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On Patrick Deneen’s “Why Liberalism Failed”

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Christianity, Conservatism, Historicism, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on August 28, 2019 at 6:45 am

The original version of this piece appeared here in the Journal of Faith and the Academy. A later version appeared here at Mises Wire.

Only the bold would title a book Why Liberalism Failed. Patrick Deneen, the David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, has done just that, proposing that such failure has actually occurred and setting the unreasonable expectation that he can explain it. His operative premise is that liberalism so called created the conditions for its inevitable demise—that it is a self-consuming, self-defeating ideology only around 500 years old. (p. 1) “Liberalism has failed,” he declares triumphantly, “not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded.” (p.3)

Deneen doesn’t define the term liberalism, which isn’t in his index even though it’s littered throughout the book. I have it on reliable authority that one of the peer reviewers of the pre-published manuscript recommended publication to the editors at Yale University Press, provided that Deneen cogently defined liberalism and then cleaned up his sloppy references to it. Deneen ignored this advice, leaving the manuscript as is. His genealogy of liberalism is all the more problematic in light of this refusal to clarify.

Deneen presents a seeming paradox, namely that liberalism, under the banner of liberty and emancipation, produced their opposite: a vast, progressive, and coercive administrative state under which individuals have grown alienated, amoral, dependent, conditioned, and servile. “[T]he political project of liberalism,” he claims, “is shaping us into the creatures of its prehistorical fantasy, which in fact required the combined massive apparatus of the modern state, economy, education system, and science and technology to make us into: increasingly separate, autonomous, nonrelational selves replete with rights and defined by our liberty, but insecure, powerless, afraid, and alone.” (p.16)

One hears in this line echoes of Sartre, and indeed existentialism recommends a certain kind of individualism: the freedom of the rational agent, having been thrust into existence through no choice or fault of his own, to will his own meaning in an absurd and chaotic world. But existentialism is a different species of individualism from that which motivated Hobbes, Locke, and Mill: chief targets of Deneen’s ire. It’s true that Mill disliked dogmatic conformity to custom, but that is a customary—one might even say conservative—position to take. One must preserve, or conserve, after all, a critical mode for undertaking difficult questions without assuming to have already ascertained all suitable solutions. Every age must rework its approaches to perennial problems. There’s plenty of Mill to dislike from a Christian perspective, but his unlikable conclusions do not necessarily follow from his method of inquiry or openness to examining afresh the puzzles and issues with which our ancestors struggled.

The classical liberalism or libertarianism to which Christian individualists adhere promotes peace, cooperation, coordination, collaboration, community, stewardship, ingenuity, prosperity, dignity, knowledge, understanding, humility, virtuousness, creativity, justice, ingenuity, and more, taking as its starting point the dignity of every human person before both God and humanity. This individualism prospers in fundamentally conservative cultures and does not square with Deneen’s caricature of a caricature of a caricature of “liberal” individualism. This conservative individualism, a creature of classical liberalism, advocates liberty in order to free human beings to achieve their fullest potential, cultivate widespread ethics and morality, and improve lives and institutions through economic growth and development. And who can deny that the market economy with which it is bound up has, throughout the globe, given rise to improved living conditions, technological and medical advances, scientific discovery, intellectual curiosity, and industrial innovation?

Deneen wishes to rewind the clock, to recover the virtuous “self-governance” of the ancients that, he believes, was predicated on “the common good.” (p. 99) He sees in antiquity a social rootedness that aligns with Christianity as exemplified in the modern world by Amish communities.(p 106-107) His celebration of the traditional liberal arts adopts, he says, “a classical or Christian understanding of liberty” (p. 129) that emphasizes situated norms and localities, embedded cultures, and institutional continuities. This, however, is a curious take on antiquity, one that flies in the face of the anti-Christian features of classical and ancient thought extolled by Friedrich Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, and Julius Evola, who valued the pagan elements of “the ancient commendation of virtue” (p. 165) and disparaged the modern world as being too Christian.

Deneen is not interested in liberalisms, i.e., the multiplicity of concepts that fly under the banner of liberalism. He prefers casually to lump together varieties of generic ills (everything from industrialized agriculture to the infatuation with STEM, diversity, multiculturalism, materialism, and sexual autonomy) as products of the one common enemy of everything good that the classical and medieval periods had to offer. He then gives that enemy a name: liberalism. He would plunge us back, if not into antiquity, then into medieval tribalism, into periods in which the accused were tried by ordeal or combat, when blood oaths and kinship rather than trust, goodwill, or economic exchange determined one’s loyalties and allegiances.

It isn’t correct that liberalism “requires liberation from all forms of associations and relationships, from family to church, from schools to village and community.” (p. 38) On the contrary, liberalism frees people from the tyrannical and institutionalized coercion that prevents them from enjoying local associations and relationships, including those in families, churches, schools, and communities. Liberalism properly understood empowers people to group themselves and define their experience by their own customs and mores. Thanks to liberalism, Deneen himself enjoys the freedom to critique the rapidly growing government that increasingly attempts to impose on him standards and rules at odds with his own.

Extending the individualism that characterized classical liberalism to twentieth century progressivism and modern identity politics, as Deneen does, is misguided. Modern identity politics is about collectivism in the name of self-definition, self-awareness, and self-constitution, about choosing which communities (Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ, the Democratic Socialists of America, neo-Nazis, etc.) embrace the physical (e.g. ethnic or racial), ideological (e.g., pan-nationalist, Marxist, ecosocialist, feminist, anarcho-syndicalist, white supremacist), or normative characteristics (e.g. social justice or egalitarianism) around which one forms group associations.

The truth is that individualism thrives in moral, virtuous communities, and that the common good and group associations flourish in societies that acknowledge and understand the inherent worth and dignity of every individual. Of the interdependence and mutually strengthening nature of freedom and order, of the individual and society, Frank Meyer proclaimed that “truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it; and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon brings about conditions that pave the way for surrender to tyranny.”1 To those who insist that individualism is antithetical to religious belief, which is itself indispensable to conservatism and the common good, M. Stanton Evans stated, “affirmation of a transcendent order is not only compatible with individual autonomy, but the condition of it; […] a skeptical view of man’s nature [i.e., as inherently flawed and prone to sin] not only permits political liberty but demands it.”2

In a free society, entrepreneurs and producers are looking to others, to communities, to determine basic needs to satisfy. The rational self-interest motivating creativity and inventiveness is fundamentally about serving others more efficiently and effectively, about generating personal rewards, yes—but personal rewards for making life better and easier for others. The Adam Smith of The Wealth of Nations is the same Adam Smith of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Human beings are wired both to look out for themselves, protecting their homes and loved ones, and to feel for, and empathize with, others. Beneficence and generosity are principal aspects of the liberal individualism that Deneen maligns.

The “second wave” of liberalism, in Deneen’s paradigm, is Progressivism. (p. 142) Yet modern progressivism and the Democratic Party have almost nothing to do with classical liberalism. Curiously and, I daresay, lazily, Deneen wishes to connect them. He cannot draw a clearly connecting line between them, however, because there isn’t one. The alleged connection is the supposed ambition “to liberate individuals from any arbitrary and unchosen relationships and remake the world into one in which those especially disposed to expressive individualism would thrive.” (p. 143–44) Should we take this assertion to mean that Deneen would prefer our relations and interactions to be arbitrarily coerced by a central power in a closed society where subordinated individuals habitually follow the unquestioned commands of established superiors?

F. A. Hayek once stated that, “[u]ntil the rise of socialism,” the opposite of conservatism was liberalism but that, in the United States, “the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense.”3 Is Deneen so immersed in American culture that he cannot recognize this basic distinction? Deneen prizes the common, collective good as manifest in local communities, blaming rational self-interest for the allegedly universalizing tendency of liberalism to stamp out venerable customs and cultural norms. But he seems befuddled by the American taxonomy into which liberalism has fallen and would do well to revisit the works of Ludwig von Mises, who explained, “In the United States ‘liberal’ means today a set of ideas and political postulates that in every regard are the opposite of all that liberalism meant to the preceding generations. The American self-styled liberal aims at government omnipotence, is a resolute foe of free enterprise, and advocates all-round planning by authorities, i.e., socialism.”4

A comparison of Deneen’s speculative political theory and its abstract narrative of decline with Larry Siedentop’s deeply historical, ideologically neutral Inventing the Individual (Belknap / Harvard, 2014) reveals critical flaws in Deneen’s argument, starting with the proposition that the individualism key to liberalism is merely 500 years old. Siedentop undercuts the common portrayal of a medieval Europe gripped by poverty and superstition, monarchy and tyranny, widespread corruption and early death from which the Renaissance and, later, the Enlightenment allegedly rescued us. Siedentop sees, instead, the rise of Christianity—long before medievalism—as the cause of the rise of liberal individualism, which, in fact, has roots in the teachings of St. Paul and Jesus Christ. Whereas Deneen theorizes individualism as recent and anti-Christian, Siedentop traces its actual history as distinctly Christian, mapping its concrete features over time as it proliferated and supplanted ancient pagan cultures and customs that lacked a structural understanding of the dignity and primacy of the human person.

Siedentop attributes liberal individualism to Christianity; Deneen treats liberal individualism as inimical to Christianity. Both men cannot correct, at least not fully.

Walking back some of his grand claims, Deneen acknowledges in his final pages that liberalism, in certain manifestations, has in fact been around longer than 500 years and that it has much in common with Christianity:

While liberalism pretended to be a wholly new edifice that rejected the political architecture of all previous ages, it naturally drew upon long developments from antiquity to the late Middle Ages. A significant part of its appeal was not that it was something wholly new but that it drew upon deep reservoirs of belief and commitment. Ancient political philosophy was especially devoted to the question of how best to avoid the rise of tyranny, and how best to achieve the conditions of political liberty and self-governance. The basic terms that inform our political tradition—liberty, equality, dignity, justice, constitutionalism—are of ancient pedigree. The advent of Christianity, and its development in the now largely neglected political philosophy of the Middle Ages, emphasized the dignity of the individual, the concept of the person, the existence of rights and corresponding duties, the paramount importance of civil society and a multiplicity of associations, and the concept of limited government as the best means of forestalling the inevitable human temptation toward tyranny. Liberalism’s most basic appeal was not its rejection of the past but its reliance upon basic concepts that were foundational to the Western political identity. (pp. 184–85)

Forgive me for being confused, but I thought Deneen had set out to criticize liberalism and chart its failure, not to exalt or defend it, and certainly not to tie it to an ancient lineage associated with Christianity. This passage represents the discombobulation at the heart of Deneen’s book. Liberalism is not to blame for the massive administrative state and its networks of agents and functionaries that coerce local communities. Deneen is part of the problem he describes, championing ways of thinking and organizing human behavior that undercut his hope for the reawakening of traditional values and familial or neighborly bonds on local levels.

