I wanted to assemble some pretty brief thoughts on Hayek’s ‘The Constitution of Liberty’, before it all goes down the memory hole.  The book is doing a number of different things, and I wanted to typologise them as a sort of notes to self.  Specifically, I would say that much of the content of the book can be broken down into five categories.  I’m going to discuss those categories in ascending order of how seriously I take them.

One: ad hoc right-wing talking points.  Perhaps I’m being a bit ungenerous here, but I was struck by what a high proportion of the book is making right-wing arguments that aren’t really connected to any of its overarching theses.  For example: a number of arguments are presented for why vast hereditary wealth is actually good (e.g. it’s important to have a ‘cultural vanguard’ that can experiment with cultural novelty, and, unlike those experiencing ‘new wealth’, aristocrats are already used to being wealthy so they’re unlikely to have their character deformed by sudden prodigality). From a left perspective a lot of these ad hoc arguments seem pretty silly.  I’m just going to ignore that stuff.

Two: an argument in the philosophy of law about what ‘rule of law’ means.  I would say that this is the most central thesis of the book, but I also found it a little difficult to pin down – perhaps if I read ‘Law, Legislation and Liberty’ I would be able to do a better job re-presenting Hayek’s position here.  Broadly, I’d say that Hayek wants to divide the exercise of state power into two categories: state power equally applied to all citizens in a manner that follows clear, universal rules (the rule of law), and state power applied only to some subset of citizens, because of the preferences of rulers.  Hayek’s argument is that only the former – universal laws, applied universally, which because of their universality guarantee equality before the law – are a legitimate form of the exercise of coercive state power.

I think there’s clearly a point to be made in this space.  There is a very strong argument to be made that arbitrary dictats mobilising state power against political enemies or disfavoured minority groups are oppressive and illegitimate, and go against the concept of ‘rule of law’.  And presumably one could try to construct a spectrum of state action with “arbitrary ruling class whim” at one end and “universal and universally applied law” at the other end.  But Hayek seems to want this distinction to do some heavy theoretical and political lifting that it’s not clear to me that it can, at least as articulated.  This is so in two distinct respects.

First of all, Hayek seems to think that the clear illegitimacy of arbitrary state power being used to lock up ruling class actors’ political opponents, etc. also applies to many areas of actually-existing state policy: the administrative state as a whole, for Hayek, seemingly fails to exhibit ‘rule of law’, because of the way it empowers state actors to make context-specific policy decisions.  Again, there are arguments to be made in this space (hopefully one day I’ll write some more about the sinister dimensions of the administrative state), but Hayek’s argument seems to me on its face to be way too strong.  It also seems to be inconsistently applied – Hayek is happy for certain administrative state programmes to persist, in a way that does not seem to me to line up with any coherently articulated ‘rule of law’ versus ‘arbitrary state action’ distinction, but rather to line up with Hayek’s own policy preferences.

Secondly, Hayek is weirdly indifferent to the potentially oppressive dimensions of universally applied law.  Chapter 10 contains this extremely strange passage:

It is not to be denied that even general, abstract rules, equally applicable to all, may possibly constitute severe restrictions on liberty.  But when we reflect on it, we see how very unlikely this is.  The chief safeguard is that the rules must apply to those who lay them down and those who apply them – that is, to the government as well as the governed – and that nobody has the power to grant exceptions.  If all that is prohibited and enjoined is prohibited and enjoined for all without exception (unless such exception follows from another general rule) and if even authority has no special powers except that of enforcing the law, little that anybody might reasonably wish to do is likely to be prohibited. (154-155)

This seems to me to be a deeply silly and wrong-headed passage.  In the first place, Hayek does not adequately address the very significant problem of what institutional structures can enable us to institute a society in which those with power do not have the ability to make exceptions in practice for themselves.  This problem must, in my view, be central to any serious classical liberal political-economic program, but ‘The Constitution of Liberty’ largely skirts around it.  In the second place, there is an arguably even deeper problem of principle here: those making the laws may simply have different preferences from many of those to whom the laws are applied.  The idea that we can rely on the universality of law as a check against the repressiveness of law seems totally incompatible with the insight that our societies are diverse, and that different people within them want to live very different kinds of lives.  Since the importance of pluralism of preferences is supposedly one of the motivating features of the kind of classical liberalism that Hayek is here advocating, I find this dimension of Hayek’s argument to be extremely strange.

So, on Hayek’s ‘rule of law’ arguments: clearly there are important points to be made in this space, and I would like to return to these issues again in the future, but for now I’m basically not going to take this element of the work seriously, because Hayek’s arguments seem to me to require pretty radical reconstruction to get something sensible out of them.

Three: concepts of liberty.  Here I’m basically talking about the first chapter of the book, where Hayek very usefully typologises four different senses of ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’. Hayek’s typology is: 

1) ‘Negative liberty’ in the sense of freedom from another social actor’s coercive power.  This is the sense of ‘liberty’ that Hayek is interested in, and that he believes political-economic policy and institutions should aspire to cultivate.

2) Participation in governance – “what is commonly called ‘political freedom’” (13) or ‘positive liberty’.  Like Isaiah Berlin and others, Hayek is concerned that this sense of ‘freedom’ is in practice compatible with high degrees of oppression, because a community can claim to govern itself – and thereby exercise ‘political freedom’ at a collective level – even though at an individual level such governance is despotic or oppressive.  Hayek is not interested in pursuing this sense of freedom or liberty, and he thinks it is important that it not be confused with ‘negative liberty’.

3) Metaphysical or subjective freedom – freedom of the will.  Obviously one could claim that this is a politically-economically-relevant concept, but Hayek doesn’t think it’s very relevant to the problems posed by political-economic institutions, and I agree.

4) “the power to satisfy our wishes, or the extent of the choice of alternatives open to us”.  This is Hayek’s true target in this section of the book.  He cites the institutional economist John Commons and the philosopher John Dewey as representatives of this position.  In our own time (postdating ‘The Constitution of Liberty’), Amartya Sen is I think the most distinguished advocate of a version of this sense of ‘liberty’, with his ‘capabilities approach’.  Advocates of this sense of ‘liberty’ argue that ‘negative freedom’ is too limited an understanding of freedom – that the lack of ability to act as one chooses associated with economic deprivation is itself a form of unfreedom.  One can have all the ‘negative liberty’ one wishes, but if one is starving, and with no ability to remedy one’s plight, one is experiencing not just a low degree of ‘welfare’, but also an absence of freedom.

Hayek is very critical of this understanding of freedom.  He argues that it is “a verbal trap” and “dangerous nonsense” (16).  Not only is this concept of freedom confused, Hayek argues, but it is also politically malign, because it is the mechanism via which redistributive policy finds ideological warrant, disregarding ‘negative liberty’ in the name of (in Sen’s terms) expanding social actors’ ‘capabilities’. 

Hayek’s position here is the ideological core of much ‘libertarian’ or ‘classical liberal’ political philosophy – but in my view it has at least three things wrong with it.  First, and fairly trivially, I think it is tendentious for Hayek to argue that Dewey, Commons, Sen, etc. are engaged in sophistry, rather than simply articulating a different political-normative framework from Hayek’s own.  Second, and perhaps most substantively, I just disagree with Hayek’s normative framework, and agree with Sen’s.  I see no reason not to understand deprivation as unfreedom, nor do I see any reason not to make the reduction of such unfreedom a major goal of our political-economic institutions.  Third, and a bit more subtly, Hayek is also dismissive of the idea that the forms of deprivation associated with ‘capabilities unfreedom’ make social actors vulnerable to coercive exploitation.  Hayek – like so much of the tradition of which he is a part – simply does not take seriously the idea that the intensely limited bargaining power associated with capability deprivation is any kind of threat to negative freedom.  This is, in my view, a problem with Hayek’s framework above and beyond ‘irreducible’ normative disagreements.

Four: a ‘Burkean conservative’ theory of history.  In the fourth chapter, Hayek distinguishes (rather ‘ideal typically’) between “two different traditions in the theory of liberty” – a French tradition which is a prioristic, rationalistic, and speculative, and an English tradition which is empirical, unsystematic, and historical.  For Hayek, the ‘French’ a prioristic tradition has a tendency towards utopianism – and therefore totalitarianism – because it disregards the real lessons of history in its effort to forge an ideal society based on abstract principles of reason.  By contrast, the ‘English’ tradition is grounded in the organic evolution over time of real institutions of freedom.  Hayek aligns himself with this latter tradition, and worries about the corrosive impact that idealist rationalism may have on actually-existing organic institutions of English freedom, and its successors.

