Does federation unite or divide?

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

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

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

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

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

Serey: a Cambodian blockchain-based social media platform inspired by Friedrich Hayek’s theory of dispersed knowledge

Serey is a new Social Media platform that specifically targets the Cambodian market. The country that saw nearly a quarter of the population decimated during the civil war of the 60’s and 70’s, the Khmer rouge regime, and the subsequent famine, has gone through rapid economic developments in the past two decades due to its friendliness to free markets. Accompanying this development is the adoption of new information technologies. One such technology is blockchain.

The team behind Serey has now created a blockchain-based social media platform called Serey. It rewards content creators, such as writers, for their creativity. The platform now has 400-500 users who all contribute by writing content ranging from short fictional stories to history, philosophy, and technology. Users can post any content they want. There is no central authority that can censor the posts in any way. The system is based on a democratic voting system in which every user can vote on articles. Dependent on the votes, the content creators are rewarded with the platform’s native cryptocurrency called Serey coin (SRY).

What does Serey stand for? 

The name of the platform, Serey (សេរី in Khmer), is derived from the Khmer word seripheap (សេរីភាព) which stands for liberty or freedom. The platform is built on the philosophy of liberty and is inspired by Friedrich Hayek’s theory of dispersed knowledge. Realizing that every individual knows just a fraction of what is collectively known and that our collective knowledge is therefore decentralized, Serey is looking to encourage the sharing of the unique information that individuals possess through the Serey platform. It wants to create an open platform where everyone is free to enter, to exercise their creativity without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity, and to engage in thoughtful, civilized discussions.

There was no such online platform in Cambodia yet. Cambodia, at this moment, also doesn’t have a culture of reading and writing. Serey is aiming to transform this so there is also an educational component to it.

We need to learn to dance with our feet, with ideas, with words, and, need I add that one must also be able to dance with the pen?

The mission statement of Serey is as follows:

“Rewarding self-expression and creativity.”

Why is Serey run on a blockchain?

The Serey blockchain allows the storage of content – actually only the actual text of the article and no pictures or videos to keep block sizes minimal – in a distributed manner. Anything written on Serey is stored on a blockchain that is shared among many other servers, called witnesses, that run an exact copy of the blockchain. This makes all content tamper-proof and censorship nearly impossible. This is in line with Serey’s belief that everyone should have the right to free expression.

In addition, a blockchain serves the people’s right to keep the fruits of their labour. Serey cannot take away any of its users Serey coins. All earnings are rightfully theirs and they can spend it in any way they want.

What are the features of Serey?

Serey is principally a fork of Steemit – another social media platform on the blockchain – and therefore essentially makes use of the Graphene technology that also powers Steemit and Bitshares. However, whereas Steemit is trying to create a one-size-fit-all approach with their platform, Serey is entirely dedicated to the people of Cambodia. They believe that regional differences require different user interfaces and functionalities that match the people’s cultural makeup and level of sophistication with blockchain technology.

Compared to Steemit, Serey has a different layout, a market place section, a Khmer language option, an free advertisement section, and a simplified reward system.

The Serey Decentralized Exchange is currently under development and will offer an English and Khmer language option.

In addition, the Serey Decentralized Exchange is currently being built in cooperation with developers close to Steemit and Bitshares. It will be a full-fledged decentralized exchange that is accessible by anyone, anywhere in the world. Users will then be able to trade Serey coins (SRY) among 15-20 other cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, Dash, Bitshares etc.

Other features that Serey users can look forward to in the next six months are an online betting system, improvements of the market place section, an integrated chat feature similar to that of Messenger, and a mobile app.

If you are interested in Serey, please feel free to visit the website and to register for free. Most articles are written in Khmer, but English articles are welcome as well.

Friedrich Hayek’s recollection of Ludwig Wittgenstein

Today is F.A. Hayek’s birthday, and if he would have been alive he would have been 117 years old now. Hayek is one of the most seminal economists and social philosophers of the 20th century. His works have left a deep impression on me when I first encountered them at the age of 20. The first three works of Hayek that I read were: 1. The Constitution of Liberty; 2. The Road to Serfdom; and 3. an essay entitled The Use Of Knowledge In Society. They have greatly influenced my views on political philosophy and the social sciences.

