Power & Market
Foundations of a Free Society: Reflections on Ayn Rand’s Political Philosophy. Gregory Salmieri and Robert Mayhew, Eds. University of Pittsburgh Press. Xi + 460 pages.1
This excellent book mirrors in its choice of contributors the odd relationship between Ayn Rand and libertarianism. On the one hand, her own proposals for the political organization of society are a version of minimal state libertarianism, and her novels and essays have had an enormous impact on many libertarians. On the other hand, she not only denied she was a libertarian but denounced libertarianism in characteristically fierce fashion. The anarchist position of Murray Rothbard especially aroused her opposition.
Many of the contributors to the book are members of the “official” Objectivist organization of philosophers, the Ayn Rand Society, but others, including Matt Zwolinski, Peter Boettke, and Michael Huemer, are not Objectivists. The “official” Objectivists are more inclined than was Rand herself to acknowledge the similarity between her political thought and libertarianism, but, like her, they criticize libertarianism and denounce Rothbard’s anarchism.
In what follows, I shall address the criticisms of Rothbard’s anarchism, as these are likely to be of most interest to readers of mises.org. Before turning to this, though, I should like to examine the more general criticism of libertarianism raised by the Objectivists, as this has considerable philosophical value.
Given the manifest similarity between Rand’s political proposals and minimal state libertarianism, why are Objectivists so critical of libertarianism? One is tempted to ask them, “All right, you don’t like anarchism, but why isn’t support for a minimal state that has no power to tax and for laissez-faire capitalism enough for you? What more do you want?” Their answer is that non-Objectivist libertarianism lacks proper philosophical foundations. In the absence of these foundations, libertarians are unable adequately to support their political conclusions.
As an example, Darryl Wright, a philosophy professor at Harvey Mudd College and a rising star among Objectivist philosophers, criticizes Rothbard for not grounding his non-aggression principle in normative ethics. Although Rothbard accepted an ethics of natural law, he also held that political philosophy was autonomous, and this was his fatal error: “The source of the difficulties with Rothbard’s conception of aggression. . .lies in a particular way of understanding self-ownership, which in turn proceeds from Rothbard’s commitment to what I will call the autonomy of political philosophy. By this I mean the view that political philosophy should be independent of normative ethics---that is, independent of any substantive ethical theory applicable to the whole of one’s life.” (p.107). More generally, Wright says, “Since Rand’s approach to philosophy is holistic, a proper understanding of the[non-initiation of force] principle requires us to see how it grows out of her more fundamental positions in ethics and epistemology. . .” (p.16)
Harry Binswanger, who along with Leonard Peikoff is the most senior philosopher of the Ayn Rand Society, in his response to Michael Huemer also stresses the need for foundations: “Rand repeatedly criticized the libertarians for treating the non-initiation of force principle as if it were an axiom, observing that is a quite derivative principle, requiring a complete philosophic base.” (p.273)
What are the proper ethical foundations? Here the Objectivists begin from an indisputable truth: Human beings need to use reason in order to survive. Animals survive through instinct, but for human beings, as Wright says, “functioning is not determined by our genetics. . .We must create the equivalent state [to that of animals] in ourselves---in our souls---a state that can underwrite the basic kinds of cognitive and existential actions that our lives require over their entire span.” (p.18) (When I say that this truth is indisputable, I do not mean to endorse the use that Objectivists make of it in ethical theory. That is far from indisputable.)
Human beings need reason to survive, but what is reason? Here Rand’s theory of concept formation comes to the fore. We abstract concepts through “measurement omission” from preconceptual perceptual states. From these concepts, further abstractions take place, and this process continues, creating a hierarchy of concepts. However high the hierarchy grows, it is grounded in first-level concepts abstracted from percepts.
