Revisiting Epstein’s Freedom and Growth


I was fortunate to be invited give the Epstein Lecture at LSE this March. The series is named after the great LSE economic historian Larry (Stephen) Epstein. Here I’ll summarize why it was such an honor to give the lectures. The content of the lecture will be another post.

Epstein was a historian whose origin field of expertise was medieval Italy. I encountered him through Freedom and Growth. Published in 2000, I first read it a couple of years later, perhaps in 2002 or 2003. At the time I was devoted to a story of economic growth shaped by Douglass North, particularly Structure and Change in Economic History (1981).

The focus of Structure and Change was on transaction costs. High transaction costs limited market exchange and kept societies poor for most of history. Sustained economic growth could only occur once transaction costs fell to a level that allowed markets to expand and the division of labor to develop. On this view, market expansion or Smithian growth was itself a stimulus to technological innovation. But what kept transaction costs high?

One answer North gave was the state. To paraphrase: the state had the ability to both keep a society mired in poverty through predatory behavior and to provide the preconditions for growth by securing property rights. The origins of sustained economic growth for North lay in institutional changes that occurred secured property rights and lowered transaction costs. The most important such institutional change was the Glorious Revolution of 1688.


North’s account received many challenges, but the issue that Epstein honed in on was the assumption that there was such a state, able to either revoke or secure property rights. It was assumed that “rulers rule”. Epstein contested this arguing that New Institutional Economists

“project backwards in time a form of centralised sovereignty and jurisdictional integration that was first achieved in Continental Europe during the nineteenth century; they therefore fundamentally misrepresent the character of pre-modern states.”

North, Wallis, and Weingast would address this in their 2009 Violence and Social Orders. But Epstein’s criticism was spot on in 2000. Epstein argued that alongside the problem of predatory states, a central problem was the lack of integrated markets. He attributed market disintegration to coordination and prisoners’ dilemma problems between political authorities. In so doing, Epstein set the agenda for the subsequent “state capacity” research agenda.

Epstein made several points which continued to be expanded upon by current research (see here). First, he documented that the lower interest rates that the British state paid after 1688 were characteristic of city republics from the middle ages onwards. He argued that the English monarchy in the 17th century was characterized by an anomalously backwards financial system. Lower interest rates after 1688 partly represent a convergence to the Republican norm achieved by Italian city-states centuries earlier.

Second, he challenged the argument that monarchies “overtaxed” cities. There was “no evidence that townspeople paid higher taxes under monarchies than republics”. Per capita taxes were likely higher in Republican city-states.

Third, he disputed that Republican city-states like Florence brought economic freedom noting that “republican subjects faced several limitations to their economic and political freedoms that monarchical subjects did not”. All of this challenged generalizations made by historical sociologists like Charles Tilly and economic historians like North.


Epstein’s historical evidence came from medieval Italy. Late medieval Italy was highly urbanized and prosperous by pre-industrial standards. According to Broadberry’s estimates, per capita GDP in Italy in 1450 was not matched by England until 1750. Like growth elsewhere in the premodern world, it was Smithian growth, driven by trade, market integration, and the division of labor. But unlike in England, this Smithian growth did not continue and blossom into modern growth. Epstein’s explanation for why this did not take place was that late medieval Italy suffered an “integration crisis”.

He saw the late medieval period as characterized by new opportunities for growth and innovation. Urbanization increased. Capital markets expanded and deepened. Interregional trade developed. Proto-industrialization took place. But Epstein contended these opportunities were only seized in areas where political authority was centralization.

In reference to proto-industrialization, he observed that

“Crucially, the success of regional crafts was inversely proportional to the concentration of economic and institutional power in the hands of a dominant city.”

With respect to the establishment of permanent fairs, he noted that

In fifteenth-century Lombardy, new fairs proliferated only after the balance of power shifted decisively from the former city-states to the territorial prince with Francesco Sforza’s victory in 1447.

Market integration was complemented and perhaps driven by political integration. Integrated urban hierarchies were themselves the product of political centralization.

“Centralisation underlies all the major institutional changes to market structures previously described. It lowered domestic transport costs, made it easier to enforce contracts and to match demand and supply, intensified economic competition between towns and strengthened urban hierarchies, weakened urban monopolies over the countryside, and stimulated labour mobility and technological diffusion.”

The more centralized parts of Italy — notably Lombardy — were better able to benefit from these trends than was Tuscany. But in general, political fragmentation and regional diversity were “distinctive features of pre-modern Italy” in general and an impediment to its long-run growth prospects.