This all deserves a lot more attention than I’m going to give it here, but I think there are two quick remarks worth making about this theory of history.  The first – which is just an observation, really – is that Hayek’s metatheoretical position here marks a significant break with the ‘Austrian’ tradition with which he is typically associated.  The Austrian approach – exemplified by Mises’ ‘praxeology’ – was historically extremely keen on a priori reasoning as against empirics.  Moreover, the Austrian approach was typically both methodologically and normatively individualist, while Hayek’s position in ‘The Constitution of Liberty’ – with its emphasis on the value of organically evolved community norms and structures – is at the very least flirting with a significantly more communitarian framework.  Hayek’s positions here are all perfectly defensible, but I think it’s striking how far he has moved in this work from the paradigmatic Austrian approach.

The second point concerns the selective application of a Burkean admiration for organically evolved institutions.  Again, this issue deserves much longer treatment than I can give it here, but the basic theoretical problem is that no culture, norms, or institutions are homogeneous or unitary, and so there are always choices to be made about exactly what it means to respect them.  The practical problem, as it were, is that Hayek wants to argue that (for example) the U.S. war of independence – which overthrew existing society in a violent revolutionary uprising, and instituted its own alternative institutions based on the founders’ reasoning about an ideal polity – is somehow aligned with the ‘organic’ side of his dichotomy, while much less violently transformative contemporary administrative policies that Hayek dislikes somehow align with ‘a priori utopianism’.  This often seems like a stretch, to me – the Burkeanism of this strand of the text can sound a lot like special pleading, whereby political-economic structures that Hayek likes are ‘organically evolved’, and those he doesn’t like are utopian.  Again, it’s not that there’s nothing here, and I’d like to return to this kind of metatheory, but to my mind Hayek is not very successful in deriving the conclusions he wants from his overarching framework.

Five: distributed knowledge.  Finally, we come to the argument which is, I think, most strongly associated with Hayek’s name: the idea that local knowledge distributed across the economy as a complex system requires certain categories of institution in order to successfully shape large-scale economic action.  This is the argument that Hayek famously made in his 1945 article ‘The Use of Knowledge in Society’.  I was surprised, when reading ‘The Constitution of Liberty’, to discover how little work this category of argument is doing in the book.  To my mind, Hayek’s ‘distributed knowledge’ argument – whatever conclusions one ultimately draws from it – is his most significant contribution to economic theory, and deserves to be taken very seriously.  But ‘The Constitution of Liberty’ is not a work in which Hayek significantly advances this argument.  Obviously there’s not much point complaining that a book doesn’t do what you were expecting it to – but there it is.

So – that’s my critical summary of the book, and what I take to be its core claims.  Enough for now.

I’ve been reading Hayek’s ‘The Constitution of Liberty’ – perhaps I’ll write up a post on it at some point.  The book isn’t altogether what I was expecting – much heavier on Burkean conservatism and much lighter on ‘social complexity’, catallaxy, etc. than I thought it would be, going in.  Indeed, it’s questionable in my opinion the extent to which the book can even be described as ‘individualist’.  It certainly isn’t methodologically individualist in the sense in which, say, Buchanan and Tullock’s arguments for contractarian constitutionalist liberalism are: Hayek’s Burkean evolutionary political philosophical apparatus is, if anything, anti-individualist in its core commitments, because it regards the isolation of individual reasoning from the evolved normative social framework in which that reasoning is embedded as both analytically dubious and politically dangerous.

In any case, this is stuff to think about another day.  In this post I want to talk more about the elements of Hayek’s thought expressed in his ‘The use of knowledge in society’, and his various interventions in the ‘socialist calculation debate’.  Again, I hope to discuss this more adequately at some later time, but very crudely, the idea here is that the market system is superior to central planning as a mechanism of resource allocation and as an incentive for production, because the market system can communicate individual-level preferences in a way that a centrally planned system could never hope to.  The central planner (the argument goes) simply does not have access to the kinds of information about individual preferences that the market system intrinsically communicates and synthesises via the distributed information processing of decentralised exchange.  And this argument in turn has (roughly) two parts.  First, the idea is that no central planner could realistically hope to process the quantity of information associated with countless expressed individual preferences.  More profoundly, the central planner also has no hope of even accessing such information.  The market provides a method via which countless individual preferences can be expressed in the first place which is simply absent in centralised planning systems.  The market therefore doesn’t simply process information better than a central planner; it also facilitates the very existence of preference signalling in a way that central planning cannot.

I think there’s a lot to this second element of the Hayekian argument for markets as a mechanism of social decision-making.  I don’t think this argument is dispositive – again, I hope to come back to all this in more depth another time.  But I do think this second argument has a lot to recommend it.  ‘Price signals’ do have the core strength of permitting the decentralised expression of countless preferences, whatever else we think of the broader institutional context.

However, there is a problem with the price mechanism as a means of expressing and synthesising preferences: inequality.  If you and I both have one hundred dollars, and I am prepared to spend five dollars on a product, while you are only prepared to spend one dollar on the same product, that seems like a pretty robust expression of our relative preferences.  If, however, I have a million dollars, and you have ten dollars, then my willingness to spend five dollars on a product, versus your willingness to spend only one dollar on the same product, pretty clearly no longer reliably communicates our actual relative preferences.  What this communicates is, rather, that I have orders of magnitude more money than you.  Inequality of wealth fundamentally breaks the function of the price mechanism as a system for communicating individual preferences, and for making social decisions on that basis.

This is a basically trivial point – obviously I’m not breaking any news here.  But it is, I think, a point that much political-economic theory has (for whatever reason…) still not adequately incorporated into its thinking.  If we are serious about the idea that the virtue of the market is the decentralised ‘calculation’ of relative preferences, then it seems like we should be profoundly worried about inequality.  Inequality breaks the market as a social decision mechanism.  Indeed, if this is a key rationale for the centrality of the market to our political-economic institutions, then it seems like the larger the role we wish the market to play, the more we should be concerned about inequality.  And yet, of course, empirically, it seems like if anything the opposite is the case.

I don’t mean to suggest this as a puzzle – I think it’s clear that there are other commitments driving political-economic theorists’ views about inequality.  But I do think it’s something that is worth putting some weight on, in our thinking about political-economic institutions.  If we take this dimension of Hayek seriously – if we are interested in ‘catallaxy’ as a mechanism for resource allocation and the incentivisation of economic activity – then there is very good reason to support a high degree of wealth egalitarianism.  Indeed, if we support the market as a key political-economic institution on this basis, the persuasive onus should in my view be on those who do not derive from this position a commitment to wealth egalitarianism.

Hayek on Freedom

July 7, 2021

An extremely rough and ready, short post on Hayek’s discussion of the concept of freedom in the first chapter of ‘The Constitution of Liberty’.  This is really just stating the obvious, but there’s not much harm in that, so.

In the first chapter of ‘The Constitution of Liberty’, then, Hayek distinguishes between four different concepts of freedom.  These are:


The state in which man is not subject to coercion by the arbitrary will of another or others (11)

This is what Isaiah Berlin, in his ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, calls ‘negative liberty’ – absence of external social constraint.  This is the sense of freedom that Hayek himself endorses and wants to argue for.


what is commonly called ‘political freedom,’ the participation of men in the choice of their government, in the process of legislation, and in the control of administration. (13)

This is the sense of ‘freedom’ captured by Berlin’s concept of “positive liberty” – and Hayek’s objection to this concept is similar to Berlin’s.  Hayek notes that this concept of ‘freedom’ applies to a collectivity, rather than to an individual – a ‘people’ may be free, in the sense of ‘collectively’ ‘self’-governing, while individual members of the state or community in question are not free at all – not even in this sense.  Collective ‘freedom’ in the sense of ‘self’-governance may involve individual unfreedom.


“inner” or “metaphysical” (sometimes also called “subjective”) freedom. (15)

This is the sense in which someone may be said not to be acting under “the influence of temporary emotions, or moral or intellectual weakness.” (15)  This, Hayek suggests, is an individual-level concept, but it is psychological or metaphysical rather than political.


the physical “ability to do what I want,” the power to satisfy our wishes, or the extent of the choice of alternatives open to us. (16)

This is what, in my own typology of the concept of liberty elsewhere on the blog, I called (rather clunkily) “capabilities” freedom – i.e. freedom as the active ability to do something.  The idea here is that if you are ‘formally free’ to take an action, but lack the capacity to actually take the action, formal freedom doesn’t amount to much – thus, for example, dire poverty is a form of unfreedom, because it greatly restricts your available actions.

