Liberty and tyranny

Mark Tully (whose site I recently found) has an interesting series of posts, which I’ll let him describe:

Liberalism teaches that there are two political poles, authority and anarchy. You exchange less authority for more anarchy, less anarchy for more authority, and partisans tend to either favor a strong state or a strong people.

This is part of a larger project to demonstrate how most "authoritarian" systems were in fact anarchist systems. This attacks the so-called "liberty" of the libertarians first.

In the first post, which I just linked to, he takes on Hayek from the right. In his telling, Hayek is an unabashed progressive:

But nowhere does Dr. Hayek question the belief in progress itself, which leaves open a very large hole in his philosophy: what do we do when we achieve capitalistic freedom? Progress doesn’t stop. As he writes in another work, The Constitution of Liberty, "civilization is progress and progress is civilization" and we should bear in mind that "Progress is movement for movement’s sake."

. . .

Dr. Hayek’s philosophy is incompatible with the existence of sovereign political entities. A United Nations or a League of Nations, or at the very least, a mutually assured international order is needed to ensure free trade. He writes, "we cannot hope for order or lasting peace after this war if states, large or small, regain unfettered sovereignty in the economic sphere."

The fascinating part of the argument is that – according to the argument – Hayek’s progressivism is anarchic and tyrannical.

The second post takes on Mises. Mises, per the argument, is a materialist:

When the teachings of economics are applied, it’s called liberal policy. When that liberal policy is realized, it results in material well being via technological development. That is called progress. . . . For Dr. Mises, actions are admirable when they serve an economic motive and arguments are persuasive when they are rooted in economic reasoning.

Here’s the third post.

I think Mr Tully is too hard on the liberals, but I’ve also stopped reading Mises and Hayek for advice on how to govern. Their theories have their limits. There is nobody better than Mises at telling us how to achieve maximum economic efficiency. On one hand, this is quite an accomplishment. On the other hand, it is not a recipe for perfect governance of imperfect men.


14 Responses to Liberty and tyranny

  1. wm tanksley says:

    Mises himself claimed to not be telling you which policies to implement; rather, he claimed to show you whether the policies you propose would reach the ends to which you aimed.

    I’m not … certain that he was able to achieve that noble detachment :-). Nor am I completely sure that it’s actually noble.

  2. aretae says:

    Hayek is NOT a discussion of prescriptive governance. What Hayek’s legacy gives us is an idea of how NOT to govern given that the governors are imperfect men. Furthermore, he gives us a good handle on the limits of knowledge. Knowing what things that a central planner CANNOT make good decisions about is rather important to the pursuit of governance.

  3. St. Simon says:

    What do you understand to be perfect governance of men, Foseti? If you say maintenance of order, do you have a justification for saying it?

  4. Handle says:

    Hayek and Mises are both at their best when explaining why the economic theories behind Socialism are seductive but incoherent in their logic and erroneous in their conclusions. They are not that great at providing governing models, but then again, they both say that no one really is, because it’s too complex.

    I tend to agree. Whatever one’s priorities, the best model for a government that can achieve those purposes depends on the nature of the people being governed – a nature which tends to vary significantly in place and time.

    Hayek said that only constant but gradual adaptation to these changing circumstances, and by keeping as much of society exposed to market competition as possible, could produce optimal institutions through a spontaneous evolutionary process.

    I consider myself an Adaptive Reactionary in this sense – one who thinks the basic outline of human interaction that prevailed in the not-too-distant past is a natural extension of our immutable human nature, but one that can and should refine and tailor itself to the needs of the time.

    This is as opposed to a Absolutist Reactionary who seeks to establish a fixed and static ideal and then freeze that structure for all time.

  5. sconzey says:

    I shied away from Human Action, settling instead for Man, Economy and State. Ironically, Tully makes the classic liberal fallacy, which is to assume that morality can be objective and arises naturally from one’s scientific description of the world.

    Mises’ praxeology is a descriptive not proscriptive system. It describes the consequences of human action, and is of equal utility to the progressive, the libertarian and the formalist. Mises may personally approve of so-called “Liberal Policy” but his science is devoid of moral inflection.

  6. james wilson says:

    Von Hayek does not instruct in how to govern, but in how not to govern. He believed our basic instincts were socialist, and that this is what had to be overcome for every advancement in civilization; but that no advance was secure because we could not ever completely understand the success of something so anti-instinctual.

    Mises and Friedman may have have been deficient in understanding the importance of nations and cultures, but Hayek at the very least had an appreciation of their vast differences and what they represented, which he detailed in “Fatal Conceit”.

  7. Tschafer says:

    Tully is right, Hayek is not a conservative, but then again, he didn’t call himself one. It’s sort of like someone using my writing to prove that I’m not a Communist, when of course I never claimed to be one. And with all due respect, I don’t think that Mr. Tully really gets what Hayek or Von Mieses were saying. When push comes to shove, it’s a pretty simplistic analysis of two pretty complicated writers. All he really proves is that a lot of people who call themselves conservatives in the United States today, along with Hayek and Mieses, are not classic “Throne and Altar” European-style conservatives, and we all knew that. So what?

