Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Failure of Deneen and Dreher in Their Critique of Liberalism

Last year, I wrote a series of posts on Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option and Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed (herehereherehere, and here).  I argued that their critique of liberalism failed at three levels.  They failed to provide an accurate interpretation of liberal political theory.  They failed to analyze the factual evidence of liberalism's performance.  And they failed to provide any attractive illiberal alternative to liberal social order.

Recently, their books have been published in paperback editions with new forewords.  I assumed that they would use these new forewords to answer their critics.  I was disappointed when I saw that they had decided not to do that.  Deneen's foreword does end with four pages under the title "Responding to Some Critics" (xx-xxiv).  But he responds in only a very general way without any detailed responses to the particular criticisms that I and others have offered.

My first criticism--their inaccurate interpretation of liberal theory--is mentioned briefly by Deneen in saying that "the book has been criticized for an inaccurate or unfair depiction of 'classical' liberalism" (xx).  But he and Dreher are completely silent about my specific claim that they have failed to develop any good interpretation of John Locke's liberalism.  This is important because they agree that Locke is "the first philosopher of liberalism" (Dineen, 32).

While Deneen insists that Lockean liberalism teaches "pursuit of immediate gratification" (39) and the "absence of restraints upon one's desires" (116), he says nothing about how Locke contradicts this claim in Some Thoughts Concerning Education.  In that book, Locke stresses the importance of parents educating their children so that they have a sense of shame in caring about their good reputation (secs. 56, 61, 78).  Locke says that "the great principle and foundation of all virtue and worth is placed in this, that a man is able to deny himself his own desires, cross his own inclinations, and purely follow what reason directs as best though the appetite lean the other way" (sec. 33). "It seems plain to me that the principle of all virtue and excellency lies in a power of denying ourselves the satisfaction of our own desires where reason does not authorize them" (sec. 38). Children must be taught that "covetousness and the desire of having in our possession and under our dominion more than we have need of" is "the root of all evil" (sec. 110). 
Above all, Locke insists, children must be taught and habituated to show "civility"--respect and good will to all people (secs. 66-67, 70, 109, 117, 143-44). Here Locke's emphasis on the need for "civility" is part of what Norbert Elias identified as the "civilizing process" promoted by early modern liberalism to overcome the incivility, violence, and corrupt manners of medieval pre-modern Europe.  Deneen and Dreher are silent about all of this.

They are also silent about my second criticism--their failure to survey the factual evidence of liberalism's performance.  They say nothing about how the empirical indicators of human freedom correlate with the indicators of human happiness.  They say nothing about the historical evidence that modern liberal cultures have inculcated virtues of self-control that account for the stunning decline in violence over the past 500 years.  They say nothing about how the empirical evidence denies Deneen's claim that liberalism produces "titanic inequality far outstripping the differences between peasant and kind" (139): this historical evidence shows that rigid inequality was far higher in medieval Europe than it is today.  They also say nothing about the evidence for social connectedness--social bonds within families and voluntary associations--being high in liberal social orders.

Rather than looking at the empirical evidence of what liberalism has done, Deneen and Dreher employ a distinctive rhetorical strategy: they find authors who agree with them in criticizing liberalism, they summarize what these authors say, and then they conclude that this proves that liberalism has failed.  They do not even ask the question of whether the empirical evidence supports what these critics of liberalism say.  And whenever one of their favored authors says something positive about liberalism, they are silent about this.  Deneen's selective reporting of Charles Murray's research is an example of this.

My third criticism--the failure to defend any illiberal alternative to liberalism--is acknowledged by Deneen (xxii).  But he doesn't offer any clear answer to this criticism.  My point here is that both Deneen and Dreher are incoherent in that while they profess to reject liberalism, they actually embrace the fundamental principles of liberalism--such as voluntarism and religious liberty.

Radical Catholic traditionalists like Edmund Waldstein who defend Catholic "integralism" have recommended a return to the medieval theocratic kingdom of Saint Louis IX in 13th century France.  But both Deneen and Dreher reject the medieval illiberal order because of the corruption of the medieval Church, its violent exercise of power, and its failure to secure liberty, equality, and justice.

Deneen and Dreher agree with Alasdair MacIntyre's recommendation at the end of After Virtue that we need "the construction of local forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness."  For Deneen the best example of such "local forms of community" is the Amish communities.  For Dreher such communities can arise whenever families form households organized around private religious schools and traditionalist Christian churches.

All of this depends on religious liberty.  Dreher explains: "Religious liberty is critically important to the Benedict Option.  Without a robust and successful defense of First Amendment protections, Christians will not be able to build the communal institutions that are vital to maintaining our identity and values" (84).  But in their appeal to this liberal principle of religious liberty, Dreher and Deneen contradict their claim to be anti-liberal.

Deneen does say in his new foreword that the political history of the past two years--particularly, the populist revolts against liberal democracy in the United States and Europe--suggests that within the next few years we will see the emergence of a "postliberal political theory," perhaps developed in a book written by one of the young readers of Deneen's book (xxiii-xxiv).  But what will make this new political theory postliberal?

Deneen explains: "the achievements of liberalism must be acknowledged, and the desire to 'return' to a preliberal age must be eschewed.  We must build upon those achievements while abandoning the foundational reasons for its failures.  There can be no going back, only forward" (182).

So what are "the foundational reasons for its failure" that must be abandoned, but without abandoning the "achievements of liberalism"?  Are they the liberal principles of "anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice" (Deneen, 31)?  But as I have pointed out in my previous posts, what Deneen and Dreher scorn as atomistic individualism--human beings living as completely solitary creatures with no social bonds--is rejected by liberals like Locke, Adam Smith, and Friedrich Hayek as "false individualism."  Liberal individualism is actually a communal individualism in which human beings as naturally social animals live as family members, as friends, and in voluntary associations such as schools, churches, and other groups.

