RALPH WALDO EMERSON, COSMIC JUSTICE, AND THE WILD CRAB OF CONSERVATISM
In his critique of social justice, the economist Thomas Sowell summed up his views regarding the current millennium’s drive for socialism in rather prescient form:
The only clear-cut winners in the quest for cosmic justice are those who believe in the vision it projects—a vision in which those believers are so morally and/or intellectually superior to others that their own relentless pursuit of this vision is seen as all that offers some modicum of hope to those who would otherwise be victims of the lesser people who make up the rest of society. It is a very self-flattering vision—and hence one not easily given up. Evidence to the contrary is not only likely to be dismissed, but is often blamed on the malevolence or dishonesty of those who present such evidence. (Sowell 43)
The principles of Cosmic Justice–justice transcending the common law and the treatment of social disorder on a case-by-case basis (rather than one-size-taxes-all regulation), using reason and evidence to decide “what we can do…and at what cost”, or what we should “do collectively about them—and how much…we [should] leave up to individuals themselves”–those principles tend to codify themselves into moral and ethical dogmas that make appeals to extra-evidentiary and superhuman means of understanding in order to achieve the ultimate end proposed, and generally through some unjustifiable means. The end is universal equality, independent of natural constraints and human agency; the eradication of sickness, poverty, and crime, as if these could all be achieved through common means by diagnosing a common cause. The means is generally a monopoly cartel in the hands of government agents, funded by force and fraud, bolstered by coercion, paid through taxation in a fiat paper currency. Even though we do not know the means to achieving pure and universal equality outside of punishing aggressors and fraudsters on a case-by-case basis, or by treating medicine on a case-by-case basis, producing solutions through voluntary trade on a case-by-case basis, it is taken for granted by the cosmic justice warrior that only by seeking the forceful equalization of values and materials can we come to knowledge of how to banish the bugbear of universal inequality from the mortal plane.
As the Republican congress right now debates the proper means of “fixing” Obamacare and the corporatist cartel that it created, which has by now devolved into a monopoly of insurance firms in five states and over 32% of counties the country over, we hear the rumblings of cosmic outrage from the political Left over a non-repeal of a monopoly-creating cartel that the political Right will likely not oppose in substantive form in passage of the American Healthcare Act. The moral courage to repeal immoral, coercive, and destructive legislation is trumped by the moralizing cowardice of relativism required to replace it with another immoral, coercive, and destructive piece of legislation.
What is amazing is that, unlike the revolutionary and outright murderous form of socialism that came to power in Russia to depose a decrepit monarchy, America has drifted towards socialism because of moral cowardice. Those who would oppose force and coercion against private property on point of principle are most apt to buckle to the Left’s outrage and rhetoric when push comes to shove, and generally out of a lack of moral principle; and, even then, primarily out of a bastardized Christian moralism.
There is no room in a vision of Cosmic Justice for the superiority of yet-unknown and indirect means to achieving individual ends. When we oppose socialistic plans with “faith” in the Market process, we are actually not supporting something justified by “faith” at all. We are casting aside the moral panic of faith-based social policy in search of actual, measurable evidence. The Market is, in its scope and process, the scientific method writ large. We do not vote on science; we do not vote on solutions to medical ailments. We do not vote for economic prosperity, upon the best design for a cellphone and the means of production utilized to forward the Market’s productions.
The Market is a method of trial-and-error, production through different means to discover the most efficient, though not necessarily meritorious, means to human flourishing. It seems immoral to the scion of Cosmic Justice that what we cannot achieve by direct apperception we may come to discover by a circuit. We increase the wealth of Society not by pursuing wealth equality and the reduction of wealth inequality, but by preserving individual freedom. We increase individual liberty not by tinkering with coercions and aggressions against private property, but by abolition. And it is in that anarchy of production, the absence of a “faith” in some vague social process and a preference for tangible, verifiable and profitable results, that we find the real causes of human flourishing.
The very notion that something that we do not know—something systemic, extended, and unguided—should be as much a part of our knowledge as that which is current and present in a policy proposal with a plan for tax-funding can be a little frightening to the economic illiterates. They want a proposal. They want something whose means they understand. They want a detailed, bulletined, PowerPoint presentation that they can follow through a handful of detailed steps with grand intentions. The extended order of the Market, because it is not comprehended by some government abstraction, escapes their understanding.
