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Political and Economic Fallacies: A Tribute to Sir Roger Scruton

Political and Economic Fallacies: A Tribute to Sir Roger Scruton

Adam Smith’s invisible hand, Frederic Bastiat’s essay “What Is Seen and What Is Unseen,” Michael Polanyi’s Tacit Dimension, Friedrich Hayek’s “spontaneous order,” and the Christian doctrines of subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty – these are ideas we ignore at our peril. We may not understand exactly how they work, but, as Shakespeare put it in another context in Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The English Church’s Book of Common Prayer states that “in the midst of life we are in death.” A political corollary might be stated thus: In the midst of liberty we are in servitude, even despotism. In the midst of prosperity, we see the breakdown of many of the basic social structures that supported the growth of prosperity in the first place. In their place has arisen social maladies that hamstring initiative and foster addiction, political rancor, human trafficking, excessive regulation and dependency. They threaten the very liberties that the West has too long taken for granted.

In his 1859 lecture at Columbia College, “The Teacher of Politics,” Francis Lieber anticipated the spread of centralized political dictation – what he called in another essay “Gallican Liberty” – both in Europe and America. Even at that time, he could discern its contours, as did his friend and correspondent, Alexis de Tocqueville. 

I believe that the family of nations to which we belong has arrived at a period in its political development in which the only choice lies between institutional and firmly-established liberty, whether this be monarchical or republican as to the apex of the government on the one hand; and on the other hand, intermittent revolution and despotism, or shifting anarchy and compression. . . . 

Lieber’s theory of institutional liberty, which predates Leo XIII’s subsidiarity and Abraham Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty, attributes the rise of modern civil liberties and civil society to the development of an increasingly integrated complex of interdependent, self-governing institutions, much like Althusius’s symbiosis.

Expanding institutional liberty alone is now conservative. There has been a conflict between freedom and despotism during the whole history of our race; but never before, it seems to me, have liberty, with all its fervor, and absolutism, with all its imposing power of sepulchral sculpture, stood directly opposite to one another so boldly, and perhaps so grandly, as at present. The advance of knowledge and intelligence gives to despotism a brilliancy, and the necessity of peace for exchange and industry gives it a facility to establish itself which it never possessed before.

Lieber here notes the “edifice complex” of so many tyrants down through the ages in despotisms that Lewis Mumford called a “megamachine” and Fyodor Dostoevsky likened to an anthill. 

Absolutism in our age is daringly draping itself in the mantle of liberty, both in Europe and here. What we suffer in this respect is in many cases the after-pain of Rousseauism, which itself was nothing but democratic absolutism. There is, in our times, a hankering after absolutism; and a widespread, almost fanatical idolatry of success, a worship of will, whose prostrate devotees forget that will is an intensifier and multiplier of our dispositions, whatever they are applied to, most glorious or most abhorrent, as the case may be, and that will, without the shackles of conscience or the reins of a pure purpose, is almost sure of what contemporaries call success. It is so easy to succeed without principle! It seems to me that those grave words in the solemn conclusion of De Tocqueville’s Old Régime have a far wider application at this time than the author gave to them. He says there that his countrymen are “more prone to worship chance, force, success, éclat, noise, than real glory; endowed with more heroism than virtue, more genius than common sense; better adapted for the conception of grand designs than the accomplishment of great enterprises.” 

At work in his adopted home Lieber identified certain public attitudes to which these “gusts of passion” might in part be attributed. The accustomed flattery of the people bred in the general public something of a sovereign disdain for the candor of truth, regarded as irksome if not disloyal. Today, by contrast, it is a disdain for the people themselves that sets the political classes apart from and often in opposition as they pursue various projects of remaking society. Common to both periods, however, is the poor reputation of politicians and the tendency of a “depressed public mind” to draw back from the political battlefields. 

While thus political elements are jostling and preparing us for a greater struggle, it appears that in our times men are more bent than formerly on taking refuge in mere political formulas.

But wherever the people, fatigued by contest or disorder, go to sleep on a mere political formula, there political life and health and – may I call it so? – civil productiveness rapidly decline and approach extinction, at the same time that those who still choose to act are arrayed against each other in all the bitterness which dogmatic formulas are apt to engender or to express.

Fair and frank discussion has thus become emasculated, and the people submit to dictation. There is a wide class of topics of high importance which cannot be taken in hand even by the most upright thinker without its being suspected that he is in the service of one party or section of the country and hostile to the other. 

Another great contemporary of Tocqueville and Lieber, whom Lieber helped introduce to the American public, was Frederic Bastiat. He understood the importance and power of what Paul Valéry later called “vague things.” Bastiat emphasized the importance of considering both “What Is Seen and What Is Unseen.” In Economics in One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt summarized Bastiat’s lesson very simply: “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”

In his famous essay The Law, Bastiat summarized how the law could be used to undermine itself. 

