Saturday, September 30, 2006

Principles Come First

In Noah's post about Ludwig von Mises birthday, he links an interesting biography of Mises on the Mises Institute's website.

I know a little, but not much, about details of Ludwig von Mises' life. I have never read a full biography of him, though there are some available. What was always important for me were the points of his arguments.

This is an attitude that I apply to all thinkers, and I can remember exactly when and why I adopted it. It had to do with a newsgroup I subscribed to (in the early days of the mass internet in the 90s) called Digital Liberty. I don't know what became of that group, but it's possible that it morphed into something like this. The founding idea for the group was to develop a government-independent e-currency, to replace the US dollar and the US government's control over it. Unfortunately, most of the discussion on the board centered around whether or not Ayn Rand was worth reading. The founder of the group was a self-described "lifelong admirer," but a lot of others were concerned that she was a cult figure. I myself had concerns on that account.

I had just been introduced to Rand the year before by a girlfriend (I read Atlas Shrugged in virtually one sitting; it remains one of my favorite novels.) and had just finished reading a book on Objectivist philosophy prior to joining Digital Liberty. At that point in my life I was something of a literary snob, and although I privately enjoyed science fiction very much (and I still consider Atlas Shrugged to be science fiction), I was going through a phase where I felt I had to be "above" it. Rand's novels left a lot to be desired on several fronts - but mainly in terms of characters. It is telling that in particular John Galt makes hardly an appearance in the book of which he is supposed to be the hero, the book, indeed, that begins with the line "Who is John Galt?" That is because he simply isn't human. There is nothing for him to do but stand there and spout philosophy, and that's not the kind of person who can bear the weight of a novel.

Atlas Shrugged is one of my favorite novels, but it cannot be appreciated in the way that cannon English literature is appreciated. What I found, however, is that when I said this to other Ayn Rand admirers, they seemed to want to hold me at arm's length. It became rapidly apparent to me as it becomes rapidly apparent to everyone who dabbles in Rand that she was a cult figure. There is no room for criticism or discussion, which is unfortunate because I think there is a lot to be said about the woman, her life and her works.

So I was initially interested in this discussion. But then the founder of the group weighed in with an opinion that was eminently sensible. He said that his opinion regarding Rand was that "an idea is not responsible for the people who hold it." That's an apt phrase, and I've repeated it verbatim in arguments ever since. An idea is not responsible for the people who hold it. Indeed. He went on to say that Rand was a megalomaniac and a hypocrite, but that these facts were irrelevant to whether or not her ideas were sound.

Of course, I'd heard this opinion before, but this was the first time I'd heard it stated so clearly, and I really took notice. It seems to me that every rational person must adopt this. That, after all, is the basis of the ad hominem fallacy - that ideas should be judged on their own merits and not on the characteristics of their proponents.

In this spirit, I take issue with the following paragraph from the Mises biography linked above:

Mises came to a decision, which he pursued for the rest of his career in Austria, not to reveal such corruption on the part of his enemies, and to confine himself to rebutting fallacious doctrine without revealing their sources. But in taking this noble and self-abnegating position, by acting as if his opponents were all worthy men and objective scholars, it might be argued that Mises was legitimating them and granting them far higher stature in the public debate than they deserved. Perhaps, if the public had been informed of the corruption that almost always accompanies government intervention, the activities of the statists and inflationists might have been desanctified, and Mises's heroic and lifelong struggle against statism might have been more successful. In short, perhaps a one-two punch was needed: refuting the economic fallacies of Mises's statist enemies, and also showing the public their self-interested stake in government privilege.

I understand the thinking here, but I cannot agree with it. Quite the contrary, I think Mises was absolutely right to take the course he did, and that although it may not have benefitted him much in his lifetime, I think it is one of the things that has assured the endurance of his works beyond his death. What the article here advocates is essentially the wanton use of ad hominems. That might have been somewhat effective at elminimating corruption from the bank at the time (or it might have landed Mises in jail or murdered, who knows?), but I don't think it would have made Human Action the classic that we know it became.

Mises had a bigger vision. He knew that the enemy he was fighting was not these corrupt bean-counters specifically. That kind of thing happens in any economy. As long as there are laws, there will be criminals, and without laws, there would still be criminal behavior. Mises understood, as the author of this biography apparently does not, that effective argument procedes from principles. We advocate Capitalism because it is the only moral economic and political system we know. It is true that it is also highly effective, but that is a result of its moral rectitude and not an independent justification for it. If a fascist system could be shown to be even more effective than market capitalism at reducing corruption, it would still be wrong to adopt the fascist system.

And so Mises chose to attack his enemies' ideas - because this is the level that really matters. This is the lasting level, the foundational level. You do not build complex things like national economies and societies on a mass of recommended policy or personal criticism. Such a thing quickly turns into an unmanageable mess. What you do is start from principle, build your society on a firm foundation. We cannot anticipate what contingencies will arise, but we know that if our principles are straight we have at least a fighting chance of knowing what to do. If Mises had been remembered as the man who cleaned up the Austrian banking system, it's doubtful that people would take his ideas as seriously as they do. So I, for one, am glad that Mises chose to fight the battle where it truly matters. For whether or not these people were motivated to write what they did out of desire for personal gain, the ideas they wrote were still (superficially) persuasive to a generation of readers. Had Mises simply exposed them, perhaps their individual papers would not have been read, but others would have come along and constructed the same deceptive tripe. By attacking the ideas, Mises generates arguments that apply not to this particular situation alone, but to all possible such situations.

The more I read about Mises, the more I like him. I cannot, unfortunately, say the same for the staff of the website that that style themselves as his heirs. Some of them, I think, need to read a bit more carefully.

[Update - The author of the article in question was none other than Murray Rothbard, as it turns out, and not "the staff of the website that style themselves as [Mises'] heirs." No matter - I stand by my judgment, just deflect it to Rothbard. Mises was right not to expose the corruption; Rothbard is wrong to suggest he should have.]


At 2:14 PM, Blogger Jeffrey Tucker said...

It really is an interesting question. Should we only address ideas and arguments or should we also draw attention to interests and motivations? Rothbard framed up the issue nicely. But he didn't point out that Mises himself didn't adhere to his own principle completely. His book Socialism (1922) draws attention to the personal interests of the socialists again and again, and his later popular writings also did, though not with the level of conviction that Rothbard did. I should also add that Rothbard himself didn't always adhere to his two-fronts approach either. His 1000-page treatise on economic theory doesn't address interest-group issues at all. It is pure theory, objectively presented in every way.

At 9:18 AM, Blogger Joshua said...

I haven't read "Socialism" yet but have a copy that I plan to read soon.

I would draw a distinction between talking about potential for corruption, though, and the actual corruption of one's (personal) opponents. Talking about the fact that one system provides more avenues and motivation for corruption than another is a legitimate criticism of the system, it seems to me, because we're talking about aggregate numbers, etc. Talking about particular cases of corruption among one's (individual) opponents is not, however, because these are isolated cases and may or may not have anything to say about the overall comparison of the systems in question. I suspect that in "Socialism" Mises is engaging in the former kind of criticism and not the latter, although, as I said, I haven't read it.

I assume by the 1000-page treatise on economic theory by Rothbard you mean "Man, Economy, and State: A Treatise on Economic Principles?" I'm ashamed to say I haven't read it, but I have a pdf version to start on.

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