Friday, October 12, 2018

Is Libertarianism Sufficient for Liberty?

If liberty is the objective, is the non-aggression principle sufficient?  If the non-aggression principle is insufficient, what might that mean for those who wish to develop a proper theory for the realization of liberty?

A Somewhat Discordant Introduction

I came across an interesting tidbit:

And, as predicted by the theory, these seven moral rules – love your family, help your group, return favors, be brave, defer to authority, be fair, and respect others’ property – appear to be universal across cultures.

The authors studied sixty societies and found these behaviors to always be considered morally good.  These behaviors were found across continents, not limited to any particular culture or region.  Further, there were no counter-examples: no societies in which any of these behaviors was considered to be bad. 

This does not mean to suggest that the moral values were manifest identically in each region, or that they were held in the same priority:

‘Morality as cooperation’ does not predict that moral values will be identical across cultures. On the contrary, the theory predicts ‘variation on a theme’: moral values will reflect the value of different types of cooperation under different social and ecological conditions.

In other words, just because these different communities hold to these same rules, it doesn’t mean that the application is identical.  The concepts are the same; the lifestyles might be quite different.

What is the purpose of these moral rules?

Converging lines of evidence – from game theory, ethology, psychology, and anthropology – suggest that morality is a collection of tools for promoting cooperation.

Who cares about cooperation?  Given the antonyms, you might care about the absence of cooperation: hindrance, hurt, injury, antagonism, disagreement, discord, disunion, disunity, hostility.

A reminder from an earlier post:

Ethics and Morality: These two terms are often thought of and used synonymously. This is not entirely correct but there are similarities inasmuch as both words have their origin in common. One is the Greek and the other is the Latin word for “custom.”

It is the moral duty of the individual to conform themselves to the larger structure that exists.

Troubling for the non-aggression principle, I know.

What’s It All About, Alfie?

These seven common moral rules were learned and developed over countless generations and centuries.  Societies that figured out how to cooperate have survived; those that did not…did not. 

Yet, governments throughout the west are working diligently to destroy these behaviors.  On topics ranging from immigration, welfare, divorce, family, patriarchy, religion and, of course, property – the government supports, subsidizes and enforces culture destroying behaviors.  With these destroyed, cooperation is lost and therefore more government is “demanded.”

Let’s look at these seven common moral rules again, and consider each one through the lens of the non-aggression principle:

Not required by the non-aggression principle: love your family, help your group, return favors, be brave, defer to authority, be fair.

Required by the non-aggression principle: respect others’ property.

The non-aggression principle addresses only one of the seven common moral rules.  A reminder of the purpose of morality: a collection of tools for promoting cooperation.  What happens without cooperation?  We have hindrance, hurt, injury, antagonism, disagreement, discord, disunion, disunity, and hostility.

Returning to VanderKlay’s statement: “it is the moral duty of the individual to conform themselves to the larger structure that exists”; it seems this should be considered if one desires achieving and sustaining liberty.

Does this mean any “larger structure” will do?  Hardly.  Most fundamental, it is a larger structure that has been built up from custom and tradition – with these organically modified – and not a larger structure artificially created top-down by the state.  Second, it is clear that the one society where the idea of individual freedom was best developed is Western Civilization.

Will your property survive in a society absent the other six moral rules?  It seems to me not.  Does the non-aggression principle survive in a community filled with hindrance, hurt, injury, antagonism, disagreement, discord, disunion, disunity, and hostility?  I don’t think so.


Is libertarianism sufficient for liberty?  Everything about man’s cultural and moral evolution answers with a resounding “no”; everything about how cooperative relationships are formed answers with a resounding “no.” 

So why are some libertarians afraid to talk about it?  Why are some even antagonistic to the necessity of a common culture and tradition as a foundation for a society to move toward liberty?  If libertarians want to move liberty forward, incorporating this reality into the discussion is necessary.

