Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Rawls vs. Nozick

... is the choice that many professors of philosophy would stick us with. Shallow, abstract egalitarianism vs. shallow (well not as shallow), abstract libertarianism--some choice! Here’s the right choice, according to David Schaefer: Don’t bother with either of them! Neither talks about "human nature," by which David means real people and real human problems. When Berry students go to graduate school, they sometimes write me complaining: "Why didn’t you tell us about Rawls?" My only response: "I didn’t have the heart." My only question to David: If Rawls is shallow, boring, and not a very good writer, why have you written so many pages on him?

Discussions - 25 Comments

What you said is so true... 1) Nozick vs Rawls (and their variants) is the only recognized debate in most political philosophy prgrams and 2) as a result those programs tend to have a shallow view of human interaction to which they obstinately and snobishly cling...

I like this Shaffer fellow. Too many people forget that Liberty and Equality were both founding principles of modern radicalism, and each leads to the same place, if by different paths. Libertarians have much more in common with communists than they ever recognize.

Interesting story going around. Jon Rauch thinks McCain is a Burkean conservative, unlike Reagan and the rest of the GOP. Good for a smile at least. And interesting that Rauch is puffing up McCain. That in itself tells you something about McCain.

It might be good not to teach them Rawls/Nozick not only because there are better thinkers you can have undergrads read but because it creates the impression that political philosophy is remarkably removed from real political life and that there is no "political animal" in the Aristotelian sense.

(1) Before 1971, Rawls was hardly "obscure", at least among philosophers and many others who were following his work. True, he was not the celebrity he became. (2) I love the way Schaefer opines that Nozick was the "bright[er]" of the two. How in the world would Professor Schaefer know that? And who cares (except presumably him)? Schaefer evidently thinks somebody asked him to write a letter of recommendation. Maybe to St Peter? Bright here means lesser of two evils.

Libertarians have much more in common with communists than they ever recognize

I just noticed this remarkable sentence. John, can you say more?

On the connection between libertarianism and communism, see the chapter in my STUCK WITH VIRTUE, "Communism Today." Marx's description of communism in THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY is libertarianism pure and simple--you can do whatever you want whenever you want, just as you have a mind.

Mr. Schaefer performs an important service by attending to Rawls. Rawls' thought is the fullest expression, alas, of the dominant sensibility of the academic left -- whose presence in American politics and, especially, law is not (double alas) inconsiderable. (By the way, if you've never treated yourself to Allan Bloom's review of Rawls in the Am Pol Sci Review, way back in the 70s, treat yourself. It's republished in Giants and Dwarfs. Guess who is a "dwarf.")
P.S. I've been in both Rawls' and Nozick's classrooms. Don't worry, you didn't miss much.

1: "Nozick vs. Rawls ... the only recognized debate in most political philosophy programs." Ye gods. What a nightmare for the students.

I just noticed this remarkable sentence. John, can you say more?


Sure. For one thing, many of the post-WWII libertarians in America were actually former communists. Frank Meyer and James Burnham come to mind, but there are others.

Next, libertarians share the intense materialsim of communism. Neither doubts that the good life is one in which the most people have the most stuff. They only differ in the best way to attain that goal.

Both libertaianism and communism have globalist and totalist aspirations. They claim to have the answers for how ALL men should live everywhere.


Both libertarianism and communism have the same stated end goal of the withering away of the state. In practice, both seem to call for an increase in the size of the state here and now.

Last, both libertarians and communists share a contempt for religion, tradition, and what were called the bourgeoise values.

If you look at all these things, it's not such a surprise that communists were able to flip over to libertarianism so easily. Unplug the slogan of "equality", plug in the slogan of "liberty", and keep much else the same.

To elaborate on the matrialism aspect, both libertarians and communists are examples of "homo economicus", people who view the world chiefly or entirely throught the prism of ecomomics.

Conservatism, properly understood, rejects this idea quite strongly. For instance, these lines from "The Conscience Of A Conservative";


The root difference between the Conservatives and the Liberals of today is that Conservatives take account of the whole man, while the Liberals tend to look only at the material side of man’s nature. The Conservative believes that man is, in part, an economic, an animal creature; but that he is also a spiritual creature with spiritual needs and spiritual desires. What is more, these needs and desires reflect the superior side of man’s nature, and thus take precedence over his economic wants. Conservatism therefore looks upon the enhancement of man’s spiritual nature as the primary concern of political philosophy. Liberals, on the other hand, in the name of a concern for “human beings” regard the satisfaction of economic wants as the dominant mission
of society.

That's almost the opposite of what liberal and conservative mean today to most people.

it's not such a surprise that communists were able to flip over to libertarianism so easily.

This sounds suspiciously like the "like Hitler, a lover of dogs" argument. Burnham doesn't get so much as a mention in Brian Doherty's RADICALS FOR CAPITALISM, and there are no more than a small handful of references to Meyer. Hardly pillars of the libertarian movement, they. On the other hand, didn't many former communists "flip over" to being traditional conservatives? Whittaker Chambers immediately comes to mind here.

