Category Archives: Liberty

A New Chicago School?

Consider America’s transportation system. I like to imagine that it ought to be a certain way. I imagine a world where a lot of freight travels competitive rail lines. And occasionally a transport truck traverses the country side, maybe to serve a new or small market without a rail road. I imagine a truck entering a town, passing some sort of device that alerts the local police that a vehicle has entered the town without the appropriate toll-paying transponder. Since this is the first time this has happened, the officer hands the trucker an application and signs him up on the spot. Oh! And there aren’t major freeways all over the place. Just a lattice work of efficient highways skirting the edges of towns and winding byways trailing through the country side. Perfect motorcycling roads and beautiful markets all in one.

My perfect world wouldn’t have much room for the fast modern engines we’re used to cars having. Planes and trains are fast enough for long distances and for shorter distances we simply don’t need to go so fast. The technology in those modern engines is malinvestment. That capital exists because interference with markets has skewed the relative financial benefits of different research (e.g. at the expense of investment in technology necessary for seamless and efficient toll-roads). This skewed capital structure also indirectly subsidizes fast-food while implicitly taxing the experience of traveling through, rather than past, small towns.

But what would actually keep it that way? It’s all a bit too good to be true. Am I being Utopian? Yes, but I think there might be some merit in that. My utopia can be thought of a limiting case; one of many possible best-case scenarios. We might conceive of a yard stick akin to Pareto Optimality but in a dynamic setting.

The world can be dynamically-Pareto optimal and have economic profits, but only those that arise as a result of productive entrepreneurship. Actions that create net value should be the only ones that generate profit. And externalities (whether pollution or politics) should be resolved by property rights and liability law. At least in the long run.

Such a world would serve as a benchmark in exactly the same way as Perfect Competition, and I would name it similarly. Perfect Markets (I’m open to suggestions) would be those that are simply too perfect to exist in the real world, but would offer a limiting case against which differing scenarios might be considered.

I suspect that something like this has already been offered but I’m only slowly working my way through one work and it will be a while before I get to another notable work. That first (from the Austrians) I suspect would be (justifiably) critical of what I’m discussing and perhaps it is a project best suited for applied mathematicians. It would certainly allow a good deal of theorem proving and other apparent mental master–… mastery (yes… mastery…). For some time there might be little apparent use or scientific merit in this. But number theory only became valuable with the advent of computers centuries after mathematicians started thinking about the minutiae of numbers. It’s not always for us to say that something doesn’t have a use just because we don’t see it yet. It’s a good idea to let some curious mathematical tinkerers doddle away at problems; they might turn out to have offered a valuable and useful gift to future generations.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Seneca on Mercy and on Anger

Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (4-65 CE) was born in the Roman Spanish city of Cordoba. Southern Spain was one of the most Romanised parts of the Roman Empire outside Italy , so it is not surprising that Seneca made his way to Rome where he became a writer and it seems a money lender. He was also tutor to and then adviser to the Emperor Nero. He had previously been in conflict with the Emperor Claudius, for own known reasons, and was exiled to Corsica for a while as a consequence.

Seneca’s writing career covered philosophical essays, tragedies, and letters which amounted to an exploration of his philosophical interests. He followed the Stoic school of philosophy, which goes back to the Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium (334-226BCE), and was influential on the Roman upper classes. So much so that the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180CE) wrote his Meditations with regard to Stoic thinking on character and ways of living. It was written in Greek, indicating how far Roman thought on ethics, politics, and other topics was continuous with, or at least engaged with, ancient Greek thought.

Seneca’s relations with Nero turned out to be even more destructive than those with Claudius. Seneca tried to educate and advise Nero to be honest, just, and restrained in the use of power. However, Nero turned out to be one of the most infamously cruel, paranoiac, and violent Emperors. These negative tendencies were turned on Seneca, so that even after Seneca had retired to the countryside to avoid the bad atmosphere round Nero, he was forced to commit suicide on suspicion of complicity with a conspiracy to assassinate Nero. Nero himself was overthrown and pressured to commit suicide thee years later. Suicide was a relatively honourable form of death for Romans, and it was a privilege to allowed to commit suicide rather than face execution, nevertheless Seneca and Nero can be said to have both met sorry ends as a result of political turmoil initiated by Nero.

Nero’s behaviour was really the direct opposite of that recommended to rulers by Seneca  the essays on anger and on mercy, and was a painful failure for Seneca who had tried to educate him from childhood for a moderate self-restrained use of power. Seneca’s approach to politics is to advise an absolute ruler in the use of power, so he might seem a bit paradoxical as part of a series on liberty. However, Seneca was considered as a major supporter of republics, of government based on individual liberty in the early modern period, so that Thomas Hobbes, the authoritarian minded philosopher and political thinker, considered his thought a danger to sovereign state power.

Seneca’s thought certainly did mark the death of the Roman Republic, which was essentially abolished in substance (after a historical phase of hollowing out) by Julius Caesar in his period of absolute power from 49BCE until his assassination in 44BCE. The failure of the assassins to restore the republic led to the absolute power of Augustus and the inauguration of the autocratic  emperor system.

Seneca refers unfavourably to those who use the Greek idea of ‘parrhesia’, that is free and critical public speaking, to excess, going against what had been taken as central to the liberty of citizens. The reason Seneca can be placed in the liberty tradition is that even when criticising excess in free speech, he praises a Macedonian-Greek king on the receiving end for the restraint of his reaction. Living in an age of absolute rulers, Seneca’s main concern is that they rule as the foundation of individual rights rather than as a source of arbitrary power over citizens.

The essays on mercy and anger bring together the fields of person virtue and the best ways of governing. Virtue for Seneca, as was normal for ancient thinkers, was deeply embedded in ideas of self-restraint and moderation. From this point of view anger damages the angry person, as an example of self-harming extreme behaviour. Anger is a negative painful state of mind and to act under its influence leads to great harm.

Seneca is not simply saying that a ruler should follow general moral virtue in the manner of ruling. He places a particular responsibility on the ruler to resist anger and show mercy. The individual may harbour resentment against some enemy who caused harm, but the ruler must avoid such resentment. The ruler who publishes and executes all those regarded with suspicion as present or future enemies harms the state and the public good. Harsh treatment of individuals by rulers leads to those individuals becoming angry with the ruler so conspiring against that person. Executions will only stimulate further rebellion by those who were closest to the executed and leads to an increasingly violent period of rule. All the violence and revenge has negative consequences for the public good as well as for those persecuted.

The ruler should regard all individuals as part of the state, which he should be trying to manage responsibly. The state is harmed if any individual within the state is harmed, as the state exists to promote the public good. The ruler who cannot restrain desires for cruelty and who ignores the rights of individuals is suffering from a self-harming weakness of character and is likely to suffer violent revenge. Seneca mentions the third Roman Emperor, Caligula, in this context,  who was assassinated in 41CE, four years after succeeding Tiberius.

The best thing the ruler can do is show mercy. Those who receive mercy, even after plotting assassination, are likely to start supporting the ruler, and even work for the ruler. It is better to forgive and try to integrate a conspirator than kill the conspirator so that others will wish to avenge that murder. The ruler should obey laws as much as ordinary citizens, and should be mild in applying laws. Everyone is guilty of some fault, of some minor breach of law, at some time, so that punishing all wrong-doers will lead to the destruction of a society, as nearly all inhabitants of the territory of the state disappear.

While Seneca assumes that political power rests with one person, he argues that the continuing exercise of the power rests both on reliable justice with regard to the execution of laws and restraint from the most extreme or obsessive punishment. The powers of the state are understood as different from those of an individual, and as what must be much more limited in use than the power of citizens. The rights and welfare of citizens depends on a ruler who follows law and assumes less power than individuals, which makes a worthy contribution to thought about liberty.

Scotland, Nation, and Liberty

As I start writing voting is coming to an end in Scotland with regard to a referendum on whether Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom comprises England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. There are those in Cornwall, a peninsula on the extreme south-west of England who argue that is should be represented as an entity on  level with those four components of the UK, as it was regarded as distinct from England into the sixteenth century, never having being properly incorporated into Roman Britannia or Anglo-Saxon Wessex (the Old English kingdom in the south west, which became the nucleus of the Medieval English state).

From the 10th century onwards Anglo-Saxon kings asserted supremacy over Scotland with varying degrees of success in obtaining some recognition of overlordship from Scottish kings. Wars between Scotland and England led to victory for Scotland in the fourteenth century when the English monarchy ended attempts to use force to demand Scottish subordination, or even incorporation of Scotland, and European states accepted Scotland as a sovereign entity. In the early seventeenth century, Queen Elizabeth I of England died childless so that the heir to the English crown was King James VI of Scotland who became James I of England. He moved his court from Edinburgh to London, and pushed for the union of two kingdoms in his person to become a state union of England and Scotland as Great Britain. (At this time, Wales was treated as a part of England.)

