Archives for category: Ideological currents


“You keep using that word. I don’t think you know what it means.”

Or so said Inigo Montoya in William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.

He was reacting to a repeated use of the word “Impossible!”

But he might have well been reacting to “Racism!”

I eagerly plunged into Matt Zwolinski’s essay “Why Laissez-Faire is NOT Social Darwinism.” This is one of my favorite subjects, in part because most discussions of it are so hopelessly muddled that it has become my favorite sport to vivisect each argument as it appears before me, wriggling in front of my eyes, tempting my scalpel. Thankfully, this essay starts out well; it looks promising from the first paragraph. Zwolinski has set out to defend William Graham Sumner from Richard Hofstadter’s infamous “social Darwinism” charge. And yet, it quickly gives me pause. Here is the fourth paragraph:

“Fitness,” for Sumner, was not a normative evaluation but a descriptive claim. To be “fit” is not necessarily to be “better” or “more virtuous” than one who is unfit. All that fitness means, in the evolutionary sense, is adaptation to environment. Thus, in Sumner’s “colorful” words, “rattlesnakes may survive where horses perish . . . or highly cultivated white men may die where Hottentots flourish.” The point is easily missed in the face of Sumner’s unfortunate racism, but even racism is not the same as social Darwinism, and the substance of Sumner’s point here is clearly at odds with the popular interpretation of that idea. The fact that a rattlesnake will outlive a horse in a desert doesn’t make the rattlesnake morally better than the horse. It just means that the rattlesnake is better adapted to surviving in the desert. That is all.

My problem here? I almost missed Zwolinski making a good point because of his unfortunate mistake about the nature of racism.

And so, before I move on to evaluating Zwolinski’s deconstruction of Sumner’s putative social Darwinism, I must dissect the racism charge that he makes.

You might be saying to yourself, “What’s going on here? Why is Virkkala distracting himself from the main point?”

Well, “racism” has been associated with social Darwinism for a very long time. So, when Zwolinski identifies something in Sumner that strikes him as racist, he is already finding something that lends support to the Social Darwinism charge — if only in a sloppy, association-of-ideas manner. And, also, if the author makes hash of the racism aspect, it might shed light on any deficiencies we may find in the main argument. (If any there be.)

But the simple truth is that I am deeply distracted by Zwolinski’s comment about Sumner’s “unfortunate racism.” For, from the example he gave, there was no racism involved at all.


Not even a little bit.

Sumner has compared the survival-fitness of the “cultivated Englishmen” of his day with the “Hottentots” of his day. Where is the racism here?

Sure, the Englishmen Sumner was referring to were “white,” a variety of what was then known as the “Caucasoid” race, and the Hottentots were “black,” of what was then known as the “Negroid” race.

To notice racial differences is not racism. Racism isn’t “belief in the utility of distinguishing between genetic groupings of humanity.” It is the “making too much of race,” usually by imputing statistically discernible characteristics of a race to individuals of that race. One does this either because one has fallen prey to an error typical of folk statistics, or because one is engaging in some out-group antagonism, usually in service of some play of in-group solidarity. Racism is inherently anti-individualist, by this understanding.

But it is not anti-individualistic to notice that there are racial differences. So, by identifying Englishmen and Hottentots, recognizing their typical differences, one has made no racist error. None. Not one. Not even a little bit. Racism is not, I repeat, about the recognition of “race” as a useful category of thought and speech. It is about the abuse of the category.

But, but . . . Sumner called Englishmen “cultivated” and implied that Hottentots were not! How cannot that be racism?

Because “cultivated” is not a racial concept.

Anyone can be cultivated, given the right circumstances. “Cultivation,” as here used, is a cultural concept.

The very word derives from agriculture, as in “cultivating the fields.” A culture that engages in elaborate structures of production in agriculture and industry and marketing, not to mention the many arts and sciences, is, by definition, “cultivated.” When Sumner was writing, England was quite cultivated. There is no doubt of that. And the Hottentots of central and south Africa were not. They had a fascinating primitive culture. But it was still primitive. And, as such, much less complex than the English culture. Most Englishmen were “cultivated” compared to Hottentots because they were adapted to their more complex society, and that is a simple and unavoidable truth.

Oh, but “Hottentot” is an offensive term for the Khoikhoi! Well, sure. Now. But this was not known to be any more offensive than calling a German a German or Finn a Finn, back in Sumner’s day. The Germans did not use the old Latin name of “Germany” to refer to their country, not very often; the Finns called themselves “Suomilainan,” inhabitants of “Suomi,” not “Finns” from “Finland.” Similarly, the Khoikhoi did not call themselves “Hottentot” — that was a Dutch name for them, just as Finn is the outsiders’ name for the people of Suomi, and German is the outsiders’ name for inhabitants of (or from) Deutschland. Hottentot is considered offensive, now, but so are many other words that were once the only words that folks had access to.

I do not know precisely why Matt Zwolinski thinks comparing “cultivated Englishmen” to “Hottentots” is “unfortunately racist,” but I guess it is the “cultivated” part. And this is simply an error. If you think it is racist to acknowledge cultural differences between a modal Englishman and a modal Khoikhoi, or “most Englishmen” compared to “most Hottentots,” then I am not sure what to say further. It is just a category error.