As long as it is admitted that the law may be diverted from its true purpose – that it may violate property instead of protecting it – then everyone will want to participate in making the law, either to protect himself against plunder or to use it for plunder. Political questions will always be prejudicial, dominant, and all-absorbing. There will be fighting at the door of the Legislative Palace, and the struggle within will be no less furious. To know this, it is hardly necessary to examine what transpires in the French and English legislatures; merely to understand the issue is to know the answer. 

So far, Bastiat has illustrated what Lieber saw as the politicization of everything that threatened America in the years before leading up to the Civil War. Both men regarded the greatest danger coming from slavery (a violation, by law, of liberty) and protective tariffs (a violation, by law, of property). What must also be considered, however, is the breach of faith or trust – another “vague thing” – that such violations entail. 

Can the law – which necessarily requires the use of force – rationally be used for anything except protecting the rights of everyone? I defy anyone to extend it beyond this purpose without perverting it and, consequently, turning might against right. This is the most fatal and most illogical social perversion that can possibly be imagined. It must be admitted that the true solution – so long searched for in the area of social relationships – is contained in these simple words: Law is organized justice.

Now this must be said: When justice is organized by law – that is, by force – this excludes the idea of using law (force) to organize any human activity whatever, whether it be labor, charity, agriculture, commerce, industry, education, art, or religion. The organizing by law of any one of these would inevitably destroy the essential organization – justice. For truly, how can we imagine force being used against the liberty of citizens without it also being used against justice, and thus acting against its proper purpose? 

As T. Robert Ingram noted, law is the power to kill. It is not voluntary and is not optional. Thus, Bastiat could say with conviction that “the proper functions of the law cannot lawfully extend beyond the proper functions of force.” When these strictures are violated, we drift into loose, boundary-less, and ultimately tyrannical conceits like those that Michael Polanyi called moral inversion, Kenneth Minogue called political moralism, and Thomas Sowell called the vision of the anointed. 

Sometimes the law defends plunder and participates in it. Thus, the beneficiaries are spared the shame, danger, and scruple which their acts would otherwise involve. Sometimes the law places the whole apparatus of judges, police, prisons, and gendarmes at the service of the plunderers, and treats the victim — when he defends himself — as a criminal. In short, there is a legal plunder. . . . 

Bastiat wrote extensively on Economic Sophisms. One of Lieber’s less known publications was “Fallacies of American Protectionists.” Unfortunately, we have gotten away from applying the basic rules of logic to economics as well as politics. Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom should have inspired a series of appreciative imitators and it did, for a time, at least. Reader’s Digest published a fine synopsis of the book. Indeed, America’s conservative intellectual awakening in the 1950s emerged out of the confluence of three intellectual sources: classical liberalism, Burkean traditionalism, and anti-Communism. But this movement failed to take root in the groves of academe, the media and entertainment, the professions, and, more recently, among the high-tech industries.


Sir Roger Scruton (27 Feb. 1944 - 12 Jan. 2020) 

One who embodied all three strands of Anglo-American conservatism in his own thinking was the late Sir Roger Scruton. Although he chose Aesthetics as his philosophical home base, his interests were as varied and comprehensive as only a very few people have achieved. As described by Jessica Douglas-Home in Once Upon Another Time, Scruton organized clandestine seminars behind the Iron Curtain to help keep the spark of liberty alive. Let us hope that his readers continue this work wherever it is needed.

Among other things, Scruton took up Ludwig von Mises’s and Hayek’s critique of what he called “the planning fallacy.” As a testament in his memory, it is appropriate to reflect on these words from The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope (2010). 

The fallacy has been effectively exploded in the sphere of economics by Mises, Hayek and other members of the Austrian school, and it is worth rehearsing their arguments before moving on to their wider application. These arguments began with the ‘calculation debate’, initiated by Mises and Hayek in response to socialist proposals for a centrally planned economy. The Austrian response to these proposals turns on three crucial ideas. First, each person’s economic activity depends upon knowledge of other people’s wants, needs and resources. Secondly, this knowledge is dispersed throughout society and is not the property of any individual. Thirdly, in the free exchange of goods and services, the price mechanism provides access to this knowledge – not as a theoretical statement, but as a signal to action. Prices in a free economy offer the solution to countless simultaneous equations mapping individual demand against available supply. When prices are fixed by a central authority, however, they no longer provide an index either of the scarcity of a resource or of the extent of others’ demand for it. The crucial piece of economic knowledge, which exists in the free economy as a common possession, has been destroyed. Hence when prices are fixed the economy either breaks down, with queues, gluts and shortages replacing the spontaneous order of distribution, or is replaced by a black economy [black market] in which things exchange at their real price – the price that people are prepared to pay for them. This result has been abundantly confirmed by the experience of socialist economies; however, the argument given in support of it is not empirical but a priori. It is based on broad philosophical conceptions concerning socially generated and socially dispersed information. It is, in effect, a defence of the reasonableness of a first-person plural, against the mere ‘rationality’ of the collective ‘I’ [cf. Rousseau’s general will] – a defence conducted in other terms by Burke on behalf of tradition against the ‘reason’ of the French Revolutionaries, and by Michael Oakeshott on behalf of civil association against the ‘enterprise association’ governed by plans and goals. 

