Archives for category: Ideological currents
You can find Dr. Comegna on Twitter as @DrLocoFoco

Anthony Comegna joins host Timothy Virkkala to explore the meaning of LocoFoco-ism.

This is the history America’s historians shun as if it were the … coronavirus.

The issues from the 1830s and 1840s:

  • anti-monopoly
  • anti-central bank
  • abolitionism
  • anti-censorship
  • extending the franchise
  • general pro-freedom

Walt Whitman was a LocoFoco, and much admired its intellectual leader, William Leggett.

They were a radical bunch, and they took the liberty idea to some logical and sweeping conclusions. Their transit through America’s ideological landscape was astounding, and they changed minds. Whose?

William Lloyd Garrison’s, for one. His “no union with slaveholders” notion came from Leggett!

President Martin Van Buren — the true father of the Democratic Party — put LocoFoco positions into policy, and a number of LocoFocos into his administration.

But these LocoFocos came to learn something, and learn it hard: their love of democracy brought them face to face with an unlovely truth, that democracy corrupts its practitioners, and leads to slavery, war, and special privileges. As well as to themselves, the “equal rights” republicans.

Libertarians still struggle with these issues.

Maybe the way to really confront them is to do what most historians will not: learn from the history of actual libertarianism, in its first full flowering.

And, after catching this episode, you will also understand why our logo is a match:

LocoFoco Netcast #6 on YouTube

Or go to iTunes, Spotify, or (perhaps) some other podcatcher to listen to the podcast hosted at LocoFoco.net:

LocoFoco Netcast #6, LocoFoco.net.
William Leggett

A satirical article by the Genius Times begins in this manner:

POLL: Most people unimpressed with their 30-day free trial of Communism

A poll conducted by the Pew Pew Institute shows that a majority of Americans are unimpressed with their 30-day free trial of Communism.
“It kinda sucks,” 19-year-old San Diegan Britta Fowler said of the trial. “I was expecting all this free stuff, which I guess we’re getting, but I also didn’t expect empty store shelves and house arrest for everyone. It’s really lame!”
The trial was imposed involuntarily by governments across the country in response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Yesterday I called the current economic system of the United States “State Bailout Capitalism.” But I also called it “Pseudo-Stimulus Socialism.” That latter term is only half-right, since socialism, surely, would be a system in where capitalism’s profit-and-loss mechanism has been replaced by socializing both the gains and the losses of human coöperation. Under State Bailout Capitalism, the socialism part is the protection from loss. Profits still can be reaped, only now it is a protected class that reaps them — existing businesses targeted for bailout, and those with early access to loosened credit, have had some of the burdens of business risk removed from them by the federal government. So, we are not all gaining from protection of loss — unless you call the $1200 or $1400 personal subsidy for most taxpayers just such a protection — and we are not all sharing in profits, which is what socialists want.

So, how fair a joke is this “30-day Free Trial of Communism” mockery?

Isn’t it a bit unfair?

Sure. But there is enough of Trump’s beloved “fairness” to justify the jest.

First off, capitalism has mostly been shut down. (On my podcast I called the coronavirus quarantine the worst hit to capitalism since communism.) So, socialists and communists hate capitalism, and a communist state does indeed shut down most businesses. So, that’s fair.

Second, the communist “experiments” of modern times have all produced poverty, and could not provide consumer goods like capitalism has. So, by the rules of comedy, taking an effect identical to communism’s is as fair as comedy gets.

Third, it was indeed “involuntary,” which is the whole point of making socialist and communist ideas political, rather than a voluntary community idea. Basically, utopian socialist experiments tend to work out pretty badly. But most people want them to work out better. So, why don’t they work? Well, socialists think it is the fact that everyone isn’t forced to go along. So focusing on the involuntary nature of communism and identifying that as a feature of the coronavirus quarantine is also fair.

Interestingly, the common identification of a lack of universality as the source of the failure of utopian socialism was not a universal conclusion of 19th century utopians. One utopian experimenter, Josiah Warren, fingered a different culprit, and invented the American form of anarchism in the process.

So, if you ask me, anyone who yearns for a radical alternative to our world of woe and seeks to force socialism down others’ throats is double suspect: not only has that ideologue jumped to a conclusion, he has jumped to a conclusion that proved dangerous after at least one person thought his way out of the utopian experiments’ trap.

“Yeah, they’re giving us money but what good is that if you can’t spend it on anything you want?” Fowler asked.

