The errors of Hans-Hermann Hoppe
Publshed in Open Republic Magazine (Dublin), Vol. 1, No. 2 (October 2005)
This article is based on a speech delivered to the ISIL World Freedom Summit 2005 in Gummersbach/Germany, July 17, 2005.
The libertarian world has been debating the ideas of Hans-Hermann Hoppe for many years now, especially after he published his controversial book ‘Democracy – The God that Failed’. I recently had the chance to find out more about Hans-Hermann Hoppe at a seminar that took place right here at the Theodor-Heuss-Akademie in Gummersbach. The main reason for taking part was to get to know more about Hoppe’s philosophy. Sometimes it is hard to judge someone only by what he writes, and it is definitely a lot easier to understand a person if you spend three days in discussions with him. I must say that this is exactly how it was when I met and experienced Hans-Hermann Hoppe at the earlier Gummersbach seminar. Now, to be precise, the experience was a rather shocking one because at the end of these three days I was sure that Hoppe’s theories embody the very opposite of liberal core values.
Now, of course nobody would be surprised if Hoppe, the self-confessed libertarian anarcho-capitalist, would be criticised by socialists or communists, i.e. if they had ever heard of him. But this is unlikely as Hoppe is virtually unknown outside radical liberal and libertarian circles although some of his followers may wish to believe so. I think it makes sense if I briefly outline my own position so you know what is the background of my critique of Hoppe’s positions. By the way, those of you who read German will soon be able to find an essay about Hoppe’s errors which will be published shortly. I have written this article with my friend Bijan Nowrousian, and should there be an interest in making it accessible to a wider audience I would be happy to translate it to have it republished in an English language publication.
But back to my personal political convictions: I confess to the principles of classical liberalism, the philosophy of Locke, Smith, Hume, Mises and Hayek. The freedom of the individual and the protection of property rights are the foundations of their and of my thinking. It is precisely because I regard these values to be of such fundamental importance, that I have doubts about Hoppe’s worldview. Although Hoppe claims to stand for the same values, I consider his theories and strategies neither appropriate nor helpful. As Hoppe himself has chosen the classical liberals to be the butt of his attacks – the title of one his lectures was “The errors of classical liberalism” – he should not be surprised to meet with protest from them. The fact that he has not yet received much decided opposition from this angle, does not mean that Hoppe’s position would be unassailable. Rather it means that his theories have not yet spread beyond the circle of his disciples.
Before I criticise Hoppe, I wish to state that I often find myself in agreement with Hoppe’s analyses of the state of Western democracies. When Hoppe describes how the state that was supposed to protect the property of its citizens has become a threat to secure property rights, he is right – and liberals since John Locke would agree with his analysis. When Hoppe criticises that democracy is prone to be used by groups to push ahead their own interests, then he is right – and liberals like James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock would argue in a very similar way. When Hoppe analyses how a state-enforced monopoly of paper money destroys money, he is right again, and liberals like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich August von Hayek had reached similar conclusions decades before Hoppe. Insofar, Hoppe’s economic reasoning is not at all outside the mainstream of liberal thought.
If Hoppe confined himself to describing and analysing the world as it is: He would be one of many good, liberal economists. But apparently, he would not be satisfied with such a role, and thus he ventures into the spheres of political philosophy and jurisprudence to develop and sketch an alternative to the deplorable state of Western democracies. But there Hoppe loses his razor-sharp analytical brilliance which made him a good economist, and all he does is indulge himself in highly abstract speculations about alternative social systems. He leaves the foundations of classical liberalism far behind and so his thinking is quite literally losing ground.
Let me just summarize Hoppe’s vision briefly: His alternative to democracy means to generalise the efficiencies of the market and to impose a new social system onto society. Hoppe calls this state the ‘natural order’. This is nothing less than a complete privatisation of life. His assumption is that in such a society possible conflicts would either not arise in the first place or be resolved by institutions like insurance companies. Of course, anarcho-capitalism is not a new idea and it was not invented by Hoppe either. But it was Hoppe who combined anarcho-capitalism with a cultural ultra-conservatism, and it is this combination which makes his theory so explosive. One may well discuss the pros and cons of anarchism without having to refer to Hoppe, but it would be hard to understand and discuss Hoppe’s ‘natural order’ without evaluating his ideas about the functioning of an anarcho-capitalist society. Therefore, my critique is a critique of Hoppe’s idea of anarcho-capitalism, not of other anarchists.
