The political is personal

Working on my Economics in Two Lessons book, I’ve had to address the concept of Pareto optimality, which naturally raises the question of how it fits into Pareto’s larger body of anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian thought, which culminated, at the end of his life, in his embrace of Mussolini’s fascism. This led me to an article (paywalled, sorry) published by Renato Cirillo, in 1983, defending Pareto against the charge of being a precursor of fascism. Cirillo asserts that, far from being a fascist, Pareto

“manifested consistently a strong attachment to a type of liberalism not dissimilar to the one later attributed to Mises and Hayek”

These are rather unfortunate examples, in view Mises writings in praise of fascism and work for the Dollfuss regime, and (even more), Hayek’s embrace of Pinochet, at the very time Cirillo was writing [^1].

This, along with my discovery that Locke was actively involved in the expropriation of the native American population, justified by his theory of property, led me (back) to the question of the relationship between the writings of political theorists (broadly defined to include economists, sociologists and philosophers engaged with these issues) and their personal political activity and commitments. I’ve come to two conclusions about this.

First, for serious writers on political theory, political engagement is and ought to be the rule rather than the exception. I don’t mean that philosophers should (necessarily) run for office. Rather someone whose political theory doesn’t lead them to have and express views on the great political issues of their day probably doesn’t much of interest to say about theory either (unless of course, their theory leads them to some form of quietism). That’s true of the writers whose commitments were creditable (for example, John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell) as well as the discreditable cases I’ve mentioned.

Second, it makes no sense to look at the theoretical writings and ignore the political commitments with which they are associated. For example, it is easy to construct readings of Pareto, Mises and Hayek in ways that make them appear either as friends or as enemies of political liberalism. Their (remarkably similar) actions make it clear which reading is correct. Eventually, of course, ideas outgrow their creators to the point where original intentions, and the texts in which they were expressed, cease to be relevant. But, as the Locke example shows, that’s a very slow process. As long as a writer is regarded as having any personal authority, the weight of that auhtority must be assessed in the light of their actions as well as their words.

[^1]: To be sure, none of these writers can properly be described as fascists – they aren’t interested in nationalism or in the display of power for its own sake. Rather, their brand of liberalism is hostile to democracy and indifferent to political liberty, making them natural allies of any fascist regime which adheres to free market orthodoxy in economics.

39 thoughts on “The political is personal

  1. @TerjeP

    It’s extremely common — perhaps universal — for the same individual to be responsible both for creditable actions and for discreditable actions, and therefore an appropriate recipient of both credit and discredit. The point you’re missing here is that it’s specifically and precisely the actions of Pinochet which you describe euphemistically as ‘stepping in to stop the unconstitutional acts being perpetrated by Allende’ which were discreditable (indeed, abominable). The vicious bloodshed wasn’t what you again euphemistically describe as a ‘losing of the plot’ subsequent to the ‘stepping in’; the ‘stepping in’ was the vicious bloodshed. If you think that violating a constitution can by itself be sufficient justification for killing people, then you are losing the plot.

  2. Some economists do have a naive faith in the supposedly beneficial intentions of dictators, presumably because they have a free hand to impose those economists’ favourite economic prescriptions, without all that messy democratic push back. Alas, this includes economists on the Left. The great Joan Robinson was a big fan of Chairman Mao, including his cultural revolution. (On the local scene, so was Ted Wheelwright.) Michal Kalecki went back to Poland after the war to work for the communist government there.

    I don’t it’s the case that economists who play footsy with dictators actually approve of people getting tortured and murdered. But they are quite happy to avert their gaze if it means that the overall welfare of the country is improved, as they see it.

  3. J-D – in my view Pinochet stoping Allende was like Stalin stopping Hitler. Although different also in some rather obvious ways. Allende needed to be stopped. That does not detract from the inexcusable tactics used in that quest but it does give them context.

