The Defenders of Liberty: Human Nature, Individualism, and Property Rights. Neema Parvini. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2020.
Neema Parvini is a literary scholar at the University of Surrey, with several books on Shakespeare under his belt. The Defenders of Liberty is his first book that is wholly outside his academic background. Parvini as a literary scholar is one who is not hostile to commerce or capitalism, something rather rare among such scholars. He is also a literary scholar interested in economics and especially interest in economics that favor classical liberal views of economics, which is also a rarity among literary scholars. In fact, I would wonder why he has never made common cause with Paul Cantor at the University of Virginia, who is also a literary scholar, a noted Shakespearian scholar, and a devotee of the Austrian School of Economics. But Parvini seems not to know Cantor. Nor does he cite or reference any of Cantor’s many works on Shakespeare anywhere within any of Parvini ‘s literary scholarship on the political reading of Shakespeare.
Parvini ‘s knowledge about the issues addressed in this book was not something he studied at school but came from his interactions with Classical Liberal and Libertarian think tanks and scholars’ groups. Parvini caught their eye and they brought him in and offered him trips to Auburn, Alabama, George Mason University in Virginia, and endless conferences in the UK. It is there that Parvini came to know and educated himself about these subjects and concerns.
Also, Parvini, aside from being a teacher at a UK university, and active within Conservative and Libertarian intellectual circles in the UK media, is also prominent YouTuber. He operates under a pseudonym, with currently nearly 47 thousand subscribers, offering political and cultural commentary both in videos and livestreams. He is no Pew Die Pie or even Sargon of Akkad, but he is nonetheless a serious presence among the right leaning YouTube commentariat. While I will not mention his YouTube name, I do not feel that I am outing him in any way, since I came to know about this book through his YouTube channel. In fact, I saw via various of his videos, the genesis of this book. It was because of this that I knew this would be a very important book. As his videos are excellent advocates of not only arguments against the progressive left and its pernicious ideology that endangers political liberty throughout the West, he also does a good job elaborating and addressing issues of economic ideas and theory. In fact, his video on Econ Facts should be used by those who wish to help people to better understand the working of economics. So, I have some sympathy with what he is up too, even if I don’t share his more hard-core libertarian views (of the Murry Rothbard and the Hans-Hermann Hoppe style of Austrians). Now let us turn to the book.
The Defenders of Liberty is an interesting and engaging book. It will captivate the reader and it offers a rather good introduction not only to the issues that shape and surround the question of human freedom and liberty, but also as a good gateway to introduce readers into both political thought and economics as well. There is a lot to like in this book, yet at the same time there is also a lot that should disturb any readers who knows the materials that are being dealt with here.
Let me assert that the second half of the book, chapters five to the end, are excellent accounts of the history of economic theorists. Parvini’s account of the Austrian School in chapter six and the London School in chapter seven offer excellent introductory accounts of those two particularly important schools of economic thought. Also, his account of the origins of nineteenth-century English liberalism in chapter five also offers an excellent introduction to it. His conclusions are heavily influenced by an Austrian School approach, about the problems and difficulties in Contemporary Economic Thinking arising from positivism and scientific modelism; they are helpful and I would encourage any serious inquirer into these questions of economics and its influence in policy making to engage with them. And to be honest, I really am not that upset by his account of the Enlightenment in chapter 4, even if I think his understanding of Hume and the Scottish thinkers is defective in part from his simplistic understanding of Rousseau, who played an important role in how the Scottish thinkers opted to avoid the path of Hobbesian-Lockean reason, but embraced sense and sentiment.
One of the few flaws of this book’s overview of different economic schools is that he fails to address the American context liberalism took in the nineteenth century. While he deals with Herbert Spencer, he fails to mention Spencer’s influence on American thinkers, especially in shaping the thought of William Graham Sumner, who help create sociology as a field of academic study in America, and was a leader of cultural studies with his still much admired classic, Folkways. His What Social Classes Owe to Each Other was the defining voice of classical liberalism in America. Those following from Sumner were the voices that stood up against the Progressive Reformers of the end of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth, as well as FDR and the New Deal and voices from the European Left as well. They were journalists such H.L. Mencken and Albert Jay Nock, Isabel Paterson, and Rose Wilder Lane, then John Chamberlain, Henry Hazlitt, and economists of the Chicago School (whom Parvini takes aim at for not completely sharing his highly anti-statist view of liberty). But such minutiae of American intellectual history may be overlooked by a British writer.
The real crux of my issue with Parvini’s book are in the first three chapters. It is there, in his opening chapter, that he sets up his definition of liberty. Parvini gives a clear definition of liberty, yet at the same time he ignores that the definition he chooses to privilege is a very narrow one that then marginalizes and ridicules the alternatives.