From Rothbard:

The common separation between theory and practice is an artificial and fallacious one. But this is true in ethics as well as anything else. If an ethical ideal is inherently “impractical,” that is, if it cannot work in practice, then it is a poor ideal and should be discarded forthwith.

I have taken Rothbard’s advice.  I think we need to work on our theory.


Is this a criticism of the non-aggression principle?  Not at all; I consider a defense of the non-aggression principle. 

Consider it, instead, a criticism of those who believe that the non-aggression principle is sufficient for liberty; consider it a criticism of those who leave the beauty and value of the non-aggression principle open to easy and obvious ridicule.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Voluntarily From the Bottom Up

From the Preface to the First Edition (1603):

This plan and goal was conceived and attempted by me that I might possibly offer a torch of intelligence, judgment, and memory to beginning students of political doctrine.

Althusius dedicates this work to two “most distinguished and learned men,” both he describes as his relatives.  The first is Martin Neurath, a trial lawyer –Althusius’ wife was Margarethe Neurath.  The second is Jacob Tieffenbach.  So this first preface is a personal letter; it isn’t addressed to the general reader, but to two relatives, perhaps also close associates, if not mentors. 

…I have therein attributed [the rights of sovereignty] to the realm, or to the commonwealth and people.  I know that in the common opinion of teachers they are to be described as belonging to the prince and supreme magistrate.  Bodin clamors that these rights of sovereignty cannot be attributed to the realm or the people….

I know some read these words and will throw out Althusius almost as quickly as they would Bodin.  But this ignores the reality that people will organize politically – the only question is the extent to which coercion is introduced in the mix.  It is for this reason that I am attracted to Althusius – certainly he was unique in his time (and also in small company since the Renaissance) for his views on decentralization and subsidiarity.

…I am not troubled by the clamors of Bodin nor the voices of others who disagree with me, so long as there are reasons that agree with my judgment.

Althusius sees the prince or magistrate as a steward or administrator, but the rights are not his – the rights remain with the people (technically, within voluntarily-formed groups of people).  These rights cannot be renounced – in other words, they cannot be granted irrevocably or without recourse.  This seems to me an important point.

From the Preface to the Third Edition (1614):

Dedicated to the illustrious leaders of the estates of Frisia between the Zuider Zee and the North Sea most worthy lords.

The import of this dedication will be made clear shortly.

All copies of the earlier editions had been sold out.  Althusius, therefore, offers this third edition, “done during the odd hours permitted me between responsibilities to the Commonwealth.”  What was this “Commonwealth”?  It will be remembered that at this time, Althusius was the Syndic of the city of Emden; in other words, he viewed a city as a commonwealth – the highest political association.

This should be kept in mind as we move through the examination of his book – the commonwealth included a region that included people with common wealth: the key term being “common.”  Not in terms of communism, but in terms of what Althusius calls “communication”: the various exchanges done by and amongst a common group of people.

Of course, it could be argued that a modern economy does not allow for such a small commonwealth.  But is this so?  We need not confuse the trading of goods with the merging of polities.  We have Switzerland, we have Lichtenstein, we have Singapore.  Not every commonwealth need include hundreds of millions of people under one roof.

Monday, October 8, 2018

From Reformation to Enlightenment

Continuing an examination of N.T. Wright’s Gifford lectures, with Lecture 2 The Questioned Book: Critical Scholarship and the Gospels.

The Reformed appeal to ‘original meanings’ in order to renew the Christian faith.  Rationalists appeal to ‘original meanings’ in order to undermine the Christian faith.

It is an interesting connection made by Wright, perhaps offering one of the most disastrous examples of a revolution (unintended by Luther though it had been) being hijacked.  Certainly a case where the enemy of my enemy is an even worse enemy?

Since both Reformers and Rationalists were opposed to medieval Christianity, they effectively combined bringing a Protestant energy and style to the skeptical task, leaving Protestants who wanted to hold on to the Christian faith with a largely ahistorical platonic idealism.

