What follows is a review of John Sullivan’s recent book Notes From the Aboveground. In the interests of full disclosure: the author is paying me to review his book. Conceivably, this could lead me to be too soft on the book. Equally conceivably, this could lead me instead to overcompensate for this danger and so end up being too hard on the book in order to vindicate my independence of judgment. Hopefully these two tendencies will cancel each other out.
Power and Market; or: Private Vices, Public Benefits
On the basis of a gloomy moral psychology that resembles a mix of Glaucon, Hobbes, and Stirner, John Sullivan in Notes From the Aboveground erects an optimistic libertarian theory of social change that echoes Spencer and Molinari. Hence the book’s two major theses are the moral psychology on the one hand and its sociopolitical implications on the other.
The foundation of Sullivan’s moral psychology is an egoistic theory of motivation, according to which the chief (indeed, he sometimes suggests, the sole) aim of human action is to seek power over others as a means of gratifying the ego (by which he seems to mean vanity, i.e., the desire to impress other people). Ideologies are nothing more than rationalisations of the power achieved or sought by those promoting the ideologies. Thus it is a mistake to think of ideology as influencing the manifestation of power; on the contrary, power always determines the content of ideology. And contrary to Nietzsche, altruistic moralities are developed not by resentful subjects but by the rulers, to legitimise their rule.
So what are the implications for libertarian politics? The bad news is that we won’t move the world toward libertarianism by preaching about rights and justice, because people aren’t motivated by rights and justice (and especially not by conceptions of rights and justice at odds with the ideologies promoted by the dominant power structures); nor will we move the world toward libertarianism by preaching about what benefits society, because people are motivated by their own self-interest, not by society’s interest. Man “always seeks his ends politically rather than economically, if possible, because the former represents a less expenditure of labor than the latter.” (p. 36) Indeed, for Sullivan people never choose the economic means unless the successful resistance of others has made the political means too costly. Any ideology such as libertarianism that calls upon people to limit their own pursuit of power voluntarily flies in the face of human nature.
The good news, however, is that the very motivational factors that make the intentional establishment of libertarianism a pipe dream make its unintentional evolutionary emergence a virtual certainty in the long run. Thus, despite Sullivan’s suspicion of grand predictive theories of history (p. 144), he proceeds to offer one of his own anyway. For Sullivan, the eventual triumph of libertarianism is made inevitable by two factors:
First, those who are roughly equal in power are compelled willy-nilly to adopt broadly libertarian norms for dealing with one another (though not for dealing with those in a weaker position), because one is – by definition – not in a position to impose much in the way of forcible requirements on one’s equals. Hence the ruling class in any society tends to develop a libertarian ethic for its own internal dealings.
Second, groups who are excluded from the ruling class will struggle to get into it, and since the excluded groups usually outnumber the rulers they will tend over time to succeed – a process illustrated historically by the transition from monarchy to democracy, the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of the peasantry and of women, and so on. Hence the natural tendency is for the ruling class to grow and the ruled classes to shrink. (Note that this is the opposite of the Rousseau/Marx class theory according to which the ruling class inevitably contracts, forcing more and more of its members out and thus unwittingly strengthening its opposition.)
When these two factors are combined, the upshot is that the portion of society that is governed by a libertarian ethic must continually increase at the expense of those portions governed by non-libertarian norms. Thus “as competition in society intensifies, power tends to become more fairly divided among the competitors seeking it,” so that a libertarian political order, where “no one had power to coerce the behavior of others,” emerges as “the unintended outcome of social competition.” (p. 89) Thus Sullivan in effect transposes to the end of history Glaucon’s account of the origin of justice.
The process of competition and consequent libertarianisation initially leads, paradoxically, to a larger state: “as the masses won political power from the nobility and as wealth grew to such levels as would justify its confiscation and redistribution,” the natural result was “the leviathan state … which allows for the majority to steal from the minority.” (p. 105.) We may wonder whether Sullivan exaggerates the extent to which majorities are actually empowered in present-day so-called democracies, but it’s certainly true that they have more power than under, say, feudalism. In any case, Sullivan thinks this swelling of the state is a transitional phenomenon; societies in which power is more evenly shared tend to outcompete less libertarian societies, since – for familiar Hayekian reasons – with “fewer people making decisions” the latter “employ little knowledge in comparison to free economies.”