Deneen airs his opinions with such maddening certitude that he comes across as haughty and tendentious, as a zealously anti-libertarian manqué with an axe to grind. He lacks the delicacy and charity with which reasonable scholars of good faith approach their ideological opponents. He does not entertain the position of those who, like me, believe that liberal individualism is a necessary condition for the flourishing of local communities, the cultivation of virtue and responsibility, the forming of mediating institutions and bottom-up political associations, and the decentralization and diffusion of government power. He just can’t grasp the possibility that liberal individualism creates a vehicle for the preservation of custom and heritage, the family unit, and social bonds on local levels.

“Statism enables individualism, individualism demands statism,” (p. 17) Deneen insists with little proof beyond his own ahistorical speculative theories—ironically given his call for “smaller, local forms of resistance: practicesmore than theories.” (pp. 19–20) Here’s an alternative proposition: liberal individualism and the community bonds it generates are best protected in a Christian society that is solemnly mindful of the fallibility of the human mind, the sinful tendencies of the human flesh, and the inevitable imperfection of human institutions.

Reading Why Liberalism Failed, one might come away questioning not whether Deneen is right, but whether he’s even sufficiently well-read in the history of liberalism to pass judgment on this wide-ranging, centuries-old school of philosophy that grew out of Christianity. What an unfortunate impression to impart for someone who writes with such flair about such important trends and figures. The reality, I think, is that Deneen is erudite and learned. His tendentious depiction of liberalism is thus disappointing for not putting his erudition and learning properly on display, for promoting an idiosyncratic take on liberalism that could ultimately undermine the classical and Christian commitment to liberty that he wishes to reinvigorate.

  • 1.Frank Meyer, “Freedom, Tradition, Conservatism,” in What is Conservatism? (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2015), p. 12.
  • 2.M. Stanton Evans, “A Conservative Case for Freedom,” in What is Conservatism? (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2015), p. 86.
  • 3.F. A. Hayek, “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” The Constitution of Liberty: The Definitive Edition, Vol 17, The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek(Routledge, 2013), p. 519.
  • 4.Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism in the Classical Tradition (1927) (The Foundation for Economic Education and Cobden Press, 2002) (Ralph Raico, trans.), pgs. xvi-xvii.

What Can Libertarians Contribute to the Study of Literature?

In Arts & Letters, higher education, Humane Economy, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on April 10, 2019 at 6:45 am

Interview with the James G. Martin Center regarding English Departments, Higher Education, Marxism, and Legal Education

In Arts & Letters, Economics, higher education, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on March 13, 2019 at 6:45 am

La defensa de Hayek de las comunidades descentralizadas

In Arts & Letters, Christianity, Conservatism, Economics, Essays, Humane Economy, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature, The South, Transnational Law, Western Philosophy on January 30, 2019 at 6:45 am

Originally published (and translated into Spanish) here at Mises Wire.

Mi charla de hoy trata sobre descentralización y epistemología. Para comenzar, deseo rechazar cualquier experiencia especializada en este tema. Soy un abogado de formación que ama la literatura y obtuvo un doctorado en inglés. Sería una exageración llamarme un filósofo o un teórico político, por lo tanto, esta declaración de responsabilidad de anclaje me impide navegar en los mares filosóficos.

He dividido mi argumento, tal como es, en dos partes: lo impersonal y lo personal. El primero es un caso filosófico de descentralización; el último involucra consideraciones privadas sobre relaciones humanas íntimas en torno a las cuales las comunidades de propósito común se organizan y conducen. Al final, los dos enfoques se refuerzan mutuamente y producen, espero, consideraciones benévolas y humanas. Sin embargo, presentarlos como señales separadas a diferentes audiencias cuya tolerancia a la apelación de los sentimientos puede variar.

Lo impersonal

El argumento impersonal se reduce a esto: los sistemas descentralizados de orden son más eficientes y, por lo tanto, más deseables, porque explican y responden mejor al conocimiento disperso en diversas comunidades con costumbres, ambiciones y valores únicos. Los sistemas de abajo hacia arriba, heterogéneos y gobernados por instituciones locales que reflejan el conocimiento, el talento y las opciones nativas sirven a la humanidad con mayor eficacia que los sistemas de arriba a abajo centralizados que no responden a las normas y costumbres locales.

La ley policéntrica, o policentrismo, es el término que uso para describir este arreglo organizativo. Otros nombres que se sugieren no expresan el dinamismo del policentrismo. El federalismo, por ejemplo, confunde debido a su asociación con los primeros federalistas estadounidenses. Además, presupone, incluso en su articulación por parte de los antifederalistas inadecuadamente denominados, una autoridad central demasiado fuerte, en mi opinión, debajo de la cual las autoridades locales sostienen que son subordinados iguales. El localismo, por su parte, sufre de asociaciones con políticas económicas proteccionistas y anticompetitivas. Otros nombres, como confederación, ciudad-estado o anarcocapitalismo, también tienen sus inconvenientes.

Así que me quedo con el policentrismo como la etiqueta operativa para el sistema de trabajo de las autoridades pequeñas y plurales que busco describir. El principal valor de este sistema es su propensión a moderar y verificar la ambición natural y el orgullo que lleva a los humanos no solo a las aspiraciones de poder y grandeza, sino también a las instituciones coercitivas y las maquinaciones que inhiben la organización voluntaria de los individuos en torno a normas y costumbres compartidas. Un orden policéntrico óptimo consiste en múltiples jurisdicciones en competencia de escala humana y razonable, cada una con sus propios poderes divididos que impiden la consolidación de la autoridad en la forma de un gobernante o tirano supremo (o, más probablemente en nuestra época, de un directivo, administrativo, y burocrático Estado) y cada uno con un documento escrito que describe las reglas e instituciones que rigen al mismo tiempo que afirma un compromiso central con objetivos comunes y una misión orientadora. Sin embargo, hablar de un orden policéntrico óptimo es problemático, porque los órdenes policéntricos permiten que distintas comunidades seleccionen y definan por sí mismas el conjunto operativo de reglas e instituciones que cumplen con sus principales ideales y principios favorecidos.

La teoría de precios de F.A. Hayek proporciona un punto de partida útil para analizar los beneficios de los modos de ordenamiento humano descentralizados y de abajo hacia arriba que representan el policentrismo. Esta teoría sostiene que el conocimiento está disperso en toda la sociedad e incapaz de ser comprendido por una sola persona o grupo de personas; por lo tanto, la planificación económica centralizada fracasa inevitablemente porque no puede evaluar o calcular con precisión las necesidades sentidas y las actividades coordinadas de personas lejanas en comunidades dispares; solo en una economía de mercado donde los consumidores compran y venden libremente de acuerdo con sus preferencias únicas, los precios confiables se revelarán gradualmente.

La teoría del conocimiento de Hayek se basa en la falibilidad y las limitaciones de la inteligencia humana. Debido a que la complejidad del comportamiento y la interacción humana excede la capacidad de una mente o grupo de mentes para comprenderla por completo, la coordinación humana requiere deferencia a órdenes emergentes o espontáneas, arraigadas en la costumbre, que se adaptan a las necesidades y preferencias dinámicas y en evolución de los consumidores cotidianos. La articulación de la teoría de los precios de Hayek contempla la sabiduría colectiva y agregada, es decir, el conocimiento incorpóreo o incorporado, y advierte contra los grandes diseños basados ​​en la supuesta experiencia de una clase selecta de personas.

Michael Polanyi, otro político y un ardiente antimarxista, expuso teorías relacionadas sobre el policentrismo, el orden espontáneo, la planificación central y el conocimiento, pero se centró menos en la teoría económica y más en el descubrimiento científico, la investigación independiente y el intercambio libre y sistemático de investigación e ideas. Desde su punto de vista, el avance científico no procedió a medida que avanza la construcción de una casa, es decir, de acuerdo con un plan o diseño fijo, sino mediante un proceso análogo a, en sus palabras, “la disposición ordenada de las células vivas que constituyen un organismo pluricelular.” 1 “A lo largo del proceso de desarrollo embrionario”, explicó, “cada célula persigue su propia vida, y sin embargo cada una ajusta su crecimiento al de sus vecinos para que emerja una estructura armoniosa del agregado.”2 “Esto”, concluyó, “es exactamente cómo cooperan los científicos: ajustando continuamente su línea de investigación a los resultados alcanzados hasta la fecha por sus colegas científicos”.3

Polanyi trabajó para demostrar que “la planificación central de la producción” era “estrictamente imposible”4 y que “las operaciones de un sistema de orden espontáneo en la sociedad, como el orden competitivo de un mercado, no pueden ser reemplazadas por el establecimiento de una agencia de pedidos deliberada.”5 Describió las ineficiencias de las estructuras organizativas puramente jerárquicas dentro de las cuales la información se eleva desde la base, mediada sucesivamente por niveles posteriores de autoridad más altos, llegando finalmente a la cima de una pirámide, a una autoridad suprema, que luego centraliza dirige todo el sistema, comandando las órdenes hacia la base. Este proceso complejo, además de ser ineficiente, es susceptible de desinformación, y de una falta de conocimiento confiable en el terreno de las circunstancias relevantes.

Si bien Polanyi señala casos mundanos de ordenación espontánea, como pasajeros en estaciones de tren, sin dirección central, parados en plataformas y ocupando asientos en los trenes, 6 también examina formas más complejas de adaptación de comportamiento a las interacciones interpersonales que, a lo largo del tiempo y a través de la repetición, emerge como hábitos y reglas entendidos tácitamente que ganan aceptación por parte del cuerpo corporativo más grande.

