Introduction Link to this heading

Immanuel Kant famously stated that “thoughts without content are void; intuitions without conceptions, blind” (Critique of Pure Reason, A51/B76). In order to organize history and the world in any sort of comprehensible manner, one must have the theoretical tools at hand to help impose order and avoid a blind inductive analysis of the fragmented knowledge one becomes familiar with in the pursuit of their research. Under the framework of such an epistemological understanding, I intend to explore the relationship between modern liberty and empire by utilizing the theoretical concept of time preference. Examining its explanatory power and capacity to help resolve the perplexing relationship that has theoretically and empirically been understood to exist between the two. The socio-political transformation from antiquity to modernity was famously characterized by Montesquieu as a transformation away from violence and conquest to that of commerce and peace (Spirit of the Laws 2011, XX.2; XXI.20). Modernity was to be a time of moderate government where the utility of war had ceased to exist and a softening of the mores would result from the spreading of commerce.

Despite Montesquieu’s hope for a more peaceful international stage, the last two and a half centuries have proven to remain relatively violent and full of conflict. Shortly after Montesquieu’s own death, his homeland of France collapsed into a violent revolution and quickly thereafter adopted a pretext for war previously unknown to the world; that of “freeing peoples from the yoke of their government” (The Spirit of Conquest 2008, Ch. 8 note 2). Empire and conquest did not become the antiquated ideas of antiquity, but instead continued to persist in an imposing and often impressive fashion in some of the most commercial states to ever exist including France, Great Britain, and the United States. Where did Montesquieu and so many that followed him in the French tradition go wrong in their analysis of modernity and conquest? What are we to make of the growth of both commerce and modern liberty in relation to empire? In what is to follow, I aim to show that utilizing the idea of time preference as an analytical tool will help provide insight into this question and better direct future research towards more fruitful gains in scholarly understanding.

Time Preference and Means Towards Ends Link to this heading

Let us first begin by developing what is precisely meant by time preference. At its most rudimentary level time preference is the philosophical insight that people prefer a good at present to the prospective of the same good arriving in the future (Hoppe 2002, 1). We see the first developments of time preference as early as pre-Socratic philosophy in the fragments of Democritus. Democritus argued that “the old man was once young, but the young man does not know whether he will ever attain old age. So a good which someone enjoys is now more valuable than a future and uncertain good” (Rothbard 2006, 10). The human condition of uncertainty, brought into being by man’s lack of omniscience creates a rational basis by which people desire present goods over future goods. Although the use of the term “good” usually implies a materialistic object sought after and considered in an economic meaning, I in no way intend to make such an implication. A good is anything of value, whether it be a commercial object or some other type of psychological or ideological object such as religion, glory, honor, equality, or liberty.

While it is a part of the human condition to always prefer current goods to future goods, the degree of preference is in no way static or beyond manipulation. We must always be compensated for putting off the enjoyment of present goods for future goods with a higher amount of future goods. However, by how much this amount must be higher will depend in degree according to different circumstances. We should expect a lower time preference (less desire for current goods over future goods) among young adults because they have a higher expectation of living to a further date in the future and can therefore afford giving up some current goods for a slightly higher amount of goods in the expected future. Antipodal of this we should expect a higher time preference (more desire for current goods over future goods) among the elderly who do not anticipate a high probability of having the capacity to enjoy future goods. The future compensation would have to be considerably higher for the elderly than a young adult to incentivize risking their current goods for future goods (for more see Mises 2008, Ch. V).

