Tom Paine and our pain: A critique of Rothbard’s reasoning on republics

“The Sudden Emergence of Tom Pain” and the evolution of libertarian theory

It is a maxim of conservative thought, which should be fully shared by paleolibertarians, that good things evolve, while evil things burst suddenly into the world with revolutionary force.  In the short time since the death of Murray Rothbard (1995), paleolibertarian theory has continued to clarify itself through small increments of incisive reasoning.  This is, of course, as Murray would have wanted it, for if there was anything that he was more skeptical of than the idea of a “new libertarian man” it would have to be the notion  that he himself provided an infallible model of such a person.

One of the most surprising turns in the late and post-Rothbardian period of libertarian theorizing has been the rehabilitation of monarchism stimulated by Hans Hermann Hoppe in his Democracy: The God That Failed.  This paleoconservative/paleolibertarian synthesis is indeed a promised land which Rothbard, even looking out from the highest Pisgah peak of his theory could but vaguely dicern.  Thus the excerpting of a portion of Rothbard’s history of the independence movement Concieved in Liberty by the Ludwig von Mises Institute provides a valuable opportunity to assess the limits of Rothbardian thinking, as well as to explore a new trajectory of thought which was mostly unguessed at during his lifetime.  I can add nothing to the brilliant analysis of “private government” (aka monarchy) as a stable and equitable economic system contained in Hoppe.  However there is another dimension to the critique of republicanism which was overlooked by Rothbard, a dimension which, for want of a better term, might be called “social psychology.”  Hoppe is no doubt aware of this dimension, but in his works he makes the case for “private government” according to the strict methodological rationalism of the Austrian school.  Although I am every bit of a rationalist as Hoppe, here my approach will be more phenomenological, which might be termed rational inquiry into the irrational.

No Country for Old Kings

Anyone familiar with Rothbard will, upon encountering “The Sudden Emergence of Tom Pain” get the sudden shock of arriving at a critical juncture in Rothbardian historiography.  For those unfamiliar with him, it is sufficient to point out that Rothbard always approaches American history from an antipoidal perspective, and the expression “everything you were taught in the standard textbooks is the precise opposite of the truth” will serve as a handy outline of his thinking on practically any issue.  Thus World War II should not have been fought, not to mention World War I, the North was the agressor in the Civil War, civil service “reforms” were less just than the spoils system…the list could be extended indefinitely.

However with “The Sudden Emergence of Tom Paine” Rothbard suddenly rejoins the mainstream narrative of American history.  Why, apart from the fact that Rothbard was Rothbard and not Hoppe, should this have been so?  As “The Sudden Emergence” explains…

One of the main stumbling blocks to a commitment to independence was personal loyalty to the British crown.  There has always been a political taboo of almost mystical force against attacking the head of state, and always the convenient though emasculating custom of attributing his sins to his evil or incompetent advisors.  Such long-standing habits impeded a rational analysis of the deeds of King George III.  Furthermore, the old and obsolete Whig ideal of virtual independence under a figurehead king of both Britain and America could only be shattered if the king were to be attacked personally.

The key political concept here is “the old and obsolete Whig ideal of virtual independence under a figurehead king.”  Uncharacteristically, Rothbard is taking a narrative rather than a synoptic viewpoint here, that is to say, he is robbing himself of historical hindsight to take up the perspective of an British American living at the eve of the revolution.  Yes, from the vantage point of such a person the “Whig ideal of virtual independence under a king” might have appeared “old and obsolete.”  Since the end of the French and Indian War the British parliament had been trying to stage a coup d’etat against the institutions and liberties of the American colonies.  On top of that the Hannoverian dynasty was begining to show signs of discontent with its “figurehead” status.  The thrid George was now a fully assimilated Britisher, and just mad enough to start throwing his weight around while he was reasonaby functional.  A perfect storm seemed to be on the verge of wrecking Whig loyalism.

But of course Rothbard knows how the story ends, with a continental rather than an multi-continental empire.  According to the libertarian axioms which favor seccession and smaller polities this appears to make sense at first glance, but there are surely other considerations besides simple scale which should be weighed in the transition from British monarchism to American republicanism.  Though the libertarian impulse of the generation of ’76 is unimpeachable, Rothbard knew quite well (from Charles Beard via Albert J. Nock) that the clique which drew up the constitution of 1787 was motivated by the expansion rather than the limitation of power.

