Some afterthoughts on Rio Paralympics

Paralympics are over, and with them the cycle of Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Once again the city was able to put up a good show, and thankfully all went well in the Cidade Maravilhosa. But not everything is alright in Rio: even more than the Olympics, the Paralympics were able to show the contradictions between the city where we live everyday and the city of the event: Rio is not welcoming for people with disabilities.

At least in Brazilian Portuguese, political correctness has done a mess with vocabulary concerning the kind of people who compete in Paralympics. We are not supposed to say they are disabled (don’t even think about saying they are crippled!). I think the correct vocabulary today is, as I used, “people with disabilities.” But even that is under political correct scrutiny, so it seems. All this discussion about words springs from cultural Marxism, postmodernism, relativism and the belief that there’s nothing objective beyond our vocabulary. But words can’t hide the reality: Rio is unequal. The way it treats the blind, the lame, and even the elderly or the young, is completely different from the way it treats people in middle-age and more able to walk. And all that despite strong legislation in this area.

One of the greatest debates in political philosophy in the 20th century happened between American philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick. Trying to build on classical liberal foundations (but moving to egalitarian liberalism), Rawls pointed out that “equality was supposed to be the moral benchmark for social and political institutions, and that any deviation from equality had to be specially justified.” Nozick answer was that liberty upsets patterns. Even if we have a starting point in society where we have a perfectly equal distribution of goods or assets, the moment that we allow people to be free to make their own choices (as liberalism prescribes) they are going to make choices we cannot possibly predict, and these choices are going to upset any kind of pattern we established in the first place. That happens because each one of us is unique in its own right: each one of us have a specific set of values, preferences and circumstances that upsets any would-be planner. So, if you want to respect human liberty to make choices, you have to give up on any plan for material equality.

Nozick’s answer to Rawls has a lot of Adam Smith in it. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) (preceding the more famous Wealth of Nations both in time and argument) Smith presented a character called “man of system.” This person sees society as an architect sees a blueprint for a construction. Smith says such person is “apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his ideal plan of government that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.” The problem is that humans have free will, the ability to make choices. And as such, they will upset any blueprint prepared for them. In other words, “individual people are not chess pieces you can move on a board with their dreams and desires ignored.” To the eyes of the would-be planner, “society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.”

So, material equality of outcomes (or at least of opportunities) is totally out of reach? Should we disregard it completely? Should the “invisible hand” prevail in spite of the weakest in our society? I don’t think so. Just the opposite! One of the very reasons I find classical liberalism morally appealing is the fact that no economic or political system ever conceived helps the weakest as it does. In other words, contrary to (what seems to me is) the popular belief, classical liberalism defends social justice more than any of its intellectuals alternatives. Answering John Rawls’s famous claim that “a just society will be one whose rules tend to work to the maximum advantage of the least well-off classes,” Friedrich Hayek pointed out exactly this. In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek agreed with Rawls about the end at which social institutions should aim: the welfare of the least advantaged. He simply disagreed about the means Rawls thought would get us there.

Instead of thinking of us as chess pieces on a board, when can use the analogy of a soccer game (or football, or basketball – suit yourself). The outcome of the game is the result of the player’s individual abilities, but it is also the outcome of the rules. In other words, in a free society, where people are free to choose, the outcomes are not just the result of the innumerable decisions of countless individuals. They are also the result of the rules enforcing property rights, contracts, taxation, and so on. So, it’s important to think about the justice of these rules, as well as the outcomes they might have. The point is that we can embrace a theory of social justice, but that just tells us the end we are heading to, not the means to get there.

Contrary to egalitarians, progressivists and socialists claims, no theory “tends to work to the maximum advantage of the least well-off classes” as classical liberalism does. And that’s a great reason I support it. As I said in the beginning, Rio is very unequal, despite decades of egalitarian policies in the city and in Brazil as a whole. On the other hand, there’s plenty of evidence that classical liberal policies tend to help the very people others accuse it of ignoring. When it comes to doing social justice, it’s important to have not just the heart, but also the mind in the right place. And I believe classical liberal policies are this place.

What’s Right about Social Justice?
Rawls and Nozick on Liberty & Equality
Adam Smith and the Follies of Central Planning
Fight of the Century

Classical Liberalism and the Nation State

Barry’s response to my earlier post is another interesting read, yet it is also rather broad brush historical. I think he is erroneous if he claims that ‘it did not occur to classical liberals, on the whole, to question the state system as they knew it’. In fact the founding fathers of classical liberalism, David Hume and Adam Smith, were very much aware of other, often cosmopolitan ideals of world order. Yet they argued that the nation was attached to individual emotion, which could not be the case for entities beyond the nation state. This was also the position of later classical liberals such as Von Mises and Hayek, as I show in Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory (Palgrave, 2009).  Let me elaborate a little, also in the wider context of international political theory.

Liberalism is the political expression of individualism, yet cooperation of individuals in groups is valued positively. For classical liberals the nation, or the country, is the largest group in society which is the object of human passion, both positive in the sense of national pride and negative in the sense of shame and humiliation. Hume noted that there are few men entirely indifferent to their country, and both he and Adam Smith underlined that humans sympathise more with people to whom they are close than with strangers or foreigners. Feelings for the nation are strong, natural motivational forces for individuals.[i]

This also applies in the age of modern states and nationalism. Despite the atrocities committed in the name of national glory throughout the twentieth century, Mises and Hayek never predicted nor called for the end of the nation state. Mises thought that language was the essence of nationality, and with the fragmentation of the polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire in mind he argued that multi-language countries were doomed to failure. His solution was an increase in possibilities for individual self-determination and group secession, but not in the expectation that this would lead to a world without sovereign states.[ii] Hayek saw the nation as a prime source of human bonding and individual loyalty, but recognised the negative aspects of nationalism. He valued the nation, but nationalism was a poison,[iii] not least because he saw a strong relation between nationalism and imperialism. After all, it is a small step from thinking good about one’s country to trying to rule and civilise allegedly inferior others. Often, although certainly not in all cases, the nation as a group is politically organised as a sovereign state. In the classical liberal view, states are the most important actors in international relations.

