Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Libelling Liberalism

I’ve just written “the liberalism lecture” for the History and Theory of Planning class. Since planning is not, by and large, a trade that holds exceptional attractions for those who lean libertarian, I don’t expect most students to have more than a passing familiarity with liberal political and economic thought – even though their profession has now been strongly shaped by a couple of decades of neo-liberal reform. Based on my experience last year with the Australian Politics class, it’s not only the planning students who lack this background: several of my politics students expressed indignation that politicians like Thatcher and Howard should claim to be liberals when, the students believed, it was obvious these people were just conservatives…

So the first task when introducing students to liberal political and economic theory is to disentangle the contemporary colloquial meanings given to the word “liberal”, from the liberal philosophical tradition – which itself, of course, already contained many of the tensions that have caused such diverse political traditions to claim to be its true and proper heirs.

Then it’s time for the whirlwind tour of 18th century philosophy… I always cringe a bit at the generalisations that creep in when I distill things down to the 60-minute soundbite version. Still, my hope is that even the soundbite version offers some conceptual tools that can be useful when trying to orient to contemporary debates about the purpose of planning. The points I’ve chosen to emphasise this time around include:

(1) Liberal philosophy often expresses an opposition between “artificial” (beliefs, social hierarchies, social institutions, etc.) and “natural” (beliefs, social hierarchies, social institutions, etc.)

(2) Liberal philosophy tends to regard something as “natural” when people have not consciously planned to bring it about – so, the physical world is “natural”, but so is the family, and so is the capitalist economy.

While it may seem peculiar to group these things together – surely capitalism is more artificial than, say, the orbit of planets around the sun? – the key point is that liberal economics understands capitalism as a form of decentralised decision-making in which individuals who are not consciously seeking to bring any particular, overarching network of economic relations into being nevertheless generate a complex social division of labour. The absence of an overarching, self-aware, political decision-making process renders capitalism a “natural” economic system – no matter how historically novel its institutions may be.

(3) By contrast, liberal philosophy views social institutions shaped by conscious, political decision-making as “artificial” – and was therefore quite critical of existing social hierarchies and of the state as a means of entrenching and maintaining those hierarchies.

(4) Within the liberal tradition, the “natural” provides a standpoint for the critique of the “artificial”. Nature – whether we mean the motions of the planets, or the circulation of goods and services through the capitalist economy – provides a model of self-regulation that represents an ideal against which existing social institutions can be judged. Conscious political interventions can be criticised for the way in which they threaten delicate mechanisms of self-regulation.

(5) While liberal thought clearly contains elements that are antithetical to “planning”, it also expresses forms of thought that were essential, in order for the concept of planning to come into being. The recognition that existing social hierarchies and institutions are artificial constructs, for example, is a key historical insight required for conscious political contestation and planning, etc.

With this groundwork laid, I then go on to talk about common definitions of capitalism, and raise the question of whether capitalism should be understood as a system of decentralised, spontaneous self-organisation (and thus as a system that is intrinsically disrupted by planning), or whether capitalism itself generates pressures for centralised planning.

So… a nice set of small issues that can comfortably be covered in an hour…

Leaving aside my personal discomfort at cramming these issues into such a compressed discussion, writing the lecture reminded me that I’ve been meaning for some time to comment on how an analysis of the natural/artificial distinction within liberal philosophy provides an alternative means into the issues George Lakoff analyses in Moral Politics and related works. Lakoff tries to make sense of the odd policies that US Republicans and Democrats group together – and of people’s intuitive sense that it somehow makes sense to group, e.g., a strong commitment to “family values” together with a commitment to free the economy from state regulation. Lakoff argues that the policy groupings make sense if you view them as stemming from competing metaphors of the family – hierarchical vs. nurturant metphors of family life.

I would argue that the policy groupings that provide Lakoff with his point of departure also make sense when you take seriously the way in which liberal political theory defines “natural” in terms of decentralised, spontaneous self-regulation, and “artificial” in terms of conscious, political decision-making processes. The Republican Party can therefore, for example, valorise “traditional” family structures that are “natural” in the sense that they have historically arisen outside of the formal political arena – and can also be consistent in insisting that it is improper for organised political “interest groups” to try to alter such “natural” institutions via formal political action. At the same time, the Republican Party can also insist that the state stop interfering with the market – and can regard this position as fully compatible with its “family values” stance: in both cases, the same principle is being applied – that “natural” social institutions should be shielded from “artificial” political interference.

This isn’t, of course, the only valid way of understanding the contemporary policy implications of liberalism – but it is not an inconsistent or incoherent way of understanding those implications.

Of course, by itself this kind of analysis doesn’t offer any particular benefits over Lakoff’s work – he offers one way of making sense of what appear, on the surface, to be strange policy groupings; this is another way. The “payoff” for the kind of analysis I’ve sketched above is that I think it’s a bit easier to demonstrate the social and historical connections between the artifical/natural distinction I’ve outlined above, and other kinds of social practices that seem to imply the existence of related forms of cognition, than it is to understand the connection between Lakoff’s family metaphors, and social practices that would encourage people to mobilise particular metaphors. I think the payoff is particularly strong when it comes to understanding the historical rise and fall of particular metaphors – and thus understanding why more “classical” liberal concepts have proven to be more popular at some historical moments than at others. This is an issue, as I’ve mentioned previously, that Lakoff has difficulty addressing.


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