A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Libertarianism and American Philosophy

Over the course of the past decade, I have come to realize that I lean strongly towards “libertarian” political ideas. However, I did not arrive at this position through one of the seemingly standard methods, such as falling in love with Ayn Rand, worshiping rich people, or trying to find some justification for being a jerk.* Rather, I have come to realize, my libertarian ideas are connected strongly with aspects of American Philosophy, a philosophy most people see as more strongly connected with Progressive Era of US politics than with Libertarian ideas of today. For some time I have been wanting to produce something serious about the connection between the philosophy I have been writing about, and my preferred approach to politics. At the moment, however, all I can offer is a rough sketch:

* Edit: I know this lead in is a bit hyperbolic. There are certainly other ways to become a libertarian.

“American Philosophy” starts with “Pragmatism.” There are many ways to explain pragmatism, but one is particularly well suited to present purposes: Pragmatism arose, in the mid-to-late 1800s, through efforts to explain the then-startling success of two things: Science and Democracy. Through most of human history, it would have been thought that those two pursuits would not yield much. As for science: Though certainly it was nothing new to suggest that truth was best discovered through careful examination of our experiences in the world, that position held minority standing for much of known history, and it was certainly hard to explain why such methods worked so well. Traditionally, experience was seen as misleading, and revelation or intuition combined with pure-deduction seemed much safer. As for democracy: While “the American Experiment” was by no means the world’s first democracy, few expected it to do so well. Given that there are seeming experts in the world, why would we ever get better outcomes by letting everyone have a say? George Bernard Shaw, for example, rallied against the inefficiency of democratic processes, and many in the US prophesied doom and gloom as voting rights expanded to men of all races, with women close behind.

But was it two things, or one thing? The ideas of science and democracy were not as separate for the early American philosophers as they might seem to us now. Though there are great myths surrounding lone scientists who make breakthroughs, science is better understood as a semi-democratic process; discovery is the result of sustained investigation by a community, which gradually builds consensus over time, by putting forward ideas and evidence for others to evaluate. Thus, what we need to justify faith in the scientific process is the same as what we need to justify faith in democracy: For both we need to value the experiences of others, to value the opinions of those who came (through honest means) to disagree with us, and to value experimentation, in the form of different groups trying different things and seeing what results. And, to be more specific, we must value them because we believe that this mixing of experiences is, whether we shall ever reach our destination or not, the best way to move towards to the truth.

To put it more simply (and perhaps too simply): Science is the democratization of knowledge.

What inspirations can be drawn in pursuing these ideas?
Peirce hammers away at the many ways that we might arrive at our beliefs – giving credit to each as having some virtue – and concludes that honest inquiry is the moral path. By honest inquiry, he means pursuing one’s beliefs in a way in which they may be proven wrong, which includes placing them into the social context of inquiry that characterizes science.  

William James chastises those who would use their experiences to dismiss the experiences of others. James seeks to take all experience into account. This attitude creates a profound humility in James’s works, and a valuing of a plurality of experiences.

John Dewey has radical ideas about democracy and progress.
  • First, from Dewey I get a deep (perhaps intentionally naive) faith in the potential of education. Often in political debates I find myself in agreement with the outcomes my antagonists seek, but I disagree with the means they propose to get there. For example, I have been told that we need the government to provide several programs (i.e., to take people’s money and put it towards certain outcomes), because the people who have the money will never make the right choices if we leave it up to them. “Of course they will make the right choices,” I assert, “if you can convince them to do so.” Why do we lack faith that we can build a society of better people? 
  • Second, Dewey seemed to urgently feel the need to explain the principles that lead democracy to virtuous ends. For Dewey, democracy was never about 51% of the people deciding what should happen; democracy was, at its core, about bringing a multiplicity of ideas together to discover, through civic discourse, what should be done.