To maximise individual freedom the state should only have a limited number of tasks. The state is an important protector of natural rights, but history has shown that it is also the biggest abuser of these rights. The principle of the rule of law intends to protect the negative liberty of individuals. Classical liberals think the state can best be bound by a combination of constitutions; separation of the legislative, executive and judicial powers; and the limitation of positive law.

In international affairs this means that states should be cautious about concluding and ratifying treaties and other forms of positive law. These are often binding commitments that are very hard to change or to get rid of, with a large possible negative impact on individual freedom. Some international agreements may be useful to smooth the working of the international society of states, or to settle practical matters. But the dangers of overregulation are just as real in world politics as they are in national politics. Besides some specific cross-border issues, the classical liberal rule of thumb is that there is no need for international state action if there is no domestic state task.

Consequently, attempts to build a better world by establishing international organisations and regimes are rejected. Mises and Hayek were strong critics of the League of Nations and its successor the United Nations, and Hayek was a fierce critic of the International Labour Organization. Their main concern was that these and other organisations were taking up tasks they should not perform, just like overactive states in national circumstances. Social constructivism is bad, no matter at what level it is performed.[iv]

In Degrees of Freedom (Transaction, 2015)  I have tried to illuiminate the differences between the different forms of liberalism (and conservatism, also see my earlier post on the differences between them entitled “Let’s clear up the liberal mess”), including their views in international relations. In summary it looks like this:

Liberalism, Conservatism and International Relations

Classical liberalism Social liberalism Libertarianism Conserva


Nation as limit of individual sympathy Yes No No Yes
State as prime actor in world politics Yes No No Yes
International governmental


No Yes No No
Can war be eliminated No Yes Yes No
Does trade foster peace? No Yes Yes No

Source: Edwin van de Haar, Degrees of Freedom. Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology (Transaction Publishers, 2015).

That also explain partly why Barrry can rightly argue that the ideas of Kant, Mill and to a lesser extent Montesquieu differ from those of Hume, Smith, Mises and Hayek: they are not classical liberals but social liberals.


[i] Hume, Treatise,79, 317; Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982), 299; also Edwin van de Haar, ‘David Hume and International Political Theory: A Reappraisal,’ Review of International Studies, 34:2 (April 2008), 225–242.

[ii] Ludwig von Mises, Nation, State, and Economy. Contributions to the Politics and History of Our Time (New York and London: Institute for Humane Studies & New York University Press, 1983), 39–40, 82.

[iii] Friedrich Hayek, Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), 143.

[iv] Mises, Nation, State and Economy, 90–91; Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government. The Rise of the Total State and Total War (Grove City: Libertarian Pres, 1985), 292–294; Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (London: Routledge, 1997), 176.

Reply to ‘Classical Liberalism, Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism’

I write in reply to Edwin van de Haar’s post ‘Classical Liberalism, Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism’, which contains some generous remarks about my social media posts while putting forward a view different from my own about the role of the nation state. Edwin argues that the nation state is foundational to classical liberalism in that post. I have previously argued for the benefits of the United Kingdom staying in the European Union, just before the referendum which has put the UK on the path to leaving.

I will start with the doctrinal issues of how far classical liberalism might be considered as something that is embedded in the emergence of the nation state as we know it. It is true that classical liberalism arose as the nation state emerged and consolidated and it did not occur to classical liberals, on the whole, to question the state system as they knew it. That is a system defined in early modern natural law and contractual theory about law and state as one of a very unified system of sovereignty in a world of ‘a state of nature’, anarchy, or lawlessness between states.

We have to note at least one major deviation in the familiar list of classical liberal authors, which is Immanuel Kant, thinking of his essays ‘Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose’ (1784) and ‘Perpetual Peace: a philosophical sketch’ (1795), which do not question the internal  sovereignty of states, but does argue for a law governed set of relations between states with a global institution of some sort to prevent republics going to war with each other.

We should consider John Stuart Mill’s thoughts on federal states in Considerations on Representative Government (1861), particularly chapter XVII, ‘Or Federal Representative Governments’ which looks at the possibility of a state with decentralised decision making functions. A nation state can be federalised, at least in principle, but what are the components of the federation other then sub-nations, where the population may even regard them as nations within the state. Mill was building on the experience of the United States since the constitution of 1787, and Switzerland, particularly since the federal constitution of 1848.

The United States and Switzerland did not come out of nowhere. The US consolidated the links between thirteen colonies of Great Britain while federal Switzerland built on the Swiss Confederation and its links with places like Geneva which were associated with the confederation, but were not part of it until the restructuring of European states in the Napoleonic period. The point here is that modern states may be federal as well as unitary states and that includes continuity with pre-modern links between at last partly self-governing regions-nations. We could even say that kind of state of associated states was the Medieval norm.

The example, and even idealisation, of this Medieval structure enters classical liberalism via Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748), along with the work of Swiss jurists of the time, particularly in Berne. Montesquieu was building on the experience of the kind of medieval and early modern monarchy where he thought there was liberty, moderation in government, distinguishing it from tyranny. In such situations different laws and assemblies for towns and for historic regions was quite normal under the monarchy. In so far as such states, like France, were tending to evolve in states based on the absolute sovereignty of the centre, in the formation of what we call a nation state, Montesquieu saw the danger of despotism.

The historical experience that Montesquieu was drawing on was the way that Medieval monarchies were constructed through assembling  patch work of  the monarch’s personal domains, regions with their own lords and institutions, and church domains, along with increasingly self-governing towns. He also looked at the antique experiences of allying republics in a federation, which he thought was preserved in the Netherlands and Switzerland of his time. Germany, which at that time was a kind of federal/confederal empire of very varied forms of sub-imperial sovereign units including princes with lands outside the Empire, was also a form of federation for Montesquieu.