It remains Hoppe’s secret what is ‘natural’ about this ‘natural order’. Usually, we call things natural which are nature-given. Thus a bird is natural, but a plane is not. But what is natural about a social system which has never existed? With the same justification communists could label their kind of utopia a ‘natural social order’ because it matches their ideas of human nature. But this is precisely the problem: Just like the social systems of socialism and communism were nothing but armchair theories, Hoppe’s system is the mere result of his own theoretical considerations. Essentially, Hoppe presents himself as a constructivist as he is ignoring grown, historical realities and then replaces them by his own thought experiments. Wasn’t this how communist ideologues proceeded as well? Wasn’t it Hayek’s main criticism of socialist thinking that ideologues believed they could deliberately create a better order for society? And finally: If Hoppe envisages a society based entirely on mutually voluntary contractual agreements, doesn’t he need ‘a new man’ to make this vision work? Does Hoppe seriously believe that imperfect, often irrational and not always moral people can be integrated into a voluntary society, free of any kind of coercion without endangering the freedom and property rights of other individuals? Centuries of contractual theories of society from Hobbes to Nozick make Hoppe’s vision seem rather naïve. Hoppe’s implicit consequence would require the development not only of a new social system, but also a new society and new human beings for this society. So far, it has always been the goal of totalitarian ideologies to create ‘the new man’, and the similarities with Hoppe’s ideas are too amazing to be overlooked.
Hoppe’s constructivism is the result of his methodological approach. Hoppe is a representative of pure apriorism, i.e. the assertion that scientific and academic truths can be deduced by employing pure logic, void of any empirical substantiation. This may indeed be possible to some degree: Nobody would voluntarily enter into a contractual agreement if he believed that it would make him worse off. Or another example: It is not possible to create wealth simply by printing paper money although many people may still believe so. In such cases, it is possible to show that there is an irrefutable economic logic, which is true regardless of empirical facts. Apriorism has a role to play in economics, although I think this should not stop economists from checking their theoretical findings and comparing them with the real world around themselves. After all, economists are not infallible and could have overlooked something in their theories.
Now, Hoppe tries to apply his economic method of apriorism to social philosophy. But such transfers of method are never without problems, and it is ironic that it has always been Hoppe himself who has warned of applying the methods of the natural sciences to economic problems. But what does Hoppe do himself? He commits precisely the same mistake by exaggerating his economic apriorism and using it to analyse society. This must fail as Hoppe’s social theory is based on a kind of society which does not exist and in fact has never existed. On this basis one can of course do thought experiments, but these thought experiments will never be more practicable or realistic than the premises on which they rest. And thus Hoppe can do little more than to philosophize in a highly abstract and theoretical manner about a ‘natural order’ without letting empirical facts get in his way. Interestingly, however, he loves to use historical examples of state failures to illustrate his theories, i.e. he uses empirical results where they fit into his views, but ignores all other historical and current realities. This way of selective perception is typical of him, and what follows is just black and white thinking: The state is bad, and ‘natural order’ is always superior to it. I think that such reasoning is inappropriate in science. Science means more than perceiving reality as long as it fits into a model preferred by the scientist.
