Ogden Nash’s “The Politician”

Behold the politician.
Self-preservation is his ambition.
He thrives in the D. of C.,
Where he was sent by you and me.

Whether elected or appointed
He considers himself the Lord’s anointed,
And indeed the ointment lingers on him
So thick you can’t get your fingers on him.

He has developed a sixth sense
About living at the public expense,
Because in private competition
He would encounter malnutrition.

He has many profitable hobbies
Not the least of which is lobbies.
He would not sell his grandmother for a quarter
If he suspected the presence of a reporter.

He gains votes ever and anew
By taking money from everybody and giving it to a few,
While explaining that every penny
Was extracted from the few to be given to the many.

Some politicians are Republican, some Democratic,
And their feud is dramatic,
But except for the name,
They are identically the same.

When a politician talks the foolishest
And obstructs everything the mulishest,
And bellows the loudest,
Why his constituents are the proudest.

Wherever decent intelligent people get together
They talk about politicians as about bad weather
But they are always too decent to go into politics themselves and too intelligent even to go to the polls,
So I hope the kind of politicians they get will have no mercy on their pocketbooks or souls.

Ogden Nash, “The Politician,” in I’m a Stranger Here Myself (1938), pp.193-94

The atheist conservatism of Gustave Le Bon

As more scholars start recognizing the emerging “Secular Right” (or atheist conservatism) there will be increased research into the historical precedents of this phenomenon. There can be little doubt that these scholars will take a renewed interest in Gustave Le Bon.

Aside from the obligatory nod to his work on crowd psychology, Gustave Le Bon is all but forgotten in the history of science and political thought. This is quite ironic since Le Bon’s prolific output was in no small measure motivated by his desire to establish broad recognition for his work. His writings were quite well read during his lifetime by the French population and (conservative) politicians, but, with the exception of his anti-clericalism, the core ideas that make up Le Bon’s work are now surrounded by great controversy and taboos.

It should not be surprising that mainstream conservatives have largely ignored Gustave Le Bon. Like most conservatives, Le Bon was hostile to socialism and big government. However, one of the defining characteristics of his oeuvre is that he identifies socialism as the modern expression of religious instinct. To Le Bon, Socialism and Christianity reflect the same kind of backwards irrational human psychology.

One would think that such an outlook would make him more acceptable to classical liberals, and indeed, there has been some interest from those quarters in Le Bon’s work. For example, in 1979, Liberty Fund published a selection of his works called Gustave  Le Bon: The Man and His Works, with an introduction by Alice Widener.  There is little evidence that this publication was a great success. Yes, Le Bon was horrified by the growth of government and the welfare state, but he was not a starry-eyed optimistic rights-based liberal either. As such, he has little in common with the rationalist Rand-Rothbard strand of libertarianism that has dominated classical liberalism to date.

What really makes Le Bon’s work problematic for modern conservatives and libertarians, not to mention progressives, is that it is heavily informed by biological concepts and extensive discussions about race. To Le Bon, it makes little sense to talk about “politics” or “the economy” without situating these topics in their specific ethnic and cultural context. This was not controversial during the time he was writing, but the strong emphasis he puts on these concepts does not make him the poster-child of the kind of blank slate universalism that informs most political ideologies. What also does not help Le Bon’s case is his generous use of medical pathological terminology to characterize developments in society and politics. Le Bon was deeply concerned about the prospect that democracy and universal suffrage would give rise to an unhealthy combination of populism and socialism, culminating in the general decline of society.

To my knowledge, little serious analysis of his work has been conducted in the English language. A notable exception is Robert Allen Nye’s dissertation, An Intellectual Portrait of Gustave Lebon: a Study of the Development and Impact of a Social Scientist in his Historical Setting (1969). This work contains a lot of interesting biographical and bibliographical information about Le Bon, but the rather explicit left-wing aim for writing this study excludes a more balanced approach.

For a writer who published around 40 volumes and 250 articles, not much is known about the youth of Le Bon. Nye even mentions that there has been some controversy about the question of whether he was really a medical doctor or not, but adds that some of the claims to the contrary may have been motivated by political animosity. It is a fact, however, that Le Bon published widely on biological and medical matters and even conducted ongoing experimental research throughout his life (reportedly, costing him his eyesight during his old age). In a letter to Albert Einstein he even claimed to have anticipated relativity. In turn, Einstein responded that no experimental nor mathematical proofs were being offered by Le Bon. Such confrontations with specialists in other fields were a defining feature of Le Bon’s productive life. Nye mentions that it was typical of Le Bon that he corrected the proofs of his last published article on the very morning of his death.

One of the tensions in Le Bon’s work is his explicit aim to be an objective scientist (of the secular, positivist variety) and his obvious atheist-conservative leanings. Unlike most people with political ideals, Le Bon thought that free will is an unscientific metaphysical construct that has no place in the study of man and society. This perspective, combined with his evolutionary outlook, explains why Le Bon had little confidence in the transformative nature of grandiose abstract ideas.

