It is terrifying to think how much research is needed to determine the truth of even the most unimportant fact.
The Journal of the Lion & the Wolf
It is terrifying to think how much research is needed to determine the truth of even the most unimportant fact.
This is from 2008, from the now defunct “Mencius Moldbug” blog:
In 1933, public opinion could still be positively impressed by group calisthenics displaying the face of the Leader, eagles shooting lightning bolts, etc, etc. By today’s standards, the public of 1933 (both German and American) was a seven-year-old boy. Today’s public is more of a thirteen-year-old girl (a smart, plucky, well-meaning girl), and guiding it demands a very different tone.
You are not a thirteen-year-old girl. So how did you fall for this bizarre circus? How can any mature, intelligent, and educated person put their faith in this gigantic festival of phoniness?
Think about it. You read the New York Times, or similar, on a regular basis. It tells you this, it tells you that, it reports that “scientists say” X or Y or Z. And there is always a name at the top of the article. It might be “Michael Luo” or “Celia Dugger” or “Heather Timmons” or “Marc Lacey” or… the list, is, of course, endless.
Do you know Michael or Celia or Heather or Marc? Are they your personal friends? How do you know that they aren’t pulling your chain? How do you know that the impression you get from reading their stories is the same impression that you would have if you, personally, saw everything that Michael or Celia or Heather or Marc saw? Why in God’s green earth do you see their “stories” as anything but an attempt to “manipulate procedural outcomes” by guiding you, dear citizen, to interpret the world in a certain way and deliver your vote accordingly?
The answer is that you do not trust them, personally. Bylines are not there for you. They are there for the journalists themselves. If the Times, like the Economist, lost its bylines and attributed all its stories to “a New York Times reporter,” your faith would not change one iota. You trust Michael and Celia and Heather and Marc, in other words, because they are speaking (quite literally) ex cathedra.
So you trust the institution, not the people. Very well. Let’s repeat the question: what is it about the New York Times that you find trustworthy? The old blackletter logo? The motto? Suppose that instead of being “reporters” of “the New York Times,” Michael and Celia and Heather and Marc were “cardinals” of “the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church?” Would this render them more credible, less credible, or about as credible? Suppose, instead, they were “professors” at “Stanford University?” Would this increase or decrease your trust?
For a hardened denialist such as myself, who has completely lost his faith in all these institutions, attempting to understand the world through the reports and analysis produced by the Cathedral is like trying to watch a circus through the camera on a cell phone duct-taped to the elephant’s trunk. It can be done, but it helps to have plenty of external perspective.
And for anyone starting from a position of absolute faith in the Cathedral, there is simply no other source of information against which to test it. You are certainly not going to discredit the Times or Stanford by reading the Times or going to Stanford, any more than you will learn about the historical Jesus by attending a Latin Mass.
In 2014 I attended the Rothbard Graduate Seminar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, AL as an observer. The following are notes I typed while listening to lectures and discussions between faculty and graduate students. They have been edited for clarity, organization and in some cases privacy.
Rothbard’s book (Economic Controversies) had great depth, not just covering epistemology and economic theory but historical commentary, etc., this book is also digestible, repetitive so you get the same concept dissected from different angles, straight to the point, challenges the mainstream orthodoxy, accessible to the layperson, Rothbard starts with realistic premises and deduces from there which makes this approach even more empirical (econometric models falsify the real world), his criticisms are very thorough and you want to smile after you read them which is unique in reading academic papers. Rothbard isn’t ashamed to say there is meaning and truth.
Methodological individualism applies only to the concept of action, it does not exclude the idea of something like a “cosmic consciousness”, there is a difference between ontological and methodological claims; praxeology is not a metaphysical system, it simply takes the world as we find it
Mathematical annotation is more precise than verbal logic, but one problem is how do you convert initial premises into mathematical annotation (and back when a conclusion is reached)?
“Academic choice”, public choice analysis applied to the incentive structure of academia and how this influences their search for truth
Kirzner and Schumpeter restrict entrepreneur to nothing but alertness, the Misesian approach is more expansive and includes everyone in some capacity acting as an entrepreneur
Mises in Human Action talks about the entrepreneur as a leader, who is far-seeing, comes from Weiser, who also mentored Schumpeter; Mises was uncharacteristically fuzzy and unclear on his writings on the entrepreneur, occasionally he refers to the “promoter” (ideal type) involving leadership, having a quicker eye than the crowd, etc., but typically he refers to the function of entrepreneurship
Kirzner is talking about alertness to opportunities for profit, but entrepreneurs create goods, capital, companies, etc., not “opportunities for profit”, opportunity implies objective configurations of resources that allow for a decision or action or take place, but is this analogous in the business world? Or is “opportunity” a metaphor? Do we need the construct of “opportunity” to explain what entrepreneurs do?
Salerno, “The Entrepreneur, Real and Imagined” [PDF]
Kirzner’s equilibrium is the condition under which no unfound profit opportunities exist
Mises vs. Knight on judgement— Mises never refers to Knight in this context, judgement is more of a black box for Mises than for Knight
Klein, “The Capitalist and The Entrepreneur” [PDF]
How to explain countries where majority of taxes are paid by a minority of people, as Calhoun’s analysis suggests the majority bear the costs for a small minority to benefit from? The answer could be additional implicit subsidies such as protections from the State in terms of liability or regulation that they see taxation as payment for
Can the State make investments? Rothbard is writing against the idea of “social investment” such as infrastructure spending, and he is writing in terms of capital structure— they’re not integrated into economic calculation, they’re not part of the capital structure; counter-example, State-owned oil production
“What Has Government Done To Our Money?” is Rothbard’s explanation of how an economy “progresses” from commodity to fiat money, because Mises said that a true fiat money is a historical question given that every episode in the past has been a form of “credit money” based on expectations about an eventual return to a commodity money that predated it
Lecture 6, Professional Strategies, Career Advice and Current Research Topics, Peter Klein
[I did not take any notes during this discussion.]
[I did not take any notes during this discussion.]
[I did not take any notes during this discussion.]
