After finishing Richard Feynman’s Q.E.D, I picked up another short book with a more anti-science (or “scientism”) stance, “realist” godfather Hans Morgenthau’s “Scientific Man vs Power Politics”. I heard of it from a comment at Marginal Revolution which since their (on-net a good thing) transition to wordpress can only be found at the Internet Archive. The commenter says that Morgenthau described himself as a liberal, but my impression is that the book is an unrelenting attack on liberals and liberalism, whether of the classical or “social reformer” type. I suppose the way to reconcile that would be to interpret him as attacking simply the naivete and weakness of liberals that leads them vulnerable to illiberal enemies, but I have yet to see suggestion that liberalism has any merits over the pre-liberal regimes which Morgenthau holds up for praise. I took down an unusually large number of notes (I usually don’t take any, or at max one line and page number) while reading on the El and I can’t promise they’ll be organized coherently.
The book itself grew out of a few lectures, one from 1940 after the fall of France and entitled “Liberalism and Foreign Policy”. Something closer to the final book was presented in 1944 in a lecture series entitled “The Scientific Delusion and the Problem of International Order”. One of the men who read the manuscript that would become the book was Morgenthau’s Chicago colleague (although an economist rather than political scientist) Frank Knight, some of whose writings on ethics I host. Much of the sense of fear borne of France’s defeat seems to suffuse the book, whose excessive pessimism matches Tyler Cowen’s description of the conservative canon in the linked MR post. However, I don’t think the term “depravity” would be appropriate, since Morgenthau does not regard humanity’s desire for power to be a deviant thing, and part of his critique of liberalism is its attitude toward power borne of hostility to the old enemies/rivals of the middle class. Nowadays we’re enjoying a Long Peace, with Steve Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” striking just the sort of Whiggish note that Morgenthau derides. I mentioned in my previous post that I would return to Garrett Jones’ ideas on the human capital behind thriving nations, the reason being that his un-p.c seems to actually support some naive enlightenment era optimism that Morgenthau attacks. They hoped that education and free expression would lead to people adopting the right ideas and avoiding the mistake of conflict. This overlooks the importance highlighted by modern game theory of situations like the prisoner’s dilemma, but in some respects it is accurate. I can’t find Garett Jones’ tweet (to hell with twitter) on the three routes to cooperation in the prisoner’s dilemma, but one of them is IQ. Simply having greater awareness resulted in the avoidance of conflict, just the position Morgenthau is attacking. Of course, an extreme version saying that all conflict will be avoided would be wrong.
The position Morgenthau is taking can be confusing because he discusses a lot of different people with often contradictory perspectives who could all be considered liberal. He starts off by noting how America began with the ideas of John Calvin & Thomas Hobbes, dubbed pre-rationalists. But Hobbes hardly seems less rationalist than other 17th century philosophers (and subsequent ones like the named Marx, Spencer & Bentham), and later on Morgenthau acknowledges that Hobbes & Grotius (a definite liberal target) shared most of the same philosophical assumptions. He claims that traditional ethics was superior was founded on the is-ought distinction, but I associate that with David Hume and the “modernist” positivists. Among people credited with realizing various shortcomings of positivism he lists Hume, Burke, Goethe, “the Romantics”, William Graham Sumner (generally thought of as the American Spencer), Niebuhr, Whitehead and even Rousseau. But many of them such as Hume & Rousseau are still regarded as having a negative influence elsewhere. Some others who are credited with correctly finding that international politics is “an unending struggle for survival and power” are Thucydides, Machiavelli, Richelieu, Hamilton and Disraeli. Disraeli’s Whig rival, Gladstone, is an obvious target for Morgenthau’s attack, but it was sometimes ambiguous what the author’s stance was on the liberal opponent of Gladstone’s “Palmerstonian” foreign policy, Cobden.
Cobden is a representative of the liberal pacifism which Morgenthau regards as the fallacious carryover from prior class conflict (and laissez faire carried over the international relations), but Gladstone is emblematic of the “liberal fallacy” of determining foreign policy based on ideological affinity rather than national interests. Morgenthau writes that it was due to his attachment to laissez faire that Cobden did not share the fallacy, perhaps indicating that like a stopped clock he was right for the wrong reason. To me it just seemed like Morgenthau was constantly attacking liberals no matter what their stance was. He did acknowledge that non-liberal regimes could be subject to the “liberal fallacy”, with later-period Bismarckian Germany attempting an alliance of monarchs based on their regime type (Bismarck’s distrust of British foreign policy for requiring Parliamentary consent doesn’t seem self-evidently silly or the result of “monarchical sentimentalism” to me). Pre-liberal regimes are praised for their pragmatism, with Catholics opportunistically supporting Protestants abroad that they would crush at home (or even the dreaded Turk/Moslem), and the anti-monarchist Cromwell being supported by Mazarin in order to overthrow the uncle of Mazarin’s own king. I was surprised to find that even the French revolutionary Danton opposed a decree supporting revolution in China, as none of France’s business (in contrast Marx ironically said support for Poland was the litmus test for all revolutionary movements). He was successful, and so despite all the liberalism of the 19th century Morgenthau views most of it as a “happy contrast to the 1930’s and 1940’s” when the liberal fallacy influenced actual foreign policy. He regards the interwar period as the triumph in theory and bankruptcy in practice of rationalism, which seemed strange to me since the first world war is generally considered to be one of the greatest blows to optimistic rationalism and the harbinger of irrationalist fascists and (though Morgenthau regards them as emblematic deluded rationalist moderns) communists.