If we go back to the German history of the century before Montesquieu, the idea of the modern nation state is strongly associated with the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty Years war, focused on Germany, but drawing in most of Europe. ‘Westphalian state system’ has become a label for an internal system of states which are completely sovereign internally and face each other as equal legal personalities with no higher instance of sovereignty or collective instrument for enforcing the laws of nations, which do have some basis in the natural law doctrines of the time, and earlier.

The trouble with this understanding of Westphalia is that though it has some truth for Europe outside the German Empire (officially known as the Holy Roman Empire), it is very misleading for the Empire, and therefore for those European powers, including Sweden and Denmark, which had land within the Empire. The princes, cities and other territorial units within the Empire were under the legal authority of the Emperor, who largely served as a judge of interstate disputes though with far greater powers in the lands of the Habsburg family (consolidated as the Austrian Empire in the Napoleonic era) which always had the Emperor, though the Emperor was legally an elective office. The Habsburgs land extended outside the Empire into central Europe so the Westphalian system of Imperial authority brought in other European nations and extended outside the Empire strictly speaking.

Westphalia modified a system rooted in the Middle Ages of Germany as a middle European federation or confederation, drawing in other parts of Europe and therefore anchoring a European system of some kind. Periods of dominance by France or Spain complicate this story, but French claims always overlapped with Imperial claims and the peak of Spanish power was when the Spanish monarchy was from the same family as the German Emperors.

The Napoleonic era disrupted these arrangements severely, but we can see Napoleon as trying to revive the original Empire of the Romans under Charlemagne in the ninth century, which united France, Germany and neighbouring territories under a Frankish over-king. Charlemagne was know as ‘father of Europe’ in his time, perhaps more in connection with Europe as Christendom and his wars against Muslims in Spain, then with Europe as we might think of it now, but this is part of the story of what it is for there to be a Europe and a European system. Coronation by the Pope and recognition of the Frankish kingdom as heir to ancient Rome connects the medieval German Empire with the first great European political system, the Roman Empire.

The aftermath of the Napoleonic period in Germany was a confederation, which again included those European powers (the United Kingdom was one) which had lands in Germany. This evolved into the German Empire founded in 1871, which was itself an extraordinary mixture of Greater Prussia, federation, democracy, aristocracy, monarchy, and so on. It was more of a nation state than German predecessor systems in that it was a sovereign unified part of the international state system. The size and growing economic power of the Kaiserreich, incorporating Polish, French and Danish speaking areas, made it a destabilising force in Europe. Too big for the security of other European states, too small to anchor a European system.

The First World War and the Second World War were both consequences of this unstable system. The European Union is in large part an attempt to solve the problem by creating a European system which Germany anchors, though since unification the dominance of Germany has become an issue again. Whatever the problems, the EU provides a better framework for structuring a European system in which Germany is both contained and can exert influence in a consensual manner.

Returning to the issue of the nation state, Germany was never a nation state in the strictest sense of a very unitary state with a single language and ethnicity. France has usually been taken as the model of the nation state ‘strictly speaking’, but even so it has only been a country of speakers of standard French since the late nineteenth century. As it is now, it includes speakers of Breton, Basque, Occitan and Alsace German. Corsica has special status and Alsace-Lorraine also has some special arrangements in recognition of its specificities.

The European world before the First World War was more of a Europe of multi-national Empires than nations, with four Empires (German Hohenzollern, Austrian Habsburg, Turkish Ottoman, Russian Romanov) dominating the centre and east. Spain in practice has always been an extended Castille in which other regions-nations have played variable distinct roles. The United Kingdom never completely integrated as a nation state; even at the peak of integration in the nineteenth century, Scotland kept its own legal, state church and educational system and since then in a rather complicated way the UK has become more loosely integrated and may lose Scotland in a few years.

Even with the imminent departure of the UK from the EU, Europe continues to be a political system, not just an aggregate of nation states. The larger European states are not nation states in the strictest sense. Even without the EU, European states accept various kinds of obligation with regard to north Atlantic security and global trade which limit sovereignty. The UK will negotiate some kind of membership of the internal market of the EU and its passport union aspect, as well as participation in various EU schemes. It will therefore continue to be part of a European system anchored by Germany.

Ever since the Romans, Europe has needed a European system of some kind, and the German anchor schemes going back to 800 have recognised the Roman precedent. In reality there has never been a Europe of nation states and the periods closest to that model ended in catastrophic wars. Disaggregation of the European system as it is now may not result in war, but it has the potential to unleash trade wars, protectionism, competitive currency devaluation, erosion of chances to live, work, and study abroad, associated labour market sclerosis, destabilising struggles for political-diplomatic dominance, and an incapacity to ally in order to deal with global and strategic issues affecting Europe, including migration flows, Russian expansionism, and Middle Eastern conflict and terror.

(more on the consequences of the UK leave referendum soon)

Classical Liberalism, Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism

In another thought-provoking post on Facebook (does the guy ever write mediocre stuff, I wonder?) Barry raised the question of the relation between classical liberalism, nationalism and cosmopolitanism. He wrote the following:

“On the capture of classical liberal/libertarianism by anti-cosmopolitans. This is very influential at the heart of the ‘leave’ ‘elite’ in the UK, and can only be destructive of classical liberalism/libertarianism. The immediate political consequence of Leave is the elevation of Theresa May to Tory leadership/Prime Minister’s office on a much more ‘Red Tory’, communitarian, corporatist foundation than existed under Cameron. ’To the extent to which the current wave of populism maps into a conflict over national versus transnational identity (Dan Drezner is unconvinced), the problem is not an excess of cosmopolitanism but rather its absence, especially on the conservative, free-market right.”

