The problem with conservatives in Latin America

Shortly after the declaration of independence of the USA, in 1776, several independence movements in Iberian America followed. Basically between the 1800s and the 1820s almost all of Latin America broke its colonial ties with Spain and Portugal, giving rise to the national states we know today, from Mexico to Chile. This disruption of colonial ties, however, was only the beginning of the process of formation of Latin American national states. The borders would still undergo many transformations, and especially there would be a long and tortuous task of forming national governments in each country.

In general there was much influence from the USA and the French Revolution in the formation of Latin American national states. The constitutions that emerged on the continent were generally liberal in their essence, using a theoretical background similar to that which gave rise to the American constitution. However, in the case of Latin America, this liberalism proved to be only a veneer covering the surface. Below it Latin America was a region marked by oligarchy, paternalism, and authoritarianism.

Using Brazil as an example, one can observe how much the French Revolution was a strong influence on Latin America. In the Brazilian case, this influence was due to the fear that there would be a radicalization of liberalism that guided the process of independence, leading to a Jacobinism such as that which marked the period of Terror in France. The fear that a Brazilian Robespierre would emerge at some point forced Brazil’s founders to cooperate in such a manner that the formation of the Brazilian state was more conservative and less liberal.

One problem with Latin American conservatism lies in what it retains in trying to avoid liberal radicalization. There is a conservative Anglo-Saxon tradition identified primarily with Edmund Burke. As in Latin America, Burke was critical of the radicalization of the French Revolution (with the advantage that Burke predicted radicalization before it actually occurred). However, Burke had an already liberal country to conserve. In his case, conservatism was a liberal conservatism. In the case of Latin Americans, preserving meant maintaining mercantilism and absolutism, or at least avoiding a more rapid advance of liberalism.

Another problem with Latin American conservatism is to confuse Rousseau with true liberalism. The ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau were behind the most radical period of the French Revolution. Burke criticized the kind of thinking that guided the revolution because of its abstract nature, disconnected from the traditions. But this was not really Rousseau’s problem. His problem is that his ideas do not make the slightest sense. John Locke also possessed an abstract but perfectly sensible political thought. Rousseau does not represent liberalism. His thinking is a proto-socialism that we would do well to avoid. But the true liberalism of John Locke and the American Founding Fathers still needs to be implemented in Latin America.

In short, the problem of conservatism in Latin America lies in what we have to conserve. My opinion is that we still need to move forward a lot before having liberal societies that are worth thinking about being preserved. Meanwhile, it is better to avoid the idea of a Latin American conservatism.

Final thoughts on Rio Olympics

Rio Olympics are over, and it seems to me, they are leaving a great impression. Despite all the problems the city and the country faced in recent years, not to mention the fact that Brazil is still a developing country, all ends well for Summer Olympics 2016.

One final comment I would like to make about the events once again relates to Brazilian athletes: Brazil scored an unprecedented 19 in the medal table (7 golds, 6 silvers and 6 bronzes), establishing a new record for itself. Among Brazilian medalists were people like Martine Grael, who won gold in Sailing, 49er FX Women. Martine is the daughter of twice Olympic gold medalist in sailing Torben Grael. Her brother Marco and uncle Lars also sailed in the Olympics. We also had people like Isaquias Queiroz dos Santos, who won Silver in Canoe Sprint, Men’s Canoe Single 1000m, Bronze in Canoe Sprint, Men’s Canoe Single 200m, and again Silver in Canoe Sprint, Men’s Canoe Double 1000m, becoming the first Brazilian athlete to ever win three medals in a single edition of the Olympic Games.

Isaquias was born in a very poor region of Brazil, and has been through great adversity before becoming an Olympic medalist: as a child he poured boiling water on himself and spent a month in hospital recovering; at the age of 5 he was kidnapped and offered up for adoption before being rescued by his mother; at the age of 10 he fell out of a tree and lost a kidney. In his teenage years he severed the top third off his left ring finger. He started training in a social project supported by Brazilian Federal government.

I am pretty sure that this picture happens with athletes and medalists from other countries: on one hand we have medalists like Martine, coming from a well-to-do environment and with a family of athletes who introduced her to the sport. On the other hand we have medalists like Isaquias, who had to face great hardships but was helped by social programs to become an Olympic athlete. Considering that, should the government create more programs to develop more people like Isaquias? Should the government prevent the privileges of people like Martine? Questions like these may sound preposterous to many, but they actually reflect much of the political discussion we have today: should the government help kids from poor families with education, healthcare and other things in order to create a head start? Should the government overtax the rich (and their heritage) in order to create more equality? In other words, what we have here is a discussion of equality versus freedom. In order to talk about that we have to understand what is equality and what is freedom.

There are many senses in which Isaquias and Martine will never be equals: they were born in different places, to different families. They had different life stories. There is a sense in which no two individuals are equal: each one of us is in each one way unique. And that makes us all special in each one way. Of course, when talking about equality most people are thinking about equality of outcome. But they forget (or ignore) that in order to have this kind of equality you need to ignore all the differences between individuals – the very same thing that makes us all unique and special – or to use government force to take from one and give to another. So, unless you are willing to ignore all the differences that make us all unique or to use force against non aggressors, you have to accept at least some income inequality as part of life. The classical liberal answer to that is that we need to be equal before the law: a great part of the liberal project in previous centuries was basically to abolish privileges (private laws) and to make all equally responsible before government. That is an equality we can all have. And we should.

