Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Straussian Denial of Evolutionary Lucretian Liberalism: Comments on John Colman's Book

I will soon be leaving for Tucson, Arizona, where I will be directing a Liberty Fund conference on "Lucretius, Evolutionary Morality, and Spontaneous Order."  We will be staying at the beautiful Loews Ventana Canyon Resort.  Our six discussion sessions will center on readings selected from three books--Lucretius's On the Nature of Things, Matt Ridley's The Evolution of Everything, and David Christian, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and Craig Benjamin's Big History: Between Nothing and Everything.

Going to a Liberty Fund conference is one of the great joys of my life. I get to sit around a table with 14 very smart people talking about texts that raise deep questions about the historical, philosophic, scientific, theological, and psychological implications of human liberty.

In this case, we will talk about how Lucretius's atomist science of nature might support a natural history of the evolution of everything, and of how human morality, politics, religion, and mind might fit within that Big History.

In particular, I am interested in the possibility of understanding Lucretius as a premodern forerunner of modern evolutionary liberalism.  I have written many posts on various aspects of this thought--some of them can be found hereherehereherehere, and here.

I foresee that many (maybe most) of the participants will disagree with me.  In particular, I know that John Colman-the author of Lucretius as the Theorist of Political Life--disagrees with me, because his book advances a Straussian interpretation of Lucretius as an ancient political philosopher who was mistakenly appropriated by modern political philosophers to serve their modern project for progress through political enlightenment and technological science.

Prior to Machiavelli, the Straussians assume, the ancient political philosophers saw the philosophic life as the only naturally good life, and they saw that contemplative life of the few people devoted to the truth as opposed to the social life of the many based on common moral, political, and religious opinions that cannot survive rational questioning.  But beginning with Machiavelli, modern political philosophers have sought to close the gap between philosophy and the city by promoting a modern liberal social order in which there is freedom of thought and religious toleration, and philosophy is turned towards natural science and technology that gives human beings a mastery of nature that is popular because it makes the life of the multitude more secure and prosperous than it has ever been.

If one accepts this stark Straussian separation between ancients and moderns, then one must be surprised that so many modern philosophers have been deeply influenced by Lucretius, which has been confirmed by much of the recent scholarship on the history of Lucretius's influence.  Colman admits that the long list of modern philosophers influenced by Lucretius includes Montaigne, Machiavelli, Bayle, Descartes, Bacon, Hobbes, D'Holbach, and Helvetius; and he also admits that these were true philosophers living the contemplative life.  But still Colman argues that Lucretius was not a modern thinker at all, and therefore the modern philosophers influenced by Lucretius were mistaken in that they did not understand Lucretius's true teaching.

Colman says nothing about the most obvious objection to his reasoning--the implausibility of his assumptions that Lucretius was unable to write his book so as to convey his true teaching to his philosophic readers, that all of his early modern philosophic readers were unable to correctly identify his teaching, and that for the first time in history some Straussian scholars have recently uncovered the true teaching that Lucretius failed to convey to his earlier philosophic readers.

Moreover, Colman says nothing about the fact that even Leo Strauss suggested some disagreement with these assumptions.  In Strauss's book Liberalism: Ancient & Modern, the central chapter and the longest chapter is his "Notes on Lucretius," thus implying that the Epicureanism of Lucretius anticipates modern liberalism.  In the Preface of the book, Strauss noted the modernity of ancient Epicureanism:
"The most extensive discussion is devoted to Lucretius' poem.  In that poem, not to say in Epicureanism generally, premodern thought seems to come closer to modern thought than anywhere else.  No premodern writer seems to have been as deeply moved as Lucretius was by the thought that nothing lovable is eternal or sempiternal or deathless, or that the eternal is not lovable.  Apart from this, it may suffice here to refer to Kant's presentation of Epicureanism as identical with the spirit of modern natural science prior to the subjection of that science to the critique of pure reason" (viii).
And yet, Strauss worried about the sadness of this Epicurean teaching--that the world that we love is not eternal, because every world is mortal within the eternal universe of atoms in motion.  He identified this as "the most terrible truth" (85, 100, 135).  He thought that philosophers can live with this truth with a tranquil mind.  But most human beings cannot.  And consequently most human beings can find peace of mind only through the pleasing delusion of a religious belief that the world of human concern is supported by a loving intelligent designer.