I do not propose here to dispute this account of concepts, but two uses of the theory, much emphasized by Objectivists, do not follow from it. Suppose it is right that the mind acquires concepts in just the way that Rand suggests. It is a further step, and one that seems to me unsupported, to say that we ought to bring this process of hierarchical concept formation under our conscious control. That is to say, Objectivists hold that we ought to trace our concepts back to their perceptual foundation and that, at each stage in the hierarchy, we should be able to produce a clear definition of the concept abstracted at that stage.
Perhaps the process of abstraction operates better when it proceeds without conscious direction. What exactly is the argument that it does not? Are those who endeavor to bring concept formation under conscious control better able to survive than those who do not? That seems a matter open to investigation, and I am unaware of any studies that show this to be the case. To sharpen what is at issue, the question I raise is not whether those who are rational are more likely than the irrational to survive. Rather, it is whether rationality requires, or even suggests, that consciously tracing concepts to their grounding in perception is more rational than not doing so. To anticipate an objection, in speaking of the need for investigation I am not assuming the truth of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy, brought into question in a famous essay by Leonard Peikoff. I do not claim that all truths not in a narrow sense “analytic” are contingent; rather, I question whether a particular claim about reason is true, let alone necessarily true. Objectivists have moved uncritically from the obviously true claim that we need reason to survive to the unsupported claim that using our reason in a particular way aids our survival.
There is another claim made by Objectivists that seems to me dubious. They stress a proper hierarchy of knowledge, in which one begins with a theory of concepts, used to ground ethics, which in turn grounds political philosophy. The theory of concepts on this view is at the most fundamental level. It does not follow from this that the hierarchy may be without argument transmuted into a theory of historical causation, according to which beneficial or harmful political doctrines stem ultimately from the theory of concepts held by their advocates. This theory of causation is basic to the account of Nazism in Dr. Peikoff’s well-known book The Ominous Parallels a book that in my opinion does not succeed in making its case. 2
Before getting to the criticisms of Rothbard’s anarchism, I should like to make one further point about Rand’s philosophy. Objectivists contend that the concept of value stems from life. Not only is the Objectivist account of value better than rival theories of value, it is the sole basis for the concept of value. As Dr. Binswanger states, “The essential point is this: only life makes possible an objective, nonarbitrary distinction between value and disvalue, or good and bad. . .It is the conditionality of life upon action that creates good-for and bad –for.”(p.265, emphasis in original)
That is a possible story about how the concept of value is acquired, but I cannot see why it is more than that. (Again, in raising this objection, I take as given that we need to use reason in order to survive and I do not challenge Rand’s account of concept acquisition.) What precludes defenders of other theories of value from suggesting their own theories of how the concept of value---of course using another definition of value from that of the Objectivists—is acquired? Life is conditional on action, but how exactly does this generate an account of how the concept of value must be acquired? Why is this particular conception of value the concept of value?
Let us now turn to the criticisms of Rothbard’s anarchism. To a large extent, these criticisms rest on a misapprehension of Rothbard’s position. For example, Dr. Binswanger assumes that on an anarcho-capitalist view, people are free to exercise force at their discretion. He contrasts this with Rand’s position, in which the use of force is based on objectively true standards. “The attempt to invoke individual rights to justify ‘competing’ with the government collapses at the first attempt to concretize what it would mean in reality. Picture a band of strangers marching down Main Street, submachine guns at the ready. When confronted by the police, the leader of the band announces: 'Me and the boys are only here to see that justice is done, so you have no right to interfere with us.’ According to the ‘libertarian anarchists,’ in such confrontation the police are morally bound to withdraw, on pains of betraying the rights of self-defense and free trade.” (p.229)
Against this, Dr. Binswanger says: “In fact, of course, there is no conflict between individual rights and outlawing private force: there is no right to the arbitrary use of force. No political or moral principle could require the police to stand by helplessly while others use force arbitrarily—that is, according to whatever private notions of justice they happen to hold.” (p.229)
This objection has no relevance to Rothbard’s position. He too believed in an objective law code, largely based on the tradition of common law, not on agencies with conflicting views deferring to one another or “fighting it out.” In a review of Bruno Leoni’s Freedom and the Law, he says: “In short, there exists another alternative for law in society, an alternative not only to administrative decree or statutory legislation, but even to judge-made law. That alternative is the libertarian law, based on the criterion that violence may only be used against those who initiate violence, and based therefore on the inviolability of the person and property of every individual from "invasion" by violence. In practice, this means taking the largely libertarian common law, and correcting it by the use of man's reason, before enshrining it as a permanently fixed libertarian code or constitution. And it means the continual interpretation and application of this libertarian law code by experts and judges in privately competitive courts.” See, e.g. this article regarding law without legislation.
