The King’s Liberty

In no other system of government might a libertarian so enjoy the satisfaction of his principles, as in that of a sagacious king.

The more laws and restrictions there are,
The poorer people become.
The sharper men’s weapons,
the more trouble in the land.
The more ingenious and clever people are,
The more strange things happen.
The more rules and regulations,
The more thieves and robbers.

Therefore the sage says:

I take no action and people are reformed.
I enjoy peace and people become honest.
I do nothing and people become rich.
I have no desires and people return to the good and simple life.

– Tao Te Ching 57

There is nothing complicated about subsidiarity. The sagacious king understands that the less he does to interfere with the people, the greater his revenues will be. In any other system than monarchy, the competition among the oligarchs – who are always with us – for state revenues will push taxes and regulations ever higher, impoverishing and depraving the people.

The satisfaction of the libertarian impulse, then, can lie only in the repudiation of libertarianism. Only if the King has unchallengeable authority to let go, or not, will there be any definite letting go.

What happens then?

A small country has fewer people.
Though there are machines that can work ten to a hundred times faster than man,
They are not needed.
The people take death seriously and do not travel far.
Though they have boats and carriages, no one uses them.
Though they have armor and weapons, no one displays them.
Men return to the knotting of rope in place of writing.
Their food is plain and good, their clothes fine but simple, their homes secure;
They are happy in their ways.
Though they live within sight of their neighbours,
And crowing cocks and barking dogs are heard across the way,
Yet they leave each other in peace while they grow old and die.

– Tao Te Ching 80

40 thoughts on “The King’s Liberty

  1. Interesting. Libertarianism is a bit of a complicated problem anyway. Usually you buy into Libertarianism because you understand that decentralization is a good idea. Then you buy out of Libertarianism when you realize decentralization of political power is a good idea, but decentralizing capital would also be a good idea and it seems that modern capitalism actually tends to have the opposite leaning, to centralize capital. This is where you become a Distributist…

    The debate between large economic systems shows what a mess modernity is.

    Back in the 19th century capitalism was often criticized by all sorts of people, left, right, center, and apolitical, and back then everybody understood that it is not free markets what are problematic, but great concentrations of capital, that distort free markets, or in other words, when people have to sell their labor, that is not quite the same as selling the products of their labor. Medieval Man would have more or less instantly realized the solution, such as a simple guild system with price floors where you can compete in quality only, but not price, which has a very strong decentralizing effect because quality – talent – doesn’t scale up, a gifted artisan cannot hire 1000 gifted employees.

    Instead, modernity came up with the idea of Socialism, which roughly means that if state power is centralized then it will somehow counter-balance the centralization of capital. This never really made sense.

    Then later on, Libertarians somehow totally forgot what the original problem was, namely capital concentration, and began to say that capitalism really equals just the opposite of the big socialist state.

    Really astounding.

    I mean during the most important economic debate for 150 years people are just not understanding that they are not talking about the same thing. How is that for some autism?

    • … you buy out of Libertarianism when you realize decentralization of political power is a good idea, but decentralizing capital would also be a good idea and it seems that modern capitalism actually tends to have the opposite leaning, to centralize capital. This is where you become a Distributist…

      Modern capitalism only tends to concentrate capital because it is state capitalism. If you want capital distributed Pareto optimally, just eliminate state subsidies and barriers to entry. It’s very simple.

      • Well, that is one of the important reasons.

        Another important reason is limited liability – back then it tooks a special royal charter to get one, as it was understood to be a dangerous tool.

        But there is also the problem that price and quality competition does not quite work the same way. If an artisan, a handicrafter is especially gifted, and makes high quality stuff, all that happens is that he can get a higher price, but he cannot increase his capacity by hiring mediocre workers therefore he leaves enough business for the mediocre artisans. But an artisan who can through some either wise and useful innovation or some kind of an uglier corner-cutting can make acceptably mediocre quality at a lower price, can easily outcompete others. Partially because the tastes and preferences of people are very different, but money is the same for everybody. Partially because this is easy to scale up.

        This is why guilds used to limit competition on price but not quality. A cost-saving innovation could put everybody else out of business, creating an army of proletarians, which it turn fuels demands for socialism. And the customers cannot really know if it is really a good innovation or a dangerous corner-cutting. This of course tended to retard technological progress, this is why it was discarded. The obvious solution to that would be sharing the cost-saving innovations with the whole guild and getting paid licence fees in return…

      • The obvious solution to that would be sharing the cost-saving innovations with the whole guild and getting paid license fees in return…

        This is already widely done. I don’t think a sagacious king would treat licensing – or patents and copyrights – very differently than we do now.