He seems to take a positive relation between classical liberalism and cosmopolitanism as the default position. Of course Barry did not provide definitions in a FB post, but here I take cosmopolitanism to mean “the idea that all human beings, regardless of their political affiliations, belong to a common moral community. Cosmopolitans often believe that all individuals have the same basic moral status, and tend to downplay the importance or desirability of national political institutions. [They are] opposed to nationalism” (source: Matt Zwolinski (editor), Arguing About Political Philosophy, Routledge, 2009).

I argue that Barry overlooks that classical liberalism combines a cosmopolitan side, with a strong defense of national political institutions (e.g. the state). The cosmopolitan side is perhaps easiest to see, if one takes the idea of free trade as the guiding principle. Free trade is by nature morally neutral for the individuals involved, and has numerous positive economic effects; it fosters cultural exchange as well as innovation and knowledge sharing. In that sense classical liberalism is indeed related to cosmopolitanism.

Yet this stops where the national state comes into play. Classical liberals never predicted any positive political effects of trade (see my earlier notes on this topic) and, just as importantly, they actually favor a strong state, with a limited number of tasks. At the same time, from Hume and Smith onwards to Mises and Hayek, they strongly dislike the idea of transnational political institutions, because these lack any substantial emotional basis which nations do posses. Also, these large political institutions easily become a threat to individual liberty, even more so than national states with too many tasks. So, there is no really no relations between political cosmopolitanism and classical liberalism at all.

There is also no relation between nationalism and classical liberalism. A preference for the national state does not lead to nationalism, which is the vicious and poisonous belief in the superiority of one’s country, often accompanied with a dislike of allegedly inferior neighboring countries or peoples or groups. This is collectivism turned even worse, which is a double ‘no’ from a classical liberal perspective. This said, if patriotism is defined as national pride, then classical liberalism and patriotism can and will go together. There is a fine line between the two sometimes, but patriotism is not violent and dividing, but a binding force between individuals sharing a national state.

The last point is on the European Union. Hayek and Mises have been on record with strong support for a European Federation, primarily as a remedy to war-torn and nationalism-infected Europe. In these circumstances the default position of an international order as a society of states no longer functioned, so there was a need to seek an alternative. Needless to say their federation had little resemblance with the current super state we know as the European Union, which has become a classical liberal nightmare in terms of liberty and property rights violations it commits on a daily basis.

The current EU has some classical liberal traits (the imperfect common market is the single most important one), which is of tremendous use to all European individuals. It is, however, way too cosmopolitan in the bad political way. A likely consequence of Brexit is that this will become even worse, now that the French and their allies will get more room for their collectivist fallacies.

Group Privileges No, Detriments Yes

The concept of “privilege” has become common in political discourse, while the term “detriment” is seldom used. One incurs a detriment, and is detrimented, when one is harmed, offended, displeased, or disadvantaged, unrelated to merit. One obtains a privilege, and is privileged, when a person or group is advantaged, benefitted, pleased, or favored relative to other groups, when the gain is unrelated to merit.

Some socialists emphasize “white privilege.” Suppose a white man is able to walk down a street without being harassed, while a black man will be stopped and questioned by the police. The socialist will say that the white man is privileged in being free of harassment. But actually, the ability of an innocent person to walk without being stopped and frisked is a natural right, not a special favor. The black man has suffered a violation of his natural rights, a detriment not suffered by the white man.

The socialist will also claim that there is “male privilege.” Suppose a man can walk down the street in peace, while a woman walking down the same street will be whistled at, aggressively approached, and may even be physically attacked. Does the man have a privilege? No, one has a natural right to be free of aggression. The woman suffers a violation of her rights, a detriment.

Women suffer many detriments because of social custom and culture, rather than governmental law. Wives tend to do more household work, even when they are working for wages as many hours as the husband. In some fields of work, men have more prestige and authority, unrelated to merit. The culture is not so much giving males privileges as it imposes on women various detriments.

Some detriments are mandated by law. In most places in the US, men are free to remove their shirts, while a bare-breasted woman would get arrested. The men do not have a privilege; the women have a legal detriment.

Female detriments can become tragic in cultures where male children are preferred. A boy is not privileged by not being aborted or killed. Rather, the girls suffer a lethal detriment. In my judgment, more progress can be made to stop this anti-female bias by calling it a detriment rather than saying the boys are privileged. Boys as well as girls have a right to not be murdered.

Female detriments have been lethal in India, where rape and violence has made headlines. But there is substantial rape in the US and throughout the world, which clearly makes being female a detriment in much of the world.

The trouble with saying there is a male privilege is that men do not feel privileged by not being attacked or disfavored. It should be normal to be left in peace, and to be respected. By identifying the problem as a detriment, we can then raise more awareness and support for remedies. We can also then better deal with the real privileges, favors to those who get subsidies from government because of political clout.

The language of privilege versus detriments influences policy. “Privilege” implies special favors that should be removed. “Detriment” implies harms and disadvantages that should be stopped. For the problem of infanticide, for example, it is not that privileged boys should be killed in an equal ratio, but that girls should not be murdered for being female.

Let’s speak less of racial and gender privilege, and more of detriments!

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.


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.

Libertarians and Pragmatists on Democracy Part 3: Pragmatists on Democracy as a Way of Life

eNote: This is part of a series on democracy. It is assumed the reader is familiar with part one, defining democracy, and part two, summarizing classical liberal perspectives on democracy. In this section, we’ll analyze how pragmatists conceive of democracy as a broader philosophy. The final post will argue that a dialectical synthesis of libertarianism and pragmatism on democracy will yield an argument in favor of market anarchy.

As classical liberals have pointed out throughout history, particularly in since the mid-nineteenth century, democracy as a system of political decision-making can be extremely dangerous to individual liberty and social prosperity. It could lead to tyranny of the majority, it may be characterized in practice as the rule of the ignorant and irrational and yield awful policy, and it leads to a reification of the state as the just “voice of the people” which can cause further tyranny. For these reasons, there is a very strong argument from moving away from constitutions which rely primarily on democratic means for decision making for the protection of individual liberty. The natural question is: what is our current democratic regime to be replaced with?

