Adam Smith on the character of the American rebels

They are very weak who flatter themselves that, in the state to which things have come, our colonies will be easily conquered by force alone. The persons who now govern the resolutions of what they call their continental congress, feel in themselves at this moment a degree of importance which, perhaps, the greatest subjects in Europe scarce feel. From shopkeepers, tradesmen, and attornies, they are become statesmen and legislators, and are employed in contriving a new form of government for an extensive empire, which, they flatter themselves, will become, and which, indeed, seems very likely to become, one of the greatest and most formidable that ever was in the world. Five hundred different people, perhaps, who in different ways act immediately under the continental congress; and five hundred thousand, perhaps, who act under those five hundred, all feel in the same manner a proportionable rise in their own importance. Almost every individual of the governing party in America fills, at present in his own fancy, a station superior, not only to what he had ever filled before, but to what he had ever expected to fill; and unless some new object of ambition is presented either to him or to his leaders, if he has the ordinary spirit of a man, he will die in defence of that station.

Found here. Today, many people, especially libertarians in the US, celebrate an act of secession from an overbearing empire, but this isn’t really the case of what happened. The colonies wanted more representation in parliament, not independence. London wouldn’t listen. Adam Smith wrote on this, too, in the same book.

Smith and, frankly, the Americans rebels were all federalists as opposed to nationalists. The American rebels wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom because they were British subjects and they were culturally British. Even the non-British subjects of the American colonies felt a loyalty towards London that they did not have for their former homelands in Europe. Smith, for his part, argued that losing the colonies would be expensive but also, I am guessing, because his Scottish background showed him that being an equal part of a larger whole was beneficial for everyone involved. But London wouldn’t listen. As a result, war happened, and London lost a huge, valuable chunk of its realm to hardheadedness.

I am currently reading a book on post-war France. It’s by an American historian at New York University. It’s very good. Paris had a large overseas empire in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Caribbean. France’s imperial subjects wanted to remain part of the empire, but they wanted equal representation in parliament. They wanted to send senators, representatives, and judges to Europe, and they wanted senators, representatives, and judges from Europe to govern in their territories. They wanted political equality – isonomia – to be the ideological underpinning of a new French republic. Alas, what the world got instead was “decolonization”: a nightmare of nationalism, ethnic cleansing, coups, autocracy, and poverty through protectionism. I’m still in the process of reading the book. It’s goal is to explain why this happened. I’ll keep you updated.

Small states, secession, and decentralization – three qualifications that layman libertarians (who are still much smarter than conservatives and “liberals”) argue are essential for peace and prosperity – are worthless without some major qualifications. Interconnectedness matters. Political representation matters. What’s more, interconnectedness and political representation in a larger body politic are often better for individual liberty than smallness, secession, and so-called decentralization. Equality matters, but not in the ways that we typically assume.

Here’s more on Adam Smith at NOL. Happy Fourth of July, from Texas.

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.”

American Idiots

The biggest mistake one can make, when on a remote trek, is to not bring a large variety of music. A paucity of music leads to repeating the same albums over and over again, which can have disastrous consequences for one’s mental health. Luckily my choice in music is excellent. I had the Rolling Stones’ “Some Girls” album to accompany me, with such gems as “When the Whip Comes Down,” “Respectable,” “Far Away Eyes” (my personal favorite), and “You Win Again.” Almost as good is my childhood love, Green Day’s American Idiot.

When the album came out ten (10!) years ago, in 2004, I was in 7th grade. That is, I was a complete political incubus. Like an amoeba, my political instincts were reflexive, I loved the gods the city worshipped, and I hated the gods the city did not worship. I hadn’t listened much to the lyrics then or later, but now that I was repeating the album constantly, as an accompanying refrain on my mountain ascents, I had cause to examine what the singer was actually singing about.