Here we get to the profundity of this satirical piece. With this one question we get to the heart of the beginning of economic theory, especially per David Hume:

Hume realized that money is not wealth. You can have all the money in the world, but, if there are no goods to purchase for it, money doesn’t do any good.

And if you think this is a trivial matter, you are wrong. But you would be in good company:

“Poverty is not a character failing or a lack of motivation. Poverty is a shortage of money.” 

—Barbara Ehrenreich

Ms. Ehrenreich no doubt thought she was being at once clever and expounding upon a principle of common sense. She was neither. Poverty is what humans have when they do not have enough resources to survive and thrive. But resources aren’t money. And resources without labor aren’t wealth. We produce wealth by transforming resources. And this is done, chiefly, in coöperation with others, through a division of labor. In a capitalist society this is done by trade. That’s where I offer something of mine — say, my labor, a resource of my time and attention and effort — in exchange for something I want more than that time and attention and effort. People rise out of poverty by creating wealth by offering something within themselves — often, just a potential activity — that they have more than a potential trading partner has. It is not money that is key here, it is mutual advantage. But there is no mutual advantage if you have nothing to offer. Why is there poverty? Because too many people have nothing much to offer, or are unwilling to make the trouble to develop something to offer.

Money just makes the trading easier, getting around the barter stricture of the coincidence of wants.

That Ehrenreich, a mostly witless leftist, does not see that is no surprise. Which is why we make fun of leftism’s most extreme isms: socialism and communism. And that one line makes this particular bit of satire so good.

The rest of the satire goes in different directions. I enjoyed those directions. But it is this first segment that needs explaining to some people.

Though this later paragraph is pretty funny:

“Everything went well but only a few Karens across the country are really enjoying it.” Lennon added. “They really revel in telling people to ‘stay the f**k home!’” 

Shut the fuck up, Karens. No reasonable person likes snitches and bullies.

It is not “stimulus” to give money to businesses that are not allowed to operate. So either the two-plus trillion-buck stimulus bill targets those enterprises that are actually allowed to operate, or the bill actually serves as a compensation package for those business that have been suppressed, prohibited. (“Non-essential” ones, you know.) Ah, policy in the plague year!

And the idea that Congress must “save” the airlines is ridiculous. There is very little air traffic right now. Had they been allowed to go into bankruptcy — barring loans or stock takeovers — some other businesses would buy the planes and fly them in better times. Boo hoo about current ownership.
Without loss, the profit-and-loss system is null and void. It becomes a profit-and-subsidy system. It is “bipartisan socialism,” if you will, where all risk has been socialized by the federal government, but where profit is allowed as a political favor.

Laughing (I am) at those who say they want to “get money out of politics” in that regime. No one can be that naive.

Politics in such a regime — state bailout capitalism, we could call it — is ALL ABOUT MONEY. It is Alexander Hamilton’s dream system, where the corruption is built into the fabric of government.

Neither party’s ideological supporters can defend this. Woke social democracy cannot defend this, and the Republicans’ family-centered nationalism has nothing to do with this, intrinsically. Bailouts are something else again, and its support is quite mercenary.

So the open question is: was it forced upon Trump, by circumstance, or was this his end-game?

Why do some rich guys think polygamy is their preserve?

as answered on Quora

There is a major difference in the sexual “economies” and “strategies” of males and females throughout the animal kingdom. Each species has “figured” out its way to handle the differences. Human beings have come up with a number of distinct patterns. Polygny is one of them. For reasons of basic biology, it is a much more natural a fit than polyandry — which nevertheless has occasionally occurred.

Men produce an overabundance of sperm to fertilize women’s small number of eggs. This is a radically unequal investment in genetic heritage. A man can sire hundreds, even thousands — technically millions — of babies; a woman, at best a handful. If a woman wanted to increase her genetic inheritance, having many “sperm donors” would be of little help. It is more rational — and, over the life of our species, this is how it tends to work out — to invest in a man or two to feed and protect her and her children. A man seeking to increase his progeny can collect more wives — or mate with many women he invests in not at all.

So, those men who want to increase their standing in the world — who want to flex their wills to power by siring many multiples of children — increase their numbers of wives.

Men tend to think in a “polygamous” fashion more than women because of that basic inequality: abundant sperm vs. scarce eggs.

There is nothing very mysterious about this.

