No short list of the most influential sociological thinkers of modern times would be complete or credible if it did not include Emile Durkheim (1857-1917). The author of some of the most respected books in social science, such as Suicide: A Study in Sociology (1897), Durkheim held the first chair in social science ever established at a French university, and he founded the immensely influential journal L’Année Sociologique. Durkheim’s influence was extensive, reaching beyond sociology and anthropology into the field of history, as exemplified in the brilliant work of Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel, and other members of the Annales School of historiography. The conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet (The Social Bond, 1970)—one of Durkheim’s most ardent, if selective, defenders—called Durkheim “one of the greatest of modern sociologists” and dubbed his book Suicide “a very model of what a scientific explanation should be in sociology.”
Durkheim’s political views were eclectic. He has been described as everything from a conservative to a socialist, but he is probably best described as an adherent of the New Liberalism that emerged in Europe during the late nineteenth century. (See William Logue, From Philosophy to Sociology: The Evolution of French Liberalism, 1870-1914. This book contains an extensive discussion of Durkheim.) A secularist and self-proclaimed rationalist, Durkheim was a vigorous advocate of state schooling during the French Third Republic (beginning in 1870), and he lectured and wrote extensively on the crucial role of education in inculcating the values essential for social cohesion. Like other New Liberals, Durkheim repudiated the individualism and laissez-faire economics of Old (or Classical) Liberalism, calling for more state intervention to improve society. Even more significant, theoretically speaking, was the argument of the New Liberals, including Durkheim, that sociology, not economics and the doctrine of natural rights, should serve as our primary guide in how to understand and reform society.
Durkheim played a major role in establishing sociology as a legitimate science, indeed, as the master social science that should supplant the individualistic methods and social theories of Old Liberalism. We see this most clearly in his first book, The Division of Labor in Society (1893). This book provides a valuable insight into some key differences between Old and New Liberalism, for it contains an extensive critique of Herbert’s Spencer’s ideas about the role of voluntary relationships, based on contracts, in an advanced, “industrial” society. Although Durkheim agreed with Spencer on some significant issues, as when he explained the “organic solidarity” that results when specialized roles generate interdependence among members of a society, who must rely on other people to satisfy even their most basic needs, Durkheim also criticized the individualistic foundations of Spencer’s treatment in The Principles of Sociology. The Division of Labor in Society therefore provides an excellent window through which we can see how and why New Liberals, while not rejecting the ideas of Old Liberalism altogether, sought to revise and update those ideas through the medium of sociology. Thereafter Old Liberals were frequently portrayed as behind the times, as regressive defenders of an outmoded and dogmatic ideology that could not pass the test of modern social science—a condescending attitude, typically based on serious misrepresentations of individualism and classical liberalism, that has persisted to this day.
I shall discuss the conflict between Durkheim and Spencer in a subsequent essay. For the remainder of this essay I shall summarize some of Durkheim’s fundamental ideas about sociology, as presented mainly in The Rules of Sociological Method (1895). I make no attempt to criticize Durkheim’s views in this barebones account. I reserve that task for a later time. Before proceeding, however, I should explain why libertarians should be interested in Durkheim’s ideas and make an effort to understand them.
Well, all of us probably have heard claims to the effect that the individual is a product of his or her social environment; that the individual is nothing more than an abstraction which cannot be understood outside of his or her social context; that when libertarians speak of “individuals,” they are invoking unreal ghosts; that economics deals with an “economic man” that is likewise unreal; that libertarians have no appreciation for the social traditions and norms that mold individuals—and on and on, virtually ad infinitum. Although Durkheim did not defend the crude forms in which such ideas are typically expressed, he did provide their theoretical foundations. So let’s take a look at those foundations.
Social facts, declared Durkheim, “are things and should be treated as such.” In making this claim Durkheim did not mean to philosophize about the ontological nature of social facts or to draw analogies with other forms of existence (such as organisms). Rather, this is a methodological precept. In referring to social facts (institutions in the broadest sense) as “things,” Durkheim meant that “they are the sole datum afforded the sociologist.” Social facts, when viewed as things external to the individual, constitute the starting point of social science.
Durkheim (like Spencer before him) contrasted an objective “thing” with a subjective “idea.” A thing “forces itself upon our observation.” A thing cannot be modified through a mere act of will but offers some degree of resistance. We cannot, in other words, will a thing in and out of existence as we can an idea. Social facts exist externally to the individual and exercise a coercive restraint over his beliefs, values, and actions. Durkheim wrote:
Here, then is a category of facts which present very special characteristics: they consist of manners of acting, thinking and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him. Consequently, since they consist of representations [i.e., ideas] and actions, they cannot be confused with organic phenomena, nor with psychical [i.e., psychological] save in and through the individual consciousness. Thus they constitute a new species [of things] and to them must be exclusively assigned the term social.
We can better understand Durkheim’s approach in the context of his objections to methodological individualism. Durkheim repudiated the doctrine that social phenomena can be explained solely in terms of personal utility, such as the striving of individuals to attain happiness. Institutions may indeed have utility, they may facilitate the pursuit of individual goals, but to “demonstrate the utility of a fact does not explain its origin, nor how it is what it is.” An institution is useful because of its properties, but our need for something cannot explain the origin or particular nature of those properties. A perception of utility can motivate us to set specific causes in motion that will generate or maintain an institution, but this effect cannot be conjured up out of nothing. An institution, considered in terms of its origin and specific properties, is not the result of individual wills; it is the product of an objective social environment which, though modifiable by human action, is beyond the control of any given person. The quest for utility (as expressed in terms of happiness, self-interest, etc.) leads to a variety of purposeful actions, but those individual purposes cannot explain the distinctive characteristics of social phenomena. A desire cannot produce an institution unless there already exist the necessary social forces to work with.
The cash value, so to speak, of methodological holism is expressed by Durkheim as follows: “The determining cause of a social fact must be sought among antecedent social facts and not among the states of the individual consciousness.” I cannot examine this methodological rule in any detail, except to note that it springs from Durkheim’s desire to establish sociology as an autonomous discipline. Sociology is not a branch of psychology, because social facts (the fundamental data of social science) cannot be reduced to, or explained in terms of, the conscious states and processes of individuals. From social interaction there emerges a new level of reality that could not exist in the mind of the isolated individual, and it is the business of the sociologist to study the causal factors that produce this world of social facts.
[I]n order for a social fact to exist, several individuals at the very least must have interacted together and the resulting combination must have given rise to some new production. As this synthesis occurs outside each one of us (since a plurality of consciousness are involved) it has necessarily the effect of crystallizing, or instituting outside ourselves, certain modes of action and certain ways of judging which are independent of the particular individual will considered separately.
From the synthesis of individual interaction there emerge institutions, which consist of collective beliefs and modes of behavior. Thus, according to Durkheim, sociology may be defined “as the science of institutions, their genesis and functioning.”
Institutions are experienced by the individual as existing independently of his beliefs and desires and should therefore be viewed by the sociologist as real “things”—not material things, to be sure, but real nonetheless. Social facts are in some sense psychical, “since they all consist of ways of thinking and acting,” but “the states of the collective consciousness are of a different nature than the states of the individual consciousness; they are representations of another kind.” The social facts expressed in institutions “cannot be explained by purely psychological factors.”
Thus far the position of Durkheim resembles that of Karl Popper and other individualists who reject “psychologism” as a satisfactory method of explanation in the social sciences. Methodological individualists freely admit that many social phenomena are the unintended outcome of human action therefore cannot be reduced to the intentions of individual actors. (See my discussion in Part 6.) At times this appears to be all that Durkheim means to say, in which case it would be misleading to dub his method “holistic.” But matters are not that simple.
Durkheim concedes that “society is made up of nothing except individuals”; “the sole elements of which society is composed are individuals.” Social interaction, however, generates new phenomena with distinctive properties that cannot be explained in terms of individual states of consciousness. Just as chemical interaction produces a new phenomenon with emergent properties that are not possessed by its isolated elements, so social interaction produces a new phenomenon—the institution—that also possesses emergent properties. Society is more than the sum of its parts; its “properties differ from those displayed by the parts from which it is formed.” Society is a “system” which, though formed by an association of individuals, “represents a specific reality which has its own characteristics.”
This brings us to Durkheim’s most troublesome holistic notion. Society “constitutes a psychical individuality of a new kind,” which Durkheim called the “collective consciousness.” As previously indicated, Durkheim’s rejection of methodological individualism sometimes appears to be nothing more than a rejection of psychologism, according to which social phenomena can be explained in terms of the intentions and conscious desires of individuals. We have seen, however, that psychologism has also been rejected by many individualists (Hayek, Popper, etc.). What makes Durkheim a holist are his many references to a “collective consciousness” which exists as a distinct “substratum” apart from the consciousness of individuals. This is a very problematic notion, to say the least.
By “collective consciousness,” Durkheim did not mean to suggest that there exists a psychic entity (“society”) which is spatially located outside the minds of human beings. Indeed, Durkheim stressed that “there is no need to hypostatize the collective consciousness,” i.e., to treat it as a metaphysical being. We should distinguish collective consciousness from individual consciousness simply because those phenomena exhibit different properties:
Individual consciousness result from the nature of organic and psychical being taken in isolation, collective consciousness from a plurality of beings of this kind. The results cannot therefore fail to be different, since the component parts differ to this extent.
In sum, social facts, according to Durkheim, are distinguished by two essential characteristics: “exteriority” and “constraint.” Social facts are experienced by the individual as existing outside of him and as constraining his beliefs and actions. This exteriority does not mean that society is a separate psychical entity, one that is located in space outside the minds of individuals. Society is “exterior” to the individual inasmuch as it is experienced as a different plane of reality that does not depend for its existence on the minds of particular individuals.
I must admit that I did not enjoy writing this summary of Durkheim’s ideas. On the contrary, I found the process frustrating because, try as I may, I was unable to state some of his ideas in what I regard as an intelligible fashion. Even Durkheim’s defenders, such as Robert Nisbet, have conceded that Durkheim tended to make his idea of the “collective consciousness” (or, sometimes, “collective conscience”) seem mystical at times, but we are assured that it contains a solid, comprehensible core. Well, given my respect for Nisbet (as I discussed in Part 5), I was willing to go along for the ride and learn how Durkheim applied his fundamental concepts to specific problems. Even that proved a bumpy ride, however, as we shall see in my next essay.
Being a good Hayekian, I argued last week, entails taking ethical rationalism seriously. Today, we’re going to flip that on it’s head: being a good ethical rationalist entails taking Hayek seriously.
I’ve already talked about one big reason rationalists should take Hayek seriously in “What’s Ethics All About, Anyway?” and “Hayek on Customs, Laws, and Ethics.” Hayek gives us sufficient grounds to think that a rationalist ethics cannot hope to describe completely and accurately the norms people actually have. A good rationalist ethics must not attempt to predict people’s moral intuitions in the way theories in physics make complex empirical predictions using simple, elegant models.
Let’s say you develop a rationalist ethics, avoiding the trap of trying to predict (i.e. describe) what norms people in society actually do hold. Even once this first hurdle has been cleared, Hayek still has a lot to say, especially for certain kinds of ethical systems.
Hayek’s insights have special import for “consequentialist” ethics, ethics that care primarily about the consequences of acts, because he tells us about the possible consequences of changing norms and customs with top-down planning. (The best-known consequentialist theory is utilitarianism, which says we should prefer acts that cause more happiness to acts that cause less happiness.) Hayek also has important advice regarding what sorts of new customs people are likely to adopt. This is important for ethical rationalists of all kinds because it will help them to replace old morally deficient customs with new ones that might be better.
What does Hayek say about the potential consequences of messing with emergent customs? In Law, Legislation, and Liberty he writes:
It will be one of our chief contentions that most of the rules of conduct which govern our actions, and most of the institutions which arise out of this regularity, are adaptations to the impossibility of anyone taking conscious account of all the particular facts which enter into the order of society.
Later on, he writes:
The problem of [the individual] conducting himself successfully in a world only partially known to him was thus solved by adhering to rules which had served him well but which he did not and could not know to be true in the Cartesian [i.e. rationalist/deductive] sense.
Throwing out customs means risking throwing out people’s means of navigating their daily lives and achieving their aims. Evolved customs incorporate distributed knowledge much like prices do. A good rationalist needs to understand this risk when suggesting reforms. For example, a utilitarian would need to weigh the potential utility gains of a proposed change against the risk of utility losses from disrupting customs, which can be hard to estimate. Indeed, if we could predict exactly the full effects of disrupting certain customs, then it is likely that we would be able to develop a complete rationalist account of all our norms and customs and how they interrelate. That’s the kind of ethical theory Hayek says is impossible.
Rationalists should heed Hayek’s warnings about demolishing old customs, but Hayek also has important insights about getting people to adopt new ones. Suppose you want a way for people to speak with one another when they learned different languages as infants. Should you solve the problem by constructing a language from scratch?
Human language is a great example of Hayekian emergent order. Languages are really just a type of convention or custom—so much so that philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein compared learning a language to being initiated into a tradition. Natural languages like English, Spanish, or Japanese were not designed by any central authority, nor are they governed by one. Meaning and usage are determined by the actions of people employing the language to communicate, and new meanings and usages emerge, as the saying goes, as the product of human action, but not human design.
