My Kind of Liberalism: Hayek with Kierkegaard, Tocqueville, Nietzsche, Weber, Arendt, and Foucault.

In a post of 30th July I discussed Rawlsekianism, that is the combination of Rawls and Hayek in a form of libertarianism or liberalism, which both allows for: the emergence of economic patters, and other forms of social pattern, which are not directed by the state; and the construction of principles of social welfare to guide the rules used in designing institutions.  The first aspect refers more to Hayek, the second more to Rawls, though the distinction is not absolute.  

Having mentioned Hayek, I must mention issues of power and design.  A rather standard critique of Hayek is that he denies the existence of central design in the better kinds of society, and that he is indifferent to the realities of power in the emergence of orders.  The first criticism is not a fair comment on Hayek, at al times, and I doubt is it ever a fair comment.  Certainly Hayek is sometimes very clear that he is not arguing for laissez-faire or the free market, in the most absolute way, as if a market could ever exist independently of humanly designed rules.  He is sometimes very clear that design and state action have a role.  Some commentators, particularly the more radical kind of libertarian, argue that Hayek sometimes dispenses with the need for design, or for a framework.  These commentators do not agree on where those parts of Hayek are, and I don’t see it myself.  I would just say that Hayek goes too far in the direction of a completely ‘natural’ and autonomous development of law.  The claim that Hayek ignores power is a bit more fair, since it is not Hayek’s major preoccupation.  However, Hayek is aware that power shapes orders.  He is arguing that detailed state intervention increases the biggest form of power and tends to favour particular non-state sources of power.  The more there are different kinds of order largely independent of the state, the else chance of any one power source becoming dominant there is.  

The Rawlsekian material is not completely my kind of thing, because it is concerned with questions of institutions and markets that are not at the centre of my own work; and because the political theory side of this is written in a Normative Theory/Analytic Philosophy mode which does not appeal to my more literary, historical and cultural interests.  Even reading Hayek, though he does not write in an Analytic mode, is not a favourite occupation since his political thought is a bit too dogmatic and and a bit restricted in examining its own presuppositions.  

Where do I go, to put Hayekian themes in a context suitable for my own work?  In part, I go back to the classical liberal texts that Hayek himself, and likeminded people, were drawing on: Locke, Montesquieu, Smith, Hume, Constant, Tocqueville, and Mill, are some of the best known.

I also look at German Idealism in Kant, Fichte andHegel, along with associated Enlightenment and Romantic texts on morality, law, politics and individuality.  What that leads into, for me, is the reading of Kierkegaard who was very much drawing on that kind of German material.  The interest does come so much from taking Kierkegaard as a liberal, as from what he has to say about the single individual (Enkelte) as the centre of aesthetics, ethics, religion and all thought about human society.  How the individual may seek meaning in the social order, how the individual may feel alienated from that order, the importance of subjective communication, the difficulty of establishing that communication, and so on.  

Unlike Kierkegaard, Tocqueville is generally recognised as a liberal (including a very high opinion from Hayek but little in the way of detailed examination).  There are reasons why he is sometimes said to differentiate from liberalism, but I’ll come back to that in relation to Weber.  Tocqueville offers a very historically and socially based account of liberal concepts, and offers a full account of what he finds negative and positive in the democratic tendencies of his time, which relates closely to what we find in Kierkegaard and in Nietzsche.  Tocqueville’s historical vision gives him the basis of some of his critical understanding, in which he tries to resist tendencies to homogeneity and mediocrity, through pride, pursuit of excellence, breadth of historical vision, the deep nature of individuality, and the cultivation of the better part of aristocratic attitudes. 

Nietzsche features heavily for me despite his broadsides against liberalism.  The detail of his argument is less anti-liberal than some of the rhetoric suggests, and the more anti-liberal comments relate to liberal concerns of that time with regard to cultural mediocrity, the expansion of the state, the under-estimation of aristocratic virtues, the need for antique virtues, and the centrality of the genuinely autonomous individual.  He also contributes great insights into power relations and power struggles in the origins of moral and political values, along with social institutions and the state.  

Max Weber, the great sociologist, moved from strong conservative-nationalism to a later involvement with liberalism in Germany, including the design of the Weimar Constitution.  Even in his more liberal phase, he was deeply concerned with the role of national pride, political power, social force and the charismatic leadership of those driven by political ambition, to establish the framework for a liberal society.  These aspects of Weber lead to him sometimes being described as not a normal liberal.  The same is said about Tocqueville for similar reasons.  However, these ‘illiberal’ aspects are more or less present in all writers recognised to be liberal, and those aspects are part of what liberalism is.  Like Tocqueville, Weber has a respect for, and a desire to cultivate, individual responsibility and distinctiveness, pride, excellence, and competition for various kinds of glory.  Like Tocqueville, he looks in politics for what will unify and underpin the aggregate of individual concerns.

Arendt provides a guide to how political understanding has evolved since antique times, and makes arguments for understanding political action as part of the individual quest for excellence and liberty.  She is aware of the individual, and the dangers to the individual from the modern state, but never sees the individual as just someone who has to be free of politics and collective action.  Individual capacities can only be pursued within the context of citizenship and political participation,  or at least living within a society where such activities are valued as the alternative to increasing state power and declining individual responsibility.

In Foucault, we see themes from Nietzsche and Weber (the latter not always sufficiently appreciated by ‘Foucauldians’) taken up through the limits of individuality.  Sometimes Foucault might seem to deny the value of individuality, but this is in the course of overcoming a limited understanding of individuality.  The individual has to be understood on the basis of the limits of experience, through encounters with power and with discourse.  Foucault’s later work shows his concern with the individual as self-creating, though not in the sense of an absolute detachment from psychological and social limits.  The strength of the individual in Foucault includes the capacity to experience the inner limits of reason and to act in the political world through free speaking.  No one can say that Foucault underestimates or ignores power.  Part of that understanding  of power is the understanding of the dangers of state activities and institutions, designed for ‘ideal’ socially concerned reasons.

Al of the above leads to an understanding of liberalism (in a libertarian limited government open market sense) which is republican, that is concerned with political action and participation as part of human liberty and flourishing, and in which all sources of power, of physical, psychological and social constraint are considered.  A conception in which the drive for democratic equality is appreciated, but so is the need for elites of some kind, and for the cultivation of excellence, rather than a conformist kind of community existence and equality.  

Amongst current writers, I find Samuel Flieschackeri particularly interesting, particularly his 1999 book, The Third Concept of Liberty.  Not that it is perfect from my point of view, since it dismisses Foucault and has a diminished view of the importance of politics.  His commitment to self-cutivation and the pursuit of excellence, the value of responsibility to self and others, under a limited state, and the search for a position between egalitarian liberalism and purist libertarianism  are all of interest.  I don’t share all Flesichacker’s conclusions, for example he is further towards egalitarian liberalism than I am, but his work is as close as anything I know of in recent literature to a model.  His understanding of liberty is social, historical, and cultural as is his whole understanding of ethical and political concepts.  

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