Boom and Gloom (Claremont Review of Books)
Huge Diego Rivera mural about to go up at SFMOMA (The Mercury News)
Boom and Gloom (Claremont Review of Books)
Huge Diego Rivera mural about to go up at SFMOMA (The Mercury News)
Computer use as an adult: check my bills, check my savings, look at pricing for home improvements, check the scores, send & answer emails, read blogs if I’m lucky.
Has there been any foundational libertarian academic work done in the last 35 years? I mean, when I was in college, you read Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, Mises, and Nozick. These were the people you read if you wanted to familiarize yourself with common libertarian sentiment on questions of public policy (“economics”), ethics, foreign affairs, and cultural shifts.
What do the kids read nowadays? I’m in favor of overhauling the canon. I’d keep Nozick and Rand, but whose work should we consult on matters of public policy (“economics”) and foreign affairs? I think I’m going to have to be the one who answers the foreign affairs question, but what about econ? Whose work is the new Mises/Friedman? Whose going to overtake Rothbard and come up with a libertarian manifesto for a new generation?
Has our time come and gone already? If we don’t need new voices and fresh perspectives, then we’ve already lost the war of ideas.
I did not meet many of the postwar great thinkers of classical liberalism. There are two exceptions. In 2005 I had a chat with James Buchanan to ask him if I could translate the talk he gave to an audience of graduate students at the IHS summer seminar at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. He agreed and I translated and published his ideas on ‘the soul of classical liberalism’ in a Dutch liberal periodical.
The other exception is Julian Simon. Perhaps not in the same league as Buchanan, he was certainly a maverick thinker and a classical liberal great. A navy officer, business man, and advertising expert who turned to academia, he is known, to name just a few, for his arguments in the field of population growth, immigration studies and of course the book The Ultimate Resource. In it he argues that all raw materials become cheaper, while humans are the ultimate resource, among many other issues. He also won a famous wager with his critic Paul Ehrlich, stating that the prices of the raw materials Ehrlich could choose (in fact copper, chromium, nickel, tin, tungsten) would decrease (inflation adjusted) over the period of a decade they agreed upon. But that is just the tip of iceberg of this most interesting man. You should really read his autobiography A Life Against the Grain, whenever you have the chance.
In 1995 a friend of mine and I founded the Dutch Benedictus de Spinoza Foundation, meant to group young people educated in (classical) liberalism. In our first public Spinoza-lecture in 1996 Simon agreed to be the speaker. If memory serves right he was on his way to or from a Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Vienna, and was willing to make a small detour. We spent two full days with him, touring The Hague, arranging an interview in a national paper, have a formal dinner with Simon as gues of honor and speaker, and so forth. He was the most congenial guest one can wish. He clearly did not want to be among the hot shots only. In fact he insisted that we should visit ‘the worst neighborhood of the city’. So we went to one of the poorest parts in town, which he found delightful, not because of the (relative) poverty, but because of the multicultural experience and multicultural food at the market. An other remarkable feature was that in the half hour before we opened the lecture hall, he wished to take a nap on the floor right there!
In his autobiography he is open about his many rejected papers throughout his career, and the way he described how difficult it is to convince academic colleagues of a point that goes against conventional wisdom. No matter how strong the counter-evidence, people will choose to ignore the new facts or insights and keep the author out of the inner circle for as long as possible. I must say it sounds familiar to me, as an author who has attempted to change the views of (classical) liberals and IR theorists on international relations and (classical) liberalism. Even the obvious fact that trade cannot possibly foster peace seems impossible to establish. Alas, reading Simon one also learns to never give up, the truth shall be told, although there is no guarantee of success!
Folks, I’ve got a ton of writing projects on my plate. I am trying to make the switch from non-fiction to fiction, too. Oh, and I have a small family now. And a career in the private sector that is going quite well. My priorities have changed.
I’ll still be blogging here, of course, but the “nightcaps” are done.
It’s weird how life changes. It’s weird to think that I’ve hitchhiked through Mexico, the U.S., Spain, Italy, Portugal, and France. I lived in Ghana. I did drugs. I listened to political hip-hop and punk rock. I’m a dad now. My oldest child will be 4 soon. I don’t even listen to music anymore. I just sing along with the kids to Mary Poppins songs. Did any of that stuff I learned while young mean anything?
My devotion to liberty has changed, too. I’m not as political as I once was. I’m not as important as I once thought. My voice really doesn’t matter all that much, at least in the public sphere. I don’t vote in American elections, but I do vote at shareholder meetings. My life has shifted inward. My private lives are much more fulfilling than the public ones. At least in this new phase of my life.
Have a good weekend!
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.
I was hanging out in my daughter’s room the other day and noticed a new picture of her on the wall. My daughter is nearly 3 now, but that photo showed to me a person who will someday be a young girl, a woman, a daughter-in-law, a college student, a worker, and, if all goes accordingly, a grandmother or at least a sassy old lady who plays too much bingo down at the local Methodist church.