Designed languages, most famously Esperanto, have not been as widely adopted as natural languages. Part of this is explained by network effects—a big part of the value of knowing a language is determined by the number of other people who know it, and natural languages had a huge head start on designed languages. Understanding Hayek lets us know that there’s another reason. Designed languages lack the expressive richness of natural languages. In natural languages, words carry subtle connotations based in the history of their use. Invented languages lack that history by definition. Furthermore, the ability of natural languages to change and adapt to the needs of speakers on the fly. If you modify the grammar or vocabulary of Esperanto, it ceases to be Esperanto and instead becomes a “degenerate” dialect.
About the only ones daft enough to try and regulate the evolution of a natural language as though it were a constructed language are the members of the Académie française, a centuries-old semi-official advisory body so comically self-serious that not only do its members wear ceremonial swords and green robes on special occasions, they also are referred to as “the immortals.” These “immortals” busy themselves these days defending French against the horrors of English loanwords, and putting out “authoritative” dictionaries at a glacial pace. Rationalists, don’t act like the Académie française.*
When two or more different language groups meet in real life, you typically see the development of what’s called a “pidgin” language—a stripped-down mish-mash of elements of the languages of both groups—which sometimes takes on a life of its own and becomes a full-fledged, independent tradition.
The upshot of all of this is that it’s easier to adapt existing frameworks to deal with new cases, or reframe an old practice so that it becomes less problematic, than it is to draw up a new practice and try to get people to adopt it. At least in some cases, bootstrapping is a better strategy than fabricating a new solution whole cloth, because people will be able to understand and adopt bootstrapped solutions more easily.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been discussing the conflict between Hayekianism and rationalism on a mostly theoretical level. Next week I want to talk about how that conflict plays out in the context of a specific topic: feminism.
*It is sort of appropriate that I draw an example from France. Hayek often identified the sort of rationalism he disliked as being a French intellectual tradition, which he contrasted with evolutionary English thinking. That said, the French/English distinction simply doesn’t hold water. Murray Rothbard noted that these categories erase the contributions of well-regarded libertarians like Frédéric Bastiat and Gustave de Molinari. Tyler Cowen makes a similar but broader criticism in his August 1987 article for The Freeman, “Which Liberalism?,” which explodes Hayek’s dichotomy of French rationalism and English evolutionism as being simply ahistorical. ↩
This excerpt from James Legge’s 1891 translation of the Tao Te Ching outlines Lao-Tzu’s thoughts on statecraft. The full text is available on Project Gutenberg. A more modern translation, not in the public domain, is available here. The original Chinese text is said to date to the 6th century BC; the true age of the text is a matter of debate.
Lao-Tzu urges that the people be largely left alone; if they are not harassed by the state, they can manage their own affairs well enough.
1. A state may be ruled by (measures of) correction; weapons of war may be used with crafty dexterity; (but) the kingdom is made one’s own (only) by freedom from action and purpose.
2. How do I know that it is so? By these facts:—In the kingdom the multiplication of prohibitive enactments increases the poverty of the people; the more implements to add to their profit that the people have, the greater disorder is there in the state and clan; the more acts of crafty dexterity that men possess, the more do strange contrivances appear; the more display there is of legislation, the more thieves and robbers there are.
3. Therefore a sage has said, ‘I will do nothing (of purpose), and the people will be transformed of themselves; I will be fond of keeping still, and the people will of themselves become correct. I will take no trouble about it, and the people will of themselves become rich; I will manifest no ambition, and the people will of themselves attain to the primitive simplicity.’
The government that seems the most unwise, Oft goodness to the people best supplies; That which is meddling, touching everything, Will work but ill, and disappointment bring.
Misery!—happiness is to be found by its side! Happiness!—misery lurks beneath it! Who knows what either will come to in the end?
2. Shall we then dispense with correction? The (method of) correction shall by a turn become distortion, and the good in it shall by a turn become evil. The delusion of the people (on this point) has indeed subsisted for a long time.
3. Therefore the sage is (like) a square which cuts no one (with its angles); (like) a corner which injures no one (with its sharpness). He is straightforward, but allows himself no license; he is bright, but does not dazzle.
1. For regulating the human (in our constitution) and rendering the (proper) service to the heavenly, there is nothing like moderation.
2. It is only by this moderation that there is effected an early return (to man’s normal state). That early return is what I call the repeated accumulation of the attributes (of the Tao). With that repeated accumulation of those attributes, there comes the subjugation (of every obstacle to such return). Of this subjugation we know not what shall be the limit; and when one knows not what the limit shall be, he may be the ruler of a state.
3. He who possesses the mother of the state may continue long. His case is like that (of the plant) of which we say that its roots are deep and its flower stalks firm:—this is the way to secure that its enduring life shall long be seen.
1. Governing a great state is like cooking small fish.
2. Let the kingdom be governed according to the Tao, and the manes of the departed will not manifest their spiritual energy. It is not that those manes have not that spiritual energy, but it will not be employed to hurt men. It is not that it could not hurt men, but neither does the ruling sage hurt them.
3. When these two do not injuriously affect each other, their good influences converge in the virtue (of the Tao).
If the government’s been spying on us for decades, what’s new now? Why is bulk data collection so particularly nefarious? What is metadata anyway, and what does the government do with it? Does the government actually catch terrorists through mass surveillance? Why do people treat terrorism differently from other violent crimes? The defenders of surveillance say that “if you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to be afraid of,” but does this justification hold water?
Methodological individualism was a dominant theme in Enlightenment social theory, one that was not seriously challenged until after the French Revolution. The Augustinian theory of original sin, the centerpiece of Reformation moral theology, had lost its grip on the European mind. Man’s natural impulses were no longer regarded as evil. Even self-interest, long excoriated as avarice and greed, was rehabilitated and presented as self-love, the creative source of social order.
The Enlightenment stress on reason was inherently individualistic, since reason is a characteristic of the singular human being. The theological mode of explanation (such as the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, which had been used to explain the origin of different languages) was in serious disrepair. Although most philosophers acknowledged the influence of divine providence, the deistic God of nature and Christian rationalism worked mainly from the bottom up, through the voluntary actions of individuals, not from the top down, through the coercive decrees of emperors and kings.
Philosophers sought to explain the harmonious order of nature, and here they were profoundly influenced by the discoveries of Isaac Newton, the patron saint of science. Newton set the stage for a good deal of Enlightenment social theory with these words:
I wish we could derive the rest of the phenomena of Nature by the same kind of reasoning from mechanical principles, for I am induced by many reasons to suspect that they may all depend upon certain forces by which the particles of bodies, by some causes hitherto unknown, are either mutually impelled towards one another, and cohere in regular figures, or are repelled and recede from one another.
Gravitation was the invisible force of Newton’s universe, and philosophers eagerly searched for a moral and social equivalent. Some philosophers, such as Shaftesbury and Voltaire, found the solution in man’s natural benevolence (“a delicate and generous sensibility,” as Condorcet described it). Other philosophers claimed to have discovered an innate “moral sense.” But self-interest was the undisputed champion of human passions, so here was the leading contender for the moral and social equivalent of gravitation. Here was the force that “impelled” and “repelled” human beings and caused them “to cohere in regular figures”—those social institutions that emerged spontaneously from the pursuit of self-interest.
The Dutch philosopher Bernard Mandeville is famous for his theory that private vices produce public benefits, but the same basic idea had been around for a long time before he wrote The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits (6th ed., 1729). In 1625, for example, an Englishman argued that original sin had nearly eradicated charity from human nature, but that sinful actions, especially greed (“cupidity”), are sufficient to fulfill man’s reciprocal needs.
In order to the supplying these necessities cupidity hath taken the place of charity, and effecteth it after a manner which we cannot enough admire, and whereunto the ordinary charity would not arrive. For example, you see spread all over the country, persons who are ready to assist you when you travel….What could be more admirable than these persons, were they animated by charity. But it is cupidity which maketh them act….Where is that charity, which is contented to build a house for you….Cupidity will do, and cheerfully too. What charity will run to the Indies for medicines, stoop to the meanest employments, and not refuse the basest and most painful offices? Cupidity will perform all this without grudging. (Quoted in J.A.W. Gunn, Politics and the Public Interest in the Seventeenth Century, 1969, p. 213.)
Montesquieu, in his treatment of monarchy (Spirit of the Laws, 1748) compared self-interest to “a power of gravitation” that “connects all parts of the body politic and draws subjects to their king.” Thus, “each individual advances the public good, while he only thinks of promoting his own interest.”
Enlightenment philosophers repeatedly spoke of “invisible chains” that link self-interest to the public good. Mandeville referred to the “Chain of Causes” that connects the selfish actions of individuals so that they produce social benefits, “as naturally as Chickens do from Eggs.” The Scotch-Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (a teacher of Adam Smith) referred to “the secret chain between each person and mankind.” Likewise, the Italian philosopher Vico discussed the same “eternal chain,” a theory that he traced to the ancient Stoics. It is significant that Adam Smith, who also spoke repeatedly of “invisible chains,” was influenced by Stoicism.
Given many similar observations by other Enlightenment thinkers, it is fair to say that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”—according to which the pursuit of economic self-interest, if pursued within the boundaries of justice, will frequently generate beneficial social outcomes that were not intended by the acting agents—became a common theme in moral philosophy before it became a staple in economic thinking. Consider these remarks by Bishop Butler (Sermons, 2nd ed., 1729):
[B]y acting merely from regard (suppose) to reputation, without any consideration of the good of others, men often contribute to the public good. [T]hey are plainly instruments in the hands of another, in the hands of Providence, to carry on ends, the preservation of the individual and the good of society, which they themselves have not in their view or intention.
What implications do the preceding observations have for sociology, or a “science of society”? Let’s begin with a passage from a book by William Stanley Jevons (a seminal figure in marginal utility theory), The Principles of Science: A Treatise on Logic and Scientific Method (2nd ed., 1877, p. 1):
Science arises from the discovery of Identity amidst Diversity. The process may be described in different words, but our language must always imply the presence of one common and necessary element. In every act of inference or scientific method we are engaged about a certain identity, sameness, similarity, likeness, resemblance, analogy, equivalence, or equality apparent between two objects….The whole value of science consists in the power which it confers upon us of applying to one object the knowledge acquired from like objects; and it is only so far, therefore, as we can discover and register resemblances that we can turn our observations to account.
If the social sciences are to establish uniform relationships in their field of study, they need criteria to decide when two (or more) social phenomena should be classified as the “same” thing. As R.S. Peters put it in The Idea of a Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy (1958, p. 83), “A regularity or uniformity is the constant recurrence of the same kind of event on the same kind of occasion; hence statements of uniformity presuppose judgments of identity.” This raises the question: By what criteria do social scientists recognize or classify the action of one person as the same as (or similar to) the action of another person? Or by what criteria do social scientists recognize or classify different actions by the same person as essentially identical?
According to methodological subjectivism, the ultimate data of the social sciences are the subjective mental states (beliefs, values, etc.) of individual human beings. Human action, including social interaction, is purposeful and value-driven. It has a subjective meaning for the acting agent, and the social scientist must interpret this meaning if he is to understand the nature of his subject matter.
Thus, according to methodological subjectivism, the subject matter of the social sciences differs radically from that of the natural sciences. We can explain why humans act as they do in a way that we cannot explain the behavior of electrons and molecules. As a human being himself, the social scientist knows that there is far more to human behavior than its external, or “objective,” characteristics. He knows that each person carries within himself a subjective world of feelings, desires, beliefs, values, etc.—and he knows (or should know) that these subjective factors impart to each action its distinctive identity.
F.A. Hayek, in a careful analysis of methodological subjectivism (The Counter-Revolution of Science), pointed out that the social scientist, unlike the physical scientist, must accept his subject matter as he finds it. The natural scientist, on the other hand, need not accept the everyday, or commonsensical, classification of the objects that constitute his field of study. He is well aware that facts often differ from appearances—that things which appear the same to us do not always behave in the same manner, and things which appear different may exhibit other similarities that escape the untrained eye. Thus, rather than accept the uncritical opinions of others at face value, the natural scientist must often forge new classifications that will serve his cognitive purpose.
The social scientist, in contrast, does not seek to modify or revise the natural concepts that people form spontaneously in their everyday lives. Our subjective ideas about the social world are, for the sociologist, the ultimate data on which all other explanations must depend. Our ideas about society are the irreducible elements that constitute the social world. The social sciences are concerned with social interaction—with the mental relationship between human beings rather than the physical relationship between things—and those relationships are determined subjectively,by how people think about them, rather than by their objective (i.e., external) characteristics.
Consider the concept of “a tool,” such as a hammer. Such things cannot be interpreted as objective facts or defined in terms of their physical properties, irrespective of what people think about them, since we may use many different things as “tools,” depending on our circumstances. It is our attitude toward an object—how we view it subjectively—that determines whether or not something is a “tool.” Hence if a sociologist wishes to study tool-making in a given culture, he must first try to understand the subjective viewpoint of its members. It would be absurd for a sociologist to define “tool” objectively, in terms of an object’s physical properties, and then conclude that a given culture does not use tools, because he can find no objects that conform to his definition.
Methodological subjectivism has a long and rather complex history. It was clearly expressed by Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan, 1651), who recommended the maxim “read thyself” as the key to understanding social and political behavior. This introspective method is reliable because there exists a “similitude of the thoughts and passions of one man, to the thoughts and passions of another.” We know by looking within ourselves what it means to “think, opine, reason, hope, fear, &c.”—and it is by extrapolating from these subjective insights that we come to understand “the thoughts and passions of all other men upon the like occasion.”Despite this promising start, however, Hobbes failed to exploit this subjectivist method, opting instead for a mechanistic interpretation that reduces all human action to the positive and negative desires of “appetite” and “aversion.”
