Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Our Aim

Ira Katz has written a very thought provoking piece, entitled “The Praxeology of Revolution.”  For context, he discusses the demonstrations by the gilets jaunes in France; living in Paris as a naturalized French citizen and also one who is well-versed in libertarian and free-market thought, he has a view of these events not generally available to the rest of us.

[The demonstrators] certainly have some valid complaints. Taxes are too high. The state, centered in Paris, has its tentacles intertwined through virtually all aspects of life strangling initiative.

Unfortunately, their solutions veer toward more socialism as opposed to more liberty.  Why move toward socialism, given the deadly and murderous track record of this political philosophy?  A French leftist on the radio offered an answer:

…his critique of French President Macron as someone who only understands an Excel spreadsheet rang true.  Thus, it is not just for Macron, but also I think some libertarians might have this Excel mentality.

Katz offers an idealized example: a factory in France closes, in order to move production to a lower cost country.  A free-market libertarian would explain how society overall is better off for this move, but the displaced workers don’t see it this way.  Create enough displaced workers and one sows the seeds of revolution.  Katz offers: “This praxeology of revolution needs to be addressed in the libertarian analysis.”

Katz offers a section from the introduction to Human Action.  Subjective value takes us far outside of economics, to the entirety of choices available in life:

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.

Walter Block has often and rightly offered: a libertarian as libertarian has little to say about much of anything:

Libertarianism is SOLELY a theory of just law; it says that the only legitimate laws are those prohibiting the violation of persons or justly owned property; laws such as those prohibiting murder, rape, theft, kidnapping, etc. are the only licit laws. There are no other just laws.

But consider this in the context of subjective value as described in Human Action.  We are free to choose sublime or base, noble or ignoble.  Libertarianism says nothing about these choices of base or ignoble, merely offering maximum liberty to the individual; man is free to aim at any of these. 

Yet, while offering maximum liberty to the individual, does libertarianism offer the same for the society in which the liberated individual lives?  The French factory worker might disagree, just as those who prefer traditional western values might disagree.

While I have recently taken issue with the views of Edward Feser on self-ownership and social justice (more precisely, I have taken issue with his proposed prescription and not so much his diagnosis), Feser has done an excellent job of taking apart the modern philosophers (my commentary on his work can be found here, under “Edward Feser, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism”).

What is our liberty for?  To what do we aim?  Feser examines these through the natural law as derived by Aristotle and Aquinas.  Absent answering these questions, the base and ignoble are available to man on his subjective value scale.  Yet, in choosing these, do we move toward a free society or away from one?


Walter is quite right about the extent and limitations of libertarianism; Mises is quite right about the field of play for subjective value – it extends far beyond economics.  Libertarianism and subjective value make us free to aim at anything – even the base and ignoble.  But if our target is liberty, we must ask: will these alone allow us to hit the mark?


Katz offers: “To be clear, I am opposed to any kind of law penalizing a company for moving a factory.”  As am I.  But without properly wrestling with the entirety of the natural law as offered by Aristotle and Aquinas, I believe we will not find liberty.


  1. Ira Katz: "The fact is, if people come to believe their economic system is treating them unfairly they might eschew voluntary exchange and choose violence."

    I think Mr. Katz has his cause and effect backwards. I suspect that it is our family environment where we get the idea that, at least in certain contexts, it is better or more efficacious, to embrace the use of coercion and deception/manipulation rather than curiosity, discernment, and empathy (connection) to address some tasks or set of tasks which require the participation of multiple parties.

    Value is subjective because it is imputed by the individual. It is not an intrinsic inherent property existing in material and abstract goods and services. The collective belief system, especially with respect to the economic sphere, rests on the superstition, sometimes not even explicitly identified, that value is intrinsic and objective -- that value is inherent, much the same way that animist religions believe in an animating spirit in things like rocks, trees, etc. Where do we get that idea? We get it when we are very young, when parents, relatives, teachers, etc. use coercion and manipulation to supplant our own instances of value imputation with their own value imputations. We get the false impression that our parents are appealing to some external value standard or source of valuation. It's pernicious.

    1. The one does not exclude the other. I.e. 'teaching' kids that violence sometimes works is not the same as violence that erupts because you steal from people.

      Current day example: Venuzuela. Let people go hungry, and they _will_ turn on you. Not because of anything else in particular, and not for any cause in particular. They just want to survive. And if that means violence, so be it.

    2. Allowing six-year olds to determine their own value imputations. This is a path to hell, not a path to liberty.

      Parental responsibility ends when male orgasm ends. I know that there are some who define this as liberty. Count me out.

    3. "...rests on the superstition, sometimes not even explicitly identified, that value is intrinsic and objective -- that value is inherent..." - Zatarra

      There's a difference between the value of a toaster measured in dollars and the traditional cultural values that make society virtuous and prosperous given our nature as humans.

