Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings: A Review by David Gordon”

This review was authored by David Gordon, and it is republished here with permission from the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

[Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings • By John Gray • Allen Lane, 2009 • vii + 481 pages]

This anthology of John Gray’s work over the past thirty years enables us to answer a question that has puzzled many people. What went wrong with John Gray?

When I first met him in 1979, he was a forceful and erudite advocate of classical liberalism; Murray Rothbard viewed him fondly, intrigued that an Oxford political theorist sympathized with libertarianism. In the years since then, unfortunately, Gray’s peregrinations have taken him to a position that has little use for human beings. What happened?

The present volume makes it clear that Gray has retained much of his classical liberalism. He provides an outstanding account of Hayek, bringing out the essentials of Hayek’s criticism of socialism and interventionism. Concerning socialism, Gray writes,

The thesis of the primacy of practice leads Hayek to refine the argument that rational resource-allocation under socialism is impossible.… Hayek sees … that the knowledge which is yielded by market-pricing cannot be collected by a central authority or programmed into a mechanical device, not just because it is too complex … but rather because it is knowledge given to us only in use.… Unhampered markets transmit this knowledge, which is otherwise irretrievable, dispersed in millions of people. (p. 127)

Interventionism fares no better:

The two issues of economic planning and the rule of law are … inseparably connected for Hayek. He sees clearly that the rise of the administrative state, together with the prevalence of grandiose projects for redistribution and social welfare, pose a major threat to the rule of law, and therefore to individual liberty. A government which seeks to regulate prices and incomes is bound to transfer large powers to administrative authorities. In the nature of things these authorities will exercise a terrifying discretion over the lives and fortunes of the citizens. (p. 129)

He does not confine himself to economic and political analysis. He ably shows why the whole Bolshevik project came to grief: it rested on a utopian effort to transform human nature.

In different ways, Nazism and Communism claimed to be based on science but were actually vehicles for apocalyptic myths. Each believed a major rupture in history was imminent that would usher in a new world. (p. 114)

Gray makes very effective use in this connection of Eric Voegelin’s work on political religions and Norman Cohn’s psychoanalytical interpretation of millenarian movements.

Gray brilliantly extends his criticism of utopian thinking to current American foreign policy. The efforts by the Bush administration to extend an American brand of democracy by force in Iraq and elsewhere, regardless of its suitability to local conditions, parallel the efforts by communist and other revolutionaries to twist and contort the world according to patterns they have fixed in advance.

American neo-conservatives … are convinced that democratic government can be made universal, and in pretty short order.… From one angle, then, the Bush administration’s project in Iraq is an exercise in the most radical utopianism. From another, it is pure geopolitics. (pp. 275, 277)

As Gray notes, transformative efforts of this type are frequently accompanied by abandoning ethical restraints. If people refuse to conform to the plan, must they not be forced at any cost to do so? In this connection, Gray presents a satirical defense of Bush’s use of torture that is uncomfortably close to reality.

As he has done in earlier work, though, Gray characterizes expansionist ideological foreign policy as “Jacobin”: “In de Maistre’s day, it was the French Jacobins who believed that democracy could be spread throughout the world by fiat” (p. 275). Have none of his colleagues, at Oxford and the London School of Economics, brought to his attention that the Girondins, not the Jacobins, were the proponents of an aggressive foreign policy?

Gray extends his criticism of utopian thinking too far. He condemns not only overweening efforts to transform human nature, but any claim that universal principles enable us to better our condition. Thus, according to Gray, Mises and Hayek wrongly think the free market is always the most desirable social system. In some historical circumstances, the free market is a good idea, Gray believes; but to offer it as a universal prescription is to fall into utopianism.

Gray’s position here rests on a fundamental error. It is very plausible that any attempt to contravene human nature will fail; but advocates of the free market are not guilty of making such an attempt. Quite the contrary, the principles of economics, in the Austrian conception, follow necessarily from the axiom that human beings act — hardly a utopian supposition. Mises argued that, owing to the calculation argument, socialism is impossible, and interventionist measures must fail to achieve the purposes of their own advocates. Only free-market capitalism remains as a viable social system.