However, it was not so long ago that another illustrious philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein who was a second cousin and 10 years senior to Hayek, was born 127 years ago. In the same year that I became acquainted with Hayek, I also read Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus or to put it more precisely: I attempted to read it. The work is incredibly dense and until today I still don’t feel confident that I have a sensible understanding of the book. Nonetheless, as a small tribute to both of them, I thought it would be nice to post a memoir that Hayek wrote of Wittgenstein.


F.A. Hayek – Remembering My Cousin, Ludwig Wittgenstein

BETWEEN THE RAILS and the building of the railway station of Bad Ischl there used to be ample space where, sixty years ago, in the season, a regular promenade used to develop before the departure of the night train to Vienna.

I believe it was on the last day of August 1918 that here, among a boisterous crowd of young officers returning to the front after visiting their families on furlough in the Salzkammergut district, two artillery ensigns became vaguely aware that they ought to know one another. I am not sure whether it was a resemblance to other members of our families or because we had actually met before that led us to ask the other, “Aren’t you a Wittgenstein?” (or, perhaps, “Aren’t you a Hayek?”). At any rate it led to our travelling together through the night to Vienna, and even though most of the time we naturally tried to sleep we did manage to converse a little.

Some parts of this conversation made a strong impression on me. He was not only much irritated by the high spirits of the noisy and probably half-drunk party of fellow-officers with which we shared the carriage without in the least concealing his contempt for mankind in general, but he also took it for granted that any relation of his no matter how distantly connected must have the same standards as himself. He was not so very wrong! I was then very young and inexperienced, barely nineteen and the product of what would now be called a puritanical education: the kind in which the ice-cold bath my father took every morning was the much admired (though rarely imitated) standard of discipline for body and mind. And Ludwig Wittgenstein was just ten years my senior.

What struck me most in this conversation was a radical passion for truthfulness in everything (which I came to know as a characteristic vogue among the young Viennese intellectuals of the generation immediately preceding mine only in the following university years). This truthfulness became almost a fashion in that border group between the purely Jewish and the purely Gentile parts of the intelligentsia in which I came so much to move. It meant much more than truth in speech. One had to “live” truth and not tolerate any pretence in oneself or others. It sometimes produced outright rudeness and, certainly, unpleasantness. Every convention was dissected and every conventional form exposed as fraud. Wittgenstein merely carried this further in applying it to himself. I sometimes felt that he took a perverse pleasure in discovering falsehood in his own feelings and that he was constantly trying to purge himself of all fraud.

THAT HE WAS VERY highly strung even at that time cannot be doubted. Among the remoter relatives he was thought of (though hardly known by them) as the maddest member of a rather extraordinary family, all of whom were exceptionally gifted and both ready and in a position to live for what they most cared for. Before 1914 I had heard much of (though being too young to attend) their famous musical soirees at the “Palais Wittgenstein”, which ceased to be a social centre after 1914. For many years the name meant to me chiefly the kind old lady who, when I was six years old, had taken me for my first car-ride—in an open electromobile round the Ringstrasse.

Apart from an even earlier memory of being taken to the luxurious apartment of an extremely old lady and being made to understand that she was the sister of my maternal great-grandfather— and, as I now know, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s maternal grandmother—I have no direct knowledge of the Wittgenstein family at the height of their social position at Vienna. The tragedy of the three elder sons apparently all ending their lives by suicide had attenuated it even more than the death of the great industrialist at its head would otherwise have done. I am afraid that my earliest recollection of the name of Wittgenstein is connected with the shocked account of one of my Styrian maiden great-aunts, surely inspired by envy rather than malice, that their grandfather “sold his daughter to a rich Jewish banker. . . .” This was the kind old lady I still remember—just.

I DID NOT MEET Ludwig Wittgenstein again for ten years; but I heard from him from time to time through his eldest sister who was a second cousin, an exact contemporary and a close friend of my mother. The regular visiting had made “Aunt Minning” a familiar figure to me (actually, she spelt her name, which is an abbreviation of Hermine, with a single “n”, but this would sound odd to English ears), and she remained a frequent visitor. Her youngest brother’s problems evidently occupied her much, and though she deprecated all talk about the “Sonderling”, the crank, and strongly defended him when occasional and undoubtedly often much-distorted accounts of his doings circulated, we did soon learn of them. The public eye did not take notice of him while his brother Paul Wittgenstein, a one-armed pianist, became a well-known figure.