Or would Deneen and Dreher say that what must be rejected in a "postliberal political theory" is "the voluntarist conception of choice"?  Deneen observes: "Ironically, given the default choice-based philosophy that liberalism has bequeathed to us, what might someday become a nonvoluntary cultural landscape must be born out of voluntarist intentions, plans, and actions" (192).  What is he saying here?  Is he saying that what start out as voluntary associations must eventually become coercive?  So, for example, while children in Amish communities are now free to choose as adults whether they will stay or leave the community, the "postliberal political theory" of the future will coercively enforce their staying in the community?  Would there be a multiplicity of different communities, in which people would be forced to stay in whatever community in which they were born?  Or would there be only one comprehensive community--perhaps a theocratic Catholic Church--that would constitute the "nonvoluntary cultural landscape"?  So at some point, the Benedict Option will no longer be optional but coercively enforced by law?

But surely this cannot be what Deneen and Dreher are suggesting, because this would abandon "the achievements of liberalism" that come from the voluntarist principle of free choice.  So we are left in a state of total confusion as to what they mean by "postliberal political theory."

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Naomi Beck on Hayek (6): Population Growth--Malthusian Doom or Simonian Abundance?

Naomi Beck argues that Hayek's evolutionary defense of capitalism fails, because he fails to show how capitalism can solve the many problems it creates--particularly the depletion of natural resources and degradation of the environment caused by unlimited economic and population growth.  She thinks that Thomas Malthus saw this problem clearly in his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798): economic growth improves the conditions of life so that death rates decline, and population increases; but then inevitably the natural resources that sustain human life are depleted, and the human population must be reduced by famine, disease, infanticide, or war.  The neo-Malthusian Garrett Hardin saw the same problem: population growth in a world with limited resources must devastate the Earth, and therefore "freedom to breed will bring ruin to all" (122-23).

Beck criticizes Hayek for refusing to see the truth of Malthus's theory of population (119-21).  In Chapter 8 of The Fatal Conceit--"The Extended Order and Population Growth"--Hayek argued that Malthus's theory does not apply to a market economy with intensification of exchange and of the diversification and specialization of labor.  "The modern idea that population growth threatens worldwide pauperization is simply a mistake" (121).  "There is no danger whatever that, in any foreseeable future with which we can be concerned, the population of the world as a whole will outgrow its raw material resources, and every reason to assume that inherent forces will stop a process long before that could ever happen" (125).  After quoting passages like these, Beck objects: "It is not quite clear what Hayek thought would happen when we run out of resources.  He seemed totally impervious to mounting concerns regarding environmental issues and the risk of depletion or misuse of resources on the part of the scientists he quoted" (122).

In quoting the sentence above from page 125 of The Fatal Conceit about "no danger whatever," Beck (120) does not quote Hayek's references immediately following this sentence to the writings of Julian Simon, Esther Boserup, Douglas North, and Peter Bauer. She says nothing about Simon or about Simon's famous debate with Paul Ehrlich over population growth and resource availability. This is part of her rhetorical strategy of being silent about any possible objections to her position.

In 1968, Ehrlich (a biologist at Stanford) began his popular book The Population Bomb with this paragraph:
"The battle to feed all of humanity is over.  In the 1970's the world will undergo famines--hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.  At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate, although many lives could be saved through dramatic programs to 'stretch' the carrying capacity of the earth by increasing food production.  But these programs will only provide a stay of execution unless they are accompanied by determined and successful efforts at population control.  Population control is the conscious regulation of the numbers of human beings to meet the needs, not just of individual families, but of society as a whole" (11).
Ehrlich's Malthusian prediction of catastrophe from unchecked population growth did not come true. Norman Borlaug's development of new high-yield varieties of food grains--the "green revolution"--allowed high-population countries like India to produce so much food in the 1970s that they actually became exporters of grain.  And while the world population in 1968 was three and one half billion, the world population today is about 7.7 billion, and yet the rate of global famine and poverty is much lower today than in 1968.

This confirms the prediction of Julian Simon--in contrast to Ehrlich--that population growth does not lead to a shortage of resources, because a growing population means not only more labor but also more ideas about how to solve our problems, and as long as there are the incentives of a free market economy, people will make resources more plentiful through more efficient uses of resources, increased supply, and the development of substitutes.  Consequently, Simon argued, a growing population creates not scarcity but abundance!  Hayek agreed with this.

In 1980, Simon challenged Ehrlich to make a bet with him.  Ehrlich could select a basket of raw materials that he expected would become less abundant and consequently more expensive over some designated time period.  At the end of that time period, the inflation adjusted price of those materials would be calculated.  If the price was higher, Ehrlich would win the wager.  If the price was lower, Simon would win.  Ehrlich chose copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten; and he chose 1980 to 1990 as the time period.  By 1990, the world population had increased by 873 million from 1980, but all five of the commodities that Ehrlich had selected had declined in price by an average of 57.6 per cent.  Ehrlich mailed Simon a check for $576.07.

Some of Ehrlich's supporters have tried to argue that Simon was just lucky, because if they had selected a different time period, Ehrlich could have won the bet.  But in 2016, some economists pointed out that in 2015 Ehrlich's five metals were 22.4 percent cheaper than they were in 1980.

Recently, Gale Pooley and Marian Tupy have developed a new way to measure the availability of resources, which confirms Simon's argument.  They have compiled the latest price data for 50 important commodities covering energy, food, materials, and metals.  They then have calculated the "time-price" of these commodities--in terms of the global average hourly income, the "time-price" is the amount of time that an average human has to work in order to earn enough money to buy a commodity.  By that standard, the real price of Ehrlich's minerals has declined in every year from 1980 to the present.  Pooley and Tupy also found that from 1980 to 2017, the real price of their basket of 50 commodities fell by 36.3 percent, and the time-price fell by 64.7 percent.

