September 29, 2009

Questioning both kinds of liberalism

A friend emails:
The discussion of Left and Right always assumes underlying agreement on liberalism. Left-liberal social democrats and Right-liberal free-marketeers define the acceptable boundaries of "ideological discourse".

But liberalism is the thing that is causing ideological confusion and conflict. Liberalism, the philosophy of untrammelled individual autonomy, is not compatible with cohesive institutional authorities such as families, churches or states. (And maybe even companies, going by the self-destructive tendencies in financial markets.)

Liberalism also tends to lead to natural dysfunction, at the micro-level with obesity and macro-level with global warming.

But its sacred tenets are never questioned.

I think that liberalism has a narcotic effect on its victims, inducing a life-long intellectual stupour when it comes to examining its own assumptions.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

29 comments:

kurt9 said...

What your friend does not point out is that all institutions are bureaucracies and that all bureaucracy is inherently dysfunctional. This is why innovation usually occurs outside the "system" and why the freedom to step outside the system is so vital for a society.

It is the nature of any social structure or hierarchy to inhibit innovation. Innovation is threatening because it forces them to compete and, therefor, to be productive, This is the horror of horrors because they may actually have to think and to work. Thinking and working are two things that most human being want to avoid at any cost whatsoever.

Liberalism (classical, Lockian liberalism) is inherently better than any other system because it is dynamic. Dynamism is better than statism. I think Virginia Postrel is correct that the real battle in human society is between dynamism and stasis.

I prefer dynamism simply because it has far more to offer me and I don't mind thinking and working.

kurt9 said...

Also, I do not believe in "institutional authority". I believe in "authority" based on knowledge and competence only.

For example, if I want to build a polywell fusion reactor, I would go to and get advice from people who are building such things and have the requisite knowledge of plasma physics. In other worlds, the people I refer to are the "authority" in plasma physics and polywell fusion by virtue of their knowledge and experience in this field.

This is the only meaningful concept of "authority" to productive, free-thinking people.

Edward said...

Modern liberalism is a way of life. It's doing, not thinking, which is what people who have no life do (if you're a liberal).

Liberalism is not a faulty way of thinking... it's a lack of thinking.

The more liberal you are the more thoughtlessly you behave.

Mike Courtman said...

One of the problems with the critiques of liberalism in the 90s was that they only focused on one type of liberalism, for example the right wing talk show hosts focused on left-liberalism and political correctness while authors on the left like Christopher Lasch and John Ralston Saul attacked the hyper-rationalism of right liberalism.

Thanks to the Internet we now have a number of relatively popular conservative bloggers (Auster, Kalb, Richardson etc) who are attempting to critique both kinds of liberalism in an even-handed manner.

The next challenge will be to try and decide on those aspects of liberalism which are worth conserving and try to integrate them into a kind of post-modern conservatism which balances communitarian ideas like nationalism and states rights with classical liberal values like free speech and free association.

josh said...

Democracy is almost never questioned.

Acilius said...

I don't at all agree that liberalism is "the philosophy of untrammelled individual autonomy."

Rather, I would say that the distinguishing characteristic of liberalism is a belief in limited power. To the extent that it is characterized by that belief, liberalism is a philosophy that rejects all untrammelled autonomy.

Unlike anarchists, liberals view governments, markets, churches, family structures, etc as legitimate if their power is kept within definite limits and if their power puts limits on power elsewhere in society.

Right-liberals, whether they call themselves conservatives, libertarians, classical liberals, or what have you, tend to see the power of the state as the main thing that needs limiting, while left-liberals tend to emphasize the need for a strong state to limit the power of the market or of other nonstate institutions. Neither variety tries to create "untrammelled autonomy" for any individual.

Anonymous said...

Be fair! How many people -- Left, Right, Up, Down, Whatever -- are really serious about examining their own assumptions?

Jeff said...

Liberalism has sometimes been called "the blob" or "the hive" because liberals are a fairly cohesive team that will mouth the same talking points.

Liberalism can be described historically, and its evolution can be traced. It can also be described also as a collection of ethnic and other subgroups that work together as a team.

Its philosophy is difficult to describe because the talking points are opportunistic. What is the liberal position on Afghanistan? To try to describe Bill Clinton's philosophy is the same as to ask, "What color is a mirror?"

The most straightforward approach is to describe them ethnically, which Americans are terrified to do. The core of liberalism in American consists of Jews and blacks. Other groups, such as gays and feminists, join the team so as to share in the spoils.

This team destroys families and businesses because plundering them in order to finance their corrupt "social services" empire is what they are all about.

idealart said...

I believe in "authority" based on knowledge and competence only.

Didn't the Russians and Chinese and so forth try that already? I would imagine Lenin and his pals thought themselves very smart and competent.

Traditional values have their place. Centuries of human experience passed down from one generation to the next are what bind a people together. Otherwise, "mere anarchy is loosed . . ." The concept of the Universe as something we can try to understand through reason is Judeo-Christian and found in no other civilization. Please read Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Reason. Cheers

l said...