In order to take the insight of time preference and apply it to our inquiry of the relationship between conquest and modern liberty I need to further develop a theoretical construct between modern liberty and the state. To do this, I will establish the relationship as one of ends and means. This will be helpful since we know that all human beings utilize means to achieve their ends. The axiomatic nature of this statement establishes its own validity without the possibility of refutation. For any attempt to refute that human beings utilize means to achieve ends would be to utilize the means of their thoughts and bodies in order to achieve the ends of refuting the claim, which would result in an internal contradiction (Hoppe 2007, 22). It should be stressed that human fallibility implies that neither our ends or the means for achieving our ends will always be correctly chosen or utilized, but only that this is the way in which purposeful action is done and the mechanism behind which time preference works. What precisely our ends are and how we go about obtaining them is important to understanding the causal role played by time preference and vice versa. Wanting to be a professor as your end requires a low time preference in order to incentivize giving up a lot of current goods to go through many years of schooling to achieve that goal. While having a high time preference may prevent an individual from paying for the college tuition of their child since foregoing large amounts of money (and current goods) over a long period of time to save up for tuition would not be worth the long term end it could have achieved. To say our time preference always directs our ends or our ends always directs our time preference would be to oversimplify the matter. The causal mechanism works both ways within the complicated and bounteous arena of variables working behind the scenes of human thought and behavior. Making sense of some of this causal chaos remains my task to come.

The Means and Ends of Different Liberties Link to this heading

There are four different ways in which we can classify the relationship between human beings and the state that will suffice for our purposes. These classifications are merely generalizations of causally significant trends and in no way can be exclusively demarcated from each other. But by considering them as if they could be completely demarcated will better assist in the project at hand. The first way is that man utilizes the means of the state to achieve the ends of the state. This sort of action is what Constant referred to as ancient liberty found within the republics of antiquity. The ancient republican states were ones in which everyone was expected to sacrifice their individual independence in order to actively participate in the collective power of the state (Usurpation 2008, Ch. 6; SL, IV.5). All contributed to making the laws, pronouncing judgements, and deciding between war and peace. Citizens of ancient republics submitted themselves completely to the decisions of the state because they themselves were part of the state, exercising their vast political rights to share in the sovereignty of decision making. This shared sovereignty of the state required institutions to strictly maintain a level of high equality which obstructed individual liberty and personal security. But for the republican citizens of antiquity, greater satisfaction was to be found “in their public existence, and fewer in their private life; consequently, when they sacrificed individual liberty to political liberty, they sacrificed less to gain more” (Usurpation, 104). The means of fully engaging in the political process and completely submitting to the state (state means) were utilized in order to be a part of the state which as a whole, was greater than the sum of its parts. It was the ends of each citizen to participate and develop the ends of the state, which thereby became the ends of each citizen since they themselves were completely subjected to the state.

For the ancient republics, conquest was a means of acquiring the things that it needed to exist. Since commerce was thought to distract citizens from partaking in their ancient liberty, conquest existed as the only viable means available for survival (SL. IV.8). But according to Constant, the citizens of ancient republics braved so many dangers and endured so many exertions in war and conquest, not simply for the sake of utility, but also for reasons beyond that (Usurpation, Ch. 3-4). If we can accept this assertion made by Constant then we may be able to clarify some of the perplexing issues that arise with the building of empires done in the republics of Athens and Rome, which brought with its expansion far more than just the necessities of life, but also much luxury and wealth (Considerations, ch. 3). According to Montesquieu, it was vital that the republican citizens did not come to know luxury, lest a spirit of individual interest take root in them and destroy the very foundations of the ancient liberty that made up their republics (SL, 7.2). So why would these republic’s expand and absorb the luxuries and wealth of their victories if this luxury and wealth was not allowed to fall into the hands of the very citizens that made up the republic? The answer may be found in Constant’s assertion above as well as within the thoughts of Montesquieu as well. It was not acquired for the direct sake of utility but instead, conquest and the acquisition of luxury was desired for reasons beyond utility, largely those grounded in “the glory of the homeland” (SL, 7.2).