        I don’t see why competition on price should be disallowed. It doesn’t drive out competition on quality. Guilds are fine as a way of promoting a brand, from which consumers can learn to expect a certain degree of quality. But prohibiting competition on price is going to prevent the poorest people from obtaining the stuff they need at a level of quality they can afford. If an artisan is not skilled enough to produce high quality goods that can sell at a high enough price to support him, and he is also not skilled enough to produce lower-quality goods in a quantity sufficient to support him when sold at a low price, then perhaps he should get out of the business, and find a vocation where his skills can be put to better use.

        It is a mistake to deform the economy of production so as to solve a social problem, such as ignoble lives. Not all lives can be noble in the same way, nor need they be.

        My guess is that the society that cooked up organically under the light hand of a sagacious ruler would involve the renascence of the monastic estates, where those with no possibility of fending for themselves could find charitable, honorable refuge, and useful employment.

  2. An insight analogous to this has been incorporated into libertarian thought. It arguably doesn’t lead to the repudiation of libertarianism at all. Read “Democracy – The God That Failed” by Hans-Hermann Hoppe for a review of this.

    • Thanks – the book has been on my list for a while. I’ll try to get to it soon.

      “Repudiate” was not perhaps the right word. It has seemed to me for a long time that the correct and logical system of government would produce a society that would realize the hopes of all men, in such a way that in it they would see their own preferred political order exemplified.

      The libertarian can for example understand monarchical feudalism as the privatization of government. The socialist and distributist would be happy with the distribution of wealth and productive assets across the sort of society that a sagacious monarch would ordain; so would the laissez-faire capitalist; so would theocrats, traditionalists and social conservatives. The only people who might chafe under such an order, I suppose, would be anarchists and fascists.

      • The difficulty is telling monarchy from the Duvalier-type dictatorships which are so obviously dysfunctional. Not everything called monarchy is a real monarchy e.g. Saudi Arabia is not one.

        I mean for a real monarchy people should accept deep in their bones that unlike the dictator, the king is not a man of the people running a publicly owned government, but it is really, truly his, but on the other hand it must also be generally understood that the king must still run it in the benefit of the public, it is not a private plaything to be used capriciously.

        To the modern mind it is incredibly contradictory, and even myself am tainted with modernity enough to sort of find it hard to deal with it.

        Blogger Bonald began to deal with it in a good way unfortunately this is not really worked out fully yet. But yes, the idea that the modern concept of property itself is screwed up is probably the key. That my property should be understood not as a plaything that serves my whim, but things that were entrusted to my caretaking. But of course it cannot be entrusted to the king by the people, because then it is a public property so you have a president or a dictator, not a king.

        In other words, the “divine rights of kings” concept is probably unavoidable – the king as the owner of government must see ownership as trusteeship, but not trusteeship by the people. This doesn’t really leave any other options.

        Hoppe doesn’t get it… he just thinks the people will accept private government without any concept that even hints at it being used for the public good.

        Now if I don’t want to put God into the concept of government, as I don’t really, I end up with a different solution: tribalism. Sort of. The basic unit is the extended family, the clan, who has a leader who is trusted because of the blood relationship, plain simply. Because people can be expected to look after their kin and trust them. Extended families or clans form alliances, cement it by strategic marriages of the extended family leaders children, forming blood relations, and you get a tribe. The tribe can be democratic in the sense of led by a council of clan leaders, who may elect a chief. Same on a higher level, the country governed by a council of tribal chiefs, maybe by electing a king.

        Of course it means ending up being an Saga Iceland or todays Afghanistan, not exactly a sophisticated civilization. So it is not ideal to say the least.

  3. Well said. I lean quite libertarian, though I do balk at some aspects and personalities within it. That said, the strength of libertarianism, with political power and with capital, is that everything that emerges from it will be, at least relative to the current structure, organic – or, we papists might say – in harmony with Natural Law.

    Homosexual “marriage” and single-parent families and coercive taxation to fund abortion are all aspects of not too much freedom, but too little. The traditional family would flourish if we had a “free market” of families, because anything else is an untruth, supported with the guns of the state and the earnings-not-yet-earned by aborted grandchildren.

    • Homosexual “marriage” and single-parent families and coercive taxation to fund abortion are all aspects of not too much freedom, but too little.

      No, those social ills you listed are precisely due in large part to too much freedom. Conservative arguments are always so weak when they needlessly contort themselves within the ideological confines of libertarianism.

  4. In any other system than monarchy, the competition among the oligarchs – who are always with us – for state revenues will push taxes and regulations ever higher, impoverishing and depraving the people.

    I wonder why you think that just because you use the word “monarchy” and some individual happens to wear a crown, all the other people inside and outside the kingdom will just lie down for this state of affairs. Even a cursory study of history reveals that there are always challenges to the power of kings (usually from the aristocracy within or rival powers without). Competition for power is a human universal; it doesn’t go away just because the king thinks it should.

