I plan to write several essays on how emergent order changes the context and character of liberal thought. These essays will not be scholarly in that they will not have footnotes and the like. Instead, here and in some posts to follow, I will explore informally how liberal traditions have failed to fully come to terms with the institutional results of their success.

If I had to define liberalism in a single sentence, it would be the view that the individual is the ultimate ethical and moral unit in society, who therefore is not legitimately subordinated to any collective group. While specific liberal philosophies, be they deontological, natural rights, utilitarian, or evolutionary, arrive at this fundamental insight by different means, they all agree with this general statement. Each of course argues that it is more consistent in grasping the implications of this claim, but that needn’t interest us at this point.

Thus I am not interested in the foundations of liberalism, because it has many. I am personally inclined to a combination of natural right and evolutionary perspectives. But the argument that follows depends only on the general principle these positions agree on. However, I do think that the abundance of foundational arguments in themselves comprises a powerful argument for the validity of their common conclusion. Even so, here I am interested in the institutional results arising from this conclusion arrived at by several routes.

A liberal society does not subordinate individuals to collective ideals of nation, race, class, religion, ethnicity, or other criterion. This means that it must embrace the ideal of equality of status under the law, and also that individuals must be free within the law to determine their own goals and priorities. Further, it means that the law must be procedural rather than prescriptive, that is, it must create a framework within which self-directed action can occur rather than commanding action to attain specific purposes.

Before I go further in this analysis I need to make it clear that I regard myself as a liberal. I believe no model of society that fails to incorporate liberalism’s basic insight about the value of human beings deserves to be taken seriously.

Equality of legal status bounded by purely procedural rules leads to freedom to cooperate across an indefinite number of projects. These projects serve the values of the cooperators, and here things get interesting.

Liberal theory developed before the rise of democracy and the market order, though markets did exist and political equality was scarcely unknown as a political ideal for some. However both occurred in largely face-to-face relationships. Adam Smith’s baker who was not concerned with serving his society nevertheless had face-to-face relationships with his customers. What we call globalization was in its infancy. When liberal theorists such as James Madison wrote of democracy they thought of ancient Greece, where, as he warned, even if every Athenian had been a Socrates, gathered together they would still have been a mob. The face-to-face society was the overwhelming presence in people’s experience, and liberal theory was designed with it in mind.

However, as networks of cooperation grew and prospered, and more and more people became engaged in cooperative enterprises, formal rules and principles came increasingly to replace personal knowledge as a means by which people could assure that their efforts would not be taken advantage of. From this expanded sphere of cooperation, several larger realms of order arose; each dominated by specific kinds of rules that facilitated cooperation among participants. These spheres are the market, science, and liberal democracy.

Increasingly the rules of law rather than simple agreement characterized relations within the market, because the latter proved unable to adequately handle disputes. Written contracts increasingly replaced handshakes. Science came ever more to value experiment, measurement and prediction, even above rational explanation, as a means for facilitating agreement among people from many societies. Gradually what was defined as scientific truth became for many the only valid kind of truth. Liberal democracy focused increasingly on the ideal of political equality among citizens, equality empty of explicit political content beyond the ideal of everyone having equal influence. Ultimately it became a numbers game.

What characterizes all three processes is that they strengthened the complexity these systems could manage by making them more impersonal. That is, the core values these liberal institutions served as systems of cooperation were increasingly purely instrumental, and in that sense their value was defined by their power to change other things. Power to manipulate and control became the inner value of liberal institutions.

Impersonal processes abstract away from individuality, in order to find principles common to all. If this were all there was to the matter we would have a clear gain. But as any of these processes develops over time the impersonality of the processes becomes ever more dominant. It is here that the triumph of liberal principles generated a problem their traditional formulations were ill prepared to understand; for increasingly the institutions that arose to facilitate individual efficacy have come to narrowly channel that independence.

Libertarianism is perhaps the most straightforward school of liberal thought, and so of them all the one with which I have long had the most sympathy. A libertarian differs from other liberals in their relatively uncompromising defense of all formal freedom from coercion. No person can legitimately be coerced so long as they are acting peacefully. Its most rigorous statement is the philosophy of anarcho-capitalism. I myself was an anarcho-capitalist for many years, and share many sympathies with elements of their position. For example, they and some on the left end of liberal thought were almost the only people to have consistently opposed our monstrous war against Iraq.

Libertarians are particularly likely to find inspiration in the work of John Locke, a man whose writings I deeply admire. If we had to name a founder of liberal political and social thought, that person would be John Locke. In terms of this essay, what Locke’s seminal influence means is that he wrote long before the rise of the emergent orders of science, the market, and democracy. His liberalism is the liberalism of face-to-face relationships, where it is still largely unsurpassed.