Another objection to anarcho-capitalism also fails. Dr. Binswanger advances a startling claim: “Ultimately, anarchists who oppose monopoly government have to end up as pacifists. This is because all force is monopolistic. . .There is no such thing as force that lets dissenters go their own way. Force does not tolerate ‘to each his own.’ Force is precisely the attempt to subjugate another’s will to one’s own. If force in self-defense is justified, this means that monopolizing an interaction is justified. If I use force to defend myself against an aggressor I am not trying to persuade him---I am attempting to stop him from acting as he chooses. If the government monopolization of force were wrong, so would be the private use of force by individuals. The argument against government’s monopoly on force is thus an argument against self-defense, and it leads to pacifism.” (p.278)
This objection baffles me, because it has nothing to do with the dispute between Rothbard and supporters of Rand’s minimal state. Whether using force against an aggressor is inconsistent with persuasion may well be a significant topic, but the question at issue is whether objective law requires a state. Even if Dr. Binswanger is right about persuasion and the aggressor, so what?
All of the essays in this collection merit careful study. I especially admire Lester Hunt’s outstanding analysis of rights as side constraints in “Ayn Rand and Robert Nozick on Rights”
Ayn Rand was an important thinker, but she was not always right.
- 1. I am grateful to Mr. Neil Parille for sending me a copy of this book and asking me to review it.
- 2. I hope I may be allowed a personal note. My review of the book, written for Inquiry so long ago as 1982, has been the second most criticized of all my reviews. My most criticized review was of a book written by an admirer of a well-known painting by Frans Hals.
In the United States, local governments continue to play a sizable role in constraining the amount of develop-able land, and in adding costs to housing development in the form of development fees, zoning, building-materials mandates, and minimum-size mandates.
Yet, housing continues to cheaper in the US when compared to much of the world.
According to the OECD, for example, housing expenditure in the United States is 18 percent of gross adjusted disposable income. That's the third-lowest in the OECD. Moreover, housing costs in the US by this metric are only 75 percent the size of what they are in Denmark and the United Kingdom. US costs are 78 percent the size of housing costs in Italy.1
Similarly, the OECD notes that in the United States, there are on average 2.4 rooms per person. Only Canadians have more rooms per person. In Switzerland, Spain, Denmark, and Japan, however, there are only 1.9 rooms per person. That's one-fifth less than the average in the US.2
And the number of rooms aren't the only metric by which US homes are bigger. According to the BBC, floor space in newly built homes in the United Kingdom is less than half of what it is in the United States:
Scholars have also noted these differences for years. In their book Living Wages Around the World: Manual for Measurement by Richard Anker and Martha Anker note:
Floor space is higher still in the United States where households at the 20th percentile ofthe houshold income distribution had 28.8 square meters per person in 1985 and 33.5 square meters per person in 2005, implying around 115 and 134 square meters respectively for a lower income household of 4 persons.
In other words, as the BBC chart shows, the square footage for a lower-income household in the US is similar to the overall average for living space in France.
Growth in home size is larger in the US as well. According to State of the World 2004, write:
The United States represents the extreme case, where average new homes grew nearly 38 percent between 1975 and 2000, to 210 square meters (2,265 square feet) twice the size of typical homes in Europe or Japan and 26 times the living space of the average person in Africa.