What this seems to indicate, though, is something quite common among the young, these days. It was certainly not unheard of among the old when I was a child — I remember a great aunt of mine speaking this sort of offense-taking nonsense back in the 1960s — but it is especially common now. And it has a geneology:

  1. Racism is bad.
  2. I have been trained to react negatively to anything smacking of racism.
  3. Talk of “race” itself reminds me of racism.
  4. Therefore: this mention of race is itself racist!

This can best be described as the thinking of lazy minds. It happens all the time with “sexism,” too. I have heard people say that rape is sexist. That pornography is sexist. That . . . well, you get the idea. But  just because rape has something to with sex, and is bad, does not mean that it is sexist. Sexism does not encompass all the bad things that relate to sex.

To believe that it does mean this? It is to not really understand how language works. It is to lose track of definitions, and think that any association of ideas that pops into one’s precious little head warrants some drastic identity.

My interpretation of this passage runs like this: Matt Zwolinsky read the comparison between Englishmen and Khoikhoi; it made him uncomfortable; therefore: “unfortunate racism”!

I will not try to make a similar mistake by taking my annoyance with this one error and imputing it to the rest of the essay.

All I am going to do is let it stop me from reading the rest of it tonight. Stay tuned for further discussion of this important subject — and what I hope will prove to be an important essay, regardless of Zwolinski’s infelicitous misattribution of racism to this one statement by William Graham Sumner.




Some Californians want to secede from the union. I have two reactions:

  • Idiots!
  • Hooray!

They are idiots because they want to leave merely because they — a majority being Democrats in the quintessential “Left Coast” state — did not get their way in the last presidential election. This is more than a little wrong-headed. Many American voters never get their way. (I’m one. I never have voted for a winning presidential candidate.) It’s a representative republic, this our union of states, so we have to expect not always to get our way. The secessionist Californians seem to not understand the basics of the system. The spoiled asshat brats.

On the other hand, I think the United States is stuck. A secessionist movement might pry open the trap.

Republicans this last time around decided to “unstick it” by sticking it to the Democrats . . . with the candidate Democrats most hated. Republicans chose Trump because, well, the Democrats had already chosen Hillary, who was the candidate Republicans most hated. One good hate deserves another! Or so the messed-up rationale runs. But, this being the case, or not, I doubt Trump will unstick the country from its prodigal ways of too much spending, too much debt, too high taxes, too much regulation, and too intrusive and hubristic a foreign policy. He will almost certainly exacerbate some of these. His preference for nationalism over federalism bodes ill.

So, another way to unstick the country would be to break it up. And, well, to Californians: good riddance!

But there’s a hitch. Californians are Americans, and many would not want to leave.

And, more importantly, there are parts of California that want to leave . . . California. Before any secession from the federation should be contemplated, the secession of the northern counties to form a new state, Jefferson, should be on the table. I am pretty sure the would-be Jeffersonians want to stay part of the United States.

Paul Jacob, today, argues that the formation of the proposed new state, Jefferson, should be up to those northern counties that have already voted to secede, on a county-by-county basis.

Mr. Jacob also notes that there had been a “split up California” measure on the ballot a few years ago. And I certainly remember it, because I had written on the subject at the time. (Though I cannot find where I wrote about it. Hmmm.) The main point is that California is too big, and has too many people per politician . . . I mean, per representative. The state has the highest constituent/representative (c/r) ratio in the country. By far.

Making of a new state out of the far north California counties would give the new state probably the lowest c/r ratio. But it would have other effects as well.

I note that when the split-into-six measure was on the ballot, Huffington Post whined the most about the wealth/poverty ratios. Of course, the poorest segment, the north, is precisely the one that wants to leave the most. This tells you a lot about the imagination and political biases of the folks at HuffPo. And how divergent they are from actual poor people in the real rural world. Jeffersonians apparently want a state without a strong city.

sixcalifornias_0But take a look at the HuffPo map. Not for the wealth/poverty ratios, but just for the shape of the states then proposed. The great thing about the proposal was that it reflected actual regions, how people live and how they think about where they live. This is regional affinity, and it is something city-folk today tend to dismiss, as their preferred policies run roughshod over rural American preferences.

Perhaps more importantly, the proposal separated the three major cities: San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, each major city getting its own region. That makes sense. Each city is its own economic and cultural powerhouse. Each city has a region that backs it up. While separating regions fits with regional affinity, uniting a city with its natural region is also a good idea.

There are obvious problems with the six-state regional split, and these problems may have been part of the reason the proposal failed at the ballot box. First, six is just too many. Probably two too many, if not three. Second, too much weight was given to Sacramento — it was to become the capital, I guess, of “North California,” but it would dominate that new state in an unhealthy way. Third, the union of the Sierra Nevada and central valley regions seem odd, from either a regional affinity basis or a city/city-region basis.

Arguably, the Sierra Nevada (far east) counties might wish to break off to join Nevada (which is a state with too little private property, too much federal land), or join the new “South California,” or join the eastern counties of “North California” to unite with the new Jefferson State. This should all be decided in a complicated series of plebiscites, with options to choose the new alliances.