More promising (and more influential) was the germ of methodological subjectivism found in John Locke’s writings. Human action, according to Locke, originates in “uneasiness,” or “disquiet of the mind.” Mere apprehension of a greater good is insufficient to activate the will; that good must first become an object of desire so that a person feels uneasy without it. Action is motivated by this kind of subjective desire and appraisal.
Conclusions similar to Hayek’s have been reached by those social theorists influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein. For example, according to R.S. Peters (quoted above), “social relations are expressions of ideas about reality.” If we wish to classify two social phenomena as “the same,” we must first understand how these phenomena are understood by the people involved. The “particular interpretation which is to be put upon the words ‘the same’ depends on the context in which the question arises.” If we are to understand the meaning of a social phenomenon, we must first understand the conceptual rule that guides the interpretation of its participants. Peters therefore maintained that the fundamental problems of social science are primarily philosophical, and as such should be settled by “conceptual analysis rather than by empirical research.” It is only by “tracing the implications of the concepts we use” that the social scientist is able to proceed in his work.
David Hume was an early defender of methodological subjectivism in the social sciences (which in his day were called “moral philosophy”). According to Hume, “though men be much governed by interest; yet even interest itself, and all human affairs, are entirely governed by opinion.” It is what people think about a situation—their beliefs and evaluations—that determine how they act. Rulers, for example, “have nothing to support them but opinion”; a government cannot rule by force alone but must depend on a widespread belief in its legitimacy (whether that belief be justified or not).
In A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), after calling for an integrated “science of man,” Hume noted that those sciences which deal with human action suffer from a “peculiar disadvantage” relative to the natural sciences. In investigating human behavior, we cannot purposefully mold the social environment in order to conduct controlled and repeatable experiments. The natural scientist, if he wishes to know the effect of one body upon another, need only place himself in the appropriate situation and observe the results. But this option is not available to the person who wishes to understand human behavior. By “placing myself in the same case with that which I consider, ‘tis evident this reflection and premeditation would so disturb the operation of my natural principles, as to render it impossible to form any just conclusion from the phenomenon.” Hence:
We must therefore glean up our experiments in this science from a cautious observation of human nature, and take them as they appear in the common course of the world, by men’s behavior in company, in affairs, in their pleasures. Where experiments of this kind are judiciously collected and compared, we may hope to establish on them a science, which will not be inferior in certainty, and will be much superior in utility to any other of human comprehension.
This “cautious observation of human nature,” which takes into account the subjective beliefs and values of individual agents, is the essence of methodological subjectivism.
In last week’s column, I tried to parse out what Hayek actually said about norms, laws, and ethics. Now that we have a more nuanced picture of Hayek’s position, I’m going to discuss how Hayekians should deal with people who point out deficiencies in the way things are. Good Hayekians, I will explain, should engage with social critics on the merits of their claims, not offer reflexive judgement in favor of the status quo.
In philosophy, there is a thought experiment called “Neurath’s boat,” which W. V. O. Quine (1908-2000) explains like this:
We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.
Neurath’s boat is meant to illustrate how some philosophers think we should approach improving our knowledge about the world. Hayek’s approach to social institutions is similar enough to the Neurath’s-boat approach to knowledge that I think introducing a similar metaphor will help us talk about being good Hayekian libertarians. Let’s call the metaphor “Hayek’s raft.” Boats seem to imply direction and progress, and I want to avoid that implication, hence “raft.”
Hayek’s raft is a metaphor for the collection of interlocking of laws and norms that frame and to a large extent constitute human society. It has the following properties:
Everybody lives in the raft, and unwittingly helps to maintain and expand it as they go about completing their daily business.
No one architect designed the raft. In the past people have replaced chunks of the raft with new components, some of which were designed, and many of which were ad hoc hacks that stuck around for one reason or another. For the most part, the structure has been improvised.
There is no schematic diagram or map of the raft. You learn how to get around by following others.
Through experience we have learned that the raft is actually pretty resilient to localized modifications, though there are limits and the raft has broken seriously before, to disastrous effect.
Some chunks of the raft are just sort of getting in the way of people going about their business. If we demolish them, the raft seems to hold together just fine, and for many people, life gets easier.
Other chunks of the raft are load-bearing, and trying to demolish them causes huge chunks of the raft to collapse, letting in water. Sometimes this means people get soggy and miserable, other times it means mass drowning.
We aren’t always sure which parts of the raft are load-bearing and which parts aren’t before we try to demolish or replace them.
You’re going about the business of living in your little corner of Hayek’s raft when one day when someone comes running up to you. Something is terribly wrong, they say. A large chunk of the hull of the raft is rotten. It looks like it has been rotten for a very long time, and a lot of people are getting hurt when they need to pass through that section of the raft. Your help is needed to fix the problem. At least some of the rot seems to be caused by the pooling of water leaked from other parts of the raft—would you check your part to be sure it’s watertight? And would you help replace the rotten section of the hull so the people using that section of the raft don’t get hurt?
In that scenario, what should a good Hayekian do? Probably the first thing is to go and verify, as best as you can, whether you’ve been informed correctly. Then you should consider the chances that making the requested changes will cause the raft to come apart, and decide whether that’s a risk you’re willing to take.
What you absolutely should not do is tell the person: Don’t you know we live in Hayek’s raft? This large rotten area you’re talking about—can’t you see that replacing it could drown us all? And how would you even know a rotten area from a sturdy one? No one knows exactly how this raft is holding together, and no one can predict with certainty what the full effects of all those changes would be. I can’t believe how reckless you are!
Now, I don’t want to take this analogy too far. In the story I told, someone told you part of the hull is rotten, i.e., that it doesn’t work. In ethical discourse, what someone is going to tell you is that “part of the hull,” that is, a substantial subset of the customs, conventions, etc. that we depend on to deal with other people and to live our lives, is morally wrong. Saying that something is morally wrong might not be exactly the same thing as saying it “doesn’t work.” Maybe it “works,” but for what is the problem.
My point is this: No matter what you do, you can’t escape risk entirely. You can only ever mitigate risk through careful effort or trade off one risk against another. That’s true in business, and it’s also true in living morally. Being a good Hayekian means recognizing that leaving things as they are isn’t necessarily the least morally risky choice. Hayek gives us reason for caution, but knowing we need to be cautious does not let us abdicate our duty to examine the merits of the claims of people attacking society’s laws and customs. The only way to know if the arguments being presented warrant overriding Hayekian concerns is to engage with those arguments.
You may come out of that investigation with the conclusion that changing problematic practices isn’t worth incurring the sorts of risks Hayek identifies. But it’s uncharitable and irresponsible to use Hayek as an excuse to avoid engaging critically with rationalist criticisms, instead throwing around dismissive terms like “iconoclasm,” “arrogance,” and “pretension.”
Put another way, Hayek has put a weight on the scale, but knowing that tells you nothing about which way the scale tilts. You need to know what’s on the other side of the scale, as well as what other weights might be on the side with Hayek’s. You can’t rush to judgement.
In my first weekly column, I mentioned that Hayek is on the edge of the libertarian tradition, brushing shoulders with Edmund Burke, the great conservative thinker. The biggest difference between Burke and Hayek—apart from Hayek being a much more rigorous, systematic thinker—is that where Burke wants us to trust tradition because doing so usually works for the best, Hayek advises only that we don’t throw out all our traditions at once and try to start fresh, as ocurred, for example, during the French Revolution.
In “The Errors of Constructivism,” Hayek writes:
The proper conclusion from the considerations I have advanced is by no means that we may confidently accept all the old and traditional values. Nor even that there are any values or moral principles, which science may not occasionally question. The social scientist who endeavours to understand how society functions, and to discover where it can be improved, must claim the right critically to examine, and even to judge, every single value of our society. The consequence of what I have said is merely that we can never at one and the same time question all its values. Such absolute doubt could lead only to the destruction of our civilisation and – in view of the numbers to which economic progress has allowed the human race to grow – to extreme misery and starvation. Complete abandonment of all traditional values is, of course, impossible; it would make man incapable of acting. If traditional and taught values formed by man in the course of the evolution of civilisation were renounced, this could only mean falling back on those instinctive values, which man developed in hundreds of thousands of years of tribal life, and which now are probably in a measure innate.
That strikes me as good advice, and following it will keep a Hayekian from sliding into Panglossian conservatism.
Hayek was certainly one of the great theorists of spontaneous order the world has ever seen, but he wasn’t right about everything. I think he’s overly mysterian about the operation of norms and for that matter the operation economic institutions. Some of the time, we do know roughly what ends a rule serves, even an evolved rule, and sometimes those ends aren’t good. Moreover, I think Hayek’s attempts to provide a standard for judging individual norms are fairly uncompelling and too skeptical about our ability to discern good from evil. It should be possible to recognize the way our norms are interconnected and how they are the product of an evolutionary process and still avoid Hayek’s amoral mode of judging individual values only by their coherence with the larger system.
In fact, we need a standard of value to tell us that we ought to avoid the “extreme misery and starvation” that Hayek seems to decry in the above quote. While Hayek has a lot to say about the potential consequences of throwing out all our norms and starting fresh, he has very little to say, and less that’s compelling, about how we should judge those consequences. Good Hayekians need to keep these limitations of Hayek’s thinking in mind.
Next week, I’ll discuss what Hayekian lessons rationalists need to take to heart.
The time, it is to be hoped, is gone by when any defence would be necessary of the “liberty of the press” as one of the securities against corrupt or tyrannical government. No argument, we may suppose, can now be needed, against permitting a legislature or an executive, not identified in interest with the people, to prescribe opinions to them, and determine what doctrines or what arguments they shall be allowed to hear. This aspect of the question, besides, has been so often and so triumphantly enforced by preceding writers, that it needs not be specially insisted on in this place. Though the law of England, on the subject of the press, is as servile to this day as it was in the time of the Tudors, there is little danger of its being actually put in force against political discussion, except during some temporary panic, when fear of insurrection drives ministers and judges from their propriety; and, speaking generally, it is not, in constitutional countries, to be apprehended, that the government, whether completely responsible to the people or not, will often attempt to control the expression of opinion, except when in doing so it makes itself the organ of the general intolerance of the public. Let us suppose, therefore, that the government is entirely at one with the people, and never thinks of exerting any power of coercion unless in agreement with what it conceives to be their voice. But I deny the right of the people to exercise such coercion, either by themselves or by their government. The power itself is illegitimate. The best government has no more title to it than the worst. It is as noxious, or more noxious, when exerted in accordance with public opinion, than when in opposition to it. If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
It is necessary to consider separately these two hypotheses, each of which has a distinct branch of the argument corresponding to it. We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.
First: the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility. Its condemnation may be allowed to rest on this common argument, not the worse for being common.
Unfortunately for the good sense of mankind, the fact of their fallibility is far from carrying the weight in their practical judgment, which is always allowed to it in theory; for while every one well knows himself to be fallible, few think it necessary to take any precautions against their own fallibility, or admit the supposition that any opinion, of which they feel very certain, may be one of the examples of the error to which they acknowledge themselves to be liable. Absolute princes, or others who are accustomed to unlimited deference, usually feel this complete confidence in their own opinions on nearly all subjects. People more happily situated, who sometimes hear their opinions disputed, and are not wholly unused to be set right when they are wrong, place the same unbounded reliance only on such of their opinions as are shared by all who surround them, or to whom they habitually defer: for in proportion to a man’s want of confidence in his own solitary judgment, does he usually repose, with implicit trust, on the infallibilty of “the world” in general. And the world, to each individual, means the part of it with which he comes in contact; his party, his sect, his church, his class of society: the man may be called, by comparison, almost liberal and large-minded to whom it means anything so comprehensive as his own country or his own age. Nor is his faith in this collective authority at all shaken by his being aware that other ages, countries, sects, churches, classes, and parties have thought, and even now think, the exact reverse. He devolves upon his own world the responsibility of being in the right against the dissentient worlds of other people; and it never troubles him that mere accident has decided which of these numerous worlds is the object of his reliance, and that the same causes which make him a Churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Pekin. Yet it is as evident in itself, as any amount of argument can make it, that ages are no more infallible than individuals; every age having held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd; and it is as certain that many opinions, now general, will be rejected by future ages, as it is that many, once general, are rejected by the present.
The objection likely to be made to this argument, would probably take some such form as the following. There is no greater assumption of infallibility in forbidding the propagation of error, than in any other thing which is done by public authority on its own judgment and responsibility. Judgment is given to men that they may use it. Because it may be used erroneously, are men to be told that they ought not to use it at all? To prohibit what they think pernicious, is not claiming exemption from error, but fulfilling the duty incumbent on them, although fallible, of acting on their conscientious conviction. If we were never to act on our opinions, because those opinions may be wrong, we should leave all our interests uncared for, and all our duties unperformed. An objection which applies to all conduct, can be no valid objection to any conduct in particular. It is the duty of governments, and of individuals, to form the truest opinions they can; to form them carefully, and never impose them upon others unless they are quite sure of being right. But when they are sure (such reasoners may say), it is not conscientiousness but cowardice to shrink from acting on their opinions, and allow doctrines which they honestly think dangerous to the welfare of mankind, either in this life or in another, to be scattered abroad without restraint, because other people, in less enlightened times, have persecuted opinions now believed to be true. Let us take care, it may be said, not to make the same mistake: but governments and nations have made mistakes in other things, which are not denied to be fit subjects for the exercise of authority: they have laid on bad taxes, made unjust wars. Ought we therefore to lay on no taxes, and, under whatever provocation, make no wars? Men, and governments, must act to the best of their ability. There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is assurance sufficient for the purposes of human life. We may, and must, assume our opinion to be true for the guidance of our own conduct: and it is assuming no more when we forbid bad men to pervert society by the propagation of opinions which we regard as false and pernicious.
