Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Attack on Leo Strauss from the Paleoconservative Historicists

The debate over Leo Strauss's political thought has been dominated by two positions.  Strauss's critics on the Left have charged that he was a right-wing--even fascist--enemy of liberal democracy.  In response to this criticism, his defenders on the Right have argued that he was a defender of liberal democracy against the threats coming from communism, Nazism, relativism, and historicism.

Over the last couple of years, we have seen a new position in this debate staked out by the paleoconservative historicists Paul Gottfried (in Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America [Cambridge University Press, 2012]) and Grant Havers (in Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy [Northern Illinois University Press, 2013]).  Gottfried and Havers speak for what they identify as the Old Right, which they regard as true conservatism.  Here I will comment on Havers's book.  I hope to comment on Gottfried's book in a future post.  Some of the thinking in this paleoconservative historicist critique of Strauss is stated in Havers's review of Gottfried's book.

As a conservative Christian historicist who wants to defend Anglo-American liberal democracy, Havers contends that such a defense must appeal to history rather than nature, because Anglo-American liberalism is rooted in the historical particularity of liberal Protestant Christianity, and consequently, it cannot be universalized by any appeal to a universal human nature.  As a Darwinian classical liberal, I argue that Havers's antithetical dichotomy of nature versus history is mistaken, because one can rightly defend Anglo-American liberal democracy as rooted in an evolutionary natural history.

In contrast to those like Shadia Drury, Stephen Holmes, and William Altman, who identify Strauss as a man of the extreme anti-liberal Right, Havers takes Strauss as sincere in his professed support of liberal democracy, even if it's the moderate support of a friendly critic.  More specifically, Havers identifies Strauss as a Cold War liberal.  To counter the threats coming from communist universalism, historicist relativism, and Nietzschean nihilism, Strauss thought that liberal democracy had to be defended as grounded in a universal human nature, and thus conforming to the timeless standards of natural right that could be grasped by reason as transcending the time-bound traditions of history.  Although Strauss himself never interpreted this to mean that American ideals should be imposed on all other nations by an American foreign policy of democratic imperialism, that's the message that was advanced by the neoconservative followers of Strauss.

According to Havers, Strauss's primary mistake here is in failing to see that Anglo-American liberal democracy is rooted in the particular historical tradition of modern liberal Protestantism--especially as based on the egalitarian morality of Christian charity--and therefore it has no timeless natural truth outside of this unique historical tradition.  As a result, liberal democracy has no human appeal beyond the Anglo-American world of England, the United States, and Canada.  Any attempt to export liberal democracy to other countries must fail.  And even in the Anglo-American world, liberal democracy will lose its appeal as fervent belief in liberal Protestantism declines.

In the course of developing this general argument, Havers offers insightful commentary on many aspects of Strauss's influence on Anglo-American conservatism.  He criticizes Strauss and his followers for generally downplaying the importance of Christianity in shaping liberal democratic thought, and he indicates how troublesome this has been for Christian conservatives.  He shows how Strauss tried to find ancient Greek roots for liberal democracy.  He observes that while Strauss and his followers have celebrated Winston Churchill, they have failed to reflect on how Churchill stressed the importance of Christianity in shaping Western civilization as a unique historical tradition in ways that departed radically from ancient Greek and Roman traditions.  He explains the complex and confusing relationships that the Canadian conservative George Grant and the American conservative Willmoore Kendall had with Strauss.  And he shows how Strauss's account of the tension between Jerusalem and Athens--revelation and reason--points to the historical uniqueness of modern Western culture in a way that subverts his appeal to natural right as opposed to history.

In the final paragraph of his book, Havers writes:
"Debates over what is universal and relative within Western civilization will not go away anytime soon.  Even if a cosmic 'clash of civilizations' between the West and its historic rivals is not in the cards, the unique contribution that biblical morality has made to the West is bound to be a source of friction with peoples who do not embrace the seven dogmas of Spinoza.  Despite the best efforts of Strauss to universalize Anglo-American political ideas, even he hit the wall of historic and religious particularity.  If the Bible teaches a universal morality that all human beings must practice, it will never logically follow that this morality is historically universal.  Although it is unlikely that the globalist Left and Right will take this message to heart, the survival of the Anglo-American West may well depend on its peoples heeding this lesson."  (168)
I see here four problems that run throughout Havers's book.  First, he never explains exactly when and where we "hit the wall of historic and religious particularity," given that that wall moves in an expanding circle.  Second, he never demonstrates that human nature and human history must be antithetically opposed to one another.  Third, he never explains how this nature/history dichotomy can be consistent with his presentation of the universalistic demands of the Christian historical tradition. Fourth, he is silent about the empirical evidence of history over the past 250 years that shows a remarkable spread of liberal regimes around the world, far beyond the confines of the Anglo-American world.

