Thursday, February 15, 2018

In the Long Run…

An interesting article at the Mises site.  The article is by Murray Rothbard, entitled “Our Interests and Their Interests.”  The meaning of the title can be explained succinctly: whereas in a free market economy there is no clash of interests…

…the matter changes drastically, Mises points out, when we move to the intervention of government. For that very intervention necessarily creates conflict between those classes of people who are benefited or privileged by the State and those who are burdened by it.

Mises offered sound reason to demonstrate the fault in such thinking:

As Mises puts it,

In the short run an individual or a group may profit from violating the interests of other groups or individuals. But in the long run, in indulging in such actions, they damage their own selfish interests no less than those of the people they have injured.

Rothbard finds this approach lacking:

But Mises has a grave problem; as a utilitarian, indeed as someone who equates utilitarianism with economics and with the free market, he has to be able to convince everyone, even those whom he concedes are the ruling castes, that they would be better off in a free market and a free society, and that they too should agitate for this end.

The great problem here is: why should people always consult their long-run, as contrasted to their short-run, interests? Why is the long run the "right understanding"?

And I will take it from here.  I posted the following comment at the site:

[Rothbard]: “In brief, some moral doctrine beyond utilitarianism is necessary to assert that people should consult their long-run over their short-run interests.”

In succinct fashion, JM Keynes summed up the morality of this generation, the last century, and perhaps the time since the Enlightenment or earlier: “In the long run we are all dead.”  Without some thought to the consequence of life after death, why consider the long run?

[Rothbard]: “By amending Mises's theory to account for time preference and other problems in his "rightly understood" analysis, we conclude…that only moral principles beyond utilitarianism can ultimately settle the dispute between them.”

The west was, for more or less 1000 years, governed by such “moral principles” that considered the consequence of life after death. Perhaps without such moral principles, all that is left is the short run.

We need not debate theology, or entertain the nonsense that religion is incompatible with liberty; we are witness to the reality: when the “nobles” do not concern themselves with the long run, interests clash – and we are the losers.

I received several replies, some worth ignoring; one which said I had it backwards.  You can infer, from my further reply, the issue:

You misunderstand the point entirely. The topic isn't wealth accumulation - if this was the topic, there would be no reason to worry about the conflicting interests raised by Rothbard. The poorest person in the west today lives better than the kings of even a few centuries ago.

Interests were better aligned when the nobles felt troubled by eternal judgment. Interests were better aligned precisely because the nobles were concerned about the treasures they stored up in heaven.

Today's nobles don't worry at all about eternal judgment - they are acting in the ultimate short term, the span of their own lives. They care nothing of the wealth in the tradition and law of their predecessors, nor do they care of the legacy that they leave for their descendants.

Read Fritz Kern for an understanding of the medieval law; then perhaps Robert Latouche and Jean Gimpel about the advancements in technology. Then consider: we do not know if wealth accumulation might have been greater or lesser had the relatively libertarian law of the Middle Ages been allowed to develop.

But we can imagine that interests would have been better aligned.

This reply remained unsatisfactory to my interlocutor, but this is unimportant to me. 

So why do I bother sharing this with you?  The key point: Rothbard noted that “some moral doctrine beyond utilitarianism is necessary.”  There was a comment here recently (and not regarding this conversation at LvMI), suggesting that the moral doctrine Rothbard had as his foundation was the non-aggression principle, and that this singular foundation was sufficient. 

I have no idea if this is what Rothbard believed, but I know it is what many libertarians believe.  So I am clear: what follows is not aimed at Rothbard; it is aimed at the idea that the NAP is sufficient as a moral foundation for a society to conform, generally, to the NAP.

Libertarian Law

As I have noted many times, the European Middle Ages offered the best extended example of something approaching libertarian law and libertarian society.  I did not say perfectly libertarian law, but far more so than the law in our age.

Most importantly for the time: man did not create law.  Law was old and good; law was discovered, in the best sense of the word – discovered in the best of the old and good tradition.  All men were under the law – the king could not create law, his only duty was to enforce it.  Any noble could veto the king’s decision if it could be demonstrated that his decision violated the old and good law.

