Book Review: Hans-Hermann Hoppe – Economic Science and the Austrian Method

I decided to read Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Economic Science And The Austrian Method (1995) in order to grasp a deeper philosophical understanding of the Austrian School’s methodology of economic inquiry. I was especially interested in Immanuel Kant’s influence on Ludwig von Mises and how Mises had used Kant’s epistemological insights to construct praxeology, the study of human action (economics included) that is purely deductive in nature.

Those who are acquainted with scientific methodologies in the field of economics may have heard of the controversies surrounding praxeology. Living in an empirical age, many people may be inclined to question the validity of a science that claims to arrive at economic laws from pure deduction whose validity can be established independently from observations. Praxeological propositions are indeed much more “like those of logic and mathematics, a priori” (Mises, 1966, p. 32). Such a science may strike the skeptics as being disquietly dogmatic.

In this book review, I will firstly give a brief discussion why it is important at all to discuss the epistemological foundations of economic science. Thereafter, I will discuss Hoppe’s thesis. I will describe the philosophical aspects of praxeology that can be traced back to Kantian epistemology. I will moreover summarize Hoppe’s critique of empiricism and historicism, and why Mises believed that economics is essentially praxeology. Lastly, I will give my personal thoughts on the book.

Why should we discuss the epistemological foundations of economic science?
The most immediate answer to this question is that different epistemological foundations lead to different methodologies and different theories, which can lead to different interpretations of real-life phenomena. Take for example the interpretation of an historical economic event, the Great Depression. Murray Rothbard, because he is working within the context of praxeology makes use of the praxeological Austrian Business Cycle Theory. This theory focuses on the expansion of the money supply as an explanation of the onset of the ‘boom’ in the 1920’s which eventually resulted in the ‘bust’ in 1929. Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz in A Monetary History Of The United States (1963), while not applying the ABCT, have focused only on the contraction of the money supply and the resulting higher interest rates in 1928 as the main cause of the Great Depression. Their application of different economic methods has led them to look for different possible historical causes of the Great Depression which has effectively resulted in different accounts of the same historical event. It therefore matters what economic methods are employed in economic research.

Now that we have established the importance of inquiring epistemological foundations and methodologies of economic science, I will turn to Hoppe’s thesis.

Kant and synthetic a priori propositions
Working within the rationalist tradition of Leibniz and Kant, Mises attempts to present the proper way through which economic science – a science that according to Mises falls within the broader science of human action, praxeology – should be conducted. He resorts to the Kantian conception of the nature of knowledge and explains praxeology in terms of Kantian terminology. Hence, Hoppe firstly directs the reader to Kantian epistemology.

Kant had developed the idea that all propositions are either analytic or synthetic and either a priori or a posteriori. The difference between analytic and synthetic propositions is that the former is true by virtue of their meaning or as Kant would have phrased it himself, “the predicate B belongs to the subject A as something that is (covertly) contained in this concept A” (Kant, 1781, A:6-7). Take for instance the following proposition: “Bachelors are unmarried.” This proposition is analytic, because the predicate, ‘unmarried’, is part of the concept of a bachelor. Analytic propositions are regarded as tautological propositions; they simply restate the definition or a concept incorporated within a word and therefore they do not tell us anything meaningful about the world. A synthetic proposition on the other hand is a proposition whose predicate concept is not contained in the subject’s concept. It could therefore express something meaningful about the world. An example of a synthetic proposition is: “All bachelors are unhappy.” The concept ‘unhappy’ is not contained within the definition of ‘bachelor’, and expresses something meaningful about ‘bachelors’.

The distinction between a priori and a posteriori is as follows: a priori propositions are propositions whose justification does not rely upon experience, but solely on logical reasoning. The justifications of a posteriori propositions on the other hand, do rely upon experience. Examples of a posteriori propositions are “Some bachelors I have met are unhappy” or “Siddharta Gautama left the palace.”

The big question is: do synthetic a priori propositions exist? Kant certainly believed that they do exist, “and it is because Mises subscribes to this claim that he can be called a Kantian” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 18). In Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant contended that synthetic a priori propositions do exist and as an example he took mathematics (Kant, 1781, p. 55). The statement “7 + 5 = 12” is not dependent on experimentation and the concept 12 is not contained in either the definitions of 7 or 5. According to Kant, a priori propositions are derived from self-evident axioms. We can find such axioms by reflecting upon ourselves and understanding ourselves as knowing subjects. However, how can truth claims derived from reflection in our mind have any basis in reality? Is Kant here running into the problem of idealism – a notion that it is the mind that constructs reality and superimposes itself upon reality in such a way that it fits within the mind’s necessary laws?

According to Hoppe, Kant had not given a satisfactory response to this issue and future thinkers would have to take on the challenge of solving this problem. Hoppe believes that Mises had done so successfully when he had averred that action provides the link between mind – body and between mind – external world: “[W]e must recognize that such necessary truths are not simply categories of our mind, but that our mind is one of acting persons. Our mental categories have to be understood as ultimately grounded in categories of action” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 20). It is through action that the mind and reality are related: “[A]cting is a cognitively guided adjustment of a physical body in physical reality” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 70).