His physiological investigations led him to reject the fashionable view that all men are equal and only separated by educational opportunities. In fact, his work anticipates the current debate about the “education bubble” when he argues that most modern education has few lasting benefits (while creating a mass of potential public servants and resentment against capitalism) and should be replaced by more emphasis on real science, practical matters, and vocational skills. He has little confidence in the emerging science of sociology and advocates the study of physical anthropology and the comparative psychology of people instead. Le Bon has little sympathy for the works of Rousseau and associated theories about the innocence of primitive cultures. Interestingly, his hereditarian outlook also makes him suspicious of attempts to impose abstract political Western ideas on other cultures.

Advocates of the idea of natural rights will return empty handed from consulting his works. Ness quotes from Le Bon’s L’Homme et les Societies:

The idea that an individual has certain rights by the very virtue of the fact that he has entered the world is one of those infantile conceptions which easily take root in the brains of ignorant socialists.

It would be a mistake to assume that Le Bon’s interests in ethnic diversity were confined to making superficial general statements. During his lifetime he conducted experimental investigations into comparative physiology and skull size, published book-length studies on the Indian and the Arabian people, and even envisioned a ten volume Histoire des Civilizations. He also published a small volume of his work in differential social psychology called Lois psychologiques de l’évolution des Peuples (translated in English as The Psychology of Peoples), which, reportedly, was one of Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite works.

With such a non-trivial output (most of which remains untranslated), it is difficult to exactly define Le Bon’s views on the role of the State. Le Bon was clearly influenced by the English classical economists and writers such as Herbert Spencer. In his view, “the true role of law is to codify custom” and the law should not be used to legislate happiness, impose confiscatory tax rates on the productive, or excessively interfere in people’s lives. Le Bon believed that by enforcing common law, which itself is the product of a gradual evolution to reconcile conflict of interest between people, the state will unify instead of divide people – as opposed to doctrines like socialism that preach inevitable conflict of interests between social classes. Nye writes, “the anti-socialist quest was, for Le Bon, something of a permanent character trait. It is not surprising that he became the symbol for many members of the French political and intellectual community of the struggle against collectivist ideology.”

Like many of his contemporaries, such as Vilfredo Pareto and even Ludwig von Mises (on von Mises and fascism, see Ralph Raico’s article), Le Bon at some point found himself forced to choose between Bolshevism and the growing fascist counter-movement. Not surprisingly, Le Bon sided with Benito Mussolini but his support was conditional and he retained his preference for a different kind of government:

It is better to undergo the anonymous dictatorship of the law than that of a chief – those who will not accept the first are compelled to undergo that of the second.

He hoped that the Fascism of Italy would simplify “the administrative machinery” while leaving “the maximum of liberty to private initiative.” Mussolini himself seemed to have been quite enamored with the works of Gustave Le Bon, strongly recommended his work to others, and considered The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, “an excellent work, to which I frequently refer.”

Le Bon’s writings on crowd psychology have often been associated with the rise of fascism and modern propaganda techniques. And indeed, Le Bon himself was hopeful that his insights could be used favorably by politicians who shared his outlook. But a closer inspection of his output reveals that Le Bon was not a stereotypical advocate of the totalitarian state but an atheist conservative with strong individualist and anti-collectivist tendencies. His secular social outlook, which aimed to merge the biological and social sciences, combined with a distinct Burkean skepticism about radical social change, fits right in with the concerns of today’s Secular Right.

Darwinian Politics

Paul H. Rubin’s Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom is a fine introduction to the sociobiology of politics. Rubin is a self-identified libertarian but he makes a serious attempt to avoid dogmatism and consider evidence that points in the opposite direction. For example, on the issue of personal freedom his research forced him to qualify his views about government regulation of personal behavior. In most other aspects, he believes that knowledge of evolutionary psychology can help us in recognizing irrational and wealth-destroying ancestral thinking and conduct. To what extent such recognition can alter our behavior is not a topic he discusses in much detail. In some cases, he seems to be of the opinion that there are general human traits that are so “hardwired” that it would be futile for politicians to go against them, but in other cases he seems to lament the persistence of other hardwired human traits in our modern society. I suspect that, ultimately, where one locates oneself in such debates is itself influenced by ideology, which presents some non-trivial challenges in drawing normative conclusions from sociobiology.

The main thesis of the book is that humans have spent most of their existence in small groups of hunter gatherers and our thinking and conduct concerning economical and political matters is greatly shaped (and constrained) by this.  Most of the chapters are aimed at working out the implications of this for various issues, ranging from conflicts between groups to the politics of envy.

Rubin is not a friend of social contract / state of nature theorizing. He not only believes that contractarianism provides little guidance about the State and politics in the real world, but that the social contract metaphor itself is harmful because it suggests that humans have more freedom in choosing the rules and institutions of their society than they actually have (and can have). He draws an interesting analogy to this view and the Standard Social Science Model (and its political offspring, Marxism) in which human psychology is basically a blank slate. He writes, “if real policies are based on false constructions, then real suffering may ensue.”

One of the strongest sections in the book is where Rubin explains why evolution is not incompatible with individual or group differences. His argument draws upon evolutionary game theory in demonstrating why we would expect individuals who employ different “strategies” to be present in varying proportions in the population, including a small proportion of sociopaths. It would be reasonable to conclude from this that different character traits give rise to different kinds of political beliefs, and that we should expect a permanent “war” between these various types of people. Rubin, however, does not pursue this line of thought and focuses on how general evolved human traits may conflict with rational decision making and welfare maximization.