      "We get the false impression that our parents are appealing to some external value standard or source of valuation. It's pernicious." - Zatarra

      It's pernicious to impart a value system on your kids? It seems like you're making a 'blanket' statement here about values in general, but perhaps you're, like Stefan Molyneux, stating that its the parents willingness to use violence against their kids that breeds the statist mentality of solving every problem with the use of force.

    4. It requires more work, more self-discipline, more responsibility, more patience, more self-awareness to connect with children than to dominate and manipulate them. People like Jordan Peterson are offering people a false dichotomy: coerce, dominate and manipulate or abandon to nature as Jean Jacques Rousseau advocated. I'm not selling Rousseau. Connection is not for cowards and lazy, mindless libertines; it takes real work. Connection is not abandoning a child to his whims; it is helping him find and develop his rational judgment and initiative.

      Your argument of "allowing six-year olds to determine their own value imputations" is a misunderstanding of the nature of human beings. Here's the truth: you're not stopping them. This is how the human mind works. This is reality. The individual human mind imputes value. That's what it does, that's it's nature. It's not possible to stop that process. What actually happens when we try to do so, on whatever pretexts we imagine are just or effective, is that the child is imbued with delusions and misconceptions regarding the nature of his own agency. We needn't wonder why so many are eager to believe Alexandria Ocassio-Cortez, it's just one more symptom.

    5. Texas Libertarian: It is pernicious to warp a child's perceptions in such a way that he comes to mistaken conceptualizations and understandings with regard to his own worth and agency. As for Stefan Molynuex's argument, you're right, I am agreeing with him, as you've summarized his position. Molyneux makes excellent arguments, but occasionally I believe he falls into inconsistencies. Other people have also argued for connection on the same or similar grounds as Stefan's.

      Dollars are a way of instantiating trade-offs and preferences and choices, but ultimately, all value is imputed based on a scale whose units of measure are our own personal leisure time (which is time applied to any purpose we might choose). See Michael Miller's "Leisure Theory of Value," if you're interested in following this line of reasoning. It's a fascinating examination of the nature of value.

    6. Montecristo, this is getting far too complicated for me. I have a simple question: what would you do about parents who are not raising children in a manner acceptable to you?

      I don't mean physical abuse, as this is not the topic; I mean what you might consider a lack of proper mental or emotional upbringing.

      State, church, social groups, relatives? Force or persuasion?

    7. That is an excellent question, but I certainly wouldn't call it 'simple,' otherwise we would already be living in a human utopia.

      In the scenario you propose, I suppose I would do my best to address these people in a manner that I would recommend that anyone be addressed: with curiosity and respect. If they were amenable to a conversation and connection, I would offer them my own opinions, observations, or references to advocates of better methods of human interaction. Traumatizing or disconnected parents are the result of the same treatment given to them when they were developing children. Given that I believe you cannot "fix" someone else's traumatization by force or manipulation, if they disagree with me on terms of our association then I would just not associate with them.

      In a community, governance is very organic, multi-layered and multi-polar. There are all sorts of voluntary associations which can offer inspiration, guidance, or incentives to encourage more healthy and productive interactions. You mention four, yourself, and I would say that it is a very poor and rude society which has only those four. In a society whose associations are consensual, people are free to dissociate themselves from individuals who behave in ways contrary to the spirit and letter of the society's governance. All but the most malignant and wounded of human beings desire association with others. This is even more so the case when our associations are ones of quality. Where everyone must earn consent of those with whom they associate there is a powerful incentive for people to migrate toward the healthier forms of association. Just as the market incentivizes us to better serve one another, to encourage reciprocity and trades for mutual benefit in the material sphere, so do our social associations, when not compelled, encourage people to cultivate more positive, productive, and valuable exchanges in the sphere of "spiritual goods."

      I think we can agree that force and politics have done very little to really advance the way we associate with one another. They have certainly grievously ill-served our children, despite the professed aims of coercive institutions to be addressing the issues of abuse, neglect, or abandonment.

      Societies whose governance is mostly concerned with "What do we do to the 'bad people'," are symptomatic of people focused in the wrong direction, on the negatives and doughnut-holes of virtue absence, rather than doughnuts of virtues that exist and which can be cultivated in themselves. They're not looking at ways to treat each other better; they're looking at excuses to treat each other badly, and justify it by calling it punishment.

  2. bionic,
    may I have your comment on the following thing from Robert Nisbet “The quest for community”, Page 212.
    It may be not the proper place, but I think it is related to the current conversation.

    “There is indeed a sense in which the so-called free market never existed at all save in the imaginations of rationalists. What has so often been called the natural economic order of nineteenth century tuns out to be, when carefully examined, a specific set of political controls and immunities existing on the foundation of institutions, most notably the family and local community, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the essence of capitalism.”

    Alex S.

    1. I do not find this on pg 212 in the edition that I have.

      There is much to unpack in the quote. If by "free-market," one means unconstrained, this never existed. The best a free market can deliver is freedom to choose among that which is available and within these, those that I can afford.