The titular song, “American Idiot,” is a triumphalist left wing punk ballad. The singer does not come right out with his political affiliations, but his statement: “well maybe I’m the faggot America/I’m not part of a redneck agenda” seem to put him on the left side of the aisle, right in the middle of the Kulturkampf. He has reason to celebrate, for although the issue of gay acceptance was up in the air until quite recently, it seems to have been decisively settled: gays are accepted now, get over it, it’s only a matter of time until the law catches up.

Perhaps on this issue he may be pleased, but overall, he should be appalled. Behold the following:

“Don’t want to be an American idiot.
One nation controlled by the media.
Information age of hysteria.
It’s calling out to idiot America.”

He meant this to be an indictment of right wing types, idiots who watch Fox News and vote Republican and wave the flag and all that jazz. Such a criticism may, indeed, apply to them. However, it seems to apply much more to the left wing today, than to the right.

Case in point. A scientist lands a rocket on a comet, millions of miles away. Technically this is a stroke of brilliance, and deserves all the hearty praise we can offer. However, instead of focusing on this grand achievement, the moment was hijacked by the social justice warriors. The team leader’s shirt was deemed sexist, and the incident labelled #shirtgate. Gasp! faint! He then recorded a groveling apology for the jackals. When I see Nepalis plowing their fields with the same tools the Sumerians developed, and then consider what some of us in the West consider problems, I almost weep for our decline. I find cackling to be much more appropriate, however.

This sort of model happens all the time. Someone says something that is offensive to the gods the city worships, social media or the MSM whips up a frenzy, and the offending party either capitulates immediately or is attacked until he (almost always a man, it seems) issues some sort of apology. The jackals are satisfied, or more likely, they simply become angrier. This happens so frequently that it is redundant of me to even describe the cycle. Brandon describes it well in his excellent article on the cannibalization of the left.

Green Day caused a big ruckus when their album came out. But now, ten years on, it is interesting to see that the new* American idiots aren’t Bible-thumping, faggot-hating rednecks from Georgia – they’re young millenials, smug in their moral superiority, tearing people down with the virtual power of social media. What’s funnier, or perhaps sadder, is that these same people are, like me, kids who grew up listening to this album. Happy trails!

*A better word, in light of comments.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Seneca on Mercy and on Anger

Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (4-65 CE) was born in the Roman Spanish city of Cordoba. Southern Spain was one of the most Romanised parts of the Roman Empire outside of Italy, so it is not surprising that Seneca made his way to Rome where he became a writer and, it seems, a money lender. He was also tutor to and then adviser to the Emperor Nero. He had previously been in conflict with the Emperor Claudius, for unknown reasons, and was exiled to Corsica for a while as a consequence.

Seneca’s writing career covered philosophical essays, tragedies, and letters which amounted to an exploration of his philosophical interests. He followed the Stoic school of philosophy, which goes back to the Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium (334-226BCE), and was influential on the Roman upper classes. So much so that the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180CE) wrote his Meditations with regard to Stoic thinking on character and ways of living. It was written in Greek, indicating how far Roman thought on ethics, politics, and other topics was continuous with, or at least engaged with, ancient Greek thought.

Seneca’s relations with Nero turned out to be even more destructive than those with Claudius. Seneca tried to educate and advise Nero to be honest, just, and restrained in the use of power. However, Nero turned out to be one of the most infamously cruel, paranoiac, and violent Emperors. These negative tendencies were turned on Seneca, so that even after Seneca had retired to the countryside to avoid the bad atmosphere around Nero, he was forced to commit suicide on suspicion of complicity with a conspiracy to assassinate Nero. (Nero himself was overthrown and pressured to commit suicide three years later.) Suicide was a relatively honourable form of death for Romans, and it was a privilege to be allowed to commit suicide rather than face execution, nevertheless Seneca and Nero can be said to have both met sorry ends as a result of political turmoil initiated by Nero.

