Saturday, December 13, 2008

Anglo-American vs. Continental


So-called Continental philosophy is almost invariably inimical to the negative-liberty tradition of Anglo-American philosophy, from which libertarianism arose (utility, rights, constitutions, markets, etc.). Those Euro sophisticates pride themselves on looking more skeptically at social context, but once people decide that countless free actions by their fellow citizens aren’t necessarily conducive to the patterns the philosophers deem “real freedom,” social-democratic remedies (such as the government provision of goods deemed to enhance “positive” liberty) are only one faulty intuition (or referendum written by grievance-claiming parties) away.

Similarly, if left-libertarians contend that liberty (and libertarianism) can survive without the negative/positive distinction, they not only have an immense obligation to defend this novel (and seemingly heretical) view but an obligation to stop sounding so unbelievably smug and snotty about it. You’re the ones discarding most of the work your movement has done so far — show us what safeguards you’ve got to replace it with.

I know preferring a bare-bones property-rights approach may appear “simplistic” to some. But then, academia, which thrives on continual, hairsplitting philosophical dialogue, may be especially prone to produce people who are complacent about the dangers of rendering liberty too complex a philosophy for the ordinary citizen to grasp (and confidently use).

Intellectuals will probably fare all right if our liberties become the stuff of amorphous ongoing conversation (as in Jurgen Habermas’s social-democratic dreams), but it’s not so clear that the rest of society will do all that well — whereas armed with a simple philosophy like “If someone tries to take your house, it’s OK to shoot them,” the common people just might be all right.

And just as Continental Europe — for all the nice things said about it — is also the dangerous Petri dish of radicalism whence emerged communism and fascism, so too do my libertarian cohorts at the Mises Institute in Alabama, fascinating and useful though they usually are, seem to be folks among whom left-radicalism and right-radicalism sometimes meet in disturbing ways — ways that may detract from advancing the simpler, econ-focused, and in some sense more politically-centrist version of libertarianism. And that brings us to Mises Institute associate and feminist-libertarian Rod Long, about whom more next week.

In the meantime, lest I seem too parochial, I’m off to Lincoln Center with Helen and one of her friends to watch a 1929 Spanish surrealist film mocking silent-era movie tropes. In college, the professors sometimes told us that if we watched enough such things we would reject the bourgeoisie and Middle-American values. We’ll see.


talboito said...

Ooh, a defense of ignorance couched in populist appeal.

I thought only the commies had those. How’s she driving? Took the top down yet?

Vancouver Philosopher said...

I’m wondering how much Continental philosophy you’ve read. Certainly, the early Sartre defends a version of libertarianism in the Free-will debate that would carve up very nicely with your property-rights approach in political contexts. In fact, a central tenet of existentialism focuses on how radically free you are, and the fact that when you make a choice, you are doing two things: 1) creating yourself and 2) radically required to take ownership/responsibility for the choices you make.

Moreover, it would seem that you’ve fallen prey to the belief that what is valuable to some reflective human beings shouldn’t be valuable to the common “folk.” I disagree with this. Our philosophical theories should try to explain much of our normal experience of the world. Our theorizing just shouldn’t sacrifice the complexity of a problem for a common-sense belief, especially in the case that such a common-sense belief should be challenged. For example, accepting a moral intuition that one is entitled to defend one’s property because it is one’s own speaks about nothing for the moral philosopher that wants to explain why that intuition is justified/or not. It doesn’t even satisfy an answer for the libertarian.

Todd Seavey said...

Much more on those topics starting…tomorrow! In my “Month of Liberty (i.e., Property)” entries.