Allen Porter Mendenhall

Archive for the ‘Austrian Economics’ Category

The Dirty Business of Government Trash Collection

In Austrian Economics, Economics, Essays, Humane Economy on November 25, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This article originally appeared here at Mises Daily.

I moved to Auburn, Alabama, in January 2013. I love Auburn.

It’s been nearly ten years since The Wall Street Journal profiled the Mises Institute and claimed that Auburn was an ideal spot for studying libertarian ideas and the Austrian tradition. I don’t know how much has changed since then, but I arrived in Auburn expecting a free-market sanctuary, a veritable haven where the ideas of Menger and Mises and Hayek were in the air and imbibed by the majority of people who weren’t members of the Auburn faculty, and even by some who were.

Once settled in Auburn, I realized I’d been quixotic and naïve. Even before national media picked up the story about the officer who spoke out against his department’s ticket and arrest quotas, even before the city of Auburn squeezed out Uber with severe licensing regulations, even before Mark Thornton highlighted the Skyscraper Curse in town, there was the matter of my trash bin.

I bought my house from a relocation company, the previous owner having been assigned a new position in another city. He was, this owner, in a hurry to move. Before he left town, he and his family rolled their trash bin to the side of the home, away from the street, where the garbage collector refused to retrieve it. They had stuffed the bin with garbage: food, paper, cardboard boxes, dirty diapers, and other junk. There was so much trash in the bin that the lid wouldn’t fully close. It looked like a yawning mouth. The house was on the market for approximately eight months before I purchased it, and I assume the bin had been sitting there, at the side of the house, the entire time. Naturally it had rained during the last eight months, so, with its half-open lid, the bin was flooded with soupy garbage and untold parasites. And it reeked.

The City enjoys a virtual monopoly on garbage collection; it tacks its fees onto the City’s water and sewage bill. The few private garbage-collection companies in town service mostly restaurants and businesses: entities that simply cannot wait a week for garbage pickup and need a service provider capable of emptying whole dumpsters full of trash. The City does allow residents to opt out of their collection services, but this only masks soft coercion with an illusion of consumer choice.

Government opt-out clauses are malicious precisely because of the impression that they’re harmless if not generous. Contract law is premised on the principles of mutual assent and voluntary agreement. Government opt-out clauses, however, deprive consumers of volition and bargaining power. They distort the natural contracting relationship by investing one party, the government, with power that the other party cannot enjoy. Not contracting for services is not an option, and government is the default service provider that sets the bargaining rules; the deck is stacked against the consumer before negotiating can begin.

The onus, moreover, is on the consumer to undo a contract that he’s been forced into, rather than on the government to provide high-quality services at competitive rates in order to keep the consumer’s business. Opt-out clauses make it difficult for the consumer to end his relationship with the government provider, and they force potential competitors to operate at a position of manifest disadvantage.

My wife and I took turns calling the City to ask about getting a new trash bin. No amount of cleaning and sterilization could rid the current bin of its stench. We couldn’t keep the bin inside our garage because of the oppressive odor. We left voicemails with different people in different departments at the City, begging for a new bin and explaining our situation, but our calls weren’t returned. There was no customer service of the kind a private company would have. After all, there was little danger of losing our business: the City was the service provider for nearly every neighborhood in town because of the difficulty private companies had breaking into a market controlled by government. We were, for now, stuck with the City’s inefficiencies and unresponsiveness. With much persistence my wife was eventually able to speak to an employee of the City. She was informed, however, that we could not get a new trash bin unless ours was broken or stolen. That stunk.

I learned in time about other drawbacks to our government-provided garbage service. During the holidays, collection schedules changed. When my wife and I lived in Atlanta and used a privately owned garbage company, our collection schedules never changed. Our collections were always on time. Our garbage collectors were kind and reliable because, if they weren’t, I could hire new collectors who would materialize in my driveway the next morning with shining smiles on their faces.

It’s simple enough to follow an altered holiday schedule, so that’s what we did in Auburn, only the collectors declined to follow that schedule themselves. After Thanksgiving, when trash tends to pile up, we placed our trash bin out on the street according to schedule. So did our neighbors. Yet nobody picked up our trash. Our entire street tried again the next week, on the appointed day, and once again nobody picked up the trash. A concerned neighbor called the City, and we were able to remedy the now-messy situation, but not without spending time and energy that could have been channeled toward better things.

When I was a child my brother and I were tasked each year with clearing trees, weeds, and shrubs that were growing along the pond in our backyard. We would pile sticks and sawed-up tree trunks and other debris on the curb of our driveway, along with bags of grass clippings, and our garbage collectors, who worked for a private company, would always pick up these items without question or complaint. We were so grateful that sometimes we’d leave them envelopes with extra cash to express our thanks.

In Auburn, however, I was once unable to squeeze an additional garbage bag into our trash bin, which was full, so I rolled the bin to the street and placed the additional bag beside it. I then lumbered inside for my morning coffee, when all of a sudden the garbage collector drove up and parked beside my bin. I watched from the window as he descended from his truck, shook his head, climbed back into his truck, picked up a pad and paper, and began scribbling with his pen. The next thing I knew he was issuing a yellow citation for an alleged infraction. It turned out to be a mere warning, but it indicated, right there in bold letters, that the next time we did something so egregious as putting our trash out for collection without using the bin, some repercussion — I forget what — would visit us.

When I think about the things the garbage collectors would remove from our driveway in Atlanta — an old door, a broken toilet, a malfunctioning lawnmower — I marvel that the City requires you to purchase tags at the Revenue Office if you wish to place things like dryers, water heaters, refrigerators, or microwaves on the street for garbage collection. Yet I remain optimistic, and not only because Joseph Salerno is coming to town to hold the newly endowed John V. Denson II chair in the Department of Economics at Auburn University.

I’m optimistic because I see some positive change. We recently organized a garage sale and came to discover, two days before the big day, that the City required a permit for such events. This time when we called the City to ask about the mandatory permit for garage sales, we received good news: those permits were no longer required as long as we conducted the sale in our own driveway. However minor, that’s progress. Perhaps it’ll spill over into other sectors of our little local community. Until then, War Eagle!

[UPDATE:  Two weeks after the Mises Institute published this piece, the City showed up on my driveway, removed the old trash bin and replaced it with a new trash bin.  Causation has never been established, but coincidence seems unlikely.]

Es buena la Decimocuarta Enmienda?

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Historicism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, The Supreme Court on February 18, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

El artículo original se encuentra aquí. Traducido del inglés por Mariano Bas Uribe.

Pocas cosas dividen a los libertarios como la Decimocuarta Enmienda de la Constitución de Estados Unidos. Gene Healy ha observado que “Liberales clásicos de buena fe se han encontrado en ambos lados de la discusión”.

Por un lado están los que alaban la enmienda por evitar el poder de los estados para prejuzgar, dirigir, regular o usar fuerza de cualquier tipo para imponer leyes discriminatorias sobre sus ciudadanos. Por el otro están los que, aunque reconozcan la naturaleza problemática de las malas conductas y los actos inmorales del estado, no están dispuestos a consentir la transferencia de poder de los estados al gobierno federal, y en particular al poder judicial federal.

La división se reduce a las visiones del federalismo, es decir, al equilibrio o separación de los gobiernos estatales y nacional.

Las secciones primera y quinta de la Decimocuarta Enmienda son las más polémicas. La Sección Uno incluya la Cláusula de Ciudadanía, la Cláusula de Privilegios o Inmunidades, la Cláusula de Proceso Debido y la Cláusula de Igual Protección y la Sección Cinco otorga al Congreso la autoridad para aplicar legislativamente la enmienda. Estas disposiciones han dado mayores poderes al gobierno nacional, permitiendo a los tribunales federales a hacer que los estados cumplan las leyes federales con respecto a ciertos derechos (o supuestos derechos) individuales.

El Tribunal Supremo de Estados Unidos, en Barron v. Baltimore (1833), sostuvo que la Declaración de Derechos (las primeras diez enmiendas a la Constitución de EEUU) obligaban solo al gobierno federal y no a los gobiernos estatales. Mediante la Decimocuarta Enmienda, que fue ratificada oficialmente en 1868, el Tribunal Supremo de Estados Unidos y los tribunales federales inferiores han “incorporado” gradualmente la mayoría de las disposiciones de la Declaración de Derechos para aplicarlas contra los estados. Así que el gobierno federal se ha empoderado para hacer que los gobiernos estatales cumplan disposiciones que originalmente solo pretendían restringir los abusos federales.

Si el gobierno federal fuera el único o el mejor mecanismo para reducir el tipo de discriminación y violaciones de derechos prohibidos por la Decimocuarta Enmienda, esta sería bienvenida y aceptada. Pero no es el único correctivo concebible y, aparte, ¿no es contraintuitivo para los libertarios aplaudir y defender un aumento tanto en el ámbito como en el grado del poder federal, incluso si ese poder, en algunas ocasiones, haya producidos resultados admirables?

En contextos no relacionados con la Decimocuarta Enmienda, casi nunca resulta polémico para los libertarios promover remedios no gubernamentales, locales o descentralizados, para leyes y prácticas injustas y discriminatorias. A menudo se alega que la industria y el comercio y la simple economía son mejores mecanismos para reducir el comportamiento discriminatorio, ya se base en raza, clase, sexo, género o lo que sea, que la fuerza del gobierno. Aun así, frecuentemente esos libertarios que hacen sonar las alarmas acerca de las aproximaciones gubernamental, federal y centralizada de la Decimocuarta Enmienda a las leyes y prácticas discriminatorias son tratados de forma poco sincera, en lugar de con argumentos, como defensores de aquellas leyes y prácticas, en lugar de como oponentes por principio de las reparaciones federales centralizadas para daños sociales.

