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Why are people who oppose capitalism so obsessed with money?

By Tom Papworth
September 29th, 2011 at 11:31 am | Comments Off on Why are people who oppose capitalism so obsessed with money? | Posted in Libertarians, Political theory, The Human Condition

Capitalists are frequently accused of being mercenary, in the sense that they are fixated on accumulating the greatest amount of wealth at the expense of other important issues. Their critics like to present themselves, in comparison, as focused on less tawdry, more important matters: happiness; social justice; public welfare.

Yet if once looks at the writings of anti-capitalists, they do seem to spend a lot of time talking about money.

My latest post on the ASI blog explores why egalitarians are wrong to seek to equalise wealth across society. According to one commentator, it’s “one of the best AS blog entries so far. A clear and graphic example of the flaw in pushing for income/wealth equality.” Thank you, Jonathan Giddy.

If you want to join the discussion, I suggest that you comment on the ASI site.

"You think equalising this match will be hard. Try equalling my score with women!"

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BOOK REVIEW – Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty: An Account of its Argument

By Barry Stocker
October 14th, 2010 at 10:15 am | Comments Off on BOOK REVIEW – Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty: An Account of its Argument | Posted in Book Review, Liberal Philosophy, Political theory
  • hayekHayek’s The Constitution of Liberty: An Account of its Argument, by Eugene F. Miller
  • Institute of Economic Affairs (, 2010
  • Get your copy HERE.

Eugene Miller, who sadly died earlier this year, wrote a summary and commentary on Hayek’s book of 1960 where he explained a modern version of classical liberalism in relation to political theory, public policy, law, and history, as well as economic principles.

Together with Law, Legislation and Liberty (1979), The Constitution of Liberty is Hayekʼs fullest presentation of his
version of classical liberalism. It is probably more widely read than the later text, and is one of the key texts in Twentieth Century liberal thought.

It is not a very difficult book to read, but it is long and it does integrate a very wide range of material, so there are strong reasons for publishing an introductory version, with guidance for the reader. Hayekʼs book of over 400 pages is condensed into a summary, together with comments, into less than 200 pages. Miller puts passages into the context of other works by Hayek, and sometimes the history of liberal thought. The reader gets a good idea of the issues in The Constitution of Liberty and the flow of arguments, along with a few ideas about how to interpret and contextualise.

Miller points out that the proposed policies in The Constitution of Liberty will not satisfy the most radical libertarians, though though Hayek’s analysis can be used for more radical ends. Hayek himself did not use the word “libertarian”, because he considered it an artificial substitute for the word liberal; and he did not support the idea of a radical lurch in society of the kind that “libertarianism” might suggest. Hayek regards the state as having a legitimate role, not only in the night watchman functions of law and order, and national security, but also with regard to maintaining the incomes of the poorest, and providing core public services. Hayek emphasised the improved efficiency of government as well as reducing the size of government. The two go tother to some degree, as over-extended government becomes inefficient, but Hayek did not think that smaller meant better in every circumstance. He suggests that the tendency for government to do to much went back to the 1870s, when classical liberalism started giving away to a “progressivist” statism, trying to find, and impose, state solutions for everything.

The reasons that large government is inefficient, and threatens liberty, were explored by Hayek in earlier books and papers on economics, most famously in The Road to Serfdom (1944). What Hayek adds in The Constitution of Liberty in particular is more detail about dysfunctional planning, and an overview of the development of law. As Hayek had already argued, any planning agency has limited information about the economy it is trying to plan, and the consequences of intervention. This problem cannot be solved by more information, as the agency will never match the constantly changing totality of information, that individuals in aggregate have through the price mechanism. Since this mechanism conveys dynamic information about the constantly changing preferences of many individuals, no plan can capture it. Even by 1960, Hayek suggests, state socialism in the sense of the state owning everything in the economy, was an exhausted ideology. However, statism was still growing, and has since, through attempts to improve society from above.

What makes this book most distinct in relation to Hayek’s earlier work, is the emphasis on law. Hayek obtained a doctorate in law before his fame as an economist and political thinker, and here he puts an interest in the history and theory of law to great use. Hayek had developed a strong belief in the benefits of evolutionary law, or law as a discovery procedure, that is law that evolves through judgements in particular cases. Hayek opposed an evolutionary understanding of law, in terms of legal theory, to the major schools of positivism and natural law. According to positivism, law is the system of legal commands issued by the sovereign power; according to natural law, law is the commands deduced from basic natural rights.