Statism is propped up by the collectivist ethic Sullivan calls “tribalism” or “bigotry,” but “as the competition for wealth and power intensifies,” more and more people will “succeed by their merit rather than by their belonging to tribes.” (p. 144.) Bigotry is “the language of power,” but “through competition, both power and bigotry are diffused, equalized, and diminished.” (p. 146.) And “when power is equally shared,” then “the metaphysical constructs that justify and allow for the domination of power will dwindle away.” (p. 110.) “Civilizations will become libertarian” and “merge into one integrated global order, with one language, one currency, and a rule of law based upon the individual ethic.” (p. 144.) The new power structure will shape a libertarian ideology to match it, so that the average person, despite his power-loving nature, “will shun from [sic] behavior that undermines the order.” (p. 144.)
How should we assess all this? Perhaps ironically, Sullivan’s sociopolitical superstructure turns out to be far more defensible than the moral-psychological base upon which he rests it.
Selfishness Without a Self
My principal objections to Sullivan’s theory of moral psychology are, first, that no argument or evidence is offered for accepting it, and second, that in elaborating it Sullivan appears to slide between mutually incompatible statements of the doctrine, some versions so vacuous or so protean as to be insulated from empirical refutation, while more substantive versions prove implausible at best and incoherent at worst.
As Sullivan admits, his “argument begins with the premise [emphasis added] that man historically joins groups for the purpose of expanding his social and political power.” (p. 13) In short, the book’s central claims about human motivation are mostly assumed rather than argued for. (But Sullivan will frequently assert something as an undefended premise on one page, only to refer back to it several pages later as having been “established.”) I suspect the chief case for accepting Sullivan’s moral psychology is meant to be its explanatory power; but if, as I shall argue, the theory makes no sense in its own right, its explanatory power, if any, will be beside the point. In any case, as we shall see, much of the theory’s purported explanatory power will turn out to be vacuous.
Sullivan’s version of psychological egoism takes “ego” in the modern colloquial sense, as the desire “to be recognized, liked, respected, or loved by others.” (p. 20) But Sullivan never explains why we should take the desire for recognition by others, especially in the all-pervading form that Sullivan describes, as a selfish desire. Why isn’t such a strong concern with other people’s opinions and desires the height of unselfishness? Sullivan tells us that “Man’s desire to be liked causes him to act with benevolence to others in order to stimulate the response he selfishly needs from them” (p. 59), but it’s unclear what work, if any, the word “selfishly” is doing in this statement. Is Sullivan neglecting Gauthier’s distinction (echoing an earlier idea from Butler’s Sermons) between interests of the self (i.e., interests having the self as subject) and interests in the self (i.e., interests taking the self as object)?
Aristotle famously (and to my mind convincingly) argues, in Nicomachean Ethics I. 5, that a concern with being honoured by others cannot coherently form the core of our notion of self-interest, for two reasons. First, it places our self-interest primarily in the control of other people rather than ourselves, rendering the successful life hyper-vulnerable – yet a hyper-vulnerable life is ipso facto not successful, just as having unusually precarious health is itself a way of being unhealthy. Second, the fact that we care about who admires us, and prefer being admired by people of good judgment rather than bad, shows that we value being honoured because it enables us to think of ourselves as worthy of being honoured; and since the end is more valuable than the means, that shows that we’re committed to regarding being worthy of admiration as more important than actually receiving it. The task of moral philosophy is to determine which conceptions of the good make sense, and Aristotle shows – or so it seems to me – that no conception of the good organised primarily around recognition from others makes sense. More recently, Rand’s novel The Fountainhead is a lengthy and mostly convincing dramatisation of the idea that a life devoted to winning status and prestige, i.e. the satisfaction of others’ standards and opinions, is the antithesis of a self-interested life.
