This blog post is still very much in the ‘working things through as I go’ space rather than the ‘I have a developed, researched argument that I’m prepared to stand behind’ space, and should be treated accordingly.  But circling again around Hayek’s positions on knowledge in political economy, some quick jotted thoughts on the socialist calculation debate.  I’ve read the major ‘primary texts’ of this debate but I still have a lot of reading to do, so as I say this is all highly provisional, with zero claims to either originality or precision.  All that said, it seems to me that one can usefully distinguish, at least in a preliminary way, between two different categories of ‘subjectivism’ on the ‘Austrian economics’ side of the debate.  (Obviously I’m using ‘Austrian’ here to denote the school of thought rather than the nationality, since for example ‘non-Austrian’ Neurath was born in Austria.)  On the one hand, you have subjectivism in the sense of the ‘subjective’ theory of value associated with the marginal revolution.  On the other hand, you have a stronger, more philosophical subjectivism that pushes back against the mathematised marginalist apparatus of general equilibrium theory.  Again, I’m aware that I simply haven’t done the reading to be asserting historical narratives with any degree of confidence, but it seems to me to be at least non-absurd to suggest that the socialist calculation debate represents a shift in the centre of gravity within ‘Austrian’ economics between the first and the second form of subjectivism.

So – start with classical economics, and ‘objective’ theories of value.  The paradigmatic value theory here is the labour theory of value, represented by Adam Smith, Ricardo, and orthodox Marxism, where value is primarily determined by the quantity of labour expended in some sense in the site of production (obviously there are a lot of epicycles around this core point, but still).  Then in the late nineteenth century you get the ‘marginal revolution’, and the eclipse of the labour theory of value in favour of a ‘subjective’ value theory, primarily driven by utility, preference and profit functions at the site of exchange.  One of the major figures associated with this ‘marginal revolution’ is Carl Menger, whose work articulating this value theory is also the foundation of the Austrian school of economics.  Here, then, we have one sense of ‘subjectivism’ – marginalist theory as opposed to the ‘objective’ value theories of classical political economy.

Now, my view is that the marginal revolution represents a significant advance in economic science.  Not to be too crude about things, but the ‘objective’ labour theory of value is nonsense – whatever flaws there may be in the marginalist apparatus, it is clearly in my view a much better starting point for thinking about economic value and price-formation than the labour theory of value.  Controversially (and unimportantly) my own view with respect to Marx is that ‘Capital’ is engaged in a complicated critique of the classical labour theory of value, and it’s a mistake to attribute the labour theory of value to Marx, at least in any straightforward sense – but this is such a heterodox and unpopular view that it really isn’t relevant to any kind of intellectual history.  For most readers of Marx – both Marxists and critics of Marx – the labour theory of value is one of the ‘central dogmas’ of Marxism.  For orthodox Marxists of this tradition, the advantages of the labour theory of value include: it provides an underpinning of an account of exploitation as objective extraction of surplus value; it locates labour – and thus the proletariat – at the ‘explanatory centre’ of political economy, which is taken to provide warrant for labour’s political centrality as subject of history (compare much Austrian economics which gives a similar dual explanatory-normative role to ‘entrepreneurs’); and because it is an ‘objective’ rather than a ‘subjective’ theory of value, it is ‘materialist’ rather than ‘idealist’.  All of these points are wrong, in my view – but that’s not important here.  The point is that as ‘bourgeois’ (or mainstream) economics shifted from ‘objective’ to ‘subjective’ theories of value, Marxism remained a hold-out (as to some extent it still is) in retaining a commitment to a classical, pre-marginalist account of value.

One of the things that’s going on in the ‘first wave’ of the socialist calculation debate, then, is a fight between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ theories of value in something close to the senses described above.  Now, this remark needs to be immediately qualified, because Neurath – whose writings on the economics of central planning are the immediate occasion for the debate – was not an orthodox Marxist in the sense described above, but was rather an advocate of ‘in-kind’ economic planning.  That is to say, Neurath basically thought that you could do without all of this ‘value’, ‘price’, and ‘money’ nonsense altogether, and simply work directly with quantities of commodities and of factors of production.  This position is the one that Mises is initially criticising, in his essay ‘Calculation in the socialist commonwealth’.  However, Mises understands that Neurath’s position is only one (minority) view within a broader socialist ‘objective value’ tradition, and appropriately devotes significant sections of his text to addressing efforts to articulate pro-planning positions similar to Neurath’s using labour time as the unit of account.

So, the first wave of the socialist calculation debate (basically – Mises vs. Neurath) can plausibly be seen as a fight between ‘objective’ theories of value (classical political economy in its Marxist iteration, plus advocacy of central planning via in-kind accounting) and ‘subjective’ theories of value (in the sense of marginalist economics).  I don’t think that’s all that’s going on in ‘round one’ of the calculation debate (obviously there’s lots in Mises’ essay that can’t be reduced to marginalism, at least not trivially), but it’s a start.

Then in ‘round two’ of the calculation debate (basically – Lange vs. Hayek) the terrain shifts in terms of analytic framework.  Now Oskar Lange comes along and says “Yes, ok, I accept the entire marginalist apparatus – and, more than that, the entire neoclassical general equilibrium apparatus, which, by the way, I had a significant role in formulating – and I completely reject ‘objective’ theories of value, including the labour theory of value. Now, let me nevertheless use that neoclassical marginalist apparatus to formulate an account of a form of socialism that, yes, has some ‘market characteristics’ in relation to consumption goods, but also includes complete government ownership and control of the means of production.”  Obviously there are debates to be had about how successful Lange was in doing this, but that’s the project and the claim.

Then in response to this complete 180 on the socialist side of the calculation debate, Hayek (the representative of Austrian economics in round two) also dramatically shifts the Austrian framework.  Rather than articulating his rebuttal of Lange within the idiom and framework of Menger-style marginalist theory, Hayek argues that the kind of marginalist theory adopted by Lange (and by mainstream neoclasssical economics as a whole) in fact misses what is most important in the subjectivism of the Austrian school.  Hayek argues that a much more fundamental subjectivism – a philosophical subjectivism which cannot be captured by the kind of deterministic modelling associated with neoclassical marginalism – is the core of the Austrian tradition.

I don’t have a view – because I still haven’t read widely enough in the Austrian tradition – about the accuracy of Hayek’s re-presentation of the Austrian position, but regardless, I think this can plausibly categorised as a second, stronger form of ‘subjectivism’, in contrast to the ‘subjectivisim’ of marginalism.  Plausibly, then, we can typologise the debate in terms of three broad analytic frameworks: objective value theory; marginalist value theory; philosophically subjectivist value theory.  In round one of the calculation debate the socialists are advocating an objective value theory, while the Austrians are advocating something closer to a marginalist value theory; in round two of the debate the socialists are advocating a marginalist value theory, while the Austrians are advocating something closer to a philosophically subjectivist value theory.

And now, having schematised the debate in this very crude way, I want to ask: is this even accurate?  What are the ways in which this typology breaks down?  In particular, I’m interested in the ways in which the two forms of ‘subjectivism’ that I’ve crudely sketched above do and don’t overlap.  It seems to me that Hayek is right that at least some of Mises’ points can’t easily be fully captured within the idiom of a marginalist framework.  At the same time, many of Hayek’s criticisms of the Lange position feel to me like criticisms that can be made within the idiom of neoclassical economics broadly understood – criticisms about imperfect information, incentive compatibility, etc. etc. Of course, there has been a lot of work on these kinds of issues within the neoclassical mainstream in the decades since the socialist calculation debate, so I’m not saying Hayek should have had these resources to hand at the time!  But still, it feels like the neoclassical mainstream has a lot of ability to accommodate many of the Austrian critiques of Lange.  And yet, at the same time, it seems clear that the stronger, philosophical scepticism of ‘calculation debate 2.0’ is genuinely incompatible with mathematised mainstream neoclassical economics in a range of ways.  So what are the areas of overlap between these two ‘subjectivisms’ and what are the areas of difference?  These are the kind of things I want to be thinking about as I read more in this literature.

I just read Hayek’s essay ‘Individualism: True and False’ and wanted to put up a few notes while it’s relatively fresh in the mind.  The essay, perhaps oddly, reminds me a bit of Richard Rorty’s essays, in the following way: it clearly has some worthwhile points, but it insists on making those points by drawing an extremely sweeping distinction between two purported styles of thought, and then filing everything it likes on one side of the distinction and everything it dislikes on the other.  If you squint a bit, this can look clarifying, but in my view it is on balance more confusing than not, because the bundles of commitments Hayek organises on each side of his dichotomy in fact don’t have to belong together, and it leaves the reader with the difficult job of disentangling it all.  

Anyway, I don’t want to attempt anything close to a comprehensive disentangling in this post, but I did want to post a few notes to self as usual.

Hayek’s core distinction in this paper is between two traditions of individualism.  One is grounded in predominantly English-language classical liberalism (Locke, the Scottish Enlightenment, Burke, Lord Acton, and also Tocqueville) – this is the good, true individualism.  The other is grounded in continental theorists (Descartes, Rousseau, the Encyclopedists, the physiocrats) – this is the bad, false individualism.  What does this distinction amount to?  Well, as I say, I think there would be room for more clarity on this score, but one of the core elements is the difference between what Hayek takes to be a bad rationalist philosophical approach (on the continent) and a good anti-rationalist philosophical approach (among mostly English-language classical liberals).

That is to say, one of Hayek’s core points is the distinction between rationalist versus anti-rationalist individualism.  This distinction has several dimensions.  First, Hayek opposes the egalitarian dimension of rationalism – he rejects the idea that there is a universal and invariant faculty of reason that is equally shared by all humans, and believes instead in a higher degree of social and psychological pluralism, so to speak.  Second, Hayek rejects what he sees as rationalism’s overweening arrogance about the capacities of human reason.  We should not imagine that we have the capacity to remake our world as we please – our faculties of comprehension and of action are more limited than utopian Enlightenment rationalism believes.  Relatedly, Hayek rejects the rationalist rejection of slowly evolved community norms.  For the rationalist, norms and practices that cannot be justified by the faculty of reason should be abandoned; for Hayek, we should respect the potential wisdom of institutions and practices that have developed and evolved over time, even if we cannot rationally articulate the substance of that wisdom.  Hayek endorses the Burkean rejection of revolutionary rationalist fervour on these grounds.  Moreover, the sheer diversity and complexity of social life should make rationalist planning of a new social order so overwhelmingly difficult as to be impossible without the suppression of that diversity and complexity.

