AERC 2024

Ayn Rand and the Austrian Economists

Edward Wayne Younkins

Henry Hazlitt Memorial Lecture. Sponsored by Shone and Brae Sadler.

Recorded at the Austrian Economics Research Conference, 22 March 2024, in Auburn, Alabama. Includes an introduction by Joseph T. Salerno.

Lecture Text: 

Thank you, Joseph, for your kind introduction and thank you, Shone and Brae Sadler, for your generous sponsorship in making this event possible. It is a pleasure and personal honor to be invited to deliver this Henry Hazlitt Memorial Lecture titled “Ayn Rand and the Austrian Economists” at the Mises Institute’s Austrian Economics Research Conference.

Henry Hazlitt is one of my favorite writers on economics and ethics. His thoughtful, incisive, and influential writings are marked by his clarity of style and logical analysis. Both Henry Hazlitt and Ayn Rand could really write. Hazlitt’s non-fiction books, Economics in One Lesson and Foundations of Morality, along with his novel, Time Will Run Back, complement Ayn Rand’s ideas in her books such as The Virtue of Selfishness, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, and Atlas Shrugged. In their philosophical, political, and economic views, Hazlitt and Rand largely agree, as they make the same points in different ways with respect to the virtue of the free market as the path to prosperity and happiness. Also, they were friends in their personal lives. In addition, Henry Hazlitt and I had a great friend in common in the late, well-respected and greatly-loved Austrian economist, Bill Peterson.

I am excited to be here to give this talk on Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray Rothbard and how their ideas may be complementary to the essential ideas of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. Perhaps I will be able to provide some new insights to you. We’ll see!

Like my recently deceased friend, Sam Bostaph, I have great admiration for the ideas of Carl Menger. I will begin by discussing some of Menger’s key ideas and comparing them with those of Ayn Rand. I will then repeat this process with the fundamental ideas of Mises and Rothbard. I will conclude with an overall assessment with respect to the potential compatibility of Austrian economics and Objectivism.

Carl Menger (1840-1921) began the modern period of economic thought and provided the foundation for the Austrian School of Economics in his two books, Principles of Economics (1871) and Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences with Special Reference to Economics (1883). In these books Menger destroyed the existing structure of economic science, including its theory and methodology, and put it on totally new foundations.

Menger was a realist who said that we could know the world through both common sense and scientific method. Menger was committed to finding exact laws of economics based on the direct analysis of concrete phenomena that can be observed and characterized with precision. He sought to find the necessary characteristics of economic phenomena and their relationships. He also heralded the advantages of verbal language over mathematical language in that the former can express the essences of economic phenomena, which is something that mathematical language cannot do.

Menger viewed exchange as the embodiment of the essential desire and search to satisfy individual human needs. It follows that the intersection between human needs and the availability of goods capable of satisfying those needs is at the root of economic activity. Emphasizing human uncertainty, error, and the time-consuming nature of economic processes, Menger was concerned with the information content of economic choices and the process of acquiring information in order to increase the well-being of economic actors.

As this talk will demonstrate, Carl Menger’s writings are the closest to Randian doctrines that have ever emanated from any economist. It will follow that we should read and reread his great books and share them with our friends and students.

Aristotelian philosophy was at the root of Menger’s framework. His biologistic language goes well with his Aristotelian foundations in his philosophy of science and economics. Menger illustrated how Aristotelian induction could be used in economics and he based his epistemology on Aristotelian induction. Menger’s Aristotelian inclinations can be observed in his desire to uncover the essence of economic phenomena. He viewed the constituent elements of economic phenomena as immanently ordered and emphasized the primacy of exactitude and universality as preferable epistemological characteristics of theory.

Menger’s desire was to uncover the real nature or essence of economic phenomena. As an immanent realist, he was interested in essences and laws as manifested in the world. His general and abstract economic theory attempted to unify all true fragments of economic knowledge.

