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February 2014

Toward an Interdisciplinary Study of Liberty, Part 2

A far-ranging discussion of the meanings of key terms in libertarianism, kinds of ideologues, and crucial elements needed for an understanding of individual freedom.

In over two years of writing weekly essays for, I have never posted an essay like the following. It is at once the longest essay by far (I could not justify splitting it into two parts) and the most rambling and problematic. There is a good reason for this: I wrote this piece in 1991, as I was collecting my thoughts about the need for, and nature of, an interdisciplinary study of liberty. With the exception of a few paragraphs on ideology that I revised and incorporated into my latest book (The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism), I never used this material in lectures or in print. This piece was intended not for public consumption but to clarify my own thinking. Fortunately, I had enough sense not to go public with my suggestion that we coin a new word, “liberology,” to signify the interdisciplinary study of liberty. Unnecessary neologisms smack of quackery. Nevertheless, the word “liberology” enabled me to think of the interdisciplinary study of liberty as a distinct and fruitful field of study in its own right, so it proved useful on a personal level.

I am posting this unfinished fragment as I found it in the original file (except for correcting some typos) because I think there is wheat among the chaff. Moreover, I don’t have a clue how to revise this highly speculative piece, so I didn’t even try.

The Libertarian Idiom

The vocabulary of political theory overlaps with the language of everyday life. When a libertarian speaks of “freedom,” “government,” “rights,” and so forth, he is using words that are part of normal discourse, words familiar to a general audience. But the libertarian uses such words with meanings that are far more specific than we find in ordinary usage; and a particular word, as used by the libertarian, will convey a meaning that may appear strange or overly refined to the average person.

This situation creates an obvious problem of communication. Less apparent, however, is this problem: If libertarians do not rely entirely on ordinary language for the meanings of their key terms, then where do those meanings come from? Certainly not from philosophers, who typically disagree among themselves.

The meanings we impute to words like “freedom,” “property,” and “rights,” are not new inventions. The libertarian key-cluster of ideas—our distinctive idiom—derives from an ideological culture that extends centuries into the past. The libertarian idiom is an outgrowth of the liberal tradition, in which the meanings of key terms were debated and refined over time. Of course, our idiom also developed spontaneously to some extent, but, unlike most conventional language, it is also is a product of conscious deliberation and reflection. This philosophic analysis was necessary, first, to distinguish our idiom from the vagaries of ordinary usage; and, second, to stabilize our idiom with consistent definitions that would serve as a common ground for discussion and consensus.

There is a natural tendency for an idiom to lose its identity as it insensibly degenerates into the ambiguities and imprecisions of conventional usage. Libertarians confront this problem when they use words like “rights” and “freedom” in public discourse. Such words, which may have precise meanings for the libertarian, can mean almost anything to the general population. Few people oppose “rights” and “freedom,” but relatively few people understand these words as libertarians do. This is bad enough, but if libertarians begin to neglect their own ideological culture, if they fail to understand the historical roots and evolution of their own idiom, then the forces of spontaneous order will kick in and eventually rob our key terms of their distinctive sense. And if this happens, the disintegration of libertarianism will soon follow, as more and more libertarians find that they lack the conceptual ability to understand and appreciate their own theories. To some extent this has already happened in the modern movement. How, then, can we recover and revitalize the libertarian idiom?

The answer lies in a restoration of our ideological heritage. It is in the historical development of our key cluster of ideas that we can locate their distinctive meanings. For this reason we must pay close attention to the history and integrated structure of libertarian ideology.

Ideology and Ideologues

The word “ideology” was coined around 1800 by the French liberal Antoine Destutt de Tracy, who used it as a label for the science (or systematic investigation) of ideas. This enterprise was essentially psychological, not philosophical. Tracy’s ideology was concerned with how the mind generates and organizes ideas, not with the epistemological value of those ideas.

The word “ideologue” also appeared in France around the same time. Its creator appears to have been Napoleon, who attacked as “ideologues” his libertarian opponents, such as Benjamin Constant, who refused to compromise their political principles for the sake of expediency. Hence this term, unlike “ideology,” was infused with political connotations from the beginning. An “ideologue” was a person who adhered steadfastly to abstract principles in political affairs.

Today, “ideologue” retains much of its original sense, but this is not true of “ideology,” which normally refers not to the study of a belief system but to the belief system itself. Moreover, the word “ideology,” though coined by Tracy, has become widely known through the abusive treatment of Karl Marx, who viewed ideology as the product of a “false consciousness” (the phrase was coined by Engels) that serves to rationalize class interests. Of course, Marx did not view his own ideas as emanating from the ideological bias of a false consciousness; his theory of socialism (he said) was scientific, not ideological.

Generally, I use “ideology” to refer to a value-based belief system. More specifically, an ideology is an integrated system of ideas that are connected, directly or indirectly, to a primary value commitment. The major components of this definition are as follows.