The smallest enclosure for "the wall of historic and religious particularity" that constitutes liberal democracy is "the seven dogmas of Spinoza" stated in chapter 14 of Spinoza's Theological Political Treatise.  According to Havers, Anglo-American liberal democracy is impossible without belief in liberal Protestantism as defined by those seven dogmas of Spinoza (77-78, 88, 164, 168).  But then at many points, Havers expands the wall outward to embrace all of Christianity, and not just liberal Protestantism, when he speaks of "Christian charity" as the crucial belief.  At other points, however, he speaks of "biblical charity," as if to include Judaism and the Hebrew Bible as well as the New Testament.

Havers is also unclear about the geographical and chronological location of this wall.  Apparently, "Anglo-American" refers collectively to England, the United States, and Canada, thus erasing the boundaries between those three.  But then he also speaks about "the uniqueness of the West," thus suggesting that liberal democracy is actually rooted in the whole of Western culture over the last two thousand years.  And yet he also identifies "the Anglo-American West," as if to indicate that the wall does not enclose all of Western culture, but only the English, American, and Canadian parts of that culture.

If this "wall of historic and religious particularity" moves in an expanding circle--from England to America to Canada to all of Western culture--why can't it be moved even farther outward to embrace all of humanity?

In fact, when Havers speaks of "the universalistic demands of Christianity" (125) as foundational for liberal democracy, he implies that Christianity's universal morality of charity teaches a universal humanitarianism.  But then he contradicts this by saying that this can't be true.  Anglo-American liberal democrats must affirm the biblical teaching of a "universal morality that all human beings must practice," but they must deny that "this morality is historically universal," because this universal Christian morality is not really universal!

This incoherence in his reasoning arises from his false antithetical dichotomy of nature and history, which he repeatedly assumes as a first premise that he never demonstrates (15, 37-40, 63-64, 77-85, 90-91, 96, 100, 103, 107, 109, 125, 133).  I have argued that human nature constrains but does not determine human history, and that human nature and human history jointly constrain but do not determine human judgment.  If this is so, then we can exercise our judgment in discerning how some historical traditions show a better grasp of human nature than do other historical traditions. 

Havers simply assumes that any standard that is historical as being rooted in some specific time and place cannot also be natural as being rooted in a universal propensity of human nature.  So, for example, he identifies Christian charity as the Golden Rule (59, 62, 78-80, 90, 148, 151, 164).  Since the statement of the Golden Rule in the New Testament belongs to a specific historical tradition of religious thought, he assumes that it cannot therefore be natural or universal.  But this ignores the possibility that many different religious and philosophical traditions have discovered the Golden Rule as a reasonable inference from natural human experience, as an expression of what C. S. Lewis called "the Tao," or as showing how diverse historical traditions can manifest natural law.  (See Jeffrey Wattles, The Golden Rule [Oxford University Press, 1996].)  Charles Darwin and other evolutionary moral psychologists have showed how the Golden Rule can emerge through the coevolution of human nature and human culture.

For Havers, one of the best illustrations of the application of the Golden Rule or Christian charity was Abraham Lincoln's reasoning about the injustice of slavery (63-64).  (Havers is the author of Lincoln and the Politics of Christian Love [University of Missouri Press, 2009].)  But Havers is silent about the fact that Lincoln was confronted with two contradictory historical traditions of interpreting the Bible's position on slavery.  Christian abolitionists followed the historical tradition of the Bible as anti-slavery.  But many Southern Christians adopted the historical tradition of the Bible as proslavery.  And indeed both the Old Testament and New Testament endorse slavery and never explicitly condemn it.  Lincoln admitted that the Bible provided no clear resolution of the dispute.  In his Second Inaugural Address, he observed: "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other."  That's why the American Civil War was such a deep theological crisis for America.

Being faced with two opposing historical traditions for interpreting the biblical teaching on slavery, Lincoln had to appeal to the natural human desire for justice as reciprocity in judging that the anti-slavery tradition was closer to natural justice than the proslavery tradition.  If Havers were right about the antithetical dichotomy of nature and history, such a judgment would have been impossible.

The victory of the North in the American Civil War extended liberal republicanism over the entire American nation.  This could be seen as part of a historical trend towards the spread of liberalism around the world.  Employing Immanuel Kant's criteria for liberal republicanism, Michael Doyle (in Ways of War and Peace [Norton, 1997]) has surveyed the historic expansion of liberalism around the world.  At the end of the 18th century, there were only three liberal regimes: the Swiss Cantons, the French Republic (1790-95), and the United States.  By 1850, there were 8 liberal regimes.  By 1900, 13.  By 1945, 29.  After 1945, there have been at least 68, and they are scattered around the world on every continent.  Many of these liberal regimes are clearly not rooted in the historical tradition of liberal Protestant culture.  They include, for example, Japan, Malaysia, and South Korea.  Isn't this historical evidence for the universal appeal of liberalism, suggesting that liberalism really does conform to a universal human nature?  If so, then liberalism is rooted in natural right and history, and Havers is wrong.