Next, libertarians share the intense materialsim of communism. Neither doubts that the good life is one in which the most people have the most stuff. They only differ in the best way to attain that goal.

In all my time in the "movement," I don't think I ever met a libertarian who believed that. If they did they probably wouldn't have chosen to work in the world of libertarian activism, this not being traditionally a very effective means of gaining "the most stuff."

I listed a number of commonalities between libertarians and communists. If that's your best rejoiner I think my point stands.

This sounds suspiciously like the "like Hitler, a lover of dogs" argument.

This displays a quite remarkable inabilty to read what I wrote. Note that I did NOT say that libertarians, like communists, wear pants. I pointed out several areas where their ideologies had much in common.

I haven't read "Radicals", but I understand the people it touts as libertarian champions are Hayek, Rothbard, Mises, Friedman, and Rand. That would seem to confirm rather than refute my materialist point, since all but Rand were economists, and all including Rand were concerned almost exclusively with how wealth is created.

In all my time in the "movement," I don't think I ever met a libertarian who believed that (the good life is the one in which people have the most stuff).

Then I guess the people you meet have not read Hayek, Mises, et al, because the economic theories of these people are focused on how best to create wealth, i.e. how we can get "the most stuff". Which is a very different thing from saying that Hayek, Mises, etc devoted their own lives to the pursuit of their own wealth.

I guess I see what you mean, John, and Peter Lawler too, though I haven't read Peter's chapter. Yet this is a strange business, marking resemblances between libertarian and communist ideas -- abstracted from flesh and blood libertarians and communists. It makes it possible to imagine a dinner party with good conversation -- perhaps (I am tempted to say) one in Obama's neighborhood!

Last I checked, it was the job of economists to be interested in how to create wealth. So, by definition, any economist in your mind must be either a libertarian or a communist?

No, you nitwit, I'm pointing out that the fact that the libertarian heros are economists points to libertarians focus on wealth, and hence materialism. I'd have thought even you might grasp that one.

any economist in your mind must be either a libertarian or a communist?

Watch my lips if it helps you. The role of economists is to be interested in how to create wealth, as you put it. That makes them materialists, as far as their job goes. (Yes, they all have lives outside their jobs.) The fact that libertarians and communists are materialists does not mean that materialists are invariably either libertarians or communists.

It's doubtful whether Hayek should even be included as a libertarian any more. Lots of modern Libs feel he is insufficiently pure and dislike his "organic" view of society and his "anti-rationalsim". I once read a detailed explaination as to why Hayek is not Hayekian, and I could swear it was at Cafe Hayek! Can't find it there now, so they either took it down or it was some other free-market blog. But he's got a lot of detractors.

Being a long time libertarian I'm sure you know that Rand looked down her nose at libertarians (but who didn't she look down on?) and that Rothbard detested her.


As for Friedman, a Swede once boasted to him that "We have no poverty in Sweden." Friedman replied "That’s very interesting. In America we have no poverty among Swedes either." I submit to you that even Friedman was not a libertarian in the radical individualistic/equalitarian sense which drives much of the movement - he did not think people were fungible.


There's lots of different libertarianisms out there, including Chomksy style libertarian-socialism, and whatever you call what they do at Lew Rockwell. But what I generally mean by the term is the beliefs of places like Cato and Reason.

I am with Dr. Moser on this, but I do not rule out the possibility that understood the way John or Dr. Lawler might understand what is "essential" the point could be made. Even with Ayn Rand some people advance the Russian Radical thesis. Obviously this is not Ayn Rand as she is understood by Objectivists. Mises and the Austrians were the strongest voices against Marx and Das Capital. Among some Libertarians Hayek's The Road to Surfdom and Karl Popper's The Open Society and its ennemies are strong voices against Marx/Hegel/Plato.

Dr. Lawler seems to have his own esoteric understanding of Locke, and since Locke is really the figure who kicked off classical liberalism there is really no sense argueing, as David Hume improved upon John Locke's epsitemology and AJ Ayers made Hume analytic, then we can comfortably agree that AJ ayers is right in saying that in the end we are simply playing a different game.

In any case the way I see it the Hegelian dialectic is playing a different game altogether, and since just as one must understand and agree upon Locke before being libertarian, one must likewise agree with Hegel before being Marxist. As Hume might note, it matters very little if Karl Marx says exactly what "libertarians" say, despite the fact that he doesn't, but supposing for a second that he does advocate the Dr. Pepper slogan, nevertheless such a freedom is for the Hegelians incomplete, simply a matter of "caprice" and a misunderstanding of the dialectic between Spirit and Matter to boot. Now if the nature of thought is simply as modern Hegel might say a road map that abstracts from satellite immagery, for the purpose of acting upon a specific end...well I suppose that modern Libertarians are in some sense necessarily encompassed in Hegel to this extent that his thought is comprehensible...and likewise that the Socialists have largely repented and distanced themselves from Communism and Fascism and other forms of giving n scientific and apriori content to "consent" or the making of Freedom concrete and stripping it of libertarian caprice.

