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Thanks for the plug. I agree with the author that too many classical liberals concede the moral high ground to left and right-wingers.


It seems to me that classical liberals generally have not lost their sense of "idealism," in the manner that Jason Brennen is discussing in this piece, to which you have linked.

In our explanations of the functioning of the market economy, we presume those conditions of "natural liberty" in which each individual is free to pursue his own ends, guided by his own knowledge and judgments in his particular circumstances; openly and peacefully price and product compete against all other individuals and groups of individuals for consumer business; and interacts with all others in market and other associative and collaborative relationships on the basis of mutual agreement and voluntary consent.

Clearly defined, respected, and enforced property rights will tend to "internalize" virtually all externalities (especially the "negative" ones that are especially of people's concerns such as pollution, endangered species, etc.)

And we postulate that in such a world of natural liberty (and based particularly on the 19th century history of America and Great Britain), individuals, families, and various voluntary groups will have fostered in them a sense of peaceful, benevolent concern for various social "problems" that will invariably exist even in the most "perfect" of free markets.

That is, the homeless, the abandoned elderly, the forgotten orphan, the person who has fallen upon "hard times" not of their own making (the "deserving poor"), etc.

Furthermore, we postulate the concept of an "ideal government" (to use the title of a small book that FEE-founder, Leonard Read, wrote many years ago). Government -- if it exists -- is limited to the protection of each individual's life, liberty, and property; enforces all peacefully and honestly entered into contracts and agreements; always follows and imposes an impartial and unbiased "rule of law"; and only uses any military force to the protect the life and property of the citizens within the territory of that country from foreign attack and invasion. (Thus, no favors, privileges, special benefits, subsidies, redistributions, or protections for some at the expense of others in society.)

Real and imperfect people, in the real and imperfect world will always be less than the people in this classical liberal ideal political and economic institutional order.

There will be attempts at both illegal and legal plunder (to use Bastiat's terms) even in this ideal world. There will be externalities and some people will try to get around other people's property rights to minimize their costs in things they do, though it is at others' expense. There will not be perfect charity and voluntary assistance to all those who "fall between the cracks," and thus there will be human tragedies that will seem to have been left unsolved.

But it is still a good and wonderful conception of that more perfect society -- and one that is far more consistent and compatible with the "human nature" of real, imperfect people in our actual world than the often "utopian" conceptions of human nature and society presented many of those on the "left."

It is that point on the horizon towards which I've always wished and desired that our society could be moving.

Richard Ebeling

Richard Ebeling is entirely correct. Furthermore, I am not aware of informed (educated) classical liberals who concede the moral high ground to anyone. I think people need to learn the classical liberal tradition.

If I may second Mario's observation. I think that what is too often lacking in the "younger generation" of classical liberals/libertarians, nowadays, (it seems to me) is the interest and willingness to undertake the (marginal) cost of taking the time to read, learn, and absorb the rich and magnificent literature of those who have articulated the principles and defended the ideas of liberty over the last three or four hundred years.

It is time-consuming, but it is an intellectual process of production that is highly rewarding and productive in strengthening and improving one's knowledge and ability to defend the cause of freedom.

Richard Ebeling

Here's the comment I left over there:

The *Austrian* economist's response to ideal moral theory is not that people "won't" abide by the ideal J, but that they CANNOT abide by J. The question of "won't" is a motivational one; the question of "can't" is, to me, an epistemological one.

J may require of human beings not just that they "behave" differently but that they have knowledge that they cannot possibly have. The "warts" that people have are not just matters of morals, character, and motivation, but might lie in the very structure of our minds/brains and the nature of a complex human society.

Calling those "warts" seems to me the analog of how economists talk about "market failure" whenever markets don't reach the idealized outcome of general equilibrium/Pareto-optimality. It's not a "failure" or a "wart" if the ideal simply is not, given any recognizable human being, obtainable.

This, I think, is why Austrian/Virginia type economists would rather talk about justice from "the bottom up," as it were, following Smith and Hume, by starting with the knavish folks we know and love and seeing what is "ideal" GIVEN the limited knowledge capacity of humans and the complexity of the extended social order.

