kids. My loss of faith and embrace of the emotivist/Stirnerite take on morality and hard to separate. I know when I first started reading Stirner I was still telling myself I was a Christian and this was just interesting heresy for my amusement. I had admitted to myself I wasn’t well before I finished Der Ego, though now I think I might not have read to the end had I not joined the godless and wished to fully understand the Word of Saint Max. He didn’t write to be readable, especially if you haven’t read anything from Hegel or those influenced by him. I’ve discussed more of my religious transition and how it relates to ethics here, but it was mostly a matter of becoming more acquainted with the scientific way of thinking and dropping beliefs with little connection to the observable world that served no purpose for me. Caplan seems like a fairly learned guy, which sometimes causes me to puzzle why believes in a lot of what seems to be outdated mumbo-jumbo, despite being a scoffing atheist who also realizes Objectivism is nonsense. Others have attributed this to his strong belief in the value of intuition, and I’d say I agree. Why he thinks so highly of intuition when he realizes how often our intuition goes wrong and needs to be corrected, I don’t know.
This is off-topic, but there’s a great parody of the Moldbug Transcripts here.
Now after I click “Publish” I promise myself not to read or comment at any blogs for the rest of the day. E-mail is still kosher, so if you want to shoot the breeze with me on the so-called Armenian “genocide” (more like holohoax, wink wink nudge nudge) I’m available. On that subject I see Daniel Larison has bought into those crafty buggers’ line, which likely wasn’t too hard of a sell since he’s also an adherent of an eastern orthodox branch of Christianity.