Sullivan tells us that the “passions of grief, pity and sympathy are rooted in man’s fear of death and suffering, and we feel these emotions when we connect the suffering of others to fear for our own” (p. 17), and again, that a person’s “emotion of sympathy is triggered when he associates the suffering of others to the possibility of his own.” (p. 59.) But this notion of associating others’ suffering with our own is ambiguous. On the one hand, Sullivan might intend a view like that of Hobbes, who claimed that we are alarmed by others’ suffering because we fear that what is afflicting them will next afflict us, and that we admire benevolent people because we hope they will turn their benevolence in our direction. But surely this view was soundly trounced by Hume and Smith in the 18th century, when they pointed out that we feel sympathy and admiration for fictional characters and for people long dead. The other interpretation would be the view that Hume and Smith themselves advance – that we simply have a natural (albeit defeasible) tendency to put ourselves in others’ position and see things from their point of view, and that indeed such a tendency is a precondition for even the simplest forms of mutual understanding and cooperation, even language itself. But if the latter is all that Sullivan means, then it seems better described as an explanation of other-concern rather than a debunking of it.
As for the thesis that humans naturally always seek power, Sullivan vacillates between what we might call a “hard-line” and a “soft-line” interpretation of his thesis, according as beneficence toward others is or is not excluded from the notion of power-seeking. Sullivan sounds the hard-line thesis when he announces: “Man does not relinquish his power or curb his passions until fear leaves him with no alternative.” (p. 42) Yet he also maintains, soft-line style, that “All egotistical actions [which for Sullivan apparently means all actions] are based upon man’s need for recognition by others, and there are principally two ways of doing that. One is to be better than others and the other is to help them.” (p. 31.)
Sullivan’s theory is thus an empirically elastic one. If someone acts in ways that are conventionally called selfish, he must be trying to achieve recognition via the path of competition and superiority. If someone acts in ways that are conventionally called unselfish, he must be trying to achieve recognition via the path of benefit to others. Not to sound too Popperian here, but what, if anything, would Sullivan regard as a disconfirmation of his theory?
Sometimes (though not consistently) Sullivan suggests that benevolent forms of power-seeking emerge only when malign forms become unavailable: “Nature forces each man to seek the maximum power he can attain until he is prevented by others from attaining more, and then he ceases and subconsciously redirects his desire for empowerment to the satisfaction of his ego. The word power here is meant in a comprehensive way that includes man’s ability to satisfy both his bodily and psychological needs. If he cannot gain wealth, he may settle for social recognition. Although psychological recognition is the principle [sic] motive of power, two types of power spring from it. Man competes for and shares both political and social power.” (p. 63.)
Bear in mind that for Sullivan, the desire for ego-satisfaction just is the desire for recognition. Thus what he is telling us, within the space of a few sentences, is that the desire for recognition is a) a second-best alternative to the desire for power, b) one form of the desire for power, and c) the principal motive of the desire for power. Even a trinitarian theologian might balk at endorsing the conjunction of these claims.
In support of his egoistic theory of motivation, Sullivan asks whether it is “possible to cite examples where employees explain to their bosses that they are being compensated by them for more than they are worth,” or whether manufacturers ever “tell their suppliers that, morally, they should pay higher prices to them.” Sullivan thinks the answer is obvious: “This never happens.” (p. 123.) But of course it happens all the time! It’s admittedly the exception, not the rule, but most of us, I suspect, can think of cases where we’ve personally known it to happen. I fear Sullivan’s perceptions are being distorted by his own ideological goggles. But of course if Sullivan were to grant the existence of the phenomenon, he would presumably reinterpret it as one more case of trying to gain the admiration of others through an appearance of honesty and altruism.
Sometimes, for example, we’re told that rulers concede rights to their subjects only out of fear of the subjects’ collective strength and ability to rebel; while at other times we’re told that the rulers concede rights to their subjects in order to feed their own vanity by gaining their subjects’ approval. In “real life,” Sullivan assures us (p. 7), nobody in a stronger position has ever voluntarily agreed to respect the rights of others. Not only is this an absurd statement in itself, but it contradicts his assertion elsewhere that “If you go back to the original premise that our nature is to seek power, the act of giving away one’s power would seem to contradict human nature. Yet some people could be brainwashed by an ideology to accept passivity with the belief that they will be better off.” (p. 76)
And this last comment brings us to the puzzling role of ideology in Sullivan’s theory. Doctrines of rights and morality, Sullivan holds, were invented by the ruling classes to justify their rule to the ruled; the existing distribution of power is always sanctified by the reigning ideology. But, to begin with, it simply seems false that the reigning ideology in fact always lends support to the existing power structure; in many cases it seems to undermine it instead. For example, Sullivan believes that “[w]hen slavery exists in a society, the ideology of that society supports it” (p. 119); yet the official ideology of the slaveholding American republic, as embodied in its founding document, was that “all men are created equal” and endowed with inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Did that ideology support slavery? Haven’t most reform movements invoked elements of the reigning ideology precisely to use them against the existing regime? What else, for example, were Olympe de Gouges and Elizabeth Cady Stanton doing in their respective declarations?