The major wrinkle, in our time, is that to a remarkable degree the costs of child-rearing have been socialized. Women need not marry to raise children. “The village” raises the child, through subsidies such as public schools, public school breakfasts and lunches, SNAP, Section Eight housing, Medicaid, and much more. This and widespread use of contraception, abortion, and even infanticide allows women to ape typically male-desired promiscuity patterns — having many sexual partners — without inordinate discomfort, though it is worth noting that many of the professional feminists who push for these measures tend to be married and sport fairly stable marriages, merely using their ideology to export aped male sexual styles onto poor women, often to their ruin.* It is a weird and I think rather sick bit of moral gamesmanship, but most folks disagree.

And it is worth noting that women, as a class, are net tax consumers, and men, as a class, are net taxpayers, and this merely mimics the one-on-one marriage system of old, where men went out into the world to secure resources that women spent on setting up house and raising children. And to that extent polygamy has been socialized, with a mass of make taxpayers supporting a mass of female state aid recipients. Sociologist Herbert Spencer, linked above, had an old-fashioned term for the dominant sexual style of today, “promiscuity,” which he defined as “indefinite polyandry joined with indefinite polygyny.” Marriage is a more “definite” social institution, in his terminology, while today’s tax-based child-rearing system is far less definite, since much of the responsibility for raising children has been shifted from actual parents and guardians onto taxpayers, the courts, bureaucracies, and government functionaries.

It is a cruel joke upon both sexes, if you ask me, but no one asked me — the question was why men with great resources think that polygamy is their prerogative, in effect asking why rich men favor polygyny more than rich women favor polyandry. The answer should be obvious: cheap sperm vs. scarce eggs, coupled with the opportunity costs associated with rearing children, both of which have gone into the (observed) sexual division of labor of our species.

The subject is almost boring in its simplicity and explanatory power. What is interesting is how things change (and do not change) when the costs of raising children get socialized. Which is why I brought it up. Even if no one asked me.


* The puzzle of what I call the WWWWs — “The Woke White Women of the West” — in their bizarre, moralistic anti-white racism runs parallel to their defense of socialized child-rearing even while they themselves tend to adhere to the older, individualistic structure for their children, is fascinating. My guess is that their cult of Woman Power forces them into their strange cognitive dissonances, but my extended, high-octane speculations on this matter must be dealt with elsewhere.

We suffer from a partisan bug. 

“An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released Sunday found that just over half of Americans are worried that a family member may catch the virus that causes COVID-19,” Fox News informs us, “and that six in 10 say the worst is yet to come regarding the pandemic.” But there is a huge difference whether you are a Republican or Democrat: “Sixty-eight percent of Democrats said they were concerned that a family member could contract the virus,” Fox News goes on. “But that number dropped to 40 percent among Republicans. Nearly eight in 10 Democrats felt the worst was yet to come in coping with the pandemic. That number dropped in half to 40 percent among Republicans.”

So why? 

Just to get Trump?

Not likely. The poll, we are informed, was taken mostly before Trump’s big viral speech.

What’s going on?

Let me speculate.

According to Jonathan Haidt and Jordan Peterson, those on the left are much more “open to new experiences” than are those on the right, while conservatives tend to be far more conscientious than liberals.

Being “open” suggests activities likely to spread contagion, so those who lean left are also more open to contagion, while more cautious and indeed suspicious conservatives would be less likely to catch bad stuff. Additionally, conservative defensiveness and readiness to defend the in-group — which is said to be a hallmark of “the right” — breeds a constant readiness, which, when crisis comes, means conservatives would be less likely to panic. 

Not so those on the left. After their incaution comes the panic. And the spontaneous lust for a Messiah — their favorite pagan savior, the State.

The trick is to find some balance. We must be open, but we must also be cautious and ready to defend self and in-group from aggression and . . . contagion.

But we cannot expect a lot of balance during a crisis.

Which suggests we should work on the balance in better times.

The third episode of my new podcast will go up on Monday. Until then, here is a preview:

For over three years, Dennis Pratt has been working full time answering questions on Quora — about libertarianism. This is a preview on my personal channel of what will appear on my official podcast channels on YouTube and SoundCloud.

Disease. Despair. Distraction.

That about sums up the reasons why it took me so long to publish my own podcast. I’ve been sick this winter; not everything is hunky dory in Virkkalavia, and I am not emotionally unaffected; and I’ve been reading and working and even watching stuff on the big screen.

But I’ve postponed podcasting too long. So last night I didn’t go to sleep. Instead, I published two podcast episodes in the form of video on YouTube and audio on SoundCloud.

It’s called the “LocoFoco Netcast.” Why? Well, I’ve been referencing my politics to those of the 19th century LocoFocos for a long, long time. And why “Netcast” instead of “podcast”? Well, the way to get to the audio on SoundCloud is to put the simple URL locofoco.net into your browser. Bang. You’re there. Calling it “Netcast” reminds listeners that it can be found at LocoFoco.net.