The argument in favor of a spontaneous order is analytic rather than empirical, although we may also know it by its fruits. The argument against collectivism, however, is a matter of empirical observation, not only its failures of distribution but also the obtrusive mechanisms and methods of control required to sustain it. The regime it creates and the attitudes it inspires exhibit the spirit of what Scruton calls “the culture of repudiation.” It is a repudiation of the norms of our civilization and an invitation to rely on more authoritarian solutions to our political problems. The tendency of any bureaucratic regime is to seize control over the margins of its operation in order to redress the imbalances and distortions its interventions create in the first place! By undermining the self-governing virtues and creating dependency, it must multiply its dictates. 

The important point is that the price of a commodity conveys reliable economic information only if the economy is free. It is only in conditions of free exchange that the budgets of individual consumers feed into the epistemic [knowledge] process, as one might call it, which distills in the form of price the collective solution to their shared economic problem—the problem of knowing what to produce and what to exchange for it. All attempts to interfere with this process, by controlling either the supply or the price of a product, will lead to a loss of economic knowledge. For that knowledge is not contained in a plan, but only in the economic activity of free agents, as they produce, market and exchange their goods according to the laws of supply and demand. The planned economy, which offers a rational distribution in place of the ‘random’ distribution of the market, disrupts the information on which the proper functioning of an economy depends. It therefore undermines its own knowledge base. The project presents itself as rational; but it is not rational at all, since it depends on knowledge that is available only in conditions that it destroys. 

In Where We Are: The State of Britain Now (2017), Roger Scruton updated a distinction Lieber earlier made in his essay “Anglican Liberty and Gallican Liberty” (1849). Quoting his earlier book, England: An Elegy (2001), he distinguished between what is “reasonable” and what is “rational” in a very abstract and alien way. 

The French revolutionaries believed that by changing weights and measures, calendars and festivals, street-names and landmarks, they could more effectively undermine the old and local attachments of the French people, so as to conscript them behind their international purpose. The survival of the old weights and measures in England testified to the underlying principle of English society, that society should be governed not from above but from within, by custom, tradition and compromise, and by a habit of reasonableness of which the single most important enemy is Reason. 

Scruton, like Lieber before him, here clearly echoes Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and, perhaps, Aesop in “The Fable of the Wind and the Sun”: 

On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom, as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern, which each individual may find in them, from his own private speculations, or can spare to them from his own private interest. . . .

On the principles of this mechanic philosophy, our institutions can never be embodied, if I may use the expression, in persons; so as to create in us love, veneration, admiration, or attachment. But that sort of reason which banishes the affections is incapable of filling their place. These public affections, combined with manners, are required sometimes as supplements, sometimes as correctives, always as aids to law. 

And like Burke before him, Scruton the philosopher used the discipline of Aesthetics as a springboard for writing penetrating analyses of culture, politics, and human nature. 

Our society has advanced in an easy-going and sometimes shambolic manner, emerging from practical agreements and individual choices. Order is the unintended by-product of compromises and courtroom disputes. It conforms to no plan but only to the constraints implied in our fluctuating agreements, including out agreement to reject those who have plans for us. The idea of order instilled in the European treaties is of quite another kind. It is imposed from above, and passed down to civil society by a system of inescapable regulations, administered by a bureaucracy that is accountable to no one beneath it, but only to those from whom it is recruited, who have never paid the price of their mistakes. 

So here we get to the nub of the great political question of our times. It is the premise upon which the political elites have staked their future: Global Governance vs. National Sovereignty, the title and subject of a 2012 conference in Los Angeles. It is the question of whether we choose to be governed by a great Idea – Reason or Identity or Progress – within some grand scheme, such as global governance, or whether we choose, like Tolkien’s Galadriel, to remain ourselves as people and members of interactive communities. 

Reclaiming our national sovereignty means reclaiming the culture of accountability. And to think that this will jeopardize our economic performance, our trade relations or our ability to negotiate a place in the world is to fail to see what British freedom has really meant to us. It is precisely through the exercise of accountability that we go most easily forwards, in economic relations as much as in ties of friendship and good will. To re-establish the principle of accountability once again at the centre of political life is to take the first step to overcoming the widespread sense of alienation from government, and placing the people – both the rooted and the mobile – where they need to be, at the centre of all the decisions that affect them. 

A critical understanding of the fallacies and plunders of a regime of administrative fiat demands recourse to the laboratory of historical experience. Our civilization is founded upon experience. It is a social contract that binds the generations to each other, as Burke put it, and echoes all of those vague things with which we began: Adam Smith’s invisible hand, Frederic Bastiat’s essay “What Is Seen and What Is Unseen,” Michael Polanyi’s Tacit Dimension, Friedrich Hayek’s “spontaneous order,” and the Christian doctrines of subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty. They merit our attention because they resonate with the nature and destiny of man.



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