A little later on that same night, after the kids were tucked in and sleeping and I was on this damned computer doing NOL stuff, I thought about liberty and what it might mean to my daughter, and also about how the meaning of liberty has changed over time in my own mind.
For starters, “liberty” is kind of a corny term now. It’s becoming archaic. “Freedom” has started to become a corny word, too. (Its cause is not helped by American politicians using the term “freedom” to describe Washington’s overseas ambitions.)
Knowing what I know now about the libertarian movement in the United States, I don’t think I will introduce my daughter to the formal movement. No summer seminars, no Reason subscription, no Ayn Rand moment where I hand her Atlas Shrugged and tell her how much that book has changed my life.
I think a better avenue for discovering her freedom will be to encourage her to go to the best college she can get in to (sorry Rick), figure out a way to be grateful for employment, and read plenty of literature and science fiction.
The formal libertarian atmosphere probably won’t be around in the same way it was for us. Will it be more decentralized or more centralized? I don’t know how academic it will be, either. I hope it’s somewhat academic, with more of an emphasis on history and culture rather than economics and philosophy. The think tanks and foundations will still be around. They’ll still be dirty and they’ll still better than the alternatives. We had FEE and IHS. FEE has already fallen off the map. IHS might still be around, but it will have plenty of competition.
What if my daughter discovers my notes on liberty? Will she be proud? Will she giggle? Or worse: Will she be embarrassed? Will she become a libertarian if she stumbles across my writings? It’s too early to say. That photo, though, of a little human being smiling back at me in black-and-white, was profound. She is my daughter, sure, but she is someone different than me. She is her own self.
I think he’s wrong, of course. He’s not wrong about China’s continuing troubles (I agree with him that things will only get worse), but on how these troubles will really begin to flare up. I don’t see class as the major issue, I see nationalism as China’s biggest fault line (and have since at least 2013).
Here’s how I’ve laid it out in my head. Think of Hong Kong and Taiwan, two places that are Chinese but not part of the People’s Republic. Beijing has lots of problems with both polities. Is class or nation a better gauge to use here? Nation! Nobody in Beijing is harping on the riches accrued by democratic Chinese polities. The Communists are drumming up nationalistic furor instead. Nationalism is the better tool to use to understand contemporary China.
Here’s the kicker, though. In order to drum up nationalistic furor, you’ve got have a nation, correct? The problem for China is that it has several dozen nations within its borders (here’s that 2013 post again), and nationalism in China favors the Han ethnic group over the others. The harder Beijing leans on nationalism, then, the more it squeezes out non-Han ethnic groups from its coalition of the willing. And Beijing is leaning hard on nationalism. It’s going to have to lean harder, too, since liberty is apparently not on the table.
Jack Curtis is the latest to submit a piece for NOL‘s “Be Our Guest” feature. A slice:
We will compare China, Russia and the United States. China is a post-communist police state that has never experienced democracy. Russia is a post-communist, quasi democratic republic devolving back into a police state. And the United States is a traditionally democratic republic. Excepting the vagaries of disparate cultures, their three governments seem increasingly similar, revising themselves to adopt the new technology. However, these revisions have not originated only within governments; they also reflect the gradual confluence of the underlying societies.
Do read the rest, and I must point out that Jack has been a long time reader of NOL. For that I am personally grateful. It’s nice to be able to link up and collaborate like this.
Submit your own thoughts to us. Be our guest. Tell your friends, too.
There are some certain incredibly rare constellations of time and space which result in one of a kind decades. The peak of Greek civilization from 5th to 4th century BC, the Californian Gold Rush from 1848–1855 and the Fin de Siecle from 1890-1920. The latter one is of specific interest to me for a long time. Some of the most worlds most famous painters (Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka), philosophers (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, Edmund Husserl) or authors (Georg Trakl, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Arthur Schnitzler) coined the decade. Even more intriguing for me is that the Viennese intellectual live happened in very close circles. All intellectuals being witnesses of the downfall of one of the greatest empires of the 19th century, each discipline coped with this fate in their very own way. Especially if one compares the movements of that time in literature and economics, it becomes clear that the self-imposed demands of the authors and scientists on their science differ considerably.
Driven by the predictable crumbling of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the anticipated increasing tensions in the multi-ethnic empire and the threating of financial recession, the civil society was teetering on an abyssal edge. Furthermore, the Halleyscher comet was predicted to “destroy” the world in 1910, the titanic sunk in 1912, a European war was lingering just around the corner. Concerning the breakdown of stable order, people sought a way out of ruins of what once has been a stable authoritarian order. When existential threats become more and more realistic, one would expect cultural life to totally drain or at least decrease sufficiently. However, the complete opposite was the case.
At first, art merely revolted against the prevailing naturalism. Why would anybody need a detailed, accurate depiction of reality if reality itself is flawed with incomprehension, irrationality and impenetrability? Missing a stable external framework, many writers turned the back against their environment and focused on the Ego. To express the inner tensions of most contemporary people, many authors sought to dive deep into the human consciousness. Inspired by the psychoanalytical insights provided by Sigmund Freund, who had vivid relationships with many important authors such as Arthur Schnitzler, human behaviour and especially human decision making became a topic of increasing interest. Therefore, news ways of narrating such as interior monologue were founded.
