Saturday, September 27, 2008

Solitary, selfish, suspicious

I've written a couple of posts already on the book Liberalism & Community by American academic Steven Kautz.

The book was written as a defence of classical liberalism, particularly that early version of liberalism set out by John Locke (late 1600s). What are we to make of this defence? I'd list the following main points:

a) Classical liberalism is openly hostile to a traditionalist conservatism.

b) Classical liberalism begins with too negative an assessment of human nature and an artificial account of the basis of human society. It radically limits the sights that we may set ourselves as individuals and as communities.

c) Classical liberalism discourages people from acting publicly in the defence of a community.

I'll illustrate these points with some excerpts from the book, beginning with this:

Since human beings are by nature solitary and selfish, querulous and untrustworthy competitors for scarce and often fragile private goods, prudent individuals will learn to attend to the mostly private acquisition of the tools necessary to provide for their mostly private welfare - above all, liberty and property ...

... even a well-ordered civil society can ... not abolish, the harsh natural conditions and the querulous traits of our human natures that make it necessary to treat our fellows with abiding suspicion ...

So it is the principal business of political community to arrange "conditions" so that the acquisition and maintenance of liberty and property is protected, as against the "Fancy or Covetousness" of incipient aggressors.(p.30)

Is this really a balanced reading of human nature? Are humans by nature solitary and selfish? Must we limit our aims to our private welfare, in particular to the accumulation of private property?

the way of life of the businessman is only the most prominent among many other private ways of life, available in a liberal community, that enable human beings substantially to retain their natural freedom to "order their Actions, and dispose of their Possessions, and Persons as they think fit" ...(p.31)

The most prominent way of life is that of the businessman? As we'll see, there is a great emphasis on acquisitiveness in classical liberalism.

According to classical liberals, the political community is surely not natural: man is not by nature a political animal. Still, there can be no doubt that membership in a peaceful and stable political community accords with the interests of almost all individual human beings.

Thus, the liberal political community, which seeks above all to secure this peace and stability, is an artificial rational construction, established by a "social contract" among free individuals; it is not a natural organism, a whole to which the individual is related as the hand is related to the body ... The liberal believes that "each of us" is somehow independent of, or prior to, the political community. Or again: we constitute our (political) communities; they do not "constitute" us. (p.32)

This is not a persuasive account of how human communities are, in practice, formed. We are supposed to believe that naturally solitary and selfish individuals decided to make a contract with each other, in order to safeguard their property and personal security. Therefore, human community is to be understood in terms of an unnatural, but rational, political arrangement.

It's more plausible to regard humans as social creatures, who are born into social communities, in which they live and work together with others they are related to, and with whom they share a common identity. Such communities arose naturally rather than being created through a process of contract; nor are the aims of these communities limited to the protection of life and property.

There are some particular problems with the classical liberal view as set out by Kautz. First, Kautz believes that the contracted form of community is rational because it accords with individual self-interest. So Kautz connects reason here with self-interest. It would seem that if you want individuals to act rationally, as liberals do, you will then expect them to act in a self-interested way. Egoism becomes a matter of principle.

Second, the larger, natural form of community is hidden within the liberal framework. In the classical liberal view, there are "free" individuals who contract to form a political community. Where in this is the natural social community? How can we have a proper regard for this natural social community if it is made obscure?

Third, the classical liberal theory sets up a framework in which the aims of a community are severely limited: community was established for the purpose of defending property rights and a right to personal security. The higher aim of a society is too one-sided and materialistic: it is to create the conditions in which property can be safely accumulated.

It's a recipe for a materially wealthy and technologically advanced society, but one which is likely to suffer a "hollowing" process, in which the culture and institutions which once sustained it and inspired loyalty in those who belonged to it are gradually lost.

There's more to add but I'll leave it to the next post.


  1. I know not everybody likes John Howard but I do believe he tried very hard to stop that hollowing.

    I'm very worried because now we have 2 leaders in parliament who are republicans and I'm worried the US will turn to an inadequate Democrat too. It seems it took 12 years of Howard to stop the rot. But if "progressive" politics wins everywhere just watch how quickly things can change.

  2. Mark,

    I think the societal aspects you allude to here-- community and other relations that are not "contractual"-- are widely acknowledged yet cannot be readily rationalized as part of any workable politics. Issues of trade or individual rights may be effectively addressed on a political basis, but demographics, religious matters or the tone of a neighborhood are only indirectly influenced by a liberal state apparatus. What cannot be legislated or legislated against is often dismissed as unimportant and as government becomes ever more omnipotent there ceases to be a meaningful distinction between society and the state. This represents a very concerning shift of power (and wealth) from the former to the latter.

    The disadvantage of traditionalism in the public arena seems to be that its key tenets are less political, and its broader societal goals do not require government to play a central role, if any, to be realized. If this is true then this feature may instead prove a great advantage in time. Liberalism, on the other hand, is forever dependent on the manipulation of government and citizenry at all levels.

  3. Jesse, I'm not as hopeful as you are about the politics of the right-wing parties.

    If you look at what the members of these parties believe in, it's never a traditionalist conservatism.

    Usually they will describe themselves as liberals, though sometimes they will try to add on the mantle of conservatism.

    What do they mean by conservatism? Not the conserving of significant aspects of their own tradition. Instead, they will usually say something along the lines of "you need conservatism so that you don't push the liberal values on society too fast and endanger the whole liberal project".

    So the conservatism is only there to preserve the liberal values that the left also believes in.

    Another difference between the right and left is this: the left see themselves as dissenters and so will often say "I dislike Western society because we haven't properly fulfilled liberal values".

    The right, not seeing themselves as dissenters, usually take a different line: "Western society is good because we're pushing ahead with liberal values".

    Even though the attitude differs, both sides are locked into liberal values.

    A lot of conservatives find it easier to identify with the right, because right-wing liberals don't go on so much about the evil West and evil Western men.

    But when the right-liberal parties come to power, it's usually a disappointment. The programme doesn't change that much, and sometimes it's even worse.

    There are left-wingers in Australia who are jubilant that Turnbull is the Liberal Party leader, as they see him as more socially liberal than Rudd.

    Here in Victoria, the leader of the Liberal Party, "Red Ted" Baillieu, is certainly more socially liberal than the Labor Premier.

  4. Leadpb, I hope you're right. We'll have to see how entrenched liberalism remains among the Western political class over the next decade or so.

  5. Mark,

    Yes I do know what you mean. I was truly horrified when Malcolm was made the leader, he doesn't even pretend to be conservative.

  6. I believe Oakeshott's thinking is relevant here: society can be conceived of as a civil association, composed of people living together, but pursuing individual and community projects, with government only providing a framework; alternatively society can be conceived of as an enterprise association, pursuing some collective end, with government serving to impose some common vision. Both left liberals and so-called conservatives (actually just less radical liberals)are given to the latter view: it is the Enlightenment project of eventual convergence on a homogenous civilization characterized by a morality founded on rationality. It serves a kind of substitute religion, and embodies the powerful myth that we can overcome the contingency and tragedy of our existence through some sort of collective rational management of our affairs. Supporting this are naively positive assumptions about the rationality and perfectibility of human nature, and the possibility of collective agreement on the ends of society.