Some Reflections on Liberal Democracy, Political Meritocracy, and Critical Rationalism

We live in times in which the liberal democracy is challenged by a sort of political meritocracy according to which a performance legitimacy — i.e., the utility that government management brings to the population – would be more important than the legitimacy of origin, based on the consent of the sovereign people. Thus, economic growth and its beneficial consequences for the governed are presented as substitutes for liberal values, which often also encounters difficulties in its governance. The next step would be to replace liberal democracy with a single-party meritocracy, legitimized in its ability to efficiently provide public goods to its population. In this context, is Contractualist Rationalism still a sufficient foundation for liberal democracy? We will seek to respond to this query with the answer to another question, related to the previous one: What position would the so-called anti-Contractualists or anti-Rationalist assume in the current context?

Both for David Hume and later for Edmund Burke, political power lacks legitimacy of origin. They stated that every government is born either by conquest or by usurpation, since for a social contract to even be conceived, it must be preceded by a system of legal norms in which to fit. Therefore, if there is a political obligation on the part of the governed, it has its source in the legitimacy of exercise that, day after day, the rulers gain. However, such source of legitimacy does not come exclusively from the force with which governments impose compliance with their laws, but in the common interest of the rulers and the ruled to maintain the validity of certain norms of coexistence or justice, whose discovery is born of the practice of interactions between different individuals, its fulfillment generates a long-term benefit for society and its application begets concern for the aforementioned common interest among all members of the social and political body.

Norms and human nature

David Hume distinguished, for this, between natural and artificial virtues, belonging those norms of justice to this last category, since the man in himself would not have a natural propensity to comply with them, but they depend on a critical reasoning capable of being able to see the convenience of the universalization of such standards. For this reason, the Scottish philosopher proposed a model of an agent who behaved in accordance with a principle of limited generosity: he was not exclusively selfish, but rather had an empathetic capacity capable of putting himself in the place of his fellow man. In turn, he was not entirely rational, but that same empathy moved him to act according to his passions, such as to prefer his own kind to strangers. Continuous interactions with other human beings following this behavioral model of limited generosity allowed the social fabric to be endowed with certain structuring regularities, by virtue of the habit born from the repetition of actions inspired by said principle of limited generosity -and the consequent expectations regarding the behavior of own and others arising from the aforementioned habits of conduct.

This plexus of habits and expectations allows agents to make decisions based on a given structure of human interactions that can be identified through a standard of expected behavior, distinguishing what should be from what is not expected to be. Such rules of conduct are called by David Hume as “of justice” and their compliance habit configures “artificial virtues,” since on certain occasions they may conflict with the natural virtues concerning the principles of limited generosity that make the agent prefer his own kind to the others.

In this way, David Hume stated that human interactions form a social structure that is built upon notions of justice that he identified as those of stability in possession, its peaceful transmission and the fulfillment of the promises. These consist of social institutions that arise spontaneously from human interaction and that, because on certain occasions they may conflict with private interests, are not universally accepted spontaneously, but rather, on the contrary, need the support of force for their fulfillment. It is by providing such enforced compliance with the norms of justice that governments gain their legitimacy of exercise.

Although, as we said, the observance of these practices and institutions constitutes a particular interest shared by all members of society, since they all share the natural virtues of looking after the interests of their own group and this is what make them peacefully prosper. Nevertheless, it would be useful to illustrate those instances in which the passions that make up the natural virtues conflict with the rules that maintain such a peaceful order of coexistence and exchange: such is the case, for example, of compliance with the promises.

If a person hires another for the manufacture of a certain work that will take a certain time to complete, pays him an advance on account of the payment of the total price at the end of the work, both will be faced with possible conflicts of interest when fulfilling their respective promises. Once the contractor receives the advance of the price, he will be faced with the dilemma of complying with the execution of the work and bringing it to completion or assuming the opportunistic behavior of allocating such a sum of money for another more desired interest: to buy toys to their children, for example. Suppose that the contractor complies with his commitment and delivers the work to his client in a timely manner. In this case, the latter will be faced with the dilemma of honoring his commitment and paying the balance of the price, receiving the work, or allocating that money to a more urgent and priority need at the moment, such as helping his parents to raise a debt. If social organization were structured exclusively around natural virtues, Hume reasoned, the fulfillment of promises would be highly unlikely. Thus, artificial virtues are born, such as justice.

