How To Argue Against Radical Freedom?

In a comment to Alan Roebuck’s recent post, Why You Need Traditionalism, Ita Scripta Est raises an excellent question:

[Hostility to radical freedom] distinguishes us from liberals and modern conservatives alike[, but t]o question radical freedom is to fundamentally question liberalism: something that good liberals simply cannot acknowledge.

What are effective techniques to argue against radical freedom?  Traditionalists generally argue from things like deontological moral theories, metaphysics, tradition, and biblical interpretation. Alan argues in the linked post from natural law and from divine command, for example.

Since deciding to try to give up being a modernist, my attentiveness to these modes of argument has risen. Back when I was a happy modernist, though, these arguments looked like “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.”

However, arguments claiming that liberalism had bad consequences bothered me.  Especially annoying were arguments to the effect that liberalism had bad consequences for vulnerable people but good consequences for me and people like me.  That my embrace of liberalism was about thieving and looting the weak.

Pro-life is a widely known such argument.  Saying “you are in favor of vivisecting babies in general on the off chance that it might be convenient to vivisect your own someday” really got under my skin.  For a while, I was a pro-life atheistic modernist as a result of this irritation.

A similar style of argument pushed me away from market liberalism as well.  The style basically goes that market liberalism is a mechanism for privileging smart, dishonest, cynical people at the expense of stupid, honest, trusting people.  Steve Sailer makes an argument along these lines here.

Having spent an inordinate amount of time earlier this year figuring out an optimal family cell phone plan, it strikes me that an awful lot of American corporate activity these days consists of figuring out ways to nickel and dime people over complex monthly charges. It’s like a never-ending low intensity war between MBAs with computers versus customers, half of whom will be below average in intelligence, energy, or experience.

Like the abortion argument, this one got caught under my skin and made me itchy.  Once you are open to arguments like this, the world seems to become full of situations where smart people are profiting at dumb people’s expense, and by apparent design.  Credit card companies lose money on me because I seek out cards which pay me rebates and because I never, ever revolve a balance or am late with a payment.  ‘Cause I’m smart like that.  Companies make their money on people who are constantly late and revolve.  That is people who are either stupid or have serious self-control problems.  Grasp that this isn’t OK and that “if you don’t like it, be less stupid” isn’t an answer, and there is a problem.

On a more technically economic note, the arguments of the anti-liberal economist E.K. Hunt (section 3.2.1 of this link, particularly) run along lines which seem similar to me in that they emphasize the tendency of liberal economics to encourage cynical manipulation.  A well-known conclusion of Chicago economics holds that when a negative externality occurs, what needs to be done is to create a market so that the person or firm creating the externality can be paid to internalize it.  Hunt reacts (the square-braced parentheticals in the quote are not mine, they belong to the linked work above):

If we assume the maximizing economic man of bourgeois economics, and if we assume the government establishes property rights and markets for these rights whenever an external diseconomy is discovered [the preferred “solution” of the conservative and increasingly dominant trend within the field of public finance], then each man will soon discover that through contrivance he can impose external diseconornies on other men, knowing that the bargaining within the new market that will be established will surely make him better off. The more significant the social cost imposed upon his neighbor, the greater will be his reward in the bargaining process. It follows from the orthodox assumption of maximizing man that each man will create a maximum of social costs which he can impose on others. D’Arge and I have labeled this process “the invisible foot” of the laissez faire … market place. The “invisible foot” ensures us that in a free-market … economy each person pursuing only his own good will automatically, and most efficiently, do his part in maximizing the general public misery.

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24 thoughts on “How To Argue Against Radical Freedom?

  1. There is certainly a place for showing how modernist ideologies like liberalism fail even by their own standards, but the danger is that we’ll start to believe those failures are the real reason for opposing such ideologies.

    • Clearly, though, some people buy into leftism only because of the lack of a readily-available alternative. This was obviously Bill’s situation, and it was mine as well, and the situation of many of us who converted from the modern mindset. Probably most moderns are hopelessly lost, their brains too mired in rot to be jolted out of it even by the most compelling arguments, but a not-insignificant proportion of them are moderns simply due to inertia, and it’s reasonable to suppose that such people can be persuaded.