In religion, it is the mystic’s experience and perception of a larger order in existence which attains to truth not by direct means, but by indirect means, which tends to strike the faithful with wonder. Mysticism always lies at the core of religious belief, for it dispenses with evidentiary support and urges upon the credentes a necessary and inexplicable truth with only a couple of guidelines whose fulfillment will bear an individual into the mysteries of the incomprehensible utopia.
Wherever we perceive undirected order in anarchy, in the actually-existent and actually-sustainable marketplace of competition and evidence-based, profit-seeking enterprise, we perceive the scientific method. Where we perceive order in government plans that socialize industry, we are actually staring at the mysticism of cult religion.
Be Market Anarchy in the sum totality of nature, in the ability of causes to produce effects, or the ability of humans to calculate rationally based on market prices to produce goods that no single mind in the entire universe is capable of grasping—that sense of extended order is vital to the human experience and the development of high culture. We nevertheless must be on our guard whenever we cling to reason and evidence, for we have heard similar appeals to unseen and incomprehensible orders from theists and sophists throughout history.
Reason and evidence are what guide us in daily operation because human knowledge is reason-based and evidence-based. Hence, that something undirected and unguided—even something like Evolution or the progression of causes in the Cosmos—should solve problems for human knowledge better than human-imposed orders, is perplexing until grasped. What looks mystical is actually scientific. What appears mysterious is actually comprehensible as a process. Just as understanding the scientific method does not immediately render unto the senses the sum totality of nature or definite knowledge of what Science will eventually teach us, the Market method is comprehensible as a process, even though it does not immediately render unto the sense the sum totality of human potential or definite knowledge of what the Market will eventually produce. What we discover in something like the Market Order, or catallactic exchange (that is, voluntary exchange that turns enemies into friends by win-win negotiations), is a morality that selects the human species and the infima species homo agens as much as humans select their morals and thus exert a pressure upon the process of Evolution. The correct morals can preserve the human species by curbing human action; and the wrong morals can doom that line of genes and sexual predilections to extinction.
In his introduction to Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, Ronald Hamowy captures this regressive mystical underpinning of Social Justice and the government method, which hearkens back to the mysteries of the Old Testament:
Social justice implies nothing less than that the government be given plenary powers to control the distribution of all wealth, of all that is good in society. Rather than providing the same circumstances for all, the state “should aim at controlling all conditions relevant to a particular individual’s propsects as everybody else.” Previously it had been a central element of our understanding of justice that only those responsible for a particular outcome should be held to account. “Social justice,” on the other hand, hodls that the whole group of which the victim is a member should be recompensed, while the group to which the perpetrator belongs should all be equally penalized. This is a particularly pernicious aspect of current views of justice, that it can as easily be accomplished should rewards and punishments be visited on collectives as on individuals. This constitutes a reversion to the most primitive aspects of the Old Testament, prior to the indtroduction of the idea of personal responsibility, in which the sins of certain individuals issued in punishment of the whole community. It is the antithesis of the idea of justice based on a theory of individual rights that holds that only those responsible for a wrong should be held to account. Doubtless that is why the idea of punishing hostages is so abhorrent to our sense of fairness and equity and why we have traditionally regarded personal innocence as an absolute bar to punishment. (Hamowy 15)
In the particular woe with which we are now confronted in America, natural consequence is now attributed to personal merit and human iniquity, and humans are judged by genetics and evolution instead of by human actions. We have regressed further than many critics believe. We have regressed beyond the collective punishments and collective rewards of the ancient Jews, moving onwards towards an animistic and polytheistic conception of judgment which attributes to human iniquity the various effects of genes, ailments, environmental constraints, and the disharmony of the spheres.
There is a charm in the social justice warrior’s manner of thinking that only appears to be comprehensible—a trend of thinking that Friedrich A. Hayek called “constructivist rationalism.” The idea is that market institutions, government institutions, languages, logic, common laws and Positive Laws, economic principles, customs, habits, religions, morals, and ethics are only an extension of what the individual mind imprints upon reality by proposing means for ends. Intentions matter more than results. Intentions matter more than hypotheses and the manipulation of variables. Intentions are the only justifiable constants. Manipulating variables must fall into line with the overweening moralism of the masses, even where less desirable means with better effects achieve a better end for all who are desirous of what will eventually be produced.
