Gray’s Pluralistic Communitarianism Disappoints

R&D interpret John Gray as dismissing liberalism, because “(1) there have been human beings who have flourished in regimes that are not liberal, and (2) there are forms of human flourishing that are driven out by liberal regimes.” (245)

Regarding (1), Gray’s exact quote is that “human beings have flourished in regimes that do not shelter a liberal civil society.” (247)

Well, I am sure they have, but poorly and not so well as they would have flourished under liberalism. Often the form of flourishing of men under oppressive systems has consisted precisely in fighting those systems to bring about a liberal society. Their heroism is most praiseworthy. Even then, however, it may be possible for them still to find purpose under liberalism by fighting to maintain this society; indeed, liberalism is almost a revolution in permanence, requiring “eternal vigilance” and constant struggle by those interested in lending their talents and dedication to this sort of work.

It’s true that civilization depreciates certain inborn traits, like ruthlessness or physical strength. A caveman born with such talents might achieve dominance within his tribe, get the best food available, leave many offspring, and in a manner of speaking “flourish.” His services would be less in demand in an advanced capitalist society. Tough luck, I say. Besides, even these savage qualities may be useful to society, say, if he becomes a good athlete.

Regarding (2), Gray claims that “the identity of human beings is understood in terms of their participation in common forms of life… So, it seems that incompatible social structures limit not only our ability to compare and evaluate goods and virtues rationally, but indeed our very understanding of what it is to be human.” (248)

I don’t like this. Every human being, unless perhaps horribly abused or brainwashed, is capable of choosing his culture and environment. I want to quote Mises here at some length who makes his point with characteristic force. He sets up the argument as follows:

Some ethnologists tell us that it is a mistake to speak of higher and lower civilizations and of an alleged backwardness of alien races. The civilizations of various races are different from the Western civilization of the peoples of Caucasian stock, but they are not inferior. Every race has its peculiar mentality.

It is faulty to apply to the civilization of any of them yardsticks abstracted from the achievements of other races.

Westerners call the civilization of China an arrested civilization and that of the inhabitants of New Guinea primitive barbarism. But the Chinese and the natives of New Guinea despise our civilization no less than we despise theirs.

Are we really different species of humans? Mises rejects this idea:

[These ethnologists] are utterly mistaken in contending that these other races have been guided in their activities by motives other than those which have actuated the white race.

The Asiatics and the Africans no less than the peoples of European descent have been eager to struggle successfully for survival and to use reason as the foremost weapon in these endeavors. They have sought to get rid of the beasts of prey and of disease, to prevent famines and to raise the productivity of labor.

There can be no doubt that in the pursuit of these aims they have been less successful than the whites. The proof is that they are eager to profit from all achievements of the West.

Those ethnologists would be right, if Mongols or Africans, tormented by a painful disease, were to renounce the aid of a European doctor because their mentality or their world view led them to believe that it is better to suffer than to be relieved of pain. Mahatma Gandhi disavowed his whole philosophy when he entered a modern hospital to be treated for appendicitis.

The North American Indians lacked the ingenuity to invent the wheel.

The inhabitants of the Alps were not keen enough to construct skis which would have rendered their hard life much more agreeable.

Such shortcomings were not due to a mentality different from those of the races which had long since used wheels and skis; they were failures, even when judged from the point of view of the Indians and the Alpine mountaineers. (HA, 84-5)

If only liberalism enables us to pursue virtue and happiness with a measure of efficiency, then other cultures would be well-advised to adopt it, as well.

Further, Gray is not a moral relativist or skeptic, or so it seems; this fact permits R&D to ask him, sensibly, “Can anyone reasonably claim to flourish if their societies have neither the practices for seeking friends, achieving integrity, courage, or justice, nor forms of disapproval for letting one’s passions run wild or repressing all emotions, or for caring nothing for knowledge, reason, consistency, or truth?”

The alleged problem of incommensurability of goods, including those that “are integrated into social wholes,” is solved as before: all values are commensurable through choice.