Do you believe in the Virgin birth?  Do you believe in the physical Resurrection? “Yes” is not allowed in polite company, in the rational and reasonable west.  The Rationalists have torn such ideas to shreds, leaving those who want to hold on to the Faith with a bag of rocks.

The debate has manifested as “the confused noise which follows from the pursuit of social and cultural agendas by other means.”  These are seen in the debates between right and left; we see the signs of this in the political discourse.

Wright discusses the current state of Christian eschatology: for heaven to come on earth, the current earth must be destroyed.  The view is based on prophecies in Daniel and Ezra.  Wright offers that this is a new idea, and one not held by those who wrote and lived at the time of the authorship of these books – who instead were considering a way out of the current condition: the exile.

Whatever one’s belief on end-time theology, it is certainly clear that many Protestants today cheer on war in the Middle East, offer unqualified support for the state of Israel, and look at the current situation as the sign that Armageddon and the 1000 years is imminently upon us.  The current earth must be destroyed.

If the world is coming to an end, to be replaced by the Kingdom of God, the chances of inferring anything about the latter from the former are effectively nil.  If heaven is coming, earth has to be abolished.

Since the current world must be destroyed to bring on God’s Kingdom, why bother looking for evidence of God’s Kingdom in the current earth?

And, when Europe was set ablaze by Queen Victoria’s squabbling grandchildren in 1914 – the Kaiser, the Tsar, the King – with all the rest cheerfully trundling off to war, it all came true: Valhalla fell…

…and the dying cheered. 

A result of the rationality and reason of man set free from both the mystery and the history of God and Christ.  The world had to come to an end so that something new could be born.  Given that this end-of-the-world event was wholly created by man, we see that what was born was not God’s heaven on earth, but man’s hell: communism, fascism, liberal democracy, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Roosevelt, Churchill, firebombing, the nuclear age. 

Technology unchained from morality.  We can only pray that this hell extends its reach no further.  Sadly, in too many churches across the west, other prayers are being offered.

By the late 1930s – and believing that the Great War had done its cleansing, end-of-the-world duty – many believed the utopia was here, “either through Hegelian progress or the Marxist Revolution.”  And when it didn’t happen – for example, when Ribbentrop and Molotov signed the Nazi-Soviet pact – hope crashed to the ground.

So much for progress; so much, too, for Hegel.


Starting from the Enlightenment and its path to Epicureanism, heaven and earth were set radically apart from each other.

There is this dark side of the Enlightenment.  It seems that the dark side begins and ends with man subtracting God from the equation – subtract the Light and what is left but dark?  Nietzsche, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, announced the already-transpired event. 

And what did man replace Him with?  After chastising man for killing God, Nietzsche’s madman saw the future well, in 1888:

Here the madman fell silent and again regarded his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke and went out.

"I have come too early," he said then; "my time has not come yet. The tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling - it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the distant stars - and yet they have done it themselves."

You can decide which part of that would benefit from adding italics.

The “tremendous event” can be found beginning in 1914 and continuing to this present day.  The deed that was done long before?  The Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the valid reasons for the Reformation – all played a role. 

Take your pick.


Genesis 11:4: Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

Proverbs 11:2: When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Governance by Consent

Taken from the Foreword by Daniel J. Elazar, entitled Althusius’ Grand Design for a Federal Commonwealth

The road to modern democracy began with the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, particularly among those exponents of Reformed Protestantism who developed a theology and politics that set the Western world back on the road to popular self-government emphasizing liberty and equality.

Might as well start with the heavy stuff.  There was an alternative offered, and it was offered by Johannes Althusius at the end of the first century after the Reformation.  Althusius emerged from the Reformed tradition, and built a political philosophy that combined the experience of the Holy Roman Empire with the covenant theology of Reformed Protestantism.

