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Sohrab Ahmari Should Read More Widely or Carefully

Here’s a letter to The American Conservative:


Sohrab Ahmari’s criticism of George Will’s embrace of classical liberalism is chock-a-block with errors (“The George Will We’ve Lost,” November 7). Not the least of these mistakes is Mr. Ahmari’s portrayal of liberalism as CliffsNotes Hobbesianism.

It’s simply untrue that “human beings, for liberalism, are little more than self-interested brutes, thrown into a brutish world and naturally at war with their fellows.” John Locke – universally regarded as a founding philosopher of liberalism – had a far more nuanced and optimistic view than did Thomas Hobbes of human nature and of the possibilities for mutually advantageous cooperation. The individuals about whom Locke theorized – individuals both post- and pre-social contract – are not amoral brutes. They are reasonable creatures who seek out and discover rules that encourage peaceful and productive social cooperation.

Several decades later, in 1759, Adam Smith – perhaps the greatest liberal of all – published his Theory of Moral Sentiments the opening sentence of which reads “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.” No brutes here.

The very same people about whom Smith wrote in 1759 populate his 1776 Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. But in this latter book Smith sought to explain the empirical reality of extensive peaceful and productive economic cooperation among countless strangers. (Contrary to Mr. Ahmari’s belief, this spontaneous economic cooperation is indeed an empirical reality and not a figment of “quasi-religious zeal.” If Mr. Ahmari disagrees, I ask that he send to me the names of all the persons who contributed their efforts to make possible the publication of this essay of his, as well as the blueprint by which these people where consciously directed to do so.) Because no person in modern society knows the many strangers whose efforts yield his or her beef, beer, and bread – and his or her antibiotics, aspirin, automobile, air-conditioning, and latest edition of American Conservative – something other than personal sympathy must be in play to encourage and coordinate these efforts. That ‘something other’ is the free market grounded in private-property rights. Able to say ‘no’ to all unattractive offers, each person in pursuit of his own interest (which can and usually does include the welfare of his family, friends, and neighbors, and often even of his fellow citizens) encourages strangers to further their own interests by assisting him in better pursuing his.

Here’s another reality understood by Smith – and by F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Deirdre McCloskey, Richard Epstein, George Will, and all other true liberals: If you fail to instill in people liberal tolerance, and especially if you recruit them into the ranks of zealots attempting to create on earth their vision of heaven, you will then surely turn them into brutes. Single-mindedly devoted to their particular causes, individuals become monsters who recognize others only as comrades and enemies, the former of which are to be allowed no room for deviation and the latter of which are to be brutalized and slaughtered.

Although Mr. Ahmari seems unaware on this matter, it is, ironically, illiberal ideologies such as his own that breed the brutes that he rightly so detests and fears.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

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