There’s more to Hayek’s argument than this, but this will do for now.  Articulated like this, I always feel like I should be more sympathetic to Hayek’s philosophical position than I am.  Philosophically speaking, I’m a pragmatist.  I’m a big believer in fallibilism in epistemology – I think it’s definitely the case that our cognitive faculties are sharply limited, and that we should be cautious about too-grand claims to be able to comprehend and order the overwhelming complexity of our societies.  Moreover, I agree with Hayek that the ‘individual’ of classical individualism should be seen not as atomistically distinct from society but as embedded in and shaped by its social world.  I agree with Hayek that social pluralism is an active virtue.  Finally, I agree that freedom of the individual should – in part for these reasons – be seen as a central political-economic value and goal.

So why do I always find myself so unsympathetic to Hayek’s arguments?  Part of it is, no doubt, about political tribalism: I am on the left, Hayek is on the right, and we are always more resistant to finding value in the beliefs of our political opponents than in those of our political allies. But I think there’s more to it than this.  The political right/left distinction, crude as it is, also expresses something about social philosophy: it’s a matter, in part, of philosophical – and, of course, normative – substance, not just of tribal allegiance.  I think one of the things that rubs me the wrong way about Hayek is that he often seems to me to be differentially applying elements of his argument in ways that amount to a political thumb on the scales.  In other words, I often feel like Hayek’s ‘downstream’ political preferences are driving his ‘upstream’ political philosophy in ways that feel dubious to say the least.

For example, take Hayek’s Burkean conservative arguments about tradition.  As I discussed (too telegraphically) in my post on Burke, there are several very obvious problems with this philosophical-political approach.  For example, there’s the problem that there is in fact no reason to presuppose that traditions which have evolved over the centuries contain much in the way of wisdom.  Maybe they do – but maybe they are simply oppressive, or bigoted, or shortsighted.  There are bad traditions and good traditions – obviously (to me) we don’t just want to defer to tradition blindly, on the grounds that it’s tradition.  And Hayek agrees – he famously argued that he is not a conservative, in part for this reason!  But at times Hayek will apply Burkean arguments about deference to tradition, even as at times he rejects them, and it’s hard not to feel that this differential application of such arguments is partly driven by motivated reasoning.

I feel similarly about Hayek’s rejection of the idea that we can comprehend the complexity of our social world.  There is a lot to recommend this argument, in my view!  And it certainly should make us think twice about our capacity to engage in large-scale rationalist planning.  And yet at the same time Hayek’s arguments about the virtues of the market themselves involve substantive claims about how our political economy functions – Hayek is making social-scientific claims about which large-scale institutions will produce positive and negative results, and in my view there is only so much scepticism about our ability to understand social complexity that is compatible with such strong substantive claims about what forms of social organisation are to be preferred.  Again, I’m not saying that this circle can’t be squared – clearly Hayek thinks it can be – but I feel like often, in Hayek, there is the differential application of a sceptical argument, where Hayek is all about epistemic modesty when he is evaluating his political opponents’ claims, and yet is simultaneously willing to make quite sweeping judgements about what forms of social organisation are objectively superior when he is advocating for his own views.

So, let me try to write out a preliminary typology of some elements of Hayek’s ‘anti-rationalist’ views here, again with the assumption that I’ll try to nail all this down more carefully later.

  1. Burkean conservatism.  This is, roughly, the idea that our faculty of reason is sharply limited, while our institutions, norms and practices have evolved over the centuries, and thus contain greater wisdom than the individual human mind.  The first problem here is simply: what if the evolved institutions are actually bad?  This is a problem that, frankly, Burkean conservatism often simply waves its hands at without credibly addressing.  The second problem is that society is complex and plural, and there is never just one tradition that we can defer to – we always constitute our traditions by choosing in the present what to recognise as tradition – and such judgements must themselves be based on something.  For this reason, Burkean conservatism is often simply cloaking its own independent preferences in the cloak of tradition.

But of course Hayek is not simply a Burkean conservative!  He also endorses a second idea:

  1. Spontaneous order as a progressive force.  Here the idea is something like: spontaneous order is the mechanism by which individuals with their diverse preferences can work out the ways of life that suit them best, and out of that process a broader social ordering emerges that is more responsive to individual preferences – and therefore preferable – than would be any social order that is the product of large-scale rational planning.  This is, as it were, the future-oriented version of Burkean conservatism: something close to Whig progressivism.  Where Burkean conservatism defers to tradition by default, spontaneous order progressivism assumes that individuals freely pursuing their preferences will transform traditions in a way that is to their, and quite possibly our, benefit. If this position is something like a ‘mirror image’ of Burkean conservatism, then a similar objection applies: why should we assume that ‘spontaneous order’ is in fact good?  Might it not be that spontaneous order is extremely bad?  Shouldn’t this possibility at least be considered?  Again, it’s unclear what the mechanism would be that would reliably cause good order to emerge from this process of social evolution.  More on this in a bit, perhaps.

Then we have a set of commitments about the state:

  1. The state is the major source of unfreedom, and restricting state power is therefore the major goal for freedom-oriented politics.  This is the ‘libertarian’ dimension of Hayek’s ‘classical liberalism’.  As I’ve written about on the blog before, I think this is badly wrong.  Of course, the state is a major oppressive force!  But there are many forms of oppression and of unfreedom in society, and many of Hayek’s arguments in this area operate by simply fiating these forms of unfreedom out of the space of legitimate political consideration.  Contra Hayek, poverty is a form of unfreedom.  ‘Civil society’ oppression is very widespread, and can in fact potentially be mitigated by state action.  Etc.

But, of course, Hayek is not an anarchist because:

  1. Constitutional constraints on state power and limited government committed to the rule of universally applied impartial law is crucial for establishing the conditions under which freedom and spontaneous order can flourish in society.  In particular, a state that is committed to the protection and enforcement of property rights, while constrained from administrative overreach is the optimal form of government.

And related to this:

  1. A set of concrete social-scientific claims about the virtues of market society as catallaxy.

Anyway, I’m rambling a bit here, but I guess the point I want to try to get at in this post – hopefully to be worked through more precisely at some future point! – is that Hayek’s nexus of commitments seems to me to require some quite sharp footwork with respect to epistemological warrant.  On the one hand, Hayek’s philosophical stance puts heavy weight on the limits of human reason, and therefore defers to spontaneous order in preference to rational planning.  At the same time, Hayek is making social-scientific claims about the virtues of specific forms of spontaneous order, and the institutional structures and policy decisions that facilitate them – and these social-scientific claims seem to me to require a much stronger set of claims about our ability to know what policies and institutions will produce desirable social outcomes than Hayek is elsewhere willing to accept.  If we can in fact know these substantive things with the degree of confidence that Hayek often appears to assert, then doesn’t that seem to undermine the broader scepticism about social-scientific rationalism that undergirds Hayek’s project?  And if, by contrast, we accept that we can’t know what’s best for social order in a relatively strong sense, doesn’t that go for Hayek’s policy preferences too?

Again, I’m not saying that this apparent tension can’t or couldn’t be resolved – but it seems to me that Hayek’s work often flits quite happily up and down the ‘epistemic scepticism’ spectrum, making extremely strong and concrete political-economic claims at one moment, and then throwing up its hands at the impossibility of the kind of social-scientific knowledge that could inform rational institution-design at other moments.  I find it hard not to feel that this movement up and down the scepticism spectrum operates in ways that are extremely convenient for a right-wing political project.

Brandom’s presentation and reworking of Hegel’s Phenomenology in ‘A Spirit of Trust’ has several broad elements.  First, there is an epistemological/semantic thread of the argument, in which Brandom presents his (/Hegel’s) theory of meaning, and the ways in which that theory of meaning transforms and thereby helps resolve traditional problems of epistemology.  Then there is a theory of action and agency: because Brandom’s account of meaning is fundamentally pragmatist – meanings derive from use, not the other way around – a theory of meaning must be grounded in a theory of practice, which means an account of action and agency.  Then, finally, there is a set of reflections of history and recognition, and the role these play in constituting the work’s other categories.

I would expect any ‘official’ work I do on Brandom (i.e. ‘academic’ publications) to focus on these later elements of ‘A Spirit of Trust’ – the elements in which Brandom is most directly engaging in ‘social theory proper’.  At the end of the day I’m a social theorist, not a metaphysician or a philosopher of language.  Still, here on the blog I’ll work through what I like, and as I inch through a proper ‘close read’ of ‘A Spirit of Trust’ I want to spend some time on epistemology and semantics.

In particular, I want to register my dissent from one of the ways in which the epistemological apparatus of ‘A Spirit of Trust’ apparently ‘advances’ on that of ‘Making It Explicit’: objective idealism.  My core claim in this post (and I’ve probably said this before on the blog, but there’s nothing so wrong with circling round these points again and again and again ad nauseum) is that the account of objectivity in ‘Making It Explicit’ was extremely slimline and ‘formal’, while the account of objectivity in ‘A Spirit of Trust’ is much more metaphysically assertive.  I regard this as an unfortunate development in Brandom’s thought.  Moreover, I think it’s grounded in something close to an argumentative fallacy.

So, let’s look at page 44 of ‘A Spirit of Trust’, where Brandom is discussing Hegel’s critique of the modern epistemological tradition which, he believes, creates an unbridgeable semantic and therefore ultimately metaphysical chasm between representings and represented, such that epistemological scepticism is the only reasonable conclusion, given the tradition’s premises.  In Brandom’s words:

I think what is going on here is that Hegel learned from Kant that the soft underbelly of epistemological theories is the semantics they implicitly incorporate and depend upon.  And he thinks that two-stage representational theories committed to the strong differential intelligibility of representings and what they represent semantically preclude genuine knowledge of those representeds.

