Hoppe’s anti-scientifc drift

GIOVANNI BIRINDELLI, 12.3.2019

This article is a comment to the 2017 speech by H. H. Hoppe titled Libertarianism and the Alt-Right. In Search of a Libertarian Strategy for Social Change.

This speech is, in my opinion, a drift in the direction opposite to science. More precisely, it is the expression of a thought which, though starting from consistent scientific premises, in moving from theory to practice (or strategy) becomes inconsistent with these premises. This inconsistency is not about some accessory detail: it is about the very foundations of the science of liberty and of economic science.

  1. Non aggression principle: ‘macro’ vs. ‘micro’

The first fundamental contradiction is about the non aggression principle, that is the starting point of the science of liberty. Hoppe says: «while the [non aggression] principle does indeed hold and apply for people living far apart and dealing with each other only indirectly and from afar, it does not hold and apply, or rather it is insufficient, when it comes to people living in close proximity to each other, as neighbors and cohabitants of the same community».

Now, first of all, the invalidity of a principle and its insufficiency are entirely different concepts. Gravity law is insufficient, per se, to take men into space: you need also an engineering/aerospace project. However, this does not mean that gravity law is invalid. On the contrary, an engineering/aerospace project which did not consider it valid (or which considered it valid only for some individuals) could hardly take men into space, and actually even lift them one centimeter above the ground.

At the beginning of his speech, Hoppe claims that «conceptual precision» is the border line which separates «true libertarians» from «false» ones. This confusion between invalidity and insufficiency (a confusion which is made in relation to nothing less than the non aggression principle) would qualify Hoppe, according to his own standards, as a «false libertarian».

In fact, later in the speech, Hoppe clarifies that he believes that the non aggression principle is invalid in some cases such as the one of neighbors who express collectivist ideas (!): «neighbors who openly advocate communism, socialism, syndicalism or democracy in any shape or form […] must […] be “physically removed,” if need be by violence, and forced to leave for other pastures. Not to do so inevitably leads to – well, communism, socialism, syndicalism or democracy and hence, the very opposite of a libertarian social order». Thus the expression of aggressive ideas (!) becomes a justification for a violation of the non-aggression principle: in particular, for a violation of liberty of expression (and therefore of legitimate property).

This arbitrarily selective validity of the non aggression principle reminds from afar the purely Keynesian contradiction between ‘macroeconomics’ (where certain economic laws would hold and apply) and ‘microeconomics’ (where opposite economic laws would hold and apply). By consistently applying the same economic laws to all cases without exception, the Austrian School of economics has demonstrated that this theoretical contradiction between ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ analysis has no scientific value whatsoever. In Hayek’s words, it is scientism, not economic science.

More specifically in relation to the science of liberty, the idea that aggression can be justified in some cases and not in others is nothing less that the base on which the whole structure of state-collectivism rests. Thus not only is this thesis anti-scientific and self-contradicting, but it also expresses a structure of thought which in fact, underneath the adhesion to the scientific principles illustrated by consistent thinkers such as Murray Rothbard, has strong analogies with that of his worst enemies, the state-collectivists.

  1. To have your cake and eat it

To have a collectivist structure of thought does not mean to adhere to collectivism: it means to have mental processes which, mutatis mutandis, are similar to those of collectivists. One of these mental processes is, as we have seen, to defend an arbitrarily selective validity of the non aggression principle. Another one is the tendency to have your cake and eat it.

We can see this mental process in the ordinary collectivist when, while on the one hand he claims not to be hostile to liberty, on the other hand he demands that coercion on others is used in order to relieve him of the responsibilities and of the risks that liberty by definition implies. The same mental process can be observed in the modern democrat (especially in continental Europe) when, while on the one hand he claims to be in favor of freedom of expression, on the other hand he believes that it is legitimate to aggress those who express a thought that he hates (let us think, in the Italian case for example, of the ‘crime’ of apology of Fascism and, more in general, of the many opinions whose expression is considered to be a ‘crime’ in that country). And so on… Now, this same mental process of wanting your cake and eating it at the same time, which is so typical of modern collectivists, is clearly observable in Hoppe when, while on the one hand he defends the non aggression principle, on the other he believes that it does not hold and apply when the aggression is against individuals who express thoughts (!) which are hostile to liberty.

