Adam Smith: a historical historical detective?

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Adrian Blau at King’s College London has an on-going project of making methods in political theory more useful, transparent and instructive, especially for students interested in historical scholarship.

I found his methods lecture, that he gave to Master’s students and went onto publish as ‘History of political thought as detective work’, particularly helpful for formulating my approach to political theory. The advantage of Blau’s advice is that it avoids pairing technique with theory. You can be a Marxist, a Straussian, a contextualist, anything or nothing, and still apply Blau’s technique.

Blau suggests that we adopt the persona of a detective when trying to understand the meaning of historical texts. That is, we should acknowledge

  • uncertainty associated with our claims
  • that facts of the matter will almost certainly be under-determined by the available evidence
  • that conflicting evidence probably exists for any interesting question
  • that interpreting any piece of evidence through any exclusive theoretical lens is likely to lead us to error

To make more compelling inferences in the face of these challenges, we can use techniques of triangulation (using independent sources of evidence together). This could include arguing for an interpretation of a thinker’s argument based on a close reading of their text, while showing that other people in the thinker’s social milieu deployed language in a similar way (contextual), and also showing how helpful that argument was for achieving a political end that was salient in that time and place (motivation).

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What makes robust political economy different?

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I encountered what would later become important elements of Mark Pennington’s book Robust Political Economy in two articles that he wrote on the limits of deliberative democracy, and the relative merits of market processes, for social and ethical discovery, as well as a short book Mark wrote with John Meadowcroft, Rescuing Social Capital from Social Democracy. This research program inspired me to start my doctorate and pursue an academic career.  Why did I find robust political economy so compelling? I think it is because it chimed with my experience of encountering the limits of neo-classical formal models that I recount in my chapter, ‘Why be robust?’, of a new book, Interdisciplinary Studies of the Market Order.

While doing my master’s degree in 2009, I took a methodology course in rational choice theory at Nuffield College’s Center for Experimental Social Science. As part of our first class we were taken to a brand new, gleaming behavioural economics laboratory to play a repeated prisoners’ dilemma game. The system randomly paired anonymous members of the class to play against each other. We were told the objective of the game was to maximise our individual scores.

Thinking that there were clear gains to make from co-operation and plenty of opportunities to punish a defector over the course of repeated interactions, I attempted to co-operate on the first round. My partner defected. I defected a couple of times subsequently to show I was not a sucker. Then I tried co-operating once more. My partner defected every single time in the repeated series.

At the end of the game, we were de-anonymised and it turned out, unsurprisingly, that I had the lowest score in the class. My partner had the second lowest. I asked her why she engaged in an evidently sub-optimal strategy. She explained: ‘I didn’t think we were playing to get the most points. I was just trying to beat you!’

The lesson I took away from this was not that formal models were wrong. Game theoretic models, like the prisoners’ dilemma, are compelling and productive analytical tools in social science, clarifying the core of many challenges to collective action. The prisoners’ dilemma illustrates how given certain situations, or rules of the game, self-interested agents will be stymied from reaching optimal or mutually beneficial outcomes. But this experience suggested something more complex and embedded was going on even in relatively simple social interactions.

The laboratory situation replicated the formal prisoners’ dilemma model as closely as possible with explicit rules, quantified ‘objective’ (though admittedly, in this case, low-value) payoffs, and a situation designed to isolate players as if they were prisoners in different cells. Yet even in these carefully controlled circumstances, it turns out that the situation is subject to multiple interpretations and understandings.

Whatever the textual explanation accompanying the game, the score on the screen could mean something different to the various players. The payoffs for the representative agents in the game were not the same as the payoffs in the minds of the human players. In a sense, my partner and I were unwittingly playing different games (although I lost within either rules of the game!).

When we engage with the social world, it is not only the case that our interests may not align with other people. Social interaction is open-ended. We do not know all the possible moves in the game, and we do not know much about the preference set of everyone else who is playing. Indeed, neither they nor we know what a ‘complete’ set of preferences and payoffs would look like, even of our own. We can map out a few options and likely outcomes through reflection and experience but even then we may face outcomes we do not anticipate. As Peter Boettke explains: ‘we strive not only to pursue our ends with a judicious selection of the means, but also to discover what ends that we hope to pursue.’