The second point is freedom. Freedom from what? Or to do what? There are at least two kinds of freedom discussed in the context of the liberal revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries. One is related to John Locke and the Founding Fathers, the other to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The discussion about this phrase can go really long, but I want to emphasize simply that in Jefferson’s view you have the freedom to pursue your own understanding of happiness. I may completely disagree with what you are choosing for your life, but at the same time I am not to force you in any way to change your choices. I am not to force upon you my brand of happiness, not matter how much I am sure I have the correct one.

Rousseau’s version of freedom is very different: as he famously stated, “whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole of society, which means nothing more or less than that he will be forced to be free.” In other words, if you are a minority (and especially if you are an individual, the smallest minority possible) people can force upon you their brand of happiness. That is one reason why Rousseau is called “the philosopher of vanity”: he refuses to accept that people see life in a different way from his own. Rousseau’s vision of freedom is connected to his troubled relation with Christianity – where indeed you need to have a relationship with God through Jesus to become free. But the catch is that in Christianity God never forces you. Rousseau’s god is very different, and as such, Rousseaunism is just a Christian heresy.

To conclude, in order to create more income equality you have to destroy the classical liberal version of freedom – or to change to another version that inevitably leads to totalitarianism. As Milton Friedman said, “A society that puts equality — in the sense of equality of outcome — ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests.” I just hope we can have more people like Isaquias and Martine, who achieve great goals, sometimes with the help of friends and family, sometimes in completely unpredictable ways.

Libertarians and Pragmatists on Democracy Part 2: Classical Liberal and Libertarian Criticisms of Democratic Institutions

Note: This is part of a series on democracy. It is assumed the reader is familiar with part one prior to reading, in which the basic direction of this series is introduced and democracy is more concretely defined. This post is meant to do be a non-comprehensive, though fairly inclusive, look at a variety of views of democracy in classical liberal thought. The next post will survey progressive and pragmatist views of democracy, and the final post will argue that the truth in classical liberalism and pragmatism perspectives on democracy lead to a defense of market anarchy.

As alluded to in the introduction to this series, democracy has occupied a tricky place in the history of classical liberal thought. Despite the fact that the prevalence of democratic institutions in the West is at least partially a result of the influence of classical liberalism (in fact, I’d argue classical liberalisms’ role has been extremely significant in this regard), classical liberals have always been at best ambivalent to democracy. In recent years, libertarians have been critical and outright hostile towards democracy. For this reason, I’d argue that classical liberalism is, on net, critical of democracy, and there is a lot to learn from these criticisms. As a matter of housekeeping, it is important to note that I am using the term “democracy” in the second sense—as a system of political decision making—through most of this section unless otherwise noted.

Early Liberalism’s Cautious Enthusiasm for Democracy

At classical liberalism’s conception, democracy was in many ways the end-goal. No doubt, most classical liberals of the Enlightenment preferred democracy to the absolutist monarchism that had dominated Europe in their times. John Locke’s entire political project can be read as a criticism of absolutism, and he tended to more democratic views. In his Second Treatise on Government “democracy” is only mentioned twice by name in Chapter 10, mostly to define it in contrast to oligarchy and monarchy. However, throughout Locke there is a tendency to emphasize what we today would call “popular sovereignty”—a concept which strikes at the heart of the appeal of democracy. As Peter Laslett writes in his introduction to the Cambridge edition of Locke’s Two Treatises:

In his analysis of politics in terms of force as well as in rightful authority Locke is closer to the thought of our own day on the subject of sovereignty than the assumptions of his own time. Behind the superior power of the legislative in his system there is always to be seen the finally supreme, all-important power of the people themselves, again conceived of as a force, though justified once more by the concept of trust. It was a power which would only rarely display itself, and, as we have tried to show, there is considerable obscurity about the actual circumstances in which it could come to action and more about what it might achieve. Nevertheless, this residual power must be called Locke’s idea of what we now think of as popular sovereignty.

Drawing off of Locke, the American founders; inherited a skepticism towards absolutism and a little bit of faith in popular sovereignty. Of course, there is a slight difference in the founders’ conception of popular sovereignty and Locke’s in that it is far more individualist; in fact, it might be more accurate to say the founders did not so much believe in popular sovereignty as individual self-governance, but there is still an affinity between Locke and most of the founders’ on this point. Contra most west coast Straussians (ahem, Tom West and Harry Jaffa), it is important to note that the founders’ were influenced by much more than the classical liberal philosophy of John Locke. They, particularly John Madison, John Dickinson, and most of the early federalists, were just as influenced (if not more-so) by classical Greek and Roman political philosophy and the style of old whig conservatism of Burke and his contemporaries as classical liberalism. This can be illustrated in their perspective on democracy.

Though certainly wary of democracy’s dangers, most of the founders overall could still be described as democratic in some sense of the term. Of course, this point must be nuanced with the founders’ healthy criticisms of democracy influenced by classical liberal thought, whiggish conservatism, and Aristotelianism. Maddison is probably the most frequently cited example of an American founder who waxed pessimistic about democracy, given his writings on the “problem of factions” in Federalist No. 10. To be sure, most of the founders, as Ben Franklin famously said at the end of the constitutional convention, would have probably preferred the term “republic” to “democracy.”

Because of Madison’s Federalist No. 10 and a variety of quotes that were harshly critical democracy from the founders (many of which are false), a number of right-wingers today, particularly populist and nationalistic constitutional conservatives, argue that the founders were not democratic at all and are adverse to anything that refers to America as a “democracy.” To be sure, America is not a pure democracy, however there is little doubt that the founders still had at least some affinity for democracy, particularly in contrast to absolutist monarchy, with the possible exception of Hamilton sometimes (I would also argue that Hamilton was the least classically liberal of the founders and is largely my least favorite founder, but that’s another issue).

