Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Is Alexander Hamilton's ideal of a modern commercial republic still relevant today?


Alexander Hamilton was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He served as secretary to the Treasury from 1789 to 1795 during the presidency of George Washington.

I knew little about Alexander Hamilton’s contribution to American economic policy before reading Samuel Gregg’s book, The Next American Economy: Nation, State, and Markets in an Uncertain World, 2022. Gregg suggests that America faces a choice between a form of state capitalism – top-down interventionism focused on achieving political objectives such as greater economic security for specific groups and “national security” – and a free market economy. He argues that in making the case for free markets it is helpful to take another look at the ideal of a modern commercial republic as espoused by Alexander Hamilton.

Centralization of powers

Prior to reading Gregg’s book, I knew that Hamilton had argued successfully for greater centralization of government powers than prevailed in the original confederation. On that basis, I had entertained the idea that he might possibly have been responsible for much that is wrong with the U.S. today.

Gregg presents a more positive view of Hamilton’s contribution. He suggests that integration of the states into a more unified commercial republic made it easier for Hamilton to apply principles of free trade among the states and between the U.S. and other countries.

Gregg’s line of reasoning poses a challenge both to libertarian globalists, who see national governments as the source of barriers to the functioning of free markets, and to economic nationalists who want governments to prevent foreign economic competition because they see it as a threat to national sovereignty. He challenges libertarian globalists by suggesting that “failure by the government to smooth the economic ups and downs which are part of life in a market economy risks opening the door to political movements that have no particular regard for human freedom”. He challenges economic nationalists by suggesting that tariffs and other measures that protect of American industry from foreign competition are harmful to Americans.

 It isn’t necessary for libertarian globalists, like myself, to abandon utopian thinking in order to see merit in effective unilateral action by national governments to promote free trade. At a national level, the case for free trade rests on it providing individual citizens and their descendants with the prospect of better opportunities than would otherwise be available to them.

To eliminate the excesses of statism, it is necessary for political leaders to exercise statecraft (or what Adam Smith and David Hume referred to as “the science of the legislator”. As Gregg puts it Smith and Hume recognized that:

 “the knowledge furnished by … integration of moral, political, and economic inquiry needed to be brought to bear upon society by statesmen and governments in the interests of its improvement”.

Gregg notes that although Edmund Burke’s involvement in economic policy was “attuned to political realities” he leaned strongly towards promoting greater commercial freedom within Britain’s empire and between Britain and other nations.

America’s Founding Fathers, including Alexander Hamilton, were also influenced by Adam Smith and David Hume.

Hamilton’s vision of a commercial republic

Samuel Gregg explains how Hamilton advanced his vision of a commercial republic in his contributions to the Federalist Papers and in his role as secretary to the Treasury. Hamilton’s vision of a modern civilized nation combined republican government and a private enterprise economy, with merchants subject to the discipline of competitive markets. He hints that character traits that make for commercial success – industry, innovation, economy, self-restraint, honesty, prudence – are also republican virtues.

Hamilton argued for free trade between the states and for revenue tariffs only on international trade. He suggested that tariffs “force industry out of its more natural channels into others in which it flows with less advantage”. He maintained that trade policy should be driven by national interest and was adamantly opposed to use of trade sanctions as an instrument of foreign policy.

What next?

Samuel Gregg ends his book by acknowledging that he doesn’t know whether there is a real possibility that an American commercial republic could emerge to shape America’s future. He hopes that it could on the basis that he can “see no reason why America cannot embrace the habits, incentives, and disciplines associated with markets while also grounding them in the language, norms, and virtues of the American experiment”.

Since 2022, when Gregg’s book was published, it has become clearer that the U.S. is likely to continue, for a few more years at least, down the path towards greater international trade protectionism.  The choice that the two major political parties are offering voters in the 2024 presidential election certainly does not include a candidate offering an alternative to higher trade barriers.

Unfortunately, the adverse impacts of increased trade protectionism in the U.S. cannot be guaranteed to result in a strong impetus for policy reversal. The U.S. economy is sufficiently large and diverse that increased barriers to international trade are likely to have relatively minor adverse impacts by comparison with those that would occur in most other countries if they followed similar policies.