Their explanation for why Simon wins his bet with Ehrlich is based on Hayek's understanding of how the price system works to generate abundance:
"The relationship between prices and innovation is dynamic.  Relative scarcity leads to higher prices, higher prices create incentives for innovations, and innovations lead to abundance.  Scarcity gets converted to abundance through the price system.  The price system functions as long as the economy is based on property rights, rule of law, and free exchange" (11).
They conclude with this Hayekian insight:
"The world is a closed system in the way that a piano is a closed system.  The instrument has only 88 notes, but those notes can be played in a nearly infinite variety of ways.  The same applies to our planet.  The Earth's atoms may be fixed, but the possible combinations of those atoms are infinite.  What matters, then, is not the physical limits of our planet, but human freedom to experiment and reimagine the use of resources that we have" (15-16).
Oh, but what about climate change?  Hasn't capitalism caused the global warming that threatens to destroy civilization?  Doesn't slowing or reversing global warming require that we move away from unregulated capitalism towards a socialist society that restricts economic consumption and production, and thus perhaps reducing human population?  That's the argument of Naomi Klein in her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.  Although Beck does not mention Klein's book, she would seem to implicitly agree with Klein's argument.

Hayekian liberals like Matt Ridley accept the reality of global warming as caused by the modern economic growth that has depended on increased energy use from fossil fuels.  But Ridley and others have made the Hayekian argument that as long as global free market economic incentives endure, this will promote innovative ideas for solving or mitigating the problems from global warming.

We cannot predict what these new ideas will be.  But we can see some possibilities that are already at work.  For example, as Joshua Goldstein and Staffan Qvist have argued in their new book A Bright Future, one possible solution to global warming is a rapid expansion of nuclear power.  Sweden has already done this.  40 percent of Sweden's electricity comes from nuclear power, with another 40 percent coming from hydropower.  And the rest comes from wind and biofuels.

By contrast to Sweden, Germany has tried to eliminate nuclear power, while increasing renewable energy from wind and solar.  But 40 percent of Germany's energy still comes from coal, and six of Europe's 10 most polluting power plants are in Germany.

Sweden's innovative reliance on nuclear power as a cheap, clean, and reliable source of energy to fuel economic growth while reducing global warming is one illustration of Simon's insight into how capitalism generates abundance.

Beck is silent about all of this.

So what is Beck's proposal for avoiding what she sees as the disastrous consequences of population growth?  She never says.  But she does seem to agree with Hardin that "freedom to breed will bring ruin to all" (123).  And she says that the human experience with the artificial selection of animals shows that "successful breeding is not impossible" (66).  Is she implying that we need to coercively enforce eugenics?  If so, who will decide who has the "freedom to breed"?  She doesn't say.

In my six posts on Beck's book, my main criticism has been that she refuses to acknowledge, much less answer, the many possible objections to her position.  Her book is very short--a total of 184 pages--so she could easily have added a hundred pages or so explaining her replies to the objections I have raised.  This could have been a great book,  if only her editors had sent her manuscript out to some meticulously critical referees who could have forced her to take seriously some of the criticisms that I have brought up here.

Some of my points in this post are elaborated in other posts here, herehere, and here.


Ehrlich, Paul. 1968. The Population Bomb. New York: Balantine Books.

Goldstein, Joshua S., and Staffan A. Qvist. 2019. A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow.  New York: PublicAffairs.

Klein, Naomi. 2014. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Pooley, Gale L., and Marian L. Tupy. 2018. "The Simon Abundance Index: A New Way to Measure Availability of Resources." Policy Analysis: Cato Institute, number 857, December 4.

Simon, Julian. 1996. The Ultimate Resource 2. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Naomi Beck on Hayek (5): The Disregard for Darwin

Beck says that "Hayek's theory suffers from . . . disregard for the theories that inspired it" (5).  I agree with her about this--particularly in the case of Darwin.  Hayek was not a good interpreter of Charles Darwin.  Indeed, he does not even show any evidence that he had actually read Darwin!

Hayek criticized Darwin for seeing evolutionary selection as purely "genetic," and thus ignoring the importance of cultural evolution in explaining the history of human civilization.  He also criticized Darwin for ignoring group selection.  Beck rightly points out that this view of Darwin is incorrect (88-91).  Darwin accepted Lamarckian evolution through use and disuse.  He emphasized the importance of cultural evolution in explaining human social and moral history, particularly in The Descent of Man.  And he developed his own theory of group selection, which he called "community selection."  The proponents today of cultural group selection can see themselves as continuing in the tradition of Darwin.  So it is strange that Hayek did not see his own theory of cultural group selection as linked to Darwin's.

Hayek claimed that Darwin did not originate the idea of evolution, because he had inherited that idea from Bernard Mandeville, David Hume, Adam Smith, and others in the Scottish tradition of philosophy.  These were "Darwinians before Darwin."  Darwin's achievement was in applying this idea of evolution to the biological study  of the living world.  Beck criticizes Hayek for saying this: "This evaluation does not do justice to Darwin and demonstrates a rather regrettable incomprehension of his ideas, which in turn impoverished Hayek's analysis" (157).

I don't see her point here.  After all, Darwin himself acknowledged the history of the idea of evolution in the "Historical Sketch" that he added to the third edition of The Origin of Species.  Starting with Buffon, Darwin identified a long list of people who anticipated elements of evolutionary theory.  Beck says nothing about this.  It is true that he did not mention Hume and Smith in this "Historical Sketch," but he did cite them prominently in The Descent of Man.  And we know from Darwin's notebooks, that he began studying Scottish moral philosophy a few years after his return from his voyage on the Beagle as part of his effort to understand the evolution of human morality.