I answer, that it is assuming very much more. There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.
When we consider either the history of opinion, or the ordinary conduct of human life, to what is it to be ascribed that the one and the other are no worse than they are? Not certainly to the inherent force of the human understanding; for, on any matter not self-evident, there are ninety-nine persons totally incapable of judging of it, for one who is capable; and the capacity of the hundredth person is only comparative; for the majority of the eminent men of every past generation held many opinions now known to be erroneous, and did or approved numerous things which no one will now justify. Why is it, then, that there is on the whole a preponderance among mankind of rational opinions and rational conduct? If there really is this preponderance — which there must be, unless human affairs are, and have always been, in an almost desperate state — it is owing to a quality of the human mind, the source of everything respectable in man either as an intellectual or as a moral being, namely, that his errors are corrigible. He is capable of rectifying his mistakes, by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted. Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it. Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning. The whole strength and value, then, of human judgment, depending on the one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong, reliance can be placed on it only when the means of setting it right are kept constantly at hand. In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner. The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it: for, being cognizant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter — he has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process.
It is not too much to require that what the wisest of mankind, those who are best entitled to trust their own judgment, find necessary to warrant their relying on it, should be submitted to by that miscellaneous collection of a few wise and many foolish individuals, called the public. The most intolerant of churches, the Roman Catholic Church, even at the canonization of a saint, admits, and listens patiently to, a “devil’s advocate.” The holiest of men, it appears, cannot be admitted to posthumous honors, until all that the devil could say against him is known and weighed. If even the Newtonian philosophy were not permitted to be questioned, mankind could not feel as complete assurance of its truth as they now do. The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded. If the challenge is not accepted, or is accepted and the attempt fails, we are far enough from certainty still; but we have done the best that the existing state of human reason admits of; we have neglected nothing that could give the truth a chance of reaching us: if the lists are kept open, we may hope that if there be a better truth, it will be found when the human mind is capable of receiving it; and in the mean time we may rely on having attained such approach to truth, as is possible in our own day. This is the amount of certainty attainable by a fallible being, and this the sole way of attaining it.
Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being “pushed to an extreme;” not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case. Strange that they should imagine that they are not assuming infallibility, when they acknowledge that there should be free discussion on all subjects which can possibly be doubtful, but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be questioned because it is so certain, that is, because they are certain that it is certain. To call any proposition certain, while there is any one who would deny its certainty if permitted, but who is not permitted, is to assume that we ourselves, and those who agree with us, are the judges of certainty, and judges without hearing the other side.
Professor Michael Huemer claims that if normal people acted like governments do, we would generally be horrified and find their behavior morally contemptible…so why do most people intuitively feel that government is justified in its actions? Professor Huemer, Aaron, and Trevor tackle problems of political obligation, political legitimacy, and political authority, and explain the differences between each of these terms.
This essay touches on some features of praxeology—a term coined during the 1890s to designate the science of human action—as developed by Ludwig von Mises, principally in Human Action: A Treatise on Economics (3rd ed., 1963). I rank this book as one of the greatest theoretical contributions to classical liberalism ever written, second only to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Human Action is an original and monumental achievement not only in economics but in social theory generally; but, outside of free-market circles, it has not gotten the attention it deserves. This is partly because of its eccentric approach, as judged by conventional academic standards. Grand theories of the sort defended by Mises have been out of fashion for many decades, and Mises’s defense of “apriorism” has made his approach an appealing and seemingly easy target for critics, including some libertarians, many of whom display little understanding of even the essential points defended by Mises.
This is not to say that I agree with all the details of Misesian praxeology. I don’t, but I know genius at work when I see it, and I know better than to dismiss the ideas of a first-rate mind with the same promptitude with which I might dismiss the latest trendy theory concocted by some second-rate sociologist, economist, or philosopher. Among twentieth-century classical liberals, only F.A. Hayek rivals Mises; and without wishing to detract from the achievements of Hayek, I should call attention to the unfortunate if obvious fact that Hayek has been taken far more seriously, and has received considerably more attention, in conventional academic circles than has Mises. There are a number of reasons for this imbalance, which I cannot discuss here. I should note, however, that Mises, unlike Hayek, was a vigorous champion of Enlightenment “rationalism” who did not share the conservative propensities found in Hayek, such as needless deference to customs and traditions that cannot be rationally justified. Additionally, Mises did not get mired down in misleading speculations about social and moral evolution, as Hayek did in his later writings.
Misesian praxeology, which is concerned with the formal relationship between means and ends in human action, is a comprehensive discipline that subsumes not only economics but other social sciences as well. Despite general agreement about the subject matter of economics, Mises argued that we cannot draw a bright line between economic actions and other types of goal-directed behavior. Since “choosing determines all human decisions,” we must base our analysis of economic activity on a “general theory of choice and preference.”
Mises thus rejected the classical conception of “economic man” as unduly narrow. Economics is concerned with the logical implications of human action, specifically, the necessity of choosing among scarce means in pursuit of our goals. But this describes all human actions, not merely economic actions, so there is nothing unique about economic choices that fundamentally sets them apart from other kinds of choices. Mises concluded:
The economic or catallactic [from the Greek for “to exchange”] problems are embedded in a more general science, and can no longer be severed from this connection. No treatment of economic problems proper can avoid starting from acts of choice; economics becomes a part, although the hitherto best elaborated part, of a more universal science, praxeology.
We can better appreciate this effort to ground economics in a universal science of human action if we view praxeology from a historical perspective. (Mises’s Epistemological Problems of Economics is essential reading in this regard.) There is a sense in which Misesian praxeology was a definitive, if delayed, solution to the nineteenth-century Methodenstreit (“battle of methods”) between Austrian economists (principally Carl Menger) and the Prussian Historical School. Proponents of historicism, according to Mises, “tried to deny the value and usefulness of economic theory. Historicism aimed at replacing it by economic history.”
Despite his dislike of historicism, Mises shared its repudiation of positivism, which “recommended the substitution of an illusory social science which should adopt the logical structure and pattern of Newtonian mechanics.” Mises insisted that economics must take into account value judgments, purposes, choices, and other subjective aspects of human action. Mises therefore joined his historicist adversaries in rejecting the “unity of science” that positivism sought to achieve by gutting the human sciences of everything distinctively human. Instead he advocated a “methodological dualism” which posits “two separate realms: the external world of physical, chemical, and physiological phenomena and the internal world of thought, feeling, valuation, and purposeful action.”
Mises was profoundly influenced by the historicist theory of Verstehen (understanding), especially the version that Max Weber integrated into this theory of “ideal types.” (See the section “On Ideal Types” in Human Action.) Verstehen, a type of empathy, is the distinctive methodology of the historical disciplines. It is the mental tool that enables the historian to understand the subjective meanings of singular historical actions and the motives of individual human beings.
This partial alliance with historicism left Mises with a potentially serious problem. If, as many historicists claimed, Verstehen was the appropriate method for dealing with the subjective aspects of human action, then it should be used not only in history but in every human science, including economics, as well. But this would transform economics into what the philosopher Wilhelm Windelbandt called an “idiographic” science, i.e., a discipline that is limited to the study of unique particulars. If Mises accepted Verstehen as the primary method of economic reasoning, then economics would be compelled to abandon the quest for universal laws of the sort found in the “nomothetic” sciences. This is what Mises meant when he said that historicism sought to replace economic theory with economic history.
Mises thus faced the problem of charting a course between the Scylla of historicism and the Charybdis of positivism. Historicism offered a subjectivist methodology that was unable to formulate universal laws; whereas positivism offered to bestow upon economics the status of a universal, nomothetic science, but only at the cost of robbing economics of its subjective orientation.
Mises found a solution to this problem in praxeology, a nomothetic science that arrives at general principles by abstracting the universal form of human action from its material content. As Mises put it, “Praxeology is not concerned with the changing content of action, but with its pure form and categorical structure. The study of the accidental and environmental features of human action is the task of history.”
Closely related to the formalism of praxeology is the claim that this science begins with a priori categories, forms, and concepts, after which it arrives at theorems and conclusions by purely deductive reasoning, without ever appealing to facts derived from experience. Human knowledge, according to Mises, is conditioned by the structure of the human mind. Working within this quasi-Kantian framework, Mises said of praxeology: “Its statements and propositions are not derived from experience. They are, like those of logic and mathematics, a priori….They are both logically and temporally antecedent to the comprehension of [empirical] facts.” Moreover, “no experience, however rich, could disclose [praxeological theorems] to a being who did not know a priori what human action is. The only way to a cognition of these theorems is logical analysis of our inherent knowledge of the category of action.”
Apriorism is unquestionably the most controversial aspect of praxeology. Although Mises emphatically disagreed with the contention that a priori reasoning is unable to generate factual knowledge, so deeply ingrained is this belief in the modern mind that many economists, convinced that an a priori method would completely strip their discipline of all empirical relevance and authority, tend to rule praxeology out of court without further consideration.
Even some avid defenders of praxeology have expressed their disagreement with its Misesian foundations. For example, Murray Rothbard argued that praxeology can dispense with apriorism without suffering any detrimental effects. Praxeological reasoning is equally secure when based on Aristotelian empiricism. This epistemological theory explains how, through a process of abstraction, we can mentally separate the “essence” of human action from our observations of particular actions and thereby isolate a pure conception of “action” for the purpose of analysis. After this, if the Aristotelian follows the deductive method proposed by Mises, he will arrive at the same conclusions, and he will be able to justify those conclusions with the same degree of certitude. (For the record, I basically agree with the Rothbardian version of praxeology.)
It is interesting to note that even strict empiricists, such as J.S. Mill, have defended an a priori method in economics (or “political economy,” as it was known in Mill’s day). We find this in Mill’s important essay “On the Definition of Political Economy” (1836). Regarding those who reject abstract theory in economics, claiming instead that economics should be based solely on experience, Mill claimed that “those who disavow theory cannot make one step without theorizing.” Properly conceived, economic theories always draw from experience, but there is a crucial difference between citing specific experiences in every case and those theorists who, “having argued upwards from particular facts to a general principle including a much wider range than that of the questions under discussion, then argue downwards from that general principle to a variety of specific conclusions.” Economic reasoning is not based on pure induction; it does not merely generalize from repeated instances of similar experiences. Rather than rely on this “method à posteriori,” economics employs “the method à priori.” “We are aware,” Mill continued, “that this last expression [à priori] is sometimes used to characterize a supposed method of philosophizing, which does not profess to be found upon experience at all,” but he was unaware of any political or economic theory to which this description would apply. In defending apriorism Mill certainly did not mean to deny that economic theories are ultimately grounded in experience. Mill explained what he meant by “à posteriori” and “à priori” as follows:
By the method à posteriori we mean that which requires, as the basis of its conclusions, not experience merely, but specific experience. By the method à priori we mean (what has commonly been meant) reasoning from an assumed hypothesis…. In the definition which we have attempted to frame of the science of Political Economy, we have characterized it as essentially an abstract science, and its method as the method à priori. Such is undoubtedly its character as it has been understood and taught by all its most distinguished teachers.
I cited Mill on this subject to assure my fellow empiricists that they needn’t run for the hills whenever they encounter a defense of apriorism, for the term has been used in various ways, and we find significantly different meanings in Mill and Mises. The latter did indeed contend that a priori categories are independent of all experiences, not mere specific experiences (as Mill maintained). According to Mises, the a priori categories of praxeology cannot be gleaned from experience because they are essential preconditions that make our experiences of human action coherent and meaningful. Without them our experiences would be nothing more than what William James called “blooming, buzzing confusion.”
In The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science (1962), Mises stressed that a priori categories “are not innate ideas.” We are not born with ideas, but we are born with forms of thought determined by the “logical structure of the human mind.” Mises (again, in Ultimate Foundation) summarized the essential features of the a priori as follows:
If we qualify a concept or a proposition as a priori, we want to say: first that the negation of what is asserts is unthinkable for the human mind and appears to it as nonsense; secondly, that this a priori concept or proposition is necessarily implied in our mental approach to all the problems concerned, i.e., in our thinking and acting concerning these problems.
The a priori categories are the mental equipment by dint of which man is able to think and to experience and thus to acquire knowledge. Their truth or validity cannot be proved or refuted as can those of a posteriori propositions, because they are precisely the instrument that enables us to distinguish what is true or valid from what is not.
This brings me to two final points that require clarification. First, Mises did not contend that every concept and principle employed by economists (and social theorists generally) can be derived from the a priori categories of praxeology. While maintaining that some key principles, such as marginal utility and time preference, are implicitly contained in the concept of human action and so can be discerned by unraveling the logical implications of that concept, he also believed that other principles, such as the “disutility of labor,” can only be discovered through experience. It is therefore an error, if a common one, to attribute to Mises the view that every economic principle is based on a priori reasoning.