Hayek is particularly strongly opposed to this fourth concept of freedom, which he regards as actively misleading or sophistical, and moreover as politically malign.  In Hayek’s words:

This reinterpretation of liberty is particularly ominous because it has penetrated deeply into the usage of some of the countries where, in fact, individual freedom is still largely preserved. In the United States it has come to be widely accepted as the foundation for the political philosophy dominant in “liberal” circles. Such recognized intellectual leaders of the “progressives” as J. R. Commons and John Dewey have spread an ideology in which “liberty is power, effective power to do specific things” and the “demand of liberty is the demand for power,” while the absence of coercion is merely “the negative side of freedom” and “is to be prized only as a means to Freedom which is power.”  

This confusion of liberty as power with liberty in its original meaning inevitably leads to the identification of liberty with wealth; and this makes it possible to exploit all the appeal which the word “liberty” carries in the support for a demand for the redistribution of wealth. Yet, though freedom and wealth are both good things which most of us desire and though we often need both to obtain what we wish, they still remain different. Whether or not I am my own master and can follow my own choice and whether the possibilities from which I must choose are many or few are two entirely different questions. (17)

Hayek therefore wants to restrict the concept of political-economic freedom as discussed in his book to ‘negative liberty’ alone, and argue that the capacity to act on ‘negative liberty’ made available by one’s social resources is not a kind of liberty at all.

For myself, I am with Commons and Dewey on this issue, at least in the sense that I think ‘capabilities liberty’ (or whatever we want to call it) is a legitimate – indeed, central – form of freedom.  And I think two distinct arguments can be made here.

First, there is the basic concept itself.  I don’t see any good reason, contra Hayek, to regard this meaning of ‘freedom’ as particularly sophistical: if one is granted ‘negative liberty’, but lacks the ability to take any of the formally available actions associated with such ‘liberty’, why not call this a lack of freedom?  As long as one keeps this sense of ‘freedom’ distinct from the other senses Hayek lists, I don’t see why Hayek should be able to fiat that this (to my mind) relatively commonsensical usage is illegitimate.

There is also a second reason to think that this is a relevant sense of ‘freedom’.  If one lacks the social resources to fulfill even quite basic goals, one is extremely vulnerable to forms of coercion that are seemingly compatible with ‘negative liberty’.  If I am wholly reliant on my income from my employer to live, this grants my employer very considerable power over me.  Indeed, the workplace in general is a site of unfreedom, because I am placing myself under the command of another in exchange for access to the material resources I need to live my life.  Obviously this is a spectrum – there are very much greater and lesser forms of workplace (and other) coercion – but the way in which the social resources that grant us ‘capabilities’ to act are distributed is also a matter of the distribution of power within society, and thus of the distribution of freedom.  And yet because these coercive (in some sense) relations are also voluntary (in another sense) they can easily fall entirely outside the observational sphere of the concept of ‘negative liberty’.  Foregrounding the concept of ‘capabilities liberty’ increases our resources for understanding the spectrum and variety of forms of freedom and unfreedom – even if that concept is centred on the absence of coercion.  In other words, restricting our concept of freedom to ‘absence of coercion’, while fiating that ‘capabilities’ don’t count, is likely to also unhelpfully restrict our understanding of coercion and its absence.

So – Hayek is surely correct that this concept of freedom can be used to sophistical ends, but this is, it seems to me, a better argument for keeping other concepts of freedom in mind, than for simply abandoning this ‘capabilities’ or ‘power’ sense of freedom.

Now, to my mind Hayek’s typology of senses of freedom is a good, clarifying, and useful one.  It certainly seems better than Berlin’s ‘Two Concepts’, and it seems better to me also than the tripartite typology I’ve been using on this blog (though my senses map I think pretty exactly onto three of Hayek’s – I simply haven’t been discussing ‘metaphyiscal’ freedom here).  But I don’t think Hayek offers good reason for his preference of taking ‘freedom’ to denote only ‘negative freedom’.

Moreover, I think this disagreement – about what senses of ‘freedom’ are politically important – is one useful way to draw the distinction between ‘right’ and ‘left’ liberalisms.  For ‘right’ liberalisms, like Hayek’s, negative liberty is the key category, and both positive liberty (in the sense of ‘self-goverance’) and capabilities liberty (in something like Commons and Dewey’s sense of freedom) are sideshows.  My politics (a form of left liberalism) is closer to that of Commons and Dewey, at least in this respect: I think ‘capabilities’ freedom needs to be central to our project of attempting to expand freedom.  Hayek writes:

It is true that to be free may mean freedom to starve (18)

It is the political argument of the left that it should not.

A short, superficial post on what seems like a mild irony in the intellectual history of public choice theory – specifically, concerning the theory of constitution formation.

In 1913 Charles Beard published ‘An economic interpretation of the constitution of the United States’ – a book which I haven’t read, though I probably should.  In that work, Beard (I gather) argues that the US constitution was centrally shaped by the class interests of its drafters.  Obviously I’m in no position to have a view on Beard’s historical claims.  Nevertheless, the very broad category of claim it makes – i.e. that class interests can and do play a major role in constitution formation – is in my view clearly correct.  And this category of claim was a target of early public choice theory, in particular Buchanan and Tullock’s ‘The Calculus of Consent’.  In that work, Buchanan and Tullock discuss the Beard thesis in two locations.  On page 14 they make the startling claim that “a nation of small freeholders, perhaps roughly similar to the United States of 1787” would fit well their assumed theoretical model in which most of the inhabitants of the model society “are, in fact, essentially equivalent in all external characteristics”.  Buchanan and Tullock footnote this remark with a citation to Robert E. Brown’s ‘Charles Beard and the Constitution’, which, they claim, “establishes the fact that economic differences, at least in terms of class, were not important in 1787.”  (This seems like a difficult claim to support as stated, to put it mildly.)

Then on pages 25-27 Buchanan and Tullock discuss the Beard thesis at greater length.  Here they are concerned to distinguish their own form of economic explanation – which takes utility-maximising individuals as its fundamental unit of analysis – from Beard’s form of economic explanation – which, they argue, takes classes and class interests as its fundamental unit of analysis.  Buchanan and Tullock are keen to emphasise that these two analytic approaches – both of which can be called ‘economic’ – are radically divergent.  Moreover, their core argument against Beard is methodological. For Buchanan and Tullock, it is simply misguided for social scientists to use class as a central category: doing so obscures the individual interests that are essential to the dynamics of political-economic life.

This methodological argument for rejecting class analysis seems to me to be mistaken.  I am, for what it’s worth, sympathetic to methodological individualism – I think there are indeed important features of political-economic life that can only be understood if we drill down to individual-level motivation.  Similarly, I don’t have any specific objection to rational choice theory, which is in my view a capacious and fruitful analytic framework.  But it seems to me that Buchanan and Tullock are here attempting to make a substantive argument on methodological grounds, where the substantive conclusions simply can’t be derived from the methodological premises.  Even if we begin with the individual as our unit of analysis, there is no reason to believe that individual preferences and actions cannot generate macro-level phenomena that are well-captured using the vocabulary of class.  Indeed, it seems obvious (to me) that they can and do.  Moreover, assuming we grant that class phenomena are compatible with methodological individualism, we should not have to start from scratch with individual-level analysis every time we wish to speak about those macro-level phenomena – the intellectual division of labour makes possible a methodological pluralism which we can all embrace, without having to rederive any given analytic framework in every instance of its application.

In any case, Buchanan and Tullock raise two objections to the Beard thesis, one empirical and one methodological: empirically, they argue that it’s simply wrong as history; methodologically, they argue that it should be rejected because its class categories are not grounded in methodological individualism.  

But there is a third, broader argument about elite constitution-formation, which in some sense animates the entire project of ‘The Calculus of Consent’.  This argument is that the classical liberal institutional ideal of small government bound by substantial constitutional constraints was and is good.  Where Beard and his allies seek to present the early US constitutional settlement as an instrument of class power and class domination, Buchanan and Tullock seek to present – at least an idealised version of – this classical liberal institutionalist project as broadly normatively desirable.  Beard is, for Buchanan and Tullock, not only wrong empirically and methodologically, he is also wrong normatively or politically – and I think it is reasonable to see this argument as the core motivation of the dispute around constitution-formation, even if this dimension of the debate is at times somewhat tacit.