Crony capitalism is the modern day equivalent of mercantilism
Old wine in new bottles, people can intellectually reject an idea like mercantilism as an historical phenomenon but if it is repackaged in a new brand they might adopt it as sensible
Are many of the distinctions of totalitarian regimes explained by the path to power? IE, Hitler came to power through the ballot box, Mao led a peasant rebellion, Lenin was elected by the army
Democracy is one of the most stable forms of the State; democracy involves participation of the population, and has a process for slowly implementing policies vs. unitary or limited participation and the ability to make drastic, sudden changes via emperor or dictatorship; democracy tends to hand out favors to large groups of people so it is hard to create an opposition coalition to overturn it
Mises’s three pre-conditions of the division of labor and economic specialization: private property in the means of production, free exchange (for price formation) and ???
[I did not take any notes during this section.]
Lecture 10, Current Debates and Critiques, Joe Salerno
[I did not take any notes during this section.]
Is the term “Austrian” valuable as a marketing concept? “Capital Based Macro”, “Causal Realism”
You don’t want to be the kid at camp who picked their own nickname, names come from the outside
Is there rhetorical value in labeling opponents in sensational ways (“Friedman is a socialist”) or does that hurt your cause more than it communicates information?
In “The Big Uneasy“, the New Yorker explores what some students are taking away from their liberal-arts educations:
If you are a white male student, the thought goes, you cannot know what it means to be, say, a Latina; the social and the institutional worlds respond differently to her, and a hundred aggressions, large and small, are baked into the system. You can make yourself her ally, though—deferring to her experience, learning from her accounts, and supporting her struggles. You can reach for unity in difference.
It also profiles some of the students who are learning these important concepts:
Eosphoros is a trans man. He was educated in Mexico, walks with crutches, and suffers from A.D.H.D. and bipolar disorder. (He’d lately been on suicide watch.) He has cut off contact with his mother, and he supports himself with jobs at the library and the development office. He said, “I’m kind of about as much of a diversity checklist as you can get while still technically being a white man.”
The epistemology of this paradigm appears to be relativism, which is to say that it is a subscription to denial of a universal human reason. It’s hard to understand what the point of attending an institution of learning is if it has nothing to teach you because your personal experience is the only truth to know.
It’s also hard to accept that this paradigm is representative of a universal truth and thus part of an enlightened human knowledge, not just because that would be a contradiction in terms according to the paradigm itself, but because so many of the correspondents seem to suffer from a multiplicity of dysfunctions.
It seems many of today’s students really need help sorting out their personal problems, not “access to higher education.” When they arrive at even the most accommodating, out-there institutions like Oberlin and find the curriculum is not about them but about something else, they develop severe inferiority complexes that result in frustrated, emotional outbursts.
But, imagining for just a moment that the common mainstream trope that “access to higher education” really is a missing social panacea, are these the students such supporters have in mind and are these the ideas they think are important that they receive as part of their program?
“Students believe that their gender, their ethnicity, their race, whatever, gives them a sort of privileged knowledge—a community-based knowledge—that other groups don’t have,” O’Leary went on.
“People are so amazed that other people could have a different opinion from them that they don’t want to hear it.”
What is the value “to society” in these factionalizing lessons, and are they really worth borrowing money, in many cases, to have them taught?
Economics is a young science offering knowledge which did not fit into the existing disciplines of logic, mathematics, psychology or history. Its methodology is different, examining acting individuals and not historical events or social aggregates. It demonstrates social regularities or “laws” which can not be legislated out of existence or ignored, like gravity. The conclusions of economic science threaten many partisans and have led to the first debates about the validity and universality of logic itself in response. Despite the claims of critics, economic theory has achieved a lot of practical success, such as the liberalization that allowed for the “Industrial Revolution” to transform Western civilization. Knowledge of economic theory is directly intertwined with the flourishing of mankind anywhere.
Psychology examines WHY a man acts, praxeology studies, deductively, what we can know from the fact THAT a man acts. It views action as effective, or ineffective, never rational/irrational or “good”/“bad”. Human action requires knowledge of causal relationships and a belief in man’s ability to influence them. All human action seeks the removal of felt uneasiness.
Economics and history are the two main branches of praxeology. History is an arrangement and interpretation of data concerning human action in the past; it is not predictive but descriptive. Human action is a complex, multi-causal phenomenon and thus can not be studied according to the “empirical” methodologies of the natural sciences requiring a single variable amongst innumerate constants.
Economics demands methodological apriorism, or the acknowledgement that it is impossible for man to conceive of a reality in which the fundamental logical understanding of causality does not hold. All of his experience must be filtered through pre-existing logical (theoretical) categories, i.e., understanding money requires knowledge of the concept of money to make sense of data concerning money.
Methodological individualism asserts action can only be studied through the behavior of individuals. This is not violated by the fact that man puts meaning in collective entities and aims his actions in certain ways operating under these beliefs. Praxeology is also methodologically singular and causal-realist— it examines specific actions carried out by specific individuals at specific places and points in time. “A cathedral is something other than a heap of stones joined together. But the only procedure for constructing a cathedral is to lay one stone upon another.”
Historians can only achieve “verstehen”, or understanding, by selecting certain data as valuable and excluding other data as irrelevant to their inquiry. They must utilize the best theories of other intellectual disciplines (economics, physics, biology, etc.) to interpret the data and its significance. History is “open to interpretation” only when the underlying theories relied upon are still controversial and debated. There are no constants in the history of human action.
“The end of science is to know reality”, economic theory is developed to better understand practical economic problems men face, and this fact guides man’s inquiry into the discipline although it does not change its aprioristic character. Economics studies real acting man as he exists, not an ideal type, e.g., homo economicus.
Socialist philosophers could not defeat the logical theories of early economists so they turned to the undermining of reason itself as a method of defending their ideas. Without any biological evidence, Marxian polylogism asserts that every class has a unique logic derived from its class consciousness. “Ideology” is any idea which deviates from pure proletarian logic but is nonetheless useful to the class espousing it. Polylogism can not explain why people of the same social class nonetheless arrive at different conclusions about the truth.
Man refers to an internal, ordinal scale of values when acting. Action can be thought of as an exchange of one set of conditions for another, more satisfactory, set of conditions. Economics examines the meaning men give to things, as translated through their actions, not what various 3rd parties observing might think about such action in accordance with external value systems. Value is within men and therefore subjective, not within things, intrinsically, and therefore objective. Economics examines what man DOES (and DOES NOT, but could have…) do, not what he ought to do. Cost is best thought of as the value of the next best thing given up.
