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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24 Responses to A Short Word on Hans-Hermann Hoppe

  1. Per Bylund says:

    “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.”

    This is certainly a cheap shot. I’m sure Hoppe was referring to a comparison between the political systems, i.e. the differences due to the type of political rule (in other words, ceteris paribus). Or does he really say that the thesis monarchy-is-better-than-democracy is always and ever true no matter in what forms?

    • What’s the difference? That the North Korean monarchy did not develop out of an earlier state the way old-time monarchies did? I have thought of that counter-objection – but then, how does it apply to Saudi Arabia, where hereditary monarchy has been established since a long time?

      • Per Bylund says:

        No, I don’t think any of the North Korean stuff is relevant, actually. I’m just saying that it is not obvious that Hoppe says that *all* monarchies are [always] better than *all* democracies. He does say that monarchy, the political system, is better than democracy for several reasons, but this does not necessarily mean you can extrapolate from such a statement on general[ized] characteristics to applying it to specific cases. It does not necessarily mean that any kind of monarchy is better than any kind of democracy.

        But note that I am interpreting primarily your review, not Hoppe’s book (I’ve only read excerpts). My experience is that Hoppe seems to enjoy provoking just for the sake of provoking, so maybe he does say that all monarchies are always better than all democracies after all. However, it seems to me such a statement is way too strong to be true (even for Hoppe).

      • He doesn’t say that, but neither does he say that there are exceptions to the rule that monarchies are better. (Neither, by the way, does he say that the solution is a return to monarchy.)

      • Also, I don’t think he wrote this book merely to provoke.

  2. curtd59 says:

    I think you’re making an awfully subjective analysis implying that your own observation is sufficient measure of the differences. When philosophy, science and history exist as fields precisely to correct our predisposition to such a cognitive bias.

    Hoppe’s thesis is that monarchies created all sorts of capital accumulation, were more liberal, more egalitarian, at lower tax rates, with less warfare, with less debt, without exposing the citizens to as much economic risk.

    His thesis is born out by the facts.

    The problem you’re running into, which most people do, is attributing to democracy what is the result of monarchy, rule of law, the harnessing of fossile fuels, and the industrial revolution. Democratic republicanism did not create these things: DEMOCRATIC REPUBLICANISM IS A LUXURY MADE POSSIBLE BY THOSE THINGS.

    As Nial Ferguson says “democracy is a luxury good”. It’s also how we reverse a thousand years of what made the west unique, and we consume in little more than a century the principles of the civil society that made our civilization possible.

    Next, hoppe’s argument against democracy must be seen in context of his argument in favor of insurance companies rather than state bureaucracies. It’s not that we can’t have all the things we desire. It’s that, as Mises, Rothbard and Michels all demonstrated, bureaucracy is the source of political problems. Privatize the bureaucracy, and you privatize the government.

    • Is it true that there was less warfare in monarchical times? And more capital accumulation? Big question marks in my mind.

      • curtd59 says:

        Well, again,

        Hoppe is talking about constructing a private government that respects private property. He is advancing a set of solutions to the problem of bureaucracy and the short time horizons of politicians. The question is how MUCH of his examples ever really existed, vs how much could exist.

        Certainly napoleon with his invention of ‘total war’, combined with the ability of such a bureaucratic state to borrow money in order to conduct wars far outstretched that of the monarchies. Democracies by contrast have not proven less war like. They are more so. And on a broader scale.

        The persistent wars of europe were wars of empire, not small states like bavaria, Liechtenstein, denmark and switzerland, or the 300 princedoms that made up greater germany. (Which is the conceptual model Hoppe is working from.)

        Peace is the product of wealthy periods. The industrial revolution kicks in during the 1830’s. The german petty states started to unify as a reaction to napoleon’s invasions. The ‘state’ developed and the german state developed from as a consequence. The state used war to destroy european civilization along with the monarchies. A state wich europe is only now beginning to emerge from, and requiring our protection for more than half a century to do it.

        As Hoppe states, under the Tzars, russia had unions and political parties. As did most of the monarchies. Monarchy isn’t dictatorship. That isn’t the point hoppe’s making. It’s ownership of the institutions of government, and the incentives that ownership gives to monarchs (capitalization and saving) versus politicians (consumption of accumulated capital and spending). he’s arguing that democracy is just a vast tragedy of the commons. Where those monarchs are limited by natural law: property rights.