Cualquier debate sobre la Decimocuarta Enmienda debe ocuparse de la validez de esta aprobación. Durante la Reconstrucción, la ratificación de la Decimocuarta Enmienda se convirtió en una condición previa para la readmisión en la Unión de los antiguos estados confederados. Healy ha llamado a esto “ratificación a punta de bayoneta”, porque, dice, “para acabar con el gobierno militar, se obligó a los estados sureños a ratificar la Decimocuarta Enmienda”. La condición natural de esta reunificación contradice la afirmación de que la Decimocuarta Enmienda fue ratificada por un pacto mutuo entre los estados.

Los jueces federales consideran irrelevante el propósito de la enmienda

En 1873, el juez Samuel F. Miller, junto con otros cuatro jueces, sostuvo que la Decimocuarta Enmienda protegía los privilegios e inmunidades de la ciudadanía nacional, no la estatal. El caso afectaba a regulaciones estatales de mataderos para ocuparse de las emergencias sanitarias que derivaban de sangre animal que se filtraba en el suministro de agua. El juez Miller opinaba que la Decimocuarta Enmienda estaba pensada para ocuparse de la discriminación racial contra los antiguos esclavos en lugar de para la regulación de los carniceros:

Al acabar la guerra [de Secesión], los que habían conseguido restablecer la autoridad del gobierno federal no se contentaron con permitir que esta gran ley de emancipación se basara en los resultados reales de la contienda o la proclamación del ejecutivo [la Declaración de Emancipación], ya que ambos podían ser cuestionados en tiempos posteriores, y determinaron poner estos resultado principal y más valioso en la Constitución de la unión restaurada como uno de sus artículos fundamentales.

Lo que dice el juez Miller es que el significado y propósito de la Decimocuarta Enmienda (proteger y preservar los derechos de los esclavos liberados) se desacredita cuando se usa para justificar la intervención federal en los asuntos económicos cotidianos de un sector estatal concreto. La regulación estatal de los mataderos de animales no es una opresión del mismo tipo o grado que la esclavitud de gente basada en su raza. Argumentar otra cosa es minimizar la gravedad de la ideología racista.

El juez Miller reconocía que la regulación estatal en cuestión era “denunciada no solo por crear un monopolio y conferir privilegios odiosos y exclusivos a un pequeño número de personas a costa de una buena parte de la comunidad de Nueva Orleáns”, la ciudad afectada por los mataderos en cuestión, sino asimismo como una privación del derechos de los carniceros a ejercitar su profesión. Sin embargo, el juez Miller no creía que el gobierno federal tuviera derecho bajo la Constitución a interferir con una autoridad que siempre se había concedido a gobiernos estatales y locales.

Habiendo establecido al alcance limitado de la cláusula de privilegios o inmunidades en los Casos de los mataderos, el Tribunal Supremo acudió posteriormente a la Cláusula de Igual Protección y la Cláusula del Proceso Debido para echar abajo leyes bajo la Decimocuarta Enmienda. Pero el Tribunal Supremo no se ha detenido ante las leyes estatales: ha usado la Cláusula de Igual Protección y la Cláusula del Proceso Debido como pretexto para regular a ciudadanos y empresas privadas. La Decimocuarta Enmienda, que pretendía reducir la discriminación, se ha usado, paradójicamente, para defender programas de acción afirmativa que discriminan a ciertas clases de personas.

Ceder el poder a los jueces federales no les predispone a la libertad. Como la Sección Cinco de la Decimocuarta Enmienda permite al Congreso aprobar enmiendas o leyes que traten de infracciones estatales a la libertad individual, no es necesario ni constitucionalmente sensato que el poder judicial federal asuma ese papel. Los miembros del Congreso, al contrario que los jueces federales que disfrutan del cargo vitaliciamente, son responsables ante los votantes en sus estados y por tanto es más probable que sufran por su infidelidad a la Constitución.

A nivel conceptual, además, parece extraño que los libertarios defiendan internamente lo que condenan en relaciones exteriores, a saber, la doctrina paternalista de que un gobierno central más poderoso tendría que usar su músculo para obligar a cumplir a unidades políticas más pequeñas.

El legado de la enmienda

¿Ha generado resultados constructivos la Decimocuarta Enmienda? En muchas áreas, sí. ¿Son deplorables algunas de las ideologías contra las que se ha dirigido? En muchos casos, sí. ¿Eran malas las normas contra el mestizaje, las normas de segregación escolar y las normas prohibiendo a los afro-americanos actuar como jurados? Sí, por supuesto. Sin embargo no se deduce que solo porque algunos casos bajo la Decimocuarta Enmienda hayan invalidado estas malas leyes, esta sea necesaria o incondicionalmente buena, especialmente a la vista de la pendiente resbaladiza de precedentes que con el tiempo distancian a las normas de su aplicación pretendida. “Si los tribunales empiezan a usar la Decimocuarta Enmienda para aplicar derechos naturales libertarios”, advierte Jacob Huebert en Libertarianism Today, “no sería más que un pequeño paso para que empezaran a usarla para aplicar derechos positivos no libertarios”.

Intelectuales de la izquierda como Erwin Chemerinsky, Charles Black, Peter Edelman y Frank Michelman han defendido la protección y aplicación de “derechos de subsistencia” bajo la Decimocuarta Enmienda. Estos incluirían los derechos a comida, atención sanitaria y salario mínimo proporcionados por el gobierno. Las leyes estatales que evitaran estos derechos (que no proporcionaran estas prestaciones sociales) se considerarían inconstitucionales; el ejecutivo federal aseguraría así que todo ciudadano de los estados transgresores reciba atención sanitaria, alimentos y una renta básica, todo subvencionado por los contribuyentes.

Estoy dispuesto a admitir no solo que en la práctica yo litigaría bajo las disposiciones de la Decimocuarta Enmienda para representar competente y éticamente a mi cliente (imaginar un sistema en el que el poder federal no esté tan atrincherado es inútil para litigantes en un sistema real en que el poder federal está profundamente arraigado), pero también que, en un mundo más ideal, podría haber otras formas menos deletéreas de luchar contra discriminación y violaciones de derechos que la Decimocuarta Enmienda. El taller de la actividad diaria no atiende abstracciones esperanzadas. No se puede deshacer un sistema de la noche a la mañana: los abogados deben actuar con las leyes que tienen disponibles y no pueden inventar otras nuevas para sus casos o agarrarse a una mera política. No si quieren tener éxito.

En ausencia de la Decimocuarta Enmienda, muchas personas y empresas con quejas válidas podrían no tener soluciones constitucionales. Sin embargo eso no significa que los términos y efectos de la Decimocuarta Enmienda sean incuestionablemente deseables o categóricamente buenos. Se pueden celebrar las victorias logradas mediante la Decimocuarta Enmienda mientras se reconoce que debe haber un modo mejor.

La Decimocuarta Enmienda no es en sí misma un bien positivo sino un animal peligroso a manejar con cuidado. Los libertarios como clase tienen una devoción manifiesta impropia a su funcionamiento. Necesitamos en su lugar un debate, abierto, honrado y colegiado acerca de los méritos y la función de esta enmienda, no sea que otras criaturas similares miren al futuro y a costa de nuestras amadas libertades.


Hayek, Statistics, and Trade-Cycle Theory

In Academia, Austrian Economics, Books, Economics, Essays, Humane Economy, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on February 11, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This essay first appeared here as a Mises Emerging Scholar article for the Ludwig von Mises Institute Canada.

Austrian economics is often caricatured and criticized because of its approach, or deliberate lack of an approach, to mathematical models, multivariable calculus, and econometrics. Attacks are leveled against Austrians such as Mises, Rothbard, and Kirzner for their failure or refusal to avail themselves of applied empirical research in their scholarship. The Austrian methodology most frequently targeted is praxeology.

It is not the purpose of this short article to refute these attacks or to explore their errors and merits. That has been done ably by others (see, for example, the series of debate-essays available here, here, here, and here). Nor does this article attempt to stand up for the deductive reasoning of praxeology or to defend its claims about a priori truths, a task better suited for a lengthy work of scholarship, not a short article. This piece instead asks one simple question: does Hayek’s early work on trade-cycle theory complicate stereotypes about the methods of Austrian economics or clarify the manner in which Austrians can and do approach economic theory? The answer, of course, is yes.

Hayek proposed that the purpose and function of trade cycle theory was strictly limited: it was “to explain how certain prices are determined” and “to state their influence on production and consumption.” Expanding trade cycle theory beyond that purpose and function was, he believed, fallacious. “Any attempt to forecast the trend of economic development,” he claimed, “or to influence it by measures based on an examination of existing conditions, must presuppose certain quite definite conceptions as to the necessary course of economic phenomena.” But economic development — and the trade cycle in particular — is too important and complex to be guided by mere suppositions regarding matters about which there is much disagreement.

That is precisely what was happening in the 1920s when statistical designs and methods were growing in popularity and replacing general equilibrium theory, away from which Hayek himself moved later in his career. Economists at this time were beginning to treat statistics as conditions or proxies for theory (and even as theories unto themselves) rather than as mechanisms for testing and verifying established theories such as basic deductive inference or feature-by-feature comparison of the natural rate of interest (i.e., “equilibrium”) with the existing market rate.

