How reason may be ignored and ideologies embraced or discarded

How reason may be ignored and ideologies embraced or discarded
Robert Henderson

The English philosopher Tony Flew died in 2010. The academic subject around which he wove his life should have made him less vulnerable to false reasoning. That in turn should have armour plated him against being captured by ideologies. In fact he was a sucker for ideologies and twice threw over ideological beliefs for other ideological beliefs. His intelligence and erudition did not prove any guard against folly.

I knew Flew when he was still comparatively young when I was a student of Keele U in the late sixties and early seventies. At that time he was in his late forties and held the Chair of Philosophy at the university.

Perhaps the most important guide to his character is the fact that he twice performed a volte-face on fundamental beliefs, the first being his political shift. Strangely, his mainstream obits made very little of the fact that he was a man well to the left of centre until his early thirties, one of the original “Angry Young Men” in fact. I dare say that will come as a great shock to many of those who only knew him as an old man.

The second ideological shift came late in his life when having been a fervent atheist in the Richard Dawkins’ mould throughout his adult life, he suddenly announced in 2004 that he believed there were solid grounds for believing there was a God. There was a considerable irony in this because of his devotion to David Hume, a man who scandalised many on his deathbed, including that old rake Boswell, by maintaining his unbelief.

There have been suggestions that he was not entirely compos mentis at that stage of his life and that he may have been exploited by Christian groups. However, judged by his public announcements, writing and public appearances, he seemed to have enough about him mentally at the time (2004) when he announced his move from atheism to a form of deism to remove any concern that he was a senile old man having his name used by others. Whether he was still mentally sharp is another matter, for his reliance on the argument from design because of the revelations of DNA research was frankly feeble for DNA provides no greater difficulty for doubters of an undirected or created universe than for example does the complexity of the human eye. Its use suggested someone borrowing an idea because they no longer had the mental vitality to argue a matter through.

Tony Flew’s position on atheism was intellectually unsound because like the religious he was being dogmatic without adequate grounds for his dogmatism. The strongest philosophical position on whether there is a being we might call God is agnosticism.

While it is reasonable to dismiss all religions as man-made artefacts because (1) they all rely on the supernatural, something for which there is no objective evidence, (2) particular varieties of religious belief tend to pass from parents to children, for example, Roman Catholic parents will tend to have children of the same faith, (3) religions tend to congregate in specific territories and (4) religions tend to reflect the cultures from which they arose.

What is not reasonable is to assert is that there is definitely not a being with the attributes of a God. This is so for a beautifully simple reason: the very fact of existence. That fact demolishes the argument that it is up to the believers to prove there is a God for the fact of existence creates the possibility of one, a possibility which has the same status as the possibility that there is not a God.

The question of whether there is a God is unanswerable rationally. We could in principle discover if our universe had been created by an active intelligence, but that would not answer the question ultimately for the problem would then arise of who created the creator and so on ad infinitum: the problem of infinite vicious regression.

There are further problems: while it might be possible to prove that the universe had an immediate creator, it would be impossible to prove that it had no beginning or end or that it came into existence at a particular point through no directed agency, that is, it simply arose. The former case would fail because it would involve proving that the universe had lasted for an infinite period and the infinite cannot be measured, and in the latter case, no proof could be produced which would rule out the possibility of a creator, because there would be no way of demonstrating that what was perceived to be the spontaneous and undirected production of the universe was not in fact the result of a creator whose existence was as yet hidden.

Because of these considerations the rational position is that the universe may or may not have been the result of active creation by an intelligence with the attributes we assign to the concept of a God.

As an academic philosopher generally, I think it would fair to say that his strength lay in explication rather than original thought.

Prof Flew is frequently described as a libertarian. Well, libertarianism is a house with many rooms. The judgement that he is a libertarian is almost entirely, perhaps entirely, based on his commitment to laissez faire economics and a small state along Hayekian lines. Whether that makes a person a libertarian is a matter of debate. What is certain is that on some central liberation issues – freedom of expression (you either have complete freedom or a range of permitted opinion), the legalisation of drugs and the right of the citizen to own and carry weapons – he was definitely not a libertarian.

On others, such as education, one must decide whether a strict educational regime is compatible with libertarian ideals or whether the true libertarian should favour something more akin to what used to be called progressive schools which adopt a policy of laissez faire. It is worth adding that his hero as a political philosopher was Hobbes, one of the most authoritarian of philosophers in the modern period, a rather strange philosophical guide for a libertarian.

Another great irony of his life was his failure to see the incongruity of wholeheartedly embracing laissez faire economics and the small state, whilst spending almost all his working life working for taxpayer funded institutions and drawing a pension, which ultimately funded by the taxpayer.

