Recently, a private e-mail list that I participate in has been discussing the British intellectual vagabond John Gray. Now, I had heard of Gray, but really didn’t know too much about him. Since he seemed to generate a lot of talk (something that has always been a major goal of mine, as well), I decided I’d better look into the man further.
As I began to study Gray, something remarkable happened to me a personal transformation, of sorts. You see, Gray is notable for having once been a libertarian but later having converted to the “soft-socialist” philosophy of communitarianism. As I read his ideas, it suddenly dawned on me that the critics were right my libertarianism was just a rhetorical projection of control-oriented, non-communitarian, arrested-adolescent urges! The time had come for my own hejira into the warm, welcoming arms of the communitarian… well, community.
I plunged into Gray’s many other works. He is best known as the author of the best-selling Libertarians Are from Mars, Communitarians Are from Venus: A Practical Guide for Improving Book Sales and Getting What You Want in Your Relationships with the Oligarchy. Searching for “John Gray” on Amazon.com, I found that he has been an incredibly prolific author, his other works including A Pocketbook of Hair and Scalp Disorders: An Illustrated Guide (those pictures will keep you up at night!), Children are from Heaven, Beyond the New Right, Kazakhstan: A Review of Farm Restructuring, and Interprocess Communications in UNIX: The Nooks and Crannies. Clearly, this is a well-rounded man, not at all like you obsessive libertarians.
From what I have been able to determine about Gray’s transformation, at some point he saw that book sales were booming in the communitarian genre. As a libertarian, he knew that the market was always right, so, to be true to libertarianism, he had to repudiate libertarianism. If you’re having trouble following this, it’s only because you are so blinded by rationalistic hubris that you can’t see the more traditional values that Gray is supporting values like “go where the dough is,” and “I’m sick of selling a measly 500 copies of my works through Laissez Faire Books.”
Gray’s critique of the unhampered market economy is brilliant and convincing. In area after area, Gray has been able to illustrate how markets have destroyed communities and traditional ways of life, and how threatening your neighbors with government violence can help rebuild these fractured bonds.
For instance, the market economy has been breaking down traditional families by doing things like selling them toothpaste and floor polish. But the government, through the clever stratagem of challenging the traditional family by massively subsidizing illegitimacy, has forced traditional families to rally together.
Without strong government to uphold local standards, communities have also had a heck of a time enforcing traditional values like keeping out unwanted minorities, and keeping them in their place if they do slip into town. Greedy, profit-driven real estate agents are likely to sell to just about anyone who has the money. And private employers are hardly more scrupulous, hiring whomever can do the job with no regard to whether they are the “right sort of person.”
In the inner city, it took strenuous government efforts to replace those nasty, chaotic neighborhoods, filled with small apartment buildings and corner groceries, that the market had created, with the more traditional, community-oriented public housing projects we find in the inner city today. One only has to look at the large community gatherings on the streets outside these edifices, at the friendly way those gathered call over each passing car and offer them a little token of their visit to the neighborhood, and at the way even the women, even if they are walking down the street alone, are willing to befriend any stranger who rides by, to see how uniquely government action is able to create a brotherhood of men.
Turning to the international scene, the picture is little different. Through the influence of market-oriented policies, many third world countries’ traditional way of life poverty, famine, rule by a corrupt elite, and frequent military juntas were rapidly being destroyed. However, the blessings brought by government agencies, such as the IMF, have managed to put these institutions back in place.
A short trip through the world of John Gray should be enough to turn any libertarian’s head around. When I saw how much his Amazon.com rankings had improved after his conversion, it sure did it for me.
Anyway, I just want to say good luck to all of my libertarian former friends, and thank Lew Rockwell for this last chance to say farewell. Look for me on the cover of The New York Times Review of Books I’ll be waving to you, you high-principled losers!
August 25, 2000
Gene Callahan is a regular contributor to mises.org.