When economists and philosophers disagree over the structure of the "ideal society" I think it's more due to their different understanding ethics rather than the issue of first-best vs. second-best. Economists are more likely to view (nonviolent) self-interested action as morally praiseworthy or neutral; philosophers are more likely to view it as morally neutral or condemnable.

The fundamental issue, on the basis of what Alex Salter has said, above, is why are philosophers so persistently critical and/or disapproving of self-interested behavior?

And, why is intentionally "other-oriented" actions considered inherently morally superior, in the eyes of many of these philosophers?

Is it Hayek's argument, that he presented many times, that the collectivist mentality of that much earlier "hunter-gatherer" group environment in which humans lived for so many tens of thousands of years, still persists in our psychology? A collectivist mentality in which the group was small enough for all to know the others to form judgments about "deservedness"; and in which the simple goals and needs of the small group created the attitude of the desirability of following a commonly shared "scale of values"?

Is it Ayn Rand's idea of the "Attila" and the "Witch Doctor," who wish to control and plunder others while also manipulating the thinking of those plundered, so there can exist the "sanction of the victim"?

Or is it some Rawlsian idea of people conceiving a supposedly good society that all would agree upon if contemplating it behind some imagined "veil of ignorance"?

Or, is it some combination of all these, plus . . . ?

Or . . .

I would love to know the answer.

Richard Ebeling


I'm not sure why you think I've failed to read the classics. I just find that they are often philosophically confused.


I was not referring to you. And if I created that impression, I apologize.

I was referring to the "younger generation" of classical liberal/libertarians, in general.

I find that often they have not read any of the "classic" liberals and free market economists of the 18th and 19th century, for example. Such individuals as David Hume, Adam Smith, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Benjamin Constant, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner.

Many, I have found, have not read F.A. Hayek's "Road to Serfdom" or "Constitution of Liberty." Unless, they are "into" Austrian Economics, they've read nothing or little by Ludwig von Mises. And many have not read Milton Friedman's "Capitalism and Freedom" or "Free to Choose."

They have most likely read Murray Rothbard or David Friedman on "anarcho-capitalism." And, maybe, Frederic Bastiat's "The Law."

And unless they are "into" philosophy they have not read Robert Nozick's "Anarchy, State, and Utopia."

They, also, have little or no knowledge of the history of the (classical) liberal cause in the 18th and 19th centuries.

I find too many of them to be "culturally illiterate" about the political and economic philosophy they claim to espouse.

Having said that, let me emphasize that I am not meaning to "put them down." But like most of the people in society, today, they are ignorant of the ideas upon which freedom has been and are based.

Why, when I was a lad . . ."

I know that sounds terrible, and saying it makes me feel older than I want to feel. But when I was young, a good number -- certainly not all -- of my fellow classical liberal/libertarians that I "hung out with" took the time and effort to "read up" and be intellectually informed to "do battle" with the opponents of liberty.

I don't find that as much today.

Or am I just being "cranky" as I get older?

Richard Ebeling

I, too, am puzzled by claims that the younger generation is "ignorant of the ideas upon which freedom has been and are based." Who are younger classical liberals referred to here? And if they're not reading about these ideas, what ideas are they reading about?

@ Prof. Rizzo: My definition of "conceding the moral high ground" connotes the near absent contemporary research focus by classical liberal/libertarians, sans folks like Horwitz and Caplan, on issues such as the family, child protective services, and children's mental health. Will you name for me a contemporary classical liberal/libertarian who is studying child protective services? ... And identifying its knowledge problems? ... How about children's mental health?
Also, I am constantly pushing back my frontiers of ignorance about the classical liberal tradition. In fact, having read Smith, Say, Mill, Spencer, Sumner, Hume, Friedman, Buchanan, Bastiat, Menger, Mises, Weber, Roepke etc. etc. I am culling their intellectual parallels with blacks such as Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Marcus Garvey, etc. etc. What is more, I am working on an intellectual history of blacks in the classical liberal/libertarian tradition. Will you name me any contemporay classical liberal/libertarians with this research focus?

@Prof. Eberling: Other than Humboldt, there is no author that you have enumerated that I have not read at least two of their works. While I may not be as knowledgeable about the classical liberal tradition as you are, I am certainly not ignorant of it.

