More on the Forms of Liberty True and Imagined

by Peter Augustine Lawler

So I wish I had the time and talent to comment intelligently on all the recent posts by Flagg, Carl, and Pete. For now, let me express my amazement that Carl expressed his agreement with “nearly all” of one of my rambles in a thread. They were all supposed to be controversial! I’m going to try to “advance the conversation” by listing most of my points here.

1. “Classical political science” is of real but limited utility in understanding America. That’s because America is not really a “regime” or holistic political form. When Tocqueville describes America as a democracy, he deliberately waffles on the foundation of that description with the endlessly controversial phrase “social state,” which is somewhere in between “political” and “sociological.” So he’s criticized by both Straussian political scientists and scientific sociologists. But “I get where he’s coming from.” Both American government and American “political thinking” are intentionally limited as an account of the human soul. It’s okay to engage in “American regime analysis” if you remain aware of its limitations. Today, we’re mostly a mix of democracy and oligarchy. And in thinking about “oligarchy,” you have to remember that it’s in many ways a good thing. Being an oligarch means thinking like a rich guy. If I knew how to do that effectively, I would be a rich guy. And I would be better off as a result. I actually often agree with libertarian economists insofar as they say it’s just sensible to “think oligarchic.”

2. Carl admits that I might be right that progressive ideas are weak now, but he adds that they will inevitably rise again in our future. As a social scientist, I can think of no way to prove him wrong. But I can wonder whether the perennial “longing for social justice” has much of a future among the American “autonomy-freak” sophisticates who seem to really call the shots.

3. I don’t think (thank God) totalitarian Communism can rise again in any future I can anticipate at the moment. Neither can the general kind of Historical thinking that regards particular people as “History fodder” to be exploited by all means necessary to bring into being some egalitarian paradise. To speak Straussian again for a moment, we have to be open to the possibility that Nature and History are both on life support. I’m actually optimistic about the future of Nature, but I don’t see much real thought about it in “contemporary discourse” learned or popular. Talking about the Founders is not really talking about Nature (as I will explain later). For now: Those techno-freak libertarians think they’re “originalists.”

4. On the other hand, Communism as Marx actually describes it remains attractive, even or especially to libertarian economists. Marx, after all, describes the promised future as an unlimited, unobsessive, unalienated menu of choice.  So does Tyler Cowen.

5. I don’t see the imperialist, natalist progressivism of TR making a comeback any time soon (although it might be good if it did, at least a little).

6. The same with FDR’s “liberal” vision of the selfish private sector being displaced over “evolutionary” time by the cooperative efforts of government and citizens devoted to those efforts.

7. So I guess the “progressive” vision that has the most legs (as Flagg and our friend James Poulos say, sort of) is the combination of private autonomy with managerial expertise (the government/Silicon Valley complex) through endlessly intrusive big data. The Silicon Valley folks and maybe the government will able to really KNOW you through all your online choices. And by KNOWING you, maybe they can RESHAPE you. But of course no candidate can campaign on that vision. Obama, though, got reelected by implementing that vision.

Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.