American Classical Liberals Suck

This week Kevin Vallier published a new entry on neoliberalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Neoliberalism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). It is a well-written, well-researched piece. However, it is also symbolic for the greatest deficiency of American classical liberals: they are unable or unwilling to defend the name, or label if you like, of the ideas they are associated with. Given the influence of American academia and thinks tanks on the rest of the world this is especially important. It has happened before, and it is happening now. It sucks.

This is how Vallier starts his entry:

“Though not all scholars agree on the meaning of the term, “neoliberalism” is now generally thought to label the philosophical view that a society’s political and economic institutions should be robustly liberal and capitalist, but supplemented by a constitutionally limited democracy and a modest welfare state. Recent work on neoliberalism, thus understood, shows this to be a coherent and distinctive political philosophy. This entry explicates neoliberalism by examining the political concepts, principles, and policies shared by F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James Buchanan, all of whom play leading roles in the new historical research on neoliberalism, and all of whom wrote in political philosophy as well as political economy. Identifying common themes in their work provides an illuminating picture of neoliberalism as a coherent political doctrine.”

The problem is in the words: ‘“neoliberalism” is now generally thought…’’.  Neoliberalism is a hotly debated term, there is certainly no consensus on its meaning. As Oliver Hartwich has emphasized in Neoliberalism, the genesis of a political swearword, it is still most often used as a swearword by the left for all that they think is wrong with capitalism, (classical) liberalism, (more or less) liberal policies by IMF, WTO and World Bank, et cetera. These left wingers are also found in academia, policy and in media circles, which has led to its routine use. However, it is not true that the work of Hayek, Friedman and Buchanan is generally thought to be covered by a neoliberal label. Only those who disagree with it call them neoliberals. It is painful to see that the ideas of these three Nobel Prize winners are now used to explain neoliberalism in a leading online source. They self-identified as classical liberals and just because opponents of their views use a different label is no reason to comply with that malicious practice.  

The worse thing is, it has happened before, also commencing in the US. Fairly recently, classical liberals began to use the label libertarian, as the Cato Institute has been promoting, for example on their (very useful) website, or in David Boaz’ The Libertarian Mind.  Jason Brennan’s Libertarianism, what everyone needs to know is another example. The issue here is that the three aforementioned classical liberals, and others, are now thrown onto the same heap as Rothbard and Rand, to name a few rather different thinkers.

Decades earlier, Hayek and others noted with regret that the Americans were unable to defend the original meaning of the word liberal, with the result that a liberal in the American sense is now what people in other parts of the world call a social-democrat. It is also the reason Hayek and other started to use the name classical liberal.  

The result of all this changing of names is confusion and vulnerability. Nobody knows what label belongs to which ideas, which gives rise to a petty industry on liberal labels, yet without any clarity in the end. It also provides ample opportunity for opponents to negatively attack ideas loosely associated with the (classical) liberal movement, which results in a negative image, which also make liberal ideas less attractive for outsiders. The lack of clarity also makes vulnerable for any kind of criticism. Actually, embracing the swearword other use for you, by offering the ideas of your greatest and brightest thinkers, is a shameful act at least.

American classical liberals should stay firm and defend their ideas under the proper labels. There is no reason for change (see my Degrees of Freedom: Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology), there is only a need for explanation and defense. Giving up clear and proper labels plainly sucks.         

Julian Simon’s life against the grain

I did not meet many of the postwar great thinkers of classical liberalism. There are two exceptions. In 2005 I had a chat with James Buchanan to ask him if I could translate the talk he gave to an audience of graduate students at the IHS summer seminar at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. He agreed and I translated and published his ideas on ‘the soul of classical liberalism’ in a Dutch liberal periodical.

The other exception is Julian Simon. Perhaps not in the same league as Buchanan, he was certainly a maverick thinker and a classical liberal great. A navy officer, business man, and advertising expert who turned to academia, he is known, to name just a few, for his arguments in the field of population growth, immigration studies and of course the book The Ultimate Resource. In it he argues that all raw materials become cheaper, while humans are the ultimate resource, among many other issues. He also won a famous wager with his critic Paul Ehrlich, stating that the prices of the raw materials Ehrlich could choose (in fact copper, chromium, nickel, tin, tungsten) would decrease (inflation adjusted) over the period of a decade they agreed upon. But that is just the tip of iceberg of this most interesting man. You should really read his autobiography A Life Against the Grain, whenever you have the chance.