He devotes a whole chapter to group conflict and this chapter is by far the least exciting because he rather uncritically adopts the outlook of progressive economists.  Rubin puts a lot of emphasis on the observation that individuals can be part of, and can identify with, all kinds of groups. There is little discussion, however, of the degree to which this behavior persists in decision making about personal and political matters. The author is correct that prejudiced consumers and producers decrease the economic gains available to them but he does not discuss cases where “discrimination” can contribute to economic welfare or safety. He also seems to treat the Western economy as a given and does not consider the possibility that (rapid) demographic changes can alter the popularity and functioning of a free market itself. This individualist position should be well known to libertarians (especially of the Objectivist variety) but the question of how a society of (secular) individualists should deal with internal and external threats of more collectivist groups of people is ignored in this context. He is a staunch opponent of affirmative action, however, because it strengthens ethnic identity politics and is extremely dangerous.

In the chapter on altruism, cooperation, and sharing I feel that the evolutionary perspective runs into limits. To some people, evolutionary psychology is just a bunch of just-so stories that allows for the (permanent) co-existence of competing theories and normative conclusions. Rubin thinks that a roughly utilitarian position is implied by human evolution, as opposed to Rawlsian income distribution or Marxism because the latter positions embrace views of human justice that are not compatible with human evolution. He counters the criticism that utilitarianism leads to undesirable implications if carried to its logical extremes by pointing out that such preferences would not have been fitness maximizing, which is an interesting evolutionary take on “rationalist” academic philosophy. This chapter is perhaps the most interesting for his exposition of the debate about the existence of altruism and whether it can be explained without resorting to group selection.

Rubin discusses the existence of envy in some detail and this is the topic where our evolved psychology seems to be highly incompatible with the characteristics of free market economies, in which economic transactions benefit both parties and the gains of the rich do not come at the expense of the poor. It should not be surprising, however, that most humans (including intellectuals) cannot distinguish between, what he calls, dominance hierarchies and productive hierarchies. As a consequence, people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the idea that the wealthy people do not exercise power. In his discussion of political power, he returns to this topic when he notes that this failure to distinguish between economic success and political power leads many people to believe that government can be a countervailing power instead of a substitution of coercion for mutual benefit.

The author attributes the existence of religion to a form of enlightened anthropomorphism that also allows humans to cooperate in prisoner’s dilemma situations. He attributes the popularity of religions like Christianity and Islam to their universal non-ethnic nature. Unfortunately, the author does not treat the topic of how rising secularism in the Western world will affect such conventions about cooperation and altruism in much detail. In the same chapter, he also discusses a form of competition called “handicap competition,” in which humans engage in self-harming behavior to signal their superior fitness. The author does not draw this link but it is intriguing to think that a lot of the obligatory self-loathing that progressive intellectuals display in discussions about multiculturalism is actually a means to signal their superiority instead of an actual attempt to reduce their own power.

The chapter about how humans make political decisions is quite interesting for libertarians, and those of the anti-political variety in particular, because it documents in some detail how our inherited political conduct is mostly irrelevant and ineffective in today’s world. In particular, we vastly overestimate the importance of our own political views and behavior. As the author notes, “given the vanishingly small probability that a single vote will influence the outcome of an election, there is no reason for people to vote at all.” One important consequence of this is that individuals have a much greater incentive to make rational decisions as consumers than as voters. In politics, ancient zero-sum views on economic issues and envy persist. As such, Rubin provides an evolutionary explanation for the economic populism and political failure that the economist Bryan Caplan identified in his groundbreaking book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. In a sense, this indictment of mass politics as such is more radical than the political anti-statism that informs contemporary rights-based libertarianism.

One of the most interesting and far-reaching discussions in the book concerns the contrast between the study of rationality by behavioral economists and cognitive psychologists on the one hand, and evolutionary psychologists on the other. It has become quite trendy to document and highlight all kinds of cognitive biases, but Rubin contrasts this field with the work of Gerd Gigerenzer, who has shown that if problems are presented in a way that tracks our evolved abilities, respondents are much more likely to give the right answer. Rubin then gives a number of examples of cognitive bias and explores their evolutionary basis. Sadly, it seems that no matter how one defines rationality, it looks like most political activity remains irrational, wasteful, and divisive in today’s world.

The book ends with some analytic and policy implications of the materials presented in the preceding chapters. He basically restates his preference for limited government, against confiscatory income redistribution, and for more liberal immigration policies. Aside from the fact that the author seems to take the orthodox rationale for government as the preferred provider of public goods for granted (at least in this book), one would expect an evolutionary utilitarian such as Rubin to end on a more critical note about democracy, universal suffrage, and its effects on welfare. Otherwise, Darwinian Politics is an important book that warrants careful study and contains a lot of interesting ideas and references.

Factory exploitation and mutual advantage

In 1970, The Individualist ran an article called The Factory Exploitation Myth by Rod Marris. This article not only sought to correct some widespread misconceptions about the conditions of factory workers in 19th century England but also mentions the role the declining English aristocracy played in disseminating incomplete information about working conditions in the factories and about the standard of living:

A review of the political struggles of the times offers an important insight into why the aristocracy was eagerly spreading the myth of factory oppression. At the time the factory-owning middle class was vigorously opposing the Corn Laws which worked to the advantage of the land-owning aristocracy.

