Neoreactionary Book Club

Liberalism Unmasked by Richard Houck

This is an original book which portrays leftism as a mental illness. Houck’s conceit is that leftism is “a diagnosable personality disorder, as modeled on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” This is remarkably effective: leftists lie, project, lash out at opposition, gaslight, reverse victim and offender, have both self-hatred and an undeserved sense of moral superiority, and are unable to accept the negative consequences of their actions. It’s effective because there are no upsides to leftism.

The cover image and a passage from the book pay homage to the classic film “They Live”, which is now considered a right-wing masterpiece, despite its director’s intentions. The film has been “appropriated” by the Right, like for example the word “woke”.

Houck is at his strongest when he sticks to the facts, with well-researched chapters on gun control, the costs of immigration, and race and crime. There’s the occasional error when he uses statistics about refugees to refer to all immigrants.

His theory and argumentation leaves something to be desired. His philosophy in the chapter on abortion is defective. He doesn’t like property taxes. He wants the government to be funded by tariffs on foreign trade.

Houck recognises the utter failure of the “conservative”, “right-wing” establishment, yet to a certain extent he continues to cling to their tired arguments. “The US was designed as a Constitutional Republic, and not a democratic majority rule”, he says. Yawn. His favourite philosophers are Locke, Voltaire and Rousseau! He believes revolutionary propaganda about “the King of England”. Of South Africa, he says “White settlers have been farming that land for over 400 years; the land was settled, not stolen.”

Houck wants to go back to constitutionalism. But there can be no going back. Everyone knows that interpretation of constitutions depends on demography. Houck admits this – but then why the focus on constitutionalism? What we need to go back to is a white population. Constitutionalism will follow as a consequence.

Houck is not clear. “This country is not for everyone. In fact, prior to The New Deal, a considerable number of immigrants returned to their home country.” But why mention this if you want to exclude even non-whites who can hack it? He defends all of “my people”, including “white trash”. He talks about preserving “our culture”, yet it’s obvious from the book that he regards culture and biology as inextricably linked. He should have made this explicit.

The problem is Houck is a moralist. He refers to our “homelands”. He refers to “our true rights” in contrast to “their delusional ones”. But rights do not exist. Ironically Houck is not enough of a cynic.

He wants weak people to be able to go about their business in safety. Fair enough, but we need strong people. We need to dispense with claims about morality. None of this guff about who “rightfully” “owns” the land. We need a reconquista.


The book could have been edited a bit tighter. Facts and citations are often repeated. The unnecessary phrases “nothing but”, “nothing more than”, “nothing less than”, “nothing other than” and “nothing short of” are repeated over fifty times.

All the web references have been archived, which is admirable.


Kindle edition

Paperback edition

The Phoney Victory by Peter Hitchens

Peter Hitchens complains his books are under-reviewed. His excellent book “The Phoney Victory” was reviewed by only two major publications, The New Statesman and Standpoint. Sir Richard Evans’ pathetic and mean-spirited review in The New Statesman largely agrees with Mr Hitchens. Hitchens argues that Britain entered WW2 too early, so was unable to do much good for “four years and two days” (“more than two thirds the duration of the war”) during which British troops were not “in contact with the main body of the German enemy”. This slightly legalistic phrase is basically true. Hitchens says we should have entered the war later. Evans agrees that Britain wasn’t in a position to be able to help either Poland or Czechoslovakia. He complains that Hitchens doesn’t specify exactly when we should have entered the war, but so what? Evans writes that “Nazi Germany was rearming even faster than Britain was”, but this argument does not justify entering the war in 1939. All it shows logically is that by delaying Britain would be at an even greater disadvantage; and in actual fact this was not true, since Germany’s strength did not grow monotonically. Evans’ other arguments are just silly: he argues that the war did not make Britain poorer because of economic growth in the 1960s, and when he agrees with Hitchens he complains that Hitchens is attacking “easy targets”.

Sir Richard misses the point of the book. Peter Hitchens is a journalist, not a historian, and “The Phoney Victory” is not directly a book about the Second World War, but about our perception of it. Hitchens has said elsewhere that the national myth when he was growing up, almost the national religion, was “We won the war”, and it still is, just about. “Its passion and its parables, and its characters, are nowadays better known than those of the Bible.” The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight bizarrely and inappropriately “takes to the air for great national occasions including royal weddings, as if it is a sacrament of some kind.” Many (including Prince Charles) incorrectly believe it was a war to prevent the holocaust. Hitchens’ target is present-day politicians who portray their proposed wars of choice as holy wars equivalent to the one against Hitler, their opponents as “appeasers”, and themselves as Churchill. He uses WW2 as a demonstration that “wars fought for abstract objectives often leave their victors worse off than they were when they started” — a lesson we would do well to remember.

“We won the war… or did we?”, as Hitchens’ father (a naval commander) used to say. Measured by territory, Germany and Britain lost the war, Russia won it, and America neither gained nor lost much. America did in fact gain some territory from Britain, and Britain lost its empire under American pressure, which was America’s geopolitical gain. One of my lecturers at military college described the destruction of the British Empire as the United States’ primary foreign policy goal of the first half of the twentieth century. Today, Britain is part of the Germany-dominated European Union (“the continuation of Germany by other means”). Britain’s ambassador to Germany between 1997 and 2003, Sir Paul Lever, wrote a book about this called “Berlin Rules: Europe and the German Way”.

Hitchens disposes of the modern myth of Britain and America’s so-called “special relationship”, which “nobody in Washington has ever heard of” as he has written elsewhere. He portrays the Washington Naval Treaty as the US forcing the end of British global naval supremacy and the end of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty. According to Adam Tooze, Woodrow Wilson believed that “If Britain did not come to terms… there would come another and more terrible and more bloody war and England would be wiped off the face of the map.” Admirals from both sides “threatened war and had to be restrained from assaulting each other.” Wilson said, “You must not speak of us… as cousins, still less as brothers; we are neither.” In WW2, the US gave aid to Britain only in exchange for gold and securities and territory (under the Destroyers for Bases Agreement). After the war, the US was instrumental in Britain’s defeat at Suez, with American ships deliberately fouling the sonar and radar of British ships and shining searchlights on them, and American aircraft menacing British ships. US Admiral Arleigh Burke: “We can defeat them — the British and the French and the Egyptians and the Israelis”. UK General Sir Charles Keightley: “It was the action of the US which really defeated us”. To this I add Rudyard Kipling’s report that 4 July 1889 celebrations in San Francisco were marked by official speeches against “our natural enemy” Great Britain “with her chain of fortresses across the world”.

The cult of Winston Churchill acknowledges his responsibility for the WW1 Gallipoli disaster, but according to the standard view, Churchill redeems himself by refusing to compromise with Nazi Germany. I think this story is correct: Churchill’s rhetoric was invaluable, and he was right not to make terms with Germany. (This does not imply that we should have gone to war in 1939. Of course Churchill did not become Prime Minister until 1940.) Hitchens nonetheless details Churchill’s many failings. “Everything he touched during 1941 had gone wrong, or was about to go wrong.” He was responsible for sending HMS Prince of Wales on a suicide mission, “against the advice of experts” (Hitchens refers to Bernard Ash). Hitchens quotes AJP Taylor in support of his contention that Churchill’s Mediterranean war and El Alamein to defend the Suez Canal and Persian and Iraqi oil fields was pointless. Hitchens complains that Singapore was lost because Churchill did not give it enough support (he quotes Sir Michael Howard who blamed Churchill for the loss), and this brought about “our decline into the second rank of nations”, though Hitchens does not explain what purpose Singapore was supposed to serve. Oddly Hitchens complains about campaigns began “for reasons of prestige” such as Greece/Crete, but also complains about the loss of prestige at the Singapore surrender talks. He argues that Churchill’s Special Operations Executive did not achieve much, at great human cost.

Returning to Mr Hitchens’ argument that Britain should have entered the war later: He says that Britain was swiftly defeated in 1940 because it had “no real policy of waging war and no real objective”. The British Army was tiny compared to Russia, Germany, France and even Belgium. Hitchens interestingly argues that Chamberlain’s “appeasement” was not naive, and that Chamberlain and Halifax desired war. Why else would they have created the Anglo-Polish military alliance, knowing that they could not do anything to defend Poland from Germany? Chamberlain had in fact increased military spending substantially, but no one predicted the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Hitchens exposes the nonsense of the Labour Party’s supposed opposition to “appeasement” while opposing rearmament (on the ridiculous grounds that armaments cause war — the reality is the opposite).

Hitchens opposes the bombing of civilians on the grounds that it was ineffective (and also on moral grounds). The belief that it would support the war effort by damaging morale turned out to be unfounded. Bombing later in the war was accurate enough for the Americans to target oil supplies and transport links, but untargeted British bombing of civilians diverted resources from much more effective targeted action. It diverted resources from other theatres of war: “Three squadrons of fighters would have saved Crete but none were available because of the obsession with strategic bombers” (AJP Taylor); more escort aircraft should have been supplied for the Battle of the Atlantic (Stephen Roskill). It was a waste of men, with huge losses. (Oddly the Germans did not make a sustained attack on RAF airfields or British radar installations.) Hitchens correctly writes “I think the British people are still quite unable to acknowledge that what they did… was morally mistaken.” I personally mourn the libraries and artworks that were lost. (Bishop George Bell opposed attacking civilians. Some of his opponents in the House of Lords saw no distinction between Germans and Nazis. Noel Coward’s song “Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans” contains an attack on Bell.)