Unlike in his analysis of interest rates, Epstein brought little data to bear on these claims and I am unaware of subsequent research on late medieval Italy. As such, the thesis of a late medieval integration crisis laid out in Freedom and Growth remains speculative. Epstein would no doubt have fill in the details had he lived longer. Subsequent research has mostly focused on early modern rather than medieval Europe (see here).  But the larger message: the importance of the state for premodern economic development has been central to subsequent research, including my own work (e.g. here).

10 Greatest Speeches of All Time

That’s the topic of my latest column over at RealClearHistory. Obviously, I took a break from my World War I-themed posts to do this one. Here is an excerpt:

4. Duty, Honor, Country speech by Douglas MacArthur: May 12, 1962. General Douglas MacArthur was a divisive figure in his day. For many, he was too martial for a constitutional republic, too outspoken for a General, and some of the policies he argued for (foreign and domestic) were a bit too hawkish for my stomach. William Manchester’s biography of Douglas MacArthur, American Caesar, helped show me how important republican governance was to the General, though. MacArthur thought deeply about republicanism and the effects that war had on a republican citizen’s virtues and characteristics. I have the slight advantage of having Manchester’s work on MacArthur etched into the back of my mind while reading through the latter’s speech, given to cadets at West Point two years before his death: “His name and fame are the birthright of every American citizen. In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty, he gave all that mortality can give. He needs no eulogy from me; or from any other man. He has written his own history and written it in red on his enemy’s breast.” You can read the whole speech here.

These columns are aimed at a different crowd that what I am used to here at NOL, but I think I do a pretty decent job of weaving rather mundane topics (great speeches from an American point of view) into the fabric of more fundamental questions about our global society. Read the rest to find out if I’m way off the mark on this one.

North Korea, the status quo, and a more liberal world

The tension on the Korean Peninsula can be felt throughout the entire Pacific Rim right now. North Korea, a dictatorship with a shaky grasp on its populace, has nuclear weapons and is launching non-nuclear missiles over Japan and threatening South Korea and the United States. To make matters worse, the only state in the region that Pyongyang deems worthy of dialogue, China, refuses to engage in much multilateral work to defuse the situation.

If I were South Korea and China I would have an advanced missile shield system right on the border of North Korea, and if I were Japan I would have an advanced missile shield system spread all along my massive coastline. However, China is engaging in trade sanctions against South Korea for trying to build a missile shield along it’s border with North Korea, ostensibly because such a missile shield would threaten Beijing’s territorial integrity. This is a huge strategic mistake on China’s part. North Korea is ruled by the son of a brutal dictator who is in the midst of remaking the People’s Republic in his image. Pyongyang is launching missiles over wealthy democracies and threatening perceived enemies with nuclear annihilation. China is ignoring all of this, and undertaking policies designed to underwhelm multilateral efforts at containing North Korea because Beijing wants North Korea to serve 3 purposes: 1) a useful buffer state (but read this), 2) a hostile reminder that it considers Taiwan as part of China, and 3) as a good bargaining chip when dealing with the United States in the region.

Given that the United States is not geographically a part of East Asia, and given that Washington figures prominently in not one, not two, but all three major reasons why China refuses to engage robustly in more multilateral actions against such a destructive neighbor, we must ask ourselves: Why is the United States still in South Korea? The answer is that Koreans want them there.

Check out the latest results of a Pew Survey asking people what they think about the United States:

blog Pew American 2
(source)

75% of South Koreans have a favorable or somewhat favorable view of the US even after the election of Donald Trump. That’s higher than the other baseball-friendly countries like Italy (61%) and Japan (57%), and much higher than next-door neighbor Mexico (30%) and longtime NATO partner Germany (35%).

China is wrong to believe that an American withdrawal would suddenly make North Korea a breezy member of the international community of states. Kim Jong Un’s regime depends on foreign enemies to survive. James Madison put it best:

The means of defense against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending have enslaved the people.

North Korea would bully Seoul and Tokyo and cajole Beijing even moreso because Washington would not be there to bear the burden of Liberal Hegemonic Boogieman.

But I’m not a Chinese citizen and this is a post about a more liberal world, so I’d like to switch gears and focus on something that all libertarians are secretly obsessed with: money.

What kind of deal is the US getting by having troops stationed along the 38th parallel? I know the US is a target of a dictator’s nuclear arsenal because of troops along the 38th, and I know the US has to expend considerable resources on the Korean Peninsula to protect Seoul, so costs are understood, but what about benefits? What about payment? What does US get in return for protecting South Korea?

Trade – a big aspect of libertarian foreign policy – is not that big of a deal for either country: the United States makes up about 14% of South Korea’s exports, and South Korea makes up nearly 3% of the United States’ exports. This means that China, for example, is a larger, more important trading partner to both countries than either is to each other.