The role of government, in Hume’s view, is to give mandatory force to the spontaneous norms of justice -such as the aforementioned stability in possession, the peaceful transmission of said possession and the fulfillment of promises- through the establishment of sanctions and compensations that discourage non-compliance. Thus, if the contractor in our example chooses to allocate the money from the advance of the work for which he had been hired to buy toys for his children – since, naturally, the happiness of his children is above the happiness of his client -, then he should pay his counterpart a compensation for damages that will far exceed the value of the said toys. In this way, the happiness of the children of the contractor will be better guarded if he fulfills his commitments. Correlatively, if at the end of the work the contractor hands it over to his client and the latter refuses to pay the balance of the price, given that he prefers to allocate the said amount of money to pay a debt from his parents, then he will have to face a compensation that probably would exceed the value of the debts, so the debtor in this case will have a strong incentive to fulfill his part of the contract.

However, there are cases in which the breach of a promise is still advantageous even when opportunistic conduct is threatened with the payment of its compensation. In those cases, the need to be met is so urgent that its value exceeds the standard set by the positive law for breach of contract. These are the cases in which the contractor in our example no longer must buy toys, but rather food or medicine for his children, or in which the parents of the buyer of the work will have to put their house up for auction if their son does not help them in due time. In both cases, what we have is a general and abstract rule: in the case of a breach of contract, the debtor owes the payment of principal and an interest rate. On certain occasions, it will be convenient for the debtor to make the payment, on others, to face the costs of the breach.

Every system of abstract norms is articulated around standards of conduct in accordance to which the agents make decisions that will have to be rational from an ecological point of view. For example: in American law system of torts, the Rule of Hand (in honor of Judge Learned Hand) establishes that a person, in order to avert a certain risk, cannot be asked to incur in costs greater than the value of the said risk (that is, the value of the protected asset multiplied by the probability that the loss will occur.) Thus, if to avoid losing an asset with a value of $1,000 and whose probability of the loss occurring is 1%, it is unjustifiable because it is unreasonable to require its guardian to incur costs greater than $10. Likewise, in this case, personal utility and social utility coincide, since higher expenditures would mean a decrease in aggregate wealth. Correlatively, in the legal world linked to the European Continental tradition, heir to Roman law, there are expected standards of conduct such as those of a good businessman and a good family man, which establish the upper and lower limits of the duty of care.

In all cases, the person who makes the final decision about whether or not to carry out a certain action and face the consequences, natural and legal, is the individual. Empathy towards someone who is considered as one’s own works as a natural limiting factor for action, as well as rules of courtesy and moral guidelines. They all act as empirical institutions. When these are insufficient for the purpose of maintaining a stable structure of peaceful exchanges, positive legal norms become relevant, establishing mechanisms of patrimonial compensation and repressive sanctions that have a dissuasive purpose with respect to a certain range of actions. However, a liberal legal system will never prevent the commission of certain actions, but will limit itself to discouraging them and, if carried out, to compensate them. In this way, each individual will have to decide their course of action according to their particular circumstances of time and place, refraining in some cases from carrying out certain actions and, in others, carrying them out knowing that their omission is more disadvantageous than the compensation or threatened sanction.

Suppose a man wants to avenge the outrage and murder perpetrated against a daughter of his, who went unpunished due to difficulties in the evidence. The state cannot apply repressive sanctions against the suspect of the crime because he has procedural guarantees that are inviolable. However, nothing prevents the offended party from choosing to take revenge at the price of being criminally sanctioned. We can assume that the suspect of the crime achieves an interdiction against whoever is chasing him, prohibiting him from approaching him within a certain radius of meters. However, the vigilante will have to prefer to violate such a prohibition and kill the person who, according to his particular conviction, is the author of the crime against his daughter. In this last case, there is no room for doubt: the avenger is the author of the homicide against the suspect of the previous crime. The avenger ends up sentenced to serve some years in prison, plus the payment of a fine for having violated the interdiction and the payment of compensation to the relatives of his victim. Well then, the criminal being convinced of the justice of his decision, that conviction will seem like a convenient price to pay in order to avenge the outrage followed by the murder against his daughter.