The story that Rothbard is telling us, and it is true as far as it goes, is essentially a description of stasis…as stasis of states if you will.  First we have the British empire, followed by a libertarian interreginum from 1775-1788 under the states and the Articles of Confederation, followed by the American empire from 1789 onwards.  Or as Rothbard himself was apt to say, anarchy is desirable but inherently difficult to maintain because of the constant impulse in human nature towards aggression and “taking over” an even playing field.  Rothbard’s narrative is clearly superior to that of the standard textbooks in that he recognizes that the empire of post-1787 was no great improvement over the empire of pre-1775.  Yet this position is not as antipoidal to consensus thinking as it might seem.  A more radical stance would be to maintain that the empire initiated under the Federalists was actually worse than that of the British.  Certainly the evidence presented by the full sweep of Rothbard’s historiography point in that direction.  Why, in this instance, does our curmudgeonly historian so uncharacteristically pull his punches?

Whiggism=Manifest Destiny?

Rothbard’s glorification of Tom Paine’s republicanism contains a curious conflation of two sides of Whig ideology, in which he, perhaps unwittingly, weighs in on the wrong side.  The Whigs stood for private rights against public power, one formulation of which can be stated as “virtual independence under a figurehead king.”  However Whiggism also refers to a kind of historical theory which might be caracturized as “things are always getting better, never worse.”  Rothbard, quite rightly, rejects this second idea…that is, with the notable exception of the American separation from the British monarchy.  Naturally, from a rhetorical point of view, Rothbard like all political writers, could see the utility of taking a position which was flattering to the vanities of patriotism.  But is it objectively true that people were freer, or at least no less free, under the federal constitution than under the British monarchy?

Obviously measurements of degrees of freedom are suspect so I will restrict myself to a very impressionistic observation.   Since the late 18th century, the theory of rights which were expounded under the name of Whiggism, later liberalism, and still later libertarianism has undergone a mounting challenge from authoritarianisms of both the left and the right.  Is it not reasonable to consider, under such circumstances, that a wrong turn was made in Whig theory sometime during the 18th century and we have been living with its consequences ever since?

Yes, I would say there is, but I want to offer something more than just such a circumstantial arguement for “libertarian” monarchism.  I think that there are a priori grounds within the realm of social psychology which in some sense necessitate Whig monarchism as the framework for a free society.  Rothbard could not have seen this because, in spite of his intellegence which was so much greater than many, and certainly mine, his style of thinking didn’t allow him to pose the question in the right way.  His methodological individualism blinded him to the power of collective representations.  Methodological individualism is an absolute requirement of economic theory which deals with actions and transactions.  But a conflation of normative individualism with methodological individualism can hamper attempts to understand the way masses of people think.  Such thinking must be understood, if only so as to shown its own errors.  Then we will be closer to understanding why people love, or hate, monarchies.

A Certain Dangerous Animal

The novelist Lawrence Durrel once wrote something to the effect that, “Society is not a collection of individuals or a machine, it is an organism.  And like any animal, it becomes dangerous if its nature is not respected.”  In these sentiments Durrel was probably echoing a tradition in sociology that libertarians would prefer not to deal with: the French positivists of the 19th century.  I share in this distain for August Compt the founder of the movement, although to a far lesser extent his distant diciple Emile Durkheim.  The key notion of this school was “society worships itself.”  As a normative statement (and for Compt it was normative) this expresses the antithesis of liberalism.  However as a phenomenological description of how people think under concrete social conditions, it is remarkably accurate.

People, if left to their own devices, will worship themselves.  A perfectly isolated person, say a Renaissance magus living in a Gothic tower served by genii, will actually try to become a god.  In actual fact such cases are rare, if indeed they exist at all.  Normally people live in a social state, and they discover that if they don’t cooperate they are humbled.  However this humbling of the individual doesn’t lead to an abandonment of the self-deification impulse.  Rather this drive is transfered from the individual to the group.  Actually, since we are talking about thinking here, we are talking about the transfer of worship from a image of self, the “ego” (which may be a very selective appropriation of traits from the emprical self) to an image of the group (which liable to be even more selective).   Just as people don’t really relish thinking about what they physically and morally consist of, groups don’t worship themselves in the form of little particles called “others” (which would only draw attention to potential in-group competition).   Instead they form a collective representation of the group, and each individual directs the intentions of their thought towards that representation.  Ethnologists describing small scale traditional societies call these representations “totems.”  In a politically centralized  traditional society the totem becomes a person: a sacred king.

