01 January 2014

Still Searching for Foundations

I've previously observed that, standing alone, libertarianism is insufficient to provide a foundation for its conclusions. To be sure, libertarianism isn't as fatuous as Ayn Rand's objectivism but its inability to provide warrant for individual liberty strikes me as a pretty big hole in the system. Thoughtful libertarians like Randy Barnett will reply that libertarianism is merely a political system and as such it eschews metaphysics, and that there are a number of metaphysical systems that could provide the foundation for libertarianism. To the later point I would reply maybe, maybe not. As soon as we bring metaphysics--particularly human nature--into play the libertarian may run up against some constraints on the valorization of liberty as the be-all-end-all of politics. Even more problematic is the libertarian belief that metaphysics can be separated from politics. That is a peculiarly modern view that should be rejected root and branch. See my thoughts here on the anti-conservatism of the "pursuit of happiness" (liberty) in an age of individualism. Liberty ordered to the Good is a legitimate--indeed the ideal--political system. Freedom of individuals and institutions to do the Good rather than freedom for its own the sake is the ethical foundation for liberty.

But enough about political theory. What about capitalism? Here too we run into a serious problem with foundations. Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) was and is one of the leading architects of modern neo-liberal economics. His deeply analytical works have (or at least should have) demolished the pretensions of central economic planning. No one should doubt that free markets create wealth and more of it than any other system but to what ends can that wealth be put? Should there be any limits on consensual means to create wealth? And are there any virtues that must exist for the market to work?

Go here to read a lengthy but well-considered piece in which Jonathan Neumann works through Hayek's last book, "The Fatal Conceit," where Hayek backs up to address moral philosophy, i.e., foundational matters. According to Neumann, Hayek considers and finds wanting ethical systems based on reason or utility. Or, as I would put it, he rejects Kantianism and the sort of utilitarian "tweeking" that characterizes Cass Sunstein's "nudge." But what is left? Does Hayek accede to a moral philosophy based on Classical teleology or the reality of a transcendent norm such as found in orthodox Christian thought?

Sadly, no. Hayek remains a committed secular naturalist until the end. Neumann argues that Hayek understood the limits of naturalism but was unwilling to follow where his analysis lead:
Having established the limits of reason in a construction of morality, Hayek begins, however, to take a dubious turn. He asserts that "while our moral traditions cannot be constructed, justified or demonstrated in the way demanded [by pure reason], their processes of formation can be partially reconstructed, and in doing so we can to some degree understand the needs that they serve". He sees this as a historical or natural-historical investigation, resembling what followers of Hume called "conjectural history", and not as an attempt to construct, justify, or demonstrate the system itself.
In other words, Hayek substituted history for ethics. There could, on Hayek's worldview, be no source of transcendent norms yet the reality of the necessity of belief in such norms was clear: "Hayek anticipates this reaction, though, and notes that, 'although this morality is not "justified" by the fact that it enables us to do these things, and thereby to survive, it does enable us to survive, and there is something perhaps to be said for that' (emphasis is his)." "Perhaps"?!

I highly recommend reading Neumann's entire piece. He is both a sympathetic and critical reader and helps us appreciate that there is no foundation for the best of thought without the comprehensive Truth revealed by Scripture.

No comments:

Post a Comment