My Debt to Mises

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Even
people who hate math actually love it. They depend on it, and they
have faith in it. The only moral truth that everyone agrees on is
that "2 + 2 = 4."

Why
do I say that this is a "moral" truth? Because it brings
order to our lives. That almost every non-mentally handicapped person
knows the simple rules of addition and subtraction goes a long way
toward explaining how civil society functions. The essential function
of a store clerk is to count the money received and give exact change
back, and it's normally not a difficult thing to do.

Nature,
too, imposes order. Jumping off cliffs or tall buildings can normally
be called suicide, and it is understood that humans can't fly. The
belief that people "ought" to fly does not make it so;
instead, one must find ways to fly that accord with the laws of
nature. Humans fly, thanks to airplanes, helicopters, balloons,
and some other contraptions. But these inventions work precisely
because they conform to the laws of nature and physics. Wishing
something to happen doesn't make it happen. Feeling that something
ought to be right, doesn't make it right.

In
other words, we live in a real, ordered natural world, not of our
own choosing. And it's actually the world we really want, precisely
because it is ordered. Anyone who wants a world in which 2+2 can
equal 5 whenever it's convenient, is essentially asking for the
world to go to hell. To willfully believe such a thing is to negate
one's own rational faculties, which itself is a negation of one's
own desire for life and happiness.

I
say that, fully aware that mathematics, the indispensable tool for
the natural scientist, is itself an "a priori" science – based on reason, not facts. By that, I mean, no two seemingly
similar objects in the universe are ever, as a matter of empirical
fact, "exactly" alike. No two eggs, no two apples, no
two humans, no two clones. No naturally-appearing or human-built
object has ever had an exact right angle, or had been perfectly
spherical. The study of mathematics is the study of an ideal, or
perhaps we should say, abstract, universe, which only means that
reason itself recognizes the abstracts, the patterns – as opposed
to the absolutes – of our actual universe. It is only through abstract
reasoning, through logic, that we can actually see the order within
the "real" universe.

Even
in some intellectual struggles between "science" and "religion,"
the Creationists and other anti-Darwinists try to use logic and
evidence to make their case; it is not just "the Bible tells
me so." The argument has to make sense according to reason.
The Cal-Berkeley law professor Philip Johnson, for one, has carved
out a whole new career questioning the logic and evidence of Darwinism.

Curiously,
however, reason isn't held in much regard in the field of ethics
or the social sciences. For the most part, social scientists defer
to history, statistics, conventional wisdom, and ideology to understand
the premises, and then only use "reason" to reach the
conclusions. The purpose of social science often seems to be to
find data to prove ethical and ideological points. Pick the best
arguments of your favorite economist, statistician, sociologist,
and historian, and your ideology may appear to be quite rational.

Historical
or empirical "evidence" are only data. Reason must explain
the data; the data doesn't determine the conclusion. If we do that,
then future behavior becomes a guessing game: when does "history"
prove that war is "good for the economy" and when doesn't
it; when does deficit spending bring on excessive inflation and
when doesn't it. What "lessons" of history should we apply
to future judgments?

That
creates random judgments based on generalizations. Hey, we rebuilt
Japan and Germany, why can't we do the same in Iraq? Words like
"appeasement" haunt American politicians, who then exaggerate
the magnitude of foreign "threats" to American "security
interests." History may provide some patterns, but the job
of the social scientist is to explain the pattern, and not assume
that the pattern is itself the explanation.

The
role of the social scientist in the political arena is to provide
politicians with explanations of social, economic, and political
phenomena. It is not to give politicians data from which they can
"predict" the outcomes of a course of political action.

If
political action, and by extension, all human action and ethics,
is to be based on predictions of outcomes, then ethics does indeed
become relative: everyone doing what is right in their own eyes.
Ethics would become a guessing game, on the political and personal
level, on whether the benefits outweigh the costs and risks. But
if ethical rules are random, and if ethical conduct is arbitrary,
then ethics doesn't really exist at all. There would be neither
rhyme nor reason in the pursuit of happiness or of "the good."
It is akin to wishing for the natural order to permit 2 + 2 = 5,
as stated above.

Many
believe that democratic institutions provide a check on this randomness;
the moral preferences of the majority prevail. But this doesn't
prove that the majority's preferences are based on reason. Majority
rule is still arbitrary rule.

Yet
this randomness, this declaration of ethical "norms" by
appealing to the desires of the majority, is all over the place.
Think of this statement: "Health
care is a basic human right." That is, it is an inherent right
of an individual that some other individuals know how to practice
medicine, and be forced to use their skills for free. Are food,
clothing, and shelter also basic rights? If health care is, these
must be, too. But also of course, someone must know how to grow
the crops, kill and butcher the animal, produce the garments, and
build the houses, and do this either for free or at fixed prices
he can't control. One person's "rights" require forced
labor from others. Economic "rights" are essentially the
rights of the chattel slave – being forced into work not of
your choice or even best ability, but in return you are "cared
for." It is safe to say, that if our rights were based on economic
sustenance, they can not co-exist with the rights expressed in our
Bill of Rights – which guarantee not your own well-being but
that you have the right be left alone, to be free.

(This,
by the way, is the myth of modern liberalism, that the productive
capacity of highly-regulated and highly-taxed markets in the modern
age can make possible both economic "rights" and individual
freedom, forever. But the record of the modern liberal, from Waco
to McCain-Feingold, proves otherwise; the liberal will sacrifice
the freedom of the individual for larger social and economic goals.)