Sadly, by the time I reached Keele in 1969 Prof Flew’s life there was a far from happy one. He found it difficult going on impossible to come to terms with the much freer academic atmosphere of the sixties.

24 thoughts on “How reason may be ignored and ideologies embraced or discarded

  1. Robert, you are very hard on Flew. His book against affirmative action, ‘The politics of Procrustes’, was very good. You say he wasn’t a true libertarian. What is a ‘true’ libertarian? Is there a test of libertarian orthodoxy?

    • Well, I think it is very difficult to call someone who is in favour of censorship, as Flew was, a libertarian.

      As for how a libertarian should be generally defined, that raises the same difficulties as any other political label. Libertarianism is a house with many rooms, from those who favour quite extensive state operations, eg Hayek, to those who would have no state at all.

      For myself, when pushed to adopt a label I describe myself as a social libertarian. For me the core of libertarianism to be found in how much the individual can act freely in all spheres. That means I embrace positive as well as negative freedom. If a society is oppressive in its general social structure negative freedom in not enough. For example, a society which allows massive capital accumulation by the few and exacerbates this social imbalance by allowing wealth to be inherited, soon becomes a plutocracy one of the most enduring of oppressive social formations.

      In reality, no political label sits comfortably on or with me. I am a pragmatist in the matter of how to react to circumstances, whilst having desired ends which are broadly libertarian. Being a pragmatist means I never fall prisoner to an ideologies. . In fact, my whole personality rebels at the idea of following a rigid set of rules or ends set by someone else, not least because ideologies are always distant from reality.

      Above all I always try to adopt ends and means which are compatible with human nature both at the individual and group level. For example, I support homogeneous societies because those are the ones which are most likely to give the individual most freedom.

  2. Your reasoning on God is flawed. That the fact of existence creates “the possibility of God” does not help us in reasoning at all. Any pre-existent (to our Universe) God must be himself the product of a Universe, or a Universe-In-Himself, which simply shifts the problem to why God, or the meta-Universe whence he came, exists.

    In other words, God, even if “supernatural” in the sense of working on different rules to our Universe’s physics, is himself a fact of existence, not external to it. Whence God? becomes the problem.

    Pragmatism is easier though; since we know the origin of religious belief is in simple minded reasoning by our primitive ancestors, we don’t really need to go any deeper than that. Primitive humans invariably, in fact, don’t have a concept of God at all, but tend to believe in some kind of motivating force that makes the world work. It makes trees grow, it makes the sky move, it makes the tides of the sea. As they developed, they started partitioning this force up into particular spirits that develop in turn into gods, about whom legends and stories are told, until the idea of bundling them all back up into one infinite God arose in the latter half of the last millennium BC. We don’t really need to know any more than that.

    • Ian B – even if it is impossible to overcome infinite and vicious regression, it would still be of interest and quite conceivably importance if a creator of this universe could be identified.

      However, that is not really my point, which is that the mere fact of existence, even if that existence is solipsistic, is a fact and as such as to be built into any explanation or examination of the possibilities of existence, That being so,agnosticism as to whether existence as we perceive it is consciously created by an outside agency or whether it is simply an unplanned occurrence is the only rational position.

      My best guess as to why anything might exists is that there is a an infinite number of possibilities that something could exist while there is only one possibility that nothing might exist, and that the infinite number of possibilities trumps the single possibility. .

      • I wonder if it may be a literally meaningless question, though, driven by a human instinct for expecting causation. If it is even rational to contemplate the existence of non-existence? If non-existence cannot exist, how can anything but existence be that which it exists? Or is this argument mere sophistry? I can never decide.

  3. I also knew Antony Flew.

    His move from the left to the support of freedom (in the traditional civil society sense) was well reasoned and argued (over many books and articles – by the way “The Politics of Procrustes” is against Social Justice in general, not just against a specific SJ policy such as Affirmitive Action).

    “Ideology” can be a “boo word” – Antony Flew had POLITIAL PRINCIPLES (a political philosophy) and he upheld his principles for good reasons.

    Was Antony Flew a libertarian?

    In philosophy certainly – see his writings on agency (free will). Professor Flew believed that humans were beings (agents) and could (if they really tried) make real choices – do otherwise.

    In politics it is better to call Antony Flew a “Classical Liberal” or a “Burkeian Conservative” than a 100% libertarian.

    However, he was certainly more of a free market man than you are Mr Henderson (although F.A. Hayek was not a supporter of full Laissez Faire, sadly few people are). Your own economic opinions are utterly incompatible with libertarianism – or classical liberalism.

