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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Beauty and Truth: A Conversation on Liberty

The future is unknown and yet shaped by the ideas we as a society hold in our hearts.

A few months after my original article on “libertarian brutalism,” published by the Foundation for Economic Education, a very smart thinker named Robin Koerner reached out to me for an interview. It ended up being more of a discussion and then a co-led seminar. These interviews continued for three years. They have all been transcribed. You can download the full book here

Robin was just discovering the fullness of the liberal tradition and I was just coming to terms with some intellectual failures in our ranks, failures that I worried were going to cause problems down the line. The many interviews that followed explored a huge range of topics in history, philosophy, economics, ethics, and aesthetics. They are all transcribed in FEE’s latest ebook, which you can find above. We are different people from different lands with different backgrounds but learned so much together during these times of incredible social and political upheaval.

The core of my case against brutalism is precisely that it imagines a libertarianism unhinged from the liberal tradition.

The interviews began only a little more than a year before Donald Trump appeared on the scene, and we both watched with morbid curiosity as vast numbers of former pro-liberty folks—people we had both imagined at least had the basics right—chase him all the way to the White House. Yes, it is hard for some to imagine why. And yet, the answer lies somewhere in these wonderful interviews we conducted, in which we chronicle the intellectual convolutions that happened in our ranks and to our country over the last few years.

Robin caught me at an interesting time. I had worked within one paradigm for most of my professional career, regarding the great struggle of our time as binary: a struggle between liberty and state, without complication or complexity. The state need to be eliminated, period. Within that paradigm, the answer to all problems seems obvious: get mad, get rid of the establishment, overthrow it, and watch liberty dawn.

I gradually came to realize that there are problems in the transition, so to speak. The revolutionaries can often pose a greater danger to public order than the state itself, and pose a different kind of threat to liberty (yes, I know that is unbearably obvious from a brief look at history). My proposed solution in avoiding this was to cultivate a more intense appreciation for the aesthetics of liberty as put on display within the liberal tradition itself, as exemplified by Smith, Hume, Jefferson, Tocqueville, and their successors.

The core of my case against brutalism is precisely that it imagines a libertarianism unhinged from the liberal tradition, boiled down to a few postulates and boiled back up again through anger and dogma. The results do not look and feel like liberty but rather the assertion of power. What is to be done? For libertarianism to become the humane outlook it is supposed to be, it needs to recapture its liberalism, without which it wouldn’t exist. (In fact, the words liberal and libertarian were definitionally indistinguishable to the postwar generation that first started using the term.)

Meanwhile, Robin knew exactly what I meant by that, having cut his teeth on the presidential campaign of 2012. He had come from a scientific background and for a long time, like many others, had accepted a statist outlook on politics by default, until he began to dig deeper and found himself attracted to the American Constitution and the English liberal tradition out of which it arose. His writings had made some waves during the years when Ron Paul was running for president, because of his capacity to speak to a broad range of humane concerns and in favor of diminishing the role of the state in our lives. He never took his outlook as far as I had mine: he stopped at what is called minarchism while I went all the way with an anarchist outlook.

And yet we had both begun to develop affections for the Hayekian view of society and politics as fragile, evolved, and contingent to some extent on time, place, and inherited tradition. Looking back at these conversations, I can see what we were both up to. We were struggling to shore up classical liberalism from the two great threats of our time: the ideological left and the ideological right. You can see as the conversations evolve that we grow ever more aware of this nature of this project and its challenges.

The future is unknown and yet shaped by the ideas we as a society hold in our hearts.

The thoughtfulness and calmness of these discussions belie the political moment in which we find ourselves. The left is out of ideas and out of money, soundly rejected at the ballot box in country after country. To the shock and amazement of many, the replacement hasn’t been a new liberty but a new threat. Arguably, a new anti-left movement rooted in nativism, nationalism, protectionism, and just as statist and sometimes more so than the left, has risen up to take its place. Some libertarians who had long been habituated to seeing only enemies on the left are a bit shell-shocked by the turn of events. You can see these things coming through in these discussions.

It became fascinating to both of us how, once having covered the ins and outs of current politics, we tended to veer toward the topics of beauty and truth, for these are both areas that are eschewed by the dogmatic left and right, and are all too often neglected within the libertarian paradigm as well. And yet these topics lie at the core of the meaning of our lives. Any political vision that neglects to insist on them is necessarily detached from human reality.

The political question really comes down to what institutions need to be in place to allow beauty and truth to thrive in society. Is there ever a role for the state to nudge the social order in the direction of what people think of as true and beautiful or do the statist means always tend toward the opposite—driving out what is true and beautiful? If libertarians do not grapple with this topic and provide compelling answers, we will necessarily fail to persuade.

Of this we are both convinced: the future is unknown and yet shaped by the ideas we as a society hold in our hearts concerning the look and feel of the good life. The defenders of freedom need to step up with public argument, hearts and minds all in, and we need to do so not with bombast and unhinged anger but with thoughtfulness and reason. These have always been the marks of genuine liberalism and will continue to be in the future.