Sullivan himself notes that, thanks to power traditionally being more equally distributed within classes than between them, “laws were equally applied within a social class, but unequally applied to disputes between people of different social classes,” so that “despite their erratic application and content, laws pertaining to individual justice began to evolve in every society.” (p. 90.) Yes, absolutely right: the standards of interpersonal conduct within the ruling class tend to have a fair bit of libertarian content. But how, then, can Sullivan deny that these libertarian aspects of the dominant ideology could serve to de-legitimise the unlibertarian aspects (in the eyes of both rulers and ruled)? After all, that’s what historically appears to have happened, over and over. Most ideologies, even if they contain much that sanctions the existing power structure, also contain much that conflicts with it – which suggests that the development of ideologies may be influenced by factors other than mere power-seeking. (And if, as Sullivan insists, one “cannot experience a sense of guilt for something that he was not conditioned to feel over his lifetime” (p. 42), how then can we explain the fairly common phenomenon of people suddenly coming to feel guilty for going along with the dominant values of their society?)
But even leaving aside such considerations, it’s puzzling how ideology is supposed to work given Sullivan’s assumptions about human motivation. Like some versions of Marxism (though arguably not Marx’s own), Sullivan sees a purely one-way relation between ideology and power: “ideology doesn’t determine who holds power, but rather, is determined by power.” (p. 82.) But if ideology were as inert as Sullivan suggests, it’s unclear how it could do the work to which he says the ruling classes put it. On Sullivan’s account, the function of ideology is to legitimate the power of the rulers; but why would such legitimation succeed, why would the subjects care about the ideology, if they are as hopelessly fixated on the pursuit of power and prestige as Sullivan supposes?
While power was initially “required to force the competitors to obey the rules,” Sullivan tells us, eventually “power combined itself with belief to cause voluntary observance.” (p. 40) This seems to suggest that ideology leads the ruled to restrain their own self-interest voluntarily, something Sullivan at other times suggests is impossible.
“Whether by evolution or by conquest,” Sullivan further opines, “every society that grew beyond the size of an extended family developed a social structure whereby the peasantry labored on behalf of the nobility in exchange for protection.” So far so good – but then he continues: “The order of this arrangement was secured by the customary belief that it represented justice.” (p. 36.) Whence this notion of justice? How do these self-centered, power-hungry organisms come to care about justice?
After all, Sullivan also tells us that the only reason anyone engages in “philanthropy” is that he “values his social reputation” (p. 28), and again that the only reason people present themselves as “sympathetic to certain social causes or values” is that “they hope to be highly valued, and liked by others.” (p. 21) But this is a mighty puzzle. If nobody’s endorsement of value A is sincere, then why would my endorsement of value A be a good strategy for getting admiration from you – since ex hypothesi your endorsement of value A isn’t sincere either? How could a commitment to value A arise, as a means of getting approval from others, within a community of people none of whom have any prior reason for valuing A? There seems to be a serious bootstrap problem here. People motivated in the way Sullivan describes simply could not be influenced by ideology in the way Sullivan describes.
Sullivan sometimes writes as though apparently unselfish action is motivated to win the approval not just of others but of oneself, in a manner that can lead to outright self-deception: “Each person is aware of their motives to act, although often they are afraid to divulge those motives to other, or even to admit them to themselves” (p. 15), and it is the “satisfaction of his pride” that “causes him to perform acts that have the social appearance of being unselfish.” (p. 17) But this quest for self-approval is just as puzzling as the quest for others’ approval. Just as it makes no sense for me to simulate unselfishness to win others’ approval unless those others genuinely admire unselfishness, so it makes no sense for me to simulate unselfishness to win my own approval unless I genuinely admire unselfishness. In either case, egocentric values (in Sullivan’s sense) are necessarily parasitic on non-egocentric values. Moreover, the need for self-deception is mysterious: if the value I place on benevolence is genuine, that should be enough to make it at least possible for me to be motivated to act benevolently in fact, with no need for self-deception; while on the other hand if the value I place on benevolence is insincere, then I should feel no shame at faking benevolence and so self-deception will once again be unnecessary.