According to Hayek, empirical research either affirms or discredits given methodologies but does not introduce new theories to explain fluctuating trade cycles. Amassing statistics, he maintained, is not the same as adducing or formulating economic laws. Statistics are nevertheless useful because, he explains, “there can be no doubt that trade cycle theory can only gain full practical importance through exact measurement of the actual course of the phenomena it describes.” Statistics, however, will not cultivate theoretical excellence of a kind that should direct trade-cycle theory or the policies that flow from it.

Statistics are useful in the negative sense: they disprove and discredit theories rather than affirm or prove them. They are corroborative but not ultimate guides; they are useful only to the extent that they enable us to make accurate predictions about future conditions, e.g., “to infer from the comparative movements of certain prices and quantities an imminent change in the direction of those movements.” Once statistics are gathered, a theory must be extracted from them–-they create inferences to be studied and aggregated, not comprehensive theories to be canonized. That is why Hayek declares that the “value of statistical research depends primarily upon the soundness of the theoretical conceptions on which it is based.” Statistics can be made to prove different points, but only a theoretically sound approach to classifying and elucidating statistics will bring about reliable forecasts.

Correct business forecasting depends on correct theorizing; therefore, Hayek propounds, we must labor to attain correct theories, never settling with what we perceive to be complete knowledge. Traditional equilibrium theory is not enough for him because it does not adequately account for money, a commodity or medium of exchange whose very status as such depends on its wide use and general acceptance on the market, not to mention its ability to reflect the subjective values of producers and consumers. The production of money and the often arbitrary increase in its supply by banks distort the natural interest rate and call into question the usefulness of equilibrium theory in a money economy.

Hayek demonstrates in his early work on the trade cycle that statistics and theories can be interactive and participatory so long as the former isn’t treated as a substitute for the latter. Statistics alone aren’t pure math, of course, and the creation of economic simulacra in the form of models and diagrams can lead to the type of scientism — the privileging of data over theory — that Hayek decries. Math is a term for what is done with data already gathered; it refers to many topics of study but in this context to the deductive and systematic study of facts and figures and their observable patterns to arrive at true concepts and accurate measurements regarding the concrete conditions of our phenomenal world. So understood, math is not the ultima ratio but an indispensable tool, not an end but a means to an end. Only from this premise does Hayek’s trade-cycle theory become fully comprehensible, and although his paradigms of trade-cycle theory and equilibrium evolved over time, his foundational approach to the role of statistics and theories remained crucial to his thinking.


Note: Quotations come from F.A. Hayek, Prices and Production and Other Works: F.A. Hayek on Money, the Business Cycle, and the Gold Standard. Edited with an Introduction by Joseph T. Salerno. Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2008.

The Classical Liberalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Books, Economics, Emerson, Essays, Ethics, Historicism, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Property, Western Philosophy on January 7, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

“The less government we have, the better.”[1] So declared Ralph Waldo Emerson, a man not usually treated as a classical liberal. Yet this man—the Sage of Concord—held views that cannot be described as anything but classical liberal or libertarian. His is a pastoral libertarianism that glorifies nature as a source of insight and inspiration for those with a poetical sense and a prophetic vision.

None other than Cornel West, no friend of the free market, has said that “Emerson is neither a liberal nor a conservative and certainly not a socialist or even a civic republican. Rather he is a petit bourgeois libertarian, with at times anarchist tendencies and limited yet genuine democratic sentiments.”[2] “Throughout his career,” Neal Dolan adds, “Emerson remained fully committed to the Scottish-inflected Lockean-libertarian liberalism whose influence we have traced to his earliest notebooks.”[3] An abundance of evidence supports this view. Dolan himself has written an entire book on the subject: Emerson’s Liberalism (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009). Emerson extolled the “infinitude of the private man”[4] and projected a “strong libertarian-liberal emphasis”[5] in his essays and speeches. He was not an anarchist: he believed that “[p]ersonal rights, universally the same, demand a government framed on the ratio of the census” because “property demands a government framed on the ratio of owners and of owning.”[6] Nevertheless, he opined that “[e]very actual State is corrupt”[7] and that, if the people in a given territory were wise, no government would be necessary: “[W]ith the appearance of the wise man, the State expires. The appearance of character makes the State unnecessary.”[8] One need only look to one of Emerson’s most famous essays, “Self Reliance,” for proof of his libertarianism.

“Self‑Reliance” is perhaps the most exhilarating expression of individualism ever written, premised as it is on the idea that each of us possesses a degree of genius that can be realized through confidence, intuition, and nonconformity. “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,” Emerson proclaims, “that is genius.”[9]

Genius, then, is a belief in the awesome power of the human mind and in its ability to divine truths that, although comprehended differently by each individual, are common to everyone. Not all genius, on this view, is necessarily or universally right, since genius is, by definition, a belief only, not a definite reality. Yet it is a belief that leads individuals to “trust thyself”[10] and thereby to realize their fullest potential and to energize their most creative faculties. Such self‑realization has a spiritual component insofar as “nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind”[11] and “no law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.”[12]

According to Emerson, genius precedes society and the State, which corrupt rather than clarify reasoning and which thwart rather than generate productivity. “Wild liberty develops iron conscience” whereas a “[w]ant of liberty […] stupefies conscience.”[13] History shows that great minds have challenged the conventions and authority of society and the State and that “great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good‑humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side.”[14] Accordingly, we ought to refuse to “capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.”[15] We ought, that is, to be deliberate, nonconformist pursuers of truth rather than of mere apprehensions of truth prescribed for us by others. “Whoso would be a man,” Emerson says, “must be a noncomformist.”[16]

Self‑Interest and Conviction

For Emerson as for Ayn Rand, rational agents act morally by pursuing their self‑interests, including self‑interests in the well‑being of family, friends, and neighbors, who are known and tangible companions rather than abstract political concepts. In Emerson’s words, “The only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.”[17] Or: “Few and mean as my gifts may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of my fellows any secondary testimony.”[18] It is in everyone’s best interest that each individual resides in his own truth without selling off his liberty.[19] “It is,” in other words, “easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men.”[20]

It is not that self‑assurance equates with rightness or that stubbornness is a virtue; it is that confidence in what one knows and believes is a condition precedent to achieving one’s goals. Failures are inevitable, as are setbacks; only by exerting one’s will may one overcome the failures and setbacks that are needed to achieve success. Because “man’s nature is a sufficient advertisement to him of the character of his fellows,”[21] self-reliance enables cooperative enterprise: “Whilst I do what is fit for me, and abstain from what is unfit, my neighbor and I shall often agree in our means, and work together for a time to one end.”[22] Counterintuitively, only in total isolation and autonomy does “all mean egotism vanish.”[23]

If, as Emerson suggests, a “man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if everything were titular and ephemeral but he,”[24] how should he treat the poor? Emerson supplies this answer:

Do not tell me, as a good man did to‑day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting‑houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies;—though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.[25]

These lines require qualification. Emerson is not damning philanthropy or charity categorically or unconditionally; after all, he will, he says, go to prison for certain individuals with whom he shares a special relationship. “I shall endeavor to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be the chaste husband of one wife,” he elaborates.[26] Emerson is, instead, pointing out, with much exhibition, that one does not act morally simply by giving away money without conviction or to subsidize irresponsible, unsustainable, or exploitative business activities.

It is not moral to give away a little money that you do not care to part with or to fund an abstract cause when you lack knowledge of, and have no stake in, its outcome. Only when you give money to people or causes with which you are familiar,[27] and with whom or which you have something at stake, is your gift meaningful; and it is never moral to give for show or merely to please society. To give morally, you must mean to give morally—and have something to lose. The best thing one can do for the poor is to help them to empower themselves to achieve their own ends and to utilize their own skills—to put “them once more in communication with their own reason.”[28] “A man is fed,” Emerson says, not that he may be fed, but that he may work.”[29] Emerson’s work ethic does not demean the poor; it builds up the poor. It is good and right to enable a poor man to overcome his conditions and to elevate his station in life, but there is no point in trying to establish absolute equality among people, for only the “foolish […] suppose every man is as every other man.”[30] The wise man, by contrast, “shows his wisdom in separation, in gradation, and his scale of creatures and of merits as wide as nature.”[31] Such separation and gradation are elements of the beautiful variety and complexity of the natural, phenomenal world in which man pursues his aims and accomplishes what he wills.


Emerson famously remarks that a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”[32] Much ink has been spilled to explain (or explain away) these lines. I take them to mean, in context, that although servile flattery and showy sycophancy may gain a person recognition and popularity, they will not make that person moral or great but, instead, weak and dependent. There is no goodness or greatness in a consistency imposed from the outside and against one’s better judgment; many ideas and practices have been consistently bad and made worse by their very consistency. “With consistency,” therefore, as Emerson warns, “a great soul has simply nothing to do.”[33]

Ludwig von Mises seems to have adopted the animating, affirming individualism of Emerson, and even, perhaps, Emerson’s dictum of nonconformity. Troping Emerson, Mises remarks that “literature is not conformism, but dissent.”[34] “Those authors,” he adds, “who merely repeat what everybody approves and wants to hear are of no importance. What counts alone is the innovator, the dissenter, the harbinger of things unheard of, the man who rejects the traditional standards and aims at substituting new values and ideas for old ones.”[35] This man does not mindlessly stand for society and the State and their compulsive institutions; he is “by necessity anti‑authoritarian and anti‑governmental, irreconcilably opposed to the immense majority of his contemporaries. He is precisely the author whose books the greater part of the public does not buy.”[36] He is, in short, an Emersonian, as Mises himself was.

