The importance of biography

There is a now-out-of-print children’s book series entitled “Childhood of Famous Americans,” published as a subdivision of the Landmark Books series between 1950 and 1970. When I was between the ages of six and ten, I was fortunate to be able to read almost all of the books, which were, unsurprisingly, the biographies of prominent Americans written for children. Even when I was little, the books were fairly ancient: the most recent subjects they covered were Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Albert Einstein. Despite, or even because of, their relative antiquity, these books had a major impact on my own trajectory.

This is not to say that they weren’t flawed since they were. Often they were riddled with historical inaccuracies, the quality of writing varied wildly from author to author, and the content could be outright offensive in regards to religion and races. The overall series, however, did a very good job of including biographies of Americans from minority groups, but, depending on the subject, author, and time period, the portrayals of other races could be quite insensitive.

The books all followed the Joseph Campbell theory of story to a T, with the result that they were very good stories. A critic might argue that these biographies lionized or apotheosized individuals in an unrealistic way. While such an accusation would be true, the series was titled “Famous Americans,” not “average Joe Americans.” The important trait of these books though was that they all shared a common theme: stature was a choice and one that was made in childhood or adolescence.

Using Campbell-ian terms, the moment of awakening was almost invariably an episode where the subject realized that the people surrounding him or her were stupid, fearful, and conventional – Mark Twain being expelled from multiple schools, Abraham Lincoln denied an education by his illiterate father (as I said, not all of the stories were tremendously accurate), Henry Clay fighting for his inheritance rights against his extended family, Jim Thorpe struggling against racial and social prejudice throughout his sporting career.

On a side note, there was a remarkable absence of American fine arts figures in the series. Mark Twain was one of a handful of writers that included Edgar Allan Poe and Louisa May Alcott; I don’t recall that some of the more sophisticated writers, such as Washington Irving, Henry James, or Edith Wharton, received the honor. One could say that the absence of fine artists was countered by an equal absence of career military men. Dwight D. Eisenhower had a biography, as did George Armstrong Custer (his was most uncomplimentary). Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant both received a book. I’m sure that there’s room for analysis of a vision of civil society expressed in who the series’ editors decided to cover.

The “Childhood of Famous Americans” series only rarely had a specific antagonist. Some combination of self-satisfied parents, authority figures attached to a status quo, and parochial small-mindedness served as the villains. The subject’s daily obstacles were educational and cultural mediocrity, societal complacency, intellectually inferior peers, and timorous and incapable mentors, who by extension weren’t very good at their job.

Fundamentally, the goal of the series was to create role models for young readers. The model proposed was complete rejection of (and a little healthy contempt for) existing systems. The unifying theme among all the people selected was the tradition of “rugged individualism” and the idea that progress was due to the action of individuals, not that of their communities (recall, the village inhabitants were invariably shown as small-minded, poor spirited morons).

Carl J. Schramm argued in his 2006 book The Entrepreneurial Imperative that the “rugged individual” ethos was an American casualty of post-World War II society. Americans turned more toward the concept of the “workforce,” with its communal overtones, and away from individual achievement and success. The peak of statist, stagnant communitarianism came in the 1970s, the decade in which the “Childhood of Famous Americans” also ceased publication.

Both biography and entrepreneurial spirit speak of a path to personal greatness, a way for individuals to emancipate themselves from their origins if they have sufficient will. The loss of biography and an entrepreneurial ethos indicate an impoverishment in role models. Without role models of individualistic thought or practice, most people lack the originality to conceive of ways of life beyond their current existence. Discontent and feelings of betrayal by “the system,” society, or the status quo are the ultimate result.

Today, we are confronted by the implosion of the post-WWII status quo. To further complicate matters, the majority of the adult population lacks a blueprint for either challenging what remains of the status quo, or for forging a new path. Without the proper role models of individuality, shown in biography, such people are in thrall to the false promise of communitarianism.

Nightcap

  1. Yalta: one of the greatest wrongs of history David Reynolds, New Statesman
  2. Individualism does not necessarily imply small government Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  3. On socially influenced preferences Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  4. A better defense of capitalism “djf,” askblog (comments)

Early 20th century socio-economic commentary: history in the making

Several years ago, I used to watch the television show Bones. The only quote I remember from that show was surprisingly pithy given its origins. Regarding a serial killer the team has finally tracked down and neutralized, the resident psychologist, Dr. Lance Sweets, says: “I was right. He was nobody – angry at history for ignoring him.” Contemplating the second part of the quote, one realizes that the potentially histrionic line holds some alarming applicability today.

Tom Palmer wrote a magnificent article, “The Terrifying Rise of Authoritarian Populism,” which he examined the way that failed individuals and communities turn to a collective identity to bolster their self-esteem, which in turn creates a dynamic conducive to populist ideologies of all stripes. The pressing question is: Why does the majority feel entitled to dictate to the minority, in a form of mob-rule wrapped in the husk of democracy? In order to understand, though never to solve, this question in America, the one country whose founders openly designed it specifically to avoid tyranny, both of the majority and the minority, one must look to a mixture of factors.

In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, there is a snippet of story about the history professor “who couldn’t get a job because he taught that the inhabitants of slums were not the men who made this country.” Quite literally because none of the Founding Fathers came from insignificance, outside of Alexander Hamilton, the illegitimate son of a Scottish gentleman, a man who was rather blatantly waiting around for a woman of rank to become available and who didn’t leave his son any of his extensive property.[1]Given that Hamilton’s early promise belied his later invention of the early federal reserve and his apologetics for tariffs, the suspicion of historians – and Hamilton’s own peers if private letters among Jefferson, the Adams, and others are to be believed – that he had some bitterness toward the propertied class on the basis of his childhood is justifiable. Benjamin Franklin was very proud of the fact that he managed to make his own fortune – having parted acrimoniously with his solidly middle-class extended family. To be fair, Franklin never claimed to be “self-made,” just to have had to be self-reliant at an unusually young age for a man of his class. There is much to be admired in Franklin’s rigidly honest self-definition, especially today. To return to the quote from Rand, the idea expressed was not a comment upon the literal Founding Fathers but rather upon the building of identities and the falsity contained therein. 

The visualization graphic linked from FEE shows clearly the extent to which incomes have increased over the years. The discontent connected and displayed through dramatic claims about “shrinking middle-class,” “stagnant wages,” “1 percent,” etc. was predicted in 1907 by economist Alvin Saunders Johnson (1874 – 1971) in his study “Influences Affecting the Development of Thrift.” Starting with the question:

If it is proposed, through legislation, to liberate a given social class from some of the uncertainties and hardships of the laissez-faire regime, one of the first questions to be raised is: “What will be the effects upon the habits of saving of the class concerned?” 