To answer this question, perhaps it is worth examining what is admirable in democracy. Thus far, I have mostly been referring to democracy in the second sense mentioned in the introductory section (henceforth referred to, for want of a better term, political democracy), as a means of political decision making. However, there is also the fourth sense which, although related, is distinct from political democracy which may be called philosophical democracy. To further explore this meaning of democracy, and perhaps give an answer to the aforementioned question, it is worth engaging with the thought of some of the most strident defenders of democracy: the American pragmatists.

Pragmatists on Philosophical Democracy

The writings of John Dewey and Sidney Hook are exemplars of philosophical democracy (though certainly others in this tradition are as well). Dewey, in his 1888 essay “The Ethics of Democracy,” specifically argues against Henry Maine’s view that “democracy is only a form of government.” Dewey explicitly defines democracy as a much broader “way of life,” as he says in his 1937 work “Democracy and Education:”

Democracy is much broader than a special political form, a method of conducting government, of making laws, and carrying on government administration by means of popular suffrage and elected officials. It is that, of course. But it is something broader and deeper than that. The political and governmental phase of democracy is a means, the best means so far found, for realizing ends that lie in the wide domain of human relationships and the development of human personality. It is, as we often say, though perhaps without appreciating all that is involved in the saying, a way of life, social and individual. The keynote of democracy as a way of life may be expressed, it seems to me, as the necessity for the participation of every mature human being in the formation of the values that regulate the living of men together: which is necessary from the standpoint of both the general social welfare and the development of human beings as individuals.

Indeed, Dewey’s emphasis on how democracy allows for participation in the formation of social values is a common thread throughout his entire political philosophy. In his earlier days, he was deeply influenced by the Hegelian notion of society as a “social organism” (although, in his later work he became a bit more cautious about the collectivist and possible authoritarian implications of this doctrine; see his 1939 essay “I Believe”). In 1888, he argued that democracy, by allowing participation of all, “approaches most nearly the ideal of all social organization; that in which the individual and society are organic to each other.” He explains:

In every other form of government there are individuals who are not organs of the common will, who are outside of the political society in which they live and are, in effect, aliens to that which should be their own commonwealth. Not participating in the expression of the common will, they do not embody themselves. Having no share in society, society has none in them.

…The government is not made up of those who hold office, or who sit in the legislature. It consists of every member of political society. And this is true of democracy, not less, but more, than of other forms. The democratic formula that government derives its powers from the consent of the governed…means that in democracy, at all events, the governors and the governed are not two classes, but two aspects of the same fact—the fact of the possession of a unified and articulate will.

Thus, Dewey argues that “Democracy, in a word, is a social, that is to say, an ethical conception, and upon its ethical significance is based its significance as governmental.”

Dewey expands upon the sense in which Democracy is an “ethical conception” in his much later work “Creative Democracy: The Task Before Us,” in which he characterizes democracy as a “personal way of individual life” (his emphasis). In this sense, democracy is not only to be found in institutions but in “free gatherings of neighbors on the street corner to discuss back and forth what is read in uncensored news of the day, and in gathering of friends in living rooms of houses and apartments to converse freely with one another.”

The sense in which democracy is a personal way of life is characterized by what Dewey calls the “democratic faith.” There are two elements to this democratic faith, one is faith in “the possibilities of human nature.” That is, faith that “every human being, independent of the quality or range of his personal endowment, has the right to equal opportunity with every other person for the development of whatever gift he has.” Second, is a “faith in the capacity for human beings for intelligent judgment and action if proper conditions are fostered.” These two faiths combine to make democracy an overarching philosophy that characterized by “belief in the ability of human experience to generate the aims and methods by which further experience will grow in ordered richness.” It can be seen, then, how these faiths may be found in not so much the political institution of democracy but in every day deliberative discussion and face-to-face encounters like neighbors and friends discussing news.

Sidney Hook in his 1938 essay “The Democratic Way of Life” further expands on the ethical character of democracy as a personal way of life. He argues that there are “three related values which are central to democracy as a way of life.” Those are the “belief that every individual should be regarded as possessing intrinsic worth or dignity,” the “belief in the value of difference, variety and uniqueness,” and, to mediate between such values, a belief in “the method of intelligence, of critical scientific inquiry.”

In regards to that last value, it could be said that for Dewey and Hook participatory democracy is not only a “way of life” or an “ethic,” but also a social epistemology. He argues in “Democracy and Education” that, although intelligence is unevenly distributed among individuals, “it is the democratic faith that it 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 says in Liberalism and Social Action that rapid changes in society “have to be directed” and “controlled that it will move in some end in accordance with the principles of life, since life itself is development.” For Dewey, taking advantage of the dispersed intelligence through the democratic process is essentially the application of the scientific method to political problems. Indeed, the idea of democratic experimentalism comes to the forefront in this philosophical conception of democracy precisely because of Dewey’s epistemological commitments to the scientific method.

Thus, democracy in this pragmatist sense is a personal philosophy and social epistemology that accepts scientific deliberation, humanism, and pluralism as necessary conditions for growth of individuals and society as a whole.

Dewey on Political Democracy

Of course, the pragmatists not only conceived of democracy as a way of life but defended democratic institutions. What is striking about this is how Dewey characterizes political democracy as a means to the aspirations of philosophical democracy rather than an end itself. Indeed, he writes in “Democracy and Administration” that the institutions of political democracy “are not a final end and a final value. They are to be judged on the basis of their contribution to end.” The end here, of course, is the extent to which it allows individuals to participate in the formation of social values and the defense of liberty necessary for such participation.

Recall that in The Constitution of Liberty Hayek also conceived of political democracy as an end, and there is a striking similarity between Dewey and Hayek on this point. One may be tempted to say that the ends they are seeking are entirely different as Hayek is seeking individual liberty. However, this is not necessarily the case, as Dewey argued in Liberalism and Social Action that the end of liberalism is “a social organization that will make possible the effective liberty and opportunity for personal growth in mind and spirit of all individuals.”