But if one is looking for some writer who exerted a crucial influence on Darwin's evolutionary thinking, Beck insists, one should look not at Mandeville, Hume, or Smith, but at Thomas Malthus.  After all, Darwin declared in his Autobiography that when he read Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population in October of 1838, "I had at last got a theory by which to work" (1959, 120).  Hayek, however, could not accept the Malthusian logic of evolution, Beck explains, because Hayek's ideological commitment to endless growth through capitalist expansion meant that he had to reject Malthus's warning that a growing human population must inevitably lead to a depletion of natural resources that will bring human misery.

But in assuming the truth of Malthus's reasoning, Beck ignores the anti-Malthusian arguments of Julian Simon and others that support Hayek's position.  This will be the subject of my next post.

Naomi Beck on Hayek (4): The Convergent Evolution of Liberalism Through Property, Trade, and Punishment

Beck criticizes Hayek for failing to provide sufficient evidence to support his claims about history.  In particular, she complains about Hayek's "sketchy description of the origins of private property and of long-distance trade--two pillars of free market civilization," and so what we see here is "history at the service of theory" (106).

While I agree that Hayek's history is too "sketchy," I would argue that he does at least offer a rough outline of the history of property and trade that can now be supported and elaborated by the research of economic historians and evolutionary theorists over the past 40 years.  As I have indicated in a previous post, that research challenges Hayek's Freudian theory of trading behavior as requiring a repression of our evolved instincts.  That research also suggests that Hayek was wrong in not stressing the importance of the natural instinct for punishing cheaters in enforcing the laws of nature.  Beck denigrates Hayek's history while remaining silent about this research that partly confirms and partly corrects Hayek's claims.

As Beck indicates (73), Hayek saw the cultural evolution of free markets as corresponding to what biologists today call "convergent evolution."  Species that are not closely related genetically can show convergent evolution in evolving to have similar solutions to an adaptive problem.  So, for example, insects, birds, and bats have all evolved wings to give them the ability to fly although these species have very different genetic origins.  Similarly, Hayek suggests that the diverse cultural traditions of human beings tend to converge towards similar rules of social order that solve the problem of how to overcome conflicts of interest in achieving social cooperation.  Hayek observes:
"it is quite possible that one kind of system of such rules is so much more effective than all others in producing a comprehensive order for a Great Society that, as a result of the advantages derived from all changes in the direction towards it, there may occur in systems with very different beginnings a process corresponding to what biologists call 'convergent evolution.'  'The necessities of human society' may bring about an independent emergence, at many different times and places, of the same sort of system, such as that based on private property and contract.  It would seem that wherever a Great Society has arisen, it has been made possible by a system of rules of just conduct which included what David Hume called 'the three fundamental laws of nature, that of stability of possession, of its transference by consent, and of the performance of promises,' or, as a modern author sums up the essential content of all contemporary systems of private law, 'freedom of contract, the inviolability of property, and the duty to compensate another for damage due to his fault.'" (LLL [2], 40).
If Hayek is right, then we should see in the evolutionary history of human social order that those societies based on private property, free trade, and contract--Hume's three laws of nature--are manifestly successful in showing growing wealth and population.  Hayek sketches that history beginning with exchange and specialization in primitive groups and long-distance trade beginning at least 30,000 years ago in the Paleolithic age (FC, 38-39).  He implies that the migration of human ancestors out of Africa depended on trade in an extended order (FC, 41).  Oddly, this seems to contradict Hayek's claim that trading arose so recently in human history--within the last few thousand years--that it could not have become an evolved instinct.

Hayek sees evidence that some of the ancient Greek cities--particularly, Athens--protected private property and trade in ways that promoted a surge in the growth of wealth and population and that allowed for the development of the first global trading networks.  In contrast to Athens, ancient Sparta resisted the "commercial revolution," and consequently Spartan society never achieved high civilization (FC, 31-32, 39-40, 44, 46).

Hayek also sees evidence that ancient Rome during the last years of the Republic and the first two centuries of Empire had laws protecting private property and contract in ways that promoted growth, but then "this first extended order" declined when centralized government impeded commercial freedom.  He sees this as a repeated pattern in which civilization advances when a government protects individual liberty so that there can be an increasingly complex order of spontaneous and voluntary cooperation; but then the government abuses its powers in suppressing individual liberty, so that civilization declines as wealth and population declines (FC, 32).  He sees the same pattern in ancient Egypt and imperial China: civilization advances during times of weak government control over society that allows for capitalist growth, but then the expanding power of a central government brings a decline in growth.

In the history of Europe during the later Middle Ages and the early modern period, Hayek indicates:
"It was not under the more powerful governments, but in the towns of the Italian Renaissance, of South Germany, and of the Low Countries, and finally in lightly-governed England, i.e., under the rule of the bourgeoisie rather than of warriors, that modern industrialism grew.  Protection of several property, not the direction of its use by government, laid the foundations for the growth of the dense network of exchange of services that shaped the extended order" (FC, 33).
Recent research in evolutionary science and in economic history gives some support to Hayek's history of how extended social orders of cooperation arise from the enforcement of Hume's three laws of nature.  Beck says nothing about this.

First, as summarized in Morris Hoffman's The Punisher's Brain, evolutionary science sustains a slightly modified form of Hume's three laws.  (Previously, I have written a post on Hoffman's work.)