Another issue that arises with regards to the possibility of synthetic a priori propositions, and which I have found quite confusing myself is the following: does Hoppe suggest that we can arrive at knowledge without any experience of ourselves or the external world at all? No, according to Hoppe “the truth of a priori synthetic propositions derives ultimately from inner, reflectively produced experience” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 19). This experience is phrased by Stolyarov II as “the mind’s identification of facts about actually existing entities, including the identifier himself” (Stolyarov II, 2007, p. 53). In this sense, the action axiom is experientially-derived, but it is not subjected to the empiricists’ narrow view that all knowledge must be testable, verifiable, or falsifiable.

Empiricism, Historicism, and Praxeology
When Mises systematically constructed the foundations of praxeology, he faced a double-challenge; (A) empiricism which was quickly becoming the main influence in the economics discipline, and (B) historicism which was then a prevailing ideology at German-speaking universities.

(A) Empiricism
Empiricism is the “philosophy which thinks of economics and the social sciences in general as following the same logic of research of that, for instance, of physics” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 28). Hoppe writes that empiricism is governed by the following two related basic propositions:

(1) that empirical knowledge, knowledge about reality, must be subjected to falsifiability and verifiability by observational experience;
(2) and that empiricist research formulates their explanations in terms of causality, i.e. “if A, then B”. (Hoppe, 1995, pp. 28-29)

Hoppe continues to write that the validity of empirical statements

can never be established with certainty… The statement will always be and always remain hypothetical… Should experience confirm a hypothetical causal explanation, this would not prove that the hypothesis was true. Should one observe an instance where B indeed followed A as predicted, it verifies nothing… Later experiences could still possibly falsify it. (Hoppe, 1995, p. 29)

Empirical knowledge is hence contingent on historical facts. Neither confirmation nor falsification by observational experience can prove that a relationship between phenomena does not or does exist. By emphasizing that our knowledge of reality must stem from observational experience, they directly deny a science that avers that a priori knowledge can give us any meaningful explanation of real phenomena. However, as Hoppe and Mises point out, the statement that meaningful synthetic a priori propositions cannot exist is itself a synthetic a priori proposition. Mises has put this empiricist contradiction the following way in The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science (1962):

The essence of logical positivism [logical empiricism] is to deny the cognitive value of a priori knowledge by pointing out that all a priori propositions are merely analytic. They do not provide new information, but are merely verbal or tautological, asserting what has already been implied in the definitions and premises. Only experience can lead to synthetic propositions. There is an obvious objection against this doctrine, viz., that this proposition that there are no synthetic a priori propositions is in itself a … synthetic a priori proposition, for it can manifestly not be established by experience. (Mises, 1962, p. 5)

Hoppe mentions a second contradiction of empiricism which regards historical events. Empiricists believe that particular events may cause any particular human action. They attempt to find such causal relationships in order to explain historical events. However, in order to do so, empiricists must assume that causality within historical sequences exists through all times. This assumption itself is not based on experiential observations, and must presuppose a priori knowledge that “time-invariantly operating causes with respect to actions exist” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 36). In addition, Hoppe identifies a third contradiction with respect to social phenomena. The empiricists believe that in order to confirm and falsify hypotheses, one must be able to learn from historical and social experience. If one would deny this, then why should one engage in empirical research at all? This however presupposes that “one admittedly cannot know at any given time what one will know at a later time and, accordingly, how one will act on the basis of this knowledge” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 37). Admitting that humans learn from historical and social experience, one cannot deny that empirical causal constants in human action do not exist. “The empiricist-minded social scientists who formulate prediction equations regarding social phenomena are simply doing nonsense” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 38). Predicting human action is not a science according to Hoppe.[1]

The empiricists are mistaken in applying the methodology of the natural sciences into the fields of social science in order to predict human actions. Unlike natural elements, human beings can and do act differently under equal conditions. Thus, social history cannot yield any knowledge that can be employed for predictive purposes. Relating this to the quantity theory of money; if the money supply for instance increases, one can still not predict whether the demand of money will change as this is entirely dependent on human action. Nonetheless, one could assert that if the demand for money stays constant and the money supply increases, then the purchasing power of money will fall (Hoppe, 1995, pp. 44-45).

(B) Historicism
Historicism, the second challenge that Mises had to face, does not take nature as its model but literary texts. Historicists believe that there are no objective laws in economics, and that “historical and economic events are whatever someone expresses or interprets them to be” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 54). Historicism is therefore extremely relativist. However, according to Hoppe also historicism is fundamentally self-contradictory. If there are only interpretations and hence no constant time-invariant relations, then there is also no historicist constant truth about history and economics. If historicism does not give us any reason to believe in its doctrine, why should we adhere to its epistemological philosophy if its proposition implies that they themselves may not be true?

