Friday, July 14, 2017

The “Why” of Liberalism

Taken from a discussion in the comments from my post, My Journey So Far.  The discussion begins with a comment by Anonymous July 12, 2017 at 6:52 AM; the dialogue proceeds to include the ideas of utilitarian vs. moral considerations as the basis of libertarian philosophy.  The dialogue concludes (at least for now) with a comment from gpond July 13, 2017 at 8:42 AM:

bm, I don't recall if Mises spoke of good and bad law. I do know that he did not agree with Rothbard regarding objective ethics.

The essay I will link is the best write-up on Mises' utilitarianism that I have ever come across. It may at least whet your appetite for understanding Mises' position on such things.

The essay is written by Daniel Sanchez, which inherently means it is well written and thorough.  The essay begins:

"The only fully Misesian economists are Rothbardians, and most Rothbardians have abandoned Mises's entire approach to the 'why' of liberalism."

Heaven help me…. I recall when I first stepped into the subject of immigration and open borders; I found the very disparate views of Hans Hoppe and Walter Block.  I addressed this in a post entitled Dances With Elephants.  Given the two named individuals, you can understand both the title and my trepidation.

That was nothing compared to this…. Mises and Rothbard…. I will say up front, I will not dive deeply into this topic; I am so immensely unqualified to do so – I have read two essays by someone expanding on the comments of Mises.  I have read not much else form either Mises or Rothbard on this topic, or to the extent I have I do not intend to dig through it for this post. 

But I have an even more over-riding reason to not dive deeply into the topic, and this will become clear by the end of the post.  Let’s just say no argument will change my view.  If you call this a “religion,” you would be both figuratively and literally correct.

The essay suggested by gpond led me to an earlier essay by Sanchez, to be found here.  I have read, via Gary North, that it was Rothbard that placed a moral foundation under Austro-libertarian theory.  After having read these two essays, I have some understanding of what North was getting at.

To me, the second essay was very clarifying; both must be read to better grasp the meaning.  As background for the essays, Mises offers a utilitarian argument as to the “why,” but it isn’t the utilitarian argument most of us think of when we dwell on this question.  Rothbard offers a moral argument, based on natural rights.  Sanchez develops Mises’ arguments; he suggests that Mises’ position is both misunderstood and a more appropriate foundation.

For the purposes of this post, I offer the following from the second essay as my version of a summary / conclusion of Sanchez’s argument:

People develop the custom of abiding by general rules (including the rules of justice) because of a general recognition that when both the long-run and short-run are taken into account, any given individual is likely to be better off, according to his own preferences, with the rules, than without them.

The general expediency of certain codes of conduct are recognized by thought leaders in society. These thought leaders convince others, who in turn convince still others. Over time, and as codes of conduct are passed across generations and intellectual strata, consciously formulated customs gradually evolve into blindly imbibed folkways.

And if a general awareness of the relative inexpediency of a custom arises, this will erode the utilitarian basis of its social acceptance, and it will eventually topple.

I will put my thoughts in a very simpleton form:

Mises, as he considers the term “utilitarian,” says killing and stealing would not be chosen because these decrease social cooperation, and under social cooperation all would be better off in the long term.  We would therefore act accordingly and adopt customs against killing and stealing.

But what if it can be shown by thought leaders that a little killing and stealing (death penalty, abortion, preventative war, low levels of taxation, regulations on food and drugs, pollution standards) that we would all be better off under these rules.  What if the thought leaders could convince enough people of this “truth”?  Would this make killing and stealing appropriate?

Pragmatists (to avoid the term “utilitarian”) say killing and stealing are wrong as these introduce artificial restrictions to free markets, and only under free markets can each individual achieve his highest utilities. 

But what if it can be shown by thought leaders that some issues are too big for markets (national defense, control of money and credit), and only government action (a little killing and stealing) can solve such problems and that we would, therefore, be better off under these rules?  What if the thought leaders could convince enough people of this “truth”?  Would this make killing and stealing appropriate?

Moralists, at least in my definition of the term, say killing and stealing are wrong, full stop.  They require no justification for this view beyond holding it; therefore no argument by thought leaders can shake them from this view.

Now…I describe my view and analysis as “simpleton” because I find little reason to consider anything more than what I have described as the moralist view; this allows me to hold to a position that cannot be swayed by thought leaders.  I guess this puts me somewhere in the Rothbardian camp, albeit perhaps due to a different foundation. 

And this foundation is my traditional Christian foundation.  Of course, if others conclude that killing and stealing are wrong based on a different foundation, I don’t complain.  But I don’t find the reason of thought leaders to be as stable a foundation.

If traditional Western Christian civilization can’t keep this morality in focus for Western civilization, no other argument meant to avoid killing and stealing has a chance to succeed.

In other words, perhaps this is where liberalism leads.