Parvini in his attempt to narrowly frame his narrow definition of liberty, feels the need to respond to conservative critics of liberalism, such as Patrick Deneen, whom he implies is echoing the sentiments of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and thus is misguided (4). All throughout this book, any attempt to worry about liberty being doing what one pleases, and does not match Parvini’s narrow view, is labeled Rousseauist. He accuses thinkers like Milton Freeman and Robert Coase for embracing Rousseau’s view. This is a dirty rhetorical trick quite common within scholarship of literary theorists, but given Parvini is a literary scholar, such tricks are the ones he has ready at hand. Thus, Parvini relies too heavily on certain prejudices of his Anglo-American readers, especially with the ready-made bogyman Rousseau being called out each time he confronts an author who is concerned about the licentiousness character of liberty.
Here to counter Parvini’s tactic, one should know that people other than Rousseau held a similar view regarding liberty as a form of license. Let me instead quote from Montesquieu, no anti-liberal radical he, who also could not have been influenced by Rousseau for obvious reasons of predating him. Montesquieu notes that the meaning of liberty varies and is relative to different peoples:
No word has received more different significations and has struck minds in so many ways as has liberty. Some have taken it for the ease of removing the one to whom they had given tyrannical power; some, for the faculty of electing the one whom they were to obey; others, for the right to be armed and to be able to use violence; yet others, for the privilege of being governed only by a man of their own nation, or by their own laws. For a certain people liberty has long been the usage of wearing a long beard. Men have given this name to one form of government and have excluded the others. Those who had tasted republican government put it in this government; those who had enjoyed monarchical government placed it in monarchy. In short, each has given the name of liberty to the government that was consistent with his customs or his inclinations; and as, in a republic, one does not always have visible and so present the instruments of the ills of which one complains and as the very laws seem to speak more and the executors of the law to speak less, one ordinarily places liberty in republics and excludes it from monarchies. Finally, as in democracies the people seem very nearly to do what they want, liberty has been placed in this sort of government and the power of the people has been confused with the liberty of the people (Spirit of the Laws 11.2).
Montesquieu makes the case that the view of liberty Parvini is critical of is first and foremost the democratic view of liberty. Parvini thus unfairly criticizes Patrick Deneen in that Deneen is basically echoing Montesquieu’s view, when he makes his criticism of liberalism and its view take on willful liberty. Anyone who knows Patrick Deneen (or his work) will find Parvini’s charge that Deneen is Rousseauian utterly absurd. Montesquieu and Deneen takes the democratic view of liberty to task to preserve a view of liberty that Parvini should find agreement with, but Parvini is rather silent on Montesquieu. Also, Montesquieu’s assessment of liberty as licentiousness agrees with that of Plato and Aristotle, both of whom say that the democratic principle of liberty, when taken to its extreme it results in tyranny, one way or another. Now Tocqueville who also shares the view of Montesquieu that the democratic view of liberty taken to extreme will endanger what others will take to be liberty. Parvini seems never to address Tocqueville’s concerns; rather he ignores it or dismisses it as off handedly as he dismissed Patrick Deneen’s criticism.
Here I will not follow the order of the book but jump to the next issue that follows from what I just addressed above. When Parvini returns to defending his narrow non-democratic view of liberty, he turns to John Locke—the hero of the hour—and points to Locke’s famous assertion that man in the state of nature nevertheless has a law of nature that:
Mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions. … [and] when his own Preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of Mankind, and may not, unless it be to do Justice on an Offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the Preservation of the Life, the Liberty, Health, Limb, or Goods of another. (Second Treatise II §6)
Yet, Locke later in the Second Treatise will admit that without the law and the existence of judges, such inner norms are toothless. So, this principle is more of something akin to assertion rather than something within the nature of man that has effect on man’s actions. Parvini only sticks with the assertion and never really questions its validity that a more careful reading later in Locke’s text would lead one to, if one was being honest.
Overall Parvini’s whole defense of Locke is done in a similar manner. The surface reading that favors his view is taken as fact, anything else is ignored or argued against by a series of cute rhetorical tricks. As to defend Locke’s view of natural property and the viability of social life before government is created, Parvini imposes an anthropological argument that is found more in Rousseau’s Second Discourse than Locke’s Second Treatise. This alien argument from anthropology is used to strengthen Locke’s argument and Parvini even suggests is in fact Locke’s argument, which it is not.
Hence when one reads Parvini’s defense of Locke (mostly in chapter three), which emphasizes the importance of property for human freedom, one sees Parvini relying instead on sleights of hand, including applying a Rousseauian anthropological argument of how property develops as man moves from hunter gathers to farmers.
