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Selections from a Correspondence

On Thursday I wrote here a brief notice of the passing of Jacques Barzun.

Since then a fellow admirer of JB has asked me about two points: if I would care to comment on the tie between Jacques Barzun's thought and that of William James; and if I would share some selections from my correspondence with the former.

Given the title of this blog, I can hardly reject the first of those invitations ... though I will put it off, perhaps for another week. Today, I will satisfy the second request. Here are four excerpts from Barzun's letters to me, each dated and preceded by some very brief comments by me (in ital) for context only.

I won't even try to defend the views of mine that Barzun is criticizing here.  This is about him, not me.

October 17, 1986.

I had presumptuously made the case for libertarian political philosophy to him, while in the process dissecting what I saw as the faults of other libertarians, especially Robert Nozick. Jacques replied with good humor and thoroughness.

"But in your views, as in those you reject, I find a whole range of considerations missing. To read you all, one would suppose that the Industrial Revolution had never taken place and that the modern populations were divided into farming villages so small that the inhabitants did not need to gossip -- they knew. They knew, for exampe, everybody's character, capacities, and marketable products and could therefore guide their business transactions by simply exercising common sense. In these conditions, the free market and the wise judge at the county seat suffice to ensure a fairly 'reconciled' and free society -- though even that vision is a trifle sanguine.

"Today, the notion of a free market that will satisfy need, if only government will let it alone, is sheer illusion. I grant you that we must have a market economy, and not a directed one, as the groundwork of our economic life; but it needs any number of regulations and interferences -- not to redistribute income but to protect life and limb. Take the canning of food. Without health inspectors, contamination is likely, for it costs less to run a filthy cannery. The freedom boys tell us: the public is wise -- it will soon go and buy the cleaner product. That's true, I supppose: after three members of the family die of botulism, the fourth will try another brand."

October 30, 1986.

I had continued to press market-oriented ideas further than he thinks they should go....

"In short, the market -- like the state, like any institution -- has its limitations, as severe as the state's. Consequently, each device must be controlled by intelligence and adapted to circumstance. For my part, I am a liberal, a conservative, and a socialist, each dogma applicable to some necessary activity.

"I imagine, in fact, that the triple label applies to most people. Very few want the fire department a private concern; and again most people are communists within the family circle, at least until the children are grown up."

November 4, 1989.

As you'll see, we were still at this and related subjects three years later.  I referenced a recent essay of his in COLUMBIA, called "The Great Switch." You will note the date of this letter and think about ther headlines from Russia at that time. 

"As descriptions relative to previous doctrines, in Russia or elsewhere, these adjectives [Left and Right] have lost immediacy of meaning and should be scrapped. In this country, Liberal keeps its proud or pejorative meaning, depending on the speaker, but it has lost clear contents too -- hence my little squib. You are right in saying that I did not go into the slanging match of the recent presidential election. My purpose was to look forward and back: forward to the time when there will be some adjustment of name to beliefs, and back to origins about Liberal and Conservative."

August 16, 1990.

By the summer of 1990 we were arguing over the question of the limits of the proper judicial expression of free expression, and whether it should include such symbolism as the burning of a flag. I will let this be the final excerpt.

"In short, words are to me the essence of speech and I find it a stupid and dangerous addition when the court interprets flag burning or vandalizing paper records as protected modes of free 'speech.' As I said, any step beyond articulate utterance leaves no barrier to expression in the form of violence. Indeed, burning and pouring filth on documents is a first step into violence."


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