A Response To Andrew Sabl’s ‘Liberalism Beyond Markets’

Andrew Sabl at the Niskanen Center: ‘Liberalism Beyond Markets

If I’ve understood Sabl correctly: Neo-Kantian libertarians are epistemologically mistaken in holding the individual inviolate, free but duty-bound from within Kant’s transcendental idealist framework (the starry heavens above and the moral law within).  They are being unduly and Continentally rationalist, beginning and ending with an abstract chain of reasoning which fails to understand the ‘normative’ and ‘realist’, non-teleological interactions going on between individuals and liberal institutions as Sabl presents them.

2. Sabl claims that a Hayekian classically liberal view is what makes his alternative understanding of liberal institutions possible (any order they possess is essentially undesigned and undirected, spontaneously emerging from human nature and human interactions, just as do bartering and currency). Thus, liberal institutions should be thought of much the same as individuals within a Hayekian market system:  We each possess more knowledge and unique experience than any top-down system can hope to order or direct, and like markets, liberal institutions need not necessarily meet the demands of neo-Kantian rationalists to provide sufficient moral justification before they start directing our lives, liberty and happiness.

So, what then are some of Sabl’s ‘normative’ and ‘realist’ knowledge claims as to which principles should guide liberal institutions…or at least: What’s going to fill the hole left by Neo-Kantian rationalists and insufficiently classically liberal Hayekians who haven’t made the leap from individual to institution?

Would anything need to fill the hole?

Sabl:

1. ‘A modern institution must be large-scale and anonymous; The guiding analogy is technological progress in response to experienced flaws and demonstrably useful innovations, not reverence for “the mores of our ancestors.’

Here, Sabl’s model of governance comes from the sciences, and from a debatable ‘building’ epistemological model of the sciences (building-up one floor at a time..Newton, you’ve got floor 8, Einstein, floor 10).  In turn, this depends upon a tenuous analogy that city councils, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and hashing-out problems with your neighbors etc. are really the same kind of knowledge as the Special Theory Of Relativity, and should be thought of as such.

This leaves a lot to be desired.

***Frankly, I think neo-Kantians get closer to a decent understanding of scientific naturalism and the mathematical sciences’ ability to discover, understand and predict nature even if I may not agree with some Kantian metaphysical claims.

***Notice the jab Sabl takes at what I’ve often considered to be a wiser, and more humane, Burkean formulation of the ‘mores of our ancestors’ (much more humane than anonymous and large-scale institutions, it would seem). For Burkeans, you have duties to your grandparents, parents, kids and grand-kids.  You try and leave things a little better than you found them. Institutions have longer histories, rules, and practical wisdom (not all worthy of conserving, but quite a bit is worth conserving and you may not yet know what’s there until you’re involved). Few of us are ever that far away from families, loved ones, and our own limitations and self-interest, even if one of us is President or happens to be serving in high office.

Sabl:

2. ‘Second, modern liberal institutions owe their past development and present stability to their ability to serve the interests of all members of society.’

I see this is an ideal, one I could be persuaded is a reasonable formulation of the common interest, but one that will probably always fall short in the real world.

There’s no question that civic duties like voting and public service stir deep pride and loyalty to one’s fellows, often bringing out the best in us to overcome challenges.  But, clearly, out in the political realm people get factional and coalitional, there are winners and losers every cycle, and it can get bloody.

I’m deeply skeptical that our vastly differing personal experiences, moral beliefs and guiding principles would be sufficiently united by liberal institutions alone according to this line of thinking (this sure does seem to me a lot like standard, technocratic Statism).

Thus, whether through religious affiliation, Sabl’s claims to emergent and non-teleological liberal institutions, Platonic idealism, Constitutional Republicanism etc. there probably need to be deeper values and virtues uniting people before they start looking to politics and liberal institutions to help address these deep disputes.

Sabl:

3. ‘Third, a modern liberal institution promotes indefinite and multiple values and purposes, rather than giving priority to any one.’

Well, I’m quite partial to the Friesian formulation as to why Isaiah Berlin’s ‘value pluralism‘ may fail to provide sufficient justification to make the kinds of moral distinctions necessary to form stable institutions (even though I’ve ceded a flavor of pluralism/relativism above).

Some neo-Kantians also do a damned fine job of addressing the products of Hegelian rationalism and Marxism, as well as various idealists, some obvious authoritarians, and even totalitarian radicals in the modern world, often found simmering in a postmodern stew, constantly undermining institutions which they do not recognize as morally legitimate even as they take up positions within those institutions.

Such folks aim to bend our laws away from religious and traditional conceptions of the good, and generally toward their own conceptions of the good which can involve mild protest up to radical disruption.  For many, adherence to a grab-bag of various post-Enlightenment doctrines and ideologies is common on the way to radical change and the frequent politicization of all areas of life (functionally, I think, radicals over time succeed in destabilizing many existing arrangements and making obligations more a matter of individual choice and legal contract, gay marriage being a good example).

4. ‘Fourth, modern liberal institutions value diversity and conflict up to a point; and their first preference in dealing with agents who threaten to bring about truly dangerous conflict is to marginalize and discredit them, limiting their influence and impact, rather than resorting to direct coercion.’

Non-aggression works for me, but since we’re already talking principles and sufficient justification for coercion, that’s much easier said than done.

5. ‘Fifth, modern liberal institutions need not reflect a prior plan, nor a post-hoc consensus: they typically arise largely accidentally, and persist in the face of sharp disagreement (or, more commonly, mere ignorance and unconcern) as to their essential nature and proper working.’

Again, we’re back to the Hayekian liberal-institutions-as-markets formulation (how many other civilizations have produced similar institutions?) This is a formulation of which I’m skeptical, but remain open to further argument.

6. ‘Whether a certain realm of life will be subject to market exchange or not, or whether it will be subject to general laws or left to individual choice, is a question that is always important and interesting but rarely existential. Different societies can each have viable liberal institutions while answering these questions in somewhat different ways.’

Perhaps true, but we’re not in different societies, we’re citizens of this specific Constitutional Republic with a functioning democracy, in possession of its own legal history and political institutions.

According to Sabl, the value-pluralist conception of liberal institutions means sometimes they’ll weigh in, sometimes not.  Those running such institutions at any given time will try and marginalize violent actors, not simply use physical force at the first sign of any dissent. The market will be left to sort out some problems, the force of law guided by liberal institutions other problems.  These liberal institutions don’t necessarily have purposes, nor ends, and the people who make them up certain of their ends won’t be able to exert too much personal interest.  They’re like markets, springing up as they do rather spontaneously.

Dear Reader, are you persuaded?

Also as sent in by a reader this week:

On this site, see: A Few Responses To Kant’s Transcendental IdealismLink To An Ayn Rand Paper: The Objectivist Attack On Kant

A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”

Fred Siegel On The German Influence And Kelley Ross On Some Of Roger Scruton’s Thinking

Martha Nussbaum says the university needs to be defend Socratic reason and still be open to diversity:  From The Harvard Educational Review-A Review Of Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education.’ 

Where The Libertarian And Conservative Often Part Ways-Arnold Kling On Ken Minogue’s ‘The Servile Mind’

From Larry Arnhart At Darwinian Conservatism: ‘Does the Moral Flynn Effect Support Flynn’s Democratic Socialism or Murray’s Classical Liberalism?’

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