(ASOT 44)

In other words: if our theory of knowledge assumes that we have direct knowledge of our representations of reality, and then only through those representations do we have indirect knowledge of a reality that is not intrinsically intelligible ‘in itself’, we are de facto committing ourselves to scepticism.

For Brandom’s Hegel, any theory that pre-commits us to epistemological scepticism as a result of its semantics is intrinsically flawed.  Not pre-committing us to scepticism is a criterion of adequacy for philosophical semantics, for Brandom’s Hegel.  In Brandom’s words:

I call the criterion of adequacy on epistemological theories that Hegel is invoking here the ‘Genuine Knowledge Condition’ (GKC). … [T]his requirement demands that an epistemological theory not be committed to a semantics – in particular, a theory of representation – that rules out as unintelligible the very possibility of knowing how things really are (“genuine” knowledge).

(ASOT 44)


[Hegel] takes from Kant the idea that intelligibility is a matter of conceptual articulation: to be intelligible is to be in specifically conceptual shape.  If this reading is correct, then Hegel’s argument must show that to satisfy the Genuine Knowledge Condition, an epistemological theory must treat not only appearance (how things subjectively are, for consciousness), but also reality (how things objectively are, in themselves) to be conceptually articulated.

(ASOT 44-5)

Obviously Brandom is going to do a huge amount of heavy lifting to elaborate on what it means for reality to be conceptually articulated. (Brandom’s argument will ultimately be that reality is modally structured in a way that precisely parallels the deontic structures of normative networks of commitments, and this constitutes a ‘bimodal hylomorphic conceptual realism’.)  But before we even start to think about the specifics of Brandom’s argument, or whether conceptual articulation of reality truly is a precondition of genuine knowledge of reality, I want to register what I take to be a sort of argumentative slippage.  Brandom begins this discussion of the Genuine Knowledge Condition by arguing that our semantics cannot rule out as unintelligible the very possibility of knowing how things really are.  And he concludes, on the next page, that to satisfy this condition an epistemological theory must treat reality as conceptually articulated.  But this conclusion seems to me to very straightforwardly not follow from this premise.  Our premise states that we cannot rule out the possibility of knowing how things really are.  Our conclusion states that reality therefore must be conceptually articulated.  But surely (even if we grant that the conceptual articulation of reality is the only way in which we can have genuine knowledge of reality, and so on and so forth) all we need in order to satisfy the condition is that reality could possibly be conceptually articulated.  We can’t say “our theory mustn’t rule out [X]” and then use this premise to conclude “[X]”.  That doesn’t follow!

In other words, I take it that Brandom’s (/Hegel’s) application of the Genuine Knowledge Condition, so to speak, goes too far and proves too much.  Yes, we don’t want our semantics to pre-commit us to philosophical scepticism.  But surely we also don’t want our semantics to pre-commit us to an entire specific realist metaphysics (‘objective idealism’).  Yet ‘A Spirit of Trust’ seems to me at times to be effectively pursuing this latter category of argument.  It seems, in other words, to be making a transcendental argument that a quite specific realist metaphysics must hold if we are to have a functional semantics at all.  Obviously this is a kind of argument that people do make, but to me it seems very dubious.

And this impulse of mine – to reject this category of argument – seems to me to align with broader impulses about epistemology and knowledge which I take to be philosophically plausible.  In the debate over epistemological or philosophical scepticism, the sceptic asserts that for all we know everything that we believe is false – all our perceptions, and all the conceptual categories associated with them, might somehow be illusory or misguided – and that therefore we in fact possess no genuine knowledge.  One response to the sceptic is to try to show that some things truly are known, in the sense that they definitely can’t be false – that error can only extend so far.  But a better response to the sceptic, in my view, is to insist that the sense of “knowledge” that demands the rebuttal of philosophical scepticism for knowledge to be possible is hyperbolic and unjustified.  If we adopt a fallibilist understanding of knowledge, whereby part of what makes something knowledge is the apparently but only superficially paradoxical attribute that we might be wrong about it, then the hyperbolic demands for certainty that drive the (supposed) plausibility of the sceptical conclusion simply go away.

One consequence of adopting this fallibilist approach to knowledge is acknowledging that scepticism cannot be rebutted in any metaphysically strong sense.  What is wrong with philosophical scepticism is precisely the suggestion that such a metaphysically strong form of rebuttal is a reasonable demand or expectation.  Once that expectation is abandoned, the hyperbolic doubt of the philosophical sceptic simply becomes one of countless other possible views that lack any real reason to be taken all that seriously.

But adopting this approach to the sceptic also means that we shouldn’t feel any pressure to insist – via any transcendental argument or set of overarching metaphysical commitments – that reality must be knowable in any very strong sense.  Our understanding of reality is pretty clearly limited.  It seems plausible to think that it is limited in ‘hard’ ways – that “the fundamental structure of reality”, whatever that might mean, is simply beyond our grasp.  Ok – fine.  Is this a problem?  The human organism has limited capacities – there are many physical feats that are completely beyond our abilities, and surely there are countless feats of perception and cognition that are similarly beyond our grasp.  Fine – we make do with what we’ve got.  But why, then, must we insist that reality must be conceptually articulated in some apparently fairly strong metaphysical sense for knowledge to be possible?  This doesn’t seem reasonable to me – it seems to me like the argument is being driven by a hyperbolic and unreasonable sense of the epistemological demands associated with “knowledge”.

In short, Brandom’s Hegel seems here to me to be unjustifiably rejecting a thorough-going fallibilism, as part of their rejection of philosophical scepticism.  For myself, I greatly prefer the Deweyian impulse that “the quest for certainty” is a delusion.  Of course, Dewey was a Hegelian of sorts, and much of Dewey’s apparatus can be seen as deriving from a pragmatist reworking of Hegel similar to the kind Brandom is articulating in ‘A Spirit of Trust’.  But in this dimension of the argument I feel that Brandom’s Hegel is inadequately pragmatist – the metaphysical desire for hyperbolic certainty (for “presence”, in Derrida’s vocabulary) has snuck back in.  

At any rate, this is my reaction to passages like the ones I quoted, and I wanted to articulate it on the blog.  Maybe I will revise my opinion as I study the book more.

Note to self on math

May 21, 2022

This is a purer even than normal ‘notes to self’ post, the sole purpose of which is to make a public record of intention with respect to the ongoing autodidactic project here.  Basically: although I’m not a total ignoramus or neophyte on mathematical economics, I’m nowhere near the level of mathematical competence that would be regarded as a prerequisite of doing basically any economics at all in a large number of subfields.  Ok, I can say “I’m an institutional economist, I’m interested in many of the more qualitative dimensions of the discipline”, and to an extent that’s true, but at the same time: I really need to improve my math skills and my grasp of mathematical economics.  After all, to a reasonable first approximation this is what the discipline is now, and has been for a large number of decades.  For example, the kind of “incentive compatibility” point I made in the last post has a very very extensive and well-developed formal mathematical apparatus for its expression in current economics – if one wants to engage with a large proportion of recent work on this kind of topic, one simply needs mathematical skills.

So, over the next however long, I want to put quite a bit of my energy into improving my skills and knowledge within mathematical economics.  I’m specifically interested in ‘theoretical’ modelling, rather than the econometrics side of the modern discipline – maybe one day I’ll get to that (or more likely not).  But for now, I want to commit to checking back in here in, let’s say, eighteen months, and seeing how my formal modelling skills have moved on.

Another post in which I try to articulate in a slightly different way themes that I’ve been circling around on the blog for some time now.  I think this one may be clearer than previous efforts with respect to how it all hangs together – but we’ll see.

Start with what I take to be a central insight (or, more neutrally, a central claim, but I take it to be an insight) of the liberal political-economic tradition.  This is a bundle of ideas that can be summarised in something like the following way:

Political-economic actors tend, more often than not, to act in their own perceived self-interest.  This very clearly isn’t an invariant feature of political-economic actors – people can be altruistic, people can be heroic, people are motivated by social norms and habits beyond narrow self-interest, etc. etc.  Nevertheless, it is the case that people very often act in self-interested ways.  This is true sufficiently often that, as a reasonable rule of thumb, political-economic institutions that rely for their success on an ongoing substantial departure from individual self-interest are unlikely to be successful.  Specifically, if this (i.e. ongoing substantial departure from self-interest) is a core requirement for an institution’s success, one of two things is likely to happen: either the institution will fall apart, or the institution will be transformed (by the actors whose actions after all constitute and reproduce the institution) to bring its functioning more in line with the demands of its members’ perceived self-interest.

In the jargon of modern economics and political science, this point can be articulated as follows: successful institutions need to be broadly incentive-compatible.

This insight finds expression in different ways in the works of institution-design theory that form the foundations for, on the one hand, the discipline of economics, and, on the other hand, the tradition of liberal constitutionalist political theory.

In the tradition of (what eventually becomes) economics, the core expression of this insight is to be found in Adam Smith.  As Smith famously expresses the point in ‘The Wealth of Nations’, the virtue of the market system is that a complex series of mutually beneficial trades can organise the production and distribution of goods in such a way that we can rely not on the beneficence, but on the self-interest, of other economic actors to supply us with the goods we need.

In the tradition of (what eventually becomes) political science, an influential expression of this insight is to be found in ‘The Federalist Papers’.  Here the thinking about the centrality of self-interest is applied to political actors within governance structures.  The problem the authors of the federalist papers are confronting is how to construct a governance system which wields sufficient power to successfully function, without succumbing to tyranny.  The solution the authors propose is an extremely complex set of checks and balances on power, such that different power centres can provide checks on each other, forestalling the tendency towards despotism that is intrinsic in concentration of power given the assumption of self-interested rulers.

Now, one of the things motivating these two different efforts to grapple with the problem of incentive-compatible institution design is the idea of the centrality of individual liberty as a political value.  It is, after all, relatively easy to construct incentive-compatible institutions if you don’t mind extremely high degrees of coercion within those institutions.  If I instituted a tyrannical police state, then a high degree of compliance with the dictats of that police state is relatively trivially incentive compatible for its inhabitants, because being shot on sight if you transgress the dictats is a strong incentive.  So the goal of liberal institution design isn’t incentive compatibility as such, but incentive compatibility given a commitment to individual liberty as a central political value.