The first episode starts with me going solo, but clipping a segment from MSNBC and another from Stefan Molyneux. That’s not very long, but I make a point that is not made elsewhere, from what I can tell. Call it a plea for “lateral thinking,” though I did not use the term in my short talk. That is, in the podcast. The rest of the episode is long conversation between James Littleton Gill and me about economist Tyler Cowen’s “State Capacity Libertarianism.” Check it out:

LocoFoco Netcast #1

What’s with the title? Well, if you are curious, you know where to click.

The second episode consists entirely of an interview with the great writer David Ramsay Steele. Lee C. Waaks takes command of the interview, here, though Mr. Steele doesn’t need much prompting or managing. He is excellent as always. Our conversation is about fascism and its meaning, history, and lingering influence — that is, the subject of the lead essay of his new book:

LocoFoco Netcast #2

As much work as I put into these videos, I think I prefer the audio versions that you can find on SoundCloud. Please click in and listen — and subscribe, and comment. On SoundCloud you can place your comments at precise points in the audio presentations, which is really an attractive feature, if you ask me.

Find the SoundCloud account by going to locofoco.net.

By the end of the week the podcasts should be available upon multiple podcast distributors, such as iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play. I will keep readers posted.

Me in my living room, in front of a new acquisition: an old Apple eMac!

Do socialism and communism go hand to hand in relation?

as answered on Quora….

Defining political terms is itself a political act. So people are always redefining labels, to gain some advantage. This should not be hard to understand: a bootlicker prefers to be known as a Footwear Moisturizing Professional, but after the word “moist” has garnered an unpleasant connotation, another term will emerge — Fine Leather Sanforizer, perhaps.

This process has happened to these and related words. My favorite discussion of this can be found in Yves Guyot’s Socialistic Fallacies:

Socialists who range themselves under Karl Marx say: Plato, Campanella, More, Morelly, Owen, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Cabet, Considérant, and Louis Blanc, forsooth! Why tell us of all these socialists, utopians, dreamers, and more or less enlightened makers of literature, all so far removed from all reality? Neither Owen nor Pierre Leroux were worthy to invent the word “socialism.” As for Proudhon, who said, “Every man is a socialist who concerns himself with social reform,” he proved that despite his pretension, he belonged to those socialists of the clubs, the salons, and the vestries who indulged in elegiac, declamatory, and sentimental socialism in and about 1848.

Proudhon was nothing but a “petit bourgeois,” as Karl Marx said. There is but one true socialism, the socialism of Germany, whose formula was propounded by Karl Marx and Engels in the Communistic Manifesto of 1848.

They chose “communism” because the word “socialism” had been too much discredited at the time, but they subsequently resumed it, for the logical conclusion of all socialism is communism. The word “collectivism,” says Paul Lafargue, was only invented in order to spare the susceptibilities of some of the more timorous. It is synonymous with the word “communism.” Every socialistic program, be it the program of St. Mandé, published in 1896 by Mr. Millerand, which lays down that “collectivism is the secretion of the capitalist régime,” or that of the Havre Congress, drawn up by Karl Marx, and carried on the motion of Jules Guesde, concludes with “the political and economic expropriation of the capitalist class and the return to collective ownership of all the means of production.

Guyot was writing at the end of the 19th century (in 1894’s The Tyranny of Socialism) and at the beginning of the 20th (1910’s Socialistic Fallacies and 1914’s Where and Why Public Ownership Has Failed), before the Bolsheviks failed with War Communism, Lenin struggled to reintroduce markets into socialism with the New Economic Policy, and before Stalin cooked up his Five Year Plans — and Oskar Lange invented the pathetic “market socialism.” All that the earlier French politician and economist had before him was a long history of utopian reactions against markets and private property and some ominous increases in government power at the behest of self-proclaimed socialists, communists, anarchists (!) and other confused reformers and revolutionaries.

Note the general tenor of the quoted passage: yes, the terms socialism, communism, and collectivism had been used as synonyms as well as refined terms of art and rhetoric during the early heyday of red* agitation; but it was also the case that Communism was generally used as the most extreme version of the doctrines — the complete eradication of the private ownership of the means of production — and most people saw the trend of all this thought as towards the extreme. “The logical conclusion of all socialism is communism.”

The reasons for this extremist trend line to total State ownership are several, but I think it can be seen in basic orientation: what distinguishes all these groups from other ideologies is their hatred for private property, free markets, capital and interest, and even money. For people who nurture this hatred, the answer just “has” to be in these institutions’ opposites: public property, controlled markets, and the abolition of money and finance.