Such a case does not represent a failure of the legal system as an incentive structure for decision-making. On the contrary, it is a typical case of how such a system works. Compensation and repressive sanctions are prices that structure a certain ecological rationality, since under a certain matrix of compensation and sanctions one decision will be rational, while it will not be under another. If, for example, simple homicide is punished with a sentence of deprivation of liberty from eight to fifteen years, which can be extended to twenty-five years for cases of aggravated homicide, then certain actions will be irrational and others will remain reasonable. It is unreasonable to risk receiving such a penalty in the face of a verbal insult and, as we have already seen, there are other circumstances in which an individual is willing to assume not only the risk but also the certainty of being punished.

As a result of this system of incentives represented by the norms of justice, the final distribution of resources will correspond to a greater social utility, even in cases of violation of the aforementioned norms of justice, since no one will be forced to sacrifice resources inefficiently, above its opportunity cost. In this way, we see how David Hume offers us a sort of pre-utilitarian foundation for the norms of justice. However, this utilitarian-like notion also makes it possible to comply with an ethical requirement: for the purposes of complying with the rules of justice, no one is taken as a mere means, since compliance with them must provide some type of utility for each subject and, in otherwise, he is free to break the law and voluntarily face the consequences of such non-compliance, which he judges more advantageous than obeying the law itself.

The antagonism of interests between rulers and ruled

However, although a legal-political system understood in this way preserves its morality – since it encourages each individual to act contributing to the general welfare without losing sight of the fact that each individual is an end in himself -, its raison d’etre is not in the immediate interest of each agent in general, but in the immediate interest of a particular agent, who has interests diametrically opposed to the generality of the rest of the agents: the ruler. This does not pursue the protection of the general interest in the long term by enjoying a special moral predisposition, but by the particular interest of increasing its tax collection by increasing general wealth. The ruler who has a long-run horizon does not find it convenient to consume capital, but rather to increase it. Consequently, the government -being understood as the state– is directly interested in enforcing the rules of justice, although this often implies contradicting the direct and short-term interests of the governed.

Of course, David Hume also admits that, under exceptional circumstances, it would also be convenient in the long-run to temporarily suspend the rules of justice. This would be the case, for example, of a foreign exchange or bank run, in which, respectively, the foreign exchange market is suspended or the return of deposits is rescheduled. Both a devaluation of the currency and a rescheduling of bank deposits mean a disappointment to the legitimate expectations of holders of local currency or depositors, but a bankruptcy of the currency board, the national treasury or the banking system would cause greater damage -for both the ruler and the ruled.

But, removing those exceptional cases, the general rule is that the interests of the government are the opposite complement of the interests of the governed. While the former maximizes the utility of its resources by promoting the norms of justice, the latter do so by assuming opportunistic behavior – it is worth remembering here the well-known phrase by John Maynard Keynes, insofar as “in the long run, all we are dead”. However, the long term arrives and the societies that have a high level of enforcement of the rules of justice experience higher capitalization indices than the societies do not. It remains, of course, to see who appropriates such a surplus, if everything belongs to the ruler, or if the ruled can capture some of the surplus wealth generated by the effective enforcement of the rules of justice.