In addition, the rules of the game themselves are not merely exogenous impositions on us as agents. They are constituted inter-subjectively by the practices, beliefs and values of the actors that are also participants in the social game. As agents, we do not merely participate in the social world. We also engage in its creation through personal lifestyle experimentation, cultural innovation, and establishing shared rules and structures. The social world thus presents inherent uncertainty and change that cannot be captured in a formal model that assumes fixed rules of the game and the given knowledge of the players.

It is these two ideas, both borrowed from the Austrian notion of catallaxy, that makes robust political economy distinct. First, neither our individual ends, nor means of attaining them, are given prior to participation in a collective process of trial and error. Second, the rules that structure how we interact are themselves not given but subject to a spontaneous, evolutionary process of trial and error.

I try to set out these ideas in a recent symposium in Critical Review on Mark Pennington’s book, and in ‘Why be robust?’ in Interdisciplinary Studies of the Market Order edited by Peter Boettke, Chris Coyne and Virgil Storr. The symposium article is available on open access and there is a working paper version of my chapter is available at the Classical Liberal Institute website.

Foucault’s biopolitics seems like it’s just a subtle form of nationalism

I’ve been slowly making my way through Michel Foucault’s The Birth of Biopolitics, largely on the strength of Barry’s recommendation (see also this fiery debate between Barry and Jacques), and a couple of things have already stood out to me. 1) Foucault, lecturing in 1978-79, is about 20 years behind Hayek’s 1960 book The Constitution of Liberty in terms of formulating interesting, relevant political theory and roughly 35 years behind his The Road to Serfdom (1944) in terms of expressing doubts over the expanding role of the state into the lives of citizens.

2) The whole series of lectures seems like a clever plea for French nationalism. Foucault is very ardent about identifying “neo-liberalism” in two different models, a German one and an American one, and continually makes references about the importation or lack thereof of these models into other societies.

Maybe I’m just reading too deeply into his words.

Or maybe Foucault isn’t trying to make a clever case for French nationalism, and is instead trying to undercut the case for a more liberal world order but – because nothing else has worked as well as liberalism, or even come close – he cannot help but rely upon nationalist sentiments to make his anti-liberal case and he just doesn’t realize what he’s doing.

These two thoughts are just my raw reactions to what is an excellent book if you’re into political theory and Cold War scholarship. I’ll be blogging my thoughts on the book in the coming weeks, so stay tuned!

Libertarians and Pragmatists on Democracy Part 4: Why Market Anarchism is more Democratic than Democracy

Note: This is the final part of a series on democracy. It is assumed the reader is familiar with part one, defining democracy, part two, summarizing classical liberal perspectives on democracy, and part three, which analyzes how pragmatists conceive of democracy as a broader philosophy. Here, I will argue that a synthesis of libertarian and pragmatist perspectives on democracy will yield an argument in favor of market anarchy.

The insights of classical liberalism, and particularly modern libertarianism, have shown that democracy is likely to lead to a tyranny of an irrational and ignorant majority and public choice theory has shown how it results in awful policies thanks to a number of collective action issues. However, as pragmatists have argued, democracy’s philosophical aspirations to scientific public deliberation, seeking the consent of the governed, valuing the dignity of every individual, and decentralizing political authority to take advantage of dispersed intelligence are still admirable. However admirable these philosophical aspirations are, real-world democracies completely fail to fulfill them.

The natural question is, if not democracy, what political arrangements can live up to the philosophical goals of Dewey and Hook? I think the answer lies in market anarchism. In what follows, I will show how market anarchism could succeed in realizing the aspirations of philosophical democracy where political democracy has failed.

