More Gradualism

Timothy Sandefur has another post up on gradualism, commenting on my response. Sandefur clarifies his point as a criticism of the impulse of some libertarians to invest Hayek’s view of spontaneous order with too much weight. He says,

“[The point of the post] is to point out what I think is a terrible habit among some libertarians and conservatives of abusing the concept of spontaneous order or social evolution, in ways that render the concept trivial, or that just totally ignore the actual ingredients of successful social reform.”

I wasn’t so much critiquing that point as attempting to clarify my understanding of Burke’s challenge to the French Revolution–and emphasizing that grand projects to forcibly remake the whole of society are usually doomed to failure. My point isn’t that constructivist rationalism is any worse than spontaneous order (or vice-versa), only that the institutions of society are abandoned at great peril. Partly it’s a difference between the Enlightenment and the Romantic period. If the American Revolution can be seen as a sort of culmination of Enlightenment thought, the French Revolution is the culmination of Romanticism. Where the enlightenment stressed reason and political liberty, the romantics emphasized emotion over reason and were consequently more concerned with material well-being and egalitarianism than with political liberty. The result was the very romantic notion that both social structures and human nature are mere plastic to be reformed at will by benevolent governors. The problem wasn’t that the French revolution elevated “constructivist rationalism” over “spontaneous order” it was that it destroyed any semblance of spontaneous order and submitted the general will to the constructivist rationalism of a few. It didn’t attempt to make men free, it wanted to make men better–and that’s always a dangerous prospect.

The French Revolution wasn’t bad because it was sudden, it was bad because it didn’t make anybody free. Sandefur says,

“the point is that it is dishonest for Burkeans/Hayekians to use it as an example of the alleged inevitable failure of constructivist rationalism, without also keeping in mind that if nothing had been done—if “gradualism” had been the word of the day—the result would have been more and more death, more and more poverty, more and more oppression.”

But all it resulted in was “more and more death, more and more poverty, more and more oppression.” It was the mere substitution of one tyranny for another. It wasn’t a failure of constructivist rationalism for having been planned, it was a failure of constructivist rationalism because it substituted the command of the tyrant for judgment of the individual. In contrast, the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement represent projects that resulted in greater liberty–they were planned, they were organized, but their goal was to allow the kind of decentralized liberty that gives rise to spontaneous order.

I take Hayek and Burke to imply that social reform must be conducted with deep concern over the freedom of the individual to make his own decisions. Neither Hayek nor Burke suggest that we abandon conscious decision making or forsake deliberate efforts to reform society, rather they remind us that we cannot substitute our own desires and prejudices for the people we purport to set free. In this sense, the indictment against constructivist rationalism is the indictment of the tyrant.

A quick aside: Sandefur quotes my comment about the civil rights movement: “the civil rights movement, while violent, was conducted entirely within the constraints and confines of the law [which is definitely not true, but let’s put that to one side].” Just to clarify, I should not have said “entirely within the constraints and confines of the law.” Sandefur is correct in pointing out the absurdity of that claim. If I could amend my claim, I would say that the movement was conducted largely within the constraints and confines of the law. The movement was at heart a movement of reform, not revolution, it sought a change in the law not a complete destruction of the law.

The Radical Whigs

A friend of mine cautioned me against using the term “radical” in my new political moniker. I think he has a point, but I also think that any political party that takes individual liberty, autonomy, and responsibility seriously is–at heart–a radical party. Furthermore, I am increasingly convinced that contemporary political culture is so overwhelmingly and systemically corrupt that only radicals have any hope at effecting change.

To those who urge restraint, that we don’t need yet another term, yet another movement, yet another political party…. I must disagree.

It is true of those in this broad movement that we are all, generally speaking, classical liberals. But the term “liberal” has been so degraded as to be effectively meaningless. A catalog of the errors and policy atrocities of so-called liberals in the 20th century would fill the remainder of this post, and as much fun as it might be to beat a dead donkey, I simply don’t have the time. It should be readily apparent that the term “liberal” has been irretrievably lost.

So too has conservative. The fiscal profligacy of this administration should shame the Republican party. I am troubled by the terror that homosexuality seems to instill in the Republican party. Why the party of Lincoln should so oppose the enforcement of the 14th amendment is a mystery to me. Furthermore, I am deeply dismayed by the extent to which the Republican party has worked to erode the fourth and fifth amendments. If the Democrats ignore the Second Amendment, the Republicans give short shift to the Fourth. The Bill of Rights is not a buffet.