One could make a case that, at the time, people did not know that bombing civilians would be ineffective. Indeed, some of Hitchens’ own arguments suggest this: “This attempt [by the Germans] to make Britain so miserable it preferred surrender to further resistance was not as vain an idea then as it seems now. Such tactics had worked to some extent in the Spanish Civil War. They had also been employed in terrorising Holland into surrender in early 1940” (though Hitchens points out that these air attacks “had been accompanied by land assaults”, and he suggests that an independent air force is a mistake. We know now that air power without ground troops doesn’t work — but did we know that at the time?). “In September 1940 a frantic British government proposed the issue of a million earplugs to try to overcome the widespread problem of interrupted sleep.” Hitchens even suggests that German bombing caused a small threat of revolution in Britain, which could have been turned into a big threat if the Germans had acted differently. “The Communist Party of Great Britain was uniquely strong and well organised in the very parts of London’s East End that were most heavily bombed, as they were close to the London docks. And so the CPGB was well placed to take advantage of discontent about poor air-raid precautions. Fortunately for Britain, the Germans were not clever enough to take advantage of this”, as Neville Chamberlain had noted: “even the King and Queen were booed the other day when they visited the destroyed areas.” Hitchens: “had the Luftwaffe not obligingly bombed Buckingham Palace… there might have been serious trouble”.

I thought his claim that the Battle of the Atlantic is “strangely under-reported” was odd, as was his claim that Henry Tizard is barely recorded in histories. His chapter on the Potsdam Agreement and the human cost of forced relocation of Germans is however welcome. I did not know much about this.

The book could do with another edit. Quotations and facts are sometimes used twice or even three times (we are told thrice that the USS Louisville collected British gold from South Africa), and Hitchens’ sentences always contain one more adjective than necessary (electronic money transfers are “prosaic”; facts “shine coldly”; a committee report is “unpleasant, facetious and sarcastic”).

Kindle edition



Liberalism, a counter-history by Domenico Losurdo

This is a piece of intellectual history by a Marxist, indeed a Stalinist revisionist apparently (it wasn’t Stalin’s fault!). It is a history of the ideology “Liberalism”.

Like any ideology, there are as many liberalisms as there are liberals, and the ideology has morphed over the centuries.

The starting question of the book is: How come people who extolled freedom owned slaves? Doesn’t this belie their liberalism? The answer is yes, it does.

Jefferson and Washington owned slaves. Locke was famously a shareholder in the Royal African Company. Slave owners and slave dealers were well represented in the British parliament.

How to resolve the contraction? The answer is that they were hypocrites, and consciously so. “Liberalism” was simply a propaganda term. This shouldn’t be surprising. The American founding fathers were obviously self-interested scoundrels. American independence made little difference to ordinary people, but made Washington and Jefferson very rich men indeed. (Adjusted for inflation, they are the second and third richest US presidents ever, centimillionaires in today’s money.)

(C.f. Moldbug: “What Bailyn shows us is that the rebels in the American Revolution were motivated by an ideology that was utterly deluded, that amounted to no more than a wacky conspiracy theory. The point is not even slightly arguable. Their interpretation of British politics simply had no basis in reality.”)

Many people did worry about their owning slaves, but did nothing about it. Grotius endorsed slavery without the least reticience; later Locke did so but between the lines; the US Constitution does so with even more reticience. “While English patriots and loyalists opposed to secession ironized about the flag of liberty waved by slave-owners, the rebel colonists reacted not by invoking the legitimacy of enslaving blacks, but by highlighting the British Crown’s massive involvement and principal responsibility in trafficking and trading human flesh. It is clear that the institution of slavery was now largely delegitimized.”

Slavery was supposedly not recognised by English law (“England was too pure an Air for Slaves to breath in”; Blackstone: “the law of England abhors, and cannot endure the existence of, slavery within this nation”), but in reality it was more complicated than that, and slavery was certainly was recognised in the British colonies. English law allowed slavery as long as it was confined to the colonies. Supposedly there were no slaves in Britain — actually there were — but regardless Britain relied on slavery for much of its consumption (coffee, cotton, sugar, tobacco). Slaves were traded in Britain and Ireland. Sailors were enslaved by impressment, because conditions were so bad “it was impossible to obtain crews by free enlistment”. Soldiers were “captives in uniform”. Foundlings were sold by workhouses — their price in London was significantly lower than that of black slaves in America, and lower still in the countryside. Wakefield referred to “English slavery” and “white slaves” as late as 1834.


What does “liberty” mean? Early “liberty” meant property rights. “Liberties” were property rights. This is a non-propagandistic, non-obfuscatory definition of liberty. One person’s “freedom” to own slaves depended on that slave’s lack of “freedom”.

One definition of “liberty” is “self-government”. But “self-government” is a nonsense. As Lincoln pointed out in 1861, “secession is the essence of anarchy”. Either you are literally governed only by yourself, in which case there is no government, or you are governed by a group of people. Even if you have a say in government, you must submit to the will of the majority. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the desire for “independence” was a desire for increased power over slaves, as opposed to the regulation of slavery by the central power.

“No nations in the world have been more jealous of their liberties than those amongst whom the institution of slavery existed”. This applied both to American independence, and in the later civil war. “Self-government” is merely the avoidance of “interference” by political and religious authority. Boucher thought that despotic nations like Spain treated their slaves better than republics like Holland. Grotius and Locke, both republicans, endorsed slavery, whereas Bodin, the theorist of absolute monarchy, questioned the absolute power of a master over his slaves. Josiah Tucker said that “republican Tyranny” is “the worst of all Tyrannies”. A republic is not a country where everyone is free, it is a country with a ruling class instead of a monarch. The ruling class may be slaveholders. In a republic, more people get a say in government, but not everyone. Tocqueville: “the love of liberty is all the more alive among some the less one encounters guarantees of liberty for all.” People want liberty for themselves, from those above them, but not for those below them. Masters wanted liberty to deal with their servants without outside interference.

Sidney was an admirer of Poland: “equal men in the face of the monarch were magnates who wielded absolute power over their serfs.” Burke: “In Sweden the years from 1719 to 1772 are known as the Age of Freedom, because at this time the Diet or Riksdag ruled without interference by the King.” Palmer: “The diets, estates, parlements, and councils all stoutly defended liberty, and indeed stood for many genuine liberal ideas; but at the same time they palpably insisted on the maintenance or enlargement of their own privileges.”

Losurdo: “representatives of English proto-liberalism… equated ‘true liberty’ with untrammelled control by the master over his family, as well as his servants and his goods.”

“Smith clearly identified liberty with the self-government of civil society hegemonized by the very wealthy. On the other hand, in calling for a ‘despotic government’ to abolish slavery, he was embracing a different theoretical paradigm, which identified liberty with the abolition of oppressive relations existing within civil society itself.”

“This is an observation which, albeit to a lesser extent, also applies to de Tocqueville. When he condemned the reduction of the working day in factories to twelve hours as an expression of despotism, he clearly identified liberty with the self-government of civil society hegemonized by the bourgeoisie. But on other occasions the French liberal argued differently. In a letter to an American correspondent, he observed: ‘…In practice, there are no precedents for the abolition of slavery on the master’s initiative. It has only been abolished thanks to the power of a government that dominated master and slave alike. That is why, precisely because you are completely independent, slavery will last longer among you than anywhere else.’ Rather than the locus of liberty, here self-government is the condition for the perpetuation of the evil of slavery. Only a strong government would be able to abolish it.”

Voltaire said “The English are the only people on earth who have managed to prescribe limits to the power of kings”. But compare Diderot: “the Englishman, enemy of tyranny at home, is the most ferocious despot abroad.” “The English, this people so jealous of their own liberty, have contempt for that of other men”.

Losurdo: “As in the case of the United States, self-government by the colonists could entail a drastic deterioration in the conditions of colonial peoples… now subject to the exclusive, unhampered control of their direct oppressors. We are familiar with Smith’s observation about the catastrophic consequences that ‘free’ representative bodies controlled by slave-owners could have for black slaves.” Smith looked to despotism to abolish slavery. Regarding France, Tocqueville would have preferred the end of the ancien regime to have been the work of an “enlightened autocrat”, not “its least educated and most unruly elements”.


