Tocqueville on the Russians

There was a winter storm that blew through Austin last night. The entire city, which isn’t big population-wise (1.5 million give or take) but large geographically, shut down and I have the day off. So, I am working hard on my weekly column for RealClearHistory, and came across this sociological gem of Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote the best book on America, ever:

The American struggles against the natural obstacles which oppose him; the adversaries of the Russian are men; the former combats the wilderness and savage life; the latter, civilization with all its weapons and its arts: the conquests of the one are therefore gained by the ploughshare; those of the other by the sword. The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends, and gives free scope to the unguided exertions and common-sense of the citizens; the Russian centres all the authority of society in a single arm: the principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter servitude.

Keep in mind that Tocqueville’s book was published in 1835. During the Cold War, this passage, which is the last paragraph in Volume 1 of Tocqueville’s 2-volume treatise, this passage was almost a necessary introduction to anything related to Soviet-American interactions.

Now, I fear, my generation must also heed Tocqueville’s prophecy about Russian and American society. Trump is a loudmouthed demagogue, but he is restrained by the people, most of all his base, which, for all its many faults, is democratic in its mores. Free-thinking Russians left Russia en masse while they could, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, for the West and their children and their children’s children will grow up free. The Russian people will continue to serve a despotism they think they need to survive. There is a conspiratorial, somber, and pessimistic tone in the voice of most Russian authors, even those who have managed to make a life for themselves in the West, and I get it.

When I think of Russia, with all its beautiful biodiversity, its people, and its potential, I brood.


Turkey’s Referendum: Authoritarianism and Electoral Fixes

As previously indicated I will be posting an appendix to my posts on Coup and Counter-Coup in Turkey, referring to Ottomanism, Kemalist republicanism and related issues. The sixteenth of April referendum does require a response of a more immediate kind. The referendum was on amendments to the Constitution largely concerned with transforming Turkey from a parliamentary republic, which it has been at least in principle since the formation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Recep Tayıp Erdoğan had already been breaking the Constitution since 2014 when he was elected President of Turkey after more than a decade as Prime Minister. On becoming President he transferred the chief executive power to the presidential palace (which has more than 1000 rooms and was built on Erdoğan’s orders using executive privilege to override court bans on building on the land concerned). This in itself tells you everything you need to know about the decay of Turkish democracy, from a starting point which was itself not a shining beacon to the world of purist constitutional democracy.

Erdoğan’s ambitions for an executive presidency in Turkey precede his elevation to that role. The shift from a President elected by the National Assembly to a President elected by popular vote came from a referendum of 2007, though Erdoğan is the first President of Turkey to take the office in this way. Kemal Atatürk (1923-1938) and then İsmet İnönü (1938-1950) were powerful presidents in a parliamentary system. This paradox arose because Turkey was a de facto one-party state in which only the Republican People’s Party had seats in the National Assembly from 1923 to 1943, though the Free Republican Party won seats in local elections. The elections of 1946 resulted in an opposition party and some independent deputies entering the National Assembly. In 1950 İnönü became the first Turkish (or Ottoman) leader to give up power peacefully as the result of elections and the Republican People’s Party became the first political party to give up power in this manner. During the one party period, the President was the dominant figure in the Republican People’s Party and therefore acted as the head of government, though with a Prime Minister and some genuine divisions of responsibilities.

Not only did Erdoğan start using powers he had not been given in the constitution in 2014, the whole evolution towards a presidential system has been done in a way to benefit him personally. He was Prime Minister over three terms from 2002 to 2014, an office to be abolished in 2019 as a result of the recent referendum, and was the head of government. He has acted as effective head of government since 2014, regardless of the Prime Minister having this role. The office of Prime Minister will still exist until 2019 and most of the constitutional changes as a result of the referendum will not come into force until then. Erdoğan can then have the two terms of executive presidency in addition to the term he is currently serving which will still constitutionally limit his powers in ways that mean the Prime Minister should be head of government. In this sense, the system is working as in the days of the one party system. So Erdoğan can serve as head of government in Turkey from 2003 until 2029. Furthermore he may be able to add another term if the National Assembly goes to an early election during his second term.

The President will have the power to dissolve the National Assembly, and this could easily happen simply because the President wishes to have a third term. The amended constitution at least restricts the President to two five-year terms plus most of a third term in special conditions. So the possibility exists of Erdoğan running the Turkish government from 2003 to 2034, a highly unusual situation in any democracy and one likely to undermine the democracy in question, particularly as the powers of the President now include control of appointment of senior judges, senior civil servants, senior bureaucrats, the right to issue decrees as laws, the right to appoint all cabinet ministers without National Assembly approval, and the right to appoint two vice-presidents without National Assembly approval. Theses figures will not be required to answer questions in the National Assembly and, like the President, will benefit from lifetime immunity with regard to alleged crimes committed in office. That is to say, the President and his associates will have immunity for life unless the National Assembly votes to suspend the immunity, with a high enough majority required to make this unlikely unless there is a massive collapse in the number of AKP deputies, or of Erdoğan’s control of the AKP.

