2 cheers for ideological impurity

Is there a benefit to ideological impurity within the libertarian movement?

That seems like a silly question, but it has been a debate among hardcore libertarians for quite a while. I’m not talking about the old anarchist/minarchist debate. I’m talking about a debate among the anarchists themselves. Some of us see the principles of freedom and nonagression to be fundamentally at odds with the state, any state, and we think that shying away from that point muddies the waters and concedes the principled part of the debate to the statists. Others of us (I’m on both sides in this debate) think that the difference between less state and more state is more important than the difference between less state and no state, and we see it as useless infighting to focus on a distinction whose practical impact seems far in the future — if it will ever exist at all.

But I think there’s another point to be made in favor of ideological impurity: newcomers need stepping stones. At least most do. I myself have tended to experience conversions in my thinking to come in giant leaps. "Oh, I hadn’t seen things that way before, but the logic is solid, so I’m convinced!" That’s what happened with my leap to libertarianism, my jump from minarchism to anarchism, and my shift in thinking about intellectual property, so called. But I understand that very few people work that way. They have to take the proverbial baby steps.

I’m thinking about this because of a recent tweet from Mike Reid, which pointed me to “Practical Anarchy” at Reason.com, Lucy Steigerwald’s review of James C. Scott’s latest book, Two Cheers for Anarchism.

I first heard of Scott when I edited Mike’s review of Seeing Like a State (text, audio). Mike describes Scott as the man who converted him to libertarianism, which is ironic considering just how textbook leftist Scott’s reasons are for stopping short of true philosophical anarchism. Scott, says Steigerwald,

believes the actual elimination of the state would be impossible, impractical, and perhaps even unwanted. Economic inequality and the exploitation of the powerless by the powerful make “a cruel sham” of the notion of an entirely stateless freedom, Scott writes, so “we are unfortunately stuck with Leviathan.” He points to the 101st Airborne’s role in integrating Little Rock schools to refute the notion that a state can never be used to protect individuals.

Right out of a public-school text on the Progressive Era, the New Deal, the civil-rights era, the Great Society, etc. Scott even has a chapter called “In Defense of Politics.” My impression from both reviews is that James Scott is something of a throw back to the old "New Left" of the 1960s, except that many so-called New Leftists seemed, for a while at least, more comfortable with their similarities to even such groups as the John Birch Society. What we saw over and over again with the New Left, however, and with James Scott it seems, is an attempt to distance themselves from free-market thinkers that is based primarily in ignorance of both economics and the libertarian tradition.

Mike notes this:

Scott himself seems a little troubled by his similarity to certain free-market thinkers, and he is at pains to distance himself from “such proponents of laissez-faire as Friedrich Hayek." … Unfortunately, Scott says again and again in Seeing Like a State that his criticisms of top-down planning could be extended to “large-scale capitalism.” He makes these asides throughout his book even though he does not define “capitalism” and even though none of his case studies concerns a free-market project.

And Lucy Steigerwald agrees:

Scott’s thoughts on economics are hampered by the fact that he isn’t entirely clear on what libertarians believe. (He thinks the logical end of a purely free market is that a parent can sell a child because it’s “a personal choice.”)

But the other thing that Mike Reid and Lucy Steigerwald agree on is that midway types like James Scott (and Jane Jacobs, whom many libertarians admire) are useful to libertarians and libertarianism, even as they try to distance themselves from those labels and this movement. It’s not just because they have important practical facts to teach us about spontaneous order (which is not a term they use), but also because future members of the ideologically pure elite will have taken their first steps by reading these ambivalent allies of freedom.

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5 Responses to 2 cheers for ideological impurity

  1. Mike Reid says:

    I think my excitement about “impure” figures like Jacobs and Scott runs even deeper than yours, BK.

    Libertarians recognize that there are certain fundamental truths about human nature that mean that the ideal conditions for human flourishing are the absence of violence and the respect for property. But I do not think we libertarians have a monopoly on ideas recognizing and expressing those fundamental truths.

    So people like Jacobs and Scott — and much more far-flung people like the so-called libertarian hunter-gatherers that Thomas Mayor describes, may be stumbling toward the same essential truths as we are, just from different directions.

  2. natmarcus says:

    And once the baby steps are taken, it’s good to read things by people like Scott (not that I’ve read him) and be able to point out their weaknesses or faulty arguments and further develop one’s own thinking.

  3. natmarcus says:

    Oops, cut out part of my comment. Let me start over…

    Being the indecisive sort, I agree with what you’re saying. Some of us need to take baby steps.

    And once the baby steps are taken, it’s good to read things by people like Scott (not that I’ve read him) and be able to point out their weaknesses or faulty arguments and further develop one’s own thinking.

