On the contradiction of non-interventionism

Reading Ludwig von Mises’ lecture notes on Politics and Ideas reminded me of the contradiction that is present in classical liberal thought or within certain libertarian circles: the idea that a government committed to laissez-faire is either (i) not political, (ii) somehow less political than its opposing forces, or (iii) political yet objectively correct. The contradiction takes the form of a deeply ideological yet ostensibly unbiased double standard where certain types of government regulation are deemed appropriate and, thus, do not qualify as much-maligned “interventionism”, while others are treated as necessarily evil, inefficient, or corrupt and, hence, interventionist; a distinction that collapses into itself in practice.

Mises notes:

Under interventionist ideas, it is the duty of the government to support, to subsidize, to give privileges to special groups. The idea of the eighteenth-century statesmen was that the legislators had special ideas about the common good. But what we have today, what we see today in the reality of political life, practically without any exceptions, in all the countries of the world where there is not simply communist dictatorship, is a situation where there are no longer real political parties in the old classical sense, but merely pressure groups.

While the identification of political parties and, by extension, ideologies with pressure groups does seem plausible, the notion of “real political parties” hints at an idealised era in which such entities and their underlying values were neither governed by minority concerns nor catered to parochial interests. We are led to assume that those “real political parties” laboured to promote nothing more than the general good: a magnitude that is supposed to be both unambiguous and decisively different from the interest of any particular pressure group.

For reasons that remain obscure, those same entities that once strove for the wellness of the whole changed into their conceptual alterity: they lost sight of their original cause as stewards of the common good and became interventionist. Could it be that they always were that way? They always served special interests and, for whatever reason, had to make further concessions towards other groups in order to retain their grip on power?

Unless we can identify a clear cause that turns “real political parties” into mere “pressure groups”, we have no reason to stand by this romantic view of the world of yester year. We are also not compelled to provide credence to this narrative by virtue of the absence of evidence on there being such exalted political entities; parties “in the old classical sense” that partook in enlightened governance without ever being tempted into reaping the short-term gains of clientelism.

Rather than start from a hypothesis of a once perfect world that has since declined, let us acknowledge the imperfect nature of the human being. We have our character flaws as individuals: we are tricked by biases, we sometimes cannot help but let our passions take over rational thinking, we act in accordance with our instincts when the need arises without observing the ethical framework that informs the zeitgeist.

The individual’s imperfections spill over into the world of ideas in general and politics in particular. For the most part, humans operate under conditions of uncertainty. They are not sure about what the best course of action is, in no small part because they lack the means to interpret the interplay of contributing factors to emergent phenomena. They lack perfect insight, else omniscience. Scientists, philosophers, engineers, artists, all have opinions—justified and informed, yet opinions nonetheless—about their respective field of endeavour; opinions that they typically evaluate using methods that appear to be appropriate for sorting out falsehoods. Areas were complete certitude can be asserted are fairly few and narrow in scope.

[ Read: The Dialectician’s Ethos (2020-09-30) ]

The world of politics is replete with contradictory views. Those who live on the borderlands may have a greater interest in foreign policy vis-Ă -vis the neighbouring country than those who reside further in to the hinterland and who have no experience of life on the border or lack information about its day-to-day reality. Those who have been exposed to physical abuse, domestic violence, or bullying may be more sensitive to such issues than the ones who are ignorant about the matter. Individuals with the same background may still react differently to stimuli, meaning that people from the same locality or group may not necessarily occupy convergent lifeworlds. And the same for all other scenaria.

Differences of opinion also arise from the scale in which decision-making unfolds. If the affairs of some village are ultimately decided by bureaucrats in the capital, then there is a good chance that the bureaucrats are not accounting for the specifics that hold true in that milieu because their role, their mandate and institutional outlook, is to cater to some broader interest.

[ Read: Notes on Rules (2020-07-01) ]

This is about the principle of subsidiarity and the vertical separation of powers in which decisions should be adopted as close to the citizens as possible: so village affairs are to be determined by the villagers, regional issues by the region’s authorities, and so on.

Subsidiarity is an appealing proposition, yet it cannot be applied as elegantly in practice when the scale of the polity contains strata that are far removed from any particular locality. There will always be cases where some higher stratum’s policies have permanent effect on lower strata, such as a periphery’s plan to build a road network which in turn limits the possible courses of environmental action in a given community that is disproportionately affected by the new infrastructure.

Subsidiarity is, in essence, a principle that must be interpreted in light of values that underpin modern statehood: internal homogeneity, territorial and legal-institutional integrity. In ideal terms, nation-states safeguard their unity by balancing out the good of the place (some locality) with the good of the space (the nation at-large). This holds true for aspiring nations such as the European Union, whose idiosyncratic federal system is meant to at once promote a sense of “Europeanness” while respecting the diversity of Europe’s people and, in particular, while forming its rules through inter-governmental mechanisms.