As is probably obvious by now, I’m no expert on California culture or political geography. But when I look at the rural regions, I expect to attach a major city to them. The proposed Jefferson does not have a major city. And there is no way that today’s political behemoth of Sacramento would join the norther secessionists. But those counties to the east of Sacramento might very much want to join Jefferson, and, if they did, the Sierra Nevada counties should have the option to join the new state, too. They won’t nab a major city, but they might gain important populations with cultural and regional affinities.

So, from the start, Congress should demand plebiscites in the would-be Jefferson counties, and the southern Oregon counties, too, whether they want to form the proposed new state. If yes, then, move to the next step: one by one, the eastern counties should vote to join Jefferson or not. See how far down the east of California Jefferson would stretch. Each of those counties should also have the option of joining Nevada or some other city region state not allied with San Francisco.

The Central Valley region, I repeat, puzzles me. It seems like it should belong to either the San Francisco or Los Angeles city regions, and therefore part of their respective states.

Separating “North California” from “Silicon Valley” seems nuts to me. But separating “West California” from both the San Francisco and San Diego city regions makes perfect sense. So, it seems to me, after determining the size and shape of Jefferson, then we would need to determine the shapes of South California and West California. The mostly likely states to emerge would be Jefferson, North California, West California, and South California, with the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada regions divvied up among the four.

In my previous writings on this, I think I suggested just three states, Jefferson, North California, and South California. But that lumped in LA with San Diego. That seems unfortunate. But I remember drawing the line east and west for South California pretty easily, geometrically by county borders, that way. That would be inhumanly arbitrary, of course.

In any case, after splitting up the state into three or four pieces — and perhaps allowing some counties to merge with adjacent states) — then each state could be asked about secession. Would West and North California secede? Perhaps. I doubt it. It seems so stupid, and so difficult.

Unless, of course, Americans take the whole thing as a cue: split up the union and form several new unions, with the new unions placing the federal government under receivership.

But, somehow, I don’t think anything that drastic could widely and effectively be contemplated until too late.



The Major Media, Desperate, Will Now Apparently Stoop to Anything in Its Social War Against Outside-the-Beltway Americans


This could be the most important video you will watch this week:

Why would the Wall Street Journal send three journalists to do a hit piece on a popular YouTube comedian, basically tearing out of context his jokes so that he looks (to gullible Journal readers) like an “anti-semite.”

pewdiepieOn the face of it, doing a “scoop” on “PewDiePie” is an absurd bit of overkill. But Sargon of Akkad (Carl Benjamin) explains how this relates to the great issue of our time: the decline of major-media journalism, the rise of decentralized Internet alternatives, and, with it, the rise of populist politics.

One of the reasons I have not freaked out over the election of Donald Trump has been that I have had some inkling of his social and historical function. To excoriate Trump over and over is to side with the establishment and its social war with the majority of Americans. Mainstream media journalism has become worse than a joke. It has become the broad institutional equivalent of a lying tyrant.

The establishment — consisting of the media, the institutions of “higher learning,” and the permanently employed bureaucracies of the federal and state governments (the latter employed with cushier salaries, benefits and pensions than the average American worker) — has effectively marginalized those parts of the population that it has not bought off (with government subsidies), rewarded directly (by feeding them into the academic-bureaucratic and military-industrial complexes), or duped (with propaganda designed to feed self-righteous tribalism).

Thus it has been that a liar was chosen by the marginalized to play tyrant in the overthrowing of the establishment. It is an historical pattern: you ape your enemy to defeat the enemy. (I do not condone this; I merely note this.) And I, for one, will be glad to see the media establishment finally fall. The extent of their pernicious grip on American institutions can hardly be over-stated. The benefit for us could be enormous. The possibility of a freer future may open up.

Certainly, with the major media as hegemon, no real hope for social transformation can come.

The major media outlets are largely (in America, Fox excepting) insider-progressive. And, to unbuild the corporatist tyrannies that Progressivism and its allied movements (socialism, social democracy, Fabianism, fascism) have placed upon the West, the major media must first be put in their place.



Bill Maher’s interview, tonight, with Milo Yiannopoulis was droll. Milo handled himself ably.

In his own way — and perhaps with more canny expertise — Milo (the late @nero) — is doing what Trump is also doing to the regnant ideological noösphere: breaking up the stranglehold that the Left/Center-Right duopoly has had on American (and even world) minds since World War II. As in every other interview I have seen with him in the past few months, he demurs from being identified as a conservative. He identifies as more a “libertarian.” He almost never mentions “conservative” without also mentioning “libertarian,” and he has probably done more to break our dubious culture out of the left-right rut than 40 years of Libertarian Party politicking.

My libertarian friends will probably shudder. “He is not much of a libertarian.” Yeah, sure. He knows nothing of economics. He is a radical only about free speech. He loves “Daddy” … I mean, President Trump.

But he is doing what I had hoped Gary Johnson would do, but failed: show all of America that the Left/Right divide does not exhaust the political options, and that liberty is not merely as American as Jefferson’s Declaration, but that it is a live option, and a way out of a civilizational impasse.

He is a voice, crying in the wilderness. The real leaders have yet to come. His support for Trump is no doubt over-played, for Trump is too much at odds with individualism and the old liberal tradition to do much good, and Trump has the potential to do much harm. Indeed, as I suggest above, Trump is more a fellow prophet than messiah. He is the golden apple thrown into Olympus. Chaos comes next.