But why would they be driven so far to the extreme? Most people who have a distaste for these ‘capitalistic’ institutions don’t spend all their time and attenton on eradication. They have lives, jobs to do, families to feed. But the intellectual classes, they tend to have easier jobs, even sinecures — if jobs at all — are less likely to have families, and pride themselves on their political opinions. So they can take the ideas furthest.

There is something else at work, of course: halfway measures and piecemeal interventions never work as advertised, ending up causing more problems. But people who have given themselves over to the anti-capitalist memeplex cannot concede that their ideas are bad. So they always blame failures on not going far enough. Whatever ill becomes of a mixed economy program, the market and freedom side of the mix must always be judged the culprit.

So, the general trend among those who oppose capitalism is all the way to totalitarian statism.

Thankfully, most people who lean away from liberal capitalism do have lives, so the inertia of everyday life presents a check. But students and professors, often unbounded from normal social reality, can easily become unhinged from everyday reality, and eagerly take on the role of chief drivers of revolution.


* “Left” and “right” were not terms of political art in those days. A color scheme was in vogue: Whites were for republican capitalism, Reds for socialism and communism and revolution, and the Black Flag was flown by anarchists. In the late 20th century, Tim Russert, a Democrat television commentator, confused everything by affixing Blue to the Democratic Party and Red to the Republican Party in America, presumably to wash out from collective memory the older association of Red with “the left” and Pink with the communist sympathizers in the Democratic Party. Nowadays, Democrats are associating themselves openly with socialism, and I think the Pink should be brought back into usage.

Of the “welfare/warfare state,” are libertarians more against welfare or warfare?

as answered on Quora….

One of the droll developments of 20th century statism was a mere name change: a decade before I was born, the “War Department” became the “Department of Defense.” Wikipedia marks the moment in its article on the subject:

The War Department existed from August 7, 1789 until September 18, 1947, when it split into the Department of the Army and the Department of the Air Force and joined the Department of the Navy as part of the new joint National Military Establishment (NME), renamed the United States Department of Defense in 1949.

What’s droll is from that time on, the U.S. military became less about defense and more about warfare — that is, after World War II, defense of the physical integrity and sovereignty of these United States ceased being the main occupation of the “Joint Military Establishment,” and became, instead, “defending” other nation-states’ borders and political integrity. This muddied up, conceptually, the whole idea of defense, and it gave birth to the bizarre but politic necessity of engaging in unwinnable wars.

Arguably, a “warfare state” is a state devoted to warfare but not defense.

Most libertarians I know despise this aspect of the modern nation-state (former federal union) of “America,” though quite a few “libertarian conservatives” are still onboard with the implausible-to-me rationales of U.S. world policeman status. I guess those folks, whom I consider chumps, think that defending “good guys” around the world would justify “The Department of Defense” moniker.

Now, “welfare” is a somewhat different matter. Whereas the problem with a warfare state is chiefly (in minarchist theory, anyway) in the continual under-application of Just War Theory, and the reckless disregard for human life in situations where intervention in squabbles abroad cannot conceivably lead to just conclusions, with “the welfare state” the most obvious problem is the funding of the emprise.

That is, giving things to people is not an obviously immoral act — it is often considered generous and charitable — while taking sides in conflicts in which no good outcome is likely, or where no side’s cause is uncompromisingly just, and in the process killing hundreds, thousands, even millions of innocent people, that is obviously very, very wrong.

So, on the grounds of the Obvious, most libertarians tend to judge the warfare state more evil and intolerable than the welfare state.

But libertarians are not committed to mere superficial analyses of the Obvious.

While it used to be my rap that, of all the subsidies given by the federal government, aid to the poor should be the last to be curtailed. Now, I suspect the opposite is true.

On a superficial transactional analysis, the chief problem of the “welfare state” is on the funding side — it is wrong to expropriate from the many or the few for the immediate benefit of the few or the many — looking deeper into social causation suggests to me that the moral horrors of state aid are at least on par with the moral horrors of war. For what “welfare” does is create greedy voting blocs who tend to become decreasingly fit to live productive lives, and, further, provide innocent shields for the busybody/authoritarian mentality. The very existence and persistence of “the poor” who “deserve to be helped” by conscript wealth is an eternal excuse to erode any dignity to productivity and any integrity to property rights.

“Welfare” creates serviles. And “welfare” creates excuses only for ever-more “welfare” — which means more taxes and more greed masquerading as generosity.

