Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s essays will not be everyone’s cup of tea, particularly in view of the author’s stated purpose to defend individual property rights as the basis of a free and productive society. Hoppe tackles his job of apologetics by engaging in both economic analysis and ethical theorizing. The economic aspect of his work is mostly a cogent criticism of government policies that claim to distinguish public from private goods and benefits. Hoppe responds to the humanitarian claims of self-described advocates of the “common good” by asking “cui bono?” Who exactly is served each time the government takes under its control some aspect of the economy—or provides a service that might otherwise be privately fulfilled? Hoppe believes the government is never justified in circumventing market mechanisms to provide goods and services. He judges such activity to be irrational and unjust, ignoring the information supplied by market demand while frequently infringing on property rights.
Hoppe goes on to argue that a cooperative civil society would emerge if consenting property holders could have their way. To an objection made by the less thorough libertarian Loren Lomasky, that the demand for a government based entirely on the contractual activity of property holders is “unrealistic,” Hoppe responds by pointing out the obvious: no economic libertarian will likely have his druthers in today’s world, but it is useful to show that public order would result from voluntary activities being undertaken by politically uncoerced property owners. Market mechanisms and self-interest would take care of social needs.
One may of course ask whether cooperative structures would in fact result if our present welfare state suddenly vanished. In the absence of cultural unity and some preexisting community, I tend to doubt it. Nor is it clear that Hoppe’s society can function in the face of violent disagreement without the use, or at least the threat, of force. Professor Hoppe and I have arrived at our hostile views of the welfare state partly by different mentors, he through John Locke and Jürgen Habermas and I through Thomas Hobbes and Carl Schmitt. Unlike him, I believe that productive freedom is impossible in the absence of political and social cohesion.
In his philosophic essays, Hoppe makes a number of sound points about the implicit assumptions of communication. Drawing on Habermas and, to a lesser extent, Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, and Kant, he demonstrates the self-contradiction of a totally subjective view of knowledge. All communication is based on unavoidable presuppositions, he explains, without which it could not exist; we would not even attempt such activity unless we believed that the data we transmit and receive is mutually intelligible. Our communication reveals another epistemic assumption, Hoppe observes: namely, that a constant self (what German idealists call the “transcendental ego”) lies behind interpersonal communication as a continuing source and point of reference. Each self asserts its identity by entering into contractual relations with other consenting selves, if the opportunity is present. For self-ownership as well as the possibility of mutually intelligible communication are unspoken givens in human action, Hoppe maintains, and thus the self becomes aware of its own integrity as it projects itself into an ever-widening web of social and legal relationships. From at least an implicit recognition of self-ownership, Hoppe’s ego appropriates external objects by bestowing labor upon them and by laying claim to whatever is accessible to new owners. It is through these economic and contractual self-projections that Hoppe’s ego recognizes its own permanence and its ties to a larger world.
While Hoppe works out this process of individual self-discovery with a certain rigor, he reaches too hard for ethical truths that his investigation simply will not yield. Unlike Mises, who as an ethical nonabsolutist assumed the subjective basis of human wants while believing that people do act rationally in pursuit of subjective goals, Hoppe looks for ethical universals operative in economic men. The same problematic leap is already present in John Locke, whom Hoppe cites with obvious admiration. Despite the mechanistic, experiential epistemology he later developed in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke in the Second Treatise of Government points to “right reason” and quotes Richard Hooker’s neo-Aristotelian views, particularly in his description of the state of nature, of man’s natural moral facilities. But Locke writes not as a lawyer arguing on behalf of the natural law but as a polemicist, denying the gloomy, predatory state of nature described by Thomas Hobbes. Because Locke sets out to make a case for government by consent, he abandons his skeptical view of innate ideas and his otherwise inflexible materialism to embrace the Anglican scholastic Hooker. People can reason together even in the absence of civil society (which Hooker could not have conceived), and thus the government we erect will have to deal with rational, self-limiting beings, not with Hobbes’s world of predators.
Yet Hoppe’s natural reason has far more in common with Hobbesian “reckoning,” or calculation, than with Locke’s jerrybuilt ethical defense of liberty. When Hoppe discusses ethical universals, he clearly means the human capacity, discussed in the first part of Leviathan, to engage in the reasoning needed to construct and carry out civil contracts. This reasoning produces a purely functional kind of justice defined as the “keeping of promises,” and it is upon this that Hobbes, further in Leviathan, bottoms the contractual basis of his mortal good, the sovereign state. I am not sure that Hoppe ever moves beyond this Hobbesian notion of justice in characterizing ethical intelligence, though I am also not sure that one can present the Western liberalism in whose tradition Hoppe stands without acknowledging its partly unwitting architect, Thomas Hobbes. Both John Gray and Michael Oakeshott have made this point convincingly.
Nonetheless, what is most appealing about Hoppe’s presentation is the way he avoids conventional opinion in offering a defense of property-based liberalism. He writes like a maverick, albeit one who is painfully systematic and concerned with giving us a conceptually integrated worldview. What was said of Hegel, “Alles fällt wie aus einem Guss zusammen,” applies to Hoppe’s system as well. It too forms a unified, tightly reasoned whole, and if one feels driven to challenge at least some of its elements, it is because Hoppe covers so much ground. It is unusual to encounter anything so far-ranging and erudite by a contemporary American academic. That Hoppe, like Murray Rothbard, is at the University of Nevada and not at some internationally recognized center of learning speaks volumes about American universities. Hoppe’s speculative intelligence may be the only positive force ever influenced by the militant globalist/social democrat Jürgen Habermas. In the future I shall think more kindly of Habermas when remembering his spirited student.
[The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, by Hans-Hermann Hoppe (Norwood, Massachusetts: Kluwer Academic Publishers) 288 pp., $59.95]