Action is always aimed at the future. “The present” is a praxeological category and a conceptual ideal used to examine discrete, continuous actions. In physical reality, only the past and the future exist. The future is uncertain, implying we aren’t even sure in the moment how much of our action belongs to the present versus other time periods. Time must be economized like any other scarce resource. Actions can not happen synchronously, always either sooner or later. Man’s values can and do change over time, and with it, his actions.
Metaphysically, the world may in fact be deterministic; but man’s experience is one of choice. In matters of uncertainty, man faces class uncertainty (the qualities of the members of the class are known, but the character of a specific event which might take place within that class are unknown; e.g., dice roll) and case probability (some causal factors guiding the outcome are known but others are not and the case itself is unique compared to other events; e.g., presidential election). Human action falls under the rubric of case probability. Case probability can not be statistically quantified because it would involve summing items with no common denominator. Game theory is also an inappropriate means for studying human action within the market economy because it adopts the metaphor of combat when the competitive division of labor is cooperative and positive-sum. All praxeological prediction is based on “understanding”, not quantification.
Utility is how we describe those things which help remove felt uneasiness. Subjective utility is different than objective, or technological, utility. Man does not choose between total supplies of goods but only those discrete amounts of the supply useful to his specific end. He satisfies his most urgent wants before his less urgent wants and therefore values the means “at the margin” of what less urgent want he has to give up (Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns). Supply is a set of homogenous goods which could equally satisfy a given end. Technological recipes are not part of supply because they are inexhaustible once discovered. The Law of Returns identifies the fact that there is always a most efficient, or optimum, way to utilize scarce means to achieve a desired end; but this optimum can only be discovered through experience because of the uncertain nature of human action. “Men do not economize labor in general, but the particular kinds of labor available.” The supply of labor available is conditioned upon genetics, social conditioning and innate human subjective preferences for labor vs. leisure. The potential supply of labor for each kind of work necessarily exceeds the demand in the long run because labor can be shifted and retrained to perform new tasks. Labor is always more scarce than the material factors of production (land, capital). The substitution of “labor saving” machinery for human labor does not render labor abundant so long as there are still more material productive factors available to combine with the freed up labor to pursue additional human well-being. Activities which provide immediate gratification are not labor nor work but consumption goods themselves, of the first order. Production is not a creative act but one of rearrangement of already existent phenomena. Man is creative only in thinking, not rearranging the world according to his thoughts. The material changes of man’s economy are due solely to the ideas he holds in his head about what is desirable. “Production is alteration of the given according to the designs of reason.”
The introduction of the book is Mises’s explanation for why he wrote the book— to ground economics in the science of praxeology and to refute the various anti-economic philosophies. It seeks to answer the simple question, “Why did Mises write this book?”
1. Economics and Praxeology
Economics is a young science. It introduced new knowledge about human society that did not fit into the existing disciplines of logic, mathematics, psychology, history or biology. It stood in opposition to earlier methodologies for explaining social phenomena, such as historicism, which focused on social aggregates and metaphysical supernaturalism. Other social philosophers focused on practically changing society through forms of social engineering, believing any kind of regularity to social relationships was non-existent and thus not worth considering in their schemes. The discovery of social regularities contained within economic study proved an intellectual revolution. But the revolution was limited in scope until a general theory of human choice (praxeology) could be developed.
2. The Epistemological Problem of a General Theory of Human Action
Economic study suffered a serious early crisis during the “Methodenstreit” in which the epistemology of economics was argued between historicists (economic history), logical positivists (emulators of the natural sciences) and praxeologists (methodological individualists and deductive logic). These economic methodology debates quickly became radical in nature, leading to the first charges against rationalism in all of scientific debate which up to that point had accepted human logic as universal and immutable. Such criticisms bring into question ALL scientific findings, but they are really aimed only at economics specifically. Thus, Mises wants to ground economic theory in the general theory of human action to demonstrate it’s universality and defend it from polylogist and anti-rational criticisms.
3. Economic Theory and the Practice of Human Action
Economics receives criticism as being an imperfect science. All science is imperfect, and is subject to change and improvement over time. One major school of criticism comes from naturalist scientists who blame economics for not adopting their own methodology— they suffer from a narrow focus and can not see the virtue in doing things any way but their own. The other major school of criticism is that economics hasn’t solved all social problems, so it must be barren. This perfectionist fallacy ignores the great progress economic theory in action has achieved so far, such as the “Industrial Revolution”, which was directly enabled by progress in economic thought applied to the political realm which freed the energies of entrepreneurs and creators. The modern era is characterized by ignorance and hatred toward economic science, it is also an era of social disintegration, wars and mass social calamities. The fate of civilization’s progress and the progress of economic science are directly intertwined.
Mises wrote this book to situate economic theory within a wider body of human choice, known as praxeology. He did this to defend it from its critics, but also to expand the breadth and knowledge of the science to gain new insights on social phenomena. In that sense, Mises’s book is both reactionary, and revolutionary.
Part One, HUMAN ACTION, I. Acting Man
Human action is the study of means used to obtain certain ends. It does not study the ends themselves nor does it administer judgments about personal values. Human action is purposeful action, it is not animal action, instinct or reflex. And it does not concern itself with the reasons for ends being chosen. Within the framework of human action, all actions taken are either effective, or ineffective, they can never be judged as irrational or rational. For man to act, he must be aware of causal relationships that he believes he can influence. Human action demands methodological dualism— human action is assumed as an ultimate given, it is beyond the scope of praxeology to investigate causes antecedent to it. Human action is a necessary category of the life of man, he can not avoid choosing in the act of living, life itself being a choice over death. What man strives for in acting is to relieve felt uneasiness— some call this happiness but it is not an objective category and can best be thought of as an improvement in his position as judged by himself, though happiness is a commonplace referent for the concept. Positivism demands an experimental, inductive, natural sciences approach to knowledge of human action yet it tacitly accepts the methodological dualism of praxeology in appealing to man’s rational mind to consider an alternative way of performing economic science.
