Monday, October 1, 2012

A Critique of Canadian Idealism

"Freedom has substance only in the state." - Robert Meynell

"Nothing, perhaps, is so dangerous intellectually in the policy sciences as an economist who knows only economics, except, I would add, a moral philosopher who knows no economics at all." - Peter J. Boettke

Robert Meynell has written a well-researched book about Canadian Idealism. Canadian Idealism is a Hegelian philosophy best exemplified by such thinkers as C.B. Macpherson, George Grant and Charles Taylor. It is through these thinkers that Meynell presents his case for Canadian Idealism as the correct way to organize society.

With a forward by Jack Layton, it's apparent from the onset that Canadian Idealism and the Philosophy of Freedom is not dealing with "freedom" as libertarians describe it. Throughout the book, it's obvious that Meynell nor any of the thinkers he writes of, give any indication that Austrian economics even exists let alone that the body of knowledge 'solves' the 'dilemma' of individual liberty versus civic unity. And that's the core problem with Canadian Idealism as a philosophy - it ignores or misunderstands economics. So despite their best intentions,

The body of economic knowledge is an essential element in the structure of human civilization; it is the foundation upon which modern industrialism and all the moral, intellectual, technological, and therapeutical achievements of the last centuries have been built. It rests with men whether they will make the proper use of the rich treasure with which this knowledge provides them or whether they will leave it unused. But if they fail to take the best advantage of it and disregard its teachings and warnings, they will not annul economics; they will stamp out society and the human race.

Canadian Idealism is indebted to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a German philsopher and crucial figure in the German Idealism tradition. Hegel is extremely hard to read, and he's been accused of being an apologist for the Prussian empire. Hence his focus on "positive" liberty versus "negative" liberty. Whereas the latter is freedom from interference and constraint (usually from the state), the former is freedom to "take control of one's life and realize one's fundamental purposes."

Hegel's concept of freedom can be best summed up in this passage from his Philosophy of Right, "The state is the actuality of concrete freedom." Notice the use of the word 'concrete.' This is contrast to abstract freedom, as in negative liberty, which Hegel regards as "freedom of the void." In fact, Meynell's interpretation of Hegel is concerned with dealing with abstract concepts versus concrete truths. In Philosophy of Right, Hegel considers property rights to be abstract. As Meynell puts it, "it lacks moral content as well as concrete institutions to keep it from vacuity and negativity."

It is through this lens that Meynell - using Hegel's work and the writings of the other "idealists" previously mentioned - makes the case for Canadian Idealism. He gives brief biographies of C.B. Macpherson, George Grant and Charles Taylor, then describes their philosophy while tying it into Hegel's work. Whether or not he is successful at this, is not the concern of this post. Instead, I'd like to show how flawed Canadian Idealism is based on the absolute economic illiteracy of all four thinkers (or five, if you include Hegel). Macpherson was a communist, Grant was a Tory collectivist while Taylor is more of a Christian philosopher than a political thinker. Meanwhile, Meynell attempts to cast these men into the Canadian Idealist tradition, thus giving a strong philosophical foundation for the socialism of the New Democratic Party. Although not overly partisan, each author clearly indicates a desire for state control and a denouncement of capitalism. And with Charles Taylor's blatant support for the NDP and the forward by Jack Layton, it's hard to view Canadian Idealism as anything but the philosophical underpinnings of the NDP.

The defacto basis for arguing for positive over negative liberty is Isaiah Berlin's "Two Concepts of Liberty." However, as Rothbard has pointed out, Berlin lacked a decent economic education. His confusion over "liberty" and "opportunity" and denouncement of the Industrial Revolution as "harmful" casts doubts on his ability to rationally determine any concept of liberty, let alone two variants. Yet this is the basis for Canadian Idealism in their promotion of positive liberty over negative liberty.

