The Difference Between Austrian Economics (A Positive Science) and Libertarianism (Normative Studies)

(read from the bottom up; Z is a Jesuit Priest)

Letter 8:

Dear Z:

Let me comment, only, on what I think to be the core of your interesting note:

How should people act?

From a libertarian point of view, I can answer that: do NOT murder, rape, steal, engage in fraud, commit arson, trespass, or, in any other way violate rights of person or property.

From an (Austrian) economic point of view: I have no answer. None whatsoever. Economics is an attempt to understand the causes and effects of human (commercial) action, and this question falls way outside of the realm of the dismal science. Even non Austrian economists would agree with this. Well, pay lip service to it.

Best regards,

Walter

Letter 7:

From: Z

Sent: Thursday, August 08, 2019 12:05 AM

To: Walter Block

Subject: Re: response

Walter

If you say so, then let there be no such thing as libertarian economics.  Would you next say that, when a libertarian like your self teaches economics, which is your profession, the economics draws little or no inspiration from your libertarian theory?  Sure, I confess and really hope that my Catholicism affects my economics (thin as it is).  But when I pay for a tube of toothpaste, the connection is not obvious and mostly interior to my soul. So maybe your being a libertarian has little to do with you being the economics you teach.

I: Thus maybe the libertarian in you has only a remote connection to your Austrian economics.  To take an extreme, I infer that a Communist (completely State-ownership of all property) economist could be libertarian by your definition.  According to you, for libertarians, “is violence justified?  it “gives but one answer: only in retaliation against, or in defense against, initiatory violence. It lives in the world of oughts, and shoulds.”  So too, I suppose, a dictatorship could be libertarian.  Indeed, from the little I know about the utopia proposed by Communism, it would be the most libertarian society.  Further, I’d guess that many dictators or states under martial law justify taking power for what you offer as libertarian political theory.  They take power to end violence.

II: Then you write “Economics, in sharp distinction, is a positive discipline. It asks what causes what? What are the effects of this or that?”  That makes sense.  In fact almost all disciplines ask that question, e.g. Theology ask “What causes creation? or “what are the effects of sin?”  So the question next must turn to: what is the specific area of economics?  I don’t pretend to answer that question.  Unhelpfully,  (shall we say?) economics studies exchanges of goods and services.  I don’t think that will work, since a mother breast feeding her child does that, as do two people playing basketball on the corner lot.  When  group of guys get together on the basketball court, they offer a different and valuable service to one another (competing on the court is generally more fun than playing all by oneself), as they also do when they gather after the game at the local bar.

Again I am unclear what you mean by economics.  In a world where everyone shares goods or in a world with private property where everyone steals what they can (Hobbesian world), those two are economic systems.  And you would probably agree.

If as other economists claim, you say, that their discipline is value free, then they could not choose between an economy where everyone starves to death and one where everyone enjoys a fabulous amount of goods.

I heard a hint, however, that you think some values should be involved in economics  And now we can engage again.  You write “all human action is an attempt to make the future a better one for the actor than would have otherwise occurred without that action.”  That actually is a highly philosophical claim.  As such, it is, I think, false.  At least, that is what I have regularly argued.  I disagree with your philosophy.  I disagree with the philosophy that underpins Austrian economics.

As I’ve noted before, there are, sadly, philosophers who argue that 1] all action is and cannot be other than an attempt to make for oneself a better life.  Other philosophers argue 2] all action should be directed to making life better for oneself, but sometimes people sin, that is, sometimes people act altruistically.  In that sense, I think you are a sinner.  3] some philosophers (and people generally)  think they are acting altruistically, but really they are just deceiving themselves.  That sense would make me a sinner.  I belong to a fourth group (and I think you do too when you are not thinking theoretically) who hold that we do do some self-sacrificial acts, actions whose “intention” is not to make our own future better for ourselves.  Acting altruistically may also benefit ourselves.  But that is not its purpose.  Furthermore, we sometimes act in ways that do not benefit ourselves, as the subsequent example shows.

These are debates about description:  which alternative describes human beings?

There is a different question, the area of my own field of ethics.  That question is: how should people act?  Now if people really cannot sacrifice themselves for altruistic reasons, then the answer is clear.  And we end up with contrived analyses of the woman at the recent shooting who covered her baby with her body and whose husband covered her body with his own.  They both died, but the baby lived.  A strict biological analysis would say, of course, they did not act altruistically, but rather their respective genes acted, a la Dawkins, selfishly.  The parents’ genes sacrificed them so that the genes in the 2 month baby would carry on.   That’s one way to justify your position.  It is not that all persons act to make their future better, but all genes do so.”

