Can Libertarians Reclaim Dialectics?

The Colorado Freedom Report:  A libertarian journal of politics and culture.

The Colorado Freedom

Can Libertarians Reclaim Dialectics?

by Ari Armstrong

[The following article originally appeared in the November/December 2001 edition of Colorado Liberty.]

Chris Matthew Sciabarra's Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000) is the third volume in his trilogy on the subject.

Wait! Don't recoil in horror, and don't let your eyes glaze over! Sciabarra's book is neither an endorsement of Hegel nor an irrelevant academic exercise. Instead, it offers a great many useful insights for the practical activist as well as for the more philosophically inclined.

Sciabarra single-handedly revived my interest in Ayn Rand with his book Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. His earlier book, Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, argued that Marx' ideas were utopian and ultimately unworkable, whereas Hayek developed a rich theory of social evolution and unintended consequences.

Sciabarra has long held libertarian views. In graduate school at New York University, Sciabarra found a mentor in the Marxist Bertell Ollman, who, interestingly, participated in some of the same political groups as the great libertarian scholar Murray Rothbard. In his latest book, Sciabarra focuses his attention on Rothbard.

So what is "dialectics," anyway? Sciabarra defines dialectics as "an orientation toward contextual analysis of the systemic and dynamic relations of components within a totality" (173). That's still rather esoteric. Perhaps some specific examples will help tie down what Sciabarra has in mind.

Descartes thought body and mind were fundamentally different from each other. A dialectician, however, would emphasize the relationships and inter-dependencies between body and mind. Rand was well-known for her criticism of the "mind-body dichotomy." Sciabarra, then, is concerned with overcoming dualistic views of the world.

Libertarians support individual rights. However, sometimes unsophisticated individualists ignore the importance of human relationships. Sciabarra would have us understand these relationships and connections. Similarly, theories of an "economic man" separated from emotional and psychological concerns are inadequate.

The problem with Marx, Sciabarra argues, is that he doesn't pay enough attention to the realities of spontaneous order in the marketplace. Instead, Marx wrongly believes that some central planning agency can wisely make decisions for everybody else. In following Hegel in postulating an "end of history," some kind of ultimate socialistic resolution, Marx ends up stepping outside of history and into an unworkable, utopian scheme. Marxism entails "godlike planning" that inspires a warning: "Those who attempt to build a road from earth to heaven are more likely to wind up in hell" (5). For Sciabarra, the brutality of purportedly socialistic regimes in the 20th century is no coincidence.

Sciabarra praises Rothbard's insightful historical analysis and his work on class theory. However, Sciabarra believes Rothbard isn't sufficiently dialectical, which leads to errors.

For example, in his earlier years Rothbard argued libertarian politics is compatible with virtually any set of personal ethics. Yet Sciabarra notes the profound impact that personal ethics, cultural values, and politics have on each other.

The title of Sciabarra's book, Total Freedom, might suggest he supports Rothbard's anarchist politics. Not so. Instead, by the term "total" Sciabarra means to invoke "the 'totality' of systemic and dynamic connections among social problems" (1). Thus, Sciabarra is concerned that Rothbard ignores the relationships between market and state. Many people voluntarily support more statism, the state often sets the parameters for the market, and the state "spontaneously evolves" along with the market.

These points are not made to discredit libertarianism or even anarchism. Sciabarra leaves as an open question whether the state can ever "wither away" or if the minimal state is necessary for freedom. Sciabarra's point is to make sure libertarians understand the complex historical conditions in which markets and politics evolve. Sciabarra is opposed to "the abstract notion of 'total freedom' advocated by libertarians who have isolated their ideal from the context on which it depends" (2).

For the activist, Sciabarra's work suggests numerous lessons. Don't trade a rich understanding of rights for a simplistic "axiomatic" version. Make sure you honestly engage other perspectives and seek to understand them. Be conscious of the complex relationships between people and among institutions. Be aware that ideas have consequences, but only in specific historical contexts.

Above all, realize the cultural conditions that are necessary for freedom to thrive. "Silver bullet" solutions are bound to fail. It isn't enough to imagine some policy that would make the world a better place, if only people would adopt that policy. Libertarians should be radical without being utopian. The key is to harness cultural forces already at work to move society steadily in a direction that's more amenable to human life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Colorado Freedom