Post at LiberalVision About Edmund Burke

Link to an item I posted at LiberalVision on Burke and Reflections on the Revolution in France  

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Part of a series of posts I’ve putting up on Liberal Philosophy.  Burke is often thought of as conservative rather than a liberal.  I don’t dispute that, and as far as my idea of liberalism is concerned, Burke is not a central figure.  However, some do make him central to liberalism, and a discussion of liberal thought cannot be complete unless it covers the marginal and questionable cases.  

Figures who it seems to me cover much of what Burke says that is liberal, and put in a more consistently liberal framework include Montesquieu, Benjamin Constant, Alexis de Tocqueville, Adam Smith and David Hume, even if the last two were amongst Burke’s friends.  These are all people who like Burke recognised the dangers of unrestrained government power, and attempts to make a perfect society from above.  They are also all people who had a high level of empathy with attempts at creating a pure republic of virtue and equality, while recognising the dangers of such projects, were more critical than Burke of traditional forms of authority, gave more thought to how differing impulses can be integrated into the best possible political system, and did not indulge in the kind of limitless enthusiasm Burke had for monarchy and hereditary aristocracy.  Burke appeals to those who wish to see (classical) liberalism as being the same as conservatism, a position sometimes known as conservative-libertarian fusionism,  but also has an appeal to the authoritarian traditionalist right which is not so often found with regard to those I’ve mentioned as more liberal.  


Camelot, Season One, Episode Ten (season closer): Triumph and Shadows

Camelot season one is over.  A second season appears to be in production, but there is not a great deal of information around about that.  Anyway, it looks like it’s coming back.  It’s the best thing on current TV to  my mind, and I think has been a bit underrated.  One problem with the reception is that there have been some unfavourable comparisons with Game of Thrones.  That is a very good series I would recommend to anyone.  Nevertheless to my mind the only real advantage it has over Camelot is in the budget. It looks much more expensive, with much more in the way of spectacular sets, CGI, costumes and scenes which require large numbers of extras.  The camera sometimes dwells a bit too much on these aspects, as if to remind the audience to be impressed.  There are some problems which I presume come from trying to compress material originating in George R.R. Martin’s series of lengthy novels A Song of Fire and Ice.  I cannot claim to have read this unfinished sequence, I prefer to do so after the televised version ends, though that could be some time from now.  In any case, there are too many examples in the television series of characters appearing in one or two brief sequences only, presumably to be picked up in the next season.  This might work better on DVD later, watching several episodes in one day, or maybe it will still seem fragmented and frustrating.  Characters can change to quickly for little or no reason.   Some of the sex and violence is gratuitous.  The problem is not the explicitness, which is no more than in Spartacus, which simply handles this kind of content better.  The issue is that in Game of Thrones, the sex and violence scenes go on to long, are hyped up, and sometimes look more designed to shock or titillate than reinforce the narrative.   Game of Thrones deserves at least one post of its own and I will return to this topic.  For now, the point is that it does not set a superior standard to Camelot, though it is very good.  

Back to the Camelot, season one finale.  The doubts about Arthur’s (Jamie Campbell Bower) readiness to be king are apparently resolved.  Merlin (Joseph Fiennes) and Igraine (Claire Forlani) are taken back to Camelot after their arrest by Arthur’s half-sister Morgan (Eva Green).  Morgan is aiming to be crowned queen while her undercover troops kill off Arthur and his knights in a distant place.  She presents Merlin as a dangerous wizard to be executed, and Igraine as a victim to be pitied.  She plans to publicly execute Merlin after her coronation.  She presents Igraine with a dress for the coronation and then stabs her in such as way that she will slowly bleed to death.  That scene is particularly emotional and disturbing. Igraine explains that she had sent Morgan (her step-daughter) away to Ireşand in order to protect her from her father (Uther).  Morgan claims not to believe her, but is obviously troubled by this revelation.  The stabbing is preceded by a creepy presentation of the dress and expressions of Morgan’s admiration for Igraine.  The overall picture of Morgan is of a troubled person whose inner turmoil is increased by revelations that she has made some great error, in a way which only leads her to become more egomaniac and cruel rather than step back from her destructive and self-destructive path.  She şs certainly is an interesting character who attracts a mixture of sympathy and hatred, she is certainly not a more villain.  

