I had to return it to the library in a few days, so that’s why I you are reading this post now instead of the one I was thinking of doing on Putnam’s diversity study.
The book is focused on what is usually termed “the state”, but which the author refers to as “Power”, which is always capitalized. Occasionally it is personified with the term “the Minotaur”, which I felt the book could have been done without. I also think that “Power” was a bad term to use as very great emphasis is put on the competing social authorities to the primary or central political authority. Surely these possess power (and indeed the author says that unless political institutions represent interests with power they have no ability to trammel Power) and could be referred to as “powers”, but perhaps this should be blamed on issues of translation. It is in the tradition of political philosophers such as Hobbes and Montesquieu and discusses their ideas. My opinion of Rousseau was raised after I actually read some of the things he wrote which seem at odds with the caricature I knew him by, although I still do not much care for him or the result of his ideas. Another demonized idea whose image it improves is “divine right monarchy”, which was formulated not by the monarchs themselves to grant themselves legitimacy (for them their authority was political property gained through conquest and then inherited, which Nick Szabo discusses here) but by religious authorities that sought to limit the power of monarchs (a particular instance of that struggle involving Dante was analyzed by James Burnham).
The best part of the book is the history, especially of continental Europe and more specifically France, which as an American I was not terribly aware. The section where de Jouvenel lays out how the kings of France went from having to beg for men and money to wage wars, to having larger and larger forces, then income taxes and finally after the monarchy was abolished universal conscription is fantastic. The shakiest part of the history is the origin of government, which are traced to religion and mysticism. Although I have only read the first two chapters of Franz Oppenheimer’s The State, I find its explanation much more convincing. It is hard to know what happened that far in the past, but the German employs much more anthropological/archaeological support as opposed to conjecture than the Frenchman. It is a major flaw of the book, in my opinion, that it disregards the “social sciences” in favor of a more philosophical approach (while at the same time it also disdains rationalism, and claims it leads to crisis). Any empirics, like the numbers of soldiers at each king’s command, are not central to the author’s aim. Qualitative analysis is favored over the quantitative. Hayekians disdainful of “scientism” may be pleased, but I was not.
The book becomes more disappointing as it goes on. It says that we must use a strictly positive or wertfrei view to gain an accurate conception of the state (though it does seem evident that despite all the negative things he says about it he views it as essential). Yet just as it warns of the dangers of mixing positive and normative it gets to issues of natural law, that which is objectively good and supersedes the “law” (like Hayek and Bruno Leoni it distinguishes between that and legislation, an approach a legal positivist like myself does not much care for) declared by government. To me a law in no danger of being recognized by authority is no more relevant than the laws recognized by the Betelgeusians and is none of my concern. Nor do I think it is that important that people believe in the distinction. For any fascist or communist government one points to as the result of disregarding objective law (in those cases in favor of a class or race based view), I point to Saudi Arabia, Iran (as much a krytocracy with an all-powerful supreme court as a theocracy) and the Taliban which hold Shariah law above all.
It gets most muddled at the end. A point that set me off was when he tried to make a big distinction between Teddy “Bully Boy” Roosevelt and FDR. To me the difference was that the latter was more successful in gaining power. Anyone who thinks the Progressive Era was an attempt to turn back the tide of Big Business rather than to adapt to it needs to read some Gabriel Kolko. Bertrand bemoans that the status of freemen was extended to the masses, but seems to state that in America it was done in a good way by somehow transforming the people into folks of character while in France it was not. What was the actual concrete difference? Beats me, he just disliked the results of the latter. He thinks it was awful that following the destruction of the aristocracy they were replaced by capitalists, who never recognized that they were aristocrats (as de Jouvenel wishes them to) and held themselves to a different standard of conduct that ensure the security of their subjects rather than legal equality of contract and responsibility. Throughout the book he has admitted that the aristocracy was oppressive to the lower class (it is admirable that like Robert Lindsay he acknowledges the historical defects of his favored system) and in discussing the capitalists he concedes that the condition of the proletariat was much better under them than before, but still their “just plain folks” status (in addition to newspapermen, which must be why Mencius includes them in the Polygon) is offensive. His attack on usury (which is different from regular loans in that it’s bad) in particular deserves a lecture from an economist. He seems upset by change (a lot of people express this and state the necessity of “speed bumps” and to them I reiterate my request for examples of societies with too few), particularly in immutable law, but admits that people are too imperfect to ever grasp natural law and must continually change their rules in response to circumstances. How are they then to avoid the situation of constantly changing law with a supreme parliament churning out legislation? No explanation is given. Hooray for good things, boo for bad. On the other hand, I did find his note on limited-liability corporations interesting and I wonder how libertarians accept this creation of the state for monopolistic purposes when they oppose intellectual property for just that reason. I will have to read In Defense of the Corporation some time.
Finally, I’d like to make some chauvinist-American digs. If Roman law, divine law and aristocracy are so great, why does even de Jouvenel consider the United States to be among the most free of countries (a phrase I like is “the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe“)? Why is it rather typical for the Anglosphere, which after all is infested with utilitarians and scientistic inductivists? If rationalism is the cause of crisis, why were the countries with totalitarian communism China and Russia, which were far more backward and had the weakest rationalist and enlightenment tradition?
Despite all that, I’m glad I read it. If I ever get my hands on it again when I have more free-time I’ll put it online for all to read.