Further,  it is obvious the constitution incorporated democratic decision-making far more than any other of that time; in fact, the preamble beginning with “We the People” screams of the democratic, Lockean notion of popular sovereignty. Further, there is little doubt that even the America of the founders can be described as “democratic” at least in the third sense of the term (as a general term for modern Western governments).

Finally, some of the founders were pretty avidly pro-democratic, particularly Thomas Jefferson. As Jefferson wrote to John Taylor:

It must be acknowledged that the term “republic” is of very vague application in every language… Were I to assign to this term a precise and definite idea, I would say purely and simply it means a government by its citizens in mass, acting directly and personally according to rules established by the majority; and that every other government is more or less republican in proportion as it has in its composition more or less of this ingredient of direct action of the citizens.

Note how Jefferson’s definition of a “republic” is virtually indistinguishable from the way democracy is typically defined (in the second sense). Of course, Jefferson, especially in his later years in his later years was skeptical about the workability of this democratic/republican vision, writing “[s]uch a government is evidently restrained to very narrow limits of space and population. I doubt if it would be practicable beyond the extent of a New England township.” Nonetheless, it’s hard to consider Jefferson anti-democratic, especially in his younger years, when the notion of Jeffersonian democracy has been so influential in the history of American politics or if one considers Jefferson’s excuberance for the much more populist French Revolution prior to the Reign of Terror.

The Decline of Democracy in Classical Liberal Thought

After the founder’s era, however, experience with real-world democratic institutions began to contrast sharply with the theoretical hopes Enlightenment-era liberals had for democracy. The Jacobin reign of terror and aftermath of the French Revolution were sobering reminders of the dangers of the tyranny of the majority. As Edmund Burke wrote in Further Reflections of the French Revolution such a Democracy is a thing which cannot subsist by itself” and the specter of Robespierre led Burke to continually warn of mob-rule and the excesses of democracy. In America, the extremely low level of decorum in early elections (particularly in 1800 between Jefferson and Adams) must have made the more aristocratic and conservative of the founders (the likes of Washington, Hamilton, and John Dickinson) fearful of the direction in which their experiment was going.

By the Jacksonian era, it is safe to say that most classical liberal observers were waxing a bit more pessimistic on the prospects of democracy than their intellectual ancestors. The rise of a populist president in Andrew Jackson who had committed so many acts of tyranny against the Native Americans, the democratization of religious faith by the likes of Lorenzo Dow in the Second Great Awakening, and the growing of democracy into almost a political religion were signals of a disturbing trend to many of the surviving founders and European liberals like Mill and de Tocqueville. In fact, Jefferson even said of Jackson, in an interview with Daniel Webster:

I feel much alarmed at the prospect of seeing General Jackson President.  He is one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place.  He has had very little respect for laws and constitutions, and is, in fact, an able military chief.  His passions are terrible.  When I was President of the Senate, he was Senator; and he could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings.  I have seen him attempt it repeatedly, and as often choke with rage.  His passions are, no doubt, cooler now; he has been much tried since I knew him, but he is a dangerous man.

No doubt, Jefferson’s critique of Jackson’s inability to control his passions mirror Plato’s critique of the “democratic soul” in the Republic.

However, it wasn’t until Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous Democracy in America that the classical liberal view of democracy truly turned critical. De Tocqueville saw democracy’s influence in America as resulting in the decline of an aristocratic class that “furnished the best leaders of the American revolution.” Socioeconomic egalitarianism was far from the worst of democracy’s problems in de Tocqueville’s eyes. He saw the concept of popular sovereignty as leading to “unlimited power of the majority” that was corroding the checks and balances of the American constitution in every branch of government. Indeed, there has perhaps never been as eloquent a critic of “tyranny of the majority” as de Tocqueville.

In England, JS Mill also was beginning to see the dangers of excessive democracy. Much of On Liberty can be read as building on and responding to de Tocqueville. For example, his warnings against the tyranny of majority opinion in the first chapter of On Liberty echo de Tocqueville’s concerns and are worth quoting at length (also, note how much of this anticipates much of the later insights of the Virginia School of Political Economy):

The notion, that the people have no need to limit their power over themselves, might seem axiomatic, when popular government was a thing only dreamed about, or read of as having existed at some distant period of the past. Neither was that notion necessarily disturbed by such temporary aberrations as those of the French Revolution….In time, however, a democratic republic came to occupy a large portion of the earth’s surface, and made itself felt as one of the most powerful members of the community of nations; and elective and responsible government became the subject of the observations and criticisms which wait upon a great existing fact. It was now perceived that such phrases as “self-government” and “the power of the people over themselves” do not express the true state of the case. The “people” who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the “self-government” spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority: the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power. The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals, loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community, that is, to the strongest party therein.

…Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyranny—society, collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries….Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs to be protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling[.]

By the generation of liberals after Mill, the insight that democracy itself can turn into tyranny became influential on the continent as well. French liberals such as Bastiat and Germans such as Mises became critical of democratic institutions. Both Bastiat and Mises noted how democracies are ultimately controlled by public opinion which can, often times, be irrational. Bastiat took note of this in regards to protectionist economics writing, “Protectionism is too popular for its adherents to be regarded as insincere. If the majority had faith in free trade, we should have free trade.” Mises elaborated on Bastiat’s insights more writing in Human Action:

Democracy guarantees a system of government in accordance with the wishes and plans of the majority. But it cannot prevent majorities from falling victim to erroneous ideas and from adopting inappropriate policies which not only fail to realize the ends aimed at but result in disaster.

(Note: Bryan Caplan has a great, more detailed analysis of Bastiat and Mises’ criticisms of democracy, it is highly recommended.)