      • Proph:
        Clearly, though, some people buy into leftism only because of the lack of a readily-available alternative.

        Well, and also because they have not seen that liberalism is an incoherent political philosophy, and what that implies (and doesn’t imply). That’s how I ended up dropping my wishy-washy classical liberalism – not because I was presented with an alternative, but because I was confronted with the fact that liberalism is aggressively self-contradictory and ultimately insane. It doesn’t really matter if I can propose a concrete alternative to a specific insanity: it is still insanity.

        A further barrier was getting to an understanding of why liberalism still seemed to work so well even though it is aggressively self-contradictory – that is, how could it be correct that liberalism is fundamentally incoherent and at the same time that in the here and now there seem to be definite liberal prescriptions and definite illiberal prescriptions, functional liberals, etc? (The answer for the pedantic is that, in addition to invoking unprincipled exceptions, real world political systems operate on sequential logic with stateful orbits not combinatorial logic with stateless orbits).

        But I’m only a market of one, and I’m not sure a single other person exists who was persuaded in that particular way.

      • But I’m only a market of one, and I’m not sure a single other person exists who was persuaded in that particular way.

        This is my impression, as well. My own conversion to Christianity and apostasy from liberalism was so bound up with my personal experiences that I doubt any useful lessons can be extrapolated from it. Which is why, despite having converted myself, I mostly despair of the possibility of converting others.

      • I should give credit where credit is due though: the wall I ran into was Jim Kalb, some years before the Web even existed. Early 90’s I think.

        But once I was softened up to the point of being willing to consider the possibility that political freedom and equality might actually be a bad thing (as essence rather than accident), might not actually even have any “good” or “authentic” interpretation at all, I had to work out what it all meant for myself. (Though of course abraded and shaped by encounters with the thought of others).

  2. If stupid people need protection from themselves, a big bureaucratic distant entity such as the federal government is unlikely to provide it. It needs to be provided by a nearby smart person, who has responsibility for a manageable number of stupid people.

    Thus this argument leads not to central government restrictions on capitalism, but to feudalism and/or slavery.

    And, indeed, I have cheerfully defended slavery on these grounds. Freeing the slaves led not to an improvement in their condition, but to a major die off.

    But it sounds to me as if you want to argue from protection against weaselly capitalists to 1950s progressivism, or perhaps 1880s progressivism. But the argument does not lead to your, and Steve Sailer’s, conclusion.

    • The US had effective usury laws until 1978 when the Supreme Court made them meaningless by arbitrary judicial fiat. Similarly, gambling was illegal for about a century in the US. It’s not that hard to identify and outlaw things that are particularly attractive to idiots and con men but not to anyone else. I guess it was the states rather than the federal government which did these things. Is that distinction important?

      As for feudalism, Bonald once promised over at his old blog that he was going to do a series on neofeudalism. It’s certainly something I’d like to see.

  3. If stupid people need protection from themselves, a big bureaucratic distant entity such as the federal government is unlikely to provide it. It needs to be provided by a nearby smart person, who has responsibility for a manageable number of stupid people.

    Thus this argument leads not to central government restrictions on capitalism, but to feudalism and/or slavery.

    Or, better, to monastic establishments that take in anyone in exchange for work, attendance at Mass and attendance at catechesis. It’s about as close as it is possible to get to the rule of disinterested Platonic philosopher/kings, each of them working out his salvation in fear and trembling. Each new generation of monks can be supplied from the best and most likely novices from among the foundlings educated in the Abbey School. Those who decide their vocation liess elsewhere will be inclined to make gifts to their alma mater, should they meet with success – which, equipped with a monastic education, they likely will. The whole system is self-funding and self-perpetuating, wholly charitable in intent, and completely private. Meanwhile, permanent wards of the abbey can be gainfully employed in her service throughout the lives in which she shelters and succors them.

    • Are monasteries for stupid people? Do stupid people make good monks or even philosopher/kings?

      Another way is just to abolish the stock market. Everybody to labor and the smart people lose most of their advantages.