In this aspect, the classic forms of government are of particular incidence: a monarchy will have the advantage of having a greater incentive to enforce the rules of justice, which in the long run increase and deepen the structure of capital and, consequently, the tax collection. At the other pole, direct democracies would tend to find numerous exceptions to the rules of justice, rendering them completely ineffective. A mixed form of government, such as a constitutional monarchy in which the king is the head of state and the leader of parliament the head of government, would balance the interests of the rulers and the ruled. Those who are interested in increasing tax collection and those who seek to reduce it. The best way to reconcile both interests would be to encourage the formation of capital through the reassurance of the rules of justice: stability in possession, the peaceful transmission of it and the fulfillment of promises. In this way, governments legitimize themselves through the exercise of power aimed at ensuring compliance with a spontaneous regulatory system, which works at the same time as a system of incentives. In this line of argument, we can find the previously named Edmund Burke and Benjamin Constant.

Not in vain are the national states the natural heirs of the absolutist monarchies. The state is an institution -or a fiction, as Quentin Skinner points out- with a vocation for permanence and perpetuity. For the state, there is no short-term calculation, although it does find -in return- opportunistic behavior by officials and magistrates. When a simple individual acts in a way contrary to the law, he assumes the risk of being discovered by the state, which watches over the long-term interest. However, when this same individual manages state assets, his willful conduct has more devices to go unpunished. Therefore, we find in all systems a special responsibility of state administrators and other officials. But, above all things, we find ourselves with a system of checks and balances, of officialdom against opposition based not on virtue, but most of the time on the desire and competition to seize power and displace under any pretext the competitors. Modern liberal democracy means not only an abstract legal system for the governed, but also a set of abstract rules and anonymous procedures that encourage competition between different aspirants to political power.

The problem of the legitimacy of power

David Hume’s empiricism allows us to conceive how the legitimacy of the government does not come from its conditions of origin but from the exercise of power for the profit of the rulers and of the ruled. Furthermore, the norms of justice are regarded as desirable or good because compliance with them increases wealth and guarantees an equitable distribution of the said income between the rulers and the ruled. However, there is no a priori content of such norms of justice, but it emerges from the nature of things and only after a critical study of such circumstances can we infer the enunciation of the abstract norms and patterns that compose it. Furthermore, the abstract normative system that precedes governments and legitimizes them through their exercise is also made up of empirical norms that are not enunciated or are impossible to enunciate -as Friedrich Hayek noted in his work “Law, Legislation and Liberty“. It is worth saying that the spontaneous normative order that we call under the category of “norms of justice” does not depend on a positive enunciation but on its observance in the facts. It is through the positivization of certain principles of justice that governments, lacking in themselves any legitimacy of origin, acquire legitimacy of exercise.

Denying that every government has legitimacy of origin implies denying that there is a moral obligation to obey positive law whatever its content. Positive law is accompanied by a moral obligation to be obeyed when its purpose is to give binding force to spontaneous norms of justice, which contribute to the general well-being of the members of society. However, this does not mean that each individual has the competence to decide for himself if a positive legal norm has moral legitimacy to be followed, but rather that this depends on a critical judgment that is made taking into account not only the particular interest of a given subject, but the general interest of the whole society. To be valid, the particular judgment of each individual regarding the legitimacy of a positive norm must meet a necessary but not sufficient requirement of impartiality -and, thus, universality.

At this point, then, it is appropriate to ask how the rulers can identify those norms of justice from others that have only the appearance of being so but actually only respond to a particular interest. It is in this instance that the characteristic of spontaneous, tacit, or express compliance with the norms that make up a spontaneous order takes on special importance. This is because, if there is a given order, in which individuals interact, form expectations around the actions and decisions of their peers and coordinate individual plans among themselves, the observed empirical norms at least fulfill the task of maintaining stable, albeit in a precarious and provisional way, the said order. Furthermore, our own personal constitution, as subjects who recognize themselves as identical to themselves over time, depends largely on a stable order of events from our environment. As Friedrich Hayek explained at the time, what we call spontaneous order can also be characterized as the structure of reality in its aspect concerning human interactions, both instantaneous and sustained over time.

In conclusion, the line of the so-called anti-Contractualists or Empiricist could in no way be affiliated with the current critique of liberal democracy by surrogate candidates, such as a single-party meritocracy, which is efficient in promoting the economic growth for the population, at the cost of their political rights and the subjugation of certain human rights, such as freedom of expression or the right of assembly. On the contrary, the way in which governments legitimize themselves, regardless of the legitimacy of their origin, is to give mandatory force to a set of norms and values that concern fundamental or natural rights and political freedoms.