Whether a more individualist order will follow is anybody’s guess. But it will never emerge until the ideologues of the duopoly are dethroned. And Milo, perhaps along with Trump, may very well contribute mightily to that cause.

Meanwhile, Bill Maher remains an ass. I had to stop watching soon after the panel started yammering. Lots of accusations about the Flynn Scandal, no evidence seemed likely to emerge. Fake news.

Very fake news.

N. B. As the title indicates, I did not watch the later panel play with Milo. From what I saw later, it did not look so good for the “dangerous faggot.” But I have only seen moments and read progressive reactions. One question: does the first person in an argument to say “fuck you” or “go fuck yourself” win or lose? (twv 2/19/2017)

The term “neo-liberal” is the left’s favorite term to conflate actually-existing globalism, limited-government conservatism and libertarianism. There is a reason why libertarians, especially, hate the term. And, often, despise leftists for using it.
The term “cultural Marxist” I heard first from people trying to explain the left’s strange obsession with inclusion/exclusion issues and group identity politics. It is, I guess, a term of art on the right. I tend not to use it, but hey, I understand its utility. Modish, post-modern social justice ideas do trickle down from their ancestral origin, in Marx, regarding class interest and exploitation . . . and the idea that oppression must be understood in those precise terms.stevehorwitz
Users of the term cultural Marxism, so far as I have witnessed, do not normally conflate SJWers and feminists and intersectionalists with liberals and statists of the center-left variety. I, at least, rarely hear it so used, except when used in haste, and when the cultural acquiescence to the SJWers by the center-left is at issue. But perhaps I am living in a bubble.
Why bring this up?
Because Prof. Steve Horwitz, an economist I follow on Facebook, wrote the following:

The progressive bubble on college campuses that makes it so hard for so many students to pass an Ideological Turing Test leads them to name-call and question the good faith of libertarians and conservatives. Those students simply have no idea what a serious, thoughtful defense of conservative or libertarian ideas looks like.
But their bubble is mirrored on the right by the retreat into the right-wing media echo chamber which causes many conservatives, and too many libertarians, to be unable to pass an Ideological Turing Test themselves. They too end up name-calling and questioning the good faith of progressives, and they have little idea what a serious, thoughtful defense of progressive ideas looks like.
We end up with people shouting meaningless terms like “neo-liberal” and “cultural Marxist” at each other rather than actually talking, while they assert that they are on the moral high ground and the others are “snowflakes,” and everyone remains blissfully ignorant of the socially destructive bubbles they inhabit.

Horwitz had me until the last paragraph, at which point I rebelled. Neo-liberal is definitely not meaningless. It started life as a way to acknowledge the filiation of ideas of modern limited-government thought. Leftists, in recognizing it, acknowledge that liberalism used to be individualist — that in itself is something of an achievement (there are a lot of “liberals” and “progressives” out there who still refuse to accept the facts of their inheritance). The fact that it now encompasses almost the whole of any possible capitalist order indicates the extent to which its users hate the central institutions of capitalism: private property and markets, and the rule of law that sustains both.
And hey: cultural Marxist is not meaningless, either. The parentage of much of modern feminism and anti-racism and the whole intersectionalist project does indeed hail from a bowdlerized Marxism. It is not economic Marxism, which is fine, since that is a brain-dead philosophy anyway. It is “cultural” in that it emphasizes culture and “systemic” social influences, all the while denying whole perspectives on biology (and is thoroughly anti-science on many levels) and economic law.
So, these two terms may be problematic in some usages, or all, they are not mere terms of opprobrium. And to call them meaningless is to misconstrue major ideological ideas in our time.
Why would Horwitz suggest that they are meaningless?
Perhaps because he is playing a popular game that many libertarians play: the left and right are equally bad. And equally good.
Designate me dubious.
Where and how they err and differ depends on the subject.
And, frankly, the “right,” insofar as conservatives tend to uphold ancient, traditional conceptions of justice, is far, far less dangerous than the “left,” which holds to ideas of revolutionary justice, what Thomas Sowell calls “cosmic justice.” And my readings of John Rawls and the Frankfurt School confirm this notion down the line.
Like Horwitz, I do not easily fit into either camp. Perhaps like Horwitz, I can pass ideological Turing tests pretty well. I know what makes both left and right tick. And tic. And talk.
For the record, I categorize my social philosophy, following Herbert Spencer and F. A. Hayek, as “evolutionary justice,” which takes from traditional conceptions huge hunks of doctrine and major hints, but then applies philosophy and social science to them, to better understand their limitations.
I readily admit, this idea was revolutionary when advanced by John Locke, and the American Revolution, and in Spencer, Gustave de Molinari and others who carried on the tradition. But it was not anything like the revolution proposed by socialists.
The left has openly flirted (and often embraced) their concepts as a revolt against nature itself. My kind of revolutionists did not have the left’s utopian view of human potential, or the leftist’s “malleablist” (tabula rasa + social engineering) view of social causation. It was on the left that truly revolutionary — cosmic in scope — notions of justice took hold.
Today, things have come to a head. Contemporaries call each other names because now they recognize, as never before, how diametrically opposed their views are. Sure, they put themselves in bubbles for the reasons people have put themselves in bubbles throughout history. But the Internet has let us all gain intimate contact with our opponents’ very ids, and each side rears back in revulsion.
This is not a result of bubble-think. It is the result of more information and personal knowledge than ever before.
And I suspect Prof. Horwitz does not see it because he is firmly em-bubbled in the Academy, which houses many a . . . “snowflake.”
And let us come to terms with that as well. “Snowflake” is not a term used equally by both sides. It was used against the Social Justice Warriors by . . . everyone else. The far left’s whining and freak-outs over ideas showed a truly remarkable touchiness that most folks outside the left, not coddled by the deep class notions of oppression, and promiscuous standards to define oppression, are outside of their experience.
Horwitz’s apparent idea, here (if he is not simply engaging in an etiquette fiction) — that the left and right is equally as bad — strikes me as implausible. The left is more firmly in love with government, far more committed to government growth, and has a lock on several major cultural institutions all of which push increasing the size and scope of government.
They are the ones to fear most of all. For those very reasons. Government must be limited in order to be possessed.
I am somewhat surprised that a libertarian might think otherwise.
Now you see: that’s the bubble I live in, thinking that libertarians have it all figured out. When formulated as “all libertarians have it all figured out”? Obviously untrue.



