It’s often the case that, rightly or wrongly, one is made sympathetic to a novel position in part by discovering that someone who thinks like you or whose mind you like holds that position. In my case, after decades of hearing New Left types and Brown University Marxists bash imperialism, I was almost ready to call it a good thing, but finding out that anti-imperialism actually has a long history in the U.S. — and in particular, I must admit, that Mark Twain was active in the early anti-imperialist movement — made me a bit more willing to listen to the argument that U.S. military influence in other countries is a project at odds with our older republican principles.
On the other hand, one need look no farther than my April and August Book Selection entries, about Genghis Khan and the British Empire, respectively, to see that imperial projects often mingle the good and the bad in ways difficult to extricate, certainly in ways that don’t make clear-cut ideological judgments easy (except for extremists) Even the dreaded and brutal Genghis Khan helped to create stable trade routes, foster freedom of religion, and make law predictable within his realm.
Similarly, to make the world’s most complex and important topic obscenely brief, local autonomy is swell and all, but there are certain extremely beneficial, broad — even universal — rules that we’d like to see people participate in, especially if we are to have a peaceful global commercial order, an order that people everywhere ought to join somehow (preferably in a smooth, organic, non-violent fashion — but somehow).
Legal orders and even moral notions themselves get reshaped to suit commercial realities (as my September Book Selection, Martin Sklar’s The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, describes in detail in the case of the century-ago rise of corporations and the Progressives in America — globalization in one country, as it were, given the highly agrarian and local nature of the economy before that time).
When future historians look back, I hope they will not dimiss libertarians as a mere footnote to (and post hoc rationalizers of) the rise of global capitalism, but historians will likely say that practical circumstances mattered more than the philosophical stories we told about them, left, right, or otherwise. We’re a product of our (changing) times — but so are centralization-loving Progressives and even socialists, really. We’ll all look like bean-counting systematizers in historical hindsight, I suspect (and libertarianism may then look as much a part of its time as constitutional monarchy does now to people regarding the Newtonian/contractarian seventeenth and eighteenth centuries).
And lest the traditionalists and non-bean-counters think they’re getting off scott-free: might even the dominant world religions be products of humanity’s quest for relatively-efficient, “transportable” rules, after all? Ten Commandments — or even Sharia — travel better and resolve impersonal conflicts with strangers more effectively than, say, animism based around one local tree or a sacred pond, after all.
At the risk of sounding like an amoral imperialist (which I’m not), then, the question may be, Which eggs are worth breaking to create global commercial order? Can much of tradition go? Can national sovereignty? Can the welfare state and international labor movements? Can psychological attachment to family homesteads? Should they?
And yet, if circumstances determine philosophy: has the time to think of such things in a specifically corporate manner already passed? Perhaps trade will be so individualized and decentralized in the very near future as to make any fetishization of lumbering constructs such as “global trade” short-sighted. Awful as the economy is right now, we may yet be getting most of our goods from personalized nanite swarms in the not-too-distant future and even be so autonomous as to be unconcerned with many of the legal and moral fights of times past. Dangerous to assume anything about the future.
And if you think ostensibly-timeless philosophies can’t become dated that quickly, think how rapidly “post-colonialism,” dominant in so many 90s classrooms like the ones I alluded to earlier, is starting to look like a brief coda to the specific historical circumstance of the British Empire unraveling. (I think it was Doris Lessing who observed that the British Empire, the nascent dictatorship of the proletariat, and the Nazis’ purported thousand-year-reich all vanished in her lifetime, taking certain seemingly-eternal philosophical battles with them.) Who knows what seemingly-permanent things will unravel next?
P.S. And in the interest of thinking outside my own present-day philosophical box, I promise a rumination on non-financial incentives within the next few days.