In his important book The Failure of American Conservatism (2023), the political theorist and philosopher Claes G. Ryn offers some criticisms of libertarianism and free-market capitalism, and in this week’s column, I’d like to examine these.
Ryn is not an opponent of all forms of the free market, but he fears an extreme version of it can be dangerous. He defends what he calls “value-centered historicism,” according to which people’s values stem not from abstract reason but from the concrete particularities of their lives and traditions. From this perspective, he opposes ideologies that propose setting aside existing customs and social practices to remodel all social institutions according to a plan. He argues that the Jacobins of the French Revolution acted in this way; convinced of their superior rationality and unbound by restraints, their policies led to widespread massacres. (By the way, his attack on “Jacobinism” is quite similar to Friedrich Hayek’s criticism of constructivist rationalism, but he does not mention Hayek in this connection.)
Ryn explains his view of Jacobinism in this way:
In their efforts to bestow their allegedly noble insights on people far and wide, the French Jacobins combined adherence to abstract ideals with moralistic righteousness. Warnings from others, including Edmund Burke, that in the reform of society concrete circumstances and historical experience had to be taken into account and respected, seemed to the French revolutionaries morally perverse and reactionary. No guide was necessary other than their own revolutionary principles. To liberate mankind from oppression and enact freedom, a clean break with the past was necessary.
Readers will probably wonder what any of this has to do with the free market, and skepticism on this score is amply justified. Economics is a value-fr
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