Where did the concept of liberty come from? It started as a synonym for “generous”: “liberal allowance”, “liberal hand”. Hume uses the word synonymously with “disinterested” and “generous”. It became synonymous with the upper classes, who could afford to be generous (to themselves as well no less than others). Smith distinguished between the “liberal” view of the well-off classes who liked luxuries and the pleasures of life, and the “strict or austere” view of the poorer classes. A distinction between “liberal” and “servile” appeared: liberals were those who were not servile. The liberal attitude was an antipathy towards being “servile” towards the monarch. Burke criticized expansion of the Crown’s power, but also distanced his class from the servile class below. He scorned “indiscriminate” freedom, freedom for all. Liberalism was opposed to “coarseness and vulgarity”. Liberal tended to be synonymous with aristocratic. In Virginia, the “aristocratic spirit” was bound up with “a spirit of liberty” distinguished by its “more noble and liberal” character. Washington celebrated the “liberal arts”. In France, the liberal party distinguished itself from the monarchy above and the vulgar masses below. A “sort of affluence allows men to receive a liberal education”. For Constant, and for Madame de Staël, liberalism found expression in “respectable people”, “decent people”. Tocqueville: liberals were not those “with their incomplete education”, but “property-owners”, the “bourgeoisie”, “men of culture”, “in a word, all those who have received a liberal education.”

Tocqueville: “The man who asks of freedom anything other than itself is born to be a slave.” (C.f. Lord Acton’s silly quote, “Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.”) For Tocqueville, the desire for liberty was “a privilege of noble minds which God has fitted to receive it, and it inspires them with a generous fervour.” “[T]o meaner souls, untouched by the sacred flame, it may well seem incomprehensible.”

Locke thought that most people are not genuinely capable of moral and intellectual life: “there is a greater distance between some Men, and others, in this respect, than between some Men and some Beasts”. Sieyès: “this enormous crowd of bipedal tools, without liberty, without morality, without intellectual faculties…” Even Mill’s liberty did not apply to “children”, nor to “those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage.”

Benjamin Franklin, writing to a doctor: “Half the Lives you save are not worth saving, as being useless; and almost the other Half ought not to be sav’d, as being mischievous. Does your Conscience never hint to you the Impiety of being in constant Warfare against the Planes of Providence?” Tocqueville hoped that prisons would burn down, disposing of their populations. Losurdo summarises, “The eugenic temptation runs deep in the liberal tradition.” He refers to a “sort of social apartheid” in Britain whereby nobles and the elite didn’t want to mix with the plebs. Nassau Senior visited Naples and was annoyed by the mixing of ranks and having to look at the poor.

One interesting theme of the book is the horror of the upper classes at the lower classes not working very hard. It is not acceptable to the upper class that the lower class are able to subsistence-farm a small-holding. If people can do that, what incentive will they have to work for the upper class in the factories? Tocqueville desired the abolition of slavery, but wanted “to prevent the negroes of our colonies… abandoning the major industries to retire to a piece of fertile soil, which has been bought cheaply or grabbed”. In Britain, Enclosure of common land had the same effect. Emancipated slaves could be permitted to choose their “master”, but not to “remain idle or work exclusively for themselves”. Thus, they should be “temporarily” banned from owning land, to force them into “the position in which the European labourer finds himself.” Losurdo: “While he condemned legal regulation of working hours as ‘despotism’, de Tocqueville had nothing against the creation from above of a caste of wage-labour denied any possibility of social mobility.”

Smith’s famous comment about collusion (“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices”) was actually aimed against trade unions — the price of labour!

Liberty was only for the elite. Locke proposed regulating the consumption of alcohol by the popular classes. Mandeville believed amusements should be prohibited on Sundays because they would draw people away from church.

Mill demanded barbarians’ “obedience” for the purposes of their education for “continuous labour”, which was the foundation of civilisation. He proposed a transitional phase of “slavery” for “uncivilized races”. There were “savage tribes so averse from regular industry, that industrial life is scarcely able to introduce itself among them until they are… conquered and made slaves of”. The slave is “one step in advance of a savage”. This would be temporary slavery, but for “the great majority of the human race”, “in a savage or semi-savage state”. Mill wanted “plural votes to be granted to the more ‘intelligent’”. Allan Bloom: “the primary intention of On Liberty was to protect the minority of superior men from the tyranny of the majority, that Mill believed mankind was threatened by universal mediocrity.”

Mandeville didn’t want to educate the poor, for fear of losing cheap labour. Arthur Young: “the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious”. Destutt de Tracy: “In poor nations the people are comfortable, in rich nations they are generally poor.” Bentham thought workshouses could breed an “indigenous class” of labour. Sieyès imagined a cross between monkeys and blacks to create “the new race of anthropomorphic monkeys”, adapted to servile labour.

Losurdo: “At its inception, liberalism expressed the self-consciousness of a class of owners of slaves or servants that was being formed as the capitalist system began to emerge and establish itself, thanks in part to those ruthless practices of expropriation and oppression implemented in the metropolis, and especially the colonies, which Marx described as ‘original capitalist accumulation’. Against monarchical despotism and central power, this class demanded self-government and peaceful enjoyment of its property (including that in slaves and servants), under the sign of the rule of law. We can then say that this liberalism was the intellectual tradition which most rigorously circumscribed a restricted sacred space wherein the rules of the limitation of power obtained. It was an intellectual tradition characterized more by celebration of the community of free individuals that defined the sacred space than by celebration of liberty or the individual.”


American independence didn’t just make slaves worse off. Losurdo: “The conquest of self-government by civil society hegemonized by large-scale property involved an even more drastic deterioration in the condition of the indigenous population. The end of the control exercised by the London government swept away the last obstacles to the expansionistic march of the white colonists.”

Grotius, Locke and Washington all referred to Native Americans as “wild beasts”. Benjamin Franklin wanted to “extirpate these Savages in order to make way for the Cultivators of the Earth”. The land was given to whites by God or Providence. In 1871 Francis Amasa Walker compared “wild men” to “wild beasts”.

Locke’s “mixed his labour” theory turns out to be a way of disenfranchising hunter-gatherers, who could be said to own property in common, in favour of freeholders. Hunter-gatherers cannot survive in the face of the onward march of civilisation/freehold property and the erecting of fences. Freehold legal theory does not recognise ownership by hunter-gatherers: the land they use is deemed to be vacant, “unpossessed”. Tocqueville agreed: “Although the vast country that I have been describing was inhabited by many indigenous tribes, it may justly be said, at the time of its discovery by Europeans, to have formed one great desert [terra nullius]. The Indians occupied without possessing it. It is by agricultural labour that man appropriates the soil, and the early inhabitants of North America lived by the produce of the chase.” Tocqueville on Algeria: “the common property of the tribe is not founded on any title”.

Grotius declared that civilised men should declare war on “men who are like beasts”, just as they declare war on actual beasts. The losers of such a war could justly be enslaved. Enslaving their descendents was also acceptable because it created an incentive to keep the slaves alive. Grotius appealed to Aristotle’s concept of natural slavery, and St Paul.

Tocqueville was happy to have “two clearly distinct sets of laws in Africa, because we are faced with two clearly separate societies.” Losurdo: “Mill, de Tocqueville and Lecky passionately denounced monarchical or Jacobin absolutism, and at the same time enthusiastically saluted despotism at the expense of colonial peoples.” Bugeud, governor-general of Algeria: “Wherever there is clean water and fertile soil, it is necessary to settle colonists, without worrying too much about whom the land belongs to. It must be distributed to them so that it is enjoyed as rightful property”.

Even the Irish were at the receiving end of this ideology. Locke refers to the Irish as “brigands”. Carlyle called them “black”. Tocqueville: “Virtually all the country’s magistrates are in open warfare with the population.” Attempts were made in Ireland to obstruct access to education.

So not only did liberty not apply to the lower classes, it did not apply to other races. Tocqueville pointed to the United States as a country where “every individual” enjoyed unprecedented “independence”, ignoring the slaves. In Algeria, he said, “the role of the individual is everywhere greater than the motherland”, ignoring the Arabs, who were regarded by occupying forces as “evil beasts”. Theodore Roosevelt: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians. But I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

Losurdo: Liberalism was an “intellectual tradition which, far from being inspired by a superstitious respect for property and property right in general, in fact promoted and legitimized massive expropriations of the Irish and Indians.”

Not that socialism is necessarily different. Losurdo concedes, “Socialist aspirations can readily be combined with colonialism. Followers of Fourier and Saint-Simon envisaged building communities of a more or less socialist type on land taken from the Arabs in Algeria.”

Under Locke’s “labour mixing” theory of property, birds and wild animals should have been regarded as common property. However, Locke was inconsistent, calling for the death penalty against hunters (“poachers”).

Locke supported enclosure both in Britain and America, viewing common land as like wild land. In America, the native hunter-gatherers were despoiled; in Britain, the peasants.

(Locke comes across very badly in this book. For a different savaging of Locke, see )

A racial distinction began to emerge. Losurdo refers to the “spiritual delimitation (the English model until 1833) and the racial delimitation (the American model until 1865)”. The race of liberty was a “strong, haughty race, bred to liberty” (William Walker). Burke wrote of the peoples “in whose veins the blood of freedom circulates”. He thought the “spirit of freedom” was most embodied by slave-owners of the southern colonies. The colonists formed an integral part of the nation “in whose veins the blood of freedom circulates”, “the chosen race and sons of England”. It was a question of “pedigree”, against which “human art” was powerless.