Of the three thinkers Meynell writes of, C.B. Macpherson is perhaps the most economically illiterate. Although he tried to reconcile positive and negative liberty as two sides of the same coin, like Hegel, Macpherson is concerned with an individuals ends, not their means. Thus, rational thinking drifts from what could have been good economic reasoning to mind-numbing ramblings about morality and "harmonious dialectic between individual freedom and the common good." In addition, he is an unapologetic Marxist. Macpherson felt it was necessary to have "democratic political control over the uses to which the amasssed capital and the remaining natural resources of the society are put." He described property as "an enforceable claim created by the state." In his crackpot society, "political power then becomes the most important kind of property. Property, as an individual right, becomes essentially the individual's share in political power."

Like any good Marxist, Macpherson believed that, "a possessive market society is a series of competitive and invasive relations between all men, regardless of class: it puts every man on his own." This ties into Hegel, who viewed Adam Smith's "invisible hand" as inefficient for ending poverty, an "ethical wrong" arising from the market society. Neither Meynell nor Macpherson seem to realize that since Hegel's time, the poorer are richer and the middle-class are living beyond the wildest fantasies of the Kings of centuries past. This higher standard of living has nothing to do with the state promoting "the ethical life of the community at large," but arise from the "invasive relations" of the market.

George Grant is a little less Marxist, but he still regards capitalism as "empty progress" and derides the lack of spirituality found in modern society. He best exemplifies Hegel's view that Geist is working its magic through human action. As Ludwig von Mises wrote in a footnote to Theory and History,

It was a left-wing Hegelian, Ferdinand Lassalle, who most clearly expressed the fundamental thesis of Hegelianism: "The State is God." Hegel himself had been a little more cautious. He only declared that it is "the course of God through the world that constitutes the State" and that in dealing with the state one must contemplate "the Idea, God as actual on earth."

Due to this misconception, Grant criticizes the principles of the market as immoral. The market,

"confines workers to forms of labour that do not engage their creativity, restricts them from having any significant role in the formation of their society, compels them to conform to the practices of the capitalist system and subjects them to the dominance of the capitalist class."

In addition to the typical alienation and economic exploitation theories one would expect from a quasi-Marxist.

Charles Taylor is the thinker most influenced by Hegel, but publicly rejects his association with Canadian Idealism. Regardless, Meynell makes the case for Taylor in the last section of the book. Of all thinkers, Taylor is the most partisan, a vocal supporter of the New Democratic Party and mentor to Jack Layton.

Taylor rejects the idea that civic unity is a product of Geist, and instead develops his own Sittlichkeit method. According to Taylor, our identity is formed in relation to the social institutions in our community. For some reason, he supports centralization as a means to "our proper ends." Taylor formulates an entire framework of "lower" and "higher" ends while casting off the means as "desires," something belonging to the animal kingdom.

Canadian Idealism is a book about moral philosophy, not economics. But since Canadian Idealism drifts into political territory, and since all politics is economics, it's worth examining what this book is about. According to Meynell, individual freedom is fundamentally "atomistic" and at odds with the "common good". Freedom doesn't mean anything, according to Meynell, if individuals don't have basic freedoms, like access to health-care and education.

Simply put, Canadian Idealism is an outdated philosophical treatise. The writers deal with issues that are irrelevant in the wake of Austrian economics. Where they concern themselves with individual "atomistic" behaviour at the expense of the "common good," they fail to realize how the division of labour brings about prosperity for all. As Ludwig von Mises wrote,
"Collaboration of the more talented, more able, and more industrious with the less talented, less able, and less industrious result in benefit for both. The gains derived from the division of labor are always mutual...It leads men to regard each other as comrades in a joint struggle for welfare, rather than as competitors in a struggle for existence. It makes friends out of enemies, peace out of war, society out of individuals."

Canadian Idealism is a socialist book about a philosophy that has no bearing on reality whatsoever. Reading this book is a fun mental exercise, but it fails to offer any credible rationale for the state and the negation of liberty. What Canadian Idealists need is a hefty dose of Rothbard.

No comments:

Post a Comment