But I did, through these connections, become probably one of the first readers of Tractatus when it appeared in 1922. Since, like most philosophically interested people of our generation I was, like Wittgenstein, much influenced by Ernst Mach, it made a great impression on me.

The next time I met Ludwig Wittgenstein was in the spring of 1928 when the economist Dennis Robertson, who was taking me for a walk through the Fellows’ Gardens of Trinity College, Cambridge, suddenly decided to change course because on the top of a little rise he perceived the form of the philosopher draped over a deckchair. He evidently stood rather in awe of him, and he did not wish to disturb him. Naturally, I walked up to him, was greeted with surprising friendliness, and we engaged in a pleasant but uninteresting conversation (in German) about home and family to which Robertson soon left us. Before long Wittgenstein’s interest flagged, and evident signs of his not knowing what to do with me made me leave him after a while.

IT MUST HAVE BEEN almost twelve years later that the first of the only real series of meetings I had with him took place. When I went to Cambridge in 1939 with the London School of Economics I soon learned that he was away working at some war hospital. But a year or two later I encountered him most unexpectedly. John Maynard Keynes had arranged for me to have rooms in the Gibbs building of King’s College, and after a while I was asked by Richard Braithwaite to take part in the meetings of the Moral Science Club (I think that was the name) which took place in his rooms just below those I occupied.

It was at the end of one of these meetings that Wittgenstein quite suddenly and rather dramatically emerged. It concerned a paper which had not particularly interested me and of the subject of which I have no recollection. Suddenly Wittgenstein leapt to his feet, poker in hand, indignant in the highest degree, and he proceeded to demonstrate with the implement how simple and obvious Matter really was. Seeing this rampant man in the middle of the room swinging a poker was certainly rather alarming, and one felt inclined to escape into a safe corner. Frankly, my impression at that time was that he had gone mad!

It was some time later, probably a year or two, that I took courage to go and see him, after having learnt that he was again in Cambridge. He then lived (as always, I think) in rooms several flights up in a building outside the College. The bare room with the iron stove, to which he had to bring a chair for me from his bedroom, has often been described. We talked pleasantly on a variety of topics outside philosophy and politics (we knew that we disagreed politically), and he seemed to like the very fact that I strictly avoided “talking shop”, not unlike one or two other curious figures I have met in Cambridge. But, though these visits were quite pleasant and he seemed to encourage their repetition, they were also rather uninteresting and I went along only two or three times more.

After the end of the War, when I had already returned to London, a new kind of contact by letter began when the possibility arose, first to send food parcels, and later to visit our relatives in Vienna. This involved all kinds of complicated contacts with bureaucratic organisations about which, he rightly assumed, I had found out details before he did. In this he showed a curious combination of impracticability and meticulous attention to detail which must have made all contacts with the ordinary business of life highly unsettling for him. However, he did manage to get to Vienna fairly soon after me (I had succeeded for the first time in 1946), and I believe he went there once or twice again.

I THINK IT WAS in the course of his return from his last visit to Vienna that we met for the last time. He had gone to see his dying sister Minning once more, and he was (though I did not know it) himself already mortally ill. I had interrupted the usual railway journey from Vienna via Switzerland and France at Basel and had boarded there the sleeping-car at midnight the next day. Since my fellow occupant of the compartment seemed to be already asleep I undressed in semi-darkness. As I prepared to mount to the upper berth a tousled head shot out from the lower one and almost shouted at me, “You are Professor Hayek!” Before I had recovered sufficiently to realise that it was Wittgenstein and to register my assent, he had turned to the wall again.

When I woke up next morning he had disappeared, presumably to the restaurant car. When I returned I found him deeply engrossed in a detective story and apparently unwilling to talk. This lasted only until he had finished his paperback. He then engaged me in the most lively conversation, beginning with his impressions of the Russians at Vienna, an experience which evidently had shaken him to his depth and destroyed certain long-cherished illusions. Gradually we were led to more general questions of moral philosophy, but just as it was getting really exciting we arrived at the port (in Boulogne, I believe). Wittgenstein seemed very anxious to continue our discussion, and indeed he said that we must do so on board ship.

But I simply could not find him. Whether he regretted having become so deeply engaged, or had discovered that, after all, I was just another Philistine, I do not know. At any rate, I never saw him again.