Libertarianism And Its Cultured Despisers

Posted by nouspraktikon on February 18, 2023

A review of D.C. Schindler, Freedom from Reality The diabolical character of modern liberty University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, 2017

A thoughtful philosopher with a worthy name has written an important book, perhaps one destined to become a classic of its type. That the type is narrowly sectarian, and that the book is likely to harm that hybrid thing Americans call “conservatism” is rather a shame. It is a learned work full of brilliant insights, the premise of which, however cogent and well developed, borders on the derogatory. This is evident even from the title. Schindler might have used “the diabolical nature of modern liberalism,” but if so he would have been pulling his punches. Schindler’s liberalism is, sadly, the genuine classical liberalism, not the spurious “liberalism” of media outlets attempting to navigate a progressive agenda through an ideological fog. Schindler’s demons aren’t Jacobins, they’re Whigs, and to nail down his point unequivocally, he structures his tome around a criticism of John Locke.

Locke, as demon-in-chief, becomes for Schindler the symbol for modernity’s unraveling civilization. Or rather, Locke, instead of being symbolic, is “diabolic” according to Schindler’s peculiar terms-of-art. Basing himself on etymologies drawn from classical philosophy, for Schindler “symbolic” means synthesis, while its antithesis “diabolic” connotes an anti-synthetic process. One is hard pressed whether to censure Schindler for slander or to admire the kind of rhetorical slam dunk which is seldom seen outside the poisonous pens of left-wing journalism. What makes his Anti-Locke (to bowlderize the title) cogent is its teleology. Yes, civilization is in a process of increasing fragmentation, seemingly heading towards an end-state of total dissolution. You don’t have to be a “conservative” to see that. The only item of contention regards what idea or force is the main solvent.

While Schindler’s culprit is liberalism, there are plenty of other factors which, arguably having played a positive role in the rise of civilization are now seen as its nemesis. Technology, the managerial state, and the rage for equality are among the leading contenders. Granted, these are sociological categories rather than ontological concepts, and Schindler, straining to be a pure theorist, sketches out his symbolic/diabolic with bare reference to history, or rather only such systematized detail as one might encounter in Hegel’s Philosophical Encyclopaedia. Indeed, Schindler gives one the impression of a Hegel who has been, not simply stood on his head (or feet, as per Marx) but turned inside out in order to generate a deconstructive dialectic.

Although this amounts to something of a tour-de-force, Schindler is hardly the first to suggest that (Western) civilization has been endangered by faulty ontological and epistemological presuppositions. The increasing alienation between the psychological subject and the objective cosmos was a persistent theme throughout 20th century. Perhaps the best example being Husserl and the classical (not contemporary) phenomenologists, although there have been many others as well. What makes Schindler unusual (at least among non-leftists) is the vehemence with which he assigns exclusive blame to “liberalism.” There may be some conservatives who will welcome this turn of thought, but it is fraught with danger, since there is in fact no such thing as a pure conservativism, at least in today’s world, and whatever “reality” it consists of is dependent on a synthesis of classical liberal and traditionalist persuasions. By threatening to undo this synthesis, Schindler seems to be, according to his own nomenclature, playing the role of the devil.

The plausibility of Schindler’s anti-liberalism rests on two pillars. The first is the vulnerability of Locke, and the second is the very ambiguity of liberalism itself. It should be conceded from the outset that Locke is an embarrassment. F. Hayek notes in The Constitution of Liberty, that thechoice of Locke as eponymous ancestor of all Whig ideology was rather fortuitous, closer historical examination revealing the importance of other thinkers who are now considered secondary. Prolix, contradictory, and hypocritical, such qualities explain why Locke scholarship has become a contentious, and highly productive industry among American academics. If for no other reason, Schindler’s Anti-Locke is worth the read for giving one a birds-eye, and relatively painless overview of these Liliputian heroics.

Perhaps we (we being libertarians) are stuck with Locke as a “symbol” in Schindler’s laudatory sense, like a gestalt figure where you must either see John Locke or Karl Marx, even though both images are legends, not accurate historical depictions. However behind the symbol is the Whig movement itself, or what Hayek called “Old Liberalism.” Whatever its inconsistancies and failings, this movement represented a serious challenge to despotism, and a commitment to the rule of law. Such a broad historical phenomenon cannot simply be disposed of a priori as “demonic” by a clever dialectic, however trenchant and precise.