He also mentions the rise of the Romantic movement as a contributing factor.

Critics of unfettered free markets may acknowledge some of Marris’s points but could still claim that factory workers were exploited in 19th century England because the workers were in an “unfair” bargaining position. In essence, such a claim boils down to the opinion that mutual advantage is neither a necessary, nor a sufficient condition for justice.

In his book Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom , the economist Paul H. Rubin writes:

there is no reason to expect that an innate module to measure gains from trade has evolved. Rather, we are each selected to try to be sure that we gain from trade; gains to our trading partners are irrelevant. Moreover, mental mechanisms work against this recognition of mutual benefit.  Even in mutually beneficial trades, an aspect of competition is found.  Both sides want to engross for themselves as much as is possible of the gains…These modules focus on the zero-sum aspect of trade – that aspect dealing with the terms of the bargain, rather than with the gains.

As a consequence, the topic of “distributive justice” gets excessive attention in political philosophy. To many contemporary political philosophers, justice does not refer to conventions that incorporate mutual advantage but a set of principles that can be discovered by (impartial) reason and enforced by the State to alter the terms of agreements and to redistribute income. An excellent collection of articles about the widespread habit of treating justice as “something else” (fairness, equality, or moral intuition) is Anthony de Jasay’s Justice And Its Surroundings.

The slow cultural suicide of Europe

The Dutch ex-politician and intellectual Frits Bolkestein, no stranger to defying political taboos, published a remarkable article in the Wall Street Journal called “How Europe Lost Faith in Its Own Civilization.” He is not the first person to wonder how Europe lost confidence in its own civilization (“the noble Western traditions of self-assessment and self-criticism have often degraded into sentimental self-flagellation”) but then he draws attention to the possibility that one of the sources of this phenomenon may be found in Christianity itself:

“Whether we like it or not, our civilization remains deeply marked by Christianity. Consider the Gospel of Saint Matthew, which states that “whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (23:12). Friedrich Nietzsche characterized this as “slave morality.” But one does not have to go that far to realize that this saying, along with instructions to “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile,” do not exactly prod people to stick up for their own.

Instead of suggesting that Europeans can prevent their “slow cultural suicide” by finding inspiration in Christianity, he advocates to “take pride in our classical values.” It is not every day that one can reject both multiculturalism and Christianity, quote Friedrich Nietzsche, and get published in one of America’s biggest newspapers.

What is not sufficiently made clear in Bolkestein’s article is that “our current masochism” is something that only really resonates with politicians, progressive intellectuals and conformist hipsters. It is not something that has caught on with the majority of the European people. As a matter of fact, multiculturalism needs continuous reinforcement and support by the State to sustain itself.

The philosopher Michael Levin has suggested that multiculturalism is not popular despite the fact that it contradicts common sense and empirical observation but because of it:

The theme uniting the tenets of conventional liberal wisdom is that they all run exactly counter to experience; I think they are arrived at from experience, via the assumption that experience always misleads.

Levin thinks that the common observation in science that things are often not what they appear is responsible for the tendency of progressives to embrace ideas that are the opposite what common sense would dictate.

Another explanation is that progressives prefer “unconstrained” visions of society. Thomas Sowell identifies the unconstrained vision as one that does not accept any limits to human malleability or the ability of experts to improve on “chaotic” decentralized processes such as free markets. Progressives are therefore quite hostile to claims that human nature or economic incentives are guaranteed to defeat their objectives.  Despite all the logical and empirical arguments against it, the progressive vision of man is one of a human being endowed with “free will” unconstrained by evolutionary traits.

The quest for a European political union and a single currency can be seen as the culmination of this view of society exacerbated by profound guilt over Nazism. As Simon Kuper wrote in a recent article in the Financial Times:

…there was never much economic logic behind the euro – certainly not a euro that includes everyone from Germany to Greece. Economics wasn’t what the currency was about. Rather, the euro is a war baby. It was created because Europe was struggling to get over the second world war…The general thinking was that a common currency would “bind in” a new Germany and somehow prevent Hitlerism…much of European life then was built on memories of war. Hardly any Europeans would vote for anti-immigrant parties, because look what Hitler had done…The European Central Bank, too, was a war baby. It inherited the Bundesbank’s obsession with inflation, traceable to the trauma of German hyperinflation of the 1920s that had helped create Nazism.

The advocates of an “integrated” Europe were not just content with abolishing nationalism and expressions of ethnic identity in their member countries, but also aimed to eliminate the recurrence of such ethnic politics by celebrating the changing ethnic composition of these nations. The ideology of multiculturalism was supposed to reconcile citizens with these events by presenting the demise of a dominant culture as a benefit.

One of the reasons why modern Western governments have become increasingly authoritarian again (suppression of free speech and free association) is because this project goes so firmly against what we understand about human nature and history that only coercion can secure its implementation – and even that may be temporary. Ironically, the consequences now seem to undermine the welfare state consensus in Europe (including Scandinavia) and trigger a renaissance of identity politics.

In hindsight it is striking how the objective of denazification was conceived as a defense of the welfare state and increased centralization; the socialism of the National Socialists was never identified as a great concern, nor the micro-management of people’s thinking, feeling, and behavior which has remained a constant elements of modern politics.