La centralización concentra el poder en menos personas en espacios más pequeños, mientras que la descentralización divide y distribuye el poder entre vastas redes de personas en espacios más amplios. Bajo el gobierno centralizado, las personas buenas que disfrutan del poder pueden, en teoría, lograr rápidamente el bien, pero las personas malvadas que disfrutan del poder pueden lograr rápidamente el mal. Debido a los peligros inherentes y apócrifos de esta última posibilidad, el gobierno centralizado no debe ser preferido. Nuestras tendencias como humanos son catastróficas, afirmándose a sí mismas en los comportamientos pecaminosos que ambos elegimos y no podemos ayudar. Hay, además, en un rango considerable de asuntos, desacuerdos sobre lo que constituye lo malo y lo bueno, lo malo y lo virtuoso. Si las preguntas sobre la maldad o la bondad, el mal y la virtuosidad se resuelven de forma simple o apresurada en favor del poder central, las comunidades resistentes (amenazadas, marginadas, silenciadas y coaccionadas) ejercerán finalmente su agencia política, movilizándose en alianzas insurreccionales para socavar la central. poder. Por lo tanto, el poder centralizado aumenta la probabilidad de violencia a gran escala, mientras que el gobierno descentralizado reduce los conflictos a niveles locales donde tienden a ser menores y compensadores.

Las órdenes policéntricas producen comunidades auto-constituidas que se regulan a través de las instituciones mediadoras que han erigido voluntariamente para alinearse con sus valores, tradiciones y prioridades. Su alcance y escala prácticos les permiten gobernarse a sí mismos de acuerdo con reglas vinculantes que generalmente son aceptables para la mayoría dentro de su jurisdicción.

Un hombre solo en el desierto es vulnerable a las amenazas. Sin embargo, cuando entra en la sociedad, se combina con otros que, con intereses comunes, se sirven y protegen mutuamente de amenazas externas. Si la sociedad crece y se materializa en vastos estados o gobiernos, las personas que viven en ella pierden su sentido de propósito común, su deseo de unirse para el beneficio y la protección mutuos. Surgen facciones y clases, cada una compitiendo por el poder. Las personas en las que supuestamente reside la soberanía del poder central pueden perder su poder y ser marginadas a medida que prolifera la red de funcionarios burocráticos. Las personas son desplazadas por armas y agencias del poder central. Aunque no se puede lograr progreso sin una competencia constructiva entre los grupos rivales, las sociedades no pueden prosperar cuando sus habitantes no comparten un sentido fundamental de identidad y propósito común.

El poder centralizado a primera vista puede parecer más eficiente porque su proceso de toma de decisiones no es complejo, ya que consiste en comandos de arriba hacia abajo para subordinados. Teóricamente, y solo teóricamente, la máxima eficiencia se podría lograr si todo el poder fuera poseído por una sola persona. Pero, por supuesto, en realidad, ninguna persona puede proteger su poder de amenazas externas o insubordinación interna. De hecho, la concentración de poder en una persona invita al disenso y la insurrección. Después de todo, es más fácil derrocar a una persona que derrocar a muchas. Por lo tanto, en la práctica, el poder centralizado requiere la autoridad suprema para construir burocracias de agentes y funcionarios de manera leal y diligente para instituir su directiva de arriba hacia abajo

Pero, ¿cómo genera el poder central un sentido de lealtad y deber entre estos subordinados? A través del patrocinio y los favores políticos, las pensiones, la búsqueda de rentas, el tráfico de influencias, las inmunidades, el compañerismo, el injerto, en definitiva, fortaleciendo el impulso humano para el auto-engrandecimiento, elevando a personas y grupos seleccionados a posiciones privilegiadas a expensas extraordinarias para personas o consumidores comunes. En consecuencia, la centralización como una forma de organización humana incentiva la corrupción, la mala conducta y la deshonestidad mientras se construyen redes complicadas de funcionarios costosos a través de los cuales se media y se distorsiona la información. El resultado es una corrupción generalizada, malentendidos e ineficiencia.

Incluso asumiendo arguendo de que la autoridad concentrada es más eficiente, facilitaría la capacidad de llevar a cabo el mal, así como el bien. Los supuestos beneficios del poder consolidado presuponen una autoridad suprema benevolente con un amplio conocimiento de las circunstancias nativas. Los posibles beneficios que se puedan obtener a través de una toma de decisiones hipotéticamente rápida se ven compensados ​​por los daños potenciales resultantes de la implementación de la decisión como ley vinculante. El conocimiento limitado y falible en el que se basa la decisión amplifica el daño resultante más allá de lo que podría haber sido en un sistema descentralizado que localiza el poder y por lo tanto disminuye la capacidad de las personas malas para causar daño.

Por lo tanto, la eficiencia, en su caso, de las órdenes de mando y la política de establecimiento de un modelo de arriba hacia abajo se neutraliza por las ineficiencias resultantes y las consecuencias perjudiciales que podrían haberse evitado si los planificadores centrales no hubieran presupuesto el conocimiento de las circunstancias locales. En ausencia de una autoridad de compensación, cualquier poder centralizado puede, sin justa causa, coaccionar y molestar a hombres y mujeres pacíficos en contravención de sus distintas leyes y costumbres. Naturalmente, estos hombres y mujeres, combinados como comunidades resistentes, disputarán una tiranía injustificada e indeseada que amenaza su forma de vida y la comprensión de la comunidad. La perturbación de la armonía social y la reacción violenta contra la coerción injustificada hacen ineficientes las operaciones supuestamente eficientes del poder central.

Después de una larga consideración, se hace evidente que, después de todo, los modos centralizados de poder no son más eficientes, que de hecho son contrarios a la libertad y la virtud en comparación con sus alternativas descentralizadas. Pero esa no es la única razón por la cual el modelo descentralizado es superior.

El personal

No disfrutas del buen vino simplemente hablando y pensando en él, sino bebiéndolo, olfateando sus aromas, girándolo en tu vaso, mojando tu lengua y cubriendo tu boca con él. Una verdadera apreciación del vino es experiencial, basada en el placer repetido de probar y consumir diferentes variedades de uva con sus componentes de sabor distintivo. La mayoría de las personas desarrollan sus amores y prioridades de esta manera. No aman las abstracciones, pero aman a sus vecinos, familias y amigos. Priorizan los temas que les son cercanos y diarios. Lo han hecho desde muy temprana edad. “Es dentro de las familias y otros arreglos institucionales característicos de la vida del vecindario, la aldea y la comunidad que la ciudadanía se aprende y se practica para la mayoría de las personas la mayor parte del tiempo”, dijo Vincent 7Ostrom. “El primer orden de prioridad en el aprendizaje del oficio de ciudadanía aplicado a los asuntos públicos”, agregó, “debe enfocarse en cómo hacer frente a los problemas en el contexto de la familia, el vecindario, la aldea y la comunidad. Aquí es donde las personas adquieren los rudimentos para autogobernarse, aprendiendo cómo vivir y trabajar con los demás”.8

Aprendí a aceptar la derrota, no de las campañas electorales nacionales, las guerras en el extranjero o los bancos demasiado grandes para quebrar que fracasaron, sino del béisbol de ligas menores, cuando mi equipo de tercer grado, los Cardenales, perdió en las semifinales, y cuando mi equipo de baloncesto de primer año perdió en la final. Todavía sueño con ese campeonato de baloncesto. Mi entrenador me había puesto en el juego con el único propósito de disparar triples, mi especialidad, pero la defensa me hizo un doble equipo. No pude conseguir un disparo claro. Cada vez que pasaba el balón, mi entrenador gritaba “no” y me ordenaba que disparara. A principios de la temporada, antes de que supiera mi habilidad detrás de la línea de tres puntos, gritó “no” cada vez que tomaba un tiro.

Aprendí sobre la injusticia cuando mi maestra de primer grado me castigó de una manera desproporcionada con mi presunta ofensa, que hasta el día de hoy niego haber cometido, y sobre la gracia y la misericordia cuando mi madre me perdonó, sin siquiera un azote. Por una ofensa que había cometido definitivamente.

Aprendí sobre Dios y la fe mientras desayunaba en la mesa de la cocina de mi abuela. Ella mantuvo una Biblia sobre la mesa al lado de una estantería llena de textos sobre temas y enseñanzas cristianas. En el centro de la mesa había un pequeño frasco de versículos de la Biblia. Recuerdo que metí la mano en el frasco y saqué versos, uno tras otro, fin de semana tras fin de semana, leyéndolos y luego discutiendo con ella cuál podría ser su significado. Este modo de aprendizaje fue íntimo, práctico y me preparó para experimentar a Dios por mí mismo, para estudiar Su palabra y descubrir mis creencias acerca de Él cuando más tarde me retiré a lugares de soledad para contemplar en silencio. Estas experiencias significaron mucho más para mí que las palabras de cualquier televangelista lejano.

Cada vez que me quedaba en la casa de mis abuelos, mi abuelo se despertaba temprano y encendía la cafetera. Mi hermano y yo, al escucharlo abajo, corríamos a su lado. Compartió secciones del periódico con nosotros y nos permitió tomar café con él. Nos hizo sentir como adultos responsables, dos niños pequeños con el periódico y el café en la mano, reflexionando sobre los acontecimientos actuales y emitiendo juicios sobre las últimas tendencias y escándalos políticos. Esta educación indispensable no provino de la difusión pública o de algún proyecto costoso de alfabetización cívica orquestado por la Fundación Nacional para las Artes o la Fundación Nacional para las Humanidades. Venía de la familia, en espacios familiares, en el calor de un hogar amoroso.

La señora Stubbs me enseñó modales y decoro en el cotillón, aunque nunca logró enseñarme a bailar. Aprendí la etiqueta en el campo de golf donde pasé los veranos de mi infancia jugando con grupos de hombres adultos, compitiendo con ellos mientras aprendía a hacer preguntas sobre sus carreras y profesiones, guardando silencio mientras giraban o ponían, no andando en sus líneas, sosteniendo el flagstick para ellos, otorgándoles honores en el tee cuando obtuvieron la puntuación más baja en el hoyo anterior, rastrillando los bunkers, caminando con cuidado para evitar dejar marcas de picos en los greens, reparando las marcas de mis bolas, etc.