Most of these problems of the tyranny of the majority highlighted by de Tocqueville and Mill, as well as the issue of a completely misinformed public, seemed confirmed in World War II after the rise of fascism via the democratic process in Germany and Italy.

Public Choice Theory and Democracy’s Continued Decline

In the middle of the twentieth century, classical liberals became influenced by a field of study that seemed to confirm and deepen their worst fears of democracy. I’m referring, of course, to the public choice theory of the Virginia School of Political Economy associated with the likes of James Buchanan, Richard Wagner, and Gordon Tulloch. It is important to note at this point, of course, that public choice theory itself is not a part of classical liberalism as it is a positive scientific research program that simply applies economic analysis to the political process that has been contributed to by libertarians, conservatives, and liberals like rather than any sort of political ideology; however, many of the founders of Public Choice Theory were themselves classical liberals and there is little doubt that this style of economic thinking has had more influence on libertarianism than any other political philosophy.

The new public choice theory found that democracy could result not only in the potential tyranny of the majority, but also in horrible policies thanks to the accumulation of special interests (akin to Madison’s analysis of the problem of factions). The idea that voters are rationally ignorant, the insight that elected representatives do not act in the public interest but out of their own rational self-interest and those of their lobbyist friends, and a number of concepts from the short-sightedness effect to the Arrow’s impossibility theorem seemed to cast poor prospects on democracy’s ability to protect individual liberty. The fact that so many democracies were adopting horrible Keynesian economic policies, and the explanation that this is due to the self-interest of politicians, caused further doubt on the compatibility of free markets and democratic institutions. Later insights from public choice theory revealed that voters were not only ignorant but also systemically biased and irrational, as Bryan Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter argued, only added to this anxiety.

This is not to say, of course, that classical liberals since the mid-nineteenth century have been wholly opposed to democracy. Indeed, Mill, Bastiat, Mises, and most of the public choice economists continued to prefer representative democracy strongly limited by a well-designed (well, at least for Buchanan) constitution to alternative systems of political organization. Even Mises in Liberalism: In the Classical Tradition defended democracy on the following grounds:

In the long run, no government can maintain itself in power if it does not have public opinion behind it, i.e., if those governed are not convinced that government is good….There is, therefore, in every form of polity a means for making the government at least ultimately dependent on the will of the governed, viz., civil war, revolution, insurrection. But it is just this expedient that liberalism wants to avoid. There can be no lasting economic improvement if the peaceful course of affairs is continually interrupted by internal struggles…Here is where the social function of democracy finds its point of application. Democracy is that form of political constitution which makes possible the adaptation of the government to the wishes of the governed without violent struggles.

The attitude of FA Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty towards democracy is perhaps the most typical attitude of most classical liberals and libertarians since the days of de Tocqueville, and the majority of libertarians in mainstream political discourse today. Hayek defends a heavily limited concept of democracy as a means to the end of individual liberty; as the most efficient of current possible political constitutions to ensure the freedom of the individual. He echoes Mises in the fifth chapter entitled “Majority Rule” where he writes:

If democracy is a means rather than an end, its limits must be determined in the light of the purpose we want it to serve. There are three chief arguments by which democracy can be justified, each of which may be regarded as conclusive. The first is that, whenever it is necessary that one of several conflicting opinions should prevail and when one would have to be made to prevail by force if need be, it is less wasteful to determine which has the stronger support by counting numbers than by fighting. Democracy is the only method of peaceful change that man has yet discovered.

Modern Libertarianism’s Hostile Opposition to Democracy

Since Hayek penned those words in 1960, before many of the most depressing insights of public choice had risen to prominence, classical liberals and libertarians—particularly more radical anarchists—have grown even more skeptical of democracy and are, at times, outright hostile to it. Hayek himself in his next major work on political theory, Law, Legislation, and Liberty, waxed a bit more pessimistic on constitutional representative democracy than he did in The Constitution of Liberty. Just thirteen years after he spent over five-hundred pages defending and articulating liberal constitutionalism, he opens the introduction to the first volume of his next major work by declaring “The first attempt to secure individual liberty by constitutions has evidently failed.” Though he still proclaims the destruction of liberty that was running rampant in the immediate aftermath of World War II was “not a necessary consequence of democracy,” he laments the role democracy had played in recent politics:

If I am right, it would indeed seem that the particular form of representative government which now prevails in the Western world, and which many feel they must defend because they mistakenly regard it as the only possible form of democracy, has an inherent tendency to lead away from the ideals it was intended serve. It can hardly be denied that, since this type of democracy has come to be accepted, we have been moving away from that ideal of individual liberty of which it had been regarded as the surest safeguard, and are now drifting towards a system which nobody wanted.

In other corners of classical liberal thought, the prospects for democracy were even grimmer. This hostile attitude is perhaps best exemplified by Hans Herman Hoppe’s book Democracy: The God that Failed. Hoppe argues that democracy suffers from a problem akin to the tragedy of the commons; whereas medieval monarchies, aristocracies, and feuds had some sense of ownership over the state, democracies have no clear sense of ownership and so democratic representatives have little incentive to make good policies that protect liberty and economic prosperity.