Consent, not dictate, would form the basis of the polity.  A covenant – federal (from the Latin foedus: covenant).  According to Elazar, the Biblical design for human governance is federal:

The covenant motif is central to the biblical worldview, the basis of all relationships, the mechanism for defining and allocating authority, and the foundation of biblical political teaching.

He offers three reasons in support of this view: first, the network of covenants between God and man; second, the most visible manifestation of a Biblical commonwealth was tribal, “instituted and reaffirmed by covenant to function under a common constitution and laws”; third, the Biblical end of days sees a restoration of these tribal systems – “a world confederation or league of nations, each preserving its own integrity while accepting a common Divine covenant and constitutional order.”

In some respects, all subsequent federalist grand designs until Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s in the mid-nineteenth century are derived from or somehow related to the scriptural precedent.

Proudhon is generally regarded as the father of anarchism – but this should not be confused with anarcho-capitalism.  He does offer a glimpse into the kissing cousins of libertarianism and communism: with differences regarding private property (a strong disagreement, with Proudhon offering “Property is theft”) and hierarchical institutions (libertarianism is neutral) separating the two – quite important distinctions, but neither can survive the lack of a reasonably traditional ethical order.

He denounced the ‘government of man by man’ as ‘oppression,’ and in its place advocated a society based on ‘equality, law, independence, and proportionality’ which ‘finds its highest perfection in the union of order with anarchy.’ He defined ‘anarchy’ as ‘the absence of a master, of a sovereign,’ and envisaged a society in which ‘the sovereignty of the will yields to the sovereignty of reason.’

In 1840, far from advocating the complete abolition of all forms of government, Proudhon was merely advocating the replacement of one form of government, government based on the will of the sovereign, with another form of government, government based on reason, or as Proudhon described it, ‘scientific socialism’…

Government representatives from the working class – no mention of family, no principles of subsidiarity, no representation from the “capitalists”: ‘What is the capitalist? Everything! What should he be? Nothing!’

Society was to be organized around five autonomous ‘corporations’ independent of the national assembly, each with its own democratically elected ministers, representing ‘(1) extractive industry, (2) manufacturing concerns, (3) commercial enterprise, (4) agriculture, and (5) science, letters, and the arts.’  It was a system of ‘industrial democracy’ on a national scale.

No church.

Returning to Althusius and the foreword by Elazar:

Althusius’ grand design is developed out of a series of building blocks or self-governing cells from the smallest, most intimate connections to the universal commonwealth, each of which is internally organised and linked to the others by some form of consensual relationship.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Liberty Without God?


Professor N.T. Wright of St. Andrews University has delivered a series of lectures at the University of Aberdeen's King's College Conference Centre.  These are the 2018 Gifford Lectures:

The Gifford Lectures are an annual series of lectures which were established by the will of Adam Lord Gifford (died 1887). They were established to "promote and diffuse the study of natural theology in the widest sense of the term — in other words, the knowledge of God." A Gifford lectures appointment is one of the most prestigious honors in Scottish academia.

Natural theology…is a type of theology that provides arguments for the existence of God based on reason and ordinary experience of nature. This distinguishes it from revealed theology, which is based on scripture and/or religious experiences, and also from transcendental theology, which is based on a priori reasoning.

The educator and historian Jacques Barzun described the Gifford Lectures as virtuoso performances and "the highest honor in a philosopher's career."

Wright’s first lecture in his series, entitled “The Fallen Shrine: Lisbon 1755 and the Triumph of Epicureanism,” offers his introduction – including a broad sweep of what he intends to cover throughout his eight-part series.  The entire series is entitled “Discerning the Dawn: History, Eschatology and New Creation.”  As with all of my work based on videos, I will do my best to capture the statements.

You want my advice?  If your time is limited, watch the lecture; don’t read this post.  This is a long post (2500 words), the length only reflecting my view of the value of many of the statements made by Wright in this hour-long lecture.

In this lecture, he examines the period of the Enlightenment and the rebirth of Epicureanism – including its path through and with Deism.  He examines this event through both the French and American Revolutions, through the emergence of reason-without-God as a god. 