Finally, I am in total agreement that us young classical liberal/libertarians need to become more conversant with the classical liberal tradition. I can't tell you the number of quondam Republican students I have met, at a FEE or an IHS seminar, who have discovered the intellectual backwardness of political conservatism, and have embraced classical liberalism/libertarian not because they have learned much about it, but because they need a few teammates!

To Richard Eberling. HHmm, I am just a public school teacher and I have read at least half of all the authors you mentioned to Jason. But, then, I am a nerd.

As to understanding classical liberalism. I am not sure that I do, but John Stuart Mill was the author whom I got the most out of. I think if a student read, just Smith's Wealth of Nations, and Moral Sentiments, Mill's On Liberty, Friedman's Free to Choose, and Sowell's A conflict of visions you would have all the ammunition you need to bring a cogent understanding to the "libertarian" argument.

Much further learning is important, but those, I think would be the basis.

FWIW, Brian, I think you're into important things. I really like the idea of investigating epistemic problems with child protective services. We do need more of that sort of thing.

I am not so sure that idealism is the best way to argue libertarianism. I am not a libertarian because of idealism, but because I embrace a tragic view of life. Neither a pessimist nor an optimist, I embrace hope (the real thing, combining optimism and pessimisim, and not the platitudes we heard a few years ago). Hope and a tragic view of life are two sides of the same coin. I am a libertarian because it is a policial, social, economic world view that most accurately patterns that of the structures of the universe itself. I think only insofar as society, economy, and culture are more complex reflections of the true nature of things (nomose reflecting physis) will things work out, not ideally, but the best possible. Only thus does justice emerge.

Tragic literature is that of ideals destroyed by reality. Hubris drives man to embrace ideals of justice, ideals of society, ideals of economic organization that are unrealistic, and thus face tragic consequences. I'm a libertarian because I believe it is the most realistic -- according to my understanding of the nature of reality -- of all the political world views. In other words, because it is, when properly understood, not idealistic. Faced with the rottenness that human beings can be, what institutions will allow them to approximate the behaviors of angels most of the time? Human beings are capable of great evil and great good. Institutions influence which direction so many of us tend to go most of the time. If not toward the direction of true evil (which I think rare), then toward bad behavior -- for ourselves and others. We can go either way, and the institutions that determine which way we go are themselves determined by those who wish to either exploit others or to live in a just society. And even then, we have to understand what we mean by "just." If it's possible at all. Perhaps all that is truly possible, as Plato's Socrates observes in the Republic, is that one can make one's own soul just. From that, and the interactions of a just soul with other just souls, will a just society emerge. It is hubris to say we know what that would look like, though.

Hmmm. I seem to have ruffled some feathers with my comment about finding many in the "younger generation" who are not especially familiar with the classical liberal literature.

And everyone who has replied seems to think I meant THEM!

I assure you that I suffer from Hayekian localized knowledge of time and place -- and I swear I have not tapped into any government data base to know what books you have in your library, and which ones you may or may not have read!

What I was referring to is a general (and perhaps unfair) sense that I have gotten over the years when I meet students in their, say, late teens and twenties who seem to have an intense interest in classical liberal and free market ideas, and may be majoring in economics or political science, for instance.

I find that, very frequently, if something has not been assigned in their classes, or is not a book for a readings group, they have read very little on their own in that rich classical liberal and free market tradition.

And if you suggest them to try to read more into this literature they often say that they don't have the time. They are busy with their classes.

Well, I was busy with my classes(!) and trying to get into girls' panties (we are being honest, here, right?), but I and many -- not all -- others that I knew who were interested in liberty were reading a significant amount on their own. They wanted the "intellectual ammunition" to better understand the classical liberal or free market (often "Austrian") perspective in comparison to what they were learning in their classes from socialist, Keynesian, and interventionist professors.

I just do not find a similar "burning desire" to read and know to the same extent among the current generation of "young whipper-snappers."