Next to his refutations of empiricism and historicism, Mises had hoped that he could demonstrate the existence of true synthetic a priori propositions. Such propositions would (1) not be derived from experience, and (2) they must yield self-evident axioms so that when one tries to deny it one is involved in self-contradiction. Mises believes that these two requirements are met by the axiom of action – the proposition that human beings act and display intentional behaviour (Hoppe, 1995, pp. 60-61). According to Mises, purposeful human behaviour exhibits a person’s pursuit of an end which he attempts to reach through the employment of particular means (at least time and body). The fact that a person pursues a particular goal with his action reveals that he places a relatively higher value (preference) on the goal than any other goals of action that he could have thought of at the beginning of his action. Human action also happens sequentially, implying that the actor can only pursue one goal at a time in which he has to forego other valuable goals temporally. Action therefore also implies choices and costs. An action furthermore implies loss (and profit), because every action accompanies a certain degree of uncertainty, whether the goal achieved has resulted in the value one has expected can only be known in retrospect. All these categories of action – values, ends, means, choices, preferences, costs, profit, loss, and time – are at the heart of economics (Hoppe, 1995, pp. 61-63). This insight establishes economics as a science of human action. Or as Hoppe asserts more precisely,

all true economic theorems consist of (a) an understanding of the meaning of action, (b) a situation or situational change – assumed to be given or identified as being given – and described in terms of action-categories, and (c) a logical deduction of the consequences – again in terms of such categories – which are to result for an actor from this situation or situational change (Hoppe, 1995, pp. 63-64).

The existence of the categories of action is derived a priori from the axiom of action, and not through observation. Any attempt to disprove it is futile, since “a situation in which the categories of action would cease to have a real existence could itself never be observed or spoken of, since to make an observation and to speak are themselves actions” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 63).

My thoughts on Hoppe’s book
The book serves as an excellent summary of praxeological philosophy and is a must-read for anyone who wants to start learning more about the subject. Reading the book, one feels that it is extremely concise (around 80 pages), but also dense. Hoppe directly discusses the essential philosophical aspects that one must know in order to understand praxeology as developed by Mises, and fortunately he leaves many footnotes for further reading.

I believe that Hoppe has skillfully shown that economics is part of praxeology, and that it indisputably deals with such categories of human action as values, ends, means, choices, preferences, profit, loss, time, and causality. He has furthermore provided a well-reasoned critique of the empiricist and historicist-hermeneutical interpretations of economics by showing that they are necessarily self-contradictory.

Understanding that economics should not be conducted within the methodological framework of the natural sciences has severe implications to the ways we should deal with data of real world phenomena. If, like praxeologists claim, we cannot predict human action then there is also little reason to believe that effective social engineering is possible. The fundamentals of the praxeological methodology are therefore also immediately relevant within discussions on the roles of the state in planning the economy.

[1] Hoppe calls it entrepreneurship.

Friedman, M. & Schwartz, A.J. (1963). A Monetary History of the United States 1867-1960. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Hoppe, H.H. (1995). Economic Science and the Austrian Method. Auburn: Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Kant, I. (1781). Critique of Pure Reason. (W.S. Pluhar, Trans.) Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Mises von, L. (1942). Social Science and Natural Science. In R.M. Ebeling (Ed.) Money, Methods, and the Market Process (pp. 3-15). Retrieved from
Mises von, L. (1966). The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science. Retrieved from
Stolyarov II, G. (2007). The Compatibility of Hoppe’s and Rothbard’s Views of the Action Axiom. The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, 10, 2, pp. 45-62.

Gifts for Professors

I welcome NoL writers to continue the discussion on the attacks in France, the refugee crises (note: plural form), and general mayhem in the middle east.

On an infinitely lighter note – what do NoL readers think is an appropriate gift for students to give to their Professors? Like Brandon I am applying to doctoral study this cycle. I ordinarily have given small gifts (e.g. thank you cards, sweets, etc.) to my teachers at the end of the year, but I’m stumped on what to do for those Professors who have agreed to be my letter of recommendation writers.

Is a nice bottle of wine fine? What’s an equivalent to wine if said professor is a Muslim and/or Mormon? Is it considered rude to give a ‘bigger’ gift to LOR writers than other professors?

All thoughts are welcome.

Small Thought On The Terrorist Attack in Paris, France

What the attack in Paris has made clear to me is that there is a deep hatred amongst people against the west. I believe that much of this hatred stems from the same roots from which my discontents with the west had also grown – western interventionist policies with foreign nations. I also sense such discontents among the few people that I know from Pakistan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Morocco, and Serbia.

My displeasures with the west originate from the personal stories of my parents who, before they became victims of the Khmer Rouge, were also victims of American bombings of Cambodia – a fact that is not widely known. The bombardments that started in 1965 ended in 1973, and had killed hundreds of thousands of Cambodians. Indeed, before the Khmer Rouge took power over Cambodia in 1975 and before they sent all people to the rural areas to grow foodstuffs for ‘Angkar’ (the Organization/the State), there were already widespread famines and scores of displaced people due to the bombings. It had created a chaotic climate in which the anti-western, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperialist propaganda of the Khmer Rouge found their way into people’s minds – mostly into the minds of those poor rural Cambodian people that were suffering most from the secret bombings. Ben Kiernan writes in ‘Bombs over Cambodia’ (2004):

Years after the war ended, journalist Bruce Palling asked Chhit Do, a former Khmer Rouge officer, if his forces had used the bombing as antiAmerican propaganda. Chhit Do replied:

“Every time after there had been bombing, they would take the people to see the craters, to see how big and deep the craters were, to see how the earth had been gouged out and scorched . . . . The ordinary people sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came. Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told. It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on co-operating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them. . . . Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.”