Nero’s behaviour was really the direct opposite of that recommended to rulers by Seneca’s essays on anger and on mercy, and was a painful failure for Seneca who had tried to educate him from childhood for a moderate self-restrained use of power. Seneca’s approach to politics is to advise an absolute ruler in the use of power, so he might seem a bit paradoxical as part of a series on liberty. However, Seneca was considered as a major supporter of republics, of government based on individual liberty in the early modern period, so that Thomas Hobbes, the authoritarian-minded philosopher and political thinker, considered his thought a danger to sovereign state power.

Seneca’s thought certainly did mark the death of the Roman Republic, which was essentially abolished in substance (after a historical phase of hollowing out) by Julius Caesar in his period of absolute power from 49BCE until his assassination in 44BCE. The failure of the assassins to restore the republic led to the absolute power of Augustus and the inauguration of the autocratic emperor system.

Seneca refers unfavourably to those who use the Greek idea of ‘parrhesia’, that is free and critical public speaking, to excess, going against what had been taken as central to the liberty of citizens. The reason Seneca can be placed in the liberty tradition is that even when criticising excess in free speech, he praises a Macedonian-Greek king on the receiving end for the restraint of his reaction. Living in an age of absolute rulers, Seneca’s main concern is that they rule as the foundation of individual rights rather than as a source of arbitrary power over citizens.

The essays on mercy and anger bring together the fields of personal virtue and the best ways of governing. Virtue for Seneca, as was normal for ancient thinkers, was deeply embedded in ideas of self-restraint and moderation. From this point of view anger damages the angry person, as an example of self-harming extreme behaviour. Anger is a negative painful state of mind and to act under its influence leads to great harm.

Seneca is not simply saying that a ruler should follow general moral virtue in the manner of ruling. He places a particular responsibility on the ruler to resist anger and show mercy. The individual may harbour resentment against some enemy who caused harm, but the ruler must avoid such resentment. The ruler who publishes and executes all those regarded with suspicion as present or future enemies harms the state and the public good. Harsh treatment of individuals by rulers leads to those individuals becoming angry with the ruler so conspiring against that person. Executions will only stimulate further rebellion by those who were closest to the executed and leads to an increasingly violent period of rule. All the violence and revenge has negative consequences for the public good as well as for those persecuted.

The ruler should regard all individuals as part of the state, which he should be trying to manage responsibly. The state is harmed if any individual within the state is harmed, as the state exists to promote the public good. The ruler who cannot restrain desires for cruelty and who ignores the rights of individuals is suffering from a self-harming weakness of character and is likely to suffer violent revenge. Seneca mentions the third Roman Emperor, Caligula, in this context, who was assassinated in 41CE, four years after succeeding Tiberius.

The best thing the ruler can do is show mercy. Those who receive mercy, even after plotting assassination, are likely to start supporting the ruler, and even work for the ruler. It is better to forgive and try to integrate a conspirator than kill the conspirator so that others will wish to avenge that murder. The ruler should obey laws as much as ordinary citizens, and should be mild in applying laws. Everyone is guilty of some fault, of some minor breach of law, at some time, so that punishing all wrong-doers will lead to the destruction of a society, as nearly all inhabitants of the territory of the state disappear.

While Seneca assumes that political power rests with one person, he argues that the continuing exercise of the power rests both on reliable justice with regard to the execution of laws and restraint from the most extreme or obsessive punishment. The powers of the state are understood as different from those of an individual, and as such must be much more limited in use than the power of citizens. The rights and welfare of citizens depend on a ruler who follows law and assumes less power than individuals, which makes a worthy contribution to thought about liberty.

Investment & Prudence

To be prudent amounts to making sure that one takes good care of oneself in all important areas of one’s life. Health, wealth, family, friendship, understanding, etc. are all in need of good care so that one will achieve and sustain one’s development as a human individual. It all begins with following the edict: “Know thyself!”

All those folks who make an effort to keep fit and to eat properly are embarking on elements of a prudent life. Unfortunately, the virtue of prudence has been undermined by the idea that everyone automatically or instinctively pursues his or her self-interest.