Strict contractarianism or anarchist conventionalism

The June 2011 issue of Economic Affairs features my review of Anthony de Jasay’s most recent collection of articles, Political Philosophy, Clearly: Essays on Freedom and Fairness, Property and Equalities.

As in all his works, in this book Anthony de Jasay uses a non-cognitivist knife to cut through all the incoherent, but influential, arguments about “fairness,” “rights,” and “the public good” that have been offered as a rationale for government.

As I note in my review, in this collection Jasay also offers his analysis of the State’s monopoly on the use of “legitimate force”, the taboo on “taking the law into one’s own hands” and its effects on crime. His analysis has similarities to what the conservative writer Samuel Francis has called “anarcho-tyranny”, a situation in which rules against violence, theft and vandalism are poorly enforced (or even deliberately ignored) but the coercive power of the state is used to engineer an egalitarian society and suppress freedom of speech.  Before Francis, these tendencies in modern liberalism were identified in James Burnham’s ‘Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism.

Until recently, I had a difficult time understanding Anthony de Jasay’s arguments against moral contractarianism. It seemed to me that Jasay could only conceive of contractarian arguments as arguments in favor of collective choice, ignoring thinkers such as the individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker and, more recently, Jan Narveson, who use a contractarian framework to argue against the state. But upon more closely inspecting Jasay’s (increasingly) Humean ideas on justice I think I have a better understanding of what his fundamental objections against the contractarian approach are.

An important key to his objections can be found in the following quote from his book The State:

People who live in states have as a rule never experienced the state of nature and vice-versa, and have no practical possibility of moving from the one to the other … On what grounds, then, do people form hypotheses about the relative merits of state and state of nature? …

Anthony de Jasay’s starting point in social philosophy are the spontaneously evolved rules that facilitate mutual benefit. These rules were not “established” through a one-time agreement but through an incremental process of mutual adjustment by individuals. A danger of all forms of moral contractarianism is that it shifts the locus from such spontaneously evolved rules to subjective and arbitrary debates about what the terms of hypothetical contracts should be. For example, if we cannot agree to the terms of a social contract because some participants want a more interventionist state, should the social contract exercise be considered a failure or can the parties that want the least government interference just proceed and consider that person “outside” of the social contract? It is hard to imagine how such a question can be answered in a satisfactory manner from within the contractarian framework without introducing some kind of meta-contractarian framework, which in turn… and so forth.

The philosopher David Gauthier has argued that agreements that do not satisfy certain conditions (his revised Lockean Proviso) might be unstable because some people will have a strong incentive to ignore or re-negotiate them. It is quite conceivable that social contracts that do not reflect mutual advantage are inherently unstable and will be pulled towards less government, but ultimately such questions about stability can only be answered empirically.

In light of Jasay’s preference for actual contracts, as opposed to hypothetical contracts, I have often been tempted to call Jasay’s position “strict contractarianism” or “strong contractarianism.” Obviously, strict contractarianism is inherently anarchist because there is no way that any government can be considered to be “agreed to” by all the parties (and their descendants) who are presumed to be obliged to it, either explicitly or tacitly. Is the difference between strict contractarianism and conventionalism just semantics then? There is an important element in Jasay’s thinking that cannot be incorporated by any kind of contractarian thinking, and that is his refusal to place himself outside of society (or in the “state of nature”) in an effort to determine what the ideal terms of social interaction should be. It might seem strange to present this as a virtue but it would not surprise me that it is exactly this attitude that gives rise to what we would call a free society.

Gustave Le Bon: secular reactionary

Gustave Le Bon (1841- 1931) is among the most undeservedly neglected modern social writers. It is not hard to see why this is the case. Gustave Le Bon was not a religious man but he was skeptical of top-down social engineering and revolution. He relied heavily on biological concepts and firmly rejected the idea that human nature could be fundamentally changed by altering the social environment. He had a disdain for mass politics and democracy but also rejected scientific socialism and intrusive regulation. As a consequence, his ideas cannot easily be reconciled with traditional (religious) conservatism, socialism, or progressive liberalism.  For example, an article that contrasts Gustave Le Bon’s views on revolution with those of Albert Camus was recently published at the Brussels Journal website.

A selection of quotes from The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind will help the reader to get a basic understanding of Le Bon’s views:

On heredity and human nature:

Environment, circumstances, and events represent the social suggestions of the moment. They may have a considerable influence, but this influence is always momentary if it be contrary to the suggestions of the race; that is, to those which are inherited by a nation from the entire series of its ancestors…The biological sciences have been transformed since embryology has shown the immense influence of the past on the evolution of living beings; and the historical sciences will not undergo a less change when this conception has become more widespread. As yet it is not sufficiently general, and many statesmen are still no further advanced than the theorists of the last century, who believed that a society could break off with its past and be entirely recast on lines suggested solely by the light of reason.

On national identity and social institutions:

A nation does not choose its institutions at will any more than it chooses the colour of its hair or its eyes. Institutions and governments are the product of the race. They are not the creators of an epoch, but are created by it. Peoples are not governed in accordance with their caprices of the moment, but as their character determines that they shall be governed. Centuries are required to form a political system and centuries needed to change it. Institutions have no intrinsic virtue: in themselves they are neither good nor bad. Those which are good at a given moment for a given people may be harmful in the extreme for another nation.