Lieber thought the “Anglican race” were those who fully expressed authentic liberty. The Spanish, Portuguese and Neapolitans had proved incapable of “self-government”, not to mention the Chinese and blacks. For Mill, “Anglo-Saxons” were the champions of representative government and “the general improvement of mankind”, while at the bottom, we find the Chinese and various savage peoples. Bentham thought Ireland was “half civilized”. Mill thought Ireland incapable of self-government, but in need of a “good stout despotism”, exactly like India. (Lecky however said the Irish were part of “the great Aryan race”.) Greece was “too Oriental” to govern itself. Cobden thought the Spanish were “barbarians”, and Nassau Senior despised the Neapolitans: “hateful… wicked… squalid and unhealthy.” Tocqueville thought France irremediably “revolutionary and servile”: “socialism is our natural disease”. France “is incapable and… unworthy of being free”.

Losurdo refers to “the proud self-consciousness of the community of the free, who lauded themselves for their immunity from the servile spirit attributed to the barbarians subjugated by them.” “We can understand why social Darwinism established itself above all in Britain, the United States and Germany… all three regarded themselves as members of a single family or race which, setting out from Germany, had first crossed the Channel and then the Atlantic. And all three tended to regard Latins (not to mention colonial peoples) as failures, and to attribute their own success to the action of natural selection”. “Aryan mythology was explicitly present in other exponents of this intellectual tradition”.


What is slavery?

The legal systems of the time recognised various categories of workers, of which slavery was just one. Blackstone referred to “proper slavery”, “strict slavery”, “absolute slavery”, where the master had unlimited power of the slave. Servants were a different category of people to freemen and slaves. Servants were subdivided into “domestics”, “apprentices”, “labourers”, each with specific characteristics.

Smith: “The master has a right to correct his servant moderately, and if he should die under his correction it is not murther [murder], unless it was done with an offensive weapon or with forethought and without provocation.” Losurdo: “It is difficult to regard such servants as free men… Smith included menial servants, together with slaves proper, in the master’s extended family.” Seymour Drescher: “For most of human history the expression ‘free labor’ was an oxymoron.”

Locke habitually used “absolute power of life and death” to define the essence of slavery. “Already in Grotius we find the observation that the condition of the slave is not very different from that of the soldier.” “The mortality rate of soldiers en route to India was comparable to that affecting black slaves during their deportation from one side of the Atlantic to the other. Moreover, the British soldiers were subject to the punishment traditionally reserved for slaves — flogging”. Defoe: “‘tis Poverty that makes Men Soldiers”. “[T]he figure of the officer tended to coincide with that of the master, and the contempt officers/masters had for troops was professed and ostentatious.”

Yet the soldier was not a slave. “The general that can condemn him to death for deserting his post, or not obeying the most desperate orders, cannot yet with all his absolute power of life and death dispose of one farthing of that soldier’s estate, or seize one jot of his good; whom yet he can command anything, and hang for the least disobedience” (Locke).

Slave-owners could not do anything they wanted with their slaves. In America, a white slave-owner could kill a black female slave, but he could not have sex with her. The “one drop” rule which prevailed in America, whereby someone with any negro blood was considered black, was intended to discourage miscegenation: the white man’s children would be treated badly. (In South America, by contrast, various gradations were recognised: mulatto, quadroon, octoroon…) (The “one drop” cultural rule now has the opposite effect, though affirmative action, which can even be used by immigrants with no slave ancestors at all! Barack Obama, half white, half Kenyan, was considered “black” and “African-American”. Another rule which has backfired is the one which counts non-citizens when allocating congressmen (the US Constitution distinguishes between “free Persons” and “all other Persons”). Previously intended to boost the representation of slave-holding areas in the House of Representatives, it now boosts the representation of areas with lots of foreigners.)

Grotius thought servitude was the defining characteristic of work. Calhoun thought work and slavery were inseparable, as did Fitzhugh (who wrote “Cannibals all!”). “In Scotland workers in coalmines and salt works were obliged to wear a collar on which the name of the master was inscribed.”

Those in workhouses were effectively slaves. Defoe said workhouses were “such a Terror to the Beggars that none of [them] will come near the City.” They were described by Engels as a total institution: “Paupers wear the uniform of the house and are subject to the will of the director without any protection whatsoever… families are separated… placed outside the law… inmates of work houses often deliberately make themselves guilty of any crime whatsoever in order to go to prison”. Many indigents preferred to die of hunger and illness than subject themselves to a workhouse. Bentham was enthusiastic: his famous panopticon was not designed for prisons, but for workhouses.

(Bentham was an interesting and creative chap, who by producing a lot of ideas and following chains of reasoning, anticipating some of the the most liberal aspects of contemporary society (homosexuality, animal rights), and also some of its most illiberal aspects. )

In the period between 1660 and 1760, the rise of liberalism, an attitude of unprecedented harshness towards wage-labourers and the unemployed arose, “which has no modern parallel except in the behaviour of the less reputable of white colonists towards coloured labour”. (Bodin attributed this to the “greed of the merchants” and looked to “princes” to “set things in good order”.)

So-called “wage slavery” is a real phenomenon. People on the verge of starvation would commit crimes to survive as deportees. “In England, enclosure of common land was followed by the new law of 1834 which, abolishing any other form of assistance, confronted the poor with a brutal alternative: death from starvation or internment in a total institution.”

“From 1688 to 1820, the number of crimes carrying the death penalty increased from 50 to between 200 and 250, and they were almost always crimes against property. While attempted homicide was regarded as a petty crime until 1803, the theft of a shilling or handkerchief, or the illegal clipping of an ornamental bush, could entail hanging; and one could be consigned to the hangman even at the age of eleven…” Locke said that by stealing, the thief had made the victim his slave, deprived him of his liberty. Property, and thus liberty itself, was at stake. Locke called for penal slavery: “Indeed, having by his fault forfeited his own life by some act that deserves death, he to whom he has forfeited it may, when he has him in his power, delay to take it, and make use of him to his own service; and he does him no injury by it. For, whenever he finds the hardship of his slavery outweigh the value of his life, it is in his power, by resisting the will of his master, to draw on himself the death he desires.”

Mandeville recognised that much theft was done by necessity, but thought it was in society’s best interest that thieves be hanged.

“On the eve of the American Revolution, in Maryland alone there were 20,000 servants of criminal origin.” Dr Johnson: they were “a race of convicts, and ought to be content with anything we may allow them short of hanging”.

After slavery was abolished, laws against vagrancy were used to force people into “apprenticeships”. Many indentured servants did not survive to the end of their contracts. Slaves were replaced by coolies, who though not hereditary slaves, were represented in chains in popular art of the time. Their mortality rate was high. Seymour Drescher: “In 1860, as in 1760, non-European compulsory labor was still the labor of choice for rational capitalists who chose to cultivate the vast undeveloped parts of the tropics… The 20 millions who left India alone, mostly as indentured servants, between the 1830s and the 1910s, amounted to twice the number of Africans forcibly landed in the Americas during the four centuries of the Atlantic slave trade.”


In 1860, slaves were America’s second biggest property after land; their value was three times greater than the share capital in manufacturing and the railway industry.

Liberty was curtailed in various ways to shore up the slave-holding society. It was forbidden to teach slaves to read and write, or in Georgia to provide them with paper and writing materials. Abolitionist mail was censored by Andrew Jackson. Abolitionists were beaten up and killed.

Northern states, though not holding slaves, were required by the constitution to return escaped slaves to their Southern owners. Tocqueville: “prejudice of race appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known.” Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Oregon “strictly prohibited access into their territories by blacks.”

“Blacks not subject to slavery began to be perceived as an anomaly that would sooner or later have to be rectified.” Ex-slaves should be driven further south, Latin America’s mixed blood population being the “only receptacle” appropriate for them, according to John O’Sullivan, theorist of “manifest destiny”. The end of slavery should mean the end of the presence of blacks in the land of liberty. Lincoln wanted to deport blacks to Latin America. Monroe famously used federal funds to send them to Liberia.

Abbé Grégoire on Haiti: “Simply by virtue of its existence… a black republic in the mid-Atlantic is a raised beacon to which the blushing oppressors and the sighing oppressed look.” Losurdo: “The United States not only refused to recognise the country… but did everything it could to isolate, weaken and overthrow it. Jefferson distinguished himself in this operation… Jefferson interpreted the principle of equality in radical fashion, but always within the ambit of the white community.”


Liberalism didn’t imply unity among the “liberal” nations. For Jefferson, the United States was “an empire for liberty”. “The ‘empire for liberty’ desired by him presupposed Britain’s defeat… the annexation of Canada (in addition to Cuba)”, “eternal war” ending with the “extermination of the one or the other party”. Kipling reported that 4 July 1889 celebrations in San Francisco were marked by official speeches against “our natural enemy” Great Britain “with her chain of fortresses across the world”.

Tocqueville: “Will anyone go so far as to claim that two peoples must necessarily live in peace with one another just because they have similar political institutions?” For Tocqueville, France was the “saviour” “of peoples whose liberty is in danger”.

Losurdo: Germany “had likewise begun to cherish the idea of an empire for liberty, putting itself at the head of a crusade for the abolition of slavery in the colonies.” “[A]t the turn of the century, even in England and America, Germany was regarded as a full member of the exclusive club of free peoples.”


Did liberalism lead to improvements in the lives of the lower classes? Losurdo: “The more the struggle for recognition developed as a struggle for the conquest of political rights and of economic and social rights, the more the popular and socialist movement was accused of not understanding the autonomous dignity of the individual, and in fact of wanting to trample it underfoot.”