In 1995 a friend of mine and I founded the Dutch Benedictus de Spinoza Foundation, meant to group young people educated in (classical) liberalism. In our first public Spinoza-lecture in 1996 Simon agreed to be the speaker. If memory serves right he was on his way to or from a Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Vienna, and was willing to make a small detour. We spent two full days with him, touring The Hague, arranging an interview in a national paper, have a formal dinner with Simon as gues of honor and speaker, and so forth. He was the most congenial guest one can wish. He clearly did not want to be among the hot shots only. In fact he insisted that we should visit ‘the worst neighborhood of the city’. So we went to one of the poorest parts in town, which he found delightful, not because of the (relative) poverty, but because of the multicultural experience and multicultural food at the market.  An other remarkable feature was that in the half hour before we opened the lecture hall, he wished to take a nap on the floor right there!

In his autobiography he is open about his many rejected papers throughout his career, and the way he described how difficult it is to convince academic colleagues of a point that goes against conventional wisdom. No matter how strong the counter-evidence, people will choose to ignore the new facts or insights and keep the author out of the inner circle for as long as possible. I must say it sounds familiar to me, as an author who has attempted to change the views of (classical) liberals and IR theorists on international relations and (classical) liberalism. Even the obvious fact that trade cannot possibly foster peace seems impossible to establish. Alas, reading Simon one also learns to never give up, the truth shall be told, although there is no guarantee of success!

Does federation unite or divide?

I am reading a lot on federation lately, for an article I would like to contribute to Brandon’s special issue of Cosmos + Taxis. I am going back to the debate about federalizing (parts of the) the democratic world which was very lively in the 1930s and 1940s. Reading the texts, for example the best-selling Union Now! (1939) by American journalist Clarence Streit, you can feel the scare for the authoritarian rulers and their nationalistic and militaristic policies. As an anti-dote, Streit proposed the federation of all the grown democracies in the world at that time, 15 in total, spread over the globe. This Union of the North Atlantic had to include a union citizenship, a union defense force, a union customs-free economy, union money and union postal and communications system After the war broke out, Streit published a new version, now calling for a union between Britain and the USA. Needless to say, none of these or other proposals went anywhere. Still some interesting perpetual questions remain.

Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek also wrote on federation during this period, as I described in Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory (2009). I now went back to their writings, which is a treat. It is nice to have a fresh look, I also have deeper insights now (at least – I think!) than I had about 15 years ago when first encountering these ideas.

One of the divides between Mises and Hayek (which they never openly discussed, as far as I am aware) revolved around the alleged pacifying effect of federations. Mises made the point that joining a federation would lead to a larger loss of sovereignty than was normally conceived in the debate. It was not just about pooling some powers at the federal level. In an interventionist world, Mises argued, the number of policies that are dealt with from the center, or the capitol, continually rise. After all, the call for intervention will be made from all corners of the federation, all the time. This leads to a call for equal treatment, which in turn lead to a larger number of policies and regulations administered from the capitol. Consequently, the member states increasingly lose sovereignty and eventually end up as mere provinces. This would be a new cause of division, especially when the member states of the new federation used to be powerful countries on their own. Hence, a federation divides, not unites. Therefore, he proposed a much more radical solution in his plan for Eastern Europe: no federation but a strict central union (administered by foreigners, in a foreign language he even once suggested) where the members would basically have no say at all over all the important legislation normally associated with sovereignty. The laws and regulations would be limited, ensuring maximum economic and political freedom for the individual citizen.

This blog is not meant to discuss the merits of Mises’ ideas. It solely aims to point at a division between Mises and Hayek. Hayek, and most thinkers on federation with him, Streit included, had different expectations about the political effects of federation. They expected that federation would be a force of unity.  In a federation you arrange the most difficult and divisive policies at the center (for example defense, foreign policy and foreign trade), while leaving all other policies to the constituent parts. This allows room for different policies in those states, while taking away their instruments to start violent conflict. Yes, this would mean less sovereignty, but also less trouble, while the freedom within the federation still ensured as much or as little additional policies as the individual states see fit. Hayek would favor his idea the rest of his life, also proposing it for the Middle East, for example.  

Who was right? That is impossible to say, I think. There are elements of both Misesian and Hayekian arguments in the real-life experiences of federations around the globe. For some it is indeed a good way to pool the core of sovereignty, while remaining as diverse as possible. Although most them do not disintegrate with violent conflict, the increase of all kind of policies at the federal center has certainly happened. However, this is not unique to federations and most importantly, it is not a question of formal legal organization. It is a question of mentality of both politicians and populations. This is another reason to keep fighting ‘the war of ideas’, because ideas have the power to change societies.

Hayek, International Organization and Covid-19

Just to inform all NOL-readers out there, if you like the subject, please register and join the IEA webinar I’ll give next wednesday, 13.00 hours, London time.