Before we get started, let’s take into account a few minor housekeeping notes. It is assumed that the reader has at least a cursory knowledge of how market anarchism and polycentric law works. If you are not familiar with these concepts I highly recommend watching this video by David Friedman before continuing. Also, I am in no way arguing that any of the thinkers discussed in this series are “really” anarchists unless they’re obviously so such as Huemer. I will not even claim that any of them “should have been” anarchists (with the exception of Hayek). I am simply arguing that if we take into account the insights of their various perspectives, one could plausibly defend market anarchism.

Market Anarchism, Unlike Democracy, Does Rest on the Voluntary Consent of the Governed

As Michael Huemer convincingly has shown, democracy does not actually “rest upon the freely given consent of the governed” as Sidney Hook claims. The bar tab example illustrates that we would not consider majority rule “consent” in any everyday interaction and there is little reason to think it should be any different in the context of political institutions. By contrast, market anarchism is almost by definition based off of consent. This is the primary reason why many deontological market anarchists, such as Murray Rothbard, are market anarchists in the first place and why they oppose the coercive, non-consensual nature of the state. While democracy’s claim to legitimacy is that the governed vote but they are still forced to follow the (unjustified) authority of a state that has the monopoly on force whether they agree or not to, market anarchism is based off of voluntarily consented to contracts between individuals and defense agencies and contracts between those defense agencies and private, voluntary court systems and arbitrators. Further, the content of the laws is agreed to and law becomes a product one buys in voluntarily agreeing to sign up with a defense company, just as one buys a car, a piece of furniture, or any other good.

It is curious that many pragmatist defenses of democracy sound very similar to what many market anarchists and libertarians write. Not just in Sidney Hook’s definition of a democracy as a government that “rests upon the freely given consent of the governed,” but perhaps most strikingly in John Dewey’s 1939 essay “I Believe.” In this essay, Dewey walked back some of his early Hegelian collectivist lines of his early years:

My contribution to the first series of essays in Living Philosophies put forward the idea of faith in the possibilities of experience at the heart of my own philosophy. In the course of that contribution, I said, “Individuals will always be the center and the consummation of experience, but what the individual actually is in his life-experience depends upon the nature and movement of associated life.” I have not changed my faith in experience nor my belief that individuality is its center and consummation. But there has been a change in emphasis. I should now wish to emphasize more than I formerly did that individuals are the final decisive factors of the nature and movement of associated life.

Indeed, throughout the whole essay he emphasizes “the idea that only the voluntary initiative and voluntary cooperation of individuals can produce social institutions that will protect the liberties necessary for achieving development of genuine individuality.” Throughout the essay, he decries (like many left-anarchists do) “state socialism” just as much as he does “state capitalism.” Dewey’s opposition to capitalism is well-known, but what is less known is his opposition to so-called “public collectivism.” His criticisms here could just as easily have been written by someone like Hayek:

Recent events have shown that state socialism or public collectivism leads to suppression of everything that individuality stands for. It is not too late for us in this country to learn the lesson taught by these two great historic movements [ie., the rise of state capitalism and state socialism]. The way is open for a movement which will provide the fullest opportunity for cooperative voluntary endeavor. In this movement, political activity will have a part, but a subordinate one. It will be confined to providing the conditions, both negative and positive, that favor the voluntary activity of individuals.

It is interesting that, like anarchists who favor direct action, he emphasizes that political activity is subordinate to the political movement he sees as necessary.

Of course, there are still notable differences between Dewey and libertarians, he still defends what he calls “functional socialism” in the socialization of medicine and still berates more than many libertarians would be comfortable with (except, of course, for left-anarchists) inequality caused by state capitalism. His vision of a truly individualist society, even in his later years, was one with localized, experimental democratic institutions and economics controlled by those localized governments in a “functional socialist” fashion (as I mentioned earlier, that economic vision is at odds with Dewey’s epistemological commitments).

However, I would argue that it is more than a mere superficial coincidence that Dewey’s criticisms of state capitalism are almost identical to those of market anarchists who decry “crony capitalism,” that his criticisms of state socialism are very similar to some individualist libertarian criticisms, and his overall rhetoric defending democracy on the grounds of “voluntary cooperation of individuals” sounds remarkably similar to many libertarians. This is because, largely, the philosophical ends Dewey seeks in politics are the same as those sought by libertarians, market anarchists, and classical liberals. However, the institutional means he advocates are very different and fail to meet those ends.