Second, we should understand what Mises meant when he argued that the a priori principles of economics can neither be verified nor falsified by particular experiences. This has proven an especially contentious claim for critics, who have interpreted it to mean that economic principles, according to Mises, have no direct relationship to our experiences of the external world and so can never be falsified, as a matter of principle. This characterization, though not wholly mistaken, is scarcely a sympathetic account of the point that Mises wished to make—a point that holds even if we do not agree with Mises about the a priori nature of praxeological concepts. Let’s take a look at this problem.
Particular facts, including facts of economic history, can neither verify nor falsify an economic theory because they carry no meaning per se. Only a theory can impart significance to a specific fact, so no empirical fact, if stripped of a theoretical understanding of that fact, can falsify a theory. After dividing the “sciences of human action” into two main branches—praxeology and history—Mises went on to say:
The experiences with which the sciences of human action have to deal is always an experience of complex phenomena. No laboratory experiments can be performed with regard to human action. We are never in a position to observe the change in one element only, all other conditions of the event remaining unchanged. Historical experience as an experience of complex phenomena does not provide us with facts in the sense in which the natural sciences employ this term to signify isolated events tested in experiments. The information conveyed by historical experience cannot be used as building material for the construction of theories and the prediction of future events. Every historical experience is open to various interpretations, and is in fact interpreted in different ways.
The postulates of positivism and kindred schools of metaphysics are therefore illusory. It is impossible to reform the sciences of human action according to the pattern of physics and the other natural sciences. There is no means to establish an a posteriori theory of human conduct and social events. History can neither prove nor disprove any general statement in the manner in which the natural sciences accept or reject a hypothesis on the ground of laboratory experiments. Neither experimental verification nor experimental falsification of a general proposition is possible in its field.
To put the matter somewhat differently: Although an empirical fact about human action may cause us to reexamine a theory, that fact alone, which will be consistent with myriad theoretical interpretations, can neither corroborate nor falsify a theory. Specific empirical facts may be relevant to a theory, insofar as they may cause us to doubt that theory, but they are not decisive. In the human sciences only a theory can refute a theory.
Last time I borrowed an argument from philosopher Peter Singer along the lines that the proper task of ethics is not to explain the moral beliefs we do have, but to determine (using reason) what moral beliefs are the correct ones.
Friedrich Hayek is often read as having proven that “rationalism” about ethics is impossible. If by “rationalist ethics” we mean the explanation of all the norms and laws that we actually do hold, then Hayek’s argument succeeds. If, on the other hand, by “ethics” we mean the project Singer endorses, and I also endorse—using reason to figure out from scratch which norms and laws we ought to have—then Hayek’s argument fails. It is not clear to me, however, that Hayek can plausibly be read as attempting this second task. This means that, if nothing else, invoking Hayek against the latter understanding of rationalist ethics is a poor rebuttal.
There is a bundle of distinct claims Hayek makes about ethics, law, and the relationship between the two. Let’s take a minute to explore some of those claims. I’m going to spare you any extensive quotations and stick mostly to paraphrasing Hayek, at the risk of accidentally misrepresenting his views.
Hayek claims that the laws and norms we actually do have are not the result of a rational, goal-directed process, but instead are a result of those norms and laws allowing our society to succeed in maintaining and propagating those norms and laws.
Hayek is perfectly correct. Note that so far, his position is consistent with Singer’s. Singer, arguing that our ethical intuitions are likely caused by factors outside of moral truth, points out that biological evolution has likely influenced our moral instincts. Hayek, by pointing out another mechanism for explaining the norms we do possess, does much to strengthen Singer’s case.
Hayek says that the human mind is not capable of constructing a top-down theory that explains why human societies have the norms that they do; we cannot offer a rationalist account of the norms we do have. This is because much like individual economic actors cannot be fully conscious of their relationship to the larger economic system, neither can individuals fully comprehend the way their decisions relate to the production, propagation, and evolution of society’s norms and laws.
Hayek points out that individuals are embedded in a culture resulting from spontaneous order. Well, so what? If Singer is right, this isn’t what rationalist ethics should be attempting to do in the first place.
Hayek claims that reason doesn’t give us a tool to make judgements about the worth of a given norm or law except with reference to the cultural context of that norm or law.
Here, I think Hayek has made a mistake, at least prima facie. From the claim that reason cannot explain the norms we do have, it does not follow that reason cannot tell us which norms are the morally correct ones. A generous reading of Hayek has to treat his discussion of improving laws and norms as not per se meaning moral improvements, although moral improvements may come about as secondary effects.
In some places, it seems like Hayek acknowledges that his theory of laws and norms is not a normative theory. In other places, it seems like he is trying to arrive at normativity through various back doors.
It should be obvious that the fact that a norm or law helps a society “succeed” tells us nothing about whether that norm or law is morally “good.” Of course not! But Hayek’s position is more nuanced. For one thing, Hayek is doubtful that humans can discover what “good” laws and norms would be. In The Fatal Conceit, he writes:
Moreover, if civilisation has resulted from unwanted gradual changes in morality, then, reluctant as we may be to accept this, no universally valid system of ethics can ever be known to us.
However, when Hayek talks about a “universally valid system of ethics,” I take him to mean both an ethical theory that is trying to “predict,” at least broadly, the norms we do have, and a system that offers judgement about a given norm without reference to the cultural and legal context in which that norm is embedded. Hayek seems to assume that the former set of theories is identical to the latter. In doing so he assumes further that all rationalist systems are attempting to predict or explain prevailing norms. Hayek is wrong to assume that. You can, and I argue, should, have a rationalist ethical system that isn’t trying to explain the norms we do have. Hayek doesn’t say anything about that type of ethics, as far as I can tell.
Instead of comparing evolved rules to rationalist ethical theories, Hayek wants us to ameliorate individual rules in light of the functioning of the system as a whole. In Law, Legislation, and Liberty, he writes:
[A]lthough we can endeavour to find out what function a particular rule performs within a given system of rules, and to judge how well it has performed that function, and may as a result try to improve it, we can do so always only against the background of the whole system of other rules which together determine the order of action in that society.
What would be the alternative to making only local, discrete changes?
Hayek claims that if we tried to rip out, root and branch, the evolved norms we have, and replace them at once with rationally “constructed” norms which we deem preferable, we must be prepared for potentially disastrous consequences.
This means that if we have a theory of ethics where bad consequences have moral weight—utilitarianism, for example—we need to consider the fact that at least some of the evolved norms and laws we have are not just empty ceremonies but load-bearing structures, and messing with them is therefore risky. Consequently, it might be wrong under certain ethical systems to change a rule or norm, or to change too many of them at once. Hayek puts this point rather well in The Fatal Conceit:
I do not claim that the results of group selection of traditions are necessarily ‘good’ - any more than I claim that other things that have long survived in the course of evolution, such as cockroaches, have moral value. I do claim that, whether we like it or not, without the particular traditions I have mentioned, the extended order of civilisation could not continue to exist (whereas, were cockroaches to disappear, the resulting ecological ‘disaster’ would perhaps not wreak permanent havoc on mankind); and that if we discard these traditions, out of ill-considered notions (which may indeed genuinely commit the naturalistic fallacy) of what it is to be reasonable, we shall doom a large part of mankind to poverty and death. Only when these facts are fully faced do we have any business - or are we likely to have any competence - to consider what the right and good thing to do may be.
What I conclude from my reading of Hayek, which I hasten to admit is still somewhat inchoate, is that Hayek has not, as is too often contended, shut the door on rationalist ethics. To the contrary: Hayek’s theory needs to reference a background theory of ethics—likely a rationalist ethics—if his theory is to have any normative force. “Society might fall apart, leading to a lot of suffering compared to the status quo, if you do X” is a positive claim, not a normative one. You would need a background moral theory that says “It is wrong to perform actions that lead to increased suffering” or something similar in order to draw any normative conclusions.
On the other hand, Hayek’s positive analysis provides a lot of valuable input to discussions about whether and how rationalist reforms of social norms should be undertaken.
In my next two essays, I’m going to discuss those conclusions more broadly. First, how can we be good Hayekian libertarians in light of the limited scope of what Hayek says about ethics? After that, how can we be good rationalist libertarians in light of what Hayek tells us about the limits of reason?
Aaron Powell and Trevor Burrus tackle listener questions in this episode, including a few perennial classics: If libertarianism is so great, where are all the libertarian countries? Why can’t libertarians, conservatives, and liberals all come together to “make it work” in Washington? How can access to education be guaranteed if the American education system is privatized? And what happens to people who “fall through the cracks” in a libertarian society without a government-provided social safety net?
Aaron and Trevor are also joined by David Boaz, the executive vice president of the Cato Institute.
In Part 5 I quoted Ludwig von Mises as saying that it “is uncontested that in the sphere of human action social entities have real existence.” Here is the remainder of this passage from Human Action (3rd ed., Regnery, p. 42):
Nobody ventures to deny that nations, states, municipalities, parties, religious communities, are real factors determining the course of human events. Methodological individualism, far from contesting the significance of such collective wholes, considers it as one of its main tasks to describe and to analyze their becoming and their disappearing, their changing structures and their operation. And it chooses the only method fitted to solve this problem satisfactorily.
As indicated by this passage, Mises saw no conflict between methodological individualism, on the one hand, and conceding the reality of institutions and other “collective wholes,” on the other. This position is consistent with that taken by most major defenders of methodological individualism. As I explained in Part 5, for example, Herbert Spencer, while claiming that society is composed of nothing but individual human beings, also maintained that society is an “entity” with identifiable properties, and that the existence of society is not merely “verbal.”
Whether or not we should call social phenomena “entities” is problematic, in my judgment. Such usage will ultimately depend on one’s theory of knowledge; and since the “entity” nomenclature was consistent with Spencer’s epistemology, he was internally justified in using that term. But this verbal quibble is relatively unimportant, so long as we understand the distinction between social nominalism and methodological individualism. The methodological individualist need not, and should not, retreat into the nominalist claim that “society” is merely a name without any objective counterpart in the external world. As I wrote in a previous essay:
Methodological individualism does not mean that only the individual human being is real or that social phenomena do not exist. It says only that the individual is able to think, feel, and act. We can impute thoughts, purposes, and values only to the singular human being; when we apply such terms to “society” we enter the domain of metaphor. However, this does not mean that “society” is not “real” or cannot be said to “exist” in some fashion. Many things exist that cannot think, act, or feel.
A society, as I said, is more than an aggregate of individuals. A society of ten people is more than a mere group of ten people; a society consists of those people and their institutional relationships. If by “a society of ten” we mean those ten plus their patterned interactions, then the “society of ten” may be said to exist, not apart from the ten who comprise it, but in addition to those ten, separately considered.
The central tenet of methodological individualism, according to Mises, is that “all actions are performed by individuals.” Or, in the words of Karl Popper (The Open Society and Its Enemies, 5th ed., vol. 2, p. 98), social phenomena “should always be understood as resulting from the decisions, actions, attitudes, etc., of human individuals, and…we should never be satisfied by an explanation in terms of so-called ‘collectives’ (states, nations, races, etc.).”
Classical liberals have been criticized for their view that the individual is the ultimate unit of explanation in the social sciences, and that social institutions can be explained solely in terms of the beliefs and actions of individuals. Methodological individualism was taken for granted by most eighteenth-century social philosophers—especially Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith and other Scottish thinkers. It was not until the nineteenth century that various types of social holism challenged this view.
Social holism has been defended from various perspectives, but, generally speaking, it is the doctrine that social “wholes” cannot be solely and adequately explained in terms of the actions and beliefs of individuals. Holism, according to a popular if simplistic definition, is the doctrine that a social whole (e.g., an institution) is more than the sum of its individual parts—or, alternatively, that the whole is in some way prior to the individuals who comprise it.
Some holists, such as Emile Durkheim (whom I shall discuss in a subsequent essay), have compared social phenomena to the emergent properties produced by a chemical reaction. Under certain conditions two parts of hydrogen will combine with one part of oxygen to form water, thereby creating a new substance with emergent properties that are qualitatively different than those of its constituent elements. According to this argument from analogy, individual human beings are “atoms” which, when combined in a particular manner through interaction, produce social “molecules” with new and unique characteristics. John Stuart Mill (A System of Logic, 8th ed., 1882, Bk VI, Ch. VII) had this to say about the “chemical method” of reasoning in the social sciences:
The laws of the phenomena of society are and can be nothing but the laws of the actions and passions of human beings united together in the social state. Men, however, in a state of society are still men; their actions and passions are obedient to the laws of individual human nature. Men are not, when brought together, converted into another kind of substance with different properties, as hydrogen and oxygen are different from water….Human beings in society have no properties but those which are derived from, and may be resolved into, the laws of the nature of individual man.
Mill’s argument overlooks a major form of holism, which does not claim that individual human beings are qualitatively transformed by social interaction. Holists more often contend that human interaction generates social wholes, or institutions, which differ qualitatively from the individuals who comprise them.
Mill has been criticized by other methodological individualists for his supposed defense of psychologism. This is the label given by Karl Popper to the view that all social phenomena can be explained in terms of the intentions, purposes, and motives of individual human beings. Although psychologism rightly insists that we must reduce the “actions” and “behavior” of collective entities to the actions and behavior of individuals, it erroneously maintains that such explanations must be psychological, i.e., that they must ultimately refer to the conscious states and dispositions of acting agents. This is a serious error, because many social institutions were not consciously designed but emerged instead as the unintended consequences of human action.
