Atomistic? Moi?

I have written a brief paper entitled ‘Hayek: Postatomic Liberal’ intended for a collection on anti-rationalist thinkers. For the time being, the draft is available from SSRN and academia.edu. Here are a couple of snippets:

Hayek offers a way of fighting the monster of Rationalism while avoiding becoming an inscrutable monster oneself. The crucial move, and in this he follows Hume, is to recognize the non-rational origins of most social institutions, but treating this neither as grounds for dismissal of those institutions as unsound, nor an excuse to retreat from reason altogether. Indeed, reason itself has non-rational, emergent origins but is nevertheless a marvelous feature of humanity. Anti-rationalist themes that appear throughout Hayek’s work include: an emphasis on learning by processes of discovery, trial and error, feedback and adaptation rather than knowing by abstract theorizing; and the notion that the internal processes by which we come to a particular belief or decision is more complex than either a scientific experimenter or our own selves in introspection can know. We are always, on some level, a mystery even to ourselves…

Departing from Cartesian assumptions of atomistic individualism, this account can seem solipsistic. When we are in the mode of thinking of ourselves essentially as separate minds that relate to others through interactions in a material world, then it feels important that we share that world and are capable of clear communication about it and ourselves in order to share a genuine connection with others. Otherwise, we are each in our separate worlds of illusion. From a Hayekian skeptical standpoint, the mind’s eye can seem to be a narrow slit through which shadows of an external world make shallow, distorted impressions on a remote psyche. Fortunately, this is not the implication once we dispose of the supposedly foundational subject/object distinction. We can recognize subjecthood as an abstract category, a product of a philosophy laden with abstruse theological baggage… During most of our everyday experience, when we are not primed to be so self-conscious and self-centered, the phenomenal experience of ourselves and the environment is more continuous, flowing and irreducibly social in the sense that the categories that we use for interacting with the world are constituted and remade through interactions with many other minds.

Nightcap

  1. Foucault in California, dropping acid Eric Bulson, Times Literary Supplement
  2. Tiananmen and the New Authoritarianism Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books
  3. Is philosophy conservative or progressive? Matt McManus, Areo
  4. David Hume’s book burning bonfire Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon

Underrated & overrated libertarian thinkers

Here is my take on Tyler Cowen’s views on libertarian thinkers who are either overrated or underrated in shaping the libertarian tradition. Please be aware that I think libertarianism and classical liberalism are two different strands of liberal thought, as argued in more detail in an earlier post here at NOL and in my latest book. Please also note that my judgement will be particularly informed by their views on international relations.

Overrated:

  1. Hans-Hermann Hoppe – completely esoteric ideas about international relations, especially his erroneous and ill-thought idea about private defence through private insurance companies.
  2. Deepak Lal – no complaints about his general work, but his praise for empires was deeply disturbing, even though he meant well. Liberalism and globalization do not need empires, no matter how civilized – in the Oakeshottian meaning – they are meant to be.
  3. Ron Paul – I admire Ron Paul in many ways, but his ideas for ‘a foreign Policy of freedom’ are not much better than Hoppe’s. ‘peace, commerce, and honest friendship’: nice Jeffersonian goals, bad underlying analysis, not least about human nature.

Underrated:

  1. Friedrich Hayek – a far more sophisticated thinker on international relations than he is ever given credit for.
  2. Adam Smith – nowadays erroneously equated with ‘trade leads to peace’ fairly tales. Yet any reader of the complete two volumes of the Wealth of Nations recognizes that the book is also a lot about war and foreign policy, as are his Lectures on Jurisprudence and even a bit in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Together these make for a full and sophisticated position on international affairs.
  3. David Hume – basically the same as Smith.
  4. Robert Jackson – ok, I am taking liberties here. I do not think Jackson would consider himself a classical liberal or libertarian. But his writings on international relations are important and often have a classical liberal leaning, especially The Global Covenant.

The Counterfactual and the Factual

Historians often appear skeptical of counterfactual arguments. E.H. Carr argued that “a historian should never deal in speculation about what did not happen” (Carr, 1961, 127). Michael Oakeshott described counterfactual reasoning as ‘a monstrous incursion of science into the world of history’ (quoted in Ferguson, 1999). More recently, Eric Foner is reported to have found “counterfactuals absurd. A historian’s job is not to speculate about alternative universes …It’s to figure out what happened and why” (cited in Parry, 2016, here).