Me enteré de la muerte cuando una niña con la que viajé a la iglesia falleció de cáncer. Tenía solo cuatro o cinco años cuando murió. Luego vino la muerte de mi bisabuela, luego mi bisabuelo, luego mi abuelo, y así sucesivamente, lo que hasta el día de hoy se me acerca. En el Sur aún abrimos nuestros ataúdes para mostrar cadáveres y recordarnos la fragilidad de la vida y la inevitabilidad de la muerte. Este ritual solemne nos mantiene conscientes de nuestro propósito en la vida, nos acerca a nuestros amigos y familiares y nos asegura que contemplamos las preguntas más graves y más importantes.

Mis dos abuelos significaban el mundo para mí. Ambos llevaban trajes y corbatas para trabajar todos los días. Se vistieron profesionalmente y con responsabilidad para cada ocasión. Los copié a temprana edad. En la escuela secundaria, mientras los otros niños se entregaban a las últimas modas y modas, usaba camisas abotonadas metidas cuidadosamente en los pantalones. Pensé que no obtendría puntos con mis compañeros disfrazándome para la clase, pero en poco tiempo muchos de mis amigos adoptaron la práctica cuando empezamos a pensar en nosotros mismos como hombres pequeños en busca de una educación. Debido a que éramos atletas, nuestra ropa no solo fue tolerada sino que finalmente se imitó. Cuando los otros equipos de baloncesto se presentaron en nuestro gimnasio, los conocimos con abrigo y corbata mientras llevaban camisetas demasiado grandes y pantalones sueltos que se hundían debajo de las puntas traseras. Nuestro equipo podría haberlos asustado por nuestro atuendo formal. Pero los sorprendimos aún más después de que nos trasladamos al vestuario, nos pusimos nuestras camisetas, irrumpimos en la cancha y luego los derrotábamos.

Podría seguir. El punto es que la experiencia sentida define quiénes somos y da forma a cómo nos comportamos. Como señaló el juez Holmes, “Lo que más amamos y veneramos en general está determinado por las primeras asociaciones. Me encantan las rocas de granito y los arbustos de agracejo, sin duda porque con ellos estuvieron mis primeros gozos que se remontan a la eternidad pasada de mi vida”.9 Lo que dice a continuación es más importante:

Pero mientras que la experiencia de uno hace que ciertas preferencias sean dogmáticas para uno mismo, el reconocimiento de cómo llegaron a ser así deja a uno capaz de ver que otros, las almas pobres, pueden ser igualmente dogmáticos respecto de otra cosa. Y esto de nuevo significa escepticismo. No es que la creencia o el amor de uno no permanezca. No es que no lucharíamos y moriríamos por ello si fuera importante; todos, lo sepamos o no, estamos luchando para crear el tipo de mundo que nos debería gustar, sino que hemos aprendido a reconocer que los demás lucharán y morirán. Para hacer un mundo diferente, con igual sinceridad o creencia. Las preferencias profundamente arraigadas no se pueden discutir (no se puede argumentar que a un hombre le guste un vaso de cerveza) y, por lo tanto, cuando las diferencias son lo suficientemente amplias, tratamos de matar al otro hombre en lugar de dejar que se salga con la suya. Pero eso es perfectamente consistente con admitir que, por lo que parece, sus argumentos son tan buenos como los 10nuestros.

Tomo estas palabras como precaución, como un claro recordatorio del horroroso potencial de la violencia inherente al intento de un grupo de personas formado por ciertas asociaciones para imponer por la fuerza sus normas y prácticas a otro grupo de personas formadas por asociaciones diferentes. La virtud distintiva de la policentrismo es dar cabida a estas diferencias y minimizar las posibilidades de violencia al difundir y dispersar el poder.

Conclusión

El orden policéntrico que defiendo no es utópico; es concreto y práctico, y está ejemplificado por las instituciones mediadoras y las autoridades subsidiarias, tales como iglesias, sinagogas, clubes, ligas pequeñas, asociaciones comunitarias, escuelas y membrecías profesionales a través de las cuales nos expresamos, políticamente o de otra manera, y con cuyas reglas voluntariamente aceptamos.

Cuando encendemos nuestros televisores por la noche, somos muchos de nosotros de esta parte del país, perturbados por el aumento de la conducta lasciva, la retórica divisiva, el comportamiento malicioso y la decadencia institucionalizada que son contrarias a nuestras normas locales pero sistémicamente y fuertemente forzado sobre nosotros por poderes extranjeros o externos. Apagar la televisión en protesta parece ser nuestro único modo de resistencia, nuestra única manera de disentir. Disgustados por la creciente evidencia de que nuestros políticos han reunido el aparato del poderoso gobierno federal para alcanzar la fama y la gloria personal, muchos de nosotros nos sentimos explotados y sin poder. Sin embargo, frente a las burocracias estatales masivas, las grandes corporaciones, los medios parciales, los periodistas tendenciosos y los militares al mando, ejercemos nuestra agencia, brindando alegría y esperanza a nuestras familias, amigos y vecinos, atendiendo a circunstancias concretas que están bajo nuestro control directo. La promesa de comunidad nos revitaliza y refresca.

Recientemente paseé por Copenhague, Dinamarca, un brillante domingo por la mañana. Aunque las campanas de la iglesia sonaban por las calles, haciendo eco en los edificios y las aceras de adoquines, silenciando las conversaciones y sobresaltando a algunas palomas, las iglesias permanecieron vacías. No vi adoradores ni servicios de adoración. Algunas de las iglesias habían sido reutilizadas como cafés y restaurantes con camareros y camareras pero no pastores ni sacerdotes; los clientes bebían su vino y comían su pan en mesas pequeñas, pero no había rituales de comunión ni sacramentos.

Un mes después, también un domingo, volé a Montgomery, Alabama, desde Dallas, Texas. A medida que el avión descendía lentamente bajo las nubes, las pequeñas figuras de casas de muñecas y los edificios modelo debajo de mí cobraron vida, convirtiéndose en personas y estructuras reales. Contemplé las docenas de iglesias que salpicaban el paisaje plano y ensanchado, que crecía cada vez más a medida que nos acercábamos al aeropuerto. Y observé, sentado allí, el stock todavía impulsado a través del espacio, que los estacionamientos de cada iglesia estaban llenos de autos, que había, a esta hora temprana, cientos, si no miles, de mi gente allí antes que yo, adorando al mismo Dios. Adoré, el mismo Dios que mis padres y abuelos y sus padres y abuelos habían adorado; Y sentí, en ese momento, profunda y profundamente, por primera vez en años, un sentimiento raro pero inconfundible: esperanza no solo para mi comunidad, sino también para la comunidad.

  • 1.Michael Polanyi, La lógica de la libertad: Reflexiones y réplicas (Indianapolis Liberty Fund, 1998) (1951), pág. 109.
  • 2.Ibid.
  • 3.Ibid.
  • 4.Ibid en 136.
  • 5.Ibid en 137.
  • 6.Ibid. a los 141 años.
  • 7.Vincent Ostrom, The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997), pág. X.
  • 8.Ibid.
  • 9.Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. “Natural Law”. Harvard Law Review, vol. 32 (1918-19), p. 41.
  • 10.Holmes a los 41.

Hayek’s Case for Decentralized Communities

In Arts & Letters, Christianity, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Religion, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Western Philosophy on January 16, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at Mises Wire.

My talk today is about decentralization and epistemology. At the outset I wish to disclaim any specialized expertise in this subject. I’m a lawyer by training who loves literature and earned a doctorate in English. It would be a stretch to call me a philosopher or a political theorist, hence this anchoring disclaimer to prevent me from sailing too deep into philosophical seas.

I have divided my argument, such as it is, into two parts: the impersonal and the personal. The former is a philosophical case for decentralization; the latter involves private considerations about intimate human relationships around which communities of common purpose organize and conduct themselves. In the end, the two approaches are mutually reinforcing, yielding, I hope, benevolent and humane considerations. Presenting them as separate, however, signals to different audiences whose tolerance for appeals to feeling may vary.

The Impersonal

The impersonal argument boils down to this: decentralized systems of order are more efficient, and hence more desirable, because they better account for and respond to dispersed knowledge across diverse communities with unique customs, ambitions, and values. Heterogeneous, bottom-up systems governed by local institutions that reflect native knowledge, talent, and choices more effectually serve humanity writ large than centralized, top-down systems that are unaccountable to local norms and mores.

Polycentric law, or polycentrism,is the term I use to describe this organizational arrangement. Other names that suggest themselves fail to express the dynamism of polycentrism. Federalism, for example, confounds because of its association with the early American Federalists. It presupposes, moreover, even in its articulation by the inaptly named Anti-Federalists, too strong of a central authority, in my view, beneath which local authorities contend as coequal subordinates. Localism, for its part, suffers from associations with protectionist, anticompetitive economic policies. Other names such as confederation, city state, or anarcho-capitalism likewise have their drawbacks.

So I’m stuck with polycentrism as the operative label for the working system of small and plural authorities that I seek to describe. The chief value of this system is its propensity to temper and check the natural ambition and pride that lead humans not only to aspirations of power and greatness, but also to the coercive institutions and machinations that inhibit the voluntary organization of individuals around shared norms and customs. An optimal polycentric order consists of multiple, competing jurisdictions of humane and reasonable scale, each with their own divided powers that prevent the consolidation of authority in the form of a supreme ruler or tyrant (or, more likely in our age, of a managerial, administrative, and bureaucratic state) and each with a written document outlining governing rules and institutions while affirming a core commitment to common goals and a guiding mission. To speak of an optimal polycentric order, however, is problematic, because polycentric orders enable distinct communities to select and define for themselves the operative assemblage of rules and institutions that fulfills their chief ideals and favored principles.

