Classical Liberals Who Weren’t Right About Everything

Classical Liberals Who Weren’t Right About Everything.

[The following is my entry for the second Thorpe-Freeman Blog Contest, originally published at Notes on Liberty on June 25th. It was one of two runners up. My entry for last July’s contest (I chose not to enter the August contest because The Freeman combines the two months into one issue), can be read here.]

Many classical liberals and their ideas have been maligned by their interpreters. We must set the record straight. Professor Ross Emmett, in “What’s Right with Malthus,” from The Freeman, champions the cause of Thomas Robert Malthus, who, contrary to what one might think after encountering Malthus’ followers and critics,

argued that private property rights, free markets, and…marriage were essential features of an advanced civilization.

Some disciples of Malthus took his erroneous population theory as evidence of the need for eugenics, population control, and environmental “regulation.” They ignored Malthus’ arguments favoring institutions more capable of (and more compassionate in) achieving their desired ends; institutions that first came about not by design, but by convention. The eugenicists Francis Galton and Julian Huxley (both related to Darwin), and eco-catastrophist Paul Ehrlich come to mind.

But there were also critics, who, preferring utopian visions of the perfectibility of mankind, denounced Malthus’ pessimistic views. Anarchists William Godwin and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon are most notable in this regard. Godwin and Malthus had exchanged criticisms (noted by Emmett) in some of their essays. Malthus attacked Godwin’s utopianism. Godwin assailed Malthus’ assumption of arithmetical increase in agricultural output, as compared to geometrical increase of population. And Proudhon targeted the overzealous Malthusians of his day, citing as grievances the former’s antagonism toward the lower classes. While neither Godwin nor Proudhon did terrible injustice to Malthus himself, they unintentionally contributed to the myth that the worst variety of population catastrophists were the most orthodox.

Notice the themes that Professor Emmett brings to our attention. First, that even in their controversial and disputable contributions, great theorists illuminate the path for later philosophers. Second, that human institutions can mitigate human nature’s undesirable effects.

In light of these, consider two other social theorists whose ideas have been abused by overenthusiastic students and overreactive peers alike: Herbert Spencer (insightful Malthus adherent), and the aforementioned Mr. Proudhon (noteworthy Malthus critic).

Leading “social Darwinist” (a pejorative used to link eugenics and capitalism), Herbert Spencer (considered a conservative anarchist by Georgi Plekhanov) was, like Darwin, influenced by Malthus’ idea that the fittest tend to survive overpopulation-induced catastrophes. He is known for having coined “survival of the fittest,” a term later used by Darwin in the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species (1859). Spencer originally used it to convey Darwin’s concept of natural selection, and drew parallels between biological evolution through natural selection and social evolution through market competition. But he never implied that they were identical or that marketplace competition was necessarily an outgrowth of natural selection.

If anything, it should be thought of as an alternative to natural selection. Humans, to survive as a species, might practice natural selection as a matter of biological fact. And without the ability to reason this might eventually lead to a Hobbesian jungle. But since man is rational, natural selection’s role in social evolution is significantly lessened. Society arises from the natural order of things. There is no need for the Commonwealth or the General Will to step in and provide it.

Friedrich Engels saw things differently when he wrote in the introduction to his Dialectics of Nature (1872/1883):

Darwin did not know what a bitter satire he wrote on mankind…when he showed that free competition…is the normal state of the animal kingdom. Only…production and distribution…carried on in a planned way, can lift mankind above the rest of the animal world…

Competition exists in both the natural world and free markets, so the connection between natural selection and marketplace competition, though spurious, seems all too obvious for critics of one or the other. They wrongfully project the cold, deterministic properties of nature onto economic freedom. But marketplace competition is an outgrowth of the ability to reason, not base survival instincts. The will to survive is certainly a factor of social progress, but taken on its own would tend toward more similarities with nature, such that the life of man would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Man has the faculties to escape the jungle, to leave the animal kingdom, to better his life without worsening others’.

Communist anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin (influenced by Godwin) juxtaposed social Darwinism, evolution requiring competition, with his own take, evolution requiring cooperation, in his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902). In so doing, he disagreed with Engels on Darwin, by describing how natural selection depended at least as much upon cooperation as it did biological competition. But unfortunately he conformed to Engels on the false dichotomy between rational competition (free markets) and cooperation (mutual aid).

Our second subject, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a mutualist, an anarchist and a socialist. Yet some of his ideas are more in line with libertarianism than with contemporary socialism. They were often based on a fairly consistent concept of natural rights, but understood in light of fallacious economic principles, especially the labor theory of value (held by Locke, Smith, Ricardo, and Marx).

But utility-based theories are in vogue among today’s classical liberals and much of Proudhon’s economics has been rightly tossed aside. But his theory of spontaneous order and support for free markets should not be so readily discarded. Leave that to conservatives fearful of anything tainted by the socialist label, and to leftists whose only alternative would be to admit that the labor theory is passé.

Proudhon (General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, 1851) was also opposed to Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s social contract theories, having his own:

What really is the Social Contract? An agreement of the citizen with the government? No…The social contract is an agreement of man with man…from which must result what we call society…Commerce…the act by which man and man declare themselves essentially producers, and abdicate all pretension to govern each other.

Organic institutions, neither designed nor imposed!