Cambodia, together with Laos, still remains one of the heaviest bombed countries in the history of the world.[1] My parents were just 7-8 years old at the advent of the secret bombings. Imagine that a drone would bomb the school of your child or the hospital in which your loved ones are, would you not feel enraged? Would you not want to take revenge on those that are responsible?

A pre-moral person looks at the consequences of the actions. He sees the attacks, he acknowledges the dead, he becomes emotional and judges firmly. A moral person withholds his judgements and attempts to comprehend the causes of the attackers’ actions. I do not want to justify the killings of the French people, but I would like to emphasize that if we were really to honor the victims, we should reflect on the question why there are people that hate the west so fiercely. Maybe our society itself is part of a larger machine that is the origin of foreign hatred against the west. We must not only realize that religious fundamentalism is a danger to the world, but that there is a more contemptible false idol which is democratic fundamentalism – the uncritical acceptance that democracy is equal to liberty, that it is always superior and that, if necessary, it should be spread with violence.

As long as we, as a society, fail to reflect on ourselves and the political system we participate in, we will never find a fundamentally peaceful solution.

[1] See Ben Kiernan’s ‘Bombs Over Cambodia: New Light On US Air War

Assessing Elections in Poland and Argentina in the Context of Populism and Liberalism in Europe and South America II (liberalism in the classical sense of course).

The Argentine election was for the state president, who is head of government as well as head of state. An expected first round victory for the Peronist party (formally known as the Justicialist Party) candidate Daniel Scoli disappeared as he failed to clear 45%. He is clearly ahead of Mauricio Macri, Mayor of Buenos Aires, running on behalf of a three party centre-right alliance which contains the less statist, and populist elements of Argentine politics, but at least the hope exists of a second round triumph over the Peronists.

The third candidate is also a Peronist, showing the difficulty of overcoming that legacy and why even just turning the Presidential election into a competition between a Peronist and a non-Peronist is a victory of some kind. The sitting President Christine Kirchner pushed at the limits of the Argentine constitution, which prohibits more than two terms for any President, by alternating in power with her late husband Nestór Kirchner. If he had not died in 2010, we might now be looking forward to a fourth consecutive term in power for team Kirchner.

Peronists or the army have run Argentina almost constantly since the 1940s. The periods of army rule give a good indication of how successful Juan Perón and his widow Isabel (the third wife) were in stabilising Argentine society and political institutions. Nevertheless the Peronists have been the only party with a record of electoral success in Argentina and have improved from the chaos that Juan and Isabel instigated in more recent appearances in government.

As such a dominant party they have relatively centrist technocratic elements (most notably ex-president Carlos Menem) as well as the hard core statist populist nationalists. The Kirchner years have tended increasingly towards the more populist end, stoking nationalist sentiment over the islands in the south Atlantic known in Argentina as the Malvinas and in the UK, which has sovereignty over the islands, as the Falklands.

There has been economic growth under the Kirchners, but it has now very much slowed as policy has tended towards high inflation, currency controls, confrontation on debt owed to foreign creditors and increasing budget deficits. There has been social liberalism, most obviously, on attitudes to the LGBT communities, but in a context of nationalist sovereigntist politics. At least we can hope that if Scoli wins, he will feel obliged to shift towards genuine economic sustainability and a less populist politics.

In general, this adds to a feeling that South America has passed the peak of leftist populism which has influenced most countries outside Colombia in the last two decades. The more respectable end of that spectrum in Brazil’s Workers’ Party, which had been fairly successful economically, appears to be declining under the weight of corruption scandals, economic recession and incapacity in delivering on the more populist side. On the less respectable side, Venezuela has lost its status as model for the world’s radical left as corruption, economic decay, state brutality, election rigging and persecution of the opposition has become too extreme to ignore, particularly since the state socialist hegemony no longer has Hugo Chavez as a charismatic frontman.

Brazil and Venezuela were the models of the left, reformist and revolutionary respectively, and no longer have that status. If there is a model now it is the Evo Morales Presidency in Bolivia, which in some respects is radical left, but not consistently enough to get the kind of model status previously accorded to ‘Lula’ (now caught up in corruption scandals as his successor Dilma Rousseff) in Brazil and Chavez in Venezuela (whose successor Nicolás Maduro is a blatant and charmless neo-Stalinist thug-apparatchik). The Morales regime has received some cautious support from those inclined towards liberty on the grounds that he has pursued an overdue reduction of the power of traditional rent seeking elites in Bolivia and engaged in an economic pragmatism certainly distasteful to former Chavez admirers, and not even entirely comfortable for former admirers of Lula.