We cannot even say that these changes designed to produce a President above normal democratic constitutional checks and balances, dominating the whole governmental process and state machinery in a way unprecedented in Turkey’s multi-party history, have been agreed to by a genuine majority vote. The referendum was held in state of emergency conditions, which still prevails. A state of emergency in which opposition journalists have been detained in large numbers on flimsy charges as ‘terrorists’, opposition deputies (from Kurdish rights-leftist HDP) have been detained on a similar basis. State media and most private media groups operate as media organs of the AKP. The state of emergency has been applied in a particularly harsh way in the southeast (Kurdish majority) part of the country where elected local government has been replaced by central government appointees. There are 500,000 displaced persons in the southeast resulting from PKK terror and the state security reaction which led to military bombardment of whole towns and urban districts until they were reduced to rubble. It was clearly not easy for them to vote and it looks like a large number did not vote. Extreme intimidation of No campaigners was the norm in the southeast where large numbers of HDP election observers were denied access to polling booths. Intimidation of the No campaign took place elsewhere if in a less extreme way and public spaces were dominated by Yes publicity.

The count was itself full of flagrant irregularities. The number of polling stations recording a 100% vote for Yes was far greater than the number recording 100% AKP votes in recent elections. There was another party campaigning for the Yes, the hardline nationalistic MHP, but the party split over the leader’s support for Yes and all the evidence is that overwhelmingly most MHP voters did not vote Yes. Given that some AKP voters defected from Yes, not many but no less than 5%, there was no reason to expect an increased number of polling stations with a 100% vote and of course suspicion is in order about polling stations which recorded such results in the past.

An AKP politician who is a member of the national electoral board (itself packed with AKP appointees) requested that all ballot papers used to vote, but not carrying a stamp to show they have been authorised for that polling station by an official, should be counted. This is illegal but the request was granted. AKP apologists were quick to say that opposition requests in the past for counting such ballots (because maybe they were stuck together when the official was stamping papers) were granted in the past. Small illegality does not excuse large illegality and the scale of counting of such ballot papers was much larger than previously.

During the count the state news agency was announcing results before they were released by the electoral board. A strange and suspicious situation. The international media, following the state news agency, failed to see the discrepancy also confusing the percentage of ballot boxes opened with votes cast, giving a very misleading impression of a big lead amongst most votes cast early in the evening. The election board results then went off line and were not shared with the opposition. When results came back online they showed a very different pattern than before the break in service, more in line with the state news agency announcements.

Given the close (51.4% for Yes) nature of the official result, there are a number of reasons to think that No won in votes cast, and even if we ignore the voting irregularities, there is reason to think that in a less intimidating atmosphere, particularly in the southeast, more Yes voters would have cast a vote. In these circumstances I suggest that even on a very cautious reckoning, the number of votes cast for No was at least 51% and that with a less intimidating and disruptive atmosphere, another 2% would have gone to No. To say on this basis that 53% voted No is I believe a very cautious estimate. There is very probably a clear majority of Turkish voters against the new presidential system, at least 55%.

The narrow result clearly caused embarrassment to Erdoğan and the AKP who had predicted a very big victory for Yes. They have gone quieter since then, but with no let up in authoritarian measures. Just two days ago Wikipedia was blocked in Turkey, several thousand state employees were dismissed using emergency powers and a number of NGOs were closed in a similar way. The context of the supposed Yes victory gives hope that there is opposition to the Erdoğan/AKP destruction of liberal democracy, but recent measures suggest they are as determined as ever to use the tools of state to obliterate opposition, or just any sense of independence from the party-state machine.

Coup and Counter Coup VI: Presidential Authoritarianism in Turkey

(Previous posts here, here, here, here and here). The state of emergency proclaimed by President Erdoğan in Turkey on 20th July last year, in response to the coup attempt of five days before, is not a situation that will come to an end in a return to normality. It is the model for the presidential system that Erdoğan has been pushing for since 2007, when he was still admired by many liberal minded people inside Turkey (though not me) and abroad. One of the key provisions of the state of emergency is that the President can issue decrees with the force of law. There are doubts about the constitutionality of this form of ‘law making’ but two members of the Constitutional Court were arrested after the coup attempt and the chances of the court starting up to executive power are now extremely remote. Judges and prosecutors have been demoted and even arrested after making the ‘wrong’ decision during the state of emergency and I do not think Erdoğan and his associates would have any scruples at all about further arrests of judges in the Constitutional Court.

