Liberty Matters

On Rules, Radicals, and Other Traditions

I thank the other contributors for their thoughtful and challenging comments. I will comment on each briefly and leave more detailed comments to later posts.
Gary Chartier and the “Dependent Classes”
Gary Chartier raises a key issue by distinguishing between “the springs of state action and not merely its outcomes.” By this he means that there is a difference between, to borrow a phrase from Bastiat, what is immediately “seen,” such as the consequences, or “outcomes,” of privileged access to state power in the form of unearned money or other benefits from taxpayers, and the “unseen,” which might take the form of behind-the-scenes lobbying or manipulating of those in power to grant those privileges. The example he discusses is that of “single mothers benefiting from government financial assistance,” who are technically “net tax consumers” under traditional CL theory but who cannot be regarded as part of the “ruling class.” They did not initiate or design the welfare state, which provides them with a meagre living, yet they can be counted as “net tax consumers” and hence part of the ruling class under older CL notions of class analysis. But this categorization would be a false one.
I prefer to call them members of a “dependent class,” whose existence helps the true ruling class legitimize its position in society (“we look after the poor and the disadvantaged”) as well as constituting part of the voting block which steadfastly votes for parties that advocate pervasive interventionism (e.g., the Democratic Party in the United States and the Labor Parties elsewhere). Many members of the dependent class are also victims of a class-based system which traps them in poverty and creates perverse incentives for those who might wish to move out of it. This raises the important question for revisionist historians of the welfare state: how were such perverse systems created by, in many cases, well-meaning people who did not understand economics, and other groups that Bentham would describe as having “sinister interests” in wanting to win over or buy off the poor and working classes so they could pursue other kinds of political and economic privilege? I’m thinking here of Otto von Bismarck’s invention of the modern welfare state in late 19th-century Germany. By offering state-run and -controlled health care and old-age insurance, the ruling Junker class could forestall the threat of social revolution from below so they could expand the power of the military and the profits of the tariff-protected large landowners. The poor Germans who received taxpayer-funded pensions were “net tax receivers,” as were the industrialists who built the new German navy under the Tirpitz plan, but they were not in the same league as the aristocratic politicians, industrialists, landed elites, and general officers who designed the system in the first place. Some poor Germans and their supporters in the socialist parties may have lobbied for state-run welfare, but the aristocratic politicians, industrialists, landed elites, and general officers  would be far better described as the “ruling elite” since they built and designed the system to buy off opposition and to serve their needs as well.
Jayme Lemke on “Rules”
Jayme Lemke makes the very Buchananite point about the role played by “rules” in both private and governmental organizations, and that it is a false distinction to divide society into “those who rule and those who are ruled.” This is a result of the complexity of the modern state, with its overlapping or even competing government agencies which set rules that others are forced to obey. Thus a functionary in one bureaucracy (say a city council) who can enforce council rules on those who live in the city must in turn obey other rules imposed by other state bureaucracies, such as the IRS. Another example might be drawn from government agencies which are working at cross purposes in the enforcement of their rules, for example, lawyers in the Department of Justice trying to enforce rules governing the issuing of arrest or search warrants being resisted by functionaries in the various spy and surveillance agencies (NSA) who want to operate without judicial supervision, even against the law. So in these cases, one can legitimately ask “who rules whom?”
I believe an answer to this question can be found in two related scholarly activities: firstly in drawing up a “taxonomy of rules” in order to understand the complex relationships between rule-enforcing bodies in society. This would be an examination of the “horizontal” application of rules and use of force within a society. The second would be an examination of the hierarchy of power-wielding bodies within the state, of the “vertical” application of rules and use of force within a society. Not all power-wielding bodies are equal, and it is the task of the historian and sociologist to identify what these bodies are, how they interact with each other, and where ultimate power resides. In our own society my hunch is that pinnacle of power-wielding bodies is occupied by financial and banking, intelligence and security, and military and foreign-policy groups.
George Smith’s Distinction between CL and Radical Libertarianism
The purpose of my comprehensive list of authors who have written on class in the “individualist” or CL tradition was to show how widespread, common, and very radical some of the rhetoric of class was. The fact that it was shared by both classical liberals who believed in limited government (like Bastiat and Cobden) and more “radical” libertarians who tended towards a form of anarchism (like Molinari and Spencer) raises a number of questions, as George Smith notes. One question is whether this terminology was just political rhetoric on the part of the classical liberals (and not to be taken too literally), or whether it concealed a deeper and very radical understanding of how the state operated.
