In the Ruins of Public Reason, Part II: The Barbarians at the Gates

Note: This is a part of a series on public discourse. View part one here.

How exactly do dialogical illiberals view themselves during a heated discussion without epistemic norms? Dialogical illiberals of all political stripes–from populist conservative culture warriors to sanctimoniously censorious progressives, from screeching parents at public school board meetings to ostensibly liberal democrats, from nationalistic xenophobes to anti-fascist anarchists—view themselves as soldiers under siege in a war using their ideas as the only defensive tool to keep the barbarians at the gates. They view every conversation, every intellectual exchange as a zero-sum game, and their interlocutor is either on their side or the side of the putative barbarians–no in-between. I admit I have fallen into this habit of thinking in years past, but it is an extremely unproductive mindset and contributes to dialogical illiberalism for three main reasons.

First, it is just a way of viewing discourse that, for one, is usually simply untrue. Sometimes, the barbarians literally do not exist. This is usually true when conservatives fear-monger on, say, a liberal pedophile cabal, or progressive elitists trying to turn their kids LGBT, or evil conspiracy of immigrants trying to replace them. It is not just right-wingers who conspiratorially invent barbarians: leftists often imagine there is some deep-money libertarian conspiracy to undermine democracy, or some cabal of rich corporate fat cats to raise prices and oppress the poor. Even if there might be some sophisticated steel-manned sociological story that might make some version of these more than mere conspiracy theories, the problem comes when these imagined “barbarians” are used as an excuse to write off someone they might have fruitful disagreements with as a member of “them.”

Sometimes, in the case of progressives fighting racists or anti-populist liberals and anti-fascist anarchists fighting actual fascist terrorists, the barbarians are a very real, significant threat. However, for one, they often radically overestimate the magnitude of the threat or engage in dangerous forms of concept creep about who counts as a barbarian. Whoever they are talking with is not often part of the barbarians, but they get so in the habit of outgrouping anyone who doesn’t agree with them,they start seeing barbarians everywhere. They then are viciously uncivil towards potential allies or people with whom they have fruitful disagreements that truly are not the sort of “dangerous” disagreements that are helpful to barbarians.

Second, this “activist vs. barbarians” mentality just poisons the well and makes it difficult for these activist gatekeepers to rationally engage with basically anyone who has normative or empirical disagreements with them in good faith. They view themselves as a warrior fighting barbarians rather than more humbly as a curious person trying to find wisdom to cope with this world from wherever they can. It makes them engage in motivated reasoning for why your disagreement makes you on the barbarians’ side or why their view is the true “American” or “liberal” or “radical” view rather than engaging with the substance of the disagreement rationally. It makes them embrace subrational forms of communication that are just toxic, and more interested in signaling their ingroup bona fides to other members of their ingroup than trying to persuade people who might not be in the “outgroup” exactly, but that they irresponsibly paint as being in the outgroup.

It is a very similar toxic social and psychological dynamic to what drives so many sources of illiberal intolerance both large and small–from McCarthyism, to the religious banning of “heresy,” to book bannings, to horrible screeching on social media that makes everyone dumber and unhappier. As Arnold Kling would put it, this “civilization vs. barbarism” language game is a deeply conservative one. But in recent years, few have noticed how even progressives and radical leftists fall into this small-c conservative mode of thinking indefensibly when they consider themselves as activists first and foremost. It is no coincidence that many leftists trapped in the contra barbarian mindset start rationalizing illiberal attitudes more generally.

Third, it makes them rather arrogantly over-estimate their own activist powers in implausible ways. Chances are, the argument you are making, the candidate you are trying to convince me to vote for, or the direct action you are defending isn’t going to be the thing that stops the barbarians. The social world is complicated, and you humbly should be willing to be open to the possibility that your political action might actually backfire and help them. It might help, or it might not, depending on the circumstances. Better to humbly admit your epistemic and practical limitations in changing the world and be open to other perspectives from good-faith interlocutors than just thinking that someone who has a substantive disagreement with you about political action or an idea is either a contemptuous barbarian or a “useful idiot” for the barbarians simply in virtue of your disagreement.

Be realistic, you and I are not heroic activists trying to save our beatific political visions from evil barbarians. Better to think of ourselves as curious individuals trying to learn what we can to cope with the perplexing quandaries of modernity.