Such skepticism is striking to the modern economic historian, who since Robert Fogel’s work on the impact of the railroad on American economic growth has been trained to think explicitly in terms of counterfactuals. Far from being the absurdity Foner suggests, counterfactuals represent the gold standard in economic history today. Why? Because they are the sine qua of causal analysis. As David Hume noted, a counterfactual is exactly what we invoke whenever we use the word “cause”: “an object, followed by another, . . . where, if the first object had not been, the second would had never existed” (Hume, 1748, Part II).

Hume’s reasoning can best be understood in the context of a controlled experiment. Suppose a group of randomly selected patients are treated with a new drug while another randomly selected group are assigned a placebo. If the treatment and control groups were ex ante indistinguishable, then the difference between the outcomes for these two groups is the causal effect of the drug. The outcome for the control group provides the relevant counterfactual which enables us to assess the effectiveness of the drug.

The modern revival of economic history is based largely on the skill with which economic historians have been able to use econometric tools to replicate this style of experimental design using observational data. Such techniques enable economic historians to assess such counterfactuals as how much did slavery contribute to Africa’s underdevelopment?, what was the impact of the Peruvian Mita? or the effects of the Dust bowl?

The rejection of the counterfactual approach by historians such as Foner seems to run deep and constitutes a major divide between historians and economic historians; it is therefore well worth exploring its source.


To begin with, let’s set aside some of the reasons why historians have dismissed counterfactuals in the past. We need not, for instance, pay too much attention to the attachment of Marxists (like Carr) and Hegelian idealists (like Oakeshott) to teleological history. Of course, if history represents the unfolding of a dialectical process, then events that did not occur cannot, by definition, constitute the subject of historical analysis. Crude Marxism (and Hegelianism) is, I hope, still out of favor. But another reason why historians are skeptical of the counterfactual seems better grounded. And this is historians’ attachment to the factual.

Consider, Niall Ferguson’s edited volume Virtual History. It provides an excellent defense of counterfactual history. The counterfactuals considered by Ferguson and co, however, are largely in military or diplomatic history: what would have happened had the Nazis’ invaded Britain? etc.

These counterfactuals are a useful way to think through a question. But their power typically depends on reversing a single decision or event, i.e. suppose Hitler doesn’t issue his Stop Order in June 1940 or Edward Grey decides not to defend Belgium neutrality, what then? To be plausible everything else has to be held constant. This means that counterfactuals in diplomatic and military history shed light on the short term consequences of particular events. But the ceteris paribus assumption becomes harder to maintain as we consider events further removed from the initial counterfactual intervention. Thus, we have a reasonable idea of what Nazi rule of Britain in 1940 might have looked like — with the SS hunting down Jews, liberals, and intellectuals and restoring Edward VIII to the throne. But once we consider the outcomes of a Nazi ruled Britain into the 1950s and 1960s, we have much less guidance. Lacking any documentary evidence of the intentions of Britain’s Nazi rulers in the post-war era leaves us in the realm of historical fiction like Robert Harris’ Fatherland or CJ Sansom’s Dominion; there are simply too many degrees of freedom to do conduct historical analysis. Counterfactuals become problematic once we run out of facts to discipline our analysis.

This is the one fact it a valid reason for historians to be skeptical of counterfactuals. The actual historical record has to serve as a constant constraint on historical writing. This goes back to Leopold von Ranke, the scholar responsible for history’s emergence as an academic discipline in the 19th century. Ranke and his followers insisted on rigorous documentation and established the idea that the craft of the historian lay in the discovery, assembly, and analysis of primary sources. Ranke urged historians to focus on what actually happened; simply put, the facts ma’am, just the facts. Many criticisms have been levied at Ranke in the intervening 150 years, and to jaded post-modern eyes this approach no doubt appears hopeless naïve. But we should not dismiss Ranke’s strictures too quickly given what happens when historians abandon them (here and here). What is important here is that the same Rankian strictures that helped form history as an academic discipline, also rule out speculating about things that didn’t happen. They instill in historians a natural skepticism of counterfactual, alternative, history.

Moreover, while military history lends itself naturally to counterfactual analysis, other areas of history such as social or economic history where change is typically more gradual appear less suitable. After all: how is one to assess such complex counterfactuals as the fate of slavery in the US South in the absence of the Civil War?


These are questions which benefit from counterfactual reasoning but which, unlike diplomatic, political or military history, often requires training in the social sciences to answer. For example, take a question that is of interest to historians of capitalism: would slavery have disappeared quickly without the civil war?