Although Colman refers repeatedly to Strauss's study of Lucretius, he never refers to this remark about the modernity of ancient Epicureanism.  What Colman does say implies that Strauss was just wrong in seeing Epicurus and Lucretius as coming close to modern thought.

For example, Colman argues that while Francis Bacon seemed to be influenced by Lucretius, Bacon was mistaken in his reading of Lucretius, and he failed to see how his teaching contradicted the teaching of Lucretius.   According to Colman, Bacon rejected Lucretius's teaching that the philosophic life was the highest life: "Bacon's judgment about the fruitlessness of classical philosophy precluded him from praising the delight in knowledge for its own sake" (141).  Unlike Lucretius, Colman  claims, Bacon promoted the advancement of technological knowledge that could lead to the human mastery of nature for the relief of the human estate.  Bacon sought to overcome the limits of nature through technological power.  By contrast, Lucretius taught "the impossibility of overcoming natural necessity and chance through political and technological means" (141).

There are three problems with Colman's reasoning here.  The first problem is that far from rejecting the Lucretian claim that philosophic knowledge is the highest life, Bacon repeatedly affirmed that a life of pursuing and contemplating truth is "the sovereign good of human nature" (2002, 342).  He argued for a union of contemplation and action, so that neither is subordinated to the other (2002, 148-150, 155, 167, 222, 439).

The second problem is that contrary to Colman's claim that Bacon saw human technological power as unlimited by nature, Bacon was clear that human creation is always limited by nature.  Only God can create ex nihilo or destroy in nihilo (2002, 190-91).  Human beings command Nature only by obeying her.  "All that man can do to achieve results is to bring natural bodies together and take them apart; Nature does the rest internally" (2000, 33).

The third problem is that Lucretius agrees with Bacon in seeing the importance of technological progress in human evolutionary history, which is most fully set out in Book 5 of On the Nature of Things (5.925-1455), where he recounts the history of discoveries and inventions such as the use of fire, language, and farming.  Colman recognizes this (104-113).  But then he asserts: "According to Lucretius, man's technological and artistic productions are no match for the power of nature.  Thus the account of the development of the arts that concluded Book V is corrected by the finale of Book VI, which speaks of natural cataclysms and plague" (139).  Here Colman is referring to the account of the horrible suffering caused by the plague in Athens, which is how Lucretius ends his book.

Colman doesn't explain how Lucretius's account of the plague "corrects" his account of technological progress in Book 5.  Presumably, Colman's suggestion is that the suffering of the Athenians in the plague "corrects" any belief that human beings can ever have such absolute power over nature as to protected from all the natural causes of suffering.  But neither Lucretius nor Bacon ever claim that human beings can have such absolute power over nature.  Rather, their claim is that improvements in the human knowledge of natural causes can increase human power for the relief of the human estate, but without ever achieving absolute power, which would require absolute knowledge.

Colman notes that following Thucydides' account of the plague, Lucretius observes that medical doctors were of no use because they were ignorant of the natural causes of the disease.  But Colman is silent about Lucretius's explanation of diseases such as plagues as caused by germs (or "seeds") that are invisible to ordinary human vision (6.30, 665, 1090-1131).  Thus, Lucretius was the first philosopher to suggest the germ theory of diseases.  And by suggesting this just before his account of the plague, he suggests to his careful readers the thought that once scientists identify the germs that cause plagues, human beings can increase their power to protect themselves against such diseases.  This is exactly what Bacon had in mind.  And as I have indicated in a previous post (here), the medical science of how microscopic bacteria and viruses cause diseases like the plague have helped to improve human health, and this has become one of the great benefits of the modern Liberal Enlightenment.

So can the Straussian scholars recognize that in this and other ways the Liberal Enlightenment has succeeded?  It's not clear.  Generally, Strauss and his followers insist that liberalism must fail because it denies the natural fact of the contradiction between social order and philosophic truth, so that every social order must be closed to any philosophic or scientific enlightenment.  A crucial consequence of this natural fact is the necessity and desirability of esoteric writing: philosophers or scientists seeking the truth about nature must write and speak in such a way as to hide their true teaching from the multitude of people who would be harmed by this teaching.