[ Read: On the appropriation of Europe (2020-09-28) ]

Banal nationalism and the modest or tacit Europeanism of present day Europe rest on the belief that a people can (i) be conceptualised as an indivisible whole, (ii) that such an entity can have a singular aspiration that those in power may themselves discern and express, and (iii) policies in pursuit of this common interest do not undermine or otherwise frame in a negative way the well-being of those yet-to-be-expressed, as in the case of inter-generational affairs.

Perhaps with the exception of some communities and micro nations, all states in the world have populations that are characterised by varying degrees of diversity. Those differences may be cultural, educational, social, economic, ideological, situational. For there to be a “national interest” or common good, well-meaning authorities must exercise discretion by labouring under the assumption that some abstract simile in multis is present within the population and that such a pattern is what is genuinely representative of the citizenry as such.

While the conduct of accommodating competing agendas may be a prerequisite to governance, it nonetheless entails the probability of discriminating against certain niches in pursuit of some estimated average opinion. For our purposes of entertaining Mises’ assumption, let us grant that such discrimination is neither ideological nor premeditated and that it only follows from the very mechanics of treating a diverse group as if it were homogeneous. Even with such a brave hypothesis we cannot afford but acknowledge that those in power may well be enabling some pressure group’s stratagems, such as by preferring the interests of those who benefit from, say, the single market and common currency that the state imposes upon its subjects.

Even if the common mind is sometimes possible to be expressed, we have to account for the complexity of the world. Suppose that a unified defence policy is to the benefit of all groups that make up the body politic. Consider, further, that this policy requires the maintenance of a standing army. As an army’s morale is of paramount importance to its effectiveness, shrewd governors will seek to implement measures that are not strictly about defence, yet can be conceived as contributing to the overarching objective of operational military efficiency. Those can be the instruction of a common language, or the formulation of a titular narrative such as in the form of a single religion or secular doctrine that encapsulates the vaunted essence of the political whole’s unity. This top-down homogeneity may be instrumental to the realisation of the general interest in effective defence, yet it inevitably undermines or otherwise works against other issues like cultural diversity.

[ Read: Against the secularised theology of statecraft (2019-06-14) ]

However one goes about it, the conclusion is that the “real political parties” are a chimera. Mises’ prior truth is but an expedient story to provide credibility to the claim that civilisation is experiencing a decline which is caused by resurgent interventionism and which, in turn, is due to the transformation of the once-true political parties into associations of lobbyists.

The point is that there is no practical way in which a fairly large body politic is ever expressed uniformly, not just for one issue in a given moment, but for all matters that affect it over time. It thus follows that all policies necessarily involve a degree of arbitrariness and that even well-meaning officials will inadvertently disadvantage some constituency over others in any given domain of decision-making.

Democracy was never conceived as a system where an enlightened elite expresses the general good. It rather was predicated on the realisation that through continuous compromise in the Ecclesia (Athens) or Apella (Sparta), formalised as the political process, all citizens who enjoyed equal status could balance out their competing interests over the long term. An imperfect system that was deemed better than other yet more imperfect systems of the time.

Which brings us to the very notion of interventionism. Before we proceed, however, let us revisit Mises’ claims on the topic:

It was not the idea of the eighteenth-century founders of modern constitutional government that a legislator should represent, not the whole nation, but only the special interests of the district in which he was elected; that was one of the consequences of interventionism. The original idea was that every member of the legislature should represent the whole nation. He was elected in a special district only because there he was known and elected by people who had confidence in him.

We have already argued that representing the whole nation is both practically impossible and does not necessarily ameliorate the ostensible innate faults of interventionism. Those representatives may still have to discriminate against certain particular interests in their quest to pursue the often elusive or outright arbitrary common good.

Now suppose that none of the above holds true and that Mises is right that interventionism is the force that inwardly corrupted constitutional government. What is interventionism? And, conversely, what exactly does non-interventionism entail when couched in terms of such a constitutional political order?

Non-intervention would amount to the absence of regulation by the government. No government policy should determine any sphere of life.

  • Should this principle apply universally? If yes, then the government has no reason to exist, because every single law is, in effect, a medium through which the rule-makers seek to form reality in accordance with their will rather than letting it develop organically.

  • If some degree of interventionism is to be allowed, then we must necessarily create a classification of areas of policy where a few of them are presumed to be more important than others in that they merit government initiative to render them possible or desirable. Who decides what those policies are and why is this meant to be an objectively correct or politically neutral course of action?

Strictly speaking, non-interventionism either (1) leads to the kind of anarchy that annuls the sort of constitutional government Mises refers to, in which case the entire mythology of a golden age of “real political parties” becomes irrelevant, or (2) it introduces profoundly ideologically driven arbitrariness under the guise of vague concepts like the “national interest” in which special pressure groups stand at the receiving end of favourable policies under the pretext that they are pillars of that presumed national unity and wellness.

