Alberto Mingardi  

Does liberty require polymaths?

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In the epilogue to his The System of Liberty: Themes in Classical Liberalism--an excellent book that anybody seriously interested in classical liberal ideas should read and ponder--George H Smith takes a snapshot of the very different reasons to which we can trace the decline of liberalism in the 20th century. This is of course a most complex issue, but the interesting thing in Smith's approach is that it is more "introflexed" than the ones usually taken. That is, Smith seems interested to challenge classical liberals on their own failures, besides noting that objective conditions (i.e., the emergence of mass politics) conspired against their ideas.

In particular, he raises a point of great interest and truly eccentric, at least from the perspective of mainstream social science. Among other, Smith writes,

The widespread appeal of liberal ideas during the 18th century was indebted to its stress on developing a comprehensive 'science of man', as David Hume, Adam Smith, and their contemporaries called it. (...) There was a general agreement among Enlightenment liberals, including those who stressed the moral foundations of liberalism, that freedom could not be defended adequately from a single, narrow point of view and that an interdisciplinary approach was essential to the survival of liberalism.

This is of course at odds with the contemporary approach to scholarship, social sciences included. To make his point, George Smith quotes the inspiring inaugural address delivered to the University of St Andrews in 1867 by John Stuart Mill.

As Mill wrote:

Every department of knowledge becomes so loaded with details, that one who endeavours to know it with minute accuracy, must confine himself to a smaller and smaller portion of the whole extent: every science and art must be cut up into subdivisions, until each man's portion, the district which he thoroughly knows, bears about the same ratio to the whole range of useful knowledge that the art of putting on a pin's head does to the field of human industry. (...) Experience proves that there is no one study or pursuit, which, practised to the exclusion of all others, does not narrow and pervert the mind; breeding in it a class of prejudices special to that pursuit, besides a general prejudice, common to all narrow specialities, against large views, from an incapacity to take in and appreciate the grounds of them.

Now, the fact that specialization can have side-effects is not an argument against specialization per se --which increases productivity in the field of scholarship no less than in other human endeavours. However, I find Smith's point very intriguing. Perhaps, having a passion for human freedom requires a high degree of curiosity. Probably, the pressure towards ever narrower specialization decreases the time available to fulfill that curiosity. Furthermore, it might well be that intellectual specialization is by itself breeding a more social engineering-oriented approach. Increased knowledge of a particular field may bring about more anxious speculations about its future and thus breed impatience with the workings of spontaneous orders that seldom arrive on schedule. I don't know if specialization has played a role, in distancing intellectuals from classical liberal ideas. However, it seems to me a hypothesis worth considering - and hopefully, falsifying.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
John C writes:

Cf. Posner's Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline.

MingoV writes:
... the pressure towards ever narrower specialization decreases the time available to fulfill that curiosity.

That's backwards. One of the appeals of specialization is that less time is needed to master enough knowledge to be acknowledged as an expert. Specialization has another appeal to those who choose it: They have an excuse to ignore topics that don't directly relate to their narrow specialty. (I know physicians who are like that, eg: a gastroenterologist won't read about a major advance in cardiac care.) Specialists (except those in liberty-oriented governance) will be (and will remain) ignorant of classical liberalism.

Ted Levy writes:

MingoV is understating matters. I recall sending a fascinating abdominal CT to the guy who 15 years earlier had trained me in abdominal CT. But soon after I had left the residency, he was chosen, and agreed, to head up the chest imaging division of the radiology department. So on receiving my interesting abdominal CT (which I know he would have easily deciphered and enjoyed a decade earlier) he wrote me back he wasn't sure what was going on but would seek out the opinion of the abdominal guys.

I was shocked. But I've since grown used to it. I think Rothbard once said something about the historian who specialized in France in the 1860s and knew nothing about France in the 1870s...or something like that.

Doug writes:

Seems doubtful. The field of economics has become much more specialized from 1970 to today. Finance, public choice, development econ, law and economics, auction theory, and behavioral econ were all nascent fields then. Back then the only 3 sub-fields were really general macro, general micro and econometrics. There's far greater variety in how economists specialize today.

Yet as a whole the field of economics has become more pro-market since that time. Economics was much more prone recommending to central planning and more readily proscribed government intervention to fix market failures. Now the field is much more likely to admit the limits of central planning, and to advocate market solutions to market failures.