        For example, North Korea is not a monarchy it’s a dictatorship. A monarch in christendom must operate under the church’s limitations. This included natural law, and finally rule of law. (It also included a prohibition on intermarriage, which gave us the high trust society and the nuclear family that caused it.) The monarchs tried to subvert the limits on their rule, but it took the napoleonic code to do that. This is one of the reasons british colonies and french colonies have produced such different results: rule of common law versus rule by law. And this is what democracies are undermining: they’re undermining rule of law by converting it to rule by law– subverting the constitution here in the states for example.

        It’s pretty obvious that europe is a vast open air museum to the success of the monarchies. It’s obvious that monuments are of high value to following generations. It’s pretty obvious that killer apps of the west are the product of the monarchical system under christendom: division of power, competition, rule of law, science, arts, medicine. It’s pretty obvious that taxation is far higher today.

        Hoppe’s argument is made in the context of how we can create a superior form of government assuming that we want freedom and prosperity rather than subjugation by the state bureaucracy. He’s just substituted the one-law of property rights for the constitution and natural law. He’s held onto the common law, and the private government. He’s added insurance companies to provide services that the state generally has provided. and he’s shown that in many ways, private industry CAN supply even policing and defense.

        So he isn’t as much saying that the way monarchy existed was ideal, but that just that it had many more of the features that create freedom and prosperity than does the corporeal bureaucratic state. And that it is easier to improve that monarchical framework than improve democracy, because people in monarchies have the right incentives and people in democracies have the wrong incentives: the tragedy of the commons.

        (Sorry I’m not with it this morning so I’m not making a cohesive argument. I need some coffee.)

        • OK. – On my Swedish blog I have a comment rule that people should not try to convert me to their own ideas. For example, they should not try to convince me of the existence of God, the superiority of fractional reserve banking over a 100% metallic standard, or the superiority of anarcho-capitalism over limited government. Those are issues I have already discussed ad nauseam before, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life discussing them again. So if you think I have had nothing intelligent to say, please leave it at that.

      • Of course, I have myself to blame for bringing Hoppe up in the first place – although I didn’t go into his anarcho-capitalist solution. I ought to keep my mouth shut!

      • Also, if I really want to be converted, I can convert myself.

      • curtd59 says:

        Well I don’t know you. I don’t know any of that history. All I know of you is this one article. And as a member of Hoppe’s little society, I’m trying to explain his ideas.

        Like you said you opened it up. I just responded.

        I’m not trying to convert anyone. I just do my job of making sure his turgid Germanic prose is not misconstrued such that more harm is done than good by it.

        Good luck in your travels.

        Curt

    • PS. I cannot help noting that the period between 1815 and 1914 (from the Napoleonic wars to WWI) was a period of relative peace, at least compared to what went on before. This was also a period during which monarchical rule was waning and parliamentarism was waxing.

  3. curtd59 says:

    And, for that matter, what Per Bylund said. 🙂

  4. I notice I have left out some modern day monarchies. Some of the European microstates, like Monaco, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg are monarchies (while, for example, San Marino is a republic). This might be relevant, since Hoppe hopes that all Europe in the future will consist of such microstates. And there is something to say in favor of this idea. Small nations won’t wage big wars.

  5. Per Nilsson says:

    One fundamental flaw with Hoppe’s argument is that it relies a lot on assumptions about time preferences. I don’t buy the psychologizing behind this – and I don’t think it is a valid from a scientific point of view. We are supposed to believe that Christians, family providers and monarchs have low time preferences – while an atheist / bachelor-by-choice (like myself!) ought to have a high time preference.

    That sounds arbitrary to me. The psychological motivations behind thrift and frugality are far more complex.

    • I don’t remember him saying that Christians have a lower time preference than atheists. (I think he is right about family providers, as I said in my original post, but anyway this is a case of “everything else being equal”, and there are to many “non-equals” in this equation.)

    • Speaking of family providers: Ludwig von Mises had no children of his own. If he had, he would have devoted more of his time to earning money and less on just writing bout money. We ought to be grateful he didn’t have children.

      (Not a serious comment, but one has to make jokes sometimes. Or at least I have to.)

  6. There is one distinction Hoppe never mentions at all, and that is the distinction between “absolute monarchy” and “constitutionally limited monarchy”. In an absolute monarchy the power is vested in the monarch himself and his family and his closest advisors. It is much akin to a modern dictatorship. In a constitutionally limited monarchy the power is divided between the monarch and the parliament. And one thing I would like to ask Hoppe is which of these kinds of monarchy he actually has in mind?