Institute of Economic Affairs > Events
13:00 – 14:00

Although it was never the subject of a book, Friedrich Hayek wrote a lot about international relations during his long career and had rather firm views on international order and how it could be achieved. In this webinar, these Hayekian views are presented in the context of the current COVID-crisis. What was Hayek’s opinion about the existence and the role of international governmental organizations, such as the World Health Organization?

Dr. Edwin van de Haar ( is an independent scholar who specializes in the liberal tradition in international political theory. He has been a (visiting) lecturer at Brown University, Leiden University and Ateneo de Manila University. Van de Haar is the author of Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory. Hume, Smith, Mises and Hayek (2009), Beloved Yet Unknown. The Political Philosophy of Liberalism (2011, in Dutch) and Degrees of Freedom. Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology (2015). Among others, he contributed to The Oxford Handbook of Adam Smith (2013) and a forthcoming book on The Liberal International Theory Tradition in Europe, while his articles on liberal ideas and liberal thinkers appeared among others in Review of International Studies, International Relations, International Politics, Independent Review and Economic Affairs.

Van de Haar got his PhD in International Politcial Theory from Maastricht Universit in 2008, and holds master degrees in international relations (London School of Economics and Political Science) and in political science (Leiden University).

Please visit:

The Private Production of Defense

Lucas’ post reminded me of a piece that I wrote for his website ThinkIR, in 2013. Most of it I re-used in my book Degrees of Freedom (2015). Of course it is also a piece on its own, that readers of NoL may find of interest. Thanks Lucas!


It is fun to think about the almost unthinkable. Therefore this contribution is about the idea that no state is needed to provide military security against foreign attack. In modern times the idea goes back to at least the French-Belgian economist Gustave de Molinari and his 1849 pamphlet The Production of Security. The most prominent current defender of this idea is the German economist Hans-Herman Hoppe, a leading anarcho-capitalist thinker, in his essay The Private Production of Defense (also see The Myth of National Defense, which was edited by Hoppe).

Hoppe rightly notices (p.1) that the legitimacy of the modern state is strongly related to the belief in collective security. Following Rothbard in The Ethics of Liberty, he argues that states will always expand, due to the governmental monopoly to tax its inhabitants. This also applies to governments that only have the limited task of protection against aggression and administrating and justice. The only proper solution is therefore to abolish the state altogether, in order to ensure true liberty and individual justice. Consequently, this also means that the provision of security needs to be privatized, as Hoppe does not expect the world to turn into a peaceful utopia (pp. 1- 5).

So how would this work? Basically, to regard the production of security as an insurance, where the expenditures for defense are to be paid by premiums paid by individuals (pp.5-8). The insured people can choose from competing insurance firms, just like in other parts of the insurance market. This is not as improbable at it may seem at first sight. Importantly, insurance companies are already used to deal with risk and other real world dangers. There are already many private security companies in existence, also at the battlefield. The cost of defense in relation to other parts of the insurance market appears large, but do not discount the idea beforehand. For example: Dutch defense expenditure in 2013 is around 7 billion Euro, less than 1% of GDP, while annual turnover of the two largest insurers is around 20 billion. Of course Hoppe would point out that the 7 billion in current defense expenditures needs to be returned to the taxpayers, hence widening the premium base. Presumably, this would work the same in other countries with smaller economies and/or smaller financial sectors (but see the remarks below).

A world without states, but with private security insurance is less war prone, Hoppe argues (p.11-12). Insurers will have an interest in keeping costs down, and will therefore only make unprovoked attacks insurable. People who provoke, or have known to provoke violence in the past, will be excluded from the insurance. After a while, the number of uninsured people will be small. They will face big defense insurance companies if they violate somebody’s property, making this unlikely to happen often, in contrast to interstate war. Yet in my view here Hoppe relies too much on his stated view on human nature: man as rational animal.

A related main defect of the essay is its focus on the role of insurers and their (economic) incentives. This is fine, but the argument quickly loses any of the convincing power it has when Hoppe turns to an analysis of international war. Or more precise, a violent conflict between a free territory, defended by one or more insurance companies, and a state, financed by compulsory taxation. He simply asserts (p. 14) that the state would be in a disadvantage because it is less efficient and that its leaders would lose their legitimacy, because they necessarily fail to convince the population of the justification of an attack on the inherently peaceful free territory.

Yet if an attack would still happen, Hoppe continues, the state-led army of specialists would not only face the defense force of the insurance company (or several insurers and re-insurers cooperating), but also an armed population (p.15). Without much analysis he simply asserts the companies will always be more efficient and also capable to counter all attacks by any state, perform counter-operations in the state territory and be able to kill its leaders, while making sure to minimize any collateral damage. All because they have to justify their insurance fees.