Perhaps it’s worth registering two major categories of objection here.  First is the objection from anarchism: if you want individual liberty, why are you designing institutions that exhibit concentration of power in the first place? Just abolish these institutions already.  Here the counter-argument again derives from the ‘cynical’ liberal view of human nature as tending towards the self-interested: a lot of people are going to behave in self-interested ways no matter what, and in the absence of well-designed institutions that have themselves have coercive power, you’re therefore simply going to end up with a lot of coercion minus good institution design, because acting coercively, violently, oppressively, etc. is often in people’s self-interest.  Obviously I’m being very telegraphic here, but that’s the basic response.  In Derrida’s words, the goal is to find the “lesser violence in an economy of violence”.

The second category of objection is the objection concerning actually-existing liberalism, which is basically: look at the institutions these motherfuckers actually designed.  The US founding fathers constructed their state on the back of genocide and slavery; capitalism is responsible for countless horrors; why are we taking any of this stuff seriously as providing insights into good institution design?  And here my response is in turn basically: yes, but I’m interested here in the valuable dimensions of these traditions, not in their monstrous dimensions.  I think we have to be able to appropriate what is good and reject what is bad in the historic traditions we inherit, because just look at our traditions: human history is a charnel house, and if we’re going to discard insights because they are associated with horrors we’re going to be left with nothing but ashes.

So, returning to the main thread of the post, I’m claiming that the expansive tradition I’m talking about has several core elements: the centrality of individual liberty as a political value; a ‘cynicism’ about ‘human nature’ such that humans are seen as reliably, though certainly not invariably, self-interested; and the idea that the way to square these two insights in practice is by constructing incentive-compatible institutions such that individual self-interest can serve broader social goals, including the protection and enhancement of individual liberty.

Ok.  Now this tradition, understood in this way, is I think a recognisably liberal one – this isn’t all that liberalism amounts to, by any means, but these are recognisably liberal commitments.  And as such these commitments have typically been taken to be strongly associated with the specific political institutions endorsed by the thinkers and political actors we’re talking about.  Politically, this framework has frequently been taken to support constitutional government with extremely limited powers; economically this framework has frequently been taken to support laissez-faire capitalism with extremely limited government economic intervention.  And this all makes sense – after all, the authors of the Federalist Papers instituted a constitutionally-limited federalist government; Adam Smith endorsed laissez faire capitalism.

In the decades and centuries since these works were written, however, very significant critiques have been articulated of these institutions from what we can broadly call ‘the left’.  Obviously ‘the left’ is a very capacious concept, but it seems fair to say that within the political-economic discourse of the nineteenth and, especially, twentieth and twenty first centuries, a ‘classical liberal’ emphasis on highly constrained government and laissez faire capitalism was heavily contested by political movements that sought a greater role for government for broadly social justice reasons.  Economically, this argument took the form of either social-democratic government interventions within a market economy (high levels of regulation of markets, high levels of taxation for the provision of public goods, the welfare state) or the abolition of markets altogether and the institution of planned economies.  I think this is a familiar ideological contest: Hayek versus Keynes versus Lenin.  Obviously framing things in this way leaves out a lot of important stuff – not least the fact that there are highly statist forms of right-wing, conservative and reactionary politics, and highly anti-statist forms of leftism – but I still think the specific debate I’m trying to pick out here is familiar enough.

How does this ideological contest relate to the quasi-philosophical premises with which I started?  Recall, those premises are: first, the idea that political-economic actors are typically self-interested; second, the idea that liberty should be our central political value; third, the idea that incentive compatibility should motivate our institution design.  I think it’s been common on the left to argue that fundamental problems with the liberal political-economic project can be located in these premises.  For this reason, the left (though of course not only the left) has launched a multi-prong attack on those premises.

Specifically, the left has argued that:

  • Analysing political economy in terms of self-interested individuals is a debased and facile approach to understanding society.  This argument can I think in turn be broken down into the rejection of individualism, and the rejection of self-interest.  In fact we are not isolated individuals, but formed by communities and community identities; communities of various kinds are also themselves political-economic actors.  Moreover, there is abundant evidence that we are not purely self-interested actors, and – the argument often goes – building a better world in part involves a fundamental break with self-interest as the central posited motivating force of our social lives.
  • Separately, the left has argued that adopting liberty as our central political value is bad, and other values (for example, equality) are at least as important.

Once you throw out these premises, then the liberal conclusion – that incentive compatibility should centrally motivate our institution design, in the service of liberty enhancement – typically also falls by the wayside.

My argument on this blog and in this post is that the left has been wrong to reject these underlying premises of liberal normative political economy.  Not, of course, that there isn’t room for a high degree of analytic and methodological pluralism in political economy.  For example, there’s no reason why we should restrict ourselves to the assumption of self-interest, for when there are fertile, abundantly empirically-supported research programmes in the non-self-interested dimensions of economic action.  But I’m arguing that these underlying premises of ‘classical liberal’ political economy are in fact very valuable – and they provide an essential check on our institution design proposals.

I’ve made elements on this case on the blog before, and so I’m just going to recapitulate briefly here.

On liberty, my argument is that the left makes a normative mistake when it rejects liberty as a central political goal – we would be better off arguing over the substance and sense of liberty.  Much of the debate that is often captured by “liberty versus equality” can equally well be captured by a debate between an emphasis on “capabilities liberty”, in something like Amartya Sen’s sense, and “negative liberty”, in something like Hayek’s sense.  Framing the debate in this way, I think, makes it much harder for social justice arguments to open the door to apologism for despotism, on the grounds that liberty isn’t an important value anyway.  That is to say, framing the argument this way is just normatively better in most contexts.

On self-interest, I’ve written before on the blog about why I think there’s nothing wrong with methodological individualism. Separately, I also think the assumption of self-interest should have a central role in normative political economy, for the reasons I outlined towards the start of the post.  That is to say, if we take an overly ‘optimistic’ attitude to human nature, fiating away self-interest as a motive, we are likely to produce institution design proposals that cannot in practice withstand the pressure of self-interested action that all institutions must accommodate.  This in turn means that non-incentive-compatible institutions are likely to either fail, or be transformed in ways that depart from their nominal goals, or be reproduced via terroristic incentive structures, or some combination of all three.

In short, I think there is a strong case for adopting this framework in normative political economy, sort of regardless of the substantive goals one aspires to achieve.

But is this framework compatible with leftist goals?  Isn’t it telling that something in the space of this framework is more typically adopted by the right or – at best – by the social-democratic centre?

Well, maybe so, I guess.  To some extent one just has to see.  But for myself I don’t see any reason on its face why quite radically transformative institutions can’t be proposed and discussed within this analytic framework.  In fact, I think there’s a good case for a stronger position: if radically transformative institutions can’t be proposed and discussed within this framework, then that’s a problem for the institutional proposals, not a problem with the framework.  We need our alternative institutions to be broadly incentive-compatible, in the sense discussed above, if they are to have any reasonable chance of succeeding in practice at achieving emancipatory goals.

At any rate, this is the analytic framework I take myself to be broadly working within.

Liam Bright has a thoughtful blog post up, articulating (briefly) his critique of liberalism as an ideology.  It’s well worth reading – I’ve been complaining for some time now that radical left critics of liberalism often severely underspecify their critiques, basically relying on the fact that most everyone on the radical left agrees that liberalism sucks, so it’s enough to label something ‘liberal’ and the critique is done.  Liam’s post is much clearer than most about what he takes liberalism to be, and why he rejects it, and this is good!

Still, I am a liberal, and in this post I want to defend liberalism against Liam’s critiques.  Specifically, I take my own politics to pretty closely align with the position articulated in the later works of the late, great Charles Mills, which Liam discusses and links to in his post.  Mills’ work, I take it, both articulates a damning and far-reaching critique of ‘actually existing liberalism’ (most notably in ‘The Racial Contract’), and argues that we nevertheless should not reject liberalism as such, wholesale, but should rather aim to transform ‘actually existing liberalism’ in a more emancipatory direction.  For Mills, the key to this argument is that there is not one unitary thing called ‘liberalism’.  Rather, there are many elements of liberalism, which can be assembled together in many different ways to construct many different liberalisms.  For example, liberalism’s schedule of rights, protections and freedoms (itself very historically variable), has, in actually-existing liberalism, typically been available only to very narrowly defined sets of social actors, picked out using politically-constituted boundaries of race, gender, class, etc., such that the bulk of humanity is excluded from the egalitarian space of rights that characterises the full liberal polity.  For Mills, though, such exclusionary politics are not an intrinsic feature of liberalism as such (though, to be clear, neither are they intrinsically opposed to it) – rather, they are features of the specific forms of liberalism – racial liberalism, patriarchal liberalism, etc. – that have actually been instituted historically.  The task of ‘radical liberalism’, Mills argues, is to transform the institutions of liberalism so that the full benefits of liberalism – historically enjoyed only by a minority of humanity – are extended to humanity as a whole.

The above is obviously a bit crude as a summary – there’s much more that could be said about Mills’ project – but it’ll do for now as a general overview of the position I’m defending.  On to Liam’s critique of liberalism.  Liam has three specific criticisms of liberalism as he understands it.  I’m going to very quickly quote them, then discuss them out of order.  It is of course worth reading Liam’s full post to get a more elaborated sense of his position.

First critique: “I do not believe that anything like the public reason / private sphere of activity can be made to work.  I think the state has to in fact take a side on contentious issues, there is no neutral position or viable overlapping consensus or anything of the sort”

Second critique: “The notion of private property used to undergird the notions of self-governance and a private sphere… contains within itself the seeds of the destruction of the liberal order.”

Third critique: “I rather suspect that high-income-lifestyle liberalism will either always be reliant on shifting the ultra-exploitation elsewhere or shall have caused ecological collapse well before it has time to transition out of this.”

I’ll expand on each of these points a little as I go, but these are the basic arguments against liberalism of the post.

Now, these three criticisms aren’t all of the same kind.  I take critiques two and three to be, as it were, counterfactual-empirical political-economic claims.  That is to say, Liam is arguing that there are defining features of liberalism as a political system that have predictable political-economic consequences that are sufficiently appalling to warrant the rejection of liberalism as a whole.  Critique one, by contrast, is more of a philosophical-political objection to the principles of liberalism itself.  I’m going to discuss these issues in reverse order, taking the political-economic points first, then discussing the political-philosophical one.  The short version, to foreshadow, is that I think Liam’s political-economic objections are really objections to capitalism, not liberalism, and that these aren’t the same thing.

