Impulses and Vectors


Mark of New Jersey

Mark is a Founding Editor of The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, the predecessor of Ordinary Times.

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9 Responses

  1. Avatar mike farmer says:

    Very good. My only disagreement is with liberalism as an agent of dynamic change as opposed to conservatism’s attempt to maintain tradition. I believe that modern liberal/progressive policies affecting societal problems have been around long enough, since the beginning of the 20th century, to count as tradition. I see conservatives and modern liberals both protecting a two party system which maintains a tension that has become the status quo, leaning toward statism for the most part, and which blocks dynamism that would come from a private sector less burdened by central planning — the whole two-party system can be seen as conservative as compared to the dynamism constrained in the private sector — I don’t necessarily associate the private sphere with libertarianism, but the libertarian impulse is to free the dynamic power of the private sphere.Report

    • “I believe that modern liberal/progressive policies affecting societal problems have been around long enough, since the beginning of the 20th century, to count as tradition.”

      I totally agree with this, which is why you don’t really see much conservative heart to overturn the New Deal. Conservatives will occasionally rail against it, but when push comes to shove, they have zero interest in revisiting it.

      I do, however, think liberalism aspires to dynamism as a general goal. Liberals are very much concerned with fixing what they view as problems and generally creating a “better” society, much as libertarians are (or at least ought to be). But generally speaking, their response to the existence of a problem will begin by moving in the opposite direction from libertarianism.

      So where a libertarian may look at a given problem and blame FDR, a liberal may look at that same exact problem and argue that the problem is caused by the private sector (which, frankly, is usually correct from the standpoint of determining the most proximate cause, although the libertarian would respond that the proximate cause was itself made inevitable by a government action). The result is that the liberal will look for new government solutions to the problem.

      With a liberal worldview, you will often come to the conclusion that government can be a powerful force for change (ie, dynamism). With a libertarian worldview, you will often come to the conclusion that government is a powerful force standing in the way of change.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        Good essay. I think there is a difference between parties as institutions which seek to survive and beliefs/vectors. So the R and D parties are somewhat separate from the beliefs their members hold. Each party seeks to survive and thrive as a entity. They wouldn’t be much of a party if they didn’t have a desire to keep surviving.

        Things get interesting when trying to turn these vectors into concrete policies to govern a country. Most people while generally falling into one of these three general belief systems usually have a strong sympathy towards another one of the beliefs.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        This is one place that I think liberals’ acknowledgement of the power of the market gets short shrift. Modern American liberals are not socialists or communists. I know that trips a lot of current media buzzers in one sentence, but there is a reason those buzzers have come about. Liberals really do value the power of the market, it’s just that they tend to think that its benefits tend to remain powerful even within the constraints of parameters that are set by overriding societal priorities — ones, crucially, that are determined by democratic processes. That is why liberals get touchy about being called socialist (which is in turn why they continue to be called socialists). Of course, what a libertarian sees in the liberal willingness to constrain and define markets by social criteria are primarily the distortions that they believe result from those limits, as well as whatever perverse (perhaps even ironic) social consequences result in turn from those. Libertarians (in whatever political guise) emphasize those distortions and advocate for less intervention (though, significantly, rarely in practice for absolute non-intervention), and thus the comparison in the public mind becomes one of liberals advocating greater control of markets versus libertarians (perhaps not self-identified ones, but nevertheless advancing the market thesis) advocating for less.

        What becomes lost in the discussion is how greatly most liberal proposals to address what they see as social failures of the marketplace continue to rely on markets as fundamental mechanisms for allocating resources. If there was one (what I believe to be) misconception of liberals among libertarians that I would most like to dispel, it would be the notion that liberal thought (as opposed to some self-described liberals) in any way rejects the power of the market to efficiently allocate resources, and that in so doing it produces a socially valuable result. In fact, the liberal critique of markets is quite the opposite than that they generally serve no useful social function (or a negative one, for that matter), but rather that, while broadly concurring with the thesis of the superiority of the market economy and embracing it as a fundamentally just way to order economic life, in fact markets often perform excessively efficiently, with outcomes at the extremes that have unacceptable social consequences which cannot justly be allowed to stand.

        This then raises what is in my view the most important difference between liberals and libertarians, one that is worth clarifying and emphasizing. That is, each philosophy’s respective view on the question of whether markets continue to operate efficiently, or how efficiently they continue to operate, under constraints placed on them for reasons of social priority, and how much of the social utility of that more-or-less efficient continued operation of markets is preserved under those conditions. To me, that is the salient question that most distinguishes the two, at least in terms of the respective instrumental cases for libertarianism versus liberalism. (There is, of course, always the first-order, non-instrumental, “Don’t tread on me” case for libertarianism, which in my view cannot be dismissed, even while it also does not trump all other social values. To further clarify, in case I am not coming through as I hope, you can think of the instrumental case for libertarianism as epitomized by the arguments of Hayek [whom I have not read], and the non-intrumental case as by Nozick [whom I have sporadically read]. As a [somewhat loosely-committed and, candidly, unfortunately-not-very-well-philosophically-grounded] liberal, the main role that the non-instrumental case plays in my thinking is that it can be used to resolve close questions that remain after the ‘heavy artillery’ of instrumentalist libertarian arguments versus those of social outcome priorities determine the broad order of battle on a question.)

        So in my perhaps idiosyncratic view, then, a modern America liberal in many cases is just a moderate libertarian who simply isn’t willing to accept all the consequences of a rigorous libertarian policy program. Scratch many a liberal, and you will find a person who recognizes and sympathizes with many of the more powerful arguments driving libertarianism as a vector, but who doesn’t believe that a full adoption of those principles into policy will have acceptable outcomes, and notes that most libertarians, regardless of self-identification as such, nevertheless do not adopt the hard-line stance, which provides significant justification in the liberal’s mind for the more moderate, pragmatic balancing approach.*

        * I should note that one central libertarian argument that really isn’t much acknowledged by liberals is the notion that the ill market effects in need of correction that they identify are in fact the result of status-quo market interventions. That really is one too many wrinkles for most liberals (many of whom view it as a quite-too-convenient holding, while of course libertarians would maintain that it is central to their critique, to which liberals would respond, “Well, exactly,” and round and round), and it is likely an important distinction I am neglecting here.Report

  2. Avatar Bob says:

    Mark, two quick points.

    1. I doubt that Jaybird appropriated the vector term from the site I linked this morning. In other words, I don’t think the term as Jaybird used it was originally found there. Perhaps Jaybird will confirm or reject it as his source.

    2. For better or worse I am a labeling kind of guy. But as you point out, lables are just starting points.

    Otherwise, very edifying.Report

  3. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    As soon as I thought about it a second I realized “any and all political thought” was probably overstating it a bit on my part — fascist and totalitarian thought are certainly exceptions. Or if they have the vector, it’s with a negative sign in front.Report

  4. Avatar Bob Cheeks says:

    Mark, this is excellent stuff and your interlocutors are top shelf. Perhaps, in the future one of the League might take on a further differentiation: something along the lines of …the reality of order in man and society (city), e.g. the order of man’s existence in society. I am interested in what this generation thinks of these things.Report