There is, conversely, one potential criticism that Sidney Hook would raise at this point: that market anarchism does not really rest upon the freely-given consent of the governed due to its allowance for economic inequality. Hook argued that income inequality undermines consent in democracy and, as a result, economic organization should be controlled by a democratically elected government. There are two points to be made. First of all, when economic organization is controlled by government in democracies it exacerbates the problem of income inequality. Rent-seeking culture arises in which concentrated interests use, through lobbying power, government force to accumulate and protect their wealth. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier,  there have been empirical studies showing how over-regulation lobbied for by those concentrated benefits have regressive effects. Even fairly anti-free market economists such as Joseph Stiglitz have argued that income inequality is not an inevitable result of market institutions, but a result of bad government policies such as corporate welfare.

Second, it is questionable to what degree income inequality would exist in pure market anarchy. Of course, much of the bad inequality experienced under state capitalism is the result of bad policies, but some if it is also just a result of market’s tendencies to disrupt economic distributions (which, as Mises argued in Liberalism: The Classical Tradition is not a bad thing because it allows for luxury markets which can serve as an experimental market for expensive, new goods that one day become popular consumer goods). Some market anarchists, such as Anna Morgenstern, have argued that the type of mass accumulation of capital under capitalism would be impossible under market anarchism. I am unsure to what extent I agree, and a systemic analysis of the economic roots of inequality is outside of the scope of this post. However, suffice it to say that it is an open, empirical question whether purely free markets would result in problematic levels of inequality, as Hook seems to think, and we have some good reasons to think it would not. At the very least, it is clear that the democratic institutions favored by Hook are not a serious solution to the problem.

Market Anarchism, Unlike Democracy, Relies on a Decentralized Process of Political Decision Making

Dewey argued in “Democracy and Educational Administration” that “it is the democratic faith that [the distribution of knowledge and intelligence] is sufficiently general so that each individual has something to contribute and value of each contribution can be assessed only as it enters into the final pooled intelligence constituted by the contributions of all.” He seems to echo Hayek’s knowledge problem critique of socialism when he argues that the democratic faith is based on the wisdom that “no man or limited set of men is [sic] wise enough or good enough to rule others without their consent[.]” As we have seen, democracies tend towards heavily centralized governments that undermine this faith and fail to take advantage of the dispersed knowledge (in Hayekian terms) among individuals in society.

Market anarchy, on the other hand, by definition takes advantage of this feature of dispersed intelligence. Rather than having law be designed by a centralized legislature, law arises out of voluntary market exchanges between individuals and, like common law, the precedent of judges in private courts. Of course, both Dewey and Hayek embraced democratic institutions (in Hayek’s case, as well as free market economic coordination) to take advantage of decentralized knowledge. However, both Dewey and Hayek, particularly the ladder (Dewey never wrote about market anarchism as it did not exist as a unique perspective until almost a decade after his death), failed to appreciate the extent to which a polycentric legal system does this much better. Peter Stringham and Todd Zywicki have noted this tension in Hayek’s thought in particular, as they put it in an abstract for their excellent paper on the issue:

Should law be provided centrally by the state or by some other means? Even relatively staunch advocates of competition such as Friedrich Hayek believe that the state must provide law centrally. This article asks whether Hayek’s theories about competition and the use of knowledge in society should lead one to support centrally provided law enforcement or competition in law. In writing about economics, Hayek famously described the competitive process of the market as a “discovery process.” In writing about law, Hayek coincidentally referred to the role of the judge under the common law as “discovering” the law in the expectations and conventions of people in a given society. We argue that this consistent usage was more than a mere semantic coincidence — that the two concepts of discovery are remarkably similar in Hayek’s thought and that his idea of economic discovery influenced his later ideas about legal discovery. Moreover, once this conceptual similarity is recognized, certain conclusions logically follow: namely, that just as economic discovery requires the competitive process of the market to provide information and feedback to correct errors, competition in the provision of legal services is essential to the judicial discovery in law. In fact, the English common law, from which Hayek drew his model of legal discovery, was itself a model of polycentric and competing sources of law throughout much of its history. We conclude that for the same reasons that made Hayek a champion of market competition over central planning of the economy, he should have also supported competition in legal services over monopolistic provision by the state — in short, Hayek should have been an anarchist.

