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TGIF: Tackling Straw Men Is Easier than Critiquing Libertarianism

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Maybe I’m being unreasonable, but I think it behooves a critic to understand what he’s criticizing. I realize that tackling straw men is much easier than dealing with challenging arguments, but that’s no excuse for the shoddy work we find in John Edward Terrell’s New York Times post, “Evolution and the American Myth of the Individual.”

In his confused attempt to criticize libertarians (and Tea Party folks, whom I’ll ignore here), Terrell gets one thing right when he says, “The thought that it is both rational and natural for each of us to care only for ourselves, our own preservation, and our own achievements is a treacherous fabrication” (emphasis added).

Indeed it is. Unfortunately for Terrell’s case, it’s his treacherous fabrication.

Terrell targets the Enlightenment and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which is doubly funny. Libertarians don’t claim Rousseau as a forebear; he was an advocate of imposing the “general will” — ascertained through democratic procedures — on dissidents as a means of forcing them to be “free.” Does that sound libertarian to Terrell?

As for the Enlightenment, last I checked Adam Smith was a principal of the Scottish wing of that intellectual movement. And he never would have claimed that “it is both rational and natural for each of us to care only for ourselves, our own preservation, and our own achievements.” (I’m not aware of French Enlightenment economists who thought that either.) Has Terrell never heard of Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1859 — 17 years before The Wealth of Nations and revised throughout his life? Or is he in that group of scribblers who think The Wealth of Nations was all that Smith had to say about the human enterprise? (Of course, The Wealth of Nations also does not embrace the view that Terrell ascribes to libertarians.) For Terrell’s edification, I’ll point out that The Theory of Moral Sentiments is an extended discussion of “fellow-feeling,” that is, our natural sympathy for others.

Smith would laugh at any portrayal of the isolated, allegedly self-sufficient individual as the summit of human development. No less than the great Greek philosophers, Adam Smith understood how inherently social the individual person is. The self itself is a product of social life. People, he said, seek praise from their fellows and, importantly, aspire to be worthy of praise.

“What so great happiness as to be beloved, and to know that we deserve to be beloved? What so great misery as to be hated, and to know that we deserve to be hated?” Smith asks. The reason, he makes clear, is not merely that a good reputation produces material benefits. As he writes on page one,

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.

By coincidence, just before reading Terrell’s post, I had listened to Russ Roberts’s EconTalk interview with Vernon Smith, the Nobel laureate who is steeped in the economics tradition of Adam Smith and F.A. Hayek. The topic of discussion was The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which is entirely appropriate considering that Roberts and Vernon Smith are two of the small group of professional economists who are intimately familiar with the book. (Another is Dan Klein, with whom Roberts held a multipart book-club discussion. Check out Roberts’s new book about The Theory of Moral Sentiments: How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness.)

At one point in the interview, Vernon Smith notes enthusiastically,

[Adam Smith] says, imagine a person, a member of the species being brought up entirely isolated.… He says that person can no more understand what it means for his mind to be deformed than for his face to be deformed. And Smith says — I’m paraphrasing — bring him into society and you give him the mirror he needed before. In other words, the looking glass in which we are able to see ourselves as others see us.

Thus society is indispensable for the proper development of the person.

Vernon Smith has also written (in “The Two Faces of Adam Smith,” 1998) that Adam Smith’s two published works both describe

one behavioral axiom, “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another,” where the objects of trade I will interpret to include not only goods, but also gifts, assistance, and favors out of sympathy.… [W]hether it is goods or favors that are exchanged, they bestow gains from trade that humans seek relentlessly in all social transactions. Thus, Adam Smith’s single axiom, broadly interpreted … is sufficient to characterize a major portion of the human social and cultural enterprise. It explains why human nature appears to be simultaneously self-regarding and other-regarding.

Does it sound as though either of the Smiths would be inclined to deny, as Terrell puts it, that “evolution has made us a powerfully social species, so much so that the essential precondition of human survival is and always has been the individual plus his or her relationships with others”?

Has Terrell not heard of Adam or Vernon Smith? Or F.A. Hayek or James Buchanan (two Nobel laureates, so their names have been in the papers)? Or Russ Roberts? Or Dan Klein? And while we’re at it, let’s drop the name Herbert Spencer. As Spencer wrote in Social Statics (1851):

The increasing assertion of personal rights is an increasing demand that the external conditions needful to a complete unfolding of the individuality shall be respected….

Yet must this higher individuation be joined with the greatest mutual dependence. Paradoxical though the assertion looks, the progress is at once toward complete separateness and complete union. But the separateness is of a kind consistent with the most complex combinations for fulfilling social wants; and the union is of a kind that does not hinder entire development of each personality. Civilization is evolving a state of things and a kind of character in which two apparently conflicting requirements are reconciled.

He anticipated “at once perfect individuation and perfect mutual dependence.”

If Terrell has never encountered these thinkers, how much research could he have done before he opined about libertarianism? Why should we take Terrell seriously?

I wish I could understand intellectuals who seem to form a priori notions about their opponents, do no empirical research to see if these notions hold up, and then go public with criticisms that should embarrass them badly. If I may say something in the spirit of The Theory of Moral Sentiments: I am embarrassed that a fellow member of the human race has written something so ridiculous.

What people like Terrell don’t realize — or perhaps realize too well — is that the fundamental point in dispute is not whether the individual is a social animal or a creature best suited for an atomistic existence. No libertarian I know of subscribes to the latter notion. The point in dispute is whether proper social life should be founded on peaceful consensual cooperation or on compulsion. (See my “What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.”)

Terrell asserts a dubious distinction between thinking of society as natural and thinking of society as a matter merely of convention. I says it’s dubious, and of doubtful significance, because the conventionalist (David Hume, perhaps?) still believes that given their nature, only a social existence generated by certain conventions is appropriate for human beings.

But if for argument’s sake we accept Terrell’s distinction and his preference for naturalism, we still must ask: if society is natural, why must we be compelled to be social? Why is aggressive force — the initiation of violence, which robs persons of their dignity and self-determination — acceptable when free and spontaneous cooperation — voluntary exchange and mutual aid — ought to work reasonably well?  Do the Terrells of the world believe that society would fail without violence?  That, I submit, is bizarre.

It is precisely because human beings are social by nature that physical force should be banned except to repel aggressors and to effect restitution for torts.

I welcome the day that someone writes a serious criticism of liberalism/libertarianism that reflects a real understanding of what is being criticized. Terrell and like-minded folks would expect that of their critics. How about applying the Golden Rule, guys? Go home and do your homework. Then come back and give us your best shot. I promise I’ll be waiting.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.