After laying out in great detail why redistributive policies were bound to fail fiscally and socially, Johnson took direct aim at what he perceived to be the source of the problem:

To-day the working class is rising into an autonomous position. The workingman of to-day repudiates the term “the lower classes.” His position is not the same as that of the property owner, but it is not in his opinion inferior. It follows that any line of conduct rising normally out of his position as a wage earner will be held in honor by him. It is pertinent, therefore, to inquire what attitude toward thrift the exigencies of his situation lead him to adopt. 

It is no part of the workingman’s view of progress that each individual should become the owner of a capital whose earnings may supplement those of his labor. No such supplementary income should, in the laborer’s view, be necessary; and the work- man who endeavors to secure it for himself, instead of bending his efforts to the winning of better conditions for labor in general, is likely to be blamed for selfishness rather than praised for self-restraint. […]

Light-handed spending in time of prosperity, mutual aid in time of distress- such appears to be the approved conduct of a permanent body of property-less laborers. And if this is true, we may be quite certain that such practices will in the end be idealized, and that middle-class schemes of cultivating thrift among the working classes will meet with increasing resistance. Already it is easy to find bodies of intelligent workmen who express the greatest contempt for the fellow workman who is ” salting down ” a part of his earnings. 

All of these factors, predicted Johnson, would lead to increase inequality, social and financial, and anger with the socio-economic system. The inequality would stem, not from literal economic inequality, but from the loss of the “laborers” to discern genuine investment, in self, family, and business, from mere consumption, leading to a knowledge- and know-how gap.

At the time Johnson wrote his study, the Progressive movement and its acolytes were running rampant in the US, promoting what we would call today a “soft” socialist state, and the campaigners were experiencing unusual popularity in response to an agriculture bubble due to subsidies that inflated land prices and a more general move toward socialism among urban workers. While the prototype socialists blamed consumption, adopting eagerly the vocabulary of Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class(1899), Johnson rejected the idea completely:

“Conspicuous consumption” is a proof of economic success, and wherever it is the most telling proof, the standard of economic success is likely to be a standard of consumption. But wherever economic success is better displayed in some other way, as for example by increase in one’s visible assets or productive equipment, the standard of consumption exercises little influence upon economic conduct. A standard of conspicuous possession or of productive power takes its place.[2]

Instead, the root problem was a mass loss of will to be capitalists and to engage in and with the capitalist system. This in turn stemmed from a desire for dignity, a pursuit doomed to failure because it was built not on the dignity of work and the worthiness of independence but upon class identity. Exacerbating the situation, as Tom Palmer explored, is the fact that this identity is collective, which fits with a rejection of capitalist pursuit because entrepreneurship is inherently a singular, individual effort.  

Today, we are facing the consequences of the rejection of what Margaret Thatcher called “the strenuous life of liberty and enterprise.” Those who embrace this lifestyle ideal are the ones who have made and continue to determine history. While they may be mappable as a network or a general type of group, all of their achievements lie outside a collective identity. Any set of people can be distilled down to a select set of characteristics that give the impression of a collective unity; for example, one can make a blanket statement along the lines of “the majority of tech billionaires are Ivy Plus dropouts” which would be true in a literal sense and false in its reductionist view. 

The collective view of the social peer must fail of necessity. It is what Johnson meant when he mentioned the derision directed by working-men at those of their fellows who stepped outside a collective concept of “place” and tried to become capitalists through saving. The policing of the peer in America has failed miserably as Palmer described when he wrote of individuals seeking solace in the notion that their community is successful, even if they are not. The illogic of this position escapes them: it is impossible for a community of individual underachievers to become successful merely through combining into a collective. History shows many times over that such a situation only increases the multiplication of failure. And it is the inexorability of history – though not, heeding Karl Popper’s admonition, historicism – that is the source of the anger today. The collective from the slums does not make history, and those who make up the collective are now angry at history for ignoring them.        


[1]To be fair to Hamilton Sr., not much is known about the circumstances of his estate. It is perfectly possible that it was entailed and therefore could not be bequeathed at will. Hamilton Sr did pay for an elite, in a Caribbean-colonies context, education and funded his son’s early ventures in New York City. Also a good proof for the idea that the bank of mom and dad is NOT a Millennial invention.  

[2]Johnson is an American economist who really deserves greater recognition. He grew up on the Midwestern plains, and in these fairly isolated circumstances, he articulated a theory of economics which he later recognized as part of the Austrian School. He co-founded The New School in NYC and was single-handedly responsible for the university becoming a home to Austrian and other central European scholars forced to flee from the Nazis. 

Nightcap

  1. Tensions between liberalism and democracy from a Tocquevillean perspective Ewa Atanassow (interview), JHIBlog
  2. High theory and low seriousness Gustav Jönsson, Quillette
  3. Another misuse of Eastern ideas Amy Olberding, Aeon
  4. The real reason Netflix is cancelling their Marvel shows Mark Hughes, Forbes

The State in education – Part I: A History

In Beyond Good and Evil, written after breaking with composer Richard Wagner and subsequently rejecting hyper-nationalism, Friedrich Nietzsche proposed the existence of a group of people who cannot abide to see others successful or happy. Appropriately, he dubbed these people and their attitude “ressentiment,” or “resentment” in French. His profile of the resentful is most unkind, bordering on the snobbish – though Nietzsche had very little personal cause to feel superior (he was part of the minor nobility but always insisted that, due to his father’s premature death and his mother’s lack of connections, his legal rank was never of much benefit to him). Insanely proud of his classical education and remarkable, even for that time, fluency in Ancient Greek and Latin, the philosopher latched onto these languages as symbolic variables in his descriptions of society and its woes.

Much like the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir who, a century later, attempted to prove that history was made by socio-cultural gender dynamics (Le deuxième sexe), Nietzsche proposed that all of (European) history since the fall of the Roman Empire was a battle between the cosmopolitan, classically-educated aristocracy and the technician, parochial lower classes. Unlike de Beauvoir who saw the world as oppressor-oppressed, the German believed that the lower orders, motivated by jealousy and feelings of exclusion, tried to pull their superiors down, creating a peculiar situation in which those who believed themselves the oppressed engaged in oppressive behavior.