That is as far as Hoppe goes in his argument. He offers no further analysis or other scenario’s, no additional arguments, does not provide any international political analysis, none whatsoever. Only the fact that the insurance companies are private suffices for Hoppe as they must be more efficient and thus able to overcome all possible attack. That is too simplistic, as just three examples illuminate.

Hoppe overlooks some important geopolitical aspects. Take size of territory and population for instance. How likely is it really that a small free territory, say the size of Luxembourg, or The Netherlands for that matter, would be able to raise enough insurance premiums to enable a good defense structure to counter attacks by much larger states? There is a difference between collecting enough money to match current defense expenditures and ensuring defense against all possible attacks, especially given the anarcho-capitalist dislike of international alliances such as NATO.

Apparently Hoppe thinks all necessary technology is either invented by the research and development people of the insurance company, or freely available at the market. This is improbable as far as the state-side of the argument concerns, given today’s relative secrecy in military procurement. Also, the cooperation between insurance companies may fail in this respect. If one company has a superior weapon system, it will be a ground for competition with the other insurer(s). The superiority of one company may quickly make it a monopolist. It may become a threat to its insured, just like states may be threats to their taxpayers. Once the armed forces of the private insurer are in full operation it only takes a powerful CEO with his or her own agenda to turn things sour. Just the fact of private financing does not make much difference.

Also, does economic efficiency always trump state inefficiency? The history of warfare is full of examples where the supposedly superior army loses unexpectedly. So if the state deals a decisive blow it effectively robs the remains of the insurance company, and it’s successors, of its premium paying clients.

To conclude, for liberty loving people the prospect of stateless private security may be tantalizing. However, the quality of the argument as presented by Hoppe thus far is poor and unconvincing. His theoretical arguments largely stem from economics and overlook other relevant facts and arguments, including those from IR. Hoppe’s private production of defense remains a fairy tale.




True heroes of capitalism

Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, John D. Rockefeller, and so forth and so forth. The list of successful entrepreneurs who have become household names is long. To an extent they are the heroes of capitalism, they succeeded, often against all odds, though often with crucial help of far more unknown others, yet they did it and changed whole industries, if not the lives of all people on the globe.

Capitalism is about freedom, to have the liberty to start a business, to start selling a new product or new service. Or if you’re a big company: the freedom to buy somebody’s else’s idea, or to invest huge amounts into research, development, and/or (re)design. It is one of the most important pillars of our civilization, this process built on economic freedom, trade, specialization, barter, openness for odd things or tolerance for people who venture into new directions. Despite many setbacks, opposing ideas and much room for improvement, all around the globe, it still all adds up to what we are now: the richest and most healthy people in the world of all times. And this is not meant teleological, it is certainly not the end of the development, there is more to come, of course.

However, capitalism is built on failure. It is only in a limited number about the success stories, in far more cases it is about hard failure. For every success there are many more failures, people who went bust, companies that did not make it. In the US this is a fact more known and far more accepted than in Europe. Here, if you went broke, you would be indebted for the rest of your life and seen as a social failure as well. Happily, that stigma is not as strong as it used to be, but it is sure not out of existence either.

Therefore, the true heroes of capitalism are those who fail. The men and women who put in their life savings, or take a big loan, to start a business, or take over a franchise, or what have you. Working their ass off, taking risks, without any sight on a certain reward. Also, at least here in The Netherlands and surely elsewhere too, without the social security that employees may count on.

Still, they go for it, they chase their dream, to remain independent, because they hate to work for a boss or manager, because they believe in their great idea, because they want to get rich, or a combination of these elements. And then they fail, have to fire their personnel who depend on them, they can’t pay the bills anymore, file for bankruptcy, and have to accept that their dream is over.

That is hard. I want to congratulate them though. Because without them, our capitalist system would remain static, since no new ideas would drip into the economy. In short: capitalism would grind to a hold. So thank you, all you failed entrepreneurs, for putting in the effort, for trying and working hard. You are true heroes.

Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?

In these times of increasing criticism on capitalism, all around the world, it might be wise to read this Cato essay, written by Robert Nozick.

Good books on The Troubles

In the discussions on Brexit the situation along the Irish-Northern Irish border is pivotal. Nobody wants a return to a ‘hard’ border, even though that is the obvious consequence of the UK leaving the Common Market and Ireland staying in it.

For those unfamiliar with the reason why this is troublesome there are a loads of good reads on what the British called ‘The Troubles’, but what by all standards was a cruel civil war, with 3500 deaths and many more injured. The two recent books I would like to bring to the attention of the readers are different.

