The Libertarian Quest for a Grand Historical Narrative
ABSTRACT: The greatest challenge for libertarians, whether economic or otherwise, is to develop a grand historical narrative that is to counter and correct the so-called Whig theory of history that all ruling elites, everywhere and at all times, have tried to sell to the public: that is the view, that we live in the best of all times and that the grand sweep of history, notwithstanding some ups and downs, has been one of more or less steady progress. This Whig theory of history, despite some setbacks motivated in particular by the experiences of the two disastrous world wars during the first half of the twentieth century, has again become predominant in the public mind. But while the present democratic social order may be the technologically most advanced civilization, it most certainly is not the most advanced socially. In fact, by some measures it falls far behind the Middle Ages. The principal counterstrategy of recivilization must be a return to “normality” by means of decentralization. The process of territorial expansion that went hand in hand with the centralization of all authority in one monopolistic hand must be reversed. The paper concludes with comments on Steven Pinker’s attempt to rescue the Whig theory of history and demonstrate that we live in the best of all worlds—an attempt which is in fact an utter failure.
Hans-Hermann Hoppe is professor emeritus of economics at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, distinguished senior fellow with the Mises Institute, and president of the Property and Freedom Society.
This paper is adapted from a lecture delivered to the Property and Freedom Society on September 16, 2018.
“To historians is granted a talent that even the gods are denied—to alter what has already happened!” (David Irving)
It is no secret that I am not a Hayekian. Still, I consider Hayek a great economist—not in the same league as Mises, but few if any economists are. Hayek’s fame in the public mind, however, has less to do with his economic writings but stems largely from his writings in political theory, and it is in this area that I consider him mostly deficient. Not even his system of definitions here is internally consistent. His excursions into the field of epistemology are quite ingenious, yet here he also falls short of the accomplishments of his teacher Mises. Nonetheless, owing to his wide-ranging interdisciplinary oeuvre, which contains a treasure trove of keen insights into many issues, I consider Hayek one of the twentieth century’s outstanding intellectuals writing in the social sciences.
As a reflection of this esteem, Hayek was also quoted in the programmatic statement of the Property and Freedom Society.
We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. What we lack is a liberal Utopia, a programme which seems neither a mere defence of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the susceptibilities of the mighty…, which is not too severely practical and which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible. We need intellectual leaders who are prepared to resist the blandishments of power and influence and who are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects of its early realization. They must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their full realization, however remote.…Unless we can make the philosophical foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark. But if we can regain that belief in the power of ideas which was the mark of liberalism at its best, the battle is not lost.
Hayek of course did not follow his own advice, but ended up, in his political philosophy, with a mishmash full of internally inconsistent compromises. Yet this does not mean that his plea for an uncompromising intellectual radicalism, which has been the purpose and become the hallmark of the PFS, is not worthwhile or correct.
But this shall not be my topic here. Rather, I want to speak about another important, if complementary, insight of Hayek’s that can be found in the introduction he wrote for the collection of essays gathered in Capitalism and the Historians. Here, Hayek makes the point that although uncompromising intellectual radicalism is necessary as a source of energy and inspiration for the leaders of a liberal-libertarian movement, this is not sufficient to make for public appeal. Because the general public is not used to or capable of abstract reasoning, high theory, and intellectual consistency, but forms its political views and convictions on the basis of historical narratives, i.e., of prevailing interpretations of past events, it is upon those who want to change things for a better, liberal-libertarian future to challenge and correct such interpretations and propose and promote alternative, revisionist historical narratives.
Let me quote from Hayek to this effect:
While the events of the past are the source of the experience of the human race, their opinions are determined not by the objective facts but by the records and interpretations to which they have access.…Historical myths have perhaps played nearly as great a role in shaping opinion as historical facts.…The influence which the writers of history thus exercise on public opinion is probably more immediate and extensive than that of the political theorists who launch new ideas. It seems as though even such new ideas reach wider circles usually not in their abstract form but as the interpretations of particular events. The historian is in this respect at least one step nearer to direct power over public opinion than is the theorist.…Most people, when being told that their political convictions have been affected by particular views on economic history, will answer that they never have been interested in it and never have read a book on the subject. This, however, does not mean that they do not, with the rest, regard as established facts many of the legends which at one time or another have been given currency by writers on economic history. (Hayek 1954, 3–8)
The central theme of Capitalism and the Historians is the revision of the still popular myth that it was the system of free market capitalism, at the beginning of the so-called Industrial Revolution, around the early 1800s, which has been responsible for the economic misery that caused even little children to have to work for sixteen hours or more under atrocious conditions in mines or similarly uncomfortable workplaces, and that it was only due to the pressure of labor unions and government intervention in the economy by way of so-called social policy means and measures that this “inhumane” system of “capitalist exploitation” was gradually overcome and improved.