As evidence of his theory, Nietzsche suggested in The Genealogy of Morals that the Protestant Reformation was the ultimate achievement of the resentful classes; functionaries, unable to understand the Latin of the Roman liturgy, read the writings of the ancient and medieval philosophers, or participate meaningfully in the conversations and society of the Renaissance, responded by turning the Church into the personification of all they hated – not unlike a voodoo doll – and then ousted it from their lives and countries. At least, this is what Nietzsche thought had occurred, adding that the cloddish nationalism that he had rejected would not have been possible without first banishing the Catholic Church and the refinement it introduced through fostering Latin, Greek, and Classical literature and philosophy.

On the practical plane, Nietzsche’s primary concern, post-Wagner, was the advent of Prussian hegemony and the loss of autonomy among the German member states. Before his friendship with Wagner, Nietzsche gave a lecture series on education which he intended to collect and publish as a book. The book never materialized [until 2016, when the Paul Reitter compiled the notes and lecture transcripts into book form under the title Anti-Education], but the philosopher did write a preface that he gifted to Cosima Wagner under the title “Five Prefaces to Five Unwritten Books,” which helped precipitate the quarrel since Nietzsche signaled clearly that he rejected the Wagnerian philosophy of the innate nobility of the (German) savage.

Much of Anti-Education is harsh and unyielding, moreover because there is much in it that is true. In it, one can see the early kernels of Nietzsche’s identification of ressentiment and the genesis of ideas concerning individuality and nobility that he returned to later in life. There is also much that is applicable today.

Nietzsche asked,

Why does the state need such a surplus of educational institutions and teachers? Why promote popular enlightenment on such scale? Because the genuine German spirit [that of the Renaissance princes] is so hated – because they fear the aristocratic nature of true education and culture – because they are determined to drive the few that are great into self-imposed exile, so that a pretension of culture can be implanted and cultivated in the many – because they want to avoid the hard and rigorous discipline of the great leader, and convince the masses that they can find the guiding path for themselves … under the guiding star of the state! Now that is something new: the state as the guiding star of culture!

Nietzsche wrote / spoke this on the takeover by the state of the education system, also known as the Prussian public school system, which “reformer” Horace Mann promptly imported to the United States. The false promise of public education, as Nietzsche saw it, was that state schools claimed the laurels and legitimacy of private gymnasia through deceit – speaking to a university audience, he expected everyone to know that pre-state control, there were two types of secondary schools: gymnasium, where the student received a classical education and prepared to enter university, and realschule, where the student learned the three Rs, along with some science, and entered the workforce immediately after graduation. Nietzsche claimed that while the gymnasium curriculum needed a significant overhaul, the only products of the realschule were conformity, obedience, and an inflated sense of achievement. Hence, he believed, when the government took over the education system, officials chose to model the public school on the old realschule, while claiming that graduates had the knowledge and skills of the gymnasium.

It is important to note at this juncture that Nietzsche bore a very visceral hatred of the Prussians in general and of Otto von Bismarck in particular. Viewing the former as unintelligent clods whose threat lay in their stupidity, the philosopher deemed the latter and his eponymous Bismarckian welfare state a greater threat to personal freedom. From 1888 until his nervous breakdown and descent into madness in 1899, Nietzsche called for the trial of Bismarck for treason, along with the removal of Kaiser Wilhelm II, in a sequence of letters and essays which his sister and executors suppressed, both to accommodate their own agendas and to avoid the attention of the censors.

The treason of Bismarck lay in his creation of a nation whose people were unwittingly dependent on the state. The state provided education during infancy and a pension in old age. As Nietzsche correctly saw, when the state controls the beginning of the pipeline and the end, everyone is in its employ. As he also foretold, the situation would end in violence (for Germany specifically; hence his interest in preempting war by removing its figurehead king) and heartbreak for those who placed their faith in the anti-individualistic state.

At a very fundamental level, Nietzsche believed that the public school system, with is inadequate education and contempt for classical learning and languages, was a conspiracy designed to drive a wedge among the social classes, enabling the state to increase control in the ensuing vacuum. The other aspect he identified was the use of public opinion to strip the individual of drive or thirst for a better life through a mixture of flattery and subversion of ambition. The outcome would be war and resentment, he predicted, for any country foolish enough to have faith in the Prussian system. Next week, we will examine whether Nietzsche’s predictions have come true in modern American education.

Nightcap

  1. China Portrays Racism as a Western Problem the Economist
  2. Pure Racism and Chinese Dining Jacques Delacroix, NOL
  3. Imagining a New China Fiammetta Rocco, 1843
  4. A German’s View of China’s Rise Peter Gordon, Asian Review of Books

In the Search for an Optimal Level of Inequality

Recently, the blog ThinkMarkets published a post by Gunther Schnabl about how Friedrich Hayek’s works helped to understand the link between Quantitative Easing and political unrest. The piece of writing summarized with praiseworthy precision three different stages of Friedrich Hayek’s economic and political ideas and, among the many topics it addressed, it was mentioned the increasing level of income and wealth inequality that a policy of low rates of interest might bring about.

It is well-known that Friedrich Hayek owes the Swedish School as much as he does the Austrian School on his ideas about money and capital. In fact, he borrows the distinction between natural and market interest rates from Knut Wicksell. The early writings of F.A. Hayek state that disequilibrium and crisis are caused by a market interest rate that is below the natural interest rate. There is no necessity of a Central Bank to arrive at such a situation: the credit creation of the banking system or a sudden change of the expectancies of the public could set the market interest rate well below the natural interest rate and, thus, lead to what Hayek and Nicholas Kaldor called “the Concertina Effect.”

At this point we must formulate a disclaimer: Friedrich Hayek’s theory of money and capital was so controversial and subject to so many regrets by his early supporters – like said Kaldor, Ronald Coase, or Lionel Robbins – that we can hardly carry on without reaching a previous theoretical settlement over the apportations of his works. Until then, the readings on Hayek’s economics will have mostly a heuristic and inspirational value. They will be an starting point from where to spring new insights, but hardly a single conclusive statement. Hayekian economics is a whole realm to be conquered, but precisely, the most of this quest still remains undone.

For example, if we assume – as it does the said post – that ultra-loose monetary policy enlarges inequality and engenders political instability, then we are bound to find a monetary policy that delivers, or at least does not avoid, an optimal level of inequality. As it is explained in the linked lecture, the definition of such a concept might differ whether it depends on an economic or a political or a moral perspective.

Here is where I think the works of F.A. Hayek have still so much to give to our inquiries: the matter is not where to place an optimal level of inequality, but to discover the conditions under which a certain level of inequality appears to us as legitimate, or at least tolerable. This is not a subject about quantities, but about qualities. Our mission is to discover the mechanism by which the notions of fairness, justice, or even order are formed in our beliefs.

