Lament for Conservatism

by Mario Rizzo  

In today’s New York Times David Brooks argues that conservatives need to plan for “the day after tomorrow.” Tomorrow there will be the revolt against out-of-control government and that is good. But the day after America must return to its traditional non-ideological pragmatism about government. We need to solve problems as we find them. Government used in wise ways can be very helpful.   

But what are these pragmatic government policies? Was it not one “fix” after another with little thought to the kind of society being created that has produced what we have today. I have no objection to “pragmatism” if it is a far-seeing pragmatism that looks to consequences – both indirect and complex.  

The conservative reaction against “ideology” is a total misconception. A “good” ideology is a philosophy that focuses our attention on the long-run, Bastiat’s “unseen,” and the fundamental values of a free society. Most of all, however, it helps us focus on those rules that act to resist the special interests who would undermine the structure of a free society, one issue at a time.  

This ideology is classical liberalism. If we truly understand how things went wrong in the over the past many decades, we would see that non-ideological pragmatism does not inspire confidence.

50 thoughts on “Lament for Conservatism

  1. The problem with the term “pragmatism” isn’t so much that we shouldn’t try “what works” — obviously we should do that — but with the fact that people in politics mean “what works to keep us in power.” Real pragmatism should fit in well with ideology — if that ideology matches reality, and by pragmatism we really do mean “what works.”

  2. In Law, Legislation and Liberty (I: 57), Hayek addressed this issue not so differently from Mario’s post. Hayek described freedom as “a supreme principle, which must not be sacrificed for particular advantages.” He quoted Benjamin Constant, who described liberalism as “the system of principles.” He also referenced Bastiat on the seen and the not seen.

    Finally, Hayek quoted Carl Menger on the “pragmatism that contrary to the intentions of its representatives inexorably leads to socialism.”

  3. Here’s something that never seems to occur to anyone: freedom works. It shouldn’t be about what works to give one power, to keep one in power, to get votes, etc. It should be about what works to create a more productive, more creative, wealthier, more ethical society — and what works is liberty.

    Of course, the common use of the term “pragmatism” also has little to do with philosophical pragmatism. Brooks is hardly using it in the latter sense.

  4. It is even possible for someone to be pure of ideology? From,


    –noun, plural -gies.
    the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.

    It seems to me that a doctrine that stresses pragmatism is no less an ideology than, say, socialism, Marxism, or classical liberalism.

    So I agree with the post, and would go on to say that the struggle is really between accurate ideology and inaccurate ideology (this is not to say that any existing ideology is completely accurate or completely inaccurate).

  5. There is little chance of a return to any kind of principled liberlism in politics because, beyond the rethoric, the mindset of the dominant majaroities today, the Left and the Right, is the same. They only differ with regard to style and, of course, group adversity.

  6. David Brooks lends credence to my claim that this is in reality only one party in the US, the statist. It has two branches, Democrats and Republicans, while their policies may different at their heart the answer to any problem is more government.

  7. I hate to be pessimistic, but I don’t think it’ll ever go away. It’s too helpful to politicians. After all, if you pretend anything can work, and that everything depends on the context, you can’t really ever be a flip flop. Adoxalism will always be a great tool to seduce the median voter. It’s the ultimate form of political correctness.

  8. I love it (hate it) when economists talk about politics and just don’t get it.

    Brooks is expressing the *mainstream perception* that there is an opposition between ideology (dogmatic and impractical) and pragmatism (problem solving). This is the typical view of the average American voter, and the average American Progressive: they are all about practical problem solving, whereas ideologues–e.g., Tea Partiers, Libertarians, and Communists–elevate an abstraction such as The Constitution, Liberty, or Socialism above concern for solving social and economic problems.

    That is the perception. I.e., the perception is that Tea Partiers and Libertarians are impractical, dogmatic, inflexible. And you guys (libertarians) protest that no, libertarianism would actually solve social and economic problems and that departures from “Liberty” tend to fail.