There is one possibly fatal objection to this line of reasoning, that is also the most substantial objection to market anarchism as a whole: the possibility that market anarchy, like democracy, will eventually lead to a centralized state that undermines its attempt to take advantage of dispersed knowledge. This argument was initially hinted at by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia in his argument about the “immaculate conception of the state” but was expanded on most convincingly by Tyler Cowen. Ultimately it is an empirical question whether market anarchy would eventually lead to more centralization, and it is outside the scope of this post to analyze that fascinating question in any satisfactory amount of detail. I will say, however, that Bryan Caplan has given more or less convincing reasons why this may not be the case.

Market Anarchism, Unlike Democracy, Values the Dignity of the Individual

One of the features central to the pragmatist “democratic faith” is the belief that “belief that every individual should be regarded as possessing intrinsic worth or dignity[.]” As I argued, the conflation of democratic governments with the “collective will” of the people undermines this faith as political dissenters and individual thinkers become viewed as opponents to “the people.” Indeed, it seems that the type of “public” and “private” collectivisms that Dewey ridiculed in “I Believe” are a result of democratic institutions run amuck.

Market anarchism, meanwhile, suffers from no such issues. Instead, the intrinsic worth of the individual is respected as their free choices and associations is the main driving mechanism for political organization. There is no violation of free speech and free thought by a deliberative government as such a government does not exist in the first place under anarchy, and thus the intrinsic worth and dignity are not found in the “will of the people” as in democracies, but in the sovereign individual’s choice of which defense provider to contract with.

Market Anarchism, Unlike Anarchy, is Scientific and Deliberative

Contrary to Dewey and Hook’s characterization of democracy as a deliberative, intelligent application of the scientific method to social issues, democracy is instead characterized by polarizing populist pandering and rationally ignorant and irrational voters casting meaningless ballots based cultural associations rather than reasoned consideration of policy issues. Market anarchism, meanwhile, does have the deliberative, scientific nature the pragmatists vainly hope democratic institutions could aspire to. While under democracy the cost of casting an informed vote is very high and the benefits very low resulting in massive amounts of rational ignorance, under market anarchism individuals have every incentive to ensure they are informed about the legal rules they are purchasing, so to speak, by contracting with rights defense agencies. Unlike in democracy where the benefits of casting an informed vote are extremely low because your vote has an infinitely small probability of making a difference, under market anarchy the rights defense agency you chose to contract with has immediate and certain impacts upon your life, thus creating a much larger incentive to cast an informed (metaphorical) vote by choosing to purchase the services of a preferred rights defense agency.

Deliberation about legal policy is far more likely to be more reasoned in market anarchy than in democracy. First, because market anarchism is more radically experimental than political democracy. Freedom of speech and of thought in democracy is often likened to a metaphorical “marketplace of ideas,” but in market anarchy it is a literal marketplace in which the ideas are not chosen just by speculation and public deliberation, but actually experimented with and acted upon in practice. Democracy is only “experimental” in a priori public deliberation about policies, but market anarchy is “experimental” in actually applying those policies and assessing their results a posteriori. Under democracy, once a policy is chosen it becomes difficult to assess counterfactually if another potential policy could have yielded better results, thus it is difficult to ascertain which was the superior policy. It is as if scientists in a lab simply talked about the hypothetical results of various hypothetical experiments and chose theories based on their discussions rather than actually testing the theories by actually running the experiments. Because of the polycentric nature of law under market anarchy, multiple policies are taken on at the same time, making it easier to tell which is more desirable in practice rather than simple theoretical deliberation.