He offers an important caveat regarding a study of history and philosophy: he does not assume that once an insight is offered, it is universally embraced – in other words, events such as “the Enlightenment” aren’t events at all; those who we now label as early Enlightenment thinkers didn’t think of themselves this way at the time and weren’t viewed this way by their peers.  They were just thinkers.

The Lisbon Earthquake

Wright offers Joseph Addison’s “The Spacious Firmament on High,” written in 1712:

What though, in solemn Silence, all
Move round the dark terrestrial Ball?
What tho’ nor real Voice nor Sound
Amid their radiant Orbs be found?
In Reason’s Ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious Voice,
For ever singing, as they shine,
The Hand that made us is Divine.

Wright offers that this is natural theology at its best: the natural world sings of its creator, and human reason (also from the creator) can hear that song.  “Such ideas were widespread.”  The Christianity of the early eighteenth century was a post-millennial Christianity – man was making a steady progress toward perfection on earth, with Christ returning after this golden age of 1000 years. 

Then came the earthquake of Lisbon on All Saints Day in 1755.  Along with subsequent fires and tsunamis, this 8.5 – 9.0 magnitude quake virtually destroyed Lisbon, and the death toll is estimated at up to 100,000. 

The earthquake had struck on an important religious holiday and had destroyed almost every important church in the city, causing anxiety and confusion amongst the citizens of a staunch and devout Roman Catholic country.

The event was widely discussed and dwelt upon by European Enlightenment philosophers… The earthquake and its fallout strongly influenced the intelligentsia of the European Age of Enlightenment.

Returning to Wright: “The fallen shrine of Lisbon symbolizes the collapse of optimistic natural theology.”

This Time it’s Different

But earthquakes and the like had been known to Jews and Christians long before this; yet, the reaction this time was much different.  Wright explores why this might be so: “perhaps [earthquakes, etc.] only became a problem when Christianity took a Deist form….”

People, in other words, already had socio-political reasons for wanting traditional Christianity to be untrue, and now they had epistemological tools to help.  The Lisbon earthquake then was seized upon by those who – for whatever reason – wanted to reject Europe’s Catholicism and Protestantism alike.

There were Voltaire’s sarcastic comments about God and Lisbon, ‘will you now say that this terrible event will merely illustrate the iron laws that chain the will of God.’

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
-        Robert Frost

I have borrowed the title of Frost’s poem; it is also the chapter title from Gerard Casey’s book, Freedom’s Progress?, in which he discusses the political philosophy of Johannes Althusius.

A brief introduction from Casey:

Daniel Elazar notes, and I believe he is correct in this, that the Althusian view lost out to the Bodinian view of ‘reified centralized states where all powers were lodged in a divinely ordained king at the top of the power pyramid or in a sovereign center.’

Had the Althusian and not the Bodinian conception of the locus of sovereignty prevailed, the course of political history might have been very different.

Different…how?  Bodin gave us the centralized and sovereign State; Althusius offered instead a decentralized and voluntary polity.  This idea has attracted me to study the thought of Althusius more closely, given that decentralization is libertarian theory put into practice.

Further, Althusius is writing at a time after the Reformation, after the decentralizing benefits of a unified Christendom are lost; he is constructing a political theory that captures the decentralization of medieval Europe without the benefit of the competing governance authority of the Church.  This is even a more significant issue today as the West no longer even has the benefit of a dis-unified Christendom.

I grant up front: the lack of even a dis-unified Christendom (more specifically, the lack of faithful Christian leaders in the West) – let alone the loss of a unified Christendom – seems to me to be the issue that makes moving toward sustainable liberty impossible.  Given that eventually we will have faithful Christian leaders, developing decentralized political theory is a worthwhile endeavor.

