Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hayek vs. Schmitt

Mark Lilla's article in The New Republic on China's interest in Western philosophers contains a concise summary of Carl Schmitt's critique of classical liberalism (HT: Peter Leithart):
Schmitt was by far the most intellectually challenging anti-liberal statist of the twentieth century. His deepest objections to liberalism were anthropological. Classical liberalism assumes the autonomy of self-sufficient individuals and treats conflict as a function of faulty social and institutional arrangements; rearrange those arrangements, and peace, prosperity, learning, and refinement will follow. Schmitt assumed the priority of conflict: Man is a political creature, in the sense that his most defining characteristic is the ability to distinguish friend and adversary. Classical liberalism sees society as having multiple, semi-autonomous spheres; Schmitt asserted the priority of the social whole (his ideal was the medieval Catholic Church) and considered the autonomy of the economy, say, or culture or religion, as a dangerous fiction. (“The political is the total, and as a result we know that any decision about whether something is unpolitical is always a political decision.”) Classical liberalism treats sovereignty as a kind of coin that individuals are given by nature and which they cash in as they build legitimate political institutions for themselves; Schmitt saw sovereignty as the result of an arbitrary self-founding act by a leader, a party, a class, or a nation that simply declares “thus it shall be.” Classical liberalism had little to say about war and international affairs, leaving the impression that, if only human rights were respected and markets kept free, a morally universal and pacified world order would result. For Schmitt, this was liberalism’s greatest and most revealing intellectual abdication: If you have nothing to say about war, you have nothing to say about politics. There is, he wrote, “absolutely no liberal politics, only a liberal critique of politics.”
Since at the moment I'm a bit immersed in Hayek, I felt like this would be a good chance to summarize Hayek's own thoughts in response to Schmitt's. (Hayek himself already attacked Schmitt's ideas several times in The Road to Serfdom.) The above critique seems to be a response to only a rationalistic conception of liberalism, which Hayek scoffed at. If we are referring to the liberalism defended by Hayek, which he took to be the classical liberalism of Locke, Hume, and Smith, then the above critique is simply wrong on every point.

Classical liberalism is not based on the autonomy of self-sufficient individuals. It is built on the study of how people stumble upon political order, rather than arriving there through deliberate design. It would hardly make sense to think of the economy, culture, and religion as autonomous spheres, since these all evolve together--indeed, the functioning of an economy mostly depends on our religious and cultural practices. Yet asserting the priority of the "social whole" would be a worse error still, since, as Hayek says, a "society is greater than the individual only in so far as it is free. In so far as it is controlled or directed, it is limited to the powers of the individual minds which control or direct it." Classical liberalism does not treat sovereignty "as a kind of coin that individuals are given by nature and which they cash in as they build legitimate political institutions for themselves." On the contrary, liberalism mostly rejects the notion that individuals could build legitimate political institutions for themselves; yet still less can it accept that legitimate institutions arise "as the result of an arbitrary self-founding act by a leader, a party, a class, or a nation." Men do not simply speak order into being; it comes about through a slow and often painful process of evolution. (The founding of the United States, for instance, could not have come about except through the inherited tradition of the rule of law in English politics, which itself arose through a long process of trial and error.) Finally, it is simply false that liberalism says nothing about war and international affairs. Its goal has traditionally been to work toward international government; Hayek himself proposed a federal system to govern nations (see The Road to Serfdom, Chapter Fifteen).

One wonders if history could have been much different if Schmitt had better understood the philosophy he so viciously critiqued.

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