Like Hayek and Hume, Hoffman thinks human beings have always faced what he calls the Social Problem.  The problem arises from our human nature as both selfish and social animals, so that we must always face the question: cheat or cooperate?  We are inclined to cheat others in our group whenever cheating would be to our selfish advantage.  But we are also inclined to cooperate, because living in cooperative groups has always given us long-term advantages in the struggles of life.  We have evolved instincts both to cheat and to cooperate.  But we also have a third evolved instinct--to punish cheaters in order to reduce cheating and increase cooperation by increasing the costs of cheating.  We are guided by three rules of right and wrong rooted in our evolved human nature to promote cooperation by securing property and promises. Rule 1: Transfers of property must be voluntary.  Rule 2: Promises must be kept.  Rule 3: Serious violations of Rules 1 and 2 must be punished.  Hoffman is a trial judge in Denver, and he thinks these rules underlie everything that is done by judges and jurors.

Hoffman interprets "property" in a broad sense as starting with self-ownership and encompassing one's life, health, and possessions, as well as the life, health, and possessions of one's family and others to whom one is attached.  Hoffman here echoes Locke's argument for self-ownership as the ground of property rights.  Understood in this broad way, Rule 1 embraces criminal law, while Rule 2 embraces contract law.

Classical liberals could accept this as a good statement of their claim that the primary purpose of law is to punish force and fraud and secure the liberty of individuals to live as they please so long as they do not harm others.

Hoffman supports his argument for these rules and punishments being rooted in evolved human nature with various kinds of empirical evidence from economic game experiments, animal behavior, behavioral endocrinology, neuroscience, brain imaging studies, evolutionary anthropology, child psychology, and legal history.

Although this largely confirms Hume's account of the "three laws of nature" as endorsed by Hayek, it emphasizes more than Hume and Hayek do the importance of the evolved instinct for punishing cheaters.  Hayek only rarely speaks of punishment, as when he says that "under the rule of law, government can infringe a person's protected private sphere only as punishment for breaking an announced general rule" (CL, 206).

By comparison with Hayek and Hume, John Locke is more emphatic in affirming the natural right to punish--the "executive power of the law of nature"--as the fundamental doctrine for liberal social order.  I have written about this here and here.

The second line of recent research supporting Hayek's evolutionary history of liberal order is in economic history.  Many economic historians now agree with Hayek that throughout history those societies that have enforced institutional rules protecting private property, trade, and contracts have flourished in ways that promoted growth spurts in wealth and population.

In particular, Hayek was right about the "commercial revolution" in ancient Athens as illustrating the convergent evolution towards liberal order.  In The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece (2015), Josiah Ober has surveyed the evidence that ancient Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE was one of those premodern societies that showed an "efflorescence" (in the terminology of Jack Goldstone)--a period of increased economic growth as well as increasing population and cultural achievement promoted by a vigorous commercial life that is similar to what we see today in modern liberal societies.  (I have written about this here.)

Ober argues against the common assumption of many scholars that ancient Greece was poor and experienced little or no economic growth.  He shows that Greece in the classical era had rates of growth in both consumption and population that were much higher than the premodern norm and higher than any period in Greek history until the middle of the 20th century.  He offers the sort of institutional explanation of economic growth advocated by Douglas North and others: "Fair rules and competition within a marketlike ecology of states promoted capital investment, innovation, and rational cooperation in a contest of low transaction costs" (103).

Similar conclusions the ancient Greek economy have been supported by Alain Bresson in The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy: Institutions, Markets, and Growth in the City-States (2016). The ancient Greek economy showed some of the features of capitalist society that supported a long period of unprecedented economic growth.  The rule of law enforced property rights and contractual obligations in a way that sustained both domestic and international markets for trade.  The Greek city had two institutions for trade--the agora, or internal market, and the emporion, or market for international trade.  This trade allowed for an extensive domestic and international division of labor.  The Greek world experienced the first world economy based on long-distance trade.

This was made possible by the institutional enforcement of Hume's three laws of nature--private property, exchange, and contract.  This can also explain Goldstone's account of the other "efflorescences" in premodern history--spurts of growth in wealth and population--that include the High Middle Ages in northwestern Europe (1150-1250), Golden Age Holland (1570-1670), High Qing China (1680-1780), and Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution (1760-1830).

And yet, in none of these cases, does one see the self-sustaining and accelerating explosion in economic growth that began in Great Britain around 1850, which Deirdre McCloskey calls The Great Enrichment.  Although Northian institutionalism can explain the earlier efflorescences of economic growth in per capita income of up to 1% per year, it cannot explain the unprecedented growth in the past two centuries, in which liberal societies have seen increases in average income from 1800 to the present of over 1,000i to 3,000 per cent.  To explain that, McCloskey argues, we need to see the crucial rhetorical change that led to the great Bourgeois Revaluation that recognized and honored the moral and intellectual virtues of the bourgeois commercial society  While Hayek never developed this idea, he does perhaps point to it in speaking about modern commercial societies as being "under the rule of the bourgeoisie."

This looks like what Hayek identified as the convergent evolution of liberal social order:  whenever and wherever societies have adopted the rules of liberal order, this has produced spurts of growth in wealth, population, and cultural complexity; and now with the global spread of those rules over the past 200 years, this has produced a self-sustaining and accelerated explosion of growth beyond anything ever seen in all of human history.

Beck is silent about all of this.

Monday, February 04, 2019

Correction: Alexander von Humboldt Did Not Use the Word "Liberalism" in 1804

A few years ago, I wrote a post on "The Evolutionary History of the Word 'Liberalism'."  I claimed that the first use of the word "liberalism" in its moral or political sense was by Alexander von Humboldt in a letter to Thomas Jefferson of May 24, 1804.  I had found the letter in Helmut de Terra's article "Alexander von Humboldt's Correspondence with Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 103 (December 15, 1959), p. 787.  The second sentence of the letter reads: "I feel it my pleasant duty to present my respects and express my high admiration for your writings, your actions, and the liberalism of your ideas, which have inspired me from my earliest youth."