Holding that causality underpins economic laws, Menger taught that theoretical science provides the tools for studying phenomena that exhibit regularities. He distinguished between exact types and laws that deal with strictly typical phenomena and empirical-realistic types and laws that deal with truth within a particular spatio-temporal domain. Empirical laws are found by observation and exact laws are found by conceptualization. Menger’s exact approach involves deductive-universalistic theory that looks for regularities in the coexistence and succession of phenomena that admits no exceptions and that are strictly ordered. His theoretical economics is concerned with exact laws based on the assumptions of self-interest, full-knowledge, and freedom. Menger’s exact theoretical approach involves both isolation and abstraction from disturbing factors.

Menger developed a number of fundamental Austrian doctrines such as the causal-genetic approach, methodological individualism, and the connection between time and error. He incorporated purposeful action, uncertainty, the occurrence of errors, the information acquisition process, learning, and time into his economic analysis. As an Aristotelian essentialist and immanent realist, he considered a priori essences as existing in reality. His goal was to discover invariant principles or laws governing economic phenomena and to elaborate exact universal laws. To find strictly ordered exact laws he said that we had to omit principles of individuation such as time and space. This entails isolation of the economic aspect of phenomena and abstraction from disturbing factors such as error, ignorance, and external compulsion. Menger thus argued for an exact orientation of theoretical research whose validity is totally independent of any empirical tests.

Both Aristotle and Menger viewed essences, universals, or concepts as metaphysical and had no compelling explanations of the method to be employed in order to abstract the essence from the particulars in which it is indivisibly wedded. For Rand, essences are epistemological and contextual, rather than metaphysical. For her, concepts are the products of a cognitive method whose processes are performed by a human being but whose content is determined by reality.

Menger’s theory of needs and wants is the link between the natural sciences (particularly biology) and the human sciences. He established this link by describing the final cause of human economic enterprise as an aspect of human nature biologically understood. He analyzed economic activity based on a theory of human action. His theory emphasized individual perception, valuation, deliberation, choice, and action.

The foundation of Menger’s value theory is a theory of human action that involves a theory of knowledge. He believed that men can understand the workings of the economy. Menger’s goal was to establish economic theory on a solid foundation by grounding it on a sound value theory. To do this, he consistently incorporated his methodological individualism into his theory of value.

Menger understood that values can be subjective (i.e., personally estimated), but that men should rationally seek objective life-affirming values. He explained that real wants correspond with the objective state of affairs. Menger distinguished between real and imaginary wants and goods depending upon whether or not a person correctly understands a good’s objective ability to satisfy a want. Individuals can be wrong about their judgment of value. Menger’s emphasis on objective values is consistent with philosophical realism and with a correspondence theory of truth.

Menger does trace market exchange back to a man’s personal valuations of various economic goods and observes that scales of value are variable from person to person and are subject to change over time. There are certainly “subjectivist” features in Menger’s economic analysis that are founded on his methodological individualism which implies that people differ and have a variety of goals, purposes, and tastes. Personal evaluation is therefore inherent in a principled and consistent understanding of methodological individualism.

As a supreme advocate of individualist methodology, Menger recognized the primacy of active individual agents who generate all of the phenomena of the social sciences. His methodological individualism is a doctrine that reflects the real structure of society and economy and the centrality of the human agent.

Menger’s theory of value essentially states that life is the ultimate standard of value. According to Menger, human life is a process in which a person, given his needs and the command of the means to satisfy them, is himself the specific point where human economic life both originates and ends. Menger thus introduced life, value, individual preferences that motivate people, and individual choices into economics. He thus essentially agreed on the same standard of life as the much later Ayn Rand. Value is a contextual judgment made by economizing men. Value is related to the existential state of the individual and the ability of the good in question to change that state in a manner desired by the person.

Although Menger speaks of economic value while Rand is concerned with moral value, their ideas are much the same. Both view human life as the ultimate value. The difference is that Menger was concerned with economic values that satisfy a man’s needs for food, shelter, healthcare, wealth, production, and so forth. From Rand’s perspective, every human value (including economic value) is potentially a moral value that may be important to the ethical standard of a man’s life qua man. Their shared biocentric concept of value holds that objective values support a man’s life and originate in a relationship between a man and his survival requirements.

