I’m reminded of an MR entry by Tyler Cowen a couple of months ago in which he remarks that the “energetic young talent” in libertarianism now often seems more intent on “projects for building entire new political worlds” — charter cities, blockchain — than on theory, political, economic, etc. (https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2021/04/where-is-non-state-capacity-libertarianism-evolving.html)
I think there’s truth in that. But theory is still needed. It’s what gives us our organizing principles and inspiration.
That’s just the trouble with the bloggers mentioned, and I don’t mean the blog format. It’s the smallish scope of thinking: books on voting behavior, the university education system, immigration and open borders. This sort of thing is fine, but it’s not fundamental theory.
The purist libertarianism (rights absolutism, the “non-aggression axiom”) exemplified by Rand, Nozick, and Rothbard has been a dead end, I think. It is readily grasped, and it has the capacity to inspire, but it isn’t true. And the gradual realization of this has led to its collapse.
This collapse has left us somewhat rudderless. That’s how I feel, anyway. We need a new paradigm. The way to think about society is evolutionarily, or so it seems to me. That points to Hayek. But he had little to say about morals, and libertarianism should provide a moral vision. What is needed is a way to put these two together.
(The best evolutionary theorist of society—that I know of—is Joe Henrich. Both his books, The Secret of Our Success, and The WEIRDest People in the World, are terrific. But of course he’s neither a libertarian nor a moralist.)
This is from David Potts, responding to yours truly in the comments.
I have to think about this a bit more.
3 thoughts on “From the comments: “liberty, evolution, and morals””
Well said, Brandon. For me, and for many conservatives, which we agree with much of the time, seems to have lost its way. It has come to seem to many as primarily about the legalization of drugs (and yes, I understand the thinking) but it was that way, and pretty catastrophic.
The old alliance has much to recommend it, but until libertarianism can find a moral foundation, and there is one, I’m sure, it really does offer little but anarchy.
I hope thinking libertarians, like you, can find something, cause you’re about 80 percent right, but without a moral base, it simply doesn’t cohere as a philosophy.
Hayek said plenty about morals, about their evolution, about the wisdom they contain and so on obviously… What we need is not so much morality, but to make it cool to understand basic economics. We need to catch up to Mises. Mises said it clearly :
“Economics must not be relegated to classrooms and statistical offices and must not be left to esoteric circles. It is the philosophy of human life and action and concerns everybody and everything. It is the pith of civilization and of man’s human existence…All present-day political issues concern problems commonly called economic. All arguments advanced in contemporary discussion of social and public affairs deal with fundamental matters of…economics. Everybody’s mind is preoccupied with economic doctrines…Everybody thinks of economics whether he is aware of it or not. In joining a political party and in casting his ballot, the citizen implicitly takes a stand upon essential economic theories…As conditions are today, nothing can be more important to every intelligent man than economics. His own fate and that of his progeny is at stake…all reasonable men are called upon to familiarize themselves with the teachings of economics. This is, in our age, the primary civic duty. Whether we like it or not, it is a fact that economics cannot remain an esoteric branch of knowledge accessible only to small groups of scholars and specialists. Economics deals with society’s fundamental problems; it concerns everyone and belongs to all. It is the main and proper study of every citizen.”
The very last 3 sentences from “Human Action” stress that:
“The body of economic knowledge is an essential element in the structure of human civilization; it is the foundation upon which modern industrialism and all the moral, intellectual, technological, and therapeutical achievements of the last centuries have been built. It rests with men whether they will make the proper use of the rich treasure with which this knowledge provides them or whether they will leave it unused. But if they fail to take the best advantage of it and disregard its teachings and warnings, they will not annul economics; they will stamp out society and the human race.”
In many ways morality has been the problem, as Mises so easily explains:
“The problems involved are purely intellectual and must be dealt with as such. It is disastrous to shift them to the moral sphere and to dispose of supporters of opposite ideologies by calling them villains. It is vain to insist that what we are aiming at is good and what our adversaries want is bad. The question to be solved is precisely what is to be considered as good and what as bad. The rigid dogmatism peculiar to religious groups and to Marxism results only in irreconcilable conflict. It condemns beforehand all dissenters as evildoers, it calls into question their good faith, it asks them to surrender unconditionally. No social cooperation is possible where such an attitude prevails.”
But morality is a double edged sword in a way, the moral indignation gets people to really commit and act, but if it gets into moral/immoral/good vs evil… then “results only in irreconcilable conflict” … The real key is economic education, which is in many ways just education of how the real world works anyway. Who would have thought that someday kids would be learning about genetics in high school? Well we should have same attitude and expect that someday everyone will understand the wisdom of Menger and the Austrians… There is NO understanding of the world without the understanding of money and its evolution and actually, the evolution of the whole market process as all Hayek-aware people know.
We have inadvertently come close via the Ron Paul 2008/2012 revolutions, every libertarian these days knows rising prices is caused by fed money creation… Had RP campaigns had some clever marketing and tried to reach famous people and teach them some basic econ, showing Snoop Dogg how the war on drugs is unwinnable and minimum wages harm black community and so on… Im sure some here may be aware of what is happening with the libertarian party’s Mises Caucus… It is not as Misesian as I’d like, but one can see that at least you have a culture where it is cool to understand economics… The minute a Joe Rogan really understands certain things, the minute some very basic economic concepts can spread virally, we could overturn this thing quickly… Mises, in his deep wisdom, predicted all this, knew what the solution was and oh so much more… It just takes a while for the masses and intellectuals to catch up…
Again, Mises nails it:
“Liberalism is rationalistic. It maintains that it is possible to convince the immense majority that peaceful cooperation within the framework of society better serves their rightly understood interests than mutual battling and social disintegration. It has full confidence in man’s reason. It may be that this optimism is unfounded and that the liberals have erred. But then there is no hope left for mankind’s future.”
If we do not even have enough people who understand basic econ and who also believe that they can somehow reach the masses ” then there is no hope left for mankind’s future.”
Anyway… quick long kinda disjointed post 🙂
A breath of fresh air!
I would add that pure libertarians have become almost as indifferent to facts as liberals are.
Personally, I think there are pure, more or less small government conservatives, on the one hand, and a few hundreds of guys who meet on rarefied blogs and in one another living room every Wednesday of each month to gnaw on cookies and drink esoteric teas, on the other hnad. (Yes, I mean “guys.”)
I would like to be wrong (one more time).