Thursday, September 2, 2010

Time Horizons: J S Mill and Yuval Levin Edition

A comment by Alpheus on health care prompted a thought about J S Mill. There's an argument in On Liberty, which FLG will summarize poorly as democratic tendencies lead to mediocrity and there's a fundamental irreconcilability between excellence and equality, that always seems to pop up.

Anyway, FLG has been seeing evidence of his time horizons theory in many places upon rereads. On Liberty is no exception.

The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty, or that of progress or improvement. The spirit of improvement is not always a spirit of liberty, for it may aim at forcing improvements on an unwilling people; and the spirit of liberty, in so far as it resists such attempts, may ally itself locally and temporarily with the opponents of improvement; but the only unfailing and permanent source of improvement is liberty, since by it there are as many possible independent centres of improvement as there are individuals. The progressive principle, however, in either shape, whether as the love of liberty or of improvement, is antagonistic to the sway of Custom, involving at least emancipation from that yoke; and the contest between the two constitutes the chief interest of the history of mankind.

Personally, however, FLG doesn't think is all about the past, i.e. tradition and custom, but more importantly about how people view the future. In any case, there's stuff about time horizons.

Also, FLG briefly skimmed through Yuval Levin's dissertation, and in his description of the disagreement between Burke and Paine sees support for the time horizons theory:
Because Burke believed that nature and human nature made themselves known in politics through long experience, that human beings are born into a web of obligations, and that the problems we confront do not lend themselves to detached scientific analysis, he believed that improvements in politics must be achieved by cumulative reform—by building on success to address failure and containing the effects of innovation within a broader context of continuity. Because Paine believed that nature reveals itself in the form of abstract principles discovered by
rational analysis, that human beings are entitled to choose their government freely and that government in turn exists to protect their other choices, and that reason can help us see beyond the superstitions that have long sustained unjust regimes, he believed that improvements in politics must be achieved by thoroughgoing revolution—by throwing off the accumulated burdens of the past and starting fresh and properly.

So, Burke, who was obviously a large source for FLG's time horizons theory, is concerned about change because we have an obligation to both those who came before us as well as those who will come after us. A long term perspective, if you will. Paine wants almost constant revolution where human beings can remake their political bonds at will to fit their circumstances. Short time horizons. Forget the past and don't worry about the future.

This also dovetails, if you look at the quote "government in turn exists to protect their other choices," with FLG's definition of the goal of the Left to be the removal of all constraints, whether they be biological, economic, social, historical, or cultural, on human action. Although, the more FLG thinks about it a more apt description is probably maximizing the freedom of action or alternatively minimizing the constraints on human action.

But you know what FLG learned from skimming Levin's dissertation? Yuval Levin is much smarter than FLG. Actually, FLG knew that, but it was reinforced. That quotation above is merely a lead in to Chapter 6, "Generations and the Living."

He writes:
Both men recognize that liberalism opens wide the question of the interaction of the past, the present, and the future in politics, and that the answer to that question has profound implications.

Levin then addresses Paine's Eternal Now and Burke’s Eternal Order. You know, it's like time horizons, but more thoroughly explained and thought out.

UPDATE:
Just so you all know, even though FLG is fascinated by political philosophy, he's awful at it from an academic perspective. Taking Deneen's course pretty much settled that. He's like a drunk monkey with a hammer.

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