Many writers such as Albert Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Georg Trakl found in transcendence a necessary counterbalance to supra-rational society. Reality and dream blurred into a foggy haze; rational preferences gave way to impulsive needs; time horizons shortened, emotions overcame facts. The individual was portrayed without any responsibility towards society, their family or other institutions. In the Dream Story (By far my favourite book) by Arthur Schnitzler, the successful doctor Ferdinand risks his marriage and his family to pursue subconscious, mysterious sexual needs. If you have the time, check out the movie based on the novel “Eyes Wide Shut” by Stanley Kubrick, truly a cinematic masterpiece.
Karl Kraus, on the other hand, founded the satirical newspaper “The Torch” in 1899 and offered often frequented point of contact for aspiring young talented writers. The content was mostly dominated by craggy, harsh satirical observations of the everyday life which sought to convince the public of the predictable mayhem caused by currents politics. Franz Wedekind, Adolf Loos and Else Lasker-Schüler could use the torch as a stepping stone for their further careers.
What they have in common is their understanding of their craftmanship: It is not of the concern of art to save civilization or to convince us to be better humans, but to describe, document and in a way aestheticize human behaviour. This does by no way means that the Viennese authors of the early 20th century were not politically or socially involved: Antisemitism (Karl Kraus & Arthur Schnitzler), Free Press (Karl Kraus), Sexuality (Franz Wedekind and Arthur Schnitzler) were, for example, reoccurring themes. However, in most works, the protagonist struggles with these problems on an individual level, without addressing the problem as a social problem. Also, the authors seemed to lack the entire puzzle picture: Although many individual pieces were criticized, the obvious final picture was rarely recognized (Especially Schnitzler).
Meanwhile in economics another exciting clash of ideas took place: The second wave of the Historical School economist, mainly Gustav Schmoller, Karl Büchner and Adolph Wagner, were waging a war against Austrian School of Economics, mainly Carl Menger. The Historical School sought to identify the patterns in history through which one could deduce certain principles of economics. Individual preferences are not the result of personal desires, but rather the sum of social forces acting on the individual depending on space and time, they asserted. Thus, instead of methodological individualism, methodological collectivism must be used to conduct economic research. To determine the historical-temporal circumstances, one must first collect an enormous amount of empirical material, based on which one could formulate a theory. Austrian Economists, in turn, claim that individual preferences stem from personal desires. Although the Austrian emphasize the constraints emerging from interpersonal interactions, they rejected the idea, that free individuals are confined in their will through culture and norms. Thus, economics is a science of aggregated individual preferences and must be studied through the lens of methodological individualism.
As Erwin Dekker (Dekker 2016) has argued, the works of Austrian Economists must be seen as an endeavour to understand society and civilization in the first place. One must carefully study human interaction and acknowledge the ridiculously small amount of knowledge we actually possess about the mechanism of a complex society before one can “cure” the many ills of humankind. With the socialist calculation debate, Austrian Economist tried to convince other academics of the impossibility of economic calculation in the absence of prices.
Apart from their academic debates, they were very much concerned with the development of common society: Authoritarian proposal, the constant erosion of norms as a foundation for civil society, the increasing overall hostility lead them to the decision to leave the ivory tower of economics and argue for their ideas in public discourse. “The road to serfdom” is THE peak of this development. Hayek impressively explains to the general public the fragility of liberal democratic order and how far-reaching even well-intended governmental interferences can eventually be. Joined by Karl Popper’s masterpiece “The open society and its enemies”, Austrian Economist were now defending the achievements of liberal democracy more vigorously than ever.
It would be exaggerated to claim that the literary-historical “flight into the irrational” had excessive influence on the economic debate between the historical school and the Austrian school. Nevertheless, it has already been proven that intellectual Viennese life took place in a few closely networked interdisciplinary circles. There is no direct connection between the Viennese literary circles and famous contemporary economic circles such as the Mises-Kreis. However, the intellectual breadth of contributions and the interwoven relationships of many contributors became an important point of study in recent years (See: Dekker 2014). Especially Sigmund Freud could have been a “middle man” between Austrians (especially Hayek) and the authors of the Wiener Moderne (especially Schnitzler).
What definitely is remarkable is how different the various scientists and artist reacted to the existential threats of the early 20th century.
Resignation? Internal Exile? Counterattack? There were many options on the table.
The “flight into the irrational” pursued by many, by far not all, authors of Wiener Moderne was a return to surreality, irrationality and individualism. Austrian Economist, however, went from individualism to social responsibility. According to them, scientists had an obligation to preserve that kind of liberal democratic system, which fosters peaceful human cooperation. To achieve this shared goal, many Austrian Economists left the ivory tower of academic debates, where they also fought for the same purpose, and temporarily became public intellectuals; starting a much more active defence of liberal democracy.