An Austro-Libertarian Reconstruction: Introduction to A Short History of Man
In A Short History of Man, I try to explain three of the most momentous events in the history of mankind.
First, I explain the origin of private property, and in particular of ground land, and of the family and the family household as the institutional foundations of agriculture and agrarian life that began some 11,000 years ago, with the Neolithic Revolution in the Fertile Crescent of the Near-East, and that has since — until well through the late nineteenth century — come to shape and leave an imprint on human life everywhere.
Second, I explain the origin of the Industrial Revolution that set off around 1800, only some 200 years ago in England. Until then and for thousands of years, mankind had lived under Malthusian conditions. Population growth was constantly encroaching on the available means of subsistence. Every productivity increase was “eaten up” quickly by an expanding population size such that real incomes for the overwhelming bulk of the population were held down constantly near subsistence level. Only for about two centuries now has man been able to achieve population growth combined with increasing per capita incomes.
And third, I explain the parallel origin and development of the State as a territorial monopolist of ultimate decision-making, i.e., an institution vested with the power to legislate and tax the inhabitants of a territory, and its transformation from a monarchic State, with “absolute” kings, to a democratic State with “absolute” people, as it has come to the fore in the course of the twentieth century.
While this could suffice as an introduction and the reader could proceed directly to the following chapters, a few additional remarks may be in order for the philosophically minded reader.
Until the early twentieth century, the following would have been classified as sociological studies. But with the rise and increasingly dominant influence attained in the course of the twentieth century by the empiricistpositivist-falsificationist philosophy, the term sociology in the meantime has acquired a very different meaning. According to the empiricist philosophy, normative questions — questions of justice, of “right” and “wrong” — are not scientific questions at all — and consequently most of modern, “scientific” sociology, then, is dogmatically committed to some variant of ethical relativism (of ‘anything goes’). And the empiricist philosophy categorically rules out the existence of any non-hypothetical, non-falsifiable, or synthetic a priori laws and truths — and accordingly modern sociology is dogmatically committed also to some variant of empirical relativism (of ‘everything is possible,’ of ‘you can never be sure of anything,’ and ‘nothing can be ruled out from the outset’).
My studies are and do everything a “good empiricist” is not supposed to be or do; for I consider the empiricist- positivist philosophy wrong and unscientific and regard its influence especially on the social sciences as an unmitigated intellectual disaster.
It is demonstrably false that ethics is not a science, and that no universal principles of justice exist and no “true” (non-arbitrary) criterion of distinguishing moral progress from decline. And it is likewise demonstrably false that no universal and invariant laws of human action and interaction exist, i.e., no laws of what is and is not possible and of what can and cannot be successfully done in human affairs, and no non-arbitrary criterion of judging actions as correct and successful or incorrect and faulty solutions to a given problem or purpose.
As for the second, ‘positive’ claim, it is contradicted by the entire body of Classical Economics. Classical Economics, reconstructed, refined, and further advanced during the “Marginalist Revolution,” in particular by its Viennese branch, founded by Carl Menger (1840–1921) with his Principles of Economics (1871) and culminating with Ludwig von Mises (1881–1973) and his unsurpassed Human Action (1940), and by what has since become known as Austrian economics, provides the intellectual material for a grand, comprehensive system of non-hypothetically true laws of human action, of praxeology — the logic of action — and of praxeological laws.
Any explanation of historical events must take praxeology — and specifically Ludwig von Mises — into account, and it is the “empiricists” who are insufficiently empirical in their work. In denying or ignoring the underlying praxeological invariants and constants in their observations of the social world, they fail to see the forest for the trees.
And as for the first, ‘normative’ claim, it is contradicted by the entire body of private law, in particular the law of property and contract, that grew up in response to the continued occurrence of interpersonal conflict regarding scarce resources. From the old ‘natural law’ tradition of the Stoics, through Roman law, to Scholastic law, to the modern, secular ‘natural rights’ tradition, a body of law and of scholarly literature on matters of law had emerged by the nineteenth century, that should put any ethical relativist to shame.
Buried for a long time under mountains of positivist legal rubbish, this tradition has been rescued and reinvigorated, refined, and rigorously reconstructed in our time above all by Murray N. Rothbard (1926–1995), most notably in his Ethics of Liberty (1981), into the most comprehensive system of natural law and the political philosophy of libertarianism. Any normative evaluation of historical events and developments that aspires to the rank of science, i.e., that claims to be more than an arbitrary expression of taste, must take account of libertarianism, and of Murray Rothbard in particular.
Hence, to indicate the method guiding my studies in the history of man, the subtitle of my little book: An Austro-Libertarian Reconstruction.