Milkman is a novel that won the Man Booker Prize. It is a story about a young woman growing up in Troubled times, and what is particular gripping is the sense you get of the intensity of life in those days. Everything in daily life was somehow drawn into the conflict, you had to think about your moves all the time and everybody lived in fear. Not only for the enemy, but at least as much for the paramilitary group that happened to control your area. They did not just wage their war, but literally wanted to control everybody in their neighborhood.

Say Nothing is narrative non-fiction, well-researched and with hundreds of pages of notes. It is written in very attractive prose, not like any regular history book. The focus is on some of the key-players on the IRA-side, the bombs, and the attacks. Central is the disappearance and subsequent murder of a mother of ten by one of the main people in the story. The book also pays a lot of attention to Gerry Adams’ denial to have played any role in the violent side of the civil war. One of its strengths is also that half of the book tells what happened after the Good Friday agreement, which formally made an end to the Troubles. If only it did…

These are great books to learn more about one of the bloodiest conflicts in Europe in recent times. They also help to understand current debates about Brexit. Hopefully, they will just keep saying something about the past…

Hong Kong protests: justified but futile in the end

The world is closely watching the developments in Hong Kong. Brave youngsters are testing the limits and patience of the Hong Kong authorities, first protesting against the extradition law, enabling Hong Kong citizens to be sent to China in case of serious allegations, and now with much broader demands for several kinds of liberties. Anybody with who cares for personal and political freedom can only watch in great sympathy, knowing that this is a modern day version of a number of small Davids against the towering power of the Chinese autocratic Goliath, with the Hong Kong authorities as its stumbling middle man.

I happened to be in Hong Kong for a few days, just for touristic purposes, in the first half of the past week. Arriving from mainland China on Monday, we encountered the protests a number of times. The protests caused major traffic jams, making it impossible to leave the train station in the regular way. Yet a small detour on the metro sufficed to reach our hotel. Later that night, we tried to reach one of the night markets, which turned out to be impossible: not only had the traders already packed their stuff, because a prominent protest location was just around the corner, students had also blocked the road and made sure our taxi returned nicely to where it came from.

protest 3

In the hotel we could watch live footage from confrontations between the police and the protesters, with the latter throwing stones and rocks against a police station just a few hundred meters from our hotel in Kowloon City. At times, it seemed there were as many journalists as there were protesters, which is of course an encouraging sign from the perspective of press freedom. The next day we went to Hong Kong University, but only the Student Union was in full protest mode, there were no visible signs of other unrest at the campus.

There were lots of protests at night though, as the coverage in the main Hong Kong quality paper South China Morning Post made clear.

One of the main questions this week was whether the Chinese army or police force would interfere. The local Chinese army commander hinted at it, while about 12,000 policemen gathered in nearby Shenzhen, just across the border in the mainland. The Hong Kong authorities, notably executive leader Carrie Lam and several police commanders, emphasized they were perfectly capable of handling this situation themselves. Given the developments in the past months one can question this, but the hesitation of Beijing to interfere is comprehendible. They do not want unrest, in the wake of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic later this year, while they know that direct action will make it impossible to get realigned with Taiwan in the foreseeable future, which has been a main goal of any Chinese leader since Mao, current leader Xi Jinping in particular.

Lam hinted at a press conference that the protests only foster the quick termination of the ‘one country two systems’ situation, agreed as part of the handover Treaty with the British in the nineteen eighties. One of the important elements is that Hong Kong keeps its own liberal laws and regulations for the first 50 years after the transfer of sovereignty in 1997.

Earlier protests died down, without much change achieved, mainly because the protesters did not succeed in broadening their movement to the wider public in Hong Kong. Although there was a supporting demonstration of public servants last Friday, this may happen again. On Wednesday, small traders already complained about the income they lose due to all the protests. And there are the mysterious groups of men in white t-shirts who beat up the protesters.

However, in the midterm, the protests will be futile. In the end this is an internal Chinese issue. Sure enough, there will be international protests, and depending on the outcome of the current crisis, perhaps also economic sanctions against China, if it just ends the protests by police or army action. These international protests are mainly symbolic though. Economic sanctions are the instruments of the impotent, not the powerful. Never have they worked to change a regime, or to make live very miserable for the leaders of a country. They do hit the population, but his and her concerns are easily overlooked in the international arena. The sad but undeniable truth is that no foreigner is going to die for Hong Kong. The great powers will treat this an internal Chinese affair. The USA already said so. No foreign power will intervene in China if the terms of the Sino-British Treaty are tampered with. At present, it is far more likely that Hong Kong will lose its special status, perhaps also earlier than the 50 years agreed, than that China will change into the liberal direction. The world may protest, but in the end the Chinese will have their way.