Now, there is an irony here – in that there are two elements of the public choice project operative in this discussion, which stand in some tension.  On the one hand, there is the element of public choice that focuses on institutional capture, rent-seeking, ‘politics without romance’, the analysis of political actors as self-interested seekers of advantage, etc.  This element of public choice has as its target the administrative state and the redistributive state – the elements of state apparatus that, public choice theorists argue, seek to extend state power in the service of special interests and the tyranny of the majority.  On the other hand, there is the element of public choice that focuses on constitution-formation, where a well-configured classical liberal constitution can, in principle, serve as a constraint on these unfortunate elements of political-economic self-interest.  These two elements of the public choice project have always gone together – but the relation between them also raises a question: why should we not see the process of constitution-formation as itself determined by the kinds of institutional capture, self-interested motives, rent-seeking, etc. etc., that characterise the administrative and redistributive states?  Is it not possible that part of the threat of the Beard thesis and similar arguments to the public choice project lies in the risk of a symmetrical application of the idea of ‘politics without romance’ to the process of constitution-formation itself?  And might this be part of the reason why Buchanan and Tullock’s objections to the Beard thesis are centred on empirical and methodological issues, rather than the normative and political issues that are at least as central to the debate?

In this connection, I was interested to read some of Randall Holcombe’s recent work on ‘political capitalism’.  Holcombe is working within the public choice and Austrian political-economic traditions, but unlike Buchanan and Tullock, Holcombe does not take methodological individualism to be an insurmountable barrier to class analysis.  Rather, Holcombe is part of what I would characterise as a turn within recent conservative discourse to place class categories closer to the centre of its analysis and rhetoric.  (Another example of this trend within Austrian economics is Peter Boettke’s recent ‘The Struggle for a Better World’, which aims to direct the political energy of critiques of “the 1%” towards classical liberalism rather than socialism.)

Holcombe argues that good liberal individualist institutionalist analysis can give us all the resources we need to use categories like ‘economic elites’.  Specifically, he argues that Coasean arguments around the transaction costs associated with establishing coalitions of sufficient economic power to wield political influence will tend to favour large corporate interests over the interests of ‘the masses’.  It is hard to build a coalition of (even a significant proportion of) ‘the 99%’ with the goal of wielding political influence.  On the other hand, it is relatively easy to build a coalition of a small number of corporate decision-makers to form a cartel or lobbying group.  We would therefore expect, Holcombe argues, for a small number of people each with a large amount of economic power to wield more political influence than a large number of people each with a small amount of economic power.  This observation (as Holcombe notes) is of course a commonplace of critical left literature – as is the conclusion that the state under the influence of such interest groups can be understood as “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Holcombe’s argument is that this analysis has not received enough attention in public choice and Austrian institutional political economy.  That tradition has typically understood the largest-scale problem of political-economic institution design in terms of the conflict between state and market societies – the left wishes to expand the role of the state; the right wants to restrict the role of the state.  Holcombe’s ‘political capitalism’ thesis presents the possibility: what if there is an equilibrium state of capitalist society in which the state is, rather, the organ of corporate interests, and this constitutes its own form of political-economic organisation? This is, as it were, ‘regulatory capture’ as a mode of production.

There are, of course, a number of ways in which one could object to Holcombe’s analysis. But to keep within this framework, Holcombe’s normative conclusion is the one you might expect from a scholar working within the Austrian tradition. Left and right may agree about the problem of interlocking state and corporate power, but for the socialist left (broadly speaking) the solution is the expansion of state power; for the libertarian right the solution is the paring back of state power. (There are, of course, a number of important ways in which the ideological terrain doesn’t line up with this ‘spectrum’, some of which I’ve discussed on the blog before – but still.) For Holcombe – coming from a libertarian, Austrian perspective – we need a pared back, minimalist, classically liberal state which can hold the line against the abuse of state powers in the service of both socialism and ‘political capitalism’. 

But if we have rejected the methodological argument against class analysis – as we must, if we are to adopt ‘political capitalism’ as an analytic category – have we not also rejected the basis on which the public choice tradition – at least in one of its foundational works – dismisses the idea that class interests can also be in play in the process of constitution-formation?  Is not the next logical step to adopt a Coasean, public choice version of ‘the Beard framework’ – to consider how the balance of political power is at work in the formation of the core institutions of classical liberalism itself? And if we do this, doesn’t this raise the question of the extent to which capitalism was ever anything other than ‘political capitalism’, even in its ‘classical liberal’ variants? I think questions like these present a challenge for the public choice tradition – but also present an alternative public choice research programme of sorts: the analysis of classical liberal institutions ‘without romance’.

Continuing my new practice of posting random, slight thoughts, I wanted to put up something on Oskar Lange’s papers ‘On the Economic Theory of Socialism’.  These papers are part of the famous ‘socialist calculation debate’, which I hope to eventually discuss in more depth – but for now I just want to make a few short comments on Lange.

Lange’s argument is notable, in part, for abandoning what might be taken to be many of the precepts of Marxist economics, and making its case for socialist economics in a manner broadly compatible with neoclassical economic theory.  I think this is on balance a good thing – as I’ve discussed on the blog before, I don’t think the labour theory of value has anything much to recommend it, and I think Lange’s refusal to self-ghettoise his arguments within an alternative ‘paradigm’ to mainstream economics is a good approach. (Though so too is pluralism of analytic tools and frameworks!)

Anyway, Lange’s argument is basically that it is possible to construct a socialist system – meaning a political-economic governance system in which the state owns and controls the major industries – the behaviour of which is formally identical to a fully competitive market economy, as the latter is described by neoclassical economics.  Very crudely put, Lange argues that the state can choose to set prices in a way that is responsive to supply and demand, just as market actors determine prices in a way that is responsive to supply and demand, and that a state apparatus organised in this way will result in the same formal outcomes as a fully competitive market.  Moreover, Lange argues that a socialist economy organised in this way would have major advantages over a market economy.

What are those advantages, as Lange sees them?  The first advantage is distributional: because a socialist system can distribute the social product more equitably than a market capitalist system, there will be greater welfare dividends from the achievement of neoclassical equilibrium.  Lange also argues that a state setting prices can incorporate factors into those prices that are omitted within a competitive market context.  But the other major advantages that Lange highlights do not distinguish a socialist system from an idealised market system, but rather distinguish it from ‘actually existing’ capitalism.  Here Lange’s argument is an interesting one: if you want to achieve the efficient outcomes associated with a fully competitive market equilibrium, actual capitalist markets are hopeless.  If the neoclassical ideal of efficiency is your policy goal, Lange argues, you’d be better off with the socialism he describes.  In Lange’s words:

Only a socialist economy can fully satisfy the claim made by many economists with regard to the achievements of free competition.

This argument has several elements.  The core one is that ‘actually existing capitalism’ is not in fact characterised by the free competition described by neoclassical equilibrium theory, but rather by oligopoly and monopolistic competition.  These economic forms – by extracting rent (charging above competitive market values), suppressing competition, and preventing the development and adoption of technological innovations – hold back the key virtues of capitalist markets.  They are specifically opposed to technological progress and to economic efficiency.  Moreover, Lange argues, the suppression of viable competition is likely to lead to an outcome in which investors cannot find adequate returns on capital.  This in turn leads to under-utilisation of economic resources, unemployment, and economic crisis.  

Lange argues that this kind of crisis of oligopolistic capitalism can be addressed in one of three ways.  First, large businesses can be completely broken up, to try to achieve a true competitive market – but this is incompatible with the economic benefits associated with large-scale production and returns to scale.  Second, government can attempt to intervene in a limited manner to constrain oligopolistic power – but this is likely to fail due to regulatory capture.  Third, the government can simply take control of the relevant industries, and administer them according to Lange’s preferred ‘socialist competition’ governance structure.  This, Lange argues, is the only realistic approach compatible with continuing economic progress.

So, that’s Lange’s core argument.  I think it’s fair to say that the concluding elements of that argument probably looked more plausible during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when Lange was writing, than they do today.  Although Lange does not argue that the contradictions of an oligopolistic capitalism lead inevitably to socialism, he does clearly think that capitalism’s ‘progressive’ potential – in the sense of technological innovation and ongoing revolution of economic production – is largely exhausted.  This seems to me to be another example of the besetting Marxist weakness of assuming (or hoping) that the current crisis of capitalism is likely to be the terminal one.  The suggestion of Lange’s argument, I think, is that oligopolistic capitalism is not necessarily a ‘stable political-economic equilibrium’.  And this is one of the ways in which Lange is interestingly close to the Austrian economists with whom he is arguing in these papers.