    This illustrates the point of my original question about political liberty. Should Allende have been free to ignore Supreme Court rulings against his program of nationalisation? Does his political liberty trump the rule of law? Does he carry any responsibility for the unlawful state in which people felt they were forced to choose between one violent despot or another?

    I’m all for a pluralistic society where we tolerate a whole range of political views. I would not ban the communist party. But if they tried to implement old school communism in Australia and nationalise the farms and businesses and they controlled the means to do so then I may well make allegiances with some unsavoury people.

    Political liberty needs to be properly defined before opposition to it can be condemned. IMHO.

  4. p.s. And for those that think Allende had the will of the people behind him this is bunk. His party did not even win a majority and his coalition partners abandoned him due to his unlawful deeds.

  5. The vicious bloodshed wasn’t what you again euphemistically describe as a ‘losing of the plot’ subsequent to the ‘stepping in’; the ‘stepping in’ was the vicious bloodshed.

    To be super clear I do not deny this. Those that tried to kill Hitler with a bomb were engaged in an act of vicious bloodshed. The ANC in South Africa engaged in many when they challenged the apartheid regime. All such acts are questionable as is war itself. But also sometimes, unfortunately, necessary. Although even then one can rightly question if they needed to be as bloody or as vicious as they were. When you unleash the dogs of war sometimes things go too far. But from the comfort of an armchair a long time after the fact it’s also easy to be critical and pretend to be morally superior.

  6. Prof. Q if you are doing politically derived economic beliefs and including “the limits to growth” then I’d love to see Marilyn Waring’s “counting for nothing” included.

  7. I like pointing out to libertarians, conservatives and self-described classical liberals that the Social Democrats were the only party in the Reichstag who voted against the Enabling Act that gave Adolf Hitler dictatorial powers (of course the Communists were absent having been kicked out by right wing goons). Every parliamentrary representative on the right showed their true colours that day.

    Otto Wels, the SDP leader stood up in an atmosphere thick with intimidation and violence and said:

    We German Social Democrats pledge ourselves solemnly in this historic hour to the principles of humanity and justice, of freedom and socialism. No enabling act can give you power to destroy ideas which are eternal and indestructible.

  8. @TerjeP
    Terje, the quote in NSW parliament that you refer to is discussed in Wikipedia, but I suppose me quoting Wikipedia does not make it a fact.

    In 2013, on the 40th anniversary of the military coup in Chile, Phelps, in a speech in the NSW Parliament, said that he supported the overthrow of Salvador Allende. Phelps’ comments were controversial, with the Australian Labor Party and Australian Greens calling for Premier Barry O’Farrell to reprimand or sack Phelps for his comments. He was neither sacked nor reprimanded.[5]

    It also refers to the honourable Dr Phelps as stating

    “some of the strongest supporters of totalitarian regimes in the last century have been scientists… We should not be so surprised that the contemporary science debate has become so debased,” he said. “At the heart of many scientists – but not all scientists – lies the heart of a totalitarian planner.”

  9. @Ikonoclast
    Thanks, ikonoclast. I agree with all of your post except the first paragraph. Solar and wind are both dispersed forms of energy and to aggregate them requires energy and materials. I doubt whether a modern industrial society can be run on dispersed energy as we would spend too large a proportion of our materials, energy and labour budgets on gathering together enough energy to run the rest of society. It may be possible, but would probably require significant localisation so that population, sources of food and sources of useful work were all geographically close to each other to minimise waste of energy. I don’t see that happening without an enforced crisis of some kind.

  10. @Geoff Edwards

    Our positions are probably quite close. I too am concerned about the dispersed nature of renewable energy. However, the latest data on solar and wind suggest the EROEI (which is a function of dispersion or concentration of exergy) is becoming quite workable, ranging from 10:1 on solar to 20:1 on wind. I think these numbers will improve even further.