Richard Ebeling

I agree with Richard. The "I'm too busy" argument is nonsense. I was majoring in recombinant gene technology and minoring in chemistry when I took an Intro to Philosophy class with Ronald Nash, who introduced me to free market ideas for the first time. While carriny a full time load, including a number of molecular biology and chemistry classes each semester, I devoured everything I could in the library that had the word "capitalism" in the title, and then read as much of the literature those books cited. I read Walter Williams, Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, Hayek, and who knows who else. From that philosophy class I read more Plato, and from Rand, I read Aristotle, Kant, and Nietzsche -- and ended up becoming fascinated with philosophy as well. I thus devoured such works as well. Further, I became increasingly interested in literature, and was reading works like Crime and Punishment and Les Miserables. And I was still doing well in my science classes. So there's no excuse as far as I'm concerned. So I'm with you, Richard. Keep on them.

There is a crucial difference between Reading and Reading About. Few college classes today require much reading of primary sources, relying on textbooks* and excerpts**.

*Perhaps the burgeoning cost of texbooks has squeezed primary sources out.

**Perhaps following the example of law schools.

I would just add to "FC's" comment, above, that I saw one report (in "USA Today"?) recently that 3,000 college and university-age students were asked how much reading was required of them, on average, during (if I recall correctly from the article) a month, and the answer: 20 pages!!!

If this is true -- or even roughly true -- it is not surprising the degree of "cultural illiteracy" in our society, including among too many (I did not say "all") young supporters of classical liberalism/libertarianism.

Reading is a discipline of the mind. It requires time, attention, and memory. In a world of the "tweet" and diminished demands on students, it is not surprising that too many in the younger generation have not been cultivating the value of concentrated reading and retention.

Richard Ebeling

Just to go back to the original question for a bit...

I think we have to ask when the first primary form of justice really is. I'm not sure it really exists. If you're a consequentialist or utilitarian as I am then some ideas around happiness form the aim of just action. In this view there is really no basic form of justice that has to be modified because of flaws in human nature. Only the "modified" form can really be discussed meaningfully.

My view of other non-consequentialist opinions is that they have their roots in earlier consequentialist ones. That is, what people see as basic codes of justice are really rules that have evolved in the past to provide positive consequences. I expect this evolution has been social and biological.

When we look at our "ideal picnic spot" we're not really setting aside other considerations. Really, we have experience of many other picnic spots and we have learnt rules for deciding which are best. We then apply that by now out-of-date knowledge to a new situation and by doing so we come to believe that picnic spot A is "ideal" were it not for complications x,y, & z. Another few generations down that line and someone will be looking for a picnic spot again, they will have incorporated our complications and the one they'll think of as ideal will be different.

'Perfection' is one of those terms, like 'purity' and 'stability,' which unintentionally designates statis and stagnation. After all, once we've achieved 'perfection,' why make any further efforts to improve? Muslims declared Islam 'perfect' in the 13th century, and notice the vast intellectual stagnation that has resulted.

Further, there is in philosophy considerable criticism of the 'ideal'; Stove and Moore quickly come to mind. The pursuit of the ideal reflects a personal psychology that is unwilling or unable to deal with reality as it is. Whether by an economist or by a philosopher, there is ample grounds to dispute the value of idealism and to caution against all pursuits of perfection.

As to the morality of freedom, I believe Raz's work at Baliol College establishes freedom as the moral. If so, then 'peace' is merely the ideal, and freedom is the moral.

Which means, the Austrian economists and the libertarian philosophers--so few, too few--have the moral high ground. It also means, the quest is not for perfection or 'perfectibility' (Rousseau) or for the ideal. Instead, the quest is for improvability, and freedom is the moral grounds for seeking the adaptable, evolving, emerging, living 'improvability.'

A brief further point about idealism. As a negative psychic response to reality, idealism becomes the justification for all manner of catabolic human behavior, including mass murder. A Russian historian of the Soviet Union wrote: "In order to commit a great crime it is necessary to have a great ideal."

Richard asks why are philosophers so persistently critical and/or disapproving of self-interested behavior?

Go back to Plato on justice. Bear in mind that Western philosophy is footnotes to Plato. Is there a course on Plato in the world where Popper's critique is on the reading list?