From the 1950s to the 1970s, cliometric historians utilized economic theory to try to answer this. They employed economic models to assess the profitably of slavery and to infer the expectations of slave owners in the south (here). The main finding was that, contrary to the suppositions of historians (who at the time were often sympathetic to the southern cause): slavery was extremely profitable in 1860 and slaveholders foresaw the institution lasting indefinitely. In this case, their use of counterfactual reasoning overturned the previous historical orthodoxy.

The issue of the economic importance of slavery to the American economy in the early nineteenth century is also a counterfactual question. Implicitly it asks what would GDP have been in the absence of the slave-produced cotton. Here it is not only economic historians who are making counterfactual arguments. Foner championed Ed Baptist’s book The Half Has Never Been Told. But in it, Baptist argued that almost 50% of GDP in 1836 was due to slavery, itself a counterfactual argument. He is arguing that, in the absence of slavery, the American economy would have been roughly half the size that it was. This claim is certainly false based as it is on double-counting. But the problem with Baptist’s argument is not that he had made a counterfactual claim, but that he conducted counterfactual analysis ineptly and that his estimates are riddled with errors (see here and here).

All of this sheds light on why counterfactuals are so often dismissed by historians. There is an important and deeply shared sense that the counterfactual approach is ahistorical and an unfamiliarity with the techniques involved. A natural lesson from the Baptist affair is that historians should become more familiar with the powerful tools social scientists have to assess counterfactual questions. Taking counterfactuals seriously is a way to make progress on uncovering answers to important historical questions. But there is also a sense in which the historians’ suspicion of counterfactual may be justified.


There remain many questions where counterfactuals are not especially useful. The more complex the event, the harder it is to isolate the relevant counterfactual. Recently Bruno Gonçalves Rosi at Notes on Liberty suggested such a counterfactual: “no Protestant Reformation, no freedom of conscience as we know today”.

But in comparison to what we have considered thus far, this is a tricky counterfactual to assess. Suppose Bruno had said, “no Martin Luther, no freedom of conscience as we know it today”. This would be easier to argue against as one could simply note that absent Luther there probably won’t have been a Reformation starting in 1517, but at some point in the 1520s-1530s, it is likely that someone else would have taken Luther’s place and overthrown the Catholic Church. But taking the entire Reformation as a single treatment and assessing its causal effect is much harder to do.

In particular, we have to assess two separate probabilities: (i) the probability of freedom of conscience emerging in Europe in the absence of the Reformation (P(Freedom of conscience|No Reformation)); and (ii) the probability of freedom of conscience emerging in Europe in the presence of the Reformation (P(Freedom of conscience| Reformation)). For Bruno’s argument to hold we don’t just need P(FC|R) > P (FC|NR), which is eminently plausible. We also need P(FC|NR) to equal zero. This seems implausible.

The problem becomes still more complex once one recognizes that the Protestant Reformation was itself the product of economic, social, political and technological changes taking place in Europe. If our counterfactual analysis takes away the Reformation but leaves in place the factors that helped to give rise to it (urbanization, the printing press, political fragmentation, corruption etc.), then it is unclear what the counterfactual actually tells us. This problem can be illustrated by considering a causal diagram of the sort developed by Judea Perle (2000).

Here we are interested in the effect of D (the Reformation) on Y (freedom of conscience). The problem is that if we observe a correlation between D and Y, we don’t know if it is causal. This is because of the presence of A, B, and F. Perhaps these can be controlled for. But there is also C. We can think of C as the printing press.

The printing press has a large role in the success of the Reformation (Rubin 2014). But it also stimulated urbanization and economic growth and plausibly had an independent role in stimulating the developments that eventually gave rise to modern liberalism, rule of law, and freedom of conscience. The endogeneity problem here seems intractable.

Absent some way to control for all these potential confounders, we are unable to estimate the causal effects of the Protestant Reformation on something like freedom of conscience. In contrast to the purely economic questions considered above, we don’t have a good theoretical understanding of the emergence of religious freedom. Counterfactual reasoning only gets us so far.

Historians need economic history (and this means economic theory and econometrics). And economists need historians. They need historians to make sense of the complexity of the world and because of their expertise and skill in handling evidence.

The Behavioural Economics of the “Liberty & Responsibility” couple.

The marketing of Liberty is enclosed with the formula “Liberty + Responsibility.” It is some sort of “you have the right to do what you please, BUT you have to be responsible for your choices.” That is correct: the costs and profits enable rationality to our decisions. The lack of the former brings about the tragedy of the commons outcome. In a world where everyone is accountable for his choices, the ideal of liberty as absence of arbitrary coercion will be delivered by the resulting structure of rational individual decisions limiting our will.