Liberty does not mean absence of discomfort. It does not imply absence of costs. And the costs and risks which are associated to liberty are precisely one of the reasons why so many people are hostile to it. Individuals who are consistently on the side of freedom (let’s label them as ‘libertarians’) are only a few, and will continue being only a few, also because in order to be a libertarian it takes a strong moral fiber which is difficult to find: it takes to defend the non aggression principle even when such defense goes against one’s own interests or tastes, or allows others to express ideas which are incompatible with ours. It requires to defend property (and therefore also liberty of expression) even when it is that of our enemies, otherwise we become like them.

  1. Difference as a cause of disorder

Another profound contradiction of Hoppe’s thought is economic. While, on the one hand, Hoppe knows economic science (which today is studied only by the Austrian School of economics) on the other hand he sees difference (or «heterogeneity») as a cause of disorder. However, this idea of difference as a disorder-producing factor is incompatible with the subjective theory of value and with the process of free exchange (in other words, with economic science itself).

In fact, starting from the case of the non-aggressive «bad neighbor», Hoppe concludes that «The peaceful cohabitation of neighbors and of people in regular direct contact with each other on some territory – a tranquil, convivial social order – requires also a commonality of culture: of language, religion, custom and convention. There can be peaceful co-existence of different cultures on distant, physically separated territories, but multi-culturalism, cultural heterogeneity, cannot exist in one and the same place and territory without leading to diminishing social trust, increased tension, and ultimately the call for a “strong man” and the destruction of anything resembling a libertarian social order». In other words, in Hoppe’s world, a Thai chef could not live in Rome without producing disorder; an atheist and a Christian could not live in the same area peacefully, etc.

It seems to me that the incompatibility between this thesis and economic science is too obvious and evident to be seriously discussed. The fact that, inside the same article where Hoppe criticizes protectionism, he defends it in a particular case (what is coercive protection of homogeneity if not a particular form of protectionism?) is frankly a rather gross contradiction.

In fact, the subjective theory of value by itself already includes the difference as an order-producing factor. Every person is different from another: she has different priorities, different preferences, different strengths and weaknesses, different thoughts, she is in different situations, etc. The necessity of exchange springs up precisely from this diversity: without the latter, exchange would have no reason to exist. Only thanks to this diversity, in a free exchange, both parties improve their situation and therefore there is a creation of economic value.

The order brought about by the process of free exchange is a spontaneous order: that is, among other things [1], an order in which there isn’t any unitary hierarchy of ends, ideas or preferences which is coercively imposed on some individuals by some others. In other words, an order in which, as long as individuals do not violate the non aggression principle, they can think, say and do exactly what they want; and of course they can discriminate against whom they want, as long as this discrimination is not aggressive.

This kind of order is anti-fragile: the more the principles on which it is based are consistently respected, the more prosperous and peaceful it becomes. To think that the spreading of collectivist ideas by itself could be a threat to this kind of order is not only an objective mistake in relation to the concept of “threat” (unlike aggressive threats, aggressive ideas are not equivalent to aggression) but also a structural misunderstanding in relation to the fundamental dynamics of the market process, which always selects the best. In a free market, only bad ideas need coercive protection in order to survive, just as bad money or bad products/services -such as government ones- do.

In short, in a free market environment, difference produces order, not disorder. By seeing difference as a disorder-producing factor in this environment, Hoppe again expresses a structure of thought (and a lack of confidence in the superiority of the free market process) which is typically collectivist.

  1. Group reasoning, freedom and end states

Hoppe’s conclusions express a collectivist structure of thought also in another sense.

In his speech, Hoppe reasons in terms of groups of individuals (e.g. those speaking the same language, sharing the same religion, the same culture, etc.). In particular, he reasons in terms of groups which are formed on the grounds of criteria which are utterly irrelevant in relation to the non-aggression principle. This kind of reasoning, which is typical of the collectivist mentality, is incompatible with the methodological (individualistic) premises of economic science.

Furthermore, this kind of ‘group reasoning’ leads Hoppe to make the same methodological mistake collectivists make in relation to liberty: instead of seeing it as a process he sees it as an end state: that is, as a particular situation. However, being nothing more and nothing less than the sovereignty of the non aggression principle, liberty is a process, not an end state. The more that principle is respected, the less one can foresee the end states that such respect will produce. And vice-versa. When Hoppe claims that only a uniform society can lead to freedom, he makes a confusion between a particular end state and freedom.