In the Ruins of Public Reason, Part I: The Problem of Dialogical Illiberalism

Note: This is part of a series on public discourse. View Part 2 here.

Older readers of NOL may have noticed I have been absent from the blogosphere for the last four or so years. Part of this has been that I have rather intentionally taken a somewhat monkish vow of silence on many things that perplex me about the contemporary world. On many of these issues—the growing tide of global populist authoritarianism, the policy and cultural responses to COVID, and increasing political polarization to name a few—I still don’t know what is true or if I am equipped to say much other than express a vague, general sense that almost everyone in those debates has gotten something fundamentally wrong. Consequently, I have taken time in a philosophy grad school program to think about more fundamental issues rather than get lost in the daily obsessions of the internet. Now, I am done with that venture and have decided for various personal reasons to not pursue an academic career so I will have more time to write more freely here.

I think even more than my being epistemically overwhelmed by the…everything…of the last few years or even the time and energy constraints of grad school, a bigger reason why I have been loathe to blog or engage in public discussion has been a sense of frustration, exhaustion and melancholic angst with the state of public discourse, especially online. It seems like nearly everyone today—from partisan activists to family members, to friends, to even respected thinkers whose ideas have influenced me in the past, seem to be guilty of contributing to this problem. I surely do not exclude myself from these criticisms of the zeitgeist, for the zeitgeist very much lives in my head. For now, rather than discuss any substantive issues, I am going to start a series about some meta-issues that have poisoned our public discourse and made it unpleasant and even psychologically impossible for me, and I am sure others, to write publicly.

For now, I just want to narrow in on identifying the symptoms of our ruined discourse. I am talking about how almost every one of almost every ideological stripe these days constantly displays a vicious lack of charity to almost everyone they engage with who they vaguely associate with some outgroup. An illiberal intolerant attitude where their first impulse is to try to censor ideas that they find disagreeable. For the politically engaged and outraged, it seems like no disagreement can be a good-faith one. So many seem to just assume that almost anyone they disagree with is acting in bad faith. To be sure, many people are acting in bad faith, but that is no reason to become the monster one is fighting or assume that as the default with every interlocutor. So many people treat nearly every difference of opinion, no matter how great or small, not as potentially interesting differences in values that can be commensurably discussed or interesting empirical disagreements, but as “dangerous” ideas that need to be quashed.

I am talking about the tendency for people—everywhere from cable news, to Thanksgiving tables, to Twitter–to “nutpickoutgroups to outrage other members of their ingroups. How so much of political discourse has substituted sub-rational bumper stickers, memes, and tweets for substantive positions and arguments. How so many clearly rationalize terrible arguments they should know better than to make because said arguments have ideologically convenient or politically expedient conclusions. How so many seem more interested in morally grandstanding to their favored ingroup than trying to learn more from those with whom they have fruitful differences. How for some people to even listen to you, they make you engage in some sort of ideological purity test. How they engage in dishonest guilt by association to try to assassinate the character of people they might have minor disagreements with. How they generally view anyone with whom they have disagreements contemptuously

Of course, much of this has always been an element of how hooligans engage in democratic politics. However, the degree to which it has reached a fever pitch is a change from a few decades ago. Further, this loathsome creeping intolerance and lack of epistemic virtue have now seeped from screeching political rallies, Twitter, or Yahoo News comment sections to many self-important elites who fancy themselves above the fray of the irrational cacophony of political discourse, and often help shape that discourse. I am talking the sort of people who stridently read or write for NY Times and The Atlantic, legal professionals, elites in the ivory tower where I once delusionally hoped to find a bubble of safety.

The problem goes by many names—right-wing reactionaries call it “wokeness” or “cancel culture” when done by the left, leftists and progressives call it fascist authoritarianism when right-wingers do it. To some varying extent, both are correct about each other and wrong about themselves. To be clear, I do think the right’s illiberal authoritarianism is very much a bigger threat in this political moment, but rather than spending time unproductively fanning the flames of that culture war debate, let me neutrally call the problem dialogical illiberalism in the small “l” sense of liberalism. It is a form of brain rot that seems to have infected every one of all political persuasions to varying degrees of significance—from conservative culture warriors to socialist Breadtubers, to ostensibly “liberal” centrists, to anarchist antifascist activists, to even my (former) ingroup of some libertarian academics. None of you are free from sin.

