Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Randal Paul, Libertarianism, and Utopianism

Randal Paul is getting beat up over some politically incorrect statements about the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I don't care much one way or the other about Paul or the Civil Rights Act, so ordinarily I wouldn't weigh in. But there's one element to the criticism worth commenting on.

Whatever Paul's actual views and their proper interpretation, he is widely viewed as a libertarian. So, naturally, critics are crawling out of the woodwork to condemn his putative political philosophy. And, what's their major beef? It's 'utopian'.

True or not, one problem with that criticism is the utter hypocrisy of the Progressives (and, unfortunately, many conservatives who have jumped on the beat-down bandwagon) who utter it. Since when, among Progressives, did striving for an ideal (even one regarded as impossible to fully achieve) count as a mark against it?

If there is anything good about Progressivism at all, it is its idealistic orientation. (Never mind for now the nature of the ideals it espouses, or whether the closer one comes to them, the worse off everyone actually becomes.)

The more serious error than even the false imputation and erroneous interpretation, though, is the package deal put forth. Some aspects (according to critics) of the libertarian program are unachievable, therefore the entire orientation is mistaken. This is yet another in an endless line of false alternatives put forth by enemies of liberty to discredit even the attempt to expand it against the statist onslaught swallowing the country.

I've got my own beefs with aspects of libertarianism, particularly the anarchic strain as well as the more or less standard position on national defense. Even so, when someone criticizes it as 'utopian', my response is: "Umm, yeah, so?"

Unfortunately, even well-meaning conservatives are getting into this act in a serious way. Yuval Levin recently penned an essay discussing the need to defend capitalism morally and basically gave away the entire game to the Progressives.

Keying off Adam Smith's moral views, he wrote:
Smith began with a middling view of human nature, neither utopian nor cynical. He believed that even though human beings are fundamentally self-interested, we can be guided toward sympathy and benevolence.

Our sentiments, he said, begin with a powerful self-regard that expresses itself in our desires for attention, praise, and recognition, and motivates a great deal of human behavior. Even our sympathy for others begins with ourselves: We feel compassion for someone in distress because we can imagine ourselves in his predicament.

But for Smith, the fact that our self-regard finds expression in a desire for approval offers an opening for moral education — for moderating both our passions and our animal appetites to make civilized life possible.

Our ability to step into someone else's shoes allows us to reflect on our own behavior, and to ask: "How would what I'm doing look to someone else observing me?" In that question — about that imaginary "impartial spectator," as Smith put it — is the beginning of social order and of self-restraint, and so the first impulse to moral conformity and common social norms.

This is how, in a well-functioning society, our sentimental tendencies to self-regard can become inclinations to sympathy and decency.
Mr. Levin could benefit from a few Objectivist lectures on ethics and the philosophy of history because these are exactly the moral views that allowed modern statism to overthrow 19th century liberalism and laissez-faire.

The view that self-interest is opposed to benevolence led inevitably to the idea that it must be restrained (or at least, redirected) in order to prevent 'the strong' preying on 'the weak'.

The Humean/Smithean idea that self-regard consists of, as Rand put it, being Keating-like second-handers who long above all for attention, praise, and recognition can have only one proper response: "Speak for yourself, pal."

Worst of all, the Comtean altruistic view that society should be organized according to a warped utilitarian principle of "the greatest good for the weakest members" is responsible for virtually all of the modern welfare state depredations conservatives claim to want to combat. I don't hold with Rand's dictum (as a universal principle) that a bad argument is worse than none. But it's definitely true here.

If for no other reasons than these, Randal Paul's critics deserve a vigorous eff-you.


Ken said...

It recently occurred to me (if you want to say the thought is late in occurring to me, due to the angle of my forehead, I don't reckon I could argue, partly because I wouldn't understand your big words) that the "utopian" argument used against liberty is self-refuting.

Basically, even the relatively more thoughtful form of the argument (the stoopid form is "Whadda you got against the fire department?") goes like this: "Not everyone is a rational utility maximizer all the time" (or not everyone is as wise and upright or the Founders, or whatever flavor is being peddled at a given time).

Okay, fine, granted. So the answer, then, is to turn the monopoly of aggressive force over to....whom? People who aren't always rational utility maximizers, or who aren't as wise and upright as the Founders, or whatever flavor is being peddled?

As I asked elsewhere, are you seriously arguing that because someone (or some group of someones every bit as fallible and benighted as thee and me, or at least me) gave a guy a badge, a flag, and a seal (Great Seal of the United States, Good Housekeeping Seal, Nabisco Seal, whatever), he's one of G-d's gorram anointed?

Jeff Perren said...

Very astute, Ken. But you're overlooking the 'fact' that we're not talking about mere mortals here. Our wannabe overlords are just wiser, smarter, and infinitely purer than the rest of us you know.

Maybe you could have surgery for that forehead.