As we’ve seen, Sullivan holds that we seek to be identified as “sympathetic to certain social causes or values” solely because we “hope to be highly valued, and liked by others” (p. 21), which implies that all ideological commitments are insincere. Yet Sullivan also says: “Not only is he educated to believe in an ideology, but his passions of pride, shame and guilt, among others, are made to respond to his beliefs.” (pp. 26-27) And this makes it sound as though our commitment to social values is sincere after all.
Consider, too, the following pair of sentences: “Man does not feel guilt and shame for murder, per se, but for what those in society will think of him if caught. The conditioning is so powerful that man feels the sense of shame and guilt even if his transgressions remain undiscovered by others.” (p. 42) Don’t these two claims contradict each other? The first says our only reason for caring about X is Y; the second says that our “conditioning is so powerful” that we care about X even apart from Y. Which is it? Even if one grants that our aversion to murder originated in an aversion to others’ disapproval, the fact that it survives in the absence of such disapproval would seem to indicate that the former aversion has become transformed into something more and other than the latter aversion.
Sullivan’s claims about the relation between ideology and class interest are also problematic. He tells us that “the conservative seeks to defend the existing hierarchy of power because he benefits from it,” while “[o]n the power scale, a liberal is situated beneath the conservative and advocates changes that will make him equal to the conservative.” (p. 100.) This approach will have a hard time explaining why members of the ruling class ever become champions of its overthrow (as Lafayette, Tolstoj, and Kropotkin did, for example). Asks Sullivan: “When was the last time one saw a so called homeless man petitioning for a lower capital gains tax?” (p. 101.) I don’t know, but I’ve certainly known plenty of libertarians one paycheck away from homelessness who supported a lower capital gains tax. Likewise, Sullivan maintains that “In democracies, each person seeks power through their votes. They do not seek to empower those besides themselves.” (p. 64.) If that is true, why don’t people vote along class lines more reliably than they do? Such correlations are too easily counterexampled.
But things get worse: “High income earners like low taxes and low income workers like high taxes and redistribution – does it take a genius to figure this out?” Of course this last claim is completely contrary to obvious experience – and in fact Sullivan sensibly contradicts it in the very next paragraph: “Once a person has reached the pinnacle of fame and power,“ he notes, “the only thing left to satisfy their ego is the image they want others to have of them,” which explains “why so many famous people become socialists.” (p. 101.)
In short, Sullivan’s theory is completely unfalsifiable; anything and everything confirms it. When the rich oppose higher taxes, they’re seeking power by trying to hold on to their wealth; when the rich support higher taxes, they’re seeking power by trying to look good to the poor; when the poor support higher taxes, they’re seeking power by trying to grab the wealth of others; when the poor oppose higher taxes, thet’re seeking power by trying to look good to the rich. You stunned him, just as he was waking up! Norwegian Blues stun easily.
Finally, if all ideologies are rationalisations of power, so that nobody can without self-deception embrace a libertarian ethic that requires its adherents to refrain voluntarily from aggression (p. 110), how are we to explain Sullivan’s own endorsement of libertarianism? For clearly he doesn’t merely predict the eventual triumph of liberty; he quite evidently welcomes it. How can he explain his own commitment to libertarianism? What power structure is his own ideology intended to reinforce? Or is he an exception to his own theory?
There’s some evidence that he does indeed regard himself as an exception to his own theory. At one point he maintains that arguments for socialism are designed to impress the poor, while arguments for capitalism are designed to impress the rich. As noted above, this generalisation seems empirically false – but in any case, Sullivan goes on to add: “one will never hear opinions that don’t impress anyone – except for perhaps in this book.” (p. 60; emphasis added.) So all ideologies are rationalisations for power and ego – except Sullivan’s own? This seems like a blatant instance of the “fallacy of self-exclusion”; it’s as though Sullivan sees himself as occupying an Archimedean standpoint or God’s-eye-view outside and above the society he seeks to analyse, forgetting that he is himself part of his object of study and so cannot exempt himself from the judgments he draws concerning it. (This attitude may in fact account for the otherwise-unexplained Dostojevskian title Notes From the Aboveground; an earlier edition was indeed titled The View From Above.)
