“Foucault’s Pendulum”: Social Scholarship, Ideology, and Libertarian Temptations

I'm no prophet. My job is making windows where there 
were once walls.
― Michel Foucault

Martin Luther, a German Augustinian monk, is credited with triggering a profound spiritual movement in the minds of early modern Europeans.  Luther, who was an extremely pious Catholic, eventually became a reluctant rebel by channeling the frustrations of the faithful over their inability to reach out directly to God within the then existing church matrix.  The Protestant Reformation, which he helped unleash, developed in opposition to the powerful institutions and guidelines of the Roman Catholic Church that acted as a gatekeeper to the sacred knowledge.  The reformation movement decentered and fragmented the once powerful Catholic ideology and bureaucracy, eventually shifting the minds of people toward the individual interpretation of Scripture.

In its condemnation of Luther, the papal court compared his heresy with that of Jan Hus.  One hundred years prior to Luther, this religious dissenter from Bohemia had been burned at the stake for essentially advocating the same things that were later ushered in by the Protestants.  Puzzled by the comparison, Luther, who had never heard about Hus, went to a library to research what the Bohemian had been up to.  Stunned by the obvious similarities between Hus’s and his own ideas, the rebellious German monk allegedly exclaimed, “Yes, I am a Hussite.”[1]  This historical anecdote was on my mind while I was following a recent debate about how and why, at the end of his life, Michel Foucault (1926-1984) – a 20th-century philosophical giant of a French-Jewish extraction and, simultaneously, one of the intellectual gurus of the modern left – became interested in “neoliberalism.”[2]

F_Wire

Foucault’s intention to explore the ideas of individual liberty and free enterprise – the process which led him to discovering for himself the writings of modern libertarian and libertarian-leaning thinkers, particularly F. A. Hayek (1899-1992), Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973), Wilhelm Röpke (1899-1966), Milton Freedman (1912-2006), and Gary Becker (1930-2014).  As the intellectual historian James Miller has informed us, the outcome of those insights was that Foucault implicitly came to defend “the value of a libertarian kind of liberalism.”[3] Continue reading

Nightcap

  1. Human rights as a troubling neoliberal project Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, Los Angeles Review of Books
  2. Liberals forgot that working for freedom is hard Richard Reeves, Literary Review
  3. Multi-party kleptocracies rather than illiberal democracies Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  4. The demise of the Gandhi dynasty Krishnadev Calamur, the Atlantic

Watson my mind today: culture change

That, and spring time: that mystical time of year when a young student’s fancy turns to their neglected grades and wonders if there is anything they can do once the semester is over to raise them.

Culture is an emergent order. It cannot be owned, so you can’t have a “right” to a culture. It can’t be controlled, and while it can be influenced, it’s a complex system so beware lest your efforts backfire.

— Change doesn’t come, until it comes quickly. This serves as another reminder of the importance of keeping true ideals alive even when they are unpopular and they seem doomed to obscurity.

— It is also a warning about other changes, such as the growing anti-natalism of the left, brought in through environmentalism.

Caplan’s review of Moller’s Governing Least. “Instead of focusing on the rights of the victims of coercion, Moller emphasizes the effrontery of the advocates of coercion.” Even if “exceptions abound” to the “common-sense morality … that rights to person and property are not absolute … Moller sternly emphasizes … that these exceptions come with supplemental moral burdens attached.” Highly recommended.

— Responding to Ambassador Araud’s claim that the culture of neoliberalism and free trade are dead, Sumner says “Intellectuals focus too much on interesting rhetoric and too little on mundane reality.”

— On the importance of a culture that allows people to repent and change, that allows someone to apologize, make amends, and receive public forgiveness.

Nightcap

  1. The intellectual distrust of democracy Jacob Levy, Niskanen
  2. Leave John Locke in the dustbin of history John Quiggin, Jacobin
  3. In defense of neoliberalism William Easterly, Boston Review
  4. The predated mind (our animal origins) Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex

Nightcap

  1. The Left has a culture problem Ross Douthat, New York Times
  2. The transformation of left-neoliberalism Henry Farrell, Crooked Timber
  3. Shrove Tuesday miscellany Nicholas in Faith, All Along the Watchtower
  4. The future of Europe is Dutch Adam Bartha, IEA

Nightcap

  1. Economics after neoliberalism (Hayek) Corey Robin, Boston Review
  2. Should some countries cease to exist? Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  3. Consider reparations Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
  4. (Legal) immigration into the United States Jacques Delacroix, NOL

Libertarianism and Neoliberalism – A difference that matters?