F. A. Hayek’s price theory provides a useful starting point for discussing the benefits of bottom-up, decentralized modes of human ordering that represent polycentrism. This theory holds that knowledge is dispersed throughout society and incapable of being comprehensively understood by any one person or group of people; therefore, centralized economic planning inevitably fails because it cannot accurately assess or calculate the felt needs and coordinated activities of faraway people in disparate communities; only in a market economy where consumers freely buy and sell according to their unique preferences will reliable pricing gradually reveal itself.

Hayek’s theory of knowledge is predicated on the fallibility and limitations of human intelligence. Because the complexity of human behavior and interaction exceeds the capacity of one mind or group of minds fully to comprehend it, human coordination requires deference to emergent or spontaneous orders, rooted in custom, that adapt to the dynamic, evolving needs and preferences of everyday consumers. Hayek’s articulation of price theory contemplates collective and aggregated wisdom—i.e., disembodied or embedded knowledge—and cautions against grand designs based on the alleged expertise of a select class of people.

Michael Polanyi, another polymath and an ardent anti-Marxist, exposited related theories about polycentricity, spontaneous order, central planning, and knowledge, but he focused less on economic theory and more on scientific discovery, independent inquiry, and the free, systematic exchange of research and ideas. Scientific advancement, in his view, did not proceed as the construction of a house proceeds, namely according to a fixed plan or design, but rather by a process analogous to, in his words, “the ordered arrangement of living cells which constitute a polycellular organism.”1 “Throughout the process of embryonic development,” he explained, “each cell pursues its own life, and yet each so adjusts its growth to that of its neighbors that a harmonious structure of the aggregate emerges.”2 “This”, he concluded, “is exactly how scientists co-operate: by continually adjusting their line of research to the results achieved up to date by their fellow-scientists.”3

Polanyi labored to show that “the central planning of production” was “strictly impossible”4 and that “the operations of a system of spontaneous order in society, such as the competitive order of a market, cannot be replaced by the establishment of a deliberate ordering agency.”5 He described the inefficiencies of purely hierarchical organizational structures within which information rises upward from the base, mediated successively by subsequent, higher tiers of authority, arriving ultimately at the top of a pyramid, at some supreme authority, which then centrally directs the entire system, commanding orders down to the base. This convoluted process, besides being inefficient, is susceptible to disinformation and misinformation, and to a lack of reliable, on-the-ground knowledge of relevant circumstances.

While Polanyi points to mundane instances of spontaneous ordering, such as passengers at train stations, without central direction, standing on platforms and filling seats on the trains,6 he also examines more complex forms of behavioral adaptation to interpersonal interactions that, over time and through repetition, emerge as tacitly understood habits and rules that gain acceptance by the larger corporate body.

Centralization concentrates power in fewer people in smaller spaces, whereas decentralization divides and spreads power among vast networks of people across wider spaces. Under centralized government, good people who enjoy power may, in theory, quickly accomplish good, but evil people who enjoy power may quickly accomplish evil. Because of the inherent, apocryphal dangers of the latter possibility, centralized government must not be preferred. Our tendencies as humans are catastrophic, asserting themselves in the sinful behaviors we both choose and cannot help. There is, moreover, on a considerable range of issues, disagreement about what constitutes the bad and the good, the evil and the virtuous. If questions about badness or goodness, evil and virtuousness are simply or hastily resolved in favor of the central power, then resistant communities—threatened, marginalized, silenced, and coerced—will eventually exercise their political agency, mobilizing into insurrectionary alliances to undermine the central power. Centralized power therefore increases the probability of large-scale violence whereas decentralized government reduces conflicts to local levels where they tend to be minor and offsetting.

Polycentric orders produce self-constituting communities that regulate themselves through the mediating institutions they have voluntarily erected to align with their values, traditions, and priorities. Their practical scope and scale enable them to govern themselves according to binding rules that are generally agreeable to the majority within their jurisdiction.

A man alone in the wilderness is vulnerable to threats. When he enters into society, however, he combines with others who, with common interests, serve and protect each other from outside threats. If society grows large, materializing as vast states or governments, the people therein lose their sense of common purpose, their desire to unify for mutual benefit and protection. Factions and classes arise, each contending for power. The people in whom the sovereignty of the central power supposedly resides may become disempowered and marginalized as the network of bureaucratic functionaries proliferates. The people are displaced by arms and agencies of the central power. Although progress cannot be achieved without constructive competition among and between rival groups, societies cannot flourish when their inhabitants do not share a fundamental sense of common purpose and identity.

Centralized power may at first blush seem to be more efficient because its decision-making process is not complex, consisting as it does of top-down commands to subordinates. Theoretically, and only theoretically, ultimate efficiency could be achieved if all power were possessed by one person. But of course in reality no one person could protect his or her power from external threats or internal insubordination. In fact, the concentration of power in one person invites dissent and insurrection. It is easier, after all, to overthrow one person than to overthrow many. Therefore, in practice, centralized power requires the supreme authority to build bureaucracies of agents and functionaries loyally and dutifully to institute its top-down directive

But how does the central power generate a sense of loyalty and duty among and between these subordinates? Through patronage and political favors, pensions, rent seeking, influence peddling, immunities, cronyism, graft—in short, by strengthening the human urge for self-aggrandizement, elevating select people and groups to privileged positions at extraordinary expense to ordinary people or consumers. Accordingly, centralization as a form of human organization incentivizes corruption, malfeasance, and dishonesty while building convoluted networks of costly officials through whom information is mediated and distorted. The result is widespread corruption, misunderstanding, and inefficiency.

Even assuming arguendo that concentrated authority is more efficient, it would ease the ability to accomplish evil and mischief as well as good. The purported benefits of consolidated power presuppose a benevolent supreme authority with comprehensive knowledge of native circumstances. Whatever conceivable benefits may be obtained through hypothetically quick decision-making are outweighed by the potential harms resulting from the implementation of the decision as binding law. The limited and fallible knowledge on which the decision is based amplifies the resultant harm beyond what it might have been in a decentralized system that localized power and thereby diminished the capability of bad people to cause harm.

The efficiency, if any, of commanding orders and setting policy on a top-down model is therefore neutralized by the resulting inefficiencies and harmful consequences that could have been avoided had central planners not presupposed knowledge of local circumstances. Absent an offsetting authority, any centralized power may, without just cause, coerce and molest peaceful men and women in contravention of their distinct laws and customs. Naturally, these men and women, combined as resistant communities, will contest unwarranted, unwanted tyranny that threatens their way of life and understanding of community. Disturbance of social harmony and backlash against unjustified coercion render inefficient the allegedly efficient operations of the central power.

It becomes apparent, after long consideration, that centralized modes of power are not more efficient after all, that in fact they are inimical to liberty and virtue when compared to their decentralized alternatives. But that is not the only reason why the decentralized model is superior.

The Personal

You don’t enjoy fine wine merely by talking and thinking about it, but by actually drinking it, sniffing its aromas, swirling it in your glass, wetting your tongue and coating your mouth with it. A true appreciation of wine is experiential, based on the repeated pleasure of tasting and consuming different grape varieties with their distinctive flavor components. Most people develop their loves and priorities this way. They do not love abstractions, but they love their neighbors, families, and friends. They prioritize issues that are to them near and daily. They have done so from an early age. “It is within families and other institutional arrangements characteristic of neighborhood, village, and community life that citizenship is learned and practiced for most people most of the time,” said Vincent Ostrom.7 “The first order of priority in learning the craft of citizenship as applied to public affairs,” he added, “needs to focus on how to cope with problems in the context of family, neighborhood, village, and community. This is where people acquire the rudiments for becoming self-governing, by learning how to live and work with others.”8

I learned to accept defeat, not from national election campaigns, foreign wars, or too-big-to-fail banks that nevertheless failed, but from little-league baseball, when my third-grade team, the Cardinals, lost in the semifinals, and when my freshman basketball team lost in the finals. I still dream about that championship basketball game. My coach had put me in the game for the sole purpose of shooting three-pointers, my specialty, but the defense double-teamed me. I was unable to get a clear shot. Every time I passed the ball away my coach yelled “no,” commanding me to shoot. Earlier in the season, before he knew my skill behind the three-point line, he shouted “no” whenever I took a shot.

I learned about injustice when my first-grade teacher punished me in a manner that was disproportionate to my alleged offense, which to this day I deny having committed, and about grace and mercy when my mother forgave me, without so much as a spank, for an offense that I had most definitely committed.

I learned about God and faith while having breakfast at my grandmother’s kitchen table. She kept a Bible on the table beside a bookshelf full of texts on Christian themes and teachings. At the middle of the table was a little jar of Bible verses. I recall reaching my hand into the jar and pulling out verses, one after another, weekend after weekend, reading them to her and then discussing with her what their meaning might be. This mode of learning was intimate and hands-on and prepared me to experience God for myself, to study His word and figure out my beliefs about Him when later I retired to places of solitude for silent contemplation. These experiences meant far more to me than the words of any faraway televangelist.

Whenever I stayed at my grandparents’ house, my grandfather would awaken early and start the coffee pot. My brother and I, hearing him downstairs, would rush to his side. He shared sections of the newspaper with us and allowed us to drink coffee with him. He made us feel like responsible adults, two little children with newspaper and coffee in hand, pondering current events and passing judgment on the latest political trends and scandals. This indispensable education did not come from public broadcasting or from some expensive civic literacy project orchestrated by the National Foundation for the Arts or the National Foundation for the Humanities. It came from family, in familiar spaces, in the warmth of a loving home.

Mrs. Stubbs taught me manners and decorum at cotillion, although she never succeeded in teaching me to dance. I learned etiquette on the golf course where I spent my childhood summers playing with groups of grown men, competing with them while learning how to ask questions about their careers and professions, staying silent as they swung or putted, not walking in their lines, holding the flagstick for them, giving them honors on the tee when they earned the lowest score on the previous hole, raking the bunkers, walking carefully to avoid leaving spike marks on the greens, fixing my ball marks, and so on.

I learned about death when a girl I carpooled with to church passed away from cancer. She was only four or five when she died. Then there was the death of my great-grandmother, then my great-grandfather, then my grandfather, and so on down the line, which to this day approaches me. In the South we still open our caskets to display corpses and remind ourselves of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. This solemn ritual keeps us mindful of our purpose in life, draws us closer to our friends and family, and ensures that we contemplate the gravest and most important questions.