If Gray has anything to say against Mises’s arguments, he should so inform us; it will not do simply to dismiss them as utopian. Gray’s failure to see this is surprising because, as discussed earlier, he himself has given an excellent account of Hayek’s very similar arguments.

Behind Gray’s dismissal of libertarianism as utopian lies a philosophical doctrine, value pluralism, which he has absorbed from Isaiah Berlin. In this view, there is no unique hierarchy of values: we cannot say, e.g., that the life of a monk is either better or worse than that of a soldier.

More to the present point, Gray would argue that we cannot say that the economic freedom prized by classical liberalism always outranks any other value, such as nationalism or the preservation of tradition. Attempts by Mises and his followers to deny this rest on a false Platonic view that holds that all values can be harmoniously realized. Once we see that the Platonic view is false, it is evident that some values are incommensurable.

I have endeavored on previous occasions to indicate some of the problems with Gray’s version of value pluralism.[1] Suffice it to say that Gray wrongly concludes from the undoubted fact that some values cannot be combined in the same life that all values cannot be ranked in a single scale. (This is not to claim that values can be so ranked, merely that Gray’s point about disparate lives fails to demonstrate that they cannot be.)

Let us add to the mix a new criticism. As Gray presents his view, it is the epitome of tolerance. Each of the value monists insists that his position is the correct one. But the value pluralist finds a place for all of the conflicting approaches. He can, e.g., recognize that economic freedom is valuable, and at the same time recognize the value of competing alternatives.

Matters are not as they at first seem. Most defenders of a particular system of values think that their system is the correct one. Gray, with his thesis that values cannot be ranked, denies all these claims. He finds a place, true enough, for competing values, but at the price of declaring almost all rival positions false. This is tolerance?

Even if one finds more to value in pluralism than I am able to, Gray’s complaint against the universal validity of the free market cannot be sustained. As Mises again and again insisted, his arguments against socialism do not involve appeals to controversial value judgments. It is not a matter of valuing freedom above other things: if Mises is right, there is no rational alternative to the free market.

The difficulties with Gray’s criticism of classical liberalism are unfortunately not confined to this rather arcane dispute in value theory. He is willing to countenance drastic interference with liberty, in the name of restricting population growth. He conjures up a frightening picture of an overcrowded planet, dismissing with a bare mention the work of Julian Simon that calls the whole Malthusian picture into question.

Gray finds an illustrious ancestor for his position: he rightly notes that John Stuart Mill’s views are consistent with state licenses for prospective parents.

Mill would have had no objection in liberal principle to proposals for the institution of “child licenses” (thought he might well have had doubts about their practicability), and he would have certainly have been sympathetic to those who advocate population control — including even coercive measures — as part of a freedom-preserving policy for an already overcrowded world. (p. 54)

Not only does Gray decline to condemn this severe deprivation of personal liberty, he writes with sympathy for Mill’s “stationary state,” in which economic growth is severely curtailed if not eliminated altogether.

But I am afraid that Gray goes further. He embraces an extreme version of environmentalism, under the guidance of James Lovelock. According to this bizarre view, human beings are in danger of upsetting the Earth, which is viewed not as a mere planet but as a living organism. At times, Gray despairs of human beings altogether and appears a veritable misanthrope.

Lovelock has written that … the earth is suffering from disseminate primatemaia — a plague of people … the advance of Homo rapiens [roughly, “raging man”] has always gone with the destruction of other species and ecological devastation. (p. 401)

Readers have much to learn from John Gray, but they must be able to ignore a great deal of nonsense to benefit from his work.

David Gordon, PhD, is a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and he is editor of The Mises Review. Dr. Gordon is also the author of vast reviews and articles, as well as multiple books. This review was originally published in the  2009 issue of The Mises Review, and it is republished here with permission by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.


[1] See my review of John Gray, Isaiah Berlin, in The Mises Review Winter 1996; and of Two Faces of Liberalism in The Mises Review Spring 2001.

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