The leftist populist tide in south America has not entirely receded, but is now discussed with increasing nostalgia and an increasingly elegiac tone by left socialist observers, and as it has receded has tended to leave only embarrassments for the socialist left or reformist pragmatist examples of at least some interest to the liberty community. We are not looking at a strong shift towards liberty in all its forms in that region, but at least we see some shifts opening the possibilities of new movements towards liberty in markets, rule of law, individual rights, and social openness.

Assessing Elections in Poland and Argentina in the Context of Populism and Liberalism in Europe and South America I (liberalism in the classical sense of course).

Election results I’ve seen today from weekend elections in Argentina and Poland and the more general thoughts they have inspired. Rather longer than I anticipated so posted in two parts, though not separated in time given that I am articulating immediate reactions.

The Polish parliamentary election has been bad news for those who share the perspective of Notes on Liberty in that Law and Justice, a social-national-religious sort of conservative party with strongly statist and populist inclinations, has taken over from the more open market/open society inclined Civic Platform. However, a new party, Modern (strictly speaking ‘.Modern’, but I’ll ignore that in the future as too likely to be mistaken for a typo, it is at least worth noting as suggesting a technocratic commitment to a digital age, reminiscent of the development of the e-state in post-Communist Estonia) which leans towards liberty in economic and social spheres, in comparison with most of Civic Platform and even more in comparison with Law and Justice, has entered the National Assembly, compensating for some of the votes lost by Civic Platform to the populist right.

We might at least hope that the next election in Poland produces a coalition government between Modern and Civic Platform, and hope that Law and Justice does not do too much harm during the coming years in which it will control the government and the (non-executive) presidency on its own.

The Polish political party structure has been confusingly variable since the end of Communism, with names of politicians reappearing from now extinct parties in new parties gathering a different if overlapping spectrum, and with different international partners. Modern’s leader, Ryszard Petru, is at least connected with the early phase of post-Communist politics as a disciple of Leszek Balcerowicz, who played a leading role in the transition to market capitalism and the earlier phase of liberal-centrist politics. Both Petru and Balcerowicz are ‘Europeanist’ in the sense of taking a positive attitude to the European Union, which is also the outlook of Civic Platform. Balcerowicz is even director of the College of Europe, a postgraduate institution in Bruges, Belgium, which educates many of those working in European institutions and in their general atmosphere.

This illustrates a major claim I put forward here about European politics, that is of a drift of market liberals, classical liberals and libertarians towards advocacy of the European Union, and an increasing tendency of the ‘Eurosceptic‘ right, even those with some libertarian-conservative history, to be caught up with hardcore populists even if some of the Eurosceptic right has pro-liberty inclinations. That part of the European right has always been more libertarian-conservative than libertarian-cosmopolitan.

The leading ideologue of libertarian-conservative Eurosceptics in Britain, Conservative Party Member of the European Parliament, Dan Hannan is very touchy about suggestions of backward looking nationalism and chauvinism, emphasising a cosmopolitan family background. However, despite these protestations, Hannan is a great believer in the superiority of British (and Anglosphere) ways, and in addition has always been for ‘democratic controls on immigration’, i.e. populist limitations on the market in labour and individual rights to mobility. The second leading British ideologue in that spectrum, and previously a close associate of Hannan, Douglas Carswell has joined the the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which has unmistakably populist inclinations in economic and social policy beyond restrictions on immigration. Hannan prefers to praise UKIP as ‘patriots’ rather than confront this.

Hannan engineered the formation of a eurosceptic right group in the European Parliament after David Cameron was persuaded that leaving the main centre-right group (European People’s Party) was a necessary price for keeping Tory Eurosceptics acquiescent with his leadership. Hannan’s European Conservative and Reformists Group does not include Modern or Civic Platform, but it does include Law and Justice, which gives a good idea of what part of the European political spectrum it appeals to, i.e. not those inclined to social and cosmopolitan liberty. Most disturbingly associate members include the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, i.e. the AKP of Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan associated with corruption, police brutality, politicisation of the judiciary, social media blocks, attacks on the media and all free speech, along with the demonisation of anyone not part of the more conservative parts of majority Turkish culture.

The idea that liberty can be combined with Eurosceptic discourse is declining, though it has been influential in some libertarian circles, particularly in the UK and Slovakia to be the best of my knowledge. There has been a recovery of pro-EU views (if highly qualified by the wish for reform) amongst the Greek liberty community, even after the recent Euro currency disasters. The Slovak eurosceptic libertarians seem to have collapsed. The Czech hero of European right wingers of that tendency, Vacláv Klaus, has turned out to be a harsh social conservative and Putin fellow traveler of a type obnoxious to the anyone of genuinely pro-liberty tendencies, leading to his exclusion from polite libertarian circles as seen in the loss of his Cato fellowship. A warning there surely about the perils of regarding the sovereigntist eurosceptic right as natural allies of liberty. Personally I believe the same applies to the Republican right in the US. That is of course another story, but just look at Donald Trump’s ascendancy and think about that. The German Free Democrats are making a come back after a period it seemed they might lose the most economically free market part of the electorate to AfD.