Uther’s discovery of the the dying Igraine, leads him to an usually direct expression of emotion and wish to use his magic powers against Morgan, even at danger to his own life.  He has lost the one person whom he could relate to emotionally.  Igraine persuades him not to use his powers and Merlin returns to his normal reserved and controlled state.  It may be that a disturbed love storywith Morgan will come later, which has precedents in various versions of the legends of Arthur and Merlin. In an earlier episode of Camelot, Morgan spends the night with Merlin magically disguised as Igraine.  Merlin knows about this and must have a level of inner confusion to match that of Morgan.  For now the secretive magician has lost his one hope of a happy love story and as connection with the people round him which is not determined by power, politics, and strategy.

Merlin’s fear of his own magical powers is reinforced in his strategy for defeating Morgan, while tied up waiting for her coronation and his execution.  His strategy is to do nothing and have faith in Arthur’s return.  This is maybe also Merlin’s faith in his confrontation with Arthur after it is revealed that Arthur spent a night with Guinevere (Tamsin Egerton) directly before her wedding to Arthur’s champion Leontes (Philip Winchester).  Merlin it appears has faith, that Arthur understanding the negative consequences of an act which threatens the solidarity between the leaders of Camelot, Arthur’s confrontation with everyone’s own anger and his own guilt, will lead him to find the best within himself.  This proves to be justified as Arthur and his knights arrive just in time to prevent Morgan’s coronation.  Arthur had earlier proved himself by fighting Morgan’s men who had lured Arthur and knights into a village distant from Camelot.  The other knights join him at the last stage of that fight, and the battle is won but with the loss of Leontes.  He tells Arthur to treasure Guinevere, showing that he forgives Arthur and Guinevere and understands that Arthur was acting from love rather than basic lust or a desire to humiliate Leontes.  In the fighting Morgan’s knight who had hoped to earn her love, is killed, marking an implicit contrast between the confused but real emotions of Arthur, Leontes and Guinevere on one side, and Morgan and her associates on the other side.  Evidently Morgan never cared for this knight who was only fantasising that he could find love with her.  That kind of masochistic love has precedents in the idealised courtly love with Medieval Arthur stories invoked, so this episode also reveals a darkness in the heart of the Camelot court.  

The victory over Morgan is followed by her banishment and loss of royal rank, losing the royal castle of Pendragon, which is partly based on the lack of a woman’s right top inherit.  So we can see that Morgan is in some ways a victim of men, even if her own actions guarantee that she will be hated and rejected by all anyway.  The mysterious Nun (Sinéad Cusack) and sorceress who was Morgan’s mentor in Ireland and her main adviser at Castle  Pendragon is executed.  She appears to be waiting for Morgan to save her, reinforcing the idea that Morgan is evil enough to betray anyone and everyone.  However, Morgan comes to the Nun’s grave and appears to commune with her spirit putting a different angle on that apparent display of Morgan’s treachery.  We then see Guinevere entering Arthur’s chamber, and making love with him, despite what appears to be a resolution to stay apart from each other so soon after Leontes’ death.  They are both overwhelmed by desire and emotional neediness.  Though this creates some sympathy, it also suggests they are both irresponsible and have failed to learn earlier lessons about the dangers of lack of restraint.  The big twist is that Morgan has assumed Guinevere’s shape and has tricked Arthur into the creation of  an incestuous male heir.  This will presumably be Mordred who features in some versions of the Arthur tales.  

We are now left with the coming revelation of a male heir, allowing Morgan to get round the prohibition on female inheritance, always presuming that she can control her son.  We are also left with the suspicion that Arthur has not yet become a responsible ruler and man.  Merlin has left Camelot, to disappear into his own melancholy presumably, and to give Arthur the chance to gain responsibility and experience on his own.  We now have reasons why Merlin will need to return.  We are also left with the feeling that Guinevere may give way to desire and emotional neediness later.  Even if it was Morgan who had disguised herself as Guinevere to seduce Arthur, it was Guinevere we saw and an expectation has been created, particularly given the famous earlier stories of Guinevere’s love for the knight Lancelot, while married to Arthur.  For season two we can expect to meet Mordred and  Lancelot, for Camelot to be strained to the limit and for Merlin to return to at least some of these problems.  