The tags 'liberal' and 'conservative' don't mean anything anymore, aside from denoting party affiliation.
And both parties mean more war abroad, more police state at home and more debt forever.

Fred said...

"For example, if I want to build a polywell fusion reactor, I would go to and get advice from people who are building such things and have the requisite knowledge of plasma physics."

Doesn't it take a bureaucracy, of sorts, to support the building of something like this? It's not something a couple of tinkerers in their garage can make, is it?

kurt9 said...

Fred,

You need a certain amount of organization in order to build a polywell, as you do for any other task. What I was getting at is that I believe in creating the minimal amount of organization necessary to accomplish a specific goal, and nothing more. The task or goal is what is of value, not the organization itself.

However, organizations, once created, tend to take on a life of their own. They come to view their own self-preservation as their primary purpose and the task or goal that they were created to do becomes secondary. Indeed, they become reticent to actually accomplish their original purpose because it will obsolete the need for the organization.

This is an inherent trait of any form of human organization. This is often referred to as Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy.

It is my personal experience that libertarianism, as a political philosophy, is the only one that recognizes this reality of human social organization. I believe that people should be free to create whatever organizations to accomplish whatever tasks they set before them. I do not believe that any human institution has value independent of actual task accomplishment. To believe that human institutions have inherent value is what I call institutionalism.

I consider non-libertarian conservatism to be a form of institutionalism. That's why I do not believe in it.

Mike said...

1. Commenter "I" seems to have a good point. Liberal and conservative are increasingly just empty labels of party affiliation. And both parties are broken.

2. Whenever I venture into these comments, I wonder why you've enabled comments. Some comments are good; many are bad. Some are really distressingly bad.

So, I guess it's none of my business, but I'm always struck by the disparity between the quality of your writing and the quality of your average site comment. Perhaps you could consider a more aggressive, gnxp.com-style approach to pruning comments.

Anonymous said...

I have noticed that many of the people who consider themselves "counter culture" or rebels could not live on thier own for more than about 3 days with out starving to death. Without other functioning people around them to feed off of, many progressives would find their lifesytles regressing back to a more primitave status. A culture can only support so many surplus mouths before it rebels against the freeloaders.

Bob said...

"all bureaucracy is inherently dysfunctional"

Wrong wrong wrong.

The British Imperial bureaucracy ruled India, Pakistan, and Bangladash with under 4000 civil servents and 10,000 soldiers.

Bob said...

Among some peoples liberalism as well as several alternatives work well.

Among others, nothing works too well.

Anonymous said...

kurt9,

What are the transaction costs associated with creating new structures every time a problem arises? Also, "innovation" is not an unquestionable good.

agricola

Anonymous said...

"The concept of the Universe as something we can try to understand through reason is Judeo-Christian and found in no other civilization."

Nonsense, plenty of other religions have the same idea about reason and yet have been nowhere near as successful as Western Civilization. For all the importance of Christianity's role in the Western Civ story, it seems to be something else which has made the west successful, otherwise the west would be just another monotheistic backwater. As an example, Ethiopia also has Christianity, it's pretty safe to say it hasn't helped them much.

kurt9 said...

What are the transaction costs associated with creating new structures every time a problem arises?

Less than the costs of having to fight an entrenched bureaucracy that resists innovation.

Also, "innovation" is not an unquestionable good.

If you're talking about nuclear bombs, I agree with you. Otherwise, I completely disagree with you. The social purpose of innovation is to prevent the formation and ossification of static social structures.

Ironically, the nuclear bomb is about the only successful innovation that came out of a bureaucracy (the Manhattan Project).

Studd Beefpile said...

Bob> The dumbness of a bureaucracy is directly proportional to its size. Good institutional design (which the Raj had, mostly by accident) can help, but only so much. Any organization that grows gets dumber, and since any organization that survives grows, all organizations get dumber over time. This is why capitalism works, not because private companies are inherently better run than the government (though they are smaller) but because it's constantly killing off the weakest in the herd.

Andrea Beavis Butthead said...

"Liberalism, the philosophy of untrammelled individual autonomy..."

Liberalism is not necessarily for 'untrammelled individual autonomy'. In an all-too repressive or conservative society, it can mean a struggle for more(as opposed to TOTAL) openness, individuality, and freedom. Anglo-Americanism has always been about seeking the balance between the individual and the group, between liberty and community values. Just check out John Ford westerns. John Wayne represents rugged individuality and freedom, but all said and done, he sides with the community--the need for towns and churches and safe streets for womenfolks and schools for kids.

The libertarianism that we see today isn't really of Anglo-American origin but more of a radical European ideological bent. Ayn Rand took only one aspect of American culture and purified/radicalized it into what might be called individualist-stalinism. If the collective was the ONLY thing for Lenin, the individual was the ONLY thing for Rand. Libertarianism is intellectualist, more wedded to theory than connected with reality.

True American liberalism was rooted in the soil of real experience and pragmatism and compromise. It was a partner of conservatism. Moderate pragmatic liberalism went well with moderate pragmatic conservatism. We need to go back to the Anglo-American roots in our political and social thinking and practice.