Liberty As Permission, Not “Ability”

R&D argue that “liberty cannot be merely the ability to do what one wants.” (255) Rightly understood, this is obviously true. But it’s also an infelicitous description.

Liberty is not the “ability” but “permission” to do what one wants, in our case, permission from the state.

Of course, in a free society, everything that is not explicitly forbidden is permitted (and very few things are forbidden), so the burden of proof that a law was broken and that a citizen is guilty of a crime is upon the state as per the “beyond reasonable doubt” standard. One does not need to ask a bureaucrat for permission to make a sandwich.

Still, one may have the liberty-permission to own a yacht but not have enough money to buy one, thereby being “unable” to sail. One can have the permission to climb a mountain but have no skills or ability to do so. It’s important to distinguish between these senses of liberty, lest one might decide to insist that we need “freedom from want” or some such nonsense.

NoL: What Is Liberalism?

As of Chapter 10 in Norms of Liberty, I have no idea what it is according to R&D.

Liberalism for them is a system of “metanorms” that “secure the very possibility of human flourishing.” There isn’t a single example of any such metanorm so far.

“Liberalism” is just a word, devoid of any content. The problem is so acute that I can’t even be sure that R&D mean by liberalism / libertarianism anything close to what I mean by it. For all I know, they are wretched statists who tricked me into almost finishing their book.

Mises, for example, proposes that liberalism “presupposes that people prefer life to death, health to sickness, nourishment to starvation, abundance to poverty. It teaches man how to act in accordance with these valuations.” (HA, 154) He endeavors moreover to prove that liberalism results in life, health, nourishment, and so forth. I have seen no proof coming from R&D as of yet that liberalism is the only system that best permits human flourishing.

3 Senses of Justice?

They are for R&D:

1. integrity;
2. normative justice;
3. metanormative justice.

I agree that (1) is an important and original sense of justice. But (2) and (3), though called “justice,” are in fact theoretical wisdom, or wisdom simply, as distinguished from practical wisdom or prudence in my system. This is because propositions of natural law are derived from speculative contemplation of the human nature.

But is there a reason to separate (2) and (3)? For R&D, (3) is obvious and simple, like “you shall not kill”; (2) is subtle and complex, answering a question like “What are Smith’s duties right here and right now to Jones?” (2) then “is a virtue of the self-perfecting life”; “what the virtue of justice calls for someone to do in one situation for one person or group may be very different in another situation or for another person or group.” (3), on the other hand, “amounts to respect for basic, negative, individual rights.” (298-9)

Is it possible that R&D confused the precepts of justice, like “you shall not steal,” with just acts which, in order to be just, require the knowledge of the situation in all its particularity? It is true that I ought not to steal; but I also owe Jones $10.50, such that he’ll consider us even if I pay for his lunch. The former wisdom for R&D is metanormative; the latter, normative. Meh. Only if they insist.

Poor Are Extremely Well Self-Directed

R&D consider the objection that “the extremely poor have no concrete possibility for self-direction.” (303) Their reply suffices, but I think that when an argument of this sort of brought on, the objector thinks of blacks vegetating in their monstrous “projects.”

The problem of blacks and Africans in general is indeed a unique problem of any civilized society. But it is entirely contingent and empirical. (Its is clear though that Americans have failed utterly to arrive at any decent solution to it.)

The fact remains that in a laissez-faire welfare-less capitalist order, the poor (such as a child with no inheritance who starts at the bottom) are the most devious and cunning of all people. They have to be, as they have the most to gain from sagacious exercise of practical reason. They are more ambitious, more driven, more ruthless with competition (in a good sense), more hungry for achievement and improvement of their material conditions than the contented bourgeoisie stuck in their comfortable rut.

Getting from rags to riches is even more common that getting from the middle class mediocrity to riches.

Norms of Liberty: Big Picture

R&D propound a “neo-Aristotelian version of perfectionist ethics” that is “objective, inclusive, individualized, agent-relative, self-directed, and social.” Of these properties, they latch upon self-direction as both a means to and an essential constitutive part of human flourishing. “Self-direction is a feature of every act of flourishing.” (332) There is simply no substitute for it. An other-directed person, however seemingly contented, is not himself happy. Perhaps they’d approve of the following description:

Within the hegemonic societal body and as far as it directs its subordinates’ conduct, only the director acts.

