What sort of “Meritocracy” would a libertarian endorse, if he had to?

The first attempt to answer this question should say: “none.” Notwithstanding that this is the correct approach, we can’t help but feel uneasy about it. Libertarians have had to deal with this uncomfortable truth for so long. In respect to my own personal experience, I remember where I was when I read, for the first time, “Equality, Value, and Merit,” the title of Chapter 6 in Friedrich A Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. I was attending a weekly reading group about that book, and we were gathered in a cafê in Buenos Aires. The number of attendees was enough to find every kind of reader you could expect (and not expect) to meet in such a group:

  • There was the one who had already studied and condensed each chapter and then was re-reading and re-assessing the whole book; the one who did his “homework” without any effort;
  • the one who the embarrassment of failing to accomplish the reading requirements for the meeting overcame the pleasure of any type of procrastination (i.e. me, mostly because I was one of the promoters);
  • and the one who gave to the group the enthusiasm to last for six months in a row and finish the whole book. The latter, in this case, was a truly “natural Libertarian,” the one who had the pure Libertarian position for each subject by not showing an excessive regard for what Hayek was actually saying.

I remember that I arrived to the “Equality, Value, and Merit” meeting with a feeling of uncertainty. Hayek argued that there is no merit to acknowledging in a market process, none of any sort, a just compensation for the value of one’s apportation – a value whose magnitude depends on the relative scarcity of the marginal product. The reader who always accomplished his reading duties without any effort shared my sentiment of awe. Almost the whole meeting was conducted by our companion who was reading the book for a second – or perhaps third – time. In effect, Hayek left no place to meritocracy, since it is impossible to decide democratically among any scale of merit (remember Kenneth Arrow’s theorem on the impossibility of democracy, cited later on the third volume of Law, Legislation and Liberty), so retributions based on value enable the system to adapt spontaneously to the changes in the environment with more efficiency. The explanation was a bit of an unpopular one, but accurate. Not without reluctance, almost all of us accepted it. All of us but one: our true spontaneous Libertarian. She would under no condition surrender her convictions on the merit of the retributions that the market process assesses spontaneously to each one in accordance to the marginal value of their activity. While we acknowledged no merit to the results of the market process, she was prone to endorsing a moral value to the blinded results of the allocation of goods adjusted to the changes in their relative scarcities.

Many years after our debate took place, I am now starting to acknowledge that there might be a particle of truth in the statements of our natural Libertarian and, what is most outstanding, that these statements could be deducted from other chapters of the same book (The Constitution of Liberty), particularly the one which concerns on the definition of liberty (“Liberty and Liberties”). I said a particle of truth, not the whole truth, but at least that particle which is needed to start an intellectual quest.

In The Constitution of Liberty, written in 1960, Hayek made a quick outline of the different notions of liberty that were popular at that moment in time. Positive liberty, negative liberty, inner liberty, individual liberty, freedom from, freedom to, and freedom of were some of the categories mentioned. He made it clear that an in-depth discussion of each notion was not his main aim, but instead that was trying to make a quick account of them in order to give a conceptual frame to the one of his choice: a variant of the individual negative liberty defined as “the absence of arbitrary coercion.”

Slavery is the subjection to the will of another person, without boundaries of any kind. A slave could be subject to a good master who allows him to keep a normal life, but he could lose all of his freedom on a whim of his master at any time. On the other hand, the boundaries to the freedom of a free man are imposed by abstract and general laws and by contracts and the judicial decisions based on those contracts. The ordinary experience of a man enables him to discover principles and patterns of what would be regarded by others as just conduct, and to form in such way expectatives on how a given conflict could be solved. This concept of individual liberty as an absence of arbitrary coercion stated by Hayek in 1960 finds a strong resemblance today in the notion of liberty as an “absence of domination” by contemporary republican authors such as Quentin Skinner, Philip Pettit and, here in Argentina, Andrés Rosler.

The outcome of such a system is that every individual is enabled with a set of possible actions to be taken at his sole will, which we call an “individual sphere of autonomy.” In principle, these spheres are delimited by general and abstract laws and any controversy on the limits between two of them will be solved by an impartial court whose decision will be based on principles expressed by these norms. These judicial decisions would be in accordance to the patterns of just conduct that everyone had previously formed by ordinary experience, so they will prove correct the expectatives of most people and then will be regarded as non-arbitrary.

Of course, we could find that some judicial decisions would be taken by equity or that some administrative decisions would be based on expediency. But such a system could stand some exceptions, most of them aimed to solve an unexpected situation. Some of these new “precedents” are compatible with the principles which inform the existing laws and then their formulation will be a sort of “discovery” of new norms that until that moment were “implicit” in such a normative system. A criterion to distinguish the discovery of new norms from a decision based on expediency might be that the universalisation of the former brings about stability to the system; it makes the law work as a negative feedback system while the universalisation of the latter would only cause an increasing process of disorder.

Friedrich Hayek developed his theory of law – savagely summarised in the previous paragraphs – in Law, Legislation and Liberty and it provides us with an accurate modelization of how it would work a legal system that could not be experienced as “arbitrary” by the individual. In Hayek’s legal model, the fulfillment of the law would imply the respect of individual freedom as the absence of arbitrary coercion, since all boundaries to one’s will are previously known or reasonably expected and, then, our individual plans are conceived and accomplished regarding such limits.