      • The stock market decides who gets to be in charge of other people, and is reasonably effective at ensuring competent people in charge. Alternative mechanisms for settling who gets to be in charge are not necessarily more pleasant, and we have plenty of examples of systems considerably less pleasant and less effective.

        Indeed, the basic problem is that deciding what labor is worth doing and how to do it is a hard problem, and you need able people with good incentives deciding it. Any system for addressing this problem is bound to be inefficient and unjust, some considerably more so than others.

      • Or we could just kill all the smart people, and cut off everyone else’s hands. That would be *even better* than impoverishing everyone.

        Stupid men can indeed make good monks, but monasteries are not just for stupid men. Of the indigent whom the monasteries took in, as with the poor of any age (the rich, too), there was a distribution both of intelligence and of all the other virtues. The more intelligent of them might be candidates for the novitiate, while the rest would remain permanent wards of the abbey, or else venture out into the wider world to seek their fortune. Of the wards: A man who has not the moral intelligence to cope with social life on his own can flourish as a skilled woodworker or unskilled laborer within the ordered shelter of the monastic estates.

    • Radical freedom is slavery. To flip Orwell, freedom is slavery. And those who become slaves (to Christ), we are the free ones.

      So freedom is slavery, and slavery is freedom.

  4. Perhaps some of the ex Mormon missionary commenters can outline the (effective) arguments they have used against the primacy of radical freedom?

    My impression is that it entails something like getting people to acknowledge the Plan of Salvation (a divinely revealed framework for understanding life, which importantly includes an eternal after-life of spiritual progression); and then arguing on the basis of what most effectively promotes long term/ eternal happiness (the Plan of Happiness).

    In other words, ordinary happiness-seeking ‘hedonism’ can become a strong argument against radical freedom when the explanatory field is extended to include an open-ended afterlife.

    (But that understanding may be wrong…)

    • That’s mostly it.

      You show them–or rather, you help them experience–that joy comes through the presence of God and acts of love. At the same time you present the basic gospel framework that makes sense of that experience.

      People whose lives were cocked up and family people were more open to it, because the first group saw that modernity didn’t really work for them as advertised and the second because modernity doesn’t really provide a convincing account of their lives.

      However, I would say that we never made a concerted effort to break down radical ‘freedom’ as such because we weren’t that philosophically sophisticated.

      Caveats: conversion is an extremely particularistic process.

    • As for the Mormon take on the issue, I offer Alma 41:10 in the Book of Mormon, specifically the phrase “wickedness never was happiness.” The whole chapter supports the idea that our actions do have eternal consequences. We are free in that we do have the power to make choices, which is a highly prized characteristic of being human and an important part of our life on earth, but we are not free from the consequences of our actions and desires. Those consequences can include the loss of both freedom and happiness. The person seeking happiness should not, therefore, follow the path of wickedness. The Psalms and Proverbs say similar things repeatedly without much reference to the afterlife. I hope I am addressing what you are asking for.

      • @Leo – Actually, I was more asking about the actual face-to-face arguments that you might have used when someone objected to having their (radical) freedom limited – for example their sexual freedom, their freedom to eat and do ‘what they want, when they want, with whom they want’ (…so long as it doesn’t harm other people/ with consent… etc). ‘Who are you to tell me what I should and shouldn’t do?’. … and so on.

        Clearly an argued philosophical discussion would be useless at that moment – there is a stark clash of perspectives. Yet modern people are impatient/ uninterested in explanations that last more than a couple of sentences (anything longer sounds like evasion).

        Are there useful perspective-changing analogies (for instance) which might be used at such times?

      • @Bruce, in reply to your comment (below), I have to agree with Adam G. (above) about “an extremely particularistic process.” No one argument fits all. Matt. 10:19 comes to mind in this context. That said, the truth that “wickedness never was happiness” can strike a chord.

  5. I hold this truth to be self-evident, that freedom without (internal or external) restraint is its own form of slavery, and very self-destructive. A man cannot serve two masters, and all that.

  6. Most people are not talked into faith or out of the illusion of infinite possibilities (what you term here radical freedom). Having said that, Guenon is very successful in these matters for a dead guy.

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