Some of my previous posts on Strauss, Lincoln, natural right, and evolutionary natural history can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Increasing Liberty and Declining Violence in Spencer's Evolutionary Classical Liberalism

Reading Alberto Mingardi's Herbert Spencer (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013) has finally convinced me that modern evolutionary classical liberalism is rooted in the tradition of Spencer, and that the recent work of those like Matt Ridley, Jonathan Haidt, and Steven Pinker confirms Spencer's rational optimism about the evolutionary trend across history towards increasing liberty and declining violence.

Mingardi's book is the best short introduction to Spencer's social thought.  It is part of a remarkable series of books on "Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers" edited by John Meadowcroft. 

Mingardi points out the odd character of the history of Spencer's reputation.  During his lifetime, Spencer was perhaps the most famous and respected philosopher of the last half of the 19th century.  He was probably the first philosopher to sell over a million copies of his books before his death.  And yet, by the 1930s and 1940s, hardly anyone was reading Spencer.  Through the influence of people like Richard Hofstadter--through his book Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944)--Spencer's evolutionary classical liberalism was labeled as Social Darwinism, which suggested a morally repugnant claim that nothing should be done to help the weak and the poor who were unfit to live in a competitive society.  Now, Barack Obama regularly pins this label of Social Darwinism on those who disagree with him about expanding the power of government for social reform.

As Mingardi indicates, even those leading the recent revival of evolutionary classical liberalism--those like Paul Seabright, Paul Rubin, Daniel Friedman, Matt Ridley, and me--rarely acknowledge that this is a revival of Spencer's thinking.  Moreover, this recent evolutionary social thought draws from the influential ideas of Friedrich Hayek about how the spontaneous orders in complex modern societies are generated by adaptive cultural evolution; but while this corresponds exactly to what Spencer said about the spontaneous evolution of "industrial societies" as opposed to "militant societies," Hayek showed no knowledge of, or interest in, Spencer.

As I have indicated in some previous posts, I reject the unreasonable utopianism found occasionally in some of Spencer's writing--as, for example, when he writes in Social Statics: "so surely must the human faculties be moulded into complete fitness for the social state; so surely must the things we call evil and immorality disappear; so surely must man become perfect" (80).  Mingardi never takes up this fantastic claim that human nature can be so changed as to be morally perfect.

Mingardi has convinced me, however, that, setting aside his occasional utopianism, Spencer defended an evolutionary classical liberalism that supports a rational optimism about historical progress towards increasing liberty and decreasing violence.

One good statement of this reasoning is at the end of Spencer's "Filiation of Ideas" (in David Duncan's Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer):
The assertion of the liberty of each limited only by the like liberties of all, was shown to imply the doctrine that each ought to receive the benefits and bear the evils entailed by his actions, carried on within those limits; and Biology had shown that this principle follows from the ultimate truth that each creature must thrive or dwindle, live or die, according as it fulfills well or ill the conditions of its existence--a principle which, in the case of social beings, implies that the activities of each must be kept within the bounds imposed by the like activities of others.  So that, while among inferior creatures survival of the fittest is the outcome of aggressive competition, among men as socially combined it must be the outcome of non-aggressive competition: maintenance of the implied limits, and insurance of the benefits gained within the limits, being what we call justice.  And thus, this ultimate principle of social conduct was affiliated upon the general process of organic evolution. (576)

Despite this optimism about evolutionary progress as favoring the expansion of liberty and social order based on voluntary cooperation, Spencer became deeply discouraged by the move--during the last few decades of his life--from the classical liberal principle of limited government protecting individual liberty to the new liberal principle of expanding government for promoting social reform.  As this movement towards collectivist statism increased in the first half of the 20th century, some scholars claimed that Spencer had been overthrown by the very evolution that he had championed, because social evolution had turned away from his classical liberalism.

Actually, however, Spencer did not claim that evolutionary progress was an unswerving and inevitable line of ascent.  Rather, he recognized the "rhythm of motion" in social evolution:
On recognizing the universality of rhythm, it becomes clear that it was absurd to suppose that the great relaxation of restraints--political, social, commercial--which culminated in free trade would continue.  A re-imposition of restraints, if not of the same kind, then of other kinds, was inevitable; and it is now manifest that whereas during a long period there had been an advance from involuntary cooperation in social affairs to voluntary cooperation, there has commenced a reversal of the process. (Autobiography, II: 369)
But if Spencer was right about societies with increasing liberty and decreasing violence being generally more functionally adaptive than other societies with less liberty and more violence, then we can expect that although there will be unpredictable swerves in history away from classical liberal principles, the general pattern of history over the long run must be towards classical liberalism.

Pinker offers a good visual model of this in his Better Angels of Our Nature.   While surveying the evidence for a long historical evolutionary trend of declining violence and increasing liberty, which supports classical liberal culture, Pinker acknowledges that there can be variable deviations from this general trend.  So he presents the trend of declining violence as a declining irregular sawtooth pattern, in which it's possible to have sudden peaks in violence like World War Two, caused by a few illiberal individual leaders like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, but still the general trend downwards continues.