  1. bm, Thanks for your link to the second Sanchez article. It is even better than the one I provided.

  2. I sort of walk the line between moralist and utilitarian. The big things like killing and stealing fall on the moralist side of the line, but BM I would like to see your logic applied to, say, your example of unusual front yard recreation. Where does that fall on the moralist's scale?

    I personally would find it offensive for reasons other than morality (mostly because my wife would be insufferable if my neighbors were doing it). Would you resort to Christian values in such cases? By some accounts that would call for a stoning.

    1. "...I would like to see your logic applied to, say, your example of unusual front yard recreation."

      In the example I have been using, their action is not violation of the NAP, so it is a different issue entirely, I think. My example is intended to stretch the case where the NAP and culture might collide.

      I guess you could say I am morally against such actions, but in my scenario I am against the actions for utilitarian reasons – if that makes sense. I don't want to lose the peace of the neighborhood; I think this would be considered utilitarian, but not as a foundation of the NAP.

      I would strongly prefer to live in a neighborhood where, at least to all outward appearances, the people lived according to Christian values - whether or not they considered themselves to be Christian.

    2. "In the example I have been using, their action is not violation of the NAP, so it is a different issue entirely, I think. My example is intended to stretch the case where the NAP and culture might collide."

      But the response to those actions most of here would find appropriate would definitely be a violation of the NAP. "Thought leaders" (or in this case religious ones) have already convinced society that a little NAP violation is good.

      So when your position is based on utilitarian ideals, you are essentially saying you would consider NAP violations appropriate for the good of society. I don't disagree with this position at all. I just felt it was not clear in your article.

    3. "So when your position is based on utilitarian ideals, you are essentially saying you would consider NAP violations appropriate for the good of society."

      I don't believe I have ever advocated for such things. I am exploring the issue of libertarianism and culture, and suggesting that a) a society with a generally accepted culture has a better chance of maintaining some form of the NAP, and b) a drastic deviation from the generally accepted culture offers the likelihood, if not certainty, for calls of NAP violations in order to both combat and support the change - by each side, respectively.

      Some who comment here would take the steps you identify, and think me a fool (I am exaggerating...a little) for not going this far. I cannot, probably due to both family history and my understanding of Christianity.

      In any case, until more people grasp such concepts, NAP violations toward achieving the ends of common culture are both pointless and counter-productive, in my extremely humble opinion (as, admittedly, I still consider myself to be in the early stages of this exploration).

      And once more people grasp such concepts, NAP violations won't be necessary...again...IMEHO.

    4. I apologize if I misrepresented your position. I certainly don't consider you a fool : )

      But... but I am at a loss to understand how after subscribing to points a and b above, one would not also advocate actions to prevent b, even if those actions were not in line with the NAP.

      I agree NAP violations for the purpose of achieving a common culture would be wrong. But in terms of preserving one I would be much less flexible.

      I will have to think about this more. It could be my neocon upbringing clouding my thought processes. My morals say the means and the ends must be the same, but common sense tells me something else entirely.

    5. Jeff, I will fully agree that I, via my writing, am somewhat muddled on all of this. This subject continues as a work in progress for me.

      As to why / how I do not advocate for such actions given my a) and b), the distinction you make (achieving vs. preserving) is worth further thought on my part. With this said, I want to believe that my view of NAP violations on certain issues are different than the mainstream view...but this is secondary to my main reasons.

      "This world is not my home I'm just a-passin' through; My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue..."

      I believe this should cover it. :-)

    6. "This world is not my home I'm just a-passin' through; My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue..."

      Ha yes, that does cover it. It's something I can accept, even if it's not my path personally.

  3. I'm still considering the implications(both real world and theoretical) of "falling" into a specific camp philosophically- but I'd like to point out another prominent libertarian recently wrote that he agreed with Mises's viewpoints on utilitarianism, specifically in that Mises considered "natural rights" to stem from utilitarian concerns.

    The problem on the surface of his total statement is that this libertarian conflated "natural rights" with "natural law" in proclaiming he didn't believe in "natural rights"- I just want to point this out because there are significant differences between the two and I can't help but wonder if your article might have been prompted by his a few days ago.(if not, please disregard my statement)

    Sure, the two impact and even reflect each other at times, but they are definitely different. Rothbard appeared to focus on "natural law" far more than "natural rights", which I believe is an important distinction.

    If anything, I'm probably more in the camp of Bastiat and his notions regarding rectifying/co-existing the two concepts.(utilitarianism & natural rights; maybe via natural law?)

    It's an interesting & complex/muti-layered topic. Kudos to you for touching on it, I know I wouldn't want to at this stage of my intellectual development. Heck, the only reason I'm responding is because I'm sitting in an airport with more time on my hands than I normally have(for now).

    1. Nick, my post was prompted solely by gpond's comment; if someone else wrote about it recently, I don't think I saw it.