Thus psychologism, though a species of individualism, should not be confused with methodological individualism per se. Psychologism is inadequate because it fails to take into account the many institutions, such as money and language, that have developed spontaneously, without conscious planning or foresight. To say that all institutions are the result of individual actions and beliefs is not to say that all such institutions are the product of deliberate planning or design. As Adam Ferguson (An Essay on the History of Civil Society) put it in 1767:
Mankind, in following the present state of their minds, in striving to remove inconveniences, or to gain apparent and contiguous advantages, arrive at ends which even their imagination could not anticipate, and pass on, like other animals, in the track of their nature, without perceiving its end….Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.
We are deeply indebted to Adam Ferguson, David Hume, Adam Smith, John Millar and other luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment for our understanding of unintended consequences and their role in the development of unplanned social institutions. And it is scarcely coincidental that those sociological pioneers were methodological individualists. None would have seriously entertained the notion that social phenomena are anything more than individuals and their recurring, patterned relationships.
If theories develop in response to unsolved problems, if they are attempts to answer difficult questions, then we may say that modern social theory arose with the desire to explain the origin and development of undesigned institutions. In 1882, Carl Menger (Investigation into the Method of the Social Sciences) phrased “the most noteworthy problem of the social sciences” as follows:
How can it be that institutions which serve the common welfare and are extremely significant for its development come into being without a common will directed toward establishing them?
Karl Popper noted that an “action which proceeds precisely according to intention does not create a problem for social science.” In a similar vein, F.A. Hayek (The Counter-Revolution of Science) maintained that modern social theory, especially economics, grew from a desire to explain the origin and development of undesigned institutions.
The problems which [the social sciences] try to answer arise only insofar as the conscious actions of many men produce undesigned results, insofar as regularities are observed which are not the result of anybody’s design. If social phenomena showed no order except insofar as they were consciously designed, there would indeed be no room for theoretical sciences of society and there would be, as is often argued, only problems of psychology. It is only insofar as some sort of order arises as a result of individual action but without being designed by any individual that a problem is raised which demands a theoretical explanation.
The theory of spontaneous order has been taken up by many prominent sociologists (as we see, for example, in Robert Merton’s “empirical functionalism” and in Anthony Giddens’s theory of “structuration”). It was also explored extensively by three classical liberals over the past three centuries: Adam Smith in the eighteenth, Herbert Spencer in the nineteenth, and F.A. Hayek in the twentieth. The significance of spontaneous order theory for methodological individualism is that it offers an attractive third alternative to the extremes of psychologism and holism. The methodological individualist can readily admit that social institutions result from something more than individual actions—if by this we mean the intended outcomes of such actions. We may also speak of institutions as possessing emergent properties—if by this we mean properties that emerged spontaneously, quite apart from intentions of individual actors.
A central theme in Hayek’s writing on social norms is his argument against “constructivism,” or trying to build ethics from scratch using reason. A lot of other libertarian thinkers share Hayek’s suspicion.
Today, I’m going to argue that there are major problems with many of the most prominent alternatives to constructivism: Specifically, these alternatives put more weight on our ethical intuitions than they will bear.
One well-known alternative, which John Rawls called “reflective equilibrium,” is an iterative process where we start with a moral theory and moral beliefs and reflect on how well they match and how they could be made to match better. We then tweak either the theory or our moral beliefs and repeat the process until we have reconciled our theory with our beliefs: that is, until we have reached equilibrium.
Another is Matt Zwolinski’s argument for libertarianism from a position called “moral pluralism.” Under moral pluralism, we have a set of prima facie plausible (i.e. plausible according to one’s initial impression) ethical guidelines which we apply to moral cases. We then rely on our judgement—that is, our moral sense—to resolve any contradictions in applying the guidelines. Michael Huemer’s argument for libertarianism, laid out in his 2013 book The Problem of Political Authority, rests squarely on ethical intuitions; in fact, intuitions are so central for Huemer that he calls himself an “intuitionist.”
Arguments of this type are mistaken about what determines the truth of moral propositions. Specifically, they misunderstand the relationship between ethical theories and our intuitions about ethical principles and cases.
Many people believe that it counts in favor of an ethical theory if its logical consequences line up with our intuitions about moral cases. The idea here, sometimes explicitly stated, sometimes only implied, is that an important causal reason for certain intuitions is that those intuitions are true. A simple example would be the position that our conscience gives us direct access to moral facts in a manner analogous to how our eyes give us access to facts about the wavelength and intensity of light. On views of this type there is a causal line from moral fact X being true to my believing X; it’s not merely a correlation or a coincidence.
Here’s a potential problem with such views: our intuitions about moral cases could be mostly hogwash. Indeed, we have good reasons to be very suspicious of our intuitions about moral cases, at least at first. That’s because many of those intuitions didn’t develop in response to moral truth, but rather in response to evolutionary pressure and social conditioning.
Philosopher Peter Singer does a good job of explaining the ways biological evolution seems to influence our moral intuitions in his 2005 paper “Ethics and Intuitions.” Singer is well-known for holding views about ethics that run contrary to our intuitions, so he needs an account of why we shouldn’t trust those intuitions. His answer is that the correct explanation for why we hold certain intuitions is not that those intuitions are true, but that those intuitions are evolutionarily advantageous.
For example, most people think they have a greater responsibility to look out for their family members than for strangers. In “Ethics and Intuitions,” Singer points out that evolution would select for this instinct. A gene that makes you look out for your family is a gene that makes you look out for other people carrying that same gene, so we would expect evolution to select for it. Singer says that our instinct that we have a greater duty to help our families is a product of biological evolution. In a different paper, Singer argues that contrary to this instinct, morality requires that we give roughly equal moral weight to the welfare of our children and the welfare of a starving refugee we will never meet.
One might still say that Singer is wrong about what we owe our families, and Singer hasn’t necessarily precluded all types of objections. What he has shown, I think pretty convincingly, is that a viable counter-argument to his claim about family duty can’t rely on intuition. That’s because our intuitions about the duties we have to our families are very likely attributable to genetics.
This doesn’t mean that our intuitions are always wrong. Sometimes genetics might favor dispositions that are justifiable, but even in those cases, the cause of our having that disposition isn’t its correctness. We need to be careful not to unintentionally conflate moral truth with survival advantage.
Although I agree with Singer that some of our moral intuitions are best explained by evolution, I don’t think that all of our intuitions are genetically inherited. Friedrich Hayek identifies another potential cause of our having the moral intuitions that we do. In Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Hayek hypothesizes: “The brain is an organ enabling us to absorb, but not to design culture.”
Focusing on the first part of that quote, we see that on Hayek’s account humans are able to internalize and follow rules of conduct. This means that, in addition to having moral instincts that are a product of evolution (as Singer argued), human beings will have moral instincts that are learned. Furthermore, we can choose to reject and abandon these learned norms of conduct. Hayek says that a selection process operates on the laws and norms of society that is similar to the selection process operating on genes in biological evolution. What sort of norms will survive? Well, just the sort enabling the people holding those norms to spread them and encourage other people to adopt them of their own accord.
Moreover, says Hayek, biological evolution and cultural evolution took place and are taking place concurrently. Our brains are conducive to adopting norms from our social context, he claims, because our species evolved in a social context.
But can we attach any moral weight to the sort of norms and instincts that we hold because of evolutionary pressures on our genome or on our culture? I’m going to hold off on Hayek’s answer for today. Singer’s answer in “Ethics and Intuitions” is a clear “no:”
[A] normative moral theory is not an attempt to answer the question “Why do we think as we do about moral questions?” Even without an evolutionary understanding of ethics, it is obvious that the question “Why do we think as we do about moral questions?” may require a historical, rather than a philosophical, investigation….A normative moral theory is an attempt to answer the question “What ought we to do?” It is perfectly possible to answer this question by saying: “Ignore all our ordinary moral judgements, and do what will produce the best consequences.” Of course, one would need to give some kind of argument for this answer.
What this means is that we shouldn’t judge a moral theory based on how well it predicts people’s actual moral instincts, says Singer:
There is little point in constructing a moral theory designed to match considered moral judgments that themselves stem from our evolved responses to the situations in which we and our ancestors lived during the period of our evolution as social mammals, primates, and finally, human beings.
To carry Singer’s argument further, the idea that moral theory should “predict” people’s moral instincts is, in fact, precisely backwards. If a prospective moral theory doesn’t have some consequences which (at least at first) produce negative gut feelings, we should take that as evidence that our moral theory is likely to be wrong in ways that ratify and support unjustifiable aspects of the status quo. We cannot presume a causal connection between our feelings of guilt, disgust, outrage, and so on, and moral truth; we have to offer arguments that hold up even if those reactions turn out to have some other cause.
If we can’t trust our instincts to lead us to moral truth, one response might be moral skepticism—the position that there simply is no such thing as moral truth. But Singer says there’s an alternative:
[W]e might attempt the ambitious task of separating those moral judgments that we owe to our evolutionary and cultural history, from those that have a rational basis. This is a large and difficult task. Even to specify in what sense a moral judgment can have a rational basis is not easy. Nevertheless, it seems to me worth attempting, for it is the only way to avoid moral skepticism.
Near the beginning of this essay, I remarked that Hayek doesn’t much care for constructivism, or, as he sometimes calls it, “constructivist rationalism.” Yet, I think that an appropriately humble type of constructivist rationalism is our best chance to avoid skepticism about ethics, and thus skepticism about any political theory based on a moral philosophy (libertarianism included). Constructivist rationalism is the idea that we could discover ethical truths about the world by constructing an ethical theory using reason, analogously to how we can discover truths about the world by constructing a theory of mathematics using reason. Mathematical facts don’t depend on any observations on our part, yet they nevertheless give us access to truth that exists “out there.” I think ethical facts, if there are any, work like mathematical facts.
Hayek is often read as proving that a rationalist ethics of the type I just described is impossible. Next time, we’ll explore why I don’t think that’s the case.
It doesn’t take spending much time with libertarians, either online or in physical spaces, to notice that most of them happen to be male. One could be forgiven for noticing that, despite much ink being shed on the subject of libertarianism’s “woman problem” periodically, it does not seem to have improved dramatically in the past few decades. Why are libertarians disproportionately male? Can and should we make efforts at “converting” more women to libertarianism? What kind of impact is it reasonable to expect such efforts to have on the overall gender breakdown of libertarians?
For clarity of thought, we can divide the apparent reasons that more women aren’t libertarians into substantive and sociological reasons. Beginning with the latter: one feminist hypothesis suggests that more women aren’t libertarians because libertarian spaces, being male-dominated, are unfriendly to women and the voicing of women’s interests. Although it’s certainly possible that this factor contributes to some degree to libertarianism’s gender gap, it seems largely exaggerated (especially due to availability bias, when offered in the context of some prominent example of a woman being treated poorly at a libertarian event). Because people self-select into libertarian spaces and fora and they have limited contact with non-members, these tend to serve more of a social function than a proselytization function. Some women’s libertarianism may wane because participating in libertarian groups isn’t as rewarding for them as for men, but the root of the gender gap probably isn’t a differential in converting people. Few people are “converted” solely by groups to libertarianism at all, and there’s insufficient reason to assume that women were equally as ripe for conversion as men in the first place.
Also, on the sociological side, we should take seriously the reasonably well-substantiated empirical claim of evolutionary psychology that men have evolved to bear traits that go to further extremes than women. To make a long story short: because in the past women have more reliably reproduced than men (with some men fathering many children and many others fathering none), men have had to (largely unsuccessfully) diversify their strategies in appealing to women, both by deliberate choices (e.g. lowered risk-aversiveness) and in effect by displaying a wider variety of traits (e.g. height, intelligence). This means that, totally apart from whether some relatively unpopular belief (such as libertarianism) is true or warranted, we would expect to see more men holding it. The extremity of male cognition and interest may explain part of why more libertarians are men than women, especially including why (anecdotally) more men seek out libertarian reading material and communities mostly of their own accord at younger ages.
In addition to these sociological factors underlying libertarianism’s woman problem, we must also confront the substantive reasons why more women aren’t libertarians. Here by “substantive,” I mean reasons inherent to libertarian philosophy, broadly construed, and not merely incidental to the people holding them – to the extent that such a division makes sense. With a rather large gender gap to explain (even amongst people who have formally studied political philosophies in a variety of settings), it’s implausible that the possible unfriendliness of libertarian organizations can be the only thing to blame for libertarianism’s woman problem. Intellectually honest libertarians ought to admit that the substance of libertarianism – i.e., its positions on welfare, drugs, education, reproductive rights, and etc. – does not in fact appeal to women as much as much as it appeals to men.
This admission takes seriously the idea that disagreement is often real, as in not merely apparent, and sometimes exists at the level of values rather than at the more easily-resolvable level of facts. It’s condescending to suppose that all political disagreements between apparently reasonable adults come down to the non-libertarian person not understanding the issue as well as the libertarian one. It’s similarly condescending to suppose that most contemporary women have been brainwashed by feminists and the liberal establishment to believe the things they do, and suffer from pervasive and persistent false consciousness regarding what they want from a political order, and why.
Some women really do endorse the idea of a robust social “safety net” implemented via coercive taxation and the government, full well realizing that this may create dependence at the margins. Some women (including mothers) really do oppose the kinds of reproductive freedoms that libertarians tend to support, including permissive abortion laws and the decriminalization of behaviors (e.g. drug use) that are perceived as risky for pregnant women. Some women really do want the stability and ease of sending their children to a decent, chosen-for-them public school, rather than navigating the intricacies of a freer market in education. These disagreements aren’t always resolvable by just pointing out some costs or unintended consequences associated with the non-libertarian positions. Starting from a refusal to acknowledge these genuine differences of opinion decimates whatever chance libertarians may have had of winning hearts and minds, as by a messier but ultimately more relevant conversation over values instead of facts.