E. B. Holt is the only one on the list from whom I have read an actual anti-government message. In The Freudian Wish, he builds up an elaborate and convincing argument in favor of parents who let their children experience directly the consequences of their mistakes (whenever it is possible to do so without serious harm). In the middle he has a few paragraphs which, almost in passing, make analogy to those who support the government-as-parent model. It is effective in its skewering, but hard to explain fully out of context. More importantly to me, however, more than the other American philosophers I have read, Holt has a deep and abiding faith that the world can provide whatever support we need to accomplish our endeavors, be they casual questions about which mushrooms to eat or the most pressing of ethical questions. While this is expressed as a bold assertion, it is presented in a way that makes me think it is worthy of pursuit.

In part, I think these ideas are worth pursuing not because I am certain that they are correct, but because I believe they embody the “American Experiment”. ― Let the people in, let us see what they can do! Let any who want to work and build this country come and do so in their way! ― This is not exactly an expression of faith, though I again admit it is grounded in a touch of intentional naivety. Rather it is, I feel, an expression of what makes (or at least used to make) the U.S. unique.

That, at least, is a very rough sketch of how I think libertarianism and pragmatism fit together.

I am not an Anarchist, but I do wish the government would focus less on making obstructionist rules, and more on making sure this crazy game keeps going. I am not against government support of education, but I am adamantly against the now-popular idea that each child in this country should be educated in lockstep with every other. I am not against government involvement in commerce, but I wish the government would do more to ensure that the game was not biased so strongly in favor of mega-corporations, rather than creating a complex system that favors the rich and established. As for law-makers in general, I am broadly suspicious of those who think they know what is best for everyone else. Even as a rather arrogant person, that level of arrogance astounds me ― Given the incredible variety of situations U.S. citizens will find themselves in, now and in the future, is it realistic to think there is a best way to serve everyone? And even if there was, who would know it? ― The greater the number of people to be affected any set of laws affect, the more suspicious I am; the same law seems less presumptuous when passed locally, then when passed at a state or federal level. In general I am in favor of letting people do what they want, even when I think they are doing the wrong thing, because I have this weird belief that letting people pursue a variety of ideas is what will, in the long run, move society-at-large most quickly in its pursuit of whatever truth it might eventually find.

Continue to Part II


  1. I didn't become a libertarian by reading Ayn Rand, worshiping rich people, or trying to find some justification for being a jerk. I just always thought that initiating the use of violence wasn't a good idea, Then once I started talking to libertarians they said that's what libertarianism is all about, one guy told me I should read an essay by Lysaner Spooner called No Treason and I did. I was immediately radicalized.

  2. John, many thanks for the comment! Indeed, there is a way to get to libertarianism by starting from an ethical decision that using violence against others is wrong (with a rather broad notion of what constitutes violence). I know a handful of people who came to libertarian political beliefs by means of their religious beliefs, and all followed that path. That is not, alas, the situation for the majority of people who self characterize as libertarians. I think some people can take it as a first principle that using violence against others is wrong. However, other people will want to know why we might think that such a position would lead to other positive ends, and that is the question I am hoping to be able to answer with this line of work.

  3. To continue the above comment: One crucial issue is that many people feel that we are justified in forcing others to conform to certain rules, if we have reason to think such conformation will result in a better outcome for the to-be-forced-people. I don't think anyone objects to using intellectual arguments and interpersonal/social pressure to try to create conformity, but there is a lot of disagreement when you start talking about using the force-of-law to create such outcomes. For some, they do not even consider it "force". That view seems painfully naive to me. However, many others would simply say it is a use of force that they are comfortable with, and that is a choice rather than nativity. For me, this is a context in which harken back to William James's particular type of humility, along with a healthy understanding of unintended consequences. It is not very often (relative to the frequency with which laws get passed) that I think we can be THAT certain about what is best, in the long run, for others.

  4. I encourage you to look up John Lachs, a professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University. In particular, his book Stoic Pragmatism does a fine job of advocating a nondogmatic libertarianism, although he does not call himself a libertarian (he's a stoic pragmatist). He also has a book called "On Meddling" that again advances the virtuosity of leaving people alone to pursue the good life.