Both Rand and Menger espouse a kind of contextually-relational objectivism in their theories of value. Value is seen as a relational quality dependent on the subject, the object, and the context or situation involved.

Not many Objectivists, or others for that matter, know much about Menger’s Austrian Aristotelianism and his commonsense and scientific realism. This is unfortunate. His writings have the potential to provide essential building blocks for a realist construction of economics. Ultimately, they may provide the vehicle for the harmonization and integration of Austrian economics with Objectivism.

As we know, the preeminent theory within Austrian economics is the Misesian subjectivist school. Mises maintained that it is by means of its subjectivism that praxeological economics develops into objective science. The praxeologist takes individual values as given and assumes that individuals have different motivations and prefer different things. The same economic phenomena mean different things to different people. In fact, buying and selling take place because people value things differently. The importance of goods is derived from the importance of the values they are intended to achieve. When a person values an object, this simply means that he imputes enough importance to it to be willing to start a chain of causation to change or maintain it, thus making it a thing of value. Misesian economics does not study what is in an object, as does the natural scientist, but rather, studies what is in the subject.

Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973), the Austrian philosophical economist, is one of our most passionate, consistent, and intransigent defenders of capitalism. Mises defends the free society and private ownership on the grounds that they are desirable from the perspective of human happiness, freedom, peace, and productivity. He constructed a monumental, overarching, systematic, and comprehensive conceptual framework that elucidated the timeless, immutable laws that guide human behavior. Mises integrated his profound theories of methodology, economics, political science, history, and the social sciences in his 1949 magnum opus, Human Action.

There is an important dissemblance within Austrian value theory between Menger and Mises. However, it is possible for Menger’s more objective-value-oriented theory to coexist and complement Mises’s pure subjectivism which is based on the inscrutability of individual values and preferences. Although Menger agrees with Mises that an individual’s chosen values are personal and, therefore subjective and unknowable to the economist, he also contended that a person ought to be rationally pursuing his objective life-affirming values. Menger thus can be viewed as a key link-pin figure between Misesian praxeology and Objectivist ethics.

According to Mises, economics is a value-free science of means, rather than of ends, that describes but does not prescribe. However, although the world of praxeological economics, as a science, may be value-free the human world is not value-free. Economics is the science of human action and human actions are inextricably connected with values and ethics. It follows that praxeological economics needs to be situated within the context of a normative framework. Praxeological economics does not conflict with a normative perspective on human life. Economics needs to be connected with a discipline that is concerned with ends such as the end of human flourishing. Praxeological economics can stay value-free if it is recognized that it is morally proper for people to take part in market and other voluntary transactions. Such a value-free science must be combined with an appropriate end.

Economics, for Mises, is a value-free tool for objective and critical appraisal. Economic science differentiates between the objective, interpersonally valid conclusions of economic praxeology and the personal value judgments of the economist. Critical appraisal can be objective, value-free, and untainted by bias. It is important for economic science to be value-free and not to be distorted by the value judgments or personal preferences of the economist. The credibility of economic science depends upon an impartial and dispassionate concern for truth. Value-freedom is a methodological device designed to separate and isolate an economist’s scientific work from the personal preferences of the given economic researcher. His goal is to maintain neutrality and objectivity with respect to the subjective values of others.

Misesian economics focuses on the descriptive aspects of human action by offering reasoning about means and ends. The province of praxeological economics is the logical analysis of the success or failure of selected means to attain chosen ends. Means only have value because, and to the degree that, their ends are valued.

The reasons why an individual values what he values and the determination of whether or not his choices and actions are morally good or bad are certainly significant concerns but they are not in the realm of the praxeological economist. The content of moral or ultimate ends is not the domain of the economist qua economist. There is another level of values that value in terms of right preferences. This more objectivist sphere of value defines value in terms of what an individual ought to value.

Mises grounds economics upon the action axiom which is the fundamental and universal truth that individual men exist and act by making purposive choices among alternatives. Upon this axiom, Mises deduces the entire systematic structure of economic theory. Mises’s advocacy of free markets and his opposition to statism stem from his analysis of the nature and consequences of freely acting individuals compared to the nature of government and the consequences brought about by government intervention.