And certain amenities are bigger in the US:
The average size of refrigerators in US households, for example, increased by 10 percent between 1972 and 2001, and the number per home rose as well. Air conditioning has taken a similar path: in 1978, 56 percent of American homes had cooling systems, most of which were small window units; 20 years later, three quarters of US homes had air conditioners and nearly half were large central systems.
Square footage isn't the only measure of living space either, As noted in Perspectives on the Performance of the Continental Economies edited by Edmund S. Phelps, Hans-Werner Sinn
A considerable part of the US advantage in cross-country comparisons of living standards must stem from the much larger size of average American swelling units, both their internal dimensions and the amount of surrounding land. Fully three-quarters of the American housing stock consists of single-family detached and attached units. The median licing area in the deteched units is 1,720 square feet, with an average acreage for all single-family units of 0.35 (equivalent to a lot size of 100 by 150 feet or 1,394 square meters). Another figure that must seem unvelievable to Europeans is that fully 25 percent of American single-family units rest on lots of one acre or more, equivalent to 4,052 square meters. Available data, though spotty for Europe, suggest that the average American dwelling unit is at least 50 to 75 percent larger than the average European unit.
These factors ought to be considered when we look at disposable income comparisons between countries. "Disposable income" tells us about the cash income that people receive, but these measures tell us little about some of the differences in the standard of living and cost of living as they vary form place to place. For whatever reasons, Americans have for decades preferred to exchange a higher cost of living in many cases for a larger amount of living space. It doesn't have to be this way. Americans could have preferred to economize on housing in order to spend more on other living expenses. But they have not. Instead, a great many Americans have chosen to reinforce both private sector and public sector policies that produce larger housing units.
- 1. This data point includes rental housing. See: "Better Life Index, Edition 2017" https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=IDD
- 2. Rate = number of rooms divided by the number of people living in the dwelling. OECD states: "This indicator refers to the number of rooms (excluding kitchenette, scullery/utility room, bathroom, toilet, garage, consulting rooms, office, shop) in a dwelling divided by the number of persons living in the dwelling."
Auto loan delinquencies surged in 2018, rising to 2.36 percent, which was the highest rate since the third quarter of 2010.
More Americans than ever are at least three months behind on their auto loans, a sign that the U.S. economy may have little growth left in the tank.
The number of loans at least 90 days late exceeded 7 million at the end of last year, the highest total in the two decades the Federal Reserve Bank of New York has kept track. Expressed as a percentage of total debt, the delinquency rate is the highest since 2012, as overall borrowing has also increased.
Source: Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Household Debt and Credit Report.
This isn't to say that automobiles are going away as an industry. In spite of repeated claims that people aren't buying cars anymore — and that millennials would rather walk everywhere — overall spending on auto sales reached new highs in 2017 and 2018.
[RELATED: "How Long Will Cheap Debt Bail Out Automakers?" by Ryan McMaken]
On the other hand, per capita spending on auto has still not recovered from the high of the year 2000. This, however, does not prove that people are getting rid of their cars. It may only mean that they are economizing on cars.
For example, the American Community Survey's data through 2017 suggests very little change in recent years, as far as vehicles per households. According to the survey, the number of households with one vehicle has been virtually unchanged since 1990 around 33 percent. Since 2000, the number of households with two vehicles has only slightly ticked downward from 38 percent in 2000 to 37 percent in 2017.
Source: Transportation Energy Data Book, Table 8.4, Oak Ridge National Laboratory. 2010-2016 data – U.S. Bureau of the Census, American Community Survey, Table CP04, 2018.
Meanwhile, since 2000, the number of households with three or more cars has increased from 18 percent to 21 percent. (Household size has decreased over the same period.)
In other words, we don't see anything here to suggests that American households are scaling back the number of vehicles per household, even if they do cut back on how much they are spending.
After all, not everyone concludes he absolutely needs an $80,000 pickup truck.
It remains unclear if the Great Recession or the allegedly different attitudes of the Millennials has fundamentally changed auto availability per household.
The short term effects of the Recession are clear. Looking at the average number of vehicles per person or per household, we do indeed see a drop off in the number of light vehicles in the period following the recession. Looking at a broader timeline for the past twenty-five years, however, the trend remains remarkably flat.
