Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The philosophy and economics of freedom

This is a rather nerdy piece that was originally written about twenty years ago for a liberal/libertarian essay competition. It draws on some ideas from Popper via Bill Bartley to offer an explanation for the difficulty of getting thoughts of freedom to really come through in the competition with thoughts of unfreedom.

This essay shows how William W Bartley and Karl Popper have created a major shift in the Western tradition of rationality, a shift which immensely strengthens the philosophy of liberalism. True lovers of freedom have always been forced to work against the authoritarian grain of Western thought because the dominant intellectual traditions, rationalist and irrationalist alike, sponsor dogmatism and intolerance. Even those who challenge this authoritarian heritage usually share a powerful and unconscious assumption with their opponents. Bartley labelled this theory justificationism and liberals help to sustain opposition to their cause if they propagate this theory. This self-destructive tendency should cease when the implications of the Popper/Bartley innovation are developed and disseminated.
The survival and progress of liberalism depends on a free market in ideas, unconstrained by the cramps on trade in criticism that are imposed by cartels, monopolies and various forms of protectionism in the mind industry. On top of this, people tend to be hostages to the first ideas that they take on board, altered on occasion by shifts of allegiance which occur by processes akin to religious conversion. This has hardly changed with the advent of mass primary, secondary and lately higher education. Clearly education and instruction alone do not furnish the habits and disciplines that are required for continuing intellectual growth and for the imaginative criticism of received opinions.
Bartley introduced the idea of metacontexts to explain what is so important and different about the non-authoritarian theory of knowledge and rationality.
A metacontext may be compared with an ecological niche such as a nutrient broth or a seed-bed where some types of organism or plants thrive while others are stunted or killed outright. The metacontext of pancritical rationalism is hospitable to liberalism, while in contrast the justificationist metacontext is potentially lethal for the tradition of free thought. Liberalism has been forced to constantly work against the grain of the justificationist metacontext and so has survived precariously, with the gains of one generation often lost to the forces of irrationalism and authoritarianism in the next. But even worse than working against the grain, the traditional theory of rationality (based like its opponents on the assumption of justificationism) actually supports the justificationist metacontext. So rationalists, like Bertrand Russell, of the justificationist variety, unwittingly nurture the seedbed of their destruction.

This explains why the survival of liberalism is so precarious, why it needs auxiliaries to support its causes and why civilisation lapses into occasional bouts of irrationalism. Episodes such as the Nazi holocaust and the wilder excesses of the generation of '68 are generally regarded as strange aberrations in the normally rational Western tradition, perhaps calling for psychological analysis of the individuals involved, for studies of 'the authoritarian personality' or ruminations on the 'contradictions of developed capitalism' or the decline of religious faith. But seen from the perspective of Bartley's work such failures of reason are only to be expected in the justificationist metacontext, which sponsors dogmatism and fanaticism. And as long as this metacontext remains dominant our traditions of rationality, tolerance and freedom will remain fragile and liable to collapse at any time of social or political crisis.
Freed from apparent tensions in the new metacontext, Popper and Hayek emerge as the outstanding moral philosophers of modern times. Moral and political philosophy have been largely emptied of moral and rational content by the influence of analytical philosophy, which promotes conceptual analysis and Marxism, which promotes the rigid defence of ideological stances. This situation is radically transformed by the contribution of Bartley, Popper and Hayek who have showed that we should not seek positively justified beliefs, nor should we strive to refine concepts and sharpen definitions. Instead we should formulate and criticise standards which act as rules of the game in social life, whether at the domestic level (who puts out the garbage) or at the level of the Constitution of the State (how do we limit the powers of the rulers). This approach cuts through the verbalism which bogs down traditional discourse on morals and politics because it is constantly in touch with practical problems and their possible solutions.

The postscript on economics introduced the theory of metaphysical research programs which may help to demonstrate the synergy between the ideas of Karl Popper and the Austrian school of economics and social thought.


At June 29, 2006 11:55 am, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

Hayek's arguments about 'rules of the game' apply with great clarity to much of the common law.

In Hayekian terms, the common law is end-independent, general and applicable to an indefinite number of future situations. Like the common law but unlike much legislation, our society is also a ‘grown’ one, not one crafted to some intelligent design. The detailed attempt to manage outcomes evinced in much legislation is characteristic of beliefs underlying what Rafe refers to as 'justificationist' assumptions and explains many of its inadequacies.

Often legislation is symbolic of the delusion that it is possible for a single mind or a small group of minds to know everything about a large, complex system and then manage it accordingly.

Hayek demonstrates (in Law, Legislation & Liberty) that the common law was not deliberately made; it is ‘grown’ law. One cannot trace it to a superhuman entity or design, or to some historic legislator. Anthropology and palaeontology contradict the proposition that all law emanated from the will of a known lawmaker; law predated both society and legislation in all known civilisations. It is possible for a small, indigenous culture to have ‘a government of laws, and not of men’ and yet have no obvious central authority. Law for Hayek is both self-organising and complex.

Later theorists have adduced Hayek’s ‘spontaneous order’ not from anthropology but from biology, deploying evolutionary epistemology’s key insight: human knowledge forms part of a continuum with biological evolution, having undergone heritable change over many generations in the same trial and error fashion. It is possible to discern selection for fitness and descent with modification within cultures, although it is important to distinguish adaptation from progress. Neither organisms nor cultures become ‘better’ in any absolute sense over time.

Similarly, even when much of our law is governed by positive legislation, it can still emerge spontaneously. Internet rules and the lex mercatoria (private international law) are two examples of this phenomenon. Positivists, Hayek argues, make the mistake of seeing law as a product of society. Instead, law is constitutive of society. We did not develop laws because we became civilised. We developed laws and then became civilised.

Hayek’s thesis posits an uncanny and generally unconscious collective intelligence working not by top-down diktat but rather in dynamically evolving arrangements. These arrangements are common in nature. James Surowiecki discusses giant flocks of starlings evading predatory hawks. From the outside, the cloud of birds seems to move in obedience to one mind.

In fact, each starling is acting on its own, following four simple rules: ‘1) stay as close to the middle as possible; 2) stay two to three body lengths away from your neighbour; 3) do not bump into any other starling; 4) if a hawk dives at you, get out of the way’. The result is safety, and an almost magical, organic coherence of motion: unconscious wisdom.

The judges in common law countries are not always aware of each other’s reasoning, and where they are aware, are not always bound by it. Instead, they are bound by simple, end-independent rules (distinguish between ratio and obiter; apply the law to the facts in the instant case; follow precedent, but not slavishly) in the same way as the starlings. What looks like teleological, organic unity from the outside is in fact highly individual and unguided.


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