It looks to me as though trade liberalisation is unlikely to occur in the U.S. until influential politicians come to see merit, from a foreign policy perspective, in supporting multilateral efforts to encourage trade among countries that have more than minimal regard for free market principles.

Meanwhile, Samuel Gregg’s book will hopefully be widely read in other countries where some current political leaders may be more receptive to Alexander Hamilton’s vision of a commercial republic based on free market principles.


Samuel Gregg’s book, The Next American Economy, urges Americans to adopt the ideal of a modern commercial republic, as originally espoused by Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton argued for the U.S. to adopt, unilaterally, the principle of free international trade on the grounds that this would serve the economic interests of Americans and promote republican virtues.

Unfortunately, American political leaders do not currently seem to be in the mood to re-endorse Hamilton’s vision of a modern commercial republic.

Hopefully, Gregg’s book will be widely read in other countries where some political leaders may be receptive to messages about the contemporary relevance of the role that free market polices played at an early stage in the economic and social development of the United States.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Why should peacefulness be viewed as a characteristic of a good society?


In the most popular post on my blog, written in 2009, I asked: What are the characteristics of a good society? I began the post by suggesting that a good society would have good institutions – norms and laws that are good for its members. I noted that in thinking about the characteristics of a good society different people tend to emphasise different things that they consider to be important e.g. egalitarianism, personal freedom, moral values and spirituality. I then suggested that rather than just agreeing to differ, it might be useful to try to identify some characteristics of a good society that nearly everyone would agree to be important. 

The three characteristics I identified were: 

  • institutions that enable members to live together in peace; 
  • institutions that provide members with opportunities to flourish – to have more of the things that are good for humans to have; 
  • and institutions that provide members with a degree of security against potential threats to individual flourishing.

No-one has suggested to me that they disagree that good societies should have those three characteristics.

However, I have been wondering recently how I should respond if someone suggested that in some societies a substantial proportion of the population hold attitudes that place a relatively low priority on living together peacefully. For example, while they may play lip service to peacefulness, people in some societies may not consider that it is important for children to learn to have tolerance and respect for others.  The chart shown above suggests that the importance placed on that particular child quality does indeed vary substantially throughout the world.

On reflection, I have decided that my view that peacefulness is a characteristic of a good society does not actually depend on the degree of support for that view in any society.

Why is peacefulness important?

It is appropriate to begin with the proposition that a good society would have good institutions – norms and laws that are good for its members. What that means is that a good society has institutions that support the flourishing of its individual members.

In my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I identified several basic goods that a flourishing person could be expected to have:

  • Wise and well-informed self-direction
  • Health and longevity
  • Positive relationships
  • Living in harmony with nature
  • Psychological well-being.

The merits of that list is a matter for ongoing reflection and discussion but I think it is helpful in considering what characteristics a society needs to have if it is to support the flourishing of individual members.

The contributions of peacefulness are fairly obvious. Peaceful societies protect the rights of individuals to self-direct, provided they do not interfere with the rights of others. They contribute to health and longevity my minimizing violence. They provide a context in which people can develop trusting relationships with others.

There isn’t any explicit discussion of the concept of a good society in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing but the extensive discussion of progress in that book is highly relevant. Progress is defined in the book as growth of opportunities for human flourishing. On that basis, the good societies are those in which a great deal of progress has occurred in the past. Progress can be ongoing because there is always scope for good societies to become better.

Importance of consensus about the desirability of peacefulness    

Widespread agreement about the importance of peacefulness to human flourishing provides important support for institutions that enable the peaceful resolution of disputes among people with different political objectives. A society has little hope of becoming good, or remaining good, when an increasing number of people become willing to resort to violence to impose their visions of a good society on others.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Why am I still blogging?


I began blogging about 16 years ago, when blogging was somewhat fashionable. At that time, many blogs were like public diaries in which people discussed daily events in their lives. I have the impression that blogs of that kind have become less common, presumably because of competition from social media such as Facebook.