We could do worse…wait, we are doing worse.

There are some aspects of this medieval law that fall short of the NAP, for example: one was not free to destroy his property; usury was prohibited (albeit it wasn’t a complete ban on interest, and the meaning of the term “usury” evolved / varied); contracts deemed unfair to one party or the other were not enforceable – even if both parties initially agreed to the terms.

I know, I know – any libertarian worth his salt can poke a hole in these; I have done so myself in the past.  But still…something made the system work, made it reasonably libertarian (more so than the law in our age), and made it last.

My point?  It was something more than / other than the non-aggression principle that allowed the law to stay reasonably libertarian.

The Missing Link?

We all know the Golden Rule: Do to others what you want them to do to you.  Then there is the Silver Rule: One should not treat other people in the manner in which one would not want to be treated by them.

The Silver Rule is much closer to the non-aggression principle than is the Golden Rule; the Golden Rule is much closer to medieval law than is the Silver Rule.  Might this suggest that – at least given the historical precedent – it might take something more than the non-aggression principle in order to achieve a society that approaches the non-aggression principle?

This says nothing about the other conditions present during the period: Christian tradition, patriarchal, decentralized, competing governance institutions, etc.  I don’t discount the necessity of any of these.

Most important – and relevant to the subject of this post – the nobles of the time lived in a manner that considered the long run, the very long run.  They respected the traditions of their ancestors and were faithful stewards of the legacy that they would leave for their descendants.  Oh…they also considered their eternal soul.

They did to others as they wanted done to them; they respected their ancestors as they also wanted to be respected by their descendants.


As it relates to the context in which Keynes uttered these words, it was just as true for the nobles of medieval Europe as it is for today’s “nobles”: in the long run, we are all dead.  The difference is that the medieval nobles didn’t base their actions and laws on this concept; today’s “nobles” do. 

For this, we get “ours” and “theirs.”


  1. "[Rothbard]: “By amending Mises's theory to account for time preference and other problems in his "rightly understood" analysis, we conclude…that only moral principles beyond utilitarianism can ultimately settle the dispute between them.”

    Great quote, and great write-up BM.

    I seem to recall reading an article a few years back about how Keynes "In the long run we're all dead" comment reflected an attitude that is more easily taken by homosexuals because generally speaking they don't have kids.(though there's adoption now, but not in Keynes time)

    Expanding on this notion though is the general nihilism that can come when you don't believe in a "god", the notion of a big payoff(heaven) for moral living, etc. I see this becoming more of a problem in the last 20-30 years or so as more people question the existence of God- and you can count me as a "victim" of feelings of said nihilism so I'm writing somewhat anecdotally- I think it was even reflected in music with the start of the "Grunge" era and Kurt Cobain's suicide in American culture. (It's probably something Europe had been contending with earlier due to their movement away from Christianity)

    I also think this is one of the reasons Jordan Peterson is having so much success recently- he attempts to address this nihilism and many young people desire "something" and he isn't really "preaching" to them in his biblical series on YouTube as much as he's explaining- so you're not required to be a believer to listen and YouTube is a lot less intimidating environment than a church.

    If the Empire sustains for more than the life of the net "taker" in it's wealth distribution system and the "taker" has no moral code, kids(or concern for them), etc., there are no long time preference incentives for him as Rothbard pointed out.

    1. Thanks, Nick.

      I recall reading many years ago at The Daily Bell the idea that the entire 1960s counter-culture revolution was a plot - musicians supported, drugs delivered, sex for free, etc., to achieve (surprise, surprise) exactly what it achieved.

      It didn't ring fully true with me at the time, but it seems more plausible to me today.

      That the baby-boomers of that age turned into the nihilistic, shirt-term leaders of today should not be terribly surprising.

  2. More than just simple greed...
    In the long run

    1. I considered using a few lines from that tune in this post, but decided against it as the context wouldn't work.

      Peart clearly is talking about a physical lifetime (and all of his writing makes clear that this is all he considers). Great lyrics in a different context, but not in this context.

  3. Hi BM,

    In my own little quest for the presence of a "real life" NAP in Western Civilization, I also thought of gold and silver.

