One applauds The New Republic for publishing Mark Lilla’s long, intricate and intellectually serious article about libertarianism.
While I might, in parts, take exception to his positions, he deserves credit for attempting to make theoretical sense out of the current state of political and economic affairs.
I agree with him when he says that the post-Cold War period has seen a decline in serious theorizing—one needs but mention Slavoj Zizek and Judith Butler—and that this ought to be corrected.
I am less convinced by his assertion that we live in a libertarian age.
People who believe in free markets and free elections are not quite the same as civil liberties absolutists, human rights advocates and porn manufacturers. Lilla’s ideological umbrella seems too expansive… to the point where the concept loses its meaning.
If libertarianism means that everyone is free to do as he pleases, when he pleases, where he pleases, with whom he pleases… and that it will all work itself out in the wash, then the proponents of this theory need to do some more serious intellectual work.
As do those civil liberties absolutists who want everyone to be free to pee on the sidewalk but who insist on bigger government and more regulations.
One doubts that what the dogmatic belief in democracy is truly a libertarian concept. It feels more like classical idealism, the version that believes that ideas precede experience and that we can impose our ideas on reality.
Lilla himself belongs to this intellectual tradition. He gives no weight to the tradition that sees experience preceding ideas.
In his words:
What is, or was, ideology? Dictionaries define it as a “system” of ideas and beliefs people hold that motivate their political action. But the metaphor is inapt. All practical activity, not just political activity, involves ideas and beliefs. An ideology does something different: it holds us in its grasp with an enchanting picture of reality. To follow the optical metaphor, ideology takes an undifferentiated visual field and brings it into focus, so that objects appear in a predetermined relation to each other.
True enough, all political activity involves ideas and beliefs, but free market systems place practice ahead of ideas. Free markets are non-ideological and non-dogmatic because they respect the verdict of the marketplace. They are more games than dramas.
One ought to keep in mind, because Lilla suggests that some libertarians forget it, that markets function according to rules. If everyone does not follow the rules and work toward negotiated compromises, markets cannot work. A free market is not a free-for-all. No one, no matter how libertarian, believes that it is.
The belief in free enterprise is not a dogma, because those who hold to it accept the verdict of reality. Does it work or does it not work?
One might even say that, at their best, free markets respect tradition, because they respect the accumulated wisdom that is contained in current practices. Without going too deeply into it, the British Common Law is based on the free will of judges making decisions on a case-by-case basis. The decisions stand or fall depending on their usefulness in other cases.
If we are defining ideology, I agree with Lilla that an ideology offers its own vision of the world. Yet, this vision is not so much an enchanting picture of reality, as he says, but a fictional world that is intended to replace reality. I discussed this at length in my book The Last Psychoanalyst.
Obviously, contemporary ideologies often posit a current reality that is based on oppression, repression and suppression. Divide the world between oppressors and the oppressed and you end up living in an alternative universe that scrubs away any facts that might contradict your ideology.
To my mind libertarianism is anything but a dogma. It does not hold that the market is always right, regardless of the outcomes that ensue when it is put into practice.
In other words, dogma is opposed to the pragmatic and the empirical.
Lilla is correct to see that the most important ideologies of the past two centuries were “totalizing.” The offered to explain everything and were, to their adherents, never wrong.
In his words:
The grand ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did just that, and much too well; since they were intellectually “totalizing,” they countenanced political totalitarianism. Our libertarianism operates differently: it is supremely dogmatic, and like every dogma it sanctions ignorance about the world, and therefore blinds adherents to its effects in that world. It begins with basic liberal principles—the sanctity of the individual, the priority of freedom, distrust of public authority, tolerance—and advances no further. It has no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going.
For reasons that escape me Lilla asserts that the European Union is a product of neoliberal thinking. To my mind it was the product of bureaucrats who got together and tried to impose their views of the world on often recalcitrant political realities. It feels more like the Napoleonic legal codes, produced by a group of “superior” people huddled in a room, than like the British Common Law.
Note well that the Napoleonic Code was imposed as a mass on the populace while the Common Law developed over time, one decision after another.
Some of what Lilla classifies as libertarian is really modern idealism. Lilla is correct to point to American policy failures in post-war Afghanistan and Iraq, but he is stretching the concept to call the Bush administration libertarian:
I am beginning to feel some sympathy for those American officials who led the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq ten years ago and immediately began destroying existing political parties, standing armies, and traditional institutions of political consultation and authority. The deepest reason for this colossal blunder was not American hubris or naïveté, though there was plenty of that. It was that they had no way of thinking about alternatives to immediate—and in the end, sham—democratization.
Others have made the same point, from the right and the left. I have occasionally quoted David Goldman, no leftist he, offering a similar critique to the naively idealistic American policy in those two countries.
Surely, the American policies were ideologically driven. We do better not trying to understand it in terms of competing narratives. It is more accurate to say that we tried to impose a game on people who did not know how to play it, did not know the rules and did not respect the outcomes. If people have always played soccer you cannot give them new uniforms and a new ball and expect that they will immediately know how to play American football.
If many people in many parts of the world no longer believe in the transcendent virtue or the inevitability of liberal democracy, the reason, as has often been noted, lies with China. That is, not because of a victory of this idea over that or this narrative over that but because China has been practicing free enterprise without liberal democracy … and has been succeeding at it.