Though Hoppe spends far too much of the book on anti-intellectual, abrasive, and, at times, bigoted (in the literal meaning of the term) polemics, there is some truth to his central insight and it certainly has a resonance with the public choice research on the short-sightedness effect. I doubt that Hoppe’s insights have the radical implications he draws of by necessity (mainly that monarchy is preferable to democracy); there might be a case to be made that pre-democratic institutions had lower taxes and better protection of property rights, on virtually every non-tax matters it is fairly obvious that such governments were far more tyrannical. Freedom of movement, which was so important to Mises in Liberalism and is among our most important of liberties, was non-existent in feudal Europe; indeed, serfs in many European manors were little more than slaves, pieces of property tied to their land, rather than sovereign, free individuals. Further, social freedom and freedom of religion were virtually non-existent in such polities; homosexuals were executed, Muslims and Jews were persecuted, and there were a number of other violations of human rights I doubt even Hoppe (in his implicit and occasionally explicit homophobia) would defend. (Of course, Hoppe would throw a fit because his argument is purely deductive and a priori whereas mine actually uses empirical evidence, but his simpleton, idiosyncratic, and laughably unintelligent economic methodology and epistemology is another topic.) I highly doubt even the most dogmatic Rothbardian Hoppe-lover would rather live in a medieval Europe feudal manor or monarchy than a modern democracy, despite their flashy polemics.

More recently, Michael Huemer has had criticisms of democracy’s morality in his book (which I highly recommend) The Problem of Political Authority. Heumer’s argument throughout the book is that all attempts to justify the legitimacy of government authority or to argue that there is any real consent between real-world governments and citizens fail, and a better form of government may be found in market anarchism. He notes how democracy has created a false identification of voting with actual consent that can morally legitimize government, and argues against all attempts to claim that citizens of democracies—real world or hypothetical—are under legitimate authority by virtue of the fact that they are living in a democracy. In another chapter, Huemer analyzes the problematic psychology of authority and how democracy contributes to the idolization of government.

Even more recently, Jason Brennan has a forthcoming book out that is perhaps more critical of democracy than any other classical liberal—save perhaps Hoppe—aptly titled Against Democracy. Brennan argues, like Huemer, that our relationship to democracy is non-consensual. In line with most public choice theory, he argues that democracy is truly the “rule of the irrational and the ignorant” and that democratic deliberation, voting, and electoral participation actually makes people worse, more biased, more irrational citizens. Brennan, instead, defends what he dubs “epistocracy”—a sort of aristocratic rule of the knowledgeable. (I have yet to read through Brennan’s book as it hasn’t been released yet and I’m basing this entirely off of reviews and Brennan’s other writings, particularly BHL blog posts, so I may be butchering some of the details of his argument in this description.)

Clearly, the classical liberals—from de Tocqueville to Jason Brennan—have very good reason to be skeptical of democracy, and perhaps even to feverishly oppose democracy. I still do not take the conclusions to the extremes of Hoppe and (at least from my limited knowledge of his writing on this topic) Brennan. I would agree with Hayek and Mises that constitutional representative democracy is the nth best alternative to other systems such as feudalism, absolutist monarchy, and any form of authoritarianism. (Although my general opposition to nation-states for both anarchist and communitarian reasons makes me more critical of democracy than most moderate classical liberals.)

However, it is clear that democracy is far from the best of all possible governmental arrangements. At the very least, the truth that Aristotle emphasized in his Politics that it matters not so much the make-up of the government (rule of the many, few, or one) but the quality of government, whether it is tyrannical or not. There is very good reason to believe, due to most of the arguments by the great thinkers discussed above, that democracy is, unfortunately, more likely than not to lead to tyranny—even if it is less likely to do so than the existing alternatives.

Having said that, perhaps not all is lost for the spirit of democracy. In the next post, I will analyze the pragmatist conception of democracy perhaps most popular among American twentieth-century liberals and progressives. This conception of democracy is far more than a form of political decision making discussed by the classical liberals, but a broader social epistemology and philosophy as mentioned in the introduction. I hope it will be clear by the end of the next post in this series that it is possible to affirm some of the philosophical commitments of democracy extolled by thinkers such as John Dewey, Sidney Hook, and Richard Rorty without necessarily embracing democracy as a political decision-making progress or, as Hayek would argue, democracy as it presently exists.

Objective Moral Rules

“Moral realism” is the proposition that objective moral rules exist. A moral rule assigns a moral value (good, evil, or neutral) to an act done by a person. A moral rule, such as “theft is evil,” is intended as a fact.

Moral realism is non-nihilist and non-relativist. Nihilists and relativists believe that no act is inherently good or evil, that there is no morality beyond personal and cultural beliefs. Moral realism is based on an ontology, a way to show that an objective morality exists.

The existence of an objective and universal ethic cannot be based on intuition. Intuition consists of ideas believed without conscious thinking. What people think of as intuition is heavily influenced by the prevailing culture. One person’s intuition may tell him that gambling is bad, while other may think that gambling is harmless fun.

Many ontologies of morality have been proposed. The one I think is warranted in reason is the natural moral law proposed by John Locke, although he did not present a derivation. In my judgment, the ontology consistent with Locke is as follows.

1. There are criteria that are necessary for the existence of a universal ethic. The ethic has to be universal to all persons, comprehensive to all acts, non-arbitrary in its premises, and logically consistent. If one presents an ethic which fits these criteria, then the universal ethic exists.

2. The premises of natural moral law are the biological independence of individual thinking and feeling, the moral equality of persons, and the existence of a personal ethic in each person’s mind. The first two were proposed by John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government. The equality premise is based on the common observation that there is in human nature no inherent basis for one group of persons to be superior masters over a second, inferior, group.

3. The derivation of natural moral law, as expressed by the universal ethic, provides rules for the three moral values (good, evil, and neutral). Good acts are welcomed benefits. Evil acts coercively harm others, as invasions, in contrast to merely offensive acts that depend only on the beliefs and values of those affected. All other acts are morally neutral.

