Rothbard Was a Red

 

I hope Lew has a sense of humour ;-)

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 you’re new to this – or if you’re just an average joe with a belief in essential liberty – 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. Hughes’ recent hate-on for Rand’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 “big-L Libertarianism.” Pressed harder for details, Hughes presents a link to an article claiming that Ayn Rand rejected “a priori knowledge.”

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, “[The process of forming, integrating, and using concepts] does not pertain to the particular content of a man’s knowledge at any given age, but to the method by which he acquires and organizes knowledge[ref]Rand, Ayn, “The Comprachicos,” Return of the Primitive – The Anti-Industrial Revolution, p. 56[/ref].”

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 man’s mind to pursue further, more complex knowledge.[ref]Rand, Ayn, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, as quoted in Ibid.[/ref]

In other words, Rand’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 – only then do we understand it to be an automobile. At least, that’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 “a posteriori discovery of empirical laws of action is not possible.”[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. (That’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]

And, further:

Hypotheses must be continually verified anew by experience…. 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 Rand’s Objectivism may find that such passages ring a familiar chord with them and her description of “concept-formation.” (In fact, once we start comparing Rand’s view of “irreducible primaries” to Mises’ “ultimate unknown” or “irrational,” then that’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 Rand’s view is incompatible with that of Mises?

The question is simply this: if one accepts Rand’s claim that observation must first occur before concept-formation can take place, has one rejected Mises’ 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 other’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.  Some are Objectivists and others are Post-Modernists. Some are Rothbardian anarcho-capitalists, while others adhere to Hayek’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 “one shade of libertarianism.” The notion that one libertarian is at odds with libertarianism as a whole is, well… not libertarian.

So, if you’re like me, you loved Atlas Shrugged and you don’t subscribe to anarchy. If you’re like Mark Hughes, you think Rand is a “kook” and think that anarcho-capitalism is where it’s at. Which one of us is more libertarian than the other?

Easy: Robinson Crusoe.

10 Responses to “Rothbard Was a Red”

  1. Mark D Hughes says:

    Ryan you don't have to take my word for it. Take Miss Rand's. In her margin notes of her personal copy of Mises's Human Action she, in one of her many caustic attacks on Mises, writes "There is no a priori knowledge.There is no knowledge not derived from experience…" See pp 113-114 "Ayn Rand's Marginalia : Her Critical Comments on the Writings of over Twenty Authors" 1998 Edited by Robert Mayhew . You would do well to read Roderick T. Long's insightful essay "Ayn Rand Among the Austrians" [ http://tinyurl.com/3dfy3gb ] for more on Rand's fundamental philosophical differences with (and rejection of) Mises' and his method. It really doesn't matter how hard you pound, you will never be able to force Rand's square peg of objectivist philosophy into Mises's round hole of a priory Praxeology.

    • Ryan says:

      Haha… you're just not hearing me. I get it: Rand rejected a priori knowledge. Got that. 100%. No disagreement.

      You're committing what Rand called a "package-deal" fallacy, but I do understand why you're doing so and I respect it. For you, epistemology, praxeology, economics, and so forth, are all *one thing*, and there's only one possible way of wrapping one's head around all of it.

      For me it works a little different. We're entitled to disagree, but I can say with near certainty that Mises would suggest we're arguing over final causes. Economics does not have much to say about final causes – they're out-of-scope.

      …Which of course is the point of my article.

      Cheers.

      • Mark D Hughes says:

        Ryan, your argument is ia moving target (not to mention a dissapearing one). One of your posted comments has mysteriously dissapered (Redmond ?) from this conversation. In responce to my comment beginning with "This is just silly Ryan." you stated:

        _______
        I read it already.

        The problem here is that you actually believe Rand rejected a priori theory.
        In the article above, I try to explain how that isn't the case. Her
        descriptions of concept-formation and knowledge "automatization" are
        step-by-step explanations of a priori theory at work.

        Sadly, you're not just missing my point, you're also missing Rand's. Rand
        had no qualms with teleology. Her whole body of work deals with the ethics
        of denying reality, i.e. that the world is what it is regardless of how we
        choose to "perceive" it. You seem to be extrapolating this into a complete
        rejection of catallactics. I find this really odd.
        _______

        Now, in your most recent post, you say "Haha… you're just not hearing me. I get it: Rand rejected a priori knowledge. Got that. 100%. No disagreement."

        To use your own words, "I find this really odd."

  2. Mark D Hughes says:

    Ryan, an "interesting", if somewhat superficial, analysis of Mises's epistemology and method.

    That not withstanding, you obviously didn't bother to read the response I made to Matt Syiles's thoughtful comments on my post (the one you claim/imply shows I have a "hate on" for Rand) so I shall restate it here. Simply replace your name with his and the post fits (except that "everything you say" in your article is NOT true).

    "Matt, Everything you say is true and it would be absolutely relevant if Mises.ca was a site dedicated to dialog about libertarianism. This, however, is a sight dedicated to a better understanding of the Austrian School of Economics with an emphasis on the Menger/Mises/Rothbard branch (at least that was what I was lead to believe when invited to bloh here). To that end, it is critically important that those new to Austrian economics understand that the epistemology of Rand's Objectivist philosophy is, on almost every level, in contradiction to Mises's epistemology and method.

    I agree that Randians occasionally make valuable contributions to libertarian thinking. This was no less true of Milton Friedman. However, ALL Austrians in the Menger/Mises/Rothbard tradition, while agreeing with some (perhaps even many) of his conclusions reject completely the epistemological foundations of Friedman's economics.

    While it is easy to do, it is vitally important that we don't confuse libertarianism with Austrian economics. One is a philosophy/political ideology and the other is a science."