On individuals and crowds:

…by the mere fact that he forms part of an organised crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian — that is, a creature acting by instinct. He possesses the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity, and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings, whom he further tends to resemble by the facility with which he allows himself to be impressed by words and images — which would be entirely without action on each of the isolated individuals composing the crowd — and to be induced to commit acts contrary to his most obvious interests and his best-known habits. An individual in a crowd is a grain of sand amid other grains of sand, which the wind stirs up at will.

On education and egalitarianism:

Foremost among the dominant ideas of the present epoch is to be found the notion that instruction is capable of considerably changing men, and has for its unfailing consequence to improve them and even to make them equal. By the mere fact of its being constantly repeated, this assertion has ended by becoming one of the most steadfast democratic dogmas. It would be as difficult now to attack it as it would have been formerly to have attacked the dogmas of the Church.

On religion, ideology, and fanaticism:

A person is not religious solely when he worships a divinity, but when he puts all the resources of his mind, the complete submission of his will, and the whole-souled ardour of fanaticism at the service of a cause or an individual who becomes the goal and guide of his thoughts and actions.

Intolerance and fanaticism are the necessary accompaniments of the religious sentiment. They are inevitably displayed by those who believe themselves in the possession of the secret of earthly or eternal happiness. These two characteristics are to be found in all men grouped together when they are inspired by a conviction of any kind. The Jacobins of the Reign of Terror were at bottom as religious as the Catholics of the Inquisition, and their cruel ardour proceeded from the same source.

On the sovereignty of crowds:

The dogma of the sovereignty of crowds is as little defensible, from the philosophical point of view, as the religious dogmas of the Middle Ages, but it enjoys at present the same absolute power they formerly enjoyed. It is as unattackable in consequence as in the past were our religious ideas…The dogma of universal suffrage possesses to-day the power the Christian dogmas formerly possessed. Orators and writers allude to it with a respect and adulation that never fell to the share of Louis XIV. In consequence the same position must be taken up with regard to it as with regard to all religious dogmas. Time alone can act upon them.

On politicians:

The general characteristics of crowds are to be met with in parliamentary assemblies: intellectual simplicity, irritability, suggestibility, the exaggeration of the sentiments and the preponderating influence of a few leaders…It is terrible at times to think of the power that strong conviction combined with extreme narrowness of mind gives a man possessing prestige.

On government by experts:

All our political economists are highly educated, being for the most part professors or academicians, yet is there a single general question — protection, bimetallism– on which they have succeeded in agreeing? The explanation is that their science is only a very attenuated form of our universal ignorance. With regard to social problems, owing to the number of unknown quantities they offer, men are substantially, equally ignorant. In consequence, were the electorate solely composed of persons stuffed with sciences their votes would be no better than those emitted at present. They would be guided in the main by their sentiments and by party spirit. We should be spared none of the difficulties we now have to contend with, and we should certainly be subjected to the oppressive tyranny of castes.

On taxation and psychology:

…should a legislator, wishing to impose a new tax, choose that which would be theoretically the most just? By no means. In practice the most unjust may be the best for the masses. Should it at the same time be the least obvious, and apparently the least burdensome, it will be the most easily tolerated. It is for this reason that an indirect tax, however exorbitant it be, will always be accepted by the crowd, because, being paid daily in fractions of a farthing on objects of consumption, it will not interfere with the habits of the crowd, and will pass unperceived. Replace it by a proportional tax on wages or income of any other kind, to be paid in a lump sum, and were this new imposition theoretically ten times less burdensome than the other, it would give rise to unanimous protest. This arises from the fact that a sum relatively high, which will appear immense, and will in consequence strike the imagination, has been substituted for the unperceived fractions of a farthing. The new tax would only appear light had it been saved farthing by farthing, but this economic proceeding involves an amount of foresight of which the masses are incapable.

On regulation, liberty and decline:

This incessant creation of restrictive laws and regulations, surrounding the pettiest actions of existence with the most complicated formalities, inevitably has for its result the confining within narrower and narrower limits of the sphere in which the citizen may move freely. Victims of the delusion that equality and liberty are the better assured by the multiplication of laws, nations daily consent to put up with trammels increasingly burdensome. They do not accept this legislation with impunity. Accustomed to put up with every yoke, they soon end by desiring servitude, and lose all spontaneousness and energy. They are then no more than vain shadows, passive, unresisting and powerless automata.

Arrived at this point, the individual is bound to seek outside himself the forces he no longer finds within him. The functions of governments necessarily increase in proportion as the indifference and helplessness of the citizens grow. They it is who must necessarily exhibit the initiative, enterprising, and guiding spirit in which private persons are lacking. It falls on them to undertake everything, direct everything, and take everything under their protection. The State becomes an all-powerful god. Still experience shows that the power of such gods was never either very durable or very strong.

This progressive restriction of all liberties in the case of certain peoples, in spite of an outward license that gives them the illusion that these liberties are still in their possession, seems at least as much a consequence of their old age as of any particular system. It constitutes one of the precursory symptoms of that decadent phase which up to now no civilisation has escaped.