If Hoppe’s methodology is misguided already, his argumentation does not get better by being presented in a misleading and ambiguous way. I am afraid that this is not accidental but part of a strategy to reach a certain target group. We all remember the controversy about Hoppe’s remarks about homosexuals: In one of his courses at the University of Nevada he mentioned that homosexuals had a lower time preference and that this fact was part of the background of Keynesian, short-sighted economic policies. Although Hoppe stressed that there is no element of homophobia in this statement, latent homophobes will think they have found an ally in Hoppe. Or take the famous paragraph from his Democracy book: “There can be no tolerance toward democrats and communists in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and expelled from society. Likewise, in a covenant founded for the purpose of protecting family and kin, there can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal. They – the advocates of alternative, non-family and kin-centered lifestyles such as, for instance, individual hedonism, parasitism, nature-environment worship, homosexuality, or communism – will have to be physically removed from society, too, if one is to maintain a libertarian order.” Of course, in the wider context of this paragraph Hoppe explains that he only referred to private settlements ruled under covenants, but again as an anti-democrat, anti-communist or homophobe you could just as well think that Hoppe shares your point of view. I think Hoppe tries to attract a certain group of followers from which he can distance himself quite easily with a simple denial. But if you have a clear point of view then that should make it possible to argue in a way which will rule out any possible misunderstandings from the outset, especially if you are a good writer such as Hoppe. Therefore I do not believe that these are accidental ambiguities but attempts to reach his target groups.
And indeed, one would not be surprised if Hoppe did not mind anti-communist, anti-democrat and homophobe followers. Quite on the contrary, Hoppe sees himself as a conservative. He recently claimed that true conservatives had to be radical libertarians if they took seriously the values they believed in, especially family and religion. So by definition conservatives become libertarians with whom Hoppe wants to enter into coalitions – which means coalitions with oneself. Strangely enough, Hoppe is immediately turning around this argument. At the earlier Gummersbach seminar he said he was disgusted by ‘these sex, drugs & Rock’n’Roll’-libertarians. Apparently he meant other libertarians who did not share Hoppe’s social values. I am asking myself how a liberal or libertarian can deny other individuals the right to live their lives according to their own preferences as long as they respect the lives and property of others. But in Hoppe’s world there would be no room for people who prefer to live in homosexual relations, consume drugs and listen to rock music – even if that would not affect Hoppe at all. What freedom is this that dictates certain moral values to the members of society? Hasn’t it always been the hallmark of liberal thinking to be tolerant towards alternative ways of life? But where is that tolerance in Hoppe’s worldview? The way in which he deals with his cultural ideas does not make him look like a friend of liberal values. Rather, Hoppe seems to be a conservative at best and a reactionary or totalitarian at worst.
As I said earlier, Hoppe’s ideas are utopian in nature. In no other field can we see this as clearly as in the way he deals with crime and violence. There could be some arguments made against his claim that the core function of criminal law is to compensate the victim of a crime. Indeed, we are pointing out in our essay why Hoppe is wrong on this account, and if you are interested we could discuss this point later. But there is another fundamental weakness in Hoppe’s theory of how to tackle crime. Basically, what he says is that by assigning these tasks to insurance companies it is possible to privatise policing. Implicitly, Hoppe also assumes that the level of crime will be reduced under this new ‘natural order’ because firstly private security companies were better than our current system of police, public prosecutors and state criminal courts and secondly there would be less an incentive to commit criminal acts if that endangered the contractual relation with one’s insurance company. Implicitly this means that Hoppe believes that once the state is gone, there will hardly be violence and crime in the world. Clear proof of that is Hoppe’s factual abolition of criminal law in his natural order.