To be sure, Dewey’s and Hayek’s conceptions of what constitutes liberty are very different: Hayek specifically cites Dewey as conceptually confusing “power” with “liberty” for accepting a positive rather than negative conception of liberty. For Hayek, liberty simply means “the absence of coercion.” For Dewey, liberty means “the liberation of individuals so that realization of their capacities may be the law of their life.” However, what at first seems to be two contradictory beliefs in liberty are not necessarily contradictory. One may say, with Dewey, that positive liberties are necessary so that individuals may grow in mind and spirit and participate in the formation of social values, but agree with Hayek that a necessary prerequisite for such liberties is absence of coercion. Indeed, this defense of negative liberty for the sake of positive liberty is precisely the stance many modern neoclassical liberals take, most notably Jason Brennan and David Schmidt. Thus, Dewey’s and Hayek’s views on democracy as a means to the end of liberty are quite possibly complementary. (This is not to be confused with claiming they really said the same thing, which they clearly did not.)

Dewey defends democracy as the most effective means to this end on the basis that “no man or limited set of men is [sic] wise enough or good enough to rule others without their consent[.]” Political democracy is understood by the pragmatists, as Sidney Hook says, to be a society “where the government rests upon the freely given consent of the governed.” This consent (which Hook acknowledges is not in complete existence in reality) is given through voting.

Criticisms of the Pragmatist Incorporation of Political Democracy

The pragmatist conception of philosophical democracy is certainly admirable from a classical liberal standpoint. Its emphasis on dispersed knowledge, its call for liberal tolerance of diversity, its humanistic respect for the dignity of every individual, and its use of a broadly scientific (though not scientistic) approach to social issues are all well in line with classical liberalism’s goals. However, clearly the incorporation of political democracy as the political ideal by the pragmatists would irk many classical liberals and especially modern libertarians. In fact, I would argue that political democracy in practice is somewhat antithetical to the philosophical aspirations of the pragmatists.

There are four ways in which political democracy undermines the aspirations of philosophical democracy. First, in no meaningful sense could it be said that political democracy has the consent of the governed. Second, political democracy in practice is in no meaningful sense actually an application of intelligence and the scientific method to political issues in practice. Third, the centralization of political authority and planning in democracies undermines Dewey’s point that intelligence is distributed throughout society (particularly in his extremely interventionist views on economics). Finally, the democratic process undermines the mutual respect of individual human dignity philosophical democracy exalts.

Both Dewey and Hook argue that political democracy’s legitimacy and its epistemic superiority rest on its ability to take the freely given consent of the governed through the electoral process. Dewey is, at best, vague on what this means, but Hook is a bit more explicit in “The Democratic Way of Life:”

In saying that government rests upon the “consent” of the governed, it is meant that at certain fixed periods its policies are submitted to the governed for approval or disapproval. By “freely given” consent of the governed is meant that no coercion, direct or indirect, is brought to bear upon the governed to elicit their approval or disapproval. A government that “rests upon” the freely given consent of the governed is one that in fact abides by the expression of this approval or disapproval.

Hook gives three conditions of how this consent must be reached. First, the method of giving consent must not be obstructed (in this case, free elections without coerced voting). Second, there can be no economic threats to political dissenters, so the economic policy must be controlled through political means. Third, there can be no monopoly in education or the press. I argue, though the third may be reached in political democracy, the first two are nearly impossible to be achieved in political democracies.

On the first point, it is highly dubious that voting is truly a method of consent in the first place. Michael Huemer in The Problem of Political Authority identifies three arguments that are typically given to claim democracy has the consent of the governed. First, “naïve majoritarianism,” which believes that if all vote or have the opportunity to vote in an election the majority has just authority to govern as they please. Second, deliberative democracy, which holds that if participants can publicly reason about their proposals, have an equal voice, and a consensus can be aimed at, the resulting consensus or majority vote is just. Third, equality from authority which holds that treating others as equals means we must respect democratic decisions. Though neither Hook nor Dewey explicitly explain why they think a vote constitutes consent, it is safe to say that their beliefs fall somewhere between naïve majoritarianism and deliberative democracy, thus it is worth rehashing Huemer’s arguments against those views. (The equality argument is mostly irrelevant for present purposes.)

Against naïve majoritarianism, Huemer asks us what if such a principle were applied to everyday situations through a thought experiment of a number of friends trying to decide who pays for the tab in bar. Imagine that, against your wishes, everyone among your friends says they should take a vote on who should pay for the bar tab, and they happen to choose you. Are you morally obligated to pay the tab? Do your friends have the right to forcibly take your money away from you and pay the tab? Our intuition says no and that this isn’t really consensual, so why, Huemer asks us, is it any different with political institutions?

The more interesting argument Huemer takes up is Joshua Cohen’s conception of deliberative democracy, which certainly bears some similarity to the pragmatists. Huemer characterizes Cohen’s notion of deliberative democracy as bearing the following features:

  1. Participants take their deliberation to be capable of determining action and to be unconstrained by any prior norms
  2. Participants offer reasons for their proposals, with the (correct) expectation that those reasons alone will determine the fate of the proposals.
  3. Each participant has an equal voice.
  4. The deliberation aims at consensus, however if consensus is not achieved, it is decided by voting.

First of all, as Huemer notes, there is little reason why deliberation in democratic institutions should legitimize the claim that participants have consented to the results. If we return to the bar tab example, imagine if we just added the stipulation that before the vote was taken everyone gives you reasons and arguments about why you should pay the tab, fail to convince you, and still vote that you pay for it. Nothing changes in terms of your consent to their taking your money. Indeed, the fact that government coercion involves deliberation is irrelevant to whether that coercion was consented to.

