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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Hayek was Wrong about American and European Conservatism II

The first post in this series concentrates on the more radical authoritarian populist side of conservatism in Europe. Before getting on to American conservatism and other aspects of European conservatism, I will respond to requests in the comments for definitions of what I mean by liberalism and conservatism. The shortest class definition I am aware of is that of David Hume in his essay ‘Of the Parties of Great Britain’ where he suggests that Whigs (liberals) favour liberty with a monarchy and that Tories (conservatives) favour monarchy with liberty. This can be expanded with little, if any controversy, to be taken as: liberals advocate liberty with order; conservatives favour order with liberty.

I will move from Hume to Benjamin Constant in Principles of Politics Applicable to all Governments. Constant is surely an unimpeachable source on what it is to be a classical liberal and it is important to note that Constant thinks there is something different in a politics based on principles of freedom than the thought of Edmund Burke. The distinction Constant makes is key to thinking about the relation between classical liberalism and conservatism, so is key to the claim that I make that (classical) liberalism are very distinct.

To increase the force of collective authority is never other than giving more power to some individuals. If the wickedness of men [an emphasis on this is a mark of conservative thinking], it is an even stronger one against power. For despotism is only the freedom of one or a few against the rest. Burke says that freedom is power. One can likewise say that power is freedom.(Book XV, Chapter 2)

This thought flows right into this thought from a later chapter:

Freedom is a power only in the sense that a shield is a weapon. So that when one speaks of possible abuses of the principle of freedom, such an expression is inaccurate. The principles of freedom would have prevented anything under the heading of abuses of freedom. These abuses, whoever their author, taking place always at the expense of another’s freedom, have never been the consequence of these principles, but rather their reversal.  (Book XVII. Chapter 1)

In my summary of the above: conservatism defines freedom as limited because of a dangerous power in excess, so requiring tradition, hierarchy, and the aggressive use of state sovereignty to to curb it, while liberalism suggests that more freedom is the answer to abuses of power.

Since Burke is a key figure for those advocating some kind of kind of intimate alliance, or even identity, between (classical) liberalism and conservatism or libertarian conservative fusionism, Constant’s criticism of Burke is important. I won’t get into the detail of Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke’s central text on politics here, I will just note that the reader of this classic of conservatism will find many passages on the absolute sovereignty of the state, the virtues of rigid social hierarchy and of traditions supporting such hierarchy, along with the perfection of the British constitution of the time.

These passages, it seems to me, should raise concern to the advocate of liberty, which I believe derives its energy from the criticism of tradition, hierarchy, and existing institutions. As Constant recognises, we should not be quick to replace institutions that have grown over centuries with a perfect new design, but we should certainly not be afraid to innovate either, as we should not be slow to notice the growing faults of institutions over time as they come into conflict with new circumstances.

Burke was perhaps a bit more liberty-minded and a bit more innovation-friendly than the other famous critics of liberalism and Jacobinism – de Maistre, de Bonald and Donoso Cortés, but the understanding of liberty as particular Liberties inherited from tradition, upheld by a state that insists on its own absolute authority is something he has in common with them. For Constant, the excesses of the French Revolution are a reason to argue for more liberty, for Burke they are a reason to uphold hierarchy, tradition, and royal authority along with endless war against the French.

While addressing comments to the last post, I should refer to my fellow Notewriter, Edwin van de Haar, though thinking just as much of a previous social media conversation as his recent comment. As far as I understand, he advocates a definition of conservative liberalism that corresponds with F.A. Hayek’s views in The Constitution of Liberty and a share of GDP devoted to public spending substantially below the the average in advanced industrial countries. I’m not aware of anywhere in which Hayek used such a term, though he was certainly more sympathetic to Burke than I am here.

My argument is that there is nothing inherent to conservatism that makes it opposed to expanding the state in terms of welfare intervention or in terms of the police power of the state. Otto von Bismarck is just one particularly notable conservative from history who had a great belief in an intrusive state in various ways, including measures designed to take voters away from the strong Marxist-socialist current of the time, through incorporating socialist-friendly policies. Conservatism is a doctrine of order, state power (where national or imperial), and tradition.

Where conservatives have favoured market-friendly and relatively small state polices, they have done so in order to preserve order, the core of state power and tradition. Economically liberal conservatives like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were also great believers in narratives of restored national grandeur, the security state, ‘law and order’ and ‘war on drugs’ polices expanding state power, while sucking an increasing number of people into the extreme state-socialist institution of prison.

As far as I can see Thatcher and Reagan are the heroes of ‘liberal conservatism’. With all due respect to their valuable economic reforms, the liberalism seems to me to be very subordinate to the conservatism. As I pointed out in the last post, ideas of aggressive populism are growing in the conservative world, ideas which have deep precedents in the ways that Bismarck figures have mobilised nationalism, statism, and reactionary identity politics against liberals.


  1. Maggie Thatcher still owns the Left John Harris, New Statesman
  2. Stalinist Terror, Communist Prisons Patrick Kurp, Los Angeles Review of Books
  3. 1968 and the Irony of History Michael Mandelbaum, American Interest
  4. When Populism First Eclipsed the Liberal Elite Michael Massing, New York Review of Books

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, VIII. Germany’s post WWII contribution to market liberalism

World War Two was largely won by the United States and the British Empire in alliance with the USSR. The idea of Britain’s place in the world being defined by its relationship with the US, a relationship in which the US is inevitably the leading partner, and is a very popular – even defining – idea for the predominant brand of sovereigntist-Eurosceptism in the UK. There is surely some paradox in holding onto a sovereigntist view, in which national sovereignty is understood in an absolute manner and national life is understood to be highly distinct, and even unique, while giving the dominant role to another country in matters of international relations, diplomacy, foreign policy, defence, intelligence and the unlimited number of areas which these are likely to spill over into, including trade and commerce.