After such a long digression we may come back to our initial enquiry: if a Libertarian had to “do meritocracy,” what sort of meritocracy would it be? The usual answer is, as we noted above, “none.” But I suspect that the wrong statements of some intuitive Libertarians carry within them a kernel of truth: the assignment of functions and subsequent retributions are expected not to be arbitrary, because even the changing value of the marginal products implies (1) some sort of predictability, (2) an impersonal process, and (3) a learning feedback system that fosters increasingly correct pattern predictions.

If we state that liberty is one, be it political, economic or social, we cannot use a definition of liberty in the political realm and another notion of it in the economic one. The “none answer” implies just plain individual negative liberty (absence of coercion) in political economy issues, while our definition of individual liberty is “absence of arbitrary coercion,” and this should be applied to the definition of economic liberty as well.

Therefore, I dare to state that a non-arbitrary distribution of functions and its subsequent remunerations should be a central problem to economic liberty, if we define it as “absence of arbitrary coercion.” Since our spheres of individual autonomy are delimited by a system of norms of just conduct, general and abstract, which distinguish arbitrary from just coercion, the economic liberty is expected to be found in such a framework.

Usually, the legal framework of a free market is regarded to be a neutral one: general and abstract rules, whose source could be the legislation sanctioned by an assembly of deputies of the people and notable citizens or the customs acknowledged as mandatory by the judiciary courts. In any case, general and abstract rules that are not conceived by a single will but have the impartiality of a plurality of legislators or juries. In this sense, “absence of arbitrary coercion” is identified with “absence of coercion by discretionary powers of the state.” Nevertheless, we consider that this is not enough: we should be conceptually endowed to do an evaluative judgement about the outcome of such economic system. We need to determine if the result of a neutral legal framework produces a non-arbitrary distribution of functions and retributions.

A neutral legal framework works like a peaceful, predictable, and secure Lockean Civil Society – i.e. the opposite of a Lockean Civil Society. Since we accept that legal norms express rules of just conduct whose obedience brings about a rightful delimitation of each individual sphere of autonomy, the remaining normative conflicts will be related to moral and social norms. But these normative conflicts will not occur among competitive orders, such as legal order against moral order or against social order, since we acknowledge the preeminence of the rule of law over any other source of obligations. Modernity relegates moral and social norms to the inner of each individual sphere of autonomy or, at most, to conflicts among different individuals which will never escalate and balloon into physical violence. That means that morals and social customs will not bring about an alternative order to society, but that they will enable the individual with an order to rule the inner aspects of his personality and a limited scope of his interactions with other individuals. These sets of moral and social rules will not integrate the formal institutions – to use the categories coined by Douglass North – but will be embodied in “packs of precepts of life” that we usually name “virtues” (a term cherished by the republicans mentioned above and by libertarian authors such as Deirdre McCloskey.)

These “virtues” are expected to contribute to the fulfilment of most individual plans in a system of inner stability. What we regard as good and wrong are a set of received values accrued after generations of trial and error processes. “Being honest,” for example, might be considered as a pack of precepts of life which successfully spread all over the members of the society structured by a neutral legal framework. The unit of evolution is neither the society nor even the individuals, but the “virtues” that are spread among the individuals that compounds that society.

At this stage, we must admit that what we regard as “neutral” is just an analytical category that means a set of fixed elements that work as a framework for other elements which change their respective relative positions. This framework is what Hayek named “order” (we can find in his Sensory Order the most accurate definitions of this concept: more than one). These notions allow us to do a clear distinction between the concepts of “evolution” and “change.” Change occurs among the relative positions of different elements given a stable framework – a Hayekian “order” – while “evolution” – in our terms – is related to a modification in the framework where the ordinary events occur. In the words of Douglass North, “evolution” is an incremental change in opposition to a disruptive change – or revolution. Notwithstanding this use of the terminology at hand, only Hayekian orders “evolve,” while their elements (or events) simply “change” their relative positions.

Nevertheless, to use an Arthur Schopenhauer image, events are the eyes of the blind machine which is the spontaneous order. Given a certain abstract order, the population with some types of virtues extended among the individuals will prevail over other ones. For example, Max Weber, in his Protestant Ethic, showed how the habits of frugality, self-confidence, hard work, and so on, were once considered by most people as eccentric but eventually took over whole communities and changed the meaning of good and evil in a process that ended up in an “iron cage of liberty”: the dissolution of the transcendent values that had previously given a religious sense to those habits into a neutral framework of standard moral duties immanent to the social system.

Another classical book that illustrate a process of “natural selection” of virtues might be The Prince by Nicoló Machiavelli: from the very beginning, the author warns us that a different set of virtues would be needed to be develop in a Republic and that he treated that matter in another book, The Discourses on the First Decades of Titus Livius. The Prince, instead, is focused on determining which virtues is a Prince to be enabled with in order to survive in a realm where no one has the sense to be bound by any moral or legal obligation, i.e.: in a set of non-cooperative games. The whole book can be read as a succession of mental experiments about which virtue could make the Prince survive over his competitors. In Richard Dawkins terms, the ones which are competing are the virtues, and the politicians who struggle with each other are the “vehicles” of those virtues. A very well-known example shows how the population of the ones who seek to be feared at the risk of being hated will displace the population of the ones who seek to be loved at the risk of being scorned. To put this another way: in the “ethical pool” the trait “seek to be feared” will outshine the trait “seek to be loved.” Finally, at the last paragraph of the book, the very virtue of the Prince rules supreme among the other ones: the initiative.