Progress: Its Law and Cause
In short, then, I think that Sullivan’s account of human motivation, to the extent that it amounts to a definite thesis at all, is indefensible (and to the extent that it resolves itself into an army of shifting and mutually incompatible theses, they are all either so specific as to be indefensible or so generic as to have no interesting implications). Yet, surprisingly, it does not follow that the sociopolitical theory he builds on it is implicated in its downfall. I don’t mean merely that his sociopolitical theory might be justified on grounds other than those he proposes; no, I mean that his sociopolitical theory gains genuine support from the very grounds he proposes, even though those grounds are false.
How can that be? Well, we have both empirical and conceptual reasons for doubting that vanity and powerlust can be as central to human motivation as Sullivan supposes; since vanity in particular is parasitic on non-vanity values, it logically cannot be our dominant motive. But the recognition of that fact is perfectly consistent with vanity and powerlust being motives that many people seek to gratify much of the time, even if they do not all seek to gratify them all the time. And so a false theory according to which these are the all-controlling motives may have decent predictive power, as an approximation to a true theory according to which these are at least widespread and influential.
Likewise, while I don’t agree with Sullivan that all ideologies are motivated solely by class interest – indeed I think one can’t coherently maintain such a thesis, since its assertion casts its own assertion in question (and Sullivan arguably entangles himself in just such an inconsistency) – there is no incoherence in holding, and it indeed seems reasonable to hold, that class interest often plays an important role in shaping the content of ideology. Thus we can recognise a fair bit of truth in Sullivan’s contention that whenever “wealth is created in portions that can alter the prevailing distribution of power in society,” then “people rise to question what they have been educated to believe,” and liberal philosophers will “advance a new utopia that includes the classes that have attained … enough wealth to be included in the power structure,” but which “will continue to rely on educational devices that thwart the ambitions of the remaining masses” (p. 61) – even if we don’t think this is the whole truth about such ideologies.
The core of Sullivan’s sociopolitical thesis, remember, is that competition among vain and power-hungry agents gradually tends to equalise power among them; that conditions of equal power are conducive to the emergence of libertarian norms of social interaction; and that such norms are likely to become internalised and so to be stable. I think Sullivan’s overall case for this analysis is not bad. My chief caveat here, however, is that Sullivan has at best identified one tendency of social evolution, and surely it is a defeasible one; the question to ask, then, is: with what other, perhaps countervailing tendencies is this tendency likely to interact, and how much can we say about the probable resultant of these various tendencies? Otherwise we run the danger of being like someone who would appeal to the law of gravity to conclude that the average height of buildings must grow shorter over the centuries, ignoring the offsetting effects of improved technology.
Parerga and Paralipomena
So, a boo for Sullivan’s psychological egoism, but a (cautiously qualified) cheer for the libertarian social analysis he builds on it. Let me finish up the review by noting various additional points, ancillary to his central aims, where I nevertheless had some sort of gripe or objection:
• Sullivan claims that, traditionally, “eastern ideologies were based on obedience to rule,” but that nowadays these are being “challenged by more liberal western ideologies such as democracy.” Taoism and Confucianism seem like fairly salient counterexamples to this claim.
• He also maintains that the function of religion is to “influence human behavior to conform to guidelines that, if observed, will grant or guarantee eternal life after death.” Yet what about Buddhism, the whole point of which is to avoid life after death?
• Sullivan describes Plato (p. 52) as a paradigmatically conservative thinker, resisting the social evolution of values because he felt more secure with the existing social order. Certainly there are strong conservative strands in Plato’s thought – but it’s hard to label as straightforwardly conservative a thinker who advocates sexual equality, calls for the abolition of the family, and favours the subordination of commercial and military pursuits to philosophical ones. (And was attacking Athenian democracy really the best way for Plato to enhance his personal security?)