In the ancient republics in which men use the means of the state to achieve the ends of the state, one’s time preference would be low because the state would persist far beyond any single citizen’s life span into the indefinite future. All are more willing to give up their current goods in order to obtain the future goods of the state because the probability of the state being around to receive those future goods and fulfill its ends is quite high. If this sacrifice means giving up one’s liberty in the polis to go to war, one’s property to fund a war, or one’s life to win a war, this sacrifice of current goods prevails as completely rational since each citizens time preference extends beyond their life. Glory is always future oriented and the glory of the homeland being so important to the ancient republican citizen would be seemingly no different. Montesquieu’s argument that the nature of republics being peace and moderation just does not hold water (SL, IX.2) due to the republican citizen’s capacity to extend their time preference far beyond their lives for the sake of honor and glory, which exists as a tremendous tool and incentive for war and conquest that cannot easily be ignored.

For both Montesquieu and Constant, this utilization of state means to achieve state ends no longer existed as a viable option with the societal turn towards modernity. Modern man had come to focus upon himself and his own utility over other interests which existed outside his own personal sphere (SC, Ch. 3). To be happy, modern man only needed to be “left in perfect independence in all that concerns their occupations, their undertakings, their sphere of activity, [and] their fantasies” (Usurpation, Ch. 6). In contrast to the ancient liberty which existed as the utilization of state means to achieve state ends, this new modern liberty exists as the second form of means to ends, which I will classify as the utilization of personal means to achieve personal ends.

The difference between personal ends and state ends is a difference of demarcation between man and the state. No longer was man invested in the welfare, the glory, or the honor of the state. In some ways similar to the ends of the state, the ends of man revolve largely around the acquisition of the materialistic benefits needed to survive and desired to thrive. But acquisition, as an end, can only happen in one of two ways. The first through conquest and empire, so common among the republics of antiquity where it was left to the conquered slaves of military campaigns to farm the land and work the professions of the city (SL, 4.8). The second through commerce and exchange based on mutual need and cooperation. What had made acquisition through conquest so beneficial to the ancients no longer remained so, for modern man had come to reflect on himself and his own utility as the ends upon which he focused his means. In this way means and ends are intertwined with each other, for when modern man came to regard his own utility as his ends, a drastic change in his time preference came with it. A demarcation between the individual and the state meant that no longer would men care for the utility of an entity that would persist far beyond their own lifetime. Instead, the foreknowledge of our own eventual death and the desire to fulfill our own personal utility meant little sacrifice should be anticipated of one that cannot expect to see a greater reward provided during one’s own lifetime. Because modern man no longer looked to fulfill the ends of the state and his time preference arose to only focus upon himself in regards to the duration of his own life, his means also changed to reflect these new ends. To risk one’s life in war became far less rational to one with a high time preference since for the man “who lives from minute to minute or from battle to battle, time does not exist. The pleasure of the moment alone has some certainty” (SC, Ch. 5). According to Constant, modern conquest had become antiquated and replaced with commerce (SC, Ch. 2) because unlike war, which is “open to a variety of obstacles and defeats”, commerce now existed as a “milder and surer means of getting the interests of others to agree with his own” (SC, Ch. 1). Conquest and war became far less prominent when men engaged in personal means to achieve personal ends because the higher time preference of modern man’s ends reflected the means used to achieve those ends. Just as the higher possibility of death among the elderly creates a higher time preference which curtails risky behavior, so does the high time preference of personal ends in modernity lead to less risky behavior to achieve them, which Constant tells us incentivizes the certainly of commercial acquisition over the uncertainty of acquisition in war.

Time Preference and the State Link to this heading

So far we have considered time preference as it exists where the means of the state are utilized to achieve the ends of the state as well as where the means of individuals are utilized to achieve the ends of individuals. Both concepts sit at the polar opposite ends of a spectrum, one where men are completely interconnected with the state in their entirety and the other where the state ostensibly doesn’t matter. Both accounts are more than likely far from entirely accurate in their depiction of the actual world. Ancient republics may have largely been a place in which all partook in the means of the state to achieve the ends of the state, but it seems rather chimerical to think no level of individuality existed in these polities. Likewise, a commercial society in which every individual engages in commerce for the sake of narrow self utility without any sort of state doesn’t correspond well with history. Modern man has continued to reside in nation-states and these nation states still seem to influence the way in which he lives. Although the two depictions given so far provide meaningful insights into the abstract relationship between different forms of liberty and time preference, it is important to examine the other two ways in which we can characterize the means and ends of people and the state.

