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Mises and Rand (and Rothbard)

February 4, 2005

[Update: see more extensive material in my personal post of the same title here.]

In a recent thread, a commentator (Feirman) wrote: "Rand herself didn't agree with everything Mises wrote, such as his a priori methodology, subjectivism and utilitarianism, and I am sure that other Randians pick bones with other of his ideas as well. But this doesn't amount to not endorsing von Mises, even by contemporary Randians."

I have long thought this is in part because Rand and/or some Objectivists misundestand Mises. His subjectivism is not subjectivism in her sense--the idea that everything is relative and non-knowable. Rather he just means that a value is a value of a person, and that they are ordinal, not cardinal, not interpersonally comparable, and only demonstrated through action. This is actually similar to Rand's concept of value--something that mans ACTS to gain and/or keep--rand even said somehwere she added "acts" because if you say you value achieving something your whole life and never do anything about it, in what sense can you be said to value it? This is the same insight underlying Mises' "subjectivism" and value theory. Even Randians' confusing belief that values are "objective" does not really seem to deny the idea that in fact, individuals are the ones who *do the valuing*.

Also--Rand used "rational" to mean something broader than Mises' usage; to him, all action is rational, as it employs means to achieve chosen ends. To Rand, only some actions are "rational", because to her the term meant something like, "action aimed at achieving happiness, peace, prosperity". I think Mises would have agreed that from a policy perspective, "rational" action is cooperative action in a free marekt, something like this; he was not claiming that every action, even wicked or socialist or criminal action, is "rational" in the sense that it is aimed at "good" things.

As for apriori theory: Mises was a realist as Hoppe has argued. He certainly was not an idealist of the caricature Rand paints of Kant. His main point was we can know certain "apriori truths" for certain because to deny them is to contradict oneself. Rand validates her "axioms" in the same way--by showing that their denial is self-contradictory. This is again, the same.

Finally, Mises' utilitarianism was basically the idea that institutions that maximize human wealth, prosperity, and happiness are good; and as an economist he realized that the institution that does this is property rights/capitalism. Rand's ethics is somewhat vague, but I believe it is in essence consequentialist. Mises says IF you want to foster human life, progress, peace, productive, THEN you need the free market. Rand said, IF you choose to live, THEN you have to recognize that rationality is valuable as a means of living, peace, prosperity, harmony, cooperation among men is also valuable, and therefore the free market is valuable. In both Rand's and Mises' case, the value of the free market is hypothetical: it rests on someone already choosing some value that it rests on--in Rand's case, the choice to live, and its implication of the value of peace and cooperation and prosperity; in Mises' case, he directly assumed the value of peace and cooperation and prosperity (but I don't think he would disagree that the choice to live is extra-moral; but once one has decided to live as man, it has implications).

One wonders how much Mises really influenced Rand, perhaps without her knowing it. And perhaps, this helps explain Randians' accusations that Rothbard "stole" from Rand without attribution (and there are many amazing similarities in arguments and ideas between Rothbard and Rand)--it could be that both were heavily influenced by Mises, and really learned from Mises; but being Aristoteleans, Rand and Rothbard expressed these ideas and arguments in a somewhat different language--axioms instead of apriori truths, etc.

Just a thought.

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