The Marketplace of Ideas

To be truly Emersonian you may not accept the endorsements and propositions here as unconditional truth, but must, instead, read Emerson and Mises and Rand for yourself to see whether their individualism is alike in its affirmation of human agency resulting from inspirational nonconformity. If you do so with an inquiring seriousness, while trusting the integrity of your own impressions, you will, I suspect, arrive at the same conclusion I have reached.

There is an understandable and powerful tendency among libertarians to consider themselves part of a unit, a movement, a party, or a coalition, and of course it is fine and necessary to celebrate the ways in which economic freedom facilitates cooperation and harmony among groups or communities; nevertheless, there is also a danger in shutting down debate and in eliminating competition among different ideas, which is to say, a danger in groupthink or compromise, in treating the market as an undifferentiated mass divorced from the innumerable transactions of voluntarily acting agents. There is, too, the tendency to become what Emerson called a “retained attorney”[37] who is able to recite talking points and to argue the predictable “airs of the bench”[38] without engaging the opposition in a meaningful debate.

Emerson teaches not only to follow your convictions but to engage and interact with others lest your convictions be kept to yourself and deprived of any utility. It is the free play of competing ideas that filters the good from the bad; your ideas aren’t worth a lick until you’ve submitted them to the test of the marketplace.

“It is easy in the world,” Emerson reminds us, “to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”[39] We can stand together only by first standing alone. Thus, “[w]e must go alone.”[40] You must “[i]nsist on yourself”[41] and “[s]peak the truth.”[42] You must channel your knowledge and originality to enable others to empower themselves. All collectives are made up of constituent parts; the unit benefits from the aggregate constructive action of motivated individuals. Emerson teaches us that if we all, each one of us, endeavor to excel at our favorite preoccupations and to expand the reach of our talent and industry, we will better the lives of those around us and pass along our prosperity to our posterity.

[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Politics,” in Emerson: Essays & Poems (The Library of America, 1996), p. 567.

[2] Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy (University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), p. 40.

[3] Neal Dolan, “Property in Being,” in A Political Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Alan M. Levine and Daniel S. Malachuk (The University Press of Kentucky, 2011), p. 371.

[4] Ralph Waldo Emerson, correspondence in The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 16 vols., ed. William H. Gilman, Ralph H. Orth, et al. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960-1982). This quote comes from Vol. 7, p. 342.

[5] Neal Dolan, Emerson’s Liberalism (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009), p. 182.

[6] Emerson, “Politics,” at 560.

[7] Emerson, “Politics,” at 563.

[8] Emerson, “Politics,” at 568.

[9] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” in Emerson: Essays & Poems (The Library of America, 1996), p. 259.

[10] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 260.

[11] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 261.

[12] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 262.

[13] Emerson, “Politics” at 565-566.

[14] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 259.

[15] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 262.

[16] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 261.

[17] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 262.

[18] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 263.

[19] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 274.

[20] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 275.

[21] Emerson, “Politics,” at 566.

[22] Emerson, “Politics,” at 567.

[23] Emerson, “Nature,” in Emerson: Essays and Poems, p. 10. The original reads “all mean egotism vanishes” rather than “vanish.”

[24] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 262.

[25] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 262-63.

[26] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 273.

[27] “Consider whether you have satisfied your relations to father, mother, cousin, neighbor, town, cat, and dog,” Emerson says. Emerson, “Self Reliance,” at 274.

[28] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 276.

[29] Emerson, “Nature,” at 13.

[30] Emerson, “Nature,” at 27.

[31] Emerson, “Nature,” at 27.

[32] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 265.

[33] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 265.

[34] Ludwig von Mises, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality (Auburn: The Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2008), p. 51.

[35] Mises, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, at 51.

[36] Mises, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, at 51.

[37] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 264.

[38] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 264.

[39] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 263.

[40] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 272.

[41] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 278.

[42] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Divinity School Address,” in Emerson: Essays & Poems (The Library of America, 1996), p. 77.

Free Not to Vote

In America, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Libertarianism, News and Current Events, Politics on October 22, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This piece first appeared here as a Mises Emerging Scholar article for the Ludwig von Mises Institute Canada.

The 2014 U.S. midterm elections are coming up, and I don’t intend to vote. A vote is like virginity: you don’t give it away to the first flower-bearing suitor. I haven’t been given a good reason, let alone flowers, to vote for any candidate, so I will stay home, as well I should.

This month, my wife, a Brazilian citizen, drove from Auburn, Alabama, to Atlanta, Georgia, on a Sunday morning to cast her vote for the presidential election in Brazil. She arrived at the Brazilian consulate and waited in a long line of expatriates only to be faced with a cruel choice: vote for the incumbent socialist Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party, for the socialist Aécio Neves of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party who is billed as a center-right politician, for the environmentalist socialist Marina Silva of the Socialist Party, or for any of the other socialist candidates who were polling so low that they had no chance of victory. Brazil maintains a system of compulsory voting in addition to other compulsory schemes such as conscription for all males aged 18.

Logan Albright recently wrote about the folly of compulsory voting, support for which is apparently growing in Canada. He criticized the hypocrisy of an allegedly democratic society mandating a vote and then fining or jailing those who do not follow the mandate. He also pointed out the dangers of forcing uneducated and uninformed citizens to vote against their will. This problem is particularly revealing in Brazil, where illiterate candidates have exploited election laws to run absurd commercials and to assume the persona of silly characters such as a clown, Wonder Woman, Rambo, Crazy Dick, and Hamburger Face, each of which is worth googling for a chuckle. The incumbent clown, by the way, was just reelected on the campaign slogan “it can’t get any worse.” Multiple Barack Obamas and Osama bin Ladens were also running for office, as was, apparently, Jesus. The ballot in Brazil has become goofier than a middle-school election for class president.

Even in the United States, as the election of Barack Obama demonstrates, voting has become more about identity politics, fads, and personalities than about principle or platform. Just over a decade ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger became the Governor of California amid a field of second-rate celebrities while a former professional wrestler (the fake and not the Olympian kind of wrestling) Jesse “the Body” Ventura was winding up his term as the Governor of Minnesota. Today comedian Al Franken holds a seat in the United States Senate. It turns out that Brazil isn’t the only country that can boast having a clown in office.

No serious thinker believes that a Republican or Democratic politician has what it takes to boost the economy, facilitate peace, or generate liberty. The very function of a career politician is antithetical to market freedom; no foolish professional vote-getter ought to have the power he or she enjoys under the current managerial state system, but voting legitimates that power.

It is often said, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” The counterpoint is that voting ensures your complicity with the policies that elected politicians will enact. If you don’t vote, you lack complicity. You are not morally blameworthy for resisting the system that infringes basic rights or that offends your sense of justice and reason. You have not bestowed credibility on the government with your formal participation in its most sacred ritual. The higher the number of voters who participate in an election, the more legitimacy there is for the favored projects of the elected politicians, and the more likely those politicians are to impose their will on the populace by way of legislation or other legal means.

Refusing to vote can send a message: get your act together or we won’t turn out at the polling stations. Low voter turnout undermines the validity of the entire political system. Abstention also demonstrates your power: just watch how the politicians grovel and scramble for your vote, promise you more than they can deliver, beg for your support. This is how it ought to be: Politicians need to work for your vote and to earn it. They need to prove that they are who they purport to be and that they stand for that which they purport to stand. If they can’t do this, they don’t deserve your vote.

Abstention is not apathy; it is the exercise of free expression, a voluntary act of legitimate and peaceful defiance, the realization of a right.

There are reasonable alternatives to absolute abstention: one is to vote for the rare candidate who does, in fact, seek out liberty, true liberty; another is to cast a protest vote for a candidate outside the mainstream. Regardless, your vote is a representation of your person, the indicia of your moral and ethical beliefs. It should not be dispensed with lightly.

If you have the freedom not to vote, congratulations: you still live in a society with a modicum of liberty. Your decision to exercise your liberty is yours alone. Choose wisely.

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Edward W. Younkins

In American Literature, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, British Literature, Economics, Fiction, Humane Economy, Humanities, Imagination, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Politics on February 12, 2014 at 8:45 am
Edward W. Younkins

Edward W. Younkins

AM:       Thank you for taking the time to do this interview.  I’d like to start by asking why you chose to write Exploring Capitalist Fiction.  Was there a void you were seeking to fill?

EY:          The origins of this book go back to the Spring of 1992 when I began teaching a course called Business Through Literature in Wheeling Jesuit University’s MBA program.  Exploring Capitalist Fiction is heavily based on my lectures and notes on the novels, plays, and films used in this popular course over the years and on what I have learned from my students in class discussions and in their papers.

The idea to write this book originated a few years ago when one of Wheeling Jesuit University’s MBA graduates, who had taken and enjoyed the Business Through Literature course, proposed that I write a book based on the novels, plays, and films covered in that course.  I agreed as I concluded that the subject matter was important and bookworthy and that the book would be fun for me to write and for others to read.  I went on to select twenty-five works to include in the book out of the more than eighty different ones that had been used in my course over the years.  I have endeavored to select the ones that have been the most influential, are the most relevant, and are the most interesting.  In a few instances, I have chosen works that I believe to be undervalued treasures.

I was not intentionally trying to fill a void as there are a number of similar books by fine authors such as Joseph A. Badaracco, Robert A. Brawer, Robert Coles, Emily Stipes Watts, and Oliver F. Williams, among others.  Of course, I did see my evenhanded study of business and capitalism in literature as a nice complement and supplement to these works.

AM:       I assume that you’ll use this book to teach your own courses, and I suspect other teachers will also use the book in their courses.  Anyone who reads the book will quickly understand the reason you believe that imaginative literature and film have pedagogical value in business courses, but would you mind stating some of those reasons for the benefit of those who haven’t read the book yet?

