Kelse’s response to my post “Traditionalism and Statism,” suggests that my defense of traditionalism over some kind of rational libertarianism was off-base because I focused only on the tradition that he and I share, not on traditionalism as such. Kelse suggests that, were we to focus our attention on a different culture (he gives the example of Saudi Arabia), my argument would have much less to offer it. There are three points I would like to make in response to this: 1) libertarianism as Kelse knows it is inextricably tied to a particular historical context, 2) traditionalism offers more hope for the libertarian-minded individual in Saudi Arabia than Kelse suggests, and 3) that this form of tradition-infused libertarianism actually has more to offer than does a purely reason-based libertarianism, if one can be said to exist.
Kelse readily acknowledges that his own libertarian beliefs fit relatively well into the broader Anglo-American tradition. He stops short, however, of recognizing that this is because the Anglo-American tradition gave birth to libertarianism.
Without the Magna Carta, without a Hobbesian conception of social atomism, without a Lockean understanding of property rights and religious toleration, without the Scottish Enlightenment, Kelse wouldn’t be the same thinker he is today. It is important then to note that Kelse’s beliefs do not arise “in a vacuum independent of tradition” as he argued in an earlier post. Either libertarianism is not as “reason”-based as Kelse suggests, or else reason is not as easily divorced from tradition as we are prone to believe. Either way, libertarianism has slowly grown and evolved within a particular historical context (borrowing, here and there, from minds outside the Anglo-American tradition).
Why was it not rationally deduced all at once? Did people just not think hard enough? Was Murray Rothbard the world’s first fully rational man? On the contrary, the history of philosophy would suggest that, whatever the differences in our individual reasoning capacities, all humans are in some way bound by the limits of their own tradition’s worldview: there are certain things they can and cannot see from their own particular historical vantage point. The Enlightenment notion that we have already achieved the pinnacle of human wisdom from which no further growth is possible is, from this point of view, laughably hubristic. One might then say that Anglo-American libertarianism is the best political philosophy heretofore known (which is improbable but conceivable), but one cannot say that it is the best that will ever exist.
As a traditionalist, I am proud of my culture’s accomplishments and believe that elements of its tradition have much to offer the modern world today. Yet, I do not believe that my own tradition represents any kind of grand advancement in human development. The value of my tradition is the same as the value of every other tradition: it conveys a universal truth about humanity. If a tradition has endured over hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years, it must have some degree of staying power. Thus, although I might have serious spiritual, cultural, and political differences with members of the Muslim world, I would have to acknowledge that there must be something worthwhile within their tradition to allow it such longevity.
This is not to suggest that there are not aspects of every tradition that do more harm than good to a society. My primary cultural identity comes from being born in the American South. And while there are many aspects of my culture that I love deeply, there are also some unfortunate aberrations from that tradition: slavery, discrimination, and racial prejudice to name a few. Did slavery exist for so long because it conveyed some deep truth about human nature or encouraged human excellence? Obviously not. So, as a Southerner, I must make a conscious choice to emphasize some aspects of my tradition over others. In order to make this distinction, I admittedly must have some understanding of a higher good that transcends my particular historical tradition. In a sense, perhaps this is similar to what Kelse means when he talks about “reason.” That being said, I would maintain that universal truth can only be understood through historical tradition.
This leads to an important point I was attempting to make, perhaps somewhat awkwardly, in my previous post: as a traditionalist, I am not trying to perfectly recreate an instantiation of universal truth that has already existed in the past; I am attempting to reformulate that truth to fit new circumstances. In the process, I am also constantly trying to improve my own tradition.
The libertarian-minded individual living in Saudi Arabia has the option of doing the same thing. If he were to look back at his own culture and see that theocratic Islamist statism does indeed lead to human excellence, he might begin to reconsider his previous attachment to libertarianism. If, on the other hand, he finds within his own tradition some kind of cultural precursor for limited government, for individual liberty and property rights, then he has the option of building upon this tradition and pointing his culture toward the type of society he sees as best encouraging human flourishing.
Ostensibly, a distinctly Saudi Arabian form of libertarianism won’t look exactly like the Anglo-American libertarian tradition that Kelse is familiar with. Nor should it. Libertarianism in America itself originated within a particular culture. Why should Saudi Arabian libertarianism not? Or alternatively, why should we hold out hope for Anglo-American libertarianism thriving in Saudi Arabia?
Libertarianism, to the extent that it has been separated from its original cultural moorings, has proved to be a more destructive than positive influence. If the Saudi Arabians want a more libertarian culture, then they should develop one within their own cultural context.