My two grandfathers meant the world to me. Both of them wore suits and ties to work every day. They dressed professionally and responsibly for every occasion. I copied them at an early age. In high school, while the other kids gave themselves over to the latest fads and fashions, I wore button-down shirts tucked neatly into slacks. I thought I wouldn’t score points with my peers by dressing up for class, but before long many of my friends adopted the practice as we began to think of ourselves as little men in pursuit of an education. Because we were athletes, our clothing was not just tolerated but eventually mimicked. When the other basketball teams showed up at our gym, we met them in coat and tie while they wore t-shirts that were too big and breakaway pants that sagged beneath their rear ends. Our team might have startled them by our formal attire. But we startled them even more after we removed to the locker room, put on our jerseys, stormed the court and then beat the living hell out of them.

I could go on. The point  is that felt experience defines who we are and shapes how we behave. As Justice Holmes remarked, “What we most love and revere generally is determined by early associations. I love granite rocks and barberry bushes, no doubt because with them were my earliest joys that reach back through the past eternity of my life.”9 What he says next is more important:

But while one’s experience thus makes certain preferences dogmatic for oneself, recognition of how they came to be so leaves one able to see that others, poor souls, may be equally dogmatic about something else. And this again means skepticism. Not that one’s belief or love does not remain. Not that we would not fight and die for it if important—we all, whether we know it or not, are fighting to make the kind of a world that we should like—but that we have learned to recognize that others will fight and die to make a different world, with equal sincerity or belief. Deep-seated preferences can not be argued about—you can not argue a man into liking a glass of beer—and therefore, when differences are sufficiently far reaching, we try to kill the other man rather than let him have his way. But that is perfectly consistent with admitting that, so far as appears, his grounds are just as good as ours.10

I take these words as cautionary—as a stark reminder of the horrifying potential for violence that inheres in the attempt of one group of people formed by certain associations to impose by force their norms and practices on another group of people formed by different associations. It is the distinct virtue of polycentricity to accommodate these differences and to minimize the chances of violence by diffusing and dispersing power.

Conclusion

The polycentric order I advocate is not utopian; it’s concrete and practical and exemplified by the mediating institutions and subsidiary authorities such as churches, synagogues, clubs, little leagues, community associations, schools, and professional memberships through and with which we express ourselves, politically or otherwise, and to whose rules we voluntarily submit.

When we turn on our televisions in the evening, we are, many of us from this part of the country, disturbed by the increase of lewd conduct, divisive rhetoric, mischievous behavior, and institutionalized decadence that are contrary to our local norms yet systemically and vigorously forced upon us by foreign or outside powers. Turning off the television in protest seems like our only mode of resistance, our only manner of dissent. Disgusted by mounting evidence that our politicians have marshaled the apparatus of the mighty federal government to achieve personal fame and glory, many of us feel exploited and powerless. In the face of massive state bureaucracies, large corporations, biased media, tendentious journalists, and commanding militaries, we nevertheless exercise our agency, bringing joy and hope to our families, friends, and neighbors, tending to concrete circumstances that are under our direct control. The promise of community reinvigorates and refreshes us.

Recently I strolled around Copenhagen, Denmark, on a bright Sunday morning. Though the church bells rang through the streets, echoing off buildings and cobblestone sidewalks, silencing conversations, and startling some pigeons, the churches themselves remained empty. I saw no worshipers or worship services. Some of the churches had been repurposed as cafes and restaurants with waiters and waitresses but no pastors or priests; customers drank their wine and ate their bread at fine little tables, but there were no communion rituals or sacraments.

A month later, also on a Sunday, I flew into Montgomery, Alabama, from Dallas, Texas. As the plane slowly descended beneath the clouds, the little dollhouse figurines and model buildings beneath me snapped to life, becoming real people and structures. I gazed upon the dozens of churches dotting the flat, widening landscape, which grew nearer and bigger as we approached the airport. And I observed, sitting there, stock still yet propelled through space, that the parking lots of each church were full of cars, that there were, at this early hour, hundreds if not thousands of my people there before me, worshipping the same God I worshipped, the same God my parents and grandparents and their parents and grandparents had worshipped; and I sensed, right then, deeply and profoundly, for the first time in years, a rare but unmistakable feeling: hope not just for my community, but for community.

 

Notes:

  • 1.Michael Polanyi, The Logic of Liberty (Indianapolis Liberty Fund, 1998) (1951), p. 109.
  • 2.Ibid.
  • 3.Ibid.
  • 4.Ibid at 136.
  • 5.Ibid at 137.
  • 6.Ibid. at 141
  • 7.Vincent Ostrom, The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997), p. x.
  • 8.Ibid.
  • 9.Oliver Wenell Holmes Jr. “Natural Law.” Harvard Law Review, Vol. 32 (1918-19), p. 41.
  • 10.Holmes at 41.

The American Bar Association: An Economic Perspective

In Academia, America, American History, Economics, History, Humane Economy, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Libertarianism on October 18, 2017 at 6:45 am

Free Exchange with Dr. Donald Livingston of Emory University

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, Economics, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Southern History, The South, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on January 18, 2017 at 6:45 am

In 2014, Dr. Donald Livingston sat for an interview for “Free Exchange,” a program of the John W. Hammond Institute for Free Enterprise at Lindenwood University.  The interview appears below. Dr. Livingston is Professor Emeritus in the Philosophy Department at Emory University, President of the Abbeville Institute, and Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

Deidre McCloskey and the Enrichment of the World

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Creativity, Economics, Fiction, Historicism, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Property, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on October 26, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

The following excerpt is adapted from my review of Deirdre McCloskey’s book Bourgeois Equality; the original review, which appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, is available here.

If it’s true that Wayne Booth inspired Deirdre McCloskey’s interest in the study of rhetoric, then it’s also true—happily, in my view—that McCloskey has refused to mimic Booth’s programmatic, formulaic methods and boorish insistence on prosaic succinctness. Bourgeois Equality is McCloskey’s third volume in a monumental trilogy that began with The Bourgeois Virtues (2006) and Bourgeois Dignity (2010), each published by the University of Chicago Press. This latest volume is a Big Book, alike in kind but not in theme to Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence (2000), Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae (1990), or Herald Berman’s Law and Revolution (1983) and Law and Revolution II (2006). It’s meandering and personal, blending scholarship with an essayistic style that recalls Montaigne or Emerson.

McCloskey’s elastic arguments are shaped by informal narrative and enlivened by her plain and playful voice. At times humorous, rambling, and deliberately erratic, she gives the distinct impression that she’s simply telling a story, one that happens to validate a thesis. She’s having fun. Imagine Phillip Lopate articulating economic history. McCloskey is, in this regard, a latter-day Edward Gibbon, adopting a mode and persona that’s currently unfashionable among mainstream historians, except that she’s more lighthearted than Gibbon, and unashamedly optimistic.

Writing with an air of confidence, McCloskey submits, contra Thomas Piketty, that ideas and ideology—not capital accumulation or material resources—have caused widespread economic development. Since 1800, worldwide material wealth has increased and proliferated; the quality of life in poor countries has risen—even if it remains unequal to that of more prosperous countries—and the typical human being now enjoys access to the food, goods, services, medicine, and healthcare that, in earlier centuries, were available to only a select few in the richest parts of the globe. The transition from poverty to wealth was occasioned by shifting rhetoric that reflected an emerging ethical consensus. The rhetorical-ethical change involved people’s “attitudes toward other humans” (p. xxiii), namely, the recognition of shared experience and “sympathy,” as Adam Smith stated in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Attributing human progress to ideas enables McCloskey to advocate the norms and principles that facilitated economic growth and social improvement (e.g., class mobility and fluidity) while generating extensive prosperity. Thus, her project is at once scholarly and tendentious: a study of the conditions and principles that, in turn, she promotes.

She argues that commercialism flourished in the eighteenth century under the influence of ideas—such as “human equality of liberty in law and of dignity and esteem” (p. xxix)—that were packaged in memorable rhetoric and aesthetics. “Not matter, mainly, but ideas” caused the Great Enrichment (p. 643). In other words, “[t]he original and sustaining causes of the modern world […] were ethical, not material,” and they included “the new and liberal economic idea of liberty for ordinary people and the new and democratic social idea of dignity for them” (p. xxxi). This thesis about liberty and dignity is clear and unmistakable if only because it is repetitive. McCloskey has a habit of reminding readers—in case you missed her point the first, second, or fifty-seventh time around—that the causes of the Industrial Revolution and the Great Enrichment were ideas, not “narrowly economic or political or legal changes” (p. 470). She maintains, to this end, that the Scottish Enlightenment succeeded in combining the concepts of liberty and dignity into a desirable form of equality—not equality of outcomes, of course, but of opportunity and treatment under the law. And the Scottish model, to her mind, stands in contradistinction to the French example of centralized, top-down codification, command, planning, and design.

A perennial villain lurks in the pages of her history: the “clerisy,” which is an “appendage of the bourgeoisie” (p. 597) and often dubbed “the elite” in regular parlance. McCloskey calls the clerisy “the sons of bourgeois fathers” (p. xvii) and “neo-aristocratic” (p. 440). The clerisy includes those “artists, intellectuals, journalists, professionals, and bureaucrats” who resent “the commercial and bettering bourgeoisie” (p. xvi). The clerisy seeks, in different ways at different times, to extinguish unfettered competition with exclusive, illiberal, irrevocable grants and privileges that are odious to free society and offensive to the rights of average consumers. “Early on,” says McCloskey, referring to the period in Europe after the revolutionary year 1848, “the clerisy began to declare that ordinary people are misled in trading, and so require expert protection and supervision” (p. 609). The clerisy since then has been characterized by paternalism and a sense of superiority.

Because the clerisy is shape-shifting, assuming various forms from time to time and place to place, it’s a tough concept to pin down. The word “clerisy” does not appear in the book’s index to permit further scrutiny. By contrast, McCloskey’s general arguments are easy to follow because the book is separated into parts with questions as their titles; subparts consisting of onesentence headings answer those questions.

