Don't Think about Elephants

The movie Inception (2010) directed by Christopher Nolan, is one of the few films I’ve seen that takes the idea of ideas themselves seriously.

It’s about a team of experts that specializes in corporate espionage by extracting information from dreams. This time, their job is much harder: They are asked to implant a new idea in someone’s head using the same methods.

The following exchange takes place to illustrate the power of an idea:

“OK, this is me, planting an idea in your mind. I say: Don’t think about elephants. What are you thinking about?”

Point taken!

Another character explains the deeper issue of either extracting or implanting ideas:

“What is the most-resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed — fully understood — that sticks — right in there somewhere.”

In real life, people are implanting ideas in our heads all the time. If you watched either of the big political conventions over the past week, you know this. They tell us that we need them to keep us safe, secure, prosperous, virtuous, and fair. In their absence, something terrible will happen.

The goal here is a different version of espionage. We are being persuaded to give them money to conduct their campaigns and then, at the appointed hour, march to the government-designated spot and mark the ballot in the way they want us to.

Fewer and fewer are going along with this, but just enough comply to give the appearance of consent. Millions have an idea implanted in their heads and they act on it. It more or less works. It’s worked for a very long time. The system isn’t as healthy as it used to be, but it is still the best shot that the ruling elite have to elicit our cooperation.

What if most of what is happening at these partisan conventions is illusion? What if the real powers that run our lives are largely untouched by voting and elections? And what if these real powers are so vulnerable that if we stop believing in them, they will lose their power? What if the path to freedom were as clear as discovering reality after a period of dreaming?

This is the point of view of Hans-Hermann Hoppe. He is the author of the e-book of the week in the Laissez Faire Club: The Great Fiction. It can be downloaded today with a $10 membership in the Club.

The Great Fiction explains the inner workings of the state like no other book. Hoppe digs deep into history, the origin of property, the nature of power, the truth about money, and many other subjects to show that much of what we tend to believe about the system is essentially a fable.

The apparatus of power does not protect us; it robs us. It does not stabilize the economy; it siphons of wealth from the many for the few. It does not keep us safe; it makes the world safe for them, but endangers our lives and prosperity. The intellectual class that is dispatched to defend the system of power is looking after its self-interest.

The Great Fiction is the lie pushed by the political class that the exploitation we face daily is necessary and inevitable. Neither is true. As part of the big fiction, there are many smaller fictions, as well. Hoppe discusses each in turn: the idea that the state provides our security, that it guards our money, that our societies are managed scientifically by experts, that the nation-state is some kind of immortal being that will last forever.

Hoppe is one of the leading intellectuals in the world today, a big thinker on the level of a Hume, Hegel, Kant, Marx, and Mises. The essays in here are some of his sharpest and most far reaching, dealing with property, money, society, law, and even the scientific method. His reputation in Europe is so large that people clamor for private invitations to his salon. He writings have been translated to a dozen languages.

Here is just a sample of some of the material you will find

  • Three marks of a state (that the state does not advertise)
  • Why a population puts up with the taxes, bullying, and bad service from the state
  • Why intellectuals turn to the state for support
  • Why compulsory education really exists
  • Why and how the state brings about the war of all against all
  • Why property rights exist only because of scarcity
  • Why every deviation from property rights leads to social loss
  • Why modern life is, in some ways, more savage than primitive prehistoric times
  • Why richer states are more aggressive
  • Why and how the family originated as an economic unit
  • Why self-sufficiency is the path to poverty
  • Why the Malthusian trap is real and how we escaped it
  • Why technological improvement necessarily grows from ownership and trade
  • Why the crucial ingredient that ushered in modernity is human intelligence
  • Why total privatization is not only possible, but desirable
  • Why it is naive to expect the state to ever reform money
  • Why the immigration issue is more complicated than either side admits
  • Why the best path forward for freedom must include the right to secede
  • Why truly just laws must necessarily extend from private property
  • Why there can be no religious freedom without property rights.

If you are unfamiliar with the works of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, prepare for The Great Fiction to cause a fundamental shift in the way you view the world. No living writer today is more effective at stripping away the illusions almost everyone has about economics and public life. More fundamentally, professor Hoppe causes the scales to fall from one’s eyes on the most-critical issue facing humanity today: the choice between liberty and statism.