Small indications in some cases, but it all adds up to an overall and increasingly dominant picture (though course with exceptions) in which consistently pro-liberty forces support the European Union, which is very much the case in Turkey, even if desiring considerable reform. The strengthening of the populist right (Northern League in Italy, National Front in France, Swedish Democrats, Golden Dawn in Greece, Freedom Party in the Netherlands etc as well as those already mentioned) together with a populist-socialist surge has pushed those engaged with a consistent politics of individual rights and cosmopolitan openness towards a pro-EU centre.

The left populist surge has already receded in Greece where Syriza is in transition to standard social democracy while still using a more radical rhetoric, but has some energy elsewhere in Europe: Podemos in Spain, two left of social democracy parties in Portugal, Sinn Fein in Ireland, Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in Britain. The left populist surge is less strong than its right wing equivalent and despite what the socialist intelligentsia in the UK believe the socialist surge within the Labour Party does not reflect a broader shift in British public opinion. Anyway, we are in a period where pro-liberty forces are coalescing with centrist forces in defence of a continuing EU of some kind, with some limitations on national sovereignty, not completely closed to refugees, not in thrall to an enclosed defensive traditionalist, legacy Christian identity politics.

Taoism, Anarchism, and the Divergence of Han Feizi

My colleague Chhay Lin Lim has an excellent article on Chuang Tzu, Taoism, and living libertarianism as a philosophy of life rather than a mere political philosophy. You can find it here.

His post reminded me of something I’ve wanted to write about for some time: Chinese Legalism. For those not in the know, Legalism was a school of thought that competed with Confucianism, Taoism, Moism, and other ideologies during the Warring States Period of Ancient China. It attained its greatest prominence under the Qin dynasty, after its compiler, Han Feizi, contracted himself to then-prince, Shi Huang.

What is most notable about Legalism is that it is the most notable extension of Taoist life philosophies into the sphere of rulership, an example of when quietism becomes political. The book he wrote, often titled simply Han Feizi, details a variety of methods rulers might understand their people, attain leadership, and maintain it in perpetuity. In a chapter titled “The Way of the Ruler,” Han Feizi describes the attributes of the prudent ruler, and then the state he will naturally develop from his personality and his penetrating insight into the nature of things. He begins with a poem of several very cryptic sentences:

  1. The Way is the beginning of all beings and the measure of right and wrong.

  2. The enlightened ruler holds fast to the beginning in order to understand the wellspring of all beings, and minds the measure in order to know the source of good and bad.

  3. He waits, empty and still, letting names define themselves and affairs reach their own settlement.

  4. Being empty, he can comprehend the true aspect of fullness; being still, he can correct the mover.

  5. Those whose duty it is to speak will come forward to name themselves; those whose duty it is to act will produce results.

  6. When names and results match, the ruler need do nothing more and the true aspect of all things will be revealed.

In (1) and (2), Han Feizi argues that the ruler must know the conditions of the world in order to govern properly, because it is those conditions that provide the basis for his laws. There is no such thing as a transcendental morality for Han Feizi. He compares the ruler who attempts to implement laws based in supposed eternal truths to a “farmer of Song,”[1] who had serendipitously caught a rabbit when it hit a tree stump on its land, broke its neck, and died. The farmer “…laid aside his plow and took up watch beside a stump, hoping that he would get another rabbit in the same way,”[2] but he failed, and was consequently mocked by all the people of the land. Attempting to govern by old rules is similar, for the ruler does not possess the fortunate conditions of his forebears, and so he cannot use the same tools that they did. To know the measure of things, then, is to understand the present and act accordingly, to “bring together the ideas of the pattern (li) of the universe, and the law (fa) of the ruler in order to produce a harmonious society.”[3] This marks out Han Feizi’s political economy as one of balance, with the realities of the modern world on one hand tallied exactly with the movements of the ruler on the other. If reality is neglected in favor of nostalgic idealism or futuristic novelty, the ruler will not “mind the measure,” his actions will be out of balance, and therefore so will the state.

To understand (3), we must begin by understanding Han Feizi’s Legalism. His system fundamentally depends on a sharp distinction between those who obey the law, or fa, and those who rule by the policies and methods of power, or shu. The ruler, “who is the author of law and outside and above it,”[4] operates under a different set of rules because the basis of the state is firmly set in his ability to exercise power, which by definition is not limited by anything but his own material ability to act. While his subjects must obey the limits he has prescribed in the law, which are firm and unyielding, he must himself obey the unwritten laws of power, those “policies and arts which he applies in wielding authority and controlling the men under him.”[5] Part of a leader’s shu is not only to be a shrewd political manipulator, but also to understand the limits of his power as constrained by the fundamental laws of existence: “there is nothing inherent in the commands of the sovereign, not in the laws that he promulgates, that necessitate their according with the pattern of the universe.”[6] However, if they do not accord with the pattern, then the laws will be useless, and so the ruler will be powerless because of them.

