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Democracy: The God that Failed

23 Apr 2010

Definitely worth a read, even if I don’t always agree.

This book has made its rounds in the ancap/libertarian circles. It’s a series of essays, each self-supporting (i.e. one need not read the book in order), and most of them are presenting the idea that the economic incentives in Monarchy are better, in the long term, than those in democracy. He makes a lot of good points.

As a simple example, take the idea that a president, elected for 4 years, needs to get as much out of those 4 years as he can. Hoppe presents this as ‘the current economic use of the country’. I think this is simplistic, but with some modern cognitive psych, one could say that a 4-year president is disposed to get high-status items built, and the points remain the same. Anyway, such a president is massively inclined to go deep, deep, deep into debt. A monarch, who treats a country as his personal property and expects to pass it off to his children, is greatly inclined not to leave his children highly leveraged properties.

He makes a variety of these points, but in general, they are all based on the same idea: the time preference is lower for private owners than for current users. We should expect monarchs to take better care of their property than democratic caretakers. And you know what? He’s right. End of story: economically speaking, the incentives are just not there for a democratic leader to take long-term care of a country.

That being said, Hoppe makes a lot of statements that I think are not well supported at all, and I will get to those momentarily. D:TGTF is also one of the best examples I have seen of ‘idea creep’, in which an ancap/libertarian/minarchist author lets their personal preferences seep into their analysis. It’s really damaging, and I wish I could see it less in this niche.

So I have a number of issues with the book from my notes that I am going to enumerate here. I would still recommend the book unreservedly; it attacks a base assumption of modern life and does it quite well and usually quite defendably. Even if one does not agree–and I’m not sure if I do or not, but I think I do–it’s always good to attack your fundamental assumptions. If they can’t stand up to it, you’re wasting time on ethics you build on top of them.

So the book is based largely on logical arguments based on a priori assumptions. The footnotes–and the book is probably 1/3 footnotes–rarely point to actual data, but instead to previous work by political philosophers, or occasionally to anecdotal accounts from monarchies in the past. I don’t a priori arguments are a waste of time, but they need to make predictions and tested against data. It’s disappointing to see this much book have so little data, especially because I feel like I have some anecdotal data that contradicts some of his points, and there’s no validation or contradiction of my preconceptions here.

For example, he compares the state to a continually-working thief, stealing a percentage from businesses. This is perfectly common in ancap writing, and a position I feel is perfectly justifiable, ethically speaking. However, he uses this moral argument to bolster his a priori arguments about economic activity. He claims that businesses, subjected to the continued, unpreventable, unavenged theft of their resources, will fail to flourish, as the yearly theft of their proceeds, and the ongoing knowledge that future proceeds will be stolen, makes the business worth less, and thus increases their time preference. This may well be true, but assuming the state can provide a modicum of workable security and allow workable insurance companies to exist, could not a business owner factor a certain percentage of taxed proceeds to be less of a loss than a percentage chance of a total loss to random brigands? Maybe Hoppe is right, but I certainly don’t think it follows without data or evidence. It would have been fairly easy to get some data on how businesses shop for jurisdiction to get the stability and taxation characteristics that are the most favorable to them, but why bother when you have the frequently-cited messiahs of Hayek and Rothbard in your footnotes? If they be on our side, who the hell could be on theirs, right?

Another lack of data comes to his historical tax information. He mentions historic tax rates of approximately 5-8%. Sorry? Serfdom, the condition for much of the west since the fall of Rome, was essentially a tax of often over 50% of one’s labor. Is he talking about a form of monarchy before the Magna Carta really, truly institutionalized serfdom? Why, then, does he frequently cite anecdotes from the 16th century? I have to call bullshit here. 5-8% is maybe what nobles paid, but it’s simply unconscionable to call serfdom ‘5-8%’. If there’s some specific point of history where this was correct, Hoppe needs to be a lot more specific.

