Rational Mysticism for a Young Movement
DECEMBER 20, 2012 by MAX BORDERS
Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the Sonnets of the mystic Lao-Tze; now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Aquinas, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale: it will be always the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.
– Joseph Campbell
In 1962, Leonard Read published Elements of Libertarian Leadership. I want to pull inspiration from this largely forgotten work because in it, Read has carved a path for us--though it is currently one less travelled by.
Read offers something of a mystical way to libertarianism. He believes, for example, that anyone “who acknowledges an infinite consciousness cannot help respecting fellow human beings as the apertures through whom infinite consciousness flows and manifests itself.”
Notice Read did not say "higher power." He could just as well have been writing as a Buddhist in that passage. While Read believed in God, the evocation of an infinite consciousness—of which we are all a part—is not your run-of-the-mill God talk (especially not for America circa 1962). For Read, it is a way of reconciling his individualism with a deep regard for others, who are, to him, sacred aspects of a larger self or interconnected set of selves. This may strike us as rather strange. For it is neither individualist nor collectivist per se. It is integration of self and others that offers a different kind of entry point for a nascent libertarian movement.
Reading this book for the first time prompted me to ask: What is missing in our movement? I have never been a particularly religious man, but I am increasingly of the mind that we libertarians would do better if we made more room for the mystical.
From the secular side, this kind of talk will surely elicit sneers. After all, our tradition was born primarily out of the Enlightenment. We are people of reason. We like our evidence and our logic. We depend on our five senses. And for most of us, our principles are somehow built into the latticework of nature. We think people need only discover those principles as discovering a fact in the Great Book of Truth.
But we needn’t give up our reason to embrace the mystical.
For religious libertarians, the idea that we should make room for the mystical may not seem so earth-shattering. But I would challenge religious libertarians, too. The mystical is not quite religion, tradition, or faith (although it can be related to these).
It is rather a mode of experience or understanding we may not be used to. Such may be difficult to articulate in the language of the Western rationalistic tradition. But the mystical is an appreciation of the ineffable, involving a respect for what is possible, even if only glimpses of those possibilities are available today. Mysticism is neither religious zeal nor dogma—at least not the way I’m thinking of it.
Birth Pains and Doorways
Despite my materialistic bent, I want to put forth that Read’s vision for a mystic libertarianism is more than just rehashed Locke or Kant. It is also more than a quasi-religious, anti-communist tract one would expect to find written in an era when most Americans defined themselves as merely against the Soviets. For even then, it seems, libertarians were not united. Read writes:
When the inquiry is thus brought into focus, the question reads, "Why do we—the hard core of the free market, private property, limited government philosophy—disagree with each other? Why do we not present a solid front? For it must be acknowledged that even we have pronounced differences of opinions and that we are in constant argument with each other. Why? That's the question.
And Read’s answer should give us hope. Far from being a “dying movement,”
These sharp differences of opinion among those of us who in a general way share libertarian ideals are the sign of a movement not yet come fully alive, of a movement suffering birth pains.
Our movement is young. Elements of Libertarian Leadership is thus an integrative work—a means of opening new doors to our movement while building bridges within it. Whether or not you are religious, I hope you can agree that the factionalization and fracturing of libertarianism are counterproductive. These attenuate our potency, just as we are ready to grow.
“But there is only one Truth, Max,” you may be thinking. “Only the X’s—Misesians, Friedmanites, Rothbardians, Randians, Hayekians, Nozickians, Lockeans, Georgists, Paulites, or Left-libertarians—can be right.”
I’m not so sure.
There is plenty of right to go around. And yet many libertarians would like to define themselves out of any meaningful solidarity with the wider movement. Maybe it’s in our DNA. We want to feel smart, special, and righteous. But too-clever-by-half thinking, navel gazing, venom spitting, and excommunicating others are poisonous behaviors if we want to continue making inroads. Isn’t making inroads the point, after all? Or is it simply to be right and then to die?
Only an open-minded willingness to explore the breadth and depth of our tradition—and indeed other traditions—will allow us to develop as libertarians while growing our numbers. When we do, we blind folk will start to limn the details of a much bigger and far more interesting elephant.
When we think of mystics, many of us think of something like shamanic primitivism—that is, of pagans in robes spinning myths about the heavens, or simple peoples ascribing spirits to rocks and sticks. While there is something about this stereotype that offends our Western rationalistic sensibilities, we also have much to learn from the traditions of mysticism—especially from those we might call rational mystics, like Leonard Read.
So what does rational mysticism look like? And how does it inform the libertarian tradition so as to push it forward as a movement?
