A Short Word on Hans-Hermann Hoppe

I recently borrowed Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Democracy: The God that Failed from Henrik Sundholm. Henrik expected me to write a review of the book, but I told him I had nothing particularly intelligent to say about it. However there are a couple of points I would like to mention.

Hoppe’s main thesis is that hereditary monarchies are to be preferred over democracies. This does not mean that monarchy is the ideal social system, but merely that democracy is even worse. He has two main (interrelated) arguments for this.

The first argument is that monarchies are private governments. A monarch regards his nation as his own private property. Democracies are public governments. In a democracy, nobody owns the nation. Politicians who are elected for the highest offices only hold the nation in trust for a limited period of time; they always risk being ousted at the next election. And if there is anything we know about private vs. public property, it is that private property is always better managed than public property.

And the second argument is that monarchies have a lower degree of time preference than democracies – or, to say the same thing with different words, they are better at planning ahead for the future. Now, why is that so?

Everything else being equal, everybody’s time preference gets higher with old age, simply because there is less future to plan ahead for. If you are 80, 90 or 120 years old, you certainly have no incentive to save money, to take one obvious example. However, if you also have children and grand-children, and if you care for them at all, then you will make provisions that will help them in their future lives. This will tend to offset the high time preference.

And this applies to hereditary monarchies, simply because they are hereditary. The monarch cares not only about his own future but also about the coming generations of monarchs.

The exact opposite is true about the leaders in our democracies. They are extremely short-sighted. They cannot think or plan beyond the next election.

Does this sound plausible?

Most of the monarchies that exist today are monarchies in name only or, as I like to call them, decorative monarchies. The monarchs yield little, if any, real power. One exception I can think of is North Korea. North Korea is not called a monarchy, but in fact it is. The power of the leader is certainly hereditary.

Another example is Saudi Arabia (and some of the sultanates in that region).

But nobody, I hope, would claim that our existing democracies are even worse than North Korea or even Saudi Arabia. Hoppe’s reasoning just flies in the face of the facts.

The second point I want to take up flies even more in the face of the facts. He claims that monarchies are less warlike than democracies. Why is that? Well, because of their low time preference and their great foresight, monarchs won’t engage in war, unless it is totally necessary. And wars cost money, so waging war obviously impoverishes the nation and thus the monarch himself and his family. Furthermore, monarchs in times past did not rely on conscription for getting soldiers to fight[1]; they typically used mercenaries, and they have to be paid and well paid. Democracies rely on conscription and thus have no qualms about sending out young men to die on the battlefields.

Sounds very plausible, doesn’t it?

But it is certainly an established fact that democracies do not wage war against one another. (People who try to refute this thesis can only come up with some very minor skirmishes, such as the “cod wars” between Great Britain and Iceland. As far as I know, there wasn’t a single casualty in those “wars”.) Wars waged by democracies have always been against non-democracies.

Hoppe also claims that wars in the monarchical era were much more limited than wars in the modern era, and that they involved the civil population much less. In all fairness I should quote his reason for this:

Typically, monarchical wars arise out of disputes over inheritances brought on by a complex network of interdynastic marriages and the irregular but constant extinction of certain dynasties. As violent inheritance disputes, monarchical wars are characterized by territorial objectives. They are not ideologically motivated quarrels but disputes over tangible properties. Moreover, since they are interdynastic property disputes, the public considers war the king’s private affair, to be financed and executed with his own money and military forces. Further, as private conflicts between different ruling families the public expects and the kings feel compelled to recognize a clear distinction between combatants and noncombatants and to target their war efforts specifically against each other and their respective private property. (P. 34.)

And a couple of pages later:

In contrast, democratic wars tend to be total wars. […] It becomes more and more difficult for members of the public to remain neutral or to extricate themselves from all personal involvement. Resistance against higher taxes to fund a war is increasingly considered treachery and treason. Conscription becomes the rule, rather than the exception. And with mass armies of cheap and hence easily disposable conscripts […] all distinctions between combatants and noncombatants fall by the wayside, and wars become increasingly brutal. (P. 36f.)

There is a kernel of truth in this. Modern wars, such as the World Wars, have been far more devastating than earlier wars.[2] Conscription is certainly a factor here (and it goes without saying that conscription is profoundly immoral and a violation of the very right to life). But he does not mention the most important explanatory factor: that today we possess far more effective weapons than were available earlier. There were no nuclear weapons in those days, there were no machine guns, and there was no bombing from airplanes.

But it still remains true that democracies don’t wage war (much less then total war) against other democracies.

Now, democracy is certainly not the ideal social system. “Democracy” literally means majority rule and thus gives the majority the “right” to violate the rights of minorities, and – as Ayn Rand pointed out – the smallest minority on earth is the individual. The proper social system would be what is called a “constitutional republic” or simply “limited government”, a government that does nothing but protect individual rights. A constitutional republic was what the Founding Fathers of the US were striving for. It is not what we have today anywhere in the world, and the US has certainly deteriorated into a democracy. But whatever may be said against democracy, it still remains true that they don’t wage war against one another, so I would still say it is the second best alternative. It is infinitely better than the totalitarian alternatives.