    Fine. So instead of protesting that Brooks et al. misunderstand you, why not take a clue about *why* they misunderstand you and realize that your problem-solving message is being obscured by your proclaimed devotion to Liberty? This might lead to using rhetoric that would not make you sound like impractical…ideologues.

  9. That rather optimistically assumes that they care for non-state solutions. One cannot forget that for many of these people, including demagogues like Brooks, it’s all about gaining power.

    So those people aren’t going to be persuaded, because if they were persuaded, they would have to give up their pursuit for more power. Which isn’t to say that your general statement, that we should be more practical in our rhetoric, isn’t valid. Just so long as the principles aren’t abandoned for a spurious “what works.” What works for Brooks et al is more power. That is all.

  10. Troy, how could you possibly know what motivates Brooks? Have you met him?

    Could you be inferring from the fact that he doesn’t understand you that he *deliberately* misunderstands you?

    I thought Austrians understood the role of ignorance and error in human behavior.

  11. He’s a demagogue. Any non-blind, non-ignorant person knows what demagogues are about. Or you can choose to be led along by your nose. Your choice. There is a difference between ignorance of what is best for each individual and ignorance of what system is best. Further, we are not talking about radical postmodern ignorance — that’s not what Austrianism is about. One can use all sorts of signals to know what someone is “about.” Brooks has provided plenty of information to let anyone who cares to learn what he’s about. Brooks is all about the GOP retaining power and expanding government under GOP ideas. That is obvious from everything he has published over the past several years. A right-wing statist is no better than a left-wing one.

  12. That’s remarkable! In other words, there is no ignorance about what system is best! Then why in the world do most voters around the entire world decisively repudiate the system that I assume, as an Austrian, that you advocate: laissez-faire capitalism?

    Either you are ignorant or they are.

    What, BTW, is postmodern about acknowledging that people can be mistaken? It’s just Popperianism (fallibilism), as far as I know.

  13. Ever heard of folk economics? Clearly you are a practitioner of it.

    Yes, we do know what system is best. It’s the free market. It’s no more up for popular vote than is quantum physics, the fact that material objects are made of atoms, or that biological variation came about through evolution. But people evolved to have what is known as “folk economics.” People mistakenly apply the situation in which humans evolved to contemporary social structures. The world is not a zero sum game, and pure reciprocation is not necessary. Trade has mostly replaced pure reciprocation, and the world is a positive sum game. It is hard to overcome folk economics with real economics — it takes a great deal of education in the field to understand how it really works.

    Now, we can either assume that Brooks is an advocate of folk psychology and therefore doesn’t have the foggiest idea of what he’s talking about, so we should ignore him, or he does know, and he’s advocating what he does because he is interested in expanding the state and extending the power of him and the GOP, and so we should ignore him. Which one is it?

    It is not postmodern to acknowledge people can be mistaken, but it is postmodern to bring in radical ignorance every time someone calls you out on your power grab.

  14. Jeffery,

    I want to go back to your original comment above. I think may be reading in. Brooks says:

    Throughout American history, in other words, there have been leaders who regarded government like fire — a useful tool when used judiciously and a dangerous menace when it gets out of control. They didn’t build their political philosophy on whether government was big or not. Government is a means, not an end. They built their philosophy on making America virtuous, dynamic and great. They supported government action when it furthered those ends and opposed it when it didn’t.

    It sure seemed to me that he, Brooks, is saying how these swell guys like Lincoln and Washington were not ideologues, but pragmatists. What’s the language to suggest that he is referring only to popular perception?

    IMHO it is most notable, as Mario seems to have been pointing out to us, that Brooks’s pragmatism seems to have no higher principle to guide it than that state action is useful when it promotes good ends and not when it doesn’t. Now that is just the line that the economic point of view warns us against and just the error that ideology as Mario defined it rightly warns us against. In any event, please point to the language supporting your claim that Brooks is referring to “mainstream perception” and not his own opinions.