EY:          The underpinning premise of this book and of my course is that fiction, including novels, plays, and films, can be a powerful force to educate students and employees in ways that lectures, textbooks, articles, case studies, and other traditional teaching approaches cannot.  Works of fiction can address a range of issues and topics, provide detailed real-life descriptions of the organizational contexts in which workers find themselves, and tell interesting, engaging, and memorable stories that are richer and more likely to stay with the reader or viewer longer than lectures and other teaching approaches.  Imaginative literature can enrich business teaching materials and provide an excellent supplement to the theories, concepts, and issues that students experience in their business courses.  Reading novels and plays and watching films are excellent ways to develop critical thinking, to learn about character, and to instill moral values.  It is likely that people who read business novels and plays and watch movies about business will continue to search for more of them as sources of entertainment, inspiration, and education.

AM:       Who are the intended audiences for your new book?

EY:          My target audiences include college students, business teachers, general readers, and people employed in the business world.  My summaries and analyses of twenty-five works are intended to create the feel of what it is like to work in business.  The premise of the book is that fiction can provide a powerful teaching tool to sensitize business students without business experiences and to educate and train managers in real businesses.  Studying fictions of business can provide insights to often inexperienced business students and new employees with respect to real-life situations.

In each of my 25 chapters I provide a sequential summary of the fictional work, interspersed with some commentary that highlights the managerial, economic, and philosophical implications of the ideas found in the work.  My emphasis is on the business applications of the lessons of particular novels, plays, and films.  This book highlights the lessons that an individual can take from each work and apply to his or her own life.  It is not literary analysis for its own sake.

I do not delve deeply into these novels, plays, and films in order to identify previously-covered and previously-uncovered themes in existing scholarship.  My book is essentially a study guide for people interested in becoming familiar with the major relevant themes in significant works of literature and film.  The book can also serve as a guide for professors who desire to expand their teaching approaches beyond the traditional ones employed in schools of business.

Of course, literary scholars can use my book as a starting point, catalyst, or reference work for their own in-depth scholarly studies of these and other works.  For example, I can envision a number of scholars, from a variety of viewpoints, contributing essays to book collections devoted to different literary works.  One possible collection that readily comes to mind would be devoted to David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross.  Other candidates for potential collections might include Howell’s The Rise of Silas Lapham, Norris’s The Octopus, Dreiser’s The Financer, Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky, Lewis’s Babbitt, Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Hawley’s Executive Suite, Lodge’s Nice Work, Sterner’s Other People’s Money, among others.  It would be great if some of the contributing literary scholars to these volumes would come from pro-business, pro-capitalist thinkers such as Paul Cantor, Stephen Cox, Ryan McMaken, Sarah Skwire, Amy Willis, Michelle Vachris, and yourself.  As you know most literary critics are from the left.  Those mentioned above celebrate individualism and freedom in place of collectivism and determinism.

AM:       What can be learned from business fiction?

EY:          Fiction can be used to teach, explicate, and illustrate a wide range of business issues and concepts.  Many fictional works address human problems in business such as managing interpersonal conflict and office politics; using different styles of management; the potential loss of one’s individuality as a person tends to become an “organization man”; the stultifying effect of routine in business; the difficulty in balancing work life and home life; hiring and keeping virtuous employees; maintaining one’s personal integrity while satisfying the company’s demands for loyalty, conformity and adaptation to the firm’s culture; communication problems a business may experience; fundamental moral dilemmas; depersonalization and mechanization of human relationships; and so on.  Fictional works tend to describe human behavior and motivations more eloquently, powerfully, and engagingly than texts, articles, or cases typically do.  Literary authors and filmmakers are likely to develop and present ideas through individual characters.  They depict human insights and interests from the perspective of individuals within an organizational setting.  Reading imaginative literature and watching films are excellent ways to develop critical thinking and to learn about values and character.

Many novels, plays, and films are concerned with the actual operation of the business system.  Some deal directly with business problems such as government regulation, cost control, new product development, labor relations, environmental pollution, health and safety, plant openings and closings, tactics used and selection of takeover targets, structuring financial transactions, succession planning, strategic planning, the creation of mission statements, the company’s role in the community, social responsibility, etc.  Assessing fictional situations makes a person more thoughtful, better prepared for situations, and better able to predict the consequences of alternative actions.  Fiction can address both matters of morality and practical issues.  There are many fine selections in literature and film which prompt readers to wrestle with business situations.

Older novels, plays, and films can supply information on the history of a subject or topic.  They can act as historical references for actual past instances and can help students to understand the reasons for successes and failures of the past.  Older literature can provide a good history lesson and can help people to understand the development of our various businesses and industries.  These stories can be inspiring and motivational and can demonstrate how various organizations and managers were able to overcome obstacles, adapt, and survive.  Fictional works are cultural artifacts from different time periods that can be valuable when discussing the history of business.  Many fictional works present history in a form that is more interesting than when one just reads history books.

Imaginative literature reflects a variety of cultural, social, ethical, political, economic, and philosophical perspectives that have been found in American society.  Various images of businessmen have appeared in fictional works.  These include the businessman as Scrooge-like miser, confidence man, robber baron, hero, superman, technocrat, organization man, small businessman, buffoon, rugged individualist, corporate capitalist, financial capitalist, man of integrity, etc.

AM:       How will your teaching approach change in your Business Through Literature course now that you have published your own book on the subject?

EY:          In the past students in this course have read, analyzed, and discussed novels, plays, and films.  Each student prepared a minimum of 6 short papers (2000 words each) on the assigned works.  Grades were based on these papers and class discussions.

I am experimenting this semester using my book in the class for the first time.  I am requiring each student to take notes on each chapter of the book to help them in bringing up topics for class discussion and in participating in class discussions.  Each student is also required to prepare and turn in three essay questions on each chapter.  These are turned in before each relevant class.  Grades for the class are based on class participation and two essay tests.

AM:       Isn’t the reverse also true that literature students ought to study economics or at least gain an understanding of business from something besides imaginative literature and film, which tend not to portray capitalists in a favorable light?

EY:          It would definitely be beneficial for literature students to study classes in business areas such as management, marketing, accounting, and finance.  It would help them somewhat if they took a course or two in economics.  Unfortunately, almost all college-level economics courses are based on Keynesian economics.  I would encourage anyone who takes such courses to read and study Austrian economics in order to gain a more realistic perspective.

AM:       You’ve written a great deal about Ayn Rand, and the chapter on Atlas Shrugged is the longest one in your book.  Rand can be a divisive figure, even, perhaps especially, among what you might call “libertarians” or “free marketers” or “capitalists” and the like.  But even the people in those categories who reject Objectivism tend to praise Rand’s novels.  What do you make of that, and do you think there’s a lesson there about the novel as a medium for transmitting philosophy?

EY:          I suspect that there are a lot of people like me who value “novels of ideas.”  There have been many good philosophical novels but none have been as brilliantly integrated and unified as Atlas Shrugged.  Rand characterizes grand themes and presents an entire and integrated view of how a man should live his life.  Rand’s great power comes from her ability to unify everything in the novel to form an integrated whole.  The theme and the plot are inextricably integrated.  Rand is a superb practitioner of synthesis and unity whose literary style and subject are organically linked and fused to the content of her philosophy.  She unifies the many aspects of Atlas Shrugged according to the principles of reality.  People from the various schools of “free-market” thought are in accord in promoting an appropriate reality-based social system in which each person is free to strive for his personal flourishing and happiness.

AM:       I want to ask about Henry Hazlitt’s Time Will Run Back, the subject of chapter twelve of your book.  Why do you think this book has not received much attention?  It has been, I’d venture to say, all but forgotten or overlooked by even the most ardent fans of Hazlitt.  Is the book lacking something, or are there other factors at play here?

EY:          Hazlitt’s novel may not be “literary” enough for many people.  However, in my opinion, the author does skillfully use fiction to illustrate his teachings on economics.  I think that the book also has a good story line.  Economics professors tend to shy away from using it in their classes.  Some may be so quantitatively oriented that they cannot envision using a novel to teach economics.  Others may perceive the Austrian economics principles found in Time Will Run Back to not fit in with the Keynesian economics principles found in most textbooks (and of course they are right).

AM:       Thank you again for doing this interview.  All the best in 2014.


Edward W. Younkins. Exploring Capitalist Fiction:  Business Through Literature and Film. Lanham,

Maryland: Lexington Books, 2014.


The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Economics, Fiction, Film, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Rhetoric & Communication, Screenwriting, Television, Television Writing on January 22, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in The Independent Review.

“Television rots your brain.” That’s a refrain many of us grew up hearing, but it isn’t true. So suggests Paul Cantor in The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture, his second book about American film and television.

Cantor has become a celebrity within libertarian circles. He is Clifton Waller  Barrett Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Virginia and recently became a visiting professor at his alma mater, Harvard University.  What’s remarkable about his appointment at Harvard is that it is in the Department of Government, not the Department of English. That doesn’t surprise those of us familiar with his breadth of knowledge and range of interests.

Recognized as an interdisciplinary scholar, Cantor attended Ludwig von Mises’s seminars in New York City before establishing himself as an expert on Shakespeare.  Besides publishing extensively on literature of various genres and periods, he has been a tireless advocate for Austrian economics, even though Marxist theories and their materialist offshoots dominate his field. In 1992, the Mises Institute awarded Cantor the Ludwig von Mises Prize for Scholarship in Austrian Economics, and his work at the intersection of economics and literature resulted in Literature and the Economics of Liberty (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2010), which he edited with Stephen Cox (while contributing nearly half of the book’s contents).

