Liberty Matters

Ends vs. Means, or Muddling Through

The pluralism-vs.-rationalism opposition which Jacob observes within the classical-liberal tradition is one that I have found very helpful in trying to bring some sort of order to the rather obstreperous collection of intellectual groups which have all contributed their individual two cents worth (or in some cases five cents worth) to the tradition’s intellectual development over the centuries. Another one of Jacob’s great successes is in showing just how many centuries back one should trace these intellectual movements and groups. His interest in the Monarchomachs is an excellent example of this.
However, there is one difficulty I am still struggling to come to grips with, and that is the difference between ends and means for classical liberals. My own perspective has been influenced by Murray Rothbard and his view that the “highest political value” (or end) is the absence of the initiation of violence in society, or what he termed the “nonaggression principle”[35] --and it should be noted that this principle has come under attack by some libertarians in recent years.[36] If this is my “end,” then pluralism or rationalism could be seen as two different means which could be used to achieve that end of individual liberty.
If this is the case, then I am quite open to adopting or supporting one or the other, depending on the time, place, and circumstances (in other words, the historical circumstances in which a liberal might find himself), as the means to achieve my higher end. If the members of an intermediate association share my goal in wanting to increase the amount of individual liberty there is in the world, for example the Independent churches during the 1640s in England who were inspired by Leveller ideas and were agitating for religious freedom and toleration during the English Civil Wars,[37] then I would be prepared to work with it to achieve that goal, even though I am an atheist. On the other hand, if an enlightened despot in the 18th or 19th century were influenced by Physiocratic or Smithian ideas about the greater economic efficiency of free labor as opposed to serfdom and wanted to abolish serfdom in a rationalistic, top-down fashion (like Joseph II attempted to do in 1781 and Alexander II in Russia in 1861),[38] then I would support that too, even though I am a Painite anti-monarchist.
However, as soon as the Independent churches began lobbying the new government to enforce blue laws, I would have to oppose them. Similarly, as soon as Alexander’s bureaucrats began looking for ways to pass the financial burden of liberation onto the serfs themselves via debt repayments to their erstwhile lords, I would have to oppose that as well.
The result is that I am both a “pluralist” and a “rationalist” depending upon the circumstances. I don’t think political theory can tell us what at any given time or place is better, either as political theory or economic policy.
The problem faced by classical liberals and libertarians is when it becomes clear that members of intermediate associations or the bureaucrats in Weberian rationalistic states have very different ends than ones liberals hold, namely, that the members’ and bureaucrats’ ultimate goal is the preservation or expansion of their associations or the state at the expense of the individual liberty of others. What then? Both Chandran and Jacob seem to think that an English-style “muddling through” is the best we can hope for and will have to suffice.
[35.] Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1982).
[36.] Matt Zwolinski, "Six Reasons Libertarians Should Reject the Non-Aggression Principle" (April 8, 2013) <>.
[37.] Rachel Foxley, The Levellers: Radical Political Thought in the English Revolution (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), “4. Religion, Politics, and Conscience,” pp. 119-49.
[38.] Jerome Blum, The End of the Old Order in Rural Europe (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978).