The wards act only in choosing subordination; having once chosen subordination they no longer act for themselves, they are taken care of. (HA, 196)

A person who is “taken care of” is not flourishing, because he has no self which is to flourish.

Self-direction for R&D is exercise of practical reason to secure flourishing for oneself or loved ones; not necessarily correct or flawless or successful such exercise.

The chief and only for them aim of the political system is to provide a framework in which self-direction is possible. Perhaps it is better to say not that the political order must “allow” for the possibility of flourishing, but that it must maximize it. Then the choice of liberalism as precisely such a system becomes more defensible. It is obviously impossible to prevent a man completely from planning his own actions. Every system thus permits some amount of self-direction, but only liberalism presumably maximizes it. Every non-liberal regime then diminishes opportunities for self-direction. It curtails or infringes upon the people’s use of their practical reason in one way or another.

This formulation allows us to evaluate alternatives to liberalism.

R&D’s only example of such is crude paternalism by the state over the consumers, say, by banning or taxing tobacco products. Who dares to be “saving us from ourselves”? I agree that this is verboten on their theory, and this is a welcome result. But there are others.

First, consider socialism. It obviously reduces the scope of self-direction by preventing people from planning and executing their business activities. Thus, in the heyday of socialism, liberals would point out that the issue was not “planning” production; it’s who plans: only the dictator or every individual? Socialism would have it that “mankind is to be divided into two classes: the almighty dictator, on the one hand, and the underlings who are to be reduced to the status of mere pawns in his plans and cogs in his machinery, on the other.” (HA, 113) Such a society is hardly an embodiment of self-direction.

Take further the government regulation of private business. In order to satisfy the consumers, an entrepreneur must possess mighty prudence and enviable courage. A business is a creative endeavor. Obeying minute, meaningless, and counterproductive rules is the opposite of that; it’s the essence of being directed by bureaucrats rather than by oneself. The scope of self-direction is to that extent narrowed.

Self-direction must be so important to flourishing, because it is directed toward benefits to oneself (or again, those one loves who then become as if other selves to him). But taxes recruit one into serving the state. One has no choice but to work 5 months per year for the government and only 7 month for himself. Self-direction still exists but its purpose is defeated.

A free man has the most extensive liberty in planning his own virtue and narrow happiness. He is encouraged by this fact to exercise his practical reason at all times, thereby becoming eventually, well, practically wise. That character traits, too, is a key part of being morally good. Non-liberal systems, on the other hand, as Herbert Spencer put it, by shielding men from the effects of folly, fill the world with fools. Thus, liberalism allows for the possibility of self-direction in every area of life; anti-liberal regimes deny that possibility in some or even many areas, ending with socialist prison nations.

In sum, if the government simply outlaws coercion, then it increases the areas of life where self-direction is possible; if it goes beyond that, then it shrinks those areas.

The contrast between classical liberals and R&D can be put thusly. A person concerned with narrow happiness will say: “Liberalism is a system that cradles a constantly improving economy, and among all the possible types of economies that also improve, liberalism improves the fastest.” But B&R argue: “Important though narrow happiness is, our concern is different, it is with virtue.” Therefore, in my terms:

  1. for nature and natural rights, my duties are for the sake of others;
  2. for virtue, character, and composition of the self, both my duties and my freedoms are for my own sake;
  3. for narrow happiness, my freedom is for the sake of others.

(Thus, regarding (3), Mises points out that “ownership of the means of production is not a privilege, but a social liability. Capitalists and landowners are compelled to employ their property for the best possible satisfaction of the consumers. If they are slow and inept in the performance of their duties, they are penalized by losses.” (HA, 321))

The recognition of (2), that my freedom is essential for my self-direction which is essential for my self-perfection is an important and perhaps neglected argument in the liberal / libertarian political philosophy. The authors are to be commended for developing it so well.