ACCUMULATING PERIPHERALS


Libertarianism in Vietnam by mattsteinglass
February 20, 2009, 11:34 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Andrew Sullivan notes Ilya Somin’s argument that the potential for an alliance between liberals and libertarians is still small. I keep encountering American libertarians traveling in Vietnam, and each time I think they’re going to be forced to revisit some of their core assumptions; they all like Vietnam because in comparison to other third-world countries there’s no crime, the services actually function, governance works, and therefore it’s a great place to do business and has a thriving and expanding capitalist economy. I imagine they will be forced to perceive the ways in which Vietnam’s extremely group-oriented Confucian culture, where decisions are generally made at the level of the family or the work unit rather than the individual, renders many incentive systems based on individual decision-making hapless and ineffective. (See: much of the US’s “hearts and minds” efforts in the Vietnam War.) And yet each time I find they leave with their convictions happily unscarred by any encounter with reality, saying they had a “great time” in Vietnam and not seeming to understand that they were never really even there.

This is why I find libertarians infuriating and feel that Somin is most likely correct that there is little likelihood of a liberaltarian alliance.

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18 Comments so far
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Your post is basically nonsense. The ones who have to re-evaluate their attitudes are liberals. Social engineering, feminism, massive welfare states, stringent environmental regulations, income equality, and racial quotas – all pillars of liberalism – don’t exist in a place like Vietnam. I find it completely hypocritical when people who embrace these ideals spend a lot of time in a place like Vietnam and go on about how great the place is, yet continue to trash the USA for income inequality and a lousy environmental record. When the blatant hypocrisy is pointed out, they simply want to change the subject or end the conversation.

Furthermore, look around you and maintain with a straight face that “incentive systems based on individual decision-making hapless and ineffective”. The fact of the matter is that there are literally millions of people where you are trying to get ahead in a freewheeling capitalist way. Why? Because they have an incentive (personal gain) to better themselves.

It is far better for a belief system to come from family and community rather than from government and elitist NGO’s. The Thought Police are far more prevalent here in the USA than they are in most of Asia.

And lastly, who is more tolerant of Americans living in a place like Asia? Liberals or Libertarians? Who is more inclined to tax/track/confiscate money from (American) expatriates and who is more likely to throw up barriers to Americans (men, mostly) marrying foreigners? Hopefully, these questions will make you think a little.

Comment by Frank

“I imagine they will be forced to perceive the ways in which Vietnam’s extremely group-oriented Confucian culture, where decisions are generally made at the level of the family or the work unit rather than the individual, renders many incentive systems based on individual decision-making hapless and ineffective.”

Is your argument that American liberals generally, but not the handful of visiting libertarians you have encountered, grasp the collectivist nature of Confucian cultures, and that’s indicative of why they can’t jibe as part of a broad coalition in American politics?

If that’s not your argument, can you explain what it is?

Comment by Will Wilkinson

I do enjoy the way you have framed this specific issue plus it does indeed supply me some fodder for thought. Nonetheless, because of everything that I have experienced, I simply wish when the commentary pack on that people continue to be on point and don’t get started on a tirade involving some other news of the day. Yet, thank you for this excellent piece and though I can not really agree with the idea in totality, I value the viewpoint.

Comment by Removalists Armadale

Will, it was a hasty and flip post, but I am serious about a couple of underlying points. One is that I find many libertarians infuriating, in exactly the way you eloquently described in one of your recent posts: the arguments seem to me to be “spurious”, to use your term, in ways that cause me to run through rebuttals in my head for half an hour at a time when I ought to be doing something more, uh, responsible or fiscally rewarding.

I should also note that my reactions are strongly informed by a recent series of arguments with an extremely dogmatic libertarian of the “there-is-no-collective-responsibility-to-save-the-life-of-someone-dying-on-the-sidewalk” camp. Many libertarians are far more flexible than that.

I obviously don’t think that American liberals generally instinctively grasp the collectivist nature of Confucian cultures, nor, for that matter, do I claim to myself. But I think liberals start out with plenty of room in their heads for looking at the world from the standpoint of collective action and government intervention as well as from an individualist standpoint. I find it slightly insidious that when one adopts economic language one finds oneself justifying collective action only in the context of collective action “problems”, as though collective action were an unpleasant necessity to which one must resort only in those contexts where individual self-interest fails to maximize welfare — rather than one of the fundamental traits of social primates. I don’t think liberals assume axiomatically that systems relying on individual self-interest, individual decision-making and unrestrained free markets will always do the best job of promoting the general or even individual welfare. For this reason I think liberals tend to have fewer ideological blinders when approaching the way that a society like Vietnam works. To adopt a libertarian perspective in Vietnam, one has to set one’s head against the grain of so much of the way that society works that one’s suggestions or opinions tend to become irrelevant. Which is what has happened to a great extent to the US’s anti-AIDS programs here.