    And to continue our exchange from the other thread, I'd like to point out that what counts for the modernist NAP (subtracting Christianity par excellence) also counts for the Golden Rule, which I prefer.

    What counts, is proof that in medieval European society and the period right after, when liberalism became recognizable, that the Golden Rule not only was a praiseworthy moral principle, but also the actual engine of human action, at least where it would account for those aspects of Western European society we still associate with (relative) freedom, free trade and radical decentralization.

    As I said in the other thread, these were pretty bellicose times and it appears that many nobles must have liked to be treated rather violently, for they sure as h*ll did do that unto others.

    When theorizing about the beneficial influence of the medieval Church as part of "the West" —and it was very beneficial— one might look at some of the more "worldly" features, such as the fact that this self-aggrandizing International Church often proved to be a magnificent force against the centralizing aspirations of monarchical absolutism. In a similar vein, one might take note of the fact that local bishops had very worldly powers and so added to the radical decentralization of power in the area where Western (classical) liberal culture originated.

    I am assuming here that we're looking for that subset of the wider European medieval culture that gave rise to the very specific culture of free markets and decentralization, but I could be wrong here.
    There was a lot of nobility and Christianity in the lands of Central Europe, but free markets and decentralization have historically been placed a bit further to the West, and that's where one would hope to find proof of the Golden Rule animating the great miracle of Western Civ.

    I'll let you know when I've found it ;)

    Cheers from Amsterdam,

    1. Richard

      While, from everything I can gather, you and I are describing the same law, same tradition, same decentralization, same role of the Church, etc., you continue to come back to my phrase "Central Europe."

      So let's clear this up. In referring to the relevant time and place, sometimes I will use the term "Europe," sometimes "Central Europe." I don't believe I have ever used the term "Western Europe." Why?

      The tribes that created these conditions (to include the “partnership” with the Church) were Germanic. No doubt, these Germanic tribes reached all the way to and through Western Europe. Yet it was in Western Europe where centralization came first – in England first, then France (if my memory serves me correctly). It was these two centralized powers that fought the Hundred Years’ War – not the tribes in the still decentralized Central Europe. To varying degrees it was in these two centralized powers that the role and influence of the Church was diminished first (certainly true for England; then there were the Avignon Papacy in France).

      Whereas the Magna Carta represents (in many way) the loss of the traditional law, further east these traditions remained – to include a strong role for the Church.

      Thus my use of the term “Central Europe.” I would welcome your thoughts as to what I am not considering.

      While not relevant to my use of this term in this context, in more recent times I find in the Sejm of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth at least some aspects of the older tradition. Even much more recently – today – it is in Central and Eastern Europe where things like the Church and tradition matter; perhaps this is due to nothing more than the lived experience under communism and the desire not to follow this path once again (as the west is doing).

    2. Hi BM,

      Yes, I realize now that in the last sentence, I couldn't help but mention (*cough*)tral Europe. Sorry 'bout that.
      I'll prepare some links for a short geographic/historical tour and post them here in due time.

      Meanwhile we might as well examine the point I was trying to make in the rest of my comment:

      "What counts, is proof that in medieval European society and the period right after, when liberalism became recognizable, that the Golden Rule not only was a praiseworthy moral principle, but also the actual engine of human action, at least where it would account for those aspects of Western European society we still associate with (relative) freedom, free trade and radical decentralization."

      Do you agree that it is of some importance to find the above mentioned proof?

      All the best from Amsterdam,

    3. Richard

      I have found some evidence of the above and have written about it, including in this post. I feel as if I have just scratched the surface, so if you have any further links / background, I would welcome these.

    4. Hi BM

      Here's the geographical excursion that I promised. Even drew up a map for the occasion. Central Europe was (in today's geography) Hungary, Poland, Middle and Eastern parts of Germany, Austria, Czechia, Slovenia, Slovakia. That is NOT where Western Civ. understood as the heartland of free markets and radical decentralization originated. Watch the Raico video, he'll tell.

      To leave no misunderstandings of what Raico is talking about I composed this map: Lotharingia

      That's the heartland of radical decentralization for centuries long. The fragments were also internally decentralized to an extreme degree. Think of fractals of decentralization.