Perhaps true cosmic justice would be this: each person forced to live with the consequences of his or her* ideology.

The only way to do this would be to form separate countries/states with different political and economic systems.covervoyage2arcturus

It is worth noting that my ideology would be fine with concurrent, interpenetrating populations with neighbors belonging to different “governments.” You could live in a tightly constructed socialist state, or whatever else you want; I could live with the services brought to me by Moe’s Police, Larry’s Judiciary, and Curly’s Military. But the point of most other ideologies? Force the given ideology upon everyone, the unwilling to be brought to “justice.” Read the rest of this entry »

“No Peaceful Transition,” promised the protest/riots organizers’ Web page, earlier this evening. The page later ditched the motto.

Since the 1960s we have been living a myth: protests that disrupt public traffic and private ingress/egress are “non-violent” and heroic. But the myth is merely a self-serving story, a crucial lie, that those on the left tell themselves and everybody else, thereby taking license to lord it over others.

We now witness the moral depravity that is at the heart of the notion.

Protesting something is staying on the sidelines and making your views known. Rioting is a mob abridging others’ rights. Most unlicensed protests turn riot because they are riot in ovo.

The mob is now a tyrant, and the worm, as they say, may soon turn — the worm, here, being the masses of truly peaceful people, who may now at last see the tyranny at the heart of the self-righteous mob.

The culture war may be going bloody this week. Someone was shot at a Milo protest in Seattl. We will see how far the violence goes.

“No peaceful transition” indeed.

Mr. Sotomayor has a dim view of the rioters:

The Young Turks seem to accept the nonsense from the folks dressed mostly in black:

But here is video without commentary:

Thomas Sowell retired from writing his syndicated column a few weeks ago. And so the tributes have been coming in. As they should.

img_1961I note that Paul Jacob at, and Gene Epstein on the Tom Woods Show, both have praised Sowell for his astute and well-explained economics popularizing while expressing their chagrin that Sowell never seemed to apply the same “thinking beyond Stage One” approach to foreign policy.

This was a point I made in one of my earliest published reviews, of Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions, to be found in the premiere issue of Liberty, way back in 1987. (Which you can read on this site, now — O, lucky you!)

So, if we are all pretty much saying the same thing, what can I say differently?

Well, I could mention my favorite Sowell book, his first: Say’s Law: An Historical Analysis. This is probably his most difficult book, in no small part because Say’s Law is itself a surprisingly difficult concept. It has been years since my last reading — and I have read it at least three times, even now wishing to return to it, give it another go.

I first read the book in tandem with W. H. Hutt’s quirky A Rehabilitation of Say’s Law. Each book helped me understand the other.

One of the really tricky things about Says Law is that it is a macro theory; but many authors found its chief resonance on the micro level. Indeed, though Say’s Law was first marshaled to debunk one theory of economic depression, the general glut theory, W. F. Lloyd, in his classic essay on value, tied that macro problem very closely to what became the theory of marginal utility, the micro theory par excellence. And Say’s Law according to Say’s disciplines — the Third School, or Catallactic economists — turned into a theory of “harmonies,” not equilibrium. It was another macro approach based on a micro insight that in turn was used against not merely general glut theories, but also protectionism and socialism. Sowell, if I remember correctly, does not extend his analysis into the third school, except insofar as he deals with Walras’s Identity.

As an economic popularizer and as an economic historian, particular of race and cultures, Sowell was magnificent. Yes. But as a social philosopher he was perhaps even better. More necessary.

There is a caveat to this judgment, however. Jacob and Epstein and Woods all discussed their favorite Sowell contributions. I have done the same, with his recondite Say’s Law survey. But let me offer a balance: his worst book, something neither Epstein nor Jacob bother with.

I nominate Marxism: Philosophy and Economics (1985). This book is easier to read than Say’s Law, my favorite, and it probably packs more punch . . . at least in terms of surprise value. But one of the big surprises is a huge whopper of an error. It is an error, of all things, about value.

Sowell asserts, in Marxism, that Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk was wrong on Marx’s labor theory of value.