It seems there’s much knowledge and inspiration to be gained by examining the forgotten words of discredited intellectuals. Warts and all.

First World Camping Problems, USDA Tyranny, a Fish Story, and Some Epic Snapshots

First World Camping Problems, USDA Tyranny, a Fish Story, and Some Epic Snapshots.


I went on a 50 mile hike in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness (Montana) the week before last. The trail is called “the Beaten Path”. That doesn’t really mean much. It wasn’t rock climbing or cliff scaling, but it wasn’t far removed at times. Or at least it seemed that way with our heavy backpacks and the average of ten miles we covered each day. Two good friends (from Cheyenne, Wyoming) and I camped below the mountains on Saturday night (August 3rd). A $9 fee and the roads on the way there were still super-crappy. What gives? Wasn’t that supposed to be one of the things governments were good at?

Add to that my $26 fishing license (right in the middle of the year-long season, and just past the height of that season) and we’ve already been taken for 35 Federal Reserve Notes. I understand the need for wise management, but does licensing really solve it (to say nothing of the natural right to catch fish)? I’m not so sure. Charging everybody the same fees for what end up being different costs imposed by them can’t be anything but inefficient. In my case, it incentivizes me to go out and fish more than I otherwise would, imposing more costs, just to make it worth getting the license. Considering that I never catch anything, I have a lot of fishing to squeeze between now and the season’s end.

Just how bad is my fishing? I brought a nice little pole that comes with a cast reel and a fly reel. I stimulated the local economy by purchasing several fancy new lures (having temporarily misplaced my other good ones). What could go wrong? Well, within the first five casts my lure got snagged on a rock at about 6 feet depth. I had to wade out to three feet of depth and alternately jerk and loosen my line from several positions to get it unstuck. Nothing I hadn’t had to do before.

I should have quit while I was ahead. Maybe another five casts later I outdid myself. If it weren’t for the fact that my reel had become loosened from the rod I know it would have been my farthest cast yet. Instead, the entire reel went flying out into the lake and the rest of the line hung up on the rod. Not wanting to lose my reel, I panicked and dove in after it. I figured, “8 feet? This will be a cinch!” After going head first to the bottom (the sun was behind the clouds and I was stirring up the mud, so I couldn’t see it) four or five times I decided it would be best to pull on the line until it was completely unraveled and hope that it was tied to the reel. Luckily it was. I was happy to recover all my gear, but I was soaking wet and the sun wasn’t out. Luckily no one witnessed my floundering. No doubt my friends would have gotten a kick out of it.


On my way back to camp, dripping, shivering, holding my tangled line and my dismembered pole I was stopped by some ranger chick (the US Forest Service is an agency of the US Department of Agriculture). Just what I needed. She detained me for about five minutes to ask me where I was from, where I was going, how far away our campfire was from the lake, whether we knew not to burn our soup cans, etc. She was at least nice about it (heck, she didn’t even mention the Glock 40 belonging to my friends’ brother, strapped to my belt, or ask to see my fishing license) and eventually realized how uncomfortable I was and said she would come to our campsite later to finish her lecture. Which, of course, she did. She had no problem telling us that we were her worst demographic, three young men. Can you imagine a police officer saying that to a black teenager in a large urban area? I’d say that’s profiling, but I digress. She told us she was going to be off for the next two days but when she came back she would be checking up on us. Add to the profiling some harassment. We had yet to be told or to admit that we had broken any “rules” (which, of course, we had). Luckily we managed to evade her the rest of the hike, but we made sure not to have any extra fun lest we incur her wrath.

So I was basically done fishing on the first day unless I wanted to fly-fish or untangle my other line. I did try a little fly-fishing at one lake a few days later but didn’t catch anything. Luckily, four or five gentleman from Chicago (with thick former-Soviet bloc accents) whom we camped near saw I had no luck and offered us some of their surplus. Five fresh trout. Of course, we had to gut them ourselves, but it was worth it. I wrapped them in aluminum foil and seasoned with lemon juice, garlic, dill, black pepper, red pepper, and salt. Then I put them on our grill over our camp fire for 20 minutes. If I swallowed any bones, I didn’t notice. As a courtesy, in the morning we gave them a package of noodles we would have otherwise eaten the night before. Does that qualify more as reciprocal gifting or as barter? I hope for their sake those boys had their Montana fishing licenses (better yet, that they didn’t have them but managed to dodge the rangers), though as out-of-staters it would have cost them an arm and a leg.


We camped again the night we got back down. Another $9. 46 FRNs total. Roads were still pretty bad. No hand sanitizer or lights in the bathroom facilities. Almost no good firewood other than some dead, dried pine boughs and a giant old stump which we put set aflame around 7:30 PM. It took two of us to drag it to the fire and all three of us to lift it into the fire. A lot of the weight came from the few large stones that the root system had wrapped itself around. It was 3:30 AM before I decided to douse the fire. The stump was still there. It was a lot smaller, and in two pieces, but still could have burned another hour or two on its own. My one friend had turned in around 11, the other one was up with me until about 2. I knew if I went to bed as early as they I would be awake, tossing and turning after only a couple hours’ rest. Plus, being a night owl, I couldn’t help it.

I’m not sure what our backpacks weighed, and we got back more than a week ago (August 9th), but my shoulders are still a little stiff and my right knee aches when I straighten my leg out. Even with all this, I had a great time.