While it is true that epistemology does refer back to individuals of the infima species, and that this epistemology is rationalist at its root, —being bound by a mind/body schism, —it is by no means clear that we construct the world around us from out of nothing whole cloth. There are necessary constraints upon our desires: we do not have infinite desire, infinite demand, and infinite abilities. It is not only true that humans use means to attain ends in space and time—this fact is, in truth, tautologous and axiomatic. Humans cannot act in no-space and no-time, and abstention from action is itself a form of rational action. However, the certainty of our economic theory of human action is separate from the institutions that result from human actions. Not all habits, morals, customs, languages, and institutions are willed into existence as the manifest outcome of specific human values for the aggregate outcomes of what is willed in the particular.
The idea that humans pursue the relief of felt uneasiness through the available scarce means with alternative uses—that idea is not consignificant with the idea of latter-day John Stuart Mills and Bertrand Russells regarding the denotation of “liberty.” For Bertrand Russell or Mill, the notion of liberty was tied to an absence of impediment in motion; and for Russell in particular, the notion of liberty was tied to an absence of restriction upon human desires. The impediments to motion and desire had to be managed through exemplary laws, noble intentions, and shared objectives in the collective. But what was particularly unscientific about Russell’s vision of a socialistic utopia is that not all constraints upon human desires and motion are exerted by other acting men and women. Society is usually poorly-defined in constructivist rationalist visions of utopia, and “Society” means something like “all of us” instead of something more constrained and definite. Society must grok these constructivist ideals into existence in the aggregate, and not in the particular. “We” (which only ever includes the “we” that agrees with us, and never the “we” that disagrees with us) thus embodies the inherent likeness between social justice campaigning and the democratic mindset—an imposed order of means and ends, definite policies and shared objectives, where the objective is always assumed as “shared” by the fact of some particular group’s existence in the diverse democracy.
From this small disagreement in means arises the fundamental difference between Left and Right in human interactions and exchanges. This is the difference between mysticism and science; between the mystically-oriented conservative who seeks for noble intentions in the cosmos, damning evidence, and the reliability of results and the dependence upon evidence championed by the reformer. The present-day Left-Right binary in America is skewed, for the reformer and conservative have polarized themselves into feuding strains of conservatism in secular and religious society. The reforming spirit of the scientific method has practically been marginalized only to the fringes of political thought amongst the libertarians, who have—by and large—abandoned political solutions to human problems, perhaps wisely or perhaps unwisely. The Left is religiously motivated by mystical doctrines of anti-economic illogic, codified into an ethical system, with a distaste for religious doctrines of illogic; and the Right is motivated by mystical doctrines of religious moralism, yet with a substrate of bastardized Christian moralism of the collective (and not personal morality) that overrides their understanding of economic logic and their understanding that Nature is not legislated by morality. Thus, even when the political Right promises to repeal a plan for socialized medicine to encourage personal responsibility and personal morality on the individual plane, —even the morality of charity and kindness, —moral cowardice and cosmic justice overrides that foundational principle of Society and enshrines the drive for socialism and collective punishments and rewards.
Left or Right—the destination is the same. Even so, there is a cultural difference in the vision of humanity that either side espouses. This is why logical consistency is found only in libertarian philosophy, and this is why either side’s divergence from that path marks the particular fork in the road where an individual’s preconceptions (without evidentiary support) run towards moralism instead of moral rectitude. There is always a danger to libertarianism that attends humanity’s progress down the libertarian path. The understanding that collective rewards and punishments should be overthrown for personal responsibility must be counterbalanced by a sense of personal responsibility if one is not to lose one’s very essence, intellect, or soul in the anarchy that results. Postmodernism and libertinism often find their breeding ground somewhere on the path to liberty. By abandoning a common substrate of violence and coercion with the repeal of legislation as a substitute for personal judgments, moralism, excess, cultural decline, and relativism appear upon the scene to attack the core of personal morality and to weaken the spirit of libertarianism as it proceeds down the path of liberty. One’s personal judgments of morality become the rule of social interaction, and culture exerts itself within anarchy to define the space of social engagement. This new basis for human exchange and cooperation strikes the relativists as intolerant and close-minded.