However, there is a second reason why the argument for political authority from deliberative democracy fails, and this brings me to my second argument against the application of political democracy for the ends of pragmatist philosophical democracy. Dewey and Hook, as well as Cohen, act as if democratic discourse is actually deliberative as if reasons are actually given, as if everyone participates in the process. Dewey likens this process to the scientific method, holding that it is the “intelligence” that can control and direct changes in society.

This is decidedly not the case in any actual modern democracy. As public choice theorists note, the incentives facing voters is not to apply their intelligence and knowledge to voting, they instead vote as rationally ignorant. Further, contrary to Dewey’s democratic faith in the ability of people to make good decisions voting, they are systemically biased and irrational, as Bryan Caplan argued in The Myth of the Rational Voter. The result is not the controlled, experimental, scientific deliberation and discourse the pragmatists describe, but rule of an ignorant, irrational majority. How one can look at the cacophonic caterwauling in political discourse, the superficial pomp and circumstance of the electoral process, the irrational partisanship that low-information ideological voters possess, and the sensationalism of media coverage and call it “deliberative” or “intelligent” in any sense is quite beyond me. It seems that democracy is more like cheap pornography than science and deliberation, deliberative democracy and intelligence in the scientific method of actual democratic institutions is a myth.

Further, the idea that everyone has an equal say in any existing democracy is, at best, absurd. A fraction of the population votes and their votes are controlled by an even smaller fraction of the population in the press, policy research, and who controls campaign ads. The actual policies are not controlled by elections, but by backroom deals and bureaucracies in modern democracies. As public choice theory teaches us, this makes policy in democracy the whim of special interests who contribute to the politician’s campaigns, who engage in rent-seeking and regulatory capture, not the majority and this certainly undermines the idea that anyone has an equal say in political democracies.

Hook has another condition of consent for political democracies, that there is no indirect economic coercion. He elaborates on this point:

There are less obvious but no less effective ways of coercively influencing the expression of consent. A threat, for example, to deprived the governed of their jobs or means of livelihood, by a group which has the power to do so, would undermine a democracy even if its name were retained. In fact, every overt form of economic pressure, since it is experienced directly by the individual and since so many other phases of his life are dependent upon economic security, is an overt challenge to democracy…Where it cannot influence the expression of consent, it may subvert or prevent its execution. This is particularly true in modern social instruments of production, necessary for the livelihood of many, are privately own by the few…Genuine political democracy, therefore, entails the right of the governed, through their representatives, to control economic policy.

My strong disagreement with Hook here brings me to my third point, that political democracy’s tendencies towards centralization are antithetical to Hook and Dewey’s arguments that philosophical democracy acknowledges and takes advantage of the dispersed intelligence among individuals. Anyone schooled in public choice theory immediately sees the problem with Hook’s analysis that government policy controlling economics is necessary to reduce indirect economic coercion. As the concept of “concentrated benefits, dispersed cost” shows, the reality is that when policy is controlled by the government in democracies a select few special interests have the incentive to use government policy to their ends at the expense of the public good. In other words, what Hook calls “economic democracy” is undemocratic in every way due to the public choice problems embedded in the democratic process for selecting economic policy. Further, Hook’s point about unequal distribution of wealth needing to be subverted by state intervention is far off the mark; that exact state intervention is what causes such centralization of wealth in the first place.

But this brings me to my broader point about how political democracy is inconsistent with Dewey’s assertion that “it is the democratic faith that it 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[.]” Political democracy has resulted in the centralization of decision making into ever larger governments by an increasingly elite group of bureaucrats, politicians, and special interests. This is not taking advantage of the intelligent contributions of each individual.

Further, Dewey’s general views on economic policy and favoring for big government that were bordering on socialism at times and were definitely in favor of progressive state intervention, are at odds with his broader epistemic commitments which are closely linked to philosophical democracy. This may be seen by directly comparing Dewey on these points with Hayek.

In a great paper entitled “Hayek’s Challenge to Dewey,” Alan Reynolds points out that both Hayek and Dewey have very similar epistemic views and both derive their political views from their respective epistemologies. However, Hayek’s and Dewey’s respective visions of liberalism are very different. Hayek counts himself in the old classical liberal tradition which seeks limited government to maximize individual negative liberty, while Dewey, despite acknowledging this older liberalism’s success at progress in the past, sees classical liberalism as an obstacle in Liberalism and Social Action and says it should be replaced with a “renascent liberalism” that embraces large government policies to guarantee positive liberties.

Yet, as Reynolds notes, both Hayek and Dewey have similar epistemologies, and his analysis is worth quoting at length on this point:

Dewey constantly argues that the philosophical tradition, starting with Plato but achieving its sharpest articulation with Descartes, portrayed humans as fundamentally rational beings, whose rationality has a single universal structure and is capable of detaching itself from experience to grasp universal truths.  Dewey instead puts forward a radically different view, in which knowledge is fallible, limited, social, embodied, and contextual.  He argues against the “old notion that intelligence is a ready-made possession of individuals.”   This view is a “purely individualistic notion of intelligence” that fails to recognize the social character of intelligence.   Knowledge, for Dewey, is not primarily acquired and developed in detachment from social interactions, but is embodied in them.  We live “in an environment in which the cumulative intelligence of a multitude of cooperating individuals is embodied.”   This means that knowledge is much broader than the articulation of it found in the philosophical tradition.  Dewey’s conception of knowledge, according to Posner, “includes tacit (‘how to’) knowledge as well as the articulate knowledge acquired by formal reasoning and systematic empirical methods, for both are useful.”   Knowledge is not confined to the articulate and explicit, but includes the knowledge weaved into the emotions, common sense, know-how, and intuition.   This broader sense of knowledge is not reducible to the articulate and explicit.