I recently saw a thoroughgoing Twitter conversation between a Caleb Brown, which most of you presumably know from the Cato Daily Podcast, and the Neoliberal Project, an American project founded to promote the ideas of neoliberalism, regarding the differences between libertarianism and neoliberalism. For those who follow the debate, it is nothing new that the core of this contention goes way beyond an etymological dimension – it is concerned with one of the most crucial topics in the liberal scholarship: the relationship between government and free markets.

Arbitrary categories?

I can understand the aim to further structure the liberal movement into subcategories which represent different types of liberalism. Furthermore, I often use these different subcategories myself to distance my political ideology from liberal schools I do not associate with, such as paleo-libertarianism or anarcho-capitalism. However, I do not see such a distinct line between neoliberalism and libertarianism in practice.

As describes by Caleb Brown (and agreed on by the Neoliberal Project), neoliberalism wants to aim the wealth generated by markets at specific social goals using some government mechanism, whilst libertarianism focuses on letting the wealth created by free markets flow where it pleases, so to say. In my opinion, the “difference” between these schools is rather a spectrum of trust in government measures with libertarianism on one side and neoliberalism on the other.

I’ve often reached a certain point in the same discussion with fellow liberals:

Neoliberal: I agree that free markets are the most efficient tool to create wealth. They are just not very good at distributing it. By implementing policy X, we could help to correct market failure Y.

Libertarian: Yeah, I agree with you. Markets do not distribute wealth efficiently. However, the government has also done a poor job trying to alleviate the effects of market failures, especially when we look at case Z… (Of course, libertarians bring forth other arguments than public choice, but it is a suitable example.)

After reaching this point, advocating for governmental measures to fix market failures often becomes a moral and personal objective. My favourite example is emission trading. I am deeply intrigued by the theoretical foundation of the Coase-Theorem and how market participants still can find a Pareto-efficient equilibrium by just negotiating. Based on this theoretical framework, I would love to see a global market for carbon emission trading.

However, various mistakes were made during the implementation of emission allowances. First, there were way too many emission allowances on the market which engendered the price to drop dangerously low. Additionally, important markets such as air and ship transportation were initially left out. All in all, a policy buttressed by a solid theory had a more than rough start due to bad implementation.

At this point, neoliberals and libertarians diverge in their responses. A libertarian sees another failure of the government to implement a well-intended policy, whereas a neoliberal sees a generally good policy which just needs a bit further improvement. In such cases, the line between neoliberals and libertarians becomes very thin. And from my point of view, we make further decisions based on our trust in the government and on our subjective-moral relation to the topic as well.

I saw government too often fail (e.g. engaging in industry politics), which should be left nearly entirely to free markets. However, I also saw the same government struggling to find an adequate response to climate change. Contrary, I believe that officials should carry on with their endeavours to counteract climate change whereas they should stay out of industry politics.

Furthermore, in the recent past, there has been a tremendous amount of libertarian policy proposals put forth which remodeled the role of government in a free society: A libertarian case for mandatory vaccination? Alright. A libertarian case for UBI? Not bad. A libertarian case for a border wall? I am not so sure about that one.

Although these examples may define libertarianism in their own context, the general message remains clear to me: libertarians are prone to support governmental measures if they rank the value of a specific end higher than the risk of a failed policy. Since such an article is not the right framework to gather a robust amount of data to prove my point empirically, I rely on the conjecture, that the core question of where the government must interfere is heavily driven by subjective moral judgements.

Summary

Neoliberals and Libertarians diverge on the issue of government involvement in the economy. That’s fine.

Governmental policies often do not fully reach their intended goals. That’s also fine.

The distinction between neoliberals and libertarians is merely a threshold of how much trust one puts in the government’s ability to cope with problems. Both schools should not value this distinction too much since it is an incredibly subjective issue.