Besides the fact that The Prince – as Quentin Skinner pointed out – should be regarded as a satire (but see Barry here and here for a contrary account) , the emergence of the virtue of the initiative as the inner quality of a political leader of a non-republican system scraps any moral sense of the term “virtue.” Virtues are a compound of personality traits that conditions the agent’s decisions from the inner. But certain virtues depend on the legal framework to spread over the “ethical pool.” As we have said, the virtues that will prevail in an authoritarian regime will be different from those which flourish in a republic. The “republican virtues” described by Machiavelli in his Discourse on the Decades can only proliferate among people within a given set of procedural rules. A similar distinction was made later by David Hume: “natural virtues,” such as empathy, can emerge at any given circumstances, as they are embodied in human nature, but artificial virtues such as “justice” will depend upon a determinate legal framework.

Virtues will erode or shore up a formal institutional framework by incremental change (D. North), yet this will occur only as a response to the change in the environment (virtues as the eyes of the blind machine of the spontaneous order). For example, Gutenberg’s press discovery allowed the evangelical movement to gain force since anyone could then start to count with a Bible. Within the Evangelical movement took place a Puritan one, which at its turn changed the sense of morality in the people for whom it took place. This resulted, for example, in the anti-slavery political movement in certain states of the US or cities of the UK such as Bristol, even at a price of high economic cost.

Nevertheless, while spontaneous changes in virtues lead to incremental political and legal change, a disruptive change of the latter could bring about a dramatic shift in uses and customs of the people involved. This need not to be a violent revolution, since democratic institutions are enabled to issue the required laws to make a significant change for the good – or for the bad – in the said virtues to spread among the society. Sound money is a condition for the virtue of frugality to appear, for example. On the other hand, the Adam Ferguson’s book When Money Dies shows how the people change their main traits due to the phenomenon of hyperinflation.

Since virtues are – in the definition stated here – a mere pack of ethical traits that condition the individuals who are their vehicles from the inner, allowing them to survive and pass their virtues to the next generation of individuals, on what basis should we endorse some virtues over other ones? Our theory cannot provide us with a normative answer by itself, since it leads us to the conclusion that what we regard as good and evil comes from a process of blind evolution. As we have said, a learned libertarian would not endorse a meritocracy of any kind.

However, the complex order compounded by the legal framework and the moral and social virtues extended in society might be “neutral” for each individual involved in such society, but the legal framework will not be neutral to the moral and social virtues that are spread in that society. Different types of frameworks will deliver different sets of virtues to be spread. An authoritarian regime will deliver the set or virtues described by Machiavelli in The Prince, while a republic will spread the virtues of The Discourse on the Decades of Titus Livius. Moreover, the difference between the former and the latter is found in the proportion of decisions taken on the basis of expediency and the ones taken on the basis of principles. The whole message of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom might be exemplified in the transition from a system of public decisions based on principles (i.e.: a republic), to a system of public decisions based on expediency. Each system will deliver a different set of “virtues.”

Thus, we are now in a better position to answer the question “what sort of meritocracy would a libertarian would endorse, if he had to?” A natural libertarian will expect that the distribution of functions and retributions will correlate with the virtues most expected to be found in a legal and political system in which most decisions are taken on the basis of general and abstract principles. Such a system of norms and values will be experienced by the individual as “non arbitrary” and then the ideal of negative individual liberty as “absence of arbitrary coercion” will be achieved, not only in the political realm, but also in the economic and social ones.

In a “Keynesian turn,” we could point out that a system whose decisions are taken purely on the basis of principles is an “especial case” and that we usually find mostly the opposite. In most constitutional systems the “macroeconomic policy” is not a matter subject to the courts and we have to acknowledge that the spreading of some virtues over other ones are more conditioned by monetary or tariff policies than by a neutral legal framework. Nevertheless, this reality is not a reason to disregard the value of the virtues that would arise should those policies be neutral (i.e. not being policies at all, but legal norms). Moreover, these objections just pointed out are good reasons to claim for a republican system of liberties as a fairer system.

To summarize: natural libertarians are not so wrong when they aim to achieve a special kind of meritocracy – the one in which the functions and retributions would correlate with the virtues spread in a society where liberty as absence of arbitrary coercion is respected. In such a system, most political decisions will be taken on the basis of general and abstract principles. After all, the dissatisfaction manifested by a natural libertarian when most of the wealth of a society goes to the rent seekers is rooted in a well founded claim for a “free and virtuous society.”


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.

Harrington, Commonwealth of Oceana, and A System of Politics (Expanding the Liberty Canon): Second of Two Parts

Oceana is a long piece of ‘utopian’ political fiction writing, which does not really work as an exercise in literary fiction as far as I can see and barely keeps up the pretence. Oceana refers to a thinly disguised version of Britain and a lightly fictionalised account of its history, as a means for expounding Harrington’s thoughts about the best political system. A System of Politics is a more concise and economical account of Harrington’s thought than Oceana though its list form tells you something about Harrington’s limits as a writer.