What
ethics frequently does, is inherit pre-conceived religious and political
doctrines, combine them, and pass them off as universal truth. Hence
the supposed split between what passes for "liberalism"
and "conservatism" today. Liberals seek individual freedom
provided there are economic guarantees; conservatives want a strong
State and a free market, but only prefers the free market because
it has traditionally worked, and has no idea of how or why it works.
The inability of morally concerned clergy to competently "speak
truth to power" whenever they recognize a grave evil is that
they have abandoned, or never really had, the rational faculty to
tell the truth. All they have, instead, is their moral beliefs based
entirely on religious faith. These beliefs may be true, in a cosmic,
spiritual, and religious sense, or maybe not. But they lack the
logic, the reason, which is our only guide to discern and articulate
the truth.

In
other words, social science and ethics, to be effective, must insist
on abstract, logical thinking, just as mathematics plays that role
in the natural sciences. This is not utopian analysis of envisioning
the "good society" or the "moral human being"
and deriving principles from them. It does not insist on exactitude
in the real world.

Reason,
instead, is derived from self-evident axioms. No two snowflakes,
or dogs, or apples, or horses, or human beings are exactly alike,
and mathematics does not urge that they ought to be so. But we must
recognize an apple as an apple, if we are to count how many apples
we have. By "self-evident axioms," I'm only suggesting
that an apple of a different color is still an apple, and that an
orange is not an apple. Mathematics is based on our recognition
of the real world; our rational faculty is based on recognition
of objects and the recognition of structure and patterns. It doesn't
tell us what ought to be or what is "perfect" or "ideal,"
but in telling us the patterns and structure of what is, it does
something better: it brings order to our lives.

For
ethics to be ethics, it must do the same thing: bring
rational order to our lives. Which means explaining how human action
really works, the raw reasoning we need before we let ideology,
religion, or tradition determine our conduct. Furthermore, it must
not create theories out of raw historical data, it must rather,
use reason to explain the historical data. Like mathematics, it
must provide rules to be heeded for an ordered universe.

And
in ethics and social science as a whole, it is the logic of human
action itself, as opposed to finding the quirks of this or that
individual or the beliefs of this or that population, that ultimately
explains social phenomena. Not how many of what race voted for whom;
not how a nation's Gross Domestic Product rose because of tax cuts
(or tax hikes). Or rose, or fell, on account of war. The relationship
of two or more sets of statistical data does not prove or disprove
anything. We must use reason to understand what's really going on.

And
this is the ultimate, supreme debt we owe to Ludwig von Mises. He
established, in Human
Action
, the premises and logic of human behavior. Not that
human behavior is moral, or even reflects "rational self-interest."
But rather, that human beings act by making choices through time,
and that these choices are a reflection of costs and benefits according
to one's values at the time of his decision and action. Just as
green apples, red apples, and rotten apples are all still apples,
it is self-evident – a rational discernment of recognition
– that a human being makes choices through time. And that a
human being's will is self-governing – that is, one person
can influence, but not control, another person's will. An organism's
will, and, as Rose Wilder Lane put it, "control of his own
energy" is entirely up to the organism. Politics can influence
us by imposing additional costs on certain behaviors, and provide
rewards for others. But politics can not control behavior or control
values. In establishing these axioms, Mises systematically destroyed
the conceit of The State, that its laws and coercion can function
as values that can persuade people to become "good" in
The State's eyes. Instead, he advanced the idea that The State only
imposes additional costs and impediments on human action and thereby
distorts it and takes away the freedom and prosperity we otherwise
would have had.

Mises's
greatest achievement was the very concept of "praxeology,"
the a priori science of human action. Praxeology is to social science
what mathematics is to natural science: just as mathematical theorems
explain natural data, so does praxeology explain human behavior – of human action as constituting choices through time. Physical
evidence does not change mathematical analysis, nor could it. Likewise,
social change does not alter praxeology. It is praxeology that explains
the social change.

This
is important. Mathematics not only best explains natural phenomena,
it the tool of technology, telling architects and engineers what
can and can't be built. The slightest miscalculation in physics
can cause an entire bridge to collapse. Mathematical precision is
crucial to technological advancement. Mathematical equations describe
the "order" of nature so as to make understanding it,
and subduing it with technology, even possible.

Likewise,
praxeology performs the same vital function in the social sciences
and ethics. By describing the nature of human action, it reveals
the order that is often hidden in the social world. It provides
the social scientist the means to explain the statistical data,
and it informs ideologues and ethicists that their dreams of a better
society can not emerge if they desire to subvert the deductions
of praxeology in the process.

That's
because the human being is an independent source of energy, with
an independent will, and merely "complying" with The State's
demands, which is avoiding punishment, is not the same as advancing
The State's ends. Doing as little as possible in obedience to The
State, is not the same as advancing the State's goals. The more
The State imposes, the more costs are burdened on the people, the
more the people will do as little in compliance to get by and become
"outlaws" to improve their condition. Civilization crumbles,
and with it, The State. Mises predicted this of communism in 1922
with his book Socialism.
It also explains our crumbling moral fabric today. It will always
be so when the people's individual desires and goals are not the
same as those of the people who control the State.

Mises
saw the logic – the order – of human action. It is to the extent
that people were free, as opposed to being burdened by the demands
and taxes of their authorities, that civilization flourished. And
that is his lesson for us today. The less powerful, and less centralized,
the government, the better. Because that leaves us with more freedom,
with more initiative, to improve ourselves and society as a whole.

To
desire another world, in which people are "good" or "virtuous"
to your satisfaction and convenience, is like desiring that 2 +
2 should equal 5. When counting your own money, that might seem
like an alluring fantasy, but deep down, nobody wants to live in
that world.

And
that is my debt to Mises.
He provided substance and reason to a value I already held dear:
liberty.

May
24, 2004

James
Leroy Wilson [send him mail]
lives and works in Chicago and is a columnist for the Partial
Observer
.

James
Leroy Wilson Archives

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