So, on the first political-economic argument, Liam is arguing for something like the following bundle of claims: Liberalism’s schedule of individual rights, etc., is centrally undergirded by private property rights, in the context of a market economy; private-property-based market economies have an inescapable tendency towards the concentration of power and wealth in oligopolistic structures; oligopolistic power structures will in turn undermine emancipatory politics, including the apparently most desirable features of liberalism itself; therefore any desirable form of liberalism is self-undermining.

I think this is wrong, because it claims intrinsic or lockstep connections between features of liberal capitalism that can (and should!) in fact be disaggregated.  Here I think it is important to emphasise that liberalism and capitalism are not identical phenomena, nor are either unitary.  In particular, I want to emphasise what I take to be two dubious steps in this argument.

First, there is the claim that property rights are absolutely central to liberal rights in general – that upholding liberal rights without upholding individual property rights does not make sense as an ideological or institutional project.  I think this is wrong – or at least not clearly right.  It’s certainly true that many of the most prominent representatives of liberal political philosophy have connected individual rights in general to a model of self-ownership that builds property relations in at the foundations of their philosophical apparatus.  But do we have to do this?  I don’t see why.  It doesn’t seem obvious that (for example) liberal checks and balances within governance structures, or the rights to privacy, or freedom of assembly, or freedom of religion, or freedom of speech, or freedom of the press, or equality before the law, etc., can only make sense in a political-economic institutional structure that is centred around private property.  It seems to me that one can relatively easily imagine legal-political institutions that centrally enact some forms of collective ownership of property but that nevertheless protect the other major liberal rights and institutional structures. A case can of course be made against this (Hayek and Friedman, among others, make such a case!) but a case would have to be made.

So that’s my first claim: that Liam overstates the necessity of the connection between private property rights and other liberal rights and principles.

My second claim is that, even if we grant that private property rights within a market society are an ineradicable part of the liberal institutional package, Liam is wrong to argue that oligopolistic capture of state institutions is an inevitable consequence of private property rights.  I take it to be historically clear that market capitalism has strong tendencies towards oligopoly, state capture, etc.  But again it is important that we analytically disaggregate our institutions.  Liberalism is not identical with capitalism; capitalism is not identical with market society; all three categories are internally varied; and it is therefore far from clear that the negative features of capitalist society that Liam criticises follow directly from the institution of private property.  In fact, markets are extremely common historically – there were market societies long before there was capitalist society, or liberal society – and it seems to me to be a clear analytic mistake to attribute characteristics of capitalism to the consequences of markets in general.  Moreover, market socialism – and market anarchism – are major forms of left politics, and the central claim of these traditions is that a non-capitalist market society can be constructed that does not exhibit the kinds of concentrations of power that Liam objects to.  Obviously many leftists in turn object to this position, on grounds similar to Liam’s, but my own view is that these market socialist and anarchist traditions have a lot to recommend them.  At any rate, I don’t believe they should hastily be counted out, so to speak.

So – I think that Liam’s argument that liberalism is inseparable from private property, which is in turn inseparable from oligopolistic market power and state capture, makes at least two very substantial argumentative leaps, which I am personally unpersuaded can be cashed out.  Of course, Liam is being brief because it’s a blog post!  I’m not suggesting that it’s a problem with the post that it doesn’t show its workings in this area!  I’m just noting what I take to be an undermotivated set of inferences, given what I take to be reasonable background commitments.

Ok.  Liam also objects to liberalism on the political-economic grounds that actually existing liberalism is characterised by core-periphery relations of exploitation and domination, and massive environmental degradation, and he is sceptical that liberalism can be disentangled from these political-economic catastrophes.  Again, I want to stress that to my mind liberalism and capitalism are not the same thing.  I think it would take me too far afield to try to discuss what are intrinsic versus non-intrinsic features of capitalism in this post – though I have written about the question of whether capitalism is capable of tackling climate change on the blog before.  Again, I mainly just want to flag that these steps in the argument don’t strike me as clear-cut at all, and would at a minimum need quite a lot of heavy lifting to cash out.

Ok.  So my claim so far has basically just been that Liam’s post moves very quickly in its political-economic claims, leaping from liberalism as a political project to negative features of capitalism as a world-system in a way that in my view elides the very many potential points of institutional disaggregation between these two sets of phenomena.  That’s the political-economic side of things.  I’m aware that this is all incredibly telegraphic, but moving on for now.

The other side of Liam’s argument is the more directly philosophical-political one.  Here I’m going to quote Liam again at greater length.  First here’s Liam’s summary of the relevant dimension of liberalism:

Here we see liberal political thought gradually emerge as a response to the civil wars in England and the wars of religion on the European continent. The diagnosis the intelligentsia of the day came up with was something along the lines of — these disastrous wars were caused by making control of the state a zero sum conflict over the ability to realise the most important goods and avoid the most disastrous evils. As such, we should reconceive the role of government to avoid its capture being so high stakes. Rather than a means of securing the good, it should exist to keep the peace between potentially fractious citizens and groups thereof. Part of doing so involves dividing up matters into those of private conscience versus those of public reason. Matters of private conscience are for the individual to freely decide and for others to respect in their wishes. Matters of public reason are those for which we need some way of deciding on social action that does not override what is for properly for the individual — initially and usually conceived, to be clear, as the propertied male head of a household. Privately we ought develop virtues of tolerance and mutual respect to enable the “live and let live” required for this to work. And publicly notions of private property and a sphere of action and protected rights that should be relatively free of state or other- imposition are developed. This goes well with notions of democracy (among the people who really count) as embodying the commitment to public reason delivering results that treated all perspectives equally, not a priori favouring one religious subset over another.

And here’s his critique:

I do not believe that anything like the public reason/private sphere of activity can be made to work. I think the state has to in fact take a side on contentious issues, there is no neutral position or viable overlapping consensus or anything of the sort… What made it seem plausible that this was a solution to the problem of the wars of religion was that in fact very substantive consensus did exist among the various dominant Christian sects, and where that agreement wasn’t there they didn’t really feel the need to respect the rights of outsiders (go back and reread Locke’s letters on toleration if you don’t believe me). Or, at least, substantive consensus existed among the restrained class of people that liberalism was willing to consider full persons worthy of consideration. Now we have expanded that class massively, as we surely must, and perhaps with broader social changes bringing more diversity, it is simply no longer tenable to seek to govern in light of a minimalist neutrality. What I think it leads to are just bad faith illusory politics where people must pretend procedural objections when really substantive objections are at stake….

I think this is a clear articulation of a common radical left critique of liberalism, and I think it’s fundamentally misguided as a matter of principle.  In my view the liberal compromise Liam describes in the first quote is an extremely important and valuable political achievement, and rejecting it in favour of a society explicitly organised around a specific notion of the common good would be a political regression at best, and actively dangerous – potentially catastrophically so – at likely worst.  I think we on the left need to be really, really careful when we start articulating these kinds of rejections of liberalism.

My own academic research is in political economy, not political philosophy, so I expect the following to be somewhat clumsily articulated, but let me try to take this step by step.  Following Rawls, Liam summarises the liberal position as emerging from horrifying wars of religion, in which societies were torn apart and countless people killed by the effort of different religious factions to control the state, and thereby institute their vision of the common good using the levers of the monopoly of the legitimate use of force.  The liberal compromise was the idea of (a quite limited degree of) religious tolerance, in which the institutions of state would permit (some measure of) pluralism of religious worship within the polity, in exchange for a degree of ‘privatisation’ of that worship – religious communities would forgo the goal of attempting to impose their own religious preferences on the entire population, in exchange for the entitlement to worship as they pleased within a delimited private sphere.  Obviously (as Liam says) the degree of actual tolerance this settlement represented was limited – but still.  The basic idea is that the state would permit some measure of pluralism within society, refraining from wholesale imposing the preferences of the specific ruling class of the moment on society as a whole, and that this was the route to a peaceful polity in which people and communities with different visions of the common good could nevertheless peacefully coexist.

This settlement in turn then serves as a model for a broader vision of the liberal polity, in which a major function of state institutions is to mediate between many different subcommunities’ and individuals’ vision of the good life in a way that permits diverse pursuit of different visions of the good life within the polity, without any one such vision coming to dominate any other.  More broadly, the goal of the liberal polity, in this understanding, is to enable individuals to pursue their own vision of the good life as they please, without state power infringing on that pursuit of the good life, except when individuals’ pursuit of their own goals infringes on the rights of others to pursue their own lives as they in turn see fit.

Now, if you have this understanding of the role of the liberal state, then you need to constantly make a set of judgements about what categories of state action constitute protecting individual liberty, versus what categories of state action constitute infringing individual liberty, and for whom.  There is the famous ‘paradox of tolerance’, whereby a tolerant state has to make a decision about whether to be tolerant toward intolerance.  If a tolerant state is too tolerant towards intolerance, the argument goes, then intolerance will gain the upper hand within the state itself, thereby ultimately destroying the tolerance that the state sought to protect.  Therefore, the argument goes, tolerant states must be intolerant of intolerance.

Thinking in this kind of space, there are at least two ways in which a state that narrates its function in these terms to itself could go badly wrong.  On the one hand, the state may ‘tolerate intolerance’ in a way that destroys the liberalism and pluralism of the society it sought to protect.  On the other hand, the state may choose to suppress ‘intolerance’ in ways that in fact suppress completely legitimate political, religious, cultural, etc. activity.  There is, in other words, a constant task of making substantive political judgements about what kinds of activity are protected by the liberal state and what kinds of activity are suppressed by it, and this is itself a substantive political judgement: a substantive political judgement about what constitutes ‘formal’ freedoms.

I take it that this kind of thing is what Liam means when he says that “the state has to in fact take a side on contentious issues, there is no neutral position or viable overlapping consensus or anything of the sort”.  Even if we understand the liberal state in terms of this project of a politically ‘neutral’ defence of individual rights, the determination of what counts as politically neutral is itself always and everywhere political.