    In other words, you have a childish fairy-tale model of what monarchy is. If monarchy worked at all it was because the fairy tale held some power to compel belief in its mythology, but that is no longer the case. And I don’t believe that culture can go backwards any more than individuals can, as pleasant as living in childhood tales might be.

    • I wasn’t talking about any old king, but a sagacious king. The vassals of a sagacious king would find it in their best interests – economic, spiritual, moral – to optimize the return on the offices they found themselves fortunate enough to hold.

      Sagacious kings are rare, of course.

      The post was not in any case making the argument that monarchy is the ideal system of government. It was making the much narrower argument that libertarians might actually find their principles of government satisfied best by a sagacious monarchy.

      • Great. All we have to do is ensure that monarchs are sagacious, rather than the more typical inbred heirs of sociopathic thugs, and the problem of human polity is solved.

    • Humanity’s capacity to believe in childish mythologies is still going strong. This can be shown by the fact that people believe in something as ridiculous as democracy and that society was founded by a “social contract”. Never mind that only sociopaths get elected and most of the world’s democracies were founded by brutal power hungry thugs who were willing to murder masses of people over something as trivial as the price of tea of their leaders not being of the same ethnicity. Also never mind that Social contract theory is nothing but an irrational and unprovable speculation on the origins of the state that was shown to be nonsense by such far-right thinkers as David Hume, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. Even Rousseau and Kant admitted that the first social structure had to be the family and from there the only options for justifying state power are a web of contradictions and unprincipled exceptions or Monarchy. Furthermore as many people have said in many other places it is easier and more likely to get a wise Monarch than a wise populace. Though it does go somewhat against the article that the most benevolent monarchs are often the ones that face the most resistance.

      • Hah! Great comment Skeggy! I had been planning to say only something like, “well, anyone who thinks seriously that there is any such thing within the orbit of the moon as a solution to the problem of human polity is smoking some pretty good weed.” But you made it rather more concrete.

        ” … the most benevolent monarchs are often the ones that face the most resistance.”

        How could it be otherwise, under the orbit of the moon?

  5. I’m a libertarian, but I’d be happy to live under a sagacious monarch, a sagacious aristocracy, or a sagacious mob. Whatever works in practice not theory. But these things devolve in cycles.

  6. Kristor,
    The discussion presumes the truth of libertarianism–that the state evolved via the stationary bandit way and the Molgbugian idea of state as private property and the sovereign as the revenue-maximizer.

    All of these ideas I dispute. They are simply wrong and conflict with the classical understanding of the State and monarchy too. Moldbug has got hold of only a facet of the truth and he is treating this partial truth as the whole truth.

    • I’m not sure I agree with you about the presumptions implicit in the post – they certainly weren’t operative in me as I wrote, at least not in any simple way. But be that as it may, if you want to convince anyone, you’ll need to say more than “that’s wrong!” You’ll need to explain *what* is wrong with the ideas you criticize.

      • For instance, the king could be Defender of the Faith and thus obliged to interfere with non-economic matters. Indeed, States and kings have generally let non-economic factors overrule laissez-faire.

        Is there a single example of your sagacious king?

      • INRI.

        Lao Tse was describing the Peaceable Kingdom. It may not be attainable, but we can understand what it would be like, specify its characteristics, and imitate them. Ditto for sagacity.

      • A sovereign is legitimate if he acts for common good. In other words, the king must act kingly, in accord with the Way of the Kings. He simply can not intend at his revenue maximization.

        The neglect of the intentions of the actors is how the 18C trans-valuation of morals has proceeded. It leads to puzzles and paradoxes that entertain economists i.e. price gouging. Economically efficient but unpopular.

        And subsidiarity is a proper hierarchy of authority. It does not mean laissez-faire.
        Also, any discussion of subsidiarity without a concomitant discussion of solidarity is mischievous.

      • Nothing that I said conflicts with any of that. I rolled it all up into sagacity.

        One simply can’t specifically cover all the salient points with every single essay.

    • Bedarz, the post was not Plato’s Republic. It wasn’t even The Prince. It wasn’t trying to cover the whole territory, or conclude to the ideal form of government. It was a blog post of a couple paragraphs, making the extremely narrow argument that monarchy might be quite amenable to libertarians.

      To repeat, “One simply can’t specifically cover all the salient points with every single essay.”

      • I doubt very much if your argument could appeal to a libertarian. Their central problem is envy of the powerful men. They ask why a govt person should be able to do this and I can’t?

      • A libertarian has already commented on this (rather short) thread, saying he’d be happy to live under a sagacious king.

        You get libertarians wrong. They want, not to govern, but to be left alone and unmolested.