The Presidential system, or one person rule system, which Turks will vote on, will retain the decrees as law powers of the Presidency. There are some limits on the decrees issued, but as the President will control the appointment of most of the senior judiciary there are serious questions about whether the Constitutional Court will put any effective break on these powers to legislate through decree. There is no sign of the state of emergency ending, though at least now everyone can see the deception in the original decision to declare a state of emergency for three months only instead of the six months maximum allowed in the Constitution. The state of emergency is renewed every three months with no debate and no indication of when it will come to an end. Does Erdoğan have any intention of ending the state of emergency before he becomes a President elected with the new powers? In principle these powers should only be implemented after the next presidential election in 2019, coinciding with elections to the National Assembly. Erdoğan may wish to bring these elections forward, particularly for the National Assembly if he loses the referendum. While it may seem outrageous for the Council of Ministers to keep prolonging the state of emergency until 2019, the AKP government has been doing more and more previously outrageous and even unimaginable things now for some years, particularly since the Gezi protests of 2013.

What the state of emergency also means is that suspects can be held without charge and access to lawyers if charged with ‘terrorism’, which is defined in absurdly broad ways to cover any kind of contact with the Gülenists or sympathy for the Kurdish autonomy movement. Torture has been making a return in Turkey after becoming relatively unusual since the PKK terror campaign began again in 2015. The state of emergency conditions have now normalised it completely and though the government denies torture charges, in the normal manner of authoritarian regimes, claiming the charges are terrorist propaganda, you have to wonder how seriously they expect anyone to take the denials. Photographs of the alleged coup plotters immediately after the coup attempt showed they had been badly beaten, though of course this is explained away as the result of ‘resisting arrest’, another time-honoured evasion. Consistent reports suggest prisoners are denied food, placed in stress positions for long periods of time, beaten and sexually assaulted. In the more moderate cases, the prison officials merely restrict prisoners to a diet of bread and bad quality tap water in conditions of psychological abuse. There is amongst everything else in Turkey a growing problem of mental and emotion health problems amongst the survivors of these ordeals, which are of course excluded from the mainstream media.

The rhetoric and abuse used by police ‘special teams’ invading the media and political offices of ‘terrorist’, that is Kurdish autonomy and other leftist groups, involve extreme nationalism and Ottomanism. Kurds are insulted as covert Armenians. Actual Armenians are told that the Ottomans destroyed the Armenians and that Turks are the masters of Armenian. A particularly disgusting reference to the massacre of 1 500 000 Armenians during World War One. These are not aberrations, this behaviour reflects the deep ideology of the AKP, mixing extreme nationalism and Ottomanism, of course ignoring the tensions between these positions. The torture and abuse is legitimated in the minds of perpetrators by a political rhetoric and government measures which present opponents as terrorist and part of international conspiracies against the ‘innocent’ Turks who are so good they are naive. This I am afraid is no exaggeration of the political discourse of the moment.

There is no reason to think the abuse and political extremism will end, though of course we should hope it does. If all Gülenists – real and imagined – and all sympathisers with Kurdish autonomy or the far left are targeted, then there are essentially endless opportunities for authoritarianism, polarising dehumanising rhetoric and abuse. I can only presume the current atmosphere will last indefinitely, as Erdoğan has found it a successful strategy for staying in power and increasing his power.

It is of course not just a question of his own political power. There is the question of how his family occupy places of privilege in large Muslims NGOs (at the same time as non-AKP oriented NGOs come under increasing pressure) with huge budgets and sit on the boards of major companies in Turkey. Erdoğan does not envisage any situation in which these activities are placed under mainstream media examination, and even less legal investigation. The issue of legal immunity is a huge one in Turkish politics. The amended constitution would allow the President to appoint anyone to two vice presidential positions and to the cabinet. Like the President all these people would have lifetime immunity from prosecution for activities undertaken while in office. Though the National Assembly would have the power to send the President to the Constitutional Court, this requires a very high threshold, clearly designed to protect Erdoğan even if the AKP loses a large part of its support.

As mentioned above, there is an expectation that Erdoğan will call an early National Assembly election if he loses the referendum. It seems likely on current polling that two out of the three opposition parties currently in the National Assembly would fail to meet the electoral thresh hold of 10%. This means the National Action Party, which has split over the referendum, and the Kurdish radicals who have lost some of their more moderate support since the revival of PKK violence. In such a National Assembly, the AKP could certainly put any constitutional proposal to referendum and very possibly could have enough votes to amend the constitution without referendum. So even if Erdoğan loses the election, he could get the same measures, or close enough, through other means.

(Last post in the current series, though I will post an appendix on Ottomanist and Atatürkist legacies in Turkey, along with comments on related political thought.)

Military Dictatorship in Brazil: Was it worth it?