Sadly, the welfare state now creates an excuse for some people (most obviously in the Democratic Party) to outright expressions of hatred of the people who pay the bills. When I hear “the rich” or “the top 1 percent” what I understand is “Jew, Jew, Jew!” The ugliness of Nazi hatred in its anti-semitic expression is now a standard motif of one of the two major political parties. These people don’t even give honor to those who pay the bulk of the taxes in this country. They express only rage and envy.

I do not see any good outcome to these people gaining power in a big way.

So, for the good of the poor and the good of the socialists’ very souls, it may be that it is time to renew our intellectual and moral attacks upon the “welfare state.”

On our side we have an obvious point: “welfare” is not what state aid promotes. “Welfare” is propaganda. What is done is redistribution. It is taking from some and giving to others. And its practice encourages a Tragedy of the Commons, for it is not just the poor who try to get special benefits from the tax base — there is also “welfare for the rich” and “welfare for the ‘middle class.’” Once we allow some to be expropriated for the benefits of others, then everyone tries to horn in on the act. To gain some net advantage — or at least not get too far behind.

Do I oppose the welfare state more than the warfare state? Well, the killings of our governments are in foreign lands and I do not see them. Out of sight, out of mind. While that is its own kind of horror, what I do see, every day, is the corruption of the political process, the nurturing of a free-for-all attitude, a race to the pig trough, and the increasing dependence of many, many people who could lead productive lives, if state aid were even a little less easy to obtain.

So, these days, I suspect that the “welfare state” is at least as — if not more than — insidious as the “warfare state” is.

And I think they may be linked in an interesting way. We can see the linkage in the old Guns vs. Butter argument, which became a working strategy between Republican President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill: Reagan got his military spending increases while O’Neill got his welfare state spending increases — there were almost no real cuts, just a few nips of the rate of growth. And the two parties continue this dance. To this very day. And I get this idea that one reason the bulk of leftist and on-the-dole Americans is just fine with the country’s never-ending warfare is that, well, “other people pay” and “at least we are getting our goodies.” It is the basic deal of our polity.

It is corrupt.

Both prongs need simultaneous push-back. And not just for the good of brown people overseas (though it would be good for them) but also for all of the dependents at home, of all colors. To start with, the federal government — at the very least — should get out of the subsidy game, leaving that job to the several states (who, lacking a monetary/banking back-up, will have to pinch pennies much more, and thus be far more discriminating in distributing aid) while also getting out of the World Policeman role.

To do this, the problems with both activities — subsidy and worldwide security theater — must be aired, and in some detail.

Until people understand the harm that food stamps and Medicaid and all the rest actually do, as well as the more obvious horrors of fighting wars with no intention or even possibility of victory, we will be stuck with the sheer insanity of American governance as it has been for the last six or more decades.

twv

Foreword to the LFB edition of David Hume, Of the Original Contract
(rel. 3/3/2016)
. This ebook edition is, as of mid-February 2020, still available on Apple’s ebook platform: search for “Timothy Wirkman Virkkala” + Hume + “Of the Original Contract.”

Society runs, to some extent, on myths. 

The word “myth” derives from the Latin word mythus, which itself derived from a Greek word, muthos. It usually refers to origin stories, especially those traditional legends that help shore up a people’s beliefs about their place in the world. Because other folks’ origin stories strike us as fanciful nonsense, a secondary meaning grew up: “a widely held but false belief.” A word of caution here, though: because something serves as a myth, or even appears fantastic, does not mean it is untrue. There can exist, as theologian C. S. Lewis argued, “true myths.”

When it comes to politics, all these usages are relevant. There are myths and there are myths. We are united by the stories we share; we are divided by stories some dismiss as whoppers while others hold sacrosanct. And here is where careful thought must begin; as philosopher Karl Popper put it, “science must begin with myths, and with the criticism of myths.”

David Hume (1711-1776) was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist who may be seen as one of the first of the great myth-busters. In his writings on politics, Hume confronted myths head on, testing them on several levels of analysis. No better example of this can be found than in the present essay, “Of the Original Contract,” originally published in 1748.

In his day, two factions dominated politics, Tory and Whig. In the previous century, a monarch had been deposed and then, after an experiment without the monarchy (including a time without a legislature), the monarchy was restored. In an earlier essay on Britain’s political parties, Hume characterized both parties as demonstrating a love of liberty, adding that the Tories loved the monarchy even more than liberty, and that they tended (as before the Revolution of 1688) to emphasize the general principle of passive obedience to the monarch. Whigs, on the other hand, “without renouncing monarchy,” would be more “apt to think that every part of the government ought to be subordinate to the interests of liberty.” 