The couple of Liberty and Responsibility is right BUT unattractive. First of all, the formula is not actually “Liberty + Responsibility,” but “Liberty as Absence of Coercion – What Responsibility Takes Away.” The latter is still right: Responsibility transforms negative liberty as “absence of coercion” into “absence of arbitrary coercion.” The problem remains a matter of marketing of ideas.

David Hume is a strong candidate for the title of “First Behavioural Economist,” since he had stated that it is more unpleasant for a man to have the unfulfilled promise of a good than not having neither the good nor the promise of it. The latter might be a desire, while the former is experienced as a dispossession. The couple “Liberty – Responsibility” dishes out the same kind of deception.

It is like someone who tells to you: “do what you want, enjoy 150% of Liberty”; and suddenly, he warns you: “but wait! You know there’s no such thing as a free lunch, if you are 150% free, someone will be 50% your slave. Give that illegitimate 50% of freedom back!” And he will be -again- right: being responsible makes everybody 100% free. Right – albeit disappointing.

Perhaps we should restate the formula the other way around: “Being 100% responsible for your choices gives you the right to claim 100% of your freedom.” Only a few will be interested in being more than 100% responsible for anything. But if it happens that someone is expected to deal alone with his own needs, at least he will be entitled to claim the right to his full autonomy.

The formula of “Responsibility + Liberty” is associated with the evolutionist notion of liberties, which means rights to be conquered, one by one. Being responsible and then free means that Liberty is not an unearned income to be neutrally taxed. It is not a “state of nature” to give in exchange for civilization, but a project to grow, a goal, a raison d’etre.

Putting first Responsibility and then Liberty determines a curious outcome: you are consciously free to choose the amount of freedom you are really willing to enjoy. Markets and hierarchies are, then, not antagonistic terms, but structures of cooperation freely consented. Moreover, what we trade are not goods, not even rights on goods, but parcels of our sphere of autonomy.

Some Comments on the Latin America Liberty Forum 2017

The Latin American edition of the Liberty Forum took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, last week. From almost all of the addresses delivered by the speakers, the attendees could single out two main patterns. The first one: a shift from mere utilitarianism to the acknowledgement of the importance of emotions and moral values in the defense of individual liberties. In this sense, the legacy of David Hume was present and I celebrate it. Moreover, we could expect that in a few years’ time we would get rid of an argumentation exclusively articulated in terms of instrumental reason and recover a sense of a substantive raison d’être of the case for liberty.

The second pattern the audience could guess from the speeches concerns the role of education in the formation of public opinion on liberty. Almost everyone agreed on the strong influence of education over the political ideas held by the citizenship. If you look up the state of the opinion, both in academia and the general public, the rest of the conclusions will follow…

Nevertheless, I consider the importance of academia and education in the articulation of public discourse to be overestimated. After all, what educational institutions of every sorts and levels provide to their pupils are adaptive devices to get -or remain- inserted into society. All that the educational system could do to change public opinion is make marginal contributions to be achieved only in the long term.

Since the public opinion is in the short run almost autonomous, the main matter refers to where it dwells. The television? The blogosphere? The radio? The public parks? (In Ancient Rome, by the way, people were very fond of the graffitis). Perhaps it could be a combination of all of them.

They -including education- are stages of the process of production of public opinion –superior stages, to express it in Austrian Economics terms. And if one takes Austrian Economics seriously, one will have to admit that the value of the superior goods is determined by the value of the final good -and not otherwise.

A Matter of Legitimacy

Dictionaries give us two definitions of “legitimacy”: “the quality of being legal” and “the quality of being reasonable and acceptable”. The two meanings are intertwined: we expect reasonability from the laws and we infer the content of a law we do not properly know from what we regard as reasonable. Unreasonable laws are not acceptable to the people and Cesare Beccaria warned us about how unreasonable prohibitions engender more and new crimes.

Political Realism and Legal Positivism cross their paths when it is time to discuss what is the ultimate foundation of obligation, both political and legal: facts and force. An overwhelming force deployed upon individuals and peoples will always be able to impose what is reasonable and acceptable. For Thomas Hobbes, as fear is not a sufficient reason for annulment of covenants, the feeling of terror from the subject to the sovereign does not challenge the legitimacy of his power.

Libertarianism is, in principle, a political stance on the state that denies its legitimacy or, at least, denies unlimited sovereignty. And we stress “in principle” because we want to point out that not all versions of Libertarianism accomplish the said aims. In this regard, we want to single out one crucial trait of every Libertarian political theory: is it possible a stateless order of cooperative coordination between individual plans? Does its existence depend upon our own volition and agreement? We want to make a distinction between two strains of Libertarianism: the one which affirms the possibility of a stateless society and the one which does not.