As far as Millennial demand goes, CNBC reported in 2017 that "Consumers, ages 21 through 34, are taking out new auto loans at a 21 percent higher rate than Gen X borrowers did when they were that age." And in 2016, the Associated Press pointed out "millennials — especially the oldest ones — are these days buying cars in big numbers. They just had a late start." The article also noted that in California, the country’s biggest car market, millennials outpaced boomers for the first time as car buyers. Millennials’ share of the new-car market jumped to 28% in 2015.
Moreover, as USAToday reported last week, low interests rates have continued to feed demand for ever-pricier cars:
A decade ago, the best-selling segment of vehicles was affordable small cars, like the Ford Focus sedan, she said. Today, it’s entry-level crossovers like the Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape, which carry starting prices of several thousand more dollars.
“Fundamentally consumers have changed what they’re buying,” Zabritski said. “That’s part of where we’re seeing these rising prices.”
They’ve changed so much that the Focus, in fact, is gone. Ford is discontinuing the car, along with the Fusion and Fiesta sedans. And General Motors is killing the Chevrolet Cruze, a Focus competitor, along with several other car models.
Given all of this, these may be the takeaways about auto ownership right now:
1. Americans appear to still like their cars. The vehicles-per-household data from the Census Bureau shows little change at all since 2000, and overall averages suggest a flat trend over the past twenty-five years.
2. The American standard of living — in terms of household access to vehicles — does not appear to have changed significantly since the year 2000. During the 1980s, and to a lesser extent the 1990s, we did continue to see declines in the households with no vehicles, and increases in the number of households with three or more vehicles. After the 1990s, we see little change.
3. Millennials aren't necessarily abandoning the idea of auto ownership. There have been many claims that this is the case. But many have also claimed that Millennials mostly want to move to central urban areas. In both cases, the data has been inconclusive. It appears many Millennials do indeed wish to move out of the city — and many will need to own cars to carry on life in a suburban or exurban environment.
4. Nevertheless, when the economy softens, it's difficult to see how the current preferences for larger, more expensive cars can be sustained. We're likely to see a period of auto repossessions and a return in demand for lower-priced economy cars. Those who can pay cash for cars will benefit, while those who overextended themselves to buy pricier cars with big loans will suffer the most.
Every year Grove City College hosts the Austrian Students Scholars Conference, bringing together students to present their own research papers written in the tradition of the Austrian school.
Mises Institute Fellow Per Bylund delivered a keynote speech this year titled "What Entrepreneurship Means for Economics."
Mr. Mark Lautman has given me permission to share the following letter:
When I started reading Rothbard’s book, I gave the three-line summary to my wife. “It’s a book written by Murray Rothbard in the 1950s about libertarian economics. It’s published by the Mises Institute. Rothbard was a disciple of an Austrian economist Mises.”
“Mises?” she asked. “Ludwig von Mises?”
“Yes. Do you know about him?”
“Do you know who Ludwig von Mises was? He was my grandfather’s cousin!”
Sure enough, Paul Lourie, my wife’s grandfather, mentions Ludwig von Mises in his memoirs!
This week Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez released a preliminary summary of her grand vision for a Green New Deal. Prior to its unveiling, the youngest rising star of the Democratic Party had already managed to get the support of leading members of Congress, including all of the party’s current leading Presidential candidates. Unfortunately for Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, the document was met with widespread ridicule for advocating policies such as building high-speed rail to Hawaii, eliminating combustible engines, and guaranteed government jobs – even for those “unwilling to work.”
Like FDR’s New Deal, the proposal would be a total disaster for the US economy. Also, like its spiritual predecessor, it’s a great illustration of what F.A. Hayek warned of his classical work the Road to Serfdom: a grand utopian plan for a military-like mobilization of the entire US economy, the inevitable result of which is economic ruin and loss of liberty.