When first hearing this sad story, one would think that the immediate question coming to mind should be: Why would any parent subject his child to such a treatment and hand him over to some evil capitalist exploiters? Did these children have a jolly good time before, strolling around in meadows and fields, healthy and with red cheeks, picking flowers, eating apples off the trees, fishing and swimming in creeks, rivers, and lakes, playing with their toys and attentively listening to their grandparents’ tales? In that case, what horrible people must these parents have been! Merely asking these questions should be sufficient to realize that this story cannot be true. And in fact, as Hayek and his collaborators demonstrated, it is just about the opposite of the truth.
Until the Industrial Revolution, England and the rest of the world, for thousands of years, had lived under Malthusian conditions. That is, the supply of consumer goods provided by nature and by human production through means of intermediate tools and producer goods was not sufficient to ensure the survival of a growing population. Population growth exceeded the growth of production and any increases in productivity; hence, not only in England, but everywhere, an “excess” of population regularly had to die off due to malnutrition, ill health, and ultimately starvation. It was only with and since the Industrial Revolution that this situation fundamentally changed and the Malthusian trap was successively overcome, first in England, then in continental Europe and the European overseas dependencies, and finally also in much of the rest of the world, so as to allow not only for a steadily growing population, but one with continuously rising material standards of living. And this momentous achievement was the result of free market capitalism, or more precisely a combination and interplay of three factors. For one, the general security of private property; second, low time preference, i.e., the ability and willingness of a growing number of people to delay immediate gratification so as to save for the future and accumulate an ever larger stock of capital goods; and third, the intelligence and ingenuity of a sufficient number of people to invent and engineer a steady stream of new productivity-enhancing tools and machines.
The parents of the poor children, who handed them over to the “evil capitalists” during the Industrial Revolution were not bad parents, then, but like most parents everywhere who want the best for their children, they chose to do so, because they preferred their children alive, even if it was a miserable life, rather than dead. Contrary to still popular myth in leftist circles, then, capitalism did not cause misery, but literally saved countless millions of people from death by starvation and gradually lifted them from their previous state of abject poverty. Labor unions’ and governments’ so-called social policies did not help in this regard, but hampered and retarded this process of gradual economic improvement, and were and still are responsible for countless numbers of unnecessary deaths.
There are many other related myths, equally or even more absurd, propagated by, to use Nicholas Taleb’s label, IYIs (intellectuals yet idiots) and widely believed by the general public: that you can legislate greater economic prosperity by simply passing minimum wage laws, or else that economic misery can be overcome by simply increasing monetary spending.—But why, then, not legislate hourly wage rates of $100 or $1000, and why, then, is India, for instance, still a poor country? Are the ruling elites in India too dumb to know about this magic formula? —Why, then, since everywhere nowadays governments can easily increase the quantity of paper money in practically unlimited amounts, is there still any poor person around?
Nor are such faulty historical narratives restricted only to economic history. Rather, much of what we have learned as the established truth from our standard history books about World War I and World War II, about the American and the French Revolutions, about Hitler, Churchill, FDR or Napoleon, and on and on and on, also turns out to be faulty history—facts mixed in, whether intentionally or not, with hefty doses of fiction, and fake.
Important as the revision of all these myths is, however, the greatest challenge for libertarians, whether economic or otherwise, is to develop a grand historical narrative that is to counter and correct the so-called Whig theory of history that all ruling elites, everywhere and at all times, have tried to sell to the public: that is the view, that we live in the best of all times (and that they are the ones who will guarantee that this stays so) and that the grand sweep of history, notwithstanding some ups and downs, has been one of more or less steady progress. This Whig theory of history, despite some setbacks motivated in particular by the experiences of the two disastrous world wars during the first half of the twentieth century, has again become predominant in the public mind, as indicated by the success of such books as Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992) or, still more recently, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) and Enlightenment Now (2018).
According to the proponents of this theory, what makes the present age so great and qualifies it as the best of all times is the combination of two factors: for one, never before in human history have technology and the natural sciences reached as high a level of development and have the average material living standards been as high as today——which appears essentially correct and which fact without doubt contributes greatly to the public appeal and acceptance of the Whig theory. Secondly, never before in history have people supposedly experienced as much freedom as today with the development of “liberal democracy” or “democratic capitalism”— which claim, despite its widespread popularity, I consider a historical myth. In fact, since the degree of freedom and of economic and technological development are indeed positively correlated, this leads me to the conclusion that average material living standards would have been even higher than they presently are if history only had taken a different course.