  15. Hi Roger–I didn’t mean to imply that Brooks was just reporting popular perceptions with which he disagrees. He shares them, too. He is part of the mainstream in this respect.

    Regarding Troy: I’ve been in these kinds of exchanges here before and it was like talking to a brick wall. So I will stop after pointing out that:

    1. One does not have to agree with folk economics to notice that many people do agree with it–as you yourself, Troy, notice.

    2. You are, in fact, saying that folk economics is the human default condition, i.e., that real economics is counterintuitive. Yes, indeed.


    3. You are saying that the default position is for people to be *ignorant* of real economics, just as they are ignorant of quantum physics unless they have been taught it–as you have been taught Austrian economics.

    4. David Brooks is a person. So until you have evidence to the contrary, there is no reason to assume that he is a “power grabber.”

    5. Ignore Brooks if you want, then, but by doing so, you will never understand why so many intelligent people like him interpret libertarianism as a dogmatic, impractical ideology held by people who are not *interested* in solving economic and social problems.

    To spell it out for you, if people think folk economics works, then that’s what they will think solves (economic, at least) problems. And they will view those who oppose those “solutions” as people who are so ignorant that they deny the problems’ existence, or as so ideological that they don’t care–or as so evil that they lie about how to solve economic problems in order to serve some nefarious end of their own.

    They will continue to view people like you, in short, exactly as you view people like them–e.g., David Brooks.

  16. Brooks’ piece primarily expresses contempt for the idea of small government and the idea that we could possibly be on a road to “a European-style cradle-to-grave social democracy.” After more than suggesting his statist attitudes in his opening salvo, Brooks then goes on to argue for a history of the U.S. as one of “energetic governments that used aggressive federal power to promote growth and social mobility.” On that, there is little question. We do see that history at work more often than not. However, this analysis ignores the consequences of that “aggressive federal power” as much as it ignores any ideological issues surrounding whether governments ought to do such things (note the term “ought” — are ethics ideological?). He does not address the consequences of Lincoln’s banking policies, for example. And his comment on FDR is sufficiently vague as to mean absolutely anything at all (a special trick of demagogues). He then goes on to point out that all sorts of power-hungry demagogues and politicians used government to shore up power in the central government on the argument that they were doing it for the public good. Naturally, that’s not quite the terms he used, but it comes closer to the truth of human nature than does his rosy mythology he’s promulgating under the pretense of debunking another mythology. Yes, a good theory does help one to interpret history/data well. Pragmatism doesn’t. Except insofar as it “works” to support any position you choose. Like right-wing statism, in the case of Brooks.

    I don’t believe that most or even a small minority of people in or involved with government are there because they want to help anyone but themselves. But even if we grant that they do want to help, that they are public-spirited, then we have to point to the facts of network theory, systems theory, process theory, game theory, information theory, spontaneous order theory, chaos theory, etc. along these lines to make it clear why their good intentions more often than not will end up with bad results. The ethics of good intentions gets us an ever-growing do-good state that destroys the good, wealth, social structures, etc. So even if we grant good intentions, the state Brooks wants will create the opposite outcomes he says he wants. History combined with good theory that takes into consideration the complexities of reality prove this over and over. So who cares if history shows a bunch of do-gooders trying to use the federal government to do good? It’s history of failure, contrary to Brooks’ claims.

  17. If I may add a word or two in reply to Jeff Friedman.

    Teaching to both young people in higher education and lecturing to adults in various settings makes you aware of a variety of things.

    Among them is the huge amount of misguided information and conceptual ignorance many of our fellow Americans (and fellow humans in other places in the world) suffer from.

    You are right, Jeff, that most people are told about or see a “problem” in society, and are interested in finding ways to either “solve” or reduce it.

    But once you start explaining, as a classical liberal or libertarian tends to do, that many of these social problems have originated with earlier government regulations or interventions, or controls, and that reducing or eliminating these government intrusions can set the stage for a (partial or total) “solution” to the problem, you are soon confronted with a grab-bag of socialist cliches.