Perhaps that is the deep meaning of the order or equilibrium that it is reach when, to use the terminology of Wicksell and Hayek’s early writings, both natural and market interest rates are the same: a state of affairs in which the most of the expectancies of the agents could prove correct. The solution does not depend upon a particular public policy, but on providing an abstract institutional structure in which each individual decision could profit the most from the spontaneous order of human interaction.

White Supremacists

“White supremacy” has become a central part of the left’s narrative. In an hour and a half of casual news watching on television in early October 2017, for example, I heard three references to white supremacy. That’s more than I did in the decade 2005 to 2015, I believe.

One utterance came from the sports channel ESPN’s African-American commentator Jemele Hill who called president Trump a “white supremacist.” She added that he surrounded himself with white supremacists. Perhaps, by implication of the term “surround,” she meant several millions of his 63 million voters, or even all of them. This kind of verbal hysteria is not new and neither are intemperate television commentators but, in the recent past, such breathless declarations would have been laughed out of the park or negatively sanctioned, or both. Not anymore. Ms Hill’s statement was not exactly an isolated incident either.

In the first two weeks of October 2017, I hear the word “supremacist” on radio or television at least once a day. I am sure it has not happened before in my fifty years in this country (as an immigrant). This new tolerance makes some sense in political context.

For the inconsolable of Pres. Trump’s election, I suspect – but I don’t know for a fact – that the claim is by way of passing the baton at a time when the investigation on “Russian collusion” to elect him, now in its thirteenth month, is going nowhere. If he did not betray the country, what can we accuse him of that’s difficult for decent minded people to forgive, they ask? Digging into this country’s complex and troubled past is always a good bet if you are looking for dirt to throw at an American.

Mr Trump’s own intemperate comments – although never directed at the usual African-Americans targets of real supremacists – helped identify a valuable, superficially semi-plausible charge. The sudden emergence in the collective consciousness of unhappy young white Americans on the occasion of the 2016 election also contributed. (“…in the collective consciousness…;” they were around before that.) Unhappy young whites can but with little effort be turned into the racist rednecks of countless movies. Thus, the white supremacy narrative may be part of a half-blind collective endeavor to discredit for the long term the social forces thought to be associated with the sensational defeat in 2016 of a moderate liberal (and a feminist to boot; more on this below).

My first impression of the reality of a white supremacist movement, based on reading and listening to radio – including National Public Radio – about five days a week, besides watching television, is that there isn’t actually much going on nationwide in this respect. Yet, I am mindful of the fact that I live in “progressive” Santa Cruz, in liberal California. In neither place would one expect to bump casually into white supremacists. And if there were one, he would probably just clench his teeth and keep his mouth shut. In lily-white Santa Cruz, on the contrary, a black supremacist would probably be elected mayor on the first try without really campaigning. (OK, I may be exaggerating a little, here.)

I realize also that my reading habits as a conservative may not lead to chance encounters with supremacist tripe.* So, I wonder: What’s the actual situation? To try and explore this question more deeply, I use a two-step strategy. I look first for existing credible empirical reports on the topic. Second, I look for what should be the products of white supremacist groups, the tracks they should logically be expected to leave on the internet and elsewhere. But first, a brief historical detour. Continue reading

A libertarian case for Hillary Clinton

I have abstained from commenting on the American presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton (sorry Rick) for so long because I just wasn’t very interested in it. I’m still not that interested in it, but the topic has come up quite a bit lately here at NOL so I thought I’d throw in my two cents.

First, though, I thought I’d use up a couple of paragraphs to explain why I don’t really follow American presidential elections, even though most intelligent people, in most parts of the world, do. American presidents simply don’t have a lot of power in domestic American politics. Congress controls the purse strings, makes the laws, and, in the case of the House of Representatives at least, is closer to the People than is the President. The Supreme Court is in charge of deciding which laws are good and which are not, and in some cases even has the power to create laws where Congress or the People simply aren’t getting the job done (Proposition 8 in California comes to mind). To me, that makes the executive branch the most boring branch of government.

The one area in American politics where the head of the executive branch does have a lot of leeway, foreign policy, is one area where I’m not particularly worried about either candidate. I’m not worried because both, despite holding views of the world I strongly disagree with, are not advocating anything radical or unpredictable. I’d rather have a presidential candidate advocate the same old garbage of getting in Russia’s face and keeping troops in South Korea because that way I know they’re ignorant and, more importantly, I know they know they’re ignorant on such matters because they defer to the Washington Consensus.

Libertarians don’t like statists and we don’t like statist policies. Some of us don’t even think voting is worth the effort (or even a good idea). I think there is a case to be made, though, for Libertarians and libertarians to get out and vote this fall for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. My case rests on 3 hugely important facts (at least to libertarians and Libertarians).

Fact #1: Thanks to the recent wikileaks revelations, we know for sure that Hillary Clinton is in favor of free trade. This is THE most important reason to vote for Hillary Clinton in the fall. Imagine if the United States, led by Trump’s isolationism, were to begin breaking its trade agreements with the rest of the world. Yikes. Free trade has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty over the last 30 years, but because the majority of beneficiaries to trade liberalization have happened to not be American citizens, demagoguery ensues. I understand that Clinton has expressed skepticism in US free trade agreements on the campaign trail, but when you’re in a party that is vying for potential voters who feel they have been hurt by free trade, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.

Regardless of what Clinton says to the masses, her record on free trade while holding political offices is impressive (a ‘No’ vote on CAFTA notwithstanding). Free trade, or trade liberalization, is one of the fundamental tenets of libertarianism. Individual liberty cannot be realized or even partly realized without markets that are free from the constraints of governments and the factions that manipulate them. Donald Trump, like Bernie Sanders, wants to reverse decades of trade liberalization and the benefits that such a policy has bestowed upon humanity.

(Digression: Libertarians and libertarians are so adamant about free trade not only because it loosens the grip of the state over peoples’ lives, but also because it makes everybody – not just fellow countrymen – better off. When libertarians and Libertarians hear protectionist sentiments from the political class, you will often see or hear us point out that the Great Depression of the 1930s was hastened not only because of central banking policies but also because of the isolationist tariffs that Congress threw up as a response to the economic downturn caused by the new central bank’s policies. Free trade is a BFD.)

Fact #2: Hillary Clinton is much more individualist than Donald Trump. Women’s rights is an individualist issue, and always has been, even though Clinton has made a mockery of the historical movement by playing the “gender card” and defending (and pledging to expand) subsidies in the name of women’s rights. Trump wants to “make America great again,” but Hillary just wants your vote, any way she can get it. If that ain’t individualist, I don’t know what is.