I am not a Republican and I am not a Democrat. The process of Congress has been compared to sausage making, and that’s apt. But the pork has gone rancid and is spilling from its casing. Despite the growing stench, both parties are still busily feeding the grinding chute. There’s too much pork to process and our legislators are wallowing in the fat–and both parties stink. The simple truth is that just as the sheer scale of Congressional spending defeats any attempt at fiscal reform, so too does the sheer scale of vested interest defeat any attempt at reforming the major parties.

Neither am I a libertarian. The concern over the candidacy of Ron Paul is simply the latest in a long series of problems that have plagued both the libertarian movement and the Libertarian party. If you wish to hang to the term libertarian, you may. But I will have no more of it. I am tired of patiently explaining why teaching evolution matters, why terrorism should be opposed, and why although marijuana use should be legal, it should probably not be encouraged. I am tired of suffering the pretentious pomposity and bigotry of men who intone on the evils of the Civil War and I have grown weary of discussing the merits of using ancient druidical rituals in modern political campaigns. As a political force, the Libertarian Party is a mess.

But don’t misunderstand me. Hidden among the crazies and the loons, there are men and women of integrity, principle, intelligence, and worth. There are Democrats who would delight in sound fiscal policy–and there are a few Republicans who would as well, I’m sure of it. There are Republicans who are tolerant and respectful–and I’m sure there are a few Democrats who are as well. There are libertarians who believe that not all that should be legal must be condoned, there are Democrats who believe that not all that should be condoned must be mandatory, and there are Republicans who believe that not all that should be opposed must be be illegal. There are; I’m sure of it.

If you agree, let me know. Post a comment. If you don’t, let me know that too. If you like the name “Radical Whigs” Let me know. If you hate it, let me know that as well.

A Radical Whig

In the search for a moniker to claim as my own, I’m seriously considering “Radical Whig.” As this comes on the heels of a discussion I just had with a friend who claims to be a Tory Individualist, I thought I might elaborate a little.

In centuries past, the Whigs opposed the Tories for control of the British parliament. In general terms, the Tories favored a stronger monarchy, while the Whigs favored a stronger parliament. The Whigs favored free trade and the abolition of slavery. The Tories favored… well, they favored Anglicanism and the king. Eventually, the Tory project failed and the party was destroyed by scandal and allegations of treason.

Then, with George III and the American Revolution, everything gets sort of… fuzzy. The Whigs split into two camps: those who supported the king, and those who did not. Edmund Burke (who is many ways the father of modern conservative thought) was a Whig, and then a Liberal. There were some Whigs who were independent Whigs, but they were the New Tories and opposed the Whigs who were the old Whigs, but weren’t the Radical Whigs who had supported the Whigs in America. The American founders were Whigs, styled after the British Radical Whigs that supported the ideals they were fighting for. And yes, there were the American Whigs in the 19th Century, who supported a stronger Congress… Lincoln was a Whig until the Whigs backed slavery, then he became a Republican.

Eventually everything settled into a two-party system. What were the New British Whigs became the Liberal Party. The New British Tories (who were actually Old Whigs) became the Conservative Party. The Old American Whigs became the Federalists, then the New American Whigs, and then the Republicans. The Liberal Party was more “libertarian,” until it became the Social Democrats and is now the Liberal Democrats (and bears no real resemblance to a party of individual liberty).

So where were we? Oh yes… why I like Whig better than Tory when the Tories were Whigs and the Whigs became the Liberal Democrats. Well, it’s mostly a matter of association. The Conservative Party in Britain is still commonly referred to as the “Tory” party, and I want something that doesn’t bear the weight of that association. And both the British Conservative Party and the American Republican Party were formed by factions of Whigs who–at least originally–favored more individual liberty. And remember, the Radical Whigs were very influential with the American colonists and played a role win the American Revolution.

So, I think I’m a Radical Whig. I know it’s confusing. But I don’t think it’s any less confusing than claiming I’m a Conservative or a Republican or a Liberal (now there’s a loaded term) or a Libertarian or anything else.

Of course, no sooner do I adopt my new moniker than I find a blog by “A Radical Whig in Chattanooga” who endorses Ron Paul.

(Sound of head smacking repeatedly on the desk.)

Liberal, Conservative…

Shawn has another good post up libertarianism.

Shawn concurs with Brink Lindsey ; he’s a liberal libertarian. He says, “I’ve always been uncomfortable with the cozy relationship libertarianism seemed to have with conservatism. I am not a conservative.”