    But doesn’t a free market “cause” poverty, income inequality, unfair opportunities for those born rich, the emergence of monopoly and unscrupulous business behavior, unfair advantage of workers, or harm to the environment, or, or, or, . . . .?

    They have all passed through an educational system reinforced by the media, political sloganeering, and special interest propaganda that cannot be summarized in any way other than “the socialist critique of market society.”

    And there is little way to fully and effectively overcome these “biases” based on misinformation, distortion of history, and incorrect thinking about the logic of markets and free association in an hour lecture or in a three minute reply to a question.

    It requires a prolonged “reeducation” process such as having these students — who are, in effect, products (victims) of their intellectual and cultural environment — in your economics class for a semester. They are your “captive audience” in which you can logically, methodically, positively and critically develop a conceptual, theoretical, and historical understanding of all that goes under the name of “rational self-interest,” the “invisible hand” and “spontaneous order,” the nature of prices, competition, decentralized knowledge, and the institutions of a free society to allow these things to effectively work.

    The fact is, a specter continues to haunt the world; it is the specter of the socialist critique of “capitalism,” or the free market order.

    Americans are relatively easier to get to see “how it works” and why the market could solve many, if not most, of those “social problems.”

    The real shock is when you have European or Asian students. Then you really understand the degree of ignorance and misguided thinking. It is as if you were to be confronted with people who assume that the earth is flat. And you have to start, before anything else, for them to at least see the possibility that it is “round.”

    It has made me far more aware of how unique the heritage of Western Civilization really was. (Notice I use the past tense, because I fear for its long-term survivability.)

    Yes, accuse me of be “Western-centric.” I will take that as a complement. Individualism; reason; universal rules and laws; tolerance and respect for the freedom of the unique individual; commerce and trade as “good — even moral — things.”

    Europe is losing it. Most other parts of the world have little of it, and often what they do have has been based on what they have absorbed earlier from “the West.” American is weakening in it with each passing year and political cycle.

    How bright and brilliant were those revolutionary liberal ideas of the 18th and 19th centuries! And how dark and foreboding has been and is the collectivist and statist counter-revolution of the 20th and 21st centuries.

    Richard Ebeling

  18. When I say we should ignore Brooks, I mean that’s he’s irrelevant to understanding the real world. Of course we cannot ignore Brooks when it comes to his dissemination of bad information. That should never be ignored, and should be tackled at every opportunity.

    I have repeatedly connected Brooks’ interest in power with his being a demagogue. The fact is that he is a demagogue, by any definition of the term. He is attempting to lead the people, and, that’s what the word “demagogue” means. Of course it is easiest to lead the people if you speak to their folk beliefs. Whether Brooks holds them himself or not, I cannot say. However, I would hope that he learned a few things about economics from hanging around people like Milton Friedman. Rather, he sticks with his constructivism, a holdover no doubt from his having been a Leftist at one time (I think he still is, in some real, fundamental ways — and I cannot attribute good intentions to the Left after the 20th century, when history rather than theory demonstrated they were, to put it politely, wrong). One might even attribute his pragmatism to his being a historian, in which case we can blame his education and the way we teach history — increasingly as context-dependent facts for which an interpretive theory is irrelevant. Of course, geology and biology wouldn’t be the impressive sciences they are if they had taken that approach. All of these are good reasons to ignore Brooks in the way I mention above; and why we shouldn’t ignore him, but tackle him full-force, in the public realm. Brooks is a perfect storm of what’s worse(with a few exceptions) in the Left and in conservatism; that is often known as postmodernism. Brooks is a postmodern conservative, pushing pragmatics and ultimately believing that all is power. His postmodernism is obvious to me, at least. And if he is a postmodernist, then he does believe that everything boils down to power. So I stand by my claim that that is what’s he’s really interested in.

  19. Thanks for that clarification, Jeffrey. When you said, “I love it (hate it) when economists talk about politics and just don’t get it,” I thought you were saying Mario didn’t understand Brooks. Glad to know that wasn’t the idea.