Harrington is in a friendly dialogue with a major sixteenth century writer, the Florentine republican Niccoló Machiavelli and sometimes in the  earlier part of Oceana in a critical dialogue with a major English writer, Thomas Hobbes, from his own time. The idea that sometimes still circulates of a liberal England/Britain versus an absolutist continental Europe is rather challenged by this. One of the most influential advocates of liberty in British history was inspired by an Italian against an English writer. Though Harrington does refer favourably to Hobbes’ own mentor, Francis Bacon, philosopher, chief minister to the monarchy, jurist, and writer of utopian political fiction. Harrington does not mention the Hobbes-Bacon relation, and his his use of Bacon’s thought suggests a fascination with the kind of monarchism advocated by Bacon which mixes legalism with the application of scientific method to the prudential art of government. Harrington, it appears, wanted republicanism to incorporate such aspects, creating some distance from ancient republicanism in which law comes from tradition and wise individuals rather than the kind of centralised accumulation of new laws and a judicial apparatus to apply them which is what Bacon was dealing with and which also influenced Hobbes. Harrington’s interest in what well run monarchies with some respect for law can teach republics also expresses itself in remarks on the Ottoman Empire and on the famous chief minister of the French monarchy, Cardinal Richelieu, one of the key figures in the development of the modern state and modern statecraft. Harrington regrets lack of knowledge of the principles underlying Richelieu’s formidable achievements in promoting peace within France and taking France above Spain as the leading European power of the time.

When Harrington is focused on republics strictly speaking, he has two main concerns: land distribution, formation of the right kind of aristocracy. These concerns overlap as questions of concentration of land are also questions of what kind of aristocracy might exist. Harrington resists what he regards as the too extreme devotion of the Ancient Athenians to democracy, which did not allow an effective aristocracy to form. As with early modern attitudes to Plato, his preference for Sparta is rather against modern sensibility. However, that preference ran up to the American Revolution and the Constitution of the United States which was deliberately designed to prevent the ‘excesses’ of Athenian democracy and promote a ‘balanced’ republic like those of Rome or Sparta which had a long life based on reserving some powers for the aristocratic parts of the political system.

Harrington’s thoughts about aristocracy are directed towards forming a changing open class of people who provide political leadership and resist the wilder extremes and instability of popular opinion. This is more or less a project for the formation of an effective version of what is now generally referred to as a political class or a political elite. Harrington’s belief that the aristocracy should change in composition and exist in balance with the preferences of the common people lead him to oppose land distribution of a kind which created a rigid permanent oligarchy aristocracy of the richest landowners. Laws to prevent this are referred to by Harrington as ‘the agrarian’, with consideration of examples from antiquity and from his own time. He argues against primogeniture (land going to the eldest son) and in favour of equal division of land between the children of landowners which he suggests as well as having political benefits will reduce loveless marriages designed to get propertyless daughters of the aristocracy married to a major landowner. In a rather more general way, he seems sympathetic to schemes to prevent concentrations of landed property. Such apparent interference with property rights may look at odds with how ideas of liberty develop in the classical liberal and libertarian tradition, but Harrington was living at a time when it was very difficult to disassociate land ownership and political power, and more generally difficult to disassociate economic status and political rights.

It takes the continuous  greater development of commercial society which Locke reacts to at the end of the seventeenth century to see that property ownership should be seen in terms of transferable rights and the public benefits of land owned by whoever being part of a commercial system in which its products are traded to everyone’s benefit. The other side of Harrington’s assumption, highly normal for the time, that political power comes from land ownership, is that servants and the economically dependent cannot have full political rights and are not part of the democratic political system. The democratic system that elects an open changing aristocracy in some form of senate along with a a very complex series of other elections of public officials advocated by Harrington. This was enough to make Harrington seem like a fanatic for extreme democracy until democracy did begin to appear in the British political system, with the extension of the franchise in the late nineteenth century following on (but not immediately at all) from earlier agitation on the part of the new industrial working class. His writing is bit frustrating and can seem a bit remote from current ideas of liberty, but in historical context he made a major contribution to the growth of law and liberty in Britain. He deserves to be read by anyone who wishes for a really deep understanding of the development of ideas of government constrained by law and liberty.

Why Republican Libertarianism? IV

(This text was written for the European Students for Liberty Regional Conference in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University. I did not deliver the paper, but used it to gather thoughts which I then presented in an improvised speech. As it was quite a long text, I am breaking it up for the purposes of blog presentation)

(I took a break from posting this over the holiday period when I presume some people are checking blogs, rss feeds, and the like, less than at other times of the year. Catch up with the three previous posts in the series, if you missed them, via this link.)

The most important advice Machiavelli gives with regard to maintaining the state, is to respect the lives and honour of subjects, refrain from harassing women, avoid bankrupting the state with lavish expenditures, uphold the rule of of law outside the most extreme situations,  and concentrate on military leadership, which is to turn monarchy into a hereditary command of the armies, a republican idea, if the monarch withdraws from other areas of state business and certainly from law making. That is certainly how John Locke, at the beginning of classical liberalism saw the role of kings.

It is true that unlike antique thinkers, Machiavelli does not see human nature as essentially ‘good’, at least when guided by reason and law. What those thinkers meant by good was a life of self-restraint difficult to make compatible with commercial society. Machiavelli understood the benefits of commercial society compared with feudalisms, and though there was an element of antique nostalgia in his thinking, he understood like the political economists of the eighteenth century that public goods come from self-interest, softened but not eliminated, by some sense of our connections and obligations to others.