I can’t recall ever having used this blog to discuss daily events in my life and have rarely used it to discuss hot political issues. At the outset, I decided that I didn’t want the blog to be about me. And I thought it would be wise to focus on longer term issues, rather than to be unduly distracted by the day-to-day antics of politicians.

One of the distinctive characteristics of the blog is that the title of each article is a question. That seemed to me to be a good way to stay on topic in exploring relationships between freedom and flourishing. (I have previously discussed the question format here.)  

My reasons for blogging are still much the same as they were when I began. In a post in 2011, entitled "What is my purpose in blogging?”, I wrote:

“When people have asked me this question in the past my answer has been that I am interested in issues related to liberty and happiness. I read a lot of material related to those issues; I write about the things I read because that helps to focus my mind; and I publish what I write on my blog because my views might be of interest to some other people.”

My blog has evolved in various ways that have helped sustain my enthusiasm for blogging.

Evolution of the blog

When I began blogging, my main objective was to understand the links between freedom and life satisfaction that were evident in survey data. Surveys show that people who say they have a lot of freedom also tend to say they have high life satisfaction.

My objectives have become more focused as I have come to understand more about the importance of self-direction to the flourishing of individual humans. These days I am particularly interested in exploring the implications of the idea that progress should be viewed as growth of opportunities for individuals to flourish.  

From the outset, most of my blog posts have been prompted by articles and books I have read. I sometimes review a whole book, but more often select some ideas in it that I want to explore. A fairly recent example of this approach is my review of The Individualists, by Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi. My review focuses on the question: Where is the soul of libertarianism?  (I use that essay as an example because I think it deserves more attention than it has received thus far.)

In my early years of blogging, I conducted a substantial amount of quantitative research using survey data on life satisfaction and personal freedom, along with more objective measures of economic and personal freedom. I still retain some interest in quantitative analysis, and am proud of a series of posts last year (summarized here) on the question: Can cultural values explain authoritarianism?

When I began blogging, I posted about once a week. These days I tend to post about once every couple of weeks. When I began blogging, I tried to keep posts as short as possible. More recently, my posts have tended to be longer, but I frequently use sub-headings and conclusions to help readers follow the line of argument.

Benefits of blogging

The benefits I obtain from blogging don’t include wealth or fame. If either wealth or fame was my motivation for blogging, I would have given up many years ago.

The main benefit I obtain from blogging is the satisfaction of learning about a topic by writing about it. There is also some satisfaction in knowing that what I am writing is attracting some attention.

I don’t know how many people actually read the essays on my blog, but there have been 1,197,600 views in total since I started the blog. There were 24,768 views last month.

My most popular post is entitled: What are the characteristics of a good society? That post has had 56,600 views.

One of the important benefits I have obtained from blogging is to establish contact with like-minded people in other parts of the world who share my interest in liberty and ancient philosophy.

Blogging has also helped me to develop my views sufficiently to be able to write a couple of books. I wrote and published Free to Flourish on Kindle in 2012. Freedom, Progress and Human Flourishing was published, by Hamilton Books, in 2021. I consider that writing the latter book has been one of the most significant achievements of my life.


To sum up, I am still blogging because blogging gives me a lot of satisfaction. Blogging has helped me to deepen my understanding of the importance of self-direction to human flourishing. Blogging has enabled me to establish contact with like-minded people who share some of my interests. Blogging also helped me to write Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, which I view as one of my most significant achievements.

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Is ecological justice also a mirage?


David Schmidtz advocates “ecological justice” in his book, Living Together: Inventing Moral Science. Although Schmidtz does not refer to Friedrich Hayek in this book, his general line of argument is similar, in many respects, to that developed by Hayek in Law, Legislation, and Liberty. From Schmidtz’s earlier writings, it clear that he is well aware of Hayek’s views.

I presume Schmidtz has good reasons for not comparing his views to those of Hayek in this book. However, since Hayek argued that ‘social justice’ is a mirage, I thought Hayek would not object to me asking whether ecological justice could also be a mirage.

In this essay, I provide a brief summary of Hayek’s reasons for viewing social justice as a mirage before considering the basis for Schmidtz’s concept of ecological justice.

Why did Hayek view social justice as a mirage?