Paradox. First, rational mysticism is about being comfortable with certain kinds of paradox. The world is rife with phenomena that may be in reach of our understanding, but that understanding may not be so easy to articulate. For example, it’s possible to understand the market as an abstraction without being able to render all its minutiae. The paradox of markets is that we know they work better than other systems and that interventions generally fail. But the whys and wherefores are all specific instantiations. So we become storytellers. We rely on other means to communicate the market’s power and the failure of intervention. These different modes of understanding may require different ways of thinking and talking—especially for libertarians—as long as these different ways of thinking and talking are done with humility. Our habits of mind tend toward appeal to linearity, reason, principles, or sets of values that others may not share at first. Employing other human modes of understanding and communicating may mean we have to leave the safe harbor of syllogism. In mystic experience, some apparent contradictions can be resolved.
Parable and Myth. The ancients used not only the famous triune of persuasion—logos, pathos, and ethos—they also used mythos. The gods of the ancients are dead, of course. But their stories are not. They’re eternal. The structure of myth and the power of parable are proven thanks to the groundwork they laid. Liberty-lovers mistakenly leave these modes of understanding unused as if they were quaint, primitive, or utterly foreign. We’re making a big mistake when we forego these modes, for the mythic structure goes all the way down into our human fabric. As Joseph Campbell says, “Myth comes from the same zone as dream . . . from the great biological ground, whatever it may be. They are energies and they are matters of consciousness.” We must adapt our communications to connect with those who are receptive to the mythic and the mystic. For those receptors are there, waiting to receive us.
Wonder. Rational mysticism is also working with a view to inspiring wonder. The economy, Hayek teaches us, is too complex to be understood in its totality by a single mind. But we can understand its facets by wondering at what we cannot describe, explain, or model. Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil” is a good example of the mythic form making the case for the market. The story is not about blind faith in markets, so-called “market fundamentalism”; it is about demonstrating what is possible through property, prices, profits, and peaceable people. These aspects of the market would seem rather lifeless by themselves—like rules without souls. Read shows us how to breathe the mystic into these, even if his parable is limited and imperfect. All stories are. But “I, Pencil” is a rendering of the market that inspires us, as Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” helps us wonder at the heavens even if it is not rigorous cosmology.
Openness. Another pillar of rational mysticism is a commitment to openness. We libertarians can be closed-minded in our rectitude. Yes, we know moving away from coercion will help humanity on to the next phase of social evolution. But commitment to openness means we have to make an effort to listen to others, to integrate their perspectives where possible, and to tolerate differences as long as the differences are peaceful. Testing our beliefs in the crucible of others’ perspectives will either make our beliefs stronger or create new intellectual alloys we never thought possible.
Non-linearity. Rational mystics have great reverence for complex, non-linear systems. These systems are certainly rational, but they challenge us to revise our linear habits of thought. In At Home in the Universe, theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman asks us:
For what can the teeming molecules that hustled themselves into self-reproducing metabolisms, the cells coordinating their behaviors to form multicelled organisms, the ecosystems, and even economic and political systems have in common? The wonderful possibility, to be held as a working hypothesis, bold but fragile, is that on many fronts, life evolves toward a regime that is poised between order and chaos.
Readers of Mises and Hayek will find similar passages. These two were way ahead of their time as it applies to non-linear logics, and these form the architecture of what is truly mystical about the market process—the whole of which is greater than the sum of parts.
Beyond Individualism and Collectivism
In their influential Spiral Dynamics, social psychologists Don Beck and Chris Cowan describe phases of human development over the ages. Using colors to symbolize those phases, Beck and Cowen believe turquoise, the “holistic meme,” is the most recent in human history and is still developing. The turquoise level is an integrative system that “combines an organism's necessary self-interest with the interests of the communities in which it participates.” This way of seeing the world is neither rugged individualism nor crude communitarianism. It requires seeing ourselves through others and others through ourselves. And, of course, the State obstructs this way of seeing.
Could it be that we hold fast to the non-harm principle because we believe not only that each of us is sacred, but that we are all connected and we are becoming more and more connected each day? Does that connection mean something? Could it be that each of us—each self—is a window, an “aperture” into a greater consciousness to which we all belong? Leonard Read thought so.
Maybe that consciousness will emerge in the future, a future in which we are now participating with every choice we make today. The connections we make today may be as mundane as a single transaction, a nod to a neighbor, or a "like" on Facebook. But those connections can give rise to something as deceptively simple as a pencil tomorrow. Or our connections can give rise to something as obviously complex as the Internet, or as infinitely complex as a set of networked human minds in some post-Singularity world. Is that possible?
The first stage of our human social evolution—of moving beyond territory and tribe—was commercial. The current stage, building on the former, is connectivity. What will the next stage be? Radical community formation? A networking of minds? The rational mystic holds out for the possibility that our peaceful interactions—drawing us together as they do—could accumulate layer by layer, culminating in a future that would make us weep if we could see it. That future might be functional, rational, and orderly. But just to imagine it now is to appreciate the ongoing, imperfect unfolding of change within ourselves and our world. To imagine it now, we have to make a little bit of room for the mystical.