Ok – I agree with this point!  The boundary of the private sphere and the limits of pluralism within a liberal governance structure are political matters that are politically contested, and the institutions of ‘neutral’ liberal mediation are likewise politically constituted by actors with substantive interests struggling to shape the polity.  This is all true!  But I don’t think it follows at all from this point that the liberal political project is illusory or (intrinsically) bad faith.  It means it’s political.  But a pluralist sphere of freedom of individual or community action can be and is still constituted by means of this political process.

To return to the issue of religious tolerance, and stating the obvious: there is, of course, a massive difference between a polity in which substantive fights take place over the specific limits of liberal religious pluralism, versus a polity that is run as a theocracy.  The fact that the construction of the limits of liberal pluralism is never itself apolitical or neutral does nothing to diminish the massive difference between these two categories of governance.  And I think this kind of point is often dismissed or ignored by radical left critiques of ‘liberal formalism’.  It’s true that no formalism or proceduralism is ever just formal or procedural.  But this doesn’t mean that formal rights or mediating procedures are functionless or valueless – quite the reverse!  It means that they are sites of contestation, like everything else, but they are specifically sites of contestation because of how important they are in, yes, protecting individual and community rights.

So this is my core objection to Liam’s post on liberalism.  When Liam says that we should give up on the political project of liberalism, on the grounds that liberal institutions are nothing more than a bad faith facade, and instead orient to some kind of common good, I object both analytically and politically.  Analytically, I think that the idea that liberal proceduralism is nothing but a bad faith facade is a mistake, for the reasons I’ve just outlined.  Politically, I think that pluralism, at both an individual and a community level, is an active political desideratum.  Our political goal should, in my view, be the traditional liberal one of enabling everyone to live their life as best they see fit – to flourish in their own terms, provided doing so brings no harm to others.  Self-consciously constituting a polity around a shared common good is, in my view, in important ways in tension with that goal.

Returning this blog to its original function of posting, in a very rough and ready way, very basic and beginner-level thoughts, I want to return to one of the most basic and beginner-level thoughts I have expressed on the blog, which is the idea that ‘willingness to pay’ for something does not adequately communicate preferences, because some people have very little money.  ‘Effective demand’ does not equal ‘real demand’ because ‘effective demand’ is ‘real demand’ plus ability to pay.  Moreover, if we assume (plausibly) a diminishing marginal utility of money, then a billionaire would (for example) plausibly be willing to pay substantially more for an item that they value substantially less than a low-income consumer, because the billionaire values the money in question relatively less still.  These seem to me to be obviously true observations that should be uncontroversial.  And yet, when I read in economics, I frequently run into analyses that seem to be fundamentally broken by these observations.

Example one: the idea (which I’ve recently been running into in Coase and Demsetz) that property rights allow individuals to compensate each other for harms by making ‘side payments’ that balance the harm associated with some specific economic activity.  Putting aside the question of whether and to what extent property rights in fact serve this function even in an idealised scenario, it seems obvious that this kind of story falls over because some people simply can’t make side-payments – they don’t have enough money to do so!  The ability to make side-payments correlates as much with wealth as it does with preferences, and this will very obviously have a ‘distorting’ effect on any political-economic settlement that operates in part via such side payments.

Example two: in welfare economics, the idea that a ‘consumer surplus’ can be captured by the difference between willingness to pay and actual price paid, and that such a ‘consumer surplus’ is a (mediated) measure of welfare in some sense.  Of course, it isn’t, at least in any very tractable way at all, because the demand curve represents not just consumer preferences, but also consumer income. Consumers with low income have low ability to pay for goods regardless of their preferences!  Consumers with high income have high ability to pay for goods regardless of their preferences!  This means that the demand curve simply does not reliably track preferences!  It tracks preferences plus wealth distribution.  If you can’t get rid of the ‘wealth distribution’ bit of that combination (and it’s unclear how you possibly can), then treating categories like ‘consumer surplus’ as any kind of reliable guide to actual welfare is a step on the road to hell.

I don’t have anything complicated to say about any of this – I’m just once again noting these issues.  If anybody has any recommendations for what to read in economics that addresses this kind of issue (not in the sense of “here are some Marxists who care about inequality” but in the sense of “here are some people incorporating these basic insights into the domains of economics that seem on their face to be so badly damaged by them”) I would be grateful for pointers!

[Editing this post after initial publication to add:]

Obviously there is a ‘political’ or ‘moral’ objection driving some of what I’m saying above, but at base there is also an analytic or scientific one. An economics that acts as if ‘willingness to pay’ expresses preferences without acknowledging that it also expresses wealth is very simply and straightforwardly an analytic failure. Yes, we’re in the space of normative economics any time we talk about efficiency, welfare, and so on, and in that sense it’s norms all the way down here – but if our normative analysis is to have legitimacy as analysis it needs to deal with this problem. In other words, we shouldn’t just be bothered by this problem morally or politically – we should also be bothered by it as social scientists.

[Edited again to add again:]

I am, to be clear, not assuming that these issues are not addressed in the vast literature of economics! On the contrary! Really I’m posting this as a way to try to push through the stuff that prompts this reaction and keep reading and working. But even so, my god.

I’m going to dive right in with this post, and maybe I’ll circle back around at some later time and talk about what I’m trying to do here in a broader sense.  So: I want to talk in this blog post about two traditions in ‘New Institutional Economics’ that can both find inspiration in the work of Ronald Coase, but that can potentially point in different directions.  I’ll call them the ‘transaction costs’ approach and the ‘rules of the game’ approach, acknowledging that these are ideal types and there’s often quite some overlap in practice between these subtraditions.  I’m going to argue that, analytically speaking, the ‘rules of the game’ approach is more fundamental, but that it’s easy to reify ‘rules of the game’ in a way that is basically incompatible with methodological individualism, even its most benign and desirable forms.  Hopefully this will all go some way towards laying an analytic foundation for later things I might want to talk about on the blog.

Very quickly and schematically, then: the transaction costs approach to institutional economics takes the transaction as the fundamental unit of analysis, and in particular focuses on the costs associated with different institutional structures within which transactions can take place.  Transaction cost economists typically don’t use this language, but fundamentally it is a base/superstructure analytic framework.  Economic transactions are the base; institutional superstructures are, over the long run, selected to minimise the costs of those economic transactions.  As ever, there are earlier precursors (notably John R. Commons), but this subtradition can find its core inspiration in Coase’s ‘The nature of the firm’.

The second Coasean subtradition finds its inspiration in the closing paragraphs of Coase’s ‘The problem of social cost’, where Coase argues that a factor of production should be understood not as “a physical entity” but rather as “a right to perform certain (physical) actions”.  This ‘reframing’ shifts economists’ attention from the exchange of physical objects involved in transactions, to the transformations of rights involved in transactions.  From this perspective, a transaction just is a broadly socially-accepted transformation of the relevant parties’ rights and obligations.  Moreover, if we push this perspective to its logical conclusion, even the existence of the transaction itself – even the existence of the participants in the transaction – is a result of socially-accepted rights and entitlements.  In ‘The limits of liberty’ James Buchanan makes this point in the following very strong form: “[t]he delineation of property rights is, in effect, the instrument or means through which a ‘person’ is initially defined.”  I would reject Buchanan’s emphasis on property rights specifically (and maybe I’ll get the opportunity to write about that disagreement with Buchanan another time) but I think this is recognisably a (narrow) articulation of a point that can be made more broadly using neo-pragmatist resources. That is to say: the individual is constituted by the social environment they inhabit, and (from a Brandomian perspective) that act of constitution can be understood in terms of attributions of entitlements and obligations.

What I’m arguing here is, in effect, that the concept of a transaction – and the costs associated with it – can be derived from a ‘rules of the game’ framework, because a transaction can be specified by making use of those rules.  I’m further claiming (without much in the way of an argument) that the reverse is not the case – that the ‘rules of the game’ cannot be derived from a framework that begins with the transaction as its basic unit of analysis.  I guess I need to think more about how to make that point persuasive – it seems to me like a category error to think you can derive norms from transactions – but I’m basically just going to fiat it for now.  So I’m claiming that the ‘rules of the game’ subtradition within new institutional economics is effectively analytically prior to the ‘transaction costs’ subtradition.

However, that doesn’t mean (in my view) that the ‘rules of the game’ subtradition can just sit on its laurels, because the ‘rules of the game’ approach lacks some analytic resources that are potentially available to ‘transaction cost’ approaches.  One of those resources is methodological individualism.  Of course, if you oppose methodological individualism that’s a strength not a weakness.  However, the problem with just talking about ‘rules of the game’ is that without an account of how the rules emerge out of social practice, you risk reifying the rules in a way that obscures internal social difference and dissensus.  I hope to publish something properly academic at some point making this argument, with the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed, with reference to Elinor Ostrom.  For now though I’m again just going to baldly state that ‘stopping’ at ‘the rules of the game’ risks reifying those rules in a way that has negative analytic consequences, and that you need to take a further step again to analytically break down the construction of those rules.

It won’t surprise anyone who actually reads this blog when I say that I think Brandom provides valuable resources here.  Brandom’s theoretical apparatus (and this time I have unpacked the relevant arguments properly on the blog before) can give an account of where ‘the rules of the game’ come from that doesn’t reify those rules as a Durkheimian ‘social fact’, but rather specifies the mechanisms by which they are instituted from individual-level practices of attributing and acknowledging commitments.

My overall argument, here, then, is two-stage.  First, you can use the Brandomian apparatus to give an account of the emergence of institutional rules of the game that is more methodologically individualist than most ‘rules of the game’ institutional economics.  Second, ‘rules of the game’ institutional economics can in turn be used to ground transaction cost economics.  So you have a relatively coherent and complex theoretical bundle here, the ‘output’ of which is the economic transaction as analytic unit.  Because the transaction is the ‘output’ of this bundle, not the ‘input’, we’re not committed to anything (that I take to be) theoretically problematic in terms of the reification of transactions.  But we can now start thinking about, say, microeconomics, confident that our ‘microfoundations’ are themselves grounded in a robust practice theory.