    On the decline of Antony Flew’s mental powers……

    He told me his mental powers were in serious decline in a meeting we both attended at the New Cumberland Club. Professor Flew later confirmed this in another conversation we had outside King’s College London.

    Whether or not that effected his very late work on the philosophy of religion I simply do not know.

    Certainly his work must be judged on its merits.

  4. “Any pre-existent (to our Universe) God must be himself the product of a Universe, or a Universe-In-Himself, which simply shifts the problem to why God, or the meta-Universe whence he came, exists.”


    The concepts you express are limited (as are all humans both in thought and deed). God is unlikely to be limited by our dumb ideas of how things must be. Yes–you will argue such concepts are all we have got. OK–on those grounds I can buy agnosticism–but to then argue beyond that is itself no more than belief.

    Also–the smug idea that someone’s mind has to be going to have a belief in God–apart from being the exact same idea employed by the soviets against those who believed in freedom rather than socialism, proves nothing–show where his argument in the book is wrong–not suggest that he must have been losing his marbles to believe that.

  5. It is not clear what Robert Henderson means by ideologies, presumably he does not go along with Marx that they are creeds that are clearly false. I think I would go along with that notion though, but then I would add that no one ever does believe in any ideology but that Marx does not seem to have held. I think that no one believes in God, for example, but they do value religion. I hold to a rigid fact/value distinction but it might be clearer called a belief/value distinction. I think values do require beliefs of some sort to uphold them but a wide range of differing beliefs might do, just as a range of fit horses might have been worth the kingdom of Richard III.   Antony Flew was a jolly chap. He could often be found at IEA meetings in the last few decades of his life. I read a few of his books and exchanged letters with him on them before meeting him in 1979 at the University of Warwick, where he came to give a talk on Rawls. I thought he got Rawls wrong but he was using an academic paper of Rawls to cite what was said in the 1971 book whilst I was citing from the book itself that I had read only about a week before his talk.   We are all open to folly. We all even forget things we ought not to forget. However, reason is never completely ignored, thought facts can be forgotten. I recommend LA member Ray Percival’s book The Myth of the Closed Mind (2012) on reason.   It is not clear to me that a change of mind on some creed has much to do with a person’s personality. Indeed, it looks like silly Romance to think so. I think the Enlightenment paradigm that Romance is in reaction against is much the better outlook. Would Robert Henderson say that both were ideologies?   I think the Romantic outlook does involve false ideas but that the Enlightenment is basically right but both are not clearly enough bogus to be classed as an ideology in Marx’s sense but they will be in the modern more inclusive sense that seems to mean any set of ideas; be they true or false. So the most common usage of that word today does not entail clear falsehood, or even any falsehood at all.     As the sceptics were right to hold there can never be any solid epistemological ground for any thesis, Flew will have erred if he did think he had found for anything solid, which is an odd error for a David Hume student, as Flew was, unless he found an answer to Hume. So I am not even sure if Robert Henderson gets that right on Flew. He did believe there was something to intelligence behind the world but the sceptics were hopelessly wrong on suspension of belief, as David Hume might well have told them if he had a time machine and maybe more Greek. We believe things automatically as Hume held. Hume was sound on belief, even if he presented his case a bit oddly.    Flew got into the G.A. Wells complex Bible study form of atheism where he made errors as to that detailed mythology, that most atheists find it hard to be pedantic on. His opponents did score points against him.  They might never have done so against Wells himself. But even if they did, it might not have been a knock out, as it was once with Flew around the time of the World Philosophy Congress in Brighton in the mid-1890s. A few attending LAers discussed this on the train from London to Brighton at the time, or rather the G.A. Wells apology for Flew presented in a pamphlet.   Flew liked debate and he bravely took on a few who knew more about the Bible than he did. No shame there. Flew pressed on with the debates and seems to have suffered a few more defeats later on. But what fact he thought he had found relating to God was not clear from what he had to say on the media. I attempted to get him to give the LA a talk on any topic he liked but his wife felt he was too ill to do so. I never did meet him after his announcement on religion.   Deism would not be very close to his debating opponents who all seemed to be fairly conventional Christians. The case for atheism is best explained by the LA author, D.R. Steele, in his book Atheism Explained (2008) but contrary to the author, I would say that Deism is a subset of atheism, as is agnosticism or scepticism. Theism is the primitive, the rest is what is complementary to the primitive; thus the rest is not theism but atheism or not-theism.   It looks like a rather stupid dogma to say that agnosticism is the strongest position on religion. It is one that common sense loves, as it wants to dodge debate for common sense still sees debate as unfriendly. Note that agnosticism is usually very dogmatic, even bigoted.   