      Has there ever been such a free market? Certainly not since the rise of the state, so call this 500 years more or less. Can the idea of a market be conceived outside of a community (however broadly or narrowly defined)? I don't see how.

      Beyond this, I feel as if I am missing the specific point you are asking me to address; if so, please clarify.

    2. Yes. The market or free market presumes that there is division of labor, social cooperation, and value choices by individuals. But if there is no division of labor there is no market. That is called autarky or autistism.

      Once you have people interacting in the market there will be customs and laws giving the bounds within which that cooperation can exist.

    3. RMB: "Once you have people interacting in the market there will be customs and laws giving the bounds within which that cooperation can exist."

      I think that's backwards. People associate. Their associations come to be characterized by a set of rules, customs, taboos, traditions, etc. which are what governance is. The governance determines how associations are to be managed or under what terms they are to operate. When people trade, it is because their governance is such that it holds, either explicitly or implicitly, that when people associate for the purpose of production they are to use reason, consent, and connection to accomplish their ends. That's a market, as opposed to depredation. In such an arrangement, force and coercion and fraud and deception are penalized and discouraged. I would say that markets exist within societies, not the other way around.

    4. To be more clear, what I meant was that social interaction starts, then through lessons learned through experience customs and laws arise. To start off with laws with no regard for culture and experience is a certain way to end up in tyranny or at least clumsy, inefficient governance.

      The market process according to Mises is society interacting regardless of law or government or anything else. The market starts when two entities decided to trade.

  3. BM says: Subjective value takes us far outside of economics, to the entirety of choices available in life. Mises is quite right about the field of play for subjective value – it extends far beyond economics.

    Both you and Katz are misinterpreting Mises’ statement. Why? Because the entirety of choices available in life is what economics is all about. It has little to do with “spreadsheets.” Studying economics leads from the price of milk to philosophy. Peg

    1. Peg, I will leave to others to chime in on any misinterpretation. My question to you: even if what you are saying is correct, how does it change anything in the post - whether mine or Ira's?

    2. Peg, I will leave to others to chime in on any misinterpretation. My question to you: even if what you are saying is correct, how does it change anything in the post - whether mine or Ira's?

      Whether or not what I said changes anything in yours or Katz’ posts is not why I’m defending economics (my own) as a discipline. Clarification of meaning is important.

      The sentence in Human Action immediately preceding Katz’ quote, and similar in its import, states: “The transformation of thought which the classical economists had initiated was brought to its consummation only by modern subjectivist economics, which converted the theory of market prices into a general theory of human choice.”

      Catallactics and praxeology are part and parcel of subjectivist economics and are not three separate disciplines. They are all included in Human Action.

      I offer another quote from Mises, which supports my interpretation:

      “The body of economic knowledge is an essential element in the structure of human civilization; it is the foundation upon which modern industrialism and all the moral, intellectual, technological, and therapeutical achievements of the last centuries have been built. It rests with men whether they will make the proper use of the rich treasure with which this knowledge provides them or whether they will leave it unused. But if they fail to take the best advantage of it and disregard its teachings and warnings, they will not annul economics; they will stamp out society and the human race.”

      I appreciate the two of you having weighed in on this (perhaps it’s just a matter of semantics). Thank you for that. Leaving this delightful conversation now to make a cheese omelet for my nice husband. A human in action. Peg in Oregon

    3. Peg, check out that Michael Miller essay I linked in a comment above. You'll find him in agreement with your statement that "Studying economics leads from the price of milk to philosophy," or vice versa: the study of philosophy often leads to insights on the just price, as the Scholastics found.

    4. Montecristo, thank you for that recommendation. I enjoyed the link. Peg

  4. This showed up on mises.org from Hazlitt writing in 1972. It describes the unrest going on in France that led to the Revolution which is different than what most historians report.

    You could apply Hazlitt's thoughts to how libertarianism could contribute to revolution if all libertarians talk about is how much more autonomous he/she wants to be.


  5. Dear BM,
    First, thank you very much for your comments on my essay. I am really flattered. Furthermore, as I have followed your blog for several years and agree totally with your project to take libertarianism beyond the NAP and catalytics, if it is possible (and if I may summarize it as so). So my essay was influenced by you.
    Regarding Peg's point, certainly subjective value applies to all of the human condition; i.e., to human action. I read the book Human Action now almost 30 years ago. But I did recall the differentiation between praxeology and its subset catalytics and wanted to make this point so searched for a quote from Mises. But I was very happy to see the passage I reproduced because to me it is clear that Mises knew there was much more to life, even political life, than the economics he described. Which was my point here. Even if the violence is induced by envy, we can find arguments addressing that emotion directly so as to reduce it (Thanks to RMB for that excellent Hazlitt essay).

    1. Ira, no wonder I always enjoy reading your work!


    2. I'm a big fan of Mr. Katz's work, so I hope he'll forgive me for waxing pedantic. But I believe he means catallactics, not catalytics. His post may make more sense with the edit. You're welcome to make that change, Bionic, and refrain from posting my comment altogether.