The Impotent Liberal V: A Society of Becoming, Composing, 03/01/2017

Continued from previous post . . . Liberalism’s public image has been twisted away from its best ideal. The politicians and intellectuals – journalists, activists, think tank researchers – believe today in a different liberalism than the philosophy that made democracy possible for a society of millions.

Liberalism was the first modern utopia without content.

I haven’t really gone into a lot of detail about what exactly that means. So here’s my first real pass.

Speaker of the USA's House of Representatives Paul Ryan is probably
the most powerful advocate today of libertarian ideas about how we
should structure society. He makes a better photo for it than Hayek
and Mises, because at least he's an attractive wealthy man, and not
a withered old dead man like them.
Contrast what a liberal in the era of Mt Pelerin would say is the core of the philosophy. Liberal thinking understands freedom as freedom from coercion, that a free society is where everyone is left alone to do whatever they wish short of coercing or harming others.

What does this mean when it’s turned into policy? Well, the principle can support a lot of different policy directions.

In our timeline,* that means striving for zero to few taxes, and a world where most if not all provisions of life – commerce for goods, services, income, and labour – organize themselves on market principles. Fair prices in a dynamic economy, governed only by its individuals, not a government planning power.

* The darkest timeline? Pretty dark, but I shouldn’t be presumptuous. At the least, it would be rude of me.

In real action, the growing concentration of wealth and power. When riches already give you a lot more material freedom than most people, you end up accumulating a lot more power to avoid coercion and push others around.

Being the strongest hand in any negotiation doesn’t make the other person less free, in this view, since bargaining is always man-to-man, not man-to-state.

Yet one of the core philosophers of libertarianism can see the utopianism that’s still in liberal thinking. Robert Nozick wrote that the utopia of liberal philosophy was a society where everyone could live according to the principles and values they believed in, as long as those moralities never tried to snuff out another’s existence.

Believing you're in the darkest timeline is
presumptuous, but useful. It's easy to shrug
off the injustices around you if you think to
yourself, "Well, it could always get worse."
He described it as a free market of societies – these societies could have had only a single person, but they were still societies. A market of moralities – values on which you could shape a society. That was the “Utopia” third of Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

Adopting or developing a morality often implies that you want to force that morality on others. We typically – in both popular thinking and academic philosophy – understand a moral principle to have universal scope. There’s no statute of limitations or jurisdiction on a moral ought.

But Nozick remembered that at the core of liberalism is that notion of moral freedom. Liberalism isn’t simply about the freedom to do whatever you want. That’s the simplified understanding of it that you find on FOX News, in a more refined form at the Mises or Fraser Institutes.

The moral freedom of liberalism is the real power of the individual in society to develop her values as a person, and test them out in the world. To experiment with values and see if they will really build a better society – one more prosperous, joyful, and caring – than our own situation.

That’s what it means for a utopia to have no content. Its content (so-called) is the space for creativity, development, and experimentation in values.

Yet such a society has a terrible vulnerability – its experimental perspective itself. It can all too easily imply that such a contentless utopia should be open to all comers. That there is literally no value too perverse or twisted or strange to be turned away from the testing grounds of moral evolution.

What does a liberal society do with those whose freely developed values lead them to reject the rights of others to freely develop their values?

If you ask Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, what you have to do is make an enemy of such people. They’ve already made an enemy of you . . . To be continued

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