There is no evidence for anything, not even in a single case, as the sceptics rightly made clear some 2500 years back. Any true observation amounts to a mere assumption, as does any valid argument too, so, as a mere assumption can back up, or support any thesis, so no epistemological support can ever be found for any thesis. Philosophers usually hate this fact, but their attacks on it the last few thousand years, or more, have been, fairly clearly, quite futile.   Children may adopt the creed but they no more believe it than do their parents. Creeds are too complex to be credible, so most who say they believe a creed usually know little of it, nor are they often even interested in the creed. It usually just bores them. But they do pay lip service to it. So they value it for some reason,   Richard Dawkins is particularly silly not only on dogmatic agnosticism but also in ignoring that the parents usually hardly know what their offspring believes any more that their offspring know what they believe. The difference in their outlook is exactly generational. We usually only know our peers.   It is hardly the case that religion reflects the culture wherein they are developed. It is not even clear what Robert Henderson means there, unless he merely means things like that Europeans usually paint Jesus as white; but that is art rather than religion.    Nor does Robert Henderson make clear what this beautifully simple reason as to why he feels it is unreasonable to state the fact that there never was a God. I will agree that it is a fact that things exist. Is that the premise he wants for his argument?   What has proof got to do with it? We are not doing geometry here.   This lawyer claptrap that the onus is on one side of any debate is a ploy of the law courts that have attracted the dullest minds over the last few thousand years. In philosophy or science there are no onuses or time limits. Debate and see.   It is clear enough that the theistic God of the theologians is granted contradictory assumptions as well as many assumptions that science could test if only the theologians were ever serious, but it is clear enough that they rarely, if ever, have been serious for I would say that not even one of them ever believed that their defined God ever existed. Not one of them even seem to take God seriously.   Robert Henderson seems to write clearly false statements. Any discourse at all can lead to a logical infinite regression, as Lewis Carroll said in his 1895 article “What the tortoise said to Achilles.”  Is Robert Henderson making a case against daft justification or against truth? Or is he simply confounding the two and both also with rationality as a third idea?    Why so many go on about evolution, the beginning of the cosmos or other remote things when on about whether there is a caring theistic God for us humans has never been clear to me. Tom Paine was content with looking at the sheer absurdities of the Bible and other topics have always seemed relatively remote to me, though maybe more interesting in their own right than is any religion, which bore most people at the best of times, as does crass politics.   Paine’s Deism is not so stupid as is the Christian creed so clearly is. Christianity really is an ideology in Marx’s sense, something quite beyond belief. Whether there was ever a beginning is not really germane. A caring God would never have any reason to hide. No theologian writes as if they believe in Christianity. They grant any number of privileges to their creed. In fact, it is not hard to test. That no prayers are answered show us any number of tests that the creed fails. Theology is not a normal science only as there is no God; but people have to privilege their creed. But then if God did exist, prayer would be a better way of finding things out than science could ever be. The normally dire epistemological problem would simply vanish.   I often repeat Szasz’s joke in such criticism of Christianity: a man who prays is devout but a man who gets his prayer answered is a schizophrenic.   Flew was libertarian enough to be invited to give the LA a talk. The LA is an alliance between classical liberals and anarcho-liberals.  There is certainly room in it for fellows like Robert Henderson describes Flew.   My own favourite philosopher is Hobbes, but if you want Hobbes updated as a free trade liberal then maybe Joseph Priestley is the author of choice. I will give an LA talk, sometime, as to why Hobbes on the state does not matter so much. My thesis will be that the state of his day did not interfere too much, as it was less powerful than is a modern state.  Thus it was not up to being very illiberal. Its power was a bluff for most though it might harm a few.   Hobbes had the merit of always following up in debate. That is what, maybe, led Flew into the debates about the Bible.   It is not incongruous to use the state if you wish to abolish or otherwise end it. Again, Robert Henderson is not being clear as to why he feels it is. Clearly, if liberals act as if there is no state when it still exists as an evil then the state can freely privilege its defenders against them. Whilst the state exists, liberals should exploit it as much as the statists do.

  6. “It is not clear what Robert Henderson means by ideologies, ”

    Here you are:

    Against Ideology

    Robert Henderson

    By ideology I mean a set of ideas, religious or secular, to which an individual subscribes blindly regardless of the objective and testable truth of the ideology or of any contradictions which it may contain.

