George Smith on Herbert Spencer, continued

I recommend the series of essays by Smith, called From Optimism to Pessimism.

According to Spencer, most people are too ignorant to understand the detrimental long-term consequences of government intervention, so they will continue to embrace the superstition that a government can accomplish virtually anything, given the requisite political will and despite one failure after another. Experience counts for nothing here, because to understand the abstract nature of political institutions and their causal effects on social and economic interaction requires a level of conceptual ability that exceeds the intellectual powers of most people.

That quote is from Part 5 of the series. Another quote:

Spencer even criticized American democracy, because many Americans believed that “smart people” in government can do whatever they set out to do. Spencer, who was blunt if he was anything, was not reluctant to use words like “stupidity” when describing these and similar beliefs.

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One Response to George Smith on Herbert Spencer, continued

  1. Georg Thomas says:

    Do I detect a family resemblance?

    Michael Oakeshott once spoke of Hayek’s “plan to resist all planning”.

    I am not sure, whether Oakeshott would endorse my interpretation of his phrase, but I read his observation as pointing to an illiberalism within liberalism (European meaning).

    Denying the right of political participation by all citizens, strikes me as highly illiberal.

    Usually liberals who argue in this vein do not sufficiently appreciate that markets are not an alternative to a political order (the one necessitated by freedom being of a democratic nature), but depend on an extra-market framework largely implemented, enforced, and defended by political action.

    You cannot have liberty without an open-ended political competition. But that competition is feared by liberals because it often brings forth as winners those who they disagree with.

    In the face of (permanent) defeat, for the liberal, it is at least psychologically comforting to refer back to the false “economistic” assumption that “dirty politics” would not be required if only one could have a liberal world as he conceives it.

    From this biased perspective, democracy appears to be an unpleasant, even dangerous redundancy. Because democracy destroys the liberal’s illusion that his is a self-contained, non-contradictory world view and as such naturally resistant to challenges of indeterminacy, i.e. outcomes of human interaction in a free world that may differ from the liberal’s expectations and preferences.

    Writes Oakeshott:

    “How deeply the rationalist disposition of mind has invaded our political thought and practice is illustrated by the extent to which traditions of behaviour have given place to ideologies, the extent to which the politics of destruction and creation have been substituted for the politics of repair, the consciously planned and deliberately executed being considered (for that reason) better than what has grown up and established itself unselfconsciously over a period of time…. This is, perhaps, the main significance of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom — not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine. A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics.”

    (1991, “Rationalism in Politics,” in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, new and expanded edition, pp. 26-7.)

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