Arthur and Merlin have triumphed but are faced with various shadows for the next season.  The shadow king Mordred.  The inner shadow of Arthur’s weakness in relation to desire.  Guinevere’s inner shadow of uncertainty about who she loves most.  Her external shadow of the king’s incestuous lover of one night, Morgan, who was Guinevere in form, so suggesting we don’t know who Guinevere is.  Morgan clearly does not know what she is.  The magical shadows in Merlin that he tries to avoid as the wrong way for humans to be ruled, led and influenced.  The shadow of Igraine in Merlin’s emotions combined with the erotic tension with Morgan, his deepest and greatest enemy.  This greatest external  enemy is also the inner enemy of magic powers.  Morgan is left with two shadow mother figures, the Nun and Igraine, along with her own long dead mother. 

Economics, Law and Literature. Wife sales in 19th Century England

In Thomas Hardy’s great novel of 1886, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Henchard (the future Mayor, and unconscious exemplar of Schopenhauerian pessimism in philosophy)while making a poor living as an agricultural labourer, has an argument with his wife and sells her at an auction.  I won’t go into how this plays out in the novel, I will just note that the sale shocks the people around, but is conducted and a buyer is found, an affable sailor of contrasting character with the proud and intense Henchard, and the sale is evidently accepted by observers.  

I’ve recently seen a bit of very readable economic history which shows that wife sales, though usually of a more contrived and planned nature, were common amongst the labouring classes in nineteenth century England, as a substitute for divorce.  In the early nineteenth century divorce was difficult and expense, taking place only by a private act of Parliament.  Many people separated without divorce anyway, though this was difficult without the consent of the husband who owned all property of the wife, and had the right to treat the home as a prison for her.   Remarriage without the nearly impossible divorce was of course illegal.

A partial way round these problems was for the husband to sell his wife, which usually meant to an admirer or outright lover of the wife, so that everything was settled to everyone’s advantage.  It looks like this was largely a way in which an admirer of greater wealth than the husband could persuade him to relinquish his wife.  Though this had no legal standing whatsoever the general attitude of the poorer classes was to accept it as correct by law of custom; and the authorities made very little attempt to intervene.  The practice faded away in the late nineteenth century because of relative  liberalisation of divorce, and relative improvements in the property rights of a married woman.

Issues of the restrictive and discriminatory nature of divorce laws feature in at at least two other Hardy novels: Jude the Obscure and Under the Greenwood Tree.  There’s obviously a lot more than legal debate going on in Hardy’s novels, but as this paper demonstrates, both law and economics enter into every aspect of life.  The paper does not mention the literary relevance, but any reader of Hardy will make the connection very quickly.

The paper is ‘Wife Sales‘ by Peter Leeson, Peter Boettke and Jayme Lemke, all of George Mason University.  Leeson has published a book on the economics of pirates, The Invisible Hook, along with papers on law in contemporary Somalia, and Medieval trials by ordeal, all of which I’ve read and recommend.  

Hat tip regarding ‘Wife Sales’, to Kathererine Mangu-Ward at Reason Magazine hit & run blog.



Reading Nietzsche on Politics following the Way he read the Pre-Socratics

Something that caught my eye while reading Nietzsche: Writings from the Early Notebooks (Translated by Ladislaus Lüb, Edited by Raymond Geuss and Alexander Nehemas.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).


Notebook 19 [192]

The political meaning of the early Greek philosophers must be demonstrated as well as their power of metaphor.

Der politische Sinn der älteren griechischen Philosophen, ebenso nachzuweisen als ihre Kraft zur Metapher.


Clearly a reference to the pre-Socratics.  Nietzsche has various brief things say about them in the notebooks up to Empedocles, who was a contemporary of Socrates though he is labelled Pre-Socratic, and was a friend of Pericles, the famous leader of Athenian democracy.     Nietzsche makes much of Empedocles’ friendship with the great democrat.  One frequent reaction to discussion of Nietzsche as a political thinker is to say that he nothing coherent to say about politics, just scattered remarks, and that therefore he cannot be discussed as a political thinker.  The ultimate expression of this is in Thamsin Shaw’s 2007 book, Nietzsche’s Political Skepticism  (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press).  This is a good book, and one which achieves the feat of being a book about why there should not be books about Nietzsche as political theorist.  Shaw does not put it quite like that, but the book does explain at length why Nietzsche is someone who is sceptical about politics, and by extension political theory, in a way which builds on the sceptical aspects of Nietzsche’s views on knowledge.  In that case we are attributing a theory of politics of some kind to Nietzsche, but then also undermining the understanding of his politics by making scepticism and fragmentation and dominant features of what he has to say about politics. On that basis we might end up saying that Nietzsche has not stable or systematic position about anything, turning him a sceptic of the most extreme stripe all round.  

