Short Bibliography/Postography on the Problem of Libertarian Praxis

Preliminary list supplementing a set of posts at Ordinary Times, whose publication I expect to occur shortly, and which began as a comment on the question of a “libertarian moment” in American politics – whether it ever occurred at all and whether the decline of Rand Paul’s presidential candidacy marked its passage into history – moving in discussion to the question of the proper home for a “liberty interest” on the American left-liberal/right-conservative spectrum.

Two previous posts by this blogger on this topic, written after more or less extensive discussion with contributors and commenters, or former contributors and commenters, at that site, including especially James Hanley, are “Libertarianism as Core-Extreme Ideology of the Liberal Democratic State” and “Government by Other Means.” 

As for the works on which I have depended in developing my own perspective, I’ll try to keep the discussion more narrowly focused on the topic of liberalism (as classical or ideal liberalism, including libertarianism).

I’ll begin with the seminal critic of the old liberalism, Carl Schmitt, whose summary on the political incapacity of liberalism includes the following statement of the thesis:

The negation of the political, which is inherent in every consistent individualism, leads necessarily to a political practice of distrust toward all conceivable political forces and forms of state and government, but never produces on its own a positive theory of state, government, and politics. As a result, there exists a liberal policy in the form of a polemical antithesis against state, church, or other institutions which restrict individual freedom. There exists a liberal policy of trade, church, and education, but absolutely no liberal politics, only a liberal critique of politics.

The above is from The Concept of the Political (1932)The “expanded” edition I have linked includes an important critique by Leo Strauss, as well as Schmitt’s earlier lecture “The Age of Neutralizations and Depoliticizations,” which further prepares the ground for the above statement on the anti-political or pre-political character of the modern liberal idea.

For those who do not wish to have their computer screens or bookcases sullied by the work of a man who later joined the Nazi Party and sought to become Hitler’s favorite jurist (then retreated to private study in failure and likely in reasonable fear for his safety), the under-discussed American philosopher Paul W Kahn spent the better part of a decade exploring Schmittian themes in relation to American liberalism after Rawls. Putting Liberalism in its Place (2005) would be, I think, Kahn’s key work on the topic. His book Political Theology (2011) is a chapter by chapter discussion of and confrontation with Schmitt’s classic of the same title. first published in 1922, updated in 1934. Kahn summarized his project in a short essay “On Political Theology.” Giorgio Agamben is another contemporary philosopher or, as we now like to say, theorist who has directly confronted Schmitt and Schmitt’s challenge to liberal precepts. His short lecture on “The State of Emergency” is available on-line.

A classic in the critique of “classical liberalism” or the order of the world up to the European catastrophe of the 20th Century is Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation (1944). Critics of Polanyi typically point to his out-of-date anthropological references, but in my view they have little bearing on his main argument, which, among many other very useful things, looks forward from his vantage point to the development of social liberalism in America and to the bases of the (inevitable) ecological challenge to global capitalism.

On the influence of Locke on the American Founders, I found Locke in America: The Moral Philosophy of the Founding Era, by Jerome Huyler, very helpful, not least for its virtual blow-by-blow account of the attempt, and failure, to circumscribe American constitutional governance at its inception according to a coherent Radical Whig, or ur-libertarian, ideal. Huyler’s book is at minimum a good supplement to Gordon S. Wood’s modern classic The Creation of the American Republic (1969). Strauss’s commentary on Locke in Natural Right and History is useful for those seeking a more direct confrontation with Locke’s own writings, while Strauss’s collection of essays Liberalism Ancient and Modern is very helpful in developing a perspective on the history of the liberal idea. His short lecture on “Liberal Education and Responsibility.” which appears in that book, can also be found on-line.

Of course, any serious interrogation of this question begins with The Politics, and in my view must take Elements of the Philosophy of Right also into account at some point.

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