The Hoppe Effect

This article is adapted from chapter one of Freedom, Property, and Society: Essays in Honor of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, edited by Guido Hlsmann and Stephan Kinsella.

My first full exposure to the brilliance of Hans-Hermann Hoppe came at an early Mises University in which he gave the main lecture on methodology. Here he offered a new take on Mises’s Kantian method. Hoppe explained Kant’s typology of propositions, and showed how Mises had appropriated them but with a new twist.

Instead of categories of thinking and categories of the mind, Mises went further than Kant to delineate categories of action, which is the foundation of economic reasoning. In this lecture, we all discovered something about Mises we had not known, something bigger and grander than we knew, and it caused us to think differently about a subject that we thought we knew well.

This same Hoppean effect — that sense of having been profoundly enlightened by a completely new way of understanding something — has happened many times over the years. He has made contributions to ethics, to international political economy, to the theory of the origin of the state, to comparative systems, to culture and its economic relation, to anthropology and the theory and practice of war. Even on a subject that everyone thinks about but no one really seems to understand — the system of democracy — he clarified matters in a way that helps you see the functioning of the world in a completely new light.

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There aren’t that many thinkers who have this kind of effect. Mises was one. Rothbard was another. Hoppe certainly fits in that line. He is the kind of thinker who reminds you that ideas are real things that shape how we understand the world around us. I dare say that no one can read works like Democracy — The God that Failed, A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, and The Economics and Ethics of Private Property and come away unchanged.

Often times when you first hear a point he makes, you resist it. I recall when he spoke at a conference we held on American history, and gave a paper on the U.S. Constitution. You might not think that a German economist could add anything to our knowledge on this topic. He argued that it represented a vast increase in government power and that this was its true purpose. It created a powerful central government, with the cover of liberty as an excuse. He used it as a case in point, and went further to argue that all constitutions are of the same type. In the name of limiting government — which they purportedly do — they invariably appear in periods of history when the elites are regrouping to emerge from what they consider to be near anarchy. The Constitution, then, represents the assertion of power.

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When he finished, you could hear a pin drop. I’m not sure that anyone was instantly persuaded. He had challenged everything we thought we knew about ourselves. The applause was polite, but not enthusiastic. Yet his points stuck. Over time, I think all of us there travelled some intellectual distance. The Constitution was preceded by the Articles of Confederation, which Rothbard had described as near anarchist in effect. Who were these guys who cobbled together this Constitution? They were the leftovers from the war: military leaders, financiers, and other mucky mucks — a very different crew from the people who signed the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was out of the country when the Constitution was passed.

And what was the effect of the Constitution? To restrain government? No. It was precisely the opposite, just as Hoppe said. It created a new and more powerful government that not only failed to restrain itself (what government has ever done that?), but grew and grew into the monstrosity we have today. It required a wholesale rethinking of the history, but what Hoppe had said that shocked everyone turns out to be precisely right — and this is only one example among many.

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I’m speaking for multitudes when I say that he helped me understand democracy as a form of nationalization of the citizenry. We all became the government: or, we all became public property. And what happens to public property? It is overutilized and wasted because it is unowned by any one person or group of people in particular. Thus did the citizens become war fodder. We are taxed without limit. We have no way to restrain the state since no one in particular is made responsible for our plight. Our leaders are mere managers — not owners, like the monarchs — who are encouraged to loot and leave. They are there as covers for the real state, which is a faceless apparatus that is permanent and cares nothing for the value of the commonwealth.

He contrasted this with monarchy, not because he favors monarchy but rather to help us understand. The monarch is the owner. He has the incentive to preserve value. He can hand it on to an heir. Heirs were raised and trained for governance, and in turn to hand it on to their heirs. So we might expect them to be relatively more civilized as compared with democratic rulers.

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History bears this out. Hoppe dates the onset of modern democracy to World War I and following, and he has scandalized many by calling the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Nazi Germany all democracies, but he means this in his special sense: the people neither own themselves nor are owned by anyone. The citizens are public property and are said to all participate in their own governance understood as an elected executive state. This was a modern form of government that displaced the old form — and it goes a long way towards explaining the advent of total war and the total state.

There are many other issues for which he has done this — his Economics and Ethics of Private Property helped people to imagine society without a state as never before. On the issue of immigration, he showed how modern states use immigration as a means of state expansion. He has taken on the issue of property covenants and their relationship to private property. There is so much more. We have all suspected for some time that this will culminate in a sweeping treatment of socio-economics, an integrated master treatise along the lines of the great books of Austrians past. Its time is coming.

Hoppe is an original thinker, but he is glad to grant his debts to Mises, to Rothbard, to Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, and to the post-modernists of his German education. He stands on the shoulders of giants, and has reached beyond them, as Murray often acknowledged. There aren’t many thinkers we can name who have been so generous with their insights, and given so much to help us understand the world around us more clearly.

Let me finally mention that Hans has something else in common with his predecessors. He is a man of courage and conviction. He had plenty of opportunities to sell out for preferment’s sake, but he has stayed the course, committed to truth and to freedom and to the free marketplace of ideas. He is a tough and relentless fighter that we can all admire. He fears no truth. All this is why I can confidently predict that he will always emerge from battle as a champion.

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