The Reactionary Libertarian

I said in “Ron Paul and Cranky Libertarianism” that libertarianism is a disposition claiming an offense, a cranky warning to other people to bugger off. I closed by characterizing it as a rejection of modernity. This is so of most contemporary American conservatisms, but the libertarian rejection is different, not simply conservative in the original sense of the word, but radical, in the first sense of that word. David Hume points the way.

A few weeks back, Amartya Sen, writing in The New Republic on Hume, in “The Boundaries of Justice,” wrote,

In the early days of the increasing globalization in which Hume lived, with new trade routes and expanding economic relations across the world, Hume talked about the growing need to think afresh about the nature of justice, as we come to know more about people living elsewhere, with whom we have come to develop new relations:

Again suppose, that several distinct societies maintain a kind of intercourse for mutual convenience and advantage, the boundaries of justice still grow larger, in proportion to the largeness of men’s views, and the force of their mutual connexions. History, experience, reason sufficiently instruct us in this natural progress of human sentiments, and in the gradual enlargement of our regards to justice, in proportion as we become acquainted with the extensive utility of that virtue.

The remark is of interest in itself, and also helps us to understand the general idea of justice, and its particular application to global justice, that can be seen to be part of the Humean line of analysis. But it can also be used to illustrate Hume’s general arguments for the need to interrelate ethics and epistemology, and moral reasoning and human sentiments. [Emphasis added]

“The need to interrelate ethics and epistemology”: the more we know of other people and their lives, the more widely our affective connections range, the greater grow the boundaries of our moral sentiments and our sense of justice. In one respect, this is a commonplace taught to children: try to understand others, to see the world through their eyes, and comity will grow. But this is actually consequential to something prior – what brings us to know of – not yet even know – others in the first place. Hume refers to “new trade routes and expanding economic relations across the world,” which certainly conforms to our contemporary notion of globalization. People have differing and strong reactions to that word depending upon what is intended by it, whether economic, social, political – or technological, which enables all those others.

Back in 2009 and 10 I engaged in a series of blog debates with the proprietor of the ShrinkWrapped blog. It was a notable failure at manifesting anything other than what we see in the left-right political division all around us. Shrink himself was always friendly and a gentleman. He is also a libertarian. Among his many readers who participated in the comments, a few identified their libertarian position; most others, though not taking on the label, were clearly, in their antipathy to government and their rage at liberals, representative of and sympathetic to the Tea Party eruption then taking place. Among the many acrimonious debates I had with ShrinkWrapped’s readers, a few central issues stood out. One revolved around this very subject of Hume’s, how the moral bonds among people grow “in proportion to the largeness of men’s views, and the force of their mutual connexions.”

Attempting early in the debates to provide some larger philosophical groundwork for our discussions, I penned one night (tapped out, really – ah, technology) what I labeled my “Principia Liberalis.” There were, conveniently, twenty-five of them. This was number twenty-one:

Technology increases affective connections, which are loosened by the distance that technology narrows. The greater the affective connection, the greater the sense of mutual moral responsibility. Notions of discrete and separable, autonomous individuality, neither responsible to nor the responsibility of others, are irreversibly challenged by population density and technology, and the increased effect of human actions on other humans. It is necessary to define what core autonomy need be protected, as an essential human good, but earlier stages of political relation, of individuals to each other, and of individuals to the commonweal, will not be recovered.

What Sen identifies as Hume’s consideration of expanding “economic relations” I attributed more fundamentally to technology. There is also the vaguest suggestion in my principle that, of course, this effect of technology is not an automatic universal good – there would be little science fiction without our recognition of all the potential evils cooked into technology. I did also observe that

earlier stages of political relation, of individuals to each other, and of individuals to the commonweal, will not be recovered.

There is little if any evidence of any ability on the part of humans to control the advance of technological transformation in their lives. Libertarians pretend they can reverse it. I emphasized in Hume above the following:

History, experience, reason sufficiently instruct us in this natural progress of human sentiments.

This “natural progress of human sentiment” – in the sense of its expanded range – is a consequence of the natural progress of technology. We cannot care about people we do not know, and it is harder not to care about people we do know – of whose challenges we are cognizant and to whom we are not prevented by barriers of distance and time from bringing aid. “History, experience, reason sufficiently instruct,” writes Hume – for most of us, but not the libertarian, who will assert his disposition to be the recoverable, true nature of the world against all evidence to the contrary.

In his recent controversial New York Review of books piece on Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (about which I’ll have something to say next week) Mark Lilla identifies libertarianism as not a form of conservatism, but a “mutation of liberalism.” If so, it is a mutation that terrifies the neighbors and that even the parents reject in horror. What libertarianism also, now, exemplifies is another category Lilla offers, that of the “restorative” (in contrast to the “redemptive”) reactionary. By simply choosing to ignore the effect of technology on human society, the libertarian excitedly proclaims once more the advent of the eighteenth century. He does not simply reject modernity but blindly ignores the constituents of it.


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