Paradoxically, the affirmation of the possibility of a stateless order of cooperation legitimates the Hobbesian stance on unlimited sovereignty: having at their disposal the alternative of a stateless political order, individuals opt freely for a Leviathan. What we have to decide now is the extension of the power of the government, but at this point there is no restriction left to the power of the Leviathan to determine its own limits.

On the other hand, for the strain of Libertarianism that regards the absence of a state as impossible or not desirable ­because, for example, the justice is an artificial virtue that demands a government to enforce it­, the state is a fact that has no reasonable alternatives. As the theft that compels us to choose between our bag or our life, there are no reasonable options left to us but accepting the power of the state. As David Hume pointed out, tacit conventions as the stability of the possessions require a political order to enforce it. Therefore, the factual power of the state will be legit only as long as it enforces the tacit order of human cooperation that allows individuals to fulfil their plans. Notwithstanding this last strain of Libertarianism does not deny the legitimacy of the state, it does consistently deny the legitimacy of any type of unlimited sovereignty.

Is the European Union Collapsing?

Lately, the European Union (EU) stumbles from crisis to crisis. After a long hot spring dominated by the financial crisis in Greece, we now see the collapse of the system based on the Schengen Treaty, which secures the free movement of people within most countries of the EU. The upheaval is the result of the huge numbers of refugees entering the EU, mostly from Syria, Eritrea and Sudan. It is expected that Germany alone will offer asylum to approximately 1 million people this year. With no end of the refugee wave in sight more and more countries are either closing their borders, building fences, or reintroducing border patrols. The situation in Hungary seems worst, especially in the temporary refugee camps. This weekend we saw footage of guards throwing food into the hungry crowds, just like zoo keepers do when feeding the wild beasts. An absurd lack of civilization.

Both crises have at least two factors in common, namely issues of sovereignty and property rights. Sovereignty is claimed back by European politicians, who previously made arrangements at the European level, yet are now confronted by their electorates who want to end the infringements of their property rights. In the case of Greece it was about (mostly) Northern European leaders who were pressed by public opinion to stop paying for the support of what was seen as an almost bankrupt country. Certainly in Germany and The Netherlands it was seen that Greece made a mess of things which itself needed to sort out (this was the dominant perception, I underline that I do not say this is also the right presentation of all relevant facts). In the current refugee crisis public opinion also welcomes large numbers of people who –again as it is widely perceived- are seen a poor sods fleeing from a terrible war. Yet at the same time the people understand that the refugees, no matter how well educated some of them are, also need to receive all kinds of welfare arrangements and will go through an often hard process of integration into society. This against the background of more than a decade of heated debate about immigration and integration in most (Western) EU countries.

In both questions the politicians eventually tend to back out, by reclaiming national sovereignty. Not directly, as this would be embarrassing. So Greece got its third support package, and in the refugees crisis it is underlined that ‘temporary border patrols’ and even ‘border closings’ are still within the letter of the Schengen Treaty. There is also talk of centralizing the intake of refugees at the European level, instead of the current principle of ‘first country of entry is the country where asylum should be requested. This may well be a good idea given the fact that refugees will  arrive (as the US experience also makes clear). Yet it is hard to predict how the negotiations will end, because there are large objections against the European Commission spreading refugees among the EU member states at its own peril.

The bigger picture however could well reveal that both events mark the end of the movement towards ‘ever closing union’, the old purpose mentioned in the Treaty Of Rome (1957), the most important founding treaty of European integration. That is significant, because if I am right in my assessment it means we are experiencing a real turning point. There are a number of contributing factors, most of which have been identified before, but that does not make them less significant, such as a lack of European identity among the European people, and the desire to accept only a minimum amount of European policy, due to the much stronger desire to make national decisions, which are easier to correct by the electorates. This, by the way, is fully in line with classical liberal thinkers such as Hayek, Hume or Smith.

Does this mean the EU is about to collapse? Hardly likely. The economic basis is still strong and while large the current problems can be paid for and sorted out eventually. Yet if integration stops here it will also mean that the EU will never get a serious common foreign policy or a common defense policy either, both of which have been tried –and failed- over the past decades. So the EU will then only be a ‘super free trade zone’, with a common trade policy, and strong legal apparatus also spreading out over many non-economic issues.  This raises many more issues, but that goes beyond the purpose of this contribution. For one thing: these are once again exciting times in Europe!

