How did Kant come to be taken as Anti-Liberal?

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

I mentioned the question of Kant and liberalism in yesterday’s post on ‘Liberating Republicanism’. I think it merits more investigation. Kant is clearly not always taken as anti-liberal (taking liberalism to mean classical liberalism). It might seem obvious that Kant is liberal, since his writings on ethics, law, and politics indicate the following core liberal ideas.

The primacy of the individual.

The autonomy of the individual.

The right to have property, of any extent.

The rule of law.

The progressive force of free trade and market based economies.

The importance of limiting and balancing power in the state, largely through a division between the law making power and the executive power.

The danger of unrestricted democracy, which for Kant would mean that the executive power is the same as the law making power, and both are democratic.

The value of peace between nations.

The value of a federal/confederal agency to enforce peace between nations.

So where does all these anti-liberal Kant assumptions come from? Most obviously in two groups of people: post-modern/post-Marxist political thinkers, particularly the Cosmopolitics crowd; the most purist market libertarians, I take Kant to be highly compatible with moderate market libertarianism . They are wrong, but they are not just being stupid. One part of it is that they over focusing on some passages, some aspect and not putting it in the context of the whole; one part is that they need to define their position by making an opposition between Kant and liberalism.

What aspects of Kant are they focusing on, in an imbalanced way?

1. Kant emphasises a transcendental power of the productive imagination, which for some people can be linked with the labour theory of value in Marx, and Marx’s general tendency to elevate the producer as labourer.

2. Kant’s enthusiasm for Rousseau, While I strongly resist attempts to turn Rousseau into the original totalitarian, I think just about everyone can agree he was not a liberal or libertarian of the free market individualistic kind.

3 .Kant’s references to positive freedom and therefore perfectionism. Positive

freedom in Kant means using our innate freedom not only to obey moral law, put to follow it it a very strong way so that we are perfecting ourselves. I don’t see that as anti-liberal, but since Humboldt talked about negative and positive welfare in The Limits of Stare Actions, there has been a tendency to see a social ethic based on a collective responsibility greater than mere obedience to law as threatening to purist liberalism. It can be threatening to freedom, but it does not have to be, if we understand it as a mixture of purely voluntary action and the steps the state takes to promote the values of individual freedom and political decision making through democratic institutions.

4. Kant emphasises a transcendental unity, and purpose, of humanity or of the republic.

5. Kant is placing some limit on national sovereignty and the interaction of states in his cosmopolitanism.

6. Kant emphasises an ethical foundation for law, the state, cosmopolitanism, public right, cosmopolitan right, which might seem to reduce the possibilities of self-interested actions by individuals in the private sphere.

In 3., I get at some of the issues around reading Kant the wrong way. If you believe that either the state is purely an agency for upholding contracts, property rights, and free trade; or that everything, or a very large proportion, in property/welfare distribution should be decided through democratic majorities in the public sphere, with nations to be similarly bound by some kind of transnational decision making body, then this makes sense.

We do not have to make this either/or choice. I just don’t believe either choice has been put into practice, or ever could be. We could regard them as useful extremes between which to define a range of positions, which is OK so long as we do not conceive that as distribution along a single line. For example, a stronger public sphere of law making could be more beneficial to private property than a weak, or non-existent public sphere, and that has often proved to be the case, in practice.


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