Since the sacred king is the collective representation of society as a whole, the system is open to all sorts of abuses which we can detect from the retrospective vantage point of Whig theory.  The king is liable to go from “being ” society as a colletive representation, to “owning” society as an individual.  Thus Joseph’s pharaoh, who wound up taking over all the grain in the kingdom, and later pharohs who even eslaved their stewards and their people.  Thus the oriental despots as described by Wittfoegel, who (thanks to control over irrigation) were able to turn their kingdoms into private farms.

European developments, and British developments in particular, mitigated against the worst of these abuses.  The theory which went along with this practice was, in the 18th century, designated Whiggism.  The idea was to roll back the power of the kings by denying them their sacred character and treating them as private individuals, who, for the sake of social peace were intrusted with sovereignty through a social compact.  Both their political and sacred duties became more and more attenuated.  Queen Ann was the last British monarch to cure people of scrofula by her touch (one of those she treated was the infant Samuel Johnson).

From this attenuation, the next logical step was abolition, which occured in America and France roughly around the same time.  Now if these revolutions had been accompanied by a corresponding transformation in human nature, such that a “new libertarian man” had come into existence, all would have been well.  This would have required, at the very minimum, that people in general give up thinking about social collectivities in abstract terms, and become nominalists.  This would have obviated conflicts between class and class, nation and nation.  Seeing reality as nothing but a collection of concrete entities, perhaps they could have worked out some sort of just exchange of scarce goods among themselves on a utilitarian basis.  But it didn’t happen, and people continued to apply abstract categories to social collectivities…and not just bare “humanity”…but also lesser divisions such as “England” and “France”  “the bourgoisee” “the Robertson family” etc.

It may seem that I am being rather draconian, or facetious, in my account of the period around the end of the 18th century, but there is circumstantial evidence to the effect that the most advanced thinkers of the times were indeed bothered by the obstructions which abstract thought put to the implimentation of scientific ends.  These people called themselves the “ideologists” a word which today has come to mean someone who expounds any special philosophical viewpoint, but in the original sense meant litterally the study of ideas as problematic.  The initially felt that their plans to reorganize society were being interfered with by a persistence of Platonism in popular thought, but in the end they were forced to realize that the human mind naturally deals with its environment through a process of abstraction.

Now this process of abstraction is both necessary and natural, but the delegation of collective representations to represent the group meant that the cupidity which is born in the individual was tranfered to society.  Now the nation took the place of the sacred king as the totem of the group.  From the begining of the 19th century socialism and nationalism increasingly became the religions of the masses.  A few masochisticly rigorous thinkers like August Compt could think their way through to a pure humanism abstracted from both the supernatural and class interests, but the majority were spoiling for a fight…and got it beyond their wildest dreams in the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian war of 1871, and the world wars of the 20th century.

New Country for Old Wiggs?

To sum up my argument for monarchism: it keeps societies from worshiping themselves.  From this self-worship comes the legitimacy of democratic appropriation of power from empirical society to the state, this latter being (amongst other things) the collective representation of society, society’s “ego” if you will.

If the world were made up of men like Murray Rothbard and Tom Paine, men who see everything in terms of concretes and methodological individualism, the world would be safe for republicanism.  But of course that is not the case, for ordinary people the republic becomes the god of society, the republic with all its symbols, its flag, its anthem, and its president with powers more vast than any king in history.

The only kind of state in which a stable and enduring system of personal and property rights could flourish is one in which the soverign was a private person.  This is not because having a soverign who is a private person is particularly safe, but because having a soverign who is a collective person is so manifestly dangerous.  I appeal to the 20th century as my evidence.

A word of caution is in order however.  Opponents of constitutional monarchy and private government always seek to tar legitimate monarchy with the brush of oriental despotism.  Their objections should not be dismissed hastily!  The history of the Napoleonic dynasty, not to mention many more “legitimate” houses in modernity, show that an unchanging human nature is still receptive to the archaic notion of the sacred king.

The god-men must not be allowed to return!  The kind of Whig monarchy which I am refering to could only be revived within the context of a Judeo-Christian culture.  Just as the monarchy should function as a sponge to absorbe the false pretentions of society towards divinity, so true religion must always be present to keep the person who has been entrusted with sovereignty from developing aspirations towards godhood.