…Hayek’s vision of epistemology similarly deflates the pretensions of human rationality and broadens out our notion of knowledge to include those practical aspects of our know-how that remains unthematized (and possibly unthematizable).  Hayek offers a distinction between two opposing conceptions of “the place which reason plays in human affairs.”   There is the Enlightenment (and specifically Cartesian) view that “assumes that Reason, with a capital R, is always fully and equally available to all humans and that everything which man achieves is the direct result of, and therefore subject to, the control of individual reason.”   In contrast to this rationalist epistemology, he offers what he refers to as his evolutionist, “antirationalist approach,” which “regards man not as a highly rational and intelligent but as a very irrational and fallible being, whose individual errors are corrected only the course of a social process, and which aims at making the best of a very imperfect material.”   Human reason is able to provide the on-the-ground knowledge that helps to navigate particular contexts and situations – and this knowledge will be overwhelmingly what we might call “practical knowledge,” or know-how, which is not easy to formalize into know-that type information.  It is false (and potentially dangerous) to view humans as beings that are specially equipped to access universal truth via universal reason; contrarily, we are creatures that can navigate certain kinds of situations via practical problem-solving.  A great deal of this knowledge is “tacit, inarticulable, and therefore uncommunicable.”   In this view, “man has achieved what he has in spite of the fact that he is only partly guided by reason, and that his individual reason is very limited and imperfect.”   This rejection of Cartesian-inspired rationalism, and defense of an anti-rationalistic, fallibilist epistemology, is central to Hayek’s picture of the individual and the limits of knowledge.

Unlike Dewey, Hayek continually applies this critique of a hyper-inflated view of reason to government policy where Dewey stops short. Hayek’s point that our knowledge is inarticulate, incomplete, and fallible means that no man or group of men possess the knowledge to design an economy. Instead, we must rely on the decentralized decision making of the price system, on the spontaneous order of markets to allocate resources. Any attempts to design, plan, or control an economy are destined to fail due to this fundamental knowledge problem so closely linked to Hayek’s critique of Enlightenment rationalism that Dewey shares. Reynolds comments:

This assumption that socialist planning is possible and desirable relies, I argue, on the following moves on Dewey’s part: (1) Dewey throws out bad Enlightenment “Reason” and puts in its place the notion of “intelligence;” and (2) although “intelligence” does not harbor the pretenses of coming into contact with absolute truth like “Reason” does, it is still powerful enough to be capable of successfully planning and guiding the economy.  While Hayek joins Dewey in step (1) (deflating the pretensions of Reason), Hayek would rightly be concerned with step (2).  For Hayek, the shift from Enlightenment “Reason” to fallible “intelligence” should make us far more skeptical about the possibility and desirability of economic planning.  If Deweyans took Hayek seriously, they might find themselves in agreement with Richard Rorty when he asks the Left to “stop talking about the ‘anticapitalist struggle,’” and content itself with “sticking to small experimental ways of alleviating misery and overcoming injustice.”

It is a little strange, however, that Dewey failed to anticipate this Hayekian challenge. He does acknowledge in Liberalism and Social Action does acknowledge the very Hayekian point that “society in general is served by the unplanned coincidence of the consequences of a vast multitude of efforts put forth by individuals without reference to any social end” as a “new formulation” in classical liberalism. Further, his criticisms of aristocracy and the progressive tendency to over-rely on technocratic experts for government administration come close to Hayekian knowledge problem critiques of socialism at times. However, Dewey’s excessive focus on the historical abuses of early industrial state capitalism blinded him to the potential for markets to be a spectacular coordinating mechanism.

Getting off the topic of economics and back to democracy, it is clear that political democracy’s tendency to centralize everything and apply a one-size-fits-all approach to social problems based off of majority rule are at odds with the social epistemology of Deweyan philosophical democracy.

The final reason why political democracy fails to meet the end of philosophical democracy is it undermines the democratic faith in the dignity of humans, and deliberative discussion and hermeneutical openness to opposing opinions necessary for such a faith. Turn on cable news while covering a political issue or read the comments of the majority of internet political forums and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any examples of people respecting the dignity of “the other side.” Indeed, Jonathan Haidt notes in The Righteous Mind that political discussion tends to go ugly do to the way our minds process morality. Michael Huemer notes just how irrational political discourse in modern democracies can so often get. This bodes ill for any political project that seeks to use outright public debate (as opposed to dialogue) to be “deliberative,” especially pragmatist democracy.

Yet there’s another sense in which modern political democracy completely undermines the dignity of the human person. Modern democracies lead to a false identification of the state with “the will of the people,” a false identification Dewey himself bought in his earlier writings though repudiated after the rise of totalitarianism. Any individual who goes against the state, then, is going against “the people,” all of humanity. Often times, these people are written off with such labels as “unpatriotic,” “irrational,” “anti-democratic” (in the first sense as a meaningless insult) and the sort. That seems completely contrary to respecting the dignity of each individual, and to openness in dialogue and deliberation with other opinions that Dewey wants to embrace.

As we have seen, on almost every aspect political democracy fails to deliver the promises of philosophical democracy extolled by the pragmatists. Dewey himself did acknowledge in a later essay entitled “I Believe” that “democratic institutions are no guarantee for the existence no guarantee for the existence of democratic individuals.” Further, he insists that democratic institutions are a means to the philosophical ends and “are to be judged on the basis of their contribution to end[.]” It seems that it is not inconsistent, in light of recent evidence from public choice theory and experience, to oppose political democracy from a pragmatist perspective yet still embrace Dewey’s broadly “democratic” philosophical commitments.

Of course, Dewey would reject completely separating the means of democracy from the intended ends. As he wrote in an essay called “Democracy is Radical,” “The fundamental principle of democracy is that the ends of freedom and individuality for all can be attained only by the means that accord with those ends.” Further, he was immensely critical of Trotsky and revolutionary radicals for their attitude that the means justify the ends.

What is needed, then, is an alternative set of political institutions to democracy that can approximate the pragmatist philosophical aspirations of humanism, pluralism, open dialogue and serious scientific inquiry that are also consistent with individuality and liberty. In the next post, I will argue that this set of institutions can likely be found in market anarchism with a polycentric legal system.