Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Libertarian Theoretical Historian

Many years ago, I spent most of my waking time reading libertarian philosophy. It was a fun experience for the most part. Robert Nozick turned out to be the only one with a remotely impressive philosophical mind, though his libertarian system ultimately failed internally on its own terms and he abandoned it later in his life. During this wonderful period in my life, I kept running across mentions of a gentleman named Hans-Hermann Hoppe who was said to have proved that the very act of arguing against libertarianism presupposed libertarianism's truth. I finally decided to pursue this promising philosophical lead and have ever since counted Hoppe as one of my favorite thinkers.

Previously here at Demos, I have expounded upon Hoppe's truly incredible magnum opus, Democracy: The God That Failed. If you have not yet read that post, I'd recommend doing so. In this post, I want to discuss Hoppe's latest intellectual offering, an amazing pamphlet called From Aristocracy to Monarchy to Democracy, which was published by the Mises Institute last month. What follows is a synopsis.

The Historical Method

As the title suggests, Hoppe intends to take the reader through a history of social forms. You might think this would entail going through a good chunk of historical sources to document the actual historical shifts between these identified epochs. But no.

From the very first sentence of the introduction of the work (graciously provided by Mises Fellow David Gordon), the reader is informed that this isn't your grandfather's history book. Hoppe explains that he does not intend "to engage in standard history, i.e., history as it is written by historians, but to offer a logical or sociological reconstruction of history, informed by actual historical events, but motivated more fundamentally by theoretical — philosophical and economic — concerns." Gordon refers to this method as "theoretical history" and counts Hoppe as one of the masters of the genre, but others may know this method by its more familiar name — "just making stuff up" — and observe that Hoppe is the master of the genre only because he's the sole person writing in it.

The Starting Point

After his usual throat-clearing about how resources are scarce and therefore there is conflict over them and about how zany and wacky having a state to centrally resolve those conflicts through legislated laws is, Hoppe establishes his original position, his state of nature if you will.

To determine what this state of nature looks like, Hoppe uses the following hypothetical question as an expository device:

How would real, rational, peaceseeking people have solved the problem of social conflict? And let me emphasize the word “real” here. The people I have in mind, deliberating on this question, are not zombies. They do not sit behind a “veil of ignorance,” à la Rawls, unconstrained by scarcity and time. (No wonder Rawls reached the most perverse conclusions from such a premise!) They stand in the middle of life, so to speak, when they begin their deliberations. They are only too familiar with the inescapable fact of scarcity and of time-constraints. They already work and produce. They interact with other workers and producers, and they have already many goods appropriated and put under their physical control, i.e., taken into possession. Indeed, their disputes are invariably disputes about previously undisputed possessions: whether these are to be further respected and the possessor is to be regarded their rightful owner or not.
And then he answers this question:
What people would most likely accept as a solution, then, I suggest, is this: Everyone is, first-off or prima facie, presumed to be the owner — endowed with the right of exclusive control — of all those goods that he already, in fact, and so far undisputed, controls and possesses. This is the starting point.
To recapitulate, Hoppe asks us how "real" people would prefer to solve this problem of scarcity conflict. Then he defines "real" as people who already live in a society where the world has already been appropriated into undisputed holdings. Then he concludes that, from this "real" world, people would just choose to create a system whereby people have exclusive control over that which they already undisputedly hold.
Such insight! It takes a real philosophical genius to solve the problem of initial appropriation by just assuming it has already occurred, and to solve the problem of scarcity disputes by assuming the disputes don't exist. Waving away the problems libertarians have never been able to solve by assuming they are already solved in your expository device is, sadly, not a new innovation in libertarian thinking. But none has made the move so elegantly as Hoppe has here.

After making quick work of the problem of property, Hoppe moves on to explain what the natural government looks like. As with most libertarians, the natural government, which is also the preferred government, is a feudal aristocracy. This is what obtained before the fall into bad government forms like democracy.