The English Parliament resisted the creation of Great Britain, but by the early eighteenth century there was mutual interest in the trade and economic advantages of state union with accompany reductions on trade barriers, particularly after the failure of a brief attempt at Scottish empire building in Central America.  An Act of Union was passed by the English Parliament in 1707 and then by the Scottish Parliament in 1708, which abolished the Scottish Parliament. It also left in place major differences in laws, the legal system, education, and the state church, which have lasted until the present day.

Before the personal union of Scotland and England under James VI/I, Scotland itself went through a process of internal integration, or colonisation of the peripheral regions by the centre, as all nations have. This included the 1493  abolition of the Lord of the Isles, which indicated sovereignty over an area covering the highland and island areas of Scotland, and which has a complex history in relation to all the neighbouring powers. The incorporation  of that region, what could easily have been a separate sovereign nation if history had gone a bit differently, was not completed until 1745, that is after the Act of Union, when a British army destroyed an attempted restoration of the Stuart family of James VI/I. The attempted restoration is known as the Jacobite Rebellion. Jacobite refers to the latinised form of James, in honour of James II, who was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 due to his Catholic religion, fears that he was attempting to enforce that religion as a state church instead of the existing Protestant established church, and fears that he was creating an absolute monarchy with a decorative role only for Parliament.

The Jacobite  Rebellion itself divided Scotland between the traditional semi-feudal highland chiefs and the commercial world of the Lowlands. As a consequence of the failure of the Rebellion, British law was enforced fully for the first time beyond the Highland line, while restrictions were placed of Highland customs, clothing, and language. The language of the Highlands was Gaelic (a Celtic language relate to Irish, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton).   This was the triumph of the Scots (a dialect of English, or a language which is very close to English depending on point of view) and English speaking Lowlanders and the end of the process initiated by the early Stuart overthrow of the Lords of the Isles.

The United Kingdom was formed by the 1800 Act of Union, which abolished the Irish parliament. Most of Ireland left to form what is now the Republic of Ireland in the early 1920s, but Northern Ireland remained, now with its own parliament, which is why there is still a UK, not just Great Britain.

All this history is to indicate the long historical nature and the complexity of the  relations between England and Scotland, with regard to sovereignty, identity, and so on. Scotland like England was itself a work in progress before union, and the integration of Scotland into what might be taken as a single nation, was completed over one hundred years after the Act of Union, over two hundred years after the union of crowns, under the leadership of the British crown, which at that time was unified with the German princedom of Hanover.

Scotland was never assimilated into England, even when there was no parliament, and Scotland has always been distinct from England than Wales in at least two respects:

  1. there is a higher proportion of trade within Scotland than with England, than of internal Welsh trading activity compared with trade with England;
  2. Wales’s contact with urban centres is just as much with the nearby English cities of Bristol, Birmingham, and Liverpool as with its own cities (principally Swansea and Cardiff) while Scotland is very focused on its own cities (principally Edinburgh and Glasgow).

However, Wales is more distinct from England in language since twenty per cent  speak Welsh fluently, everyone studies Welsh at school, and Wales is officially bilingual, even gesturing towards Welsh language priority. Gaelic speakers are about one per cent of the Scottish population.

The Welsh-Scottish comparison serves to show that ways of assessing national identity and distinctness vary and that there is no one way of evaluating this, so there can be no one institutional and political strategy for accommodating national differences within a state. The level and intensity of Scottish distinctness and identity has amounted to a nation now divided almost exactly down the middle about whether it wishes to separate from the UK.

This is not just an issue of identity though, as a large part of the Scottish independence vote is based on a belief that Scotland is egalitarian, welfarist, communal, social democratic, or even socialist, in comparison with England and that the countries are polar opposites on these issues. Another part of support for independence is the hope that North Sea oil will bring more benefit to Scotland if a Scottish government is collecting the tax revenue, accompanied by the belief that taxation at the UK level is some kind of resource theft.

Building on the historical, political, and institutional account above, what conclusions am I drawing? The first thing to state is of course that Scotland has every right to leave the UK if it so wishes, that it is a good thing that a referendum is being held to test what Scots want, and that if independence is what is wanted, then the government of the residual UK use must take a positive and co-operative approach to the departure of Scotland.

However, I certainly don’t believe that Scotland should separate. Part of that is the emotional patriotism of an Englishman, call it nationalism no problem, based on centuries of shared enterprise and struggle, good (the defeat of National Socialist Germany) and bad (imperialism). The Scots took a disproportionately large part in the trading, colonising, and military aspects of that joint history, and during that history many Scots went to England and became part of English society, John Stuart Mill’s father is a notable example. One of the great flourishing moments of that history was the Scottish Enlightenment of David Hume, Adam Smith, and others, which always involved education, travel, and interaction in England as well as Scotland.

Why peace behind centuries of joint enterprise in which despite centralising processes, differences of identity and in institutions proved to be compatible with the growth of commercial society, civil society, liberty under law, parliamentary government, science and culture, and the twentieth century struggle against totalitarianism.

There’s  a lot for liberty advocates to admire there, without denying that a lot of worse things happened as well, and surely we should be disposed to favour building on that rather than destroying it. Many liberty advocates have a preference for small nations where maybe there is more chance of intelligent laws and policies, less remote from everyday reality and individual understanding of particular realities.

I can only agree with the provision that such a result can be achieved through forms of federalism which are decentralising rather than centralising so that the federal centre is largely responsible for trade, foreign and defence policy, and the lower region and national levels do everything else in an innovative, flexible, diverse, and competitive way.

There is still some benefit in the UK remaining as a unified power for defence and military purposes. It is would not be good from a liberty point of view for a country that in its military budget and capacities, its diplomatic and transnational weight, is still a match for nearly all the major powers. The UK whatever its faults is one of the more liberty  oriented parts of the world, and no good would come from lessening its strategic and diplomatic weight. Of course those liberty advocates who prefer very neutralist and almost pacifist attitudes to international relations will not be impressed, but we live in a world where states with low levels of inner liberty and little respect for the rights of others exist, and should be at least matched by powers that are more liberty oriented at home and more respectful of the rights in the international sphere. The role of liberal democracies has not always been admirable in this sphere, but better those errors than unchecked aggression from authoritarian states.

The institutions of liberty are more likely to flourish in democratic states, where a multiplicity of national and regional identities flourish, than in attempts to break away based on some inclination, of some degree of intensity, that singular national identity is better than multiplicity and that national identity needs unrestrained state sovereignty. In the particular case of Scotland, the Scottish National Party, and others for independence, are relying on the dream of a more socialist country where ‘Scottish’ oil is protected from the English to fund an expanding state, without having a plausible explanation for the currency to be used on independence, or any sense of reality about how international markets testing the prudence of a new state are likely to drive it towards high interest rates and displays of deficit reduction.

The political consequences of a subsequent disillusion with social democratic dreams mingled with existing  assumptions of a morally superior Scottish community, and related anti-English feeling, in economically disruptive circumstances could be most severe and disturbing. Even on a more optimistic assumption about the future in which Scotland moves smoothly into a more social democratic future, nothing is gained from a pro-liberty point of view. Pro-liberty commentators who think that because Hume and Smith were Scots that an independent Scotland will be guided by Enlightenment classical liberalism have completely lost the plot.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Cicero’s On the Republic

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE) was a prominent lawyer, politician, and thinker in the last years of the Roman Republic. His death was a murder in revenge for his attacks on Marcus Antonius (known in English as Mark Anthony), in the form of a speech in the Senate against tyranny known as the First Philippic. It is known as the Philippic in tribute to the speeches of Demosthenes (384-322 BC), which attacked the tyranny of Philipp II of Macedon over Athens and the other Greek city states.

The background to this is that the Roman Republic had been falling into the hands of military strong men for some time, who stretched the institutions and  laws of the republic in order to exercise supreme power.  Gaius Julius Caesar was  the last in this sequence. After his conquest of Gaul (France) he taken supreme power in Rome out of a mixture extreme drive for power and as a protective measure against enemies after the lost the immunity associated with the governor’s post he had during his war of expansion.

After winning a way against his most important rival, Caesar offered mercy to previous opponents allowing them to be influential in Rome. However, Caesar was increasingly looking like a new king, a  hated office in Rome, and the political system was designed to prevent any one person having complete power except for a short period in exceptional circumstnces. Caesar used this office of dictator, originally designed to offer emergency powers to a general during a time of military crisis for no more than six months, to become the permanent absolute ruler of Rome. He publicly rejected the offer of a crown from Mark Anthony, but was suspected of waiting for the right moment to proclaim himself king.

A conspiracy developed against Caesar amongst aristocrats who wished to preserve republican practices in which no one man could dominate Rome, so that power was shared between the aristocracy, with some influence granted to the common people. Cicero was a not a member of the conspiracy, but approved of its action against Caesar, which was led by Cicero’s friend Marcus Junius Brutus. It is highly pertinent  to Cicero’s vision of the republic that Brutus was, or appeared to be, the descendent of the Marcus Junius Brutus who led the overthrow of the last King of Rome in the early years of the sixth century BCE.