Recently, I have been reading Helena Rosenblatt's good book The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press, 2018).  When I noticed that she had not identified von Humboldt's use of the word "liberalism," I wrote to her about this.  But then she pointed out to me that I was mistaken.  The letter was actually written in French, and Helmut de Terra had wrongly translated the French word liberalite as "liberalism."  Of course, the correct English translation would be "liberality."  The French word for "liberalism" is liberalisme, and that is not the word von Humboldt used.  You can see an image of von Humboldt's original letter here.

I am happy to correct my mistake.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Naomi Beck on Hayek (3): Individual Agency and Judgment in the Evolution of Liberalism

The cultural evolution of liberalism does not preclude, but rather presupposes, genetic evolution and individual judgment.  As I have often argued on this blog, we need to move through three levels of analysis to explain the evolution of liberalism: the genetic history of human nature, the cultural history of human traditions, and the individual history of human judgments.

In Darwinian Conservatism, I suggested that one can see the complex interaction between these three levels in Hayek's writings.  So, for the study of morality, we need to move through moral sentiments, moral traditions, and moral judgments.  And for the study of law, we need to move through natural law, customary law, and positive law.

And yet, sometimes Hayek elevates cultural evolution in a way that seems to deny the importance of innate instinct, on the one hand, and individual rational agency, on the other.  This makes Hayek appear incoherent in ways that are rightly criticized by Naomi Beck.  Ultimately, however, a careful reading of Hayek shows his reliance on the three levels of evolutionary analysis.

Hayek explains: "Tradition is not something constant but the product of a process of selection guided not by reason but by success," in that the practices of those groups that are most successful tend to prevail over the practices of those groups that are less successful.  Therefore, tradition "changes but can rarely be deliberately changed.  Cultural selection is not a rational process; it is not guided by but it creates reason" (LLL [3], 166).  But, as Beck notes, this contradicts Hayek's claim that ideas govern evolution:  "The belief that in the long run it is ideas and therefore the men who give currency to new ideas that govern evolution, and the belief that the individual steps in that process should be governed by a set of coherent conceptions, have long formed a fundamental part of the liberal creed" (CL, 112).  After all, Hayek devoted his life to propagating liberal ideas with the hope that these ideas would influence cultural evolution, even if only slowly and indirectly.

Hayek sees the critical turning points in the evolution of different economic orders as coming from the actions of individual "pathbreakers":
"There can be little doubt that from the toleration of bartering with the outsider, the recognition of delimited private property, especially in land, the enforcement of contractual obligations, the competition with fellow craftsmen in the same trade, the variability of initially customary prices, the lending of money, particularly at interest, were all initially infringements of customary rules--so many falls from grace.  And the law-breakers, who were to be path-breakers, certainly did not introduce the new rules because they recognized that they were beneficial to the community, but they simply started some practices advantageous to; them which then did prove beneficial to the group in which they prevailed" (LLL [3], 161).
Here Hayek recognizes individual agency in cultural evolution, in that individuals acting for their self-interest discover the advantages of trade, which can then be favored by group selection when it is beneficial for the group.  He seems to think that "bartering with the outsider" arose first only in the last few thousand years of human history.  But if Richerson, Boyd, Tooby, and Cosmides are correct, it arose much earlier--perhaps hundreds of thousands of years earlier--and thus the propensity for trade could have become innate through gene-culture coevolution.

Hayek also sees that liberalism requires some individuals to exercise deliberate control of the general order of society, although it's limited to the formulation of abstract rules.  He writes:
"Reason is merely a discipline, an insight into the limitations of the possibilities of successful action, which often will tell us only what not to do.  This discipline is necessary precisely because our intellect is not capable of grasping reality in all of its complexity.  Although the use of abstraction extends the scope of phenomena which we can master intellectually, it does so by limiting the degree to which we can foresee the effects of our actions, and therefore also by limiting to certain general features the degree to which we can shape the world to our liking.  Liberalism for this reason restricts deliberate control of the overall order of society to the enforcement of such general rules as are necessary for the formation of a spontaneous order, the details of which we cannot foresee" (LLL [1], 32).
Beck quotes the first two sentences in this passage--on the limits of reason--as contradicting Hayek's effort to design a "constitution of liberty" to promote a free society (150).  But the last two sentences in this passage indicate how Hayek's account of the limits of reason allows for the deliberate design of a liberal order, albeit only at a very general level of rules without any specification of details.  And so, for example, the framers of the American Constitution could design a "higher law" in the Constitution, establishing "a hierarchy of rules or laws, where those possessing a higher degree of generality and proceeding from a superior authority control the contents of the more specific laws that are passed by a delegated authority" (CL, 178).

Hayek's insistence on the superior wisdom of cultural traditions that are not the products of rational design provokes Beck's criticism that he is promoting a cultural relativism and fatalism that contradicts Hayek's promotion of liberal ideas to guide cultural evolution.  But this ignores Hayek's claim that in cultural evolution, there is "certainly room for improvement," and "we must constantly re-examine our rules and be prepared to question every single one of them," although our critical questioning must always be constrained by our cultural history (LLL [3], 167).

The need for the critical scrutiny of the rules that emerge from cultural evolution should be evident, Hayek observes, if for no other reason than that "there has so often been coercive interference in the process of cultural evolution" (FC, 20).  So Hayek seems to agree with those evolutionary theorists who argue that "self-interested agents create, maintain, and modify group-functional culture," and they do this either coercively or collaboratively (Singh et al. 2016).

So, again, Hayek's evolutionary liberalism is best understood as a complex interaction of natural history, cultural history, and individual judgment.