Given these conditions there is nothing utopian about a Whig monarchy, indeed, I can’t think of any other libertarian constitution which would be less utopian.  Society would have no collective representation to generate irrational loyalty.  There would instead be two classes, the soverign and the subjects, each jealous of their own rights and checking the other.  The proof of this is non-utopian is that such societies, however imperfect, actually existed at one time, prior to the American and French revolutions.  The “utopian” sort of monarchism was the tyranical idealizing of men like Filmer, who wanted to revert the Christian monarchies of Europe back to something like the pharonic system.  Short of historical determinism, there is no reason why the Whig ideal of legally circumscribed monarchy shouldn’t have stabilized and continued.  Although the 18th century wasn’t quite a collection of proprietary communities in a strict Hoppean sense, and there was a great deal of economic and political chaos, the kings and queens, at least in Britain, were well on the way towards becoming private persons who simply happened to hold soverignty.  Sacred, realist thought was becoming restricted to theological objects, legal, nominalist thinking was starting to dominate the relations between royal houses and all the other legal persons in civil society.  As Someone  once said, that’s called “Rendering unto Ceasar what is Ceasar’s,  and to God what is God’s.”

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Filed under antimodernism, Austrian Economics, Philosophy, politics, theology, traditionalism

3 responses to “Tom Paine and our pain: A critique of Rothbard’s reasoning on republics

  1. Araglin

    Dear Mr. Sunwall,

    I thoroughly enjoyed the above-post and hope you will continue to flesh out the insights contained therein in the future.

    Could you recommend any particular sources relating to what you have in this post called “collective representations,” and elsewhere group-level noematic objects? I know that the latter may have some place within the literature of the early phenomenologists, but would appreciate any particular sources you can point me to.

    Has there been any exploration of the relation between the foregoing concepts and the work of Giambattista Vico (the idea of the sociological primacy of various tropes in different historical periods – metaphor, metonymy/synedoche, and irony)?

    I think this is an area where Austr0-libertarians have tended to be somewhat weak, but where I think if more work were done, economic methodological individualism and Durkheimian sociology could be found to complement one another (perhaps symbolic transactionalism and Giddensian structuration have hinted in this direction? I confess ignorance of much of the important literature). I think also that Dame Mary Douglas has probably done great work in this area…

    Perhaps this is a bit off topic, but I thought I would alert you to a the comment thread attached to a recent post by Joshua Snyder at the Western Confucian (dealing with Catholicism and the market economy) which implicates some of the same issues.

    The post can be found at:

    In that comment thread, in response to a very suggestive comment by Joshua Snyder, I left an extended three-part comment regarding the reconciliation of Austro-libertarianianism with Distributivism, Radical Orthodoxy, etc., and certain other issues which may be of interest to you and about which I would love to hear any feedback you may have.

    My comments are somewhat disorganized and chock-full of typos, but I think some sort of meaning shines through nonetheless.


  2. Araglin

    Dear Mr. Sunwall,

    You said:
    “Sacred, realist thought was becoming restricted to theological objects, legal, nominalist thinking was starting to dominate the relations between royal houses and all the other legal persons in civil society.”

    I would have to quibble with this point (or at least ask that you qualify it somewhat).

    I think that said nominalism may have been deliberately used by certain of the Legists (and others) who were interested in advancing the cause of plenary royal power by urging juridicial arguments which had the effect of dissolving all (non-state-sanctioned) associational forms into their constituent atoms (leaving only the naked individual).

    This had the ultimate effect of leaving only the state (represented at its earliest state by the late medieval kings) and the natural person (with the predictable result that the state should win nearly every time), where before there stood the family (as corporate body), the guild, the sworn brotherhoods of urban burghers, Cathedral chapters, choral and other foundations, monastic orders (cloistered, itinerant, and military), feudal bonds of fealty and homage, etc.

    It seems to me that, in addition to the proper juridical articulation of how these intermediate bodies come to exist (and what their respective rights and obligations are), these important bodies cannot long survive the corrosive effects of an overly-nominalist imagination.


  3. nouspraktikon

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Regarding the engagement of Austrians with Vico etc., of course Hayek and Mises did that, but today’s Austrians tend to specialize, like all other contemporary scholars, so grand theorizing has been on the downswing since the Methodenstreit. There are exceptions of course, and I was fortunate to be privy to some of these. As far as your observations on 18th century legal theory are concerned, I must admit that I am not an expert in that field, although as per above, I know in principle that Austrians should keep the economics-law synthesis alive. My general feeling is that the “physiocrats” were getting the upper hand, and the nomos of the kings was being more and more subsumed within a larger nomos which perhaps we could glorify with the term “natural law” although it would include what we call economics today. As many at the time (Burke etc.) noted, the French revolution of 1789 “should” have resulted in a constitutional monarchy, so you would have had two liberal “whig” powers in the West. Of course things didn’t go that way. Until we can understand what really went on we can always blame Rousseau!

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