      Here's Ralph Raico talking about this medieval Western tradition and where it originated (yes, it's today's Netherlands, Western parts of Germany, Belgium, small parts of today's France, rest reaching into Italy. In sum, Lotharingia inferior NOT Central Europe by far:

      Ralph Raico:

      From this point on (49m50s), it's only 10 minutes of your time. You'll love it. He doesn't say Lotharingia, but over here everybody knows that's the historical area he's talking about. The "Middle Empire" that couldn't be subdued by any of the great powers for long enough.
      Raico talks about people having the ability to move simply from Cologne to Rotterdam and from there to England, to escape oppression and set up shop elsewhere.

      I have placed a circle to roughly indicate the geographical region you seem to wander off to from time to time, when you talk about "German tribes" in "Central Europe". That's where you've lost me. Can you specify the names of the different German tribes and in which historical period exactly? I'm really trying to understand what you're saying here, because to this native European, it sounds like you might be mixing up different historical periods (tribes = migration period, until 600 CE. In early Middle Ages tribal structures already replaced by kingdoms). Really like to know which German tribes in Central Europe championed free trade and decentralization.

    5. Richard, you are all over the place. While I value your contributions here, this is getting tiresome.

      I replied earlier to your insistence regarding the term Central Europe, and explained my meaning. You said that isn't really the point - the point is the Golden Rule. I ask for some further background on the Golden Rule and instead you send me a map.

      The map and your post and Raico's lecture does not discredit what I have already written to clarify my comment and use of the term.

      Get past this, Richard. There are far more important contributions that you can make; when I consider the value of medieval tradition to liberty, I think of the decentralization of power, the Church, the value of oath, the source of law, what made for good law. While I am not ignorant on the topic, what I think least about is geography.

    6. Hi BM,

      Aren't you being a tad bit too easy on yourself here BM?
      In my original post, I talked geographics in just one single sentence. In your direct answer, you chose to pick that out and devote the entirety of your comment to it, while ignoring my main point.

      So what would you have me do? In my reply, regrettably, I had to re-emphasize the point I was trying to make. Is that being "all over the place"? Think not.

      You didn't just respond to any "insistence" on my part; you chose to make a big deal out of one small part of my comment. In that reply of yours, you even asked me to do the following:

      "Thus my use of the term “Central Europe.” I would welcome your thoughts as to what I am not considering."

      And I simply replied to that specific request, is all. So who's the one going on about geography again? If you don't like me answering, why ask in the first place?

      I replied with a promise to devote one last comment to it and for my efforts, I get some snide remarks. Is this some kind of Jekyll/Hide thing? Asking people to elaborate and then complain when they do?

      Well, I've tried BM. I promised that I'd help you get the geography straight. So I did. Even helped you on your way with a decent map. You don't appreciate that, so be it. After this last post on the matter, I gladly call it quits.

      Still the fact remains that you have to become more specific in your writing about European Medieval culture with regard to decentralization and free markets. Put your theories to the test, so to speak. Generic terms like some of the ones you have used just won't do. So the easiest part would have been to get the region right. Perhaps with a little assistance from someone who lives there and can teach you a thing or two about the place.

      So you prefer to keep talking about "Europe" in general, please go ahead, but perhaps you can offer some modicum of falsifiable clues as to those "German tribes" you alluded to the other day. Because like in your first reply, again you chose not to address the important question and go on about geographics.
      So if you please, which specific German tribes were those, and when were they living in their decentralized societies in a non-specific part of Europe?


    7. Richard

      You are correct, I did ask “I would welcome your thoughts as to what I am not considering.” This, I expected, would have been read within the context of my comment.

      I received no comments to the points I made regarding my choice of the term. I received a map. As I have mentioned, the geography is perhaps the least important part of this history to me. The specific tribe runs a close second. What matters to me is the law, and the factors that played into the development of and respect for this law tradition.

      Someday, as I continue my study on this matter, the importance of one or the other might grow: for example, if there is something terribly unique about the characteristics of a specific tribe that then evolved into what we understand as western civilization, that characteristic might become important to me.