Another reason why political deliberation is more likely to be reasoned in market anarchy than democracy is because of the institutional mechanisms for choosing policy. The main way law is “made” in democracy is through legislation voted on by representatives, who are ultimately accountable to the public through general elections. Often, debate on the floor of legislative bodies is anything but reasoned and deliberative, and clearly discussion about elections quickly devolves into mindless partisan bickering, sensationalist “scandals,” and populist rhetorical flair rather than reasoned discussion about policies. In market anarchy, however, law is “discovered” by private arbitrators and judges who are ultimately accountable to the defense firm’s consumers in the marketplace. It is pretty clear that real-world courtrooms tend to have a more elevated level of dialogue than legislative bodies, to say less of public elections, and I fail to see why this would not be the case under market anarchism.

Further, there wouldn’t be a need for partisan bickering and debates that bring down the level of public discourse in market anarchy, for similar reasons why there isn’t nearly as nasty debates about preferences for consumer goods as there are about politics. To use an analogy, in democracy, if we’re voting on what soda to consume, whoever wins the vote gets a monopoly on their preferred soda; so my preference for Coke could possibly eliminate your ability to enjoy Pepsi; but in a market, if I prefer Coke you still can drink Pepsi, meaning we don’t need to bicker about our consumer preferences. It is similar (though clearly not identical because when we’re talking about law it’s quite a bit more consequential) with legal policies: in democracy, if I prefer one set of legal rules to another which you prefer, we must fight over how to vote because the two are mutually exclusive; but in market anarchy, because law is polycentric and not monolithic, they are not mutually exclusive so we don’t need to fight nearly as hard for it. There’s a good reason why debates among consumers for products they prefer (Coke v. Pepsi, Apple v. Windows, Android v. iPhone) rarely get as nasty as debates in democratic politics, because there is room for disagreement at the end of the day in a market that there is not in politics.

Conclusion

Clearly, democracy is far from the ideal method of political organization. As classical liberals throughout history have shown, despite the fact that it may be possible to other political forms such as oligarchy and monarchy, it has a tendency towards the tyranny of the majority and massive collective action problems. However, the philosophical aspirations of the most ardent defenders of democracy are still extremely valuable, even if their preferred institutions fail to deliver. Market anarchism is a reasonable synthesis of these two insights; it has the potential to live up to the aspirations of pragmatist democrats without the major, systemic problems of real working democracies that undermine those aspirations.

John Dewey once said “democratic institutions are no guarantee for the existence no guarantee for the existence of democratic individuals,” what is needed is a better set of institutions that have a higher probability to cultivate Dewey’s idea of “democratic individuals.” Market anarchism appears to be a viable candidate for such a set of institutions.

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, IV: Britain the Enlightenment model for a liberal Europe?

Following on from last post in this series, focused on the violent formation of the nineteenth century British state, a largely political theory post on how far Britain had a special status as a model of liberalism and then democracy in Europe. Despite all the negative aspects discussed in the last post, there was of course some overall progress in Britain in creating a society and political system based on law, tolerance, individual rights, and a commercial society with prosperity spreading to all, sooner or later, though clearly much later for the afflicted groups discussed in the last post. Now it is certainly true that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and more recently, Britain has been taken as a positive example for those wishing to promote those good things in their own political community.

The trouble with the Eurosceptic-sovereignty view is that these realities are transformed into a belief in a British legal and state community uniquely, and its very essence, prone to liberty under law and all the associated benefits, and recognised such by all Europeans gracious enough to acknowledge British superiority. Let us look at the eighteenth century discussion which is when comparisons of Britain and European states around law, liberty, civil society and so really got started. Strange as it might seem to some, earlier thinkers about liberty like Machiavelli, Grotius, and Pufendorf did not promote the idea of Britain as exemplary. The eighteenth century French Enlightenment certainly did lead to some admiring interest in Britain from that point of view. Maybe the main populariser of Enlightenment, Voltaire, was a great Anglophile. However, the really intellectually important observer in France at that time was Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, author of The Spirit of the Laws, who did visit England (but not the rest of Britain).

