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The divide between Gallican and Anglican liberty

By Fred Hansen - posted Wednesday, 16 July 2008

On the 4th of July a statue of Adam Smith, the Scottish founder of modern economics, was unveiled on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh for the first time. Since the late 1970s Smith and other thinkers of the Scottish enlightenment have enjoyed a welcome renaissance - and yet have come under pressure from their old French rivals.

When a few decades ago economists were trying to explain sustained growth in mature capitalist societies they came up with the miraculous flexibility of Western free institutions, traditions, customs and the common law - first analysed by the Scots in the 18th century. These treasures are now under threat from social engineering in the name of carbon-free energy.

Since its foundation the Anglo-American “institutional-evolutionary” school (Herman, A, How the Scots Invented the Modern World, 2001) had not much use for abstract models, mandarins who design them, and government targets. But nevertheless it has dominated the reforms of the 1980s - reviving Western economies by opening them up, diminishing state intervention and creating space for spontaneous order.


To a lesser degree this was emulated by continental Europe. In contrast, previous attempts to mobilise science and technology on a large scale by centralised governments, undertaken by Lenin and Mao, ended in horrible human catastrophes. Similarly, if carbon mitigation is being implemented, millions in the developing economies are likely to perish. That’s why former IPCC contributor John Christy warns that the complexity of the earth’s climate is beyond the reach of government agencies, even the United Nations.

The authority of the UN climate regulation body has recently been challenged, for its 380 contributors are not only selected on scientific achievement but increasingly on conformism. In the House of Lords it was criticised “that the nomination of experts to Working Groups II and III of the IPCC for the Fourth Assessment Report was a highly politicised process under the SPD-Green German government and that ‘only people with close connections to the Green Party have been nominated to the IPCC’” (Aynsley Kellow, Science and Public Policy, 2007, p.49). It is this context that increasingly re-ignites the old controversy on the impact of ideas on the constitution of free Western societies.

The science behind the climate scare gets increasingly controversial, deepening the old cultural divide between the abstract French Cartesian rationalism implemented through state dirigisme and the Anglo-American experience-led empiricism with a big role for the market and a limited role for government. (Himmelfarb, G., The Roads to Modernity: the British, French, and American enlightenments, 2004).

Climate scientists are divided into those who put their confidence mostly in computer modelling and others who insist on basic observations. This split is widening after every new blunder, such as the infamous “hockey stick” or the mix-up with faulty NASA data that had to be removed by the IPCC. In his review of present climate science US atmospheric physicist Fred Singer points out that in its 2001 report the IPCC had admitted “in climate research and modeling, we should recognise that we are dealing with a coupled non-linear chaotic system, and therefore that the long-term prediction of future climate states is not possible”. Meanwhile the IPCC has abandoned this prudence in its fourth report of 2007.

It was therefore telling, when David Evans, a mathematician and computer expert, recently deserted the IPCC orthodoxy with the confession, that “the only current ‘evidence’ for blaming carbon emissions are scientific models”. How this overuse of computer models came about has been examined at full length by Professor Aynsley Kellow (as above 2007), head of the School of Government in Tasmania. He succeeds in showing that since the 1980s ecologists commenced to employ mathematical models to dress up their work in order to provide it with scientific authority.

Now, it is fair to say, that the sort of computer modeling and mathematical enthusiasm fits much better with the mix of EU-centralism and French Cartesian reasoning than with Anglo-American empiricism - with the latter emphasising independent observations. And yet, ironically the centralist EU strategy was successfully launched 2006 in the former dragon’s den of Scottish enlightenment, at Edinburgh University, in a lecture by EU commission president Jose Manuel Barroso. There he bragged about European “cutting edge” environmental technology, the controversial Kyoto protocol and the botched EU “cap and trade” scheme.


The new Al Gore-led climate scare has all the features of previous attacks on Anglo-American liberty and free market capitalism. The late political philosopher Leo Strauss analysed previous assaults by Rousseau, Nietzsche and Heidegger, suggesting a strong continental Franco-German bias against modernity. In the same vain environmentalist today are fighting for a return to authoritarian rule (Shearman/Smith, The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy, 2007).

However there is more to it still. The late Australian philosopher David Stove debunked the account of Carl Popper, the highly decorated Austrian refugee to Britain, on critical rationalism (Anything Goes - Origins of the Cult of Scientific Irrationalism, 1998). Popper, anticipating Barroso, placed the source of his scientific scepticism at the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment - fathering his own agnosticism upon the great Scottish philosopher David Hume. According to Stove it was Popper himself who in his theory of fallibility - any theory can only be proven wrong but not established as right by empirical evidence - ushered in scientific irrationalism.

Popper’s disciples Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend further radicalised this irrationalism with their systematic denial of scientific truth. Stove points to the important fact that Hume himself later in life discounted his scientific scepticism as a youthful sin. However Albert Einstein confessed that it was Hume who woke him from dogmatic slumbers. Following the collapse of the Newtonian empire of physics in the early 20th century Hume was increasingly misunderstood as holding that “empirical science is incurable fallible”. With this backdrop some modern climate scientists are vindicating the replacement of systematic observation of climate facts with abstract computer modeling.

At the same time the logic of centralised mitigation policy is deepening the gap between the French constitutional principle of unity of the state and the Anglo-American principle of federalism, as evident in the resistance of the Howard and Bush administrations to sign the Kyoto Protocol. And still in this regard John McCain’s green policy differs considerably from Barack Obama’s. In contrast to Anglican Whig liberalism, historically Gallican liberty stressed the undivided or collective sovereignty of the people, which appealed to socialism and which tends to degenerate into the soft tyranny of the democratic majority, which is exactly what we currently encounter with the so-called majority consensus of scientists on human-made global warming.

This was of course the famous worry of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. By contrast, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a strong supporter of equality, dismissed in The Social Contract representative government, institutional politics, and private property - just as the radical environmentalists are doing today. Unfortunately, as N.A. Addinall has demonstrated in 2004, it is still Rousseau’s concepts that inform the political thinking of recent French leaders such as Giscard d’Estaing, Le Pen, Mitterand, and Jacques Chirac rather than that of Tocqueville.

The emerging consensus among G8 leaders on cap-and-trade schemes and carbon emission cuts as best policy to address global warming, without getting China and India on board, is imprudent and prone to disaster. For the first time in Western history this would seal a victory of European-style state dirigisme over Anglo-American free market principles. And for decades to come dramatic consequence for the developed world economies would ensue.

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About the Author

Dr Fred Hansen is a science writer having published mostly in Germany and the UK. He came to Melbourne a year ago and has published some articles in the IPA Review. He also has a regular blog at the Adam Smith Institute in London. Dr Hansen was a green MP in the state parliament of Hamburg in Germany in the mid-1990s and chaired the science select committee there.

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