For more vintage pics from Lincoln, Nebraska, consult the image credit.
My libertarian development
Of a radical libertarian leaning until about two years ago, I have repositioned myself on many core issues. In particular, I have come to regret the shallow and dismissive handling of democracy in much of the libertarian discourse.
I used to be strongly influenced by the Ludwig von Mises Institute (LvMI). Initially, I was much attracted to its message thanks to the vast and valuable stock of downloadable literature, and, of course, a coherent narrative of freedom and capitalism offered by the institute's exponents. Owing to a sense of friendly tolerance, I made rather light of two points of disagreement that would eventually manifest themselves as the cracks of a deep rupture:
I always opposed
- (a) anarchism, and
- (b) aprioristic reasoning in the social sciences, and indeed, in any science whose subject matter is to be found in the empirical world.
As for (a), structures of maximal power, i.e. the state in a modern context, are an irreducible feature of human interaction, especially in larger human communities.
The whole point of a regime of liberty is to promote structures of maximal power that support an open society, where every citizen is reasonably free from arbitrary interference by other humans, private and public organizations, and most notably the state. The state is a precondition of liberty. Denying the indispensability of the state is to refuse giving attention to one of the most fundamental cornerstones of freedom. Anarcho-capitalism is, therefore, a distraction from freedom.
Concerning (b), true science is by definition free science, it is based on recognising that no one has privileged access to (advances in our asymptotic convergence toward) truth. Apriorism makes the claim of having access to absolute, ultimate, and incontrovertible truth. It is contrary to freedom, which is, like science, based on the presumption that no one has privileged access to truth.
Science, free markets and a free society are perfectly analogous in that they rely on advancement by trial and error, by conjecture and refutation, by respect for the constructive force of human fallibility. All three of them are constitutively open systems, producing in large measure unpredictable outcomes that feed back into the development of the overall system. While there is a firm structure to science, to markets, and to the system of freedom, their scaffoldings form a semi-circle, as it were, opening up to a vast frontier of indeterminacy.
About two years ago, certain encounters with exponents of anarcho-capitalism and apriorism spurred me on to look very carefully at the moot issues between us.
In the meantime, I have discovered that anarcho-capitalism is a great pointer to weaknesses in (classical) liberalism, as the former tends to radicalise the errors or fuzzy ends contained more or less pronouncedly in the latter, as well as ignoring its strengths.
Liberty, democracy, and trust
Anarcho-capitalism, and to a considerable extent (classical) liberalism as defended by Ludwig von Mises or Friedrich Hayek, offer at best a shallow theory of the embeddedness of markets, political institutions, and the state in modern civil society.
The state is largely seen as the (1) adversary and saboteur of (a) personal autonomy and (b) the natural spread and viability of free markets, and (2) an agent of illegitimately dominant persons and groups (special interests).
Politics and democracy as spontaneous order
This conception of the state as an agent of evil is related to a truncated view of spontanenous order, which disregards the deeper level and still more comprehensive spontaneous order of conditions enabling, historically and presently, the development of relatively free markets and the open societies in which they thrive.
A modern democracy is a web of complex negotiations functionally aiming to fit different, diverging, and adverse views and interests.
A free society depends on democracy as an arsenal of tools to balance interests many of which can never be perfectly reconciled; it is the political bazaar that admits any comer among free citizens, ensures the permanent contestability of incumbents, as well as a constant flow of new entrants both in term of interest groups, ideas, and cultural preferences.
Reconciliation among the ignorant
One of the key insights of classical liberalism is that all of us are rationally ignorant of countless important issues - we do not have the resources to understand all the issues in the air with reasonable accuracy. Also, there are many issue that represent political scarcity (reconciliation cannot be established by market-type transactions), and there may be issues that are either for the time being or even in principle unresolvable, as we simply may never know enough to penetrate the subject matter fully.
Just as the market helps us cope successfully with a plethora of information that we can not possibly ever fully absorb and comprehend, so is a political system a means to come to grips with forms and consequences of human interaction whose full information content we can never collect and assess. Like markets, a good political system is a think-tool, a means of orientation in a world that contains more information than we can ever hope to use for our personal orientation. At some point, good orientation, mutual respect, tolerance, and trust, become more important that exact and non-contradictory results.
Ultimately, the political system has the task of generating enough trust among human beings such that even in a population of 300 million most people are able to spend most of their life time without fearing destructive or even deadly distrust from their fellow citizens.
Democracy is a complicated web of institutions and practices signalling that (a) we can trust each other by and large, or that (b) we are able do something about it if our expectations of trust are seriously challenged.
Democratic politics is the way in which we keep our values and concerns in touch with those of others, so as to keep a balance between our differing convictions. The strong adversarial taste that politics often leaves us with is a sign that we are on track in confronting the potentially dangerous differences between us.
When it works, democratic politics shares the formeost merit of competition in science - where scientists let their theories be killed instead of themselves.
Democratic dialogue and dissent is a way of bashing other people's ideas in lieu of their bearers.
But, to repeat, democracy is a lot more. It is a complicated game of reassurance in the face of a world that hankers after perfect partisan solutions, but where perfect partisan solutions are impossible.
See also Elementary Errors of Anarchism (1/2), Elementary Errors of Anarchism (2/2), Classical Liberalism vs. Anarchism (1/3), Classical Liberalism vs. Anarchism (2/3), Classical Liberalism vs. Anarchism (3/3), Two Views of Democracy.