The Austrians with whom Lange is arguing are also worried about the inefficiencies of a nominally capitalist system that is characterised, in practice, by substantial government intervention and oligopolistic corporate structures (though Austrian anxiety is of course directed more at the former than the latter).  Like Lange, the Austrians believe that partial and limited government intervention in the economy is not a sustainable political-economic equilibrium, but is rather the thin end of the wedge that is likely to lead to full socialisation of the means of production.  Lange’s argument is that the ideal of neoclassical competitive outcomes is only possible via two governance structures: pure market competition, and socialisation of the means of production.  The Austrians and the socialists – the two poles of the calculation debate – can be seen as advocating for each of these poles.

In fact, though, ‘unstable’ social situations can maintain themselves for an extremely long time – perhaps indefinitely.  No crisis need be terminal.  More than 80 years after Lange published his papers, the dominant current political-economic situation is still the ‘unstable’ structures of oligopolistic capitalism with heavy state intervention in a market economy.  This probably says something about the status of such arguments from economic efficiency, and the purported tendency – whether understood with positive or negative valence – for state intervention in the economy to lead to ‘fully socialist’ outcomes.

I think I’m going to try to start putting up briefer and slighter posts on here (not that previous posts have necessarily been very substantive, but you know what I mean…) – making points on this website that I might previously have made via microblogging.  Apologies if this reduces the quality of the blog still further, but who knows, maybe there’ll be some gains too.  

In that spirit, then, I saw some posts on econ twitter the other day about Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson’s 2001 article ‘The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development’, which I wanted to associate around briefly.  In that article AJR argue that much of the growth rate differential between former European colonies can be explained by the difference between two categories of institutions established by colonial powers.  In AJR’s words:

At one extreme, European powers set up “extractive states,” exemplified by the Belgian colonization of the Congo. These institutions did not introduce much protection for private property, nor did they provide checks and balances against government expropriation. In fact, the main purpose of the extractive state was to transfer as much of the resources of the colony to the colonizer. At the other extreme, many Europeans migrated and settled in a number of colonies, creating what the historian Alfred Crosby (1986) calls “Neo-Europes.” The settlers tried to replicate European institutions, with strong emphasis on private property and checks against government power. Primary examples of this include Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States.

I’m (obviously) no economic historian, but it seems important to register that, although this characterisation does seem to pick out important differences between ‘fully extractive’ colonies and settler colonies, AJR’s characterisation of European settler colonies also doesn’t exactly fully capture their governance practice.  

Taking the case of New Zealand – the case cited in that paragraph that I probably know best – to what extent is it accurate to say that 19th century New Zealand governance institutions were characterised by “strong emphasis on private property and checks against government power”?  Or, as AJR put it later in the article, by “constraints on government expropriation”?

On the one hand, it’s clear what AJR have in mind here: early settler-colonial NZ did indeed establish a set of institutions that can be characterised as “Neo-European”, importing institutional frameworks that centred property rights and representative government.  On the other hand… to take only the most prominent single case, the invasion of the Waikato and the confiscation by the crown of millions of acres of land does not seem like an exemplar of checked government power or institutional constraint on government expropriation.  Quite the reverse: the full-scale military conquest of the agricultural heart of the North Island, and the seizure at gunpoint of vast tracts of land, seems almost like an exemplar of how little constrained from expropriation a government can be.

Obviously there’s a huge amount said and written on these issues, and all the points I’m making here are desperately obvious – I am making no claims to novelty or insight.  Still, I think this is relevant to the issue of what we’re talking about when we talk about ‘classical liberal institutions’.  It is common for advocates of classical liberalism (and I am not now talking about AJR’s work, but associating more broadly) to make the case for their preferred institutions on grounds similar to those articulated by AJR in this paper.  That is to say: whatever the limits of classical liberalism in terms of ‘voice’, the institutions of classical liberalism are taken to serve as a constraint on state power.  Self-evidently, though, this point needs to be, at a minimum, extremely heavily caveated, to accommodate the massive use of state power in the service of domination and expropriation that is such a prominent feature of actually-existing liberal institutions.  Just as advocates of communism cannot simply appeal to the ideals of human flourishing and egalitarianism without reckoning with the actual history of policy-driven famines, dictatorship, political repression, and other crimes of actually-existing communism, so advocates of classical liberalism cannot simply appeal to the ideals of limited government and protection against expropriation without reckoning with the actual history of forced dispossession, seizure of resources, genocidal violence, and other crimes of actually-existing liberalism.  Taking such history into account – and explaining how and why one’s preferred institutional structures are not likely to reproduce it – should, in my view, be a criterion of adequacy for any normative institutional political-economic project, of whatever political persuasion.

Brandom on evil

May 21, 2021

In this short post I want to make a very simple point, which I’ve already made in this earlier post – this time with reference to Brandom’s actual text.  The issue is what Brandom means when he uses the term “evil”.

In Chapter 16 of ‘A Spirit of Trust’, Brandom offers his interpretation of Hegel’s “parable” of the “evil consciousness” and the “hard-hearted judge”.  The ultimate goal of this parable is to mobilise the categories of confession and forgiveness in a way that, Brandom’s Hegel believes, can participate in the ushering in of the “third stage in the development of Spirit” – an age of spirit characterised by the social practices of Trust.  My goal in this post isn’t to discuss that dimension of Brandom’s Hegel’s argument, but just to talk about the category of evil, as Brandom presents it in this section of text.  I’ll take the opportunity, though, to say that there are interesting defences of Brandom’s commitment to forgiveness, from Christopher Eddy and Phil, in comments to that previous post.  (One day, hopefully, I’ll actually get round to speaking to those issues in more depth on the blog.)

So – I’ll quote Brandom and then comment.

The two parties to this morality tale, the judged and the judging consciousness, personify the two social perspectives on the application of concepts in judgment and exercises of practical agency that are familiar to us from our consideration of Hegel’s theory of action. These are the first-person context of deliberation (Vorsatz-Handlung) and the third-person context of assessment (Absicht-Tat).

We are considering an action or actions taken by the ‘evil consciousness’, and the assessment of those actions by the ‘judge’.  

As our story begins, the recognitive attitudes in virtue of which the acting consciousness is denominated “evil” or “wicked” [böse], and the judge “hard-hearted,” are niederträchtig ones.

In this scenario, the one being judged might hope to claim that their actions were carried out in conformity with a norm, and should therefore be judged favourably.  But the judge refuses to interpret the actions in that light.  The judge, rather, adopts a ‘small-souled’ attitude, by interpreting the actions as guided not by norms but simply by attitudes.  In this sense, the actions are “evil”.  In Brandom’s words:

The concept of evil in play here is of actions that disregard normative considerations of what the agent ought to do, what it would be right to do, and respond only to the agent’s personal wants, desires, and other attitudes. In this case, assessing the doing as evil is taking it not to have been performed out of a pure respect for duty—that is, not being just the application of a norm, the acknowledgment of a commitment.

The argument that Brandom’s Hegel will go on to make, here, is that any action can always be interpreted in these ‘hard-hearted’ terms: every action is always and everywhere motivated by attitudes, even if it is also guided by norms.  It is always possible, therefore, to ‘debunk’ the claim that an action is normatively guided, by appeal to the purely psychological attitudes that are the only way in which any action in conformity to a norm could ever, in direct terms, be motivated at all.  Brandom’s Hegel will go on to argue against this ‘hard-hearted’ ethical/political perspective on semantic grounds.

In this post, though, I just want to stick with this concept of evil.  I want to say, again, that this is, to my mind, a strange and limited understanding of evil.  Yes, one way of understanding of “evil” is as meaning “performing actions that completely disregard normative considerations, and instead respond only to the agent’s personal wants, desires, etc.”  But evil actions can also be performed out of a sense of duty.  There can be evil norms.  The problem with mid-twentieth-century central European Nazism wasn’t that an entire community decided to start acting purely selfishly, without any regard for duty or responsibility to a larger normative framework.  The problem was that Nazism established a set of norms that were themselves monstrous, and that people acted in accordance with those norms.  People acted in evil ways precisely because they were acting in accordance with evil norms.