    It might be objected that men commonly display the same unquestioning attitude towards much of their conscious thought. For example, human beings are generally loth to give up what they have accepted as truth through the process of received opinion or that which has become comfortable through habit. Yet there is a clear difference between the ideologue’s attachment to his systematic ideas and the desire of, say, a scientist to maintain that a scientific “fact” is fact after it has been shown to be dubious or of someone who finds unreasonable the breach of a custom without objective moral or intellectual content, for example, blowing one’s nose in public in a society which considers that behaviour insulting. The scientist merely wishes to defend a single idea: the person insulted by a breach of custom merely wishes to prevent the breach. Neither have a desire to control the lives of others generally or claim that if this is believed or that behaviour observed, a catalogue of other things must also be believed or behaviours observed.

    Except in the very rare instances of someone inventing a new ideology, either entirely or through a successful deformation of an existing ideology – Marxism provides instances of both – the ideology is something which is external to the individual and which is accepted by the individual as something which cannot be questioned, as a logically connected or divinely revealed coherent system of thought.

    For the true disciple of an ideology it must be accepted in its entirety or not at all. The reality of all ideologies is that they are incomplete descriptions of the world at best and plain wrong at worst. Religious ideologies are either ragbags of unsupported imperatives, for example, Christianity and Islam, or, as is the case of Buddhism, a system of thought which has a specious appearance of rationality but which, even in its purest form, is just as irrational because its logical arguments derive from unsupported assertions such as the behaviour expected of those who are to reach nirvana, a state as mythical as Heaven or Paradise.

    Secular ideologies, which include everything from humanism to Nazism, have a greater appearance of rationality than the religious because they do not, ostensibly at least, call upon the supernatural. Yet in truth their supposed “objectivity” is far from real. Marxism is undoubtedly the nearest any political ideology has come to creating not merely a general intellectual explanation of how society works and how it will work, but also a school of academic thought devoted to it. Yet the supposed scientific truths of Marx have been shown by the passing of time to be as fanciful as the claims that Christ came to Earth to save Man or that the archangel Gabriel directly vouchsafed the word of God to Mohammed. In fact, they have been even more comprehensively denied than the religions, because being rational in form and concerned with observable behaviour in the world which men inhabit, Marx’s claims may be tested by experience. Religions by their nature cannot be tested because they deal with that which either does not exist or is beyond the perception of men, namely,the supernatural.

    Most political ideologies are not even intellectually coherent, let alone suited to human society. There is, for example, no logical reason why socialism must be internationalist. Yet this is an obligatory tenet, in words if not deeds, of all those who call themselves socialists. In fact, all Governments which have adopted significant socialist policies have, in practice, been nationalists. Even Stalin accepted the idea, albeit supposedly temporary, of “Socialism in one country”.

    The contemporary ideological error is another form of internationalism, that of Globalism. Here its disciples make the logical error of thinking that the free trade of goods and services implies freedom of movement of labour. Manifestly it does not. Countries have, can, and do, quite happily trade amongst themselves without exchanging labour.

    As to being suited to human society, both religious and political ideologies contain that which is destructive of society. Most of the major religions in their mainstream forms have emphasised the better nature of something other than human existence – always jam tomorrow. This has allowed elites to maintain their abusive hold on the masses and bred fatalism and subordination on the part of the majority.

    Religions have also frequently been obscurantist, afraid of new ideas and technologies. The deficiencies of modern political ideologies fall into two broad camps. Those, such as Marxism, entirely ignore the natural desire of human beings to utilise their natural and inherited advantages. Opposed to them are the ideologies which overly promote competition and ignore the social nature of Man. Either of these two camps may operate within an internationalist frame. When they do, they ignore the most fundamental social trait of Man, the tribal urge. Systems of thought which are incompatible with basic human nature are inherently unstable and dangerous because they cannot be long sustained yet cause great suffering in the attempt to impose them.

    The general poison of ideologies is that in the minds of adherents they sanction unlimited immoral action against those who refuse to accept the ”truth” and “necessity” of this or that ideology. Hence, Christian heretics are burned and Muslim apostates sentenced to death because God will be displeased, while counter-revolutionaries in Soviet Russia were executed as a danger to the proletarian revolution and the eventual ascent to communist utopia.

    Today we have liberal internationalist creed which as hardened into political correctness. This is a literally totalitarian creed for it both impinges on all aspects of social interaction and insist that there is only one “correct” view on any subject, namely, the pc one. This means natural and powerful resentment of what pc stands for are never addressed. The elite response – politicians, the mainstream media and academic “experts” – to the actions of Anders Breivik in Oslo demonstrates this mentality. They have not asked whether the imposition and ever tightening grip of political correctness was in part at least responsible for his murderous onslaught, but to reach for the censor’s button and fade Breivik out of public debate even to the extent of not reporting Breivik’s testimony at his trial – BBC Radio 5 reported 25 July (morning phone-in) that the Norwegian prosecutor of Breivik has asked that the trial be held in camera. All this does is sweep the problem of the deracination of the masses in states controlled by the politically correct under the carpet for a while longer. It is the classic mistake of ideologues who believe that people can be re-educated to think as the ideologues do. Human nature can hobbled for a while but not killed.