The most refreshing part of the Green New Deal’s proposals though is how honest and transparent the document is – a rarity for Washington. The proposal makes its own comparisons to military plans, stating its objective is “to mobilize every aspect of American society at a scale not seen since World War 2” and remarking at the government’s past success of outperforming expectations when it comes to the manufacturing of war machines. It doesn’t try to downplay the revolutionary vision outlined in the brief, nor even try to act as if this is some sort of policy that will pay for itself, instead it explicitly advocates for it to be financed through the monetary magic of the Federal Reserve.
It is in her honesty in which Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s true weakness as a politician lies.
After all, the very same class of political pundits and politicians – on both the left and right – that have decided it is safe to laugh at the freshman Congresswoman’s proposal are almost all guilty of promoting and supporting plans that are similarly absurd.
For example, AOC’s embrace of the idea that “we’ll just pay for it!” – a crudely articulated version of Modern Monetary Theory which has gained its own following in recent years – is certainly deserving of ridicule. Is it, however, all that more outrageous than the idea of negative interest rate or the massive expansion of central bank balance sheets that “serious” central bankers have embraced around the world?
Similarly, the sheer hubris of thinking that Washington central planners – in just 10 years – can re-arrange the entire US economy in a way to eliminate all carbon emissions is something so insane that it shouldn’t be seriously discussed in civilized society. Yet is it really all that more delusional than the idea that the US military could transform the entire Middle East into a bastion of neoliberalism, a view passionately defended by a number of “serious” pundits and policymakers who continue to get paid for their opinion?
Yes, anyone with a basic grasp of economics can recognize the amazing fallacies that exist within the idea of guaranteeing everyone, everywhere a job, food, healthcare, and housing – totally regardless of merit. Yet the current operations of the US government actively dismiss the well-understood consequences of prohibition, government subsidies, unfunded social programs, and arbitrary insurance mandates.
So yes, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is guilty of promoting stupid policy she doesn’t fully understand, the consequences of which will have very negative consequences for Americans of all types. She is deserving of public ridicule and in a better world would be soundly voted out for her severe ignorance.
She should not, however, be treated as a beltway outlier.
Her complete ignorance of economics simply means she fits in perfectly with the rest of Washington and most legislators around the world.
Last summer, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Jozef Martiniak at the 2018 Mises University. Dr. Martiniak came to Auburn all the way from Slovakia and he had many great stories to tell about his experience growing up in a Cold War era Czechoslovakia. My conversations with Dr. Martiniak not only revealed an interesting story from the perspective of someone who experienced socialism firsthand, but it also sparked my interest in the politics of Slovakia. He mentioned that there was a libertarian oriented party in Slovakia, and so in this article, I endeavor to examine the movement in Slovakia, analyzing its scope, significance, and authenticity.
The main vessel of Slovak libertarianism nowadays is the political party “Freedom and Solidarity” (SaS). Economist Richard Sulík founded the party in 2009, himself being the mastermind of the Slovakian flat tax. In February of that year, the 10,000 required signatures for the establishment of the party were collected. Sulík was elected chairman.
According to their website, the party claims to run on a platform free of the typical populist propaganda loaded with catchy slogans. It also claims to be run by experts from various different fields, rather than “ideologists”.
The party is also centered around offering specific solutions in which the amount of money required to fund proposed programs is laid out, rather than putting out “unrealistic promises”. It also asserts that the armed forces must have clearly defined objectives. This sort of reform effort in pursuit of creating a government that has clearly defined objectives puts too much trust in the state, something that is inherently very tough to reform.
Though SaS never explicitly claims to be anchored in the chief tenets of libertarianism, the non-aggression principle and property rights, it puts heavy emphasis on the free will and individualism. The party draws a connection between individual freedom and the individual’s happiness. From this, the party asserts that it is against economic intervention.
The party emphasizes a more consequentialist argument regarding the effects of freedom on the collective population.
One interesting thing I learned through my conversations with Dr. Martiniak was that the “passion” that is present in many libertarians in America was not present in Slovakia. Rather the form of libertarianism in SaS is more so “contra the state” instead of a true moral, Rothbardian form.