Singh, Manvir, Luke Glowack, and Richard W. Wrangham. 2016. "Self-Interested Agents Create, Maintain, and Modify Group-Functional Culture." Behavioral and Brain Sciences e52.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Naomi Beck on Hayek (2): The Liberalism of Living in Two Worlds of Evolved Social Instincts

In The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, Hayek explains that in a liberal social order people must learn to live in two different social worlds:
". . . the structures of the extended order are made up not only of individuals but also of many, often overlapping, sub-orders within which old instinctual responses, such as solidarity and altruism continue to retain some importance by assisting voluntary collaboration, even though they are incapable, by themselves, of creating a basis for the more extended order.  Part of our present difficulty is that we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to live simultaneously within different kinds of orders according to different rules.  If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilization), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it.  Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them.  So we must learn to live in two sorts of world at once" (18).
The macro-cosmos is the world of extended--even global--social and economic exchange among huge numbers of people who are generally unknown to one another, which is the world of market relationships.  The micro-cosmos is the world of small groups--families, firms, schools, churches, clubs, and other voluntary associations--where people interact face to face with other people whom they know and love.  To live in both worlds at once requires that we live under the impersonal rules of the macro-cosmos and the personal rules of the micro-cosmos without imposing the rules of one world on the other.

But then Hayek often contradicts this teaching when he says that living in the extended order of the macro-cosmos requires that we repress the social instincts for solidarity and altruism in the micro-cosmos.  This is what Beck means when she speaks of Hayek as recommending that our "new market morality" must "override," "replace," "subjugate," or "substitute" for the old social instincts of families and intimate groups (52, 70, 92).  Here then is one of those "incoherencies" that Beck sees in Hayek's writing.  On the one hand, he recommends living in two worlds at once.  On the other hand, he insists that one world must replace the other.

The reason for Hayek's confusion here is his Freudian theory of human social evolution.  He believes that our evolved human nature was shaped over hundreds of thousands of years of living as hunter-gatherers in families and small bands who never engaged in long-distance trade or exchange, and so we have evolved social instincts for living in families and small groups where everything is shared in common, but since trading with strangers arose first only a few thousand years ago, we have no instinctive propensities for the extended order of trade.  So, in effect, Hayek agrees with the Marxist anthropologists who have argued that the first human beings lived as primitive communists, and therefore modern communism could satisfy our evolved instinctive adaptation for communism.  To defend capitalism, Hayek must argue for the repression of those communist instincts, because "an atavistic longing after the life of the noble savage is the main source of the collectivist tradition" (1988, 19).

Beck rightly points to this problem in Hayek's thinking.  But she is silent about how some of the evolutionary anthropologists that she cites--such as Peter Richerson, Rob Boyd, John Tooby, and Leda Cosmides--have corrected the mistake that created Hayek's problem.  Contrary to what Hayek assumed, we can now see that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were not pure communists, and that in fact they engaged in trade and exchange, so that the modern extended order of trade can be understood as an extension of the ancient social instincts for exchange.  We can live in two worlds at once because both worlds are rooted in the evolved instincts of our universal human nature.

Beck refers to Richerson and Boyd and their "tribal social instincts hypothesis" as explaining how "there was no opposition between the morality of primitive tribal societies and that of large civilized ones" (115).  But she is completely silent about their argument that this explains why "the free enterprise system that dominates the world economy today has deep evolutionary roots," because "the free enterprise societies' combination of individual autonomy, wealth, and welfare bear a strong resemblance to the preferences that are rooted in our ancient and tribal social instincts" ("Evolution of Free Enterprise Values," in Paul Zak, ed., Moral Markets [Princeton University Press, 2008], 107, 134).  The anthropologist Alan Fiske has shown that "market pricing" is one of the four models of social cooperation that are universal to all human societies.  As Jonathan Haidt has observed, our evolved human nature makes us both tribal and trading animals.  Adam Smith was right about human beings as showing a natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchanged that is expressed in the modern market economy.

Beck is silent about this because this shows how evolutionary science can support capitalism as rooted in our evolved human nature.

Hayek does seem to contradict himself in saying that we should not use the rules of the macro-cosmos to "crush" the micro-cosmos, but then saying that the macro-cosmos must "repress" the micro-cosmos.  Hayek might have said that there is no contradiction if "repress" means "restraining" without "crushing."  Hayek objected to the original Greek meaning of oikonomia as "household management," which mistakenly suggests transforming the market order into a "household state" (The Constitution of Liberty, 260-61; Law, Legislation, and Liberty (1), 37; Law, Legislation, and Liberty (2), 107-108).  "Home economics" is a top-down organization that can be centrally planned by the adults in the household for the common good of all in the family.  But a large market economy must emerge from the bottom-up as a spontaneous order without central planning.  The mistake of socialism is the belief that a large modern economy can be organized as a single household.  To avoid this mistake, we must repress but not crush the social instincts of household economics to protect the freedom of market economics based on the social instincts of exchange and trade.

Although Hayek said very little about family life, what he did say made it clear that protecting the household economics of the family as an organization was crucial for the liberal social order.  This denies the common claim that the liberalism of free markets subverts the solidarity of family life.  Some Hayekian economists--such as Steve Horwitz in Hayek's Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions (2015)--have elaborated a Hayekian account of the family as an organization in which parents have both the knowledge and the incentives for properly rearing children.  The failure of socialist central planning is manifest not only in its failure to plan a modern economy without markets but also in its failure to provide a centrally planned substitute for private families.  Beck is totally silent about this.

It is common for the right-wing critics of Hayekian liberalism--like Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher, for example--to argue that liberalism teaches a false individualistic conception of human beings as naturally solitary and autonomous beings.  Since human beings really are naturally social animals, who yearn for social bonding in families, friendships, and social groups, these critics argue, people in liberal societies who live as solitary individuals suffer an unhappy loneliness.  The Hayekian idea of living in two worlds at once denies this criticism by recognizing the crucial importance of the social life lived in families, friendships, and voluntary associations.