Politica: Politics Methodically Set Forth and Illustrated with Sacred and Profane Examples, by Johannes Althusius (Edited and translated by Frederick S. Carney).  I will begin with some introductory comments from Carney, who begins by noting that Althusius’ thought remained in obscurity for two centuries – when it was revived by Otto Gierke in the nineteenth century.  Gierke saw in Althusius’ thought…

…something of a culmination of medieval social thought and a watershed of modern political ideas.  The chief features of this theory, Gierke felt, were to be found in its contractual and natural law principles.

Althusius, born in Westphalia in 1557, was a Calvinist; yet in his thought one will find commonality with the Spanish school of social philosophy at Salamanca.  He received his doctorate in Basle in both civil and ecclesiastical law in 1586.  Eventually becoming the Syndic of Emden, he exercised an influence there similar to the influence Calvin had in Geneva.

The purpose of political science, according to Althusius, is the maintenance of social life among human beings.

This is described by Althusius as “symbiotics”…

“…the art of associating men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them.”

Althusius has no interest in theories about human rights; instead, his focus is on the question: does the association – any association – fulfill the purpose for which it was formed?  He opposes tyrannical rule not because it is tyrannical, but because it is ineffective in supporting the purposes for which men joined together.

Persons enter and remain in association with each other because outside of the mutual communication of things, services, and right they cannot live comfortably and well; indeed, they cannot live at all.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Enlightenment’s Evil Twin

Proponents of liberty cannot escape confronting the issue that came to full fruition in the Enlightenment: liberty and tyranny both found freedom as a result.  Classical liberals cannot just point to Locke and Jefferson as the offspring.  In this post I will examine the Enlightenment’s evil twin – as represented in Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Thomas Hobbes

His ideas…are especially challenging to any libertarian who would wish to see the state minimised or eliminated.  That said, there are elements of his thought that any liberal would welcome.

Casey offers that more than half of Leviathan is about religion, and some take this as the most important part of his work.  One can glean Hobbes’ view on religion by the following:

Hobbes’s overall thought was fundamentally materialist…. For Hobbes, all that ultimately exists is matter in motion. …even the extremely complex social and political world too was explicable in materialistic terms.

Hobbes treated all of nature – human nature as well as non-human nature – as a vast system of mechanical causes from which purpose was to be excluded.

No room for religion there; no man created in God’s image; no possibility of an afterlife; no reason to think beyond the immediacy of the moment; no reason to consider the means to an end; no reason to consider any ends other than he who dies with the most toys wins. 

Hobbes, like many thinkers of his time, was enamored with the logic of mathematics and applying this logic to human action and behavior.  We today would call this the axiomatic method: starting with as few axioms as possible – and using only pure reason – producing “a rich and complicated set of theorems (deductions), all interconnected and all derived, in a strict logical chain, from the basic axioms.”

Two things can go wrong: first, one can make a mistake in reasoning; second, one’s axioms might not be as axiomatic as one believes.  One cannot read this and not ask, “what about Austrian Economics?”  Casey addresses this:

This isn’t to deny that any given empirical science may have at its theoretical heart a core of conceptually interrelated elements as, for example, does Austrian economics; it is simply to reject the ultra-rationalist idea that the axiomatic method is the scientific method par excellence. 

I will leave it to those who are far more qualified in both understanding the conceptual underpinnings of Austrian Economics and Hobbes’ methodology to separate one from the other. On the surface, it seems clear to me that Austrians, unlike Hobbes, accept that not all values are material – a factor that will greatly reduce error by Austrians.  But this might explain the different conclusions, and not necessarily offer an explanation as to why such deductive reasoning is or is not a valid tool.  Perhaps it is not any more complicated than challenging the axioms….

Hobbes finds man to be “spontaneously self-seeking, acquisitive and aggressive.”  Although man is not only these things, it is on these things that Hobbes builds his philosophy.  Based on this, Hobbes offers that there is no such thing as right and wrong, no such thing as civic virtue, no such thing as justice or injustice.  No room for natural law here.