What exactly rationalism constitutes makes it hard to evaluate his arguments. I’d consider myself opposed to rationalism when contrasted with pluralism/empiricism but contrasted with actual irrationalism/superstition I come off as just another kind of (Cobden-like) liberal and even universalist. I praised Mark Kleiman’s defence of scientistic social policy, but I agree with Morgenthau’s critique of simplistic (strawman) enlightenment derived views of human behavior. Nowadays such critiques have been integrated into standard science through things like behavioral psychology. I don’t trust the government to make much effective use of bev-psych (has anyone used that short-hand before), which is part of my low opinion on the behavior of government rather than a philosophical stance on science (though I think the soft sciences are hard). Morgenthau said man has three components, the rational, biological and spiritual, but that the latter two had been ignored (fascism’s failure is attributed to its neglect of man’s moral nature, while I’d attribute it to much better endowed opponents). Integrating the second of these is part of what Kleiman defends James Q. Wilson for. I don’t think Morgenthau was much more religious than I, but I think science has done a decent job of analyzing the empirical phenomena of religion & religious belief, with the finding on the promiscuous teleology of even the children of atheists being one of my favorites to link. I think he’s also right that people don’t evaluate arguments by the (ideal) standards of academic debate, but rather that the “marketplace of ideas” is determined by many innate feelings. Morgenthau seems to regard that as just natural while I view it as an unfortunate obstacle to be overcome. This lends support to something like Mark Pennington‘s “Robust Political Economy”. I optimistically (how often do I apply that word to myself?) see these ideas being well integrated into current thought while in Morgenthau’s time he described the age as confused, declining, degraded, decayed, bankrupt etc and so only natural for men to reject its liberal pieties obviously false in their own experience in exchange for something like fascism. Morgenthau amusingly leaves proposed cures of his diagnoses to “those who believe in the philosophy against which this book is written”. He derides neat and simply rationalist solutions, including one I found amusing: the single tax. Albert Jay Nock was a notable supporter of it, and despite borrowing his name for my email address I have read very little from him because I was so annoyed by the anti-rationalism of “The Fine Art of Snoring”. William F. Buckley, the icon of post-war American conservatism who said he’d rather be governed by a random page of the Boston phone book than the Harvard faculty, also favored the single tax under the influence of Nock and Frank Chodorov. That idea from Georgism was long ago associated with the left, but migrated over due to the influence on Nock of the socialist anarchist Franz Oppenheimer, whose book The State I host here.
With his constant bashing of liberals and favorable attitude towards Catholic cardinals and kings, one might expect a sort of paleo tract. But a large part of the paleo camp today are paleolibertarians adhering to Jeffersonian passivism if not strict pacifism by way of Rothbard, and even considering it a matter of principle. But Morgenthau despises liberals for having moral principles at all, wishing they were as cynical as many paleos tend to accuse them of being. Rhetoric about democracy, free speech, freedom of the press, self-determination and the “common good” should properly have been merely a weapon used by the middle class to displace the existing regime. Actually practicing what was preached allows such tools to be used by enemies. When he refers to Ortega y Gasset’s opposition to the liberal reforms of the Spanish Republic noting that it would harm a feudalist minority because “The Republic exists for everybody”, it’s not clear whether Morgenthau has an opinion on the reforms themselves or merely looks down upon a weak regime for being vulnerable to such a critique. In practice of course the particularly loathsome Woodrow Wilson did prohibit speech against the draft, ally with the relatively despotic Russia and imperialist France & Britain, and snatch self-determination away from many disappointed minorities. That’s to his credit, but outweighed by his belief in an unworkable liberal utopianism that served as an end for those means. Many nations don’t adhere strictly to the “liberal fallacy” and thus maintain a distinct continuity even as regime types change. Morgenthau attributes this continuity to “geography, national character, tradition, and the actual distribution of power” which nations can’t afford to ignore. I once made a similar point about Churchill (and England or Anglo-America) at Michael Kenny’s blog, but he seems to have removed it even from the wayback machine. Morgenthau explains that states can’t really deviate from such a basis because to do otherwise would threaten their existence. Walt & Mearsheimer used somewhat similar logic to explain why the United States doesn’t always behave in a “realist” manner: because it’s so powerful it can afford not to. Morgenthau isn’t definitive on whether democratic institutions actually cause peace (as Kant and other liberals hoped), but he cites Veit Valentin, Lord Cromer and Duke Albert de Broglie to claim that they are more warlike than republics, and notes that some monarchies through history have strived to maintain peace. He also notes that particular elements of liberalism are in tension with one another, notably its association with nationalism, calling “the particularlism of democratic nationalism” “the foremost obstacle to the realization of [...] free trade, international law [and] international organization”.
If you’ve read through these ramblings, you must deserve some sort of prize. Note that this came from reading just 68 pages, with the whole book being a tad over 200. I doubt I’ll cover the rest as densely as I did for this post, and may not even write a subsequent one. At a certain point you are better off just reading the book yourself.