The liberal toolbox

I have decided that a comment argument currently being conducted on SocialMatter with the author of the Reaction2Reaction blog deserves to be brought to this blog due to its importance. I have been making the point a lot recently that at base, all modern arguments and political conceptions, rest on a single proposition – the individual is prior to society. This could, at a pinch, describe modernity in my view. This would explain neatly why everyone identifies protestantism as the harbinger of modernity, with Locke and Hobbes being key developments.

Placing the individual as prior to society has many functions, such as in the development of capitalism as the total alienability of secondary property, the feasibility of anarachism, the development of deterministic “scientific” theories such as Marxism and positivism, and the advocacy of the conservative Burkean conception of tradition as being a spontaneous order that arises from its own emergent principles (further developed by Hayek.)

Serious problem occur when people operating within this entire web of modern thought start rejecting the concept of man being prior to society whilst retaining all of the tools. All sorts of strangeness occurs because the entire basis of it all is still man being prior to society regardless.

Using the example of Rothbard and his essay “Nations by Consent: Decomposing the Nation-State” we can see how Rothbard responds to the problem of explaining society and rejecting egregiously stupid things such as immigration given the intellectual tools at his disposal, all of which have “man is before society” stamped on them:

“The “nation,” of course, is not the same thing as the state, a difference that earlier libertarians and classical liberals such as Ludwig von Mises and Albert Jay Nock understood full well. Contemporary libertarians often assume, mistakenly, that individuals are bound to each other only by the nexus of market exchange. They forget that everyone is necessarily born into a family, a language, and a culture. Every person is born into one or several overlapping communities, usually including an ethnic group, with specific values, cultures, religious beliefs, and traditions. He is generally born into a “country.” He is always born into a specific historical context of time and place, meaning neighborhood and land area.”

Every other word in his article then operates on clear, overt, Lockean conceptions of the individual being prior to society. His comments on the context specific nature of the individual show themselves as superficial at best, and confused at worst. For example, despite the above quote, he then talks about how to create “nations by consent” without clarifying who is the one consenting. If the individual, then we are clearly back in overt Lockean territory, and we have to ask how this individual came about the ability to give consent. Ah, but Rothbard supplied the answer in the above quote! The society into which they were born! But that makes no sense because in essence the individual is then totally dependent on that society to become an individual in the sense which Rothbard and anarcho-capitalist work with – so how can we talk of nations by consent? This is just going in circles and making no sense.

In addition to this, Rothbard’s attempt to make nations an organic and internally developing conception in the mold of Burke and Hayek, in contrast to the artificial top down imposition of the state, is strange. The confusion created by this act comes through in this article, such as in the following:

“In some cases, such as Eastern European nationalities under the Habsburgs or the Irish under the British, nationalisms, including submerged and sometimes dying languages, had to be consciously preserved, generated, and expanded. In the nineteenth century this was done by a determined intellectual elite, struggling to revive peripheries living under, and partially absorbed by, the imperial center. “

Well, these elites would be liberals (something Rothbard omits,) and we see here their connection with nationalism. Nationalism betrays itself as a form of individual before society, but in which the individuals forms society spontaneously and organically from interaction from a ground up direction, as opposed to the top down “artificialness” of the state. That these nations had to be consciously revived as he notes is a contradiction that Rothbard doesn’t seem to notice, but which is something we can’t really blame him for. There is also the odd manner in which Rothbard seems to assume these nations had no governance structures before the state. It is hard to follow Rothbard on this.

Of course, this march of the individual before society concept carried on in direct service of the centralising modern state. The best way to see this is through nationalism, which is a way to explain human society without recourse to admitting that it is society before the individual, and that this society is bounded and determined by power, or the sovereign if you will.That particular conception was roundly rejected by Locke and Hobbes.

P.S. This post by the aforementioned Rothblatt has not had a response from me for two reasons, 1) I can’t tell if the study has been replicated 2) I fail to see why I should accept the definitions provide by Rothblatt, nor the study authors. As a result, I don’t consider the article justifiable topic of criticism.

P.P.S. I apologise to anyone who has emailed me. I have not had the time to respond with adequate detail, and will respond as soon as I can.