The conspiracy against Caesar resulted in his assassination by a group of senators in 44 BCE. However, the assassins were not able to take over Rome and moved to eastern Mediterranean parts of the Roman lands to raise forces and organise for a war against Caesar’s followers. After the assassination Caesar’s friend and colleague, mark Anthony allied with an 18 year old nephew of Caesar, who was his legal heir. The boy became the Emperor Augustus. The rest of the story would go beyond the limits of this post, so it will enough for now just to mention that Mark Anthony took power in the city of Rome, leading to the murder of Cicero, while the future Augustus built up a position which enabled him to become the political successor to Caesar, not Mark Anthony.

Mark Anthony is reported to have ordered Cicero’s hands to be removed during the assassination and nailed to the door of the Senate house, in a tribute of a kind to the power of an eloquent speaker arguing for liberty and demonstrating liberty in the act of speaking, using his hands as ancients did in a rhetorically guided way as a major part of emphasising points. Though after the First Philippic the likelihood of violent retribution from Mark Anthony led Cicero to confine himself to writing further Philippics that were not read out in the Senate.

Cicero had previously served as consul (one of two officers of the Republic who shared the powers of a king for one year), the governor of Cilicia (modern day Adana in Turkey), and other offices. His political career included some  very rough measures to defend the republic against what he thought of as existential danger and we should not turn Cicero into defender of pure constitutionalism and law in life, as well as in his writings. His writings do suggest a strong wish to live under laws rigorously enforced, and it has to be conceded that it was practically impossible to participate in politics at that time without being party to some very rough actions.

Cicero’s writings are not merely an important moment in antique thinking about liberty, but a major event in the  linguistic and conceptual translation of Greek philosophy into Latin. Cicero’s Latin became the model for educated Latin style and usage under the Empire. His influence as a Latin stylist, thinker, and republican, was important on many generations of the more educated members of the aristocracy and the upper classes in Europe into the 19th century, because of the centrality of Latin  to elite education.

Cicero wrote a number of texts concerned with liberty apart from On the Republic, including On the Laws, On Duties as well as various texts about oratory, letters and speeches. Online versions of On the Republic can be found here and here. The book connects with the issue of the apparent lineage of Brutus the assassin of Caesar going back to Brutus overthrower of   monarchy, because it emphasises tradition. Laws are understood to be good if coming from venerable custom and that reinforced the arguments for a Senate connected with the Roman past through the ancestry emphasised by the aristocracy. Cicero was himself from a provincial family that had recently became rich, but felt that the connections of many other Senators with the deep Roman past was very valuable.

The aristocracy, organised politically in the Senate, provides the real heart of Cicero’s ideal republic as it provides a means of government midway between the disorder of democracy and the tyranny of one man rule. The people should have a share in the political system, but one constrained to prevent imbalances arising. Monarchy existed in the Roman republic, in the form the consuls who shared power for two years. Democracy existed in the role of citizen assemblies and tribunes who had veto powers and were elected by the lower classes as a guarantee of their rights.

Cicero saw the benefits of aristocratic power as a so great that except where the people had become unusually virtuous it is a good thing for the aristocracy to be able the how the lower classes voted, so that patrons could influence the votes of those who depended on them financially. This could be seen as very self-interested on the part of Cicero since he was a member of the aristocracy, but also fits in with his argument about the importance of avoiding the bad government of individuals with absolute power and of disorderly democratic assemblies. Both extremes are bad for a republic.

Cicero was certainly very horrified by the idea of a tyrant, suggesting that such people were vicious beasts and enemies of humanity. Unfortunately, like the other ancient thinkers, it just seemed obvious to him that Romans were a free people not worthy of slavery, while other peoples were worthy only of slavery. Roman readiness for liberty was based on customs and traditions that endured over the centuries.  Cicero’s vision of law was as the outcome of  virtue cultivated over over centuries.  Laws were based on what could be found in customs so reducing the chances of laws appearing that impinged on the rights of any citizen.

Cicero’s understanding of law, custom, rights, and virtue was rooted in Roman history, in which he thought the early Roman kings Romulus and Numa, had built the institutions needed  by a republic concerned with respect for a divine sanction underlying laws.  Cicero probably did not believe in the standard Roman paganism, but evidently thought it suitable for making the laws as respected as possible. Cicero’s view of virtue also led him to favour a republic not too open to trade and other forms of connection with the outside world. He thought that Rome’s position  on a river rather than the sea was ideal for keeping foreign influences down to an acceptable level. Carthage, Rome’s old enemy in what is now Tunisia, was less blessed in that it was a city on the sea and had been dominated by trade.

Cicero’s suspicions of trade and cosmopolitan interaction  was regrettable, but was part of the antique way of thinking in which individual liberty in a city rested on virtue, state enforcement of public behaviour, as was the responsibility of Roman ‘censors’, and  detachment from money making activities. Liberty could only fully existed where an aristocracy accustomed to self restraint dominated institutions in which the recklessness of the lower classes and the greed of those trying to rise up could be held down.

It was difficult for Cicero to imagine strong laws and institutions, as able to guarantee liberty, except in a society where the rapid innovations and changes of trade and commerce were sufficiently dampened to allow the old to remain in place. There are modern problems in integrating effective laws and institutions with change and variety, and no one had an obviously better idea of how find a balance than Cicero did in antiquity.

Riding Coach Through Atlas Shrugged: Part 4 – Governor’s Ball

Pages 48 – 53

Chapter Summary – A group of industrialists sit around a shadowy table plotting the downfall of our favorite rugged individualist.

[Part 3]

I love how cliché this chapter is. Four figures sitting around a table, their faces shrouded in darkness as they scheme over the fate of the world, the sycophant politician sniveling his consent to their plans. This is one of those times where I am not quite sure if the fiction created the trope or the fiction is following the trope but it is okay either way, it is delightful to read.

We have at our table:

James Taggert: Who is far less whiny when not in the presence of his sister.

Orren Boyle: Our socialist-industrialist representative in the story.

Wesley Mouch: Our aforementioned politician, in the pay of Hank Rearden but in the pocket of Orren Boyle.

And finally -

Paul Larkin: The man at Rearden’s dinner party last chapter.

Essentially they spend the chapter plotting against Hank Rearden and promoting a philosophy of non-competition among businesses. From a historical standpoint this is essentially what happened with Hoover and the industrialists leading up to the great depression. A series of price and wage controls were set up that distorted normal market activity leading to the boom-and-bust cycle as described by Ludwig von Mises. As a side-note it is an interesting historical misconception that Hoover “did nothing” during the great depression. Hoover was arguably the most meddling president up to that point in regards to the economy except perhaps for Abraham Lincoln, but total economic warfare is hard to beat.

But to get back on track here, for what it lacks in literary creativity this chapter makes up for with pure economic and political insight that is delightful to read. The most illuminating part is a speech, or perhaps rant, by Orren Boyle that goes as follows, some of Taggert’s responses are edited out for brevity:

“Listen Jim…” He began heavily.

“Jim, you will agree, I’m sure, that there’s nothing more destructive than a monopoly.”

“Yes.” Said Taggart, “on the one hand. On the other, theres the blight of unbridled competition.”

“That’s true. That’s very true. The proper course is always, in my opinion, in the middle. So it is, I think, the duty of society to snip the extremes, now isn’t it.”

“Yes,” said Taggart, “it isn’t fair.”

“Most of us don’t own iron mines: How can we compete with a man who’s got a corner on God’s natural resources? Is it any wonder that he can always deliver steel, while we have to struggle and wait and lose our customers and go out of business? Is it in the public interest to let one man destroy an entire industry?”

“No,” said Taggart, “it isn’t.”

“It seems to me that the national policy ought to be aimed at the objective of giving everybody a chance at his fair share of iron ore, with a view towards the preservation of the industry as a whole. Don’t you think so?”

“I think so.”

This exchange is a fantastic summary of the process involved when the government gives special privileges to favored industries under the guise of regulation. Essentially Rearden is out-competing his fellow steel producers and since they cannot compete under market conditions they intend to compete politically by ham-stringing his business through the legal process.

This process has happened time and time again throughout history and the ironic part is that these actions have almost universally been heralded as “anti-business” when in fact it is the businesses itself that propose this regulation. The first anti-monopoly laws in America were lobbied for by the competitors of the successful oil, rail, and steel businesses which resulted in the *rise* in prices of those goods. It seemed the “natural” monopolies were pro-consumer while the regulation was pro-business.

There are also historical comparisons to be made to the great depression. The whole concept of “protecting an industry” at the expense of a single, productive, individual was the cornerstone of “Hoover-nomics” especially in the farm industry. The industrial revolution brought about a massive increase in farming productivity which naturally led to a decline in prices and a surplus of labor in that industry that came to a head during the “dirty thirties”.