A formal definition of freedom focusing only on individuals is adequate for helping to describe relationships between adults in a face-to-face society. It is less effective in dealing with children, an issue of which Locke was well aware. His discussions of family life are still worth reading. But what he could not be aware of and therefore could not discuss is how being immersed in impersonal relationships that operate independently of individual intent might change the context of action so greatly as to render purely formal models based on face to face relationships of little value.

There is an irony here. Libertarians have been by far the most uncompromising defenders of markets against socialists and others who would replace the market order with some planned ideal. One of their most telling arguments, developed first by Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek, was that the complexity of the market process and the local and embedded character of much of the knowledge required to act effectively within it requires a price system to provide the positive and negative feedback people need to coordinate their plans automatically. No central authority can acquire enough of such knowledge to do a decent job in its place.

This argument is true. It also depends on the impersonality of the market process and its relative freedom from the deliberate intentions of any particular actor to make its point. But when the market becomes independent of individual control it also provides the context within which others see their opportunities. This is not a flaw; it is what the market does.

Problems Confronting Libertarian Theory
If the market were simply a means by which individual cooperation was coordinated this would not be a problem. But the rules of the market particularly reward instrumental exchanges, where goods and services are valued for the income they will generate when bought. The more impersonal market transactions become, the more this is true. It is tied to the market’s virtues, but is not always itself a virtue.

This issue is accompanied by three others that are connected with the rise of emergent orders in a free society. First, different emergent orders are characterized by different rules. To pick the two least controversial examples, science cannot be reduced to the market, nor can the market be reduced to science. While these orders are analytically distinct, in social life they are always intertwined, and so tensions can arise. For example, information is most effective in science (and to a lesser degree, scientific organizations) when it is freely available, and it is most valuable in market-based organizations when it is relatively scarce and controlled. When market based organizations fund scientific research they hope to profit from the knowledge thereby discovered, and to do so they need to control it. Because they usually insist the market is simply a means for facilitating exchanges, libertarians have generally refused to explore this issue.

Second, successful organizations that arise within an emergent order are simultaneously challenged by the continued existence of that order. To survive they must adapt, acquire resources from outside the order, or seek to control the order itself. For example, large corporations often tend over time to move from adapting to seeking other kinds of security. The anarcho-capitalist answer is that absent government, they have no choice but to adapt. I will not explore the problems I now see in anarcho-capitalism, but only will make the point that while that might be true in such a society, we do not live in one and are unlikely to in my life time. Here, in this society, the greatest advocates of government programs are often business interests. Libertarianism has not really come to grips with the implication of this, preferring to see its enemies outside the business world.

Third, emergent social orders unleash enormous transformative power for good and ill alike. However, in the long run they are dependent on natural processes that are also emergent in nature, but geared to very different and usually much slower feedback processes. As a result, in the pursuit of gains that are long term in a social context, they are operating in the short term in a natural context, and often undermining the long term well being of both natural and social emergent orders. Many libertarian thinkers extraordinary hostility to environmental issues is evidence that they intuit its challenge to libertarian variants of liberalism. But their response is irrational from a more impersonal criterion of rationality, for it seeks to argue an anti-environmental position based not on evidence but on ideology. Their hostility to arguments over global warming are not all that different from the Fundamentalist tactics in attacking evolution.

Finally, there is a fourth weakness rooted in the equating of the market with simple facilitation of exchanges and a Lockean view of appropriate property relations. Property rights require firm boundaries to be useful. But as the scale of economic activity increases the “side effects” of people’s actions increases. A side effect is a crossing of some boundary or other, either of intention or of impact. Larger scale alone requires that property rights be defined with an eye to their larger impact on others. This requires some sense of a public good beyond the simple meeting of private desires. Yet libertarianism is remarkably poorly situated to describe how property right boundaries may be legitimately determined in the absence of easily verifiable and intuitively obvious markers. Whether the issue be smog or light or sound or growing plants that are vectors of disease for others people’s plants, these problems are far more ubiquitous than the classic libertarian thinkers of whom I have read have been willing to acknowledge.

These four issues are not fatal weaknesses in liberalism. Far from it. The liberal principle that individuals are the ultimate ethical and moral unit of society is not at all challenged here. But I believe these problems are fatal weaknesses in the libertarian variant of liberal thought.

Libertarianism is hardly alone among schools of liberal thought that have failed to comprehend the implications arising from liberalism’s success. There are also fatal weaknesses in other schools of liberal thought, such as the Progressives and egalitarian democrats, and I shall touch on them, in later posts. The goal of these posts is to outline a framework for liberalism that can incorporate out understanding of the institutions that arose, often unexpectedly, from the triumph of liberal principles. If these arguments survive whatever scrutiny my readers may bring to them, they will in time hopefully form the core of a book on liberal social theory and emergent order.

More from Beliefnet and our partners