The title of this text can already cause controversy since many understand that there was no dictatorship in Brazil, but a series of military governments that could not be classified as dictatorial. But the fact is that, in 1964, Castelo Branco became president in place of João Goulart, being succeeded by Costa e Silva, Medici, Geisel and João Figueiredo. Calling this dictatorship or not, the fact is that João Goulart was deposed and Castelo Branco occupied the presidency to avoid that the country was taken by groups sympathetic to the communism, making Brazil a “Big Cuba”. And it is against this fact that I ask if it was worth it: was it worth having 21 years of military governments to prevent a socialist government from being implanted in Brazil?

A socialist government was implemented in Brazil in 2003 by popular vote. Although political propaganda in 2002 had proclaimed an inclination towards the center of the political spectrum, the fact is that the PT never completely abandoned its socialist inclinations. It could even be said that FHC is worthy of the same comment: although less inclined to the left, the PSDB does not carry “democratic socialism” in the name for nothing. In light of this, I ask if it was worth having 21 years of military governments in Brazil. In 1988, just three years after João Figueiredo left the presidency of the country, a Constitution was promulgated with a strong Progressive character. In 1994, less than 10 years after the last military president stepped down, Brazil elected a “Third Way” president. In 2002 a president with a past of explicit connections with socialism came to power, and in 2011 the country happened to be governed by a former guerrilla warrior. If the objective of placing the military in power has been to avoid the implantation of socialist governments in Brazil, it can be said that this goal was not achieved. It was only postponed for just over 21 years.

What is socialism? Why is it so bad? Even without any empirical research, I am quite sure that most of the Brazilian population would not know how to answer these questions. In a similar vein, I am quite convinced that most of the country’s “literate class” (artists, academics, and intellectuals of all kinds) is sympathetic to socialism. Many of the political parties in Brazil carry “socialism” or “communism” in the name.

What did the military governments offer in exchange for socialism? Although they had varied characteristics, most of the governments between 1964 and 1985 tended to be a modernized version of Positivism. Positivism states that all knowledge (tradition, common sense, religion) will be superseded by positive scientific knowledge. Another way of defining it is to say that only what is empirically proven is true. Positivism, however, presents some problems. First, it is self-defeating, that is, it does not stand up to its own validation criteria: “Only what is empirically proven is true.” Is this empirically proven? Is it empirically proven that “only that which is empirically proven is true”? No. And it could not even be. Another difficulty is to carry out the empirical tests. It is possible, even with constraints, to conduct empirical tests in a controlled environment (in laboratories) to test theories and hypotheses. But it is not possible to declare the universality of the results, even if the tests are performed a very large number of times.

This “problem of induction” (to draw universal conclusions from particular, albeit many, observations) was famously answered by Karl Popper: in Popper’s definition, the aim of science is not to prove universal truths, but to affirm with confidence a set of information. In other words, nothing is “scientifically proven,” but many things are scientifically falsified by the lack of favorable evidence. Ludwig von Mises answered the problem of induction in another way: not everything has to be empirically tested to be considered true. There are truths that are self-evident, even without any empirical test. Despite the differences, both Popper and Mises offered possibilities of non-positivistic sciences (in the sense of systematic knowledge), especially valid for the study of human beings living in society.

Positivism and Marxism are sister doctrines. Both emerged in the 19th century in response to liberalism. The origin of liberalism lies in Christianity, if not in the affirmation of the existence of the Christian God in all the details presented by the Bible, at least in elements such as Natural Law and an anthropology similar to that of Christian teaching. Positivism and Marxism have moved away from Christianity by adopting a materialist view of reality (it only exists, or at least it only matters what we can experience empirically) and by denying the natural limitations of the human being.

Following von Mises, the Austrian School rejects the positivist methodology, and therefore is classified as heterodox. Although we should avoid anachronisms, the tendency of classical economists was the same: from introspection and axioms, rather than from empirical tests. It is not a matter of despising the scientific method altogether, quite the opposite! The scientific method is excellent for taking the man to the moon and discovering the cure of diseases. It just is not fit for a human “science.” To believe so is to fall into a “fatal conceit”. The military that governed Brazil between 1964 and 1985 can be accused of this fatal conceit. They generally believed that they could rule the country as if it were a barracks.

In conclusion: was it worth it? Certainly avoiding Socialism is a great and necessary goal. But combating it with Positivism is not the right path. Two mistakes do not make a hit. Was there the possibility of combating socialism with liberalism? I think not. Brazil didn’t have the liberal tradition necessary to confront socialism and other forms of authoritarianism or totalitarianism (and maybe it still hasn’t). Looking back, we can only regret that the options were so bad. Looking forward, we can try to improve our options by building a true liberalism in Brazil.

What sort of “Meritocracy” would a libertarian endorse, if he had to?