Now, Hoppe’s theory of crime is as wrong as his whole methodology. As a starting point let us deal with his main assertion that the state is dangerous because it is a constant threat to individual property rights. Of course, this statement is true because indeed the state often violates the individuals’ rights to the enjoyment of their property. But the statement is only true if you understand it correctly. The state as such cannot violate any right simply because it does not exist. Yes, you heard it right: It does not exist. The state is – like all legal entities – only a legal fiction, and legal fictions do not and cannot act. Acting is something that only natural persons – people – can do, and therefore if the state seems to act it only does so through its agents. This should not surprise an advocate of methodological individualism like Hoppe. But human beings are ambivalent creatures, capable to do good and evil. Why should human beings lose their capability to do evil just because the legal fiction of the state disappears? This alone would not affect human nature. Of course, Hoppe is right when he points out that the state can be abused by some people to do evil and if there was no state there could not be such a kind of abuse. But to believe that this would make the world a more peaceful place is doubtful for two reasons: Firstly, crime and violence that currently exist outside of the state would continue to exist for who should effectively fight them after we have abolished criminal law and reduced it to some kind of compensation mechanism? Secondly, and more dangerously, there would be new ways of abusing power in Hoppe’s world, namely in the form of insurance companies. How would Hoppe guarantee that insurance companies would not degenerate and become mafia-like structures that begin to threaten other individuals and extort protection money? Why should someone who abuses his power as Prime Minister, Chancellor or President not abuse his power when he becomes the CEO of an insurance company? On the first point, Hoppe does not seem to have an answer at all. On the second point, he would probably say that such things could not happen as there would be competing insurance companies and that would guarantee that they would not degenerate. After all, customers could just change the insurance company they are with. But how would that make any difference? Imagine the following case: The restaurant owner X is threatened by his insurance company A. He now turns to insurance company B to seek help. But what should B do? If it has an armed force – like company A – it could attack A with the result of a small civil war. If it does not have an armed force or if its armed forces are weaker than A’s troops, it could only advise X to move to a faraway country, i.e. if company A lets him go.
To say it with the philosopher Ernst Jünger: Hoppe’s theory overlooks the reality of machine guns. If Hoppe ignores the simple fact that violence and crime always originate from human beings, not from legal entities, this underlines how illusionary his whole theory is. Hoppe wants to solve every possible problem by the free market. But he does not see that the market can only be free if somebody keeps it free from violence and crime. And this somebody cannot be a company in this market because the free market has to exist and be free before a company can act as a part of it. There always has to be someone who removes company A from the market if A becomes a criminal and violent threat to others. Fighting violence and crime is absolutely necessary to make individual freedom possible. But doing so can never work if the criminal and the victim were legally on the same level. There has to be a clear order of competences to guarantee individual liberties. By overlooking this single fact, Hoppe in fact overlooks nothing less than the impracticability of his whole theory.
If the state disappears, this does not mark the end of violence and crime, but the end of protection from violence and crime: When Somalia ceased to exist as a state, what followed was not the utopian ‘natural order’ but the rule of the machine gun with hundreds of thousands of fatalities. This shows why all great Liberals have supported the existence of a minimal state. This is not a theoretical inconsistence, as Hoppe may believe. No, it is a perhaps somewhat resigned if fundamentally correct insight into human nature. Hoppe’s natural order has nothing to with this human nature. And therefore he should not call it natural, either. Hoppe should have a look at what Ludwig von Mises wrote, the same Ludwig von Mises that Hoppe – and myself – admire. Mises said that anarchism could only be practised in a world of angels and saints, and if I may quote from his book ‘Liberalism – In the Classical Tradition’: “Liberalism is not anarchism, nor has it anything whatsoever to do with anarchism. The liberal understands quite clearly that without resort to compulsion, the existence of society would be endangered and that behind the rules of conduct whose observance is necessary to assure peaceful human cooperation must stand the threat of force if the whole edifice of society is not to be continually at the mercy of any one of its members. One must be in a position to compel the person who will not respect the lives, health, personal freedom, or private property of others to acquiesce in the rules of life in society. This is the function that the liberal doctrine assigns to the state: the protection of property, liberty, and peace.” Why is it so difficult for Hoppe to accept this Misesian insight?
Hoppe loves to simplify and distort existing problems until they fit into his limited worldview. One could call this a methodological trick, but it is a cheap trick indeed, which is easy to see through. Let me give you another example for Hoppe’s strategy to deal with problems of the real world. Hoppe reduces all possible conflicts between individuals to conflicts of property. In other words: The political element of conflicts is not present in Hoppe’s world, which means that everything can be sorted out by private contractual agreements. But is this true? Think of cultural and religious conflicts for example. The conflict between militant Islamism and the West is not a conflict between states. Al-Quaida is a good example of a non-government, non-state grassroots movement – although one of the worst kinds. Why should terrorists stop hating the West if Syria and the USA have both disappeared but Coca-Cola and sexy women’s clothing are still being sold in the Islamic world? The Islamists would still condemn this as they think it collides with God’s order. So what does this mean for Hoppe’s assertion that all conflicts are conflicts about property rights? It would only be true if all political conflicts were conflicts about property rights, which also means that all political conflicts would in fact be individual conflicts. But what is a political conflict? A political conflict is defined as a conflict between groups of people and that is more than a clash of individuals. Of course, groups do not act – only individuals do. But from that does not follow that groups are irrelevant. They are as relevant as the state is today. Because the sense of belonging to a group will direct the individuals’ behaviour in a way that will make it impossible to deal with it as a pure property rights conflict.