David Hume and Adam Smith

I recently wrote a short piece for Adam Smith Works, on the influence of David Hume on Adam Smith, in the field of trade and international politics.

You may find it here:

Liberal Democracies and Authoritarian Regimes: The Case for Law Enforcement. (Part 3 of 12)

This reference to the distinction of values ​​between the short and the long term also refers to the theory of capital and interest that Eugen v. Böhm-Bawerk and Austrian and Swedish economists who followed him in such developments, such as Ludwig v. Mises, Knut Wicksell, the already named Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig Lachmann, or the British economist John Hicks. Current economic science recognizes the element of time preference in the interest rate, but emphasizes the predominance of the value of money as its main component. In contrast to this, the Austrian and Swedish economists referred to had emphasized a characteristic of homo economicus that brought them closer to the behavioral presuppositions of David Hume: agents prefer the same good in the present than in the future, or, expressed in other terms, for an individual to agree to defer the use of a present good towards a future time, such abstention from consumption must be compensated by an increase in the future value of such good. Thus, if a person lends a certain sum of money and therefore incurs an opportunity cost by abstaining from its consumption, it is because he expects to receive compensatory interest on his waiting in the future. Of course, Böhm-Bawerk’s theory of interest received its timely evaluation by numerous economists, pointing out its weaknesses and subsequent developments by his disciples met with mixed luck – to the point that, for example, Friedrich Hayek declared that he had never undertaken the task of writing the second part of his work The Pure Theory of Capital attentive to the extreme complexity of the theory of interest that inspired him. However, re-expressing David Hume’s legal-political theory in terms of the Austrian and Swedish theory of capital represents an intellectual exercise with a significant heuristic function.

In “natural” terms, an individual will “spontaneously” fulfill a promise if he calculates that the present value of breaching it is less than the future loss of credit with respect to his creditor or the community with which he habitually – a term proper to the Humean empiricism – it interacts. This is consistent with Hume’s own theory of empathy, according to which each individual can understand how his neighbor would feel and judge a certain situation, better if he is someone known than a complete stranger. Thus, the tendency to cheat is less corroborated with those who have the expectation of interacting more than those in whom the interaction will occur in a single play – as illustrated by the best known game theory.

We can thus see how, in the absence of the incentives provided by the coercive powers on the part of the state, the natural tendency to keep promises is better corroborated among acquaintances, with continuous interaction over time, than with strangers with what will have to be done. interact only once. This is what led David Hume, likewise, to reject any theory of the social contract – since, by definition, in the supposed state of nature there would be no one to guarantee its fulfillment – and to consider that, in a primitive stage of the individual and society, the primordial political unit would have to be the family – in fact, the very etymological meaning of this term conveys a “micro-political” connotation.

It will be later Adam Smith who will extend the foundation of a human interaction order beyond the nearby nuclei through his concept of “Great Society,” in which unknown subjects are capable of spontaneously coordinating their respective activities through the signals transmitted by the system. of prices, which indicates the relative modifications in the terms of exchange of complementary and substitute goods, contemporary or deferred in time. However, neither did Adam Smith deny a fundamental function that some mechanism must fulfill in order to emerge and sustain such an extended cooperation order: the application of the norms of peaceful coexistence, which guarantee stability in the possession of goods, the transfer by consent of said possession and the fulfillment of the contracts entered into for the purpose of perfecting said transfers.

Consequently, the problems of law enforcement, which concern the degree of effective compliance with the legal norms that condition human conduct, must represent a major chapter of the political philosophy and theory that characterizes legal institutions and policies as true incentive systems.

[Editor’s note: this is Part 3 in a 12-part essay; you can read Part 2 here or read the essay in its entirety here.]