Free Immigration is not a Classical Liberal Right

My eye caught this article, which stands in a long tradition among libertarians.

It is the kind of fairy tale theory that gives liberal thought a bad name in general, and classical liberal thought in particular, as it is often confused with libertarianism in the US.

My problem with arguments like these is that they make logical sense, but are practically non-sensical at the same time. I am more than willing to admit that in the ideal libertarian world free immigration indeed is a right. Yet I do not think arguments like these help us to get that libertarian ideal one inch closer. On the contrary, I am afraid it only fosters disdain and outright disbelief, even among potential supporters.

The main problem of course is that there is no ideal libertarian world. Yet libertarians all too often do not seem to care about that. They rather continue to argue about what fairy tales makes the most logical sense, rather than using their sometimes brilliant minds to come up with ideas and theories to actually foster a more liberal world. Let alone a classical liberal or a libertarian world.

To make a case for free immigration on the basis of rights is to deny the property rights of current populations. Roughly, that argument goes like this: in this world most immigrants will make some claim to these existing property rights once they arrive in their host country. Higher taxation to pay for the immigration system is one thing, but also think of housing, claims to health and medical systems, social welfare programs, schools, roads, et cetera. The majority of the current population has put money into (these) public goods, certainly in Europe, and thus property rights were created. These  should be protected and can only consensually be changed.

Also, there are more intangible effects, think for example of the change in culture and social cohesion, certainly before the new arrivals are fully integrated. Hayek warned against precisely these destabilizing effects of large groups of immigrants entering a relatively homogenous territory, drawing on his own Viennese experience in the interwar years. He openly supported Margaret Thatcher to this end in a letter to The Times on February 11, 1978, which were followed by further explanations in the same newspaper in the weeks thereafter.

This is not to say we should all build (or rather attempt to build) walls, or close off borders completely. Some form of immigration is indeed called for, if only out of humanitarian perspective. That is something completely different than free immigration though.

Should the US intervene in Venezuela?

With the ongoing troubles in Venezuela some commentators ask for a humanitarian intervention, by the US. Intervention by other countries, for example Brasil, seem to be out of the question. And of course the US has long regarded Central and South America their backyard, going back to the Monroe doctrine. What would be a liberal perspective on this? Basically, there are three answers.

Most people who call themselves liberal in the US have a favourable attitude towards humanitarian intervention. Or used to have this over the past decades (until it went wrong -at least in their view- in Iraq and Afghanistan). Their motives differ, but they would probably argue that there is a moral duty to intervene on behalf of the suffering majority. This moral duty, however defined in detail, is seen to exist when grave abuse of human rights take place in failed state situations, people’s lives are under threat, when a danger of genocide exists. The intervention may take place unauthorized (without United Nations Security Council mandate), or authorized. Dangers of intervention are recognized by liberals, as for example the potential for abuse by the intervening state is ever present. Liberals are less concerned about the duty of the governments of intervening countries towards their own citizens.

Classical liberals start by pointing out there is never a moral duty to intervene, because, as Adam Smith wrote, for humans there is only the duty to mind the happiness of their relatives, friends, country. This is not to say there is never a right to intervention in the classical liberal view. For sure, this right should be exercised in very rare circumstances, as international relations is more about preserving order than about achieving justice for all, and more about the importance of sovereignty for individual liberty than about obligations or rights following from a shared humanity. Yet prudent leaders do have some room for manoeuvre in international politics, according to classical liberals. However, intervention can only take place if they are able to explain to their voters and countrymen how the intervention would promote natural liberty. Foreign intervention is often counterproductive, and only an option when international disorder is seriously under threat. However, most often, the benefits of nonintervention outweigh the costs of attempting a universal protection of even a limited set of rights. Interventions start with the best intentions, but will often have unforeseen, negative consequences, which only in rare cases will be justified.

Libertarians normally have the most straightforward position: the anarcho-capitalists will not allow their private armies to conduct foreign adventures, while most minarchists (Rand excepted) are of the same opinion in case of (partly) publicly funded armies. So for them it is easy, no troops to Caracas.

How about the classical liberal and social liberal (as I continue to call them) position towards Venezuela? First of all: there is no question the situation is bad for large groups of Venezuelans. Maduro is a rotten and corrupt leader, standing on the shoulders of his socialist fairy tale teller predecessor – who was by the way democratically elected by those same Venezuelans, in very large numbers. Closing borders is the common instrument of autocratic leaders without any societal support. Inflation is high, the oil sector is in peril, basic medical services are beyond the reach of millions. There is a contending president, Guaidó, yet he appears to lack the support of the army and other crucial actors. The Catholic church refuses to take a position, for example.