Hayek thinks that we know what ‘law’ is from the activity of judges as opposed to the commands of any sovereign body, or any notion of what is right by nature. This gives Hayek a basis for criticism of legislation, which goes beyond what emerges from the independent judicial process. The evolutionary understanding of law led him to highly value the British common law tradition, of law from precedent; and German administrative law before it became absorbed into a centralised state system in the late Nineteenth century. Administrative law comes from the continental European tradition of courts, which evaluate acts of the state machinery, and which clarify, and refine, the principles that underly them. Miller is particularly helpful in providing contextual information on Hayek’s attitude to law, referring to lectures Hayek gave in Cairo in the 1950s; and he explains how Hayek used the trip to Cairo to follow the European travels of John Stuart Mill, a great hero of Hayek’s, particularly in his earlier years.

Through this kind of analysis, historical information, Miller succeeded in providing an ideal introduction to the reading of The Constitution of Liberty, and interpretation of it. Those new to Hayek will find this the perfect introduction to his thought, along with The Road to Serfdom, and The Use of Knowledge in Society (1945). Those already familiar with Hayek will also find it very useful as a thought provoking overview.

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Samuel Fleischacker: a Third Concept of Liberty, Judgement and Freedom in Kant and Adam Smith (1999)

By Barry Stocker
August 11th, 2010 at 11:38 am | 1 Comment | Posted in Book Review, Liberal Philosophy, Political theory

sfFleischacker is a Professor at University of Illinois-Chicago. Though all his degrees and academic appointments are from the USA, he is English in origin. He is a leading Adam Smith scholar, author of On Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: A Philosophical Companion (2004) and co-editor of Essays on Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy (2010). Amongst currently active thinkers inspired by classical liberalism, he could be taken as representing the other pole to Chandran Kukathas, who was discussed in my last post. Fleischacker is definitely a ‘liberal’ in what is now the normal sense in America, that is someone of egalitarian left leaning inclinations. However, he is also much less of a statist social democrat than the average American ‘liberal’, and he tries to establish an alternative to the kind of top down statism often employed to advance social egalitarianism. He is critical of libertarians for what he sees as indifference to the need for government action to aid liberty, but much of what he says fits with those libertarian thinkers who believe government has a role in promoting public goods.

Fleischacker looks back to Adam Smith and to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who will be addressed soon in this series of posts. Kant was greatly influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment, and has similar ideas to Smith about the benefits of free trade, property rights, and individual liberty under law. Kant also puts those Scottish Enlightenment ideas in the context of a philosophy much more concerned with ‘transcendental’ questions, that is questions of the limits of knowledge, and the way our knowledge of the world depends on the nature of our consciousness.

One part of Kant’s study of our consciousness is concerned with the power of judgment itself, which he thinks is at work in our taste for beauty and our philosophy of nature. Fleischacker is particularly concerned with beauty in Kant, which Kant connects with the most inner and subjective aspects of judgment. Kant’s view of our power for subjective judgements of beauty, is that it joins with everyone else’s judgement of beauty in ways which are the basis of communication, which join subjective pleasure with universal standards. For Kant, the capacity for judgments of beauty is deeply connected with our freedom as human beings and with our capacity to make moral judgements regarding other free individuals.

This aspect of Kant builds, in part, on ideas in Hume and Smith about the improvement of human morality, liberty, and taste over history. It is this capacity which provides a third concept of liberty beyond, the ‘negative’ liberty of freedom from interference, and the ‘positive’ liberty of collective action to provide conditions of liberty.
Fleischacker looks at liberty and self-determination in Kant in the first part of the book, and follows it up in the second part with an examination of the moral and political aspects of Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776). Fleischacker thinks of Smith’s political economy as referring to the kind of values of moral reflection and freedom from external domination, that can be found in Kant. He looks at how for Smith, the increase in the prosperity and independence of labourers is a prime concern.

Fleischacker refers to the various points in Smith, which identify the manipulation of markets by the rich and powerful who try to exclude competitions. Merchants collude in trying to rig markets against new competitors, guild masters try to limit and control the people entering that guild.

Fleischacker looks at Smith’s famous line about the benefits we receive from the self-interest of butchers, bakers and brewers, rather than from their benevolence. The main point for Fleischacker is the value of personal independence. It is better for me to depend on myself for my food and drink, rather than depend on anyone’s charity. Fleischacker also notes Smith’s enthusiasm for indirect taxes on luxury goods rather than taxes which bear on the poor, and his disdain for those who look down on, and preach at, the poor for their supposed irresponsibility. Fleischacker’s extrapolation that Smith would be a supporter of redistributive tax and welfare policies are no doubt open to debate, but his views are certainly based on deep knowledge of Smith’s writings.