One could of course argue that in theory it is possible to reduce every possible conflict to a property conflict. Why shouldn’t Afghan Islamists let every woman decide whether she wants to wear a burqa or a tank top? After all, it is the woman’s life and property. In practice, however, the Islamist will not be impressed by Hoppe’s words of wisdom and rather keep on threatening to stone the woman if she does not do what he wants. The reduction of all conflicts to property conflicts is only possible as long as those involved agree that they should be solved as property conflicts. But in practice this is not likely. Why should the Islamist play by Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s rules anyway? And why shouldn’t he threaten the woman with stoning after Hoppe has just abolished the police that could stop him from doing so?
So how does Hoppe deal with cultural and group conflicts in his model? On the one hand, they have a role to play in a world without the state. After all, only such groups can offer a kind of guidance to individuals, which human beings often need. And Hoppe explicitly acknowledges this fact. But once there is a conflict between groups, suddenly all these groups disappear in Hoppe’s theory and we are left with a world full of individuals. And in such a world there will not be anything political, either. Hoppe basically says: “Yes, there will be families, clubs, religions and they are doing a fantastic job in the society of a natural order, but in cases of conflict they are neutral and do not play a role.” So conflicts in a Hoppean world would always be individual, never collective. But this is not very likely. One only has to look at the way the religions and churches love to engage in political debates.
But where does Hoppe’s inconsistency come from? Once again, I think the reason is that such problems simply do not fit into Hoppe’s anarchic utopia and therefore he prefers not to deal with them. His fundamental error remains that you cannot reduce everything to individual conflicts, the political does not disappear with the state and violence and fighting crime can never be privatised completely. And how would you like to privatise an atomic bomb anyway?
Hoppe’s theory is a farewell to reality, but more than that it is also a farewell to classical liberalism. A few weeks ago he delivered a lecture here in Gummersbach under the promising title ‘Strategies of liberation’. Let me tell you what he said then. The first step towards a Hoppe-style liberation consisted of hating everyone who is supporting the state. First of all, this means hating the representatives of the state and the intellectuals at state universities. Hoppe said they needed the state as they would not find anyone in the free market who would buy their idiotic ideas, and only the state provided them with well paid jobs. He also suggested using popular prejudices against the intellectuals to incite hatred. Their books, for example, are most often not worth reading and we should tell this to the people – well, why not burn these books then, I was asking myself. In fact, why not burn the intellectuals?
Now, firstly Mr Hoppe is a professor at a state university and secondly I doubt that there is a big market for his follies which seems to underline the complete irrelevance of Hoppe’s theories beyond the closer circle of his followers. It is also telling that Hoppe did not seem to notice this strange contradiction between what he practices and what he preaches – very much unlike Hayek for example whom Hoppe labelled a ‘Swedish-style social democrat’. Hayek always said he was ashamed of teaching at a state university when actually he advocated the privatisation of education. Have we ever heard anything similar from Hoppe? Not at all.
The next step in his liberation strategy consisted of making sacrifices for the truth, even if that meant jeopardizing one’s own professional career. That sounds very much like a call for libertarian martyrs. Strangely enough, Hoppe himself refused to become a martyr when it was offered to him last year. On the contrary, he preferred to fight against the university’s decision to rebuke him for his homophobe comments. Be that as it may, the glorification of martyrdom for the sake of promoting the truth is something that can most often be found amongst radicals and fundamentalists, not amongst academics.