One of the benefits I’ve found is South Korea’s participation in multilateral military actions undertaken under the umbrella of US military leadership. South Korea has provided troops for dozens of current UN missions in sub-Saharan Africa and post-British Asia, and also participated in the US-led invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq (Seoul’s troops left Iraq in 2008 and Afghanistan in 2014). I also learned that South Korea deployed 325,000 soldiers to South Vietnam from 1964-1973, losing roughly 5,100 soldiers and welcoming home another 11,000 wounded soldiers.

Seoul’s participation in Vietnam was a shocking discovery for me. It forced me to reassess America’s relationship with South Korea. The status quo is actually a decent trade-off. The status quo is cooperative, not coercive. The status quo isn’t so bad from a libertarian standpoint: There is a trade-off with mutually beneficial exchange involved, there is a cooperative rather than coercive relationship between both sides, and tens of millions of people are freer than they otherwise would be because of it.

We can still make the alliance marginally better, though. We can still take small steps to a much better world. Consider federation between the two countries.

On the face of it, such an event is ludicrously radical and completely anathema to liberty and cooperation. I would have had the same reaction just a couple of years ago, but two books have fundamentally changed my mind about this: Daniel Deudney’s Bounding Power: Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village and David Hendrickson’s Peace Pact: The Lost World of the American Founding. Both scholars are American political scientists and, as far as I can tell, card-carrying Democrats.

Deudney’s book uses theory and history to show that, among other things, republican security theory is, and always has been, from antiquity to the present day, the most important question that scholars of international relations have had to grapple with. For centuries, republics started out with the best of intentions, the best of circumstances, and always managed to decay into despotism or succumb to conquest by neighboring despots. The United States, Deudney goes on,  managed to get out of this trap through federal union and, because of its peculiar geographic situation, a full-fledged republican security bargain was able to come to full fruition.

Deudney bases this part of his argument on Hendrickson’s little-known but immensely persuasive book. Hendrickson argues that the newly independent 13 states and their eventual federal union should best be viewed in an international relations framework. In order to protect themselves not only from powerful empires but more importantly from each other, the 13 states entered into a federal union that held them responsible for a limited number of shared responsibilities (such as international security and ensuring republican government in their domestic realms) and left plenty of space for each of them to exercise policymaking as they saw fit. In order to avoid a race to the bottom – where the 13 states formed security blocs between themselves and used Spain, France, and the UK to undermine their rivals – the 13 states built, piece-by-piece, a cooperative international system and called it a federation.

With America’s domestic liberties under increasing assault, largely because the current situation places so much emphasis on certain checks and balances over others, adding additional “states” in the form of South Korea’s provinces would breathe new life into all of the institutions necessary for both security and republican domestic governance.

The inevitable Korean bloc

The biggest fear that such a federation would bring about is the fear of a Korean bloc, or the disintegration of the precarious balance of power between the two parties in the US. Although partisans on both sides no doubt loathe that their side is even with the other in terms of influence and numbers, most Americans are very happy with the two party status quo (if they weren’t happy there would no longer be a two party status quo).

Admitting 5 to 7 new “states,” former Korean provinces, makes it seem like this delicate two party balance would be quickly destroyed with the advent of a Korean bloc which has no interest in traditional American politics. I assure you there would be no Korean bloc. Look at the most recent Korean elections:

blog korea elections map
You’ll notice there’s 5 parties instead of 2 like in the States. That’s because South Korea uses proportional representation whereas the United States uses the FPTP system. The end result of both systems is the same: a center-right bloc and a center-left bloc. In South Korea’s case, the red and the grey districts are right-wing, and the other three colors are left-wing. (source)

There is a Left-Right divide focused on policy and to a lesser extent ideology rather than an ethnic one, just like here in the States.

The Korean Left would line up nicely with Democrats (it even has an anti-American streak that isn’t anti-American at all, only anti-GOP, just like the Democrats!). The conservative wing of South Korea might form a Korean bloc but it would be ineffective in the House and Senate because of its small number.

Libertarians are often dissatisfied with the status quo, even though they’re often the first to point out that life in Western states continues to get better and better. The status quo relationship between South Korea and the United States is great. But it could always be a little bit better.