But Hoppe does not believe in the possibility of a limited government. (I may have more to say about that later.)

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Hoppe’s idea, in a nutshell, is that the monarchical era (which was actually characterized by endless wars) was more peaceful than the democratic era (where wars, however devastating, are the exception rather than the rule). How does he arrive at this idea? The clue is a sentence in the beginning of his book:

A priory theory trumps and corrects experience (and logic overrules observation), and not vice versa. (p. xvi; emphasis Hoppe’s.)[3]

So if you can deduce from the fundamental fact of time preference that monarchies are peaceful and democracies warlike, then this trumps, corrects and overrules the observation that it is actually the other way around!

In all fairness I should say that Hoppe has many good things to say about the relationship of theory to practice. But this summary sounds like a reductio ad absurdum refutation of praxeology.

Theory (good theory, that is) explains experience – and “explain” certainly does not “trump”, “correct” or “overrule”. But the theorems of economic theory always come with the proviso ceteris paribus or “everything else being equal”. So if an economic theorem does not exactly match reality (or even contradicts reality), one has to look for the factor that is not equal. And that factor then should be explained by some other theorem. (I may have more to say about this another time; it requires some thought to be formulated more precisely.)

But to say that theory trumps, corrects and overrules experience is just to say that theory does not explain experience, but explains it away.

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This short word became rather long. And perhaps I even had something intelligent to say.

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Update May 11: There is also some discussion of this on Facebook.

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Update June 1: In the comments section it has been said that it was unfair of me to use North Korea as an example, since North Korea is a dictatorship, not a monarchy. But is there any essential difference between absolute monarchy and a modern, family-ruled dictatorship? In both cases, the state – the apparatus of compulsion and coercion, the police, military and courts – is owned by the ruler and his immediate family; and it is certainly hereditary.

But there is another point worth mentioning: Not all monarchies in the monarchical age were absolute. For example, France under Louis XIV was an absolute monarchy; but Great Britain, at least after the Glorious Revolution, was not: the power was divided between the king and the parliament. By Hoppe’s reasoning, this was a step in the wrong direction – a step on the slippery slope to democratization. If the power is partly vested in the parliament, then it is no longer private ownership of the state; it is at least partly public ownership.

And if Hoppe were right on this, one would actually accept better economic conditions and more progress in France than in Great Britain during this period. But the Industrial Revolution first took hold in Great Britain, not in France.

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Update 27 November 2013: Peter Cresswell has written a blog post called All you need to read on Hans-Hermann Hoppe. Ever, with a link to my posts about Hoppe:

My advice is you don’t waste your time reading [his] slop, unless (as Per-Olof Samuelsson has done) it’s just as an exercise in extracting logical fallacies.

At the risk of some repetition, I quote my own comment:

To be fair to Hoppe, he does not claim that monarchy is the ideal system, “only” that it is superior to democracy and that democracy represents a deterioration. Not that this makes his reasoning much better… To what I wrote in my first blog post, I might add the following:

First, when Hoppe speaks about monarchy being superior to democracy, he has to mean absolute monarchy – since only an absolute monarch could regard his country as his own private property, and that is his main argument for its superiority. A constitutionally limited monarchy will not do – since in such a monarchy, there is some division of powers between monarch and parliament – and the parliament represents the people, or at least some significant part of the people. A constitutionally limited monarchy is thus a step toward democracy, and thus, by Hoppe’s own “rigorous logic”, a deterioration. [Well, that was actually a repetition.]

Second, if the whole country is the monarch’s private property, then obviously nobody else in that country could own private property. At best, they could have some property by the monarch’s permission, a permission he could at any time revoke at his own discretion. There would be no right to property for anyone else. At worst, everybody would work for the monarch as cattle slaves – and serve as cannon fodder in those wars the monarch has to wage to protect his property from other absolute monarchs.

In short, Hoppe’s reasoning is a mess – a rigorously logical mess, to be sure, but a mess nonetheless.

One could say the same thing about Hoppe as Böhm-Bawerk says about Marx:

His system is not in close touch with the facts.

And:

… he founds it on no firmer ground than a formal dialectic …

And:

The system runs in one direction, facts go in another; and they cross the course of the system sometimes here, sometimes there, and on each occasion the original fault begets a new fault. (Karl Marx and the Close of His System, p. 101; also published in Shorter Classics of Böhm-Bawerk, p. 287.)


[1]) This is a truth with some modification. I don’t know about every country, but Sweden, in the 30 Year War, relied heavily on conscription; recruiters were sent out to the villages in Sweden to pick one soldier from every village. This later was replaced by a standing army system, called “indelningsverket” (there is no good English translation for this term).

[2]) According to Wikipedia, WWII has been the most devastating war in terms of casualties; and WWI takes fifth place. In the places between, Wikipedia lists the An Shi Rebellion in China (755–763), the Mongol conquests of the 13th century, and the Ching dynasty conquest of the Ming dynasty (1616–1662). But I think statistics from those early periods have to be taken with a big grain of salt.

[3]) Kudos to Henrik Sundholm for marking this very sentence in the margin.

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