In 1971, Murray Rothbard made a similar point in his essay on "Social Darwinism Reconsidered".  He observed that if one is persuaded by the evolutionary classical liberal argument of Spencer, then one can be reasonably optimistic that history is generally moving towards liberty, despite the many deviations and reversals in the process.  So, for example, if one is persuaded by Ludwig von Mises' argument that socialism cannot calculate economic values, then socialism cannot work in a modern industrial society.  Even Lenin recognized that when he saw the failure of his attempt to abolish money, in his attempt to put Marx's ideas into practice, and Lenin was forced to shift back to a limited free market economy (the "New Economic Policy").  Similarly, all of the attempts to establish pure socialism in an industrial society have eventually failed.

This vindicates the reasonable optimism of Social Darwinism as based on a scientific understanding of evolutionary natural law and of cause and effect, Rothbard concluded, because "over the long run, the dysfunctional must come to a bad end, must cleanse itself and wipe itself out, while the truly functional and proper can remain and prosper."  "The eventual victory of liberty is inevitable," he declared, "because only liberty is functional for modern man."

If evolutionary classical liberalism is correct, then liberal societies must be evolutionarily more adaptive, more functional, or more productive--economically, morally, and intellectually--than illiberal societies.  And, consequently, despite the occasional turns towards illiberal social orders, the arrow of history in the long run points to liberty.

Posts on some of these points can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Classical Liberalism as Evolutionary Niche Construction for Declining Violence: Bonobos and Humans

At the Liberty Fund conference on "Liberty and Violence," one of the participants was a primatologist who studies bonobos in Africa.  At one point in our discussion of Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature, she complained about how Pinker unfairly dismisses the evidence for peaceful cooperation among bonobos, in contrast to the violence of chimpanzees.  She noted that Pinker relies on primatologists who study chimps or who have only studied bonobos in zoos, and who want to make bonobos look like chimps in their tendency to violence.

She explained that in the wild bonobo females serve a policing function, in that they intervene in fights to moderate conflicts through impartial mediation, because they benefit from living in a stable social order that is not disrupted by violence.

She also observed that bonobos--like all primates--show a range of personality types, so that some individuals have more violent temperaments than others, and consequently the occurrence of violence can depend on the contingency of whether there are such violent individuals in the group.  She said that many of the deaths of the males comes from "testosterone poisoning"--young males vigorously displaying their virility in the forest canopy can kill themselves by slamming into a tree.

She also said that if dominant males are grouped together in zoos without females who can moderate their male conflicts, then nasty fighting is likely to break out.  She explained then that what the females are doing in the wild groups in pacifying conflicts is "niche construction"--behavior that creates a social environment in which stable and peaceful cooperation is adaptive.

Here she was appealing to an idea developed by F. John Odling-Smee, Kevin Laland, and Marcus Feldman in Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution (Princeton University Press, 2003).  In most of evolutionary theory, we think of organisms as carrying genes, and the inheritance of these genes by the next generation depends on organisms surviving and reproducing according to chance and natural selection in their environments.  But there is another process of evolution that arises from organisms changing their environments, which modifies the natural selection pressures in their environments.  This is evolutionary niche construction.  Among many animals, evolutionary niche construction includes the transmission of culturally learned traditions.  And among human beings, it includes the transmission of culturally learned symbolic systems such as art, science, religion, and philosophy.

In response to this discussant's comment about social niche construction among bonobos, I suggested that the history of classical liberalism is evolutionary niche construction, and that this is a big part of Pinker's argument: the history of classical liberal philosophy has created a cultural moral environment of liberalism in which peaceful cooperation and declining violence are adaptive.  (This is what Deirdre McCloskey would identify as the work of rhetorical entrepreneurs in the marketplace of ideas who have used moral persuasion to create a liberal culture that honors the bourgeois virtues.)

As Pinker argues, human nature is a mixture of Inner Demons and Better Angels.  Human beings are innately predisposed to violence by their Inner Demons, but the expression of those predispositions is not "hydraulic"--that is, a drive that must necessarily be satisfied--but "strategic"--that is, a propensity that is responsive to environmental triggers.  Classical liberalism constructs a cultural niche of social institutions, mental attitudes, and moral traditions that tend to elicit the Better Angels to motivate voluntary cooperation and nonviolent relationships.

In this way, human nature constrains but does not determine human culture and individual judgment.  Within the constraints of human nature as a mixture of Inner Demons and Better Angels, classical liberalism can foster those cultural traditions and individual judgments that limit the Inner Demons and channel the Better Angels towards a system of liberty and voluntarism.

A few of the people at this Liberty Fund conference were such fervent critics of the Pinker argument that they resolutely rejected this claim that there has been a historical trend towards declining violence as fostered by classical liberal culture.  But by the end of our discussions, I had a strong impression that many--and maybe most--of the people there found the Pinker argument persuasive, even if one could dispute some of Pinker's evidence and argumentation.

Nevertheless, even those of us who were persuaded by Pinker were left with the unsettling conclusion that while the general historical trend of declining violence and increasing liberty was encouraging, the contingencies of history make it impossible to predict that this trend will continue unbroken into the future.