Liberal Democracies and Authoritarian Regimes: The Case for Law Enforcement. (Part 2 of 12)

Obviously, there is a whole question of information and transaction costs surrounding the game between empirical social norms and positive legal norms. The former are more agile and immediate, better adapted to the circumstances, but at the same time they are not enough to guarantee peace when the interests at stake gain social relevance. There are cases in which the legal system takes advantage of the immediacy of the empirical norms to give dynamism to the daily traffic and at the same time reserves the last word for a case of serious controversy: it is the referral made by the positive right to the validity of uses and customs. A typical example of this is commercial law.

Although in another frame of reference, but in the same vision, we can find in David Hume an antecedent of this distinction between empirical and positive norms. The Scottish philosopher called the first “natural virtues” and the second “artificial virtues,” and it was precisely justice that was among the latter. In turn, in the 20th century, Friedrich Hayek expressly collected his political philosophy in order to enunciate his concept of “spontaneous order”, which, among other characteristics, consisted of that diffuse zone in which the norms have not yet bifurcated between empirical and positive – and for which reason it is so elusive to categorize the first volume of Law, Legislation and Freedom, entitled “Norms and order,” either within social theory or within the theory of law.

The truth is that – something that Hayek did not have the opportunity to address – in that diffuse area in which it is difficult to distinguish a social norm with empirical compliance from another with recognition by the legal system – to use H. L. A. Hart’s own concepts – a determining factor for both types of norms, in addition to the violence that its non-compliance or its subsequent retaliation may involve, is the opportunism that acts as an incentive for the acting agents -with which here we return to the Humean distinction between natural and artificial virtues: stability in possession, the peaceful transfer of it and the fulfillment of promises are three virtues that make up the idea of ​​justice but that, for its fulfillment, require from the agents a general vision of the social consequences compliance or non-compliance, or the incentive provided by government sanctions in anticipation of non-compliance.

Opportunism on the part of private agents consists in preferring a present good to deferring that good in order to obtain a greater good in the future. For example, breaking a promise in a pressing situation constitutes a present greater good for the defaulter. However, the generalization of such default by all debtors would destroy a credit system that would, in the future, go against the interests of the entire society as a whole, including the defaulter himself. However, for the debtor, the default means an obvious immediate advantage, which can only be counteracted by the threat of a social sanction – stop being seen and treated as a “good businessman” – and, if this does not reach to modify their behavior, due to the threat of a legal sanction, such as compensation for non-compliance or, if necessary and if this non-compliance had been deliberate and obtained through a ruse, imprisonment.

It is here where the superiority of representative democracy is manifested over direct democracy, and of mixed systems, which combine long-term and even life-long terms or “while their good conduct lasts.” In these cases, the rulers exercise the “opportunism” of enforcing the law, following the adage of Herman Melville regarding “private vices, public benefits” or Machiavellian realism: greater wealth and, consequently, higher taxes come from societies in those that are characterized by a high fulfillment of promises and contracts, since it goes without saying that, abstaining from a present good to achieve a greater good in the future, generates in the long term a greater volume of wealth than enjoying a good present at the cost of giving up future good. If a government had to be revalidated daily, its incentive to stay in office would be to make short-term benefits prevail. Likewise, it is not only enough with a political system with stability in office, but also with legal and political responsibilities around the demand to make the long term prevail over the short term.

In this distinction between legal responsibilities and political responsibilities of officials, the Humean distinction between artificial virtues (the legal responsibility for the poor performance of the position) and the natural virtues (the personal desire to continue in office, through re-election or by avoiding impeachment). The legal-political system is articulated through opposite incentives: individuals have a “natural” tendency to breach promises, which is counteracted by the incentive of the legal system that establishes forced fulfillment of contracts; while the political system is expected to align incentives in such a way that rulers have “the natural tendency” to enforce contracts. This natural tendency of the rulers does not come from any “natural” characteristic of the person of the ruler but from the incentives provided by the constitutional system.

[Editor’s note: this is Part 2 of a 12-part essay; you can read Part 1 here or the whole essay in its entirety here.]

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 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.


  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.


  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.


  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.