Machiavelli’s longest book on political thought is The Discourses, a commentary on the Roman historian Livy’s account of the earlier periods of Roman history, covering the early kings and the republic. Here Machiavelli makes clear beyond any doubt that his model state was a republic and though it was Rome rather than Athens, he takes the original step of seeing Rome as great not because of Order, but because of the conflicts between plebeians and patricians (the poor or at least non-noble masses and the aristocracy), which resulted in a democratisation process where the plebeians learned to think about the common good and where everyone shared in a constructive competitiveness which developed individual character through civic conflict under law (well a large part of the time anyway). His view of the republic requires both a sphere of common political identity and action and a competitive non-conformist spirit.

Machaivelli’s republican hopes for Florence, and even the whole of Italy, were dashed by the Medici princes and a period of conservative-religious princely absolutism under foreign tutelage in Italy, but his ideas lived on and not just in the one sided stereotypes. He had an English follower in the seventeenth century, James Harrington, author of Oceana. Harrington hoped for republic in England, though a more aristocratic one that Machiavelli tended to advocate, and was too radical for his time, suffering imprisonment during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, the leader of a republican revolution who became a new king in all but name. There was a British republic, or commonwealth, after the Civil War between crown and parliament, lasting from 1649 to 1652, which was then not exactly absolved but became a less pure republic when Cromwell became Lord Protector.

Even so the republican poet, John Milton, served Cromwell as a head of translation of papers from foreign governments. Milton is more famous as a poet than as a political thinker, nevertheless he wrote important essays on liberty, drawing on antique liberty in Greece and Rome, as well his republican interpretation of the ancient Jewish state (important to Milton as a deep religious believer whose most famous poems are on Biblical stories). Milton helped change English literary language, almost overshadowing the ways that he furthered republican political ideas and did so on the basis of an Athenian model of law and free speech. His defence of freedom of printing, Areopagotica is named in honour of the central court of Athenian democracy (though with older roots) and draws on the idea of a republic based on freedom of speech and thought. Both Milton and Harrington were major influence on the Whig aristocratic-parliamentary liberalism of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth and so feed directly into classical liberalism in practice and the defence of liberty of speech and thought to be found in Mill’s On Liberty.

The development of classical liberalism and the libertarian thought of the present come out of the republicanism of antiquity and the early modern period. There is a strand of thought within libertarianism which is anti-politics or only minimally willing to engage with politics as a part of communal human life. However, the parts of the world where liberty is most flourishing, if far short of what we would wish for, are where there ‘republics’ in the original sense, that is political power is shared between all citizens, regardless of the issue of whether a royal family provides a symbolic head of state.

On the whole, historically commerce has been linked with the existence of republics, even within monarchist medieval and early modern England the City of London was a partly autonomous city republic focusing resistance to royal power as it protected its commercial gains from state destruction. Despotism, and the state that plunders civil society, wish for a depoliticised atomised society. Republican politics can go wrong, but the answer is republican reform, republics with less of the aspects of absolutist monarchy and traditionalist power structure, not an idealisation of states which exist to preserve and reinforce forms of authority obnoxious to open markets, individuality, equality before the law, and the growth of tolerance for forms of living not so well recognised by tradition.

Why Republican Libertarianism? III

(This text was written for the European Students for Liberty Regional Conference in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University. I did not deliver the paper, but used it to gather thoughts which I then presented in an improvised speech. As it was quite a long text, I am breaking it up for the purposes of blog presentation)

There is a gap between ancient Athens and classical liberalism, and covering that gap will explain more about the development from antique republics to modern liberty. The trio of major antique republican thinkers mentioned above, Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero, sets up the tradition. They establish the idea of the best state – polity/politea in Greek, republic/res publica in Latin – as one of hearing political power between groups in the context of shared citizenship and decision making.

For Aristotle, that is the sharing of power between oligarchs (the rich, in practice those wealthy through commerce), aristocrats (the virtuous, in practice the educated land owning classes) and the poor majority. Polybius was a later Greek thinker who admired the Roman republic and Cicero was a Roman aristocrat-philosopher from the last years before the republic gave way to the one-man emperor rule system.

Both use arguments from Aristotle but tend to refer to Sparta rather than Athens as the ideal republic, which indicates the difficulties for antique thought in accepting a commercial and free thinking republic as model. Polybius and Cicero both admire the Roman system because they see it as based on law and on sharing power between the people (citizens’ assembly), the aristocracy (senate), and a monarchical function shared between two year-long co-rulers (consuls).

Their arguments also rest on the idea of the state as military camp. It is interesting to note that Pettit the egalitarian liberal prefers this Roman model to Athens and that Arendt prefers the Athenian model. This suggests that Arendt has something to say to classical liberals and libertarians, though she is rarely taken up within that group, and that egalitarian liberalism is rather caught up in strong state ideas, the state strong enough to force redistribution of economic goods rather than impose extreme military spirit on its citizens, but a strong intervening state.

All three of the ancient republican thinkers had difficulty with the idea of a commercially orientated republic and has some idea of virtue in restraining wealth, though Cicero in particular was staggeringly rich suggesting that ancient republican thought had some difficulty in accommodating commercial spirit, more so than some ancient republics in practice.

There is one major step left in ancient republican thinking which is the account the senator-historian Tacitus, of the early Roman Emperor period, gives of liberty in the simple tribal republics of ancient Germans and Britons. He sees them as based on independence of spirit and a willingness to die for that independence, in a way largely lacking amongst the Romans of that time.