The two classifications left to consider is the utilization of personal means to achieve state ends and the utilization of state means to achieve personal ends. Considering the former first, the demarcation of men from the state that followed the coming of modern liberty meant that the ends of the state were not necessarily the ends of the individual; and likewise individual ends required the individual means of commerce, which demanded most of man’s time and further withdrew them from the sort of political participation and full submission that made up the means of the state. The tension that arose between state ends and personal ends both vying for the individual means of commercial wealth for obtainment is best seen in the monarchical states of modernity.

At its most theoretical, monarchy is a government heavily demarcated from its citizens. The nobility owned the government and directed its ends as it saw fit without the democratic consultation of its citizens. Likewise, citizens largely went about directing their own ends through their own means without consultation from their government. The sphere in which the state and citizen coincided and intermingled was relatively narrow as citizens of the state, under the influence of modern liberty, restricted the use of its individual means for state ends to an impressive degree. As Constant argues in a correlate manner to the theoretically demarcated nation-state of monarchy, modern man looked at government and its ends and asked “why should we pay for these? Do we exist only so that they may be exercised at our expense? Are we here only to build, with our dying bodies, your road to fame?” (SC, Ch. 15). When considering the honor and glory of the state, modern man states “the smallest grain of millet would better suit our business” (SC, Ch. 11).

Historical scholarship exists to back up such a theoretical illustration of the monarchical state. According to historian Bertrand de Jouvenel, “a man of our time cannot conceive the lack of real power which characterized the medieval king” (Jouvenel 1992, 113). Elaborating elsewhere that: “the king could not exact contributions, he could only solicit “subsidies”. It was stressed that his loyal subjects granted him help of their free will, and they often seized this occasion to stipulate conditions. For instance, they granted subsidies to John the Good (of France), subject to the condition that he should henceforth refrain from minting money which was defective in weight.” (Jouvenel 1998, pp. 178-179) Largely reiterating the same point, historian Peter Flora has noted that monarchies were rarely ever able to exceed taxing its citizens above 5 percent of national GDP (Flora 1983, Vol. 1, Ch. 5 & 8). Considering the question at hand regarding conquest, Guglielmo Ferrero argues that wars were considered to be the king’s wars largely divorced from civilian life. Conscription was a tool principally unavailable to the monarch and extra funds, other than the small amounts extracted in normal taxes, could only be obtained by the king through the means of going on “begging tours” from town to town, accepting local grants to support the war effort as he could get them. These men and funds being relatively scarce and difficult to obtain made war among the monarchs quite tame as armies looked for ways to outmaneuver each other in order to avoid battles that risked scarce troops and resources (Ferrero 1969, pp. 5-7). The limited power of the monarch was also noted by Tocqueville as well stating that “the manners and opinions of the nation confined the royal authority within barriers” and that among other things, “public opinion limited the power of kings, and restrained their authority within an invisible circle” (DiA, 1.17, pp. 379).

Time preference theory helps explain this tendency in monarchical government towards less violent wars and more peace by elaborating upon the demarcation of state ends to individual ends. Subjects of the nobility saw little to no benefit in fighting or funding conquests for the future benefit, honor, or glory of the state as this proved to bring little utility to their own lives in the definite future. The utilizing of individual means to achieve the ends of monarchy were heavily ineffective in overcoming the peaceful inclinations of individuals driven by their high time preferences. Even in monarchies that desired to expand and conquer, as so many had seemingly desired to do, monarchical states were inadequately suited to overcome modernities high time preference.