The first attempt to answer this question should say: “none.” Notwithstanding that this is the correct approach, we can’t help but feel uneasy about it. Libertarians have had to deal with this uncomfortable truth for so long. In respect to my own personal experience, I remember where I was when I read, for the first time, “Equality, Value, and Merit,” the title of Chapter 6 in Friedrich A Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. I was attending a weekly reading group about that book, and we were gathered in a cafê in Buenos Aires. The number of attendees was enough to find every kind of reader you could expect (and not expect) to meet in such a group:

  • There was the one who had already studied and condensed each chapter and then was re-reading and re-assessing the whole book; the one who did his “homework” without any effort;
  • the one who the embarrassment of failing to accomplish the reading requirements for the meeting overcame the pleasure of any type of procrastination (i.e. me, mostly because I was one of the promoters);
  • and the one who gave to the group the enthusiasm to last for six months in a row and finish the whole book. The latter, in this case, was a truly “natural Libertarian,” the one who had the pure Libertarian position for each subject by not showing an excessive regard for what Hayek was actually saying.

I remember that I arrived to the “Equality, Value, and Merit” meeting with a feeling of uncertainty. Hayek argued that there is no merit to acknowledging in a market process, none of any sort, a just compensation for the value of one’s apportation – a value whose magnitude depends on the relative scarcity of the marginal product. The reader who always accomplished his reading duties without any effort shared my sentiment of awe. Almost the whole meeting was conducted by our companion who was reading the book for a second – or perhaps third – time. In effect, Hayek left no place to meritocracy, since it is impossible to decide democratically among any scale of merit (remember Kenneth Arrow’s theorem on the impossibility of democracy, cited later on the third volume of Law, Legislation and Liberty), so retributions based on value enable the system to adapt spontaneously to the changes in the environment with more efficiency. The explanation was a bit of an unpopular one, but accurate. Not without reluctance, almost all of us accepted it. All of us but one: our true spontaneous Libertarian. She would under no condition surrender her convictions on the merit of the retributions that the market process assesses spontaneously to each one in accordance to the marginal value of their activity. While we acknowledged no merit to the results of the market process, she was prone to endorsing a moral value to the blinded results of the allocation of goods adjusted to the changes in their relative scarcities.

Many years after our debate took place, I am now starting to acknowledge that there might be a particle of truth in the statements of our natural Libertarian and, what is most outstanding, that these statements could be deducted from other chapters of the same book (The Constitution of Liberty), particularly the one which concerns on the definition of liberty (“Liberty and Liberties”). I said a particle of truth, not the whole truth, but at least that particle which is needed to start an intellectual quest.

In The Constitution of Liberty, written in 1960, Hayek made a quick outline of the different notions of liberty that were popular at that moment in time. Positive liberty, negative liberty, inner liberty, individual liberty, freedom from, freedom to, and freedom of were some of the categories mentioned. He made it clear that an in-depth discussion of each notion was not his main aim, but instead that was trying to make a quick account of them in order to give a conceptual frame to the one of his choice: a variant of the individual negative liberty defined as “the absence of arbitrary coercion.”

Slavery is the subjection to the will of another person, without boundaries of any kind. A slave could be subject to a good master who allows him to keep a normal life, but he could lose all of his freedom on a whim of his master at any time. On the other hand, the boundaries to the freedom of a free man are imposed by abstract and general laws and by contracts and the judicial decisions based on those contracts. The ordinary experience of a man enables him to discover principles and patterns of what would be regarded by others as just conduct, and to form in such way expectatives on how a given conflict could be solved. This concept of individual liberty as an absence of arbitrary coercion stated by Hayek in 1960 finds a strong resemblance today in the notion of liberty as an “absence of domination” by contemporary republican authors such as Quentin Skinner, Philip Pettit and, here in Argentina, Andrés Rosler.

The outcome of such a system is that every individual is enabled with a set of possible actions to be taken at his sole will, which we call an “individual sphere of autonomy.” In principle, these spheres are delimited by general and abstract laws and any controversy on the limits between two of them will be solved by an impartial court whose decision will be based on principles expressed by these norms. These judicial decisions would be in accordance to the patterns of just conduct that everyone had previously formed by ordinary experience, so they will prove correct the expectatives of most people and then will be regarded as non-arbitrary.

Of course, we could find that some judicial decisions would be taken by equity or that some administrative decisions would be based on expediency. But such a system could stand some exceptions, most of them aimed to solve an unexpected situation. Some of these new “precedents” are compatible with the principles which inform the existing laws and then their formulation will be a sort of “discovery” of new norms that until that moment were “implicit” in such a normative system. A criterion to distinguish the discovery of new norms from a decision based on expediency might be that the universalisation of the former brings about stability to the system; it makes the law work as a negative feedback system while the universalisation of the latter would only cause an increasing process of disorder.

Friedrich Hayek developed his theory of law – savagely summarised in the previous paragraphs – in Law, Legislation and Liberty and it provides us with an accurate modelization of how it would work a legal system that could not be experienced as “arbitrary” by the individual. In Hayek’s legal model, the fulfillment of the law would imply the respect of individual freedom as the absence of arbitrary coercion, since all boundaries to one’s will are previously known or reasonably expected and, then, our individual plans are conceived and accomplished regarding such limits.