The admiration for such ‘barbarian’ liberty also gives some insight into the difficulty of combining commercial spirit with republicanism in ancient thinking. Wealth is seen as something tied to benefits from the state, state patronage, so reduces independence of the state whether the local state or a foreign invading state.

Republicanism takes the next great step forward when some way of thinking of wealth as existing at least partly independently of state patronage appears. This is what happens in northern Italy from about the thirteenth century. To some degree this Italian republicanism has older roots in the maritime republic of Venice, but the trading wealth is still very tied up with aristocratic status and a rigid aristocratic hold on politics.

It is Florence, which serves as a thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth century Athens, where Italian culture, commercial wealth, and republican thinking all thrive. The cultural greatness goes back to the poet Dante and the republicanism to his tutor Bruno Latini. The really great moment in Florentine republicanism comes in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, though, with Francesco Guicciardini, but mostly with Niccoló Machiavelli.

Commentary on Machiavelli is heavily burdened by the image of Evil Machiavel or at least of Machiavelli the cynical advocate of power politics in The Prince. This is just a completely false image of a man whose ideal was the revival of the Roman republic, not the rule of absolute and absolutely immoral princes.

The supposed wickedness and cynicism of The Prince related to comments on how kings seize and maintain power, in which as far as Machiavelli advocates rather than analyses, he advocates minor acts of political violence. The age of Machiavelli is the age of the Catholic Inquisition torturing heretics and passing them to the state to be burned at the stake, the mass persecution and expulsion of Iberian Jews and Muslims, wars of religion and conquest, which involved systematic and mass destruction of property, torture, rape, and murder.

Those who chose to condemn the ‘wickedness’ of Machiavelli at the time were often those engaged in such activities. Machiavelli’s advice to princes does no more than advocate at the most extreme, very limited amounts of violence to institute and maintain rule, certainly very limited by the standards of the time.

Florentine Liberty II: Guicciardini, Dialogue on the Government of Florence (Expanding the Liberty Canon series)

Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) was born and died in Florence which already had a long history as a literary and cultural centre, and as a centre of commercial life. Guicciardini came from an aristocratic family which provided an outstanding education that included study with the great Platonist philosopher Marsilio Ficino. Guicciardini had a life of state service, which took him to Spain as an ambassador as well as working within Florence and the dependent city of Bologna. He also worked for the Papacy in a political and military capacity at a time when the Vatican was the centre of one of the major Italian states, which was also at a time of political fragmentation in Italy and of foreign interventions from France, Germany, and Spain. The Papal States centred on Rome and Florence were therefore major states within Italian politics, not just cities. In the end Spanish domination overwhelmed them all, but Guicciardini seems more concerned with the danger of French domination.

The Florentine politics of the time goes through a series of shifts between secular republic, religious republic, and Medici dominated principality, which Machiavelli also participated in and commented on in writing. Indeed Guicciaridini and Machiavelli were friends, but their versions of republicanism were not identical. Machiavelli placed Rome first among the great republics of antiquity, with particular reference to the benefits of political competition, particularly between aristocracy and common people, for liberty and patriotic spirit.

Guicciardini also refers to Rome, but with less enthusiasm for the role of the common people and political conflict. He denies that the existence of two consuls sharing the supreme leadership role was evidence of a wish to stimulate political competition, but instead argues that it was a practical adoption to war time so that one consul could direct armies in the field while the other directed government business back in Rome. It was a not a scheme to limit individual power and any political competition between the two consuls was an unexpected and undesirable outcome, weakening rather than strengthening the republic. He applied a similar analysis to the double kings of ancient Sparta, who had a largely military role.

Guicciardini refers briefly but significantly to Plato indicating his preference for an ideal of order over an ideal of competition, for rational hierarchy over plebeian street politics. He does not follow anything like the strict enforcement of virtue and rule of the ‘wise’ advocated by Plato, but evidently finds that a preferable orientation to the liberty to challenge existing order. The detail Guicciardini provides of Florentine political history shows a drama of constant change and challenge, disorder and revolution, which might confirm Plato’s fears of democratic liberty, but also suggest the difficulties of applying Plato’s ideals to reality, particularly in a commercial world with a growing civil society.

Accordingly Guicciarini’s main source of inspiration was the Republic of Venice, which already had a history stretching back to the eighth century, and with claims to have its origins in Roman antiquity, in rather legendary stories of refugees from barbarian invasion seeking sanctuary in the marshes of that area. Venice was to survive as a  republic until 1797, when it was abolished by Napoleon. At its peak its territory stretched well down the Balkan coast of the Adriatic and was a major, if not the major naval and trading power in the eastern Mediterranean, so it did serve as a modern example of a powerful republic and the possibility of republican government in a largely monarchical world.

Another advantage of Venice from Guicciardini’s point of view was that it was a definitely aristocratic rather than democratic republic. There was an elective prince for life, the Doge, appointed by the aristocratic citizens of the city and ruling in cooperation with aristocratic councils. Fifteenth century scholars in Italy suggested that the constitution of Venice corresponded with Plato’s vision of a republic in the Laws, largely based on Sparta (where power was focused on the thirty man gerousia and five ephors rather than the citizens’ assembly itself based on a very restrictive definition of citizenship. This is Plato’s vision of a state that might exist in reality as opposed to the philosophical ideal proposed in the Republic. The great merchant and commercial wealth of Venice would have been disturbing for the Spartans and for Plato though, providing another example of the limits as well as real relevance of ancient republics for the modern world.

