Libertarian Utopians?

There’s an interesting exchange at Tech Central Station (original link is now dead). James Pinkerton replies to Yuval Levin on the subject of the new utopianism of libertarians with respect to science.

Levin makes a conservative case against the “Extreme exercise of the power of man over man, through science.” He protests (too much?) that this is not the criticism of “Simple-minded religious fundamentalists or heavy-booted authoritarians”, but merely “Conservative suspicion of big promises, and a desire to moderate the zeal of the enthusiasts by mooring their project to the firm soil of some familiar moderating institutions”. He gives historical background about the Modern association between science and politics which led to the horrors of the utopianism of Communism and Nazism. Levin tries to argue that there is similar danger in the embrace of the promise of modern biotechnology, even though he acknowledges that the original horrors did not involve genuine science.

Pinkerton argues against the relevance of Levin’s examples, and defends evidence-based optimism and confidence in scientific progress. He also notes that Levin’s criticisms, while invalid, are against something other than libertarianism.

My first reaction was to also deny that it was libertarianism that Levin was arguing against. But, upon reflection, I think he’s onto something.

Both left-liberals and conservatives share a desire to see their, different, visions realized in society. They seem to care about the results more than the means, and seem uncomfortable with the uncertainty that freedom involves; they are willing to sacrifice individual preferences to their goals. Libertarians, on the other hand, don’t have a specific vision for society (which makes the “utopian” charge absurd). They want to leave individuals free to pursue their individual purposes. They consider that to be progress, and good. They embrace the dynamism of freedom; while the left and right both embrace the stasis of their visions.

For those interested in this perspective of dynamism vs. stasis, I heartily recommend this book.

UPDATE: Virginia Postrel (the author of the book referenced above) has some great comments on this on her blog.


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