04 October 2011


One of the things that has begun to piss me off as I have become decidedly more curmudgeonly in my old age is the denigration of tradition.  Though I have a strong libertarian streak, I tend to have very strong conservative sympathies because I am very much a traditionalist and believe in the wisdom of tradition.  This, incidentally, is why I have a very strong hatred for leftists; they tend to denigrate tradition simply for the sake of doing so and often have no concept of why tradition is so important.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about something1 I read a long time ago on the importance of tradition.  I forget the exact sentiment, but it was something to the effect that tradition should not be ignored because it contained all the collective wisdom of those who had gone on before us.  This strikes me as an excellent piece of advice, especially in light of the Social Pathologist’s recent posts on stenosophism.

One intellectual tradition I hold in high esteem is the tradition of natural rights.  Briefly, the philosophy of natural rights, as described and explained by William Blackstone and later adopted by the Founding Fathers, can be summarized as a belief in the inalienability of certain rights because said rights are given to man by God.  This philosophy, naturally enough, is very unscientific because science is at this point in time incapable of accounting for God.2

Beyond that, the current post-modern mindset of philosophy also rejects God, perhaps because God is for simple rubes who believe that the world was created in six days, six thousand years ago.  I do not know how big an influence the fetishization of science has had on formal philosophy, but I would not be surprised to learn that many philosophers reject theistic philosophies because they are considered “unscientific.”  At any rate, the idea of God-given rights is generally seen as antiquated by the intellectual leaders of this day and age, as it has been for the last sixty or so years, and so most Americans are either hostile towards or ignorant of the philosophy of natural rights.

Yet, it is this philosophy that spawned America, and indirectly accounts for most of the freedom that is currently spreading throughout the world, for the time being, anyway.  It is explicit in the Declaration of Independence (“endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights…”) and implicit in the constitution.  The Founding Fathers believed in a sovereign God who gave all men certain rights, and they believed that these rights were to be respected by all, even kings.

The great freedoms that Americans enjoyed for the first 150 years of the Republic’s existence, give or take a civil war, were due to the Founding Father’s foresight, which was guided by their belief in and acceptance of the philosophy of natural rights.  Quite simply, the limits of federal power described in the constitution exist not simply because the Founding Fathers thought this was the most utilitarian solution to ensuring long-term happiness for most people, but because the Founding Fathers thought it was deeply immoral for anyone to violate the inherent rights of man.

The reason I don’t subscribe to the Austrian school of economics and philosophy in its entirety is because I strongly dislike the inherent materialism of its philosophy.  God simply does not exist in the world described by the Austrians.3 The concept of natural rights simply does not exist, in a fundamental sense.4 Of course, the Austrian school of thought was founded by economists theorizing about economics.  It was not originally intended to be a system of legal theory, ethics, or political analysis.

However, many belonging to the Austrian school have commented on politics, ethics, and law from an Austrian perspective, and many of their insights have been useful, but the Austrian school’s greatest strength lies in economic and market analysis.  The Austrian perspective on law is useful, but not wholly different from the classical liberal approach.5 But the Austrian perspective on politics and government tends to be problematic since Austrians tend to skew anarchist.  Many see government as an unabashed evil,6 and the logical conclusion of most Austrian’s arguments and observations regarding the state can only be abolition.

Unfortunately, the conclusion to abolish the state is highly problematic.  In the first place, abolition runs contra to most people’s desires.7 In the second place, abolition is very much untraditional.

The Founding Fathers were very leery of government, to say the least.  Yet, the idea of an anarchic society seems to have never been taken seriously by any of them.  It is hard to say why in this day and age8 why that was the case, but I suspect it’s because the founders knew that people could still be evil in the absence of the state and that the state’s evil could be mitigated and possibly used for good.  This is very much a traditional belief, since humans have long been simultaneously worshipful and distrustful of the sate throughout the past millennia.  People have always recognized that the absolute power of the state can be wielded beneficially in the hands of wise rulers.  And people have always recognized that power tends to entice evil people to use it for their own nefarious purposes.