• Sullivan complains (p. 7) that Nietzsche is inconsistent because his desire to “reinvent all values” implies that “existing values must have been a mistake” – but since “values are derived from human nature,” that means that Nietzsche is “blaming humans for being themselves.” But Nietzsche explains quite clearly that he is no more blaming people for having mistaken values than a doctor is blaming a patient for being sick. Moreover, for Nietzsche values are not derived from human nature per se, but rather from an evolutionary historical process.
• According to Sullivan, “Lord Acton’s famous remark that ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ aptly describes the nature of man to wield power – if he can. So, if his posturing implies otherwise, it’s because he can’t.” (p. 63.) First, this is a misquotation of Acton, who actually said only that power tends to corrupt. But second, Acton’s remark, whether in its original or revised form, is about the effect of power on those who wield it, and has no bearing whatsoever on the question of whether those who decline to wield it do so willingly or not.
• We’re told: “Never has anyone, including the philosophers, ever proclaimed that the morality of their society was improving when they compared it to the generation that came before them.” (p. 87.) Is Sullivan kidding??!? Has he never read any of the massive host of cheerleaders for progress that have issued forth over the past two centuries, from Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics to the radical youth manifestos of the 1960s?
• Sullivan claims (pp. 7-8) that Rand’s egoism is inconsistent because she asks people to limit their pursuit of self-interest in order to respect others’ libertarian rights. But of course Rand’s position is that human beings best serve their own self-interest by adopting a commitment to respecting others’ rights. Now she might be right or she might be wrong about that, but that’s her position; she never describes respect for rights as a sacrifice of the rights-respecter’s self-interest.
• Mises is likewise accused of inconsistency (p. 8) because on the one hand he recognises that people necessarily act for the sake of their own individual values, yet on the other hand he asks people to act for the benefit of society as a whole. But Mises, too, thinks people will best serve their individual values by promoting a liberal order. To be sure, he might be wrong about this too; but if so, that would be a factual mistake, not an inconsistency.
• Sullivan treats the concept of “social justice” as inherently anti-libertarian. (pp. 93-94, 141-2.) But as I’ve argued previously, to whatever extent libertarians are concerned to combat systematic patterns of exploitation and oppression in society, they are precisely concerned with social justice.
• “Did you ever stop to wonder,” Sullivan asks, “why greed and ambition are considered vices? Who gets hurt? Those holding power fear challenges from ambitious people ….” (p. 94.) The notion that only the powerful have reason to fear the greedy and ambitious is an odd one for a libertarian to embrace. After all, greed and ambition are precisely what lead the already-powerful to seek to extend their power – which is certainly something the powerless have reason to fear.
• Sullivan notes that the question of whether values are objective or relative is “one of philosophy’s age old debates,” and that “the objective value side makes the argument that if values were relative, no moral certainty would exist, and the moral glue that binds and secures order in a society would be jeopardized.” In fact it is usually preachers and politicians, not philosophers, who stress this particular argument against relativism. (It’s a bad argument, because to show that a view would have unpleasant consequences if generally believed is not to show that the view is false.) Philosophers generally give better arguments against relativism than this, but Sullivan doesn’t address any of the standard philosophical arguments against relativism.
The closest that Sullivan comes to an actual argument on behalf of relativism is this: “Moral relativism doesn’t posit that murder is okay, or that theft is just a minor societal inconvenience. Instead, it is an awareness of the fact that many tenets of yesterday’s immorality [does immorality have tenets?] are acceptable today, which is an observation of history.” But this statement appears to confuse two different meanings of “value” – what people in fact pursue, or regard as worthwhile, and what is actually worth pursuing, or genuinely worthwhile. It’s easy enough to show – by appeal to the “observation of history” – that value in the former sense is culturally relative; but no moral objectivist ever denied it. What moral relativism claims is that value in the latter sense is likewise relative, and no mere “observation of history” is competent to establish that claim. By analogy: what shape the earth is believed to be is culturally relative, but that doesn’t show that what shape the earth actually is must thereby be culturally relative too. (This is a distinction explained in the first few pages of most introductory ethics textbooks.)