SaS lists the promotion of “basic solidarity” as one of its keys tenets in Article II of its charter. This sort of concept is manifested in the “euro-realist” stance of the party. The party sees the European Union as an idea with great potential, but also one that demands significant reform as of now. The party also asserts however, that is seeks to curb the bureaucracy and regulations enforced by the EU. Its perception of the EU however, is one that is flawed. SaS believes that the EU should be kept for its promotion of the ideas of free trade and free movement of people, but in regards to this, a classic Bob Murphy argument comes into play.
In his article “But Wouldn't Warlords Take Over?”, Murphy comes to the conclusion that if a society based on small government can be set up and maintained peacefully, these same peace seeking individuals should be able to live together peacefully without a government. In the same way, if member countries of the EU really want free trade and movement, why would there be the need for a political union such as the EU? Even if the EU were to be reformed, it would gradually centralize power over time due to its inherent nature to do so.
In an article published by The Telegraph, Louise Armitstead describes the sentiment of party founded Richard Sulík. Sulík is often criticized by others for being a nationalist, but Armitstead articulates that he is rather “the hero of all discontented Europeans”. This certainly demonstrates the growing resentment in Europe for government. It underscores the borderless nature of freedom, its universal application. It is not something that remains contained within a single country, but spreads. It is not tied to nationalism.
In my humble opinion, the efforts of SaS do not effectively line up with libertarianism in the way that I see it. Sure, the party is pro-market, anti-centralization, pro-civil liberties, etc., but at the same time, due to the fact that it is not grounded in property rights and the NAP, its attempts become blurred. This is why it is so important that any attempt at libertarianism be grounded in these axioms, otherwise the message strays from being genuine. SaS embodies the more “pragmatic libertarianism” present in those such as Gary Johnson, rather than genuine Misesian or Rothbardian aesthetic.
Austrian economists should take an interest in the so-called “replication crisis” in science, which is affecting primarily the field of psychology, but is likely under-recognized in other social sciences—and in economics in particular.
Over the last several, an increasing number of reports have highlighted the fact that scientists are frequently unable to replicate the results of prior experiments in psychology, even when those experimental or correlational studies were conducted and analyzed according to commonly accepted methods. The magnitude of the problem was made concrete in a 2015 Science paper by lead author Brian Nosek. Replication rates, in terms of statistical significance or effect size, were only between 25-50% (depending on the particular field of psychological study).
The doubts raised by Nosek and his collaborators are metastasizing to other human sciences, including medicine. Reports of poor research reproducibility are now appearing routinely in scientific journals. Interestingly , in the context of such a replication study pertaining to the social sciences and published this past August, it was discovered that scientists are able to predict a priori with a high degree of accuracy which particular result will be replicated and which will not!
A perhaps even more startling study was just published last month. Nosek submitted a very rich data set, taken from the 2012-2013 soccer season, to 29 different teams of statisticians for analysis. The question to be answered by the statisticians was whether a darker skin tone increased the likelihood that a player would receive a red card. The variability in the methods chosen and in the results obtained was astounding, especially since, at one point in the process, the teams of analysts were encouraged to compare notes and give each other feedback.
We interviewed Nosek on our podcast about his work. It was a fascinating conversation. As an empiricist, he remains hopeful that, perhaps through greater transparency, sharing of data, and collaboration among scientists, the replication crisis will resolve itself. And he expects that the resolution will occur while preserving the standard theoretical assumptions of empiricism.
I’m not so “optimistic,” and I suspect that the crisis will be protracted. But I am hopeful that, over time, social scientists will come to recognize and accept that certain types of knowledge can only be obtained by human judgment, rather than by measurement—provided that the judgment and reasoning proceed logically from a basis of reasonable assumptions. This is a good opportunity for Austrians to showcase their methodological alternative to the scientific world
The foundation of any and every civilization, including our own, is private ownership of the means of production. Whoever wishes to criticize modern civilization, therefore, begins with private property.