Abolishing the state, then, requires one to ignore the value of absolute power in addressing social problems, such as property rights.  Some Austrians like to argue that people would voluntarily enforce property rights in the absence of a state.  But while this has happened occasionally, this does not appear to be the historical norm.

This is not to suggest that the state is perfect at enforcing, say, property rights.  But the fact that so many people believe that the state is better than, say, voluntary cooperation at enforcing property rights should suggest that the state might actually better, at least under certain conditions.  Tradition comes about slowly, over long periods of time.  The collected wisdom of the ages that is passed down through tradition takes time to accumulate, and is the result of billions of people’s trial and error.  It may not always be right, but imperfection is not, in and of itself, a reason to scrap a human institution.

The simple fact of the matter is that any and all human institutions and endeavors will have the same flaws as humans.  Whatever is made by humans will be imperfect, biased, finite, and subject to change.  This is true of markets and true of governments.  Neither institution can be trusted implicitly.  By the same token, neither institution should be dismissed completely out of hand.

Thus, the historical evidence of people desiring political leadership should indicate that there are certain advantages of having a state.  Again, this does not mean that the state should be trusted implicitly or given carte blanche to do whatever the leaders thereof desire. Rather, one should attempt to see if the state, in any of its forms, can be better than the alternative.

Now, it’s possible that tradition may be wrong.  But it is short-sighted to overturn millennia of collective wisdom to test out some theory, especially when that theory has little real-world experience.

1. It might have been Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions, but I’m not sure.  Alternatively, it may have been The Visions of the Anointed or an article by Walter E. Williams.

2. There are some who claim that science has somehow proven that God doesn’t exist.  A more accurate assessment would be to say that science has proven that God does not exist within the current scientific models.

3. Yes, I’m well aware that there are many Austrian economists that are Christians and believe in God (like Gary North), and that the Austrian school is more friendly to Christians than, say, the Keynesian school.  However, the rationalist/materialist mindset is very much seen among the Austrians, in part because most academic Austrians desire to be taken seriously by their fellow academicians.

4. Of course, this statement could very well be made in ignorance.  I’ve read quite a bit of Mises, Rothbard, and Hayek, as well as some Menger.  I have not seen anything in these men’s writings that would make me think that they formally subscribed to the philosophy of natural rights, which is not surprising since they were all, first and foremost, economists.  If there are any lesser-known Austrians that believed in and argued from the philosophy of natural rights, let me know in the comments.  From what I’ve seen, Austrian ethics are usually based on the non-aggression principle, which is a universally accepted ethic, not natural rights.

5. Unless we’re talking about the anarchist wing.

6. Not that I disagree.  However, evil can be useful in accomplishing good.

7. A subject for another post.

8. Like that’s going to stop me from trying.


  1. >>If there are any lesser-known Austrians that believed in and argued from the philosophy of natural rights, let me know in the comments.

    Technically not an Austrian (proto-Austrian maybe since he predates Menger?), Frédéric Bastiat wrote on law and economics from a natural law point of view. Wilhelm Röpke's faith animated his writings too.

  2. The Mises Institute embraces Bastiat (as do I), but they emphasize his economic analysis more than his legal analysis, and I'm not sure if they even agree with his natural rights stance. However, I dis notice Stephan Kinsella reference natural rights in a blog post on IP, though it didn't sound like he necessarily believed in it.

    I've never heard of Ropke; I'll have to check him out.

  3. Simon, you must, absolutely must, check out Ropke.
    There is a very good book about him out right now.

    Wilhelm Ropke's Political Economy by Samuel Gregg.
    I've got most of Ropke's English language works and he is the humane Austrian The book is very expensive at $110 dollars, but I think it is cheap, because it is not a book but an education. It'll rapid get you up to speed with a lot of alternative Austrian thinking. Gregg's writing style is very good and the book isn't that long.

    Ludwig Erhard felt that Ropke's thought had the greatest force in shaping the post war German Economy. (It has since deviated from his ideals) He doesn't suffer from the social autism of Hayek or Mises.

  4. @SP- I'll have to get it after I save up some money. It's no fun being a poor college student- all my money is spent on books on I have no interest in reading.