These points are elaborated in other posts herehere, here., here., here, and here.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Naomi Beck on Hayek

Naomi Beck's Hayek and the Evolution of Capitalism (University of Chicago Press, 2018) is the first book-length study of Hayek's evolutionary argument for liberalism.  It is a vigorous critique of Hayek's reasoning.  As indicated by a previous post (here), I first met Beck and heard her critique of Hayek about five years ago in Freiburg, Germany.  Reading her book confirms my first assessment of her reasoning:  some of her criticisms of Hayek are persuasive, but some are not.  Her book is valuable because it forces me to clarify my points of agreement and disagreement with Hayek in developing my own evolutionary argument for liberalism.  This will be the first of a series of posts on Beck's book.

Beck's general conclusion is that "the theory of cultural evolution he advanced provides perhaps the clearest example of his resistance to question his basic convictions," which shows an "ideological commitment" to free market capitalism that is "more a matter of faith than a well-founded position" (156).

In response to this claim, one might ask: Does she ever question her basic convictions about the moral, economic, and political failures of liberal capitalism? The answer is no.  The best way to question one's convictions is to acknowledge the good objections to those convictions and then to try to reply to those objections.  Thomas Aquinas's mode of "disputation" shows this: for each question he takes up, begins by stating the best objections to his answer and ends by replying to each objection.  I have found that sometimes Aquinas is so good at stating the objections that the objections can seem more persuasive than his replies!

As Beck indicates, Darwin was like Aquinas in recognizing and replying to objections: Darwin "was particularly careful not to dodge difficult questions that presented a challenge to his theory" (113).  In On the Origin of Species, Darwin began the sixth chapter by observing: "Long before having arrived at this part of my work, a crowd of difficulties will have occurred to the reader.  Some of them are so grave that to this day I can never reflect on them without being staggered; but, to the best of my judgment, the greater number are only apparent, and those that are real are not, I think, fatal to my theory" (1859, 171).  He then devotes five chapters to answering the objections to his theory.

In contrast to Darwin, Beck never questions her convictions, because she is silent about all of the obvious objections to her position.  The only possible exception to this comes in an endnote in her book. She criticizes Hayek for refusing to take seriously the problem of how the growth in population and wealth promoted by capitalism must inevitably lead to the exhaustion and misuse of natural resources.  She thinks that Garrett Hardin explained the fundamental problem well in his essay on "The Tragedy of the Commons":  when people have free access to  a common limited resource, their self-interest will move them to exploit the resource until it is depleted (122).  But then in a e one-sentence endnote to this passage, Beck writes: "Hardin's interpretation of the commons as a kind of no-man's land instead of a common pool resource collectively governed by its users was strongly criticized, most notably by the Nobel Laureate Eleanor Ostrom (1990) and subsequent scholarship" (164, n. 1).  The reference is to Ostrom's Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, which makes a Hayekian argument for how people can manage common resources for the good of all through the spontaneous evolution of cooperative institutions without any need for governmental coercion.  Beck never explains or replies to Ostrom's argument.  At the end of her book, Beck repeats Hardin's assertion of "the impossibility of infinite growth in a finite world" (159), while remaining silent about Ostrom's objection.

All of Beck's argumentation against Hayek is weakened by this refusal to answer any of the good objections to her reasoning.  And yet, as I have said, she does expose some problems in Hayek's position, which she rightly identifies as making two primary claims:
"First, because the rules of the free market are not the product of rational design, they surpass our capacity for social planning.  And second, these rules conflict with natural impulses, such as solidarity and altruism, which have evolved during the long period of small group existence, but which are not compatible with the profit-driven rules underlying the anonymous market interactions that have made the 'Great Society' possible.  Together, these claims were supposed to form a decisive refutation of all 'socialist' aspirations to improve society through planned reforms.  But Hayek's theory suffers from incoherencies, lack of supporting evidence, and also disregard for the theories that inspired it.  He hoped to demonstrate with evolutionary arguments that 'socialists are wrong about the facts' (1988 6; italics in the original), namely they misunderstand the origins of modern civilization and what is required to preserve it.  Yet his own evolutionary analysis took such extensive liberties with respect to the principles that have guided this mode of reasoning since Darwin, that to inscribe it within this scientific tradition, as Hayek intended, seems ill suited. Consequently, his alleged scientific, facts-based defense of capitalism loses its bite" (4-5).
So I see here four general kinds of criticisms:  Hayek's reasoning is said to show (1) incoherencies, (2) lack of supporting evidence, (3) a disregard for the evolutionary theories that he invokes, and (4) consequently, his alleged scientific facts-based defense of capitalism fails to show how it solves all the problems it creates.

I will be writing a series of posts on all of these criticisms.  But here at the beginning, I will point to one oddity about Beck's overall position in this book.  Hayek's general argument is that socialist central planning through the public ownership of the means of production must fail in any modern large society, because no extended order of society can be organized without a system of market prices.  Since Beck is such a thorough critic of Hayek, the reader expects her to end her book by declaring that Hayek is wrong, because socialist central planning works.

Oddly, however, she doesn't say that.  She does say that "Hayek most definitely did not defeat socialism with the help of evolutionary arguments" (159).  But then she says that "while total social planning might have the consequences he described, limited socialist interventions of the minimal kind might actually improve people's lives" (153).  So Hayek is right about the failure of "total social planning"?  And what exactly does she mean by "limited socialist inventions of the minimal kind"?  She doesn't say.

I do think she's right about the incoherence of Hayek's "socialism-as-atavism" thesis, as I will explain in my next post.