But recently some Straussian scholars have conceded that he Liberal Enlightenment has become so successful that esoteric writing is no longer necessary or desirable.  As I have indicated in some previous posts (here and here), Arthur Melzer has shown that Strauss was right about the importance of esoteric writing up to about two hundred years ago.  But Melzer has also indicated that esoteric writing began to disappear around 1800, and today most of us in the modern liberal open societies regard esoteric writing as neither necessary nor desirable, because Liberal Enlightenment has succeeded.  If this is so, then Strauss was wrong about the necessary failure of the modern project.

In his best-selling book on Lucretius as the creator of modernity (The Swerve), Stephen Greenblatt proclaimed: "We are all Epicureans now."  One evident manifestation of this is that Lucretius's teaching of the atomist science of the cosmos as a spontaneous natural order unguided by any divine design has become the popular cosmology for our societies today, and in the open societies today there is no attempt to suppress this teaching as subversive to social and religious order.

"The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be."

In 1980, that was the first line spoken by Carl Sagan beginning his thirteen-part television series Cosmos, which became one of the most-watched series around the world for the Public Broadcasting System.  The book Cosmos became one of the most popular science books ever written.  It was a comprehensive presentation of how modern scientists understand the natural history of the universe over 14 billion years.  Sagan was clear in his rejection of any conception of the universe as requiring divinely intelligent design.  In the 2013 edition of Cosmos, Ann Druyan (Sagan's wife) pointed to the significance of the opening line: "Some religious fundamentalists found that first line offensive.  To them it was a shot across the bow that Carl was out to steal their thunder.  They were on to something."

In 1996, Sagan wrote another best-selling book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.  One of his epigrams in the book was from Lucretius: "As children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, so we in the light sometimes fear what is no more to be feared than the things children in the dark hold in terror."

In 2014, Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist, hosted the television successor to Sagan's Cosmos, which was entitled Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.  The book tied to the television series--Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution--has only one epigram, which is a quotation from Lucretius: "The world has persisted many a long year, having once been set going in the appropriate motions.  From these everything else follows."  Tyson used the same epigram for his 2017 book Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.  He has become one of the most widely-read authors of popular science books.

So why aren't these Lucretian scientist-philosophers like Sagan and Tyson being persecuted?  Or why hasn't the fear of persecution forced them to write esoterically?  Isn't the answer clear--the success of the Liberal Enlightenment allows for the popular promulgation of Lucretian natural philosophy without any fear that this will subvert the social order?

Modern liberalism has created more public freedom of speech for teaching Lucretian science than ever before in history.  And yet even in the ancient polytheistic world of Greece and Rome, Epicurus and Lucretius were remarkably free in openly teaching what they thought.  Epicureanism became one of the most popular philosophical movements in the ancient world, even though it was widely identified as atheistic, and the Epicureans were boldly provocative in their public teaching.

In fact they were so bold in their teaching that we might doubt that they were esoteric writers.  Even Colman concedes: "The early modern philosophers were attracted to Lucretius also because they saw in him an unwillingness to make the kind of concessions that the Platonic Socrates or Aristotle had made to the religious opinions of the city.  This may explain why Lucretius does not mention either Plato or Aristotle when discussing his philosophic forbearers and limits himself to a few pre-Socratics" (133).

It was not until the Christian Church took political and cultural power over the world that Epicureanism was suppressed, and the books of Epicurus and Lucretius were banned.  The Church could accommodate the teachings of Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism, which were absorbed into Christian theology and philosophy.  But the Church could not tolerate Epicureanism in any form.  It was not until a copy of Lucretius's book was found hidden away in a German monastery in 1417 that modern readers finally had access to Lucretius after a thousand years of suppression.  The book was placed on the Church's Index of Prohibited Books.

This suggests that there was more freedom of speech for philosophers in the ancient world--at least for Epicurean philosophers--than Strauss was willing to admit.  In a previous post, I have argued that there was far more freedom of thought for philosophers in Athens than the Straussian scholars have recognized.


Bacon, Francis. 2000. The New Organon. Eds. Lisa Jardine and Michael Silverthorne. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bacon, Francis. 2002. The Major Works. Ed. Brian Vickers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Colman, John. 2012. Lucretius as Theorist of Political Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sagan, Carl. 1996. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.  New York: Ballantine Books.

Sagan, Carl. 2013. Cosmos. New York: Ballantine Books.