But Nietzsche, himself, as we see in the quotation above, directs us to read politics into writers at the beginning of the philosophical tradition, like Heraclitus and Parmenides, who have little to say about politics.  The point I presume Nietzsche is making here is that the questions of the order of nature which is the main subject matter for the Pre-Socratics, is a way of dealing with what binds a society.  He mentions both metaphor and politics in the same sentence quoted above.  They are mentioned separately, but contiguously, so surely there is a hint that metaphor is important in reading philosophical texts.  And surely, the more direct and the more indirect aspects of the sentence all apply to Nietzsche’s own philosophical writing.  In that case we should be looking at the politically relevant bits of Nietzsche’s writing as more than an expression of scepticism, or we should see Nietzsche as an example simply of the most resolute form of scepticism on every question.  The first option is preferable, though with due deference to Nietzsche’s wish to avoid creating pure systems which are expressions of metaphysical structure.  

Metaphor and politics in the text of Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Scientific American on How Drugs Decriminalisation in Portugal Reduces Drug Related Harm

See my last post on why the drug criminalisation and the War on Drugs are very bad things, even from a strongly anti-drugs point of view.  I’m linking to and quoting from a 2009 story in Scientific American, ‘5 Years After: Portugal’s Drug Decriminalization Policy shows Positive Results’.

Under the Portuguese plan, penalties for people caught dealing and trafficking drugs are unchanged; dealers are still jailed and subjected to fines depending on the crime. But people caught using or possessing small amounts—defined as the amount needed for 10 days of personal use—are brought before what’s known as a “Dissuasion Commission,” an administrative body created by the 2001 law. 

Each three-person commission includes at least one lawyer or judge and one health care or social services worker. The panel has the option of recommending treatment, a small fine, or no sanction.

Peter Reuter, a criminologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, says he’s skeptical decriminalization was the sole reason drug use slid in Portugal, noting that another factor, especially among teens, was a global decline in marijuana use. By the same token, he notes that critics were wrong in their warnings that decriminalizing drugs would make Lisbon a drug mecca. 

“Drug decriminalization did reach its primary goal in Portugal,” of reducing the health consequences of drug use, he says, “and did not lead to Lisbon becoming a drug tourist destination.” 


A War on Drugs does not reduce harm from drugs.  Even from a prohibitionist anti-drug point of view,  state interventions below the threshold of criminal prosecution with regard to users are more effective in reducing harm, and should be preferred.  While Portugal still prosecutes for selling drugs, that is only for possession of more than 10 days worth of drugs, which must effectively exclude a large proportion of small time dealers from prosecution.  




The Cost of the War on Drugs

Quotations below from a story in the The Telegraph in the UK, a very conservative newspaper not sympathetic to liberalisation of drugs, and generally  more interested in pictures of Catherine Windsor (née Middleton) than the cost of the war on drugs, headlined ‘Mexico drug gangs force gladiator style death-marches‘.  


The new vicious trend in the country’s brutal drug war follows beheadings, hangings, mutilations and even the skinning of rivals.

He described how some of those taken in a recent spate of kidnappings from buses had been forced to fight in coliseum-style battles.

Around 200 bodies have been found buried in mass graves near the city of San Fernando, just south of Texas, in recent months and many of the victims had suffered head injuries.

According to the trafficker survivors of the gruesome battles were then forced to act as unwilling hit men for the Zetas drug cartel, embarking on suicide missions to kill members of rival gangs.


These stories of systematic sadism and murder are the product of the ‘War on Drugs’, in which the inherently  bad idea that potential self-harm can be dealt with through criminalising substances and those who use them, is intensified a hundred times by the idea the state should be at war with drugs.  An activity that is already criminalised, is given a battle field context by treating anyone who makes money from selling those substances as the equivalent of a terrorist.  This is not about saying that use of banned drugs is a good thing, because even from a very anti-drugs point of view, the war on drugs is  a failed and self-destructive strategy.  In the USA it has led to an increasing militarisation of the police, who uses guns and armoured cars to break into the homes of people suspected of selling cannabis.  Cannabis.  A substance that many of the privileged politicians who make the laws and enforce the policies of the war on drug certainly consumed at university, and in some cases still do.  The victims of the War on Drugs are disproportionately socially marginal, they are low income, they are African-American, and so on.