  20. @Richard,

    Your account of teaching young minds is sobering. You appear to have adopted a realistic approach to it all.

    But how else should we expect the products of a socialist enterprise to feel about free markets? Classical liberals placed great emphasis on education as a means to preserve liberty, but then handed over the process to the state.

    Putting the state in charge of educating the young is classical liberalism’s great strategic blunder. The rest is detail.

  21. Troy,

    You seem quite appalled by “European-style cradle-to-grave social democracy.” Have you, personally, ever lived in “a European-style cradle-to-grave social democracy”? If so, please tell us what horrors you experienced. If not, well, what horrors do you imagine?

  22. I was using Brooks’ term. I see “European-style cradle-to-grave social democracy” as a waystation. The longest I have live in Europe was for a month in 2005 — in Greece. When I arrived, they were in the middle of a trash strike. The streets were literally filled with trash that hadn’t been collected for weeks. Fortunately, they called off the strike by the end of my first week there. Thus, my first impression of Greece was that it stunk of trash. Then, while I was there, there was an actors’ strike — which was just an inconvenience, of course, since it meant I missed a performance I wanted to attend (my friend and I solve the problem, as we learned to solve all problems in Greece, by finding a cafe and drinking lots of white wine). Then there was a transit strike, shutting down the buses and trains. That was actually a sympathy strike to support bankers protesting government banking reforms. So, depending on how you count it, in the month I was there, there were 3-4 strikes affecting 4 different industries. It very much reminded me of the late 70’s and early 80’s when the UMWA — which my father was a member of — was striking all the time, right before the complete collapse of all the union mines. I was hardly surprised when I heard that Greece was collapsing economically. A month there told me quite a bit. Other than the constant disruptions of your plans, it didn’t seem all that bad of a system — until it collapsed.

  23. Well, I remember garbage strikes and transit strikes in NYC too. Yeah, strikes are bad. France seems to have a lot of them and I avoid Air France accordingly. Overall, however, I just don’t see where it’s so bad to live in the UK, Denmark, Germany, Italy, or, really, anywhere in Western Europe. On the contrary, they are all great places. The Danes are supposed to have the happiest country in the world, whereas the US ranks a mere 14. So much for “We’re number one!” It’s not that I’m a social democrat, it’ just that I often hear the specter of “European style” politics raised as if Europeans were trudging about like the downtrodden workers in Metropolis. It’s not so! Perhaps my reaction is misapplied in your case, but I have come to have a low tolerance for the practice of scaring children and small animals with the prospect of “European-style cradle-to-grave social democracy.”

    Okay, end of rant.

  24. Yeah, I hardly consider it to be a “specter.” I think welfare statism does inevitably lead to socialism, but England, Italy, and Greece were all nice places when I visited. There’s a certain je ne sais qoi in Europe I like, and enjoyed while I was there. I think when most people bring up the “specter” of “European-style cradle-to-grave social democracy,” those people are seeing it as a waystation to socialism. The closer we get to it, the closer we are to full-blown socialism in their minds.

    I personally don’t put too much credence on “happiness” polls. Those same polls find people with children to be unhappy, and I don’t believe that for a minute. And I’m not too sure what they are even measuring (and what if you’re not happy when they are polling you, but you are most of the time?). “Bubbles and butterflies know most about happiness,” according to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. I prefer joy to the kind of satisfaction suggested by happiness research. I would be willing to be more Americans feel that than do Europeans — but I wouldn’t know how to measure that, either.

    I have come to the conclusion that strikes are an indication of unrealistic expectations in an economy and, thus, of an unhealthy economy. Again, the rash of UWMA strikes I remember preceded the collapse of the union mines. I don’t think that was a coincidence.

  25. Troy,

    I think there is a difference in visiting a country for a while, even a prolonged while, and actually living there for an extended period.