The natural course of the market would be for inefficient firms in that industry to liquidate; with the entrepreneurs and workforce moving to other industries. This would cause a short period of transitional unemployment as workers moved into similar or growing industries while the more efficient firms and prospective entrepreneurs would buy the liquidated capital goods of the inefficient businesses at a discount.

Consumer goods prices would fall to equilibrium where only firms able to produce goods below that price would be able to maintain production. This would have the net effect of expanding the labor pool and be a net gain for society as new areas of production would be made available by the increases in productivity. Instead, Hoover organized industrial cartels that maintained price and wage controls over the entire economy propping up inefficient businesses that continued to waste and malinvest resources resulting in what we know today as the great depression.

To summarize, this chapter is a fantastic must read five page tour de force of economic insight.

Next chapter: More Dagny, more snark, and more family drama.

Human Nature, War and Armed Conflict

The list of ongoing armed conflicts in the worlds is long ( see for example and has been long for centuries. There are many websites and research institutes that keep track of their number, the parties involved, the main issues, et cetera. There are many different definitions of war and armed conflict. Here, wars are simply defined as armed conflicts with participation of one or more states whose sovereignty is internationally recognized, whereas armed conflicts do not require state involvement.  Armed conflicts have always been around in great numbers, often state-sponsored, for example the numerous and seemingly never ending conflicts in the Middle East, or recently in Northern Africa following the so-called Arab Spring. The recent collapse of Libya into civil war may serve as evidence.     

The number of interstate wars dramatically decreased after the end of the Cold war, giving stimulus to loads of academic papers about democratic or liberal peace. Yet this era might well be over, given the situation in the Ukraine, but also many explosive situations in North-East Asia and South-East Asia. 

Academic research resulted in a long and varied list of possible causes for wars and armed conflicts.  Think for example of geopolitical factors (land, borders), natural resources (oil, gas, mines), population related issues (minorities of other countries living in a particular area, people demanding  their own country), religious conflicts, the protection of one’s own people abroad, global political reasons (participation is war as a consequence of an alliance, or to preserve the balance of power), humanitarian reasons (genocide), et cetera. In contrast to popular belief, wars and conflicts are often multicausal, so there is not just a single but a number of reasons for their initiation and continuation.  

 War and conflict are the result of human action. Despite all the peace talks and agreements, treaties, other forms of international law, arbitration, the work of international organizations, and the pre-emptive actions by great powers in world politics, war and armed conflicts have never been eradicated. So it seems fair to assume this has something to do with human nature as well. Here the literature is much smaller, perhaps as a consequence of the dominant belief (at least in the Western world) in rational human beings capable to overcome war and armed conflict. As a matter of fact international relations as an academic discipline owes much of its origin to this idea. After the First World War many academic positions and departments were established, with the explicit aim to search for ways to prevent such disasters from happening again. Unsurprisingly, without much result.    

 The ‘human are guided by rationality thesis’ has been defended by many liberals in the American tradition (also known as social liberals or high liberals) and some libertarians as well. In fact most liberal IR theories are based on this idea. However, the idea that that human beings and conflict cannot be separated has been prominent in the writings of classical liberals such as Hume, Smith, Hayek and Mises, but also by Ayn Rand.  Interestingly, for this latter position there is now increasing evidence from other academic disciplines, such as psychology and neurosciences. For example the famous book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, or more specifically War and Human Nature by Stephen Peter Rosen, Thayer’s Darwin and International Relations, or Donelan’s Honor in Foreign Policy.

 While much more work needs to be done in this field, it is safe to conclude that liberals should not think about how to abolish war. Instead, the relevant question is how to deal and limit the inevitable occurrence and continuance of war and armed conflicts.


Pois é, pessoal. Tenho que agradecer ao convite do Brandon, mas desde o início, com tanta coisa para fazer, eu sabia que não iria conseguir colaborar muito aqui. Deu no que deu: tenho que me despedir porque não quero manter um compromisso que não consigo cumprir. 

Boa sorte ao blog e, mais uma vez, obrigado!!

More on the inherent conservatism of the Left

I’ve blogged about the reactionary nature of the Left before, and in 2012 I went so far as to write, in response to a Marxist historian’s essay on capitalism and gay identity, that:

Capitalism has brought about the [gay rights] movement’s flourishing, and the government is holding it back. This fact is true not just in the realm of gay identity, but in the realm of all other social, political, and economic aspects of as well. Leftists would also do well to remember that their movement, as it stands now, as it stood three decades ago, is, for all intents and purposes, one of conservatism, obstinate ignorance, and embarrassing causality.

Many others have noticed the reactionary nature of the hard Left as well (and don’t forget to read Rick’s thoughtful musings on the Left-Right divide), but it is always nice to come across writings that bolster one’s own argument. James Peron has more on “The Lament of the Conservative Left” in the Huffington Post. Riffing off of an article by the prominent socialist David Selbourne, Peron writes:

Note the disdain for individual social freedom as being “without regard to the interests of the social order as a whole.” Doesn’t that sound just like a religious conservative?


Socialism was not a “revolutionary” alternative to liberalism. It was a conservative reaction against it. Ludwig Mises said: “It was Liberalism that undermined the power of the classes that had for centuries been closely bound up with the Church. It transformed the world more than Christianity had ever done. It restored humanity to the world and to life. It awakened forces which shook the foundations of the inert traditionalism on which Church and creed rested.”


Socialism [...] grabbed the methods of conservatism, embracing state power as the means of planning permissable changes and preventing others. It embraced change to a limited degree, unlike conservatives, but wanted to direct it. Liberalism, to the socialist, meant unplanned change. It was this concept of an “invisible hand” that disturbed them. The socialist, in his heart, is a conservative, just one who wants some of what liberalism has to offer.

Indeed. Read the rest, and remember: “Liberalism” in much of the world means “classical liberalism” rather than the ideology of the Democrat Party in the United States.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Euripides’ Tragedy Ion

Euripides lived from about 480 BCE to 406 BCE. Though he is one of the three great figures of Athenian tragedy, along with Aeschylus and Sophocles, who have already been discussed, he may have been born outside Athens and died outside Athens.  This relatively mobile life is itself an issue at a time when identity with the city of one’s both and ancestors was  taken very seriously, and it was very difficult for anyone not born of parents of that city on both sides to become a citizen and participate in politics. It is an issue considered in the play considered here.

Euripides’ way of writing is distinct from that of Aeschylus and Sophocles, in that it is more discursive, with long prologues and characters speaking in short essays sometimes. There is less of the feeling than in Aeschylus and Sophocles of writing that is purely poetic and arises unreflectively from a world of myth, gods, and heroes. We should not think of Aeschylus and Sophocles as spontaneous poets of a mythical world view, there is a reflective designed element. Anyway, in Euripides we are likely to feel more part of a world of conscious reflection and debate on the limits of the customs and laws of the time. The mythical is not absent, but is more open to question. The writing style is more like an assembly of short essays joined by dramatic action, which is a slightly harsh way of distinguishing Euripides from the more continuous intense poetry of the other two great Attic tragedians.

More plays survive by Euripides than the other two writers of tragedies, and I hope to turn to some of those later in this series. For an entry in the Euripidean world, Ion is ideal form the point of view of questioning of the politics and religion of the time. The background to the play is that the God Apollo, also referred to as Phoebus, made the young woman Creusa pregnant.  She abandoned the resulting baby boy and believes him to have died. Apollo arranges for the boy to be raised as a servant at his temple in Delphi. The temple is connected with the Delphic Oracle, one of the major institutions of the ancient Greek world and one of the few things giving some unity to the great number of Greek states, along with the Olympic games. The oracles was a woman speaking in a riddling manner, whose words were interpreted  by priests. People came from all over the greek world to hear the prophecies and use them as advise. This include state representatives considering issues like war, so the Oracle has a political function, and may have been manipulated to serve political purposes.

Euripides does not engage directly with the political role of the  Oracle, but the story of Ion revolves around the mythical history of Athens and the early Greek states. Ion is the name of the boy abandoned by Creusa. Creausa comes to the temple with her husband Xuthus when Ion is a young man, with no idea of what has happened to him. Xuthus is a powerful man in Athens, who came from outside the city, but became an important citizen after helping the city to victory in war.

When Xuthus sees Ion at the temple, he is misled by a prophecy of Apollo into believing that Ion is his son, by a brief liaison at a festivity. He makes this belief clear to Ion and invites him to come to Athens as his son and heir, since he has had no children with Creusa. Ion has doubts about going to Athens because of the issue f excluding foreigners from public life, but is assured that that he will be able to speak in public debates. So we see an indication of how citizenship was seen in Athens in the time of the great tragedies, which is to say as participating in public affairs on the basis of a right and duty to speak one’s mind as far as it is directed to issues of the public good.