Hoppe’s liberation speech got even worse when he said that the libertarian movement had to simplify and radicalise its ideas to infiltrate young people.
Let me summarize: To liberate the world one has to preach hatred to young people using simple, radical ideas and call for martyrs for the sake of promoting the truth? To be honest: If that is liberation, I don’t want to be liberated.
It was shocking how close Hoppe’s language got to totalitarian rhetoric – and I wish to underline that I am only talking about rhetoric here, not about contents – but this is just another sign of how far away Hoppe has moved from the positions and values of classical liberalism. With all due respect, but parts of Hoppe’s speech could have been written by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister. But at least Goebbels would have delivered the speech in a more rousing manner than Hoppe who despite all his radicalism seemed almost bored of himself.
It is frightening to see how the contacts between Hoppe’s anarcho-capitalist movement and right-extreme neo-Nazis develop. I asked Hoppe in the debate whether he would not agree with me that it was dubious to give one’s consent to have one’s libertarian articles republished in a magazine of people who deny that the Holocaust took place. Some of you may find it hard to believe, but this has actually happened. Hoppe, however, did not seem to have the slightest problem with this, and one of his anarcho-capitalist colleagues even asked me why it should be impossible to deny the Holocaust and be libertarian at the same time. Admittedly, this is logically possible. But in practice, the Holocaust is only denied by those people who want to clear the Nazi dictatorship of its greatest crime because they are longing for a return of this kind of state. But do I really have to explain here that National Socialism is not compatible at all with liberal ideas? Therefore I think that for a true liberal there can be no cooperation of whatever kind with right-extremists or neo-Nazis, even if that only meant giving permission to reprint articles. Liberalism has nothing do with totalitarianism and cannot enter into a coalition with totalitarian forces without giving up what it believes in. But Hoppe, as I mentioned already, does not have a problem with these coalitions. And why not? Because his enemy’s enemy is his friend. This means: Neo-Nazis fighting the state seem to be closer to Hoppe than democrats supporting a liberal minimal state. This is a position that I find shocking, and it actually disqualifies Hoppe from claiming that he had anything to do with liberalism or liberal values.
Let me come to a conclusion: Hoppe’s exaggerated liberalism or libertarianism is based on a wrong methodology. He ignores everything that does not fit into his simplistic premises and fails to acknowledge reality or other academic disciplines apart from his own school of thought. He systematically overlooks the problems of the real world or simplifies them until they fit into his model. From the perspective of classical liberalism one must criticise Hoppe’s dogmatic and intolerant – one could also say – ideological strategies and approaches which lead him to a kind of autistic totalitarianism. Hoppe does not understand at which point his argumentation loses the argumentative character to become blind ideology.
Despite all this harsh criticism, I think that Hoppe has some valid points to make as long as he confines himself to analysing the things that he understands, and that is mainly economic theory, monetary theory, microeconomics. As long as he does that he does not stand isolated in the social sciences at all. One could put it this way: Where Hoppe is right, he is not unique. Where, however, Hoppe is unique, he is not right. This is where he argues without any connection to reality on shaky methodological foundations.
The errors of Hans-Hermann Hoppe are regrettable for two reasons: Firstly, Hoppe is a highly intelligent and well-educated economist who – for whatever reasons – fails to notice when he does damage to the values of freedom and property, which he claims to support. This is the tragic personal side of Hans-Hermann Hoppe. But it is also tragic for academic discussions: At a time when we are surrounded by ever growing welfare states we badly need thinkers like Hoppe to show us how to tackle today’s problems. But instead of doing that, Hoppe prefers to take refuge in his pipe dreams of a so-called ‘natural order’, which rather resembles the abyss of a variation of right-wing totalitarianism. For all these reasons, for all his errors and mistakes and for his wrong-headed methodology we may expect Hoppe’s ideas to remain a footnote in the history of political thought. And it may well be better this way. An effective strategy of liberation would look very different. If Hoppe continues to use the terms ‘liberalism’ and ‘freedom’ for his authoritarian and pseudo-liberal agenda, it is time for the true liberals to claim back these terms from him.