And yet Hume recognized that distinctions between the two, between “the parties of court and country,” were muddied by other factors. No conceptual scheme could be neat and tidy. We are familiar with such problems today, especially those that complicate the persistent one-dimensional directional metaphor of political ideology common since the French Revolution, between “right” and “left.”

Both parties had their myths, both of which Hume regarded as somewhat awkward and ill built. 

By attributing government to God, Tories tended to render government “so sacred and inviolate, that it must be little less than sacrilege, however tyrannical it may become, to touch or invade it, in the smallest article.” The Whigs, on the other hand, saw government as founded upon a social contract, from which they drew the conclusion that “the subjects have tacitly reserved the power of resisting their sovereign, whenever they find themselves aggrieved by that authority, with which they have, for certain purposes, voluntarily entrusted him.”

For Hume, both systems possessed merit, but not the merit each attributed to itself. Further, he argues that both parties demonstrated prudent practical consequences — but not at their extremes.

Thus David Hume positions himself as a political moderate.

He spends little time on the Tory myths, however. He notes, simply, that the workings of God to establish government must be seen as providential, behind-the-scenes in some way — “not by any particular or miraculous interposition” — and that, therefore, no sovereign could claim anything like a vice-regency, as God’s stand-in. Unfortunately, Hume does not stop there, and the several sentences that follow are themselves worthy of the kind of attention he reserves, in the rest of the essay, for the Whig theory of the social contract. (Most likely, Hume’s secret status as an apostate led him to refrain from extended public analysis of the workings of a Being whose existence he himself doubted.)

Hume initially addresses the Whig idea of government as resting upon the consent of the governed — an idea stated with classic clarity in the previous century by British philosopher John Locke — with a sort of cautious acceptance. Locke had taken Hobbes’s notion of life of man “in a state of nature” and upgraded it. Whereas Hobbes saw life without government as necessarily one of conflict, and, therefore, as “nasty, brutish, and short,” Locke, with some claim to realism, saw pre-political social life as more or less harmonious and co-operative, but subject to certain “inconveniences” that led to the establishment of government. Hume, in turn, went part way in Locke’s direction. He even begins with a kind of state-of-nature theory, imagining a pre-institutional setting for humanity, judging man’s “natural force” — power of muscle and brain — as nearly equal, meaning that any subordination of many to a few as requiring consent.

But he doesn’t let this analysis go on for long without qualification. Hume does not see the consent of a people to a chieftain, for example, as explicit. Instead, it is a kind of accommodation: with small instances of acceptance of superiority giving rise, gradually, to a “habitual, and, if you please to call it so, a voluntary, and therefore precarious, acquiescence in the people.”

We now know, from investigation into our animal cousins in wolf packs and ape troops, that the establishment of hierarchies in the simplest societies is often a matter of contest, the play of aggression and counter-aggression. The acquiescence of females (on the one hand) and beta and gamma males (on the other) to the dominant, alpha male does not nearly so closely resemble explicit contracts, and is not anywhere near so civilized as admitted even by Hume.

This amendment to Hume’s analysis only strengthens his main point. There is scant evidence, he argues, for any government to be founded by contract: “we find, every where, princes, who claim their subjects as their property, and assert their independent right of sovereignty, from conquest or succession.”

Not only is there no evidence for a historical “social contract,” original and binding on everyone, but the bulk of humanity seems to accept government as binding even though aggression is at the basis of governments they encounter, and grow up in.

So, why do the many acquiesce to the dominance of the few, particularly those in government? Elsewhere, Hume established this as the basic puzzle: “Nothing appears more surprizing to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few.” Since there are always many more subjects than rulers, he reasoned that it must be opinion — not force — that effects this great accommodation that allows for dominance by the few. Popular opinion. In the present essay he identifies, but does not concisely name, a driving factor of opinion: fear. Hume argues that the specter of “a total dissolution of government” is the most terrible of all events, and that people prefer the dominance of the few to the liberty of the multitude.

The observation is undoubtedly correct. People tend not to trust each other very far, absent some force to restrain their rapacity. This likely derives not merely from observation of others, but also from history and rumor and fiction, as well as from introspection — not all of it reliable — about fantasies of dominance and criminality and bloodlust and revenge. It is easy to abstract from one’s own darkest thoughts and impute them to others. And it is not entirely irrational.