The title comes from a quotation by Frederic Bastiat, the 19th-century economist and pamphleteer: “The state is the great fiction by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.” He does not say that this is one feature of the state, one possible aspect of public policy gone wrong, or one sign of a state gone bad in a shift from its night watchman role to becoming confiscatory. Bastiat is characterizing the core nature of the state itself.

The whole of Hoppe’s writings on politics can be seen as an elucidation on this point. He sees the state as a gang of thieves that uses propaganda as a means of disguising its true nature. In fleshing this out, Hoppe has made tremendous contributions to the literature, showing how the state originates and how the intellectual class helps perpetuate this coverup, whether in the name of science, religion, or the provision of some service like health, security, education, or whatever. The excuses are forever changing; the functioning and goal of the state are always the same.

“Only few people can see through the entire charade,” he writes, “and even fewer have the courage to speak up against it.”

It is true, then, that Hoppe stands with a long line of anarchist thinkers who see the state as playing a purely destructive role in society. But unlike the mainline of thinkers in this tradition, Hoppe’s thinking is not encumbered by utopian illusions about society without the state. He follows Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard in placing private property as a central element in social organization. In justifying this point of view, Hoppe goes far beyond traditional Lockean phrases. He sees private property as an inescapable institution in a world of scarcity, and draws on the work of contemporary European philosophy to make his claims more robust than any of his intellectual predecessors’.

The reader will be surprised at the approach Hoppe takes because it is far more systematic and logical than people expect of writers on these topics. He came to his views after a long intellectual struggle, having moved systematically from being a conventional left-socialist to becoming the founder of his own anarcho-capitalist school of thought.

The dramatic change happened to him in graduate school, as he reveals in the biographical sections of this book. He takes nothing for granted in the course of his argumentation. He leads the reader carefully through each step in his chain of reasoning. This approach requires extraordinary discipline and a level of brilliance out of the reach of most writers and thinkers.

This particular work goes beyond politics, however, to show the full range of Hoppe’s thoughts on economics, history, scientific methodology, and the history of thought. In each field, he brings that same level of rigor, that drive for uncompromising adherence to logic, the fearlessness in the face of radical conclusions.

In light of all of this, it seems too limiting to describe Hoppe as a mere member of the Austrian or libertarian tradition, for he really has forged new paths — in more ways than he makes overt in his writings. We are really dealing here with a universal genius, which is precisely why Hoppe’s name comes up so often in any discussion of today’s great living intellectuals.

It so happens that Hoppe is also an extremely controversial figure. I don’t think he would have it any other way. Regardless, this is always the case for truly creative minds that do not shrink from the conclusions of their own premises. The perspective from which he writes stems from a passionate, yet scientific attachment to radical freedom, and his work comes about in times when the state is on the march.

Everything he writes cuts across the grain. It is paradigm breaking. Just when you think you have figured out his mode of thinking, he takes it in a direction that you didn’t expect. It is not only his conclusions that are significant, but the masterful way that he arrives at them.

Where does Hoppe see our current crisis ending? Here is a passage to give you a sense:

Empire building bears the seeds of its own destruction. The closer a state comes to the ultimate goal of world domination and one-world government, the less reason is there to maintain its internal liberalism and do instead what all states are inclined to do anyway, i.e., to crack down and increase their exploitation of whatever productive people are still left. Consequently, with no additional tributaries available and domestic productivity stagnating or falling, the Empire’s internal policies of bread and circuses can no longer be maintained. Economic crisis hits, and an impending economic meltdown will stimulate decentralizing tendencies, separatist and secessionist movements, and lead to the breakup of Empire. We have seen this happen with Great Britain, and we are seeing it now, with the U.S. and its Empire apparently on its last legs.

It is my great honor as executive editor of Laissez Faire Books to be the publisher of a work of this significance. This is more than a collection in the libertarian tradition; it is a testimony to the fact that progress in ideas is still possible in our time. So long as that remains true, so long as the tradition Hoppe represents is living and improving, we have reason to believe that human liberty has not and will not finally succumb to the great fiction.

Do your part by downloading and reading Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s book now at the Laissez Faire Club.

Chris Campbell

Written By Jeffrey Tucker

I'm executive editor of Laissez Faire Books and the Chief Liberty Officer of Liberty.me, an innovative private society for publishing, learning, and networking. I'm the author of four books in the field of economics and one on early music. My personal twitter account @jeffreyatucker FB is @jeffrey.albert.tucker Plain old email is tucker@liberty.me