So Guicciardini is less ‘Florentine-Roman’ (democratic) and more Venetian-Spartan (aristocratic) than Machiavelli, but nevertheless he accepts that the poor have to be given some role in politics and that even if the poor are outside political citizenship at times, once a crisis brings them into politics it is very difficult to reverse that situation. The solution for Guicciardini is to allow the poor citizenship and some rights, in city assemblies, while excluding them from the highest offices of state. The high offices should be reserved to the aristocracy, with the highest offices to be held on a long-term, possibly even lifetime basis. The concern is to provide more stability and civic strength than Guicciardini believes is possible from the political activities of the poorly educated and unpropertied masses.

Guicciardini’s belief in liberty through the dominance of a responsible republic elite anticipates later ideas of thinking about liberty on the basis of conservative institutions for preserving order and property as preferable to democratic institutions and political contestation. Any thought about liberty is likely to have some element of this, some ideas about institutionalising property rights and legal stability, against the dangers of irresponsible temporary majorities. Whether a complete dominance of such institutions, with the risk of undermining them through overburdening them, is desirable or practicable is a matter of debate. Machiavelli and Guicciardini present a compelling classic Florentine compare and contrast on such issues.

Florentine Liberty I: Machiavelli, The Prince (Expanding the Liberty Canon series)

I have already addressed Machiavelli’s Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy here and I may well come back to them later. However, in the present post I will discuss the famous Machiavelli text, which is concerned with states headed by princes rather than republics, the subject matter of the Discourses. This will itself be the the first half of a two part discussion of liberty in Florence, with a second half on Guicciardini.

The city state of Florence had a history self-government, often republican rather than princely, going back to the eleventh century, when it broke away from the control of German emperors. Its role in republican political thought goes back to the thirteenth century as does its role as an early centre of capitalism, suggesting a connection between the economic development and the movement of political thought.

The first notable republican writer was Dante’s guardian Brunetto Latini (1210-1294). That is Dante Alighieri, the author of the great epic poem The Divine Comedy, one of the very great figures in the history of European literature. So not only was Florence the focus of late Medieval republicanism and capitalism, it was a focus of the development of literature in modern European languages, and of literary Italian in general. Dante created a modern language text on a level with Homer and Virgil, so putting Italian on a level with Latin and Ancient Greek, and confirming the development of modern languages, other than the Latin of church scholars, as instruments of thought and artistic creation. Indeed Latini even has a small role in the Divine Comedy, though rather ungratefully he is placed in Hell. This seems to be based purely on his same sex activities rather than any bad character beyond breaking church positions on sexual conduct. After the secular scholar Latini, the next Florentine given a place in the history of republican political thought is Remigio dei Girolami (1235-1319), a Dominican scholar whose philosophy was influenced by Thomas Aquinas. After that the scholar and city Chancellor Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444) keeps the republican tradition renewed. Detailed examination of these figures is perhaps a bit out of the scope of a historical survey series, but they certainly provide a rich tradition for Machiavelli and Guicciardini to examine and employ.

I have referred to this period in the history of Florence as late Medieval, but it can just as much be described as Renaissance. The great growth of classical learning and artistic creativity associated with the European fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had its beginnings in thirteenth century Florence and northern Italy, due to the commercial city states where there was patronage of the arts and there was contact with the Greek learning of the now highly weakened Byzantine Empire, which stemmed from Greek and Roman antiquity. Averroism, as in the legacy of the twelfth century Muslim philosopher from Cordoba, Ibn Rushd known in the Latinate world as Averroes. A period of Muslim influence, or sometimes dominance in Sicily from the ninth to the thirteenth century meant that Muslim thought was part of the general Italian heritage.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a product of Florentine republican tradition and the general Italian Renaissance. He lived through periods of secular republican, religious republican, and secular princely rule in Florence. The religious period should be given some attention, as though Machiavelli himself was highly secular (possibly a non-believer, but a variety of views exist on that issue), the events of the religious republican period made a deep impression on him. From 1494 to 1498, the politics of Florence were dominated by the Dominican friar (like Girolami mentioned above), Girolamo Savonarola, who pushed Florence towards religious purification in anticipation of apocalyptic events. The apparent craziness was accompanied by some intellectual and literary sophistication, and was not just a pure descent into fanaticism. In the end the Pope found Savonarola too troubling too ignore so that he took action that ended with the execution of Savonarola as a heretic. Despite his lack of religious enthusiasm, Machiavelli shared a belief in the special role of Florence, though his vision of the city was as the descendent and repetition of the Roman republic rather than as the starting point of a Christian apocalypse. He wanted purification of a kind, if through the placing of laws above individuals, rather than religious observance, and an end to a corrupt aristocratic domination.

The Prince both pays tribute of a kind to Savonarola as a prophet without arms and sets Machiavelli on a path of hoped for cooperation with the dominant family, the Medici who had replaced republican with princely rule, arresting and torturing Machiavelli in the process, as he was a civil servant and diplomat in the former republic. The part admiration for Savonarola comes from an antique tradition of revering founders of republics and great law givers to states of any kind. This reaches a peak in Cicero who described founders of republic as god like. However secular Machiavelli was, he was aware of ancient Jewish history as recorded in the Hebrew Bible and the law giving role of Moses, which is one model of state foundation for Machiavelli and therefore of possible conditions for liberty, since liberty requires law rather than personalised rule.