Considering what has so far been established, how then do we explain the continuance of conquest and empire in modernity? If modern man has seen a rise in his time preference, which acts as a disincentive for conquest, then what explains its continuance? The answer, I wish to suggest, rests within the innate human condition towards desiring certain ends that acts as a driving force towards lower time preferences. According to Constant, the ancient liberty of antiquity may have been lost to the moderns without hope of recovery, but the innate inclination for it was far from gone. For even Constant, one of the great defenders of modern liberty, concedes that the idea of ancient liberty and including oneself in the ends of the state “leaves ones heart beating with hope on entering the path which [ancient liberty] seemed to open up” (Usurpation, Ch. 7). And within this residual human inclination for ancient liberty remains the capacity to have a low time preference that extends beyond one’s life time and a higher, more relatively rational tendency towards war. But in order for this innate part of the human condition to be part of our causal story, we must first figure out its role within the context of modernity. For what has been so far established is the contradictory of such an innate desire as the particularly unique contribution which modernity has brought us.

To better understand the causal role of this innate desire for ancient liberty upon the now modern state of individual ends, we must examine the fourth and final categorization of means and ends which I identify as the use of state means to achieve personal ends. The use of state means (political participation) for the purposes of individual ends (individual utility maximization) coincides well with the rise of commercial democratic republics at the turn of the 19th century until its culmination at the end of world war one. These new democratic republics were created as a means of helping to assist man in achieving his personal ends by ensuring no man could ever become his master and arbitrarily rule over him and his own personal ends. This certainly appeared to be Tocqueville’s thought when he argued that modern man recognizes that it is his freedom which directly contributes towards his utility and that it is imperative to engage in governance in order to ensure it (DiA, 2.2.14). Arguing elsewhere that man’s “chief business” is to engage in politics in order to ensure he remains his own master (DiA, 2.2.14). In its original theoretical form, nothing about using state means to achieve individual ends seems to imply a lowering of one’s time preference or the use of aggressive state conquest as a way of achieving those ends. Just as it was the case with monarchical government that the ends of individuals and their high time preference were incompatible with the state ends of conquest, so would it initially appear that democratic government would be quite the same. In fact, Tocqueville argues that modern democratic republics will be situated towards peace and away from the very tendency towards war because of the equalizing conditions of democracy and modernity (DiA, 2.3.1). But Tocqueville’s argument here seems rather null and void when we consider that just a few chapters before in the same treatise Tocqueville argued that men will always feel unequal in relation to each other no matter how petty the differences become (DiA, 2.2.13; 2.3.16). For if men can never feel equal to each other in democracies, what could this possibly mean for a peace that requires it?

Disregarding Tocqueville’s specific argument about democracy and peace, we begin to see what may be the problem of utilizing state means for person ends once we consider a different, more insightful observation of Tocqueville’s. In the second book of Democracy in America, Tocqueville argues that although it is sometimes difficult to draw modern man away from his own personal sphere of interest, once you get him engaged in democratic governance he quickly develops an instinctual connection between his interest and the “general interest” of all (DiA, 2.2.4). This juxtaposition of interests provides a mechanism by which modern man, habituated by participation in governance, will lose the sense of demarcation that modern liberty and monarchical government had helped to institute. The loss of demarcation allows for the innate desires of mankind to once again find appreciation and personal connection in the ends of the state. Reiterating this point, Tocqueville states that “men living in democracies love their country just as they love themselves, and they transfer the habits of their private vanity to their vanity as a nation” (DiA, 2.3.16).