    The sane, practical and humane way to approach the question of how society is best governed is to be pragmatic. Have clear ends to achieve but no hidebound preconception of how it should be achieved because you are a slave to a system of thought which says you must do this or that regardless of its utility.

  7. Antony Flew’s adoption of (relatively) free market principles was not “unthinking” “unquestioning” or “blind” Mr Henderson.

    Indeed Antony Flew showed far more thought on the economic side of freedom (the essential foundation of liberty generally) than you have done. Although, Mr Henderson, you certainly in you past comments on economic matters have not produced a vey high standard for the late Antony Flew to exceed

    David suggests that in a talk in 1979 Antony Flew did not quote directly from the book “A Theory of Justice” by John Rawls – I was not at the talk so I will not dispute what David says about the talk.

    However, in his actual books on the matter Antony Flew quotes repeatedly from the text – and in context. Antony Flew is clearly correct in his interpretation of John Rawls.

    As for religion – let us leave the question of age aside for a moment.

    I do not believe that Antony Flew would (at any age) have made the statement that he did not think anyone believed in the existence of God.

    Someone can be atheist without making statements of this sort.

    • ‘Antony Flew’s adoption of (relatively) free market principles was not “unthinking” “unquestioning” or “blind” Mr Henderson.

      Indeed Antony Flew showed far more thought on the economic side of freedom (the essential foundation of liberty generally) than you have done. Although, Mr Henderson, you certainly in you past comments on economic matters have not produced a vey high standard for the late Antony Flew to exceed’

      You are making the very unwise assumption that I am either a free trader or a free marketeer. Here is the extract from my “Free” markets + “Free” trade – elite propaganda

      2. The “Free Market” is a state regulated market

      There is a splendid irony in the objection of the self-defined “free marketeers’” and “free traders” to state intervention for the natural end of a truly free market is monopoly – or at least greatly reduced competition resulting in oligopoly and the rule of cartels. All so-called “free market” societies recognise this by passing anti-monopoly laws. The “free market” is in fact a market controlled by the state in the most fundamental way, that is, to prevent its natural workings. It is one of the great propaganda triumphs of history that “free markets” have been successfully sold as being what happens naturally without state intervention. Call a spade a spade and substitute the truthful “state regulated non-monopolistic market” for “free market” and the psychological shape of the idea changes dramatically. (Some casuistical “free marketeers”might argue that the “free” in free market applies to the workings of the market rather than the market as a natural phenomenon. That explanation falls because “free marketeers” invariably make the blanket claim that markets only work efficiently without government interference. Their honest position would be to state that they want state regulated markets to prevent monopoly. They will not do that because it would be an acknowledgement that state regulation of the market is legitimate and hence remove any general argument against regulation. That in turn would mean any form of state regulation would be potentially reasonable and consequently each form of regulation would have to be argued down individually on the merits of the case, rather than simply empty-headedly dismissed on the grounds of no regulation = good; regulation = bad.

      The state regulated “Free Market” is not even a natural phenomenon made somewhat artificial by rules to exaggerate the natural phenomenon in the same way that we breed animals to exaggerate nature. Rather it is just about as far from being a natural phenomenon as anything can be for it goes against all Man’s inclinations, both individual and social.

      Economic history is overwhelmingly a catalogue of market regulation, local and national, from guilds to governments. It would be surprising if it were not because human beings, like all other organisms, naturally behave to secure their own advantage or that of their group. Extended to the nation state, this natural behaviour has commonly resulted in domestic markets being protected against foreign competition. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is another matter – a question I shall deal with later – all I am concerned to do at this point is to nail down that the fact that protectionist behaviour is what is natural.
      Historically, whether you were anything from a rich merchant to a poor day labourer it was obviously not in your personal interest to allow others free access to your markets to offer the goods or services at a lower price or to work for lower wages. The merchant might be driven to bankruptcy by competition, the labourer from his job. History also tells us that whatever their previous economic station, such people will probably not be able to find equivalent or better paid employment and often may not be able to find any employment at all where structural unemployment arises. What was historically true not only remains true today, but its effect is much magnified because the opportunities for competition are greatly increased by modern communications and the ease of travel and cargo transportation.

      Of course, any individual or sectional advantage causes strains in a society and if the material privilege of any person or group becomes excessive, sooner or later there will be a successful revolt and the wealth in a society will either be shared more fairly through a change in the way the society is structured, for example, through the abolition of tolls, the ending of state monopolies or even through a removal of the rich as a class without any increase in the wealth of the majority.

