China Syndrome


Larry Arnhart has a blog post about my article (original draft here, revised but shorter version here) on libertarian themes in Confucian thought.

A caveat: as you’ll see, Larry seems more sympathetic to the Burkean side of Confucianism than I am; on the issue of tradition I think the Confucians take a genuine piece of the truth and blow it up to be much more of the truth than it is, at the expense of the recognition that a great deal of tradition is oppressive and needs to be combated. As I say in the original article, “the Confucians can all too often be preachy, hidebound, starchy apologists for an authoritarian status quo”; so I get a little worried when Larry takes the moral of my article to be the need to respect the “communitarian authority of social traditions.”

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One Response to China Syndrome

  1. Confucian With No Name June 7, 2010 at 11:46 am #

    First, let me say that reading your “Rituals of Freedom” article some years ago was a monumental event in my intellectual life as it put me on the path to calling myself a Confucian in moral philosophy.

    Second, based on what I took from the blog post, Arnhart may agree with you to a greater extent than I think you realize, although he certainly does endorse a more Burkean brand of Confucianism. I do not think he was crediting you with an argument for respecting “communitarian authority of social traditions”. Quite the contrary! He seems to impart that particular argument to people who find solace in a falsified “Asian values” in their flight from what they perceive to be crass “Western individualism”. His claim regarding your article is that you, and the Confucians, take the view that the opposition between community and social tradition on the one hand and individualism on the other is a false opposition, and that any correct understanding of either individualism or community and social tradition necessitates a correct understanding of both. If I take his meaning correctly, community and social tradition form the very background that shapes, and gives meaning to, the individual life, but that each individual has at least the opportunity, if not the duty, to modify tradition. Crucially, Arnhart criticizes Hayek for failing to include human nature as one of the measuring sticks against which tradition can be judged. This means that finding particular traditions oppressive need not make one hostile to tradition itself, since a tradition that is frustrating to human nature should be eliminated, while preserving those traditions that are congenial to man’s natural inclination. I think this same thought is implicit in Mencius, and perhaps other Confucians as well.

    Personally, I would even defend a libertarian spin on the more Burkean side to the Confucians. The Burkean-Confucian position is a word of caution against adopting whatever is fashionable from day-to-day and in favor of changing traditions only when it is judged to be necessary and prudent to do so. Where this goes too far is in suggesting that the current pool of traditions does not contain much (if anything!) that frustrates human nature, since the bad traditions would have been expelled long ago if they really were harmful to human nature, and so we can only make things worse. The closest Arnhart gets to this position is in saying “Human tradition is a spontaneous order, because the customs of social life develop over history through an evolutionary process of random variation and selective retention to create complex traditions of social practice that have not been intentionally designed.” As I said, what I find particularly sexy is the libertarian spin on the Burkean position, which would be pointing out that in a free society where traditions are free to flow and find their level, then the sort of ruthless tradition-testing that the Burkeans suggest went on previously would occur quite naturally. However, in an unfree society, the ruler or ruling class can and do engage in intentional designing by using their position to prop up bad traditions (I don’t remember the exact quotation, but I believe Gramsci said something about the particular interests of the ruling class becoming the universal common sense of society), and so we should not conclude that matters can only worsen if things are changed. But if a free community existed, had endured for many generations, and had settled on a stable set of traditions that tallied well with human nature, I think every libertarian must be Burkean in telling any wannabe statists to quit trying to fix what isn’t broken.

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