In this feudal aristocracy, the government will effectively consist of a small set of noble families that decide every conflict by discovering and intuiting the law (not creating the law from their minds, but pulling it out of the ether of the universe where it is naturally written):

What I mean by natural aristocrats, nobles and kings here is simply this: In every society of some minimum degree of complexity, a few individuals acquire the status of a natural elite. Due to superior achievements of wealth, wisdom, bravery, or a combination thereof, some individuals come to possess more authority than others and their opinion and judgment commands widespread respect. Moreover, because of selective mating and the laws of civil and genetic inheritance, positions of natural authority are often passed on within a few “noble” families. It is to the heads of such families with established records of superior achievement, farsightedness and exemplary conduct that men typically turn with their conflicts and complaints against each other.
Now I know what you are thinking. Will a cadre of elite families really enforce the objective natural laws fairly rather than just make them up in a way that favors their class? And the answer is apparently yes. This judging is done free of charge and out of civic duty, Hoppe explains. And, if they do get out of line, the people will find another judge from another natural aristocracy to overrule them. I can't see how that "check" on their authority could possibly go wrong. Nope. Airtight.
Although feudal aristocracy is the natural and greatest form of libertarian governance, Hoppe makes sure to come clean that it hasn't always been perfect. There was, after all, the pesky matter of the serfs and the serfdom relationship that was the core organizing force of the entire social and economic system:
I do not claim here that this order was perfect, a true natural order, as I have characterized it before. In fact, it was marred by many imperfections, most notably the existence, at many places, of the institution of serfdom (although the burden imposed on serfs then was mild compared to that imposed on today’s modern tax-serfs). ... And I would claim that this system could have been perfected and retained virtually unchanged through the inclusion of serfs into the system.
Except for the serf part, the feudal system was great, and had we waited it out a bit, serfdom probably would have run its course, leaving us with the sweet goodness of feudalism but without the yuckiness of total economic domination.
The feudal aristocratic paradise didn't last sadly, ushering us into the next stage of history, monarchy. How did we get from aristocracy to monarchy?
Essentially, one of the noble families said they were going to be the only judge from now on and monopolized the whole thing. But wait a minute: didn't we learn in the prior section that nobody would tolerate such abuse? How could the king get away with this?
The answer, according to Hoppe, is that the king runs on a class war platform in which he aligns himself with the "people" and the "common man" to whip up popular sentiment against their "betters" and "superiors." He tells these peasants that he is going to expropriate the land and give it to them and void their debts. These goodies corrupt the inherent love of justice among the peasants (who otherwise think debt peonage and permanent land tenancy are legit and good) and so they come over to favor the king. What evidence is there for this story? None of course. Evidence is for history history, while this is theoretical history.
To solidify his rule, the populist king employs some intellectuals to make up philosophies that explain why it is important to have a monarchial state:
They did this through the creation of a twofold myth: On the one hand they portrayed the history before the arrival of the absolute king in the worst possible light, as a ceaseless struggle of all against all, with one man being another man’s wolf — contrary to the actual history of a prior natural aristocratic order. And on the other hand, they portrayed the king’s assumption of absolute power as the result of some sort of contractual agreement by his subjects, presumably reached rationally, based on the myth of the otherwise threatening return to the bellum omnia contra omnes.
Astute readers will see that, without naming him, Hoppe is just talking about Thomas Hobbes. It is Hobbes who said the state of nature is a war of all against all and came out with the first contractarian framework. Historian historians generally ascribe Hobbes advocacy as driven by the horror of the English Civil War (which was a war of all against all), but in theoretical history, it was driven by kickbacks from the king.
The last stage is democracy, which is what he calls to what we have now (one wonders if this is an apt description given who actually runs things and whose opinions actually move government, but we can put that aside here). The way we get from monarchy to democracy is basically that the intellectuals turn on the king. The egalitarian "common man" schtick that the king used to get into power (just go with it) got pushed to its logical end, which meant the king had to go as well.
And so now, with democracy, we live in a complete hellscape. Among other things:
Under a one-man-one-vote regime, then, a relentless machinery of wealth and income redistribution is set in motion. It must be expected that majorities of have-nots will constantly try to enrich themselves at the expense of minorities of haves. 
This is what any libertarian text leads up to. Democracy must die because it leads to new sets of economic institutions that distribute income and wealth in a way more favorable to the poor and middle and less favorable to the rich (than some hypothetical alternative laissez-faire capitalist system run by neo-feudal governments).

Democracy also then leads to things like imperialism (history shows imperialism ran quite healthily under monarchial systems too, but nevermind that), inflation, ruin of the capital stock of the nation, and so forth. Hoppe admits that it seems we have been fairly prosperous all things considered under this system, but argues this is all despite democracy, which is dragging everything down. We'd be even better off still in the neo-feudal regime.


Hoppe concludes this enlightening pamphlet with his path forward (backwards) into feudal aristocracy. Long story short: people need to start secessionist movements to decentralize and create ever smaller political entities in order to undermine large democracies and make going Galt and capital flight easier, which will in turn discipline these new tiny states into ripping out anything that disfavors the rich and wealthy. This is of course a rather exotic suggestion when laid out in his terms, but it's actually a common enough libertarian strategy.