But before offering an alternative, grand revisionist historical narrative and indicating where Pinker and his ilk go off the rails with their Whiggish world history, a few remarks on the history of science are in order. Until relatively recently, the belief in a steady growth of science, if nothing else, has never been much in doubt—until the early 1960s, with the historian of science Thomas Kuhn and his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Kuhn, in contrast to the orthodox Whig-ish view on the matter, portrayed the development of science not so much as a continuous march upward and into the light, but rather as a sequence of “paradigm shifts” that followed each other much like—directionless—one lady-fashion follows another. The book became a huge success and for quite some time Kuhn’s view became a widespread fashion in philosophical circles. Kuhn notwithstanding, however, I still regard the traditional view concerning the development of science as essentially correct. The central error of Kuhn as well as of many philosophers of science—revealingly expressed again and again, for instance, by Sheldon Cooper, the super science nerd–theoretical physicist character in the hugely popular TV series The Big Bang Theory—lies in a fundamental misconception regarding the interrelation between science on the one hand and engineering or technology on the other.
This is the popular misconception of science as coming before, having priority over, and assuming a higher rank and dignity vis-à-vis engineering and technology as only secondary and inferior intellectual enterprises, i.e., as mere “applied” science. In fact, however, matters are exactly the other way around. What comes methodologically first, and what makes science as we know it at all possible and at the same time provides its ultimate foundation, is human engineering and construction. Put plainly and bluntly: without such purposefully designed and constructed instruments as measuring rods, clocks, planes, rectangles, scales, counters, lenses, microscopes, telescopes, audiometers, thermometers, spectrometers, x-ray and ultrasound machines, particle accelerators, and on and on, no empirical and experimental science as we know it would be possible. Or to put it in the words of the great late German philosopher-scientist Peter Janich: “Handwerk” comes before and provides the stable foundation and groundwork of “Mundwerk.” Whatever controversies or quibbles scientists may have, they are always controversies and quibbles within a stable operational framework and reference system defined by a given state of technology. And in the field of human engineering, no one would ever throw out or “falsify” a working instrument until and unless he had another, better working instrument available.
Hence, it is engineering and advances in engineering that make science and scientific progress possible and at the same time prevent from happening that which Karl Popper’s “falsificationist” philosophy of science that currently dominates intellectual public opinion must admit as “always possible”: not only scientific regression but even the complete breakdown of our entire system of knowledge due to the supposedly “always possible” falsification of even its seemingly most basic hypotheses. What prevents this nightmare from happening and what exposes both Kuhn’s relativism and Popper’s related falsificationism as involving an elementary methodological error is the existence of “Handwerk” and its methodical priority and primacy over the mere “Mundwerk” of science.
(Note: I am not denying here the possibility of periods of regression in the development of science. But I would explain any such regression as the consequence of a prior loss of practical engineering knowledge. “Harmlessly” in the normal course of economic development, certain skills may die out and be forgotten, because there is no longer any demand for their products. This does not necessarily imply a step back in engineering knowledge, however. Indeed, such loss can be more than made up by the development of different skills required for the manufacturing of different, more highly demanded products. Loss here is the springboard of technological progress. Old tools and machines are replaced by better new ones. But another, less “harmless” development is possible as well, and has indeed taken place at certain times and places. Due to a pestilence, for instance, the population size, and with it also the division of labor, might dramatically shrink and lead to a huge and widespread loss of accumulated engineering knowledge and skills, so as to require a return to earlier and more primitive modes of production. Or a population might simply become less bright, for whatever reason, than its forebears and unable to maintain a given (inherited) level of technological advancement.)
With this out of the way, I can now turn to the fake part of the Whig theory of history—concerning social history. Although it is comparatively easy to diagnose technological progress, and along with this also scientific progress (progress occurs whenever we learn how to successfully accomplish some additional, quicker, or better result in our purposeful dealings with the nonhuman world of material objects, plants, and animals), it is significantly more difficult to define and diagnose social progress, i.e., progress in interpersonal dealings or man-to-man interactions.
To do this, it is first necessary to define a model of social perfection that is in accordance with human nature, i.e., of men as they really are, which can serve as a reference system to diagnose the relative proximity or distance of various historical events, periods, and developments to this ideal. And this definition of social perfection and social progress must be strictly separate, independent, and analytically distinct from the definition of technological and scientific growth and perfection (even if both progress or growth dimensions are empirically positively correlated). Conceptually, that is, it must be allowed that there can be societies that are (near) perfect socially but technologically backward, as well as societies that are technologically highly advanced and yet socially backward.
For the libertarian, this ideal of social perfection is peace, i.e., a normally tranquil and frictionless person-to-person interaction—and a peaceful resolution of occasional conflict—within the stable framework of private or several (mutually exclusive) property and property rights. I do not want to appeal only to libertarians with this, howeve
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