    • Ryan says:

      Yeah, um, except you never actually get around to demonstrating on ANY level that Rand's epistemology is in contradiction with Mises'. You've repeated your thesis many times now; but where is the evidence?

      • Mark D Hughes says:

        This is just silly Ryan. What more evidence do you require than her fundamental proclivity to empiricism. Although she claimed to be a "rationalist" she rejected absolutely any and all recourse to Kantian " a priori synthetic judgments." Her categorical rejection of a priori theory (and by definition Mises's Praxeology) is "res ipsa loquitur." Her rejection of a priory theory is so well known that it makes me wonder how much, if any, of Rand's nonfiction you have ever read. On the fundamental a priory nature of Praxeology I suggest you read Thorsten Polleit's excellent article "True Knowledge from A Priori Theory" here: http://tinyurl.com/5wwq49z

        • Mark D Hughes says:

          Ryan you don't have to take my word for it. Take Miss Rand's. In her margin notes of her personal copy of Mises's Human Action she, in one of her many caustic attacks on Mises, writes "There is no a priori knowledge.There is no knowledge not derived from experience…" See pp 113-114 "Ayn Rand's Marginalia : Her Critical Comments on the Writings of over Twenty Authors" 1998 Edited by Robert Mayhew . You would do well to read Roderick T. Long's insightful essay "Ayn Rand Among the Austrians" [ http://tinyurl.com/3dfy3gb ] for more on Rand's fundamental philosophical differences with (and rejection of) Mises' and his method. It really doesn't matter how hard you pound, you will never be able to force Rand's square peg of objectivist philosophy into Mises's round hole of a priory Praxeology.

        • Mark D Hughes says:

          Ryan you don't have to take my word for it. Take Miss Rand's. In her margin notes of her personal copy of Mises's Human Action she, in one of her many caustic attacks on Mises, writes "There is no a priori knowledge.There is no knowledge not derived from experience…" See pp 113-114 "Ayn Rand's Marginalia : Her Critical Comments on the Writings of over Twenty Authors" 1998 Edited by Robert Mayhew . You would do well to read Roderick T. Long's insightful essay "Ayn Rand Among the Austrians" [ http://tinyurl.com/3dfy3gb ] for more on Rand's fundamental philosophical differences with (and rejection of) Mises' and his method. It really doesn't matter how hard you pound, you will never be able to force Rand's square peg of objectivist philosophy into Mises's round hole of a priory Praxeology.

        • Ryan I understand perfectly well what you are claiming. I simply say you are wrong. Rand DID reject Mises’s a priory theory. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Indeed, let Miss Rand’s own words do the work. In the hand written margin notes of her personal copy of Mises’s Human Action she, states emphatically that “There is no a priori knowledge. There is no knowledge not derived from experience…” (See pp 113-114 “Ayn Rand’s Marginalia : Her Critical Comments on the Writings of
          over Twenty Authors” 1998 Edited by Robert Mayhew.)

          Both Rand and Peikoff (and even Brandon before the split) wrote with derision about Mises’s a priory and his Praeological method — while often agreeing with his “economic conclusions” they rejected completely his philosophical and methodological approach. For a more thorough analysis of this (including dozens of explicit examples) you would do well to read Roderick T. Long’s (any relation?) insightful essay “Ayn Rand Among the Austrians” at http://www.aynrandstudies.com/jars/archives/jars6-2/jars6_2rlong.pdf .
          (Admittedly, Roderick is far more sympathetic and deferential to Rand and her intellectual attack dogs than I could ever be). In the end, Ryan, it really doesn’t matter how hard you pound, you will never be able to force Rand’s square peg of objectivist philosophy into Mises’s round hole of a
          priory Praxeology.

  3. Roberto Chiocca says:

    To be a statist(even a moderated one) and claim to be a libertarian, you ghave to have a different notion about what libertarianism is. I quote Walter Block(defending the undefendable) to explain what libertarianism is:
    "The impetus for this book is Libertarianism. The basic
    premise of this philosophy is that it is illegitimate to engage in
    aggression against nonaggressors. What is meant by aggression is
    not assertiveness, argumentativeness, competitiveness, adventurousness,
    quarrelsomeness, or antagonism. What is meant by
    aggression is the use of violence, such as that which takes place
    in murder, rape, robbery, or kidnapping. Libertarianism does
    not imply pacifism; it does not forbid the use of violence in
    defense or even in retaliation against violence. Libertarian philosophy
    condemns only the initiation of violence—the use of violence
    against a nonviolent person or his property."
    and he follows:
    "The uniqueness of Libertarianism is found not in the statement
    of its basic principle but in the rigorously consistent, even
    maniacal manner with which the principle is applied. For
    example, most people do not see any contradiction between this
    principle and our system of taxation. Libertarians do.
    Taxation is contrary to the basic principle because it involves
    aggression against nonaggressive citizens who refuse to pay. It
    makes not the slightest difference that the government offers
    goods and services in return for the tax money. What is important
    is that the so-called “trade” (tax money for government
    services) is coerced. The individual is not free to reject the offer.
    Nor does the fact that a majority of the citizens support this
    coercive taxation make any difference. The initiation of aggression,
    even when endorsed by the majority, is not legitimate. Libertarianism
    condemns it in this area as it condemns it wherever
    it occurs.
    Another difference between the beliefs of Libertarians and
    the beliefs of other members of society is the obverse of the view
    that initiatory violence is evil. Libertarians maintain that as far
    as political theory is concerned, anything which does not involve
    the initiation of violence is not evil and that as far as political
    theory is concerned, anything which does not involve the initiation
    of violence is not a punishable evil and should not be outlawed." http://mises.org/books/defending.pdf

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