In the extreme, the dialogical illiberal is not just an unreasonable conversation partner, but a dialectical rent-seeker demanding the state coercively censor those with whom they disagree. For now, I want to focus on the merely dialogical and social form of this illiberalism simply to avoid getting lost in the complicated intricacies of liberal free speech norms and First Amendment legal disputes. Those are complicated debates worth having but beyond the scope of this series. Suffice it to say, I have little patience for this form of actively statist censoriousness in whatever form. But I think its increasing prevalence has its roots in a culture of dialogical illiberalism that has evolved in the norms of public discourse, which is what I am interested in analyzing here.

This is where, usually, this genre of article goes into some detailed examples and case studies of “the problem” to convince you it is real. Typically, these are rather dishonestly cherry-picked to support whatever implicit tribal position the author happens to have. Frankly, I have no interest in such a performative exercise here—it is better left to the reader. It would just distract us by tempting us to engage in the accidental details of some particular examples rather than stepping back and seeing the bigger picture. I don’t wish to miss the trees for the forest, and neither should you. Suffice it to say, if you are unconvinced of that what I am talking about is a genuine problem, this series of posts probably isn’t for you. You have either been living under a rock (in which case I urge you to return because ignorance is sometimes bliss), are unusually patient with bad argumentation (in which case, I envy you), or might be part of the problem.

I imagine you are nodding your head in agreement and recalling times when this has been done to you or by someone in some other political tribe to someone in your tribe. I encourage you to stop this now and try to recall a time when someone you respect and agree with was being unreasonable and uncharitable to someone else, or perhaps when you yourself have done this in a social media exchange, or with a family member or friend. I know I have. If you are completely incapable of doing this, I encourage you to save yourself some time and stop reading now—this series isn’t for you. Perhaps return to Twitter.

Perhaps at this point, you are trying to rationalize your own version of dialogical illiberalism as somehow justifiable. If you can give an original good faith argument for it, go ahead and I might consider moderating my hardline position against dialogical illiberalism. Perhaps you are thinking something like this: “But they really are so terrible and bad-faith that we should not take them seriously as debaters. You are just engaging in toxic both-sideism!” Perhaps you are right about “them,”—whoever that outgroup might be in your head. However, that is no reason to become just like “them” to the point that you cannot engage with nearly anyone in good faith. Maybe you should reflect on whether you are projecting a caricature of “them” on people who genuinely are not one of “them.” Again, avoid becoming the monster you are fighting. If you do not wish to make that effort, return to the Twitter mob.

Most readers will agree with something like this, to put it bluntly: political discourse is terrible because politically active people are massive assholes to each other. I wish to understand why people of all ideological stripes have become such massive assholes and how I can stop being one myself. If you are interested in trying not to be an asshole too, perhaps you will join me.

I don’t have an explicit plan for this series, I am not sure how many posts it will comprise. But I expect to focus on topics such as how dialogical illiberals psychologically think of themselves while they are engaging in bad-faith discussion, the role of social media in making the problem worse, the extent to which the incentive structure of democratic institutions leads to dialogical illiberalism, the chilling effect this lack of civility has on discourse, and other cultural causes and effects of dialogical illiberalism.  

If you wish, consider this an exercise in therapeutic edification for me and, if you feel similarly, perhaps for you. I am not trying to make an argument trying to convince you of much substantively. If you change your mind about something, consider that a bonus. My goals here are to express my frustration with this moment in American cultural discourse, diagnose some of what I see as the psychological and social factors contributing to the problem, and hopefully come away making myself (and, with any luck, the reader) closer to the sort of person who is not part of the problem.

I do not have all the answers and do not think I will find them here, but I do have two ground rules I hope to establish: 1) It will be hard at times for me not to hide my frustration with people who are characteristically dialogical illiberals, I am sure that has already come through. But, when possible, my hope is to analyze these individuals with the empathetic self-detachment of a good philosophical anthropologist. Do, please, call me out in the comments when I fall short of that ideal.  2) To make my biases clear: I am a very idiosyncratic sort of radical liberal/anarchist/left-libertarian hybrid. I am very much on the left side of the culture wars instinctively, while at the same time I am strongly disposed to think any policy solutions the state could enact are bound to fail. Consequently, I am more likely to be harsher to the dialogical illiberalism on the right side of the political spectrum, yet more knowledgeable of the dialogical illiberalism on the left side. You do not have to be on the same side of those anti-statist policy conclusions or be sympathetic to my radically leftist cultural tendencies to learn something from this series. My aim here is not to convince you to join my oddly specific and strange “team.” I think that sort of mindset is what encourages the dialogical liberalism I am chiding to begin with. I will try to bracket my cultural and policy views where possible and focus more on the meta-issues poisoning our discourse, but I cannot help that those views will often seep through.