    France, in l’ancien régime, prior to 1789, was an absolute monarchy; Great Britain, at least since the Glorious Revolution in 1688, was a constitutionally limited government, where much, if not most, of the power was vested in the parliament. Great Britain also was the country where the Industrial Revolution first took hold. That parliamentarism was the only factor behind this is certainly to go too far, but I think it was one factor. And one thing is certain: it did not start in France.

    I can take Sweden as an example, being a Swede. Sweden has had two periods of absolute monarchy: the “Carolinian” period, which ended in 1718 with a complete disaster (Sweden lost the Great Nordic War against Russia), and the “Gustavian” period (1772–1809), which ended when Sweden lost Finland to Russia and we got a constitution that limited monarchy. The period in between (1721–1772) is actually called the “Age of Freedom” in our history books, and during this period the political power was vested in the parliament and the kings had hardly any power at all. It was a kind of democracy. (And there were two political parties vying for power during this whole period; they had funny names: they were called the “hats” and the “caps”.)

    The period before 1721 was characterized by endless wars, from the 30 Year War to the Great Nordic War, and some wars with Denmark in between. The “Age of Freedom” was relatively peaceful (there were a couple of wars with Russia). (It was also a period of scientific progress in Sweden.)

    The second period of absolutism ended with Sweden losing Finland in a war with Russia; the monarch was ousted, and we got a constitution that again divided the power between the king and the parliament. And since then Sweden has not been involved in a single war.

    Today, of course, Sweden is not a constitutional monarchy but a “decorative monarchy”; the king has absolutely no power. This has been achieved step by step: more and more power to the parliament, less and less to the king.

    Anyway: If democracies (and not their totalitarian adversaries) have been responsible for modern wars, then how is the peace Sweden has enjoyed since 1809 to be explained?

  7. Per Bylund says:

    I just happened to come across this quote (which to some sources is more of a paraphrase) from Voltaire: “The ideal form of government is dictatorship tempered by assassination.” I don’t know whether Hoppe cites Voltaire, but the reasoning seems to me quite similar: a monarch may have a more long-term interest in his/her kingdom, yet is limited in their exercise of power through the threat of being taken out if pushing too far.

    • curtd59 says:

      Yes Peter, that is one of Hoppe’s arguments. You can kill an errant king — many are killed by their families — but you can’t kill a dysfunctional bureaucracy. A king has long term interests in accumulating all forms of capital in the country. A politician short term, creating a tragedy of the commons.

  8. As my lady-friend just pointed out to me, the least war-like nation i Europe has been Switzerland; and Switzerland has been a republic ever since it was founded.

    • curtd59 says:

      What about Liechtenstein then? It can make the same claim.

      The issue is not so much the form of government independent of the size of the state, but the maximum size and diversity of population that any government we now know of can serve to administer.

      The left has what appears to be an inherited genetic predisposition to the False Consensus Bias. But while there are things on which we agree, there are demonstrably many things upon which we cannot agree. And since this agreement comes down to a matter of preference not a matter of truth, and the application of violence by government cannot be justified in favor of tastes, then these conflicts cannot be resolved through democratic government.

      Governments are best when states are small. That is the single most important bit of wisdom we can learn from european history. Small states can be homogenous and as homogenous they can be egalitarian.

      • (Deep sigh…) Hoppe’s main thesis and theoretical starting point is that monarchies are preferable to republics/democracies because they are *privately owned governments*. This thesis is used to explain a host of other phenomena, including the (alleged) relative peacefulness of monarchies. Switzerland is too obvious a counter-example to be missed.

        True, Hoppe also prefers small nation states (such as Liechtenstein) to big nation states. I’m sympathetic to this idea, since small states can only make small trouble and engage in small wars. (I doubt, however, that it is realistic to hope that a Europe consisting of such states is attainable.) But this is not his main thesis or theoretical starting point.

        I should also say that the main reason Switzerland has not been engaged in wars is not that it is a republic and would hold true even if it were a monarchy. The reason is that Switzerland is extremely difficult to invade. There are simply too many mountains. (That Switzerland has not bothered to invade other countries, on the other hand, may have something to do with republics not being keen on fighting wars over succession.)

        I will now close the comments on this post. I do not want to waste time and effort on a marathon debate where I have to explain the obvious over and over again. It just makes me tired.

        I greatly admire Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk for his patience; but it is an ideal I am not able to live up to myself.

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