When I read this, I had not only read Böhm’s classic “Zum Abschluss des Marxschen Systems,” translated under the provocative-if-puzzling title Karl Marx and the Close of His System (first English language edition, Alice MacDonald, 1898), but also two other important books related to the subject: Destutt de Tracy’s A Treatise on Political Economy (Thomas Jefferson, 1817) and a crucial chapter in Karl Marx’s infamous Das Kapital (1867).

You might be wondering: what the heck — what’s with the Tracy? Well, Tracy makes much of the Condillac thesis of both parties to an exchange gaining value in the transaction. So when I read Marx’s obscurantist dismissal of that thesis, wherein the old socialist crank mocks Condillac and Tracy’s mutual gain thesis, I was prepared for Sowell’s disagreement with Böhm.

The key Marxian error, in my opinion, is that repudiation of mutual gain through trade. It was there that Marx necessarily went off track, not seeing how value is increased as goods flow through the market nexus. The marginalist view of value is intricately entangled with the mutual gain concept, and by rejecting mutual surplus of value in each trade, Marx took his most decisive turn the wrong way. Adam Smith and David Ricardo and the British economists had sent economics down the wrong path in 1776, and Marx took their labor theory of value to its absurdist conclusion. Sowell basically apologizes for Marx. He insists, without much evidence (and with the evidene right there in Das Kapital, on the pages citing Condillac and Tracy), that Marx’s formalistic definition of value as (somehow) incorporating socially necessary labor time was indeed compatible with marginalism. This thesis seems not in the tiniest degree defensible.

A few years later (if memory serves), David Ramsay Steele cleared all this up in his magnificent book on the socialist calculation problem, From Marx to Mises (1992), speculating that Sowell was merely regurgitating the views of his Marxist-apologist professors in the days before his conversion.

In any case, Sowell has, since his conversion from Marxism under the influence chiefly (I think) of Milton Friedman, remailed too closely tied to the British Classical School. He seems uninterested in, perhaps dismissive of the Third School tradition starting with Condillac and moving through Tracy, Comte and Dunoyer, Bastiat, Perry, Henry Dunning Macleod, and Gustave de Molinari. (Half of these economists are French or Belgian or Swiss, so the tradition is often called the French Liberal School. But that is too narrow a reading of this dissident, proto-marginalist tradition.) The later Third Schoolers ran off-track, too, in not accepting the important proof of the basic idea in the marginalist advances of W. S. Jevons, Carl Menger, and Leon Walras. While Menger did not go on at length about what he owed to the Third School economists, Jevons sure did, while heaping scorn upon the Ricardians. And Walras, it is worth noting, was himself the son of a Third School economist, Auguste.

This lack of interest in these economists seems especially strange to me, since Sowell has repeatedly dipped into the rhetorical well so ably primed by Third Schoolers Frédéric Bastiat and Yves Guyot. (See my forewords to Bastiat’s and Guyot’s classics, available on Amazon/Kindle and iBooks.)

But it has been a long time since I read Sowell’s Marxism. Perhaps my memory is fuzzy. And my view of the Marxian surplus value and exploitation theories needs refreshing. So, after just now re-reading my three decades’ old review of A Conflict of Visions, I won’t direct my attentionimg_1963 to The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulaton as a Basis for Social Policy (1995), which I had been planning to do. I will go back and re-read Böhm-Bawerk’s take-down of Marx, instead.

So perhaps I will follow up this post with a corrective, soon. I should not be this fuzzy on something so basic as “surplus value.”


img_0056The defining features of capitalism are

  • the widespread acceptance and defense of private property;
  • mostly free labor (no chattel slavery);
  • established markets in both consumer goods and producer goods (including sophisticated financial markets); and
  • the use of mass production through the division of labor primarily for consumption by the masses themselves.

Key features necessary for the onset of capitalism include

  • the accumulation of capital through savings (“abstinence” from consumption, as Nassau Senior put it);
  • respect for (or cultural valorization of) work and trade;
  • tolerance of natural inequality, a general culture deprecating envy;
  • a willingness (even eagerness) to form voluntary associations for mutual and general benefit;
  • a widespread-enough sense of justice to undergird the division of responsibility; and
  • a culture that encourages and expects its members to take charge of their lives at fairly young ages, to control sexual appetite, regulate population growth through something like marriage and family, and foster education and the cultivation of human capital.

Some or all of these factors must begin outside of a capitalist context, which evolves and, in some cases at least, presumably reinforces the bulk of them by self-subsumption.

In our real-world experience of capitalism, for instance, some of the necessary limitations on the scope and power of governments arose for a variety of reasons; religion played a key role in the early development of education and the habit of voluntary co-operation, as well as the enforcement of sexual practices that allowed some stability in families.

It is crucial in such discussions to distinguish two antagonistic poles of government policy towards capitalism, neatly expressed in the French terms “laissez faire” and “dirigisme.”

Many people mean by “capitalism” the former policy — and there is some reason for that. However, a word of caution: mercantilism (Adam Smith’s term for the variant of dirigisme popular in his day) was almost universally present as industrial capitalism took off in the 18th century. Laissez faire was an alternate policy approach advocated chiefly by intellectuals based on extrapolations they made from observing how trade works, and what the complete consequences of mercantilist policy were. The laissez faire economists ably demonstrated that mercantilist practice did not intellectually back up social outcomes of the policy.