Hillary Clinton is not a racist, either. She marched against The State’s oppression of black Americans in the South and against The State’s discrimination against black Americans in the rest of the country throughout the 1960s. (For what it’s worth, I don’t think The Donald is a racist. Businessmen rarely are, for reasons that should be obvious to any fair-minded person, but his rhetoric on race is absolutely toxic, and he knows it. His deplorable actions bring to mind a certain F-word I won’t mention here.)

Trump may or not be a racist – I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt – but I don’t know for sure. Clinton is definitely not a racist.

Fact #3: Hillary Clinton is a lawyer and she knows how our government is supposed to work (even if she doesn’t like it). One could make the case that Trump knows how our federal system of government works, too, given his braggadocio about buying off politicians, but his is a vulgar understanding of what is, after all, a magnificent example of compromise and diplomacy over our more primal urges. Lawyers make better politicians than businessmen. As Alexis de Tocqueville remarked way back in his 1831 ethnography of the United States:

“the authority [Americans] have entrusted to members of the legal profession, and the influence which these individuals exercise in the Government, is the most powerful existing security against the excesses of democracy […] When the American people is intoxicated by passion, or carried away by the impetuosity of its ideas, it is checked and stopped by the almost invisible influence of its legal counsellors, who secretly oppose their aristocratic propensities to its democratic instincts, their superstitious attachment to what is antique to its love of novelty, their narrow views to its immense designs, and their habitual procrastination to its ardent impatience.”

Lawyers, Tocqueville observed, make up a sort of informal aristocracy in America because their training in the field of law requires them to have a deep respect for precedent and “a taste and a reverence for what is old.” Businessmen are not used to the clumsy, inefficient coalition-building necessary for good governance. That’s why businessman George W Bush was such a failure and attorney Bill Clinton was such a success. Any good libertarian needs to acknowledge the benefits that come from specialization and the division of labor. Any really good libertarian, the kind that has actually read a little bit of FA Hayek’s work, knows that change in the political and institutional arena needs to be done slowly, and preferably through the legal system (no matter how imperfect it may be).

I know all about the bad stuff that Hillary has supported and voted for in the past (especially on foreign policy, and even more especially on foreign policy in Africa). I get it. I really do. But Donald Trump represents a very nasty strain of thought that has swept into power of the country’s Right-leaning political party. His nationalism is antithetical to libertarianism in a way that Clinton’s typical corruption and condescension is not: libertarianism has a long history in this country of dealing with Clinton-esque figures. The American polity was forged by consensus and thus has recourse, perhaps more so than any other presidential system, to constrain exactly this type of persona. This persona is egotistical and out for personal glory and prestige, but libertarians, progressives, conservatives, and others here in the United States have institutions and networks that were created specifically for presidencies run by people like Clinton.

We’re small in number, too small to have a significant impact if we all voted for Clinton, but we have an outsized impact in the realm of ideas and policy. Get behind Clinton in any way that you can, because more of the same ain’t all that bad.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. The Strange Story of a Strange Beast
  2. Dagestan (a region in Russia), religion, and female genital mutilation
  3. Why partitioning Libya might be the only way to save it
  4. Google versus Palestine (h/t Michelangelo)
  5. False consciousness | The value of Marx in the 21st century
  6. The evolution of the state (in two simple pictures)
  7. Round the Decay of that Colossal Wreck

Group Privileges No, Detriments Yes

The concept of “privilege” has become common in political discourse, while the term “detriment” is seldom used. One incurs a detriment, and is detrimented, when one is harmed, offended, displeased, or disadvantaged, unrelated to merit. One obtains a privilege, and is privileged, when a person or group is advantaged, benefitted, pleased, or favored relative to other groups, when the gain is unrelated to merit.

Some socialists emphasize “white privilege.” Suppose a white man is able to walk down a street without being harassed, while a black man will be stopped and questioned by the police. The socialist will say that the white man is privileged in being free of harassment. But actually, the ability of an innocent person to walk without being stopped and frisked is a natural right, not a special favor. The black man has suffered a violation of his natural rights, a detriment not suffered by the white man.

The socialist will also claim that there is “male privilege.” Suppose a man can walk down the street in peace, while a woman walking down the same street will be whistled at, aggressively approached, and may even be physically attacked. Does the man have a privilege? No, one has a natural right to be free of aggression. The woman suffers a violation of her rights, a detriment.

Women suffer many detriments because of social custom and culture, rather than governmental law. Wives tend to do more household work, even when they are working for wages as many hours as the husband. In some fields of work, men have more prestige and authority, unrelated to merit. The culture is not so much giving males privileges as it imposes on women various detriments.

Some detriments are mandated by law. In most places in the US, men are free to remove their shirts, while a bare-breasted woman would get arrested. The men do not have a privilege; the women have a legal detriment.

Female detriments can become tragic in cultures where male children are preferred. A boy is not privileged by not being aborted or killed. Rather, the girls suffer a lethal detriment. In my judgment, more progress can be made to stop this anti-female bias by calling it a detriment rather than saying the boys are privileged. Boys as well as girls have a right to not be murdered.

Female detriments have been lethal in India, where rape and violence has made headlines. But there is substantial rape in the US and throughout the world, which clearly makes being female a detriment in much of the world.

The trouble with saying there is a male privilege is that men do not feel privileged by not being attacked or disfavored. It should be normal to be left in peace, and to be respected. By identifying the problem as a detriment, we can then raise more awareness and support for remedies. We can also then better deal with the real privileges, favors to those who get subsidies from government because of political clout.

The language of privilege versus detriments influences policy. “Privilege” implies special favors that should be removed. “Detriment” implies harms and disadvantages that should be stopped. For the problem of infanticide, for example, it is not that privileged boys should be killed in an equal ratio, but that girls should not be murdered for being female.

Let’s speak less of racial and gender privilege, and more of detriments!

Liberty and the Novel II (Austen and After)

(Click for Part I) In Austen’s novels, we find something ‘unheroic’ in that they are concerned with the search of upper class women, bound by codes of gentility, for both a satisfying place in the world and emotional authenticity through marriage. Though there is none of the religious fervour of Pilgrim’s Progress, the message is sent that an ideal community is a small rural community guided by sincerely godly priest, concerned with the daily lives of his congregation.

There is none of the extremism of Quixote’s fantasies and adventures, but the simultaneous process of  triumph over illusion and the growth of inner authenticity, is there in Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey, as the characters find marriages worthy of their growing ethical capacities in self-judgement and judgement of others.

