Hans-Hermann Hoppe may be the most brilliant and original classical liberal alive today.  Often lumped together with the libertarians, of whom he is justly critical, Hoppe was a student of Jürgen Habermas before becoming a disciple of Murray Rothbard and, through Rothbard, of Ludwig von Mises.  Hoppe is probably the most important philosopher produced by the Austrian School.  Friedrich Hayek and Mises were primarily economists, and Rothbard, though a jack-of-all-trades and a master of many, did his best work as an economic historian.  Of the Austrians, Hoppe is one of the few to have taken political philosophy seriously as a primary occupation, and while his conclusions may sometimes take him well beyond the limits of liberal thought, his basic concepts and approach make him an authentic member of the school.  This volume, which is an excellent introduction to Hoppe’s work, is one of the very few important books produced by the American right in recent years.

In defending private property from the predatory state, Hoppe is in the mainstream of the liberal tradition, and he owes the concept of time preference, which is at the heart of much of his theoretical work, to Mises and Rothbard.  Although the theory of time preference can be elaborate, the essence is quite simple.  People can be classified as having either a high or low time preference, depending on their willingness to forgo current gratification for a future reward.  Those with a high time preference are more insistent upon more immediate gratification, and vice versa.  Edward Banfield applied the concept to class distinctions, pointing out that, on the continuum from lower to working to middle to upper middle, the higher a person’s class, the lower his time preference.  This helps to explain, for example, why lower-class people want to be paid at the end of the day, while upper-middle-class people reckon their income as an annual salary.

Hoppe’s insight—and it is startling in its simplicity—is to apply time-preference theory to regimes and ruling classes.  Rulers that somehow own the country or the state, according to the theory, will be willing to forgo the immediate gratification of high taxes (or ruinous wars for the sake of plunder) in order to pass on the commonwealth to their heirs, while rulers with only a short period in power will be tempted to “loot” (one of Hoppe’s favorite words) the country through high taxes, corruption, etc.  As it turns out, a well-established monarchical dynasty should be the least onerous regime, while a democratic state that imposes term limits on elected officials would inflict the highest taxes.  From Hoppe’s perspective, members of the U.S. Congress are like Canadian mosquitoes: The summer is so short that the bloodsucking parasites must be ruthless to the point of reckless if they are to thrive.  In the course of his career, Hoppe has applied this insight to taxation, spending, debt, and corruption, almost always to good effect.

Opponents of big government would have reason to be grateful to Hoppe if he had merely limited his analysis to questions of time preference.  In fact, he has gone further, offering fundamental criticism of the simplistic libertarian/liberal ideology that reduces all human relations to a conflict between individuals and the state.  Instead of treating immigration as a human right or a function of the labor market, he correctly regards current immigration policies as a system of “forced immigration” that destroys authentic communities.

Unlike libertarians, Hoppe is fully aware that an excessive emphasis on individual rights leads directly to the state centralization that destroys civilization, and he demonstrates clearly that, in the case of Germany, civilization is richest when it is most decentralized.  His ideal is something like the Althusian vision of a decentralized and federal Holy Roman Empire (though it is not clear that he has actually studied Althusius).

Hoppe is willing to take his decentralist politics down to the lowest level and sees clearly that the institution of the family is fundamental both to civilization and to liberty: “Families and households must be recognized,” he writes in the conclusion to his chapter “On Cooperation, Tribe, City, State,”

as the source of civilization.  It is essential that heads of families and households reassert their ultimate authority as judge in all internal family affairs.  (Households must be declared extraterritorial territory, like foreign embassies.)

Hoppe’s frank declaration of family autonomy, while a refreshing change from the stale “family values” rhetoric of social conservatives, is not entirely new.  There is a long conservative tradition on this point, which he seems to have ignored.

In fact, historical research is not Hoppe’s strong suit.  Unlike Murray Rothbard, whose explorations of American history often took him into uncharted territory, Hoppe is content, for the most part, with textbook surveys and popular books that can often mislead the unwary.  It is simply not sufficient, in a discussion of debt in Greece and Rome, to refer to a general history of interest rates, and if he had actually learned something of the functioning of ancient Greek city-states, he might have understood that even the rulers of a democracy, if they are the natural leaders of a small community, may have a serious concern for the future of their country.  Hoppe’s strength lies in his ability to conceive a theoretical model; he is far less successful in applying that model to historical reality.

Part of the weakness in his work stems from the thin reading he has done outside the province of liberal political and economic theory.  Time after time, he contents himself with citations from Mises, Rothbard, and Bernard de Jouvenel when there are historical or scientific classics from which he might have drawn useful (and corrective) information.  The lack of a bibliography makes it difficult to check his sources; a far more serious flaw, however, is his fondness for adopting oversimplified categories and applying them as if they were real.  In the period leading up to World War I, for example, he regards England as a monarchy and France as a republic—as if a figurehead British monarch constitutes a substantive difference between the two regimes.

These flaws in his approach become more noticeable and more irritating when he discusses the politics of his own time and his adopted country.  By taking a few policies and individual phrases out of context, he tries to indict the nationalist ideology of Patrick Buchanan and Samuel Francis as encouraging economic oppression and political tyranny.  In speeches, he has gone so far as to accuse some conservatives of advocating “social nationalism” or even national socialism.  This reckless and dangerous rhetoric plays into the hands of those leftists who would like to smear everyone on the right with the Nazi brush.  Hoppe himself, with his brash style and take-no-prisoners response to criticism, has more than once opened himself up to a similar attack.  I have heard him refer to criminals, gypsies, and “other human garbage”; even in this book, he concludes that proletarian consumers are more or less subhuman beasts.  An enemy, or even an unwary reader, might wrongly conclude that Professor Hoppe is a bit of a “social nationalist” himself.  In fact, Hans-Hermann Hoppe (despite protestations to the contrary) is a sentimental German monarchist, fond of his nation’s great traditions and committed to the principles of private property and political liberty.

If Hoppe’s dogmatism (too often unsupported by the necessary scholarship) and arrogance are often exasperating even to his admirers, his obvious merits—intellectual rigor, moral courage, originality—would cover a far greater multitude of intellectual sins than he has so far committed.  His work is always interesting (if abominably written—writing in a second language is the least of his problems), and any conservative or libertarian with the slightest interest in political history should buy this book.


[Democracy, the God that Failed: The Economics and Politics of Monarchy, Democracy, and Natural Order, by Hans-Hermann Hoppe (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers) 304 pp., $44.95]