The distinction between fa and shu is not between men who ought to be led on the one hand, and men who ought to lead on the other, for Han Feizi’s dim view of human potential caused him to conclude that most people are utterly without merit. Rather, it is solely between the man who has found himself in a position of power, and the mass of men, women, and children he must exercise that power over. If the distinction depended on merit, then the kingdom would in turn be hamstrung by the lack of meritorious men to run it. Instead of being dependent on the vagaries of human ability, the nature of fa is to self-perpetuate what it contains within the apparatus created by the ruler through shu. The world, its people, and those who minister to it are like the waters of a river, and the laws are like a dam that controls the movement of the waters. The ruler is the gate of the dam, and he alone causes the waters to move in a certain way, whether to rise and form a reservoir, or to be released and form a continuous river.

But if they overflow the dam, the gate must open, and the ruler must act. This is the concept of xingming, or ‘names and forms,’ that Han Feizi refers to in (3), which represents the overarching concept of Legalist governance. The ‘names’ are the promises of men in the service of the ruler, or the roles they are expected to fulfill, while the ‘forms are the deeds in actuality that correspond to those promises and roles. If the two aspects of xingming are at equilibrium, “the ruler need do nothing more and the true aspect of all things will be revealed,”[7] as with (6). However, if those aspects do not match, the ruler can “correct the mover,”[8] as with (4). To do either, he must be “empty and still,” for in emptiness alone can he “comprehend the true aspect of fullness,” which is nothing but the movement of the Way – the changing circumstances of the times – and the functioning of the state qua ruler in response to it. The ministers of the state “will come forward to name themselves,” thereby setting up their precise roles within the apparatus of government, and then “those whose duty it is to act will produce results,” fulfilling the exact role within that government they have been assigned. Names and forms tally only if the ministers do not go above or below their station, but they are in discord if the ministers transgress their bounds by doing too much, usurping the power of the ruler, or too little, thereby defying him. The true purpose of xingming, then, is to subordinate the self-interest of the minister, and perhaps of the ruler himself, to the overarching plan of the state – as people only do things for “selfish reasons… [for] abundant material benefits,”[9] the ruler must be selfless in his pursuit of the interests of the state, which are equivalent with his own but simultaneously beyond them.

What I find quite interesting is where this intersects with Chuang Tzu and Chhay Lin, but also diverts from them. Chhay Lin writes:

Left to themselves they live in natural harmony and spontaneous order. But when they are coerced and ruled, their natures become vicious. It follows that princes and rulers should not coerce their people into obeying artificial laws, but should leave them to follow their natural dispositions. To attempt to govern people with manmade laws and regulations is absurd and impossible: ‘as well try to wade through the sea, to hew a passage through a river, or make a mosquito fly away with a mountain!’. In reality, the natural conditions of our existence require no artificial aids. People left to themselves will follow peaceful and productive activities and live in harmony with each other and nature.

Han Feizi laughably rejects this. To him, there is no such thing as a transcendent human nature that, if left to its own devices, would assert itself as a lover of harmony and spontaneous order. Man is made by the age, culture, and circumstances in which he finds himself, far more than any essential nature bubbles up in the age in which he lives. Behold Han Feizi’s beginning to the chapter “The Five Vermin”:

In the age of remote antiquity, human beings were few while birds and beasts were many. Mankind being unable to overcome birds, beasts, insects, and serpents, there appeared a sage who made nests by putting pieces of wood together to shelter people from harm. Thereat the people were so delighted that they made him ruler of All-under-Heaven and called him the Nest-Dweller. In those days the people lived on the fruits of trees and seeds of grass as well as mussels and clams, which smelt rank and fetid and hurt the digestive organs. As many of them were affected with diseases, there appeared a sage who twisted a drill to make fire which changed the fetid and musty smell. Thereat the people were so delighted that they made him ruler of All-under-Heaven.

In the age of middle antiquity, there was a great deluge in All-under-Heaven, wherefore Kung and Yü opened channels for the water. In the age of recent antiquity, Chieh and Chow were violent and turbulent, wherefore Tang and Wu overthrew them.

Now, if somebody fastened the trees or turned a drill in the age of the Hsia-hou Clan, he would certainly be ridiculed by Kung and Yü. Again, if somebody opened channels for water in the age of the Yin and Chou Dynasties, he would certainly be ridiculed by T’ang and Wu. That being so, if somebody in the present age praises the ways of Yao, Shun, Kung , Yü , Tang, and Wu, he would, no doubt, be ridiculed by contemporary sages.

That is the reason why the sage neither seeks to follow the ways of the ancients nor establishes any fixed standard for all times but examines the things of his age and then prepares to deal with them.


For Chuang Tzu, it seems that spiritual quietism ought to be reflected in political quietism as well. Leaving the people to govern themselves, thereby creating a society of spontaneous order, is superior to governing them like a band of corralled horses with brands and bridles.

Han Feizi rejects this because he represents a different form of political quietism. His philosophy is one of balance between the ruler and the forces he must deal with. If the people are angels, then the ruler’s yoke will be light, or even non-existent, for this is the greatest exponent of xingming. However, if the ruler is faced with an unruly, thieving, murderous people, then he must reign them in to restore the balance they have caused. He argues that people are products of their time, and in so doing dismisses any imputations of agency – they cannot be controlled by appealing to the better angels of their nature, but by beating that nature into submission.