May the Fourth…

On May 4, 1919, a student protest against the ceding of Chinese territory to Japan by the Versailles Treaty initiated a reassessment of China’s attitude to its own past in the face of Western modernity and domination. The May Fourth Movement, as this ongoing reassessment came to be called, rejected the early liberal emphasis on piecemeal reform and constitutionally limited, elite-led government, but its own brand of liberalism remained indebted to the categories and concerns of late Imperial and early Republican liberal debates.

This is from the amazing Leigh Jenco, and it’s titled “Chinese Liberalism.” Read the whole thing (pdf).

Some Monday Links

Cowboy progressives (Aeon)

Gramsci’s Gift (Boston Review)

A Country of Their Own (Foreign Affairs)

America has captured France (UnHerd)

Why 1980s Oxford holds the key to Britain’s ruling class (Financial Times)


  1. Is anything going to change? Emily Sellars, Broadstreet
  2. Why I am not a liberal The Last Positivist, Sooty Empiric
  3. Hayek’s trap and the European utopia we need (pdf) Philippe Van Parijs
  4. Soviet children’s literature Evgeny Shvarts, Economist

Some Monday Links

The ‘Adam Smith of the North’: Meet Finland’s Founding Father of Classical Liberalism (FEE)

On Anders Chydenius. The Governor of Bank of Finland in a 2019 speech outlined his work, to stress the “joint Nordic and American societal heritage, which is fundamentally linked to economic liberalism and the market economy”.

The Fall Of The Meritocracy (The American Conservative)

The Communist Manifesto Shows Why Capitalism Won’t Last Forever (Jacobin)

Why Braveheart Is Considered One Of The Most Historically Inaccurate Films Ever (SlashFilm)

American Classical Liberals Suck

This week Kevin Vallier published a new entry on neoliberalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Neoliberalism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). It is a well-written, well-researched piece. However, it is also symbolic for the greatest deficiency of American classical liberals: they are unable or unwilling to defend the name, or label if you like, of the ideas they are associated with. Given the influence of American academia and thinks tanks on the rest of the world this is especially important. It has happened before, and it is happening now. It sucks.

This is how Vallier starts his entry:

“Though not all scholars agree on the meaning of the term, “neoliberalism” is now generally thought to label the philosophical view that a society’s political and economic institutions should be robustly liberal and capitalist, but supplemented by a constitutionally limited democracy and a modest welfare state. Recent work on neoliberalism, thus understood, shows this to be a coherent and distinctive political philosophy. This entry explicates neoliberalism by examining the political concepts, principles, and policies shared by F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James Buchanan, all of whom play leading roles in the new historical research on neoliberalism, and all of whom wrote in political philosophy as well as political economy. Identifying common themes in their work provides an illuminating picture of neoliberalism as a coherent political doctrine.”

The problem is in the words: ‘“neoliberalism” is now generally thought…’’.  Neoliberalism is a hotly debated term, there is certainly no consensus on its meaning. As Oliver Hartwich has emphasized in Neoliberalism, the genesis of a political swearword, it is still most often used as a swearword by the left for all that they think is wrong with capitalism, (classical) liberalism, (more or less) liberal policies by IMF, WTO and World Bank, et cetera. These left wingers are also found in academia, policy and in media circles, which has led to its routine use. However, it is not true that the work of Hayek, Friedman and Buchanan is generally thought to be covered by a neoliberal label. Only those who disagree with it call them neoliberals. It is painful to see that the ideas of these three Nobel Prize winners are now used to explain neoliberalism in a leading online source. They self-identified as classical liberals and just because opponents of their views use a different label is no reason to comply with that malicious practice.  