After such a long digression we may come back to our initial enquiry: if a Libertarian had to “do meritocracy,” what sort of meritocracy would it be? The usual answer is, as we noted above, “none.” But I suspect that the wrong statements of some intuitive Libertarians carry within them a kernel of truth: the assignment of functions and subsequent retributions are expected not to be arbitrary, because even the changing value of the marginal products implies (1) some sort of predictability, (2) an impersonal process, and (3) a learning feedback system that fosters increasingly correct pattern predictions.

If we state that liberty is one, be it political, economic or social, we cannot use a definition of liberty in the political realm and another notion of it in the economic one. The “none answer” implies just plain individual negative liberty (absence of coercion) in political economy issues, while our definition of individual liberty is “absence of arbitrary coercion,” and this should be applied to the definition of economic liberty as well.

Therefore, I dare to state that a non-arbitrary distribution of functions and its subsequent remunerations should be a central problem to economic liberty, if we define it as “absence of arbitrary coercion.” Since our spheres of individual autonomy are delimited by a system of norms of just conduct, general and abstract, which distinguish arbitrary from just coercion, the economic liberty is expected to be found in such a framework.

Usually, the legal framework of a free market is regarded to be a neutral one: general and abstract rules, whose source could be the legislation sanctioned by an assembly of deputies of the people and notable citizens or the customs acknowledged as mandatory by the judiciary courts. In any case, general and abstract rules that are not conceived by a single will but have the impartiality of a plurality of legislators or juries. In this sense, “absence of arbitrary coercion” is identified with “absence of coercion by discretionary powers of the state.” Nevertheless, we consider that this is not enough: we should be conceptually endowed to do an evaluative judgement about the outcome of such economic system. We need to determine if the result of a neutral legal framework produces a non-arbitrary distribution of functions and retributions.

A neutral legal framework works like a peaceful, predictable, and secure Lockean Civil Society – i.e. the opposite of a Lockean Civil Society. Since we accept that legal norms express rules of just conduct whose obedience brings about a rightful delimitation of each individual sphere of autonomy, the remaining normative conflicts will be related to moral and social norms. But these normative conflicts will not occur among competitive orders, such as legal order against moral order or against social order, since we acknowledge the preeminence of the rule of law over any other source of obligations. Modernity relegates moral and social norms to the inner of each individual sphere of autonomy or, at most, to conflicts among different individuals which will never escalate and balloon into physical violence. That means that morals and social customs will not bring about an alternative order to society, but that they will enable the individual with an order to rule the inner aspects of his personality and a limited scope of his interactions with other individuals. These sets of moral and social rules will not integrate the formal institutions – to use the categories coined by Douglass North – but will be embodied in “packs of precepts of life” that we usually name “virtues” (a term cherished by the republicans mentioned above and by libertarian authors such as Deirdre McCloskey.)

These “virtues” are expected to contribute to the fulfilment of most individual plans in a system of inner stability. What we regard as good and wrong are a set of received values accrued after generations of trial and error processes. “Being honest,” for example, might be considered as a pack of precepts of life which successfully spread all over the members of the society structured by a neutral legal framework. The unit of evolution is neither the society nor even the individuals, but the “virtues” that are spread among the individuals that compounds that society.

At this stage, we must admit that what we regard as “neutral” is just an analytical category that means a set of fixed elements that work as a framework for other elements which change their respective relative positions. This framework is what Hayek named “order” (we can find in his Sensory Order the most accurate definitions of this concept: more than one). These notions allow us to do a clear distinction between the concepts of “evolution” and “change.” Change occurs among the relative positions of different elements given a stable framework – a Hayekian “order” – while “evolution” – in our terms – is related to a modification in the framework where the ordinary events occur. In the words of Douglass North, “evolution” is an incremental change in opposition to a disruptive change – or revolution. Notwithstanding this use of the terminology at hand, only Hayekian orders “evolve,” while their elements (or events) simply “change” their relative positions.

Nevertheless, to use an Arthur Schopenhauer image, events are the eyes of the blind machine which is the spontaneous order. Given a certain abstract order, the population with some types of virtues extended among the individuals will prevail over other ones. For example, Max Weber, in his Protestant Ethic, showed how the habits of frugality, self-confidence, hard work, and so on, were once considered by most people as eccentric but eventually took over whole communities and changed the meaning of good and evil in a process that ended up in an “iron cage of liberty”: the dissolution of the transcendent values that had previously given a religious sense to those habits into a neutral framework of standard moral duties immanent to the social system.