In terms of what this portends for the possibility of collaboration between liberals and libertarians within American politics…I just think too many extremely pressing problems the US and the world are facing right now are incommensurate with libertarian approaches. I don’t think libertarians and liberals have much common ground on issues like smart growth or, most pressing, how to create or restore public trust in financial institutions, food safety authorities, health insurance and the social safety net. Liberals and libertarians do share common ground on civil liberties issues, anxieties over accumulations of power in unaccountable institutions, etc. But with the immediate danger presented by neocon militarism and imperialism having collapsed in a cloud of dust, I don’t think those issues will be as pressing in the coming years as the more terrifying immediate prospects of financial collapse and ecological catastrophe. Not to mention health care cost-driven national bankruptcy. And I think responses to those threats will tend to divide liberals and libertarians more than unite them.

Basically I think libertarians have a constricting and somewhat dogmatic ideology. I think liberalism is closer to a Deweyan pragmatist approach to the world, and it works better.

Having said all that, I’ve met a lot of libertarians I greatly enjoy talking with and whose perspectives I value. But I also greatly value the perspectives of people like Daniel Larison and Ross Douthat, who in many ways resemble more Amitai Etzioni-style communitarians than they do libertarians.

Comment by mattsteinglass

And Frank, your implication is correct: I’m married to a non-American. My wife is Dutch. If any proposals have been advanced by liberals to restrict marriages between Americans and citizens of the Netherlands, I am unaware of them, but I would of course oppose them strenuously.

Comment by mattsteinglass

I was in Vietnam a month and a half back in Oct/Nov 2008. I’m also a Libertarian and have been traveling around the world for the last 2 years.

Much of what you describe about Confucian culture can just as easily be described about the United States in the 19th and early 20th century prior to the rise of the nuclear family. Families were stronger units than they are now.

I’m not sure why the truth of that has anything to do with libertarianism or the role of the state? Why does a strong family unit justify the role of large state bureaucracies and heavy regulation?

One trait which I also found in Confucian cultures is a strong support for entrepreneurship. Chinese have long started businesses wherever they migrated. You are seeing this today within China and Vietnam.

I think trying to shift focus from the individual to the family really doesn’t mean anything. It is a false dichotomy. It isn’t like people in the west don’t care about their families or people in Asia don’t care about personal advancement. If anything, things like job titles and the prestige which comes along with them are FAR more important in Asia than in the west.

Much of the “group focus” people attribute to Asians could have been said of the west prior to the Renaissance and Reformation. Monarchies, feudalism, a strong church, and village life all could have pointed to a “communal” outlook on life, not an individual one.

“Liberalism” (to use the modern sense of the word) throughout the 20th Century was all about changing culture. Much of American culture 100 years ago had taboos about marriage, divorce, out of wedlock children, interracial marriage, etc. They didn’t just shrug their shoulders and say “it is part of the culture.”

Yet when encountering other cultures, they do exactly that. Foreign/non-western cultures are treated with a totally different set of rules. Other cultures are viewed as museum fixtures or zoos which are to be enjoyed for the “diversity” they bring.

When you say that the “work unit” is important, is it important because the average worker does it out of love, or because it is imposed upon them and they don’t want the shame and stigma of going against the grain? I’ve spoken to many people all over Asia who love the idea of America precisely because they feel burdened by the pressures which their culture puts on them. They have no choice in marriage or employment and would love to have that freedom.

All that being said, as a Libertarian I think there is nothing for “us” to do. Cultural change will happen in Asia. It might take a century or two and we have no idea how it is going to turn out. It is their path to take, just as the west took its own path over the last several hundred years. All we can do is be friendly and engage them in trade and travel.

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Comment by Recliner Slip Cover

This is interesting exchange of ideas, Vietnam is a nice place.

Comment by outdoor furniture

I agree that libertarians and liberals have little room for cooperation. Liberals cannot even manage school reform, as they are addicted to rounding up poor brown and black kids and selling them to the educrat cartels for donations to Democratic campaigns. They are too craven, too power-lusting, too in denial about their own criminal nature to change.

Comment by brucemajors




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