  4. Scott Lahti says:

    Their specialist tastes in reading matter and candle-burning debate aside, self-described libertarians en bloc are quite normal in that they in-group form a microcosm all their own of the larger society in its proverbial divisions of labor, and in their own boundless variations in character, intelligence and broham coolness as hangout buddies, with the usual ratio of princes to paupers whatever the chosen metric; one defends them from their traducers as one, adapting eats pancakes, up to a point, respecting with hand in hand that most solemn among Austro-marginalist Laws, that of Diminishing Returns. Have ten thousand of the healthiest among them certified by Funk and Wagnalls for rock-ribbed doctrinal purity and loose them upon an unsuspecting planet already outfitted with 2012 infrastructure and statute books out of Rothbard before pronouncing it within all of two minutes a planet neither here nor there vis-a-vis earth as we with immemorial shrugs and sighs know her.

    Speaking of “third way” stepping stones to anti-state thinkers, the reader might have a look at the sort of liberal education suggested by the Bibliography derived from the full-run online archive of MANAS (1948-1988), the jaw-dropping neo-Platonic, Indophile, organic weekly*

    *[Whose Wikipedia entry I really ought to expand c. twenty-fold – even if, this time, there’s no cash prize involved]

    edited and written almost entirely (and always anonymously) by a Los Angeles Theosophist, WWII anarcho-pacifist conscientious objector by the name of Henry Geiger (1908?-1989), whose often spellbinding pages incarnating a virtually nineteenth-century style of polymathic bookish literacy gave him the appearance of a man who simply read everything not just in hard covers but among the current periodicals at both the nearest university library – and its Indian counterparts. I note the fact that the list of 250 or so authors so listed affords pride of place to the Thoreau/Tolstoy/Gandhi strain in world social philosophy, with Ortega y Gasset neck-and-neck, and even Albert Jay Nock among the copious honorable mentions discussed regularly over the paper’s forty-one years.

    Suggested Reading on libertarian bridge-building with the larger mainstreams:

    Richard Cornuelle, “New Work for Invisible Hands” (reprinted as “The Power and Poverty of Libertarian Thought”)

    Jeffrey Friedman, “The End of Political Activism“;** “What’s Wrong With Libertarianism“; “Postmodernism vs. Postlibertarianism“; “Remembering Richard Cornuelle“.***

    ** “As libertarians well know, politics is the most simplistic, irrational segment of modern mass culture; politicians invariably do their best to follow, not change, the basest, most idiotic passions, of the electorate. So what makes us think we can use this forum to educate people about radically disturbing, hyper-rational ideas? …

    “Despite (or because of) their radical willingness to challenge political conventional wisdom, many libertarians have developed a conventional wisdom of their own that ill-disposes them to be as open-minded toward those who disagree with them as they would have other people be toward libertarianism.****

    ****[“Moreover, the focus on politics and economics has either deadened many libertarians to the vast realms of life that have nothing to do with those subjects, or alternatively, it has politicized their appreciation of those realms–e.g., art. For such libertarians, either nothing exists save politics and economics (and perhaps science), or all the other things that do exist must be evaluated by their political implications. I realize that these broad strokes are unfair to many libertarians, but it would be hard to dispute that the culture of libertarians is, by and large, a peculiar and narrow one.”] …

    “Thinking of ourselves first as people (or intellectuals, or truth-seekers), and as “libertarians” second, and only contingently, is the path to effective influence on society, because only open-minded thinkers and scholars will transform the top of the intellectual pyramid. But this is not the ultimate reason to develop this self-concept. The real reason is that until we do, we are nothing more than ideologues, reduced to the level of party hacks, the victims of our own dogmas. This is a great position for a “revolutionary cadre” to be in, but not for self-respecting people with minds of their own.”

    *** “Even in a brief encounter, one could sense that he was a rare human being, genuinely kind-hearted, open minded, intellectually inquisitive and delighted by new ideas. His friends included Saul Alinsky, Robert Heilbroner, Kirkpatrick Sale, and Betty Friedan. Dick never let politics get in the way of friendship; but in any event, many on the left admired his vision of a de-bureaucratized society.”

  5. Scott Lahti says:

    Arrgh! The need to self-erratacize – as it were – suggests itself:

    “one defends them from their traducers as one, adapting eats pancakes, up to a point,”

    Did I mean: as one, adapting the late Mitch Hedberg, eats pancakes with excitement, up to a point

    “respecting with hand in hand” *

    Did I mean.: respecting with hat in hand*

    *Cf. Lou Reed/The Velvet Underground: “And I’ve walked down life’s lonely highways/Hand in hand with myself … “

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