—Ludwig von Mises.
Civility is the word of the moment.
New stories lament the breakdown of civility in American society, while reports of Antifa street violence in cities like Portland raise uncomfortable memories for older Americans of 1960s riots. Editorial after editorial decries the loss of social cohesion and friendliness across the country, even within families. Pundits and politicians insist we must restore civility in politics. Otherwise we face a bleak and intensifying cold civil war: progressive vs. conservative, urban vs. rural, #metoo vs. Brett Kavanaugh, elites vs. populists, and Never Trumpers vs. Deplorables.
Yet how do they propose to accomplish this? More politics, more elections, and more top-down edicts from Congress and the Supreme Court.
Hillary Clinton, for instance, suggests civility will be restored only following successful midterm elections that places Democrats in control of Congress. And why not? The political world is all she knows, and the political world yields winners and losers, victors and vanquished. In her utterly politicized worldview, things will settle down only when the right people—her people—control US politics. Hers is a zero-sum world, always ruled by the political gang in power.
We hardly should expect an America so wracked by politics to remain civil.
But Ludwig von Mises understood a different world, one organized around property and trade rather than the state. To him, private property was the basis of any civilized society. Without that foundation, without property and a concomitant system of mutual exchange, he knew humans were destined to devolve into poverty, war, and anti-intellectual savagery. Property gives us prosperity, and therefore material abundance to live civilized lives beyond mere the subsistence that marked most of human history. Property rights give us the ability to accumulate capital, to invest in higher productivity, and to have a greater degree of certainty regarding the future.
Civility cannot be sheared from the broader concept of civilization itself. Both words share the same Latin root civilis, which means relating to citizenship or public life. But it also means relating to others with courtesy, manners, and affability. If civilization is the sum total of a society and its culture, civility—or the lack thereof—is its building block, the positive or negative social traits exhibited by people in that society.
Lew Rockwell, our Founder and Chairman, has a long career fighting for both civilization and civility. Along the way he met some of the brightest lights of our time or any time: Neil McCaffrey, Henry Hazlitt, Leonard Read, Percy and Bettina Greaves, Ayn Rand, Ludwig and Margit Mises, Ron and Carol Paul, and Murray and Joey Rothbard among them.
So I'm sure you'll enjoy my recent interview with him. With the help of Mrs. Mises, whom Murray Rothbard called a “one-woman Mises industry,” Lew Rockwell set about saving the work and name of the 20th century’s greatest economist from obscurity. Today Mises is known around the world, and cited even by his harshest critics as a champion of laissez-faire who fearlessly challenged the supposedly scientific case for socialism.
Don’t miss David Gordon’s review of Kirkpatrick Sale’s remarkable book Human Scale Revisited: A New Look at the Classic Case for a Decentralized Future. Sale is no libertarian, and even an anti-materialist, but he understands the risks posed by consolidated political power. Thus he thinks the 20th century’s trend toward larger and larger centralized states, prevalent both in once-confederated Europe and America, has been harmful to community, peace, and human flourishing.
To Sale’s credit, he is one of many thinkers from around the political spectrum challenging the accepted wisdom that political globalism and political universalism are per se beneficial. Just as Mises elevated self-determination to a defining principle of liberalism, progressives, conservatives, and libertarians increasingly see subsidiarity and decentralization as defining characteristics for a peaceful future.
Speaking of peace, on behalf of everyone at the Mises Institute let me wish each of you a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, and a peaceful, happy New Year. All of us want peace and prosperity for the world; all of us share a (true)liberal worldview, and all of us understand how non-interventionism in both the economy and world affairs is key to a better future. Let us all commit to making the world a better place next year through our own contributions.
We have big plans at the Mises Institute for 2019—unique, outside-the-box speakers at events, new podcasts, a new entrepreneurs platform, and new opportunities to earn academic credentials from the Institute—and we hope you’ll be part of them.
This article first appeared in the November/December issue of The Austrian.