Montesquieu could be said to be something of an Anglophile and he has sometimes been taken as the bearer of a British model of liberty throughout Europe, as if he recognised Britain, as superior, of course to France. Though this is a familiar story in terms of the urban myths of history of political thought, it is not really plausible for the more sophisticated reader. Questions of interpretation of Montesquieu of course arise here, but there is proper interpretation of Montesquieu based on a thorough reading which could justify the view of him as possessing a political theory based on Anglophilia.

Montesquieu recognised two kinds of state compatible with liberty and ‘moderate government’, meaning government restrained by law along with a general respect for customs and moral standards. Those two types of government are monarchy and republic. Montesquieu also regarded a republic as less compatible with commercial spirit – which he strong endorsed – than monarchy, though he recognised exceptions and transitional cases. For Montesquieu, republicanism, at least in any pure form, meant some very small homogenous community with laws adopted by the people as a whole or an aristocracy. In both cases, Montesquieu thought that wealth tended to undermine the possibility of a republic, as such a state rests on putting ‘virtue’ (largely meaning patriotism and respect for law) above wealth in a very strong way. A monarchy, he thought, rested on ‘honour’ (largely meaning the search for status through wealth or through high position in the monarchical state). So a commercial society was more likely under monarchy than a republic. Montesquieu had in mind a large modern European state, which showed that to be case, France.

For Montesquieu, Britain was a disguised republic, a quite realistic assessment since political power rested with an aristocratic-oligarchic elite under a crown, which could not raise taxes or go to war without parliamentary approval. Montesquieu recognised that Britain was a great trading and commercial country, but at that time the same could be said for France which had a much larger population and therefore was a more important example of commercial society. Anyway, though Montesquieu had some complimentary things to say about Britain, he regarded it as culturally inferior to France, a view he expressed in his own way partly through complaining that there was less enjoyable social relations between men and women, a sign of backwardness.

Montesquieu was sceptical about the relevance of republics to the modern world except as city states, like Venice, or those German cities which were self-governing, or better for reasons of strength and survival, as federations of city states (or maybe rural communities of similar population), like the Netherlands of the time (known as the United Provinces) and Switzerland. Montesquieu looks at so many perspectives and considers so many examples that there is some difficulty in saying what his model was, but the evidence is for a choice of the French monarchy, emphasising how much power in reality rested in institutions other than the monarchy, such as law courts, town governments, universities, and the church. If he was not arguing for the primacy of the French model, he must have favoured the federated republics of his time. He has more to say in detail about Britain and it had good things about it, but there is no way in which Montesquieu had an Anglophile political theory which legitimates soveriegntist-Eurosceptic assumptions of special, separate, and superior status for Britain in relation to Europe.

Next post some more political theory, but also another broad historical discussion.

Another Liberty Canon: Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is well known for his contributions to philosophical and religious thought, and for the literary qualities of his work in these areas. He has not been so well known as a contributor to political thought, though there is now a growing amount of scholarly commentary in this area.

Generally his politics has been seen as directed by an extreme kind of conservative reaction against changes, and particularity movements of  democratic and constitutional change in Denmark in his own time. The sense that he was conformable with the most absolute and conservative kind of monarchism possible has been accompanied by the sense that he was anti-political, that he just did not like politics, which connected with the supposed conservatism, because if there is no need for change in political structures, there is no need for political discussion and thought.

These positions might have some appeal to some libertarian-conservative fusionists, and do have some basis in some aspects of Kierkegaard’s thought. However, his thought cannot be properly characterised overall in this way, which would connect Kierkegaard at a relatively popular level with the political thinking of J.R.R. Tolkein, or at the more historical scholarly level with Robert Filmer, the English ultra-monarchist criticised at length by John Locke, or the Savoyard (French-Italian) ultra-monarchist critic of the French Revolution, Joseph de Maistre.