The consequence of the War on Drugs in Latin America is to put already weak state structures under impossible pressure.  Criminalisation of drugs ensures that criminals distribute drugs, and make profits of a kind that no one could make if drugs were at least decriminalised (that is to make individuals taking drugs in private legal, though not open consumption or sale).  The War on Drugs makes it inevitable that those criminals form paramilitary gangs, and use all the methods used by armed groups outside legal control.

Even from a prohibitionist point of view, the War should be replaced by legally enforceable measures to treat addicts, and drug dealing should be dealt with like any other black market by normal police, not robocops smashing down the doors of the already miserable.  I would like to see further liberalisation, but since any attempt at any kind of mainstream political discussion of this issue is just extraordinarily difficult, and also given existing international agreements that are very difficult to change, all that can be hoped for in the short term is a discussion how to implement prohibition in a way which succeeds in reducing drug use and does not succeed in generating organised sadism by criminal gangs.  Even this is just extraordinarily difficult.

The mainstream political and media discourse is so dominated by an association of drugs with Evil, and liberalisation with Insanity.  And there is so much hypocrisy.  We can be sure that there are journalists maintaining these clichés who take cocaine at parties, and consume other illegal substances in various contexts.  And oh yes, alcohol does the most harm of all drugs.  And wasn’t the prohibition of alcohol in twenties America a great success?  Well, a great success for crime lords and their sadistic enforcers.  


Mario Vargas Llosa and Libertarian-Republican Synthesis

I’ve just seen a item on the BBC News website, which appealed to my basic political intuitions.  It refers to a talk the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa gave at Shanghai International Studies University.  Vargas Llosa is a strong supporter of classical liberal and libertarian political ideas, though like me he started in politics as an active Communist, which may give me a particular empathy with him.  I’ve written on his politics for LiberalVision.  Since Vargas Llosa attracts particularly spiteful remarks about his politics from some elements of the Latin American and Iberian left, I should point out that as mentioned in the BBC website item, Llosa has recently condemned human rights abuses in China, and his talk can in no way be portrayed as supporting the Chinese authorities.  The aspects of the talk that interest me most can be seen just below.


The writer told an audience at Shanghai International Studies University that politics “should not be left only in the hands of politicians”


“Every single citizen should participate in the political life of his time. And from that participation the best choices can result,” he said.


The reason that these are important words for me is that there is a large streak of anti-politics in current classical liberal and libertarian thinking, not everywhere all the time, but it definitely has an influence on a lot of people in that scene.  It’s a simple statement of fact that what we now call classical liberalism and libertarianism emerged from the tradition of antique republicanism in the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries.  The republican tradition emphasises: the rule of law agains the rule of individuals, citizen participation in public affairs, political life as a part of human flourishing, a form of individualism which emphasise willingness to struggle for a position on the public good  against a tyrannical ruler or an irrational populace.  Vargas Llosa words clearly capture at least some part of that spirit.  

As I’ve said, it’s very clear that modern liberalism evolved from antique republicanism, and there are certainly a number of classical liberal thinkers who are also widely referred to as republicans including: John Locke, Charles de Secondat de Montesquieu, Thomas Jefferson, the authors of the Federalist Papers, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill.  To which list Adam Smith and David Hume should be added to my mind.  Despite this, if I tell anyone that I am interested in a republican-libertarian synthesis, I get even more blank and incredulous looks than my remarks generally attract.   

Too many people assume that an interest in limited government must mean an anti-politics attitude.  This simply does not follow though.  The usual model of an ancient democratic republic was Athens, which was also not only the most democratic and participatory state of the Ancient world, but was also the most individualistic and among the most commercial, it was certainly the biggest commercial centre of Ancient Greece.  

In terms of twentieth century political theory I favour a kind of synthesis of Hannah Arendt and Friedrich Hayek (I also think Foucault belongs in the mix but we’ll leave that aside for the moment).  Hayek does refer to Ancient Roman and Greek laws and political institutions favourably on various occasions, and Arendt refers to the spirit of competitive individualism in Ancient Greece.  For Arendt, Adam Smith’s economic investigations provide a new basis for discussing the public good; for Hayek limitations on the state aim to restrict it to acting on genuine issues of public good, and laws which are universal in application.  I’m working on these kind of issues and will continue to make do so.