Ethical growth means confirming a place in the landowning classes and taking a decidedly ambiguous attitude to making new money in trade. Landed property and religion are the starting points of an ethically tolerable community for Austen. We can see the growth there of what we might now think of as social and political values based on self-ownership and individual responsibility though somewhat constrained by respect for earlier aristocratic expression of these values.

We can see a version of Lukács’ split between heroic progressive bourgeoise and backward looking conformist bourgeoise there. Though it is absurdly crude to take 1848 as the line of of separation between the two tendencies, it is useful to think about the distinction as it evolved over time, including the events of 1848. Over time the basic bourgeois goals of rule of law, individual rights, representative government, and free trade tend to be achieved. The word radical is used less and less for the advocate of bourgeois individualism and more and more for advocates of a socialist state.

In literature the themes of the individual triumphing over circumstances, enduring disaster, awaking from illusions, developing individual moral strength, and finding some moment of authenticity continues. The novel keeps developing as a form, but in many people’s opinion, including my own, it reaches a peak in the early twentieth century (James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann) which it has never matched, though ambitious and admirable novels continue to be written.

The more straight forward kinds of heroism are not so prevalent as in earlier novels, but the irony and ambiguity about heroism develops what was already in the genre and intensifies individualism, even while questioning it. Some of these writers were sympathetic to socialism though born into a largely bourgeois liberal world, at least compared with developments after World War One.

Coincidentally or not, this coincides with the transitions from a limited-state individualist nineteenth century liberal politics to the welfarist-administrative state we now know and which is stronger than ever, despite all the cries of ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘market fundamentalism’ that arise in reaction to any attempt to limit the statist drift.

There is a danger of rivaling Lukács’ tendency towards a moralising tendentious Marxism from a pro-liberty point of view, but I am anyway tempted to say that the reduction of the significance of the novel is a symptom of societies which aim to remove individual responsibility in the struggle with circumstances. Or I can put it in terms more amenable to those who welcome the welfarist-administrative tendency. The novel has lost some part of its significance as individualist ways of thinking are less influential in politics.

In fact I can wholly agree with this stereotypical imaginary progressive that Ayn Rand’s attempts to revive the grand individualist heroic aspects of the earlier novel are rather embarrassing. The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa (Aunt Julia and the ScriptwriterThe War of the End of the World, The Feast of the Goatetc), who is an eloquent liberty advocate, is a far better novelist, and is as good as anyone currently active, so still not rising to the level of the Modernist greats of about one hundred years ago. Liberty advocates are also part of this cultural shift or loss, however you prefer to see it.

(crossposted at Stockerblog)

Colonialism and Identity in Wasolon (and everywhere else, too)

The notion of the person is constantly renegotiated and is at stake between groups situated within the same political entity as well as between neighboring political entities. With advent of [France’s colonial] district register and the resulting written registration of identity, the notion of a person acquired a greater fixity. It became much more difficult to change identity or even to modify the spelling of one’s first or last name. Since it could no longer affect the components of the person, the negotiation of identity shifted, as in the case of the West, onto other sectors of social and individual life. (135)

This is from the French anthropologist (and high school friend of our own Jacques Delacroix) Jean-Loup Amselle, in his book Mestizo Logics: Anthropology of Identity in Africa and Elsewhere. The book is hard to read. The English translation (the one I’m reading) was published by Stanford University Press in 1998, but the original French language version came out in 1990. Between the translation and the fact that the book was written for specialists in the field of political anthropology and the region of French Sudan, strenuous effort was required on my part to stay focused and motivated to finish the book. The preface alone is worth the price of admission, though, especially if you’ve been following my blogging with any great interest over the years.

My intent is not to write a review, but rather to build off Amselle’s work and present some of my efforts in blog form here at NOL. But first, a map of the region, Wasolon, that Amselle specializes in:

Wasolon is that big red marking that I've drawn on the map. You can see that it's about as big as Sierra Leone.

Wasolon is that big red marking that I’ve drawn on the map. You can see that it’s about as big as Sierra Leone. Just for clarity’s sake, here is a second map with a closer view of Wasolon:

blog wasolon 2
Notice the rivers? source: wikipedia

Amselle’s argument for why his approach to identity is superior to others’ is convincing. He performed all of his fieldwork (15 years’ worth as of 1990) in Wasolon, or briefly in neighboring areas, reasoning that “research within numerous regions of a well-circumscribed area […] has allowed me to observe systems of transformation [in] societies that have been in contact for centuries. This has protected me from being forced into large analytical leaps and from engaging in [the current anthropological trends of] abstract comparativism and the identification of structures (xii-xiii).” This defense of his methodology, coupled with his insights on French colonial administration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, gives me reason to believe that Amselle’s work is an excellent blueprint for better understanding the complete and utter failure of post-colonial states and the violence these collective failures have produced.

I want to take a specific route using the introductory quote, even though I could take a number of different routes using that passage. I could, for example, focus on the invention of the individual and muse about its consequences in regards to the rise of the West. I could go on and on about how other societies had writing – but not the individual- and therefore did not have the institutions necessary for “capitalism” that the West did around the 16th century. Et cetera, et cetera. Instead, I’m going to take a geopolitical route (the West is still practicing colonialism) that has a decidedly philosophical direction to it (nationalism and ethno-nationalism are both bullhooey).

First, the geopolitical context. Wasolon was basically a war zone in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was an important producer of cotton, a minor producer of rubber and ivory, and a net exporter of slaves. Wasolon was unfortunate enough to be caught between Saharan empires backed by Arabic culture, money, and technology, and coastal empires recently enriched through cultural, economic, and technological exchange with rapidly-expanding European populations. Caught between these two geographic poles, polities in Wasolon oscillated between being decentralized chiefdoms, small independent states, empire builders themselves, and vassals of empires. In such an uncertain setting, the identity of people themselves necessarily oscillated as often as their political systems did.

When the French arrived militarily on the scene (there was already a long history of economic, political, and cultural exchange between the “French” and Wasolonians; I put French in quotation marks because, of course, many Europeans found it to be much easier to use “French” as an identity in French Sudan rather than their own), Wasolon was home to many decentralized chiefdoms, and they were all in the midst of a protracted and brutal war with the Samori Empire, a Saharan polity that rose quickly and ruthlessly to prominence in the late 19th century.

The Samori Empire – which the French military was in contact with due to its centralized political structure (it had a bureaucracy and an organized military, for example) – claimed Wasolon as a vassal state and the French, out of ignorance or expediency (to attribute it to malice gives French central planners too much credit), simply took Samori at its word (a policy that continues to play out to this day in international affairs, but more on this below).

