Friday, January 23, 2004

Libertarian v. Conservative

The damn perspicacious Tyler Cowen has recently authored a post at Volokh regarding the difference between Libertarianism and Conservatism, which was itself a reference to an interview on 2blowhards with traditionalist conservative, Jim Kalb. It was my intention to post the second part of the little essay I was constructing on logic before anything else, but Dr. Cowen’s post was of such great interest to be an irresistible force as it were.

Right, so read the above and chew. I did so myself, and I was drawn to two particular items. Firstly, Dr. Cowen comments:
We also can (and should) use positive arguments to determine whether implementing the conservative value-laden vision, or the libertarian competing lifestyles vision, will do more for human welfare.
…and then Dr. Kalb suggests:
…welfare state liberalism and ideological libertarianism are variations of the same thing. Both are basically concerned with satisfying individual preferences and both take all preferences as equal in worth.
I think Dr. Kalb is suggesting that “liberalism” and “libertarianism” are both cut from the same enlightenment cloth. In other words, both systems are axiomatic, deterministic and reductionistic. His point becomes more clear when he contrasts both positions with “conservatism”
They [liberals/libertarians] contrast with conservatism because conservatism says the human good is more complicated than everyone getting what he wants.

In the paper you mention here the emphasis is on methods more than goals. I say there that a "leftist" is someone who favors bureaucracy, a "libertarian" is someone who favors markets, and a "conservative" is someone favors tradition -- that is, who favors accepting institutions that have grown up more or less on their own terms. Leftists and libertarians in their different ways want to make everything completely rational and systematic, and conservatives reject that idea.
I consider myself a libertarian, but I emphatically disagree with the suggestion that libertarianism is of necessity only compatible with some kind of objectivism. My libertarianism is only axiomatic in as much as its one axiom is that I am fundamentally ignorant of everything around me. I am a casualty of the knowledge problem and therefore I cannot simply be beholden to mores and traditions, because I strongly suspect the purveyors of them are just as ignorant as myself. That having been said, I have found myself slowly gravitating to traditional methods and modes of thought despite my skepticism. I consider the “competing lifestyles vision” which Dr. Cowen associates with libertarianism to be an inescapable fact – there can be no alternative save complete totalitarianism. Likewise, I consider the “value-laden vision” to be just as inescapable – even the most confused post-modernist demonstrates a “value system in practice” (if through no other action than just being alive) even if they won’t or can’t admit it – hell, can’t “rationality” or “objectivism” be or become a “value” or “tradition”?

Incidentally, I observe that while “conservatism” is ostensibly concerned with “conserving” the status quo and its attendant traditions, how does it confront the fact that “conservatives” today in this country are attempting to conserve modes of thought and behavior that may or may not be commensurate with the modes of thought and behavior that were being maintained by the “conservatives” of Mesopotamia circa 2,004 BC – which conservatives were maintaining the “correct” values? Additionally, inasmuch as conservatives cling to a particular value even in light of countervailing evidence, are they not demonstrating a rationalism or reductionism in the dogmatic adherence to said value? In that scenario, conservatism itself becomes an axiom from which the dogmatic posture is derived.

So let me attempt to sum up: Drs. Cowen and Kalb seem to be asserting that there are fundamental philosophical/epistemological differences between libertarianism and conservatism. Dr. Kalb seems to be suggesting that conservatism is in fact superior, while Dr. Cowen seems to be cautiously extending an invitation to consider the subject more deeply. My own assertion is that neither is superior nor expendable – in fact I assert that the two are nearly perfectly analogous to yin and yang. It seems to me that constructionism or libertarianism (or whatever other appellation by which it might be recognized) is the manifestation of the undeniable human compulsion to make things happen – while conservatism seems to me the primary way by which new ideas become practical, usable orthodoxy. How can we have one without the other?

One parting thought: my Music Theory professor Stephen Heinemann once said, “Music Theory is not a prescription for music; it is a description of music.” I think the same should be said about political philosophy.

Oh, and once again, I'm generally sorry that you had to read this inscrutable pap.

posted by Malaclypse the Tertiary at 11:08 PM ·

Smart Blogs:
(in no particular order)
Deinonychus Antirrhopus
The Knowledge Problem
The Volokh Conspiracy
The Kolkata Libertarian
Andrew Sullivan
Little Green Footballs
Dave Barry
Libertarian Samizdata
Balloon Juice
Discount Blogger
Truck and Barter
Peking Duck
The Gweilo Diaries

Ludwig von Mises Institute
The Cato Institute
Junk Science
David Friedman
Tech Central Station

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