Slowly debunking the trade leads to peace fallacy

In 2010 I wrote that economic issues are just another factor in decisions on war or peace. There is nothing to suggest that free trade leads to peace per se (The Liberal Divide over Trade, Peace, and War, International Relations, vol 24, number 2, June 2010).

This is not a particular popular viewpoint, certainly not among classical liberals and libertarians, for reasons written about before at this blog.

So it is nice to read in Dale C. Copeland’s new book Economic Interdependence and War (Princeton University Press 2015), that indeed it all depends upon the situation. Economic factors can just as easily be cause for war, as a cause for refraining from violence. Copeland does not write from the liberal tradition, but if he had, he could have used Adam Smith, David Hume or Friedrich Hayek in support for his argument.

Anyway, the good thing is that the free-trade -leads-to-peace thesis is slowly but surely being debunked. It makes for a better and more mature discussion about international relations, inside and outside liberalism.

So you think war can be eliminated?

You might be one of those libertarians, or you belong to some other creed, who think war can be eliminated. For example through international trade, the better use of our ratio, or more influence for regular people on foreign policy decisions. In my own work I have tried to make clear all of these claims are false, and many related ones as well. This is all in the writings of Hume, Smith, Hayek or Rand. The base line is that in human nature reason cannot overcome the emotions, at least, not with all people, at all times. This means that conflict is one of the perpetual characteristics of human action, both in domestic and international settings.

In the unlikely case you do not want to take my word for it, read this book. Coker is a professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, specializing in the study of war. In this short but powerful book, he clearly sets out the different reasons why war will not be eliminated, providing evolutionary, cultural, technological, geopolitical and a number of other reasons. Buy it, and your world view and view of human nature will be even more aligned to the great classical liberals.

http://www.amazon.com/Can-War-Eliminated-Christopher-Coker/dp/0745679234/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1424447372&sr=8-1&keywords=can+war+be+eliminated

A few remarks on interventions in Syria and Iraq

After a few busy days at the office I finally have the time to take up Brandon’s challenge and write a few lines about interventions in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, as Brandon writes in some of the comments the basic classical liberal and liberal position is that interventions are a bad idea. They are a breach of the sovereignty of other states, and rarely achieve their goals. Military interventions upset the international order and the international and regional balances of power, and open the door to all kinds of counter-interventions. They are especially prone to failure when their goals are extensive, such as a desire to construct democracy in countries without democratic traditions. This is an act of rationalist constructivism, long associated with communism and socialism rather than liberalism.

Whether all interventions also weaken and possibly destabilize the intervening power, as some libertarians (and Brandon) claim is another matter. This surely depends on so many other variables that it is hard to take as a general rule. Indeed, to welcome a Chinese intervention to fight ISIS/ISIL in the expectation this would seriously weaken authoritarian China (again see Brandon’s thought provoking blog a few days ago) seems a few bridges too far.

Still, it is too simple to rule out all interventions, in all circumstances. While a duty to intervene cannot easily be defended, the right to intervention is a different matter altogether. For example, while generally opposed to military interventions for humanitarian purposes, David Hume and Adam Smith did allow prudent political leaders to intervene. Hardly ever for humanitarian reasons, but for reasons of state. Important principles they embraced, for example found in the work of Hugo Grotius, were the rights to punishment, retaliation, preventive action, the protection of property rights and the protection of subjects against other countries.

Applying the wisdom of the Scots to our current world does open the door for some military action by the West against ISIL in Syria and Iraq. For the US and Britain, the beheadings of their subjects are clear reasons for action. Also, ISIL clearly upsets the fragile regional balance of power, where the West has a clear stake given the recent intervention in Iraq (regardless what one thinks of that intervention, but that is all water under the bridge). Also, ISIL’s state formation is not a case of regular secession which libertarians may sympathize with. While it has its supporters, this is mainly a  case of state formation at gun point, against the will of most people inhabiting the land controlled by ISIL.

Of course, this does not mean President Obama’s plan is going to succeed. While military action may kill many of the ISIL leaders and perhaps ultimately minimize its military capacity, it seems highly unlikely that foreign intervention is able to eradicate ISIL. After all, interventions do not change the mindsets of people. Surely, this ideology will remain with us, in one form or the other. That is no reason to abstain from intervention, yet it is a reason to set clear and limited goals, and to be honest and modest about its inevitably limited long term effects.