Now, one can imagine responses to this line of thought. For example, it could be argued that an evil norm isn’t really a norm, because we’re simply defining norms as guiding conduct properly or correctly, and ‘evil norms’ guide conduct improperly and incorrectly.  From this perspective an ‘evil norm’ would be a contradiction in terms, and ‘evil norms’ should instead be understood as (let us say) bad social conventions masquerading as norms.  I don’t like the asymmetry of this position, whereby my good norms are norms, but your bad norms are mere conventions – but one can imagine an argument being offered along these lines.  Nevertheless, I don’t think even this response deals with my core objection, because even from this perspective, the person being judged is not acting selfishly, but is rather attempting to act in accordance with what they take to be their duty.  And if we were to say, further, that although they believe themselves to be acting in accordance with a norm, they are deluding themselves, and are in truth merely acting in accordance with attitudes… well, wouldn’t this be the very quintessence of the ‘hard-hearted’ or ‘small-souled’ perspective that we’re meant to be arguing against?

That last paragraph is perhaps a bit involved and inarticulate.  My core point is just that I do not like a theoretical position that understands “evil” as a selfish disregard of norms, when I think that acting in accordance with bad norms is one of the major sources of evil in the world.  Further, I think this is a central problem with the critical chapter 16 of ‘A Spirit of Trust’.

There’s lots more that could be said about all this – and hopefully I will say some of it on the blog before too long! – but just making this quite basic point is enough for now.

The Kammerdiener

May 18, 2021

Ok.  Having ended my last post by foreshadowing a discussion of some connections between Brandom and Freudianism, I’m instead going to do something completely different, and put up a very rough and ready overview / set of notes on chapter 15 of ‘A Spirit of Trust’.  I’ll probably mostly just write about ‘Brandom’ here, rather than ‘Brandom’s Hegel’, etc., but you know what I mean.  Fair warning that this really is very much in a ‘notes to self’ space, but unfortunately that’s largely what the blog is for.

So.  First let’s pan back to the overall Brandomian (/Hegelian) apparatus.  In MIE Brandom was centrally preoccupied with the distinction between normative statuses (like ‘being committed to something’) and normative attitudes (like ‘taking somebody to be committed to something’).  A major component of Brandom’s overall project in MIE was to explain normative statuses in terms of normative attitudes – that is, to give an account of normative statuses as fully instituted by normative attitudes – without falling into a ‘reductive’ account that might lead us to believe we could simply replace talk of normative statuses by talk of normative attitudes (as if normative statuses don’t add anything or mean anything beyond the attitudes that institute them).  For Brandom, normative statuses are instituted by normative attitudes but are not reducible to them.

ASOT carries over this dimension of MIE wholesale.  ASOT also, I think, devotes quite a bit more time and elaborates in much more depth a set of commitments that Brandom, following Hegel, calls ‘objective idealism’.  This is the idea (and I’m sure my phrasing is too crude here) that the world itself (the objective world, which exists independent of our attitudes to it) is ‘conceptually articulated’ in a specific sense.  That sense is a homology between the normative, deontic structure of commitments and the alethic modal structure of the real world.  The normative inconsistency of holding both the beliefs “it is raining” and “it is not raining” (for some specific time and place, etc.) matches the objective incompatibility of the states of affairs captured by those concepts.  This fact about the world (in its modal articulation) and our beliefs about the world (in their normative articulation) contain – at least potentially – the very same conceptual content.  This is Brandom’s Hegelian ‘cashing out’ of the Wittgensteinian precept:

When we say, and mean, that such-and-such is the case, we – and our meaning – do not stop anywhere short of the fact; but we mean: this – is – so.

At the end of Chapter 15 of ASOT, Brandom says that his use of the term ‘norm’ captures both of these forms of conceptual content – the content of our commitments, and the structure of the world to which we refer.  We therefore, I think, have a three-stage movement from ‘subjectivity’ to ‘objectivity’ in this element of Brandom’s argument: we have normative attitudes – social practices which are not themselves norms; we have normative statuses, which are instituted by normative attitudes, and which are both properly normative but also still ‘subjective’ in the specific sense of being dependent for their existence on normative attitudes; and finally we have the ‘conceptual’ structure of reality itself, which as conceptual is also (definitionally, for Brandom) normative, but objectively so, in the sense of possessing ‘conceptual’ (and hence normative) content independent of our social practices.  There are, then, two quite different senses in which ‘norms’ can exist independent of any given social practice, for Brandom, associated with these two quite different (but complexly related) senses of ‘norms’ – the ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective’. 

This is all very telegraphic on my part.  I haven’t worked through these elements of Brandom’s system, and I’m sure I’m mis-stating things in all kinds of ways.  Moreover, I guess I’ll put down a marker here that I have some (preliminary and underinformed) misgivings about this commitment to / articulation of ‘objective idealism’ (or at least about my sense of what might easily follow from it) – but I’m just going to bracket all of that.  The point here is just to get to a place where I can talk about the rest of chapter 15 of ASOT.  

So – putting aside ‘objective idealism’ for now, the core of chapter 15 relates to different possible attitudes to the relation between norms (in the sense of normative statuses) and normative attitudes.  Specifically, chapter 15 of ASOT is structured around what Brandom calls two ‘meta-attitudes’ towards social action – the ‘great-souled’ and ‘small-souled’ attitudes: edelmütig and niedertrӓchtig.  Brandom uses the terms ‘edelmütig’ and ‘niedertrӓchtig’ throughout, but I’m going to go with ‘great-souled’ and ‘small-souled’ because I don’t read German and it seems a bit weird to act as if I can.

Here we go, then.  Brandom kicks off this discussion by quoting Hegel’s discussion of the Kammerdiener – the ‘valet’.  The valet, for Hegel, embodies the ‘small-souled’ attitude by interpreting every action in terms of non-normative, purely self-interested motives.

[I]t holds to the other aspect … and explains [the action] as resulting from an intention different from the action itself, and from selfish motives. Just as every action is capable of being looked at from the point of view of conformity to duty, so too can it be considered from the point of view of the particularity [of the doer]; for, qua action, it is the actuality of the individual. This judging of the action thus takes it out of its outer existence and reflects it into its inner aspect, or into the form of its own particularity. If the action is accompanied by fame, then it knows this inner aspect to be a desire for fame. If it is altogether in keeping with the station of the individual, without going beyond this station, and of such a nature that the individuality does not possess its station as a character externally attached to it, but through its own self gives filling to this universality, thereby showing itself capable of a higher station, then the inner aspect of the action is judged to be ambition, and so on. Since, in the action as such, the doer attains to a vision of himself in objectivity, or to a feeling of self in his existence, and thus to enjoyment, the inner aspect is judged to be an urge to secure his own happiness, even though this were to consist merely in an inner moral conceit, in the enjoyment of being conscious of his own superiority and in the foretaste of a hope of future happiness. No action can escape such judgement, for duty for duty’s sake, this pure purpose, is an unreality; it becomes a reality in the deed of an individuality, and the action is thereby charged with the aspect of particularity. No man is a hero to his valet; not, however, because the man is not a hero, but because the valet—is a valet, whose dealings are with the man, not as a hero, but as one who eats, drinks, and wears clothes, in general, with his individual wants and fancies. Thus, for the judging consciousness, there is no action in which it could not oppose to the universal aspect of the action, the personal aspect of the individuality, and play the part of the moral valet towards the agent.

There’s lots that could be said about the class conflict and anxiety dimensions of all this – but that can wait for another time.  Brandom interprets the core philosophical issue at stake here as the analysis of social action in terms of norms or attitudes:

The Kammerdiener does not appeal to norms in his explanations of behavior. The attitudes of individuals are enough. The public official says that he acted as he did because it was his duty. The Kammerdiener offers a competing explanation that appeals only to his desires. What his duty actually is, what he ought to do, plays no role in this account.

In Brandom’s philosophical vocabulary, then, we have an account of social action in terms of adherence to norms, and an account of social action in terms of normative attitudes alone.  The ‘great-souled’ account sees agents as moral entities, guided by norms, which are something distinct to and transcending normative attitudes.  The ‘small-souled’ valet analyses social action purely in terms of normative attitudes, without norms themselves entering into the picture.