The reality of women’s substantive disagreement with libertarianism is admittedly uncomfortable, because it cannot be ameliorated by just being friendlier to women in the course of explaining libertarianism clearly to them (as the sociological explanation for libertarianism’s gender gap would imply). Additionally, to a person who is already sympathetic to libertarian ideas, it puts her in the politically incorrect position of implying that women, in general, are systematically more mistaken in their political beliefs than men are.
When we talk about politics and the government (or lack thereof) that we as some group of people are to institute, we are making decisions about systems about half of whose participants will be female. All citizens’ interests (if not their votes or opinions on any given matter) should, in some important sense, “count.” This is especially true of perspectives that take themselves to be “deliberative” democratic, and perspectives which understand a political order’s legitimacy to rest on the actual or hypothetical consent of its citizens. Adding women to your pool of actual or hypothetical citizens may dilute its libertarianism – but that’s not necessarily any indictment against women, because there was no good reason offered to start thinking about politics from an androcentric perspective in the first place.
Indeed, libertarians often object to some forms of democracy on the grounds that the interests of just under half of a voting population may be neglected; pointing this out in the case of gender is, on its face, relevantly similarly objectionable. If you think women’s participation is turning contemporary politics increasingly liberal, and that that’s a bad thing, the burden of proof is on you to explain why these outcomes are less (rather than more) well-justified than the political outcomes of our more sexist recent past.
Happily, women’s interests and men’s interests significantly coincide, insofar as humans are more alike than different; moreover we can observe that women and men have often historically cooperated with each other (via emergent institutions and practices) to positive effect. But when we, as libertarians, find that men’s and women’s interests or opinions do not neatly overlap, it is imperative that we take these disagreements seriously. Assuming that even reasonable, well-informed women are mistaken about what’s in their own best interests politically is contrary to the Hayekian spirit of dispersed knowledge, and rhetorically obnoxious besides. It may just be the case that fewer women than men will or can ever be libertarians.
George Selgin joins Aaron and Trevor for a discussion on money and banking in the United States.
What is money? How did the government become so deeply ingrained in the production and supply of our money, and why? What is the Federal Reserve, and what does it actually do? What would the U. S. look like with a competitive currency system? And what about Bitcoin?
“[S]ociety is more than the sum of individuals of which it is composed.” So wrote an ardent defender of sociology in 1922. Seven years later the same theoretician expressed his disagreement with those who challenged “sociology’s right to exist.” Contrary to its many critics, sociology is able to justify theorems that “have the character of scientific laws.” The laws of sociology are “causal propositions.” “They express that which necessarily must always happen as far as the conditions they assume are given.”
It may surprise some libertarian readers to learn that these comments were written by Ludwig von Mises, a methodological individualist and staunch critic of positivism. (The first quotation is from Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis; the rest are from Epistemological Problems of Economics.) The positions taken by Mises on these and other fundamental sociological issues did not change significantly over the years. What did change was his preference in labels. In his early works Mises used “sociology” to signify the theoretical science of human action, whereas he later adopted the label “praxeology” instead. The reasons for that change are unimportant for our purpose. I quoted Mises, to the effect that sociology is an authentic science capable of generating causal laws of social interaction, for two reasons.
Those libertarians who associate sociology with the academic discipline taught in modern universities tend to be suspicious of this field of study, which is dominated by left-leaning intellectuals who view sociology as an indispensable foundation for social engineering. I confess that I have very little interest in what passes for sociology nowadays; instead, my interest lies primarily in the formative years of sociology, when the very legitimacy of a “science of society” was under attack from various quarters. Such attacks demanded philosophical analyses and justifications of sociology, and this need brought to the fore a host of first-rate intellectuals to defend the cause. Whether or not one agrees with those early champions is, from my perspective, irrelevant. If I read only those thinkers with whom I agree 100 percent, I would read no one but myself—and even then I would be restricted to what I have written over the past twenty years or so.
The French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) is a good illustration of the point I wish to make. The author of several landmark books in sociology—most notably The Division of Labor in Society, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, and The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life—Durkheim was trained as a philosopher and brought a philosophical perspective to bear on almost everything he wrote. This perspective is especially evident in The Rules of Sociological Method, a full-scale defense of positivism and a type of social holism, according to which social phenomena are sui generis and so cannot be reduced to (i.e., adequately explained in terms of) the actions, beliefs, values, etc., of individuals.
Now, there is little in Durkheim’s book on methodology that I agree with, and I suspect the same would be true of most libertarians, who tend to be methodological individualists. Nevertheless, over the years I have read Rules several times, and I will probably read it again at some point. I find the book of value because it raises difficult questions about the nature of social phenomena, and it provides reasonable and provocative, if incorrect, answers to such questions. The time spent reading a book that gets one thinking about significant philosophical issues is, I think, time well spent.
I should note that I had little patience for Durkheim in my early years. My attitude changed in 1974, at age twenty-five, while I was auditing a class (at the University of Arizona) taught by the distinguished sociologist Robert Nisbet. Nisbet admired Durkheim, despite his disagreements—indeed, he published The Sociology of Emile Durkheim in 1974—and in some personal conversations Nisbet persuaded me that Durkheim was worth reading carefully, while alerting me to some common misrepresentations of Durkheim’s ideas. It could be said that I later adopted the same attitude toward Herbert Spencer, with whom I have many serious disagreements. Admiration and agreement are two different things. (I shall discuss some of Durkheim’s ideas later in this series.)
In any case, I quoted Mises at the beginning of this essay partly because of the allergic reaction experienced by some libertarians, including serious intellectuals, whenever they hear the words “sociology” and “sociologist.” I thought a defense of sociology by a familiar and friendly name, Ludwig von Mises, might help with this problem, provided we keep in mind that many early discussions of sociology might better be described as social philosophy, or philosophies of society, rather than “sociology” in the modern, academic sense of the word.
I vividly recall a conversation I had with a woman (a non-libertarian) around fifteen years ago. She had a doctorate in sociology and taught the subject at the university level, so I figured this was a rare opportunity to engage in a stimulating discussion about some of the pioneers in sociology—an opportunity that almost never arises with my fellow libertarians. But when I asked her opinion of Max Weber—one of the most important and influential sociological writers of all time—she responded with a quizzical look, saying that she had heard the name but knew nothing else about him. I was surprised, to say the least. With my scant knowledge of how sociology is taught in modern universities, I cannot say if this anecdote is typical. But it at least illustrates, if in a peculiar and tenuous way, the chasm that divides the modern discipline of sociology from the philosophically oriented treatments of an earlier era. There is much to be learned from the early pioneers who understood the close relationship between sociology and philosophy. (This overlap is discussed in a number of Robert Nisbet’s books; I especially recommend The Social Philosophers: Community and Conflict in Western Thought, 1973.)
The passages I quoted from Mises may raise the eyebrows of those unfamiliar with his overall approach. For example, his claim that sociology can justify causal laws that are as universal and necessary as the laws found in other sciences sounds a bit like the positivism that Mises rejected categorically. (Those familiar with Misesian “praxeology” will understand the profound differences, but I cannot explain the details at this time.) This potential confusion illustrates an important point, namely, that methodological individualism does not rule out sociology as a legitimate field of study with its own subject matter. Consider this passage from Mises’s magnum opus, Human Action (3rd ed., 1963):
It is uncontested that in the sphere of human action social entities have real existence. Nobody ventures to deny that nations, states, municipalities, parties, religious communities, are real factors determining the course of human events.
It may seem strange to see a methodological individualist declare that “social entities have real existence,” and that (as quoted previously) society “is more than the sum of individuals of which it is composed,” but similar claims have been made by other leading methodological individualists, such as Herbert Spencer, Georg Simmel, and Max Weber. To understand this matter we need to explore the meaning of “methodological individualism” and its implications for social theory; but before doing so, let’s take a look at how Herbert Spencer, a confirmed methodological individualist, dealt with the issue of whether social “entities,” such as society and state, should be regarded as real existents that provide a distinctive field of study for sociology, a field not covered by other social sciences.
When Spencer considered the question of whether society is “but a collective name for a number of individuals,” he answered, No; society is an “entity” with identifiable properties. Spencer rejected the view “that society is but a collective name for a number of individuals”—in other words, that only individual human beings exist while “the existence of the society is but verbal.” He compared this nominalist doctrine, which treats “society” as nothing more than a name for an aggregate of individuals, to the members of an audience attending a lecture—a “certain arrangement of persons” that disbands and disappears, qua aggregate, after the lecture is over. Spencer called attention to an important difference between an audience and a society. The audience is a temporary gathering of individuals who do not exhibit fixed and recurring patterns of interaction. A society, in contrast, exhibits a “permanence of relations among component parts which constitutes the individuality of a whole as distinguished from the individualities of its parts.”
Spencer likened the relationship between society and individual human beings to a house and the individual stones that make it up. A house is more than a mere heap of stones randomly arranged; rather, it consists of stones that are “connected in fixed ways.” Similarly, a society is more than a heap, or aggregate, of individual human beings; it consists of individuals who exhibit a “general persistence” in their mutual relationships. This permanent element is the “trait which yields our idea of society.”
Society is therefore more than an aggregate of individuals; it is a system of individual relationships. Social institutions are recurring and (fairly) predictable patterns of interaction with definite characteristics that can be identified and studied by the sociologist, apart from their concrete manifestations in particular cases. Social institutions are “real” in the sense that they reveal themselves to human consciousness as objective features of the external world. They are discovered rather than invented; we cannot will them out of existence as we can a subjective idea that exists only in the mind. And it is this objectivity that makes an impartial science of society—i.e., sociology—possible.
There’s been a lot of talk in libertarian circles recently about the extent to which it’s appropriate to engage in the praise or condemnation of conduct that either is currently legal or ought to be made legal. This reminded me of a common saying among libertarians: “Libertarians don’t want to legislate morality.”
Now it isn’t exactly clear what is meant by “morality” in this context. Sometimes it seems that legislation against vice is what’s being singled out; other times, it seems like the objection is to the idea that the law ought to be justified on ethical grounds. In any case, the principle is frequently used to separate libertarians from conservatives, who, it is inferred, do want to “legislate morality.” The desire to make immoral actions illegal is being offered as a litmus test.
In that context, I want to discuss the label “libertarian,” beginning with the “legislating morality” litmus test. In doing this, it will help to examine what libertarians believe about the relationship between morality and the law. There are several positions libertarians have taken on this issue. I’m going to discuss several important and illustrative possibilities below; I do not mean for this enumeration to be exhaustive nor for the chosen examples to be very nuanced.
1.) All immoral actions, and nothing else, should be illegal. To arrive at libertarian conclusions from this position, a person would have to think that, for example, John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” describes a complete ethics. Mill states the principle this way: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Note that Mill specifically means for his criterion to determine whether or not it’s permissible to “exercise power,” i.e. political power, against someone. A person might believe the same thing about whether an act is ethical—no harm, no (moral) foul. I don’t think that’s correct, but I hope everyone will agree that it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to think, if a person has arrived at the conclusion through careful reflection and not by merely conflating immoral things and illegal things.
2.) Some but not all immoral actions, and no moral actions, should be illegal. Some libertarians might think that the consequences of making some immoral thing illegal would be terrible. For example, suppose I think it’s wrong to shout racial slurs at people while they’re shopping at the grocery store. Not merely impolite, but morally wrong. I might nevertheless hold that the consequences of making it illegal to do that would be worse than the consequences of it remaining legal. I might fear, for example, that if you can arrest someone based on his or her speech alone, the government might simply deem illegal all speech hostile to the government.
Another example might be a person who thinks abortion is wrong, but thinks it should be legal because enforcing a ban would involve intolerable invasions of people’s property and privacy. That person might say that under a ban police might have to investigate accidental miscarriages to determine criminal intent, for example.
3.) The law isn’t about morality in the first place; it’s about maintaining the peace. Another sort of libertarian might point out that at least in the common-law countries—like England and America—the law was not designed with an eye toward justice in mind. In fact he might note that most of the law, at least the useful bits, was not designed by anyone! Instead, law arose as people formed expectations about the future based on the outcomes of past conflict mediation. This position would be typified by someone like John Hasnas, who outlines the perspective in “The Depoliticization of Law” and elsewhere.
What we call the “common law” today evolved out of the arbitration of individual cases, and the evolutionary pressures were not so much aimed at justice as they were at producing rules that prevented costly violence in the future. As a consequence, then, the common law bans certain kinds of speech that would be likely to provoke violence (“fighting words”) but that fall short of being threats of physical harm.
A libertarian of this stripe would say that if there’s a place in the law for concerns of right and wrong at all, it’s as a matter of external criticism. Someone could argue that there ought to be cases where we abandon the peace-optimizing rule for reasons of justice, for example. However, the law is not presumed to have justice as its goal in all cases or even most cases.
This sort of law system might be attractive to libertarians for a variety of reasons. It produces rules that overlap largely, if not exactly, with libertarian ideas about right and wrong, and it limits a judge’s ability to impose his will on society at large, since his decisions hold sway over only discrete interpersonal conflicts.