    • Richman’s essay does not at all vitiate the claim that libertarians “want, not to govern, but to be left alone and unmolested.” The sagacious sovereign – whether monarch, oligarchy, aristocracy, theocracy, or any sort of republic – will constrain the proper operations of the state in such a way as to attain optimality therein. Sagacious sovereignty will tend, i.e., to regulate its own activities so as to maintain the polis near the maximum of social order, righteousness, propriety, intelligence, efficiency, prosperity, etc. – and therefore state revenues – per quantum of state action. To put it yet another way, the sagacious sovereign will do that only which is most fitting and apt for the state, rather than for some other social actor, to undertake, and is both truly needful and important: as little as is prudent.

      Such is the basic argument of Lao Tse.

      That optimal amount of state action would please libertarians tremendously, because it would tend to focus the state on activities proper thereto, such as the maintenance of justice. It should also please traditionalists such as you and I, who wish that the state would at least, for the love of God, administer justice – its core function and justification, at which modern states fail egregiously, or which they even forthrightly reject (this being one of the main reasons there is such a thing as libertarianism in the first place).

      What we have now is the opposite of what both libertarians and traditionalists – or for that matter anyone with a head on his shoulders – would like to see. We have anarcho-tyranny. Basic justice and national defense – outward and inward aspects of Justice, construed as the phronesis of the sovereign – go begging, while the state monitors (and so, inevitably, regulates) our every inconsequential move, even our every utterance.

      The argument of the post is that monarchy is the form of government which is most likely to result in the practical sagacity of the sovereign. When the sovereign is a human being who finds that his personal prosperity and welfare (howsoever construed) depend directly upon those of his subjects, and who has power to order the polis toward those ends, there is a much higher likelihood that a righteous – and so, prosperous – social order will be ordained and maintained, than if there are many men all sharing directly in such results, each seeking at the margin to maximize his own benefices at the expense of his fellows.

      The post prescinds from any argument respecting the details of the monarchical establishment, or of the social organs that would be needed to support it.

      • “That optimal amount of state action would please libertarians tremendously”
        Either we have differing understandings of what libertarianism is Or you agree with libertarians as to the proper objects of state action.

        As I see it, the libertarianism, starting as it does from individuals that are autonomous and source of all authority, either in themselves or holding directly from God, regards nations as at best administrative (in)conveniences, and downright evil at the worst. The characteristic of libertarianism is denial of moral authority to particular self-ruling communities that nations are.
        The libertarian agrees only to protection of life and property as proper objects of state action. But the protection of life and property are pre-political matters in the sense that even a chance assembly of strangers, a cosmopolitan shipwreck for instance, one would justly expect the strangers to honor one’s life and property.

        More than that, the libertarians never agree. Thus, there is no politics in libertarian utopia, no deliberation on common good, since there isn’t any.

        Essentially, there is no sovereign justice in libertarian utopia, only justice is arbitrative –See David Friedman’s Machinery of Freedom.

      • I think the optimal amount of state action is far greater than what libertarians have typically thought can be justified. But it is so much less than what states have typically done, that I think most libertarians would be happy about their scope of action under a traditional monarchy. One of them has already said so, on this very thread.

        Libertarianism presupposes that most men left entirely to their own devices would behave as virtuous Christian gentlemen are expected to behave, so that social order would “percolate up” naturally from below. That might make sense, could conceivably happen, if we were quite a thoroughgoing Christian civilization. But we aren’t, anymore.

        So, unfortunately, we can no longer rationally expect a chance assemblage of strangers to honor each other’s life and property.

        There may be no way to provide men with the sort of liberty that libertarians cherish in the absence of a Christian civilization; and there may be no way to achieve a Christian civilization that does not involve formal adhesion of the organs of state power to a suprapolitical ecclesiastical authority, which has in turn legitimized the officers of that state power. For, where morality is not promulgated, and inculcated, and enforced (whether formally or not) as the ukase of a Divine Lawgiver (whether its rules be formalized in a legal order, or not), it quickly devolves to “whatever.” As we have seen. And when that happens, the self-regulation of men devolves to “self-expression.” Which then quickly devolves to social chaos, and poverty.

      • Libertarians cherish license and not liberty. The difference needs to be appreciated. It is not merely the ‘amount of state action’ but the question of legitimacy of state action.

        I feel that you are not taking libertarians seriously. Your think you merely have a quantitative argument with them. But no, they deny you the right to form a Christian or any commonwealth.

        Their slogan is Lose the We.

        I am not talking here of the entirely separate problem of Catholic state but of the possibility of a self-ruling authoritative community at all. The libertarian denies that the community can ever have authority over the individual. For him, the State has only powers that are delegated by the individuals for the sake of security. To him, state may exist only to help him enjoy his license and to secure his accumulations. There is no other end, either to an individual life or to the social life.

        He does not believe, either with the liberal, the importance of political freedom, or with classical authors, the final end of the State, the happiness, can consist of rational conversation.

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