Strauss, Leo. 1968. Liberalism Ancient & Modern.  New York: Basic Books.

Tyson, Neil deGrasse, and Donald Goldsmith. 2004. Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution. New York: Norton.

Tyson, Neil deGrasse. 2017. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. New York: Norton.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Trump's "Fuhrer Principle" in His Declaration of National Emergency is Unconstitutional

In 1935, the United States was facing a national emergency--The Great Depression--and President Franklin Roosevelt claimed that this national emergency gave him the power to rule by executive decree outside of the lawmaking authority of the Congress.  In 1933, the Congress had delegated its lawmaking power to the President through the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which effectively allowed the President to centrally plan the economy by creating "codes of fair competition" for various sectors of the economy.  One of these codes was the "Live Poultry Code" that regulated the poultry industry in New York City.

When the Schechter Poultry Corporation was punished for violating this code, they filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the President's power to enact such codes.  In the Supreme Court case of Schechter Poultry Corp. v. U.S. 295 U.S. 495 (1935), the Court ruled unanimously (9-0) that this was indeed unconstitutional for two reasons--it was an unconstitutional delegation of congressional power to the President, and it was not within the congressional power for regulating commerce among the several states.  This effectively halted Roosevelt's attempt to enact his New Deal policies through executive orders.  A few years later, the Court broadened its interpretation of the Congress's commerce power, which allowed much of the New Deal to go forward, but the Court never reversed its declaration that the Congress cannot delegate its constitutional powers to the President.  As recently as 2011, the Supreme Court cited Schechter as a precedent in Bond v. U.S.

That's bad news for Donald Trump and those who support his Declaration of National Emergency as authorizing him to fund his Wall, because the Schechter decision can be cited in any Supreme Court case as condemning this action as unconstitutional.  (Damon Root has written about this at the Reason magazine website.)  The Court might quote the following passage from Charles Evans Hughes's opinion in Schechter:
"We are told that the provision of the statute authorizing the adoption of codes must be viewed in the light of the grave national crisis with which Congress was confronted.  Undoubtedly, the conditions to which power is addressed are always to be considered when the exercise of power is challenged.  Extraordinary conditions may call for extraordinary remedies.  But the argument necessarily stops short of an attempt to justify action which like outside the sphere of constitutional authority.  Extraordinary conditions do not create or enlarge constitutional power.  The Constitution established a national government with powers deemed to be adequate, as they have proved to be both in war and peace, but these powers of the national government are limited by the constitutional grants.  Those who act under these grants are not at liberty to transcend the imposed limits because they believe that more or different power is necessary.  Such assertions of extraconstitutional authority were anticipated and precluded by the explicit terms of the Tenth Amendment.  'The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.'" (295 U.S. 495, 528-529)
Hughes went on to declare: "The Congress is not permitted to abdicate or to transfer to others the essential legislative functions with which it is thus vested."

The Constitution is very clear that the appropriation of money is a congressional power: "No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law" (Article I, Section 9).  The President cannot constitutionally appropriate money for building a Wall on the southern border without congressional authorization.  The fact that Trump resorted to his Declaration of National Emergency after the Congress had refused to appropriate the money he requested makes his unconstitutional usurpation of congressional power especially evident.

Now, of course, Trump and his supporters will argue that Congress has given him the power to do this under the National Emergencies Act of 1976.  But that only shows that the National Emergencies Act is itself unconstitutional insofar as it delegates congressional power to the President, just as was the case with the NIRA in the Schechter case.

When the Justices in the Schechter case were writing their opinions in 1935, they were doing this in the shadow of Adolf Hitler, who had claimed emergency powers in Nazi Germany since 1933.  The Reichstag Fire of 1933 was used as a pretext to suspend the Weimar Constitution and introduce a state of emergency for four years.  Legislative power was given to Hitler, so that his government could enact laws without a vote in Parliament.  This was all justified by the Fuhrerprinzip ("Fuhrer Principle")--the idea that during a national emergency, there must be a national leader who can rule by executive decree without being bound by law.  Hitler and his supporters also argued that anyone not considered part of the Volksgemeinschaft ("National Community of the People") was outside the law and thus not protected by it.  Sound familiar?