There was a lot of discussion of whether Pinker's science is a falsifiable and predictive science.  I argued that Pinker's science is a historical science, as opposed to nonhistorical sciences like physics and chemistry.  In a historical science, one can make retrospective  predictions about the past and make only broad pattern predictions about the future.  One cannot precisely predict the future.  And, indeed, Pinker stresses that he is only claiming that we can see declining violence in past history, and that we cannot be sure that this will continue into the future.  His entire book, as he indicates in the first paragraph (xxi), is looking backward, so that he does not, because he cannot, make precise predictions about the future.

Pinker suggests that there are four possible historical trends in war--escalation, cyclical, random, and declining sawtooth (191-92).  He is arguing for seeing the trend as a declining sawtooth.  The way he draws this pattern through the Second World War as one data point shows that in a declining sawtooth pattern, there can be generally decline in violence, while still allowing for a sudden jump in violence towards the greatest single atrocity in human history--55 million violent deaths in the Second World War--which indicates the radical contingency in Pinker's historical science.

This contingency is made evident in Pinker's book by his noting how three individuals acting under the influence of illiberal ideologies were responsible for the greatest atrocities of the 20th century.  The Second World War would not have occurred without Hitler.  The Great Purge in the Soviet Union would not have occurred without Stalin.  The Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution in China would not have occurred without Mao.  So "tens of millions of deaths ultimately depended on the decisions of just three individuals" (343).

It will always be possible for such individuals to appear in circumstances that allow them to rise to positions of power that enable them to perpetrate mass atrocities of violence.  But this can be made unlikely insofar as classical liberalism as evolutionary niche construction continues to spread, making us more like bonobos and less like chimpanzees.

Some of these points are elaborated in my series of posts on Pinker (in October to December of 2011) and in my post on "The Behavioral Ecology of Chimpanzee War and Liberal Peace."

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Liberty, Violence, and Self-Ownership

Is there a mutual relationship between increasing liberty and declining violence?  Does the history of violence show a pattern of decline?  If so, is this history of declining violence largely explained by a history of increasing liberty?  If so, is this a Darwinian process of biological and cultural evolution towards liberty and away from violence?  And if all this is so, does this provide historical confirmation for classical liberalism?

These are the main questions I want to answer this week at a Liberty Fund conference in Tucson on "Liberty and Violence: From Auberon Herbert to Steven Pinker."  We will begin with some readings from Auberon Herbert (1838-1906) that introduce these questions.  (The Liberty Fund collection of Herbert's writings as edited by Eric Mack is available as part of Liberty Fund's Online Library of Liberty.  Mack's Introduction to the book is also available as an article online.)

Herbert begins with the first principle of classical liberalism--self-ownership.  (In some previous posts, I have traced this liberal principle of self-ownership back to Richard Overton and John Locke.)  Herbert then defends the principle of liberty as opposed to the principle of force by arguing that liberty respects each person's ownership of himself and his property, while force allows some people to own the persons and property of others.  The fundamental question in human life is the choice between liberty and force--between a social life based on individual self-ownership and voluntary cooperation or a social life based on some people owning others and enforcing compulsory cooperation.  (In some previous posts, I have indicated how Abraham Lincoln's reasoning in the debate over slavery manifests this choice between liberty and force, and how Lincoln's choice for liberty of self-ownership constitutes his classical liberalism.)

Herbert makes two arguments for self-ownership.  His first argument is for self-ownership as a logical inference.
"Pure critical reason obliges us to believe in self-ownership.  Men either own themselves or they do not.  If they do, nothing remains to be said.  If they do not, then they cannot possibly own and control each other, so long as they do not first of all own their own selves.  It would be like using a lever, where no point of support existed. (372)
His second argument is for self-ownership as a fact of human nature.
"Nature is on the side of self-ownership, self-guidance.  We see that each man and each woman is individually endowed by nature with a separate, complete, and perfect machinery for self-guidance--the mind to guide, the body to act under its guidance; and we hold, as a great natural fact as well as a great moral truth--probably from a human point of view the greatest of all facts and the greatest of all truths--that each man owns his body and mind, and thus cannot rightfully own the body and mind of another man." (371)
As I have argued in some previous posts, this Lockean conception of individual personhood as embodied self-conscious awareness of, and emotional concern for, the survival and well-being of the body can now be confirmed as manifest in the human nervous system as a product of mammalian evolution.  If we follow Antonio Damasio's "somatic marker hypothesis" and Bud Craig's neuroanatomical explanation of conscious self-awareness in human beings, we can identify the self-ownership of the person as the activity of the anterior insular cortex of the brain in constituting the subjective awareness of the individual in caring for one's self and for others to whom one is attached.

Like Locke, Adam Smith, and other liberals, Herbert sees the self-ownership as including not only one's own body and mind, but also one's property as acquired without force and fraud or inherited from those who rightfully acquired it (369-70).

To freely exercise our self-ownership, we need to protect ourselves from those who would use force or fraud to take control of our persons or property without our consent.  Fraud is force in disguise, because it is getting something from someone without his consent (155, 372).

