In a column entitled "Unpleasant Truths," I discuss the importance of being able to distinguish between justified criticisms and smears.
Wouldn’t you know it, a case in point has suddenly appeared.
Jeff Tucker and Joseph Stromberg have penned a polite and devastating rejoinder to a book by a professor at Penn State.
Happily, the book presents an opportunity for a lesson in philosophy. In all fairness, Professor Aune’s book may be characterized as a smear. On page four, for example, Aune claims that he is "unmasking the strategies used by apologists for capitalism to obscure alternative ways of seeing both the nature of work and the possibilities of justice."
Aune’s argument that the those who defend the philosophy of liberty are trying to "hide" other points of view is wholly false.
First, we must distinguish between a smear and a justified criticism. Smears ignore truth and reality. Smears are insults, as opposed to arguments. In philosophy, such personal attacks are referred to as ad hominem arguments. Thus, one might say "So and so is a racist," without any regard for the truth of this proposition, simply because one wants to shut up the alleged racist. As a result of this smear, rather than take issue with what the alleged racist has to say, people will be tempted to ignore him as "dangerous." "So and so — isn’t he that racist?"
If someone says "2 + 2 = 4," those who live by smears can dispense with math by saying "Yeah, but he is a racist." We can also call him a homophobe, mean-spirited, a Republican, a conservative, a Christian, or any other label which passes in some circles as a bad name, but you get the point. If he is a racist, 2 + 2 must not equal 4.
This is what smears are all about — distracting you from reality.
We will now characterize a justified criticism. Suppose that our mathematician said "2 + 2 = 5." Rather than call him a racist, we might say "Hey, isn’t 2 + 2 = 4?" On the other hand, we might show this poor mathematician that 2 + 2 is in fact 4.
To carry the argument to more advanced subjects, Ludwig von Mises contends that private property and human freedom are necessary for the flourishing of human civilization. This is a really large, verbal version of 2 + 2 = 4. Think of it for the moment as (private property) + (human freedom) = (flourishing of human civilization).
If, like the self-described Marxist James Arnt Aune, you think that Mises is wrong, which part of the equation is to be attacked?
A justified criticism (at least a criticism that is justified in theory) might say "Wrong, Mises! Private ownership of property is the root of all evil." Karl Marx says exactly that. Or, an attempt at a justified criticism might say "Wrong, Mises! Human freedom is bad because men will abuse their freedom by doing evil." Lots of people — and not all of them Marxists — say exactly that. Authoritarianism is not confined to Marxism. If you are an animal rights type, like Peter Singer, you might say "Who cares about human flourishing? A pig is a dog is a boy is a rat."
See? I have just given Professor Aune three different ways to attack the writings of Ludwig von Mises, none of which involve insinuating that Mises is a moral monster.
The point is that a justified criticism is a criticism which takes philosophical issue with the subject matter that is being discussed.
To lower the rhetorical heat in this kitchen, let us turn from economics to something as all-American as mom and apple pie — and thus hopefully amenable to Professor Aune for friendly discussion — namely, baseball.
Where baseball is concerned, if you are against raising the height of the pitcher’s mound, you probably have reasons for thinking that way. You like home runs, you think fans will not come to baseball games without lots of home runs, or you think that pitchers are wimps. These are attempts at making justified criticisms.
It is another story to say "See that guy? He want’s to raise the pitcher’s mound. He hates minorities."
I reflect that I should perhaps not write "attempts at justified cricitisms," and merely write "justified criticisms." I am attempting to make it clear that the mere fact that a criticism is justified does not make that criticism correct and true. I could, I suppose, write of "fair criticisms," but by now you should get the point.
There is a world of difference between the criticism of ideas and the criticism of people who have ideas.
And now for the punchline. Even if a man is a flaming racist, the worst sort of human filth, whom no one should welcome into polite company, never have over for dinner, and never speak about without spitting on the ground — that man’s ideas still may be correct.
The reason for this is that the correctness of one’s ideas is not dependent upon one’s morality. It is wholly possible to be both a brilliant scientist and an evil dirtbag. I am indebted to Aristotle for this insight.
But what does Professor Aune, who teaches the children of Pennsylvania at the expense of the taxpayers of Pennsylvania, have to say about those thinkers with whom he disagrees?
Smears. Half-baked, poorly reasoned, contradictory smears. What an accomplishment.
Professor Aune would have us believe that the free market philosophy is merely a Nietzschean exercise of auf Wille der Macht — the Will to Power. On this theory, all of human life is about getting power over other people. Everything — and I mean everything — is about power, whether marriage, religion, politics, or economics. Even if you say you are not out for power, then you are really out for power. Thus, those who profess to believe in human freedom are really out to enslave everybody.
Aune contends that those who believe in human freedom are only trying to stop the march toward socialism.
The reason that Professor Aune thinks there is something wrong with this struggle of ideas is that he thinks that socialism is going to be paradise. No more evil, no more want, no more suffering. Everybody happy all the time.
But, of course, that is not the case. Whether socialism is good or bad for human flourishing is a factual dispute. And the Marxists do not have the better argument.
That is why free market types like myself are doing what we are doing. That is why there is a Ludwig von Mises Institute, a Lew Rockwell, and a Murray Rothbard for Professor Aune to attack. There are those who seek to explain and advance the cause of liberty because the Marxists in our midst — although they may be very kind, nice, loving people with the best of intentions — are very wrong about socialism.
Socialism will not free mankind, and it will not bring peace and plenty. We have seen in the twentieth century what socialism will bring — the National Socialists (you know them as the "Nazis") in Germany and their rivals in Germany, who came to power in a place called Russia — the Communists. Take a look at Cuba, North Korea, and China, as well as large chunks of Africa and Latin America. Has socialism brought utopia? No.
Rather than sit quietly by while mankind, i.e. the people we love, and the people you love, are remade in the image and likeness of Marx, it is possible to show as a matter of logic that socialism can never work. That is what Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and many others too numerous to mention attempt to do in their work.
Forget the smear that libertarians are out to sell you into slavery to the rich guys: it is just a smear. It is a feint, a pump fake, a flea-flicker, the Statue of Liberty play. Aune wants you all to think "pass" when the play is a run. In short, Aune’s book is an attempt to get you, the great bulk of the world’s population, hopping mad, so that you can be led to a socialist paradise. It is the Marxists who hide the ball, not the classical liberals.
Two final notes. First, there is more to Ludwig von Mises than the criticism of socialism. Although Marx only attacked capitalism — while never setting out what his socialist paradise was supposed to look like — Mises also spent considerable time explaining the workings of the free society. Mises, then, succeeds where Marx fails.
Second, Professor Aune’s book is a case in point of what’s wrong with academics today. The thesis of his book differs in no way from the books I had to read in graduate school in philosophy.
If you have never read anything by Ludwig von Mises for yourself, visit the Mises.org website and read his books online for free.
Decide for yourself whether he is right or wrong. Exercise your capacity for independent thought. How’s that for obscuring other points of view? For that matter, read everything ever written by Karl Marx and Professor Aune for the sake of comparison.
Mr. Dieteman is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.
© 2001 David Dieteman