Anonymous said...

Mike - I'm always struck by the disparity between the quality of your writing and the quality of your average site comment.

The comments here are one of the great features! To actually read numerous comments by people who are not actualy stupid, it gives me some hope for the human race.

Comment threads like these are a real rarity. I spend far, far too much time on-line arguing with left and right liberals. Many of them operate at a level so lacking in awareness of the facts or issues, they merely regurgitate talking points from the MSM. Thats why the comments at iSteve are great.

Edward said...

The British Imperial bureaucracy ruled India, Pakistan, and Bangladash with under 4000 civil servents and 10,000 soldiers.

Modern bureaucracies, like the European Union Commission and the United Nations have upwards of 38k bureaucrats each.

In India in 1930 there were 1014 in "controlling grades". As bureaucracies go that is small, and possibly efficient.

Perhaps it could be said all bureaucracies tend to dysfunction but there are obviously cases where some are better than others.

Even across type. I'd expect the transport bureaucracy for road signage is more efficient than the social services bureaucracy for tracing absent fathers.

MQ said...

Ironically, the nuclear bomb is about the only successful innovation that came out of a bureaucracy

Wow, this comment shows real ignorance of history and economics. Starting in the late 19th century and throughout the industrial era, a ton of innovation came out of large corporate labs. Bell Labs, IBM, Dupont, the list goes on and on. This is well known -- even today most patents have the name of corporations on them and not individuals. Even the internet was first created by a defense department bureaucracy.

We all know how bureaucracy can go too far, but you have to ask why all successful mass societies have been bureaucratically organized. THe problem is how to use bureaucracy without taking it to extremes.

kurt9 said...

Starting in the late 19th century and throughout the industrial era, a ton of innovation came out of large corporate labs. Bell Labs, IBM, Dupont, the list goes on and on. This is well known -- even today most patents have the name of corporations on them and not individuals.

Most of these were the result of tightly focused small groups that were allowed considerable autonomy within the parent company. Also, much of the pioneering work that formed the basis of these large companies were the result of a single founder or a group of founders (e.g. Watson at IBM).

Large group endeavors can be successful providing that they are private and are focused on attaining specific goals.

I have worked for both large and small companies. I have also been involved in non-profit organizations (e.g. L-5 Society, NSS, Alcor. etc.). Almost all of my personal experience has been that the smaller organization are more effective at task accomplishment than the larger organization. I will also tell you that no task accomplishment occurs without smart, dedicated, hard working individuals.

Besides, none of this applies to the society-wide level anyways because society does not consist exclusively of smart dedicated individuals who are devoted to a single common goal. The larger society can be thought of as a "meta" system where individuals and groups spontaneously self-order to accomplish whatever accomplishments they choose to set before them. You are comparing apples with oranges.

Marc B said...

The real schism is between Neo-Liberals and their acceptance in almost totality of every anti-intuitive whim that falls under the umbrella of PC compared to the more reasonable classical liberal that fought for government regulations, against war, civil liberties, and government assistance for it's citizens during extended bouts of unemployment and unfunded retirement. I can have a spirited discussion with the latter, but can rarely agree anything resembling logic to even endure a discussion with with the former. The level of indoctrination of SWPL would bring tears of joy to the most Quixotic of the Frankfurt Schoolmarms.

Neo-Libs and Neo-Cons are the establishment. Just watch any Sunday morning talk show or cable network political panel discussion. Most outside that paradigm have no voice. That explains why a certain unfit mother from Alaska has caused so much excitement within the long neglected populist base of the Republican party. They are not sure what she is about, and they like it!

David Davenport said...

Try this:

"What are the transaction costs associated with creating new laws and new mores every time a problem arises?

Less than the costs of having to fight an entrenched bureaucracy that resists new mores and the transvaluation of traditional values,"

... said the romantic Leftist-anarchist.

none of the above said...

kurt9:

It's a mistake to just look at the innovators (the small set of people at the pointy end of the organization, who are doing the amazing innovation). Those people almost always need some level of support and infrastructure. When that required level of infrastructure gets above a certain size, bureaucracy is almost inevitable. Someone has to buy the equipment, keep the equipment in working order, hire and fire people, keep the bills paid, maintain the building, etc. For software and biotech, that infrastructure can be relatively small. For chip design or fusion research, the infrastructure is huge and complex, and may itself have to be designed by other innovators.

At the extreme end, you get a whole chain or tree of innovators feeding off each other. Each has support staff, labs, equipment, office space, a library, etc.

Now, maybe there's another way to work this. But what *we* know how to do in this situation is to build up a bureaucracy.

none of the above said...

I suspect liberalism in the broad sense (not the US Democratic party sense) is largely a reaction to rapid technological change. When technology is changing rapidly, it makes old received wisdom less useful.

An analogy from biology (from a non-biologist): Some species are superbly adapted to one particular environment. Others are more flexible, less perfectly tuned to where they are now but more able to adapt. In times when conditions are largely static, you'd expect that first kind of species to do better. In times when conditions are not static, the second group is more likely to do well.