Moral Language and Time Preferences: Assessing the Great Libertarian Lacuna

William Ruger and Jason Sorens have identified a lacuna in both thought and rhetoric in the current conceptualization of individual freedom on the part of libertarians: an inability or perhaps unwillingness to engage arguments for virtuous self-government. In a recent exchange of views hosted at Reason, they have nicely outlined the major contours of their critique. I won’t belabor their already well-stated points. Rather, I would like to underscore an aspect that Deirdre McCloskey touched on in her contribution to the exchange, concerning the moral stories necessary to sustain liberty.

The rhetorical use of language and the art of storytelling are aspects of intellectual engagement that I have become increasingly sensitive to in exploring German historical thought. It is no accident that McCloskey’s three-volume work on the great economic and social transformation of the modern world delves into channels that reach to the heart of that body of ideas, to Max Weber on concepts, to Ludwig Lachmann on plans, and even, in her contribution to the Reason forum, on Otto von Bismarck’s very deliberate manipulations to rearrange the German political landscape of his day.

The Germans, whether of the Left, Right, or center, quickly became attuned to the place of language in the formation of social order. In this, they picked up where the Scots and English thinkers had left off, but the German legacy was more mixed and ambivalent with respect to liberty in part because of the Germans’ particular and peculiar historical circumstances. Yet some were very clearly in this line: Wilhelm von Humboldt was the initial inspiration for John Stuart Mill’s work On Liberty (1859), and Lachmann clearly saw in Weber a necessary ingredient to furthering Austrian economic theory.

Walter Grinder once warned me about entering this deep wood for fear of being irredeemably lost among the trees. I think I’ve successfully negotiated that danger by leaving behind some well-paced markers in my explorations, and have in fact found one tree well worth further consideration: the relationship of language, and moral language in particular, to the formation of our sense of time and time preferences. I am convinced that this is where Lachmann was ultimately going with his discussion of Weber and the place of plans in the formation of economic order.

While the Austrians have always been the most sensitive of the various economic schools to the question of time, Lachmann was particularly so. Concepts are critical components in the structuring of thought into orderly plans of action. One can readily see their technical relevance to the economic equation. What needs further development, though, is the very central place of moral concepts in the lengthening out of the individual’s time preferences with respect to ends, and in the coordination of those preferences among different persons.

To explain orderliness in general, it may be sufficient to theorize from purposefulness, as Ludwig von Mises insisted, but different orders can be expected to arise from the predominating pursuits of different ends. All actions have unintended consequences, but whether the order that arises from those consequences is one that we want to affirm or not depends on the quality of the ends pursued. In this case, purposefulness alone will do very little work.

Values, as limits to what we are willing to do, or as goals to which we aspire, are crucial to the whole framework of a free society. Analyzing the content of purposefulness, then, is critical to understanding the free society, and this is exactly what moral language permits us to do.

Animals have purposefulness. What they have difficulty doing is deferring gratification. When my dog wants something, she does what seems most expedient: the direct application of her jaws to the desired object, toy, or food. She has little idea of “mine and thine” but what has been ingrained through training.

Here is where the real contribution of language to order comes into play: The technical problem of acquiring what we desire is made more feasible through our ability to plan. But more than this, we are able to work with the competing ends of others by properly situating our ends in relation to theirs. The more we are able to conceptualize a sense of where our mutual interests are, the more we are able to see others as ends in themselves and not merely as means for our own uses. The strength of our moral conceptions will thus define the degree to which we will pursue plans that are mutually beneficial, or at least not incompatible with the pursuits of others. The concept of property is a central value in this respect. This is at base what is meant by the lengthening of time horizons.

A person who does not have a sufficiently developed moral language will have a more difficult time deferring gratification by abjuring the use of theft or violence. Such a person needs the heavy hand of countervailing force to dissuade him or her from antisocial behavior. Thus if you want to move away from the use of force in society, the more you should engage in the very subject that Ruger and Sorens and McCloskey have raised.

Some commenters in the forum believe they have overstated their case. As well they may have—that is the very definition of making one’s point. That is why it’s “pointy.” It does not mean we should avoid the subject. It is, after all, only by engaging the question of morality directly, as they have done, that we really begin to understand the contours of self-government and liberty rightly.

I would frame the question this way: What are the languages that need to be internalized such that we extend and lengthen our time horizons to where we produce an order of self-governing persons worthy of defending?

That is the conversation I see Sorens and Ruger trying to initiate and it is one that I welcome.