OK the book is 800 pages. At 20 pages per week, that is a big read. So go to the on-line condensed version


Your point raises another variation on the same question. Why is it that there have been so few philosophers and philosophical perspectives critical of "other-oriented" conduct as the essential property of moral or ethical behavior?

The Scottish Philosophers, viewing themselves as "empirical" philosophers reflecting on the human condition, "observed" that men were self-interested, and proceeded to ask questions about the social order and its institutions, given this nature of man.

But few have been willing to defend the idea of man as a self-interested being from an affirmative moral perspective, from my knowledge of the literature (which as an economist rather than a philosopher, I willingly admit is far from comprehensive).

Even "friends" of the free individual fall back on the idea that somehow the self-interested individual is a "flawed" person.

For example, I'm reading Mark Pennington's new book, "Robust Political Economy: Classical Liberalism and the Future of Public Policy" (Elgar, 2011). I'm about one-third of the way through the book, and I consider it to be excellent.

But . . . Pennington begins his discussion in the introductory chapter by talking about two "imperfections" in man.

The first is that, "Human beings are limited in their cognitive capacities and as a consequence even the most intelligent and far-sighted people are relatively ignorant of the society in which they are situated."

"The second human imperfection that must be accounted for is the possibility that people may act out of self-interested motivations. Actors may follow their own specific goals -- material or non-material -- rather than some notion of the 'common good' or the 'public interest.'

He deals in a very insightful, clear, and thoughtful way as he proceeds to explain the implication for comparative institutional orders and policy alternatives, given these two "imperfections" in man.

But why should it be presumed that these are "imperfections" in the condition and behavior of man? Now, he is clearly taking these presumptions as starting points to critically evaluate the arguments of those who view these are "unfortunate" imperfections and therefore argue that they need to be corrected by state control and intervention.

But from another perspective, why should we presume that not having perfect knowledge and not placing the interests of others before oneself are somehow "flaws" in the makeup of man?

If these are things that are inseparable from what man can know given the powers of his mind, and what he is and how he acts as a thinking and evaluating creature, how can they be flaws?

Richard Ebeling


First, the nostalgic good ol days are largely a myth. Alexis de Tocqueville discusses the intellectual shallowness of American culture long ago. It is part of our cultural heritage almost from the beginning. Americans generally have very little patience for heavy reading.

Now to your point above. "But few have been willing to defend the idea of man as a self-interested being from an affirmative moral perspective,"

To understand the roots of the Scottish philosophical tradition (the philosophy of skepticism and doubt), we must go outside of philosophy and into theology. The Scottish philosophers were working from a background steeped in Calvinism and the depravity of Man. This tradition largely sees man's self-interest as tainted by his sin nature. Incidentally,it may be a long stretch, but this view may be traced back to Augustinian philosophy, and ultimately to Augustine's Platonism. Go to Calvin's Institutes for evidence of this.

To see the intellectual heritage of this tradition, reflect on Edmund Burke's observations on the French Revolution. The civil society is only saved by those institutions that have arisen without the conscious design (in Burke's view through God's providence), and are beneficial even if folks don't understand why. Burke does not ground morality or the just civil society on man's self interest. Radical individualist self-interest is seen as dangerous to Burke.

In philosophy however, one of the consequences of the Enlightenment was that the theologian is thrown out of the philosophy department. Even though God (in the Christian theological sense) has been banished from academia, the Calvinist doctrine of depravity and man's inability to aspire to moral perfection remained despite the absence of God. Although the tradition has been freed from its theological moorings, its base assumptions are still lurking just below the surface with the resulting philosophical project of grounding ethics without God remains the central focus.

Now if we view the problem from a continental tradition working from radical rationalism and individualism (what Hayek terms a false individualism), the Scottish tradition is anathema. The continental tradition tries to construct a morality built solely on the rationality and rationalism of man's self interest.

I would suggest that Austrian economics has borrowed from both of these traditions, with Mises more in line with the continental, Rothbard radically continental and rational, Hayek much more sympathetic with the Scottish empericists and the tradition of Locke, Smith, Burke ect., and the GMU project trying to harmonize the two and mixing in Virginia political economy which seems to me to be very Hayekian.