George is quite right to show how this antistatist rhetoric might lead others to go too far down the anarchist slippery slope (as Tucker observed about Locke’s theory of consent). In the case of the French, Bastiat had very radical antistatist rhetoric concerning state activity (calling it plunder, rape, and theft, among other things), and yet he also advocated a minimal state restricted to providing police, defense, and some public goods (the standard Smithian line). The logic of his argument should have pushed him towards anarchism, as it did for his friend and colleague Molinari who, in 1849, did take the final step towards the private provision of security and competing insurance companies.[63] Bastiat refused to follow him by arguing that what the state was “legitimately” limited to do was in fact just and proper and not another example of plunder or theft of the taxpayers and consumers. He thus seemed to say that up to a certain point the ruling class plundered the people and were thus illegitimate, but beyond some defined point (the provision of police and defense) this same class had a monopoly which protected the people’s life, liberty and property, thus making their actions legitimate.
The problem for classical liberals like Bastiat was to explain how greater democracy or the creation of a republican form of government would miraculously change the ruling class into a productive, legitimate, and truly representative servant of the people -- in other words, that they could “tame” the government and keep it limited to these very few functions for good. As Steve Davies notes in his essay, towards the end of the 19th century a certain pessimism had set in among liberals, who increasingly came to believe that the state and its ruling and privileged class could not be limited for long and would be with us forever, even growing rapidly as socialist and democratic forces took control of European and American societies.
Steve Davies on the Links between Economics, Politics, and History in CL Thought
Steve Davies has inspired me to create some Ngrams for some of the key phrases I mentioned in my opening essay. I will do this in a later post.
Out of his lengthy analysis I can only comment on a one point here. It is to note that he is correct to point out that a significant difference between CL thought in the 19th century and today is the tight linkage which existed then between political, economic, and what one might call “social” ideas about liberty. Larry Siedentop made this same point in his essay “The Two Liberal Traditions” (1979)[64] where he argued that French liberalism constituted a “second tradition” within European liberalism (in contrast to the “first tradition” which emerged in England). It was the different historical experience of French liberals which led them to ask different questions about political and economic power, thus making their form of liberalism different from their British colleagues. The economic crises of the ancien régime, the class conflict of the revolution, the rise of a military dictatorship, the return of the conservative and authoritarian monarchy, and the slowness of industrialization compared with Britain, naturally led French liberals to strike out in a different direction. This second tradition emerged in the Restoration period following the fall of Napoleon, when French liberals like Benjamin Constant, Charles Comte, and Charles Dunoyer added “a social dimension” to what had been the primarily political and economic concerns of British classical liberals. These French liberals were able to create an interesting blend of political constitutionalism, laissez-faire economics, and a historically and socially focused interest in class and economic development. So when they came to analyze the state or advocate liberty, they did so from these three perspectives -- the political, the economic, and the sociological -- in what they thought was a seamless whole. This was very different from how the mainstream British classical liberals viewed the world. It was however a world view shared by many less well-known English radicals, as Steve correctly notes, but which unfortunately Siedentop does not. A more contemporry scholar who does recognise the importance of the "sociological dimension" to the French liberals in general and Bastiat in particular is the Canadian sociologist Robert Leroux.[65]
[63.] In 1849 Molinari wrote two essays on the private and competitive production of security: Gustave de Molinari, “De la production de la sécurité,” in JDE, T. 22, no. 95, 15 February, 1849), pp. 277–90, translated as The Production of Security, trans. J. Huston McCulloch, Occasional Papers Series #2, ed.Richard M. Ebeling, (New York: The Center for Libertarian Studies, May 1977); and chapter 11 of Gustave de Molinari, Les Soirées de la rue Saint-Lazare; entretiens sur les lois économiques et défense de la propriété (Paris: Guillaumin, 1849). Molinari explored these ideas further in Cours d’économie politique, professé au Musée royal de l’industrie belge, 2 vols. (Bruxelles: Librairie polytechnique d’Aug. Decq, 1855); 2nd revised and enlarged edition (Bruxelles et Leipzig: A Lacroix, Ver Broeckoven; Paris: Guillaumin, 1863), Douzième leçon, “Les consommations publiques,” pp. 480–534. Online version: </titles/1829>.
[64.] Larry Siedentop, “The Two Liberal Traditions,” The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin, ed. Alan Ryan (Oxford University Press, 1979).
[65.] See, Robert Leroux, “Bastiat and Political Economy” (July 1, 2013), with response essays by Donald J. Boudreaux, Michael C. Munger, and David M. Hart. </pages/bastiat-and-political-economy>; Robert Leroux, Lire Bastiat: Science sociale et libéralisme (Reading Bastiat: Social Science and Liberalism) (Paris: Harmann, 2008); transated as Political Economy and Liberalism in France: The Contributions of Frédéric Bastiat (London: Routledge, 2011); and Aux fondements de l'industrialisme : Comte, Dunoyer et la pensée libérale en France (Paris: Harmann, 2015) translated as The Foundations of Industrialism: Charles Comte, Charles Dunoyer and French Liberal Thought (Peter Lang, 2016).