In a massive tour de force such as this, readers are bound to take issue with certain interpretive claims. Historians will find McCloskey’s summaries to be too breezy. Even libertarians will accuse her of overlooking manifest wrongs that occurred during the periods she surveys. My complaints are few but severe. For instance, McCloskey is, I believe, either careless or mistaken to announce that, during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, “under the influence of a version of science,” in a territory that’s never specifically identified, “the right seized upon social Darwinism and eugenics to devalue the liberty and dignity of ordinary people, and to elevate the nation’s mission above the mere individual person, recommending, for example, colonialism and compulsory sterilization and the cleansing power of war” (p. xviii).

Let’s hope that it’s innocent negligence rather than willful distortion that underlies this odd, unqualified, categorical assertion. Adam Cohen’s Imbeciles (2016) and Thomas C. Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers (2016) describe how, in the United States, social Darwinism and eugenics were adopted primarily, though not exclusively, by the Left, not the Right. These recent books come on the heels of several scholarly treatments of this subject: Thomas M. Shapiro’s Population Control Politics (1985), Philip R. Reilly’s The Surgical Solution (1991), Joel Braslow’s Mental Ills and Bodily Cures (1997), Wendy Kline’s Building a Better Race (2001), Stefan Kuhl’s The Nazi Connection (2002), Nancy Ordover’s American Eugenics (2003), Christine Rosen’s Preaching Eugenics (2004), Christina Cogdell’s Eugenic Design (2004), Gregory Michael Dorr’s Segregation’s Science (2008), Paul A. Lombardo’s edition A Century of Eugenics in America (2011), and Alexander Minna Stern’s Eugenic Nation (2016). These represent only a small sampling.

Is McCloskey unware of these texts? Probably not: she reviewed Leonard’s book for Reason, although she did so after her own book reached press. At any rate, would she have us believe that Emma Goldman, George Bernard Shaw, Eugene Debs, Marie Stopes, Margaret Sanger, John Maynard Keynes, Lester Ward, and W. E. B. Du Bois were eugenicist agitators for the political Right? If so, she should supply her definition of “Right,” since it would go against commonly accepted meanings. On the matter of colonialism and war, self-identified members of the Old Right such as Albert Jay Nock, John Flynn, and Senator Robert Taft advocated precisely the opposite of what McCloskey characterizes as “Right.” These men opposed, among other things, military interventionism and adventurism. The trouble is that McCloskey’s muddying of the signifiers “Left” and “Right” comes so early in the book—in the “Exordium”— that readers may lose trust in her, question her credibility, and begin to suspect the labels and arguments in her later chapters.

Other undefined terms only make matters worse, ensuring that McCloskey will alienate many academics, who, as a class, are already inclined to reject her libertarian premises. She throws around the term “Romanticism” as if its referent were eminently clear and uncontested: “a conservative and Romantic vision” (p. xviii); “science fiction and horror fiction [are] … offshoots of Romanticism” (p. 30); “[Jane Austen] is not a Romantic novelist … [because] [s]he does not take Art as a model for life, and does not elevate the Artist to a lonely pinnacle of heroism, or worship of the Middle Ages, or adopt any of the other, antibourgeois themes of Novalis, [Franz] Brentano, Sir Walter Scott, and later Romantics” (p. 170); “Romanticism around 1800 revived talk of hope and faith and a love for Art or Nature or the Revolution as a necessary transcendent in people’s lives” (p. 171); “Romantic candor” (p. 242); “the late eighteenth-century Romantic literary critics in England had no idea what John Milton was on about [sic], because they had set aside the rigorously Calvinist theology that structured his poetry” (p. 334); “the nationalist tradition of Romantic writing of history” (p. 353); “Romantic … hostilities to … democratic rhetoric” (p. 510); “[i]n the eighteenth century … the idea of autonomy triumphed, at any rate among the progressive clerisy, and then became a leading Romantic idea, á la Victor Hugo” (p. 636); and “the Romantic conservative Thomas Carlyle” (p. 643).

To allege that the clerisy was “thrilled by the Romantic radicalism of books like Mein Kampf or What Is to Be Done” (p. xviii) is also recklessly to associate the philosophies of, say, Keats or Coleridge or Wordsworth with the exterminatory fantasies of Hitler and Lenin. McCloskey might have guarded against this misleading conflation by distinguishing German idealism or contextualizing Hegel or by being more vigilant with diction and definition. Her loose language will leave some experts (I do not profess to be one) scratching or shaking their heads and, more problematic, some non-experts with misconceptions and misplaced targets of enmity. One imagines the overeager and well-meaning undergraduate, having read Bourgeois Equality, setting out to demonize William Blake or destroy the reputation of Percy Shelly, about whom Paul Cantor has written judiciously.2 Wouldn’t originality, imagination, creativity, and individualism—widely accepted markers of Romanticism—appeal to McCloskey? Yet her unconditionally derogatory treatment of Romanticism—which she portrays as a fixed, monolithic, self-evident thing—undermines aspects of that fluctuating movement, period, style, culture, and attitude that are, or seem to be, consistent with her Weltanschauung.

But I protest too much. These complaints should not diminish what McCloskey has accomplished. Would that we had more grand studies that mapped ideas and traced influences across cultures, communities, and eras. McCloskey takes the long view, as we all should. Her focus on rhetoric is crucial to the future of liberty if, given the technological advances we have made, the “work we do will be more and more about decisions and persuading others to agree, changing minds, and less and less about implementation by hand” (p. 498). Equally significant is her embrace of humanomics—defined as “the story [of] a complete human being, with her ethics and language and upbringing” (p. xx)—which materializes in casual references to Henrik Ibsen’s plays, challenges to the depiction of John Milton “as a lonely poet in a garret writing merely to the starry heavens” (p. 393), analyses of Jane Austen’s novels, and portrayals of Elizabethan England. Her historical and narrative arc enables us to contextualize our own moment, with all of its troubles and possibilities.

Best of all, her book is inspiring and exhilarating and brimming with rousing imperatives and moving calls to action. “Let us, then,” she says at one point, “not reject the blessings of economic growth on account of planning or pessimism, the busybody if wellintentioned rationalism of some voices of the French Enlightenment or the adolescent if charming doubts of some voices of the German Romantic movement, fashionable though both attitudes have long been among the clerisy. As rational optimists, let us celebrate the Great Enrichment, and the rhetorical changes in freer societies that caused it” (p. 146). At another point she encourages her audience to guard against “both cynicism and utopianism” (p. 540), and elsewhere to heed “trade-tested cooperation, competition, and conservation in the right mix” (p. 523). These little nudges lend her credibility insofar as they reveal her true colors, as it were, and demonstrate that she is not attempting—as is the academic wont—to hide her prejudices and conceal her beliefs behind pretended objectivities.

Poverty is relative and, hence, permanent and ineradicable, despite McCloskey’s claim that we can “end poverty” (p. 8). If, tomorrow, we woke up and the wealth of each living person were magically to multiply twentyfold—even fiftyfold—there would still be people at the bottom. The quality of life at the bottom, however, would be vastly improved. The current manifestation of global poverty shows how far we as a species have advanced in the last few centuries. McCloskey is right: We should pursue the ideas that accelerated and achieved human flourishing, that demonstrably brought people out of distress and destitution. Hard sciences and mathematical models are insufficient in themselves to convey the magnitude and splendor of these ideas and their accomplishments. Hence we should welcome and produce more books like McCloskey’s that undertake a “rhetorical-ethical Revaluation” to both examine and celebrate “a society of open inquiry,” one which not only “depends on rhetoric in its politics and in its science and in its economy,” but which also yields intellectual creativity and political freedom (p. 650). In McCloskey’s approach, economics and the humanities are not mutually exclusive; rather, they are mutually illuminating and, in fact, indispensably and inextricably tied. An economics that forsakes the dignity of the human person and his capacity for creativity and aesthetics does so at its own peril and to its own disgrace. All economics is, at its core, humanomics. We could do without the latter term if we understood the former.

REFERENCES

Barzun, Jacques. 2000. From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present. New York: HarperCollins.

Berman, Harold J. 1983. Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.

——. 2006. Law and Revolution II: The Impact of the Protestant Reformations on the Western Legal Tradition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Braslow, Joel. 1997. Mental Ills and Bodily Cures: Psychiatric Treatment in the First Half of the Twentieth Century. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Cantor, Paul. 1997. “The Poet as Economist: Shelley’s Critique of Paper Money and the British National Debt,” Journal of Libertarian Studies 13, no. 1: 21–44.

Cantor, Paul, and Stephen Cox, eds. 2009. Literature and the Economics of Liberty. Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Cogdell, Christina. 2004. Eugenic Design. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Cohen, Adam. 2016. Imbeciles. London: Penguin Press.

Dorr, Gregory M. 2008. Segregation’s Science. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press.

Kline, Wendy. 2001. Building a Better Race. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Kuhl, Stefan. 2002. The Nazi Connection. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Leonard, Thomas C. 2016. Illiberal Reformers. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lombardo, Paul A. 2011. A Century of Eugenics in America. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press.

McCloskey, Deirdre. 2006. The Bourgeois Virtues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

——. 2010. Bourgeois Dignity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ordover, Nancy. 2003. American Eugenics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Paglia, Camille. 1990. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Reilly, Philip R. 1991. The Surgical Solution. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rosen, Christine. 2004. Preaching Eugenics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shapiro, Thomas M. 1985. Population Control Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Stern, Alexander Minna. 2016. Eugenic Nation. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

The Problem With Socialism

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Economics, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Libertarianism, Politics, Western Philosophy on September 28, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in The Daily Caller.

If you’re looking for a short introduction to socialism that rewards rereading, Thomas DiLorenzo’s The Problem With Socialism is it.

Perhaps your son or daughter has returned from college talking about collective control of the means of production and sporting Bernie Sanders t-shirts. Perhaps you’re a political novice looking for informed guidance.

Perhaps you’re frustrated with America’s economic decline and deplorable unemployment rates. Perhaps you listened with bewilderment as some pundit this election season distinguished democratic socialism from pure socialism in an attempt to justify the former.