“Individualism” was used to oppose regulation of working conditions. “Although convinced that ‘public education is salutary, above all in free countries’, Constant was firmly opposed to the introduction of compulsory schooling, since he considered unacceptable any form of ‘restriction’ that violated the ‘rights of individuals’, including ‘those of fathers over their children’. True, poverty meant that in poor families children were taken out of school and put to work early. Yet it was necessary to denounce any restrictions and wait for this poverty to fade away. On the basis of this logic, in addition to rejecting compulsory schooling, Constant did not even entertain the hypothesis of state intervention against the scourge of child labour.” Tocqueville compared English factory workers to slaves, and denounced those who sought to regulate their working hours.

For Mill, the Opium War was a crusade for free trade: “the prohibition of the importation of opium into China” violated “the liberty… of the buyer”. No “self-government” for the Chinese!

Constant refused to countenance non-property owners sitting on representative bodies. He worried that politics would encroach on property. Boissy d’Anglas warned against “fatal taxes” that would inevitably be imposed by legislative power once it was under the influence of non-property owners. Both were surely right about this — Luigi Einaudi predicted something similar. Tocqueville agreed. Mill: “any power of voting” in the hands of those who did not pay taxes was “a violation of the fundamental principle of free government”, “amounts to allowing them to put their hands into other people’s pockets for any purpose which they think fit to call a public one”. Lecky: property-owners would end up “completely disenfranchised”. Constant saw the poor as turning into ‘a privileged class”, benefitting from redistributive taxation.

Socialism began to be looked at as a “disease”. Tocqueville said it had made the French “ill”. Burke called it the French “disease”. Lecky spoke of “the contamination of the immigrant vote”. (Burke seems to be the first exponent of the theory of revolution as a Jewish conspiracy.)

Violence was called for. Tocqueville condemned Jacobin Terror but had no hesitation invoking “terror” for the purposes of suppressing “the demagogic party”. Theodore Roosevelt on suppressing strikes: “taking ten or a dozen of their leaders out, standing… them against a wall, and shooting them dead.”


Losurdo: “the community of the free asserted itself demanding both negative and positive liberty, while excluding populations of colonial origin and metropolitan semi-slaves and servants from both.”

“In the first place, it should not be forgotten that not only did the classics of the liberal tradition refer to democracy with coldness, hostility and sometimes frank contempt, but regarded its advent as an unlawful, intolerable rupture of the social contract and hence as a legitimate cause for the ‘appeal to Heaven’ (in Locke’s words) or to arms.”

“Let us take authors like Montesquieu, Smith and Millar. Although condemning slavery more or less sharply… In no instance did criticism or condemnation of slavery involve exclusion of the beneficiaries or theorists of the institution from the community of the free and liberal party.” Disraeli (not a liberal) denounced the abolition of slavery in the English colonies.

However, liberalism did eventually turn against slavery. “Almost a century after its first turn, the liberal world underwent a second: now condemnation of hereditary slavery as such was dictated as a constitutive element in its identity… The principle of racial equality became a constitutive element in liberal identity only from the mid-twentieth century onwards.”

But liberalism was just moving with the times. “The process of emancipation very often had a spur completely external to the liberal world. The abolition of slavery in British colonies cannot be understood without the black revolution in San Domingo, which was viewed with horror, and often combated, by the liberal world as a whole.”

Losurdo concludes: “It is precisely from such historical reconstruction, remote from any apologetic, edifying tones, that the genuine merits and real strong points of liberalism emerge. Demonstrating an extraordinary flexibility, it constantly sought to react and rise to the challenges of the time. It is true that, far from being spontaneous and painless, such transformation was largely imposed from without, by political and social movements with which liberalism has repeatedly and fiercely clashed. But precisely in this resides its flexibility. Liberalism has proved capable of learning from its antagonist (the tradition of thinking that, starting with ‘radicalism’ and passing through Marx, issued in the revolutions which variously invoked him) to a far greater extent than its antagonist has proved capable of learning from it.”

“In economics, clearly distancing itself from an insipid ideology of social harmony miraculously lacking any element of contradiction, conflict and tension, liberal thought has vigorously insisted on the need for competition between individuals in the market, in order to develop social wealth and the productive forces. This is a further, major historical merit to be acknowledged.”

“Far from being a site where all individuals freely meet as sellers and buyers of commodities, for centuries the liberal market was a site of exclusion, de-humanization and even terror.” “In extreme cases the superstitious cult of the Market sealed huge tragedies, like the one which in 1847 saw Britain condemn an enormous mass of actual (Irish) individuals to death from starvation.”

“[L]iberalism’s merits are too significant and too evident for it to be necessary to credit it with other, completely imaginary ones. Among the latter is the alleged spontaneous capacity for self-correction often attributed to it.”


It’s a long book, and you could get the message by just reading the first chapter, or this review. There are occasional slips of referencing, e.g. Francis A. Walker is misnamed Francis C. Walker.

Available on Kindle or Paperback.


Jonathan Rauch: “Political Realism”

Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy
By Jonathan Rauch


I read this after AnomalyUK mentioned it on Twitter. I was skeptical because of the two-part title, what Neal Stephenson called “one of those American books where once you’ve heard the title you don’t even need to read it”. But it was short and free (probably why AnomalyUK read it).

And it does start badly, writing in a silly tone as if its audience were idiots (“political home truths”). It’s published by the Brookings Institution. Rauch also redefines “political realism”, seemingly unaware that the term is already used to describe the views of Bernard Williams and Raymond Geuss.

Rauch’s argument is that movements in America to make politics less “corrupt” have been a bad thing on balance, because they reduce the effectiveness of the government. He argues that the definition of political corruption has expanded: “what began as a necessary rebalancing acquired its own momentum and ideology and created an imbalance of its own, pushing relentlessly to extirpate corruption and defining corruption ever more broadly… And today it defines corruption very broadly indeed.”

Corruption is defined in modern parlance as anything which is not democratic. (Rauch doesn’t spell this out.) Money in politics is corrupt because some people have more of it than others, so not everyone’s “voice” is counted equally. Secrecy in politics is corrupt because it prevents voters from being informed about what’s going on. (I prefer Moldbug’s definition: “Corruption is any human action that is not what it appears to be.” More on that later.)


Rauch advocates “machine politics” (basically, party politics with less democracy) as being better at governing than democratic, transparent politics where ordinary people have more power and machine politicians have less. Political machines act like companies; without them there would just be individuals. Parties have longevity, so they have long-term incentives. “They have to win not just once but again and again, which gives them quite a bit of accountability to their stakeholders”. “By trading on the present value of future political returns, they can conduct transactions across spans of time–something very hard, frequently impossible, for activists and freelancers to do.” This is a good insight.

“Ideological solidarity is a brittle glue, and reliance on it for intraparty cohesion is a sign of a weak party machine, not a strong one.” “Amateurs and single-issue activists have their uses, but without hacks the machine fails, which is why it puts such a premium on people who pay their dues and work their way up the ranks.” Richard Pildes: “broader structural changes, including legal ones, have disarmed party leaders of the tools they previously had used to unify their members around deals that were thought to be in the best interest of the party as a whole.”

Rauch points out that transparency makes certain kinds of politics and political agreements harder, because they look bad even though their results are good on balance. “In full public view, complicated deal-building is hard to do, indeed usually impossible; therefore machines tend to prefer privacy.” “[T]here is a cost to exposing the inner workings of politics to 24-7 public scrutiny”. “[T]he opposite of transparency in politics is not corruption, it is privacy”.

Rauch is good at demonstrating how successive campaign finance laws have just pushed money around and changed political incentive structures, without actually reducing the total amount of money in US politics.


The first major problem with the book is that Rauch doesn’t give much evidence for his case. It may be that machine politics produced better results… or it may not. Where’s the evidence? It is true that votes in legislative committees will have different outcomes depending on whether the way individual legislators voted is recorded or not. But it is not clear which is “better”. “If the machine gets its way, an independent political entrepreneur will have a difficult time influencing the system without paying her dues and going through channels.” Is this rent-seeking supposed to be obviously or inherently a good thing?

“They also act as gatekeepers to power, a function which today’s system of primary elections has weakened—at high cost to leadership in government. Imagine how dramatically the dynamics on Capitol Hill might change if state Republican parties gave Speaker Boehner the power to strike House candidates from the primary ballot: overnight, the party would move dramatically toward parliamentary-style discipline.” Again, it is not obvious that this would be an improvement — it needs to be argued.


The second, more serious problem with the book is that Rauch apparently never quite realises he is arguing against democracy. Early in the book he says that “transactional politics… is the essential work of governing and that government, and thus democracy, won’t work if leaders can’t make deals and make them stick.” Here he is equating good governance with democracy. It is true that government won’t work if politicians can’t make deals and make them stick, and that checks on politicians’ power make this harder. But taking power away from ordinary people, removing checks on politicians and enabling transactional politics, makes the system less democratic, while improving the quality of governance.

