For all the political and economic theories out there which claim to be the best, very few grapple with the question, if it is indeed good, why don’t we have it? Any consistent system must deal with this problem, because no system on earth even closely approximates an ideal type of any sort: we have ad hoc mixed economies, arbitrary regulations, and a heaping serving of rent seeking.
The question, however, is an important one for any political or economic philosophy. And there are really only two types of answers: accident and fate. The advocate of liberty can fall into either of these, so I will discuss each in turn.
By fate I don’t (necessarily) mean anything metaphysical. Rather, I use this term to describe something like Marx’s Dialectic, in which history inevitably progresses from feudalism to capitalism to socialism to communism.
Obviously Marx’s dialectic isn’t the only one possible. In fact, many Libertarians implicitly accept some sort of dialectic moving from “less free” to “more free”. Depending on how far out you zoom, one can make a case that history has or has not borne this out. Certainly from feudal to modern times, there has been an extreme and seemingly lasting trend towards freedom. On the other hand, there have been significant bumps and reversals along the way – for example the close of trade and immigration leading up to the two world wars – from which we have still not recovered.
One can also make a superficially convincing theoretical case for Libertarian Dialecticism from the theory of spontaneous order. To illustrate how this might work, we look at Milton Friedman’s story in Capitalism and Freedom of the unravelling of Hollywood’s blacklist:
The Oscar-awarding ritual is Hollywood’s biggest pitch for dignity, but two years ago dignity suffered. When one Robert Rich was announced as top writer for the The Brave One, he never stepped forward. Robert Rich was a pseudonym, masking one of about 150 writers … blacklisted by the industry since 1947 as suspected Communists or fellow travelers. The case was particularly embarrassing because the Motion Picture Academy had barred any Communist or Fifth Amendment pleader from Oscar competition. Last week both the Communist rule and the mystery of Rich’s identity were suddenly rescripted.
Rich turned out to be Dalton (Johnny Got His Gun) Trumbo, one of the original “Hollywood Ten” writers who refused to testify at the 1947 hearings on Communism in the movie industry. Said producer Frank King, who had stoutly insisted that Robert Rich was “a young guy in Spain with a beard”: “We have an obligation to our stockholders to buy the best script we can. Trumbo brought us The Brave One and we bought it”.
. . .
The Hollywood blacklist was an unfree act that destroys freedom because it was a collusive arrangement that used coercive means to prevent voluntary exchanges.
What we see here is the powerful operation of market forces to defeat coercion. It was also arguably a greater force for the civil rights movement than any particular law. This is why in barely 40 years we have moved from disenfranchisement to no longer having serious challenges to enfranchisement and equal treatment: It was just too unprofitable not to serve blacks. The forces of self-interest dealt a fatal blow to institutional racism. And if one extends the concept of spontaneous order into the realm of competitive government, it’s easy to fall into the idea that governments will eventually compete each other into a state of liberty for their residents. Why don’t we have freedom? Don’t worry, these say; we’ll get it; we’re just not there yet. The material superiority of liberty makes it the inevitable outcome of institutional selection.
Most, however, are not so convinced of the inevitability of liberty. For these, it’s historical accident. The accidental answer to this question is intimately tied to the question of how the few can rule the many. Thus, based on the answer to that question, we can break this answer down further into ethics and conspiracy.
The most pessimistic have the idea that the powers that be are powerful, cunning, clever enough to stay in power by guile or brute force. These are the ones who talk about slavery to the Fed, about the secret cabal that created it, and of 9/11 being an inside job. The status quo is big, organized, omnipresent, and secretive. For some that means the state, for others big business, and for others, the UN or the Illuminati or whoever else is supposed to be running things.
Of course this is a major violation of the “Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity” principle. And so we turn to…
Ultimately, for one unprepared to accept a dialectic account of history or a conspiratorial account, by elimination, the only option is to found an ideal system on the ethics of its people. Otherwise the question of why it does not already exist becomes intractable.
Of course, this goes against the desire to build a system which works regardless of the type of people who compose it. A static system can perhaps be constructed according to that criterion. But when you ask how it is to perpetuate itself, any system which does not take a common ethic into account inevitably breaks down.
Of course, there is not a simple dichotomy between fatalistic and ethical accounts of the departure of our current system from an ideal. To the greatest extent possible, systems need to rely upon self-interest in order to self-perpetuate. That’s the power of the market economy that brought down Hollywood coercion in the 50s. The forces of spontaneous order are real and powerful, but they are not irreducible. They are not impersonal dialectical forces of history as Marx imagined, but rather the result of individuals interacting. To return to the example of the civil rights movement, market incentives rendered the old ethic of racism obsolete and irrelevant. At its heart, it was an ethical shift that brought blacks into enfranchisement. The foundation of an ideal system, as much as it relies on spontaneous order and largely automatic forces, must also rely upon an ethical base of those individuals.
To clarify, by ethics I do not mean morality. Morality is an entirely internal matter of the individual’s relationship to God, about which any system must be agnostic. This is the fatal flaw of social conservatism, for example, which renders their political beliefs incompatible with their religious beliefs. No system can rely on the morality of its constituents, for that is a question which no institution can ultimately affect. Conversely, ethics as such have no eternal merit.
Ethics, on the other hand, are the requirements put upon individuals by necessity of justice. Where justice exists in the abstract as the yardstick by which individuals are to be judged through institutions, ethics exist as the application of those principles to the behavior of the individual. Importantly, one can be ethical without being moral. The vast majority of people are likely so, at least to some degree.
This is the sort of foundation which Hayek talks about in The Fatal Conceit, and is somewhat tangential to McCloskey’s idea of the Bourgeoise Virtues that sparked the industrial revolution. For an extended order to form and thrive, it requires a certain ethical baseline which prevents the natural human tendency towards parochialism and allows impersonal trust. The more I feel I can trust a stranger not to screw me over, the more complex social arrangements can be formed, and the better off everyone is as a result. This trust is essential for the development of commerce and trade. For Hayek, history is the story of the struggle, first for the emergence, and then for the continuance, of this ethic – of the suppression of the tribal instinct – so that the extended order could thrive.
Such an account of the foundations of society leads to a quintessentially Boetian answer to the question of how the few subject the many. Rothbard writes in his article Four Strategies for Libertarian Change:
La Boetie, two centuries before David Hume, saw that all tyranny, regardless how coercive or despotic, must rest in the long-run on the consent of the majority of the people, since neither one man nor even a minority constituting the State apparatus can physically coerce the majority for very long. While, as la Boetie pointed out, every State rule originated in coercion and conquest, for the rule to remain in power there must be consent by the general public.
Tyranny exists then because the ethical virtue of independence is lacking in the people. Whether from a pecuniary dependence on the state, a form of nationalistic tribalism, or just customary servility, people have to accept the rule over them in order for it to be successful.
Of course, the examples put forth under the fate category do suggest there is an interplay between spontaneous order and ethics. In those examples, the order shapes ethics. Hayek’s thesis in The Fatal Conceit is that certain beneficial ethical norms will be selected for from this process. On the other hand, the emergence of that order itself requires a prior ethical foundation. Experience has shown that though this foundation does feed back on itself through ordering processes, it is nevertheless a fragile foundation; all too easily eroded and swept away by more primal tribal and dependent instincts.
Ultimately we must admit that the responsibility for our lack of an ideal system does not fall upon history for being too slow, or upon leaders for being cunning and deceptive. Right now America is ideologically divided between tribal independence on the right, and cosmopolitan dependency on the left. Until the ethical bedrock of cosmopolitan independence is laid in the masses, we will not have liberty.