On elites, crowds and civilization:

Civilisations as yet have only been created and directed by a small intellectual aristocracy, never by crowds. Crowds are only powerful for destruction. Their rule is always tantamount to a barbarian phase. A civilisation involves fixed rules, discipline, a passing from the instinctive to the rational state, forethought for the future, an elevated degree of culture — all of them conditions that crowds, left to themselves, have invariably shown themselves incapable of realising. In consequence of the purely destructive nature of their power crowds act like those microbes which  hasten the dissolution of enfeebled or dead bodies. When the structure of a civilisation is rotten, it is always the masses that bring about its downfall.

The ethics of debt default

One of James Buchanan’s most interesting papers is The Ethics of Debt Default (1987), first published in the book Deficits (a collection of public choice articles about public debt and debt financing), edited by James M. Buchanan, Charles Kershaw Rowley, Robert D. Tollison and reprinted in James Buchanan’s Collected Works, Volume 14.

As an individualist contractarian, Buchanan rejects the argument that we have a moral obligation to honor debt obligations that the government has created simply because the modern state is a ‘moral unit’ in the sense of an extended family. He has more sympathy for the conservative argument that government should not default on its debt because we all benefit from a government that honors its commitments. However, Buchanan notes that on a less abstract level of discussion “a collective decision to repudiate the debt need not, in itself, pull down the whole legal-political house of cards, especially if it is accompanied by a change in the rules designed to insure against recurrence of the necessity for repudiation.” As a contractarian, Buchanan can only endorse borrowing  to finance “genuine public capital investments” that also yield benefits to future taxpayers. After all, it would not be fair if the taxpayers that authorized public investments would have to assume the complete burden of the costs when future generations benefit from those investments, too. The situation is different in the case of ordinary public consumption expenses, which mostly accrue to the existing  generation and that push the tax burden to future generations.

In favor of the argument that there is not a persuasive moral argument against debt default in the case of debt-financed ordinary consumption he employs a Rawlsian argument that should persuade modern liberals and progressives as well. Behind a veil of ignorance where people will not know their generational position it would not be rational to endorse debt financing for the sole aim of favoring one generation over another. Or, as Buchanan puts it in welfare economics terms, “there is no multi-period Parato-superior move that can describe a shift to a regime of debt-financed public consumption.” Buchanan even characterizes debt financing for ordinary public consumption “immoral” by such contractarian criteria.

He also discusses the possibility that the risk premium for government bonds (which, in parallel with private borrowing, should be higher for consumption expenditures) attenuates the moral significance of defaulting on the debt. After all, the voluntary payment of the risk premium implies the recognition of the bond holders that such loans may not be paid back.

Buchanan’s contraction framework only allows for a moral obligation to honor debt that was issued for public investment and income-yielding assets. Incidentally, since a significant portion of debt-financing concerns ordinary consumption and special interests, the argument that Buchanan puts forward in this article could also support voting against raising the debt ceiling of the US government.

One could argue that Buchanan’s limited support of honoring debt payments rests on two controversial premisses about public goods and the binding force of hypothetical contracts.

(1) Buchanan’s argument only works if a social contract to produce public goods is necessitated by suboptimal production of public goods in “the state of nature.” But as Anthony de Jasay has so eloquently written, “People who live in states have as a rule never experienced the state of nature and vice versa, and have no practical possibility of moving from the one to the other. It is often a historical anachronism and an anthropological absurdity to suppose such movement. On what grounds, then, do people form hypotheses about the relative merits of state and state of nature?” Furthermore, a Rawlsian contractarian framework cannot apriori assume government production of public goods instead of some variant of ordered anarchy where redistribution is achieved by limiting property rights.

(2) Arguments that derive the legitimacy of  public institutions from hypothetical contracts are intrinsically unfalsifiable. Removing personal, circumstantial and generational elements from the contractarian framework may strengthen “fairness” but at the cost of reducing the possibility to arrive at objective and unambiguous results. As a consequence, hypothetical contractarianism in practice collapses into a situation of a government of experts claiming to know the alleged substance of such agreements, and citizens (understandably) objecting to the contents and terms of these “contracts.”

An alternative approach would be to only honor actual contracts. Such contracts may not be as “impartial” as hypothetical contracts but they have the distinct advantage of permitting objective verification and incorporating evolved conventions concerning person and property. It is doubtful, however, that such a strict contractarian framework can be reconciled with an obligation of all individuals to pay taxes to  “the government” to honor the debt obligations that it made. Moreover, many individuals (or groups of individuals) will have both self-interested and moral reasons to seek default on such debts.

There is therefore no persuasive moral argument why individuals are generally obliged to honor any kind of government debt. Buchanan recognizes that defaulting on the debt may close off prospects for further government financing through borrowing. But to those who believe that government lacks legitimacy, and is a dangerous imposition on the human race, that should be an additional argument in favor of debt default. Defaulting on the debt might also restore the balance of power between generations and provide an incentive to transition to less debt-driven (ans thus more robust) forms of economic interaction.

Arguments that claim that seeking repudiation of the debt will blow up the political and financial system, and produce a net-loss for all, rest on the unrealistic assumption that such views will have absolute instantaneous effects. In reality, it is more likely that as the arguments for debt repudiation will be gradually embraced, financial markets and government operations will gradually adjust as reflected by increased risk premiums and less emphasis on debt-financing of government operations.