Yet the costs of an intervention are high and the outcome uncertain. The military part might not be so easy, and will cost lives and lead to tremendous economic damage, both in Venezuela and the US. Guaidó, who now seems the reasonable alternative, is basically a young and unproven guy, without any track record. No certainty exists that he will lead the country in the good direction, even if he wants too. To reconstruct the country will almost certainly demand billions of dollars, which will not be easily recouped once the oil sector is on its feet again (remember that argument from the start of the intervention in Iraq?). It will take years before US troops on the ground can return home.

Needless to say this analysis is incomplete and lacks sufficient detail for any policy decision. Still, all in all, I would advise against intervention. Despite the bad situation, the proposed cure seems worse, not least from the perspective of the intervening country.

Liberalism, Democracy, and Polarization

Is polarization a threat to democracy and what is the liberal position on this?

As I pointed out in Degrees of Freedom, most liberals have a preference for democracy. Modern-day democracy – with universal suffrage, a representative parliament, and elected officials – has been developed over the course of the twentieth century. The idea has its roots in antiquity, the Italian city states of the Renaissance, and several forms for shared political decision-making in Scandinavia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and England. Democracy is not a liberal “invention,” but the term ‘liberal democracy’ has taken firm root. This is true because modern democracy is based on liberal ideas, such as the principle of “one man, one vote,” protection of the classical rights of man, peaceful change of political leadership, and other rules that characterize the constitutional state.

Remarkably, the majority of liberals embraced the idea of democracy only late in the nineteenth century. They also saw dangers of majority decision making to individual liberty, as Alexis de Tocqueville famously pointed out in Democracy in America. Still, to liberals democracy is better than alternatives, such as autocracy or absolute monarchy. This is not unlike Sir Winston Churchill’s quip “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.” Yet there is a bit more to it for liberals. It is has proven to be a method that provides a decent, if imperfect, guarantee for the protection of individual freedom and the peaceful change of government.

Of course there is ample room for discussion inside and beyond academia about numerous different issues, such as the proper rules of democracy, different forms of democracy, the role of constitutions in democracy, whether referenda are a threat or a useful addition to representative democratic government, the roles of parties, party systems, and political leaders, et cetera. These are not the topic here.

In the context of the election of President Trump, but also before that, both inside and outside the US, there is a wide debate on the alleged polarization in society. By this is meant the hardening of standpoints of (often) two large opposing groups in society, who do not want to cooperate to solve the issues of the day, but instead do everything they can to oppose the other side. Consensus seeking is a swear word for those polarized groups, and a sign of weakness.

There appears less consensus on a number of issues now than in the past. Yet this is a questionable assumption. In the US it has been going on for a long time now, certainly in the ethical and immaterial area, think about abortion, the role of the church in society, or freedom of speech of radical groups. Yet most (Western) societies have been polarized in the past along other lines, like the socialist-liberal divide, the liberalization of societies in the 1960s and 1970s, or more recent debates about Islam and integration. Current commentators claim something radically different is going on today. But I doubt it, it seems just a lack of historical awareness on their side. I can’t wait for some decent academic research into this, including historical comparisons.

As a side note: a different but far more problematic example of polarization is gerrymandering (changing the borders of legislative districts to favour a certain party). This has been going on for decades and can be seen as using legal procedures to rob people not of their actual voting rights, but of their meaningful voting rights. Curiously, this does not figure prominently in the current debates…

The (classical) liberal position on polarization is simple. Fighting for, or opposing a certain viewpoint, is just a matter of individual right to free speech. This also includes using law and legislation, existing procedures, et cetera. The most important thing is that in the act of polarizing there cannot be a threat to another person’s individual liberty, including the classical rights to life, free speech, and free association, among others. Of course, not all is black and white, but on the whole, if these rules are respected I fail to see how polarization is threat to democracy, or why polarization cannot be aligned with liberalism.

One Cheer for NATO

The largest military NATO exercise since the end of the Cold War will start shortly in Norway. About 50.000 troops and 10.000 vehicles from all 29 NATO countries plus Sweden and Finland will commence ‘Trident Juncture 2018’ on October 25.

Before the actual exercise starts, there are already logistical tests. As the news release of NATO explains:

Over the next few days, 70 Foxhound, Husky and Landover vehicles will make the 2,000km journey from the Hook of Holland harbour through northern Europe to Norway. The UK convoy’s move through the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden will test how efficiently soldiers and equipment can move between European countries. It will also test customs, border regulations and infrastructure’s ability to cope with rapid and heavy troop movements.

