Classical Liberalism Via Friesian.Com-‘Exchange with Tomaz Castello Branco on John Gray’

Correspondence here.

Link sent in by a reader.

Without a stronger moral core, will liberalism necessarily corrode into the soft tyranny of an ever-expanding State?

Since the 60’s, and with a lot of postmodern nihilism making advances in our society, is a liberal politics of consent possible given the dangers of cultivating a kind of majoritarian politics: Dirty, easily corrupt, with everyone fighting for a piece of the pie?

As an example, Civil Rights activists showed moral courage and high idealism, to be sure, but we’ve also seen a devolution of the Civil Rights crowd into squabbling factions, many of whom seem more interested in money, self-promotion, influence, and political power.

The 60’s protest model, too, washed over our universities, demanding freedom against injustice, but it has since devolved into a kind of politically correct farce, with comically illiberal and intolerant people claiming they seek liberty and tolerance for all in the name of similar ideals.

Who are they to decide what’s best for everyone?  How ‘liberal’ were they ever, really?

Kelley Ross responds to a correspondent on Isaiah Berlin’s value pluralism, while discussing John Gray as well:

‘Now, I do not regard Berlin’s value pluralism as objectionable or even as wrong, except to the extend that it is irrelevant to the MORAL issue and so proves nothing for or against liberalism. Liberalism will indeed recommend itself if one wishes to have a regime that will respect, within limits, a value pluralism. I have no doubt that respecting a considerable value pluralism in society is a good thing and that a nomocratic regime that, mostly, leaves people alone is morally superior to a teleocratic regime that specifies and engineers the kinds of values that people should have. However, the project of showing that such a regime IS a good thing and IS morally superior is precisely the kind of thing that Gray decided was a failure.

Thus, I believe Gray himself sees clearly enough that a thoroughgoing “value pluralism” would mean that the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini is just as morally justified as the regime of Thomas Jefferson. Gray prefers liberalism (or its wreckage) for the very same reason that the deconstructionist philosopher Richard Rorty prefers his leftism: it is “ours” and “we” like it better. Why Gray, or Rorty, should think that they speak for the rest of “us” is a good question. ‘

and about providing a core to liberalism:

‘Why should the state need a “sufficient rational justificaton” to impose a certain set of values? The whole project of “rational justification” is what Gray, and earlier philosophers like Hume, gave up on as hopeless. All the state need do, which it has often done, is claim that its values are favored by the majority, by the General Will, by the Blood of the Volk, or by God, and it is in business.’

And that business can quickly lead to ever-greater intrusion into our lives:

‘J.S. Mill, etc., continue to be better philosophers than Berlin or Gray because they understand that there must be an absolute moral claim in the end to fundamental rights and negative liberty, however it is thought, or not thought, to be justified. Surrendering the rational case does not even mean accepting the overall “value pluralism” thesis, since Hume himself did not do so. ‘

Are libertarians the true classical liberals?  Much closer to our founding fathers?

Has John Gray turned away from value pluralism into a kind of ‘godless mysticism?’


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John Gray Reviews Jonathan Haidt’s New Book At The New Republic: ‘The Knowns And The Unknowns’

Update And Repost- From YouTube: Leo Strauss On The Meno-More On The Fact/Value Distinction?’

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5 thoughts on “Classical Liberalism Via Friesian.Com-‘Exchange with Tomaz Castello Branco on John Gray’

  1. About ten years ago, Kelly Ross and I had a short email exchange related to Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s “Democracy: The God that Failed”

    He wrote:

    Some of the bewildering varieties of theory that pass under the “libertarian” rubric simply perplex me. I don’t know how a serious person can be an anarchist, of whatever variety, since there would be no means of defending such an order against an organized enemy except through, gasp, organization. Such an organization is what Locke would have called a “state.”

    Theories of monarchy and aristocracy would seem to founder on the vast historical experience of such institutions. “Democracy” as a “God that failed” is a reasonable enough thesis, but then one should note that Locke, Jefferson, Madison, etc. were not attempting to create anything like a pure democracy. See and This is a long history of what they wanted to do. And it is not hard to see now what has messed it up.

    The spirit of the age is still for more socialism and more democracy, despite their inconsistency with the letter and the spirit of things like the US Constitution.

    What we are better off with is Jeffersonian democracy, a constitutional order, and a free economy, as all defended by F.A. Hayek. Rather than worry about confused persons spinning off into fascism, it is better to clarify and defend the well conceived ideas upon which the liberal order is already founded.

    Best wishes,
    Kelley Ross

    • I don’t see how a serious person can believe that a top-down order would consistently overcome a spontaneous order. As an aside, if there was no state what would the ‘organized enemy’ be attempting to control?

  2. Gilbert, thanks for reading and commenting.

    Dr. Ross is a deep and broad thinker, and has created quite a site. It’s inspiring, frankly.

    I tend to eschew anarchy, and have doubts about those who try and found the libertarian project in reason alone, from Ayn Rand’s objectivism (Roy Childs called it anarchy) to Nozick’s Kantian/Lockean night watchman state to David Friedman’s ‘Machinery Of Freedom.’

    The common defense is where this all comes to a head in terms of where we’ll need some sort of permanent structure, and frankly, I’m ok with maintaining a stronger national defense and the kind of culture (Westpoint, for example) necessary to do it. We have to stay ahead of war and fight the wars we can win as much as possible, and that takes strong traditions and a voluntary service as much as possible.

    Pure, abstract, idealistic democracy seems to be where a lot of those on the disaffected Left end up, especially in Europe, be they soft Marxists or social democrats, but increasingly over here with progressives back in the spotlight. I don’t find such an ideal desirable, but it’s where such folks will bend a constitutional republic in service of their ideals.

    The trend lines don’t look so good right now for staying close to the spirit and letter of the Constitution, as it seems we’re doing a good job of entrenching more and more vague collectivist ideas in the culture, politics, and the laws.

    I suppose we’ll see.

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  4. Malcolm, I think Jefferson showed a bent towards rationalism as Hayek would have defined it, and Jeffersonian liberalism as Ross sees it still relies upon some sort of philosophical idealism, be it Platonic or Friesian.

    I’m still thinking about your question.

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