I took an “introduction to Political Science” class with Tom Flanagan in my first year at university. To his credit, he introduced a couple of frameworks for thinking about the world I hadn’t yet discovered, but then again I hadn’t discovered a lot back then. For example, at that point in my academic journey, I wasn’t as hip to complexity science and the idea of emergent properties as I now am. I remember Flanagan explaining that the most efficient way of getting around or getting something done usually isn’t to legislate it. Usually systems of people interacting with one another, markets, for example, tend to figure out the most efficient ways of doing things. He pointed to the uniquely curved sidewalks around campus (which had been constructed based on the actual foot traffic of students, rather than arbitrary ideas about how best to connect one building to another).
This idea about sidewalks was a manifestation of his underlying libertarian stance towards just about everything: that people ought to be left to their own devices in every situation. That the only instance in which legislation would be required would be to ensure that one human being doesn’t directly harm another.
Well, so far as complexity goes, Flanagan missed the point. The relationship between lower-order interactions and the higher order patterns to which those interactions give rise certainly has policy implications, even moral implications yet I doubt that they can be summarized in Flanagan’s impersonal teleology of self-organizing foot paths.
In any event, he is in the news for his recent remarks at the University of Lethbridge (starting at about 1:20):
Now first off, I just really need to say this. Flanagan’s lectures were some of the most boring I’ve ever had the misfortune of enduring. Each one of his classes was a slow and agonizing death. That, however, should not count against him.
Second, I don’t think he’s being intentionally or consciously hateful. I just think that his particular form of libertarianism is a product of operating on a Cartesian perspective, having no way to relate to human beings other than as objects – objects with feelings at best. You could call it a lazy way of thinking.
It’s just lazy, impersonal, Cartesian libertarianism, tainted not by outright hostility, but in the most insidious of ways by a lack of responsibility towards other human beings. A shallowness, even, about what it means to be a human being.
My two cents.