II. Epistemological Problems of the Science of Human Action
Praxeology and history are the two main branches of the science of human action. History is a collection and systematic arrangement of data of human action experience in the past; it can not tell us anything that is valid for all human action and thus can not predict anything about the future, it can only tell what has taken place before. Complex phenomena with interlaced causal chains can not be used to validate an existing theory— the natural sciences require the ability to set constant all entities but one variable which is then tested. All human experience is filtered through human reason, which is a priori valid and universal to all individuals. It is the unique structure of the human mind and it is impossible to conceive of or interpret human experience other than through the logical structure of man’s mind. This gives rise to methodological apriorism, which means that it is impossible for man to conceive of a reality in which the fundamental logical relationships of his mind and his understand of causality do not hold. “Human knowledge is conditioned by the structure of the human mind.” Primitive man who is said to understand miracles is a man who has a difference of content of thought, not of the process of thought itself— the attribution of miracles to life phenomena was an early attempt at establishing causal relationships in the world around man. The concept of action implies belief that the means chosen are valid and that the end sought is valuable— it does not imply that the action is guided by a necessarily correct theory or appropriate technology for achieving the end sought. Action == reason, action is how man effects his reason in the world around him. All human experience must be filtered through pre-existing logical categories, for example, experience of money requires knowledge of the theory of medium of exchange to make sense of the data of money. “It is the meaning which acting individuals and all those who are touched by their action attribute to an action, that determines its character.” In this way, collective entities can have meaning for man’s actions even though methodological individualism holds, which implies that only individuals are capable of acting. “There is no social collective conceivable which is not operative in the actions of some individuals.” Methodological collectivism is revealed to be a false idol when considering the fact that there is a multiplicity of coexisting social units and mutual antagonisms— which social collective is “acting” in this case? Human action also follows methodological singularism, it is convened with concrete action of a definite person, at a definite date and a definite time, not action in general. Praxeology is causal-realist— what happens in acting? what does it mean to say that an individual did X, at Y place and Z time, and not A at B place and C time? What is the result of him choosing one thing and setting aside another? Human life is an unceasing sequence of individual actions, though these actions may be taken in the context of a larger project to which they belong. For example, “A cathedral is something other than a heap of stones joined together. But the only procedure for constructing a cathedral is to lay one stone upon another.” Historians must select which data are valuable to study by referencing a specific end or theory which they are using to make their choice. The historian seeks at “verstehen”, or understanding, he does not make up facts or interpret data as he likes but applies all his best knowledge of existing science in other branches to understand the “meaning” of the data he looks at— its implications and significance. However, this “understanding” is always limited by the current state of the underlying sciences he depends upon. Empirical data by itself is seen to be hollow when we acknowledge the recording of miracles and witchcraft by numerous human witnesses in past history— these events can not have logically occurred even if we have collected data of people verifying them in the past. Where the underlying science is unsettled, history may prove to be “open to interpretation” as to the significance of events recorded. There are no constant relations in the field of economics and so establishing things such as the “elasticity of demand” of a good are nothing more than historical facts, not future-predicting theories of human action. “Happiness” is not an inappropriate measure of human action due to technological limitations but because it is not objective and universal in its implications— it means different things to different people. Logic, mathematics and praxeology are universally valid for all humans capable of reason. “What counts for history is always the meaning of the men concerned.” All historical events are described and interpreted by means of ideal types, e.g., general, president, businessman, entrepreneur, doctor, tyrant. But ideal types belong only to history— human action concerns itself with real acting man as he is, which is the mistake made by the German Historical School or the American Institutional School, which built their theory around the “ideal type” of “homo economicus”. This was a make believe intellectual phantom with no connection to real, acting man. “Praxeological knowledge is within us” and is in this sense experience based, but it is something that belongs to everybody who is capable of human reason, and no amount of experience or description to an entity not capable of it could lead to their understanding. “The end of science is to know reality”, and we use our experience of daily life to decide what interests us and what we should explore, but not how we should explore it (theory building). Economic theory refers to practical problems simply because that is what man is concerned with understanding. Economics is necessarily politically contrarian because it serves to provide knowledge of the limitations of human action and thus the necessary restraints that exist for human legislators and warlords in their social engineering endeavors. Economics is holistic, special theories of economics must be encased in a greater framework which is itself consistent in order for special theory to be valid. Praxeology belongs only to man— superhuman entities capable of anything would not fit into a theory involving entities which have limited means of satisfying their ends.
III. Economics and the Revolt Against Reason
The classical economists destroyed all socialist theories and demonstrated their impracticality. Instead of admitting defeat because they could not construct a logical theory, the socialists turned to questioning the efficacy of human reason itself. They decided to substitute mystical intuition for universal logic (similar to divine right of kings for monarch). Marxian polylogism states that every social class has its own distinct logical structure within the mind. There is no biological support for this assertion and Marxists make no attempt to establish anything beyond this assertion. Marxian “ideology” is a doctrine which is incorrect from proletarian pure logic but which is beneficial to the class interests of the one who espouses it. Marxists provide no explanation for why minority policies which are deemed injurious to the wider social body nonetheless come to pass without the majority stopping them. “The fundamental logical relations and the categories of thought and action are the ultimate source of all human knowledge.” We can not even imagine a system that operates otherwise without referring to this logic in our inquiry, and we can not explain logic without using logic. This means logic is an ultimate given. Polylogism scan not explain why people of the same social class nonetheless arrive at different conclusions about the truth.
IV. A First Analysis of the Category of Action
Economics concerns itself with the way thinking man turns things into means by way of action. It is concerned with the meaning men give to things through their action and not what third parties think about such action. Man’s ends can be thought of as existing on a scale of values, which are ordinal. It is a simple rank of things he’d like more over things he’d like less, the satisfaction of which serve to remove felt uneasiness. These scales don’t exist in any real sense and are simply a tool used to understand the concept of action, and they are revealed definitely only through concrete action. The values that things have are within the person of whom action is taken, they are not intrinsic to the things themselves. Economics concerns itself with what man DOES do, not what he should or ought to do, e.g., prices of “sinful” goods must be explained from the way men value them, not how an ethical system claims they should. Action can be thought of as an exchange, where a less satisfactory set of conditions is given up for a more satisfactory set of conditions. Costs are the value of the next best thing given up. Profits are the excess of gains over costs. Anytime costs exceed gains, loss is incurred.