    However, if the dispersion/collection problem is overcome (even at least partially) there is still the issue of the scalability or build-out feasibility in terms of total materials available for the build-out of the energy collection infrastructure.

    At the same time, I maintain that renewable energy is our only option. It is sustainable (at some level) and will not cause broad climate change anywhere near the degree caused by burning fossil fuels. Thus, I say ” Whatever level of economic activity and civilization that renewable energy will confer then ipso facto that will become the level possible and extant.” We must take that path (indeed we will be forced by natural forces to take that path) and accept and live with whatever level of living that confers.

    It is very possible that energy problems, water problems, sea level rise already in train, climate change already in train and so on could reduce the world’s population considerably by the end of this century. Our standards of living could also reduce markedly. Indeed, I think both outcomes are very probable.

    Nevertheless, the principle remains that renewable energy and resources can sustain some level of civilization. The question is what level of civilization? All civilizations before industrialisation were so sustained by renewable energy although there are good arguments that certain other resources were not used sustainably even then at least on a regional basis. Some forests and perhaps even some fisheries were clearly exploited unsustainably before industrialisation. We can even go back to the first human migrations around the globe and note that the megafauna were exploited unsustainably.

    I believe a lot is possible with frugality, environmental design and a fully electrical economy. Some who blog here talk about the impossibility of living with intermittent electrical energy. Point one is that it would be possible to live with intermittent supply. Point two is that there are enough ways to aggregate individual intermittent supplies on a distributed network into a steady supply. Point three is that there are many ways to store energy and chemical potential storage (in batteries) is far from the only way.

    Everyone who has a solar hot water system already stores energy. They store the energy as heat energy which of course is the precise form of energy required as output. Aircon is not a life necessity though some who blog here think it is. However, it is quite feasible to aircon a house or building with solar power by day and let it keep cool at night. The latter is achieved by insulation and thermal ballast. Thermal ballast like water tanks, rocks or tiles which are integral parts of the interior structure are cooled by day (via the solar aircon stream) and absorb heat at night keeping interior air temperature cool.

    Commercial and industrial levels of energy will be feasible from solar panel arrays, concentrating solar power plants and perhaps even solar convection towers which produce power day and night. (Temperature gradients from surface to altitude increase by night.)

    Nevertheless, the materials for this build-out may be a limiting factor as we discussed. Water, soil and (lack of) climate benignity will become limiting problems for us. Certainly material growth must stop and will probably go into reverse for a considerable time span.

    Even knowledge and complexity growth must stop eventually. People forget that complexity requires energy for maintenance. With non-renewable energy sources the dwindling of the energy stocks and the negative externality damage are the primary limiting factors. (Though these problems still manifest as a dwindling flow of energy production.) With renewable energy sources, the peak net energy flow possible will be the limiting factor which in turn will be limited at some point by material build-out limits.

    Finally, “I don’t see that happening without an enforced crisis of some kind.”

    I absolutely agree and I have expounded on this blog a form of crisis theory which states that this system will have to collapse and manifestly fail to deliver for the majority of the population before our political economy (and energy economy) will undergo the necessary transformation. The brutal reality is that the bulk of the people will have to collapse into poverty and perhaps even begin starving en masse before they realise the current system has failed terminally and has no possibility of recovery without transformation.

  11. Wow. Terjep. Peter Phelps is your go to guy when it comes to one of the most disgusting tyrants of the second half of the twentieth century? The same Peter Phelps who accused Mike Kelly of being no better than the guards at Treblinka? Who thinks scientists who are concerned about climate change are little better than nazis? This is the guy you think has a compelling story to tell about the ‘heroicism’ of Pinochet?… If anyone needed evidence of the decadence of the Australian right there it is…

  12. @PB

    Oddly enough, I appeared (by teleconference) before a committee of the NSW Legislative Council on electricity privatisation. Phelps was the main government member. I can’t say he struck me as a pleasant sort of person, or one I would want to cite as an authority.

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