Those three rough examples will be sufficient, I hope, to establish that libertarians have diverse opinions on the relationship between ethics and law. What ties them together as libertarians is not a commitment to “not legislating morality;” some libertarians, at least, want to outlaw ex. theft because theft is wrong.
If you want to write them out of the movement that’s your prerogative, but that’s not a particularly elucidating way to use the term “libertarian.” Likewise for attempts to say that only deontological anarchists and maybe some confused deontological minarchists are libertarian.
I also think it would be wrong to define libertarianism as being a set of conclusions about political philosophy, though libertarians are united much more by their conclusions than by their justifications for those conclusions. Rather, you have to talk about libertarianism as an intellectual tradition in a historical context. Roughly, that means the Enlightenment liberals and their intellectual heirs. You have to construe that group narrowly, because today more or less everyone’s political thought has been profoundly shaped by Enlightenment liberalism. So Rawls is out, despite the fact that he built a social contract theory that expresses many moral claims in terms of rights, which is all very typical of political thought in the Enlightenment tradition. On the other hand, a whole swath of thinkers is in, encompassing names like Rothbard, Friedman, Mises, Nozick, and, despite her protestations, Rand.
Where Hayek fits into a tradition started by the likes of Adam Smith, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill is a bit murky. My inclination is to say he’s on the outside edge, peering over the libertarian/conservative border at Edmund Burke. That said, labels of this kind are only really helpful in helping us get our bearings: substantively, the question “Was Hayek libertarian?” is boring. How about we ask instead: was he right?
That’s the question I’ll be examining in my next few posts. Hayek frequently gets used as a bludgeon by different people in support of different and often contradictory arguments, and I want to make some progress toward clarity on what, exactly, Hayek claims about the role of morality, laws, and norms in society and what implications this has for Hayekian libertarians and libertarians of other stripes.
In 1955, at the height of the Cold War, and influenced by zealous nationalism, historian Cecilia Kenyon classified Antifederalists, the term used to describe those who disagreed with the ratification of the Constitution in 1787, as “men of little faith” with no lasting impact on United States political history. Kenyon built on an outdated, nineteenth-century historiographical interpretation that cast aside Antifederalists as historical and political losers who stood in the way of democracy and progress. Since then, several studies have refuted Kenyon’s neo-nationalist point of view. Notably, within the last three decades a minority of historians have recognized the importance of Antifederalism to American political history, with laudable studies published by Herbert Storing (1981) and Saul Cornell (1994). Despite this, Antifederalism remains on the periphery of U.S. history, with many continuing to define Antifederalists in terms of what they fought against, a footnote in the triumphant history of Federalism and the United States.
Even more troubling, scholars have been slow to connect Antifederalist political theory with libertarianism. Although Antifederalists are largely responsible for the ratification of the Bill of Rights, many still look to James Madison, one of the most prominent Federalists in U.S. history, as the primary architect of the Bill of Rights, and, accordingly, as the father of American liberty. Yet, Madison initially argued against the inclusion of a Bill of Rights in 1787. In doing so, Madison and his fellow Federalists suggested that the rule of law maintained by a powerful Constitutional framework was more important than any liberties guaranteed in a Bill of Rights. When Madison did draft a Bill of Rights after ratification in 1789 he borrowed heavily from George Mason, a prominent Antifederalist from Virginia who authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776.
Antifederalists, on the other hand, offered an alternative form of government to the one proposed by their Federalist opponents. They envisioned a federal government restrained by a national Bill of Rights that emphasized the importance of individual liberties such as free speech, religious freedom and freedom of the press, the right to a trial by jury, protection from cruel and unusual punishment, and many more. Moreover, Antifederalists demanded that the power of the central government be restricted and that the state governments maintain political sovereignty. They argued, instead, in favor of a system of government legitimized through a democratic system of representation sustained by frequently held elections. Antifederalists, in other words, established a political tradition that emphasized the importance of limited government and individual liberty. The Antifederalist campaign for a national Bill of Rights and their insistence that the role of the central government be minimized as much as possible make Antifederalists the true forefathers of the American libertarian movement.
The Antifederalist emphasis on individual liberty and the importance of a Bill of Rights mirrors the modern-day libertarian focus on liberty. In an effort to defeat the new Constitution, Antifederalists worked within the framework outlined by the Philadelphia Convention and participated in state ratification conventions. Once nine out of thirteen states voted in favor of ratification, the Constitution would become the official law of the land. Many Antifederalists were elected as delegates to state ratification conventions, and even more published anti-Constitution propaganda. Individual rights and liberty were critical to Antifederalist political ideology. Often, governments will outline limitations to their power in a Bill of Rights attached to a national constitution. The new Constitution, however, did not include a Bill of Rights. Alexander Hamilton explained this omission in the Federalist 84, arguing that a Bill of Rights “would be dangerous” because it contained “various exceptions to powers not granted.” Hamilton argued that it was unnecessary to prevent the restriction of the liberty of the press, for instance, when “no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed.” Antifederalists, on the other hand, insisted that the Constitution must provide a list of concrete rights applicable to all American citizens. Several well-known and widely circulated Antifederalist documents, such as those written by George Mason, Robert Yates, Richard Henry Lee, Luther Martin, Samuel Bryan, the Federal Farmer, Agrippa, John de Witt, Cato, and Brutus, as well as impassioned speeches by Patrick Henry, showed that Antifederalists strongly objected to the absence of a Bill of Rights.
Often, despite being defeated, Antifederalists delegates who participated in conventions in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia, New Hampshire, New York, and North Carolina submitted a list of suggested amendments to the Constitution for the First Congress to consider. These amendments offer an important glimpse into Antifederalist ideas of liberty and individual rights. Though Pennsylvania successfully ratified the Constitution in December 1787 with a vote of 46-23, Antifederalists submitted an “Address and Reasons of Dissent of the Minority of the Convention.” In this, they expressed concern that the Constitution did not include provisions protecting freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to bear arms, the promise of a trial by jury in civil and criminal matters, and protection from excessive bail. Moreover, Antifederalists were integral in getting the Massachusetts convention to submit proposed amendments after ratification. Massachusetts closely ratified the Constitution on February 6, 1788 with a margin of 187 to 168. Towards the end of the convention, several Antifederalists agreed to change their votes and approve of ratification on the condition that the convention submit a list of recommended amendments. Like the Pennsylvania minority, Antifederalists in Massachusetts highlighted the need for the Constitution to protect individual liberty, such as the guarantee that all citizens have access to a fair and impartial jury trial in civil and criminal matters. Similarly, New Hampshire proposed amendments almost identical to those submitted by Massachusetts.
Antifederalists in New York and North Carolina further emphasized the necessity of a Bill of Rights to the American government. In New York, Antifederalists objections to the Constitution led to the submission of potential amendments that protected freedom of speech, freedom of press, the right to bear arms, and the right to a jury trial, and that prohibited unwarranted searches and excessive bail. Importantly, the New York amendments highlighted a common theme in Antifederalist philosophy: that “enjoyment of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are essential rights which every government ought to respect and preserve.” Antifederalists in North Carolina, briefly, won the battle against ratification when the state initially rejected the Constitution in 1788 because it did not protect the “unalienable rights of the people.” Ultimately, North Carolina ratified the Constitution after the First Congress proposed a Bill of Rights.
Like libertarians, Antifederalists feared a strong, powerful central government. To combat this, Antifederalists sought to limit government by advocating for more powers to be reserved for the state governments. The importance of state sovereignty is shown in several Antifederalist essays circulated during the ratification debates. The Federal Farmer essays, for instance, argued that the new Constitution consolidated state governments into one powerful central government, thus “exclud[ing] the agency of the respective states.” State sovereignty, according to the Federal Farmer, was more than a method of government; it was a fundamental principle and guarantor of liberty that the Constitution trampled on. Similarly, essays published Centinel and Brutus further demonstrated the importance of state sovereignty to Antifederalist ideology. In essays one, two, five, and nine Centinel criticized what he considered to be a large and powerful government created by the Constitution that ignored the rights of the state. In letter one, he suggested that the new government under the Constitution meant the destruction of the “blessings of liberty and the dearest privileges of freemen.” He saw liberty as dependent on a limited government that respected the rights of the states. Additionally, Brutus feared that the Constitution reduced the United States to “one great republic, governed by one legislature and under the direction of one executive and judicial,” thus superseding any and all power that the state may have had.
Antifederalists objected to vague clauses in Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution, which not only gave Congress the power to regulate inter-state commerce but also gave Congress the ability to “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers.” Antifederalists were, in particular, concerned that the government would broadly interpret the meaning of “inter-state commerce” and “necessary and proper.” Several Supreme Court decisions confirmed the accuracy of Antifederalist predictions. Almost immediately after the Constitution went into effect, the Washington administration proposed the creation of a national bank, a power not enumerated in the Constitution. In 1819, when the landmark Supreme Court case McCullough versus Maryland questioned the constitutionality of the national bank and the state’s ability to tax the bank, the Court, led by Chief Justice John Marshall, determined that the necessary and proper clause gave the government the power to charter a bank and that Maryland was not constitutionally capable of taxing the bank. This undoubtedly confirmed Antifederalist fears that the central government would expand its dominance over state governments and use ambiguities in the Constitution to its own advantage. Today libertarians are at the forefront of challenging the broad ways in which Congress and the Supreme Court decide what is “necessary and proper” in government.
Most Antifederalists believed that the federal government’s power to tax under the new Constitution would impede state sovereignty. The Pennsylvania Antifederalist minority, for example, feared that because the Constitution did not reserve any taxation powers to the state government, Congress “may monopolise every source of revenue and thus indirectly abolish the state government.” They predicted that this might give Congress the power to liberally interpret many taxes “to be for the general welfare” and therefore part of federal, not state, jurisdiction. In spite of the Tenth Amendment, which reflects the Antifederalist desire to restrain the authority of the central government by reserving power to the states, the government continues to expand the size and scope of its influence. For instance, Wickard vs. Filburn (1942) allowed Congress to use the commerce clause to regulate all commerce, even local trade. By using the Constitution to legitimize government interference in state and local matters, the Supreme Court confirmed Antifederalist fears that the Constitution would trample on state sovereignty. More recently, the commerce clause and the general welfare clause were used to justify the supposed constitutionality of the Affordable Health Care Act, a massive overreach of the government that would have appalled even the most moderate of Antifederalists. Libertarians have been among the most vocal opponents to President Obama’s healthcare legislation.
James Madison said in Federalist 10 that factions and political discord will benefit the United States. “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire,” Madison wrote, “an ailment without which it expires instantly.” The contest over the Constitution, one of the most significant political struggles in American history, tested Madison’s famous theory. Antifederalists participated in one of the earliest forms of factional, divisive politics in American history, and in the process established a tradition of dissent that had a great impact on American political history. Following the ratification of the Bill of Rights, new political divisions developed in Congress. Yet,at the core of these divisions were the Federalist notion that the central government ought to have more power over domestic affairs and the Antifederalist idea that the scope of government should be limited and, instead, sovereignty should primarily lie with the states. Thus, in arguing for limited government today, Libertarians are recycling Antifederalist ideas that, despite being over two-centuries old, continue to be relevant.
 Cecilia Kenyon. “Men of Little Faith: Antifederalists and the Nature of Representative Government.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series Vol. 12, No. 1 (1955), pp.3-43.
 The Bill of Rights was officially ratified in 1791.
 The eighteenth-century interpretation of democracy differs from our modern-day view. Specifically, a government was considered to be “democratic” in the eighteenth-century when all white men, regardless of social status, had the right to vote. More specifically, many states at this time still had property requirements in order to obtain the franchise. During the ratification era, the U.S. slowly began to move away from this, with New York being the first state to eliminate the property requirement during the 1787-1788 elections to the state ratification convention.
 Alexander Hamilton, “The Federalist No. 84: Certain General and Miscellaneous Objections to the Constitution Considered,” The Independent Journal, Accessed June 9, 2014.
Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri are a painful reminder about how the government often treats its black citizens. At times, it appeared the police were using the Bill of Rights as a checklist of laws to violate rather than the restraint on their powers it is supposed to be. And while it may be easier or more comfortable to think of this strictly as a government-citizen problem, the ever-present spectre of the past is worth remembering, as I have written previously:
Most criminal laws since Reconstruction are facially “colorblind,” but enforcement clearly is not and has never been. Context matters, and in the American context, race matters.
The chasm between the black and white reactions to the stories of isolated looting and nearly nightly assault en masse by police with tear gas and other heavy-handed tactics is no mere coincidence. Countless video and photographic images of police officers pointed loaded weapons at unarmed civilians exercising their constitutional rights were on full display and broadcast around the world. Yet, many people—particularly white people—believe such appalling actions were justified, undercutting the notion put forth by many libertarians that requiring police to wear body cameras will be sufficient to stem police abuse of citizens regardless of color.
Unpleasant as it is to recognize, race continues to play a role in American society. For this reason, libertarians should be cognizant of how policies affect black people, often disproportionately, and think about how that blatant unfairness might affect communities who have and will continue to face abuse by their government and by society at large. Changing the weapons—be it the Drug War, the militarization of police, or “Stop & Frisk”—won’t eliminate the longstanding antipathy between many communities and their police. Those policies should be eliminated, for sure, but the underlying problems of disproportionate enforcement and abuse will remain unless we purposefully address them. Ignoring racial disparities will not make them go away.
I’ve written on these issues here and here, and my libertarianism.org podcast on this topic can be downloaded or streamed here.