Change and time are two aspects of the same phenomenon. Thinking takes time and is itself an action. Action is always aimed at altering the events of the future because the present moment is fleeting. The present is an ideal boundary line separating the past and the future. The past is designated as the place where opportunity to consume or do has passed. The future is designated as the place where the opportunity to do or consume has not yet taken place. The present is the place in which it is too early to do some things and too late to do others. The uncertain nature of the future means that we have a vague notion at any given moment of how much of our action we can consider “now” or present. Time must be economized like any other good due to the fundamental nature of reality. Actions are never synchronous, they always are in a relation to one another of being sooner or later. Man’s values and thus actions can change over time. There is a difference between logical consistency, and praxeological constancy. Irrationality does not apply.
“To acting man the future is hidden”, it is possible in a metaphysical sense that events are entirely deterministic but this is not the experience that man himself faces; he faces an experience of choice. In matters of uncertainty, acting man faces two kinds of probability, class probability and case probability. In class probability, the actor knows all qualities of the class itself, but knows nothing of the character of any specific event which might take place within that class. In case probability, he knows some of the factors guiding the outcome of a specific event but not all of them and the outcome itself is unique and not categorizable with other “class” events. The case is characterized by its uniqueness, not its similarities, to other identical events. Human action is based upon case probability, where no safety or stability can be purchased or achieved— all human action is inherently speculative with regards to the likelihood of a given action achieving the aimed at end. Case probability can not be quantified because it would require the summing of non-identical items. And game theory is an inappropriate means to study human action because human action in the division of labor aims at benefitting all participants, not just sum (i.e., zero sum game). Competition has been wrongly characterized as a form of combat when really competitors win their customers by achieving excellence and preeminence. All allusions to military terminology or characteristics is purely metaphorical. Because praxeology studies multi-causal events, its prediction is necessarily qualitative and reliant on “understanding” (verstehen), it can never be quantifiable or mathematical in nature and there can never be any certainty with regards to its outcome.
VII. Action Within The World
Utility is that which has causal relevance to removing felt uneasiness. Subjective use-value utility is different than objective (or technological) use-vale utility. Objective use-value may be obscured, incorrectly utilized or multiplicitous in comparison to subjective use-value. Acting man does not choose between total supplies of various goods serving as means— he chooses only between the relative, discrete amounts for his purposes against other ends he could pursue. And because he satisfies his most urgent wants before his less urgent wants, he values the means “at the margin”, meaning in consideration of the value of the least urgent want he’d have to give up. The law of diminishing marginal utility is implied in the category of action. It is futile to attempt to calculate composite values of total supply based off of knowledge of partial supplies— this is not how acting man utilizes discrete amounts of supply. Supply itself is characterized by a set of homogenous goods which could equally satisfy a given want. Technological recipes are not part of supply, once known they are inexhaustible and can be used as many times as is desired— however, the action leading to their discovery does involve scarcity and supply. The law of returns simply states that for any combination of real factors of production there is an optimum in relation to the productive end desired with regards to most efficiently utilizing scarce resources. It can only tell us that there is an optimum. It can not tell us how to arrive at it— this is something that must be achieved through experience (technological vs. teleological knowledge). The law of returns applies to all branches of production equally. The indivisibility of certain means of production is what gives rise to the fact that often large-scale production is more efficient and therefore optimum than small scale variants. Labor is the employment of human physiological capacities as a means of obtaining desired ends. Leisure is preferred to labor and labor itself suffers from the law of diminishing marginal utility. Additionally, not all labor is equal in quantity and quality within an individual or population. “Men do not economize labor in general, but the particular kinds of labor available.” The supply of labor available is conditioned upon genetics, social conditioning and innate human subjective preferences for labor vs. leisure. The potential supply of labor for each kind of work necessarily exceeds the demand in the long run because labor can be shifted and retrained to perform new tasks. Labor is always more scarce than the material factors of production (land, capital). The substitution of “labor saving” machinery for human labor does not render labor abundant so long as there are still more material productive factors available to combine with the freed up labor to pursue additional human well-being. Activities which provide immediate gratification are not labor nor work but consumption goods themselves, of the first order. Mises believes the creative genius is a special case which does not subscribe to the praxeological laws conditioning labor and is more equivalent to “manna from heaven” in that he toils under different conditions, for different reasons, and he can not be substituted, ordered/planned nor replaced. Production is not a creative act but one of rearrangement of already existent phenomena. Man is creative only in thinking, not rearranging the world according to his thoughts. Man’s capacity to work is a given much like the state of natural resources and animal substances. The material changes of man’s economy are due solely to the ideas he holds in his head about what is desirable. “Production is alteration of the given according to the designs of reason.”
by Ha-Joon Chang, published 2014
Who is Ha-Joon Chang?
Born in South Korea in 1963, Ha-Joon Chang is currently a professor of economics at the UK’s University of Cambridge. He gained his PhD after successfully completing a thesis on “industrial policy” under British Marxist Robert Rowthorn, which advocated a “middle way” between central planning and free markets.
In a section on his personal website entitled “Economists Who Have Influenced Me“, Ha-Joon Chang states,
Many people find it difficult to place me in the intellectual universe of economics. This is not surprising, given that I have been influenced by many different economists, from Karl Marx on the left to Friedrich von Hayek on the right.
Of Austrian economist FA Hayek, Chang further states,
Hayek is very different from the Neoclassical school, even though many Neoclassical economists mention him in the same breath as Milton Friedman, on the basis that he was one of the most influential advocates of the free market. Unlike Neoclassical economists, however, Hayek does not take the socio-political order underlying the market relationship as given and emphasizes the ultimately political nature of our economic life. This is a big contrast to the Neoclassical view, which thinks that economics and politics can be, and should be, separated. Indeed, if you read Hayek’s book, Individualism and Economic Order, you will see that he is very critical –sometimes even abusive – of Neoclassical economics.
And with regard to Marx, Ha-Joon Chang claims,
With the collapse of communism, people have come to dismiss Marx as an irrelevance, but this is wrong. I don’t have much time for Marx’s utopian vision of socialism nor his labour theory of value, but his understanding of capitalism was superior in many ways to those of the self-appointed advocates of capitalism. For example, when free-market economists were mostly against limited liability companies, Marx saw it as an institution that will take capitalism on to another plane (to take it eventually to socialism, in his mistaken view). In my view, 150 years after he wrote it, his analysis of the evolution of labour regulation in Britain in Capital vol. 1 still remains one of the best on the subject. Marx also understood the centrality of the interaction between technologies (or what he called the forces of production) and institutions (or what he called the relations of production), which other economic schools have only recently started to grapple with.