It’s probably worth flagging right away that there’s already a bit of a slippage, or at least potential for ambiguity, here.  ‘Normative attitudes’ are not, of course, the same as ‘self-interest’.  It would be perfectly coherent to analyse a person’s actions as motivated by their belief in norms, while rejecting the idea that the norms they follow are really norms (or should be).  So the ‘norms versus self-interest’ dichotomy doesn’t in fact align with the ‘norms versus attitudes’ dichotomy.  In this respect, I think, this element of Brandom’s argument is reminiscent of the section, early in MIE, in which Brandom discusses the purportedly non-normative action of ‘beating people with sticks’ – a passage which involves an in-my-view similar unaddressed ambiguity.  (I think I’ve discussed this section of MIE on the blog before, but in any case this is not the place to go haring off into exploring the parallels.)

We really, then, have at least two different tensions here: between ‘real’ norms versus merely ‘perceived’ norms, and between ‘duty’ versus ‘self-interest’ – and this pair of dichotomies doesn’t necessarily align.

Be that as it may, Brandom is – as often – basically interested in the issue of normative nihilism.  He is bothered by the idea of a global critique of normativity, that would simply get rid of normative statuses and understand the world in terms of normative attitudes alone – a philosophical approach he illustrates with Gilbert Harman’s analysis of moral norms.  The ‘small-souled’ perspective is, for Brandom, the avatar of this philosophical approach.

How should we understand the relation between these two ‘meta-attitudes’ – the ‘great-souled’ attitude that believes in the objectivity of norms, and the ‘small-souled’ account that reduces norms entirely to normative attitudes?  Brandom next argues that there are four relevant ‘meta-meta-attitudes’, which adopt different analytic perspectives on the relationship between the great-souled and small-souled meta-attitudes.

These meta-meta-attitudes are as follows (I’m just going to quote Brandom, then maybe I’ll gloss a little):

  1. “The first way of understanding the relation between the edelmütig normativist and the niederträchtig naturalist is as a cognitive disagreement about a matter of objective fact. They disagree about the correct answer to the question: Are there norms, or not?”
  1. “It is possible to adopt instead an almost diametrically opposed subjectivist meta-meta-attitude. According to this way of thinking, the normativist and the naturalist employ different vocabularies in describing the world. Using one rather than the other is adopting a stance.”
  1. “The third construal of the niederträchtig and edelmütig meta-attitudes toward norms and normative attitudes is then that they are recognitive attitudes that have the effect of practical commitments.”
  1. “There is, however, a fourth way of understanding the status of these two stances. Its leading thought is that we have always already implicitly committed ourselves to adopting the edelmütig stance, to identifying with the unity that action and consciousness involve, to understanding ourselves as genuinely binding ourselves by conceptual norms that we apply in acting intentionally and making judgments.”

In my own words, these meta-meta-attitudes are as follows.  First, we can understand the great- and small-souled meta-attitudes as disagreements about the ‘furniture of the world’ – whether there really are such things as norms.  Second, we can understand these meta-attitudes as available cognitive perspectives, either one of which can be voluntarily chosen as our analytic framework.  Third, we can understand these meta-attitudes not as cognitive perspectives, but as practical attitudes or social practices that can institute or not the norms with which they are concerned.  Fourth and finally, we can argue (with Brandom and Hegel) that it is impossible to adopt a contentful attitude – conceptual or practical-recognitive – without already adopting a ‘great-souled’ practical and conceptual attitude, even if only implicitly.  From this analytic perspective, some version of the ‘great-souled’ attitude is a condition of possibility of any and all of these other approaches – and so the matter has, as it were, been decided in practice already.

This is of course Brandom’s argument – and I think it has much to recommend it.  However, there’s a lot more to say, and I do want to mark some at least cautious and preliminary points of divergence from Brandom’s approach.  Maybe I’ll manage to get to that in my next post in this series!

Critical Brandomianism

May 16, 2021

I want to start a chain of thought about ‘critical Brandomianism’, where this post is the first link in that chain.  Like most of this latest round of Brandom posts (and indeed as is common in the blog overall), this is going to be a bit hasty and sloppy. Moreover, this first post doesn’t amount to much more than throat-clearing  But I want to draw some connections between two different elements of Robert Brandom’s recent project – his discussion of genealogical modes of explanation (see for example here), and his work on expressivist logics (see for example here).  I want to connect these to ‘critical theory’ in some sense – specifically, in the first instance, the sense of the role that broadly Freudian categories can, in my view, play within a pragmatist rationalism. Then, perhaps, eventually, I’ll move round to some other forms of critical theory.  Obviously this is going to be all over the shop a bit, but so it goes – that’s what the blog is for.

Let me start, in this post, by panning back and discussing what I’m after in a broad sense in this engagement with Brandom’s recent work.  Of course, in the first place, I’m just after working through Brandom in order to expand my philosophical knowledge and horizons, etc. etc.  But I also think that Brandom’s apparatus can be ‘put to work’ in ways that stand in some tension with what may appear to be the ethical-political-philosophical direction that Brandom’s own work points.  Put very crudely, I take the interpretive project here to be as follows:

Brandom’s early- to mid-career work (i.e., most centrally, ‘Making it Explicit’) I take to ‘cash out’ much of the promise of the US pragmatist tradition.  MIE gives accounts of central categories of analytic philosophy – truth, meaning, objectivity, etc. – in a way that grounds our understanding of those categories in a theory of practice.  That is to say, for Brandom, social practice is the bedrock of philosophical explanation.  Moreover, MIE ‘cashes out’ this pragmatist project in a way that finally (in my view) adequately explains why that project does not succumb to relativism.  That is to say, MIE cashes out categories like ‘truth’, ‘objectivity’, etc. in ways that actually give these categories the force that many critics of pragmatism have taken to be the criteria of adequacy for a philosophical account of such categories – criteria of adequacy that pragmatism has frequently been taken not to meet.  I’ve written on this on the blog before at length, and also here, and this is now the starting-point of my engagement with the Brandomian apparatus.

Ok. So that’s early- to mid-Brandom.  Then in his recent work on Hegel (‘A Spirit of Trust’), Brandom gives a lengthy interpretation of the Phenomenology that basically interprets Hegel in these terms, too.  That is to say, Brandom takes Hegel to have a fundamentally social- and practice-theoretic approach to philosophical explanation.  Hegel, Brandom believes, is embedding the Kantian ‘transcendental idealist’ apparatus within a social-theoretic account of what transcendental idealism means.  For Brandom’s Hegel, “transcendental constitution is social institution.”

Of course Brandom is far from alone in interpreting Hegel in social-theoretic terms – this is not an original contribution of ASOT.  What’s most striking about Brandom’s Hegel is, rather, how Brandom interprets Hegel’s categories as expressing the same core claims as Brandom’s own inferentialist semantics.  But Brandom’s Hegel is not just ‘Making it Explicit’ in a new costume (though it is that).  ASOT also goes beyond MIE, by embedding that earlier work’s emphasis on practice theory within a more thoroughgoingly historicist account of social practice.  There was always, and necessarily, a diachronic dimension to Brandom’s account of semantics, but in ASOT that diachronic dimension is much more foregrounded, and the ‘philosophy of history’ elements of the Phenomenology are more central than were historical considerations in MIE.  I take this to be a development within Brandom’s own thought, not just a feature of his interpretation of Hegel.

Now, I have some objections to the philosophy of history articulated in Brandom’s Hegel interpretation.  I want to write that up properly at some later date, having done a lot more homework, and I’m only going to gesture at a critique here.  But, putting things very telegraphically, my view is that the role the category of ‘forgiveness’ plays within Brandom’s Hegel is extremely unfortunate, and commits ASOS to a form of ‘Whiggish’ philosophy of history that does not have to – and, moreover, should not – follow from the other commitments and insights of the work.  We can, I believe, maintain the practice-theoretic and historicist insights of Brandom’s Hegel, without taking ‘forgiveness’ as the core meta-conceptual category structuring our understanding of history (and, therefore, of the future).

I take this to connect to the different attitudes to genealogical interpretations that I discussed in an earlier blog post under the heading ‘left and right Brandomianism’.  If ASOT has (as has been sometimes claimed) moved analytic philosophy into its Hegelian phase, then there remains the question of what we do with such an analytic Hegel.  Are we ‘right Hegelians’ (taking this philosophy of history and of social practice to justify the supposed rationality and inevitability of status quo forms of domination) or are we ‘left Hegelians’ (leveraging the Hegelian apparatus into intellectual resources for the critique of existing power structures)?