Human Nature, War and Armed Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hume and Humboldt

Divergent dichotomies are not unusual to be found in Hayek’s writings. Besides the essay “Two Types of Mind”, we have his 1945 lecture “Individualism: True and False” on the difference between the British Enlightenment and the Continental Rationalism. Grounded in Edmund Burke’s Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, Hayek traces the origin of true individualism to Bernard Mandeville, David Hume, Josiah Tucker, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke himself. The XIX Century adds Lord Acton and Alexis de Tocqueville to the list. On the other hand, Hayek states that Jean Jacques Rousseau exemplifies the Rationalist individualism, which postulates isolated and self-contained individuals –whereas, for the former, the individual is determined by his existence in society. The “true variant” of individualism is the notion of “subject” of Hume’s philosophy: the outcome of repetitions, expectancies and habits. Finally, Hayek concludes his lecture with the censure to the German type of individualism, rooted in Wolfgang v. Goethe and Wilhelm v. Humboldt: the individualism expressed in the original development of the personality and defended in J. S. Mill’s On Liberty.

Notwithstanding in this 1945 lecture Hayek claims that this German individualism of self-development has nothing to do with what he regards as true individualism and it is “an obstacle to the smooth working of an individualistic system,” much later, in Law, Legislation, and Liberty, he will restate his opinion on Wilhelm v. Humboldt’s legacy.

This reconsideration of the value of liberty as the development of the unique and particular character of an individual will be acknowledge not only regarding legal theory but as well in his 1976 proposal of denationalization of currency. In his late writings, Hayek will endorse the development of the originality of character as an important trait for the competition to work as a discovery process.

The key to understand his shift onto this new type of individualism is closely related to Hayek’s involvement into the ideas of cultural evolution. The “true individualism” was important to state how a society can achieve certain order. The “Humboldt’s individualism” is needed to explain the dynamic of the evolution of that order. Hume’s notion of subject is related to the ideas of integration and convergence, to how an order may emerge. Humboldt’s ideal of self-development of the unique and original character of each individual implies differentiation and divergence. These two traits are the key to the adaptation to the changes in the environment that defines the notion of blind evolution. A social and political system that assures the development of differences has keen aptitudes to survive to the changes in its environment. At the level of the “true individualism”, individuals are made of institutions, repetitions and expectancies. But at the level “Humboldt´s individualism”, successful institutions are made of differences, divergent series of facts and adaptation.

(Originally published in http://www.fgmsosavalle.blogspot.com)

Normas, decisiones y complejidad

Hace pocos días, se publicó en el sitio americanscientist.org un ambicioso artículo sobre el concepto de lo aleatorio. El autor, Scott Aaronson, trataba de elucidar bajo qué criterio podíamos distinguir una serie aleatoria de números de otra serie de números ordenados conforme cierto patrón, difícil de determinar, pero estructurante al fin de un orden en la serie. En otras palabras, si una computadora arrojaba “aleatoriamente” un número “9” y luego otro número “9” y luego otro y otro, ¿estábamos ante el resultado del azar, que se juega en cada nueva jugada, o ante un patrón que podía expresarse en una fórmula? ¿Si de repente apareciera en la serie un número 4, eso confirmaría el azar, o nos indicaría que nos encontramos ante un patrón más complejo?

Aaronson propone en el referido artículo, como criterio identificatorio de un número aleatorio, la característica de no ser susceptible de reducción a un algoritmo más simple. La explicación aparece como plausible y tiene un gran poder de seducción. Sin embargo, desde nuestro punto de vista, tal conceptualización no permite distinguir azar de complejidad. Friedrich A. Hayek se inspiró en Kurt Gödel para proponer, como caracterización de un fenómeno complejo, aquél sobre el que, en atención a la heterogeneidad de sus elementos, ninguna teoría puede ofrecer su descripción completa, es decir, que no puede expresarse en un algoritmo más simple.

La noción de fenómeno complejo tiene sus raíces en el empirismo de David Hume: las relaciones entre los términos (una serie de números, por ejemplo) no se encuentran en los términos mismos, si no que son atribuidas por el sujeto (en nuestro ejemplo, le adjudicamos un patrón a aquella serie de números.) Desde el momento en el que el conocimiento general no proviene de los hechos si no que es atribuido a los mismos, tal conocimiento general no nos permitirá agotar el conocimiento de lo particular. En otras palabras, siempre habrá un elemento empírico en toda teoría.