The alternative is that people do sacrifice for others, which is not a surprising answer for a Christian.

Time to go to dinner. Z

Letter 6:

On Tue, Jul 30, 2019 at 3:18 PM Walter Block <wblock@loyno.edu> wrote:

https://www.lewrockwell.com/lrc-blog/economics-is-a-science-that-deals-with-people/

Walter E. Block, Ph.D.

Letter 5

From: Walter Block [mailto:wblock@loyno.edu]

Sent: Friday, March 08, 2019 10:19 PM

To: Z

Subject: RE: response

Dear Z:

There is no such thing as “libertarian economics.” Libertarianism is a value-laden, normative discipline; it asks one question: under what condition is violence justified; it gives but one answer: only in retaliation against, or in defense against, initiatory violence. It lives in the world of oughts, and shoulds. It is part of political philosophy.

Economics, in sharpt distinction, is a positive disipline. It asks what causes what? What are the effects of this or that? It answers, or at least the Austrian version thereof answers, all human action is an attempt to make the future a better one for the actor than would have otherwise occurred without that action. The mainstream version gives a slightly different answer. Economics is totally value free. It totally abjures the world of oughts, and shoulds. It has nothing whatsoever to do with political philosophy.

It is difficult to discuss economics with you when we have such different views of what economics is.

Best regards,

Walter

Walter E. Block, Ph.D.

Letter 4:

Walter

To keep the conversation going:

But of course I would say that to a Chemist.  When I lived in the XYZ area, a lab was built just down the street from me.  I saw it being built.  It was put several feet underground, with all sorts of concrete and safety locks, I was told.  I was also told that those locks were there because the XYZ  chemist-biologists were going to be creating some chemicals/bugs that could wipe out the human population, but were also useful for serious research on life processes themselves.  I was a little afraid, of course, but I approved because it was (supposedly) good for science.

I would not, however, have been happy if those bugs/chemicals were brought out to where people live and breathe.

The analogy, of course, is that libertarian economics is very interesting, and I can understand at least some of its rationale.  It makes sense of parts of human life.  My concern, however, is that it not be brought out to where people live and breathe.  It will infect people’s souls.  Or rather, it has infected them, and I want to contain the spread.

So when you suggest that as a body of thought libertarianism economics might have much to teach about economics, I agree.  I could add that, unlike what would happen if those bugs in the lab were brought out to people, most people have a good enough sense of human life not to buy into libertarian economics wholesale and retail.  Still that doesn’t alleviate my perception that it already infects people and somewhat disables them from being fully human.  The question might be: what does this theory do to people if it is allowed or even encouraged to spread?

Of course, it has spread.  To wit, many more of our students ask the question, “how will a liberal arts education help me to get a job and make good money?” rather than the question “how will this education make me a better person or a better citizen or a better contributor to the world?” or even, god forbid, “how will this liberal education bring me in union with God?”  Those latter questions used to be closer to the forefront of many educated persons’ minds.

So it is fun to debate (or, at least for me, to learn about) libertarian economics as a “science.”  I really did not know some people think that way.

Let the conversation continue. Z

Letter 3

On Thu, Mar 7, 2019 at 11:43 PM Walter Block <wblock@loyno.edu> wrote:

Oy vey

You woudn’t tell a chemist that, would you? That his chemical theories are all well and good, regarding chemicals, animals, vegetables, rocks, but not people, would you? Why pick on economics. We’re a science too

Walter E. Block, Ph.D.

Letter 2

From: Z

Sent: Thursday, March 07, 2019 7:58 PM

To: Walter Block

Subject: Re: response

Walter

Of course I agree with you that, other things being equal, the higher price, the less the sales.  Similarly, the higher the wage, the likelihood that fewer people will be hired.

There is, as you note, one hitch.  That hitch is people.

This is true of prices for goods.  I checked with my students about prices of toothpaste.  They have no idea whether any tube is better than another tube.  But they do know that the box is bright red and it promises “brighter teeth.”  So they buy it.

On the other hand, the problem of wages is people.

They need to eat.  They have dignity.

So, yes, absent people, the libertarian economy might be the way to go. Z

Letter 1:

On Sun, Feb 24, 2019 at 12:06 PM Walter Block <wblock@loyno.edu> wrote:

https://www.lewrockwell.com/lrc-blog/a-counter-example-to-the-economic-law-of-downward-sloping-demand-no/

Dear Z:

Better late than never.

Best regards,

Walter

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5:11 pm on September 17, 2019