The "Fuhrer Principle" was embraced by the American Progressives, who thought that only the President acting by executive decree could provide the "leadership" necessary for meeting national emergencies.  Woodrow Wilson was the first president to invoke this principle in declaring a national emergency.  So Trump's declaration and his reliance on rule by executive decree shows that he belongs to the Progressive tradition that has created the Presidential Administrative State as a way of overturning the constitutional system of checks and balances.

Remarkably, while Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders in Congress have denounced Trump's declaration as unconstitutional, they have refused to recommend the revocation of the National Emergencies Act as an unconstitutional law.  Instead, acting pursuant to section 202 of that Act, they have proposed a congressional resolution to terminate Trump's declaration.

We can hope that the Supreme Court will invoke the reasoning of the Schechter decision in striking down Trump's "Fuhrer Principle" and the National Emergencies Act as unconstitutional.

Writing in The Atlantic, Elizabeth Goitein has written a good article on "The Alarming Scope of the President's Emergency Powers."

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 four levels.  They failed to provide an accurate interpretation of liberal political theory.  They failed to analyze the factual evidence of liberalism's performance.  They failed to provide any attractive illiberal alternative to liberal social order.  And they failed to provide any coherent argument for rejecting liberalism.

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 king" (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.

In another post, I have written about the evidence that the level of inequality (as measured by the Gini Coefficient) in some Lockean liberal social orders is close to what it was in hunter-gatherer societies.

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.

In short, the primary mode of argument for both Deneen and Dreher is begging the question.

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 fourth criticism 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.

Deneen and Dreher would have a coherent argument for rejecting liberalism if they endorsed the radical Catholic traditionalists like Edmund Waldstein who defend Catholic "integralism" in recommending 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."

As an alternative to Deneen and Dreher, one should consider another modern defender of Christian orthodoxy--C. S. Lewis.  As I have indicated in a previous post (here), Lewis was a Lockean liberal who rejected theocracy as a form of tyranny, who believed that government should not have the power to legally enforce Christian morality, and who thought the only proper aim of government was to secure individual liberty from legal interference except when necessary to prevent harm to others.
Deneen and others have recently launched a new journal--Postliberal Thought--that will be published both online and in print.  One of the introductory articles is "The Postliberal Moment" by Andrew Willard Jones, which concludes:

"Christianity has deep resources from which to draw. Christianity has the depths from which to offer a meta-critique and the solutions that can save all that was good and right in modernity. If modernity is indeed a Christian heresy, then orthodoxy contains its strengths and even its pathos, but without its exaggerated errors. Within a recasting of the liberal lexicon in terms of a Christian lexicon, liberalism itself, like the Christian heresies that have come before it, is capable of some measure of redemption."

"We are launching Postliberal Thought in order to provide a place for this work. We understand the project to be the work of generations and we are fully aware that by breaking free from the dominant paradigm, we thrust ourselves into areas of intellectual instability and obscurity. Much of what we propose will often no doubt turn out to be mistaken; many of the roads we go down will no doubt turn out to be dead-ends. Postliberal Thought is therefore a place for open-minds and forgiving spirits. We hope to forge a community of Christian thinkers who are animated not by certainty concerning what to do or what to think, but by the hope that we, humbled in prayer before God, will find a way forward."

I find it hard to understand what he is saying, because, like Deneen and Dreher, he seems to be caught in the incoherent position of both denying and affirming liberalism.  Jones is the author of a book--Before Church and State--defending the "Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX" in 13th century France as "the most Christian kingdom."  Wouldn't his position be more coherent if he simply argued for the illiberal regime ruled by Saint Louis as being the model of the best regime designed to secure both the temporal and eternal ends of human life?  In doing this, he would be embracing the Catholic theocratic authoritarianism of the French Counter-Enlightenment that began with Joseph de Maistre and then was renewed by Charles Maurras and the Action francaise.

In identifying liberal modernity as a "Christian heresy," is he referring to Protestant Christianity?  Would postliberal thought require the persecution and suppression of all thought contrary to medieval Catholic social thought, which would deny Vatican II's affirmation of religious liberty?  Would communitarian Christian groups like the Amish have to be persecuted because they arose from the heresy of Anabaptism, which interprets the New Testament as teaching separation of Church and State ("Render unto Caesar . . .") and religious liberty, so that Christian communities must be based on the voluntary consent of the adult members?

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 phylogenetic 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 about 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 1,000 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.