  8. Tschafer says:

    Not to get all Clintonian about it, but I suppose it all depends on what you mean by “Progressive”. In the sense in which the term is taken today, no. They certainly believed in material progress, and Hayek believed in educational progress, but I can’t really see that Hayek or Mieses thought that material progress would make humans morally better, which is the way I usually think of true progressivism. I mean, maybe they did, I’m no Mieses scholar, but that was certainly not my take-away from reading him. I suppose I can see calling Hayek a progressive, if you really stretch the meaning of the term. He thought that technological progress increased our understanding, and hence advanced societies required fewer rules than primitive ones, but he never envisioned a utopia where no rules would be required at all, a la anarchism. So I guess I can see calling Hayek a “progressive” but it requires a sort of redefinition of the term. Mieses, I can’t see, unless one is speaking of pure material progress. Like you, I wouldn’t go to either of these guys in setting up a government, but both were dead-on right about the dangers of combined political and economic power leading to totalitarianism, and I don’t think that most “progressives” today would be happy claiming them…

    Really enjoy your blog, by the way.


  9. Mark Tully says:

    This discussion is very interesting. I would be interested to see how I’ve played fast and loose with these authors – by no means am I ruling it out as a possibility. The point of the articles was to try and hold classical liberalism accountable for today’s mess. Their attempts to distance themselves by saying the progressives of today have hijacked the terms “progress” and “liberalism” don’t sit well with me. I think it’s deeper than just a ploy to win public support. While Mises and Hayek wouldn’t support a foreign intervention, I argue that interventions and the whole gambit of evils we see today are an inevitable outgrowth of their philosophy.

    I grant that both said they don’t have moral or policy prescriptions, but you’ll have to be patient with me if I question it. Deciding what is and what is not within the scope of human judgment, deciding if a definite answer can’t be had to moral questions, or put another way, deciding not to decide anything is still a decision. Further, it’s the most basic of all political decisions.


    I diagnosis the problem with Enlightenment notions of any kind of progress – moral, spiritual, material, etc. I take issue with dividing societies into “primitive” and “advanced” and suggest that by doing so you inherit the baggage of other progressive movements. I would agree with you and other commenters that the two offer correct insight into economic problems as well as the combination of economics and political power BUT the basis of their investigation, the starting point of human knowledge, is economic cost-benefit analysis. This means that any government derived from their reasoning (and Mises did derive democracy from it) has to operate on a utilitarian scale. When it does so, no matter how small it is, it will commit the crimes they predict. This is why, oddly, I think Rothbard was one of the few to brave the consequences – and reveal the anarchic conclusions of libertarianism.

    • Foseti says:

      “The point of the articles was to try and hold classical liberalism accountable for today’s mess. Their attempts to distance themselves by saying the progressives of today have hijacked the terms “progress” and “liberalism” don’t sit well with me.”

      See the book review I put up yesterday for more. I also find this subject interesting.

  10. Tschafer says:

    Mr. Tully,
    I certainly did not accuse you of “playing fast and loose” with Mises and Hayek – your understanding of them is different than mine, that’s all. I don’t think that you are misrepresenting them, I just think you’re wrong, just as you think that I’m wrong – no bad faith implied. Sorry if anything I wrote seemed to imply otherwise.

    On other matters, all I can say is that material progress does indeed exist, even if no other kind does, and I believe that this is obvious. I agree that much of what is labeled “progress” today is spurious, but to deny that any form of progress is possible,even in the material sphere, is to deny reality, and puts one in the company of Baron Evola and other devotees of “Tradition”. with a capital “T”, which is a place that I have no desire to be. Also, I have no hesitation classifying some societies as “primitive” and some as “advanced”, materially, spirtually, or otherwise – civilizations that sacrifice virgins to Huitzelepochtle, or expose crippled children at birth are primitive, and I make no bones about it. Some societies are better than others as corporate entities, and I don’t see a problem with calling these better civilizations “advanced”. (Note I did not say that we are among them…) I can’t say as I see that by believing this, I inherit the baggage of the guillotine, the Harvest of Sorrow, and The Khmer Rouge Killing Fields, and I refuse to have these things foisted on my without a better reason than believing that there was some good, along with much harm, in the Enlightenment. But if that makes me a progressive in the eyes of some people, I guess that I’ll just have to live with it – it’s odd, though, “progressives” call me a reactionary for thinking this. And as for Mieses and Hayek being responsible for our current problems, do you really believe that these two gentlemen are the dominant influences on our government for the last fifty years? Has the governing philosophy of the West in the last half-century really been classical liberalism? As the Microsoft phone ads say, “Really?” If so, you are living in a different country than I am, one which I would gladly move to if the opportunity offered itself. Classical Liberalism may very well be inadequate as a governing philosophy, but the failures of the national-socialist states common in the West since the 1930’s can hardly be laid at its door.

    All the best, and thanks for sparking an interesting discussion.

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