“Military mobility is vital, especially to reinforce in a crisis. That’s exactly why we exercise it,” said NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu. “Over the past few years, NATO has made real progress in improving our ability to deploy troops quickly across Europe. We are overcoming legal hurdles and cutting red tape, including by working closely with the European Union. Looking ahead, we aim to further reduce border-crossing times (clearances within five days by the end of 2019), identify alternative supply routes, and exercise even more to practice military mobility.”

The exercise itself has an article 5 or collective defense scenario, training NATO’s crisis response ability. It will last about two weeks. “NATO is a defensive Alliance. We’re not looking for a fight, but we are committed to defense and deterrence. That’s what this exercise is all about: training to defend, and providing a deterrent effect, ready to respond to any threat from any direction at any time,” commanding officer Admiral Foggo underlined.

I think this exercise, with all NATO members, on this scale, in these uncertain times, deserves one cheer. It shows that the Alliance is still able and willing to get together, to show it is the most powerful military alliance on earth, and that it realizes it needs a lot of training to remain so.

There are still two cheers lacking. The second cheer is lacking because the partnership is still unbalanced. Despite increases in the defense budgets in some of the European NATO members (The Netherlands included), the main burden (also in relative numbers) still falls on the Americans. That is simply wrong. And it is also dangerous, because in current times, for example also with cyber warfare becoming ever more important, any shortage of budget is putting (future) lives at risk. The third cheer is lacking because anti-NATO rhetoric (on both sides of the Atlantic) will sow the seeds of doubt about the use and future of NATO. That is also simply wrong and dangerous. Whether it is Russia, or other powers, the West cannot afford to leave any current or future authoritarian ruler in any doubt about the military ties across the Atlantic, all the way to the Russian border. It is in the best interest of all NATO members, the US included.

Halliday’s ‘The World’s Twelve Worst Ideas’

I came across a collection of essays and blogs by the late Fred Halliday, entitled Political Journeys (2007), published in the last few years of his life. Halliday, who died in 2010 at only 64 years of age, was one of my professors in the International Relations Department at the London School of Economics in the mid-nineties. By some standards he was the big departmental star, not only as a researcher, but also as a public intellectual.

Like most professors he was firmly left wing, a former communist who moved somewhat to the centre. To his credit, his teaching was immaculate: you could not tell his political ideas from his lecturing or the extensive international political theory reading list he gave. He was known for his expertise of the Middle East, revolutions, and his feminism. But he was also a good theorist, and his book Rethinking International Relations (1994) is especially a real treat.

While going through Political Journeys my eyes fell on a piece about ‘the world’s twelve worst ideas in 2007’. Most of them still stand, also from a classical liberal and libertarian viewpoint, and warrant a full discussion by themselves. Yet for now I just list them here, in descending order, with short explanations between parentheses when not self-explanatory:

12. human behaviour can be predicted (against the scientific fallacy in the social sciences)

11. the world is speeding up (large areas I human life still consume the same amount of time as ever before, despite acceleration in other areas)

10. we have no need for history

9. we live in a ‘post-feminist epoch’ (still a need for feminism, given the position of women in most parts of the world)

8. markets are a natural phenomenon, which allow for the efficient allocation of resources and preferences (clearly I strongly disagree with Halliday here, although he seems to mix up real free markets and those characterised by government interference)

7. religion should again be allowed, when not encouraged, to play a role in political and social life (points to the fight against the influence of religion on public life)

6. in the modern world we do not need utopias (aspiration to a better world as necessary part of the human condition)

5. we should welcome the spread of English as a world language (while practical it comes with cultural arrogance by the Anglo-Saxons)

4. the world is divided into comparable moral blocs or civilisations (there is indeed a set of common values shared across the world)

3. diasporas have a legitimate role to play in national and international politics (refutes the idea that diaspora have a special insight into their homeland, and Halliday then points to the negative and backward role in the resolution of the conflicts in their countries of origin)

2. the only thing ‘they’ understand is force (plain colonial and hegemonic thinking)

1. the world’s population problems and the spread of AIDS can be solved by ‘natural’ means (against those who oppose condoms use and other contraceptives)

Pinker wrote a nice rejoinder

Steven Pinker, the Harvard professor, recently published Enlightenment Now. The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

NOL Pinker Edwin
Buy it

It is a fine book that basically sets out to do what its subtitle promises. It does so covering a wide range of ideas and topics, and discusses and rejects most arguments often used against Enlightenment thought, which Pinker equates with classical liberalism.

Those who know the work of Johan Norberg of the Cato Institute, the late Julian Simon’s writings, Jagdish Bhagwati’s magisterial In Defense of Globalization, or last but not least, Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Trilogy will be updated on the latest figures, but will not learn much in terms of arguments.

Those new to the debate, or searching for material to defend classical liberal ideas and values, will find this a very helpful book.