The events in human history that I want to explain are not necessary and predetermined, but contingent empirical events, and my studies then are not exercises in economic or libertarian theory. They will have to tell history as it really was and take account of all known facts. In this regard, I do not claim any originality. I do not unearth any unknown facts or dispute any established findings. I rely on what others have established as the known facts. But the facts and the chronology of events do not contain their own explanation or interpretation. What distinguishes my studies is the fact that they explain and interpret the history of man from the conceptual vantage point of Austro-Libertarianism: with the background knowledge of praxeology (economics) and of libertarianism (ethics). They are conducted in awareness of the non-hypothetical or aprioristic character of the laws of praxeology and of ethics and the fact that such laws impose strict logical limitations on what — which one — explanation or interpretation, of all conceivable explanations and interpretations of some given historical data set, can be considered at all possible and possibly (hypothetically) true (and so be scientifically admissible), and which ones can and must be ruled out instead as impossible and impossibly true. History, then, is rationally re-constructed, i.e., with the knowledge that every possibly true empirical explanation and interpretation must be in accordance not only with the ‘data’ but in particular also with praxeological and ethical law, and that every explanation or interpretation at variance with such laws, even if apparently ‘fitting the data,’ is not only empirically false but not a scientifically admissible explanation or interpretation at all.
The history so reconstructed and retold is to a significant extent revisionist history, opposed not only to much or even most of what the dominant leftist “mainstream” has to say on the matter, but, owing to the emphasis placed in my studies on human inequalities and in particular on unequal cognitive abilities and psychic dispositions, opposed also to much pronounced and proclaimed in this regard by some circles of “politically correct” and “progressive” so-called “cosmopolitan” establishment-libertarians.
Thus the first momentous event in the history of man, the Neolithic Revolution, is reconstructed as a cognitive achievement of the first order and a great progressive step in the evolution of human intelligence. The institution of private land ownership and of the family and the practice of agriculture and animal husbandry is explained as a rational invention, a new and innovative solution to the problem faced by tribal hunters and gatherers of balancing population growth and increasing land scarcity.
Similarly, the Industrial Revolution is reconstructed as another great leap forward in the development of human rationality. The problem of balancing land and population size that had been temporarily solved with the original invention and subsequent spread and worldwide imitation of agriculture had to eventually re-emerge. As long as the population size increased, per capita incomes could be increased only if and for as long as productivity increases outstripped population growth. But steady productivity increases, i.e., the continuous invention of new or more efficient tools for the production of ever more, new or better products, requires a continuously high level of human intelligence, of ingenuity, patience, and inventiveness. Wherever, and as long as such a high level of intelligence is lacking, population growth must lead to lower — and not to higher — per capita incomes. The Industrial Revolution, then, marks the point, when the level of human rationality had reached a level high enough to make the escape from Malthusianism possible. And the escape is reconstructed as the result of the “breeding,” over many generations, of a more intelligent population. Higher intelligence translated into greater economic success, and greater economic success combined with selective marriage- and family-policies translated into greater reproductive success (the production of a larger number of surviving descendants). This combined with the laws of human genetics and civil inheritance produced over time a more intelligent, ingenious and innovative population.
Lastly, while the Neolithic and Industrial Revolutions are reconstructed as correct and innovative solutions to a persistent problem: of a population size encroaching on living standards, and hence as great intellectual advances, the third momentous event to be explained is the invention of the State. The State is a territorial monopolist of ultimate decision-making and its successive transformation from a monarchic to a democratic State, is reconstructed as the outcome of a sequence of cumulative intellectual — moral and economic — errors and as a step back in the development of human rationality and a growing threat to the achievements attained with the Industrial Revolution. Per construction, the State cannot achieve what it is supposed to achieve. It is supposed to produce justice, i.e., to uphold and enforce the law, but with the power to legislate the State can — and inevitably will — break the law and make law in its own favor and so produce instead injustice and moral corruption. And the State is supposed to protect the property of its subjects from foreign invasion, but with the power to tax its subjects it can — and inevitably will — expropriate the property of these subjects not, obviously enough, to protect them and their property, but to ‘protect’ itself and its expropriations against any so-called “invader,” foreign or domestic. As an “expropriating property protector,” i.e., as a fundamentally “parasitic” institution, the State can never help but will always hinder in the production of wealth and so lower per capita incomes.
In combination, then, with the following studies I hope to make a small contribution to the old tradition of grand social theory and render the long course of human history from its very beginnings to the present age more intelligible.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
Cite This Article
Hans-Hermann Hoppe, "Introduction to A Short History of Man: An Austro-Libertarian Reconstruction," The Austrian 1, no. 2 (March-April 2015): 4–5, 16–17.