The point of Han Feizi’s reliance on reward and punishment is to accept the realities of human nature, that by default they are lazy, weak, and reprobate, and change that behavior without changing its basic conditions: “when properly applied, [punishment and favor] can change the way that people act on their desire and interest sets without the need to actually change those sets.”  If a man loiters in his property, does not till his crops, and does not pay taxes, his inherent personality will never change. However, his behavior stemming from that personality may be changed through reward or punishment, which must be commensurate to the sin or the virtue – if not, with a punishment an “individual may prefer to loiter doing nothing even when subject to the punishment.”

Indeed, the ruler only corrects their incorrect course, and though he is called harsh, he is only conforming to the natural pattern of the world, so it is simultaneously true that the ruler “deferred [questions about] right and wrong to rewards and punishments” and that “the Way is the guideline of right and wrong.”  Knowing the Way allows the ruler to know proper rewards and punishments, for without knowing the way of things there is no way to “mind the measure,” for the measure is relative to the Way! Although xingming is often implicitly referred to as an aspect of fa, it is evident that even the ruler himself is a part of it, for his own actions must tally with his role, lest he lose his ability to exercise power effectively, and thus become weak – “if you do not guard the door, if you do not make fast the gate, then tigers will lurk there.”  This is ultimately because xingming is also a cosmic concept, with the tally of names and roles being only a particular instance of a complete balance between the state and the pattern of the universe.

Ultimately, Chuang Tzu and Han Feizi are not different, but their emphases – at least as articulated by Chhay Lin and myself – are on different movements in political development, and more fundamentally, on human nature. Chuang Tzu questions the very nature of the state, and argues it is a useless and even harmful appendage to the proper flourishing of the human being. Han Feizi believes the state is a necessary outgrowth of cosmic imbalances, which are cyclical and unstoppable, because human beings develop in cyclical and unstoppable ways. Only the ruler’s machinations, handed down by the decrees of heaven, can possibly halt the imbalances and restore order to the world.

What we’re dealing with are two competing worldviews: the world as full of promise because people are so, and the world as fallen, degraded, and in need of redemption because people are so (forgive me if this has overtones of Christianity and grace. I am only a Westerner, after all). Humanity deserves liberty when it proves itself worthy of it, and it deserves strict rule and terrible punishments when it shows itself in need of them. The world of Chuang Tzu is in balance, and so is Han Feizi’s. What’s fascinating is the extremely different conclusions they can come to, not just in terms of personal liberty, from the very same source.

[1] Han Feizi. Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003): 99

[2] Ibid.,99

[3] Eirik Lang Harris, “Is the Law in the Way? On the Source of Han Fei’s Laws,” in Journal of Chinese Philosophy 38.1 (2011): 76

[4] Han Feizi 8

[5] Ibid., 8

[6] Harris 77

[7] Han Feizi 15

[8] Ibid., 15

[9] Paul R. Goldin, “Han Fei’s Doctrine of Self Interest,” Asian Philosophy 11.3 (2001): 152

Chuang Tzu: The natural disposition of man is Political Anarchism

Chuang Tzu

I just read this great article on ‘Anarchism and Taoism’. I find the Taoist case for anarchism extremely compelling. They sought after the harmonious nature of spontaneous order, the Tao, and internalized it into a tremendously rich personal philosophy of life. It makes me wonder: can a person ‘live’ a Libertarian life? Libertarianism is mostly regarded as a political philosophy in the west, but can it, like the Taoists believe, be regarded as a way of life that is most fulfilling on a personal level as well? These are questions that I still have to find out for myself.

After reading the article on Anarcho-Taoism, I’d like to share a small part of Chuang Tzu’s thoughts on the natural disposition of man here:

Horses live on dry land, eat grass and drink water. When pleased, they rub their necks together. When angry, they turn round and kick up their heels at each other. Thus far only do their natural dispositions carry them. But bridled and bitted, with a plate of metal on their foreheads, they learn to cast vicious looks, to turn the head to bite, to resist, to get the bit out of the mouth or the bridle into it. And thus their natures become depraved.

As with horses, so it is with human beings. Left to themselves they live in natural harmony and spontaneous order. But when they are coerced and ruled, their natures become vicious. It follows that princes and rulers should not coerce their people into obeying artificial laws, but should leave them to follow their natural dispositions. To attempt to govern people with manmade laws and regulations is absurd and impossible: ‘as well try to wade through the sea, to hew a passage through a river, or make a mosquito fly away with a mountain!’. In reality, the natural conditions of our existence require no artificial aids. People left to themselves will follow peaceful and productive activities and live in harmony with each other and nature.

In an essay ‘On Letting Alone’, Chuang Tzu asserted three hundred years BC the fundamental proposition of anarchist thought:

There has been such a thing as letting mankind alone; there has never been such a thing as governing mankind. Letting alone springs from fear lest men’s natural dispositions be perverted and their virtue left aside. But if their natural dispositions be not perverted nor their virtue laid aside, what room is there left for government?