    When you live in another country, doing all the things that we take for granted doing when we are at home, the irritations of a paternalistic and interventionist state more than our own starts to become very clear.

    When you see how people are taxed and how that affects there choice sets, and opportunities, that demonstrates the presence of that “specter” rather clearly.

    And how, in everyday conversation, attitudes, and tacit belief systems in many (most) people in Europe, you have clarified the nature and workings of the “specter.”

    It requires you to have the time to look beneath the surface. Earlier this year I spent some time in Malaysia. A very nice country with wonderful food and very gracious people.

    But you soon learn that beneath that surface is the intolerance, authoritarianism and political privilege-making of one religion over others. (Yes, I mean Islam.)

    And that is a mild case, compared to a country like Yemen (which I’ve also been to) where it is more “totalitarian,” beneath a equally gracious surface of politeness, courtesy and hospitality.

    Richard Ebeling

  26. I think this is a very good discussion and I appreciate all the contributions.

    Denmark is an interesting country and freer than many Americans believe. Not just politically free, but economically. But here is one way that a large state is inevitably oppressive.

    There are very high marginal tax rates there (though I beleive they have come down somewhat). That makes hiring someone for personal services, like child care, prohibitively expensive. That means that, de facto, women who would like to have children and a career cannot do both. It reinforces the glass ceiling.

    The story was told to me by the country head for Denmark of a multinational trying to implement the diversity goals of his company. In Denmark, it is all but impossible.

  27. Richard,

    I don’t doubt all those things. I see them here — in lesser form, perhaps, but here nonetheless. Roger’s point, which I get, and with which I agree, is that the Europeans aren’t all downtrodden because of how horrible the all-encompassing welfare state is. They’re not. There are plenty of reasons to oppose getting to where they are: the lower economic growth rate, the disincentives, etc. But we don’t have to make them out to be anything other than what they really are to critique the European systems.

    Somehow I’ve gotten myself in a strange place: chastised by Roger for seeing a specter where there isn’t one because I haven’t spent enough time in Europe, and chastised by Richard for not seeing a specter where there is one because I haven’t spent enough time in Europe. :-/

    Here seems to be the bottom line, though: Europe isn’t as bad as American conservatives make it out to be, but it is every bit as bad as Austrian economic theory predicts.

  28. The are differences go both ways, and not always in favour of the US : for instance, I have never been searched in Europe by the airport personal after exiting the security check as if I was a terrorist with a bomb in my bag and I have never met anywhere else a taxidriver who verified in front of me a brand new dollar bancknote for forgery. Oh, and there are plenty of things wrong with, for instance, France, but it’s still – less and less, but still – the best place where one has the best chance of finding a stranger in a café who would indulge in conversing with you about…Nietzsche, Sarkozy, beauty, croissants, Baudelaire, liberté et égalité…

  29. No one here is claiming the U.S. is utopia by any stretch of the imagination. Your compaints are practically everyone here’s too I’m sure.

    Now, I don’t know about you, but I have found myself talking about Nietzsche, beauty, Baudelaire, liberty, equality, etc. at the Starbucks on the corner of Coit and Campbell in Richardson, TX quite often. Usually in response to my reading something or writing something, which prompts someone at a neighboring table to ask about what I am reading or writing. Since I am inevitably writing poems, plays, short stories, scholarly papers on spontaneous order or Greek tragedy, or reading Nietzsche, Hayek, Aristotle, Mises, Plato, Goethe, Shakespeare, Holderlin, Aeschylus, etc. the conversation inevitably goes in that direction. Most people seem to think that what I’m doing is far more interesting than what they’re doing. 🙂

  30. Troy, I don’t want to sound silly, but when it comes to poetry, philosophy and daydreaming the difference between Europe in general, not only France in particular, or at least a Europe that is slowly disappearing I admit, and the US is exactly the difference between Starbucks and the café. The first is a symbol of efficient capitalist production, the latter – well, of whatever it could be but it is not 🙂