      Or if there is something extremely unique about the land that the tribe with this unique characteristic occupied – a feature that contributed to this characteristic – that might be important to me.

      Now, if you have a book recommendation or an online resource that sheds light on either of these issues in regards to specifically how I described that these would be important to me, please let me know.

      For example, regarding “Lotharingia inferior,” was there something unique in the tradition of the people who lived there, or unique about the geography, that makes this specific people the appropriate group that should be considered as the fount of decentralized western civilization? This group to the exclusion of all others – or at least as far superior to others?

      Something like this I would find useful. But showing me a map without any of this I do not find useful.

      Three other points: if this is merely an academic discussion – e.g. “knowledgeable” people in the field use the term “Western Europe,” so be it. But to a layman, the map you sent to me does not look like Western Europe. I will also grant it is not Central Europe. There we are.

      Second, I don’t care where you live and this by itself does not make you an expert; what matters is the value that you bring to the dialogue, nothing more. For this, overall I am grateful that you participate.

      Third, you really have no idea about my experiences, so perhaps you also should just focus on the dialogue.

  4. Have you seen this article:

    1. Michael, I had not seen it. Thank you for sharing; it is excellent.

    2. Hi MR,

      Thank you for that link! I've read a great many articles (in Dutch) by Frank van Dun. Over here he is famous for a great book on natural law called "Het Fundamenteel Rechtsbeginsel".

      Alas, it is in Dutch only.


      Slightly off topic, this is perhaps one for your journeys around the globe. The Dutch (Flemish, actually) site of the Rothbard Institute in Flanders, featured an interesting article about the Chinese Libertarian tradition. It was a Dutch translation of something that MR wrote. It's on the LvMI site.
      Perhaps you already stumbled upon it, but just in case:

      The Ancient Chinese Libertarian Tradition

    3. >Perhaps you already stumbled upon it, but just in case

      Even though Roderick Long is an immensely left-wing left-libertarian, he's very knowledgeable on various topics. So, he's written a very good booklet on the topic:

    4. Hi MR,

      I'll have a look, thank you for that link.

      Take care,

  5. "...suggesting that the moral doctrine Rothbard had as his foundation was the non-aggression principle, and that this singular foundation was sufficient. [Wrong!]

    I have no idea if this is what Rothbard believed, but I know it is what many libertarians believe."

    For the love of god, read Rothbard. As Rothbard spent a very large portion of his life making sure you *could* understand what he 'believed' (actually what he thought) there is little excuse for not understanding that at this late date.

    I do not believe that the "moral doctrine Rothbard had as his foundation was the the non-aggression principle." He derived it from what he thought were even deeper principles. I don't agree with his derivation exactly, but at least I know what it is.

    You, being a pinnacle of "libertarian thought", as it presents itself to us today, you owe it to us to at least read the material, I should think. Else refrain from giving opinions on things that you guess? Fair enough?

    It is high time you read the material.

    1. You really have become emotional, gpond. Settle down.

  6. Here is a tautology for you: Influential People Influence People. A tautology, yet true. You are an influential person.

    Please *READ* Rothbard and Mises before critiquing them. Otherwise you are critiquing that WHICH YOU DO NOT KNOW. You are guessing. Inadvertently creating straw men to refute. Bad practice, my friend.

    1. gpond

      I did not critique Rothbard. I clearly stated that I was not critiquing Rothbard.

      You are allowing your personal issues to get in the way of your ability to reason. It is unbecoming.

    2. Which Rothbard? The younger, more naive Rothbard? Or the older, more experienced Rothbard? Because they might as well be two different writers on some very important matters dealt with here on this blog.

      Many libertarians prefer the younger Rothbard over his wiser older self for obvious reasons.

  7. Read the freaking material. Do us all this favor, OK? Get back with us on that.

  8. Hello Bionic Mosquito. I read the article and I am a bit familiar with libertarianism and its major authors. This article brought back the question that has been bothering me for a while: can the USA return to a more decentralized, liberal (in the classical sense), free market government without a moral reformation?

    1. It is difficult to imagine; however, with a moral reformation it would not result in pure classical liberalism.