By “idea,” I mean any cognitive phenomenon or phenomena that are viewed subjectively as a single mental unit. Concepts, definitions, theories, beliefs, paradigms, and so forth—whether simple or complex, whether one or many—are called an “idea” when regarded as a distinct part (one unit) of an ideology. And this ideology itself, considered as a single mental construct, or unit, is also an “idea.” Simply put, the term “idea,” as used here, is to the inner world of abstraction what the term “thing” is to the external world of physical objects.

By “primary value commitment,” I mean: first, a valuation that exists in the consciousness of a person, a value to which that person is subjectively committed; second, a value that is primary, i.e., fundamental within a given cognitive sphere (religion, ethics, politics, etc.). For the libertarian ideologue, individual freedom is the primary value commitment in the sphere of political theory.

By “integrated system,” I mean an organized structure of diverse ideas, which are shaped into a self-contained unity according to their common relationship to a regulative principle. The system is functional, i.e., the parts contribute to the same overall end. The primary value, in the case of an ideology, is the regulative principle and unifying theme.

An ideology is the interpretative framework that enables us to classify our social experiences and integrate them into consistent patterns. An ideology greatly affects how we perceive and respond to the social world of institutional relationships. Libertarianism, as an ideology, provides a conceptual framework that influences how we see social and political “problems,” how we evaluate them, and which “solutions” we accept as legitimate.

Given this discussion of ideology, we may define an “ideologue,” quite simply, as any person with an ideology. It is useful to distinguish between two kinds of ideologue: passive and active.

The passive ideologue, when he reflects, stands as an observer to a prearranged system. He accepts his ideological structure as given, as if the structure had emerged from the ideas themselves, spontaneously and with their justifications attached. This kind of ideology is normally shallow because it is derived second-hand. The passive ideologue is unable to control and structure his system, because he is unable to justify the ideas themselves, and his knowledge of those ideas, historically considered, is nonexistent. He has little sense of context; if an experience (say, a revolution) is personally unfamiliar to him, he will lack comprehension of the ideological function of the ideas based on that experience.

This account of the passive ideologue, though unflattering, is realistic. It is difficult to imagine someone who reflects on his ideology and yet, with that level of awareness, shows no interest in controlling its structure. This makes sense only if we assume that the passive ideologue does not interfere, because he cannot interfere; he lacks the detailed familiarity with the constituent ideas and so has no real understanding of their logical and historical interconnections.

This kind of ideologue recalls the opprobrium that often accompanies the label “ideologue.” It suggests a person who is a slave to his ideas, simply reciting abstractions as dogma to cover complex situations. The passive ideologue, unfamiliar with his own ideas, cannot adjust to the appropriate context. This true-believer, whether Randian, Marxist or Christian, is unable to arrange or structure his ideas, so he must adhere to them religiously, as from a prefabricated system or text. The passive ideologue has a hierarchy of ideas, but this typically rests on a narrow pillar. Remove one idea and the entire structure might collapse.

An ideology should stimulate a greater range of depth and interest in every relevant discipline. The active (or critical) ideologue can extract valuable ideas from almost every original thinker, whatever his conclusions may be. A new idea is seen as an opportunity to expand and deepen one’s structure of ideas. Not so for the passive ideologue, for whom every new idea is a threat to his structure. Even a thinker who is sympathetic to his own values will often be neglected or shunned and no use made of his ideas. This system of the passive ideologue exists as a solid brick, unalterable, an all-or-nothing affair. He views the ideology of others the same way: he either accepts or rejects them in total.

The active ideologue, in contrast, has a reflective, critical attitude toward his ideas. His ideological structure is, in effect, a cognitive work of art. The constituent ideas may be borrowed from others, but their organization into an interconnected system is his unique and original creation. His lasting, reflective interest flows from the aesthetic appeal of contemplation and creation. Reflection may reveal new connections which occurred spontaneously; these he may leave as is, after critical evaluation, fully aware that the subconscious power of integration exceeds that of the conscious mind. (This subconscious process may be called tacit integration.) The active ideologue will eventually develop a disposition, or subconscious habit, of integrating ideas into his ideological structure. This is akin to the creative insight, in major cases at least.

Hence a basic function of an ideology is to provide an accessible and coherent structure for one’s tacit knowledge. Such tacit knowledge will tend to sort itself out, according to the categories and connections of the ideology. Later this tacit and spontaneous ordering is examined and evaluated by the active ideologue.

All this requires a lasting, reflective interest in one’s ideas. Much of this comes from the primary value commitment, which, as a thematic source, infuses a sense of significance to even the remote frontiers of one’s knowledge and opinions. Even the process of ideological construction and revision, which never ends, will often motivate a reflective, critical attitude. The primary value commitment, therefore, functions as an ideological theme. It infuses a tone, or attitude, throughout the entire system, affecting each constituent idea to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the proximity of that idea to the primary value. The thematic effect of the primary value serves to unify the constituent ideas with a common significance or meaning. Even plain facts of history, when part of the ideological structure, inspire a high degree of interest in the ideologue. An idea, when part of an ideology, can embody, illustrate or exemplify the primary value, or it can increase the range of significance by linking the primary value to new facts and fields of inquiry. As more ideas are incorporated into one’s ideology, those ideas become parts of the ideological whole, with a complex network of connections, first, to the primary value commitment and, second, to the other constituent ideas.