On the dreaded Keynes, Chang admits,
Despite having been educated and taught in Cambridge, I have not been very ‘Keynesian’ in my approach to economics. This is not because I disagree with Keynesian thinking, but because I have mainly done my research on ‘micro’ issues, such as trade and industrial policy. However, I have come to be drawn more into ‘macro’ issues in the process of thinking about the recent financial crises, especially the 1997 Asian crisis and the 2008 world crisis. In thinking about these issues, John Maynard Keynes, Hyman Minsky, and Charles Kindleberger have been big influences.
According to biographical information in his book “Bad Samaritans”, Chang grew up in relative poverty as the son of a South Korean finance minister. He has written a number of books on the subject of economics, specifically with regard to economic history, global economic development and global trade patterns. Henceforth in my book blogs I will refer to him as “HJC” to save myself time.
Because of HJC’s intellectual background, pre-eminent social and intellectual position and large and established bibliography of thought, his ideas are worth studying and critiquing as a representative of a popular strand of “economic” thinking supported across countries and institutions.
My purpose in this book blog is to apply my own understanding of economics (informed, to date, by a mainstream US college education in the subject as well as intense and ongoing self-study in a variety of alternative theories) to the methods and arguments provided by HJC in this introductory economic work of his and in so doing arrive at conclusions about the soundness of his thought. In particular, because HJC represents a strain of “new thinking within the mainstream” and my personal convictions lie with what is known as the “Austrian school”, I want to empathetically highlight the areas where the two schools are in agreement, as well as try to explain wherein the differences lie.
Let’s get started!
“Why Are People Not Very Interested In Economics?”
HJC wonders why economics is an unpopular subject:
95 per cent of economics is common sense – made to look difficult, with the use of jargons and mathematics.
This is actually a point the Austrians make– that good economics involves simple logical deductions within the grasp of any reasonably intelligent person and that the introduction of jargon and higher math is used to keep laypeople out and make the discipline unintelligible to the uninitiated. HJC says that economics doesn’t appear to be relevant to most people’s lives and that the issues that they believe economics deal with, such as international currency movements, government budgets and foreign aid debates, are not things people believe they can comment on or think about competently without economic training.
On the other hand, HJC laments the “megalomania” of many economists who would just as soon argue that economics is the most relevant intellectual discipline in that it seems to explain everything, and more. HJC critically cites the success of titles like “Freakonomics” and the humblebrag quality of many economic book titles that purport to show how economics is behind anything that can be imagined.
HJC sees a more limited role for economics in human thought, though still an important and useful one, which raises two specific issues: is economics a science and, to the extent it is, what is economics actually about?
Is economics a science?
HJC is pretty clear on the matter:
economics can never be a science in the sense that physics or chemistry is [because] human beings have their own free will, unlike chemical molecules or physical objects.
He also adds that,
people have been led to believe that, like physics or chemistry, economics is a ‘science’, in which there is only one correct answer to everything
Instead, HJC argues that
What is needed is to learn economics in such a way that one becomes aware of different types of economic arguments and develops the critical faculty to judge which argument makes most sense in a given economic circumstance and in light of which moral values and political goals (note that I am not saying ‘which argument is correct’).
Let’s consider these claims one by one.
The first claim, that economics can never be an (empirical) science like physics or chemistry is something that Austrians would again agree with. The Austrian view of the epistemology of economic science strictly prohibits the use of inductive logic derived from empirical observation and research. The reason for this is that in “hard” sciences like physics, the effect is known but the cause is unknown. Physics, as an example, is a study of effects in search of causes. Various factors deemed to be the significant causal agent dictating a particular result can be tried in a series of controlled experiments and then conclusions can be arrived at by the experimenter based on the manipulation of the variable factor and the observed changes in the experimental data.
Economics, by contrast, is a science whose causes are known (human action) but whose effects are often mysterious, because multiple causal factors can occur simultaneously in the lead up to an observed result. For example, the price of two pounds of chuck roast at the supermarket involves a negotiation between a group of suppliers of chuck roast and a group of buyers of chuck roast and these suppliers and buyers are unique and uniquely motivated at a given time and location. The method of the economic sciences, then, must be the “gedanken experiment” (thought experiment) in which a conceptual reality is held in mind and the logical implications of changes in one factor at a time are deductively explored. This is impossible when studying human action, that is, economic activity, because it is never that one thing only changes and it is never guaranteed that the same reaction will occur by the people observed because of the nature of free will.
It is in fact curious that HJC makes this specific point because later on he seems to contradict himself when he says,
we need to look at history because we have the moral duty to avoid ‘live experiments’ with people as much as possible.
The questionable moral claim of having a duty to avoid human experimentation in economic matters “as much as possible” aside, this quote suggests that HJC believes economic theory can be derived from historical (experimental, empirical) data and observations despite earlier claims to the contrary. This is one of many confusions and muddled writing/thinking that the book suffers from. It also begs the question, well-known to Austrians, of what interpretations of the significance of various historical data could tell us on their own without any kind of intermediating and pre-selected theory applied to them.
History, as a discipline, is a process of careful selection of particular facts for a particular purpose. The past provides us with a nearly infinite quantity and quality of data to choose from. It is the task of the historian to pick from this quantity only the data that is relevant to examining a particular historical question. To do this, the historian must already be versed in valid theories from the applicable branches of science to which his question belongs. For example, a historian studying the incidence, severity and consequences of disease would need to understand human biology and epidemiology. Or a historian studying the history of money in France circa 1750-1850 would need to already understand monetary theory (a branch of economics) as well as other theoretical knowledge pertaining to the historical episode (for example, a theory of the State in general and a theory of post-Medieval French statism in particular).
We can not validate an economic theory by looking at the historical record. All we’d manage to do is to assume that which we’re trying to prove and thereby fool ourselves.