Creusa does not realise that Ion is her son and when he realises that Xuthus will take him up as his son and heir is angered that a stranger is taking over her family.  She plots to kill Ion with poison. This looming crime and its motives refers both to an ancient Greek tendency to see women as driven by uncontrolled dangerous passions, and to an expectation that the woman has some rights in the marriage and the family that should not be violated. When Ion discovers her murderous intentions, she flees to an alter where she cannot be killed without sacrilege, indicating the role that ideas of divine force and protection had in the  Greek understanding of law. Apollo sends Athena, the goddess associated with Athens, to prevent the sacrilegious murder by explaining that Ion is the son of Creusa and not Xuthus. Ion and Creusa are reconciled, but Xuthus is not informed of the truth. He is allowed to continue to believe that Ion is his biological son. The lie is excused with the suggestion that Ion is his son  by a gift of Apollo.

The play suggests that the interventions of the gods are full of deception and force, so casts some doubt on the perfection of the gods, and on divine justice. That is practice means casting doubt on the foundation of customs and laws, suggesting that they can be debated according to the rights of citizens in Athens that concern Ion. The idea of a city unified by common ancestry rather than residence and citizenship is questioned.

It is the mother who links Ion to Athens through descent and though she is portrayed as murderous, her son’s anger is no less demented and dangerous, so at least suggesting some sense that both men and women need to restrain their most destructive impulse.  she is allowed to known the truth and bears the burden of Apollo’s seduction, or even rape, and subsequent abandonment. It is the priestess of the temple who starts to lead Creusa towards the truth, which is fully explained by Athena.

Euripides expresses the need to question the grip of myth, archaic law, and ancestral custom if there is to be public truth and political justice. He shows some awareness that a community rests on the participation of women not just their subordination to men, even if he does not erectly challenge that subordination. He suggests that violent revenge must be constrained not just by the divine order, which also sets up cycles of revenge, but more by recognition of truth, rational discussion, and debate about the public good, with the possibility of integration of outsiders into a community of free debate about laws and the good of the city.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Sophocles, the Tragedies of Oedipus and Antigone

Sophocles (496-406BCE) was the second of the three great tragedian of ancient Athens, the first, Aeschylus, was discussed in my last post.  Sophocles is best known for a group of three plays known as the Theban plays, referring to the city of Thebes, which was one of major states of Ancient Greece when it was divided between many city states.

The three Theban plays should not be thought of as a trilogy strictly speaking. Ancient Greek tragedies were written in trilogies, but these plays were written separately at different times. They are what is left over from a number of trilogies by Sophocles, as is normal with ancient authors many of his texts are lost. The three plays fit together as story, but do not have the level of integration of plays written together for performance as a trilogy at the competitions where tragedies were initially staged.

The Theban plays refer to the royal family of Thebes, round King Oedipus, who provides the title of the first play. The title strictly speaking is Oedipus Tyrannos. That ‘tyrannous’ is normally translated as ‘king’ rather than ‘tyrant’ is an interesting comment in itself on ancient Greek politics and ideas about politics.

The philosopers writing in Athens, at the same time as the great tragedies were staged, developed the idea of a ‘tyrant’ as a negative form of political authority, even a monstrous form of authority in which one man rules according to personal desires, unrestrained by custom, law, morality, and institutions.

However, one of those philosophers Plato accepted tyrants into his school, and made a notoriously failed attempt to bring the tyrant of the Greek colony of Syracuse in Greece round to the idea of ruing with Platonic wisdom and justice. It is not just the view of anti-democrats like Plato that tyrants might have some element of legitimacy in some contexts.

The sixth century Athenian tyrant Pisistratus had some respect as a strong ruler with just intentions who reformed Athenian institution.  ın the ancient Greek world a tyrant might still accept a citizens’ assembly and other well established institutions, so that the tyranny was focused on one person control of government rather than the complete subordination of every aspect of that city-state to arbitrary individual will.

The Theban plays are: Oedipus the KingOedipus at Colonus. The story of Oedipus has become very famous, even for those who have never read or watched an ancient Greek tragedy. It also exists in varying forms going back to a brief mention in Homer’s Odyssey. The version in Sophocles is that a a king and queen of Thebes faced with a prophecy that their son will kill the father arrange for him to be exposed and die in the mountains.

The royal servant assigned to the task passes the infant Oedipus onto to a shepherd instead and Oedipus in the end becomes the adoptive son of the king and queen of Corinth. Discovering a prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus unaware that the royal couple who raised him are not his biological parents flees and ends up in Thebes where he kills man outside the city, who he later realises is his father King Laius. He then frees the city of a monster, the Sphinx.

Unaware that Oedipus killed their king, or that he is the son of that king, the people of Thebes offer him the vacant throne and marriage to the king’s widow Jocasta. So Oedipus unwittingly marries his mother after killing his father. The play Oedipus the King opens with a plague in Thebes and Oedipus’ search for the reason. The prophet Tireseas is forced to reveal his knowledge, which is that the gods are punishing Thebes for the stain of association with Oedipus, the stain of his unwitting crimes.

Oedipus suspects Jocasta’s brother, Creon, of a arranging the story as part of a conspiracy to take power. In this respect the play deals with the danger of a ruler who is given great power for good reasons, but becomes abusive and paranoiac in his use of that power. Oedipus’ further investigations lead to the confirmation of the story from Tireseas that he had rejected. Jocasta commits suicide and Oedipus goes into exile after blinding himself. In this way, the play suggests that tyranny is self-destructive as well as destructive of the state over which it is exercised. It also suggests the need to expel a ruler who threatens both the welfare of the city and restraints on his power. 

Oedipus at Colonus deals with the exile of Oedipus, in which he is protected by the king of Athens from persecution by Creon who has now taken power. As with Aeschylus, we see that Attic tragedy defends the role of Athens as ‘educator of Greece’ (a saying attributed to Pericles as explained in the post before the last one), even while having a critique of power.

Oedipus dies in a way that suggests he is close to the gods, and we can see another layer in the story of the tyrant. As a monster of some kind, Oedipus belongs outside the city state and when he is outside the city, he is in touch with a justice superior to that of the city, which belongs to human communities before state imposed laws. The divine power associated with such laws is, however, dangerous when associated with individual power using the organised violence of the state.

It is Antigone that is usually most associated with ideas of liberty, but I hope that remarks on the two other plays show how they have many ideas about the nature of law and liberty, and the dangers posed by political power. Antigone is the story of Oedipus’ daughter of that name and her resistance to the tyrannical tendencies of Creon.

Her brothers Polyneices and Eteocles had struggled for control of Thebes, ending in the death of both as Poyneices attacks the city, when it is held by Eteocles. Creon decrees that Polyneices cannot be buried with proper ritual and his body should be left outside the city for the wild animals to eat. This was an appalling prospect for ancient Greeks, and the desire for soldiers to avoid such a fate is a major theme of Homer’s Iliad.

Antigone insists on mourning her brother and attending to his corpse in the normal manner. Her defiance of Creon leads to Creon imprisoning  her in a tomb, where she commits suicide. The violence with which he imposes his will leads to the suicide of Antigone’s fiancé who is the son of Creon and then the suicide of Creon’s wife.

In the end Creon learns to accept the advice of Tireseas, the prophet persecuted by Oedipus, and to moderate his insistence on pushing his powers to the extreme. Antigone is the heroine of the customary, and even divine, law of Greece which precedes the edicts of tyrants like Creon, so can be seen as the defender of justice against laws based on political power rather than on the basic principles of human justice, what is often referred to since Aristotle as natural law.

There are questions about how far the original audience would have seen Antigone as a character to be admired though. The society was intensely patriarchal and women defying the authority of men was a horrifying prospect. Perhaps the dramatic context provided an opportunity to push at the limits of the ideas normal to audience, maybe it just allowed them to think that one of the dangers of bad government is that it produces mad dangerous woman, and the play does portray Antigone as unhealthily obsessed with death.

She can be seen as a heroine of justice, and is often taken as a symbol of justice above the state, by those of classical liberal and libertarian persuasion, but others as well. She might also be taken as a symbol of conflicts over justice taken to a dangerous and self-destructive extreme, so that she is guilty as well as Creon, before he learns measure and moderation in the use of power. In any case, there is much to think about with regard to law and liberty in these plays, and it is important to recognise the ‘thinking about’ and not just impose simple interpretations inattentive to the details of the plays. Judgements of liberty and justice require respect for context and particularity. 

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Aeschylus, Tragedy and the Oresteia

Ancient Athens was the place where the comic and tragic traditions in western drama began. Aeschylus (c. 525 BCE to c. 456) was the first of three great tragedians. The other two will be considered in the next two posts. The work of those three is often known as Attic tragedy, with reference to the region of Attica which contains Athens and was part of the lands of the Athenian city-state at that time. The idea of a city state with extensive land outside the city might sound oxymoronic, but city states which expanded into neighbouring territory and where power still rested in institutions of city self-government, are generally still referred to as city states.