More justified connections can be made with David Hume, for example. Hume was cautious about both political change and claims that the authority of existing political institutions rests on either reverence for the past, or very deliberate conscious popular consent. Hume thought that though societies with political and legal institutions probably did originate with a contract of sorts between government and governed, such contracts cannot bind future generations, and the ‘contract’, or set of relations, between individuals and the state, are open to reform and renegotiation.

Kierkegaard’s comments on the politic currents of his time, suggest that he had a strong understanding both of the belief in the absolute authority of existing institutions, and of the wish to create a new absolute, in a spirit of revolution. His own view is that negotiation and renewal are desirable, and are certainly inevitable, which he saw as the need to revise historical contractual agreements.

Kierkegaard certainly did not wish for individuals to make politics the highest aspect of their lives, as this would detract from the individual relation with God, which was the central interest of this passionately religious man. However, that is not to say that Kierkegaard thought Christianity gives the answer to everything in worldly life, or that Kierkegaard had nothing else driving him. A passion for writing, which has a strong element of self-exploration even if though the medium of fiction and the pseudonyms, which are used in his books, or as fictional authors for many of his widely read books.

The writing and self-exploration converge, for Kierkegaard, in the understanding and communication of the deepest relation of the self with itself as necessarily a relation with God. The recognition of something more than momentary about the existence of the self, leads to a recognition of an absolute aspect of the self, and a struggle with any dissolution of the self into a series of moments. This was Kierkegaard’s way of exploring the value of the individual, and the word ‘individual’ is frequently and frequently orientates his writing. In this, he provided a great way of thinking about the value of the individual for any political thought concerned about the liberty of the individual, and why that should be at the centre of politics.

Kierkegaard saw in the more absolute kinds of political thought a desire for a version of God, and in doing so provided the basis for distinguishing between a politics that recognises limits to what it hopes for from the state and collective action, and a politics that tries to impose itself on society by turning the state into a substitute for God.

Kierkegaard was very critical of the state church, even though his brother had made a career in it, and suggest that dependent on the state weakened religion, as other forms of dependence create other forms of weakness. He did not argue for a pure nightwatchman state, or individualist-anarchism, but he did argue for caution about how much the state does, and for taking individual responsibility for assisting those who have met with misfortune.

In his emphasis on the individual in his understanding of Christianity, Kierkegaard also understood that Christianity places an enormous burden on the individual compared with earlier forms of thinking, in which the individual is primarily thought of as part of a family or state. Kierkegaard was particularly concerned with the ancient Greek and Roman city states in this context, including the literature they produced. He placed value on his own small city of Copenhagen for preserving some of the value of ancient city-state, where the individual can draw strength from connection with others in a very concrete community, without wanting to see the individual subsumed into any kind of communal or collective identity.

For Kierkegaard, the more worldly part of our lives rests on more than living under a state defined  by law or a society defined  by universal rights, necessary though these are. We need engagement with our social world, including its political debates. Though Kierkegaard was a great loner in some respects, he did walk regularly though crowded parts of the city, live near the centre, accept that he would be recognised,  contributed to magazines, and existed as a public figure, which was sometimes uncomfortable for him, but was never a role he excluded.  He was attacked as an eccentric in the press and condemned as a diabolical figure by some of the church establishment, but like his hero Socrates reacted with humour, intelligence and the assumption that the independent, even self-contained, individual deals with difficult public controversies. In his ways of bringing together an antique commitment to public life and a more modern sense of strong individuality, Kierkegaard made a remarkable contribution to themes which preoccupied the major classical liberal thinkers, like David, Hume, Benjamin Constant, John Stuart Mill, and many others.

It is not possible to recommend specific political theory texts by Kierkegaard, and just about everything he wrote can be read with great reward in association with the issues discussed above. A good starting point for a focus on the more political Kierkegaard though is the literary reflections in Two Agesfollowed up by the three masterpieces of 1843 that established his importance. The most immediately readable is RepetitionFear and Trembling is also relatively short. Either/Or is long and complex, but very rewarding and can itself be followed up by reading its sequel Stages on Life’s Way.