This gets us to the second claim. To reiterate, while it is true that economics is not a science “like” physics or chemistry (pertaining to the necessary differences in methodology), it is NOT true that economics is not a science in that it offers one right answer to a given question. If economics can not offer objective truths about universal causal relationships, then it would not be a science, it would be a canon of opinion and not worth studying any more than studying people’s opinions on the superiority of vanilla versus chocolate ice cream is worth studying. It would not be productive to write books about economics, it would be pointless to try to explain economics to other people and ultimately, any arguments or claims about one economic phenomenon or another would be arbitrary. This would be the position of philosophical nihilism in the realm of economics.
It’s hard to believe that this is what HJC personally believes or is advocating because it would then make most of the rest of what he has to say about economics empty of content and meaning. It would also make puzzling comments such as “95% of economics is common sense” as nihilism in any realm is typically not the common sense position, not to mention that the concept of “making sense” implies rationalizeable facts about reality. Yet, this is what this man, who is an economics PhD and responsible for instructing others in the philosophy, claims is the “state of the art.”
And thus we arrive at the third claim about economics which is almost the most puzzling of all. We’re admittedly early on in the book so I hope HJC is going to spend some time explaining the meta-epistemology of how one can know which circumstances call for the application of which economic arguments but it is already seeming like a muddled concept because we’ve rejected the idea that we can look at history as a source of theory about economics, and we’ve rejected the idea that economics is devoid of any content and meaning whatsoever and thus “non-scientific.” This would only leave one alternative to mind, that of logical deduction from axiomatic assumptions to arrive at conclusions which must be true.
It’s worth noting at this time that the Austrian school provides a special comment to this concept that economic arguments must be chosen and applied based on a specific moral or value-based perspective. The Austrians argue that to be scientific (“objective”), economics must be wertfrei, or value-free. That is, the knowledge of economics is not dependent upon the economist’s class, creed, race, nationality, personal preferences or other personal identifications. It is dependent upon logic which universally belongs to all mature human beings and is necessarily embedded in the biological structure of the mind.
Economics is not a tool for furthering a particular interest group’s agenda. It describes causal relationships between specific phenomena, ie, “If X, then Y” and it comments on whether specific ends aimed at can be achieved with specific means employed– NOT whether the ends aimed at are “good”, “right”, “holy”, “moral”, “desirable”, “valuable,” etc. For example, economics can help us understand the consequences of certain actions undertaken by human beings, but it can not tell us if those consequences are good, bad, etc. It simply tells us, “If you do this action, it will lead to this consequence, all else equal.”
I think this is a very different position than the one taken by HJC in the text and I look forward to exploring this idea and its implications in contrast to HJC’s claims further on as it seems inevitable he’s going to have to come back and explain this more eventually.
So what is economics?
From HJC’s comments so far, it’s unclear if he believes economics is a science. But because the book doesn’t end here, we’ll operate from the assumption for now that he believes it is a science. The question then becomes, what is the proper scope of economics as a science?
Here HJC levels his criticism mostly at popular, mainstream and “neoliberal” economists following what is termed neoclassical economics. Citing a contemporary (and former critic) of Keynes, Lionel Robbins, HJC says,
Robbins defined economics as ‘the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses’
He claims that most economists
define their subject in terms of its theoretical approach, rather than its subject matter
based off of Robbins’ logic. In other words, economics is a study of “rational choice” and focuses on the calculations entertained by people choosing between specific means to achieve specific goals in a variety of circumstances (choosing a spouse, choosing what to eat, choosing where to work, choosing what to invest in).
In contrast, HJC offers his definition of economics:
My belief is that economics should be defined not in terms of its methodology, or theoretical approach, but in terms of its subject matter, as is the case with all other disciplines. The subject matter of economics should be the economy – which involves money, work, technology, international trade, taxes and other things that have to do with the ways in which we produce goods and services, distribute the incomes generated in the process and consume the things thus produced – rather than ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’ (or ‘almost everything’), as many economists think.
In other words,
what we want from economics is the best possible explanation of various economic phenomena
It’s hard to argue with the idea that economics should be defined by its subject matter like any other science. Of course, the preceding paragraphs in the book up to this point are a litany of potential subject matter according to HJC versus those he criticizes in the neoclassical mainstream, which seems to beg the question.
And HJC even makes a point about subject matter that Austrians would sympathize with, namely that
The economics profession, and the rest of us whose views of the economy are informed by it, need to pay far more attention to production than currently [because] production is the ultimate foundation of any economy
This is a criticism leveled by Austrians at Keynesians with regards to macroeconomics, namely that there is an undue focus on consumption patterns and an incorrect emphasis on consumption (“aggregate demand”) as the driving energy of an economy without study or consideration of the productive activity necessary to enable it.
As a matter of comparison, it’s worth considering the thoughts of Austrian economics patriarch Ludwig von Mises on the questions of whether economics is a science and, if so, how to define it. The following passages are from Mises’ 1949 “Human Action“:
Economics is the youngest of all sciences. In the last two hundred years, it is true, many new sciences have emerged from the disciplines familiar to the ancient Greeks. However, what happened here was merely that parts of knowledge which had already found their place in the complex of the old system of learning now became autonomous. The field of study was more nicely subdivided and treated with new methods; hitherto unnoticed provinces were discovered in it, and people began to see things from aspects different from those of their precursors. The field itself was not expanded. But economics opened to human science a domain previously inaccessible and never thought of. The discovery of a regularity in the sequence and interdependence of market phenomena went beyond the limits of the traditional system of learning. It conveyed knowledge which could be regarded neither as logic, mathematics, psychology, physics, nor biology.
Thoughts so far– economics is a science, it is the youngest of sciences, it revealed new knowledge about observed market phenomena and this knowledge was separate and distinct from existing sciences (that is, economics is not a branch of a then-existing science, such as psychology). Mises continues,
Philosophers had long since been eager to ascertain the ends which God or Nature was trying to realize in the course of human history. They searched for the law of mankind’s destiny and evolution. But even those thinkers whose inquiry was free from any theological tendency failed utterly in these endeavors because they were committed to a faulty method. They dealt with humanity as a whole or with other holistic concepts like nation, race, or church. They set up quite arbitrarily the ends to which the behavior of such wholes is bound to lead. But they could not satisfactorily answer the question regarding what factors compelled the various acting individuals to behave in such a way that the goal aimed at by the whole’s inexorable evolution was attained.