Lunchtime Links

  1. Trophy-taking and dismemberment as warfare strategies [pdf]
  2. optimally vague contracts and the law [pdf]
  3. Germanic and Carthaginian republicanism
  4. traditional resurgence in tropical Africa [pdf]
  5. crisis bureaucracy: homeland security and the political design of legal mandates [pdf]

Taxes, Free-riding, and Federation

Check out Adam Smith complaining about the rent-seeking that the UK’s North American colonies were practicing back in 1776:

The expence of the ordinary peace establishment of the colonies amounted, before the commencement of the present disturbances, to the pay of twenty regiments of foot; to the expence of the artillery, stores, and extraordinary provisions with which it was necessary to supply them; and to the expence of a very considerable naval force which was constantly kept up, in order to guard, from the smuggling vessels of other nations, the immense coast of North America, and that of our West Indian islands. The whole expence of this peace establishment was a charge upon the revenue of Great Britain, and was, at the same time, the smallest part of what the dominion of the colonies has cost the mother country. If we would know the amount of the whole, we must add to the annual expence of this peace establishment the interest of the sums which, in consequence of her considering her colonies as provinces subject to her dominion, Great Britain has upon different occasions laid out upon their defence. We must add to it, in particular, the whole expence of the late war, and a great part of that of the war which preceded it. The late war was altogether a colony quarrel, and the whole expence of it, in whatever part of the world it may have been laid out, whether in Germany or the East Indies, ought justly to be stated to the account of the colonies. It amounted to more than ninety millions sterling, including not only the new debt which was contracted, but the two shillings in the pound additional land tax, and the sums which were every year borrowed from the sinking fund.

This comes from Book 4, the third (and last) part (“Part Third”) of Chapter 7 in Smith’s famous book The Wealth of Nations (TWON). (Here is a great link to the whole chapter, courtesy of the Library of Economics and Liberty. I read the Bantam Classics version for my Honors seminar on Liberty in Western Political Thought, led by Andrew Sabl, who is currently a Visiting Professor at Yale, though I don’t have it with me so I can’t cite, let alone remember, the page numbers.)

Let me throw a little bit of historical context for this excerpt at you. Smith wrote TWON before the onset of the first Anglo-American war (TWON was published in 1776, which means it did not influence the American colonists in any way, shape, or form; think about the way information spread back in those days), and the war was largely the result of a quarrel between the UK and its North American colonies over taxation. The taxation, though, was needed in order to pay for a war (the Seven Years’ War) that the colonies had initially lobbied the British government to fight for them. The British colonies in North America had much more leeway than their French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch counterparts, and a number of these colonies wanted to expand westward, into the Ohio Valley, where the French state had made claims that were recognized under international treaties.

To make a long story short: Several colonial factions picked a fight with the French and their Native American allies, and this little schoolyard brawl turned into a global war (with fighting in North America, India, Africa, South America, and East Asia) that saw the United Kingdom become the world’s preeminent imperial power and France lose almost all of its North American colonial possessions.* When the war was over, the British parliament wanted to tax the colonies to pay for their fair share of the war, and the colonists said “No taxation without representation!” Smith summed up the situation as thus:

In order to put Great Britain upon a footing of equality with her own colonies […] it seems necessary, upon the scheme of taxing them by parliamentary requisition, that parliament should have some means of rendering its requisitions immediately effectual, in case the colony assemblies should attempt to evade or reject them […] The parliament of Great Britain insists upon taxing the colonies; and they refuse to be taxed by a Parliament in which they are not represented.

This is quite the conundrum, and Smith put forth a proposal that I found quite novel when I first read it as an undergraduate. But before I get to his proposal, I want to make sure that everyone understands the situation here. The UK fought an expensive war at the behest of its colonies, and the colonies, once the war was over, refused to pay for it. Sound familiar? It should. Today the United States finds itself in this situation often (just replace the word “colonies” with “allies”).

Smith proposed the following deal instead of war or civil oppression (such as economic sanctions):

If to each colony […] Great Britain should allow such a number of representatives as suited the proportion of what is contributed to the public revenue of the empire, in consequence of its being subjected to the same taxes, and in compensation admitted to the same freedom of trade with its fellow-subjects at home. [Were British America] to send fifty or sixty new representatives to parliament, […] there is not the least probability that the British constitution would be hurt by the union of Great Britain with her colonies. That constitution, on the contrary, would be completed by it, and seems to be imperfect without it. The assembly which deliberates and decides concerning the affairs of every part of the empire, in order to be properly informed, ought certainly to have representatives from every part of it. That this union, however, could be easily effectuated, or that difficulties and great difficulties might not occur in the execution, I do not pretend. I have yet heard of none, however, which appear insurmountable. The principal perhaps arise, not from the nature of things, but from the prejudices and opinions of the people both on this and on the other side of the Atlantic. […]

Why didn’t the UK just federate with its North American colonies? Smith cited British fears of an unbalanced political constitution that the North American colonies might bring to such a union, and North American fears of being completely dominated by a faraway parliament were they to join such a federation. He countered both fears well, but check out what he predicted would happen if such a federation were to actually take place:

The distance of America from the seat of government […] would not be of very long continuance. Such has hitherto been the rapid progress of that country in wealth, population, and improvement, that in the course of little more than a century, perhaps, the produce of American [taxation] might exceed that of British taxation. The seat of the empire would then naturally remove itself to that part of the empire which contributed most to the general defence and support of the whole.

