Cato Institute getting it badly Wrong about Carl Schmitt.

I’m referring  here to a post on Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political which appears in the Libertarian Library at , which is itself connected to the Cato website. That is the Cato Institute, the Washington DC foundation which promotes libertarianism (in the sense of free market limited government thinking). Generally I regards its work with sympathy. It’s strongest work is on public policy, where it offers solutions that allow more scope for government than is favoured in principle by the pure nightwatchman view of the state, at the core of Cato thinking, though not universal amongst all its fellows and employees. There is some interesting discussion of more theoretical issues at Cato Unbound, but apart from that I find the discussion of libertarian theory at Cato and its affiliates, to be rather disappointing. There is far too much boiler plate, comforting formulae, self-confirmation and putting too much emphasis on some of the better known but weaker thinkers and themes within libertarianism (or classical liberalism). These problems reach a level of pure disaster in the anonymous post, on Schmitt which is quoted in full below, and to be very polite is just not good enough.


Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political comes from a perspective so far removed from a libertarian’s view of politics—and even what it means to be human—that it can be a profoundly difficult book to wrestle with. For Schmitt, politics defines humanity. This means that the liberal ideal of reducing or doing away with the sphere of politics means reducing or doing away with humanity itself. Even more troubling, politics only exists because of friend-enemy distinctions. A people genuinely without enemies is a people without politics—and so not really a people at all. The liberal project of toleration and scaling back the power of the state is thus doomed, Schmitt thinks, because it is impossible to abandon our nature, meaning we cannot abandon politics—or enemies. Perhaps even more distressing than the details of Schmitt’s argument is the deep and continuing influence it has had on much modern political thought, particularly that of the neoconservatives and the more radical, collectivist strains of the Left.

The problems with this.

1. The most glaring and most obvious problem with this is that the author clearly does not understand that Hayek refers to Schmitt, not very often but sometimes in favourable terms, particularly with regard to the law-legislation which I have blogged about frequently recently. Please use the search box to find all these items. Schmitt’s reference to growth of    The writer has attacked Schmitt strongly and has failed to realise that he is a major influence on one of the biggest figures in Cato style thinking. This is really not good.

2. Politics does not define humanity for Schmitt, or certainly not in the way that the author assumes. Schmitt was certainly aware that other things are necessary to full human existence. He does believe, like Aristotle for example, that politics is an essential part of life in human communities.

3. The author assumes that liberalism means less or not politics. Liberalism here meaning the thinking of the earlier, classical, liberals from John Locke to John Stuart Mill, along with the ways libertarian though has built on them in the period that ‘liberal’ has come to mean social democrat. . Both Locke and Mil, and other classical liberal thinkers, would have been stunned to hear that they wanted to eliminate politics. They wanted to restrict the role of the state in society, which is not the same as condemning, or minimising the place of law making and institutional formation in human communities, that is the areas of politics less concerned with administration of society.

4. It is hard to believe that the author read The Concept of the Political at all, since Schmitt makes it very clear that he is against the weakening of the distinction  between state and society, and the growing tendency of the state to intervene in the economy and in society.

5. The author has clearly failed to grasp that while there is an authoritarian aspect to Schmitt’s thought about the nature of political sovereignty, including the struggle between friend and enemy, Schmitt is just as much concerned to restrict the state to these areas of responsibility, and that the claim that Schmitt favours socialism is just nonsense. It is true that Schmitt had some sympathy for corporatists authoritarian right regimes in Europe of the 20s and 30s, but he clearly thinks of them asa bulwark against socialism. Who else thought this? No other than Luwig von Mises in Liberalism, an author and a book recognised by Cato as part of libertarian thinking. The author is also clearly unaware that the prominent Paleoconservate Paul Gottfried is a Schmitt enthusiast. Paleoconservatism in American means very traditionalist and very small government conservatism. That current is a major influence on Ron Paul, a political figure generally regarded with sympathy by Cato.

6. The authors refers to Schmitt’s influence on Neoconservatism, I have made a lot of effort to research commentary on Schmitt, and I have yet to find a Neo conservative paper or book on Schmitt. Perhaps some vague misunderstanding of Schmitt, like that in the post under discussion, circulates and has some influence though that that is not what the author says. The author is at least correct (hurrah, at last) in saying that there are many leftwing Schmitt enthusiasts. However, that is not the same uncritical endorsement, and the left wing enthusiasts for Schmitt are not arguing for war, aggression in international relations or hostile conflict as  a constant in politics. They are concerned with politics as a process of conflict, unavoidable in human affairs. They are certainly correct to so, and the author’s real argument with Schmitt seems to be that he provides argument against the apolitical utopianism that influences the author.

7. The author is also apparently unaware of left wing critique of ‘neoliberalism’, and earlier forms of market liberalism, as based on a Schmittian belief in action to preserve a strong state. Hayek has been brought into those critique, as has the free market element in the polices of dictatorship of Augosto Pincohet in Chile. I certainly do not think that market liberalism/neo-liberalism can be defined in those terms, but there are certainly moments where market based economic change is associated with authoritarian governments.

8. The author is hopelessly unaware that Concept of the Political is distinct in relation to most of Schmitt’s writing in the extreme importance attached to politics as an existential struggle with the enemy. Much of Schmitt’s writing is concerned with achieving stability in constitutional arrangements, and a stable order in international relations.

For a balanced short appraisal of Schmitt as a political and legal thinker see Lars Vinx’s item on Schmitt in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Readers of this, of all political inclinations, will learn far far more from that item than from the post under discussion, which really is a failure.


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