  31. Well, no arguing about the quality of the cafe vs. Starbucks — but I will say that Starbucks did provide a similar kind of space that for the most part didn’t even exist in the U.S. before. Or at least, for a long while. Yes, it is our efficient capitalist production version, but it does its job. (BTW, if you want to see a really funny bit making fun of the overabundance of Starbucks in the U.S., watch “Best in Show”.)But as for the quality of conversation, well, I can only speak for myself (not knowing how conversations not involving me are going 🙂 ), but I have never had a shortage of conversationalists on any number of topics you may choose. I won’t say that many people know much contemporary literature, but they are better versed in issues of philosophy, economics, etc. than you would think. More, they are eager to have such conversations. While I know that many Europeans think America is backward because of all the people who believe in creationism and intelligent design, I am willing to bet that they have no idea just how willing such people are to engage in real conversations on evolution and are open to having their beliefs challenged. It helps, though, if you don’t treat them as stupid for having their beliefs. I would even argue that their presence in the U.S., with the questions they raise, makes for a much more vibrant biology community, as it means that biologists have to answer those questions, meaning they have to investigate them. It is a prime example of the Nietzschean agonal structures of society acting in creative fashion.

    Quite frankly, outside of film, I don’t see a lot interesting happening on either side of the Atlantic in the arts. I don’t think philosophy is much better, either. I mean, what do we have in the U.S.? The remnants of analytic philosophy and “theory”? And what do you have in Europe? Zizek and a couple warmed-over Marxists?

  32. Troy, I agree with you. Europe as a vector of culture and civilisation more or less disappeared in WW II, some of it was transplanted in the US and now it tries to catch up with the US without actually admitting that it tries to immitate it.

  33. I just came back from Norway with a new argument against socialism: beer is too expensive, 13$ for a pint!!!

    More seriously, I think that what’s wrong with unrestricted politics is that it opens the Pandora’s box of unproductive efforts to live at other people’s expenses by coercing them to pay for other people’s privileges. What form of social cooperation is this?

    A little bit of this kind of systemic parasitism may not be lethal. But the problem is that the process has no inherent limits, which however have to be forced from outside somehow.

    Here is when libertarian ideology becomes necessary: there is no pragmatic solution to the problem because pragmatism, of the dominant myopic and unprincipled variety, is the problem.

    The interventionist state creates lots of problems which can’t be solved playing “within the game” of political decision making. And most of these problems are paid by the poorest and weakest, e.g., minimum wage unemployment, protectionism against Third World countries, limited access to professions, price inflation and financial instability.

    There is however at least a problem which probably is sufficiently dangerous to lead to the demise of our civilization: people’s used to “positive rights” need the state to tax and coerce present and future producers knows no limits.

    There appears to be an enormous amount of liabilities on future producers which will require a huge increase in taxes to be funded. Most likely, most Western countries in the future will either need to leave sick and old people in the streets for lack of funding, or destroy the very source of growth by extreme taxation (which in the long run is tantamount to leave the sick and old alone).

    We are bound to financial bankruptcy, and the destruction of productive and cooperative capital that interventionism entails may be likely to cut the very roots of our civilization. Can we keep the fabric of society intact when everyone’s only aim is to live at other people’s expenses through coercion? Without growth, there will be social unrest on a massive scale.

    Italy in this account is the perfect picture of the future awaiting probably all of us: regressive, corrupt, unreformable, hopeless. Greece may be even better.

    We need to force the government within a budget constraint, unfunded liabilities included. It doesn’t do this by itself, but if we do it in 50 years it may be too late.

  34. Bogdan;

    That’s what I was hoping to find when I moved to France; nobody had warned me about Marseille. But even in Aix-en-Provence I only seem to be able to find people that want to talk soccer. Then I have to be all “no habla frances” on them…

  35. Attention, Mathieu! Ne critiquez pas les fans de football!

    Well,I guess it’s my fault that we are having a long discussion about life in the US vs. Europe. Which place is somehow more cultivated and fancy pants? Bah! Bad question! Besides, who says fancy pants is better? Three cheers for the unwashed masses and their vulgar entertainments!

