Philosophy, Politics

Political classification and economic reductionism

At Taki’s Magazine E. Christian Kopf writes:

As conservatives and right-wingers like Oswald Spengler, Julius Evola, Whittaker Chambers and many others have pointed out for over a century, free marketeers (19th century liberals or modern libertarians) differ from Marxists and democratic socialists (20th century liberals) only superficially, while sharing fundamental traits that range from a commitment to economic reductionism (what Albert Jay Nock and Wilhelm Röpke called “economism”) to a pervasive obsession with globalism. Gutzman is right about himself and his fellow libertarians.  They are left-wingers and do not differ in fundamentals from other left-wingers.

There are number of problems with this statement.  First of all, what constitutes a “superficial” or “fundamental” trait is arbitrary. For any two schools of political thought one can find similarities that can be designated as fundamental and differences that can be designated as superficial. For example, one could just as well argue that the policy differences between liberals and traditionalists are superficial and their shared tendency to believe in the existence of non-material justifications for political authority (“human rights”, “religion”) are fundamental.  From this perspective, the real dichotomy is between positivist and superstitious political thought.

Secondly, “economic reductionism” is not a normative political view but an approach to study human interaction. Economic reductionism, and its practical application “rational choice,” may yield new knowledge or not, but it cannot be dismissed for political reasons. Despite its limitations, the economic rationality postulate has a number of advantages over its competitors. As the self-designated “conservative anarchist” Anthony de Jasay writes in his piece ‘Rational Choice in Conflict’:

…the “economic approach” really reduces to the consistent application of a workmanlike rationality postulate. It is an approach that recommends itself, not because it can conquer all, but because without the postulate, deductive reasoning about human behavior is not possible; instead “anything goes,” any retrospective explanation is as good as any other, and no discipline can be imposed to curb prattle and mumbo-jumbo. In fact…reference to rationality is required even for the concept of irrational action to have meaning. The achievement of the postulate is not so much in the new knowledge it is producing in fields to which it is a relative newcomer–notably sociology, political theory, law, and perhaps history too, though the last is a moot point–but in blowing away the vari-colored fogbanks of historicism, institutionalism, behaviorism, structuralism, functionalism, dialectical materialism, and the rest.

It may be true that the differences between classical and modern liberalism are trivial but, as argued here, this perspective does not take into account that the case for libertarianism can be argued on completely different Hobbesian, “mechanistic” grounds.  Would this kind of liberalism still be “fundamentally” the same as Lockean rights-based liberalism, or would this present a major departure from the liberal tradition?  Similarly, if traditionalist/ reactionary conclusions are reached using a strictly “materialist” outlook, would this be considered a “right wing” view?

As should be evident from these thought experiments, there is some merit to the view that there are serious limitations to the left-right dichotomy. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is whether political views are consistent with empirical observation and/or reflect coherent reasoning. No amount of (re)classification of political views  or “essentialist” searching for the “true” meaning of a word can substitute for this.