Whoever you are, and whatever your occasion for curiosity, you’re likely to find insight and answers from DiLorenzo.

A professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland, DiLorenzo opens his book with troubling statistics: 43% of millennials, or at least those between ages 18 and 29, view socialism more favorably than capitalism, and 69% of voters under 30 would vote for a socialist presidential candidate. Socialism—depending on how it’s defined in relation to communism—may have killed over 100 million people and impoverished countless others over the course of the 20th Century.

So why have the youth (full disclaimer: by certain measures, at 33, I’m considered a millennial myself) welcomed this ideology that’s responsible for mass killings, organized theft, war crimes, forced labor, concentration camps, executions, show trials, ethnic cleansing, disease, totalitarianism, censorship, starvation, hyperinflation, poverty, and terror?

Why have death, destruction, and abject destitution become so hip and cool? Because of effective propaganda and utopian promises of “free” everything.

The problem is, as anyone who’s ever studied economics knows, there’s no such thing as free stuff. Somebodypays at some point.

“What socialists like Senator Sanders should say if they want to be truthful and straightforward,” DiLorenzo thus avers, “is not that government can offer citizens anything for free, but that they want healthcare (and much else) to become a government-run monopoly financed entirely with taxes. Taxes hide, but do not eliminate, the cost of individual government programs.”

And these programs are far more expensive to society than they would be on the free market.

The predicable rejoinder to such a claim — repeated ad nauseam by television personalities—is that socialism works, nay thrives, in, say, Sweden. DiLorenzo corrects the record: “Socialism nearly wrecked Sweden, and free market reforms are finally bringing its economy back from the brink of disaster.”

Strong language, but DiLorenzo maps the history and supplies the data to back it up. “The real source of Sweden’s relatively high standard of living,” he explains, has “everything to do with Sweden avoiding both world wars and jumping into the industrial revolution when its economy was one of the freest, least regulated, and least taxed in Europe.”

Other common binary assumptions are reversed in these pages: socialism causes pollution whereas capitalism protects the environment; socialism leads to war whereas capitalism is peaceful; socialism consolidates power among an elite few whereas capitalism decentralizes and disperses power, which ultimately resides with individual consumers making small economic adjustments based on their particular needs.

Even socialized medicine proves more inequitable than market-based alternatives. Proponents of Canadian-style healthcare ignore the fact that “Canadian health care is actually far more expensive, and the quality far lessthan it would be if doctors and hospitals had to compete for patients on the basis of quality and price.”

Coloring his analysis with references to the Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Murray Rothbard, DiLorenzo undertakes a variety of other issues implicated by socialism: egalitarianism, fascism, income taxation, wage and price controls, monopolies, public schooling, and more.

Had I been his publisher, I would have insisted that he also include disturbing, graphic, and gruesome images of real, dead human bodies stacked on real, dead human bodies, of ransacked churches, and of confiscated property—alarmingly tangible consequences and horrifying illustrations of pure, realized socialism.

Senator Sanders and most of his followers mean well, of course, and genuinely and in good faith advocate policies they believe to be in the best interests of the United States. Yet the history of the cause they champion is fundamentally at odds with their desired goals.

DiLorenzo has the courage to call socialism what it is: “the biggest generator of poverty the world has ever known.” For young students especially, his concise primer could make the difference between feeling the Bern, and getting burned.

Make America Mobile Again

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law, Politics on August 10, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in The American Spectator.  Note that some of the references to the presidential election are now dated but were timely when this review was originally published.

This election season has proven that, regardless of who becomes the Democratic or Republic nominee for president, the American political landscape has been reshaped. Candidates expected to have a smooth path to their party’s nomination have met, instead, a bumpy road. The rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as viable candidates reflects the growing feeling among ordinary Americans that the system is rigged, that they’re stuck in conditions enabled and controlled by an amorphous cadre of elites from Washington and Wall Street.

Income inequality is higher today than it’s been in nearly a century. Middle and lower class citizens of other First World countries enjoy more economic mobility than do middle and lower class Americans. The United States has fallen behind managerial and quasi-socialist governments in Europe in empirical rankings of economic freedom. The gap between the so-called 1% and the rest of America is growing, and recent college graduates, saddled with student loan debt and poor job prospects, are financially behind where their parents were at the same age.

Things don’t look promising. But one law professor, F. H. Buckley of the freshly named Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, outlines ways to repair structural, systemic burdens on the American economy. His new book, The Way Back, published today by Encounter Books, provocatively advocates for socialist ends by capitalist means.

Although the word socialism recalls revolution, stifled competition, attacks on private ownership, abolition of the price-system and sound economic calculation, hunger, mass-murder, off-brand goods and low-quality services, among other demonstrable horribles, Buckley has something less vicious in mind. By socialism, he does not mean a centralized government that replaces the market system with economic planning and state control of the means of production. His “socialism” is not socialism at all.

Leaving socialism undefined, he suggests that free-market economics (a term he avoids but implies) and the dismantling of the regulatory state will do more than actual socialism and its variants to lift people out of poverty and maximize their quality of life. The Left, in short, has asked the right questions about income inequality and economic mobility but supplied the wrong answers or solutions. “Sadly,” Buckley complains, “those who loudly decry income disparities often support policies which make things worse.”

It’s the aristocratic elites, in Buckley’s view, who benefit from mass bureaucracy, the welfare state, a broken immigration and public-school system, trade barriers, a flawed tax code, and a general decline in the rule of law. These unjust institutions, policies, and conditions, with their built-in advantages for a select few, cause and sustain economic immobility. They solidify the place of aristocrats — what Buckley also calls the New Class — at the top of the social stratum. Those with high levels of wealth game the system through special favors, government grants, shell companies, complicated tax schemes, offshore banking, and other loopholes designed to ensure that the 1% are excluded from the regulatory barriers imposed and administered by government at the expense of the 99%.

The aristocracy that Buckley targets is not the natural aristocracy celebrated by certain American Founders for its virtue and political disinterestedness. It’s an artificial aristocracy that has little to do with merit or talent. The Founders — probably all of them — would have been appalled by the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton: figures who became multi-millionaires through partisan politics. The Clintons embody the new artificial aristocracy. They amassed their wealth by championing programs that have slowed economic mobility while purporting to do the opposite. The Founders, by contrast, believed that benevolent aristocrats would be free from economic pressure and thus would not succumb to the temptations to use government positions or privileges for personal gain.

The Founders would have cringed to learn that public service has become a vehicle to riches. For all his many faults, Donald Trump appeals to disenfranchised Americans because he declares he’s financed his own campaign and admits that a rigged system — exemplified by our federal bankruptcy laws — has worked in his favor. He knows the government system is unfair and claims he wants to change it.

“America was a mobile society for most of the twentieth century,” Buckley says, citing statistics and substantiating his claim with charts and graphs. Trump’s supporters no doubt long for those days of economic mobility that Buckley locates in the exuberant 1950s.

When Trump announces that he wants to make America great again, people stuck at the bottom of the rigid class divide respond with enthusiasm. On a subterranean level, they seem to be hoping that America can once again become a mobile society, a place where a lowly pioneering frontiersman like Abraham Lincoln (Buckley’s favored symbol of social and economic mobility) can rise from humble beginnings to become the President of the United States. Buckley believes that “the central idea of America, as expressed in the Declaration [of Independence], became through Lincoln the promise of income mobility and a faith in the ability of people to rise to a higher station in life.”

Class structure is more settled in America than in much of Europe. Yet America has always defined itself against the European traditions of monarchy, aristocracy, dynasty, and inherited privilege. Buckley states that “America and Europe have traded places.” The trope of the American Dream is about rising out of your received station in life to accomplish great things for yourself and your posterity. What would it mean if U.S. citizens were to envy, instead, the European Dream? What if America is now the country of privilege, not promise? If the American financial and economic situation remains static, we’ll learn the answers to these questions the hard way.

Perhaps the most interesting and unique feature of Buckley’s book is his embrace of Darwinian theory — including the genetic study of phenotypes and kin selection — to explain why American aristocrats combine to preserve their power and restrain the middle and lower classes. In short, people are hard-wired to ensure the survival of their kind, so they pass on competitive advantages to their children. “American aristocrats,” Buckley submits, “are able to identify each other through settled patterns of cooperation called reciprocal altruism.” People organize themselves into social groups that maximize the genetic fitness of their biological descendants. If certain advantages are biologically heritable, then “a country would have to adopt punitive measures to handicap the gifted and talented in order to erase all genetic earnings advantages.”

Eugenics measures were popular during the Progressive Era, before we learned about the horrors of Nazi genocide and eugenics, but surely the Left does not want to return to such inhumane and homicidal practices to realize their beloved ideal of equality. Yet Buckley reveals — more subtly than my summary suggests — that biological tampering is the only way for egalitarians to transform their utopian fantasies into a concrete reality.

To those who might point out that Buckley, a tenured law professor living in the handsome outskirts of D.C., is himself a member of this self-serving aristocracy, Buckley declares that he’s a traitor to his class. Without bravado or boast, he presents himself as the rare altruist who recognizes the net gains realized through reasonable cooperation among disparate groups.

Trump and Ted Cruz ought to have Buckley’s book on hand as they make their final case to the electorate before this summer’s convention. Buckley explains why conservatives, libertarians, and Republicans alike should care about economic mobility and inequality. By ignoring the problem of economic disparity, he warns, “the Republican establishment has handed the Democrats a hammer with which to pound it.” Buckley identifies the types of cronyism and economic barriers to entry that have caused social immobility and inequality. To resolve our troubles, he advocates “easy pieces of useful and efficient legislation” that he dubs his “wish list.”

The final section of his book describes this “wish list” and sketches what Americans can do to reinvigorate their economy and make their country mobile again. By facilitating educational choice and charter schools, streamlining the immigration system, curtailing prosecutorial overreach and the criminalization of entrepreneurship, and cutting back on the financial regulations, tax loopholes, and corporate laws that are calculated to benefit rather than police those at the top, Americans can bring back the conditions necessary for the proliferation of individual liberty and prosperity — or, in Buckley’s words, restore the promise of America.

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