The last part of A Third Concept of Liberty is concerned with John Rawls, the dominant figure in recent egalitarian liberal political theory. Though Fleishacker agrees with Rawls’ overall view, he thinks Rawls leans too much towards rigid views of social organisation and distribution of income. Fleschacker argues for a more contextual approach, in which policy solutions emerge in reaction to particular conditions. He argues for public action to be directed against monopolistic economic power, rather than towards distribution of income. Rawls himself is often take as master thinker of left-liberalism and social democracy, but he also been taken up approvingly by some classical liberal and libertarian thinkers including Friedrich Hayek (Law, Legislation and Liberty, Vol. 2 The Mirage of Social Justice, 1979). So if Fleishacker takes Rawls, and tries to move away from the more designed from above elements of Rawls thinking, he certainly has something positive for classical liberals and libertarians. Rawls himself will be dealt with in a future post.

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By Barry Stocker
July 5th, 2010 at 9:48 am | Comments Off on CHANDRAN KUKATHAS – THE LIBERAL ARCHIPELAGO: A THEORY OF DIVERSITY AND FREEDOM (2003) | Posted in Political theory

kukathasKukathas is a professor of political theory at LSE and has previously taught in the USA and Australia.  He is a Malaysian Tamil in origin, and brings early memories of Malaysia into the book along with observations of issues around Aborigine rights into The Liberal Archipelago.  The book is written in a specialist academic style, with large parts of it originating in journal articles on the details of recent political theory.  Nevertheless, it does bring a personal passion and message with the specialist style.   This book maybe the best work of minarchist inclined theory (that is the theory of the state which only acts as a law enforcement agency) since Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia of 1974.  Like the first great minarchist, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Kukathas concedes that his position maybe more of an ideal than a likely real world state of affairs, but hopes to push the political world as far as possible in that direction.

Part of Kukathas’ minarchist orientation is that is sceptical about the political world, certainly as far as it concerns official state structures, and the questions of national belonging and identity which form part of political debate.  Kukathas refers to the ways in which the Malaysian state tries to organise and define sub-national groups, and his father’s experience of harassment by the police when writing journalism that seemed to challenge the state.  Kukathas’ point is that state policies which may start with good intentions to organise just relations between sub-national communities,  only aid state power and intrusion.  He also refers to the way that official attempts of the Australian state to give justice to the Aborigines, who have clearly suffered all kinds of extreme injustice since Europeans first arrived in Australia, have failed to produce good results.  Attempts to arrive at very official legal solutions from above and consult with community representatives, create new forms of intrusion and new forms of privilege for those with a close relation to the state.  Kukathas’s response to these kind of problems is to recall his father saying that while the state is not important, it is relevant in a negative way.  The point being that the state fails to connect with social reality, and organise it as it wishes, and it fails to create carefully delimited identities as it wishes, but can create all sorts of bad results in the attempt.

The best way the state can deal with communities which differ in some way from the community which seems to define national identity, that is minority groups or sub-national groups, is benign neglect.  Trying to compensate for injustice only produces new injustices and perverse incentives, as people try to get some advantage from membership, real or imagined, of a disadvantaged community, through public subsidies, state jobs and so on.  Benign neglect allows anyone who believes themselves to be members of a distinct sub-national community to organise education, cultural and communal life, free of state interference.  This itself produces an argument for minimising the state, since for example if the state does not provide education it cannot discriminate in education or encourage people to fight over who controls the education system.

Kukathas sometimes emphasises the idea that there are very well defined groups within nations, and across national boundaries, and sometimes emphasises that all identities and mixed, complex and ambiguous.  Kukathas suggests that the best way to deal with that kind of conflict is to limit the state and to promote the division of state powers through federalising nations, separation of powers between parts of the state system, transnational institutions.  If we look at history, we can see that there have always been multiple boundaries to sovereignty, different levels of sovereignty, and change in these arrangements.  Kukathas uses that to suggest his model of the ‘liberal archipelago’, that is a model in which sovereign entities are loosely associated like the islands in a archipelago, and may merge or split over time due to unplanned natural processes.  Individuals can move between the islands to live the kind of life they prefer. This is what has been happening in history, things go wrong when states try to freeze that process.

Kutathas does not claim that this is the only way of understanding liberalism in its original form.  He says that for thinkers like J.S. Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville, the state was understood to be bringing people together in common ideas of liberty to prevent injustice to any member of the community. This idea has origins in the kind of antique republicanism we have looked at in Aristotle and Cicero. Kukathas prefers liberalism to move in the direction of accepting the autonomy of an unlimited number of overlapping communities (something like utopia in Nozick); some of these may be unjust from a liberal point of view, but we should accept them if individuals are free to leave.  That is the ideal form of liberalism for Kukathas, but he concedes that it is likely that this will always exist in interaction with more integrating version of liberalism.