All of that was almost certainly too telegraphic to be comprehensible to anybody who isn’t already in my head.  Moreover I’m well aware of some terminological and argumentative slippage and sloppiness that I believe can be cleared up in a more careful and extended articulation of the argument – but that will have to wait for another time.  For now I just want to get these ideas down, even in this highly abbreviated form.

A few scattered comments on Burke’s reflections on the French Revolution, as usual cursorily written up before it all goes down the memory hole.

I’d say there are broadly three elements to the book:

  1. An argument over the principles animating the Glorious Revolution of 1688;
  2. A set of specific criticisms of the French Revolution (which was obviously in its early stages when Burke was writing);
  3. General political-philosophical remarks.

The bulk of the book is (2) – specific criticisms of the French Revolution.  Some of these sound, to my ears, pretty silly, and some of them sound incisive.  However, fundamentally and unfortunately I don’t know enough about the French Revolution to write about this dimension of the book in a useful way, so I’m not going to.  Instead I’m going to mostly focus on (3) – general political-philosophical remarks – with a discussion at some point of (1) – what it all means for our understanding of the Glorious Revolution.

The context of Burke’s text is a debate within the UK in and around 1790 over what attitude to take to the unfolding French Revolution.  Burke’s text is responding in part to a speech and pamphlet by Richard Price which praised the French Revolution as an expression of the same political ideals that motivated the Glorious Revolution.  Burke’s core claim is: no, this is a bad revolution, unlike the good Glorious Revolution, which was good; here is why.  Burke’s text in turn occasioned a large number of responses, including now-canonical works by Wollstonecraft, Paine, Godwin, and others.  Maybe I’ll post on some of those another time.

Anyway, in the lecture/pamphlet to which Burke is responding, Price articulates three core political principles.  In Price’s words:

First; The right to liberty of conscience in religious matters.

Secondly; The right to resist power when abused. And,

Thirdly; The right to chuse our own governors; to cashier them for misconduct; and to frame a government for ourselves.

Price argues that both the French Revolution and the Glorious Revolution are examples of the exercise of these principles.  That is to say, in both cases, a monarch abused their power, and were cashiered for misconduct, and the people instead chose their own governors.  Burke is scathing about this argument, and wants to draw a sharp line between the two revolutions.  For Burke, the French Revolution is a true societal upheaval, with likely very negative consequences, while the Glorious Revolution is basically a minor tweak to existing traditions, adopted as the lesser evil option in a scenario in which those traditions were going to get trashed more seriously by the status quo, and is praiseworthy for this reason.  For Burke, in other words, the French Revolution tears down existing institutions, while the Glorious Revolution modified those institutions the better to preserve them.

This argument in turn rests on Burke’s broader philosophical principles, articulated somewhat interstitially in the course of the text.  Crudely put, Burke is a traditionalist.  That is, Burke thinks there should be a strong presumption in favour of the virtues of traditional institutions, and only reluctant modification of those institutions.  This argument is what makes Burke a philosophical conservative, and his Reflections on the Revolution in France a classic text within the conservative political tradition.

So what are Burke’s arguments for his traditionalism?  Here I want to try to tease apart, or at least begin to tease apart, some of the different arguments Burke makes for this broad position, which I feel can often get mushed together a bit in discussions of ‘Burkean conservatism’.  The main reason I’m reading Burke, I guess, is to try to get clearer on these different threads within conservatism.  So, in no particular order, here are what I take to be some of the arguments that Burke makes for his traditionalism.

  1. God. 

Both ‘sides’ of this debate appeal to God.  Price sees God as the source of the fundamental rights that form the base of his critique of existing society.  Burke, by contrast, sees our subordination to tradition as part of a larger chain of deference and obligation that has a religious dimension.  As Burke puts it, in differentiating his own position from social contract theory:

Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primaeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.

Similarly, for Burke, the British people, respectful of tradition,

know or feel this great antient truth: ‘Quod illi principi et praepotenti deo qui omnem hunc mundum regit, nihil eorum quae quidem fiant in terris acceptius quam concilia et caetus hominum jure sociati quae civitates appellantur.’ [Cicero, de Republica, VI. xiii. (For to that supreme God who made the Universe, there is nothing on earth more acceptable than these gatherings and orderly societies of men, called States’ (Blakeney).]

It seems to me that for Burke, then, inherited social structures are underwritten by a religiously-warranted normative frame – that our temporal social order is connected to a larger moral order that we should respect.  In other words, where Price grounds critique of tradition in God-given rights, Burke grounds respect for tradition in that tradition’s congruence with a religiously-understood moral order.  Without this claim, it seems to me, Burke’s appeal to tradition would seem a bit undermotivated.  

2. Unintended consequences

Burke emphasises the risks associated with what we might now call the unintended consequences of transforming a complex social system.  In Burke’s words:

the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate; but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operation; and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects it produces in the beginning. The reverse also happens; and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions. In states there are often some obscure and almost latent causes, things which appear at first view of little moment, on which a very great part of its prosperity or adversity may most essentially depend. The science of government being therefore so practical in itself, and intended for such practical purposes, a matter which requires experience, and even more experience than any person can gain in his whole life, however sagacious and observing he may be, it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again, without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes.

In other words, if we assume that our current social order answers “in any tolerable degree” the “common purposes of society” we should hesitate to begin to unpick it, for the workings of our social order exceed in complexity our capacity to construct and reconstruct them, and though we may think we can make a better world by starting fresh, we know not what we do and what evils we may be unwittingly bringing about.  Better to trust to the forces that have formed a “tolerable” social order than to the human capacity to remake it.

  1. Wisdom of tradition is greater than the wisdom of individuals

This is closely related to the previous point (2), but is, I feel, a bit stronger.  The claim here is not just that our capacity to understand the consequences of our actions is so limited that we should be very cautious in taking far-reaching actions (a point about our ability to effect the changes we desire).  The claim here is that the tradition is specifically wiser than individuals – and that this provides a positive reason, not just a negative reason, not to meddle with the status quo social order.  Burke makes this point using the metaphor of individual versus general capital:

We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.

The collective and traditional judgement embedded in inherited social practices, Burke here argues, is likely to be better than the judgement of individuals.  At the large-scale societal level, this is a reason not to attempt to upend society, but at an individual level it is also a reason not to deviate very far from the norms and practices we inherit in our own lives.  As Burke puts this latter point, sensible ethical-political actors

think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.

The idea here, I think, is that “prejudice” – i.e. the inherited judgements of the social tradition one inhabits – provides a guide for action that has already been worked over by that tradition, and can be relied upon to guide action in a way that individual reason – which must be unreliably engaged afresh for every new judgement – cannot.  Moreover, “prejudice” (I suppose we could make this point more palatable for left social scientists by calling it “habitus”) can shape the individual in a way that allows easy and immediate action instead of the Hamlet-like equivocations of individual reason.  Given that our individual stock of reason is limited halting, and given that “prejudice” embodies the wisdom of many other besides oneself, better to rely on “prejudice” than on individual judgement.

There are therefore really two arguments in this category: first, that tradition is likely to have constructed a more normatively desirable large-scale social order than we can now using purely our own judgement; second, that because tradition embodies this kind of wisdom, it is defensible – indeed, it is a good idea – to rely on over individual reason it in making individual day-to-day decisions.

  1. Wisdom of the inherited property class is greater than the wisdom of the middle or lower orders

Burke’s arguments so far have focused on the superior wisdom of tradition over individual judgement.  But in this point he differentiates between categories of individual judgement.  Here his argument is simply that there is a lesser sort of person, and a greater sort of person – the greater sort are the wealthy, privileged and noble; the lesser sort are the grasping middle classes or, even worse, the lower orders.  The greater sort simply have better judgement than the lesser sort, for Burke, and therefore if we’re going to have somebody making decisions (which we have to in any governance structure, because tradition can’t be relied upon for everything), it had better be those with wealth, power, and privilege.

Burke has several sub-arguments for this position.  He believes that the traditional ruling class are practiced in rule, while those who are outside the traditional ruling class are not; therefore the traditional ruling class will simply rule better than revolutionary upstarts.  In Burke’s words:

Who could flatter himself that these men, suddenly, and, as it were, by enchantment, snatched from the humblest rank of subordination, would not be intoxicated with their unprepared greatness?

Such lesser men were “formed to be instruments, not controls”, they therefore “have the qualities of men not habituated to sentiments of dignity.”  Further:

the evil of a moral and almost physical inaptitude of the man to the function must be the greatest we can conceive to happen in the management of human affairs.

Still further:

The occupation of an hair-dresser, or of a working tallow-chandler, cannot be a matter of honour to any person – to say nothing of a number of other more servile employments. Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression, if such as they, either individually or collectively, are permitted to rule. In this you think you are combating prejudice, but you are at war with nature.

By contrast, inherited property somehow raises one to the status at which one is a well-suited person to rule:

The power of perpetuating our property in our families is one of the most valuable and interesting circumstances belonging to it, and that which tends the most to the perpetuation of society itself. It makes our weakness subservient to our virtue; it grafts benevolence even upon avarice. The possessors of family wealth, and of the distinction which attends hereditary possession (as most concerned in it) are the natural securities for this transmission. With us, the house of peers is formed upon this principle.

Those with inherited wealth are good rulers, those without are bad rulers – simple as that.

  1. Rights come from our tradition, they do not precede tradition – the latter is a nonsense

This is one of the key philosophical arguments of Burke’s book, and one of his central differences with the figures he is debating.  As I discussed in point (1), about religion, many figures in (what we can telegraphically call) ‘the revolutionary Enlightenment tradition’ ground their politics in the idea that we are all, as human beings, in possession of fundamental rights that exist independent of any specific social-institutional-political milieu.  Political institutions can then be assessed and rejected from the perspective of those pre-social rights, and alternative institutions can be constructed with those rights as guiding principles.

For Burke this is backwards.  Rights are the product of institutions, and make no sense outside of an institutional framework.  As he puts it:

You will observe, that from Magna Charta to the Declaration of Right, it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties, as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right.

For Burke, to appeal to rights that are not institutionally or culturally inherited is to mistake real, socially-embedded and -established rights, for fantasy or imaginary rights that (impossibly) exist outside of society.  Burke believes that the revolutionaries are using this spectre of imaginary pre-social rights to tear down the social institutions that establish actual rights, and are thereby undermining their own supposed goals.