Anarchy would itself qualify as a kind of variagated interventionism in the sense that all political conduct involves purposeful concerted action to regulate inter-personal or inter-subjective affairs in accordance with certain principles or in pursuit of ends that would not have been observed or hypostatised in the absence of politics. Anarchy is political throughout, though our argument here is that Mises’ non-interventionism would annul 18th century constitutional government once implemented faithfully—so it does not support his thesis.

As for the tacit ideocentric disposition of non-interventionism that favours special interests, let us revisit the example of the common defence policy. Suppose that decision-makers have qualified defence as worthy of government intervention while they otherwise remain committed to a non-interventionist form of governance. Now the government wants to raise and maintain a standing army. Should it not, for matters of homeland safety, also support the industries that produce arms? And what about the protection of critical infrastructure, such as airports, roads, power plants? Those must be instrumentalised as well. Same for the control over key resources like oil or natural gas. Extend this to espionage and diplomacy, which inevitably influence international trade… Before you realise it, the government’s pursuit of the “national interest” in defence policy can only be implemented as a series of exemptions and favourable deals for particular pressure groups. All while rendering void and meaningless the claims on the overall non-interventionist outlook of policy.

The theorist who expounded on the merits of non-interventionism in vitro will never be able to criticise non-interventionism in vivo when catch-all concepts such as the general good or the national interest are part of the equation and actually guide political discourse. It simply is naive to grant one virtually limitless power as well as a blank check they can cash in at any moment and expect them not to abuse such privilege.

Mises’ tenuous propositions notwithstanding, there exists a more subtle problem with the arguments in favour of non-interventionism. They rest on the presumption that the status quo ex ante is a good starting point to roll back government interventions and that whatever injustices will be corrected organically. In other words, the structural aspects of the human world are altogether disregarded or not given sufficient consideration.

Think, if you will, of land ownership. And suppose that the government stops implementing all policies that contributed to the concentration of property in the hands of a few economic overlords. Consider then that the government also repeals all legislation that pertains to labour rights. All the government is left to do is treat property rights as sacrosanct. The landless will have to work for the land owners, while the latter will be in a position to impose odious working conditions, employ thugs that kill any attempt at unionisation at its birth, and, generally, behave ruthlessly in their exploitation of the workers. In a system where interventionism is possible, the oppressed can at least hope that they may influence the government to do something in order to ease their pains. In the absence of such an option all they are left with is the course of bloody revolution.

It may be argued that the landed gentry would have a rational interest not to exploit its workers and not push them over the edge. While interesting, there is no reason to believe in the likelihood of such a hypothesis especially in light of the history of economic relations, the current working conditions in the Global South, the overall precarity of living standards in so-called “advanced economies”, and the misconduct of mega-corporations both towards their employees but also with respect to the ecosystem.

In Politics and Ideas Mises fails to appreciate the peculiar brand of interventionism that defines capitalism: state intervention in favour of capital owners and, in particular, platformarchs. This is the kind of intervention that is conceptualised by apologists of the establishment as ideology-free despite the fact that it follows from the arbitrary classification of areas of policy into those that should be instituted through legislation and those that should remain “hands off”. The doctrine of laissez-faire economics and concomitant governance rests on this arbitrariness, such as in its argument for the rule of law in the preservation of private property parallel to its offensive against labour rights and other such “impediments” to “unfettered” business operations.

[ Read: On platformarchs, the demi-state, and deplatforming (2021-01-26) ]

Notions of “crony capitalism” or “corporatism” are often used to describe the modern world’s economic order. While they do denote some kind of corruption or decadence, they too hint at a mythicised golden age in which capitalism was not plagued by those evils; a capitalism where markets were free and everyone was happy… That paradise on earth never existed, unless we count the enrichment of colonists as “free market” when they appropriated the land of indigenous peoples all while engaging in slave trade. The same colonists who were subjects of vast empires that actively exploited large parts of the world.

This is not to suggest that Mises would have argued in favour of such historical events. It rather is an attempt to highlight once again the indifference of non-interventionist theorists on the status quo ex ante and how they wish to dissolve present injustices through means whose adequacy is questionable at the outset.

It is true that a government wielding its resources in the benefit of pressure groups is inevitably discriminating against other groups which can, inter alia, mean that it distorts what could have otherwise happened in the economy. It is also true that non-intervention may help calcify existing inequality and its accompanying unjust structural distribution of power.

In which case we have two broad options: (1) either we embrace anarchy and acknowledge that politics might potentially evolve without any obsession on economic efficiency as a brand of communitarianism and localism outside the confines of the eighteenth-century-style constitutional government (i.e. nation-statism) or (2) we accept interventionism as an epiphenomenon of politics and put our efforts into recalibrating our political order so that collective life results in an equilibrium between competing interest groups, which implies more interventionism, though this time decisively against platformarchs.