Yet the possibility that human beings can co-operate without aggression is not lost on Hume. He admits that contracts are ideal. He even admits that contract is “one just foundation of government.” But there are other foundations, which have pertained more often than not.

All through Hume’s essay there exists an interesting tension, one that the reader may be cued by other writings of the author to notice: between fact and value. The value of a government somehow confined to contract — to defending a society based on contracts, criminalizing and opposing duress and aggression and fraud — is not lost on our skeptical Scotsman. But the history of government loomed over all else, for him, as a matter of fact. There could be no doubt: governments traditionally have been agents of aggression and counter-aggression — duress that in a court of law would spoil the authority of any defendable contract by private parties. 

We can accept this as a fact — and all the particular facts that Hume parades before us. But he may have missed something. The social function of the myth of the original contract may have been mainly to elicit attention to perfecting government in the direction of contracts, of restraining rapacity in government, of tying it down to justice seen as requiring contract and not domination through coercion. Could it be that it is not as a fact that we should approach the idea of an “original contract”?

Hume himself most ably articulated the distinction between fact and value— that is, between is and ought — in his Treatise of Human Nature

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

In this famous passage, Hume cautioned that, by not attending to this distinction, philosophers get caught up in “vulgar” errors. The literature on this observation — which has been dubbed “Hume’s Guillotine” (clever) and “Hume’s Law” (yawn) — has become vast. Philosophers have designated the rhetorical move from is to ought as “the Naturalistic fallacy,” for example.

Another way of looking at “Of the Original Contract” is to consider another offshoot of Hume’s Law, the “Moralistic fallacy.” For too many people, ought influences their notions of is. Things “should” be this way or that, and so they pretend that they are that way or this, the better to bolster their prejudices. One can commonly observe this, today, in the intersection of political morality and biology. For instance, it is a characteristic dogma of our age that people “are equal,” in some very literal sense, not the very narrow and artful sense that Whigs in Hume’s day meant. So our contemporaries, believing that people should be “treated as equals” or “possess equal wealth,” can often be witnessed resisting scientific findings about the inherent genetic differences among not only individuals and groups. (We, today, are perhaps over-sensitive about matters relating to “race” and ethnic groupings, because these groupings have had so much to do with conflict in the past.) Thus they let their moral ideas utterly rule their appraisal of the facts. We may call this the Ought-Is Hegemony, but “Moralistic fallacy” does nicely.

The Moralistic fallacy could be at play in the notion of a historic social contract. Its theorists have valued contracts highly. The peace and co-operation demonstrated by a society made mostly of contracts? More than merely charming. Our contractual dealings have an order and friendliness and mutuality about them that our political and legal dealings do not. The accumulation of mutual advantages through such exchanges seems the very source of progress.  

But that provides no valid reason to pretend that, once upon a time, government was founded on contract, and therefore can be re-made because of the obligations of that contract. That is a fallacy.

Hume was right. 

But, as mentioned, his more general conclusion is almost certainly too rash. The Whig notion of a social contract may be fictional, but that does not mean that the values for which radical Whigs concocted to bolster their story could not be valid.

Hume’s prophecy, at the end of his essay, has certainly been shown to be unfounded: “New discoveries are not to be expected in these matters.” Explorations of the possibility of voluntary contracts to subsume even government have not only yielded new discoveries, they’ve engendered whole new disciplines, such as constitutional economics (a part of Public Choice theory). There may be even more than mere interest, but hope, in further work in this area. 

Regardless, Hume’s influence on later liberal (“Whig”) thought can be seen in the fact that most of the leading liberal thinkers in the centuries immediately following Hume’s critique abandoned the notion he attacked. For Henry David Thoreau, Herbert Spencer, and Gustave de Molinari — to name just three — a progress in chaining the institutions we think of as “political government” to exacting, duress-free contracts provides the key to civilization’s advance. 

That the world’s governments have not yet discovered this may be seen as tragic or as comic. Readers of Hume’s essay will likely guess, as I do, that Hume would have seen this stunted progress as in keeping with the usual course of history, government authority resting, as it has so far, on popular acceptance of coercion, aggression, and hierarchical power.

Timothy Wirkman Virkkala*
January 2016

BIOGRAPHY: David Hume (1711-1776) was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist whose influence on modern thought has been vast. He wrote a popular multi-volume history of England, but is best known, today, for his philosophic work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739) and two inquiries, one on morals (1751) and the other on human understanding (1748). Several of his short treatises on economics have been republished by Laissez Faire Books, with forewords by Pierre Lemieux and Timothy Wirkman Virkkala.