Like that work, The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture owes much to the theories of Friedrich Hayek, in particular the concept of spontaneous order. It is a reflection of spontaneous order that the most beloved films and television shows did not spring perfectly from the mind of some genius working in complete isolation.  Rather, they emerged out of the complex interactions between producers and consumers and the collaborative efforts of scores of diligent workers. Viewer feedback facilitated modifications and improvements to films and television, which  advanced in meliorative stages.

Hayek discusses spontaneous order to refute the belief that government intervention and central planning ought to force order onto the marketplace. Cantor discusses it to refute the belief that artistic creation stands outside of commercial exchange. Examining depictions of freedom and coercion in a wide variety of films and television shows, he highlights the disparity between elitist and populist understandings of American culture, which he links to “top-down” and “bottom-up” models of order, respectively. His position is that the popularity and artistic appeal of film and television appear to be proliferating despite the objections and insults levied by the cultural elite, who, it should be added with not a little irony, nonetheless probably watch a great deal of television.

Against the cultural elite and their promotion of patrician—and mostly  European—standards for the arts, Cantor maintains that the marketplace enables  creative and experimental forms of expression that aren’t so different from earlier aesthetic media such as the serialized novel or popular plays. He reminds us that “nineteenth century critics tended to look down on the novel as a popular form, thinking it hardly a form of literature at all,” and adds that it “was not viewed as authentic art, but rather as an impure form, filled with aesthetically extraneous elements  whose only function is to please the public and sell copies” (p. 7). This once “vulgar” medium has lately been celebrated as one of the highest and most impressive categories of art. The form and content of great American novels—whether by Twain or Cooper or Salinger or Pynchon—should remind us that popular novels have been elevated as canonical even though they have rejected the standards and conventions that highbrow critics insisted were necessary for a work to constitute “literature.” Twain and Cooper recognized that highbrow presuppositions and expectations for novels derived from influential Europeans, so they set out to forge a uniquely  American literature free from Old World constraints.

Because film and television are commercial, they allow ordinary Americans  (as opposed to academics and the cultural elite, including and especially the neo-Marxists) to determine aesthetic standards and trends by indicating what does and does not interest them. Authors and television producers, in turn, become responsive and attuned to the demands of their consumers; they become, in short, entrepreneurs who must struggle against the status quo, defy the odds, and push the limits of artistic acceptability.

The elite disparage this process and advocate for aesthetic criteria divorced from the tastes and pleasures of the general public. As Cantor explains, “Elitists who profess to believe in democracy nevertheless have no faith in common people to make sound decisions on their own, even in a matter as simple as choosing the films and television shows they watch” (p. xiv). The elite would have film and television removed from the marketplace, but without the marketplace there would be no film or television.

Films and television shows might just become the masterpieces of the future; they might have already provided us with canonical “texts.” It is too early to say whether they have contributed substance to what Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said.” Greatness, after all, takes time to ascertain.

Orwell, Dr. Johnson, and Hume adhered to the “test of time” measure of  greatness by which a work of art or literature is evaluated according to its ability to compete and survive in the literary marketplace over the course of generations.  This measure requires the sustained consensus of consumers as opposed to the esoteric judgments of elite critics. A work’s ability to attract vast and diverse audiences and to do so long after its production is what makes the work great.

It might seem odd to think of Cantor’s subjects—South Park and The X-Files, for  instance—alongside important literary works of the Western canon. And yet the groundlings who paid a penny to enter into the pit of the Globe Theatre, where they would stand and watch performances of Shakespeare’s plays, probably didn’t think they were witnessing greatness, either. Harold Bloom once said, “Cultural  prophecy is always a mug’s game,” and Cantor is wise not to prophesy about the enduring merit of any films or television shows. Cantor’s point is not that the products of film and television will be considered masterpieces one day, only that they might be.

For the record, I consider it extremely unlikely that South Park or The X-Files will achieve classic status, but I would not extend that speculation to such films as Casablanca or the Star Wars trilogy. Cantor himself takes pains to distinguish first-rate works from run-of-the-mill entertainment by invoking “traditional criteria for artistic excellence” (p. xxii). We should not take him to mean that film and television are media superior to that which came before them; instead, he considers them as substantially similar to their artistic antecedents, except that their  features signal an evolution in artistic preferences. The allure of art comes not from its alienation from popular culture, but from its ability to incorporate popular culture in ways that do not impede its power to speak beyond its moment.

To be sure, American film and television have produced an overwhelming amount of trash, but so did novel serialization. Not all novelists who published their work in contiguous installments in magazines and periodicals held the stature of Charles Dickens or Henry James or Herman Melville. Cantor points out that we forget about the thousands of bad novels from the Victorian era and extol only around one hundred novels from that period, which supposedly represents a  zenith in culture. Among the thousands if not millions of films and television shows that have been produced over the past century, perhaps a few will rival the works of Dickens, James, and Melville.

If Cantor weren’t such a generous and careful scholar, he might have become the bête noire of sophisticates and lambasted in the pages of The New Criterion for his embrace of the purportedly lowbrow. His command of economics and literary history, however, has spared him from such condemnation and even gained him a devoted following. To do justice to his latest book would require a more comprehensive treatment of his arguments about the figure of the “maverick” in film and television or about the value of collaborative work and coauthorship in  generating exceptional products. Yet these arguments demand more attention than a review can give.

The incomparable Cantor has blessed the libertarian movement with a literary  voice. He has expanded the study of Austrian economics into the fields that need it most. He himself is a maverick, reading and writing industriously to break up the habits of thought and monopolies on ideology that mark literary scholarship.  Would that we had more Cantors to show us how literature flowers when freedom flourishes. There is hope in the idea that artists can turn to the market to cultivate their talents and supply us with the arts we demand. No English department or cultural guardian can rob us of the entertainment that we enjoy.

Literature and Liberty: Essays in Libertarian Literary Criticism

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Books, Economics, Emerson, Fiction, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Imagination, Justice, Law-and-Literature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, News and Current Events, News Release, Novels, Philosophy, Politics, Property, Rhetoric, Shakespeare, The Novel, Transnational Law, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on November 15, 2013 at 8:46 am

Allen 2

My forthcoming book, Literature and Liberty: Essays in Libertarian Literary Criticism, is now available for pre-order here at or here at Rowman & Littlefield’s website.  From the cover:

The economic theories of Karl Marx and his disciples continue to be anthologized in books of literary theory and criticism and taught in humanities classrooms to the exclusion of other, competing economic paradigms. Marxism is collectivist, predictable, monolithic, impersonal, linear, reductive — in short, wholly inadequate as an instrument for good in an era when we know better than to reduce the variety of human experience to simplistic formulae. A person’s creative and intellectual energies are never completely the products of culture or class. People are rational agents who choose between different courses of action based on their reason, knowledge, and experience. A person’s choices affect lives, circumstances, and communities. Even literary scholars who reject pure Marxism are still motivated by it, because nearly all economic literary theory derives from Marxism or advocates for vast economic interventionism as a solution to social problems.

Such interventionism, however, has a track-record of mass murder, war, taxation, colonization, pollution, imprisonment, espionage, and enslavement — things most scholars of imaginative literature deplore. Yet most scholars of imaginative literature remain interventionists. Literature and Liberty offers these scholars an alternative economic paradigm, one that over the course of human history has eliminated more generic bads than any other system. It argues that free market or libertarian literary theory is more humane than any variety of Marxism or interventionism. Just as Marxist historiography can be identified in the use of structuralism and materialist literary theory, so should free-market libertarianism be identifiable in all sorts of literary theory. Literature and Liberty disrupts the near monopolistic control of economic ideas in literary studies and offers a new mode of thinking for those who believe that arts and literature should play a role in discussions about law, politics, government, and economics. Drawing from authors as wide-ranging as Emerson, Shakespeare, E.M. Forster, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Henry Hazlitt, and Mark Twain, Literature and Liberty is a significant contribution to libertarianism and literary studies.

Thoughts on ‘The Road to Serfdom’: Chapter 7, “Economic Controls and Totalitarianism”

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Economics, Epistemology, Essays, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Justice, Law, Libertarianism, Literature, Philosophy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on October 2, 2013 at 8:45 am

Slade Mendenhall

Slade Mendenhall is an M.Sc. candidate in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, with specializations in conflict and Middle Eastern affairs. He holds degrees in Economics and Mass Media Arts from the University of Georgia and writes for The Objective Standard and, where he is also editor.

The following is part of a series of chapter-by-chapter analyses of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, conducted as part of The Mendenhall’s expanding Capitalist Reader’s Guide project. Previous entries can be found here: Introduction, Chapter 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

In “Economic Control and Totalitarianism”, the subject of Hayek’s seventh chapter, we find him at his best, with a clarity and reason that we have not seen since chapter two, “The Great Utopia.” In chapter seven, Hayek expounds upon numerous themes within the titular subject: the inextricability of dictatorial control and economic planning, the fallacy of believing that economic controls can be separated from broader political controls, the inevitability in a planned economy of controls extending to individuals’ choice of profession, and the interrelation of economic and political freedom. What aspects of the chapter we might find to criticize arise either from a desire for him to take his line of thinking a step further than he does or already established mistakes carried over from previous chapters. Despite a few minor missteps, however, Hayek’s chapter is, overall, an exceedingly positive contribution.