“Hence, a mayor successfully gaining sufficient influence over each of these institutions so as to make coherent policy could plausibly be seen not as a violation of democracy, but as a brilliant exercise of leadership so as to advance the interests of the poor as well as the public interest writ large.” Again, Rauch equates good governance in the public interest with democracy, yet they are not the same thing at all. “A mayor successfully gaining sufficient influence over each of these institutions so as to make coherent policy” is “a violation of democracy”, but (in this case) it is for the public interest. (We know from Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem that there is no guarantee that democratic government policy will be coherent.)

Indeed, the very title of the book is contradictory. “How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy”. Replace “Democracy” with “Governance” and it makes sense.

Rauch quotes some people who do seem to realise the disconnect between good governance and democracy.

“Pildes argues for acknowledging a “tragic trade-off” between unmediated popular participation and government’s effective functioning. There may be no perfect balance between the two, but just accepting that more democracy is not always the answer would mark a sea change in American political discourse.”

Thad Williamson, University of Richmond: “To demand high standards of democratic deliberation… is to potentially slow, dampen, or even deny the ability of energetic leadership to play its mobilizing function and enact effective policies in a timely way.” (“The Tangled Relationship of Democracy, Leadership, and Justice in Urban America: A View from Richmond” (2014).)

Jason Grumet, “Bipartisan Policy Center”: “A closer look reveals that many of the reforms we’ve instituted to make government work more effectively—all of them pursued with the best of intentions—have, in practice, had the opposite effect. Through a series of bad assumptions and unintended consequences, we have weakened our government’s capacity to solve problems.” (“City of Rivals: Restoring the Glorious Mess of American Democracy” (2014).

Though, judging by the title of that last one, perhaps not.


Rauch views the purpose of politics as to reach compromises between various interest groups, which supposedly represent the whole of the population. This is a demotist view. By contrast, for neoreactionaries, the purpose of government is to run the country well, and politics is sand in the gears. For neoreactionaries, the residents of the country should be listened to like customers, but their demands for the divvying up of rents should be ignored.

Rauch has a story about the passage of some gay rights legislation in Utah. A compromise was reached between gay activists and Mormons. “Not everyone went away happy. Purists among libertarians, gay rights activists, and social conservatives all found reasons to grumble. But the negotiation and its outcome showed up the purists for what they were: outliers. And it built a consensus strong enough to withstand their vetoes, allowing implicit majority opinion to be heard.” “Implicit majority opinion”? What fiction is this?

For Rauch, an advantage of machine politics is that it causes “moderation”. “[M]odern analysts miss something important when they assume that moderation comes from moderates; often, moderation comes from machines that force politicians to compromise.” “Small donors tend to be polarized and polarizing.” “[A]s our campaign finance system has become more democratized, our politics has become more polarized.”

However, “moderation” is not an ideology advocated by specific people, but simply the contingent result of compromise. Moldbug: “Moderation is not an ideology. It is not an opinion. It is not a thought. It is an absence of thought.” “Moderation” is not much of an argument in favour of machine politics.


Rauch writes that “well-functioning governments rely not merely on formal legal mechanisms but also on informal political structures and intricate systems of incentives. No informal structures and incentives? No governance.” I’ve been thinking about this for a while.

When Rauch says that “the right amount of corruption is greater than zero”, he may be more right than he knows. Instead of just defining “corruption” as anything non-democratic, let us use Moldbug’s definition: “Corruption is any human action that is not what it appears to be.” Here Moldbug is making a moral assertion against informal power, property and relationships. Moldbug advocates formalism: the formalising of informal power, property and relationships.

But Jim points out that some situations cannot be formalised.
Moldbug advocates retiring useless government employees on full pay, to allow them to go off and do something useful — formalising their income stream. But in a democratic system this could not happen; voters would demand the abolition of the payments, and so useless bureaucrats would never agree to it, like Jim’s parasites: “The moment we come out, you will wrap us up in newspaper, and cast us onto the fire.” A private government would not need to formalise the income streams: it could just abolish them. Moldbug advocates formalism as a mechanism for getting from democratic government to private government. But it is hard to see circumstances in which it would happen; it is hard to see circumstances in which it would be the best course of action.

So if certain informal relationships are essential to good governance, and they can’t be formalised, then the right amount of “corruption” is greater than zero.

Neoreactionary research project: under what circumstances can informal arrangements be formalised without changing or destroying them?


I can’t resist quoting Rauch on the evils of tobacco: “Sometimes… the only thing wrong with smoke-filled rooms is the smoke.” Is smoke really so bad?


Available on Kindle.


More at Anomaly UK.


It is not the case that all leftists favour equality because they believe that everything is zero-sum. Some are against the positive-sum because they favour equality.

“Is having a loving family an unfair advantage?”

Gregory Clark: “A Farewell to Alms”

Why did the Industrial Revolution happen when it did, and in England? Gregory Clark attempts to answer this question.

Clark starts by discussing Malthusian economies. Modern, growing economies with rising living standards are historically unusual. For five to seven thousand years, median wages did not change much. The wage of an unskilled labourer was actually lower in 1700AD than it was in 500BC! And agricultural societies had lower standards of living per hour worked than hunter-gatherer societies, in which people could get by with very little work. Yet, over the thousands of years before the industrial revolution, technology did improve. Why didn’t improvements in technology lead to improvements in living standards, as they do now? One thing that comes across from Clark’s book is that modern growth rates not normal. We are used to growth rates of 3% per year (but falling), but the middle ages could see growth rates of 3% per century or less!

The problem was that the gains from technological improvements all went into sustaining larger populations. This is to be expected from standard Darwinian theory: animals will evolve to have as many children as they can support (and no more because this would be a waste of their resources). If technology makes it easier for someone to support more children, they will have more children. The limiting factor was natural resources (before the industrial revolution, this meant farmland). Technology enabled the more efficient use of natural resources, which increased total income, but this enabled population increases which pushed down average wages until natural resources became the limiting factor once again. The Black Death, which killed a third of the population of Europe, caused a big increase in living standards which lasted for a century, until the population increased to previous levels.

People are a negative externality

Clark quashes some naïve libertarian ideas, such as ignoring natural resource constraints, and the belief that more people are always an advantage. Resources are limited, both in the short and long term, and even if there are reserves it may not make economic sense to extract them more rapidly (the Hotelling principle). Land is limited, and more people reduces the amount of per person and increases the price, which can lead to a net reduction in living standards (but an increase in income for rentiers such as landlords and the state). People are a negative externality, since they use up natural resources which could otherwise be used by you, and they must be productive in order to offset this. More people enables specialisation and network effects, up to a point, but beyond that they reduce living standards. (Sophisticated libertarians such as Mises and Hoppe do recognise this. Mises: “The world, or an isolated country from which emigration is impossible, is to be regarded as overpopulated in the absolute sense when the optimum of population – that point beyond which an increase in the number of people would mean not an increase but a decrease in welfare – is exceeded.” (Mises: “Nation, State, and Economy” . New York University Press, 1983. Pg 58.) Hoppe: “An influx of migrants into a given-sized high-wage area will lower nominal wage rates. However, it will not lower real wage rates if the population is below its optimum size.” (Hoppe: “Democracy: The God That Failed”. Transaction Publishers, 2007. Pg 137.) That is, the “optimum” size of a population is that beyond which real income per capita will decrease.)

Another mistaken libertarian idea is an overestimation of the power of good institutions, which Clark refers to as the (Adam) “Smithian” view. In fact, good institutions are necessary but not sufficient for high living standards. Clark points out that England had good institutions for centuries, and can even be argued to have better institutions then than it does now. For example, property rights were more absolute in medieval England than they are now. Yet we are more prosperous now. Protections for innovation such as patents and guilds existed for a long time, yet innovation did not take off.

More is needed than free market institutions to improve living standards. Clark’s thesis is that centuries of good institutions enabled the evolution of a better population, and it was only once the population was intelligent enough that the industrial revolution took off.


So what changed? Why did improvements in technology start leading to improvements in living standards, instead of larger populations? Clark doesn’t answer this adequately, but he provides a wealth of data suggesting the answer was improvements in the stock of population, caused by differential fertility between rich and poor. Clark demonstrates that in medieval England for centuries until the industrial revolution, the rich had more children than the poor. The richer you were, the more surviving children you had (the violent aristocracy excluded, who tended to kill each other off), and the poor did not even have enough children to reproduce themselves. As a result, English society demonstrated downwards social mobility, as the children of the rich had to move down the social scale to take up occupations vacated by the sub-replacement-fertility poor. The surprising result is that downwards social mobility can be a healthy thing for society. The rich bourgeoisie reproduced, spreading their bourgeois values of hard work and thrift.

The population thus improved. Clark points out that returns to saving and acquiring skills were much higher in the past than they are now, yet people did not do so, despite the higher incentives. One explanation is that people were poorer, so they would have less resources spare to invest, despite the attractive returns. The other explanation is the people had a higher rate of time preference. Time preference is partly genetic, and “interest rates fell from astonishingly high rates in the earliest societies to close to low modern levels by 1800.”

Economic growth

Economic growth came partly from saving/capital accumulation but the vast majority came from efficiency improvements.