Ted Levy writes:

I don't think that's Smith's point, Doug. I think George is arguing along these lines, as put by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel (economist and historian):

"Libertarian (or conservative) objections to mainstream history, as it is currently written by academics and taught in colleges, rarely hinge on outright errors, dishonest research, or disputes about hard facts. Cases of a Michael Bellesiles, who actually fabricate evidence in furtherance of political conclu- sions, are fortunately few and far between. Because professional historians tend to be concrete-bound, with almost undue reverence for facts over theory, factual details are not usually what gives rise to discordant interpretations. What differs is either the causal analysis or the ethical evaluation attached to those facts. This of course is a compelling implication of Ludwig von Mises’s woefully neglected Theory and History (1957)." — Jeffrey Rogers Hummel

That is to say, I think GHS's point is not against specialization per se, but about the fact historians, say, don't know enough economics or ethics to ask the right questions or frame the right concerns and accept Keynesianism or Marxism as a simple default...that economists don't have a deep enough background in intellectual history to appreciate their model of a market failure, say, may be uncannily similar to justifications for cronyism a century ago...that sort of thing. (I paint with a broad brush here to state the case starkly, but I take it that is George's concern, that in the past intellectual were more well rounded.)

To get back to my radiology story above, it's one thing for a radiologist specializing in chest work to be 95% better than others in chest work and maybe only in the 40th percentile on abdomen; it is another thing altogether if specializing in chest meant you didn't have a clue about abdomen.

keddaw writes:

The point is that with greater specialisation the time taken to reach the pinnacle of any given field increases which, in turn, leaves less useful time to further advance that field. It also makes it less likely that you will be able to reach the coal-face of more than one topic in a lifetime. Bear in mind the life expectancy in 1867 was not what it is today.

David Friedman writes:

One common argument against individual choice is that the expert knows much more than the individual about the relevant subject, so should make the choice for him. That argument is more convincing the greater the gap in knowledge between the two, and specialization means that the specialist correctly believes that he knows much more about his specialty than almost anyone else.

One problem with the argument, of course, is that almost any choice depends on information from multiple specialties--more the narrower they become.

JKB writes:
Independent thought is of all mental processes the most difficult and the most rare; habit, tradition, and reverence for antiquity unite to forbid it, and these combined influences are strengthened by the law of heredity. The tendency to automatic action of the mind is still further promoted by the environment of modern life. The crowding of populations into cities, and the division and subdivision of labor in the factory and the shop, and even in the so-called learned professions, have a tendency to increase the dependence of the individual upon the mass of society. And this interdependence of the units of society renders them more and more imitative, and hence more and more automatic both mentally and physically. - Charles H. Ham, Mind and Hand: manual training, the chief factor in education (1900)
Glen S. McGhee writes:

Specialization is our doom.

John Stuart Mill is depressing, not inspiring, and follows in a long line of gloomy prophets, including Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson (the degradation of repetitive work on mind and character), leading directly to alienation in Marx.

Max Weber, and most recently, Zygmunt Bauman, point to ways in which moral responsibility evaporates where there is a hierarchical division of labor -- the social production of moral indifference is what Norbert Elias called it.

Only those at the top take moral responsibility, and by then, it is too late -- they are so isolated, so cut off and blinkered, it doesn't matter. Bauman shows how the Holocaust is the product of an efficient division of labor.

George H Smith takes a snapshot of the very different reasons to which we can trace the decline of liberalism in the 20th century.
About "the decline of liberalism in the 20th century", I guess I am willing to believe that decline happened. But what is the evidence? Is there some specific scale of "liberalism" to which we can point? How could you prove to a skeptic that liberalism had declined during the 20th century?

Richard O. Hammer asks a very difficult question. I would say most classical liberals would agree that their ideas "declined" in the 20th century. Fascism and communism and (more controversially) the rise of the administrative state should leave little doubt. Some may object that liberty in the personal sphere increased in the last quarter of the century, and arguably never have so many people been so relatively "free" (living under some version of the rule of law) as today.
I had in mind, however, specifically Western countries—and a definition of classical liberalism basically as strong restraints on government powers. In a very interesting paper, Ludger Schuknecht republishes data on total expenditure by governments, that he and Vito Tanzi used in their masterful Public spending in the 20th Century. In the late 19th century, governments of industrialized countries tended to absorb slightly more than 10% of GDP. I'd say that the decline of classical liberalism is witness by relentless growth of public spending in the last century.
Of course, this assumes that political ideas play a very significant role in reining in (or unleashing) political power - and this is clearly a controversial assumption. 

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