My Debt to Mises

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

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