The worse thing is, it has happened before, also commencing in the US. Fairly recently, classical liberals began to use the label libertarian, as the Cato Institute has been promoting, for example on their (very useful) website, or in David Boaz’ The Libertarian Mind.  Jason Brennan’s Libertarianism, what everyone needs to know is another example. The issue here is that the three aforementioned classical liberals, and others, are now thrown onto the same heap as Rothbard and Rand, to name a few rather different thinkers.

Decades earlier, Hayek and others noted with regret that the Americans were unable to defend the original meaning of the word liberal, with the result that a liberal in the American sense is now what people in other parts of the world call a social-democrat. It is also the reason Hayek and other started to use the name classical liberal.  

The result of all this changing of names is confusion and vulnerability. Nobody knows what label belongs to which ideas, which gives rise to a petty industry on liberal labels, yet without any clarity in the end. It also provides ample opportunity for opponents to negatively attack ideas loosely associated with the (classical) liberal movement, which results in a negative image, which also make liberal ideas less attractive for outsiders. The lack of clarity also makes vulnerable for any kind of criticism. Actually, embracing the swearword other use for you, by offering the ideas of your greatest and brightest thinkers, is a shameful act at least.

American classical liberals should stay firm and defend their ideas under the proper labels. There is no reason for change (see my Degrees of Freedom: Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology), there is only a need for explanation and defense. Giving up clear and proper labels plainly sucks.         

Monday’s hints and suggestions, rumors and hunches

Or, some Monday links – on thinkers, their devices and “ad hoc” cities, above/ below the sea surface

Back in February, Nick Cowen here at NOL pointed the 100th anniversary of John Rawls’ birth. At the time I somehow caught that this year also marks 50 years since his Theory of Justice book publication (a rather banal discovery it seems now, but still). The “veil of ignorance” was a strong introduction to the world of ideas and one of the few things to make it past my undergraduate studies.

The 1st American edition – source

Beyond those lectures (early 00s), I have yet to read the book. I suspect that it could belong to the “books everyone would like to have read, but almost no one actually reads” list, along with that Beveridge Report (this quip about the Report I read somewhere I cannot remember). Anyway, here be a fresh tribute proper:

On the Legacy of A Theory of Justice (Law & Liberty, there are responses to the main essay, too)

As far as round anniversaries involving nice thought experiments go, I would also note that Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “violinist” and Herbert A. Simon’s “alien telescope” papers were published in 1971 and 1991, respectively. The first is a defense of the right to abortion, while the second is a tool to discern social structures (guess what, I have not read the “violinist” paper either. It seems interesting and timely enough – the top courts in US and Germany decided on abortion in 1973/75 – but I firstly found out about it, and some relevant criticisms, only last year. Simon, the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences laureate 1978, provided insights across a few fields over the years):

The trolley problem problem (Aeon)

Organizations and Markets (Journal of Economic Perspectives)

Getting to more recent staff, Brandon the other day expressed his doubts about the new charter city project in Honduras (Próspera). Find below a comprehensive read on the matter:

Prospectus On Próspera (Astal Codex Ten)

Now, as a pc gamer of yore, I have been expecting more nods to the underwater city of Rapture from the Bioshock game series, maybe. Rapture was a utopia free of state intervention, purportedly founded top-down on individualistic ideals in 1946, that failed. No, not quite libertarian ideals, more of a wildly objectivist kind, with a paternalistic edge. The adherence to laissez-faire, but not to laissez-passer (the founder forbid any relations with the rest of the world), brought smuggling, inequality and eventually the downfall of the city.

Not Rapture, but close enough style-wise (Moscow State University main building) – source: my own archive

At least this is how I understand it (right, I have not played any of these games. Survival/ horror FPS, nope. I do appreciate the games’ grandeur for 40s-50s ideas and architecture, though). As for any relevance to the Próspera project – come to think of it again – I admit the whole comparison is tempting, but way overblown, ok. Próspera is a public/ private law creature, envisaged in the constitution of a sovereign state. I desist.

Why Bioshock still has, and will always have, something to say (Ars Technica)

Ideology in Bioshock: A Critical Analysis (Press Start)

Some Monday Links

The Paris Commune at 150 (The Tablet)

“The greatest legend in proletariat history”, we were told in the modern European history class (back in 2001, probably still a solid claim).