Interesting, right? Smith argued that the American colonies would become so rich and so populous that the capital of his proposed British federation would “naturally” move from London to somewhere in North America.

Smith was wrong in a general way, but correct in an even more general way. Let me explain.

Smith was wrong because the United States – once separated from the United Kingdom – evolved into the wealthiest, most innovative society the world has ever known. The reason for this is the aristocratic upper house of a legislative institution (“Senate”) that the 13 states had to create in order for all of them to join a federation. If Smith had had his way, the world would have never known the American Senate, and I doubt very much that the 13 colonies would have grown to become as innovative and wealthy as they are today without this vital institution of governance.

Smith was also wrong to make his argument for such a federation to be based on tax revenue rather than principled representation (though see Warren’s infamous post arguing for just such a proposal). The tax revenue argument might be more economically efficient, but it would not give polities seeking federal bonds the guarantee of some sort of equality (two representatives in the aristocratic chamber of the legislative assembly) that they would need to join such a federation. On these two points Smith’s argument was wrong, but what did he and other republicans and federalists get right?

To answer that I think it’s best to ask another question: What would happen if the UK and the US were to federate today?

The UK would be the poorest state in the union (as measured by GDP PPP per capita), if it were admitted as one state.

The stark difference in living standards doesn’t stop there, though. Suppose the SNP finally gets its way and Scotland leaves the UK. Even if England (intl$ 32,669), Wales (intl$ 25,947), and Northern Ireland (intl$ 27,573) were admitted into the US as three separate states, they would all be at the bottom of the living standards barrel. Were Scotland to go along with the other polities in the UK and federate with the US as a separate state, she would rank second-to-last (intl$ 33,791), just in front of Mississippi but behind Idaho. The rankings would look like this:

49. Idaho

50. Scotland

51. Mississippi

52. England

53. Northern Ireland

54. Wales

Smith’s argument suddenly looks a whole lot better, right? At least if you think living standards as they are measured by economists are a good way to gauge the overall health and wealth of a given society.

A federation is basically a huge, actual free trade zone (both capital and labor can move freely) coupled with a binding military pact and some institutions that allow factions to openly argue and contest for spoils that end up in a state’s treasury, but that’s not what the US has with any of its military allies or trading partners. What I find interesting is that the objections to federation between the UK and its North American colonies that Smith listed are essentially the same ones that crop up when such a federation is proposed between the US and its various allies and partners. The difference between now and then, though, is the Senate. Sending representatives based purely on population or tax revenue would most likely contribute to an unbalanced political constitution, but having two guaranteed representatives in a political body that’s heavily aristocratic and lightly democratic would surely guarantee an equality that all sides could eventually agree upon.

There is also an interesting cultural development to think about as well. The states in Western Europe and East Asia sans China have helped to develop a political culture that is more closely aligned with the one found in the US, Canada, and Australia/New Zealand, one where citizenship trumps ethnic identity. Identity based on citizenship is not as strong as the one found in the Anglo-Saxon world, and ethnic differences do pop up from time to time (largely due to linguistic differences), but the states of Western Europe and East Asia have taken many steps in the right direction to help eradicate the parochial tribalism that has long plagued European and Asian societies and replace it with citizenship. Take a look at the political constituencies of the following three countries:

blog-2013-elections-germany
Germany’s 2013 federal elections (source)
blog-2016-elections-south-korea
South Korea’s 2016 legislative election (source)
blog-2013-elections-italy
Italy’s 2013 legislative election (source)

They are largely based on a Left-Right divide rather than the ethnic ones we find in less economically-developed, less politically-integrated, post-colonial states. This Left-Right divide would fit in perfectly with the Madisonian constitution, as administrative units (i.e. Northern Ireland, Gangwon, Bavaria, or Trentino instead of the UK, South Korea, Germany, or Italy) could be added in a manner so as not to upset the balance between Left and Right currently found in the US. Political coalitions would wax and wane with time, of course, but if we want a world where the East Asians and Western Europeans pay their fair share, and where they are protected from Moscow and Beijing, then federation is as moderately radical as you can get.

Just ask Adam Smith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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