    Richard seems to defend the use of European social democracy as a kind of specter, but then gives examples from Malaysia and Yemen. Richard, I’m not tracking. I just don’t get the use of Europe as some sort of bogeyman. Would you really say that life in Europe is so bad, Richard?

  36. Troy, I don’t assume people are dumb because they are American. There is simply a big difference between what means, actually meant, to be an educated European, and what it is to be an educated American. In the latter case, education is more sectorial and more practical or managerial in orientation; in the former case it used to be more unitary and more theoretical and..well…utopical. It’s simply a difference of fact. If you don’t believe me, see Allain Bloom’s book, “The Closing of the American Mind”, although he has mixed feelings about the whole thing : on the one hand he laments the European cultural invasion because of the “closing of the American mind”, on the other hand he regretts the absence of a truely European style American culture.

  37. Mathieu, the first problem with Fench higher education today is too much Marxism everywhere : marxism in sociology, marxism in literrary studies, marxism in economics, marxism in a good deal of history etc. It’s true, it’s a Frnech, post-modern sort of marxism, but it’s still crude marxism which is repeating itself for some decades now. Now wonder people are hardly interested.

  38. Roger:

    I love to visit Europe — what a delightful museum piece (or what’s left of it after two World Wars and 75 years of communism in the eastern half).

    But I would not want to live there, again.

    I will be happy to go on hour-after-hour about all the paternalism, oppression, intolerance, and interventionist craziness in the United States.

    What I was bringing out was more of a mentality that has come to predominate in Europe in comparison, still, to the United States.

    The Europeans (I know I’m greatly generalizing) have absorbed a much more heavily collectivist and egalitarian mind-set than we have, as yet, developed over here in America.

    And my remark about other parts of the world (Malaysia, Yemen), is that there the light of liberal enlightenment is even weaker or virtually non-existent.

    Richard Ebeling

  39. Fair enough, Richard. For the record, though, I’d like to say that some of my best friends are communists, literally. I don’t mind their collectivist mindset at all. And these friends are getting along just fine in their European, social democracy, homelands. They have good comfortable lives with friends and family who love them, interesting life projects, and, indeed, all the elements of a good life that any parent wishes for his or her child.

  40. Bogdan,

    I was being ironic about “dumb Americans.” 🙂 Bloom is a particular example of how many American intellectuals think: that Europe is generally superior to America; yet, when Americans do adopt this or that actual European idea, lament the fact. Sort of the opposite of Europeans, who love everything about America in particular, but then complain about American culture in general.


    I can’t sympathize about soccer. Every 4 years I become a completely irrational sports fan when the World Cup is on. 🙂


    Collectivist mindsets are fine in private. It is when the Marxists get in power and try to impose their vision on others that the problems come about. One could argue that an ideal system is one where everyone is communitarian, while the political system itself is libertarian. I will note, though, that there is a considerable difference between collectivism and communitarianism. One would be constructivism vs. Scottish-style rationalism. A communitarian doesn’t mistake the government for community. In fact, I would argue that there is an inverse correlation between the strength of community and the strength of government.

  41. Troy,

    Sigh. Can we keep our eye on the ball, please? The question is not whether it might just fine to have one’s face under a Bolshevik boot. The question, again, is whether “European-style cradle-to-grave social democracy” is some sort of hell. Well, it ain’t. That’s all we’re sayin’ here.

  42. Evidently, one can be a Marxist and be happier than a “capitalist” or a Catholic or a Hindu etc. No doubt about it! They can be great people, charming, honest etc. The man and the idea are two different things.

  43. “pragmatism that contrary to the intentions of its representatives inexorably leads to socialism”

    Can anyone tell me where is this quote from? I know it’s from Menger, but what work and if it is translated in English.

  44. I believe it is from Problems of Economics and Sociology. It is quoted and cited by Hayek in LLL I.

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