The Prince is the product of a man who though very talented at the life of a private scholar which he pursued after his political fall, wanted to be working on public affairs even under a prince rather than a republic. It is a lengthy job application to Lorenzo Piero de ‘Medici (not to be confused with his grandfather Lorenzo the Magnificent) and despite composing the longest and best covering letter in all history, Machiavelli did not become a counsellor to a prince. So, we should not regard Machiavelli as a successful ‘Machiavellian’ and perhaps think again about any preconception that The Prince is some key to all knowledge in the dark arts of power and a place of voyeuristic pleasure in observing the inner workings of the state.

Machiavelli does offer his potential employer (who may never have read this extraordinary application material) some ruthless sounding advice on how a prince should gain and maintain power, including the execution of those who create the most obstacles to power. This is not exactly shocking advice for the time. The death penalty was widely used and extra-legal killings for political reasons were normal if not in line with the sort of moral standards rulers publicly proclaimed. The whole outrage of the church and others at the suppose shocking immorality of The Prince is one rather absurd and lengthy exercise in hypocrisy. There was certainly little Machiavelli could have taught Popes of the time in the darkest arts of power. Condemnation of Machiavelli was due to his making public unpleasant realities so that anyone who could read would now be aware of how kings used their power. The book was not published in Machiavelli’s time, so the torrent of vilification came after his death.

The more brutal aspects of The Prince do not even begin to match the horrors of dynastic wars and religious persecution at the time, particularly if we take into account the behaviour of colonists of the time. Machiavelli recommends none of these things which political and religious leaders of the time were willing to have on their conscience. Some passages recommend complete colonisation of newly acquired territories as one means of maintain control, in preference to partial colonisation which is as close as Machiavelli gets to advocating generalised suffering for civilians. In any case he does not recommend the kind of massacre and rapine normal at the time, and the main thrust of the argument is not towards conquest, but a state which has some community with its citizens.

Machiavelli was sceptical of the military value of walls and fortresses compared with a citizen army willing to defend its own land. Opposition to royal fortresses was opposition to one of the main forms of state control at the time. The prince is expected to dispose of individuals dangerous to assuming power, but this is advice to princes who newly have power and need to consolidate it, not advice on long term methods of government. The long term approach is to respect law, respect the property of citizens, and leave women free from forced advances. The prince is advised to hunt a lot as a means to improved military abilities, in knowing the terrain of his own land in detail so knowing how to defend it. The martial interests are presented as the prince’s main area of interest, so that the prince is more of a commander in chief of the military than a man of political power. The idea of a monarch who is mostly a chief of the military was a republican idea at the time and anticipates liberal ideas about the limited scope of any state apparatus.

The relationship between morality and political principles is where Machiavelli departs from antique republican thinkers like Aristotle and Cicero who present politics as the extension of virtue and moral principles. Machiavelli even overturns some of their ethical limits on power. He does so through a sophisticated dialogue with Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca, which largely does not mention them by name but is very recognisable to those who have studied them, which was a high proportion of likely readers of Machiavelli in his own time. Both Aristotle and Cicero refer to the tyrannical ruler as a wild beast or worse. This itself refers to an antique way of thinking about ethics as self-control, which puts us above the supposed level of animals. Machiavelli challenges this by advising the prince to be a mixture of human and beast, and as beast to combine the cunning of a fox with the fierceness of a lion. None of this is Machiavelli advocating tyranny, it is an appreciation of power and desire which ancient thought was not good at accommodating. The good ruler rules from a desire to pursue the good life and be a friend of citizens in ancient thinking. They could not think of power and self-referring desire except as negatives, even if their own actions went against their words. Cicero’s political career included a willingness to go to the limits of law and beyond where he saw it as necessary to defend the republic, he simply had no language to explain this in the moral terms he used. His main political work, The Republic includes the positive contribution of Scipio Africanus the Younger, the Roman general who physically destroyed the city of Cartage and slaughtered every last inhabitant.

Cicero, like other ancients, had difficulty in discussing politics as power and civilised individual action as based on desire, rather than a morality of self control, so they had little way of accommodating theories of power and desire. This is why there are no ancient writers praising commerce except maybe within very limited and constrained circumstances and then only in a very minimal way, even Seneca who was a major money lender of the whole empire. Machiavelli did have  vocabulary and understanding of power in politics and desire in human action. He was convinced that general application of moral principles about always being truthful, merciful, generous, and so on, were not adequate to understanding the possibilities of human creation in politics and in commerce. Moral outcomes mattered to him, and he is clear in The Prince that some acts are too immoral to accept for any reason, but he thought moral outcomes come from skill in political arts and in trade offs between different moral demands. If one can sincerely claim to be always purely moral and never accept a lesser evil for a greater good, then one maybe has the right to be shocked by Machiavelli, but who can claim such a thing?

The Prince conforms to the wish of a prince to have power and glory and use violence to seize power where the chance arises. However, as far as possible, it always pushes the prince to do so through through respecting the rights of citizens, working to gain their consent, respect peace and stability, and the regular application of law. The prince is urged to avoid the virtue of generosity, because the ‘generosity’ of princes comes from taxations and is therefor a burden on citizens undermining their economic welfare. So that is the wickedness of Machiavelli! Avoid so called virtues which harm those they are supposed to benefit. It is advice to the prince to work so much through law, public good, and concentrating on his military duties, that a republic is bound to emerge under the nominal rule of a prince. That is the goal of all the wickedness in service of dark power.