Friday, March 20, 2009

Libertarianism as Ornament

Comment on The Long View, "The Obamarama..."

HopefulCynic68 wrote:

It's a myth that most businessmen love the free market, they're as human as anyone else and government-guaranteed profit appeals to them too.

The saccharin libertarian attitudes embraced by many business-types seem to issue not from any metaphysically-inclined picture of the workings of an ideal economy, but from the purely practical need to avoid any moral or political friction at the point of sale. The businessman cares not whether his customers are conservative or liberal, black or white, straight or gay; he simply desires as much patronage as possible. Therefore, he envelopes his market operations in an atmosphere of inclusivity, affecting for his part a studied and principled aloofness from all distinctions made on the basis of blood and history. Do not underestimate the impact these attitudes have on our contemporary sexual harassment and racial quotas policies. Multiculturalism—the deliberate attempt to obliterate the realities of creed, race, gender, and class, and to enthrone the concept of libertarian agency as the sine qua non of personhood—reveals itself here as the "politeness" of the trading floors; the theatre mask of embalmed civility that all who wish to buy or sell are required to don.

In this perhaps there is something to commend it, for never has Kant's Categorical Imperative been given a more focused and energetic expression. Unfortunately however, multiculturalism proceeds from an incorrect picture of humanity, and in its excesses becomes repressive and demonic. Blood and history really do matter; or at the very least, they are not dispensable. The pulse-side of man wants to advance his own family and policies and visions. This, presumably, is why he goes to market in the first place.

The extreme alternative to this ultra-utilitarian civil ethics is to turn business itself into a political weapon, such that the buying and selling of wares is restricted between preferred parties. This is the principle that governs international trade, and also the labyrinthine intrigues of every dusty Silk Road bazaar. Libertarianism can only flourish within a political horizon; it cannot condition interactions between competing horizons. This is why the dreams of globalization, the attempt to transform the entire earth into a single free market, will never be realized. Political considerations will always intrude, then become paramount. We can only expect that as our political life becomes more fragmented, our economics will become more "Asiatic." Ironically, the anarchy of libertarianism is nothing but the ornament of an overrefined civilization, as OEH has pointed out.

The great trick is to preserve the free market as engine of opportunity, but to so distribute property such that the interests of every agent lie comfortably close to home. This can only be achieved by elevating moral principles above the unrestricted operations of the market; hence capitalist ideology has a fatal flaw too often overlooked by conservatives. The optimality we seek is attained not through unbridled competition, but through the security gained by having each agent permanently related to some productive private property. The "ownership society," properly understood, is an essentially distributist ideal which has been rendered complete by admitting the distinctions of blood and history which libertarian capitalism ignores.

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