Liberalism and class (Interfluidity)

All Apologies for Democracy (Project Syndicate)

John Rawls at 100

Neoliberal Social Justice available April 2021

John Rawls, the most influential political philosopher of the 20th century, was born 100 years ago today. He died one year before I first read A Theory of Justice as part of my undergraduate degree in philosophy at University College London. This year, Edward Elgar publishes Neoliberal Social Justice: Rawls Unveiled, my book which updates Rawls’ approach to assessing social institutions in light of contemporary economic thought.

Mike Otsuka (now at the LSE) introduced us first to the work of Robert Nozick and then to Rawls, the reverse of what I imagine is normally the case in an introductory political philosophy course. Most people ultimately found Rawls’ the more attractive approach whereas I was drawn to Nozick’s insistence on starting strictly from the ethical claims of individuals. I wondered why something calling itself ‘the state’ should have rights to coerce beyond any other actor in civil society.

Years of working in public policy and studying political economy made me recognise a distinctive value for impersonal institutions with abstract rules. Indeed, I now think the concept of equal individual liberty is premised on the existence of such institutions. Although the rule of law could theoretically emerge absent a state, states are the only institutions that have been able to generate it so far. Political philosophy cannot be broken down into applied ethics in the way Nozick proposed.

Some classical liberals and market anarchists are increasingly impatient with the Rawlsian paradigm. Michael Huemer, for example, argues that Rawls misunderstands basic issues with probability when proposing that social institutions focus on maximising the condition of the least advantaged. Huemer argues that Rawls ultimately offers no reason to pick justice as fairness over utilitarianism, the very theory it was directed against.

I think these criticisms are valid for rejecting the blunt assessments of real-world inequalities that some Rawlsians are apt to make. But I do not think Rawls himself, nor his theory when read in context, made these elementary errors. Rawls’ principles of justice apply to the basic structure of social institutions rather than the resulting pattern of social resources as such. Moreover, the primary goods that Rawls take to be relevant for assessing social institutions are essentially public goods. It makes sense to guarantee, for example, basic civil liberties to all on an equal basis even if turns out to be costly. I can think of two reasons for this:

  1. In a society not facing acute scarcity, you would not want to risk placing yourself in a social position where your civil liberties could be denied even if it was relatively unlikely.
  2. Living in a society where basic liberties are denied to others is going to cause problems for everyone, whether through regime instability or fraught social and economics relationships that are not based on genuine mutual advantage but coercion from discretionary powers.

To be fair to utilitarians, J.S. Mill went in this direction, although one had to squint to see how it fit into a utilitarian calculus. But if Rawls was ultimately defending a more principled approach to social relationships using the tools of expediency, I see that as a valuable project.

So, I think that the Rawlsian approach is still a fruitful way to evaluate the distinctive problem of political order. His theory offers the resources to resist not just utopian libertarian rights theorists, but also socialists and egalitarians who similarly fail to account for the distinctive role of political institutions for resolving problems of collective action. Where I think Rawls erred when endorsing what amounts to a socialist institutional framework is on his interpretation of social theory. Rawls argued that people behave pretty selfishly in market interactions but could readily pursue the public good when engaged in everyday politics. I argue otherwise. Here is a snippet from Neoliberal Social Justice (pp. 96-97) where I make the case for including a more consistently realistic account of human motivation within his framework:

Problems of justice are not purely about assurance amongst reasonable people or identifying anti-social persons. Instead, we must consider the anti-social person within ourselves: the appetitive, biased, narrow-minded, prejudicial self that drives a great deal of our every-day thoughts and interactions (Cowen, 2018). If we are to make our realistic selves work with each other to produce a just outcome, then we should affirm institutions that allow these beings, not just the wholesome beings of our comfortable self-perception, to cooperate. We have to be alive to the fact that we are dealing with agents who are apt to affirm a scheme as fair and just at one point (and even sincerely mean it), then forgetfully, carelessly, negligently or deliberately break the terms of that scheme at another point if they have an opportunity and reason enough to do so. Addressing ourselves as citizens in this morally imperfect state, as opposed to benighted people outside a charmed circle of reasonableness, is helpful. It means we can now include such considerations within public reason. The constraints of rules emerging from a constitutional stage may chafe at other stages of civil interaction. Nevertheless, they may be fully publicly justified.