Another classical book that illustrate a process of “natural selection” of virtues might be The Prince by Nicoló Machiavelli: from the very beginning, the author warns us that a different set of virtues would be needed to be develop in a Republic and that he treated that matter in another book, The Discourses on the First Decades of Titus Livius. The Prince, instead, is focused on determining which virtues is a Prince to be enabled with in order to survive in a realm where no one has the sense to be bound by any moral or legal obligation, i.e.: in a set of non-cooperative games. The whole book can be read as a succession of mental experiments about which virtue could make the Prince survive over his competitors. In Richard Dawkins terms, the ones which are competing are the virtues, and the politicians who struggle with each other are the “vehicles” of those virtues. A very well-known example shows how the population of the ones who seek to be feared at the risk of being hated will displace the population of the ones who seek to be loved at the risk of being scorned. To put this another way: in the “ethical pool” the trait “seek to be feared” will outshine the trait “seek to be loved.” Finally, at the last paragraph of the book, the very virtue of the Prince rules supreme among the other ones: the initiative.

Besides the fact that The Prince – as Quentin Skinner pointed out – should be regarded as a satire (but see Barry here and here for a contrary account) , the emergence of the virtue of the initiative as the inner quality of a political leader of a non-republican system scraps any moral sense of the term “virtue.” Virtues are a compound of personality traits that conditions the agent’s decisions from the inner. But certain virtues depend on the legal framework to spread over the “ethical pool.” As we have said, the virtues that will prevail in an authoritarian regime will be different from those which flourish in a republic. The “republican virtues” described by Machiavelli in his Discourse on the Decades can only proliferate among people within a given set of procedural rules. A similar distinction was made later by David Hume: “natural virtues,” such as empathy, can emerge at any given circumstances, as they are embodied in human nature, but artificial virtues such as “justice” will depend upon a determinate legal framework.

Virtues will erode or shore up a formal institutional framework by incremental change (D. North), yet this will occur only as a response to the change in the environment (virtues as the eyes of the blind machine of the spontaneous order). For example, Gutenberg’s press discovery allowed the evangelical movement to gain force since anyone could then start to count with a Bible. Within the Evangelical movement took place a Puritan one, which at its turn changed the sense of morality in the people for whom it took place. This resulted, for example, in the anti-slavery political movement in certain states of the US or cities of the UK such as Bristol, even at a price of high economic cost.

Nevertheless, while spontaneous changes in virtues lead to incremental political and legal change, a disruptive change of the latter could bring about a dramatic shift in uses and customs of the people involved. This need not to be a violent revolution, since democratic institutions are enabled to issue the required laws to make a significant change for the good – or for the bad – in the said virtues to spread among the society. Sound money is a condition for the virtue of frugality to appear, for example. On the other hand, the Adam Ferguson’s book When Money Dies shows how the people change their main traits due to the phenomenon of hyperinflation.

Since virtues are – in the definition stated here – a mere pack of ethical traits that condition the individuals who are their vehicles from the inner, allowing them to survive and pass their virtues to the next generation of individuals, on what basis should we endorse some virtues over other ones? Our theory cannot provide us with a normative answer by itself, since it leads us to the conclusion that what we regard as good and evil comes from a process of blind evolution. As we have said, a learned libertarian would not endorse a meritocracy of any kind.

However, the complex order compounded by the legal framework and the moral and social virtues extended in society might be “neutral” for each individual involved in such society, but the legal framework will not be neutral to the moral and social virtues that are spread in that society. Different types of frameworks will deliver different sets of virtues to be spread. An authoritarian regime will deliver the set or virtues described by Machiavelli in The Prince, while a republic will spread the virtues of The Discourse on the Decades of Titus Livius. Moreover, the difference between the former and the latter is found in the proportion of decisions taken on the basis of expediency and the ones taken on the basis of principles. The whole message of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom might be exemplified in the transition from a system of public decisions based on principles (i.e.: a republic), to a system of public decisions based on expediency. Each system will deliver a different set of “virtues.”

Thus, we are now in a better position to answer the question “what sort of meritocracy would a libertarian would endorse, if he had to?” A natural libertarian will expect that the distribution of functions and retributions will correlate with the virtues most expected to be found in a legal and political system in which most decisions are taken on the basis of general and abstract principles. Such a system of norms and values will be experienced by the individual as “non arbitrary” and then the ideal of negative individual liberty as “absence of arbitrary coercion” will be achieved, not only in the political realm, but also in the economic and social ones.

In a “Keynesian turn,” we could point out that a system whose decisions are taken purely on the basis of principles is an “especial case” and that we usually find mostly the opposite. In most constitutional systems the “macroeconomic policy” is not a matter subject to the courts and we have to acknowledge that the spreading of some virtues over other ones are more conditioned by monetary or tariff policies than by a neutral legal framework. Nevertheless, this reality is not a reason to disregard the value of the virtues that would arise should those policies be neutral (i.e. not being policies at all, but legal norms). Moreover, these objections just pointed out are good reasons to claim for a republican system of liberties as a fairer system.