Though some of the first advocates of laissez faire’s hands-off policy argued for it in terms of its “natural” quality, it is worth noting that laissez faire is a policy designed to limit the natural activity of state control of economic life. It is a rule-of-law policy to curb “corruption” and inefficient-to-the-public rent-seeking and zero-sum wealth transfers. It is not a description of our system, or any previous governmental policy, as such.

Modern capitalism has mostly evolved in the context of sovereign states, which have practiced, to varying degrees, protectionism, wage and price controls, a myriad forms of taxation, goofily partisan operations of industry and “security,” vast wealth transfers, plunder and confiscation, corvée labor, monetary manipulation and credit control, and occupational licensing, not to mention the historical defining features of the State, conquest and war.

It is obvious that “capitalism” covers a lot of ground, and also that there is a lot of “ruin in a nation” (h/t Adam Smith) ruled by states of whatever kind.

To repeat: laissez faire (“let them act”; “let-alone,” as a later economist translated it) might best be seen as a system of controls (limits) upon government. It is in an important sense a regulatory regime, only the target of regulation is largely government itself, which is seen as dangerous beyond a certain level and scope. (The regulation of the minutia of economic life is left to individuals and groups vying with each other to serve each other’s values. The order exhibited by markets, especially left free, is a sort of cybernetic, emergent property of decentralized decision-making. Adam Smith offered a powerful and influential metaphor to explain this tendency to order: “the invisible hand.” Frédéric Bastiat referred to this observable phenomenon as “economic harmonies.” Economists of a more theoretical bent have tried to capture some of the ideas, here, in various notions of “equilibrium.”) Even a cursory glance at history shows us that these controls on government have, historically, tempted fewer folks than those enamored of controls by government.

For a variety of reasons, most people “naturally” tend to prefer over laissez faire more arbitrary and malleable systems — systems that allow for mass coercion, intricate political hierarchy and the constant game of positioning to gain at the expense of everybody else. Via force.

This is to say that “dirigisme” (political control of markets and private property) wins most policy battles, and sometimes extremist versions of it, such as socialism, make huge (if temporary) gains.

The current system in America, along with most places elsewhere, is dirigisme. Such systems entail an interventionist state that usually receives the appellation “welfare state,” since the common justification for its vast wealth transfers is human betterment, or “welfare.” But its characteristic policies are probably best described as “mercantilism with a socialist face.” The policies are very old, a revival of ancient, closed-society practice. The difference of today’s mercantilism from that of the 18th century lies mainly in that the group interests appealed to tend to be radically different. Which groups that are actually served, on net, are arguably very different.

The open secret of modern society is this: the representative political systems governing the regulatory and redistributive programs of modern states tends to be captured by what used to be called “the monied interests” is under-appreciated by dirigisme’s most enthusiastic public supporters, who, instead, blame “the free market” (a non-existent creature nowadays) for our apparent plutocratic structures.

Also not appreciated? The sheer unwieldy volume of transfers both outright and hidden (regulations), which scuttle any realistic accounting of who wins and loses by the system.

It is not for nothing that political philosopher Anthony de Jasay offers an alterternate name for the modern welfare state: “the churning state.” As Jasay sees it, there is a constant churning of policies — with each turn of the crank creating new advantages and disadvantages. This constant shuffling yields a kind of chaos, a feature prophesied in the 18th century by C-F Volney, who identified the nature of such systems as examples of “an intestine war.”

The modern state incorporates the all-against-all warfare of the theorized “state of nature” into the fabric of government policy, the better to bind participants to the state.

To advocates of laissez faire, the whole edifice of modern ideology and politics looks like nothing other than a long con.

Meanwhile, the system does not fall into utter chaos because of the resilience and productivity of the markets — the freedoms — that are allowed. It is obvious that our modern churning states have survived for decades, though their sustainability over a long run (which we may be approaching an end to) is certainly questionable.

Unquestionable is the extent to which these policies have altered human culture and moral perspectives. The changes in this latter have been vast . . . some good, some bad.

The dream of laissez faire still remains a mirage-like goal, on the whole.


The first half of The Liberal Tradition in American Thought (G. P. Putnam Sons, 1969), an anthology “selected and edited” by Walter E. Volkomer, is a fine testament to the robust nature of classical liberalism in its heyday in America, up until the Civil War. The second half of the volume is something completely different, a series of progressive and populist perspectives obviously and utterly at variance with the liberal ideas of the rule of law and limited government limned before.

The switch is astounding in its suddenness and extremity.

It marks an about-face.

img_1904That the anthologist and his readers could call the first half liberal while bequeathing the same name to the very different second half, is instructive. No wonder the anthologist admits, up front, that “liberalism has been identified with different ideas during different periods of American history.” No kidding.

The first five chapters begin with Roger Williams on religious freedom and end with Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The clear theme is liberty.

The second section of eleven chapters is titled “Anti-Federalism and Jeffersonian Democracy,” and begins with Richard Henry Lee criticizing the proposed Constitution (approved in 1787) and ends with John Taylor of Caroline’s defense of state’s rights. Between these pieces, most of the selections are from Thomas Jefferson.