In his defense of his argument that Locke is making an anthropological case of hunter-gatherers, Parvini brings in Machiavelli’s Discourses: “For since the inhabitants were sparse in the beginning of the world, they lived dispersed for a time like beasts” (I.2.3). But Machiavelli here is commenting on Livy’s account of the early history of the peoples who would come to form Rome; he was NOT talking about pre-historic hunter gathers. Here Livy speaks of the various people, many exiles, others who fled places from rulers who they opposed, many peoples who were defeated by others from places who came to inhabit the area that would become Rome. Livy was talking about agricultural peoples, not hunter gathers as Parvini assumes. So the marshalling of Machiavelli here to defend an argument that Locke was talking about pre-agricultural peoples in his initial account of the state of nature is not supported by the actual context of what Machiavelli was addressing within Livy’s account of Rome’s origins.
Parvini attempts to have Locke address this hunter-gather to agricultural transition by pulling in the quote from Locke’s Second Treatise (chapter V, § 37) but again this account relies on a reading of Genesis, not actual anthropological history; moreover, Locke’s agents of action are individual actors not tribal men. Overall Parvini tries to frame Locke’s treatment of property not in context of Locke’s argument, but rather imposes on to Locke’s argument a modern evolutionary account of man’s development from hunter-gatherer to agricultural man. However, such an account does not share Locke’s individual actor assumption but rather assumes kin-group bonding where the group seeks to expand and flourish. Here Parvini imposes a wholly alien anthropology onto Locke, one that is radically at odds with his assumptions about the human mind and human action through the individual willing agent.
This leads us to Parvini’s second chapter which brings Machiavelli as an ally in his attempt to frame the view of liberty. This is a very odd chapter. First it is not really about Machiavelli but about James Burnham’s Machiavelli as presented in The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom (1943). Could Parvini have gotten the idea for the title of his book from Burnham? This is why Parvini addresses the Italian School of Mosca, Pareto, Sorel, and Michaels as he does when he speaks of Machiavelli’s legacy. It is from this critical realist school that Burnham turned to after his seminal Managerial Revolution where he openly broke from the Marxists and Trotskyists, with whom he was earlier associated in the late twenties and early thirties. In many ways the realism of Burnham and the Italian school was hostile to the kind of liberalism for which Parvini seems to be making a case. But the realism of Burnham and the Machiavellians also serve Parvini’s own hard-core realist critique of the state, which is otherwise influenced by the Austrian school. (Let me ignore the issue that Parvini’s account of Machiavelli avoids addressing whether the Burnham view is a distortion of Machiavelli’s own teaching, because that would require a much longer review that would require a massive review of the various battling schools of interpretation over Machiavelli that still rage with all intensity still today).
Yet the problem critiquing the state by combining the arguments of Machiavelli and the Italian School with the anti-state market views of Murry Rothbard or Hans-Hermann Hoppe, is that the former embraces the state that the latter holds as anathema. This contradiction, found in the heart of Parvini’s whole overall approach, can be found right in the start where he tries to oppose liberty to power (9), which made me raise an eyebrow when I saw it. It suggested something that I am not sure at all is borne out by the experience of history nor historical and comparative sociology. Except at value zero (where there would neither power nor liberty), Parvini makes the case that where there is little power there is greater liberty, and as power increases, liberty decreases. While I agree that at the extremes of power there is no room for liberty, but with too little power there also will be little liberty. I would argue that the mean of power provides for the optimal and height of liberty. I suggest that the pattern would be more of a bell curve where the median and mean of power is where the peak of liberty is to be located. Again, any student of Pareto would understand what was going on here. Power, while needed to secure and maintain political liberty, would also have an optimality point, after which attempts to increase or aggrandize power will only hinder the exercise of power and thus undermine the very liberty that power made possible. So, the Italian view would suggest that Parvini’s view makes no sense whatsoever and at some level he realizes this with his understanding that at point zero-power there would also be no liberty. Parvini’s need to have the inverted relationship between power to liberty after 0, where 1 power has 10 liberty and where 10 power would have 1 liberty follows logically from the prejudices of the anti-statism of his Austrian mentors. The genius of both Machiavelli and Burnham (with his presentation of the Italian school) is that only a strong and viable state secures liberty and if the state is either too weak or overburdened with power and functions, liberty will soon become endangered. This contradiction within the heart of Parvini s argument serves as both the book’s greatest flaw and also its most important contribution to the question of political theory.
Again, even with my reservations and criticism of Parvini’s The Defenders of Freedom, I think this book ought to be read and addressed by those seriously interested in the question of liberty and its role in the relationship to state power. Again, I commend the later chapters and their accounts of the various schools of economic thought and the problems we in the twenty-first century have regarding these economic questions in relation with the exercise and retention of our freedom. Again, I would only hope that the publisher, Palgrave would release this in an affordable paperback edition so it would be attractive for teachers to assign, and for interested students and general readers interested in such questions to buy.