Those who reject moral realism ask about the fact-value problem, the proposition that one cannot derive a moral value from any observed fact. The answer is that the universal ethic does not create any values. The values are held by individuals, in accordance with the third premise, the existence of personal ethics. The universal ethic is a production function which inputs individual moral values (good, evil, and neutral) and transforms them into universal ethic moral values. For example, if a theft takes place, the individual moral value is that it is evil, and since the theft is an invasion, a coercive harm, this individual value becomes a universal ethic value.

If, in contrast, a person observes someone who is walking naked on his property, and judges that to be evil, the universal ethic inputs that value and makes it neutral for the universal ethic, since that is an offense rather than an invasion into another’s property.

Therefore, the natural moral law does not generate values from facts, but rather, produces natural moral law values by inputting personal values and then applying its rules to output universal-ethic values.

Some skeptics reject natural-law moral realism because its premise of personal equality cannot be proven true the way that, say, the law of gravity is shown to be true. The proposition that there is in human nature no inherent master/slave relationships can be observed and inferred, but the conclusion is not apodictic, i.e. absolutely certain. However, the alternative is either supremacism, the alleged superiority of some religion or creed, or else nihilism, the absence of any transcendent morality, and either one leads to war.

The purpose of the universal ethic is the moral basis of proper governance, and since to my knowledge, nobody has come up with a superior moral idea, the ontology is good enough for the practical purpose of providing social peace and harmony with nature.

Milton on Free Political Institutions: ‘The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates’ (1649), ‘A Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Courts’ (1659), ‘The Ready and Easy way to Establish a Free commonwealth’ (1660)

“He was, as every truly great poet has ever been, a good man; but finding it impossible to realize his own aspirations, either in religion or politics, or society, he gave up his heart to the living spirit and light within him, and avenged himself on the world by enriching it with this record of his own transcendental ideal.” (Comment on John Milton by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1772-1834)

For my introduction to Milton see here, for my post on freedom of the press in Milton see here.

Milton made important arguments for the kind of political institutions which would serve liberty, as well as discussing to goal of freedom in discussion of opinion. Though there are two basic Milton texts identified here, I will not attempt to distinguish them here, let alone take into consideration every possibly relevant text by Milton. This is a period of rapid change in political institutions in England (also applying but unevenly and differently in Ireland and Scotland; at this time Wales has to be considered part of England), of experimentation including the execution of King Charles I just before the publication of the first essay identified was published and the institution of a Commonwealth and Free State, in that year, and of reaction in the sense of royal Restoration in the year that the last essay identified was published. Context matters and so does change, but I think for the purposes of this post as opposed to a blog about the details of Milton’s life as a man of letters and politics, this will be mostly an overview rather than a tracking of Milton’s evolution.

As with his views on free speech, Milton’s views on political institutions mix religious commitments with knowledge of English history and great scholarship of ancient texts. The knowledge of ancient texts to some degree overlaps with the knowledge of religious texts, which is one reason why intensified study of the Bible in the sixteenth and seventeenth century tended to serve general cultural development and liberty.

Milton’s objections to monarchy are partly established through his reading of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible where he argues that God warned the ancient Jews against adopting the institution of monarchy. Anyone interested in following up which parts of Hebrew scripture Milton is using here should start with the First Book of Samuel, Chapter 8. Disasters that befall the Biblical Jews are in some measure the consequence of ignoring God’s counsel in this matter. Of course, many have seen the Bible as justifying not just monarchy, but absolute monarchy so Milton goes to some effort to argue that monarchy was a second best institution for the Jews from God’s point of view and that the Jews never gave their monarchs absolute power.

The view that Milton has then, of the rights and powers of kings, is that they are established by covenant with the community and not a divine authority which the community must obey. The idea of covenant is important in Christianity, with regard to the view that the ancient Jews had a covenant with God as his chosen people and that Christ offered a new covenant for all humans willing to follow him as the son of God. These covenants were very much emphasised in the Protestant culture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which thought it was returning to a relation with God obscured by centuries of Catholic interposition of church hierarchy between believer and divine word.

The idea of covenant moved quite quickly from theology to political and legal thought in Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), a Dutch theologian and legal-political thinker who was one of the major shapers of modern thought in these matters. Milton does not emphasise him in these essays, but he was certainly an influence. For Grotius, the covenant is at the centre of theology, and influences his view of the obligation to obey law and government, though he does not use the language of covenant greatly in that context. The point being in political terms that in some way laws and political institutions rest on some choice of the community to obey them. In Grotius’s thinking, this is more about the reason for obedience than an incitement to rebellion where laws and institutions lack popular backing, but the latter aspect is necessary outcome. This ambiguity carries on into the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes (1551) which takes a foundational social covenant (defined more in legalistic than theological terms) as the basis of absolute obedience to the sovereign, but certainly influences the view of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Civil Government (1690) according to which ‘the people’ (in practice Locke meant the upper classes reğresented in Parliament) the right to overthrow government.

So Milton precedes Locke’s view that rebellion against unjust government is lawful, even admirable, and that laws are uniquely made by ‘the people’ in Parliament and never by a monarch. Milton himself draws on earlier historical precedent for this view of government as based on contract and the right of rebellion against government which ignores that contract. Particularly important is the Dutch Revolt of the late Sixteenth Century, in which merchant towns rebelled for political, commercial, and religious reasons against the absolutist Catholic monarchy of Spain which had acquired them for rather accidental dynastic reasons in recent history. Final agreement with Spain took a long time, but the new Dutch Republic quickly established the possibility of a mercantile republic in modern Protestant Europe and offered support to those who considered republics to be more Protestant than monarchies. Milton draws further on recent Scottish history, pointing out that a Protestant Scottish parliament had deposed Mary, Queen of Scots, in the preceding century. In general, Milton argues that the idea of monarch contradicts the idea of an ordinary human with an ordinary body, with legal accountability like anyone else, and so can never be incorporated properly into a state of free citizens.