We all know the rhetorical question, “Isn’t everyone selfish?” Because of certain philosophical and related doctrines, the answer has been mainly that everyone is. In the discipline of economics, especially, scholars nearly uniformly hold the view that we all do whatever we do so as to please ourselves, to feel good. No room exists there for pure generosity or charity, for altruism, because in the final analysis everyone is driven to act to further his or her own wellbeing, or for carelessness, recklessness. If people do not achieve the goal of self-enhancement, it is primarily out of ignorance – they just don’t know what is in their best interest but they all intend to achieve it and even when they appear to be acting generously, charitably, helpfully and so on, in the end they do so because it gives them satisfaction, fulfills their own desires and serves their idea of what is best for them.

This is not prudence but what some have dubbed animal spirit. People are simply driven or motivated to be this way, instinctively, if you will. The virtue of prudence would operate quite differently.

One who practices it would be expected to make a choice to pursue what is in one’s best interest and one could fail also to do so. Practicing prudence is optional, not innately produced. Like other moral virtues, prudence requires choice. It is not automatic by any means. The reason it is thought to be so, however, has to do with the intellectual-philosophical belief that human conduct is exactly like the behavior of non-human beings, driven by the laws of motion!

Once this idea assumes prominence, there is no concern about people having to be prudent. They will always be, as a matter of their innate nature. What may indeed be needed is the opposite, social and peer pressure to be benevolent or kind, to adhere to the dictates of altruism, something that requires discipline and education and does not come naturally to people.

It would seem, however, that this idea that we are automatically selfish or self-interested or prudent doesn’t square with experience. Consider just how much self-destructiveness there is in the human world, how many projects end up hurting the very people who embark upon them. Can all that be explained by ignorance and error?

Or could it be, rather, that many, many human beings do not set out to benefit themselves, to pursue their self-interest? Could it be that human beings need to learn that they ought to serve their own wellbeing and that their conduct is often haphazard, unfocused, even outright self-destructive (as, for example, in the case of hard drug consumers, gamblers, romantic dreamers, fantasizers and the lazy)?

It seems that this latter is a distinct possibility if not outright probability. It is a matter of choice whether one is or is not going to be prudent, in other words. And once again, ordinary observation confirms this.

One can witness numerous human beings across the ages and the globe choosing to work to benefit themselves, as when they watch their diets or work out or obtain an education, and many others who do not and, instead, neglect their own best interest. Or, alternatively, they often act mindlessly, thoughtlessly, recklessly, etc.

The contention that they are really trying to advance their self-interest, to benefit themselves, seems to be one that stems from generalizing a prior conviction that everything in nature moves so as to advance forward. This is the idea that came from the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who learned it from Galileo who took it from classical physics.

Accordingly, acting prudently, in order to advance one’s wellbeing, could be a virtue just as the ancient philosopher Aristotle believed it to be. And when one deals with financial matters, careful investing would qualify as prudence, just as is working out at a gym, watching one’s diet, driving carefully, etc.

Libertarianism and Republican Virtue

I am short on time and effort these days, so I apologize for bringing up my school readings on the blog. I have moved on from Locke’s Two Treatises to Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws.  This passage in particular has stood out to me so far:

When Sulla wanted to return liberty to Rome, it could no longer be accepted; Rome had but a weak remnant of virtue, and as it had ever less, instead of reawakening after Caesar, Tiberius […] Nero, and Domitian, it became ever more enslaved; all the blows were struck against tyrants, none against tyranny (pg. 22).

The decay of the American republic has been a worry of learned men since the agreement first took place.  My big question here is not so much about decay or liberty, but rather what virtue is.  I have some conception of it, but any sort of clarification would be great.

Montesquieu treats the desires and defenses of manufacturing, commerce, wealth, finance and luxury as the end of virtue and the beginnings of ambition, which leads to despotism and tyranny.

Given that most libertarians are also republicans (small “r”), how do we go about explaining that the freedom to pursue material goods is what is actually compatible with democratic government?  Was Montesquieu attacking a straw man?