I’ve just seen a item on the BBC News website, which appealed to my basic political intuitions. It refers to a talk the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa gave at Shanghai International Studies University. Vargas Llosa is a strong supporter of classical liberal and libertarian political ideas, though like me he started in politics as an active Communist, which may give me a particular empathy with him. I’ve written on his politics for LiberalVision. Since Vargas Llosa attracts particularly spiteful remarks about his politics from some elements of the Latin American and Iberian left, I should point out that as mentioned in the BBC website item, Llosa has recently condemned human rights abuses in China, and his talk can in no way be portrayed as supporting the Chinese authorities. The aspects of the talk that interest me most can be seen just below.
The writer told an audience at Shanghai International Studies University that politics “should not be left only in the hands of politicians”
“Every single citizen should participate in the political life of his time. And from that participation the best choices can result,” he said.
The reason that these are important words for me is that there is a large streak of anti-politics in current classical liberal and libertarian thinking, not everywhere all the time, but it definitely has an influence on a lot of people in that scene. It’s a simple statement of fact that what we now call classical liberalism and libertarianism emerged from the tradition of antique republicanism in the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries. The republican tradition emphasises: the rule of law agains the rule of individuals, citizen participation in public affairs, political life as a part of human flourishing, a form of individualism which emphasise willingness to struggle for a position on the public good against a tyrannical ruler or an irrational populace. Vargas Llosa words clearly capture at least some part of that spirit.
As I’ve said, it’s very clear that modern liberalism evolved from antique republicanism, and there are certainly a number of classical liberal thinkers who are also widely referred to as republicans including: John Locke, Charles de Secondat de Montesquieu, Thomas Jefferson, the authors of the Federalist Papers, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill. To which list Adam Smith and David Hume should be added to my mind. Despite this, if I tell anyone that I am interested in a republican-libertarian synthesis, I get even more blank and incredulous looks than my remarks generally attract.
Too many people assume that an interest in limited government must mean an anti-politics attitude. This simply does not follow though. The usual model of an ancient democratic republic was Athens, which was also not only the most democratic and participatory state of the Ancient world, but was also the most individualistic and among the most commercial, it was certainly the biggest commercial centre of Ancient Greece.
In terms of twentieth century political theory I favour a kind of synthesis of Hannah Arendt and Friedrich Hayek (I also think Foucault belongs in the mix but we’ll leave that aside for the moment). Hayek does refer to Ancient Roman and Greek laws and political institutions favourably on various occasions, and Arendt refers to the spirit of competitive individualism in Ancient Greece. For Arendt, Adam Smith’s economic investigations provide a new basis for discussing the public good; for Hayek limitations on the state aim to restrict it to acting on genuine issues of public good, and laws which are universal in application. I’m working on these kind of issues and will continue to make do so.