Hence the reflective interest in the primary value stimulates interest in a wide range of knowledge. Like a ripple effect, the value-theme flows outward in all directions, infusing the reflective interest (i.e., the desire to understand) to the remote frontiers of knowledge. This reflective interest, since it originates in the understanding, is satisfied only in terms acceptable to the understanding, namely, the desire for truth.

The ideologue, therefore, should value truth above all else, because only a rational idea can fit into the ideology. He does not accept something as true because he wants to incorporate it; rather, he wants to incorporate it only if it is true and relevant. The possible relevance of an idea calls our attention to it, but the ability of that idea to withstand critical scrutiny is the ultimate test.


I shall conclude this eclectic essay with a modest proposal.

Libertarians, anarchists, and others with a lasting interest in the subject of individual liberty should institute a new field of study, a cognitive discipline that specializes in the study of freedom. I propose that we inaugurate a systematic study of liberty. I also suggest that we christen this discipline by giving it a distinctive name.

A logical choice presents itself. Libertas, the Latin word for “liberty,” is the root of our traditional labels—“liberalism,” “libertarianism,” and the like. The systematic study of a phenomenon is commonly indicated by the word-ending “ology,” as in “psychology,” “geology,” and so forth. If we link these stems—one Latin, the other Greek—we have a new word: liberology, the systematic study (“science” in the general, old-fashioned sense) of liberty.

As with many newly-coined words, “liberology” may sound awkward at first. When Auguste Comte introduced the word “sociology,” it was attacked by some critics as a barbarous hybrid of Latin and Greek stems. During the 1960s, F.A. Hayek noted his dislike of the term “libertarian,” but he conceded that modern advocates of liberty could no longer call themselves “liberals,” as they had throughout the nineteenth century, because the original meaning had been lost, indeed, had degenerated into its opposite. In general usage (especially in the United States) a “liberal” denotes a person who favors more intervention by government, not less. Hence if we use the word at all, it must be qualified, as with “Classical Liberalism,” which has become nearly synonymous with “libertarianism.”

Liberology is the systematic study of the idea of liberty, as it is employed in the various cultural disciplines—also known as the moral sciences, the humane studies, the science of man, etc. These disciplines refer to the specialized fields of investigation that have, as their fundamental subject matter, some aspect of human action, i.e., behavior that is goal-directed and influenced by man’s ability to reason and to choose among alternative courses of action.

Liberology, in substance if not in name, was developed throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, reaching its consummate expression in the synthetic system-building of Adam Smith, as we see in his “system of natural liberty.” This, in essence, is what I mean by “liberology.” Therefore, in advocating liberology, I am advocating the restoration of a neglected tradition—one that was fragmented and ultimately destroyed by forces within and without. (To catalogue the many reasons for this would require an extensive treatment.)

Liberology is a matrix discipline that connects the cultural sciences by means of a conceptual common denominator, namely, the idea of liberty (or freedom). For the purpose of this analysis, I offer the following postulates of liberology, without suggesting that they are complete or comprehensive.

(1) The idea of liberty, whether implicit or explicit, is of fundamental importance in every cultural science, i.e., every cognitive discipline that is concerned with voluntary human action.

The idea of freedom, as it is used in a particular field of study, will profoundly influence: (a) how one analyzes problems and solutions within that discipline; (b) how one views other disciplines and evaluates their results, and ; (c) how one defines other key concepts (property, coercion, society, etc.); (d) how one treats the ideological aspects of one’s subject matter. (For example, should historical figures who claim to act from a love of liberty be taken at their word or should this be analyzed as an ideological cover for self-interest? Or must the two motives necessarily be in conflict?)

(2) The idea of liberty constitutes a methodologically useful connection between the cultural sciences.

If the idea of freedom is used differently in different cultural sciences—economics and sociology, for instance—then knowledge of this fact may yield important insights into the tensions and conflicts between those sciences. If, on the other hand, different sciences employ the same concept of freedom, then this may enable us to integrate their methods and results into a comprehensive theory.

(3) In order to understand the meaning of “liberty” and related terms, we must know something about their historical development—the context in which they originated and developed, the problems they were intended to address, etc.

A theory, considered philosophically, exists in the universe of abstractions, independently of time and space. A theory is a network of constituent ideas that are united by logical relations. A theory, however, is expressed in words, the sign-symbols of concepts. The specific meaning of words is historically determined through conventional usage. We cannot assess the inner logic of a theory unless we understand the meaning of its primary ideas. Thus a logical analysis presupposes and depends upon the historically conditioned meaning of the constituent ideas….

Here, mercifully perhaps, I stopped writing.

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