Though monarchy which obeys such agreements is allowable from Milton’s point, it is not ideal and is very likely to decay into outright tyranny. Nevertheless he offers examples of how great monarchs of European history, including Roman Emperors, accepted that their power was only justified by serving law and the good of the community. As Milton emphases the last great Roman Emperor Justinian (ruling from Constantinople towards the end of the period during which any Roman Emperor controlled much territory beyond Anatolia and the Balkans) produced the greatest codification of Roman law, making himself the servant of law, not god on Earth. In any case is monarchy might be just about tolerable in many societies for Milton, the proper practice of Protestant Christianity certainly required a freedom from the religious and institutional church authority demanded by kings. Protestant ideas of free discussion of religious ideas and self-governing groups of believers could not thrive under a king (which was a reasonable estimate since Protestant Dissenters were not really equal citizens until the nineteenth century when the monarchy had become largely ceremonial, and indeed the last monarch who really struggled for a more than figurehead role, George III, was en enemy of religious emancipation).

Milton developed a view of how a republic, or commonwealth, might survive over the long term, certainly a longer term than the period it lasted in England, in its purest form only from 1649-52, and then the Lord Protectorship of Oliver Cromwell until 1658 and his heir Richard Cromwell until 1660. He thought that while the country might need a new parliament in 1660, once elected it should serve permanently, replacing dead or absent members through its own method. What Milton seems to advocate here though is not a permanent republican law, but something necessary to institute a permanent republic. Milton thinks of the beginnings of  a republic as embattled and as needing to act more like an army than a fully stabilised and secure civil republic should. Both the chance for election and eligibility to vote can be restricted while the republic secures itself against selfish internal a faction and external danger. Here Milton runs into the problem Niccoló Machiavelli, an ardent republican despite frequent misrepresentations, encountered in The Prince, how to get a people that is not very republican and maybe not very ready for a republic to the point where civic virtue and understanding of public good are strong enough for a workable republic.

Milton’s life and public service under the take over of the English republic by the quasi-monarch Oliver Cromwell, followed by his life and exile from public life under the restored monarchy, is the context for the quotation from Coleridge at the head of this post. For Milton, republicanism and associated ideals, became more and more associated with some better and other world. After the Restoration Milton certainly became the author of poetry rather than political essays, producing in particular Paradise Lost, a religious epic which places him just below Shakespeare in general evaluation of English literature. We could look there for a more ‘transcendental’ exploration of republicanism and liberty, and I had hoped to do so. However, this task will be deferred as I think a responsible investigation of republicanism in Milton’s poetry, though a recognised area of discussion, is just too big and different to incorporate into this sequence of posts. Later I hope.

Contra Argumentation Ethics

The proposition in argumentation ethics is that “arguing for any political position other than libertarian anarchism is logically inconsistent” (wiki).  This proposition was set forth in 1988 by Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. The basic idea is that the non-aggression principle is a premise implied in every argument, and so it cannot be logically denied in any doctrine. The concept of argumentation or discourse ethics had been developed by several German philosophers, such as Jürgen Habermas.

The non-aggression principle is that aggression – the initiation of force or fraud against a person –  is morally evil. The argumentation proposition is that non-aggression is a presupposition of every argument, and so the concept cannot be logically denied within an argument. If a person argues that slavery is justified, the contradiction is that by engaging in argument with another person, he is implying that they are both seeking to arrive at truth by persuasion as equal independent non-slave parties. Since the person who argues for slavery is not using force to make the other person a slave, that implies that he is thereby rejecting slavery. It is then logically and performatively inconsistent for him to argue that enslaving any other person would be justified.

The prevailing argument for a libertarian ethic, based on natural moral law, is based on human nature applied to human action, rather than argumentation. The two premises set forth by John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government are human independence and equality.

Independence is the biological statement that persons think and feel as independent beings. Equality means that human beings have an equal moral worth, which is the basis of Jefferson’s statement that we are created equal, and is the basis of equality before the law. The equality premise is based on the observation that there is no inherent master-slave relation among human beings, and so equality is more consistent with human biology than any inherent moral superiority of any race, sex, or culture.

Hoppe states that concept of human nature is too diffuse to provide a determinate set of premises for natural law. Locke’s premises of independence and equality indeed have fuzzy edges, such as for beings not yet born, but they seem to be clear enough for practical purposes. Libertarians have no consensus on issues such as abortion, capital punishment, land value subsidies, the use of the military, and the justification of imposed government, but argumentation does not resolve such issues either. One needs additional premises to solve issues such as personhood, e.g. under which conditions is a human organism a person with rights. After all, one cannot have discourse with a newly born baby.

The concept of argumentation ethics has been rejected by several libertarian scholars, for example the article in The Journal of Libertarian Studies (Spring 2006) by Robert Murphy and Gene Callahan. They point out that at most, argumention establishes self-ownership only to one’s mind and mouth, and only during the argument. A slave owner can argue with a slave while the slave is in chains, and then murder the slave. The superiority of the slave owner is not refuted by the owner’s asking the slave whether he prefers to be strangled or shot with a bullet.

As pointed out by Murphy and Callahan, a statist may believe that under particular conditions, the initiation of force is justified, even though when this is discussed, the parties are equally in their ability to argue.

Another refutation was made by Jason Brennan in “Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics Argument Refuted in Under 60 Seconds.” Brennan first presents two definitions. “A liberty right is something that grants me permission to do something. A claim right is something that entails others have obligations, responsibilities, or duties toward me.”