The French military commanders and, later, colonial administrators eventually figured out that Wasolon was not a loyal vassal. From the French perspective, the resisting chiefdoms in Wasolon had formed an alliance against the Samori Empire, and this alliance was based on an ethnic solidarity shared by all Fulani. Amselle labors to make the point that this alliance  was based on a “mythical charter” long prominent in Fula oral traditions (and has some basis in the historical accounts of Arab and European travelers). This “mythical charter” served as the basis for the French colonial understanding of the Fula and eventually for the notion of a Fulani ethnic identity. The problem here is that the “mythical charter” was just that: a myth.

I’ll start by extracting an insight from the footnotes:

As we saw in Chap. 5, colonial ethnology merely reproduces this local political theory by taking it literally, thereby assimilating these “mythical charters” to a real historical process. Such a reproduction is what makes this ethnology truly colonial. (179)

In the Chapter 5 that Amselle alludes to in his footnotes, Mestizo Logics explains how the Fula people of Wasolon adopted fluid political identities over the centuries, depending on who was in power and who was about to be in power. This fluidity played, and continues to play, a much more important role in how people identified themselves politically (“local political theory”) than either culture or language.

Amselle illustrates this point best by pointing out that a number of chiefdoms in Wasolon claimed to be Fula at the time of the French conquests in the late 19th century, but that the populations spoke a different language than the Fula and were culturally distinct from the Fula (these Wasolon chiefdoms claiming Fulaniship were Banmana and Maninka in language and culture rather than Fula). Amselle then points out that Fula chiefdoms existed outside of Wasolon that don’t claim to be Fula – even though they are culturally and linguistically Fula – and instead identified as something more politically expedient (he doesn’t elaborate on what those non-Fula Fulani identify as, only that they did, and still do).

The French state’s act of writing down and categorizing this “mythical charter” as a distinct feature of Wasolon’s Fulani thus created the Fula ethnic group and, through imperial governance, ensconced this new group into its empire’s hierarchy based on traits that ethnographers, colonial administrators, historians, and managers of state-run corporations had recorded (accounts written by merchants not connected to the state in some way could not be trusted, of course).

Basically, when the French showed up to build their empire in west Africa they bought the narrative espoused by a couple of the factions in the region and based their empire (which was only feasible with the advent of peace in Europe after the Napoleonic Wars) on that narrative. The results of this policy are eye-opening. Aside from the fact that the present-day states of Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, and Guinea are failures, the old rules of fluid identity used by Wasolonians for political and economic reasons were erased and new rules, based on bureaucratic logic (“ethnicity”), were wrested into place by the French imperial apparatus. These new ethnic identities soon took on characteristics, ascribed to them by others, that quickly became stereotypes. The ethnic groups with good stereotypes (like being hard-working) ended up – you guessed it – in positions of power, first in France’s imperial apparatus and then for a short time after independence.

Sound familiar?

If it doesn’t, think about international governing institutions (IGOs) like the United Nations or the World Bank for a moment. Why don’t these institutions recognize the likes of Kurdistan, Baluchistan, or South Ossetia? Is it because these IGOs are evil and oppressive, or simply because these bureaucracies cannot adapt quickly enough to a world where identity and the necessities of political economies are always in flux?

This phenomenon is not limited to post-colonial Africa, either. Think about African-Americans here in the United States and the stereotypes attributed to them. Those stereotypes – good and bad – are a direct result of bureaucracy.

Individualism, to me, is the best way to tackle the long-standing problem created by colonial logic abroad, and racism at home. Government programs that seek to help groups by taking from one and giving to another are just an extension of the bureaucratic logic revealed by Amselle’s work in French West Africa. But what is a good way to go about implementing a more individualized world? Open borders? Federation?

Buddha, A Lonely Human Rebel

Although I do not consider myself a Buddhist, I have always had much respect for Gautama Buddha and I have always regarded him as an exemplary person.

What I find most sympathetic about Buddha are his humanness, his epistemological modesty, and his insistence to use reason and scientific inquiry to understand the world and to free oneself from social dogmas and religious oppression. It is for these reasons that Gautama Buddha could be considered contumacious or rebellious; he argued tenaciously against the superstitious practices and beliefs of Hinduism. He encouraged his followers to cultivate the mind and develop reason, because he considered it to be an essential element of ‘magga’ or the eightfold path to enlightenment (right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration).

Smith & Novak write in Buddhism (2003) that there are six aspects of religion that “surface so regularly as to suggest that their seeds are in the human makeup” (Smith & Novak, 2003, p. 22), and that Gautama Buddha rebelled against all these aspects. The six aspects are:

  1. Authority – which was hereditary and exploitative as brahmins were charging exorbitantly for their services;
  2. Rituals – which became the people’s mechanical means to achieve quick miraculous results in life;
  3. Speculation – which entirely lost its experiential base;
  4. Tradition – which inhibited people from progress. One example is the tradition to instruct religious discourse in Sanskrit, making the brahmins’ knowledge effectively unavailable for the common people;
  5. Divine grace – which became confused with fatalism as to undercut human responsibility. Think for instance about the misinterpretation of ‘karma’ that was abused in order to maintain and rationalize the caste system;
  6. Mystery – which became confused with mystification and led to a perverse obsession with miracles and the occult. (Smith & Novak, 2003, p. 23)

According to Gautama Buddha, they were all too prevalent in the Hinduism of his days and he regarded them to be oppressive of human flourishing. As a revolt against the superstitious Hindu culture, Gautama Buddha preached a philosophy that is:

A. Devoid of authority – he tried to break the brahmins’ monopoly on religious teachings. In addition, he challenged everyone to utilize their own rationality and stop passively relying on the brahmins to tell them what to do.

B. Devoid of rituals – he believed that rites and ceremonies bind the human spirit.

C. Devoid of speculation – the monk Malunkyaputta, troubled by Gautama Buddha’s silence on metaphysical speculations, said:

whether the world is eternal or not eternal, whether the world is finite or not, whether the soul is the same as the body, or whether the soul is one thing and the body another, whether a Buddha exists after death or does not exist after death, whether a Buddha both exists and does not exist after death, and whether a Buddha is non-existent and not non-existent after death, these things the Lord does not explain to me, and that he does not explain them to me does not please me, it does not suit me (Kyimo, 2007, p. 206).

D. Devoid of tradition – he wanted a break from the archaic and he wanted to teach the peoples in their vernacular. On the question why his teachings should be followed, Gautama Buddha answers:

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias toward a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.[1]

What Gautama Buddha is effectively saying here is that everything should be questioned; every tradition, every holy book, and even teachers including himself. He taught everyone to use reason and the scientific methodology of inquiry, and he emphasized on doing good and abandoning evil.