Para continuar con nuestro ejemplo: podemos enunciar un patrón que explique la sucesión de una serie de números, pero estamos expuestos a que aparezca un nuevo número en la serie que nos obligue a revisar nuestra teoría. Cuando aparece un nuevo acontecimiento que se escapa a nuestras expectativas, lo que hacemos es reajustar la noción de orden que le atribuimos a la realidad. Lo que hace que una serie de acontecimientos configure un orden o estructura, y no sea caótica o aleatoria no es, por consiguiente, que las expectativas en torno a los acontecimientos siempre se cumplan, si no que exista un rango de acontecimientos que nunca se verifique, en otras palabras: que determinadas expectativas sean sistemáticamente frustradas.

Igualmente, la confusión entre azar y complejidad puede ser fecunda y arrojar más luz sobre la naturaleza de la segunda. Por ejemplo, Nicolás Maquiavelo culminaba “El Príncipe” con la afirmación de que la iniciativa era la virtud fundamental del político, ya que la fortuna tendía a favorecer más al arriesgado que al cauto. En términos poblacionales, vemos más hombres de éxito con iniciativa que sin ella ya que, para resultar exitosos, se tuvieron que conyugar dos situaciones: la decisión de asumir riesgos y que la oportunidad favorable efectivamente se haya presentado. En el conjunto de políticos sin éxito encontraremos a los cautos y también a los arriesgados (que no tuvieron suerte). Va de suyo que podemos sustituir “fortuna” por “complejidad” sin perder mucho del sentido de la idea.

Asimismo, The Economist publicó la semana pasada un interesante artículo sobre la relación entre la estructura del azar y laestructura de las decisiones. Todo parece indicar que efectivamente existen buenas y malas rachas, pero ello no se debe al azar si no a la estructura de decisiones que se toman frente a una situación difícil o imposible de comprender. Un jugador tiene a la suerte de su lado cuando, luego de ganar la primera apuesta, en las sucesivas va reduciendo su exposición al riesgo. Correlativamente en este caso, a menores riegos, menores ganancias pero también menores pérdidas, con lo que el resultado neto de todo el conjunto de jugadas es positivo. Paralelamente, si un jugador pierde en su primera apuesta, incrementar el riesgo de las sucesivas con la idea de compensar la primera pérdida sólo lo llevará a la ruina. En síntesis, una muy buena estrategia para lidiar con el riesgo es actuar como un sistema de retroalimentación negativa: a cada desvío del promedio estándar, responder con mayor moderación. Después de todo, la comparación con un sistema de retroalimentación negativa era la caracterización que F. A. Hayek hacía de la función del derecho y de todo sistema normativo en general, aportando mayor estabilidad y mejores resultados netos.

Publicado originariamente en http://www.ihumeblog.blogspot.com.ar , el blog institucional de la Fundación Instituto David Hume (www.ihume.org), de Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Useful neoconservative insights

It is not common for liberals to praise neoconservative thinkers. Regardless if this concerns domestic politics or international affairs.  While this normally makes a lot of sense, sometimes the liberals are clearly at fault. I recently re-read two of Robert Kagan’s most famous books: Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (2003) and The Return of History and the End of Dreams (2008). The power of Kagan’s analysis struck me again in these two concise books, predominantly his balanced treatment of the enduring and dominant role of power in world politics. This is something not many liberals are keen to accept, the classical liberals excepted, most notably Hume, Smith and the certainly the hawkish Hayek.

In the light of the topical situation in Eastern Europe, let me quote a few lines from The Return of History.

  • ‘One of the geopolitical fault lines runs along the western frontier of Russia, [Ukraine included] with Russia on one side, and the European Union and the United States on the other. Instead of an anticipated zone of peace, western Eurasia has once again become a zone of competition.’
  • ‘If Russia was where history most dramatically ended two decades ago, today it is where history has most dramatically returned. Russia’s turn toward liberalism at home stalled and then reversed, and so has its foreign policy […….] Great power nationalism has returned to Russia and with it traditional great power calculations and ambitions.’
  • ‘Contrary to the dismissive views of many in the West, Russia is a great power, and it takes pride in being a force to be reckoned with on the world stage.’
  • ‘its oil and gas wealth has allowed Moscow to increase defense spending by more than 20 percent annually over the past three years’.
  • ‘This new sense of power today fuels Russian nationalism. It also stirs up deep resentment and feelings of humiliation […] such as acceptance of NATO enlargement, the withdrawal of troops from former Soviet republics and the ceding of independence to Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic states.’

Recall this was in 2008 and it just a very brief selection. There was not much the liberals (of all persuasions) could have added to this. Liberals generally lack realistic let alone original views on world politics. That is simply not good enough, if they have intentions to widens the appeal of liberal thought. An embrace of neoconservative insights such as Kagan’s would be a good start.