Liberal Neutrality

Pluralism is the highest ideal of liberal democracy. The very idea of freedom is, for many on the left and among libertarians, protecting the rights of people to live wildly different lives, with wildly different values. In America, you can be Amish, or you can be a stock broker, or you can be a professor, or you can be a home maker. You can be part of a churchgoing family, or not, or a local official, or a High School coach.

Our own Karma Kaiser introduced me to this great little paper on Alasdair MacIntyre, Friedrich Hayek, and “Liberal Neutrality”. Liberal Neutrality is the idea, embraced by people like Hayek, that the ideal of pluralism, the system it engenders, is itself ethically neutral. Hayek had a model of social change, described in The Constitution of Liberty, in which small groups try out new things (where “things” is the set of all possible innovations include “practices, games, products, ideas”) and some subset of those new things diffuse to a larger group, and some subset of those diffuse to yet a larger group, etc. The result of the series of partial and complete diffusions is a plurality of practices and practical knowledge.

MacIntyre essentially called bullshit on this. Pluralism involves freedom to pursue a broad set of of lifestyles, to be sure. But that’s a far cry from ethical neutrality. Even your most extreme libertarian feeling at his most blasé about hookers and blow is clearly against murder, rape, and theft. In fact, most libertarians are against voluntary acts such as selling oneself into slavery.

The paper provides one non-neutral defense of markets and the liberal order. Deirdre McCloskey provides another. Ordinal utility economics provides another, though it pretends to a sort of neutrality that it does not earn.

I agree with MacIntyre and Keat (the author of the paper linked to above) that a defense of markets and the liberal order must be non-neutral in nature.


4 thoughts on “Liberal Neutrality

  1. David Duke

    Most libertarians are against selling oneself into slavery? Is there a kind of slavery that is more permissible than another? What about debt?

  2. Pingback: The Specter of Pluralism’s Bloodstained History | The Ümlaut

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