He begins by stating what is, to many self-deceiving advocates of socialism, a jarring observation: that planned economies, following their natural course, ultimately always require dictatorial rule. “Most planners who have seriously considered the practical aspects of their task,” Hayek writes, “have little doubt that a directed economy must be run on more or less dictatorial lines” (66). Without fully restating the argument here, Hayek implicitly rests upon the description of this tendency that he spelled out in chapter 5, “Planning and Democracy”: power in a planned system gradually consolidates into a central committee or single dictator as a matter of organizational efficiency, with a decisive central leadership winning out over the gridlock and inefficiencies of a democratic body. The point is as valid and well made here as it was then.

Where Hayek expounds upon this is in refuting one of the false promises often made by planners as they reach for the reins of a country’s economy: “the consolation… that this authoritarian direction will apply ‘only’ to economic matters” (66). Contrary to the suggestion that controls will be limited to economic affairs, Hayek asserts that economic controls in the absence of broader political controls are not simply unlikely, but impossible. Rather than simply detailing in a typical way the interrelationship of economic and other activities, Hayek acknowledges the inseparability of the two, writing, “It is largely a consequence of the erroneous belief that there are purely economic ends separate from the other ends of life” (66). He later elaborates:

“The authority directing all economic activity would control not merely the part of our lives which is concerned with inferior things; it would control the allocation of the limited means for all our ends. And whoever controls all economic activity controls the means for all our ends, and must therefore decide which are to be satisfied and which not. This is really the crux of the matter. Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is the control of the means for all our ends” (68).

Hayek’s point is, in the context of modern economic education, a largely underappreciated and mishandled one. Economics instructors have, with time, lost the important skill of contextualizing economic interests within the broader scope of other human pursuits, instead treating them either as abstract ideas toyed with in a vacuum without real-world ramifications or preaching the ‘economics is everything’ doctrine to the exclusion of other analytical tools and frameworks.

Hayek, whether by virtue of writing at a time less bound by such false dichotomization of the field or simply due to his exceptional qualities as an economic thinker, successfully avoids both traps. “Strictly speaking,” he writes,

“there is no ‘economic motive’ but only economic factors conditioning our striving for other ends. What in ordinary language is misleadingly called the ‘economic motive’ means merely the desire for general opportunity, the desire for power to achieve unspecified ends. If we strive for money it is because it offers us the widest choice in enjoying the fruits of our efforts” (67).

Hayek rightly acknowledges money as a profoundly empowering economic good, calling it “one of the greatest instruments of freedom ever invented by man” that “opens an astounding range of choice to the poor man, a range greater than that which not many generations ago was open to the wealthy” (67).

Chapter seven goes on to briefly characterize the pervasiveness of central planning, and its propensity to spread to all areas of a society. Hayek recognizes that the much-eluded question of socialism-versus-capitalism is not simply one of which decisions individuals are to make for their lives, but whether the decision is to be theirs at all:

“The question raised by economic planning is, therefore, not merely whether we shall be able to satisfy what we regard as our more or less important needs in the way we prefer. It is whether it shall be we who decide what is more, and what is less, important for us, or whether this is to be decided by the planner” (68).

Those on both sides of the aisle in the United States today, who fail in so many matters to appreciate the distinction between individuals choosing the right thing for their lives and a government official imposing their choice (be it right or wrong) upon them, would do well to heed Hayek’s warning. Modern American political thinking, caught between an increasingly authoritarian left (taken directly from Marx and Rousseau, or updated via modern incarnations like Krugman, Sunstein, and Stiglitz) and a right that has yet to extend its limited government spirit to all areas of economics—much less censorship and social issues—has a great deal to learn from an Austrian economist’s words written some seventy years ago.

One element of central planning that utopian-minded young socialist idealists evade is that labor, being an input, must, in a controlled economy be as controlled as any other good—if not more so. This does not mean simply the control of wages or the maintenance of union. Ultimately, it means government control over the quantity of individuals in a given profession, conducted in the interest of keeping wages in a given field high and ensuring that there is an adequate supply of expertise to meet all of the economy’s needs. This means at some point dictating who can and cannot enter a given field of work.

Hayek writes,

“Most planners, it is true, promise that in the new planned world free choice of occupation will be scrupulously preserved or even increased. But there they promise more than they can possibly fulfill. If they want to plan they must control the entry into the different trades and occupations, or the terms of remuneration, or both” (71).

How many young socialists on college campuses across the country would not object to being torn from their chosen course of study and compelled to study for degrees in which they had no interest, to spend their lives in careers they did not love? That is the fate that they ask for, whether they recognize it as such or not. Would they accept it willingly? Would they “become a mere means, to be used by the authority in the service of such abstractions as the ‘social welfare’ or the ‘good of the community’” (72), bowing their heads subserviently to spend a life on a path that was chosen for them, for the good of society? Perhaps some. And perhaps others would recognize the nature of what they profess to believe in and renounce it. Either way, it is a reality that should be presented to them in those terms by those who see socialism for what it is.

Towards the end of the chapter, Hayek makes several key observations that would prove all the more true in the decades after his writing.  He notes the decline of references by advocates of socialism to the functional superiority of socialism. Gradually witnessing their system being discredited, but doubling-down on their dogma, the socialists of the mid-20th century came to look less and less like those of the early 20th century, who believed in the system as a technically superior model for society. Instead, their arguments turned egalitarian in nature,  “advocat[ing] planning no longer because of its superior productivity but because it will enable us to secure a more just and equitable distribution of wealth” (74). Little did Hayek know how far that trend would go with the rise of the New Left and its legacies, stretching up to the present and the current American administration.

Finally, in another point that has proven all the more true since the time of his writing, Hayek recognizes that the extent of planning proposed by socialism, empowered by modern modes of control, is that much greater than the control and subjugation that occurred under the days of monarchy and feudalism. In reading it, one is brought to wonder how much greater that mechanism of control is today, with NSA surveillance, a growing regulatory state, and ever more executive agencies maintaining armed units to impose their rules, than at Hayek’s writing in 1943.

Hayek’s seventh chapter is a valuable and, for the same reasons, saddening one for the way that it makes us reflect upon the applicability of his words and ideas to our current political environment. Though our current condition is far from totalitarian in nature, the same principles apply, to a lesser extent, in all areas where government intrudes to control markets, alter incentives, or provide special advantages to some at the expense of others.

Human beings are rational animals. We respond to the incentives around us. In the presence of a government that seems increasingly, explicitly willing to toy with those incentives to alter our behavior to suit models and ideals for our lives that are not our own, how much do we lose that we never knew we had? In what ways are our options limited? Need it be by a government edict that tells a young man who would study to be a doctor that doctors are no longer needed, and he should apply to be an engineer instead? No. It may be as subtle as inflating the price of his education through government loan programs, regulating the field he seeks to enter, and subjecting him to entitlement programs that tell him that his life’s work is not his own; that he works and exists in the service of society as a whole. And at that point, the difference between our condition and the ill fate that Hayek describes becomes one not of kind, but of degree.

Thoughts on ‘The Road to Serfdom’: Chapter 6, “Planning and the Rule of Law”

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Economics, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on September 25, 2013 at 7:45 am

Slade Mendenhall

Slade Mendenhall is an M.Sc. candidate in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, with specializations in conflict and Middle Eastern affairs. He holds degrees in Economics and Mass Media Arts from the University of Georgia and writes for The Objective Standard and, where he is also editor.

The following is the seventh installment in a series of chapter-by-chapter analyses of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Previous entries are available here: Introduction, Chapter 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

Hayek’s sixth chapter, “Planning and the Rule of Law” sets out to establish two fundamentally different legal frameworks. The first, characteristic of a free society, is what Hayek refers to as a ‘Rule of Law’ approach. The term itself is inadequate, but not incidental; it arises from Hayek’s more fundamental philosophy, and this analysis will address why the lack of a better term is inevitable for Hayek based on his earlier premises. The second type of law described by Hayek is the sort of arbitrary system of decrees inherent to a planned economy.

In the course of contrasting the two and explaining the superiority of the former, Hayek hits many valid points and makes some worthwhile analyses—he even surprises us with the first mention of rights in the whole book! True: in the process, he again falls victim to the sorts of improper philosophical analyses, badly defined concepts, flawed defenses of freedom, and errant policy endorsements we have come to expect. Nonetheless, the essence and guiding message of Chapter VI introduces a valuable subject for thought and further discussion—even if that thought consists of dispelling Hayek’s arguments in favor of stronger, more objective ones.

Hayek’s characterization of each of the two systems—the ‘Rule of Law’ and what he calls ‘substantive rules’—is valid in a limited sense. He writes,

“The Rule of Law thus implies limits to the scope of legislation: it restricts it to the kind of general rules known as formal law, and excludes legislation either directly aimed at particular people, or at enabling anybody to use the coercive power of the state for the purpose of such discrimination. It means, not that everything is regulated by law, but, on the contrary, that the coercive power of the state can be used only in cases defined in advance by the law and in such a way that it can be foreseen how it will be used” (62).

In this description, Hayek hits many necessary points well: it limits legislation, establishes formal and general rules, and limits the use of coercive power to purposes defined in advance by the law. Likewise, with respect to ‘substantive rules’, his description is accurate: “It cannot tie itself down in advance to general and formal rules which prevent arbitrariness. It must provide for the actual needs of people as they arise and then choose deliberately between them” (55).

With similar acuity, he describes such a system’s coercive restructuring of the plans and long-range thinking of individuals,

“[W]here the precise effects of government policy on particular people are known, where the government aims directly at such particular effects, it cannot help knowing these effects, and therefore it cannot be impartial. It must, of necessity, take sides, impose its valuations upon people and, instead of assisting them in the advancement of their own ends, choose the ends for them” (57).

