Discrediting Liberty - The Mirage of Autonomous Spheres of Freedom
What discredits classically liberal visions of liberty in the eyes of many is the insinuation of autonomous spheres of freedom.
By this term, I mean a conception of liberty that excludes from its vision institutions that in fact determine the possibility and degree of freedom in a society, especially political comportment and the role of structures of maximal power in the working out of social order by us human beings.
The openly anarchist libertarian believes that it is indispensable to abolish governance structures imposed by politics and the state if freedom is to prevail.
Far more important in our day, than the reading of a free society by the anarchist fringe, is the crypto-anarchism on which non-anarchist defences of free markets often tend to be predicated. For, not rarely do defenders of free markets cross inadvertently into the sombre corners of anarchism by sharing the anarchist belief in an autonomous sphere of freedom.
What they are up against is the fact that most of us are informed with at least a robust intuition that there are no autonomous spheres of liberty. Hence, arguments based on the autonomy-assumption are likely to be received with wide-spread disapprobation; and I suspect that the case for free markets does register substantial collateral damage owing to its association with an apolitical concept of freedom.
An Apolitical Concept of Freedom
In my first post in this series, The Idea(s) of Freedom (1/3) ... , I have argued that what tears apart Classical Liberalism is its mission to present itself as a uniform, self-contained whole. It trades off intellectual consistency at the expense of recognising the real forces determining the state of freedom in a society. In the second post, The Idea(s) of Freedom (2/3) ... , I hoped to show that Classical Liberalism fails in its effort to define freedom as a social phenomenon, in contrast to Hobbes' mechanistic notion, according to which freedom is the power to remove external impediments of any kind. The failure to fully grasp the social nature of freedom is due to an inability to capture the dynamic conditions of freedom in the real world, where the political character of freedom-defining social relations is pervasive. The result of that condition is that a uniform idea of freedom as sought after by Classical Liberalism will not be able to prevail either in the intellectual realm nor as a popularly credible reflection of the state of liberty in the real world.
The Lockean Roots of Crypto-Anarchism
In Chapter 8 - The Idea of Freedom - of The System of Liberty. Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism, G.H. Smith offers a number of insights that I feel I may be able to rearrange and resell to my own readers as an explanation of how an unfortunate tradition has sprung into life that weds arguments for liberty to the mirage of autonomous spheres of freedom.
In the Lockean paradigm, "natural liberty" refers to freedom as it would exist in an anarchistic state of nature, a condition of equal rights in which there is no political authority or subordination, a society in which all "Power and Jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another."
(The System of Liberty, p. 145)
The crux is that the founding vision of classical liberalism as presented by John Locke does already carry in it an attestation of the feasibility of an anarchist world.
Locke's state of nature is essentially peaceful and civilized. People can exercise their natural freedom in an anarchistic society without necessarily lapsing into a state of war, because they are able through the use of reason, to discern the many benefits of social cooperation.
(Ibid. p. 148)
It is neither clear whether on this point Locke was arguing for tactical purposes - he wanted the Stuart monarchy to be overthrown and wished to diffuse fears of Hobbesian anarchy - nor whether he adhered consistently to a minimalist role of government (ensuring protection from violence and fraud, and no more), but in his vision we certainly find prefigured
a perspicuous divide between
- natural society (human interaction independent of and unhampered by government) and
- political society (human interaction facilitated by government action).
He bequeaths to posterity leads that encourage his successors to keep the divide central to their thinking and to add more weight to natural society than to political society. At any rate, the divide is a grievous error, because the intermeshing of collective action with individual action is a more powerful and more accurate paradigm in the study of human society than is their compartmentalisation and juxtaposition, which ultimately tempts us to believe in the mirage of autonomous spheres of freedom.
It is odd for even a tempered apologist of government and suggestive of a preference of natural society over political society that
Locke views government as a supplement to social order rather than its indispensable foundation. Government is a convenience rather than a necessity.
The liberal bias in favour of natural society has had momentous consequences for the future of liberalism, playing, as I surmise, a significant role in its decline, but also for the development of the social sciences, not least economics, which carries ugly scars from such extraction:
Economic science was made possible by the discovery of an autonomous economic order - a society of mutually beneficial exchanges that operates through the spontaneous adjustments of natural liberty rather than through the coercive and cumbersome decrees of a legislator.
Liberalism has been eclipsed by the growth of freedom, especially rapidly since the mid-1800s. Why? People are looking for freedom, and perhaps more commonly, people are trying to arrange their affairs in a free society, and thus shaping it, largely by acting on the level of intermediary conditions, rather than on the high plane of abstraction on which liberal theory is almost exclusively situated.
People do not find the autonomous sphere of freedom that G.H. Smith describes below. They cannot find it, because it does not exist:
By introducing that rigid distinction between natural and political society, Smith is absolutely right to argue that
the door was opened for an anarchistic mode of social explanation [which comprises and explains the adoption of patterns of what I call crypto-anarchism among non-anarchists, G.T.].
By "anarchistic," I mean those social activities that are normally unaffected by positive laws and that would continue to function without government.
[Well, they would not "continue to function," as they are "normally unaffected by positive laws" thanks to government. Smith is assuming away the cultural, political, legal and economic interdependencies of mutable mutual coercion that constantly create and re-create "the voluntary institutional relationships" that he refers to below. G.T.]
["anarchistic" no longer in inverted commas, that is how fast anarchism transitions from "so-to-speak" to "real," G.T.]
spheres of interaction - which are "governed"
[governance, in truth, ubiquitous in any reasonably stable social order is conjured away from the anarchistic sphere by nothing more costly than a pair of inverted commas, G.T.]
by moral and religious opinions, psychological bonds, aesthetic sensibilities, personal habits, institutional incentives, customs, economic self-interest, and the like - have far more influence on social behaviour (especially in a free society) than does the fear of legal punishment. These voluntary institutional relationships are enclaves of natural liberty - anarchistic societies or states of nature that operate within, but independently, of political society.
(Ibid. p. 151)