Taylor’s piece is worth extensive consideration. “I renounce the idea sometimes advanced,” explains Taylor, “that the state governments ever were or continue to be, sovereign or unlimited. If the people are sovereign, their governments cannot also be sovereign.” Obviously, as an advocate of “states’ rights,” Taylor was not an absolutist. First things first, first persons first: citizens before government.

“A government of laws and not of men, is a definition of liberty; a government of men and not of laws, of despotism.” Taylor’s basic argument is that a union of states cannot make one federal branch of government supreme over all others. As a union, each branch of the federal government and each state against the federal government, must have equal power to resist an unconstitutional encroachment by some other state or branch. Citing the oath explicitly worded in the Constitution, Taylor argues that “The mutuality of the oath, by imposing a common duty, implies a common right; because the duty cannot be discharged, except by the right of construction.” This is basically a balance-of-powers notion, expressed in terms of rights and duties, adding in the states to the mix of Legislative, Executive and Judiciary branches of the federal government itself.

No one of these can hold the last word, an over-riding sovereignty, since no state had that to begin with. The states could not and did not confer power and authority that they never had.

This is, at heart, the essence of the liberal idea: it is the individual that matters most; government can only serve and defend rights, not push people around as if all the right focused in government.

The third section deals with Jacksonian democracy. No Locofoco texts. Alas. The fourth focuses on “Freedom and the Union,” with anti-slavery argumentation by William Lloyd Garrison and an excerpt from Henry David Thoreau’s near-anarchist extension of John Taylor’s individual sovereignty idea. The rest of the section hails from the pen of Abraham Lincoln, writing against slavery and the Dred Scott decision, and for his own party, the Republican Party, “The Party of the Man.” This latter is a fascinating exploration of ideological inversions. It is also mostly incoherent.

The section concludes with Lincoln’s first inaugural address, a fine specimen of nationalism, and a complete repudiation of John Taylor’s approach to the Constitution. “Plainly, the central idea of secession,” Lincoln intoned, “is the essence of anarchy.” The quotations from the Constitution itself are of the vague clauses, and no serious consideration of the federation idea is anywhere in evidence.

The next section is entitled “The Protest Against Social Darwinism,” and excerpts, first, sociologist Lester Frank Ward, who though influential in the long run, was not popular in his day; second, from a speech by Edward Bellamy, the author of the wildly popular utopian science fiction novel Looking Backward, featuring vague talk of brutality and the horrors of “survival of the fittest” while making a pitch for the nationalization of industry; and finally the preamble and declaration of principles of the reform-minded Populist Party.

Our anthologist justifies these inclusions by identifying as “conservative” the character of “Social Darwinism, with it individualistic, competitive, and laissez-faire corollaries,” which “reigned as dominant” in the post-war period.

So, why is this “social Darwinism” conservative? Ostensibly, because it is “business-oriented.”

The silliness of this, considering that laissez-faire was not the traditional policy of American industrialists; the inanity of this, since William Graham Sumner, one of the briefly mentioned Social Darwinists, considered himself (and was considered by others) a liberal. Worse yet, no mention of how similar Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics (1851) was to Henry David Thoreau’s previously essayed liberalism. And Spencer was the very acme of the Social Darwinist mode of the time.

The anthologist relates how Ward refused to . . . Well, let’s quote our guide in full:

Ward accepted the basic evolutionary doctrines of Herbert Spencer, but he refused to apply them to man’s mental processes. His reform Darwinism distinguished between the wasteful, directionless competition of the animal world and man’s mental capacity for controlling his environment.

The fact that Spencer dealt with all these issues in detail gets no mention — indeed, Volkomer does not quote Spencer at all, much less acknowledge that Spencer was a known liberal, pretty much identical to the Thoreau of the excerpted “Civil Disobedience” (Spencer’s chapter “The Right to Ignore the State” is as Thoreauvian as Thoreau could be said to be Spencerian), and that his liberalism included a hearty anti-imperialist and individual liberationist bent. Characteristically, Ward did not consider Spencer’s actual arguments. At least, not in the excerpt from The Psychic Factors of Civilization, which contains the great marching order, “The individual has reigned long enough. The day has come for society to take its affairs into its own hands and shape its own destinies.”
This is technocratic socialism, not liberalism. That is, this is all very “progressive,” since the idea of limits on power goes out the window in the mad rush for “reform.”

And it is worth recalling that today’s lefty “liberals” — mostly now on the same page with the revived term “progressive” — follow Ward in rejecting biological explanations of the human mind and personality. Anti-science; anti-mind.

The rest of the book carries on in much the same vein. There is scant liberty in the liberalism of the second half of the book.

Which echoes what happened to the word “liberal” itself: it got shanghaied by statist reformers who gave their crackpot reform some cachet by glomming on to the old term.

Why? How? Largely, from what I can tell, because “liberal” was what we would now call “cool,” and was associated with smart people, magnanimous people. The progressives desperately needed cultural cachet, since they sought to revolutionize society along technocratic lines. And by cultural appropriation, they made liberalism into a watered-down socialism.

We’ve been living with the consequences ever since.

This old anthology is worth heading to your local atavism, the public library, and perusing. There is much grist, here, to aid in understanding what 1960s “liberals” thought about the word they used to define their hubristic plans to remake society.

The introduction by the anthologist is probably worth the trip, alone. It is a wondrous farrago of contradiction and nincompoopery, the sheer audacity of hope over reason.