To summarize: natural libertarians are not so wrong when they aim to achieve a special kind of meritocracy – the one in which the functions and retributions would correlate with the virtues spread in a society where liberty as absence of arbitrary coercion is respected. In such a system, most political decisions will be taken on the basis of general and abstract principles. After all, the dissatisfaction manifested by a natural libertarian when most of the wealth of a society goes to the rent seekers is rooted in a well founded claim for a “free and virtuous society.”

We Must Have Order!

I sometimes think that the small daily vexations of government do more to wake up regular people than the really big abuses of government. Below is a relevant anecdote.

Seven or eight years ago, the City of Santa Cruz forbade me from cutting the tree figuring in the picture below. It’s a redwood tree. It’s in my tiny front yard. Its invasion of a sewer line cost me $10,000 before I asked humbly for permission to remove the tree. Now, the tree roots are destroying the foundations of my house as well as the sidewalk in front of it. The city says that I am responsible for fixing the sidewalk, indefinitely, apparently because redwood tress grow at least for several hundred years.

redwood in santa cruz

Now, to be fair, the City arborist told me a few months ago privately that if I asked for permission to cut the tree again now, it would probably be approved. It does not do me much good now. She said no when I could afford to cut it now, I can’t afford it. Besides, the city insists that I have to pay for a permit to remove the tree I did not want in the first place. This is more offensive than the much higher cost of taking the tree down which involves real work, at least. (It’s true that I bought the property with the tree on it. I had no idea then that I could even be denied the permission to cut a forest tree.) I am quite insensitive to the need of my city to have redwood trees, specifically, within its boundaries.

First, everyone knows that redwoods are destructive. Moreover, they sterilize the area where they grow. Second, it’s not as if our citizens were deprived of trees, as people might be, say, in Arizona. In fact, there is a large forest a four minute drive from my house, seven minutes by bicycle, tops. It’s a 90% redwood forest. It’s not clear to me that I must recognize a duty to subsidize the redwood viewing of residents and visitors who are too lazy to drive or bike there.

Note my delicateness of mind: I admit that many of my fellow Santa Cruzans would be morally torn between the desire to commune with redwood trees, on the one hand and their fervent wish to not contribute to global warming by driving four minutes, on the other hand. But I think they can just bike there, or walk. I also admit that there are people in Santa Cruz who don’t own a car and who are physically unable to bike or walk to the forest. I would be in favor of a city-sponsored collection to bus them to the redwood forest four times each year. I would gladly contribute, voluntarily, that is.

Two deeply different views of the world are at odds here. Now, let me assure you that although I am a conservative, I like trees. I like cherry trees and apple trees mostly, for obvious reasons, but redwoods are OK because they give high grade lumber. And, yes, they look wonderful. That is, they look wonderful where they belong, in a forest, with their brothers and sisters and all the cousins around. My own redwood tree (the tree that my family and the City apparently jointly own) is a object of shame. It’s so bad, that I never use it to give directions to my house although it stands right out. It’s an object of shame because PG&E, the publicly regulated monopoly, has the right to shape it in any way it chooses. I am sure there are technicalities that escape me here but the shape it prefers makes my redwood tree look like an old, overused toilet brush. Sorry for the vision, I call them as I see them!

Well, I planted a yellow rose bush nearby and the bush found the spot attractive. It grew and grew under my firm benign neglect. Eventually, it had to discover that the nearby redwood tree makes a good ladder to the sun. The result is in the photo above. Well, I think you are not going to believe this but a member of the leftist and left-liberal city council complained about the rose bush on the tree. She says it looks unkempt. Here you have it – not left-wing thought, there is no thinking involved here – but the leftist temperament in a nutshell: Things have to be neat; personal preferences do not matter; bureaucracies give you predictability even if at stupendous cost, the market is inherently messy. We must have order even if it impoverishes our lives.

I’m a “Centrist Anarchist Non-Interventionist Humanist Libertine”

Both Rick and Warren have introduced us to the World’s Smallest Political Quiz here at NOL, but now there’s an even better one: The 5 Dimensional Political Compass!

It’ll score you from 100% to -100% on five dimensions (duh): Collectivism, Authoritarianism, Internationalism, Tribalism, and Liberalism

Here are my percentages:

  • Collectivism score: 0% (Centrist)
  • Authoritarianism score: -100% (Anarchist)
  • Internationalism score: -17% (Non-Interventionist)
  • Tribalism score: -67% (Humanist)
  • Liberalism score: 83% (Libertine)

100% means you totally agree, negative 100% means you totally disagree. It’s unscientific and undignified, but that’s what makes it fun!

Just do it, and don’t forget to show off your score. (h/t goes to Elizabeth Nolan Brown over at Hit & Run)