For Mises, economic behavior is a special case of human action. He contends that it is through the analysis of the idea of action that the principles of economics can be deduced. Economic theorems are seen as connected to the foundation of real human purposes. Economics is based on true and evident axioms, arrived at by introspection into the essence of human action. From these axioms, Mises derives the logical implications or truths of economics.

Through the use of abstract economic theorizing, Mises recognizes the nature and operation of human purposefulness and entrepreneurial resourcefulness and identifies the systematic tendencies which influence the market process. Mises’s insight was that economic reasoning has its basis in the understanding of the action axiom. He says that sound deductions from a priori axioms are apodictically true and cannot be empirically tested. Mises developed, through deductive reasoning, the chains of economic theory based on introspective understanding of what it means to be a rational, purposeful, and acting human being. The method of economics is deductive and its starting point is the concept of action.

According to Mises, all of the categories, theorems, or laws of economics are implied in the action axiom. These include, but are not limited to: subjective value, causality, ends, means, preference, cost, profit and loss, opportunities, scarcity, marginal utility, marginal costs, opportunity cost, time preference, originary interest, association, and so on.

As an adherent of Kantian epistemology, Mises states that the concept of action is a priori to all experience. Thinking is a mental action. For Mises, a priori means independent of any particular time or place. Denying the possibility of arriving at laws via induction, Mises argues that evidence for the a priori is based on reflective universal inner experience.

However, Misesian praxeology could operate within a Randian philosophical structure. The concept of action could be formally and inductively derived from perceptual data. Actions would be seen as performed by entities who act in accordance with their nature. Man’s distinctive mode of action involves rationality and free will. Men are thus rational beings with free wills who have the ability to form their own purposes and aims. Human action also assumes an uncoerced human will and limited knowledge. All of the above can be seen as consistent with Misesian praxeology. Once we arrive at the concept of human action, Mises’s deductive logical derivations can come into play.

Knowledge gained from praxeological economics is both value-free (i.e., value-neutral) and value relevant. Value-free knowledge supplied by economic science is value-relevant when it supplies information for rational discussions, deliberations, and determinations of the morally good. Economics is reconnected with philosophy, especially the branches of metaphysics and ethics, when the discussion is shifted to another sphere. It is fair to say that economic science exists because men have concluded that the objective knowledge provided by praxeological economics is valuable for the pursuit of both a person’s subjective and ultimate ends.

Advocating the idea of “man’s survival qua man” or of a good or flourishing life involves value judgments. To make value judgments, one must accept the existence of a comprehensive natural order and the existence of fundamental absolute principles in the universe. This acceptance in no way conflicts with the Misesian concept of subjective economic value. Natural laws ae discovered, are not arbitrary relationships, but instead are relationships that are already true. A man’s human nature, including his attributes of individuality, reason, and free will, is the ultimate source of moral reasoning. Value is meaningless outside the context of man.

Praxeological economics and the philosophy of human flourishing are complementary and compatible disciplines. Economics teaches us that social cooperation through the private property system and division of labor enables most individuals to prosper and to pursue their flourishing and happiness. In turn, the worldview of human flourishing informs men how to act. In making their life-affirming ethical and value-based judgments, men can refer to and employ the data of economic science.

Mises and Rand were passionate critics of collectivism. Whereas Mises criticized the economic and political functioning of collectivism, Rand attacked the morality of collectivism. They agree that collectivism in the form of people, races, or nations does not exist independently from the individuals who comprise them. In addition, they both dismissed positivism’s rejection of the human mind as real and as the tool of knowledge about the world, man, and his actions. They also believed that free-market capitalism is the best possible arrangement for society. Their promotion of rationality, free choice, and subjective (i.e., personally estimated) and objective values (in their respective contexts) make their worldviews compatible. Mises’s arguments for capitalism in terms of its utility can be interpreted to be in harmony with Rand’s criterion of man’s life as the standard of value. There is a great deal in Mises’s science of human action that is consistent with Objectivist principles. As stated by Walter Block, on the majority of issues Rand and Mises “are as alike as two peas in a pod”.