Although force is wrong in itself, in denying the self-ownership of the person who is forced, force is justified in self-defense, Herbert argues, because there is a right to resist violence with violence.  Where there is no centralized government to keep the peace and punish aggressors, the natural right of self-defense against aggression can easily lead to a state of perpetual war.  To escape this state of war, individuals can consent to establish a government to use force in protecting their liberty from the threats of unjustified force.  Without citing Thomas Hobbes, Herbert thus makes a Hobbesian argument for government by consent of the governed to escape the war of all against all in the state of nature.  But unlike Hobbes, Herbert argues that the natural purpose of government--securing the liberty of self-ownership--puts severe limits on the power of government (141-42, 312-13, 371-72, 375-77, 383, 389-90).  Indeed, in contrast to Hobbes, Herbert argues for a "voluntary state" rather than a "compulsory state" (389-92).

Herbert's advocacy of "voluntaryism" was interpreted by many people of his time as anarchism.  But Herbert insisted that he was not an anarchist but a "governmentalist," because he thought the securing of liberty required a government limited to that end.  He thought the anarchists were confused because they did not see that anarchy as "no government" was not possible, and that what most anarchists sought was actually a highly decentralized and irregular form of government exercised by informal groups and customary laws (374-83).

As I have indicated in some previous posts, Herbert's point here about anarchism is illustrated by anarchists like Peter Leeson who argue that anarchy can be better than predatory government in places like Somalia.  Leeson contends that stateless society with self-governance through customary clan law and clan militias has been better for Somalia than the predatory government of a military dictator that was overthrown.  And yet, Leeson indicates, the best situation for Somalia would be to have a liberal state to provide public goods while minimizing predatory exploitation.  Like Leeson, most anarchists are not really arguing for "no government," but for stateless societies with no centralized state governments, but with customary self-governance, as superior to exploitative centralized states.  And, in fact, through most of our evolutionary history, we have lived in stateless societies, or in what Hobbes called "the government of small families."

The most common objection to Herbert's classical liberal conception of government limited to securing liberty against force is that a more expansive form of government is necessary to limit force.  Herbert recognizes this as the argument of the socialist:
"It is this very question of force that justifies us in what we are doing.  We want to diminish the use of force in the world.  The rich unscrupulous man is in reality the man who uses force, and it is the exercise of force on his part that we are seeking to restrain by force on our part.  The capitalist who uses force toward his work-people, compelling them to accept his terms, is as much to be restrained by force, in our opinion, as the man who helps himself by violence or fraud to the property of other people" (143-44).
 Herbert's response to this objection turns on his distinction between "direct compulsion" and "indirect compulsion." (145-47).  (Friedrich Hayek tried to make a similar point in distinguishing "coercion" and "power" in The Constitution of Liberty, chapter 9.)  The socialist is not really reducing compulsion, because he is using direct compulsion in the attempt to reduce indirect compulsion. 

Indirect compulsion requires consent, while direct compulsion does not.  So, for example, when employers and employees are negotiating wages and the terms of employment, both sides are subject to indirect compulsion by the other side, because employees can be threatened with loss of their jobs, and employers can be threatened with loss of their best employees.  Friends and lovers can use indirect compulsion in making unfair demands on one another as conditions for their love or friendship.  In general, we all need to negotiate for the cooperation of others who can indirectly compel us to consent to their terms for cooperation. 

Indirect compulsion can be used in unfair ways to harm people, and we can try to use moral persuasion to minimize the abuse of such unfairness.  But indirect compulsion is a condition of life that cannot ever be eliminated totally.  By contrast, we can strive to eliminate direct compulsion from life.

Herbert's objection to socialism is that it rests upon force or direct compulsion.  But in some of his writing, he distinguishes "force socialism" and "voluntary socialism."  If socialists want to voluntarily form a socialist community, they can do so in a free society.  "Under liberty, you may give away your own liberty, if you think good, and be a socialist, or anything else you like; under socialism, you must be socialist, and may not make a place for yourself in any free system" (230).

Although majoritarian democracy is superior to socialism or other forms of authoritarian oppression, democratic rule by majorities is a "confused mixture of force and liberty," because a democratic majority can become tyrannical in its exercise of force (128-30, 230)

Herbert sees the history of liberty and force as a progressive evolutionary history towards declining force and increasing liberty, because he thinks that liberty allows the free development of individual energy and genius through spontaneous enterprises of voluntary cooperation, which will be more productive than coercive systems based on force (224-25.  Thus, cultural evolution by natural selection favoring greater human survival and well-being will generally favor liberty over force.  This shows the "universal law of progress" (362).  James Payne's History of Force develops this conception of history, and Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature elaborates Payne's history of declining violence and increasing liberty and peace.