The tyranny of guilt and the politics of dissolution

Pascal Brucker’s The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism is a passionate indictment of the guilt-ridden and self-loathing culture that dominates contemporary Western Europe, and his own country, France, in particular. In the chapter Listen to My Suffering, Bruckner identifies and challenges the widespread climate of victimization:

As soon as we acquire the status of legal claimants, we immediately acquire that of injured parties as well. Each of us is given at birth a portfolio of grievances to exploit. History as a whole owes us a debt which we demand be immediately repaid. Today, we combine romanticism with suffering; we form a new elite caste, with an absolute allergy to pain, the ideal being to acquire the title of pariah without having actually endured anything. The slightest adversity we encounter is a scandal that has to be indemnified. To set oneself up as a victim is to give oneself twofold power to accuse and demand, to cast opprobrium on others and to beg. And since each of us has in our family tree at least a person who was hanged, one proletarian, one victim of persecution, we will go back as far as the Middle Ages if that is what it takes to demand justice. Classical  political combat trained warlike men and women who were proud of their conquests, whereas contemporary legal combat produces chronic malcontents. It is not clear that this presents progress (page 147-148).

Brucker can hardly be called an exponent of the secular Hard Right and his writings can be best understood as an attempt to rescue the original progressive Enlightenment ideals from the ravages of identity politics and multiculturalism. The author embraces the egalitarian democratic ideal and claims that modern intellectuals have abandoned universalism in pursuit of a new species of identity politics in which moral superiority is expressed as cultivated self-hatred. What remains unclear is whether these faux progressives are basically well-intentioned  intellectuals gone astray or whether all this rhetoric is just another rationalization of the will to political power.

In Brucker’s universe, democracy is a neutral decision mechanism in which conflicting conceptions of the good and interests fight for dominance. Culture is shaped by “ideas” (biology is largely absent in his book) and we should make an effort to ensure the ideals of the Enlightenment prevail. What is questionable about this perspective is whether democracy should be treated in such a neutral fashion. In a very general sense, identity politics is an inescapable feature of modern democracy because majority rule requires a moral or cultural rationale for the preferential treatment of one group over another. A politics that would aspire to completely abstain from non-unanimous decision making would bring about the end of the State. Because a straightforward appeal to superior force is both unappealing and vulnerable,  practical politics is always in search for legitimacy as it benefits one group at the expense of another. The modern therapeutic state offers no shortage of excuses to intervene – albeit of a transient nature.

Brucker offers a defense of national borders that, at some points, could double as a defense of private property and free trade: “To draw a boundary is to put an end to battle: the former enemy becomes and ally, the foreigner a neighbor. The border area calms down, dangers are domesticated.”

What distinguishes today’s progressives from the aristocratic rulers of old is that they do not accept any borders – neither nation nor property. With such beliefs, there can be little doubt that this culture and its people will ultimately be displaced. Political power based on self-loathing and empowerment of political rivals is even more vulnerable to dissolution than political power that solely grows out of the barrel of a gun.

The high road to coercion: public goods and forced unionism

There is a striking parallel between the argument in favor of forcing people to contribute to public goods and forced unionism. In both cases, it is argued that only forced contributions will ensure that people who benefit from public goods and collective bargaining pay their “fair share.” Of course, this argument simply assumes that all people who are forced to contribute to the government and labor unions want and appreciate those benefits – which is simply incorrect.

Since it is perceived too costly and impractical to distinguish between sincere opponents and free riders, this distinction is lost in practical politics and labor disputes. In reality, tax payers and employees of unionized organizations are simply treated as “blocks of people” where objections of individuals do not really matter. To sweep individual consent so easily under the carpet is one of the defining characteristics of governments and labor unions.

In his seminal work on private provision of public goods, Social Contract, Free Ride, Anthony de Jasay writes:

“The high road to coercion is the contractarian pretension that acceptance by a person of a share in a benefit he did not solicit is tantamount to his tacit acceptance of an obligation to provide a share of the corresponding contribution in the same way as those who did solicit the benefit.”

In this book Jasay also argues quite persuasively that the prohibition on free riding that is sought in collective good arguments will be undermined by the fact that governments  in turn generate the most formidable opportunities for free riding and parasitism by allowing voters to enrich themselves at the expense of (other) taxpayers.

Advocates of collective bargaining for public sector unions claim that collective bargaining is a “right” or “human right.” It is not clear what is being meant by “right” in this context because one cannot claim a right of this nature without assuming a corresponding obligation of others (companies, governments) to negotiate with you. In the case of public sector labor unions the nature of this presumed right is even more contestable because government employees are not bargaining for a share of the profits of a private company but for taxpayer money. Public sector union members  basically expect taxpayers to refrain from efforts to protect their own money and freedom of choice so that government employees can enjoy more generous compensation and benefits.

There is an ongoing debate about the question of whether public employees are overpaid or underpaid. Compensation in the private sector is, absent government intervention, governed by supply and demand. Compensation in the public sector is governed by supply and demand and majority rule. The role of coercion in paying government employees simply excludes a rigorous test of what these employees are worth to the taxpayer. Education is also a poor proxy for compensation of public employees because, as the growing education bubble makes clear, companies that are operating in a competitive environment are not going to pay an employee for their educational degrees as such. That governments do often pay high salaries to people with degrees that are not held in high esteem in the private sector reinforces the unhealthy relationship between publicly-funded education and government.