Whether or not we define economics by its methodology, it is clear that in Mises’ mind, the discovery of a valid method for economics was one of the critical pillars of its emergence as a science. Prior observers witnessed mass phenomena, but had no method for explaining how component behavior led to the mass phenomena. Again, Mises continues,
Other philosophers were more realistic. They did not try to guess the designs of Nature or God. They looked at human things from the viewpoint of government. They were intent upon establishing rules of political action, a technique, as it were, of government and statesmanship. Speculative minds drew ambitious plans for a thorough reform and reconstruction of society. The more modest were satisfied with a collection and systematization of the data of historical experience. But all were fully convinced that there was in the course of social events no such regularity and invariance of phenomena as had already been found in the operation of human reasoning and in the sequence of natural phenomena. They did not search for the laws of social cooperation because they thought that man could organize society as he pleased.
If there are no “regularities in the sequence and interdependence of market phenomena”, that is, no universal scientific laws of cause and effect, then any social schemer’s vision for reforming society should be possible. The only thing that could get in the way of such a scheme would be purposeful obstruction or moral flaws in the individuals in society with whom the scheme is concerned. Instead, says Mises,
The discovery of the inescapable interdependence of market phenomena overthrew this opinion. Bewildered, people had to face a new view of society. They learned with stupefaction that there is another aspect from which human action might be viewed than that of good and bad, of fair and unfair, of just and unjust. In the course of social events there prevails a regularity of phenomena to which man must adjust his actions if he wishes to succeed. It is futile to approach social facts with the attitude of a censor who approves or disapproves from the point of view of quite arbitrary standards and subjective judgments of value. One must study the laws of human action and social cooperation as the physicist studies the laws of nature. Human action and social cooperation seen as the object of a science of given relations, no longer as a normative discipline of things that ought to be–this was a revolution of tremendous consequences for knowledge and philosophy as well as for social action.
Now we’re getting into the juicy part of the epistemological differences of the Austrians and an economist like HJC. First, Mises is describing the history of philosophy here. He is talking about the historical emergence of economics as a scientific discipline a couple hundred years ago (writing in 1949, he would be relating events that took place from approximately 1749 onward, and he is purposefully glossing over the proto-economic thought of groups like the Spanish scholastics as well as various contributions made by those in the Eastern philosophical traditions) and the impact on social thought and social events that followed. Consider, for example, HJC’s reference to Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations”, which put forth one of the first serious philosophical challenges to the then predominant “mercantilist” thought of contemporary political economy, a “technique of government and statesmanship” as Mises termed it.
Second, consider how radical this emergence was then, and how radical it is in the face of what HJC is saying now. As we will see very shortly, HJC provides a revisionist “history of capitalism” and spends most of his effort trying to make the claim that much or most of what is historically appreciated as the capitalist industrial development of the Western world did not occur via free markets and free trade, but rather through a series of calculated tariff and other regulatory structures, “techniques of government and statesmanship.” The Misesian/Austrian argument, then, is not that Western capitalism was developed through state intervention but that the remarkable economic development of the West took place in spite of these “techniques of government and statesmanship” which were implemented in ignorance or disregard for the existence of “regularities in the sequence and interdependence of market phenomena”.
Finally, then, note that Mises is directly supporting the claim that economics is a science with discoverable, constant laws of cause and effect (like physics) and therefore “one truth” in answer to a given question, but that the methodology of economics is not based on empirical experimentation (unlike physics) and that it was the radical departure from “ought” and the new focus on “is” that allowed economics to emerge as an objective and true science. This is somewhere close to the polar opposite claim HJC is making when he argues that economics involves learning to figure out which of many competing intellectual school’s claims should be applied as an explanation to a given set of observed economic phenomena based on their pre-existing moral or value systems (“oughts”).
And Mises does HJC one better:
For a long time men failed to realize that the transition from the classical theory of value to the subjective theory of value was much more than the substitution of a more satisfactory theory of market exchange for a less satisfactory one. The general theory of choice and preference goes far beyond the horizon which encompassed the scope of economic problems as circumscribed by the economists from Cantillon, Hume, and Adam Smith down to John Stuart Mill. It is much more than merely a theory of the “economic side” of human endeavors and of man’s striving for commodities and an improvement in his material well-being. It is the science of every kind of human action. Choosing determines all human decisions. In making his choice man chooses not only between various material things and services. All human values are offered for option. All ends and all means, both material and ideal issues, the sublime and the base, the noble and the ignoble, are ranged in a single row and subjected to a decision which picks out one thing and sets aside another. Nothing that men aim at or want to avoid remains outside of this arrangement into a unique scale of gradation and preference. The modern theory of value widens the scientific horizon and enlarges the field of economic studies. Out of the political economy of the classical school emerges the general theory of human action,praxeology. The economic or catallactic problems are embedded in a more general science, and can no longer be severed from this connection. No treatment of economic problems proper can avoid starting from acts of choice; economics becomes a part, although the hitherto best elaborated part, of a more universal science, praxeology.
Now this is powerful stuff and, based on HJC’s lampooning earlier in the chapter of “Economics: A User’s Guide”, the author would likely find this perspective quite challenging at first. As HJC laments, economists seem to think that economics explains “life, the universe and everything.” To this point, Mises replies, “No, economics does not explain this– but praxeology comes close.”
Now is probably a good time to refer to my notes from “Lecture 1” of the 2014 Rothbard Graduate Seminar. For Austrians, praxeology is the broader science studying all human choice (“rational choice” from earlier?), of which economics is a dependent part and probably best developed. Political economy would also be a branch of praxeology, or as Austrians refer to it, the theory of violent intervention in the market (although it’s questionable whether war is a subset of praxeology, or of violent intervention in the market). And within economics, the area best developed and most relevant for the purposes of most people on planet earth, yesterday, today and tomorrow (sorry, Zeitgeisters/Singularityists/Post-Scarcity Societyists) is the branch of economics known as catallactics, or the theory of exchange and especially money exchange.
In future book blogs, these particular issues of methodology and epistemology will undoubtedly be returned to as they form the core disagreement between most economic schools of thought, including HJC, neoclassicalism and the Austrian school. In the next installment, we’ll move on to HJC’s revisionist treatment of the “history of capitalism.”