      "I know I wouldn't want to at this stage of my intellectual development."

      Same for me; I just thought to stick my toe in the water given gpond's prompt. Given that my conviction on the matter (i.e. "moral") is unshakable, I don't know that I will spend more time on it.

      But you never know, I hope to be writing for many more years!

    2. Mises' views are somewhat taken out of context in that they were not specifically written to accomplish what Dan Sanchez was trying to do, which was to answer those who threw away Mises views in favor of Rothbard's. In other words, that is not the reason that Mises was writing, so not in any way the context he was writing in.

      Since the door may be open to revisit, even some day, I believe that Mises' views contain a good deal of subtlety, and should probably be studied in context before being thrown overboard willy-nilly as unnecessary ballast.

      He was working on a particular problem, not trying to answer "why liberalism." He was working as a scientist in the field of social science, and trying to answer prehistoric questions like:
      Why and how did the institution of civilizations arise (why do we live together as societies)?
      Why and how did institutions such as money arise?
      How and why did the institution of 'law' arise?

      These were important questions to answer as part of his epistemology to act as a foundation for his views on the proper methodology for economics.

      Mises was very deep, and a very rigorous intellectual. He was not writing about why gpond or bm should believe a certain thing. His intellectual contributions are ill served by a tertiary review.


      Nick, are we at the point where certain names can't be mentioned?

      Eric Morris

    4. "His intellectual contributions are ill served by a tertiary review."

      gpond, you are, of course, correct.

  4. @ Eric

    "Nick, are we at the point where certain names can't be mentioned?"

    I'm not in the mood to stir the pot for a variety of reasons, so at this point in time, yes.

    1. Nick & Eric, it is not an issue for me if Wenzel is referenced in the comments. I have made a decision to not respond to these comments (as I have made a decision to not read his blogs), but I do not mind if he or his work is referenced.

    2. Gents, Fair enough. Blessed are the (wannabe) peacemakers?



  5. I would add that Mises was essentially a Kantian, who is typically considered part of the utilitarian tradition. I can't remember if it was Rothbard of John Finnis, but one of them made a very good case that Kant's "categorical imperative"--which is basically what Sanchez described as Mises' utilitarianism--is in fact an indirect reflection of natural law and really more based on natural law than Enlightenment utilitarianism.

    Mises was correct to notice the accounting for short-term and long-term consequences of social cooperation and private property. But to notice this preference, and to define the consequences as "better", requires an axiom or law that classifies it as better. Otherwise, to take your example, you could end up with a group that finds some killing etc. to provide some "benefit".

    The natural law approach would find something better because humans live longer and have less "want." In Finnis' words, it leads to human flourishing or fulfills natural purposes, and "practical reason" (which isn't that dissimilar from Kantian categorical imperatives) is used to apply the basic principles to specific facts.

    Human flourishing, life, other "goods", are to be preferred to other outcomes. This is where natural law comes in. It isn't just reflections on or deductions from the logic of action (though it is, in part). It is also the rule and measure of what is "better".

    In addition to all this, there is need to explore the intersection with a uniquely Christian anthropology, which I think is very consistent.

    I prefer the above views to say, the unmentioned author who denigrates "natural rights" in favor of some will-to-power contractarian theory. I do that because it is the natural inclination of our minds, IMHO, to establish rules based on the morality of various actions. For example, the contractarian can set rules against infanticide because it is disliked. But they cannot denounce those not in privity with the contractarians that practice infanticide, at least not on moral grounds (since those presumably don't exist to this person); it's more like a matter of taste, and you enter into contractual relations to expand your tastes and convince others of your "superior" tastes.

    Frankly, men and woman just don't think that way, historically or based on brain science.

    1. Thank you for this thoughtful comment, Mr. Mason.

  6. Nothing to add at this point, Mr. M. I merely comment to let you know I'm still reading, thinking, and pondering. Thank you, and may God add His blessings.

    1. Ron, I suspect this comment was intended for the "Thank you" post. In any case, I appreciate your contributions here.

  7. BM, thanks for this post. It has been very thought provoking. I feel ill-equipped to accurately express my thoughts, but I'm going to make an attempt.

    I think it could be argued that morality is simply each culture's utilitarian code for behavior. Morals that are common from culture to culture are obviously utilitarian. But, ones that are less common might likely serve a utilitarian purpose. A society that has had it's adult male population decimated is probably more likely to consider polygamy morally acceptable. I'm sure we could find more examples like this.

    Your post "That Pesky Enlightenment," was equally thought provoking.
    Like "man's law," utilitarianism finds man trying to one up God (or culture.) Since utilitarianism is outcome based, man must predict and measure the outcomes of actions. In many cases both of these tasks are nearly impossible. But, as we all know, this does not deter man.

    Morality never seems to excuse itself for not being utilitarian.