A Letter to a Progressive With Poor Reading Comprehension

by Don Boudreaux on December 5, 2022

in Myths and Fallacies, Philosophy of Freedom

This letter is a response to someone with whom I’ve tangled on-line for many years. I here keep this person’s identity anonymous.

Mr./Ms. X:

In response to this Café Hayek post, you e-mail to me the following, quoted here in full:

I saw your Hutt post on “one person, one vote.” This is an issue I’m quite interested in. I was unclear, though, on the exact sense in which you considered Hutt serious, humane, and liberal. Are you of the view that it was a good idea to deny Black South Africans the vote, and to maintain that arrangement for generations?

If you disagree with Hutt on that, in what sense do you think he was being serious, humane, or liberal?

[Mr./Ms. X]

I don’t apologize for being blunt: You continue to reveal either that your reading comprehension is poor or that you intentionally or instinctively put the worst interpretation on matters. If you’ve actually read W.H. Hutt’s works fully enough to justify your condemnation of him – and if, unlike some of the ‘scholars’ who you routinely defend, you followed the civilized practice of putting a fair interpretation on what you read – it would never have occurred to you to send to me this e-mail. Indeed, this same conclusion holds as regards the Magness, Carden, and Murtazashvili paper on Hutt in the Spring 2022 Independent Review that served as the centerpiece of my blog post: No competent reader with a fair mind would read the Magness, et al., paper and reach the scurrilous conclusion that you reach about Hutt.

In the Magness, et al., paper there is an explicit mention of – and quotations from – Hutt’s April 1961 letter to the Times of London calling for everyone in South Africa to be given the franchise (in Hutt’s own words) “without regard to race, colour, or home language.” This fact is nearly impossible to square with your suggestion that the details of Hutt’s proposal for South Africa to transition away from apartheid reveals that he was not “serious, humane, or liberal.”

It’s true, as you allude, that part of Hutt’s longer proposal for South Africa to transition away from apartheid was an income-weighted franchise. It’s true also that this proposal is not ‘one person, one vote.’ But as a fair reading of Hutt makes clear, and as Magness, et al., convincingly argue, Hutt’s goal in making this proposal was to craft what he believed to be a workable transition out of apartheid to a regime under which property rights and individual freedom are secured under the rule of law for everyone. Hutt worried that a too-quick adoption of ‘one person, one vote’ would result in the depredations of raw majoritarianism – depredations that serious political philosophers have warned about for centuries and that, should these depredations occur, would over the long run confine the masses to tyranny and poverty.

It’s legitimate to argue that Hutt’s proposal was poorly thought out – that Hutt’s proposal was not a good, or the best available, means of securing for all South Africans the blessings of liberalism, the rule of law, and commercial prosperity. But it is not legitimate to infer from your disagreement with Hutt’s means that Hutt was motivated by racism, or that he was neither humane nor liberal.

Like many on the political left, you have a long track record of mistaking your disagreement with someone’s means as evidence that that someone’s ends are detestable. Also like many on the left, you seem unable to understand that liberals – true liberals – value democracy highly, but only as a means of helping to secure individual freedom. For liberals (which Hutt most certainly was), the ultimate measure of a society’s goodness is how free are the individuals within it. If restrictions on majority rule are believed to further the prospects of individual freedom, those restrictions are supported by liberals.

True liberals don’t fetishize majority rule. Nor do true liberals believe that the right to vote is the very essence of freedom or that it ranks as a right above all others.

Again, you can legitimately disagree with the liberal conclusion that maximum freedom for all requires restrictions of different sorts on majority rule. But, also again, you cannot legitimately do what you do with regard to Hutt – namely, infer that, therefore, liberals such as Hutt are devilish while you are pure of heart.

I’m under no illusions that you’ll comprehend what I write here or that, in the off-chance that you do comprehend it, you’ll interpret it in a manner befitting a true scholar. And so I ask you not to correspond further with me as any such correspondence would be pointless.

DBx

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