Where Montesquieu and Constant failed in their prediction for a more peaceful world was not in their belief in the capacity of commerce to help move states towards peace, but in their underestimation of the influence of ancient liberty and the innate and easily corruptible nature of man to juxtapose his own ends with the ends of the state. These new republican states of modernity, ironically the outgrowth of modernity and the enlightenment itself, had brought modern man to a place that was remarkably similar to that of the ancient liberty of antiquity. Modern liberty and freedom, once the cornerstones of the peaceful enlightenment quickly become vain forms of ideologies contributing to a characterization of the state that promotes nationalism and self-righteous egoism. Such a juxtaposition between personal ends and those of nationalism and state pride create ideal conditions for a lowering of one’s time preference to promote the new ends of these entities which will persist beyond their own lifetime. The sacrificing of one’s life in battle or the forfeiture of one’s property to fund conquest in the name of state glory, freedom, or some other vague ideology becomes psychologically rational. Tocqueville himself, in the midst of a republican France, justified the French conquest of Algeria by means of arguing that “the best thing our country [France] has left is national pride” (Selected Letters, 144. Letter to Royer-Collard, 15 August 1840), which can be assisted by the conquest of Algeria which will help to raise “a great monument to our country’s glory” (Second Letter on Algeria, 25). Such desire for national glory does not exist in modern man with a high time preference, but in the man who has adopted the ends of the state as his own. Empire and conquest once again becomes more plausible under the modern democratic state whose citizens, unlike those of the monarchs, have lowered their time preferences in order to better satisfy the ends of the nation.

Conclusion Link to this heading

The paradoxical connection between modernity and conquest is perhaps more intelligible within the parameters of time preference theory. Time preference theory helps us understand why it is that modern man should be far more peaceful than his ancestors of antiquity and why it is that he isn’t. Connecting the ends of individuals with things bigger than themselves, as has been done in modern democracies assisted by an innate human desire to do so, lowers time preferences and makes the sacrificing of property and life for the long term gains of these things rational. Time preference will admittedly lack the explanatory power to explain the entirety of conquest and aggression in modernity. Humanity is complex and the historical context of any nation state and the individuals that make it up will always change and play different causal roles in the grand scheme of things. Many different variables will all contribute to war and conquest and time preference is just one of them. But the ahistorical concept of time preference is an important tool, among many, to utilize when considering man and the complex institutions he participates in and makes up.

Works Cited Link to this heading

Constant, Benjamin. 2008. “The Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation and their Relation to European Civilization.” In Political Writings, edited and translated by Biancamaria Fontana, 51-81. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Constant, Benjamin. 2008. “Usurpation” In Political Writings, edited and translated by Biancamaria Fontana, 85-142. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ferrerim Guglielmo. 1969. Peace and War. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press.

Flora, Peter. 1983. State, Economy, and Society in Western Europe 1815-1975: A Data Handbook. London, UK: Macmillan.

Hoppe, Hans. 2002. Democracy The God that Failed. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Hoppe, Hans. 2007. Economic Science and the Austrian Method. Auburn, AL: Ludwig Von Mises Institute.

Jouvenel, Betrand. 1992. “On the Evolution of Forms of Government.” in The Nature of Politics. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers

Jouvenel, Betrand. 1998. Sovereignty: An Inquiry into the Political Good. Indianapolis, IN : Liberty Fund.

Kant, Immanuel. 2011. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by J.M.D. Meiklejohn. Lexington, KY: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Mises, Ludwig. 2008. Human Action. US: Ludwig Von Mises Institute.

Montesquieu. 1999. Considerations on the Causes of The Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline. Translated by David Lowenthal. US: Hackett Publishing Company.

Montesquieu. 2011. The Spirit of the Laws. Translated by Anne Cohler, Basia Miller, and Harold Stone. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rothbard, Murry. 2006. Economic Thought Before Adam Smith. US: Edward Elgar Publishing

Tocqueville, Alexis. 1985. “To Pierre-Paul Royer-Collard, August 15, 1840” in Selected Letters on Politics and Society, edited by Roger Boesche. Translated by James Toupin and Roger Boeschu, 143-146. London, UK: University of California Press.

Tocqueville, Alexis. 2001. “Second Letter on Algeria.” in Writings on Empire and Slavery, edited and translated by Jennifer Pitts, 14-26. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Tocqueville, Alexis. 2004. “Democracy in America.” Translated by Henry Reeve. New York, NY: Bantam Classic