  1. Realism, populism and bitcoin

Hoppe claims that «any realistic libertarian strategy for change must be a populist strategy. That is, libertarians must short-circuit the dominant intellectual elites and address the masses directly to arouse their indignation and contempt for the ruling elites».

Throughout his entire speech, Hoppe insists a lot on the concept of “realism”. Now, this term has mainly two meanings: a logical one and a common one.

In its logical sense, “realism” means to see objective reality for what it is. When this term is consistently used in this sense, it does not imply any contrast between the “theoretical” and the “practical” but instead a complementarity between the two. In fact, both the theoretical (when it is scientific) and the practical are a part of objective reality. Any successful strategy must make use of both: again, if one wants to send man into space, not only does it take an engineering project (the practical) but also the knowledge and respect, without “buts” and “ifs”, of the laws of physics (the theoretical).

On the contrary, the common meaning of the term “realism” suggests a separation and even a contrast between the theoretical and the practical. More precisely, it implies to confine the theoretical to the realm of idle chatter (the funny term used by Hoppe to label positions such as the one expressed in this article is liberallala) and to rely, in “real life”, only on the practical. As we have seen, in the case of Hoppe this approach has produced (as it often produces) a great confusion and an arbitrary violation, in moving from theory to practice, of the most elementary scientific principles.

A strategy which is realistic in the logical sense of the term is the one used in bitcoin. On the one hand, this strategy is practical (e.g. the bitcoin protocol and its decentralized structure are part of its anti-fragile nature). On the other hand, it is perfectly consistent with the scientific (ethical and economic) theory on which it is based: there isn’t even one single aspect of bitcoin which violates the non aggression principle and economic laws. On the contrary: bitcoin was invented precisely in order to defend both in the field of money.

However, in addressing the masses directly to arouse their indignation there’s nothing that is a «change» from what is usually done by the political-parasitic classes. There’s nothing which alters the centralized model which is being criticized. There’s no aspect of this strategy which touches the structure of incentives. There’s only the coarse aspiration to replace a particular intellectual élite with another. In other words, at the level of strategy, more of the same.

Conclusions

In using the term science of liberty I refer to the relatively small part of political philosophy which has scientific value. That is, which, in defending its theses, neither incurs in logical contradiction nor recurs to arbitrariness. Ever.

Similarly, in using the term economic science I refer to the relatively small part of economic theory which has scientific value. That is, which, on the grounds of a methodology that is suitable for the subject at hand, starting from self-evident axioms it proceeds by logical deductions without incurring in logical inconsistencies (for example in relation to the theory of value) nor recurring to arbitrariness. Ever.

Even though he starts from consistent scientific premises, in moving from theory to practice Hoppe violates fundamental principles of the science of liberty and of economic science. In doing this, while being radically opposed to any form of statism and of collectivism, he shows a structure of thought which has important elements in common with these anti-scientific and totalitarian doctrines.

NOTES

[1] A spontaneous order (where there’s no unitary hierarchy of ends; the knowledge used is peripherally dispersed knowledge which is not available to any directing mind; and the rule applied is the non aggression principle) is the opposite of an organization or positive order (where there is unitary hierarchy of ends; the knowledge used is the centralized knowledge of the directing mind(s); and the rule applied is an arbitrary decision, e.g. of the legitimate owner of the organization). However, this is not to say that the two kinds of order are incompatible: quite the opposite. The spontaneous order is the order brought about by the interplay of many positive orders under the limits established by the non aggression principle: «[the term catallaxy describes] the order brought about by the mutual adjustment of many individual economies [positive orders, organizations, editor’s note] in a market. A catallaxy is […] the special kind of spontaneous order produced by the market through people acting within the rules of the law of property, tort and contract» [Hayek, F. A., 1982, Law, Legislation and Liberty (Routledge, London), Vol. 2, pp. 108-109]. What is incompatible with the existence of the spontaneous order is the systematic and legal violation of the non aggression principle: such violation turns society itself, via the government and its interventionism, into an organization or positive order. In this way, the amount and quality of knowledge used in the economic system are reduced dramatically and liberty is destroyed.

2 thoughts on “Hoppe’s anti-scientifc drift

  1. Jay Davies March 13, 2019 / 6:47 pm

    Great piece.

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