The tragedies were performed in day long festivals, which included religious sacrifices, and heavy consumption of wine.  Festivals took place in an outdoor theatre, the amphitheatre, examples of which can still be seen in Athens and other places where remains of ancient Greek cities can be found. The festivals were dedicated to the god Dionysus, associated with intoxication, ecstasy, death, and rebirth. Actors wore masks with stereotypical expressions so that audiences were looking at a depersonalised performance, not a recognisable  individual actor giving a personal interpretation of a role.

The amphitheatre was large enough to contain the citizens of the city state (women and slaves excluded of course) and were a form of common city life in which a very large part those allowed to participate did participate, as they did in political assemblies and religious festivals. Plays were generally only performed once as part of a competition and the day was divided between groups of plays by one author.  Some tragedians emerged as particularly distinguished, so there plays were performed again and their texts survived. That is the authors discussed in these posts.

So we can see that ancient Greek theatre was very far from how we normally experience theatre,  and performances of Attic tragedies now are inevitably far removed from the ancient experience, even if some original aspects are sometimes emphasised. We cannot now have a completely ‘authentic’ experience of ancient performance, but we can at least keep in mind the ancient context.

It is one of many fascinating aspects of ancient Athens, and other ancient Greek city states, that some kind of aesthetic performance was a regular feature of common life. The idea of art as a very distinct part of life did not really exist in the way it does now, but the idea of a particular sphere of art, ‘poetics’, did grow in the philosophy of the time, as can be seen in Plato and Aristotle.

One reason I find it difficult to place Plato in a liberty canon, even if for a long time he was seen as an exponent of government free of lawless immoral tyranny, is that he had a very negative view of tragedy, though he appears to have respect for the tragedian Sophocles, at least, as a personality. My decision to take Aristotle as the starting point of this series was connected with his appreciation of tragedy, which is at the centre of his work on the arts, the Poetics. 

It is also one reason why despite Aristotle’s own undoubtedly strong aristocratic tendencies, I see some connection with democratic ideas in his thought. He emphasised the value of a literary form  that gathered together all free males, and where they indulged in the most mobbish low life behaviour of excessive drinking and festivity.

Of course there are many things to appreciate about Attic tragedy other than its political concerns, but it is form of literature and performance very tied up with the political debates of ancient Athens. It shows politics to be deep in the lives of human communities and to be part of choices we have to make about laws and justice, providing great dangers where the wrong choices are made and to allow human flourishing where better choices are made.  These choices are given enormous individual and communal resonance.

This post will concentrate on the Oresteia, a trilogy Aeschylus originally wrote for festival performance. When this long historical sequence of posts reaches a conclusion of some sort, it should be possible to come back to some of the other plays. The three plays within the Oresteia are Agamemnon, Libation Bearers and Eumenides (Kindly Ones).

Like many other tragedies, these plays pick up on stories in the epics attributed to Homer, and which appeared a few centuries before the time of the Attic tragedies. They refer themselves to the Mycenaean-Bronze Age Greek world of the previous century, focused around a story of a league of Greek kings laying siege to a city in western Anatolia, and then the long journey home of the most cunning of those kings.

The Homeric story at the root of the Oresteia is the return home of King Agamemnon, in which he is murdered by his wife and her lover. Such an act was even  more horrifying for the original audience than it is for us, since it was a transgression of sacralised bonds of  obedience and fidelity applied to married women in relation to their husbands. Even the horror of that original audience at Clytemnestra’s act must have been in some way made ambiguous though, by the knowledge that Agamemnon had sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia, ten years earlier, so that a wind would come to take the Greek boats to Troy.

The son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra,  Orestes takes revenge and kills both murderous wife and lover, as he was bound to do according to the expectations of the time.  There are various versions of the story, but the distinct aspect of the version of Aeschylus is that horror of a cycle of acts of violence in which each act can seek justification in revenge, and the demands of divine justice. Even the patriarchal Athenians must have thought of Clytemnestra’s act or murder as having some measure of justification in Agamemnon’s violence against their daughter, though perhaps seeing her more as an instrument for the anger of divine forces than as an individual justified in her choices.

The focus will now be on Aeschylus’ trilogy rather than the general story behind it appearing in many different texts. In Aeschylus, the divine forces communing a justice of violent retribution outside any legal process, are the furies, monstrous female creatures independent even of the gods, enforcing justice that exists outside any laws created by human institutions. In this case, the furies are more tied to the rights of the mother than to the revenge rights on her of the son.  They wish to destroy Orestes, and he can only avoid this by fleeing from Argos (in the Peloponnesus) northwards towards Athens, where he can seek more measured justice.

In Athens, the court that judges Orestes is balanced between citizens of Athens and the furies. The casting vote belongs to Pallas Athena, the celibate goddess associated with Athens, with wisdom and with war, though she is not the chief deity of war. The citizens take the side of Orestes while the furies continued their demands for his blood. Athena’s casting vote rescues Orestes, whose reasons for killing his mother are deemed adequate, by Athena though she admits to  a bias because she was born from Zeus without a mother. This follows on from the earlier comments of Orestes’ protector, the god Apollo, that a mother is a nurse of a child rather than a parent equal with the father .

However, the trial is not just a defeat for the furies and the rights of women, since Athena turns them into the ‘kindly ones’, protectors and enforcers of the laws of Athens. They present themselves during the trial as protectors of old laws against new, but accept the idea of a new role upholding law and piety in Athens. Orestes swears to never harm Athens, the city of Athena, so in some sense accepts a female authority, even if one who places herself on the side of the father against the mother.

The role given to Athens and Athena is a an expression of the view of Pericles, discussed in the last post, as reported by Thucydides, that Athens was the teacher of Greece, and the relation between Athens and its allies in which they subsidised the building of the Parthenon temple in honour of Athena, and accepted Athens as the final judge of legal disputes.

Aeschylus provides a mythical foundation for the main law court in Athens, the Areopagus, since during the trial, Athena proclaims that the court assembled will continue indefinitely as an institution of the city. The court was regarded as aristocratic because judges came from the educated upper class and had previously served in some high public office. One of the reasons Plato, Aristotle and others criticised Athenian democracy was that it was suspicious of Areopagus, transferring some of its functions to the city assembly and large citizen juries .

The most obvious thrust of the Oresteia with regard to ideas of liberty is the deep ‘divine’ significance of legal institutions within the community, in preference to individual execution of archaic codes of revenge. Though the case excuses Orestes for killing his mother, the case along with the founding of a sacralised court, also undermines the basis of his individual act of revenge and Agamemnon’s belief that he could decide to ignore the sanctity of life and his bond to his daughter, because of a wish to assuage divine forces.

Though the trilogy presents a world view which is patriarchal in an extreme way, it does allow female voices with distinct views to speak  and though we should be very careful indeed about importing modern feminist and egalitarian views into the play, it is hard to believe that Aeschylus and his audiences were not at least a little troubled by male violence, and interested in the idea of a an elevated role for women in developing a law governed community, beyond the role of priestesses, which was the obvious first association. Not that they were interested in doing so outside the play, but that the trilogy enabled them to explore, a little bit, ideas at odds with their deeply held customs.

The Oresteia does definitely offer the idea that legal and institution innovation can be necessary at times to satisfy the deepest requirements of justice, while also emphasising respect and reverence for the laws of Athens in Aeschylus’ own time. There is a something of a duality of attitude to law, that is law divided between what is above debate and change and what is a product of debate and change  That is the necessary frame of any liberty oriented debate about law and legal institutions.

Individual Sovereignty

Individual sovereignty means that it is evil for any other person to interfere with one’s honest and peaceful choices. This prescription comes from natural moral law, as expressed by the universal ethic:

1) “Harm” means a invasion into another’s domain.
2) All acts, and only those acts, which coercively harm others, are evil.
3) Welcomed benefits are good.
4) All other acts are morally neutral.

Natural moral law is derived from human individuality and equality, and the premise of equality implies individual sovereignty. For if one is not sovereign, some other person has the moral authority to be a master, and equality does not exist. Individual sovereignty is moral equality taken to its logical conclusion. The concept of “self ownership” is the same as individual sovereignty.

Because individual sovereignty derives from the universal ethic and its premise of human equality, it does not imply that a sovereign individual may do anything he pleases. A self-owner may not impose coercive harm on others. One may do as one pleases so long as one’s actions are honest and peaceful. An honest action does not coercively harm others through fraud.

“A person has a functioning mind and the actual or potential ability to make choices based on reason and awareness” (Dictionary of Free-Market Economics). Young children have such minds and are therefore also sovereign. But the ability to use reason is something that develops as children mature, and therefore the parents have a responsibility to exercise some of the sovereignty rights on behalf of their children. Conversely, creating a child also creates a moral obligation of the parent to provide judgment as well as material needs for their children. Upon some age of maturity, the child becomes a fully sovereign human being.

