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Modernist epistemology strikes again!

LewRockwell.com has republished a denunciation of fusionism, and (a fortiori) conservatism, by the intelligent but extremely contentious Murray Rothbard.

“Fusionism” has always seemed necessary to American right-wingers. America’s traditions include a great deal that is liberal, so traditionally-minded Americans have always had a strong libertarian streak. Also, for liberty to be something other than getting what one wants by whatever means, which would mean the end of limited government, people have to accept that man is based on something transcending desire, technical skill, and indeed anything directly observable, but nonetheless concrete enough to inspire devotion. It follows that in America freedom has seemed necessary to tradition, and religious tradition to freedom. And in any event, the great enemy of any possible Right, in America or anywhere else, is a managerial liberalism that wipes out both freedom and tradition. So why not put aside differences of emphasis to fight the common enemy of all things human?

Rothbard would have none of that. His reasoning is interesting, not because it is sensible but because it is clear and characteristic of a great deal of libertarian thought about tradition:

“At the heart of the dispute between the traditionalists and the libertarians is the question of freedom and virtue: Should virtuous action (however we define it) be compelled, or should it be left up to the free and voluntary choice of the individual? Here only two answers are possible; any fusionist attempt to find a Third Way, a synthesis of the two, would simply be impossible and violate the law of the excluded middle.”

The whole discussion—I’ve picked one example of many—is a string of either/ors. Everything you can mention is either this or it’s that. That kind of argument can be very powerful, but it depends for its force on our ability to characterize things, situations and persons with utmost clarity. For Rothbard that wasn’t a problem. He lived, it seems, in a world composed of logical combinations of discrete simple entities. Extreme modernists—in the end, there is no other kind—have to view the world that way, since otherwise it would be impossible to analyze the complex into the simple without remainder, and nothing could be known in a satisfactory way.

Those discrete simple entities have to include human beings if human beings can be known at all. Since (as prescribed by the theory) men are utterly simple, and can be completely known and described with limitless uniquivocal clarity, it follows that they either have or don’t have every possible quality, and if they have a quality it is either chosen by them in some act of utterly independent self-legislation or else forced on them by external violence. Things like “love,” “loyalty,” “seduction,” “influence,” or “formative experience” would blur the infinitely sharp analytical distinctions between persons that for Rothbard made knowledge of human beings possible, so no such things can be allowed to exist in a way any of us need be concerned about. And since external violence doesn’t sound so great, and man-the-creative-deity-of-his-own-being sounds heroic, the obvious political choice is libertarianism.

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