Why don’t we see any growth per person before the industrial revolution? Why were efficiency improvements absorbed by increased population, so that the limiting factor was always natural resources? The industrial revolution did enable a population explosion in England, as well as an income explosion, but the economy grew faster than the population. Why? There are two possible explanations, and evidence that both played a part. One is that technological advancement was so fast that population growth could not keep up. The other is that the British population somehow limited its growth, without being out-evolved by people who didn’t. Social pressure and/or religion are likely candidates for this. In the same way that Catholicism virtually eliminated cousin marriage, thus increasing the IQ of Europeans, social pressure/religion strongly discouraged having children out of wedlock. This reduced the number of children born to poor people.

Changes to the quality of population seem to be of paramount importance. Today, in poor countries with access to Western technology, such as most of Africa, all efficiency improvements have gone into increased populations; evidence against population growth not being able to keep up with technological improvements. In countries such as Malawi, the birth rate is higher than ever in history, and the people remain as poor as ever. This demonstrates that technological improvements are insufficient to increase living standards. There must be a way to restrict the evolutionary imperative to have as many children as possible. In countries where this does not happen, the people remain poor. Bruce Charlton calls this “selecting for pure fertility”. In a world of technology, where survival is easier than ever before, i.e. the land can support more people, selection pressures for anything other than fertility are weak.

Clark demonstrates another way in which population quality is of paramount importance. He shows that the returns to capital were similar all around the world, at the time of the well-integrated world capital markets of 1870–1914. Therefore, countries such as India were not poor because they did not employ as much capital as rich countries. On the contrary, they did not employ as much capital because they were poor. Entrepreneurs did not deploy marginal capital to India, because it wouldn’t be used as efficiently as in England. “The poorest countries specified slightly faster operating speeds, but this was an insignificant difference compared to the extra labor they employed.” “Poor countries used the same technology as rich ones. They achieved the same levels of output per unit of capital. But in doing so they employed so much more labor per machine that they lost most of the labor cost advantages with which they began.”

Low wage rates were due to poor quality labour and labour habits, not poor quality management. Different capital levels around the world correlated with productivity and income, but capital returns were the same, showing that poor countries had low capital levels because they were unproductive, not that they were unproductive because they had low capital. And they were unproductive because they were inefficient. It was efficiency growth that drove capital accumulation, not the other way round. It had to be that way round,: increasing the amount of capital does not automatically make you use it efficiently.

An aside: Land

Clark makes some errors about land rents. He correctly observes that growth came from efficiency improvements, and the economy grew faster than the population, so resources were not the limiting factor. Therefore, the amount of land per person is now “largely irrelevant, except for a few resource-abundant economies.” Countries like Singapore and Hong Kong are extremely wealthy despite not having much land.

However, Clark errs when he says “land, in the long run, received none of the gains from the Industrial Revolution.” In fact, land prices in productive places like Singapore and Hong Kong are among the highest in the world.

Clark says “the failure of real rents per acre to increase significantly has meant that, as economic output marched upward, the share of land rents in national income has correspondingly declined to insignificance”.

Clark: “One reason why taxes were so light in preindustrial agrarian societies was that the ruling class had a rich source of income without resorting to taxation: land ownership. As figure 7.4 showed for England land rents accounted for about 20 percent of income.”

He acknowledges that “as farmland rents declined, urban rents increased. Indeed in 2000 in England, while an acre of farmland sold for an average of £2,900, an acre of potential building land cost £263,000, and an acre of building land for which permission to build had already been secured was worth £613,000. But as figure 10.3 shows, even in densely populated England, where rents for urban sites may be two or three times the level in most countries at this income level, they are still only about 4 percent of national income.”

I think this paints a very misleading picture. It would be more accurate to say that income taxes were so light because the ruling class received its income from land tax (rent).

It is simply not true that land rents only represent 4% of national income. Most UK householders are owner occupiers. They do not pay rent to anyone else, so their land rents do not show up in GDP figures, but they enjoy the land rent nonetheless. Secondly, the government now spends about half of national income, and receives little of its revenue from land rents. If income taxes were abolished, land rents would capture much of this income.

The point is that land does not actually take part in the production process, like labour or capital, but captures value from it. Land income is a rent, unlike labour or capital income. While you need to occupy some land in order to produce anything, most of the value of land comes from its location value. The non-location element of land value is virtually nothing, as demonstrated by the Earth’s vast low-value locations, such as Siberia.

While farmland rents have plummeted, city rents have risen. Land rents are only depressed at the moment because of other taxes. The total value of all rents (including land rents and income taxes) tracks the size of the economy. Land rents currently represent a small part of total rents, but if artificial rents like income tax were abolished, land rents would rise, total rents remaining a similar size.


This book provides further evidence that dysgenics is a real problem, and should make people think of ways to combat it. Population matters. Humans are not fungible. A high-quality population is better than a low-quality population. This has implications for immigration policy and reproductive policy.

More people means lower living standards unless the extra person is intelligent enough to offset the negative externality of their existence. Therefore, immigration of stupid people should not be allowed. An IQ test for immigrants is a good idea. We should be exporting intelligent people and spreading them over the globe, not importing stupid people to replace our shrinking populations.

The book also gives cause for existential worry. Economic growth per person is extremely unusual, because both rapid technological progress and slower population growth are unusual. Evolutionary imperatives are usually irresistible, so defeating the evolutionary imperative to have more children over the long term is going to be difficult, yet we are currently not doing anything about it.

These aims might seem contradictory, but they are not. A shrinking population might be ceteris paribus a good thing. But increasing the intelligence of the national and worldwide populations is a good thing.

Smart fraction theory is the idea that economic growth is more closely correlated with the IQ of the top portion of the population, i.e. for two countries with the same average IQ, the one with the flatter bell curve will do better, because it will have more geniuses. Invention and innovation depends on creative geniuses, not average people. A small increase in average IQ will cause a bigger increase in the number of geniuses.

The state should pursue a eugenic welfare and tax policy. Taxation should be severely reduced: in practice this means the elimination of income tax and its replacement with land tax.

Welfare could be eliminated or severely reduced, but welfare itself is not directly the problem. If some way could be found to have welfare without increasing the fertility of the poor, such as making sterilisation a condition of receiving welfare, this would be a good thing. It would be humane to provide welfare to already existing humans, but without creating more humans requiring of welfare.

The reason we have such high economic growth rates is genetic. The reason complicated societies are possible is genetic. If states continue to pursue the misguided policies of income tax and welfare, it would be perfectly possible for us to return to growth rates of less than 3% per century, or even for average income to decline substantially. This would be a disaster. Growth rates are already declining in the West, and while some things (e.g. communication) are getting cheaper, other things (cars, food) are getting more expensive for median wage earners. (This suggests to me that the “natural resources as a limiting factor” model lacks descriptive power. A more accurate model would not treat “income” as a homogenous thing. Rather, some sources of income (food) are limited by natural resource constraints, but others (communication) are not, so income in one can increase while income in another decreases.) “Great stagnation” theory holds that invention & innovation rates are declining, and that we in the West may no longer be able to do things that our ancestors were able to do. We no longer build as tall buildings or put people on the moon; perhaps we cannot do so. Researchers such as Charlton and Woodley have some evidence that we are less intelligent than our Victorian/early 20th century forebears, as would be predicted from our dysgenic society. Food for thought…

Available in hardback, paperback or on Kindle.

Sean Gabb: “The Churchill Memorandum”

This thriller is a tremendously fun romp through an alternative history set in 1959 where the Second World War didn’t happen. Hitler died in 1939, and the British Empire has sustained its precarious position through careful diplomacy. Britain is still ruled well by a conservative establishment on a mix of traditional values and liberal enterprise: hard currency and technological innovation; beautiful buildings and statues; zeppelins and heated pavements. The sixties (speculated by AnomalyUK to have really started in the 1950s) never happen.

Guns are legal. So are drugs, and the characters ingest enormous quantities of them throughout the story (alcohol, cannabis, heroin, and several unnamed concoctions); after you read the book, read Bella Gerens’ review for an amusing theory.

In the universe of this book, Churchill was an unsuccessful alcoholic, and our leading man is the world’s “leading Churchill scholar. Then again, bearing in mind Winston Churchill’s current obscurity, it would have been less flattering, though more correct, to describe me as the only Churchill scholar.” So why are all the characters desparate to get their hands on the “Churchill Memorandum”?

The book is a thriller in the style of John Buchan and Bulldog Drummond. “You weren’t expected to blunder about like Richard Hannay on benzedrine!” exclaims one character.

The book is very well written and rollicks along. The most enjoyable thing about it is how the alternative history setting allows the author to make plenty of jokes by casting historical figures in unlikely (or likely) roles. All the villains of the real-world post-war revolution from Roy Jenkins downwards meet their comeuppance. I won’t give much more away, other than to quote how the central villain of the piece is described:

“One thing was certain. Behind that pipe and that carefully-designed mask of aged Edwardian fop, there lurked the world’s most desperate gambler since the car accident in Prague twenty years before. To become Prime Minister, and to stamp his name into all the future history books, there was no limit to the wickedness of Harold Macmillan.”

Available in paperback or on Kindle

Hans-Hermann Hoppe: “Democracy: The God That Failed”

This is a book of two halves. The first half is about the problems of democracy, and the second half argues for anarchism.