Hayek argued that it is “a dishonest insinuation” and “intellectually disreputable” to make reference to social justice in an attempt to bolster an argument “that one ought to agree to a demand of some special interest which can give no reason for it”. Hayek implies that where there are good reasons for assistance to the less fortunate, reference to social justice adds nothing to the argument. (LLL, V2, p 97. See also p 87 for Hayek’s discussion of reasons to support “protection against severe deprivation”.)

Hayek also argued that “a society of free individuals” … “lacks the fundamental precondition for the application of the concept of justice to the manner in which material benefits are shared among its members, namely that this is determined by a human will – or that the determination of rewards by human will could produce a viable market order”. (LLL, V2, pp 96-7)

Elsewhere, Hayek made the point that the size of the national cake and its distribution are not separable issues:

“We must face the truth that it is not the magnitude of a given aggregate product which allows us to decide what to do with it, but rather the other way around: that a process which tells us how to reward the several contributions to this product is also the indispensable source of information for the individuals, telling them where they can make the aggregate product as large as possible” (Conference paper published in Nishiyama and Leube, “The Essence of Hayek”, p 323).

Hayek went on to make the point that John Stuart Mill’s claim that “once the product is there, mankind, individually or collectively, can do with it whatever it pleases” is really “an incredible stupidity, showing a complete unawareness of the crucial guide function of prices”.

Interestingly, David Schmidtz suggests that by pulling production and distribution apart, J. S. Mill “unwittingly pulled one question into two half questions that in fractured isolation had no proper answers and that would derail rather than facilitate our study of the human condition”. (p 6) Following Mill, questions about production were allocated to economists, while questions of distribution were the province of philosophers: “those who work on justice”. (p 5)

What is ecological about justice?  

David Schmidtz writes:

“We are social and political animals, and justice is a human adaptation to an ecological niche.” (p 220)

What does that mean? The common human characteristic of negotiating what we expect from each other is one of the reasons why humans are viewed as social and political animals. As people negotiate what to expect from each other, they create social niches in which they hope to flourish. (p 25) Schmidtz suggests that to speak of justice is to speak of what we should be able to expect from each other. (p 219)

Justice manages traffic. (p 220) People share an interest in avoiding collision, but otherwise have destinations of their own:

“The truth for political animals is that since we began to settle in large communities, being of one mind has not been an option. Being on the same page is not an option. Even our diverse ideas about how to resolve conflict are a source of conflict. And, disturbing though it may be for a theorist to admit it, theories do not help. It is a political fact that we live among people who have theories of their own, who do not find each other’s theories compelling, and who are perfectly aware that there is no reason why they should.” (p 221)

Schmidtz discusses several other features of ecological justice. For example, norms of ecological justice are an adaptive response to reality. Principles of justice are based on an understanding of which institutional frameworks are enabling people to flourish and which are not. Justice is somewhat testable: when the world tests our ideals and finds them wanting, we need to rethink.

The author ends up suggesting that the features of ecological justice that he has discussed “do not define ecological justice, and do not exhaust it, but they indicate whether a conception of justice is more or less ecological”. (p 226)

 Instead of seeking to define ecological justice, perhaps it is more helpful to ask what is the question that ecological justice seeks to answer. The title of Schmidtz’s book suggests that the question has to do with how we can live together. In his introduction, he asks:

“What if justice evolved as a real question about what people ought to be able to expect of each other?”

Since we have reasons to believe that justice evolved in that way, perhaps the relevant question is:

What rules of just conduct should influence what people ought to be able to be able to expect of each other, allowing for the possibility that individuals might flourish in different ways?  

(That question borrows words from Friedrich Hayek, and Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl, as well as David Schmidtz.)


David Schmidtz’s concept of ecological justice is certainly not a mirage. It has to do with the nature of humans as social and political animals, and the nature of justice as a human adaptation to an ecological niche.

Rather than seeking to define ecological justice precisely, perhaps it is more helpful to ask what is the question that ecological justice seeks to answer. My suggestion is:

What rules of just conduct should influence what people ought to be able to be able to expect of each other, allowing for the possibility that individuals might flourish in different ways?