And yet, Herbert and Payne differ from Pinker in that Pinker is silent about what Herbert and Payne regard as the one form of modern violence that remains to be abolished before peace and liberty can triumph--compulsory taxation.  "Once admit the right of the state to take, and the state becomes the real owner of all property," and thus the real owner of all persons (406).  Herbert contends:
"Compulsory taxation is the great typical enemy of all voluntary action.  We see in it the very citadel of compulsion, the chief instrument with which every encroachment is carried out, the chief bribe by which men are induced to submit to these encroachments, and an institution which by its very existence preaches to men every day and every hour that they are not really sovereign over themselves, their faculties, and their property, but are subject to the will of others--placed at the mercy of these others to be used or not used according to their caprices, their superstitions, or their selfishness." (407)
So we are left wondering whether "voluntary taxation" is a crucial condition for the widest liberty and self-ownership.

Other pertinent posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Leo Strauss's 1933 Letter to Lowith: Was He Devoted to "Fascistic, Authoritarian, Imperial Principles"?

Today, in the New York Times Book Review, Barry Gewen (an editor at the Review) reviews Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood by Joachim Fest.  This book tells the remarkable story of Fest's father--Johannes Fest--who was one of the few Germans who openly rejected Nazism and Hitler while living under the Third Reich.

One passage in this review contains a parenthetical remark about Leo Strauss:
"Joachim reports that his father once said of his Jewish friends that 'in their self-discipline, their quiet civility and unsentimental brilliance, they had really been the last Prussians'--the embodiment of all that was good and right about Germany. (It's necessary to add a wrinkle here: At least some of these Jewish-German conservatives would probably have become Nazis if they could have.  As a youthful Leo Strauss wrote to a friend in 1933: 'Just because the right-wing oriented Germany does not tolerate us, it simply does not follow that the principles of the right are therefore to be rejected.')  Toward the end of his book, Joachim offers a rueful meditation on the fraught German-Jewish relationship, saying it went much deeper than the French-Jewish or English-Jewish connection, and suggesting that the Holocaust 'may be interpreted as a kind of fratricide.'"
It is disturbing to see Strauss identified as a Jewish-German conservative who acknowledged that he would have become a Nazi if he could have.  Gewen draws this conclusion from Strauss's infamous letter to Karl Lowith of May 19, 1933.  Unfortunately, he conveys the impression that this is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the letter, and thus he ignores the intense debate over the letter by those who have read it carefully.  Strauss's critics have pointed to this letter as the "smoking gun" evidence for Strauss's secret teaching of fascism.  His defenders have insisted that the letter does not have to be read this way.

The most meticulous and thoughtful studies of this letter that I have seen are those by Peter Minowitz (in Straussophobia, pp. 154-63) and William Altman (in The German Stranger, pp. 225-34).  They come to opposing conclusions.  Minowitz defends Strauss against the charge that the letter clearly announces his leaning towards Nazism--or towards what he identified as the "fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles" of the right.  Altman contends that Strauss really was committed to a philosophical and theological version of National Socialism, and that this is how Lowith interpreted it.

Having left Germany in the summer of 1932, Strauss was writing to Lowith from Paris.  By May of 1933, Hitler had been in power in Germany for four months, and the Nazis were extending their control over the whole society.  Strauss and Lowith had been students of Martin Heidegger, who had recently delivered his Rectoral Address at the University of Freiburg, in which he enjoined the students and faculty to exert "spiritual leadership" in the service of the new Nazi Germany.  I was in Freiburg a few months ago, and some of the faculty at the University still talk about the troubling influence of Heidegger

Strauss began his letter by talking about the efforts he and Lowith were making to get grants from the Rockefeller Foundation.  He then wrote (as translated by Altman):
"As for me, I have the second year after all.  Berlin [actually Carl Schmitt] has recommended me and that was decisive.  I am staying in Paris for this second year as well, and I will attempt to accomplish something during this time that will permit me to continue working.  To be sure, the 'competition' is considerable: the entire German-Jewish intellectual proletariat finds itself here.  It is awful--I wish I could run away to Germany."
 "But here's the catch [der Haken].  Surely I can't 'opt' for some other country--a homeland and above all a mother tongue can one never select, in any case I will never be able to write other than in German, even though I will be forced to write in another language--: on the other hand, I see no acceptable possibility to live under the swastika [dem Hakenkreuz], i.e., under a symbol that says nothing else to me except: 'You and your kind, you are subhuman physei [by nature] and therefore true Pariahs.'  Thee exists here only one solution.  We must repeatedly say to ourselves, we 'men of science'--for so people like us called ourselves during the Arab Middle Ages--non habemus locum manentem, sed quaerimus [we have no abiding place, but we are seeking one]. . . . And, as to the substance of the matter: i.e., that Germany having turned to the right does not tolerate us, that proves absolutely nothing against right-wing principles.  On the contrary: only on the basis of right-wing principles--on the basis of fascistic, authoritarian, imperial principles--is it possible with integrity, without the ridiculous and pitiful appeal to the droits imprescriptables de l'homme [the unwritten rights of man] to protest against the money-grubbing bedlam [das meskine Unwesen].  I am reading Caesar's Commentaries with deeper understanding, and I think about Virgil: Tu regere imperio . . . parcere subjectis et debellare superbos [you rule an empire . .  to spare the vanquished and to crush the proud].  There exists no reason to crawl to the cross [zu Kreuze zu Kriechen], to liberalism's cross as well, as long as somewhere in the world there yet glimmers a spark of the Roman thought [des romische Gedanke].  I therefore do not fear the emigrant's destiny--at the most secundum carnem [according to the flesh]: hunger and the like--.  In a sense our kind is always 'emigrant;' and what concerns the rest, the danger of embitterment, which certainly is very great, Klein, who in every sense was always an emigrant, is for me the living proof that it can be defeated."
 "Dixi, et animam meam salvavi [I have spoken and have saved my soul]."
Here is Minowitz's translation of the crucial Unwesen sentence:
"To the contrary: only from the principles of the right, that is, from fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles, is it possible with propriety (Anstand), that is without resort to laughable and pitiful appeal (lacherlichen und jammerlichen Appell) to the droits imprescriptibles de l'homme, to protest against this shabby nuisance/monster (das meskine Unwesen)."
The big difference in these translations concerns that against which right-wing principles protest.  For Altman, the protest is against "money-grubbing bedlam"--that is, the low acquisitiveness of liberal society.  For Minowitz, the protest is against Hitler and the Nazis as "this shabby nuisance/monster."