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Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE) On The Republic (54-51 BCE)

By Barry Stocker
June 3rd, 2010 at 12:37 pm | 1 Comment | Posted in Political theory

[Our Liberal Philosophy series hereby continues, after a short pause for the recent elections – Ed.]cicero

Cicero was both a leading thinker and a leading politician of the late Roman Republic. Like Aristotle, he was reflecting on the best aspects of a system which was disappearing. In Aristotle’s case, this was the self-governing democratic city of Athens, which had come under the tutelage of the kings of Macedonia. In Cicero’s case, this was the republican semi-democratic city of Rome, which came under the domination of a series of army generals up to Gaius Julius Caesar. After Caesar was assassinated by republican aristocratic friends of Cicero in 44 BCE, there was a struggle between Caesar’s main supporters Gaius Octavian and Mark Anthony and the republicans, which led to the murder of Cicero. After Octavian and Mark Anthony defeated Cicero’s friends, Octavian defeated Mark Anthony, and created the emperor system under the name of Augustus.

There are many Cicero texts important in the history of thought about liberty, and we will aim to cover them all over time. The one which probably gives the clearest overall view of his position is On the Republic. Cicero is looking back to Aristotle and to Polybius (203-120 BCE) the Graeco-Roman political thinker and historian, whom we need to discuss on another occasion.

He was also looking back to Plato, which might surprise some given that Plato has been struck with the popular modern image of ancestor of totalitarianism. This is not the prevailing view amongst Plato specialists, or many famous thinkers about liberty over the centuries. This is something else we need to return to, but very briefly: those elements of Plato which look totalitarian now, and which are certainly not ideal for liberty, occur in the context of a philosophy which tries to find the best institutional context for the formation of rational, self-commanding and free individuals living in a society governed by morality and reason, rather than force.

Cicero explains his position through a dialogue between notable Romans of an earlier period, including the politician Cato the Elder (ancestor of Cicero’s friend Cato the Younger) and the general and politician Scipio Africanus the Younger. The dialogue is placed in Smyrna (now the Turkish city of Izmir). What emerges is a picture of how the Roman republic grew from its earliest legendary and mythical history, which Cicero recognises to be unreliable.

He was a major sceptic about religion and mythology. The earliest kings are thought of as ruling through the creation of laws and consultative institutions, like the Senate, and to have ruled through consent. This itself is the creation of a ‘res publica’, public thing. When Cicero uses this term, he means both the state in general, and the state in its best possible form where no one person has complete power. This latter meaning is the ancestor of the current sense of republican as opposing all monarchy, including purely symbolic monarchs. It is also the ancestor of the sense of republican, now used in political theory, to refer to the belief that liberty rests on well designed political institutions, and a participatory political life of free citizens determined to defend their liberties.

Cicero refers to the last King of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus as going beyond the limits of the earlier kings, so that the republic could only continue through sending Tarquinius into exile and ending the institution of kingship. This legendary birth of the republic in the strongest sense, was brought about by Lucius Junius Brutus in 509 BCE – an aristocrat who was the ancestor of Marcus Junius Brutus, the friend of Cicero who led the assassination of Caesar.
The role given to Cicero’s friend more than 400 years after his ancestor had ended kingship indicates something else hinted at in the composition of On the Republic. We are looking at a society where rulers normally come from an aristocracy looking back to ancestors (real and imagined) and associated traditions going back over centuries. This emphasis on the continuity of city and its leading families over hundreds of years separates the ancient world from our own, along with other features such as the unquestioning acceptance of slavery, the low status of women, state control of religion and moral codes.

We should also recognise that Cicero, and his predecessors in political thought, advanced ideas about liberty as far as they could be taken at that time, and inspired the classical liberal thinkers from Locke to Mill, who were familiar with Cicero from their classics based education. Cicero’s importance itself sank in general consciousness with the decline of classics based education, but there has been a revived understanding of his legacy in recent years as classical studies has intersected more with moral philosophy and political theory.

Cicero’s thoughts on liberty in the republic include the strongest possible condemnation of Tarquinius and other tyrants, that is kings who go beyond law. Cicero refers to them as inhuman and worse than wild beasts. For Cicero, the right sort of life under the right sort of laws and institutions, is the proper human life and everything else is inferior.

The right sort of institutions for Cicero are explained by him as growing gradually through Roman history, and he refers to this gradual growth as itself better than sudden transformation towards a supposedly ideal constitution. There should be change in the right direction, but step by step. He thought there should be a mix of democracy, aristocracy and monarchy. For Cicero, democracy means the meeting in the town centre of all citizens to discuss and vote on the issues of the day. This was a real aspect of the Roman system, though the voting system was set up in such a way to give aristocrats the most influence in practice. Aristocracy for Cicero, means the senate in which the whole aristocracy meets and which dominates the decision making of the republic. Monarchy in republican Rome means the consuls, two aristocrats who jointly assume the power of kings, under the law, for one year only. In this way, no one person, or group can dominate the state. The best decisions can emerge from this antique form of the separation of state powers, which guarantees reflection and revision. A state restrained in this way, and by respect for the laws which have emerged from customs and history, allows liberty to its citizens.