Rawls in political Liberalism gives in to Nozick on the intractibility of Reason, but nevertheless maintains that government, the state and morality should be more than Caprice.

In any case each person who is libertarian or socialist probably has a different basis or reason for holding such a position, and odds are great that they are playing a different game in the end, which is to say almost the opposite of what Steve Thomas says about abstracting from flesh and blood libertarians and socialists...that is that an attention to the actual abstract ideas held by libertarians and socialists might simply be relegating the categories to narrow and specific individuals who are then supposed to be approximated by the field at large. This is the problem of self-indentification, how many who are self-indentified christians or catholic or muslim can be linked flesh and blood to an understanding of its doctrine? What sense does it make to say that this is conservativism, if the greater number of self identified conservatives have not read Burke or whoever is foundational to the development of the category?

By all means please define all terms for the sake of reaching intellectual agreement, but having done so nothing prevents me from stepping back in laughter, it is simply not the understanding of those who self identify. In other words, the Notre Dame philosophy/theology department can duel the logical positivist or the Darwinians...but this will not stop atheists from praying in the foxhole nor will it prevent Christians(70% according to Christianity Today) from downloading porn. I am not contradicting myself if I say that Christians watch porn and that Atheists pray, and in this sense I can say with confidence that I am not abstracting from flesh and blood aitheists or Christians. In fact I might be able to assert in a rather interestingly statistical sense that watching porn makes you christian, and that praying to God makes you atheist.

The role of auto mechanics is to keep cars running. The role of physicians is to keep the human body healthy. That makes them all materialists, as far as their jobs go.

Economists like Hayek and Mises tend to be admired by libertarians not because of their materialism, but because their prescriptions for prosperity involve liberty. But there have always been libertarians who base their arguments on factors other than economics.

I'm well aware that there are those who don't consider Hayek sufficiently libertarian (mainly Rothbard and the Mises Institute types), and I know all about Rand's hatred of libertarians (I once heard a Randian say that he and his fellow Objectivists had more in common with Marxists than with libertarians). I just don't see how any of this helps your original argument, which was based on a straw-man version of libertarianism to begin with.

I just don't see how any of this helps your original argument, which was based on a straw-man version of libertarianism to begin with.


I take it that the the reason you still have not responded to it is that it's so much of a straw man as to beneath your mighty dignity then.


Here. I'll repeat my contentions, and you can attempt to say something more than intelligent then your inane Hitler remark.


Libertarians share the intense materialsim of communism. Neither doubts that the good life is one in which the most people have the most stuff. They only differ in the best way to attain that goal.

Both libertaianism and communism have globalist and totalist aspirations. They claim to have the answers for how ALL men should live everywhere.

Both libertarianism and communism have the same stated end goal of the withering away of the state. In practice, both seem to call for an increase in the size of the state here and now.

Last, both libertarians and communists share a contempt for religion, tradition, and what were called the bourgeoise values.


And your response is?

Economists like Hayek and Mises tend to be admired by libertarians not because of their materialism, but because their prescriptions for prosperity involve liberty.


No, they like the fact that their prescriptions for liberty involve prosperity. Or, in many cases, more prosperity. I take it you know who created and funds Cato. Is liberty uppermost in his mind? What sort of liberty?

Remember the old Monty Python sketch "Argument Clinic", in which a man comes looking for an argument, but ends up getting only abuse and contradiction? That's a lot like this conversation. John's "argument" is not to substantiate his claims, but rather to restate them in increasingly abusive terms. There's no reason why I should be surprised by this, because it's been his modus operandi ever since he first came to this blog. I blame myself for ever rising to his malignant bait.

19: "Road to Surfdom"?

John Moser - It is a hard problem, I guess. No reason to blame yourself. A while back, I recall, Peter Schramm made a stab at controlling abuse and excess, but I suppose it's a fine line to draw and risks ridicule in the blogosphere. But why can't we at least require people to register somehow (I don't know the technical issues involved) and use their real, full names?

The road to surfdom leads to a beach in Hawaii...where all the socialist libertarians congregate to smoke weed, catch waves and otherwise enjoy the sun. These libertarians have never heard of Hayek and thus can't be expected to know anything about serfdom...it is quite right to say that they would say: The Road to Surfdom, Hells Yeah!

In this sense I completly agree with Dr. Lawyer or possibly John, a large number of self identified "libertarians" love the idea of socialized medicine because it means that they can take bigger risks without having to worry about consequences. But if we are going to go the route of forgeting about old intellectual arguments/intellectual purity...then we can wave goodbye to even Rawls and Nozick, not to mention Islam and Christianity. If the goal is to talk about real people well then we run into very large difficulties in finding congruence. In fact the choice may not be between Rawls and Nozick but between Clinton and Obama, and furthermore if we are talking about politics it may not be possible to say that we understand anything by conservative that is not embodied by John McCain. Of course the way I understand it this is Hegel. I just wouldn't be so convinced that much of anything that could be discussed inteligibly survives the charge of "abstract".

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