E. Emphasizes intense self-effort and opposes fatalism – everyone can become enlightened. He taught everyone that actions are meaningful and that everyone contains the power to change their lives immediately for the better. Everyone was considered responsible for their own actions and happiness. This puts heavy responsibilities on all individuals to make the best of their lives.

F. Devoid of the supernatural – he condemned divination and reliance on Brahma (God). (Smith & Novak, 2003, pp. 24-28) He could not conceive of Brahma who considered himself “the Supreme one, the Mighty, the All-seeing, the Ruler, the Lord of all, the Maker, the Creator, the Chief of all appointing to each his place, the Ancient of days, the Father of all that is and will be”[2] to inflict so much suffering on the peoples:

If the creator of the world entire
They call God, of every being be the Lord
Why does he order such misfortune
And not create concord?
If the creator of the world entire
They call God, of every being be the Lord
Why prevail deceit, lies and ignorance
And he such inequity and injustice create?
If the creator of the world entire
They call God, of every being be the Lord
Then an evil master is he, (O Aritta)
Knowing what’s right did let wrong prevail![3]

At the same time, Gautama Buddha appeared to be one of us: fallible, sensitive, and insecure about life. Despite his immense influence, he remained humble enough as to never claim to be a son or a prophet of God – nor did he ever claim to understand the beginnings of the universe. His teachings were entirely devoted to alleviate man from his misery.

Talking about the Three Greatest Men In History (1935), H.G. Wells said of Gautama Buddha that:

[Y]ou see clearly a man, simple, devout, lonely, battling for light – a vivid human personality, not a myth. Beneath a mass of miraculous fable I feel that there also was a man. He, too, gave a message to mankind universal in its character. Many of our best modern ideas are in closest harmony with it. All the miseries and discontents of life are due, he taught, to selfishness… Before a man can become serene he must cease to live for his senses or himself. Then he merges into a greater being. Buddha in different language called men to self-forgetfulness 500 years before Christ. In some ways he was nearer to us and our needs. He was more lucid upon our individual importance in service than Christ and less ambiguous upon the question of personal immortality. (Wells, 1935, July 13)

Footnotes
[1] From Kalama Sutta: The Instruction to the Kalamas.

[2] From Digha Nikaya 1: Brahmajala Sutta.

[3] From Bhuridatta Jakata.

Bibliography
Examiner. (1935, July 13). Greatest In History. Retrieved from www.trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/51945346?searchTerm=GLOBE%20READER%20DIGEST%20&searchLimits=

Gunasekara, V.A. (1997). The Buddhist Attitude To God. Retrieved from http://www.budsas.org/ebud/ebdha068.htm

Kalama Sutta: The Instruction to the Kalamas. (1994), Transl. Soma Thera. Retrieved from www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.soma.html

Kyimo. (2007). The Easy Buddha. London: Prospect House Publishing.

Smith, H., & Novak, P. (2003). Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. New York: HarperOne.

Larry Siedentop’s Straw Dog

I finally had the chance to finish reading Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism.

download

It is a great book, and especially informative for those not well-versed in the intellectual history of political ideas within (mainly) Christian thought. The arguments starts with the Ancient traditions, to the early years of Christianity, all the way to the fifteenth century. According to Siedentop (p. 332) the main goal of the book is:

‘to show that in its basic assumptions, liberal thought is the offspring of Christianity. It emerged as the moral intuitions generated by the Christianity were turned against an authoritarian model of the church. The roots of liberalism were firmly established in the arguments of the philosophers and canon lawyers by the 14th and 15th centuries: belief in the fundamental equality of status as the proper basis for a legal system; belief in that enforcing moral conduct is a contradiction in terms; a defense of individual liberty, through the assertion of fundamental or ‘natural rights’ and, finally, the conclusion that only a representative form of government is appropriate for  a society resting on the assumption of moral equality’.

Siedentop clearly succeeds in making this point. As said, the book can be warmly recommended. The question is, however, why does he care about this issue? Siedentop (pp. 334-338) clarifies that he wants to fight the dominant idea that liberalism sprang from the Renaissance, and that liberalism almost equates secularism, or is even anti-religion, at least in the public sphere.

You do not need to be a scholar of the liberal history of ideas to raise more than a few eyebrows here. What liberalism is Siedentop taking up for argument? He is unclear about this, as he does not care to define this liberalism, nor does he provide references to liberal thinkers. That is where the trouble starts.

Undoubtedly there are some modern social-liberals who claim that liberalism is secular and that the state and lawmaking should be strictly neutral in religious terms. Arblaster in The Rise and Decline of Western Liberalism even explicitly refutes any liberal traces before the Renaissance. Unclear is how dominant these voices are, especially outside academia. One thing is certain, these do not comprise classical liberals.

In the Scottish Enlightenment, in many ways the birth grounds of classical liberalism, the place of religion in life, and religion as a source of morality, was discussed. In contrast to most other thinkers, -Smith included- Hume even criticized religion, albeit most openly  after his death in Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. Yet to my knowledge, no thinker actually denied the role of Christianity as a source of  important ideas, certainly not the  role of individuality.

Modern writers, who are more aware of classical liberalism as a tradition do not deny this either. Let me give a few examples.

Hayek in an essay on liberalism (in New Studies in Politics, Philosophy Economics and the History of Ideas) writes that it traces back to classical antiquity and certain medieval traditions. He actually attacks ‘some nineteenth century writers’ who denied ‘that the ancient knew individual liberty in the modern sense’. In his general overview entitled Liberalism, John Gray (then still in his liberal days), also neatly points to the pre-modern and early modern times for the development of liberal ideas as we now know them. David Schmidtz and Jason Brennan pay their due respect to these older sources in A Brief History Of Liberty and the same goes for George H. Smith in The System of Liberty, and David Boaz in The Libertarian Mind.

Of course, none of them made detailed studies of these influences because their books had different purposes than Siedentop’s. Yet all deal with it in a few paragraphs or even a separate chapter, making clear to their readers that (classical) liberalism has older roots then the Renaissance, that there are important Medieval and Ancient thinkers who all left their mark on the development of (classical) liberal thought.

Siedentop wrote a great book, that unfortunately is a straw dog as well: his portrayal of ‘liberalism’ is erroneous, either deliberately or not. It denies the views of the founding and one of the main liberal variants. That is sloppy, to say the least, for such a learned and experienced scholar. With the use of these general terms Siendentop’s attack is simply off target. He should have taken far more time to define the ‘liberalism’ and the liberal scholars subjected by his attack.