In political theory monarchs have been said to be sovereign, and are called “the Sovereign”. But even if the king has absolute legal power, he is a human being equal to all others, and any coercive power he has over others is a usurpation of individual sovereignty.

When republics and democracies replaced absolute monarchs, the state and its government were said to be sovereign. A country is sovereign when there is no other political body above it. In the United States, the federal and state governments have parallel sovereignty, and the native Indian nations are supposed to have some elements of national sovereignty. The US federal government has entered into treaty obligations and has joined international organizations such as the United Nations and World Trade Organization, but it could withdraw from these organizations and treaties, as the UN and WTO have no sovereignty, but only delegated powers.

Power is always exercised by individual persons, not by mental constructs. Governments and states are mental constructs, having no reality other than what people believe. If a government exercises its sovereign power, in reality, it is the president or prime minister applying the forces of government, ultimately its army, police, and prison guards. Arbitrary state power is ultimately the unequal power of some individuals over others. There is no moral authority or legitimacy for government other than to enforce the universal ethic, which implies that it is immoral for government to interfere with peaceful and honest individual sovereignty. If government makes theft legally a crime, it is already morally a crime, and government simply acts as an agent of the people to enforce moral law, although if it does that, the financing must also be moral.

Therefore individual sovereignty implies peaceful anarchism, with no imposed government, because even if the government confines itself to enforcing the universal ethic, the rulers are human beings who have no greater wisdom, in general, than others, and they could end up imposing their wills to alter peaceful choices. Therefore, pure equality implies that there be no rulers imposed on unwilling persons.

Anarchism, as the absence of imposed government, does not imply chaos and disorder, as connoted by the unfortunate other meaning of “anarchy”. Human beings have always lived in organized communities. In anarchism, most people would join associations such as condominiums, cooperatives, and proprietary communities (owners with tenants). These local communities would federate into broader or higher associations, ultimately covering a continent or the whole planet. The benefit of government – a uniform rule of law – would be provided, without its fatal flaw, the denial of individual sovereignty.

One more element of individual sovereignty needs to be addressed: the issue of land ownership. Self-ownership implies the ownership of one’s labor, the products of labor, and the wages of labor. But self-ownership does not apply to nature, all that is apart from persons and human action. The premise of human equality implies that all persons own an equal share of the benefits of natural resources, and that can be accomplished by collecting the economic rent of land, its yield when put to optimal use, and distributing that rent equally.

The local site rentals, generated by the local population, commerce, and public goods, would be paid to the community’s providers of civic goods. The multi-level federations of voluntary communities and associations would implement the collection of land rent and local rentals, and this geo-anarchism would provide the funding needed to implement the voluntary governance.

Individual sovereignty is therefore feasible and is consistent with, and indeed best generates, peace and prosperity. Wars, such as in the Middle East, would cease if most people recognized individual sovereignty and equal rights to natural benefits, rather than fight over the coercively collective and fictitious sovereignty of states.
This article first appeared in

Classifying America: Government’s Power to Define is the Power to Discriminate

In one of the most famous phrases uttered by a Supreme Court justice, Potter Stewart defended his ruling in an obscenity case (1964) by refusing to offer a clear definition. Instead, he stated:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be [hard-core pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” (emphasis added)

Judges can make such decisions on a case by case basis. Legal concepts don’t lend themselves to strict classifications that can be ruled upon robotically by men and women in black robes.

The administrative apparatus of the U.S. government (federal, state and local) is another matter. Collectively, the bureaucracies of this sprawling Leviathan extract and expend over $6 trillion annually. (For a folksy way of explaining that sum to friends and family, see my essay “The Power of Numbers: Simplify! Simplify!”)

Government spending does not capture the reach and power of U.S. bureaucracies. With so much legislative power delegated to administrative agencies, these agencies have become bureaucratic oligarchs. Regulations, unfunded mandates, distributions and preferences for some groups require detailed, complex, and often arbitrary definitions concocted by “public servants” cloaked in anonymity. These mid-level bureaucrats possess the immense power to define and classify. To define a group as eligible for benefits or preferences is to exclude those outside the group of the same treatment. Equal protection of the law goes out the window as individuals or business in government-defined preferential groups benefit from “affirmative discrimination” while those not-so-defined suffer.

Yet, here is the dirty secret of the State: the definitions upon which so many programs and policies are based are at their root LIES. For example: Congress called upon agencies to use objective criteria to determine the definition of a “small business” or a “disadvantaged group”; yet, mid-level bureaucrats simply made the classifications based on prejudice, convenience or a seat-of-the-pants judgment! We live with the consequences of categories that objectively have little or no meaning. To paraphrase a popular TV show title, the administrative state is a “House of Lies.” Challenging the basis of definition is an effective way of demonstrating that “the Emperor (State) has no clothes” when it purports to aid groups that it made out of thin air.

The problem of defining groups is the “problem with no name” in policy circles. I first encountered this fundamental problem when writing a history of the Small Business Administration (Big Government and Affirmative Action: The Scandalous History of the Small Business Administration, 2001). The agency had tens of billions of dollars to disburse or award annually but first it had to define “small.” [This problem is worldwide—one rather long book discussed the many definitions of “small” enterprise under governments around the world—even in the communist sector! (Hertz, In Search of a Small Business Definition: An Exploration of the Small-business definitions of the U.S., the U.K., Israel and the People's Republic of China, 1982)] Excerpts from my book highlight the dilemma:

“The small business community fell into the category of a large group with conflicting internal interests. What did a ‘Mom-and-Pop’ grocery have in common with a ‘small’ manufacturer employing hundreds of people in a high-tech industry? At what point did a ‘small’ business become a ‘big’ business?” “The public definition of small business encompassed ‘Mom-and-Pop’ firms with fewer than ten employees, yet SBA size standards included companies with hundreds or even thousands of employees because they were ‘small’ within their industry.”

A company once defined as “small” could retain those benefits even if it grew well beyond the size standard. Who was going to check? Being defined as “small” meant the SBA discriminated against those businesses that were not “small.” So, what is a “big” business to do? Purchase or control a “small” firm defined as such by the government. The subsidiary will front for lucrative contracts “set aside” for small business. (Yes, America’s largest corporations engage in this fraud). This isn’t illegal because the SBA doesn’t routinely remove firms from the “small” category

Aye, there is the rub. In a stinging critique of the SBA’s scandalous behavior, The New Republic put forth “TRB’s law of scandals, which holds that the real outrage isn’t what’s illegal: it’s what’s legal.

The SBA was also an early pioneer in defining racial groups that did not exist under statutory law until agency bureaucrats subverted the Civil Rights Act, which demanded no discrimination based on group status. SBA bureaucrats, together with their counterparts at other agencies, set about transforming a nondiscrimination law into a vehicle of government-sponsored discrimination. There is no better demonstration that we are ruled by bureaucrats than this outright contempt for the plain meaning of the Civil Rights Act passed by Congress and signed by the president.

The use of group definitions is most disturbing when it touches upon race, color, creed or national origin. In Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader, 2009), I anthologized the classical liberal struggle for liberty and equality regardless of group status. When Frederick Douglass married a white woman, the Washington Post questioned whether his doing so disrespected “the colored people, who look to you as a leader.” Douglass retorted that his skin color was irrelevant: “I am not an African, as may be seen from my features and hair, and it is equally easy to discern that I am not a Caucasian.” “I conceive that there is no division of races. God Almighty made but one race. . . . You may say that Frederick Douglass considers himself a member of the one race that exists.”

Douglass’s colorblind self-definition epitomized that element of the classical liberal tradition of civil rights—one that even the NAACP held to as late as the 1960s when it rejected all government racial classifications as a step backward toward discrimination.

Yet here we are today with racial classifications that conceal the divisions within the so-called “races.” The SBA ran into this problem in the 1970s. In a rare moment of clarity, someone at the SBA wrote that:

“This principle [of racial classification] could have sweeping implication through the social order. There might also be administrative problems in applying a purely racial or ethnic standard. Would a person who is one-quarter Indian be eligible? One-sixteenth? How is racial background proven? Who is a Spanish-speaking American?”

Who remembers that today’s category of “Hispanic” was preceded by “Spanish-speaking American” and “Spanish-surnamed American”? Do any of these groups have any meaning other than to discriminate for some and against others?

In a recent op-ed, “The Triumph and Trashing of the Civil Rights Act,” I summarized how the revival of racial classifications made possible the division of America into racial blocs.

“This mischief was made possible by the creation of arbitrarily-defined racial categories. The Civil Rights Act did not list any groups by name. Regardless of group status, there was to be no discrimination. Categories such as ‘Negro’ (later Black, African American), Mexican (later Spanish-speaking, Spanish-surnamed and lastly, Hispanic) came after the fact. This process of ‘check boxing’ America began in 1965, when bureaucrats . . . placed racial categories on government forms. Armed with check boxes, bureaucrats, judges and politicians treated individuals differently based on their group status—plainly prohibited by the Civil Rights Act.”