And, finally, its privileging of some parties over others: “There can be no doubt that planning necessarily involves deliberate discrimination between particular needs of different people, and allowing one man to do what another must be prevented from doing” (58-59).

His characterizations of both systems—‘Rule of Law’ and ‘substantive rules’—are correct on the above points. Where these descriptions lack is not in their truth, but in their completeness. Hayek’s description of both the ‘Rule of Law’ and ‘substantive rule’ approaches neglect the fundamental difference between liberal and statist law: whether the state is vested with the privilege of initiating force against the individual. This point cannot be left obfuscated or marginalized; it is nothing less than the definitive difference between the two systems and must be highlighted as such. Generality, non-discrimination, and established pre-requisites for legal action are important features within this framework, but they are ultimately supporting or consequential features of this more fundamental point.

This definition by essentials—of liberal law as that which forbids the violation of individual rights by government force, and of statist law as that which has no such prohibitions—points to the fundamental crux of liberal law: objectivity.

As Harry Binswanger describes it,

“An objectively derived law is one stemming not from the whim of legislators or bureaucrats but from a rational application of the principle of individual rights. Rights tie law to reality, because they are a recognition of a basic, unalterable fact [–the requirements of man’s life]… As the law must be objective in its source, so it must be objective in its form: objective laws are clearly defined, consistent, unambiguous, stable, and as straightforward and simple as possible… The ideal is to make the laws of man like the laws of nature: firm, stable impersonal absolutes.”

Thus, what Hayek describes as the ‘Rule of Law’ is better conceptualized as objective law—law that is based on a clearly defined, rationally derived standard. Conversely, the ‘substantive rule’ approach can be thought of as simply non-objective law.* That Hayek has not properly defined the two is consistent with his argument thus far, which in previous analyses has been shown to be largely based on a subjectivist-skepticist epistemology. This does not make his endorsement of the ‘Rule of Law’ any less genuine, but it does explain his admitted discomfort with his own descriptions in this chapter and why he was unable to correct them.

(For a fuller description of objective law, see Binswanger’s full article on the subject here.)

Hayek impressively illustrates the dangers of ‘substantive rules’ (we shall continue to use his term for accuracy, despite its inadequacy) with a discussion of policies that use the force of government to achieve egalitarian ends. He decries the increasing frequency under socialism of legal discussions as to what is ‘fair’ or ‘reasonable’, with ultimate discretion in such matters left to the subjective whim of a judge or regulator.

“Formal equality before the law [Hayek writes] is in conflict, and in fact incompatible, with any activity of the government deliberately aiming at material or substantive equality of different people, and that any policy directly aiming at a substantive ideal of distributive justice must lead to the destruction of the Rule of Law.” (59)

Tangential to this discussion of the displacement of justice in the law by distorted notions of ‘fairness’ and ‘reasonability’ is a short but powerful challenge to the concept of ‘privilege’ that Hayek observes to be animating such cases. ‘Privilege’, he writes, is a valid description of those instances in which “landed property [was] reserved to members of the nobility” and property was understood to be held not by right but at the discretion of the monarch and its state (60). It is likewise privilege where “the right to produce or sell particular things is reserved to particular people designated by authority.” It is an inaccurate and unjust characterization, however, that treats the possession of property by right as ‘privilege.’ To do so “depriv[es] the word privilege of its meaning” (60).

In a landmark moment, Hayek even mentions the concept of rights for the first time. “[R]ecognised limitations of the powers of legislation,” he writes, “imply the recognition of the inalienable right of the individual, inviolable rights of man.” He goes on to write “How a formal recognition of individual rights, or of the equal rights of minorities, loses all significance in a state [sic] which embarks on a complete control of economic life, has been amply demonstrated by the experience of the various Central European countries” (64). Both instances are valid discussions of the concept. Whether this signals the introduction of a more enduring concept throughout the remainder of the work, or whether it is simply a passing mention not to be invoked again, time and further chapters will reveal.

Amidst these positive points, however, the chapter is not without severely detrimental flaws, beginning with Hayek’s further elaborations upon the ‘Rule of Law.’ Hayek unduly and inexplicably concedes ground to capitalism’s detractors, writing, “It cannot be denied that the Rule of Law produces economic inequality—all that can be claimed for it is that this inequality is not designed to affect particular people in a particular way” (59). That such a grave error should be committed on the very topic—economics—in which he has thus far been relatively solid and which is, in fact, his stock-in-trade is exasperating.

The ‘Rule of Law’, even in Hayek’s loose and non-essential definition of it, does not produce inequality—neither in means nor in outcomes. He has devoted much of the chapter to explaining its superiority to ‘substantive rules’, largely on the grounds that it does not privilege one party over another. Thus, he cannot be thought to be saying it produces an inequality of means. He can only be understood as saying that it produces an inequality of outcomes. This, however, is patently false.

Inequality in a laissez-faire society is simply a reflection of the differing achievements of individual men. It arises from man’s nature—the fact that he is rational and capable of immeasurable creativity, but that his consciousness is volitional. In such a society, man is left free—restricted only by the limits of his own faculties.

A limited government honoring individual rights, refusing to intervene in an economy or in any way initiate force against its citizens, does not produce anything except a system of justice and a circumstance in which force is prohibited from human relationships. Where inequality of achievement results between different men—whether competing in the same field or pursuing unrelated economic ventures—it is neither produced by the law nor prevented by it. It is a fact of nature.

Hayek makes similarly baffling assertions as to what the ultimate aim of law should be, and it is here that we come to see the difference between Hayek’s ‘Rule of Law’ and objective law as we defined it above. Where objective law references a particular standard—the requirements of man’s life—as the ultimate value to be gained and kept, Hayek’s looser ‘Rule of Law’ seeks to preserve not a concrete value, but a state of randomness.

“[T]hat we do not know their concrete effect, that we do not know what particular ends these rules will further, or which particular people they will assist, that they are merely given the form most likely on the whole to benefit all the people affected by them, is the most important criterion of formal rules in the sense in which we here use the term” (56). [Emphasis mine.]

Thus, the unpredictability of outcomes is treated as an intrinsic value. True: Hayek is correct that an objective legal system in no way predicts or influences which parties in a society will be successful and which might fail. However, lest one remain adamant that Hayek is simply describing what will happen in such a system, rather than arguing why such a system should be instituted, a subsequent passage leaves no room for doubt:

“[I]t may appear paradoxical to claim as a virtue that under one system we shall know less about the particular effect of the measures the state takes than would be true under most other systems and that a method of social control should be deemed superior because of our ignorance of its precise results. Yet this consideration is in fact the rationale of the great liberal principle of the Rule of Law” (56). [Emphasis mine.]

Should this passage not suffice to bring back memories of Hayek’s abhorrent defense of liberty in Chapter IV, Hayek further abuses the concept and paves the road for anarchist libertarians to come by suggesting that law itself is a violation of liberty. He writes that, “While every law restricts individual freedom to some extent by altering the means [sic] which people may use in the pursuit of their aims, under the Rule of Law the government is prevented from stultifying individual efforts by ad hoc action” (54).

To suggest that every law—even objectively derived and defined laws that prohibit the initiation of force between individuals—constitutes a restriction of individual freedom is to suggest, conversely, that there exists a freedom to initiate force—that is: a freedom to restrict freedoms. Implicit in it is the suggestion that freedoms clash, and that the pursuit of ever-greater freedoms requires a conflict of interest between men. For a succinct refutation of this idea, an entry from Ayn Rand’s column, “Textbook of Americanism” puts it best:

“Do not be misled . . . by an old collectivist trick which goes like this: there is no absolute freedom anyway, since you are not free to murder; society limits your freedom when it does not permit you to kill; therefore, society holds the right to limit your freedom in any manner it sees fit; therefore, drop the delusion of freedom—freedom is whatever society decides it is. It is not society, nor any social right, that forbids you to kill—but the inalienable individual right of another man to live. This is not a “compromise” between two rights—but a line of division that preserves both rights untouched. The division is not derived from an edict of society—but from your own inalienable individual right. The definition of this limit is not set arbitrarily by society—but is implicit in the definition of your own right. Within the sphere of your own rights, your freedom is absolute.”**

Other passing errors punctuate the chapter—a collectivist invocation of “society as a whole” as the good to be considered, an acceptance of there being no negligible difference between an explicit and codified Bill of Rights versus a tradition-based common law, and a parting endorsement of “factory laws” (the destructive effects of which have been thoroughly argued by historian Robert Hessen).

There are again passages that sound hauntingly familiar in today’s world. His description of the bureaucratization of government—“[b]y giving the government unlimited powers the most arbitrary rule can be made legal: and in this way a democracy may set up the most complete despotism imaginable”—sounds much like a description of today’s regulatory state. A description of The Economist as a half-hearted defender of capitalism with an inflated liberal reputation completes the picture and demonstrates that many things have not changed since Hayek’s time.

The subject of Chapter VI, the abuses perpetrated by socialism on the legal system and the ways in which law is transformed by it from a shield into a weapon, is an important one for capitalism’s defenders to understand. Certainly the ongoing antitrust abuses being carried out at the time of this writing make its continued relevance vividly clear. But the fact that the subject demands greater understanding does not mean that Hayek’s argument against it can or should be incorporated as part of that understanding—and certainly not as part of capitalism’s defense. It—and we—deserve better.

* I specifically use the term “non-objective” here, as opposed to the more conventional “subjective”, as in this context it includes law based both in subjectivism and intrinsicism.

** “Textbook of Americanism”, The Ayn Rand Column, pg. 85


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