Far am I from denying in theory; full as far is my heart from withholding in practice (if I were of power to give or to withhold) the real rights of men. In denying their false claims of right, I do not mean to injure those which are real, and are such as their pretended rights would totally destroy.

  1. We are intrinsically socially embedded creatures. Appeals to pre-social universality are in tension with the forms of belonging that foster our higher sentiments.

As Burke puts it:

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.

This is a familiar conservative argument against ‘cosmopolitanism’, arguing that sentiments of local belonging are the social foundation out of which other political sentiments must be built, and that breaking with this logical order risks also breaking the very sentiments one aspires to foster.

  1. Traditions can be modified and improved, but gradually, preserving what is good and modifying what needs modification.

This is Burke’s incrementalist argument against revolutionary sentiment – and also a response to a potential objection to his arguments about inherited tradition.  One counterargument to Burke’s position would run something like this: if we grant that the rights we value are a product of inherited tradition, on what basis could we ever be in a position to challenge that tradition, or to improve our social institutions?  A traditionalist approach to political theory would seem to make us prisoners of tradition, without the ability to reject even the most egregious or repressive elements of that tradition.  Burke argues, by contrast, that preserving our traditions can incorporate the process of gradual improvement of those traditions, provided the changes are not so rapid or so complete as to, as it were, cut away the institutional branch on which we are seated.  In Burke’s words:

the people of England well know, that the idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation, and a sure principle of transmission; without at all excluding a principle of improvement. It leaves acquisition free; but it secures what it acquires… Thus, by preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete.


  1. Breaking norms means that new rules can only be established by force – therefore a revolutionary order, to create a fresh society, will have to resort to force more than a traditional order, giving revolutionary orders a bias towards military rule.

Here Burke’s argument, I take it, is that tradition creates a set of habits and accepted norms that shape day-to-day behaviour and make our social, political and economic practices routine and therefore stable.  By unsettling all these norms, a revolutionary order is unable to rely on them for social stability.  When the revolutionary order wishes to establish its new institutional structure and day-to-day practices, therefore, it cannot rely on such habits.  If people are motivated to accept the new rules and practices, this isn’t a problem.  But if people reject the new practices, then the revolutionary order has little other than coercion to fall back on to enact its desired social change.  Revolutionary orders, Burke argues, will therefore have a tendency towards repression and coercive violence.  Moreover, because the state’s tools of repression and coercive violence – policing and, at a larger scale, military forces – are for this reason typically central to securing the stability of a revolutionary order, such revolutionary orders have a tendency towards military rule.  And because a charismatic military leader who commands the loyalty of the troops is frequently a prerequisite of military rule in a revolutionary situation in which traditional rules cannot be relied upon, this kind of military rule in turn has a tendency towards despotism.  In Burke’s words:

Every thing depends upon the army in such a government as yours; for you have industriously destroyed all the opinions, and prejudices, and, as far as in you lay, all the instincts which support government. Therefore the moment any difference arises between your national assembly and any part of the nation, you must have recourse to force. Nothing else is left to you; or rather you have left nothing else to yourselves. You see by the report of your war minister, that the distribution of the army is in a great measure made with a view of internal coercion.


In the weakness of one kind of authority, and in the fluctuation of all, the officers of an army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction, until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself. Armies will obey him on his personal account. There is no other way of securing military obedience in this state of things. But the moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master; the master (that is little) of your king, the master of your assembly, the master of your whole republic.

Ok. So these are, I take it, some of the key elements of Burke’s argument.

I had planned to write a lot more about the way these elements hang together, and to analyse and further disaggregate the critical point five – Burke’s argument about how rights emerge out of, rather than sit outside, our political traditions.  But this post is already quite long, so I think I’m going to call it a day here for now, and circle back around this material in a future post, in which I will hopefully further unpack and analyse, with a more critical eye, elements of Burke’s position.

Brandom and Freud again

January 5, 2022

Continuing my practice here of putting up somewhat preliminary reactions to Brandom’s Hegel work, so as not to lose track of the thoughts – being clear that this is hopefully all going to get worked through more carefully in the future – I want to put up a quick post about Brandom and Freud.  I’ve gestured to this before on the blog I think, but I want to very quickly and superficially expand on a couple points.

So – one of the overarching themes of ‘A Spirit of Trust’ is the way in which Brandom’s Hegel takes himself to have advanced beyond Kant, by making the transition from the “meta-meta-categories” of ‘Verstand’ to those of ‘Vernunft’.  Very broadly speaking, this is a shift from a synchronic to a diachronic understanding of the forms of obligation associated with the synthetic unity of apperception.  For Brandom’s Hegel the Kantian synthetic unity of apperception consists in the obligation to eliminate incompatible commitments.  What makes a self a self – what makes it a unity: this self rather than some other self – is that its commitments are bound together by this meta-commitment to internal consistency.  I am not obliged to make my beliefs consistent with your beliefs – we may simply disagree – but I am obliged (the thinking goes) to make my beliefs consistent with themselves.  When inconsistent beliefs present themselves to me (for example, by new evidence presenting itself to me via my senses, which contradicts some of my present beliefs), I need to go to work addressing this inconsistency by transforming some of my beliefs, in one way or another.

A great deal of philosophical analysis of rationality can be understood in terms of this model.  Basically, we can synchronically analyse a set of beliefs, and if it is consistent then that is good, and if it is inconsistent then that is bad.  This, for example, is what a lot of formal logic consists in: organising the relationship between different beliefs to clarify relations of compatibility and incompatibility, with the idea that when incompatibilities of belief are revealed this throws one’s belief system into the space of unreason, in a way that must be addressed by modifying one’s beliefs.  This synchronic approach can seemingly make it easy to sort belief bundles into two piles: those that are internally consistent (good), and those that are internally inconsistent (bad).

So far so good, but if one stops here – with the synchronic picture – then one is silent about the mechanisms by which one addresses the obligation to shift from an inconsistent to a consistent set of beliefs.  If one is confronted with incompatible commitments, it is not a trivial task to decide how to modify one’s commitments to address this problem of incompatibility.  And of course it is not the case that every way of attempting to respond to this obligation is equally desirable.  The way in which we choose to address incompatible commitments is itself a norm-governed enterprise – some ways of resolving this tension are better than others.  For example, if one is confronted with incompatible commitments, it is often desirable to keep these incompatible commitments suspended together, while one tries to work through and assess the different ways in which one might possibly attempt to fulfill one’s obligation to remove this incompatibility.  And this process may well take significant time and effort.  While one engages in the process one might provisionally prefer one commitment over another, but it may be specifically normatively desirable not to reject one incompatible commitment in favour of another in too hasty or thoughtless a fashion.  Keeping such incompatible commitments suspended together – even for very significant periods of time – might well be the most rational and reasonable thing to do.

The point here is that shifting from a synchronic to a diachronic understanding of rationality can among other things foreground this process.  Instead of simply sorting belief bundles into good and bad piles, our focus is now on the ongoing – indeed, never-ending – process by which we wrestle with our own internal inconsistency.

What does this have to do with Freud?  Well, Freud’s analysis of the psyche gives a central role to inconsistent or incompatible beliefs or commitments.  Of course, much of the Freudian project is about attempting to lessen the inconsistency of those beliefs – unwinding the double binds, or diminishing the symptoms produced by the psyche’s attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable.  In this sense Freud is a good Enlightenment rationalist, engaged in a similar project of explicitation to Brandom’s Hegel.  On the other hand, Freud is clear that some level of inconsistency of commitment is “in the grain” – the smoothly untroubled psyche in which our commitments do not conflict is a fantastical goal, for Freud.  It is also easy, then, to see Freud as a straight-up anti-Enlightenment irrationalist, fundamentally antithetical in his analytic framework to the work of reason associated with – for example – the kinds of formal logical analyses captured by a synchronic account of our rational normative obligations.  Alternatively, one could see Freud as analysing the kinds of obstacles – the ‘deformations of reason’ – that confront us as we attempt diachronically to move towards a more rational and internally consistent set of commitments.

What I want to argue in this post is that there is another option.  My claim is that because sustaining incompatible commitments is in fact a core part of a normatively desirable process for rationally addressing incompatibilities within the ‘synthetic unity of apperception’, psychological mechanisms for sustaining inconsistent commitments are a crucial, inescapable part of the machinery of reason.  For this reason, we can’t a priori say that any of the Freudian categories that capture such inconsistencies of commitment involve ‘irrationality’.  Once we have shaken out our inconsistent commitments, of course, we can see the moment at which inconsistent commitments are simultaneously held as an ‘irrational’ moment in the process of reason and experience.  But this is not an avoidable moment in that process – it is fundamental to the process.  It is part of reason itself.  Moreover, because for Brandom’s Hegel the process of unfolding experience is ongoing, the bacchanalian revel of truth never truly ends, so we can never be rid of this ‘irrational’ element of reason.

Now, when Brandom himself discusses Freud he typically does so under the heading of the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ that is rebutted via the story of the Kammerdiener.  Within this framework, the Freudian apparatus can be seen as giving a ‘debasing’ perspective on a set of practices that can also, from another perspective, be seen as norm-governed.  And in a sense, that is what I am arguing in this post.  We can easily (but, I am arguing, wrongly) see Freudian categories as analysing the ways in which we human creatures depart from reason, without recognising the constitutive role that such categories play in norm-governed rational thought.  I want to say, though, that the understanding of the role that such categories can play within the Brandomian-Hegelian apparatus that I’m advancing in this post goes somewhat beyond Brandom’s own remarks.  Brandom’s remarks tend, I think, to place Freud more firmly on the ‘debasing’ side of Hegel’s ‘small-souled’ versus ‘great-souled’ division.  I’m arguing here that there is work to be done in understanding and elaborating the constitutive role that ‘living with inconsistency’ plays within our norm-governed rational obligation to achieve consistency of commitments.  And this is, I think, one way (not, I think, perhaps, the only one – though obviously that is a matter for another day) in which a ‘Freud-Brandom-Hegel’ synthesis is potentially interesting and productive.