      But wherever wealth distribution through social change has occurred it has normally been done with the express intention of benefiting a particular group or even an individual in the case of monarchs. The odd thing about “free marketeers” is that what they ostensibly advocate is not to privilege any particular individual or group but to benefit society as a whole. Whether free markets do so is another matter, but that is their claim.

      The “free marketeer” says to a population, do what I say and in time society will become richer. He does not say this person or that group will become richer or even all will become richer, but merely that the society as a whole will become richer. This is an extraordinary thing to ask people to trust in. It is also the most wonderful blank cheque ever written to a politician because not only does it absolve him or her of any need to take the responsibility for regulating the economy, it also means that he or she can never be held to account for dishonesty by any individual if that individual is personally worse off. All a “free marketeer” politician has ever claimed is that his economic way will make society richer. Provided society overall is richer, he has met his met his promise.
      It is also telling for their intellectual credibility and honesty that “free marketeers” will oppose government interference in such matters as subsidies, quotas, embargoes, wage rates and working hours and grumble about tax rates and public expenditure, but are generally quite happy to see other gross distortions of the market deriving from government action. They not only tolerate patents, copyright and trademarks, but often defend them as property in themselves and as devices which actually improve economic performance because they encourage invention, investment and expansion. In addition, those who constantly bleat about Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” sorting out the business wheat from the chaff insist that limited liability is necessary. This of course is also a violent interference with the market because it means that the individual shareholder never takes full responsibility for their investment. (It is worth noting that the British industrial revolution – the one and only bootstrapped industrial revolution – took place before limited liability became legally possible (Limited Companies Act 1862) and at a time when patent rights were insecure and in practice limited to the domestic British market.)

      It is true that none of these things are actually part of what the concept of a “free market” is and that they are inimical to such a market, but the fact that almost all modern “free marketeers” have tacitly incorporated them into their vision of what a “free market” is demonstrates their intellectual confusion (or dishonesty if you prefer).

      3. The “free market” as its proponents conceive it
      Let us put aside for the moment the fact that “free markets” are state regulated markets and ask the question what is a “free market” as it is conceived by “free marketeers”? A jolly good question. Even if market distortions which appear acceptable to “free marketeers” such as patents and limited liability did not exist, that would leave many other things which prevent unfettered domestic competition. In an advanced modern economy these include:

      Non tax fiscal measures, for example, control of interest rates
      The state of the currency
      Exchange controls
      Overall Government expenditure
      State Subsidies
      Industry and trading standards, official and otherwise
      Public sector employment
      Transport costs
      Public ownership
      Direct and indirect Government intervention
      Copyright, trademarks and patents
      The moral and social climate, for example, a tradition of wWelfare or the feeling of the
      people, for example, the national feeling of Japanese Practical cultural barriers
      such as the difficulty of a language
      Transport costs
      Working hours
      Trading laws
      Labour laws
      Wage rates
      Bureaucratic differences
      Company laws – particularly the attitude towards foreign ownership
      Banking laws
      Banking system
      Social policy – welfare, health and so on
      Physical infrastructure
      Honesty of public servants
      Foreign policy
      National strategic considerations
      Education – The amount spent, school leaving age, curriculum,
      Limited Liability
      Environmental laws

      Some of these things such as subsidies, patents, quotas and limited liability could be obviously and legitimately ruled out of order by a “free marketeer” because they are deliberate state interferences with competition, but what of items such as the provision by the state of education or the physical infrastructure of a country? They are undeniably distortions of competition at some level, but they are not deliberate attempts by the state to distort competition. A purist “free marketeer” could just about say such things were no business of the state and still be intellectually coherent because it is possible to conceive of a society without such state provision. But however purist they might be, sooner or later the “free marketeer” will run into features which undeniably restrict competition but which must exist simply because they are an inescapable part of society. The most obvious is tax.

      Any modern state needs a large tax revenue to sustain itself, the only questions to determine being how large should be the revenue and what it should be spent on? Some things such as defence and policing are inescapable expenditures for any state, although even there the amounts to be spent are debatable and elastic. Items such as education and welfare are more subject to variable expenditure. Nonetheless, substantial amounts are as a matter of contingent fact invariably spent on such items by all advanced states. Such countries also engage to a lesser or greater degree in all the forms of regulation listed above.
      In theory, and even more in practice, the notion of a “free market” seems to rest on little more than anti-monopoly laws, wages and prices set by the market (although in practice this does not happen purely through the market because of welfare provision, tax regimes etc) and a lack (or at least a minimum) of state interference in such areas as health and safety, employment law and company law.