Another example of a priori arguments failing in the face of data–data not presented–is the example of how an uncertain regulatory environment affects business owners. I can completely believe this–indeed, it affects me; I fully expect my IRA to be converted into government bonds before I die, lest dirty speculators allow me to invest it in risky bets. You can bet this lowers my time preference for that IRA. But this workable a prior argument is no argument for monarchy vice democracy–the history of monarchy shows us the ridiculous, sweeping, unannounced changes monarchs managed to bring into force repeatedly throughout history. Henry VIII changed alliances from Spain to France and back again umpteen times. Democracies, meanwhile, are so slow and plodding in their bumbling decisions that one can at least project 8 years out. Perhaps Hoppe is right, but again, this is not something that can be just said as ‘thus it follows’.

There are more, but that’s enough for my unproofread book reviews. I still have some ‘ideology creep’ to cover.

I really hate this ideology creep. I find it in a ton of ancap writings. There are blessed exceptions, such as The Machinery of Freedom, but they are rare. It basically occurs when someone lets their personal preferences for culture infect their economic or ethical thinking. In the worst cases, the entire book has to be scrapped. This is not a worst case, but it certainly weakens some arguments, especially as thinly supported by data as they are. It can take some work to ignore the obvious prejudices and get at the real ideas.

For example, while enumerating the members of society that must be cared for in a welfare state–and let’s remember this is a book written in 2001–Hoppe takes the time to mention the ‘Aids (sic) infected’ as their own category, seperate from ‘sick’. I’m really unsure why he would feel the need to do this.

Well, okay I’m sure. Hoppe spends a chapter bemoaning the collapse of society, marriage, and ‘civilization’. Maybe I don’t like it either, but it’s not my job, place, or intent to tell people how to behave, nor to justify economic or ethical theories based on people no longer behaving how I want. I’m pretty sure Hoppe’s Aids-infected reference is the usual anti-gay stuff espoused by ‘Family Focused’ conservatives. I wish I could find a page reference to where he mentions ‘alternative lifestyles’ in quotes. Sigh.

Hoppe also does not take the time to cleanly separate his ideas from the ones that allowed fascism to take off. How about this gem: ‘A member of the human race who is completely incapable of the higher productivity of labor performed under a division of labor based on private property is not properly speaking a person (a persona), but falls instead in the same moral category of an animal, either of the harmless sort (to be domesticated and employed as a producer or consumer good, or to be enjoyed as a “free good”), or the wild and dangerous one (to be fought as a pest).

Wow. Nice. So anyone who does not agree with Hoppe’s interpretation of the universe is not a human. What a convenient idea that someone who doesn’t have any property to protect, and who might peacefully disagree, can safely be ‘used as a free good’. If the actual ideas in the book could not be separated from any moral bankruptcy also contained therein, that sentence would be enough for me to pulp the book on the spot.

I didn’t even finish the chapter where he defines and defends a conservative as someone who defends the traditional concept of family, and a family’s place in a community of families, and the how the ‘hierarchy within a family’ is analogous to the hierarchy of families on the physical level, and how that is still subordinate to God. The content is wrapped up in two paragraphs of context, but the last sentence of that chapter I read was: ‘Conservatives…if they stand for anything, stand for and want to preserve the family and social hierarchies and layers of material as well as spiritual-intellectual authority based on and growing out of family bonds and kinship relations’.

So conservatives stand to proudly protect the god-granted superiority of some families over others? No wonder the guy is so big on monarchy if he believes in divine right. I mean, Jesus, how am I supposed interpret page 188 charitably? It’s hard to believe anyone calling themselves an anarchist wrote it.

Anyways, the book is still worth reading, but most of the damage to your assumptions has been done in the first 4 chapters. The weird racist undertones and lamentations on the collapse of ‘culture’ don’t start until later.

Whatever. Give me Burning Man and Ephemerisle over this guy’s ‘culture’ anyday.