August 15, 2012

Edward Feser: The Road from Libertarianism

Philosopher Edward Feser has posted an exploration of how reason moved him from libertarianism to limited government conservatism. It fits beautifully with the naming of Paul Ryan as Romney's VP and with Libertario Delenda Est:

For reasons I have explained in my Social Philosophy and Policy article Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation -- where the interested reader can find my current views on the matters referred to in the title -- I think that an A-T natural law approach to those matters entails the rejection of libertarianism, socialism, and egalitarian liberalism alike, and in most areas requires at least a presumption in favor of private enterprise and against government action. In other words, I think that moral principle should lead us to take a broadly center-right approach to matters of politics rather than a broadly center-left approach. But beyond that, abstract moral principle cannot tell us much, and we have to look to common sense, experience, history, current circumstances, and whatever economics and the other social sciences can tell us in order to decide upon concrete policy. That doesnt give us anything like the single magic bullet approach to politics that the thesis of self-ownership seemed to provide. But if theres one thing any conservative should know, its that looking for single magic bullets is after all a pretty stupid project where social and political philosophy are concerned. All the same, on some matters -- such as opposition to the abomination that is Obamacare -- I am happy to stand shoulder to shoulder with libertarians.

Paul Ryan's statements about Rand, Aquinas and Catholic social teaching have received a great deal of scrutiny in the last few days: a professor who claims Ryan the social conservative is actually Rand's nightmare; another professor who produces at the Puffington Host what can only be described as an incoherent stew; a potty mouth in the Village Voice who puts long Aquinas quotes and the words "fucking" and "bullshit" in close proximity.

The quote which all of these people reference, directly or indirectly (and unfairly truncated in the first piece) is:

"If somebody is going to try to paste a person's view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas. Don't give me Ayn Rand."

Emphasis added! Epistemology is not Catholic social thought. It is not economics. It is not political philosophy. These losers, and many others now coming out of the woodwork like carpenter ants either don't know the difference, or are intellectually dishonest hacks.

Feser's piece doesn't mention Paul Ryan, but I speculate that Ryan's intellectual development ran a similar course. Growing up Catholic, inspired as an undergraduate by Rand, Friedman and Hayek, he eventually came to a mature, limited government conservatism. That's not so hard to understand, and there is no inherent contradiction in it as imagined by those who are frightened by Ryan's intelligence, charisma and ability to explain the consequences of four more years of Obama.

2012 Election Philosophy Posted by Ellis Wyatt at August 15, 2012 12:27 PM | TrackBack

Just started reading the first linked article but can't wait to ask the rhetorical question, "Can Vice President and candidate for re-election to said office Joseph Biden even pronounce the word 'epistemology?"

Posted by: johngalt at August 15, 2012 2:33 PM

Okay, I got as far as paragraph 22. I think he makes a fundamental error in his treatment of self-ownership in paragraphs 18-19 which caused him, erroneously, to dismiss the theory. Simply saying that, "I have not imprisoned you at all! I've simply homesteaded all the land around you" does not alter the obvious fact that you have, objectively, imprisoned me.

This points to a problem borne from high urban densities that does not exist in frontier environments and is why as populations grow their political philosophies become ever more statist.

Yes, there will be an RAH quote on this today (if I can find or remember it verbatim.)

Posted by: johngalt at August 15, 2012 3:11 PM

Hmmmm. Very challenging. I twisted my wrist a bit patting myself on the back for giving it a little-o objective reading.

Interesting as I have made the exact same journey the other way. What he calls pragmatic, I like Professor Myron's term, "consequentialist." As he has become more consequentialist, I have become more rights-based. As he has rejected self-ownership in favor of conservatism, I have discovered Locke and JS Mill like a child who thinks he is the first to experience sunshine.

I confess I do not perhaps understand his argument against self-ownership. The book he linked to was $47 on Kindle (the guy thinks he's Justice Scalia?) I'd like to return to a few of the TCS articles. But the small example included (the fence around the guy on the desert island) was completely non-compelling. Just because I own my body does not mean you own the rest of the world -- I don't remember signing that.

As that is the heart of his conversion and I concede not to understand it, I feel unable to offer a cogent argument beyond "says you." I do own my person -- inalienably. That indeed includes rights that can be misused (what rights cannot?)

Perhaps in the end parity is conserved. I moved from a Burkean if not theological Conservatism to a Hayekian Libertarianism. Like Feser, I carry a lot of respect for my old teammates, but the Mill-Mises-Hoppe axis of self-ownership remains defining and liberating for me. I'll read a couple of his linked articles (if they don't cast me $47) but have not yet seen something substantive enough to sway me.

Posted by: jk at August 15, 2012 7:57 PM

It appears that Leonard Peikoff addressed a very similar situation, see here:

"The obvious, classic example of this is, which I’ve been asked a hundred times, you swim to a desert island — you know, you had a shipwreck — and when you get to the shore, the guy comes to you and says, “I’ve got a fence all around this island. I found it. It’s legitimately mine. You can’t step onto the beach.” Now, in that situation you are in a literal position of being metaphysically helpless. Since life is the standard of rights, if you no longer can survive this way, rights are out. And it becomes dog-eat-dog or force-against force. Now, don’t assume that any unsatisfied need therefore puts you in this metaphysical category. For instance, you are very poor and you are hungry. Well, you need feed. But in a capitalist society, even in a mixed economy, that is not a metaphysical deprivation. There’s always all sorts of choices and ways in a free society for you to gain food. Always."

So the rational, "Libertarian" thing to do is break down the wall. Since I can't acess Feser's paper either, I am not going to give him a pass on this.

Posted by: Ellis Wyatt at August 16, 2012 7:23 PM | What do you think? [4]