Murray Rothbard (1926-1995) was a grand system builder. In his monumental Man, Economy, and State (1962), Rothbard continued, embodied, and extended Mises’s methodological approach of praxeology to economics. His magnum opus was modeled after Mises’s Human Action and, for the most part, was a massive restatement, defense, and development of the Misesian praxeological tradition. Rothbard followed up and complemented Man, Economy, and State with his brilliant The Ethics of Liberty (1982) in which he provided the foundation for his metanormative ethical theory. Exhibiting an architectonic character, these two works form an integrated system of philosophical economics.

In a 1971 article in Modern Age Rothbard declares that Mises’s work provides us with an economic paradigm grounded in the nature of man and in individual choice. He explains that Mises’s paradigm furnishes economics in a systematic, integrated form that can serve as a correct alternative to the crisis situation that modern economics has engendered. According to Rothbard, it is time for us to adopt this paradigm in all of its facets.

Rothbard defended Mises’s methodology, but went on to construct his own edifice of Austrian economic theory. Although he embraced nearly all of Mises’s economics, Rothbard could not accept Mises’s Kantian extreme aprioristic position in epistemology. Mises held that the axiom of human action was true a priori to human experience and was, in fact, a synthetic a priori category. Mises considered the action axiom to be a law of thought and thus a categorical truth prior to all human experience.

Rothbard agreed that the action axiom is universally true and self-evident, but argued that a person becomes aware of that axiom and its subsidiary axioms through experience in the world. A person begins with concrete human experience and then moves toward reflection. Once a person forms the basic axioms and concepts from his experiences and from his reflections upon those experiences, he does not need to resort to external experience to validate an economic hypothesis. Instead, deductive reasoning from sound basics will validate it.

In a 1957 article in the Southern Economic Journal, Rothbard states that it is a waste of time to argue or try to determine how the truth of the action axiom is obtained. He explains that the all-important fact is that the axiom is self-evidently true for all people, at all places, at all times, and that it could not even conceivably be violated. Whether it was a law of thought as Mises maintained, or a law of reality as Rothbard himself contended, the axiom would be no less certain because the axiom need only be stated to become at once self-evident.

Both Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand were concerned with the nature of man and the world, natural law, natural rights, and a rational ethics based on man’s nature and discovered through reason. They also agreed that the purpose of political philosophy and ethics is the promotion of productive human life on earth. In addition, both adopted, to a great extent, Lockean natural rights perspectives and arguments that legitimize private property. Additionally, they both disagreed with Mises’s epistemological foundations, and on similar grounds.

Both Rothbard and Rand endeavored to determine the proper rules for a rational society by using reason to examine the nature of human life and the world by employing logical deductions to ascertain what these natures suggest. They agreed with respect to the volitional nature of rational human consciousness, a man’s innate right of self-ownership, and the metanormative necessity of noncoercive mutual consent. Both thus subscribed to the nonaggression principle and to the right of self-defense.

Rothbard and Rand did not agree, however, on the nature of (or need for) government. They disagreed with respect to the practical applications of their similar philosophies. Rejecting Rand’s idea of a constitutionally-limited representative government, Rothbard believed that their shared doctrines entailed a zero-government or anarcho-capitalist framework based on voluntarism, free exchange, and peace.

Rothbard and Rand subscribed to different forms of metanormative libertarian politics—Rothbard to anarcho-capitalism and Rand to a minimal state. Unlike Rand, Rothbard ended his ethics at the metanormative level. Rand, on the other hand, advocated a minimal state form of libertarian politics based on the fuller foundation of Objectivism through which she attempted to supply an objective basis for values and virtues in human existence. Of course, Rothbard did discuss the separate importance of a rational personal morality, stated that he agreed essentially with most of Rand’s philosophy, and suggested his inclination toward a Randian ethical framework. The writings of Rothbard, much like those of Menger, have done a great deal toward building a bridge between Austrian economics and Objectivism.

