Why you need not choose sides among your favorite libertarians
How quickly can libertarianism jump the shark? Try this experiment: Initiate a debate about intellectual property among a collection of well-read libertarians, then count how many seconds (not minutes) it lasts before someone mentions Robinson Crusoe.
What does Robinson Crusoe have to do with Austrian School economics and libertarianism? Plenty. But if youâ€™re new to this â€“ or if youâ€™re just an average joe with a belief in essential liberty â€“ you may find yourself scratching your head, wondering why a question about pharmaceutical prices veered-off into an unwritten chapter of a Daniel Dafoe novel.
You may have also found yourself scratching your head at why the most celebrated libertarian novel of all time, and its author, is the source of so much derision among the libertarian crowd. Case in point, Mark D. Hughesâ€™ recent hate-on for Randâ€™s well-deserved attention in the wake of the new Atlas Shrugged movie. To support his point of view, Hughes presents us with some out-of-context Rand quotes about what many have termed â€œbig-L Libertarianism.â€ Pressed harder for details, Hughes presents a link to an article claiming that Ayn Rand rejected â€œa priori knowledge.â€
Does this mean appreciation for Rand is incompatible with libertarianism?
I. Is Rand Inconsistent With Mises?
The question of a priori knowledge is one of epistemology. We might say this is a question of how we know what we know. Or, to quote Rand, â€œ[The process of forming, integrating, and using concepts] does not pertain to the particular content of a manâ€™s knowledge at any given age, but to the method by which he acquires and organizes knowledge[ref]Rand, Ayn, â€œThe Comprachicos,â€ Return of the Primitive â€“ The Anti-Industrial Revolution, p. 56[/ref].â€
What, according to Rand, is the method?
Learning to speak is a process of automatizing the use (i.e. the meaning and the application) of concepts. And more: all learning involves a process of automatizing, i.e., of first acquiring knowledge by fully conscious, focused attention and observation, then of establishing mental connections which make that knowledge automatic (instantly available as a context), thus freeing manâ€™s mind to pursue further, more complex knowledge.[ref]Rand, Ayn, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, as quoted in Ibid.[/ref]
In other words, Randâ€™s take is that we consciously observe the world around us and form concepts based on what we see. That big, scary, moving thing is a mystery until we hop in and it takes us to the grocery store â€“ only then do we understand it to be an automobile. At least, thatâ€™s what Rand believed.
On the other side of things, Mises took a bit of a more nuanced approach. Perhaps some understood this to be opposed to Rand after reading passages like this one:
New experience can force us to discard or modify inferences we have drawn from previous experience. But no kind of experience can ever force us to discard or modify a priori theorems. They are not derived from experience; they are logically prior to it and cannot be either proved by corroborative experience or disproved by experience to the contrary.[ref]Mises, Ludwig von, Epistemological Problems of Economics, pp. 28-29.[/ref]
Here there appears to be a conflict between the two since Rand claims that knowledge comes from observation, and Mises insists that a priori theorems are logically prior. Mises even claims that â€œa posteriori discovery of empirical laws of action is not possible.â€[ref] Mises, Ludwig von, Epistemological Problems of Economics, pp. 28.[/ref]
However, the astute will have noted that Mises does not say that hypotheses are chronologically prior. (Thatâ€™s important.)
Moreover, the above points made by Mises are part of a discussion that happens some twenty pages after he establishes the following:
The method used by the natural sciences for the discovery of the laws of phenomena begins with observation. However, the decisive step is taken only with the construction of a hypothesis[.] The hypothesis is already an intellectual elaboration of experience, above all in its claim to universal validity, which is its decisive characteristic.[ref]Mises, Epistemological Problems of Economics, pp. 10[/ref]
Hypotheses must be continually verified anew by experienceâ€¦. Various hypotheses are linked together into a system, and everything is deduced that must logically follow from them. These experiments are performed again and again to verify the hypotheses in question. One tests whether new experience conforms to the expectations required by the hypotheses.[ref]Ibid.[/ref]
Students of Randâ€™s Objectivism may find that such passages ring a familiar chord with them and her description of â€œconcept-formation.â€ (In fact, once we start comparing Randâ€™s view of â€œirreducible primariesâ€ to Misesâ€™ â€œultimate unknownâ€ or â€œirrational,â€ then thatâ€™s when things really get interesting.) But, at this point, maybe we should drop the language of philosophers and look at things simply.
On the one hand, Rand describes a philosophical epistemology in which the mind is blank, and then collects data through perception, until the pieces begin to fit into abstract concepts, which are further honed by additional experience and observation. On the other hand, Mises describes an economic epistemology in which initial observations are fed into a logically prior (not chronologically prior) hypothesis, which is further honed by additional experience and observation.
True, there is a difference between those two positions. But how many among us can seriously claim that Randâ€™s view is incompatible with that of Mises?
The question is simply this: if one accepts Randâ€™s claim that observation must first occur before concept-formation can take place, has one rejected Misesâ€™ claim that hypotheses are logically prior to real-world observation?
Of course not, and the key to understanding why, as noted above, is that Mises never claimed that hypotheses must be stated prior to data collection.
II. Why Is This Important?
The reality of the issue is that any choice between a philosopher and an economist is a false one. Mises worked hard to develop strong philosophical foundations to his praxeological method, but in the end his purpose was to study economics, not epistemology. In his own words:
Metaphysics and science perform different functions. They cannot, therefore, adopt the same procedures, nor are they alike in their goals. They can work side by side without enmity because they need not dispute each otherâ€™s domain as long as they do not misconstrue their own character. A conflict arises only when one or the other attempts to overstep the boundary between them.[ref]Mises, Ludwig von, Epistemological Problems of Economics, pp.51-52.[/ref]
Rand never pretended to be an economist and Mises never pretended to be a philosopher. The notion that any libertarian must choose between them is, in a word, disingenuous.
All kinds of people are libertarians. Some, like Mises and Rothbard, are atheists. Others, like Robert Murphy and Ron Paul, are believers. Some espouse Austrian School economics, while others espouse Monetarism.Â Some are Objectivists and others are Post-Modernists. Some are Rothbardian anarcho-capitalists, while others adhere to Hayekâ€™s belief in the Rule of Law. Some know little about philosophy and economics, but simply believe that freedom works better than its alternative.
But so what? The beauty of liberty is its ability to bring individuals together not despite their differences, but indeed because of them. There is no â€œone shade of libertarianism.â€ The notion that one libertarian is at odds with libertarianism as a whole is, wellâ€¦ not libertarian.
So, if youâ€™re like me, you loved Atlas Shrugged and you donâ€™t subscribe to anarchy. If youâ€™re like Mark Hughes, you think Rand is a â€œkookâ€ and think that anarcho-capitalism is where itâ€™s at. Which one of us is more libertarian than the other?
Easy: Robinson Crusoe.