Brink lays his position out very succinctly,

Here’s why. I’m a libertarian because I’m a liberal. In other words, I support small-government, free-market policies because I believe they provide the institutional framework best suited to advancing the liberal values of individual autonomy, tolerance, and open-mindedness. Liberalism is my bottom line; libertarianism is a means to promoting that end.

Shawn goes further,

I like the label “market liberal”: it denotes that I am a liberal who views the problems of social and political life as best left to free individuals to resolve. Free markets and limited government are important political goals because they are the means by which individuals can best live free and flourish.

Conservatism, by contrast, seems more to be about limited government as means towards more social control. In order for the family, local community, and/or religious institutions to exert their power over the individual, the government needed to be limited.

I know where Shawn and Brink are coming from, and I sympathize. If Ron Paul counts as a libertarian, then we all need to be clear about what a libertarian is — and what a libertarian isn’t. (And I submit that if the term is big enough to accommodate both Paul and Lindsey, then the term has lost all meaning and needs to be discarded.)

The problem is that the values that we care about: individual autonomy, tolerance, responsibility, liberty — all require advanced and developed social and cultural frameworks. There is certainly no place in a principled advocacy of liberty for Ron Paul’s kind of xenophobia, racism, or conspiracy theories. But there should be a place for family, community and religion. It might be trite to say that no man is an island, but it’s no less true for being trite. Even radical individualists raise families, go to church, and volunteer at their local school. just as a commitment to liberal ideas need not require a commitment to socialized health care, a commitment to conservative ideas need not require the establishment of a state religion, or the criminalization of homosexuality.

I may be jumping at shadows, but I think it’s important to recognize that there is enormous value in enduring social order. If conservatism is a healthy respect for the accumulated wisdom of the ages, then we ignore that counsel at our own peril. And I would argue that one of the great achievements of the American Experiment was the successful marriage of progress with tradition, liberalization with conservatism. Both the American Revolution and the Civil War brought enormous political change. In both cases, great liberty was won by violent means — and yet despite the violence of those wars, the extant legal, social, and cultural traditions continued and thrived. Contrast the American experience with the French Revolution. In France, liberalization was total — everything was upended, and everything went to pot.

Indeed, that point is driven home most forcefully by the noted conservative Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France. Wikipedia summarizes Burke’s argument very well:

Burke argued that the French Revolution would end in disaster because it was founded on abstract notions that purported to be rational but in fact ignored the complexities of human nature and society. Burke held an essentially pragmatic view of politics and viewed with contempt the vision of French EnlightenmentMarquis de Condorcet, that politics could be reduced to a rigorous deductive system akin to mathematics.

As a Protestant and a Whig, Burke expressly repudiated the notion that the authority of monarchs was divinely instituted or that the people had no right to depose an oppressive government. On the other hand, he believed in the central roles of private property, tradition, and “prejudice” (by which he meant the popular adherence to values that lack a conscious rational justification) in giving citizens an interest in the well-being of their country and in maintaining social order. Burke argued for gradual, constitutional reform over revolutionary upheaval, in all but the most qualified of cases. Burke also emphasized that a political doctrine founded on abstract notions about “liberty” and the “rights of man” could easily be used by those in power to justify tyrannical measures. Instead, he called for the constitutional enactment of specific, concrete rights and liberties as a bulwark against oppression by the government.

In that sense, I think we might more accurately describe a principled defense of liberty as the very essence of conservatism.

But that would be silly. None of the people who have repudiated Ron Paul, Shawn, Brink, Timothy Sandefur, myself, or the countless others are conservatives. Really, in comparison to the current political climate, we’re radicals. (Radicals with a respect for history and tradition, I hope.)

The problem is that all the words we use to describe political discourse in this country are hopelessly corrupted. “Liberal” has come to mean the worst aspects of “leftist” ideology. It’s statist, progressive, victimized, new-age, anti-reason, amoral, libertine populism. “Conservative” has come to mean the worst aspects of the ideology of the “right.” It’s statist, reactionary, bigoted, fundamentalist, anti-reason, moralistic populism. “Libertarian” has come to mean the worst aspects of both. It’s progressive, reactionary, bigoted, victimized, new-age, fundamentalist, anti-reason, moralistic, libertine populism.

If those of us who love liberty, who cherish autonomy and personal responsibility continue to define our beliefs and allegiances with terms that lost their coherent meaning years ago, we’re dooming ourselves to irrelevance.

I’m not a liberal libertarian or a conservative constitutionalist.

We need a new name. We need a new party. Suggestions?