• Sullivan doesn’t say precisely what he means by the terms “metaphysics” and “metaphysical,” but he evidently attaches a pejorative meaning to them. (See, e.g., pp. 15, 19, 22, 23, 69, 75, 85, 87, 96, and 110.) As best as I can tell, he seems to think that metaphysics and science are attempts to explain the same phenomena, only science does so by appealing to evidence and real causes, and metaphysics does so by appealing to faith and imaginary causes.
But in fact science and metaphysics do not address the same topics; for metaphysics is a branch of philosophy. Just as the task of ethics is to determine which conceptions of the good make sense and which don’t, so the task of metaphysics is to determine – antecedent to empirical investigation – which conceptions of the nature of reality make sense and which don’t – while the task of the sciences is to determine which of the possibilities left standing by metaphysics is actually best supported by empirical evidence. (After all, there’s no sense in sending scientists out to test for round squares if we already know a priori that they aren’t going to find any.)
To be sure, metaphysicians are sometimes wrong about what makes sense and what doesn’t – just as scientists are sometimes wrong about what the evidence supports. Likewise, metaphysicians sometimes attempt to pronounce on issues which properly lie within the sphere of the sciences – just as scientists sometimes attempt to pronounce on issues which properly lie within the sphere of metaphysics. Nevertheless, the two disciplines deal with different questions, and both are indispensable.
• There is a balance, Sullivan tells us, between liberty and (economic) equality: as economic inequality increases, the poorer majorities are prompted to combine forces to achieve redistribution; as economic equality increases, some members of the majority will begin to lose out and will switch to the side of the richer, pro-liberty minority. (p. 83.) This is an odd description of political reality; in the real world, we see wealthy interests pursuing inequality not by means of liberty but by means of state power – though often in a manner cloaked in pro-economic-equality rhetoric. It’s also unclear how Sullivan’s thesis of a perpetual oscillation between liberty and economic equality is to be reconciled with his thesis of an eventual triumph of liberty – and likewise how his association of liberty with economic inequality is to be squared with his identification of liberty with equality in power. (Economic equality and equality in power are not the same thing, of course; but one would not expect them to be inversely correlated.)
• “In order to found a libertarian society on purpose,” Sullivan proclaims, “some form of social power to do that would have to exist first,” and such a power “would not choose to relinquish their power in order to create conditions of equal power for everyone else.” (p. 110.) Leaving aside the unjustified determinism of this last, I note that elsewhere Sullivan has already acknowledged the existence of a power by which a libertarian society could be deliberately established: “his first step is to stand on his own two feet. At that point, he is free. If others do the same, they will not enslave each other. … But to succeed at this, one first has to rid their conscience of the old ideology, which has brainwashed them.” (p. 88.) Well, yes, that’s the agorist strategy for libertarian revolution in a nutshell; but why is this not precisely a way of “found[ing] a libertarian society on purpose”?
• Sullivan believes that anarchy is workable, but declines to call it “anarchy,” since that word is also used to mean chaos, and “[a] word cannot have two different meanings that are opposite one another.” (p. 107.) I hope he doesn’t intend to sanction, or cleave to, this oversight. (In any case, he calls his preferred legal system “world government” (p. 144), which is surely open to the same objection.)
• “Today,” we’re told, “the civilized west struggles against a muslim despotism that suffers very little feeling of guilt for their savage and barbarian actions. The west’s ultimate victory will be delayed only because they feel guilt.” (p. 111.) It’s startling to see such a “free-spirited” book suddenly mouthing the neocon party line – a bit like Nietzsche sporting a flag pin.
• Sullivan’s claim (p. 121) that slavery contracts would exist in a libertarian society seems contradictory, given that he has defined a libertarian society as one characterised by equality of power, while slavery by definition involves inequality of power (regardless of how it comes about).
• Sullivan asserts: “The price of a product has nothing to do with the cost of making it. Many products can’t be sold anywhere near what they cost to produce, so they simply aren’t made.” (p. 132.) I’m no adherent of the cost-of-production theory of price determination; but if Sullivan thinks that argument disproves it, he needs to read those good buddies George Reisman and Kevin Carson.
• Finally, Sullivan claims: “There is no such event in history as a peaceful withdrawal from a state by a minority power.” (p. 102.) Um … Belgium, 1830? Norway, 1905? Iceland, 1945? Singapore, 1965? Most of the Soviet states, 1991? Slovakia, 1993?