Friday, March 13, 2009

Quibbles and Minutiae: Some Thoughts for Brainpolice

Over at the Polycentric Order blog, Alex "Brainpolice" Strekal posted the beginning of a project he has undertaken to hopefully bring some order to the haphazard jumble of ideas currently living under the broad umbrella of "libertarianism." In this post, I just wanted to write up a few comments on the early goings of Brainpolice's work in hopes that they may be of some use for him.

Brainpolice has some interesting stuff to say about the history and genealogy of libertarian ideas. Since I'm not the most qualified person to give my opinion on those matters, I'll ignore many of them in these comments. But I will note that the account would benefit substantially from the inclusion of citations and references to other discussions which have come before his (i.e., Doherty's Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, Boaz's Libertarianism: A Primer, Murray's What It Means to Be a Libertarian, and Hamowy's The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism). I'm sure Brainpolice doesn't intend to write his whole book about the history of other people's attempts to talk about the history of the movement. But when trying to argue that a lot of people have gotten it wrong, it would be nice if he showed us a little more, instead of just told us. One particular instance where the conversation could seemingly benefit a lot from bringing in outside sources is the discussion of the early history of the liberal movement, where a connection to Hayek's discussions in "Individualism: True and False" and The Constitution of Liberty would make sense to me.

The first substantive issue I can take with Brainpolice's account is in his claim that liberalism and libertarianism are somehow built around the idea of "maximizing" liberty. This claim stands in opposition to the now foundational conception of liberalism and libertarianism as having at least something to do with rights which act as boundaries, rather than as goals to be maximized. I don't mean to suggest that I know that Brainpolice is incorrect about the origin of the term "liberalism" or "libertarianism," but it seems like it needs to be demonstrated that these terms have to do with maximizing liberty. And unfortunately, there is no such demonstration (yet!).

Moving on, an issue that strikes me as somewhat worthy of an expanded handling is Brainpolice's discussion of the roots of socialism. As I understood the history, Marx's thought was a direct outgrowth of the classical economists. And it seems clear to me that Marxism is more different from recognizably "liberal" or "libertarian" perspectives in its conclusions than in its foundations. As Cohen points out in Self-ownership, Freedom, and Equality, Marxism is built upon something very much like the notion of self-ownership, and as I've discussed elsewhere on this blog, some of the core components of the Marxian system can be seen as the outgrowths not of a rejection of liberal ideas but rather Marx's acceptance of the labor theory of value.

Another issue arises from Brainpolice's claim that " is true that anarchism of some sort is the radical conclusion of libertarianism." Without agreeing or disagreeing with this statement, I just think it's obvious that justifying this claim would require a much more significant argument than the mere assertion offered here. That seems especially important in order to avoid making the paragraph sound like it's saying, "Some libertarians think anarchism is the real libertarianism, and others think that minarchism is the real libertarianism. Anarchists, though, can't reasonably kick out the minarchists due to popular usage of the terminology, even though anarchism is clearly the real libertarianism and minarchism is stupid."

Finally, I'm not sure if I'm the biggest fan of the structure of the chapter/essay/whatever it is. I think it initially comes off as being the very introduction that it claims not to be at the end, and might do better by moving some of the concluding material to the beginning, or moving some of the beginning material to later parts of the book where the lineages of specific ideas are discussed more in depth. If the purpose of putting some of the historical anecdotes in this portion is to illustrate how now-clashing ideas have been related to each other in the past, I would suggest that perhaps using more modern examples and ideas would better accomplish this goal (i.e., Murray Rothbard vs. F.A. Hayek or Ayn Rand, David Friedman's consequentialism, or Roderick Long vs. Walter Block), as people might be less hesitant in such cases to say, "Well sure Marxism is based on many of the same 18th century ideas as libertarianism, but that doesn't mean they're connected now," than they would be to say, "Well sure Block's thin libertarianism is based on many of the same 20th century ideas as Long's thick libertarianism, but that doesn't mean they're connected now."

But all in all, I think this was a good start, and I'm definitely excited to read more. I also want to commend Alex for starting this project; this is quite the undertaking, and I think it's fantastic that someone is trying to do something like this. Hopefully these comments will be of some help!

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