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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Why Libertarians Should Be Concerned with the History of Political Thought

The standard libertarian solution to how people best can achieve the obvious benefits of mutual cooperation whilst maintaining respect for the dignity and autonomy of the individuals comprising any social group possesses the virtue of being the readily comprehensible consequence of accepting a small number of intuitively appealing principles. However, what proponents regard as admirably simple readily can appear simplistic if libertarian apologists display little awareness of the location of their ideas within the great currents running through the history of European political thought, a history incorporating much profound contemplation of human nature and social reality.

If prominent proponents of libertarianism appear to be ignorant of the great themes of Western political theory, then its opponents can plausibly dismiss libertarianism as another naïve attempt to deal with the complexity of political life with a set of simplistic slogans. That may not matter in terms of motivating those who are already libertarians, but for anyone attempting to broaden the appeal of libertarianism, and especially for those addressing academic political theorists, it is a significant problem.
To illustrate my point, I will present a handful of topics from the history of political thought that, it seems to me, are relevant for libertarian theorists. My sample is far from exhaustive, and I make no claim that I have not overlooked examples of significantly greater importance than those I address. Nevertheless, I believe that the cases I have chosen are sufficient to demonstrate that the problem I am noting here is not merely hypothetical.

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6 comments:

  1. Was this an article or just a really kickass blog post?

    It's important for a libertarian to come to grips with reality and admit that the right to property is one of many *competing* obligations and that there will be times when it is expedient and morally appropriate to violate someone's legal rights in pursuit of good. Putin in Russia is a murky modern day example of this. I'm not entirely sure Kasparov and his allies are fighting a good fight against the state right now.

    In regard to the anti-federalist/federalist split, the concerns of the federalist seem myopic. The threat of local tyranny is much more easily resolved in the long run than a national one. All the usual arguments about competition and diversity of law apply here. The split may have been murkier, and Hamilton may have had a grand vision for a free America, but the anti-federalists were much more realistic it seems.

    Gene, you mention Oakeshott a lot, but I haven't had a chance to read him. Is there a book you would recommend?

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  2. This is the text of a talk I gave to the Libertarian Alliance in London, drawn from my PhD dissertation research.

    Oakeshott: start with Rationalism in Politics.

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  3. I accidentally posted two comments to this article in the comments section of a different article. I'm re-posting them here.

    First, this is a superb, though-provoking paper. I noticed that it poses several questions for the reader, and I took a stab at answering three of them in my blog.

    Second, there is a minor typo in the article: "succession" should be "secession".

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  4. Thanks, Bumbledraven. (What's a Bumbledraven, by the way?)

    I like your answers as well.

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  5. There's still one small typo... 'seccession' should be 'secession'.

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