Sadly, the Supreme Court dithers on the issue of whether racial “diversity” practices are constitutional or not. Noting the illogic of racial classification, Justices Scalia and Thomas point out the legal nonsense of courts accepting dubious racial classifications: “Does a half-Latino, half-American Indian have Latino interests, American-Indian interests, both, half of both?” (See my op-ed “Are Some Groups More Equal Than Others?”)

Here is the lie of government classification: definitions that are so vague, broad and absurd (“Spanish-Surnamed?”) beg for mockery. Advocates of liberty need to strike at the root by pointing out the absurdity of classifications underlying so many policies. Arguing about whether the policies are good or bad, help a “group” or not are pointless: if the group doesn’t exist or isn’t worth recognizing, then any further debate is moot!

This rather lengthy post offered two examples of the fallacy and folly of government classification. If “small” business doesn’t exist, then abolish the SBA. If the government can’t define race in a way that captures, in any meaningful sense, the multitude of individuals making up the “group,” then abolish all race-based programs. Restore the Civil Rights Act to that “plain meaning” of no discrimination. Period.

Lastly, this “striking at the root” approach is worth taking in other areas. Time and again, I’ve attended conferences where scholars deliver papers on tax policy. These authors lament that our income tax code isn’t “more progressive.” But what does that mean if the tax code’s definition of money (to be taxed on a nominal basis) is meaningless because it fails to account for huge differences in the real value of the money being taxed? To the IRS, $100,000 income in Carbondale, Illinois is the same as a $100,000 income in San Francisco. In reality, the person in San Francisco has a cost-of-living adjusted income worth $36,700 in Carbondale, IL. Such is the illusion of money earned without reference to its real worth. Ask the “experts” whether the tax code’s inherent inequity ought to be rectified to reflect real income (in purchasing power) and you will get a “deer in the headlight” look.

Everyone” takes for granted what should not be “taken for granted.” “Everyone” knows or accepts the definitions and meanings put forth by a government dressing itself in a cloth of lies and confusion.

Perhaps it is time to be like the small child who pointed out that the Emperor has no clothes. That child saw what was plain as day. We “experts” pontificate about the merits or shortcomings of the “clothes” (policies) when, in fact, there are no clothes.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Pericles and the Funeral Oration

Pericles (495-429 BCE)  was one the most remarkable figures of an age of great figures, that is Golden Age Athens, the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in philosophy, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, in tragedy, and so on. The building most associated with Golden Age Athens, the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis (sacred hill at the centre of ancient Athens) was commissioned by Pericles. He was a friend of the philosopher Anaxagoras, sponsored tragic performances, and so was a full part of the city life, apart from his political role.

Pericles was an aristocrat descended from powerful figures in Athenian political history, and though he was associated with furthering Athenian democracy, was respected as a personality of admirable character by critics of democracy like Plato and Aristotle. In the ancient context, democracy means direct decision making by citizens gathered at in an assembly, where they make laws and decide on the major state actions of the time.

For the contemporary critics of democracy, Pericles’ excellence as a character enabled him to ameliorate what they saw as the irrationality and short term thinking of the citizen mass, and İt seems to me there is a kind of groping towards the modern understanding of democracy as the best way of getting the best leaders (of the least bad available) into power through a competitive character testing process. The Athenian city state, like other Greek states of the time was small compared with any modern city, so the political process was very personalised.

As I pointed out with regard to Aristotle, the Greek city states, including Athens, were not ideal with regard to equally of rights by modern standards.  A significant part of the population (estimates of the proportion vary) were slaves, or unfree in some way, women had no political rights, and very limited legal rights, and the respect for the right  individuals to be different from, or independent of, majority religious and customary thinking, was very limited by modern standards. However, we have to make some allowance for the times when judging thinkers and give credit to those who made some progress with regard to liberty, however limited they seem by our standards. Our standards came from somewhere and evolved over time, so that we should take some interest and give some respect, with regard to those who something to move thinking in the right direction.

Pericles is different from most people, maybe everyone in this series of posts, because despite his high level of culture he was not a writer, or even a practitioner of philosophical debate like Socrates, who wrote nothing but inspired others to write down what they thought was true to his thought. What we have from Pericles is the record of his life, and most importantly for present purposes, a speech attributed to him by Thucydides (460-395 BCE). That is the historian, usually recorded as the second known historian (in the west) after Herodotus. He was an Athenian aristocrat and army general who wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War after being pushed out of his command role. The war concerned was a thirty year war between Athens and Sparta, which like its closest allies was  located in the Peloponnesus land mass south of Athens. The book is unfinished but is still a classic of history, international relations, and military thought, widely read by students and specialists  within those fields. It is a book that should be read by anyone interested in the history of political thought and ideas of liberty, though more because of its importance in adjacent fields rather than its own contribution to political thought.

The exception is the few pages of a speech Pericles apparently made at a funeral of soldiers during the war. We have no way of knowing how far the speech records any words ever uttered by Pericles. Thucydides was and is respected for his commitment to objectivity and reliable evidence, particularly by way of contrast with Herodotus, so it seems plausible that the recorded speech is at least as honest attempt to report what Pericles really thought, given what Thucydides knew about him. The lack of any other record, and the tendency of ancient historians even Thucydides, to report speeches based on what they thought people should have said in certain situations makes it hazardous to presume any further.

Here is a link to the speech. Other versions and postings should be available through an online search for ‘Pericles Funeral Speech’, and the same applies to Thucydides text as a whole.  Anyway, here is a link to the translation by Thomas Hobbes, edited by the nineteenth century English radical William Molesworth, posted at the Online Library of Liberty.

What Pericles (strictly speaking what Thucydides tells us Pericles said, but I will leave that as assumed from now on) argues in his speed is that the fallen soldiers did not just die in the cause of defending their homeland, but an idea of a political system represented by that homeland.  That is, according to Pericles, Athens makes concrete the best principles by which a city can organise itself and people can live together.

Those principles are listed in order to contract Athens with Sparta, in which citizens formed a military aristocracy, and supposedly led an ascetic military life style in every way, according to the strictest morality and with minimal private property. Pericles proclaims that in Athens everyone can share in government  and that no one is excluded from office by poverty. Thought poverty is not shameful failure to struggle to overcome poverty is. Everyone can live their life their own way and respects everyone else’s rights in that regard. The Athenians show courage in war which comes from their determination to defend their way of life, not a life time of brutal military discipline. Their courage is even greater than the Spartans and is based on a life that recognises goods and values other than military courage.

The Athenians are not closed off from the world (an implicit contrast with the apparently autarkic Spartans) and enjoy items imported from all countries. They have wealth, but want to use if for great things not just to be rich for its own sake. Their society includes beauty and variety to such an extent that they are educating all of Greece in such things. The Athenians do not need a Homer to glorify their courage in way, which has its own motivation. The point of the reference to Homer is presumably that the heroes in Homer’s epics are motivated by the glory of war, and the hope of living on in memory and poetry as great warriors. Homer referring of course to the two epic poems attributed to a poet of that name, The Iliad and The Odyssey, in which the idea of war as the means to the greatest possible glory plays a large part. Pericles is presumably saying that the Athenians have more to their lives and the society which they are defending then the desire to achieve status through slaughter in battle. Pericles is still advocating a spirit that might seem brutal to us, in which states celebrate their triumphs over states; as Pericles suggests it is great to be famous for terrible  acts as well as acts of goodness. If we compare Pericles with Homer, we can see some progress.

Pericles of course represented a people of state which turned other Greek states into colonies, and destroyed them if they did not comply, and forced them to pay for its architectural glories, but it is a sad reality that nations in which liberty advanced in some significant respects were often involved at the same time in imperialist and exploitative projects, in which people excluded from moral sympathy and political rights paid a terrible price. We do not need to overlook or excuse the the very considerable faults of Pericles and the ancient Athenians, however, to recognise that they were drawn to ideas which in the course of human history have become applied in universal and inclusive ways.

A brief conclusion to Pericles’ speech endorses one of those inexcusable Athenian attitudes, which is the assumption of women’s inferiority and the desirability of their social invisibility.  A major qualification needs to be made to Pericles’ deplorable remarks. He lived with and had children with one of the remarkable women of his time who was certainly not socially invisible, Aspasia (470-400 BCE). She was from the Greek colony in Miletus, western Anatolia and is known through attacks made upon her at the time. There is a lack of definitive evidence about her life, but it seems definite that she had wealt of her own and paid tax. Additionally, it can at least it can be said that she was used to attack Pericles because she was taken as a woman who was too free in her opinions, and led too public a life in which she displayed her considerable culture and intelligence.  So even in this area where Pericles’ thoughts are disappointing, the status of women, he may have had a personal influence undercutting the words attributed to him.