The moral lessons of old have a twofold meaning. In Matthew 7:1, in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, Christ issues a moral commandment: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” This moral commandment has often been interpreted as a moral absolute; but as such, it is a moral absolute more often utilized to justify moral relativism than moral uprightness. If one makes no judgments, one raises no standards. And if one raises no standards by which to judge, then there is, indeed, very little by which to judge. While this commandment has entered popular culture to reinforce moral relativism in postmodern society, what is often ignored is the follow-up injunction: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” What we actually see in this moral precept is the recognition that if you judge, you should hold yourself to the standard by which you judge others. Others will hold you to that standard, as a rule. While the path to liberty provides us a legal framework for punishments and rewards for violations and respect of property rights, the path is not a guide to moral absolutes or the triumph of merit. The spirit of reform carries with it the trial of rectitude. One must live by principles or else let principles be dissolved into a relativist abyss. The subjectivity of value and meaning, which are aspects of human nature and human understanding, in no way concedes the postmodern proposition that there is a subjectivity to reality as such.
The difference between the vision of Cosmic Justice and the vision of personal morality (never mind the “common law”) is that if one abandons the cosmic pursuit for a perfect system of rewards and punishments, one does not abandon a personal system for rewards and punishments. The means to fashioning a world of morality becomes particular, rather than universal. It becomes private, rather than public. The instinct to seek perfection is in the liberty to seek perfection, and not in some universal and singular end for all moral actors.
In a pair of essays, Ralph Waldo Emerson captured the spirit of Culture, or Conservatism, and the spirit of Anarchy in transcendental existence. He captured the spirit of the debate that Carl Menger and Ludwig von Mises would extend into the order of economic theory and economic history; the difference between actions performed and the structure of action itself. No individual ever inhabits a single axis on the plane of time. The axis of the present transcendental existence is the same axis from which we may learn lessons from the axis of history. And from our personal axis of history, we deduce the necessary truths of transcendental existence in the present.
Over the next two weeks, we will be featuring these essays and reinterpreting them in the light of Hayek’s insights into spontaneous order and culture. While we find ourselves embroiled in a bitter culture war in the present, it is helpful to remember that this war is as old as mankind, and it has found its expression in more insightful and more productive form than anywhere else at present. The dialogue between Culture and Anarchy, between History and Theory, Conservativism and Reform, is an intergenerational dialogue that only gets repeated. It is never quashed, silenced, or resolved. The tension is between individual liberty and the universal quest for equality. Civilization rises and falls based upon the questions that attend these concepts; and while we are apt to believe that one will win out eventually, this is the experiment that has no end. It has no final solution. This is a debate that surrounds economics, genetics, IQ, race, politics, and war. There is no graduation from this test, for the test is the test of the individual spirit, and not the collective conscious. The revolution of ideas is not backwards-pointing vector in time, but a forward-progressing ray. And while the American experiment was the most audacious attempt to seek a rapprochement or armistice between the warring factions of Culture and Anarchy, it is an experiment that I fear is approaching its final end in the triumph of socialistic conservatism and economic mysticism, which marks the end of the Market’s scientific investigations into human flourishing. The wild crab of conservatism marches on, murdering the spirit of effective reform in Market Anarchy. The Old Gods rise again to prominence, hovering over an age of barnacles and cockleshells, fashioning the tired productions of past ages with the indefatigable industry of patience and ignorance by turns.
I am pessimistic about the short-run prospects for individual liberty, but I tend towards a long-run optimism. An inevitable collapse attends economic conservatism and anti-scientific mysticism, for Nature is not constrained by human intentions. Nature has no goals, and it cares nothing for the stale productions of the Old Gods. When tested by trial, Nature emerges the victor. Economic law trumps legislation. The truths about human nature are in absolute process, and not in changeable intentions.
1 Sowell, Thomas. The Quest for Cosmic Justice. New York: The Free Press, 1999. P. 43. Print.
3 Hamowy, Ronald. “Introductory Essay.” In The Constitution of Liberty by F.A. Hayek. Ed. Ronald Hamowy. From The Collected Works of F.A. Hayek, vol. 1. Ed. W.W. Bartley III and Bruce Caldwell. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2011. P. 15. Print.