      The inclusion of these narrow criteria are merely a subjective choice made from a much larger menu of man-made distortions of the market. Consequently, there is no objective coherence to the concept of the “free market” as it is conceived by the “free marketeers”. It is an arbitrary ideology based on subjective choice.

  8. In the contrary Mr Henderson I make no assumption that you are a free trader or free market person generally.

    Indeed your past comments are utterly incompatible with classical liberalism or the general British tradition of liberty.

    Your present comments (for example in support of “anti monopoly laws” – what the Americans call “anti trust”) also show a distressing lack of knowledge of fundamental economic law.

  9. “Your present comments (for example in support of “anti monopoly laws” – what the Americans call “anti trust”) also show a distressing lack of knowledge of fundamental economic law.”

    Nothing to do with economics and everything to do with language. The natural end of a truly free market, ie, one with no government interference (or any interference from any non-governmental actor such as criminals extorting protection money), is monopoly or at least greatly reduced competition. All I am asking you self-described free marketeers to do is give your system and its components honest names.

    • No it isn’t Robert. Your whole understanding of economics is wrong at the most fundamental level. Markets tend to work by knocking out the less efficient (to the consumer) suppliers in favour of the more efficient. The people demanding anti-monopoly laws are generally those losing the competition battle and thus demanding State protection for their over-priced goods. They don’t want competiiton; they want to be protected from it.

      A good example is meat in the USA. With the development of railroads and refrigeration, local, inefficient butchers suddenly found themselves out-competed by large meat-packing companies who could supply meat to consumers cheaper, often dramatically so. This was a Good Thing. But the exposure to competition was bad for the local “mom and pop” butcher, and so they demanded protection; thus, not an “increase” in competition, but instead the maintenance of their local “monopoly”.

      This happens in numerous industries. Currently for instance, inefficient milk farmers are complaining that they want protection from competition from more efficient milk producers, when their farms are not economically viable. This is not pro-competition, it is anti-competition. The measure of competitiveness in a free market is not how many producers there are, but how much each producer is competitively exposed.

      • Ian B – You are entirely missing the point I am making, I am only too well aware that interferences with the market such as anti-competition laws are not compatible with laissez faire,. That is the whole point I am making. The problem is those who call themselves free marketeers almost always support anti-competition laws. There is not a country in the developed world without such laws.

  10. I will Carl.

    As for Mr Henderson…..

    Your previous comments on other threads (in support of protectionism and other absurdities) are only too clear. Even the farcical failures of state ownership seem to have made no impression upon your mind (any more than they have with Peter Hitchens – sadly).

    Yes every large country now has “anti trust” laws and “competition authorities” – the world also has syphilis, this does not mean that syphilis is a good thing The world also has fiat currencies and Central Banking – also not good things..

    To write about economic matters it is advantage to now something about economics – and you, Mr Henderson, know nothing about it.

    However, it is possible to write about economic matters without a specific study of the subject – one could apply the nonaggression principle to the area.

    Sadly Sir, you refuse to do that either.

    That would be the libertarian approach – which you reject.

    I admit that it is a rather pointless argument at this point – as we are now completely and utterly doomed.

    The Welfare State will go bankrupt, and the financial system is a credit bubble and will collapse, No policy can, now, not prevent these things (things have proceeded too far).

    However, it there life after death (and we both end up in the same place) I will continue to argue with you.

  11. Mr Marks – all I see when I look at your comments on economics is a religious believer.

    Here’s a question for you, why was the period 1945-1970 the one which saw the greatest growth and rise in general prosperity in UK history up to that point? (Hint: it was the age of state control of vital services and an economy which was protected).

  12. Mr Henderson – there is no fundamental conflict between religion and reason (see Thomas Aquinas on this point – although I suspect you already know). However, NO my knowledge of economics is NOT a religion.

    Economics is based on reason (the laws of) – see Ludwig Von Mises “Human Action” for this point (if you have not already read this work and the many others that explain the point).

    You suggest that I look at the period of 1945 – 1970 (thus making the mistake of confusing history and economics. However. I will look at the period you describe.

    First the period you suggest covers wildly different economic policies. For example the early 1960s were must LESS statist than Britain is today (check the figures on the total size of the state – and also check the level of regulation), whereas the late 1940 were rather MORE statist than Britain is today.

    However, if you wish me to take the period as a whole and compare Britain to less statist countries (over the same period of time – 1945 – 1970) Britain actually compares rather badly. Nations that followed less statist economic policies over this period (such as Germany and Switzerland) tended to have a much higher rate of economic growth.

    So Mr Henderson you suggest that we forget about economics and just judge by history – but history is also against your position.

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