Although Misesian economists hold that values are subjective, and Objectivists argue that values are objective, these claims are not incompatible because they are not really claims about the same things. They exist at different levels or spheres of analysis. The methodological value-subjectivity of the Austrians complements the Randian sense of value objectivity. The level of objective values dealing with personal flourishing transcends the level of subjective value preferences. The value-freedom (or value-neutrality) and value-subjectivity of the Austrians have a different function or purpose than does Objectivism’s emphasis on objective values. On the one hand, the Austrian emphasis is on the value-neutrality of the economist as a scientific observer of a person acting to obtain his “subjective” (i.e., personally-estimated) values. On the other hand, the philosophy of Objectivism is concerned with values for the acting individual moral agent, himself. There is a distinction between methodological subjectivism and philosophical subjectivism. Whereas Austrians are methodological subjectivists in their economics, this does not imply that they are moral relativists as individuals.

Austrian economics is thus an excellent way of looking at “social science methodology” with respect to the appraisal of means but not of ends. Misesian praxeology therefore must be augmented. Its value-free economics is not sufficient to establish a total case for liberty. A systematic, reality-based ethical system must be discovered to firmly establish a total case for liberty. Natural law provides the groundwork for such a theory, and both Objectivism and the Aristotelian idea of human flourishing are based on natural law ideas.

Austrian economics and Objectivism agree on the significance of the ideas of human actions and values. The Austrians explain that a person acts when he prefers the way he thinks things will be if he acts compared to the way he thinks things will be if he fails to act. Austrian economics is descriptive and deals with the logical analysis of the ability of selected actions (i.e., means) to achieve certain ends. Whether these ends are truly objectively valuable is not the concern of the praxeological economist when he is acting in his capacity as an economist. There is another realm of values that views value in terms of objective values and correct preferences and actions. Objectivism is concerned with this other sphere and thus studies what human beings ought to value and act to attain.

When thinkers from the Austrian school speak of subjective knowledge they simply mean that each person has his own specific and finite context of knowledge that directs his action. In this context, “subjective” merely means “subject-dependent”. Subjectivism for the Austrians does not mean the rejection of reality—it only focuses on the view that consumer tastes are personal.

Austrian economists contend that values are subjective and Objectivists maintain that values are objective. These claims can be seen as compatible because they are not claims about the same phenomena. These two senses of value are complementary. The Austrian economist, as a neutral examiner, does not force his own value judgments on the personal values and actions of the human beings that he is studying. Operating from a different perspective, Objectivists maintain that there are objective values that stem from a man’s relationship to other existents in the world.

At a descriptive level, the economist’s idea of demonstrated preferences agrees with Rand’s account of value as something that a person acts to gain and/or keep. Of course, Rand moves from an initial descriptive notion of value to a normative perspective on value that includes the idea that a legitimate or objective value serves one’s life. The second view of value provides a standard to evaluate the use of one’s free will.

Praxeological economics and Objectivism are complementary and compatible disciplines. Economics teaches us that social cooperation through the private property system and division of labor enables most individuals to prosper and to pursue their flourishing and happiness. In turn, Objectivism informs men how to act. In making their life-affirming ethical and value-based judgments, men can refer to and employ economic science.

Objectivism’s Aristotelian perspective on the nature of man and the world and on the need to exercise one’s virtues can be viewed as synergic with the economic coordination and praxeology of Austrian economics. Placing the economic realm within the general process of human action, which itself is part of human nature, enables theoretical progress in our search for truth and in the construction of a systematic, logical, and consistent conceptual framework. The Objectivist worldview can provide a context to the economic insights of the Austrian economists.

In conclusion, there is much common ground between Rand and the Austrians and much to be gained through the intellectual exchange between Objectivism and Austrian economics. Objectivism can be viewed as an ethical and logical augmentation of Austrian economics and Austrian praxeology can be seen as the ideal means for Objectivists when addressing economic issues. Economics would focus on attempting to discover economic principles but would leave ethical issues to philosophy.