The sovereigntist-Eurosceptic position in Britain tends to portray not only the EU as threatening sovereignty, but Germany as a threat to sovereignty as the strongest country in the EU. However it is clear enough that Germany is less strong than the United States, so what is the problem? The problem might be defined by the Eurosceptics as that the UK has transferred some sovereignty to the EU reducing the role of the British parliament, but if defence and diplomacy policy is dominated by the United States, along with other areas, there is an inevitable loss of effective parliamentary sovereignty. That the loss of sovereignty is not legally defined should not be the issue, and leaves open the possibility of greater loss of sovereignty because it is not defined by laws or treaties.

Returning to the issue of Germany, the standard sovereigntist position in Britain is dominated by those claiming to be small state free market advocates, and claim that an EU which includes Germany is allegedly a mere instrument of German interests, thus posing a threat to the possibility of a less statist Britain in economics and other matters. As the sovereigntist-Eurosceptics are normally for limiting immigration, their claim to superior purity in matters of individual rights and state power is itself lacking in credibility.

Moving back to more strictly economic issues (though of course free market economics requires a free labour market which means open immigration), Germany has not always been seen as more statist than Britain. There was a period in which Britain administered part of Germany, that is during the occupation of Germany by the Allies after World War Two, shared between the UK, USA, France, and the USSR. The occupation zones evolved into the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in the west and the socialist-communist Soviet satellite state, the German Democratic Republic in the east.

The FRG famously experienced an economic miracle in the post-war period. The main architect was Ludwig Erhard, who was strongly influenced by the Freiburg School of free market economists, itself heavily influenced by the Austrian School of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Erhard had a particularly strong connection with the economist Wilhelm Röpke, who was not a member of faculty at Freiburg University, but was close to that school and was linked with it through the journal Ordo.

The economic liberalism of that period is sometimes known as Ordo liberalism, which is one of great moments in the history of market liberalism. It was a moment which came out of struggle with the British and American occupation authorities who enforced price controls, and other statist measures, and were not supportive of Erhard’s moves to liberalise the price mechanism and other aspects of the market. Erdhard had to defy the occupation authorities in announcing the end of price controls in the period in which German self-government was emerging in the period before the FRG was formed.

Erhard and Röpke developed a program in which federal Germany had a ‘social market economy’, meaning a free market economy, accompanied by a social welfare program to establish minimum living standards and the establishment of those institutions and polices thought most likely to promote a functional market economy and social consensus behind the market economy, as an antidote to the economics and politics of totalitarian statism in what had been Nazi Germany and the existing soviet model Germany in the east.

So successful and influential was this, it was a model, at least rhetorically, for the Margaret Thatcher led government elected in Britain in 1979. Thatcher’s major intellectual influence in British politics was Keith Joseph, who promoted the idea of freeing Britain from statism and collectivism by following the German social market economy. This is not something the surviving Thatcherites, and their successors who are prominent in sovereigntist-Eurosceptic circles, like to emphasise at all. This maybe goes back to the time that German unification became a possibility in the late 1980s as the Soviet Union ended its dominance of large parts of central and eastern Europe.

Thatcher as an imperial nostalgia British nationalist was instinctively opposed to a stronger Germany. Ever since Germany has been damned as a malign influence the sovereigntist Europsceptics, eager to bury memories of the long post-war period in which Germany was more of a market liberal country than Britain. They like to portray Germany as such a statist monster in economic decline that many would be surprised to check the tables of national GDP per capita (including tables adjusted for dollar based purchasing power parity) and see that Germany is ahead of Britain by a significant margin. The comparison should also take into account the issue that despite Margaret Thatcher’s nationalist reservations, the German people exercised their right to unify peacefully and democratically, so that the current Federal Republic of Germany carries the weight of eastern regions, which used to be socialist-communist and have yet to overcome the negative consequences for prosperity and enterprise culture. There are certainly some measures by which Germany has a more statist economy now than Britain, including the levels of public spending and the role of banks linked to regional governments, which suggests an inherently robust market economy, stronger than Britain’s in some ways, able to survive the less market liberal aspects of German political economy.

The period in which Margaret Thatcher did introduce more market based economics and public policy in Britain, an admirable achievement despite her less admirable inclinations towards national, social, and cultural conservatism, began with a centre-left government in the FRG, which had been far more market oriented than the centre-left government which preceded Thatcher in Britain. The FRG under Helmut Schmidt, at least towards the end of his term made cuts to public spending and the public deficit, which mean that it made a contribution, if a very moderate one, to the general shift of industrial democracies towards market liberalisation associated with the 1970s in its beginnings and with the 1980s in its strongest phase.

Around the Web

  1. Superior Mayan Engineering.
  2. Gary North: The Libertarian Taliban.
  3. How Much Does the Market Organization of Economic Life Matter?
  4. Margaret Thatcher’s Triumph.
  5. The Republic of Baseball.