The first half is very good. Hoppe explains the concept of time preference, or the degree of future orientation someone has. For each person, one can draw a schedule which describes, for any given level of income, what percentage of their income they will consume and what percentage they will invest. For a given person, the more they earn, the more likely they are to invest a greater percentage of their income. But two different people can have different time preferences: with the same income, one might invest more than the other.

For Hoppe, a reduction in general rates of time preference is identical with civilisation. As people become richer, they can invest more, which makes them richer…

The problem with democracy is that it is inherently socialist. The majority of people vote for redistribution from the rich to themselves. As Hoppe has said elsewhere, “Democracy is a soft variant of communism, and rarely in the history of ideas has it been taken for anything else.”

Democracy is anti-civilisation. The redistribution from richer to poorer that is an inherent feature of all democracies leads to an increase in time preference and short-termism. Rich people have less incentive to invest (and work) because they do not get to keep all their profits, and poor people have less incentive to invest (and work) because they receive money from the rich instead, without having to do anything for it. Hoppe makes the distinction between movements along a time preference curve as your income changes, and a shift in the curve itself. Redistribution actually shifts the curve inwards (bad) because rich and poor alike will invest less for a given level of income.

Monarchy does not suffer from these problems. Under monarchy, redistribution is from the poor to the rich (the King and his family), so is likely to reduce average time preference and increase the total proportion of the economy devoted to future production. The King is richer, so he can invest a greater proportion of his income. He may decide to “leave it invested in the economy” by taxing less. There are only so many productive investments one individual or organisation can find, and leaving other people with capital enables them to find investments that you would not have found yourself. The King would want to avoid the error of the Russian communists who wanted the state to own all the capital instead of the land. Why try to run all the businesses when you can just tax them? Similarly, there is a trade-off between taxing now and taxing more later. (The total rents in any given time period would not be reduced if the King chose not to collect them all. The difference would simply be collected by someone else, just as reducing land taxation does not benefit the tenant, only the landlord.)

The second half of the book, in which Hoppe argues for anarchy over monarchy, is less good. Hoppe is an economist in the Austrian tradition, and relies mostly on deductive arguments. Unfortunately, while some of his deductions in the first half are flawed, some of his deductions in this half are terrible, and obviously so. At one point Hoppe claims that unowned property is not valuable, because nothing is valuable until it has been owned. The fact that something was unowned supposedly demonstrates that nobody valued it. While I agree with Hoppe on the subjectivity of value, it is possible for several people to be aware of something yet unable to appropriate it. Hoppe also claims that people appropriating land do not make anyone worse off, since everyone else demonstrated they did not value the land by not appropriating it. Tell that to people born after the land was appropriated. He also claims that original appropriation of land gains one not just property rights to it, but exclusive property rights. He doesn’t say why this follows.

Hoppe addresses some weak objections to anarchy. However, he does not deal with strong objections to anarchy. Hoppe proposes that insurance companies become private protection agencies, à la David Friedman. Hoppe never adequately explains why they would not become extortion agencies (i.e. states). Hoppe says that they would not because they would lose customers. But this begs the question, because having chosen this path they would not need customers. Nick Szabo defeats Friedman’s (and Hoppe’s) anarcho-capitalism in “The Coase Theorem is false”. Hoppe claims that, under anarcho-capitalism, parties will negotiate to resolve disputes. For example, if person A wants to operate a noisy business, but peace and quiet is worth more to his neighbour B, then B will pay A not to operate the business. However, as Szabo points out, this assumes pre-existing property rights and a way to enforce them. In the absence of a higher authority to prevent it, if A can generate externalities (large costs to B) at little cost to himself, he can extort money out of B.

The major problem with this book is Hoppe’s theoretical shortcoming regarding property and taxation. Hoppe makes an arbitrary distinction between taxation and rent. In reality taxation is just a type of rent. He does not distinguish between different types of rent on grounds of deadweight costs. In Hoppe’s terminology, taxes are bad and rents are OK (except when the rents are collected by the state). In reality, different taxes have different dead-weight costs — income tax is worse than land tax — but the dead-weight costs are the same regardless of who collects the rent. Income tax collected by a private landlord would be just as damaging as income tax collected by the state. Land tax collected by a private landlord is just as (not) damaging as land tax collected by the state.

Hoppe endorses Spencer Heath’s anarchism, towns and cities are owned by single landlords. This solves several collective action problems. However, Hoppe makes a false distinction between “private” landlords and states. Heathian landlords have all the powers of a state. Under Hoppe’s property absolutism they would actually have more powers than many states have today, even if they were bound by contracts. If a private landlord is able to control everything that occurs on his property, he can ban abortion, marijuana, certain styles of dress, certain haircuts, certain religions, certain books… Heathian landlords are states. Hoppe makes the bizarre distinction that “there will be what one might call governance in the city, but there will be no government.” In reality, the landlord that does the governing is the government, whatever you call it.

The problem is that Hoppe treats property as a moral matter. He explicitly eschews the fiction of morality elsewhere, but does not realise that morality is a fiction where property is concerned as well. For Hoppe, the state’s property is illegitimate (immoral). He is misled by names. For example, he thinks that if he “owns” some land in the state of Nevada, subject to a property tax of 50% of the rental value of the land, then he owns the whole property and the state is imposing an immoral tax. In reality, he effectively owns a 50% interest in the land and the state owns a 50% interest. As a matter of fact, the state also has the ability to unilaterally change the tax percentage (it is not a contractual matter). Changes may have effects an economist would consider bad, but they are not immoral.

Taxation by a Heathian landlord is just as voluntary as taxation by a state. It could even be contractual. Immigrants would sign a rental agreement, which would specify a rent, and might specify conditions about what hairstyle they could have, for example. If they wanted a different hairstyle, they could leave. Children born in the territory would be bound by these conditions without signing a contract, just as children in real life who live in a rental apartment with their parents are bound by the rules of the apartment (concerning, say, noise), even though the children did not sign any agreement. Once a child grows up, he will continue to be bound by these rules if he continues living in the same place. If he wants to move to a different house within the territory, he would have to sign an agreement.

Heathian “anarchism” is extremely attractive to neoreactionaries:

“As soon as mature members of society habitually express acceptance or even advocate egalitarian sentiments, whether in the form of democracy (majority rule) or of communism, it becomes essential that other members, and in particular the natural social elites, be prepared to act decisively and, in the case of continued nonconformity, exclude and ultimately expel these members from society. In a covenant concluded among proprietor and community tenants for the purpose of protectingtheir private property, no such thing as a right to free (unlimited) speech exists, not even to unlimited speech on one’s own tenant-property. One may say innumerable things and promote almost any idea under the sun, but naturally no one is permitted to advocate ideas contrary to the very purpose of the covenant of preserving and protecting private property, such as democracy and communism. There can be no tolerance toward democrats and communists in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and expelled from society.”

Landlords would admit “only those immigrants whose presence adds to a lower crime risk and increased property values and in excluding those whose presence leads to a higher risk and lower property values. That is, rather than eliminating discrimination, insurers would rationalize and perfect its practice… Indeed, in cooperation with one another, insurers would want to expel known criminals not just from their immediate neighborhood but from civiliszation altogether, into the wilderness or open frontier of the Amazon jungle, the Sahara, or the polar regions.” He quotes Spencer Heath MacCallum quoting anthropologist Raymond Firth about the Pacific island of Tikopia: “Inasmuch as all land was owned by the chiefs, an exiled person had no recourse but to canoe out to sea — to suicide or to life as a stranger on other islands. The expression for a person who is exiled translates that such a person ‘has no place on which to stand.'”

As a libertarian, Hoppe is against capital punishment, but it is surely justified in the case of Hakim Benmakhlouf, an Algerian thief who was deported from Britain five times, once returning from Algeria within 24 hours.

The problem with Heathian landlords is the same as with states: how to bind them to their contracts? Hoppe does not address this problem.

Hoppe argues that law should be voluntary. If law is voluntary, property is voluntary. Hoppe thinks property should not be voluntary, but he thinks law should be voluntary. This is a contradiction, Hoppe’s blather about praxeology notwithstanding. While rent may be voluntary, a landlord’s exclusive right to his property is not voluntary. But if law is voluntary, people would not necessarily agree to respect a landlord’s exclusive right to his property.

Law can never be voluntary. It is possible to avoid paying rent to a landlord by moving to a different place, but if all land is owned by landlords then you will pay rent to someone. In this sense, rent is not voluntary. Similarly, it is possible to avoid a legal system by leaving its jurisdiction, but if all land is under some jurisdiction, it is not possible to avoid law. Law is as voluntary as rent, just as rent is as voluntary as tax. Property/tort law is prior to contract law.

Finally, Hoppe has little to say about how to achieve anarcho-capitalism. He advocates secession in all circumstances, right down to the individual. He says “It is difficult to imagine how the central government would dare to invade a territory and crush a group of people who had committed no other sin than trying to mind their own business.” “No propaganda effort, however elaborate, would make the public believe that its attack was anything but an aggression against innocent victims.”

This strikes me as exceedingly naive, and ignorant of history. What need had the Mongols of good public relations?

Available in paperback.