The end result however is that we have at least two very different steams of European classical liberalism which have run together into the modern libertarian movement. Some of these differences are deep and not easy to reconcile.

Many of us have a tacit knowledge of this stuff, but sometimes it is hard to verbalize in a very concise way since most of us dare not mention theology.

Point taken Richard, but I think it is not a question that needs a lot of philosophical debate, as though there could somehow be a resolution of the "question" whether we should ground morality in self interest or other interest.

Still, I think that the influence of Plato has been overwhelming, mostly for the bad and that makes Popper's critique important.

Taking up K Sralla's theme, the 20th century positivists have been most unhelpful. In addition to taking the philosophy of science backwards they also outlawed the kind of discussion that is required to come to grips with the deep structural assumptions of philosophy and metaphysics. That is the level where a lot of these things need to be addressed. And they need to be addressed in relation to concrete problems to keep them grounded.

K. Sralla,

It is very easy to be nostalgic about an earlier era.

But . . . when I compare the education that I received, "way back" in the 20th century of the 1960s, and at not-very-good public junior and high schools, and what my students come to college NOT KNOWING, there has been a dramatic decrease in what E. D. Hirsh called "cultural literacy."

Richard Ebeling

Ebeling: “And, why is intentionally "other-oriented" actions considered inherently morally superior, in the eyes of many of these philosophers?”
Until roughly 1600, most people gained wealth primarily by taking it from others. One man gained only at the expense of others. Therefore, charity was the only means to help the poor, and helping others less fortunate has always been a high moral value.

As I tell my religious friends, we have learned a few things about medicine since the Bible was written. No one today would be content with prayer and anointing with oil as the old medical treatments. They would go to a doctor and take advantage of the medical advances of the last century.

In a similar way, we have learned a few things about helping the poor since 1600. Economics has determined that free markets help the poor far better than charity. No charity or government redistribution of wealth has ever lifted as many people out of poverty in the history of mankind as has China’s tiny move to freer markets.

Everyone wants to help the poor; we just disagree about the means. Those who promote charity as the only means to help the poor rely on the equivalent of medieval medicine.

And socialists who claim that free marketeers don’t care about the poor are just dishonest.

Finally, everyone confuses self-interest with selfishness. We know that selfishness is considered evil, so what do we call working to provide food and shelter for ourselves and our family? If they are self-interest, and self-interest equals selfishness, then they are evil acts. But if providing food and shelter for my family is not evil, and are good, then we don’t have a word in English to describe them if self-interest equals selfishness.

Self-interest is not selfishness; it can become selfishness if carried to extremes, but equating self-interest with selfishness destroys communications and is evil itself. Self-interest is good and noble and necessary for life.

What would we call a person who refused to work to provide food for his family and let them starve to death, as Karl Marx did with one of his children?


We call what Marx did, making personal sacrificies for the good of humanity. Why, if he had not treated his family the way he did, he would not have had the time and energy to reveal the "truth" about historical materialism, the inherent conflict between "social classes," and the "inevitability" of the coming of socialism.

While the greedy, profit-motivated businessman on a free market "merely" devotes his "self-interested" efforts to offering better, more, and less expensive goods and services that result, over time, in rising standards and qualities of living for all. And he "selfishly" takes care of his family.

Thank goodness we have Marx as a shining example for all of us, instead of that cruel "exploiting" capitalist!

Richard Ebeling

I confess I watch very little news or TV in general, but last night I happened to catch Stossel's report on "freeloaders". I recommend it.

His report fits right into this discussion on the morality of the free market vs the immoral position of so many on the government tit (businesses and individuals alike). Most interesting to me, he looks at several native American tribes. The ones where the government has "helped" are in an attrocious state, while those who have fallen through the government cracks of "special privaledge" are prospering.

Strossel suggests to many of those he interviews that there are moral issues involved, but many of the folks looked at him like he was crazy.

McKinney, excellent points. That is a paper which needs to be written -- or, if written, popularized. Our morals haven't caught up with the reality on the ground in many cases.

Troy, be my guest! I'm too damned old to do it!

Don't tempt me! I've written along those lines already -- I have an article about the evolving moral order in Hayekian terms. That would be a great development of that.

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