He then writes:

“all I need to avoid a performative contradiction here is for me to have a liberty right to say, ‘I propose such and such.’ I need not presuppose I have a claim right to say ‘I propose such and such.’ Instead, at most, I presuppose that it’s permissible for me to say, ‘I propose such and such’. I also at most presuppose that you have a liberty right to believe what I say. I do not need to presuppose that you have a claim right to believe what I say. However, libertarian self-ownership theory consists of claim rights… Hoppe’s argument illicitly conflates a liberty right with a claim right, and so fails.”

Yet another refutation of argumentation is made in “Justopia” by Justin:

“That flaw is revealed by showing that intent matters. This flaw eliminates the performative contradiction aspect because one cannot, without further information, determine whether many of the statements that Hoppe would claim are performative contradictions actually are performative contradictions.”

The Lockean foundation for natural moral law does not suffer from such flaws. Based on its premises from human nature, the universal ethic has three basic rules:

  1. Acts which are welcomed benefits are good.
  2. All acts, and only those acts, which coercively harm others are evil.
  3. All other acts are neutral.

It is curious why some natural-law libertarians have not accepted Locke’s libertarian ethic and have instead turned to German discourse philosophy. Perhaps the answer involves psychology and sociology rather than pure philosophy. At any rate, argumentation ethics is not the answer.

(This article also appears in http://www.progress.org )

Milton on Freedom of Printing: Areopagitica

Areopagitica 

A Speech of Mr John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England (1644).

(For my general introduction to Milton, click here)

‘We turn for a short time from the topics of the day, to commemorate, in all love and reverence, the genius and virtues of John Milton, the poet, the statesman, the philosopher, the glory of English literature, the champion and martyr of English liberty’, Thomas Babington Macaulay (Whig-Liberal historian, writer and government minister), 1825.

The digitised text of Areopagitica can be found at the Online Library of Liberty here.

The strange sounding title is a reference to one of the key institutions of ancient republican and democratic Athens, the court of Areopagus. Appropriately, as we are looking at an essay on politics by a great poet, the Areopagus and its mythical foundation was celebrated as the core of Athenian justice in Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy, the Oresteia. The Areopagus was itself an aristocratic institution preceding democracy in Athens and as such can be seen as what balanced the changeable majorities of the citizens’ assembly with enduring standards of justice, which have meaning in all ways of constituting political institutions.

What Milton looks for in this great institution of early experiments in constituting liberty is a standard for freedom of publication and finds that it offered a very tolerant standard, at least in the context of the seventeenth century. Milton suggests that the only restrictions the Areopagus placed on books of the time (all handwritten manuscripts of course) was with regard to atheism and libel. We are not going to look back at Milton or the Areopagus now as the most advanced instances of liberty when they prohibit expressions of atheism, but these are times when the idea that a good and rational person could not be an atheist were all pervasive and the assumption can still be found later in the seventeenth century in John Locke, one of the general heroes of modern thinking about liberty.

The restraint on libel applies in all societies and all political thinking I am aware of, but one should never discount the possibility of an interesting exception. Leaving aside possible interesting radical alternatives, there is nothing repressive by the standards of general thinking about liberty in restraining libel. Milton’s interest in the standards of pagan Greece is itself a tribute to a spirit of pluralism and open mindedness in someone generally inclined to take moral and political guidance from the religious traditions of Hebrew Scripture and the Gospels, along with the writings of early Christians, and the Protestant thinkers of the sixteenth century Reformation.

The Reformation, as Milton himself emphasises, relied on the printed word, and it is no coincidence that Protestantism emerged soon after Europe discovered printing (after the Chinese of course), as a weapon against the institutional authority of the Catholic Church and its hierarchy. The structure of the Catholic Church was not just a matter of church offering a choice to people seeking a faith-based life, it was connected with state power and pushed onto societies as the only allowable life philosophy. The politics of religion comes up in Milton’s essay, including the issue of the relation of the state to the church hierarchy.

While England had a Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century (England including Wales, but excluding Scotland which had its own distinct Reformation before union with England), it had retained a state church, the Church of England, with Bishops. Milton, like many on the side of Parliament in the Civil War, was against Bishops, referred to as prelates, as part of the old Catholic hierarchy in which the ‘truth’ was given from above to the mass of believers.

Inspired by the pamphlets of and books of Protestant reformers, Milton argues that truth can have many forms and that while Christianity may require acceptance of central truths, they can be expressed in more ways than the Catholic hierarchical state-backed tradition allows. State backing, of course, included the imprisonment, torture, and burning to death of ‘heretics’ by the Inquisition.

Milton refers to the last pagan Roman Emperor, Julian ‘the Apostate’ (reigned 361-363) with regard to his policy of banning Christians from pagan education. Milton argues that this was the biggest possible blow to Christianity, because it deprived believers of the intellectual capacity and credibility to influence pagan inhabitants of the Empire. Christian truth could only be convincingly understood, communicated, and taught if it drew on all areas of learning including what had been produced by pagans.

Truth benefits from being tested in argument and contestation, something undermined by state-enforced church power as well as by the monarchical institution of courts full of sycophants and yes-sayers. Political liberty requires republican representative institutions and truth, including the truths of religion, require testing in conditions of liberty.

Unfortunately, Milton supported legal discrimination against Catholics, but as with prohibitions on expressions of atheism, this was part of the general understanding of a just state at the time, and Milton was more tolerant than many on the Protestant as well as Catholic sides. His arguments make up a part of the general movement to tolerance and freedom of speech, making very powerful points on behalf of liberty, enabling us to take them beyond the limits within which he constrained them.

Next post, Milton on political institutions