Altman and Minowitz agree, however, that Strauss is clearly showing his  sympathy for "the principles of the right" as including "fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles."

According to Minowitz, Strauss is saying that the only realistic way to oppose Nazism is to appeal to right-wing principles of authoritarian and fascist imperialism, because liberalism cannot win a battle against Nazism in Germany.  According to Altman, Strauss is saying that a right-wing atheistic imperialism is required to overcome the debasement of human life by a liberalism rooted in Judeo-Christian religion.

Altman points to Strauss's association of the cross of Christ with the cross of liberalism: "The epistolary connection between God and liberalism is revealing and what it reveals is the real smoking gun: an intellectual basis for the Verjudung-hypothesis" (228).  What Altman means by "the Verjudung-hypothesis" is the Nietzschean idea that liberalism is nothing but the slave morality of a secularized Judaism.

Minowitz suggests various possibilities:
"One could hypothesize that Strauss's letter to Lowith invoked the Romans because he happened to be reading Caesar and because he regarded Roman thought as a serious alternative to both liberalism and Nazism.  One could also hypothesize that in the relevant sections of the letter Strauss, during a desperate period of his life, is expressing a possibly fleeting mood that does not well capture the agenda of his mature professional activities, when he was determined to reopen the quarrel between ancients and moderns with a focus on classical political philosophy.  Or one could hypothesize that Strauss have revealed a dastardly secret teaching that would frame the next forty years of his work." (162)
What I find most ominous in all of this is Strauss's refusal to come to the defense of classical liberalism and his scornful insistence that he will never crawl to liberalism's cross.

Or should we agree with Strauss that in 1933 liberalism was not a morally or politically defensible alternative to Nazism or right-wing principles?

I am also troubled by the way that Strauss praised Heidegger as the greatest philosopher of the century.  Shouldn't Strauss have seen that anyone like Heidegger who cannot grasp moral reality and see evil as evil cannot be a true philosopher, because he cannot see things as they really are?

I will read Joachim Fest's book to see if the story of his father's life under the Third Reich illuminates the possible grounds of resistance to Nazism.

Gewen says this in his review:
"Johannes Fest was the middle-class headmaster of a primary school in suburban Berlin, a pious Catholic and father of five, a cultural conservative who revered Goethe and Kant, and a loyal German patriot--'a dyed-in-the-wool Prussian,' in Fest's words--the kind of person who might have been expected to become an active supporter of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists.  In a foreword by Herbert Arnold . . ., the elder Fest is described as 'tailor-made for a career' with the Nazis.  And yet some quirk in his personality made him a fierce Weimar republican, ready to sacrifice himself, even his family, to principles he knew to be right even as everyone around him was yielding to mass hysteria. 'Not I," a best seller in Germany when it appeared in 2006, . . . is a memorable tale of lonely courage, stoic endurance, self-imposed hardship and a life lived amid ubiquitous, all-encompassing danger: 'Even innocent-sounding remarks could be life-and-death matters.'  It reminds us that simple human decency is possible even in the most trying of circumstances."
Strauss might have noted that Fest was a "cultural conservative" and a "dyed-in-the-wool Prussian" as showing that he was a man of "right-wing principles."  But he was also a "fierce Weimar republican" who showed manly courage and principled resistance to evil even at great cost to himself and his family.  Notice that he was also a pious Catholic.  So apparently he was willing to crawl to the cross of Christ as well as the cross of liberalism to find the moral strength to stand for justice and truth when all around him were seduced by Hitler.  Doesn't this show how liberalism and Christianity can nurture human excellence rather than the debasing "joyless quest for joy"?

I have developed some of these points in other posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.