  1. Hayek and Cassel on the Great Depression David Glasner, Uneasy Money
  2. Giving Trump the OJ treatment Thomas Knapp, WLGC
  3. Liberalism in Brazil Lucas Berlanza, Econ Journal Watch
  4. Brazil will not become Venezuela Bruno Rosi, NOL

In memory of Gerald Gaus (1952-2020)

I was saddened to hear that Gerald Gaus, the world-renowned liberal philosopher, died yesterday. Gaus was a critical developer of a public reason approach to classical liberalism, and powerful exponent of the interdisciplinary research agenda of Philosophy, Politics and Economics. While we met in person only occasionally, he was a significant influence on my approach to understanding the liberal tradition.

His perspective was deeply pluralist. One observation that really struck me from The Order of Public Reason (and that I still grapple with today) was that a society could function more effectively (in fact, might only function at all) when citizens have a range of moral attitudes towards things like rule-following, and especially eagerness to punish rule-breakers. For society to progress, you may need both conservative-inclined individuals to enforce moral norms and liberal-minded people to challenge them when circumstances prompt reform.

He applied this idea of strength through moral diversity to the political system too. On Gaus’s account, one of the strengths of liberal democracy is its ability to shift from conservative to liberal, and left to right, through competitive elections. Social progress cannot follow a straight and obvious path but requires, at different moments, experimentation, innovation, reversal and consolidation. Democracy helps select the dominant mode from a diversity of perspectives.

This depth of pluralism is counter-intuitive within the discipline of normative political theory that increasingly avers a narrow set of ideological commitments as acceptable, and rejects even fairly minor variations in social morality as possessing little or no value. Indeed, the last time I saw Gaus was early this year when he gave an evening talk at the Britain and Ireland Association for Political Thought conference. He presented a model for seeking political compromises among very different moral ideals. His commitment to treating the whole political spectrum as worthy of engagement drew a few heckles. The prospect of engaging with Trump supporters, for example, evidently nauseated some of the audience. Gaus was the very model of the liberal interlocutor, ignoring the hostility, and responding with grace, civility and ideas for going forward productively.

His approach to scholarship and discussion embodied his commitment to liberal toleration and the fusion of ethical horizons. That’s how he will be remembered.

Hayek, International Organization and Covid-19

Just to inform all NOL-readers out there, if you like the subject, please register and join the IEA webinar I’ll give next wednesday, 13.00 hours, London time.

Institute of Economic Affairs > Events
13:00 – 14:00

Although it was never the subject of a book, Friedrich Hayek wrote a lot about international relations during his long career and had rather firm views on international order and how it could be achieved. In this webinar, these Hayekian views are presented in the context of the current COVID-crisis. What was Hayek’s opinion about the existence and the role of international governmental organizations, such as the World Health Organization?

Dr. Edwin van de Haar ( is an independent scholar who specializes in the liberal tradition in international political theory. He has been a (visiting) lecturer at Brown University, Leiden University and Ateneo de Manila University. Van de Haar is the author of Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory. Hume, Smith, Mises and Hayek (2009), Beloved Yet Unknown. The Political Philosophy of Liberalism (2011, in Dutch) and Degrees of Freedom. Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology (2015). Among others, he contributed to The Oxford Handbook of Adam Smith (2013) and a forthcoming book on The Liberal International Theory Tradition in Europe, while his articles on liberal ideas and liberal thinkers appeared among others in Review of International Studies, International Relations, International Politics, Independent Review and Economic Affairs.

Van de Haar got his PhD in International Politcial Theory from Maastricht Universit in 2008, and holds master degrees in international relations (London School of Economics and Political Science) and in political science (Leiden University).

Please visit:

A very short note on despotism

Democracy was once viewed as a counterweight to despotism. Democracy was also once more exclusionary, too.

However, once democratic regimes in North America and France were established in the late 18th century, despotism flourished. How to deal with democratic despotism is at the heart of the conservative-liberal split (socialists embrace democratic despotism).

Conservatives believe a stronger executive “branch” will temper democracy’s excesses, while liberals believe a stronger judicial apparatus will do a better job of keeping democratic despotism at bay. (By “liberals” I mean libertarians.)

Thus Hamilton and Trump argue for a stronger executive branch. Thus Madison and Hayek argue for a stronger judicial branch. Thus Marx and Sanders argue for more power to the people. This is at the heart of all political disagreement, and not just in the United States. Indeed, it’s at the heart of politics itself. Discuss.