The debate on this blog over rationalism vs. traditionalism has been fun so far, even though at time it has kind of an esoteric quality. I don’t have a lot more to say on it, because I think that most of what needs to be said has already been said, and also because I don’t think my position is really as far from Ben’s as some of these posts might make it seem. That is, we both agree on most of our substantive political goals and, as I will discuss below, I am certainly no armchair “ideologist,” as in Ben’s caricature of rationalism. I believe that it is important to understand your own tradition, but, unlike Ben, I do not believe that doing so is the only way to be rational.
Nevertheless, there are still a few points to clean up.
First, Ben keeps arguing that reason can’t be separated from tradition. The actual evidence for this, beyond mere assertion, is only contained in a few pithy examples. For instance, he notes in an earlier post that if it weren’t for John Locke, the Magna Carta, and the Scottish Enlightenment, I would not be the thinker that I am today.
Okay, sure. But so what? The fact that I am not able to conjure up an entire, completely correct philosophy out of whole cloth is surely no argument against rationalism. Everyone is dependent on the people who came before them–Isaac Newton famously stated that he could only as far as he could because he stood on the shoulders of giants. But that isn’t an admission that physics is governed by tradition. Far from it; Ben admits as much when he states that the same law of gravity that applies to us also applies to primitive tribes. (Although admittedly, tribesmen do have a tradition of falling when they stumble over logs.)
Understanding this point also shows the error behind Ben’s insinuation that libertarian rationalists must believe that “Murray Rothbard was the first rational man,” because otherwise they couldn’t possibly explain why libertarianism wasn’t all thought up at once, centuries ago. Of course, I don’t know of anyone who believes anything close to this. Indeed, because libertarians tend to value the division of labor–Ludwig von Mises called it the “fundamental social phenomenon”–they easily grasp the point that Ben has missed. Just as no one person could live entirely cut-off from society and maintain a modern standard of living, so too no one person can simply deduce the entire corpus of knowledge all on his own.
Indeed, Rothbard was heavily influenced by the Spanish Scholastics, the French classical liberals, and the American Old Right. But, once again: so what? That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t engaged in a rationalistic project. Just like the physicist who deduces real-world phenomena, the social scientist can deduce the nature of man and therefore the society that is best for man without being bound by any historical tradition. The fact that every social scientist is influenced by those who came before him is true, but does not change the nature of the project that the social scientist engages in.
Second, Ben argues that certain policies can only be evaluated within their specific cultural context. Once again, I find it hard to see why this is true, and find Ben’s examples unavailing. For instance, he says that even if minimum wage laws tend to cause unemployment, they might be desirable for other reasons, like preventing the exploitation of workers. But this only shifts the analysis back a step. The rationalist believes that all the claimed benefits of minimum wage laws can be rationally evaluated–I only mentioned unemployment because it seemed the most obvious. It is certainly within a rationalist libertarian’s purview to show why minimum wage laws do not protect against worker exploitation, or even to challenge the very concept of “worker exploitation” in a free market itself, as Mises did throughout Human Action. Once again, these arguments have nothing to do with tradition. And it is hard to understand how reason is incapable of grasping these economic points outside of a particular cultural context. If it can grasp them for physics, why not economics? Indeed, Ben admits the existence of universal economic laws. So why can’t we use these laws to objectively evaluate social and political institutions, independent of tradition
The only remaining argument I see for claiming that traditionalism beats rationalism is Ben’s argument that a Saudi Arabian libertarianism would have to look different than an American libertarianism. I’m sure that this is true, just as I’m sure that, in the absence of a state, people in the Deep South would act differently from people here in the hippie mecca of Ithaca. And if I wanted to argue the merits of libertarianism in Ithaca, I would certainly appeal to different sensibilities than I would if I were arguing in the Deep South.
But, and at the risk of repetition, so what? That is a pragmatic concern, rather than a concern about the truth or falsity of rationalism. And if the rationalist found that libertarianism would lead to all-around happiness and prosperity in the Deep South, but would lead to drug-induced social implosion in Ithaca, then all he can say is “that’s too bad for Ithaca.” The fact that different cultures will react to libertarianism differently doesn’t negate the underlying fact that we can rationally prove, based on our understanding of human nature (as I’ve discussed earlier) what kind of society is best, so long as the society is able or willing to do what is necessary to maintain it.
So, for me, traditionalism ultimately devolves into pragmatism. It is good to be attuned to the intricacies of different traditions, because understanding how people actually behave will help us understand how to apply rationally-deduced philosophies in the real world. But it shouldn’t be taken to mean anything more than that.
In fact, when traditionalism is taken to mean something more than mere pragmatism, I think we’re on a slippery slope. Ben thinks that his traditionalism would just so happen to lead to exactly the kind of political society he likes best. Maybe, or maybe not. But other, less benign traditionalists like Obama-supporter Andrew Sullivan think the same thing, and argue for what are ultimately very destructive policies on this same basis of traditionalism. The conservative or libertarian traditionalist can always come back and argue against those policies. But Ben’s claim that his own Jeffersonian tradition is the authentic one and that Sullivan’s tradition of intrusive government is the false one strikes me as a weak argument. It would be much stronger to rationally prove why Sullivan is wrong–otherwise, you are fighting with one hand tied behind your back. I would love for Ben or someone else to demonstrate why reason is actually incapable of doing this. So far, I don’t think any of their arguments hold up, beyond just reminding us to be pragmatic.