Now it is certainly true that a vast armada of ideas and movements have sailed under the ensign of liberalism, some tacking to the left and some to the right, and many continuing on in a direction contrary to that of the main fleet. There is classical liberalism, neo-liberalism, ordo-liberalism, cutural and economic liberalism. Schindler shies away from these significant differences, as well he might, since for him liberalism plays the role of the devil, just as for Hegel the Absolute plays the role of God. Hence it must all be of one piece. None the less, one gets the overall impression that for Schindler the worst liberalism is true liberalism, i.e., classical liberalism. There might be a certain logic to this, in that the enemy of the Good is the second-best, but Schindler’s demonizing rhetoric makes it hard to see any good at all in liberalism.

It is hard to respond to Schindler because, in a sense, the response has already been made by “liberalism” itself, in the form of the radical 20th century libertarian movement, a movement who’s most consistent 21st century advocates are called “paleo-libertarians.” Libertarianism was more than just a change in nomenclature from “liberalism” or even the “Old Liberals” of Hayek. It was an ideological purification of liberalism’s inconsistencies and embarrassments. Ironically, it took a page from Schindler’s book, a book that wouldn’t be written for another half-century, going behind John Locke’s back to that great fountain of science itself, Aristotle.

It would be interesting to show how the efforts of the great libertarians of the mid-20th century, whatever their mutual contentions (think Rand vs. Rothbard!), took the form of a Back-to-Aristotle movent, but this wouldn’t help much as a refutation of Schindler’s demonization of all things liberal, except to add that dash of irony. What is salient is the direction that the purification of liberalism took. The task was to close the era of Lockean pragmatism and restore fundamental principles. Obviously, this was not just one, but a virtual infinity of tasks, but there was one salient endeavor which bears mention as a preemption of Schindler’s critique of liberalism, and that is the critical distinction between the psychology of choice and the logic of freedom.

It is the psychology of choice which in Locke’s day would have been known as “libertarianism” but this is in fact not what the authors of the mid-20th century movement that called itself “libertarian” were up to. Austrian economics, which served as the scientific basis for much of libertarian thought, was explicitly non-psychological. In the formulations of Ludwig von Mises, human action had to be conceived of as an autonomous phenomenon understood through logic, a domain he termed praxiology. This non-psychologism did not amount to an anti-psychologism, in so far as consciousness and the unconscious realms of the human mind could be interpreted by a separate study which he called thymology. This is far from, indeed antithetical, to the kind of empirically based theories of choice-from-consciousness which seem to characterize John Locke, at least from the perspective of Schildler’s criticism.

But what, one might object, about the most famous publicist of libertarianism (albeit she eschewed the term) Ayn Rand? What about “the virtue of selfishness” and all that? Would she not be a good example of Lockean liberalism in an advanced and particularly degenerate form? Whatever Rand’s problems, and there were many, no, she did not exemplify the deification of arbitrary choice. On the contrary, her instincts were those of a determinist. Much to the irritation of psychological “liberals” her heroes tended to be embodiments of teleological principles. Bad literature perhaps, but not psychological/volantarist constructs of a Lockean ilk. Indeed, Murry Rothbard is reported to have talked her out of explict (rather than tacit) determinism.

Then what about Rothbard himself? Again, as a student of Mises he was a praxeologist, hence he made a distinction between logic and psychology. Just as Rand eschewed “libertarianism” Rothbard, who embraced libertarianism, eschewed Randian “Objectivism.” Yet in an ontological and epistemological sense Rothbard was fully objective in his orientation, even while promoting subjective-value as the correct method for understanding economic exchange.

In summary, liberalism was purified of psychologism and voluntarism by the radical libertarians of the mid-20th century (Mises, Rothbard, Rand and many others). This part of Schindler’s anti-liberal criticism does not apply in any sense to this movement or its founders. Rather, the subjective, antinomian exagerations of post-Lockean liberalism are characteristic of those tendencies which shaded into progressivism. This is the world of “I can remake reality into my image” which is correctly opposed, not just by Schindler, but by all right thinking people. Emphatically, it was these very tendencies which were opposed by the radical libertarians.

On the other had, the legacy of Whig radicalism, which Schindler demonizes, was upheld and continued by the 20th century libertarians, and by their disciples among today’s “paleo-libertarians.” If Schindler were to limit his criticism to an ethical (or more likely theological) refutation of arbitrary psychological choice, he would be in accord with many disciples of liberty. However when he attacks the core tradition (a bit of irony that…tradition!) which stood opposed to tyranny for centuries, one cannot simply concur on the basis of an elegant and ingenious dialectic. On the contrary there is danger in splitting the upholders of classical liberalism (now purified of “left-liberalism”) from the defenders of moral traditions. After all, what was Schindler’s precise etymology of “the diabolical” amount to if not just that…splitting!

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