Obviously my project here is in the space of the latter.  A little like the (much maligned) ‘analytical Marxists’, who sought to re-articulate Marxist claims in the idiom of analytic philosophy and mathematical economics, with the goal of achieving greater clarity around core theoretical positions (a project that I think was basically a good idea, however flawed it may have been in execution), Brandom’s Hegel gives us a set of metatheoretical resources that can be put to work on other theoretical projects.  The project of turning Hegel “right side up again” can both centrally draw upon, and in some areas depart from, the Brandomian apparatus.

Of course, such a project doesn’t have to be a Marxist one.  In the next post in this series, I want to make some gestural remarks about the relation between Brandomian expressivist logics and Freudianism. Among other things, hopefully this can serve as an illustrative example of the general direction of travel I’m after here.

Every year or two I do a post on ‘the broader intellectual project’ that’s been motivating my blogging in some sense since…. huh…. 2007.  In this post I want to repeat myself, again, on anticapitalism, in a very schematic and crude way, and then make a few remarks prompted by Jason Hickel’s popular degrowth book ‘Less is More’.

I take it that the objections to capitalism as a political-economic system are familiar to leftists and don’t need to be recapitulated.  For me, the main intellectual problem for anticapitalists isn’t “is capitalism bad?” (clearly, in many critical ways, yes), but “what’s your alternative then?”  This isn’t an easy question to answer, and I think it’s desirable for the anticapitalist advocates to have some credible responses available, and for there to be a good, broad debate about possible responses to this question.

Obviously anticapitalism comes in many varieties, and no typology is going to be close to exhaustive.  Still, very crudely, we can say that the most influential forms of left anticapitalism are anarchism and communism.  Broadly speaking, anarchists want to do away with the state and/or broader relations of hierarchical domination; communists want to seize control of the state, and expand it in the service of emancipatory political-economic outcomes.

(I’m aware, of course, that anything you could say at this level of abstraction and with this degree of brevity isn’t going to be really right, and that there are plenty of legitimate objections to this typology. (“What about libertarian communists?”; “I’m a Christian socialist who believes in the importance of hierarchical structures but rejects capitalist social relations”; etc.) Fundamentally you just can’t address all this stuff in a shortish blog post, so I’m just going to plough on.)

I need to spend a lot more time with the anarchist literature, but my baseline, under-informed opinion is that while the anarchist tradition is right about a huge amount, at the end of the day you’re not going to be able to get a form of complex political-economic organisation that doesn’t feature hierarchical and coercive power structures, and that our institution-design task is to mitigate the harm associated with those structures rather than to abolish them altogether.  I’m aware that this is a very crass and under-informed response to anarchism, and I want to leave a note to self here to read more anarchists, but that’s where I stand as of now.

As for the communist side of things: communism was, of course, the major real-world anti-capitalist institution-building project of the twentieth century, and it’s a fundamental premise of my own intellectual project here that the communist experiments did not go well.  It seems to me that answering the question “what’s your alternative, then?” needs to centrally include a sober assessment of actually-existing communism.

So: what was wrong with ‘actually existing’ communism?  I think, again at a very crass and high level of abstraction, the answer to that question can be broken down into three categories.

  1. Political domination and repression.

None of the major ‘actually existing’ communist states were or are democratic in any very meaningful sense.  Moreover, not only were/are they not democratic, they also frequently engage(d) in authoritarian repression of political dissent or perceived political dissent – sometimes in incredibly extreme forms. All of this is bad.

  1. Economic disaster.

Both the USSR and the PRC were responsible for world-historically appalling policy-driven famines.  This doesn’t, of course, differentiate communist from capitalist regimes – see Mike Davies’ ‘Late Victorian Holocausts’ – but it is still a large mark against the emancipatory claims of communism.  More broadly, there is a lot of debate about the strengths and weaknesses of different political-economic approaches, between and within capitalist and communist systems, of a kind that clearly I’m not going to be able to litigate here.  But in general it is, to say the least, far from obvious that communism has the economic policy answers – this is very much an objection that needs to be addressed.

  1. Is it even non-capitalist?

This third point is arguably the most controversial and pedantic – but were the major communist regimes of the twentieth century even breaks with capitalism? This depends on your definition of capitalism. If you understand capitalism as a market economy, then the command economies instituted by communist states broke with capitalism. If you understand capitalism in terms of the centrality of private property, then the forms of state ownership instituted by communist states broke with capitalism. On this blog, though, I’ve advocated an understanding of capitalism in terms of 1) an institutionalised structural imperative to economic growth, and 2) the structural displacement and reconstitution of labour as a central political-economic institution in the service of that growth. From the perspective of this analytic framework, the twentieth century communist states didn’t break with capitalist dynamics, so much as reconstitute then in an unusually statist form.

Ok. So these are, as I see it, the three big challenges that anti-capitalist institutional proposals must meet. First: is your alternative likely to be politically repressive, or politically emancipatory? Second: what kind of economic outcomes are we likely to be looking at here? And third: is it actually a break with capitalism?

It’s this third question that I want to focus on in the rest of this post, specifically in relation to ‘degrowth’ politics. I recently read Jason Hickel’s ‘Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World’ – a popular book that aims to make a broad-brush anticapitalist case on environmentalist grounds.  The argument of that book revolves around the idea that to end capitalist environmental destruction we need to abolish the political-economic institutional structures that generate ‘the growth imperative’.  In the remainder of this post, then, I want to put aside all the other considerations I’ve raised, and focus simply on the question of growth.

As I said above, I don’t think capitalism can be defined exclusively in terms of the growth imperative.  But I do think that if you were to abolish the growth imperative, then whatever political-economic system you ended up with wouldn’t be capitalist.  The political goals of the degrowth movement, then, are inimical to capitalism.  (Here it’s probably worth highlighting that for Hickel ‘degrowth’ doesn’t necessarily mean what it sounds like it would mean – i.e. the reversal of growth – but rather the abolition of the ‘blind drive’ to growth associated with capitalism, such that decisions around economic growth can be made in a more judicious way, taking environmental issues into adequate consideration.  That’s what we’re talking about here.)

One of the ways in which the 20th and then 21st century communist regimes failed to break with capitalism was their reproduction of the capitalist growth imperative within a communist system.  This reproduction of the growth imperative was in part driven by a commendable desire to raise living standards – the development of the productive forces was seen as a precondition for creating the material conditions required for a full communist society of equality and abundance.  It was also, in significant part, a geopolitical imperative – for a communist regime, major economic growth is a geopolitical necessity if you are to have any hope of resisting military and economic attacks from the major capitalist powers.  The point, here, is that while you are part of a capitalist world-system the growth imperative operative in the overtly capitalist bloc places institutional pressure even on the nominally non-capitalist bloc.  And this is one of the big reasons why a global abolition of the capitalist system would seem to be a precondition for any sub-component of the world-system becoming meaningfully non-capitalist (in the sense I’m advocating).

What about the growth imperative within the overtly capitalist system?  Here the institutional mechanisms are somewhat different.  Again, geopolitical competition plays a role, as do market competition and ideology, but there is also the important function of debt within the monetary system.  The monetary system is the major institutional mechanism via which we allocate social resources, and when banks make investments they do so on the understanding that the debt these investments create will be repaid with interest.  This in itself creates a massive growth imperative: if I have started or developed my business by taking out a loan, I will need my business to grow in order to repay the loan with interest.  Capital as a component of our political-economic institutions therefore has the growth imperative built into it at a fundamental level.  If we are to abolish the growth imperative, we need to abolish capital.

To be blunt, this is an amazingly difficult thing to do.  Hickel’s degrowth advocacy book lists a range of ways in which the incentives to economic growth could be reduced (regulate advertising better; reduce the length of the working week; decommodify goods and place them in the commons; etc.) – but as he notes, without a transformation of our monetary system, all of this is tinkering around the edges of a political-economic mode of production the fundamental nature of which remains unchanged.

Hickel’s degrowth argument therefore rests, in the end, on a handful of paragraphs in the penultimate chapter of his book (in my ebook, roughly locations 333-337), in which he points towards some recent work in ecological monetary economics.  I haven’t read (most of) that work in ecological monetary economics.  So I suppose the core function of this post, for me, is just to serve as a note to self that I really ought to read some of this literature, that it seems to me that this a critical area for anticapitalist institutional thinking, and that I hope I’ll be able to continue to inch along through these ideas, returning at some future date to these same issues with a slightly more informed perspective and analysis, fates willing.