I was recently taken to task for suggesting that within absolutist thinking in the area of what we call “economics” nothing much would change, with further thinking I have to conclude that I was pretty wrong. I am sure a great deal of immediately practical aspects categorized under economics which predate economics would still hold, such as scarcity, specialization, markets and so on, but what will fundamentally be rejected is the idea of an “economy” before and aside from society that is a completely neutral space within which individual actors engage in actions to which we must not normatively judge. The greatest, and most pathetic, argument against such a position advanced by advocates of mindless economics, the cold war Randian capitalists still LARPing a fight against the USSR, is that any curtailment of economic intensity of any sort will cede ground to competitors, and anything short of unabashed capitalism is communism. This is patently stupid, and if asked to clarify what exactly they are talking about, they will engage in equivocation, something they do across the board. Given we don’t have a shared definition of capitalism at all, its easy for people to do this. Ask a hyper capitalist if we should have a market in babies, see what happens. Occasionally, some of the more intellectually honest will to their credit follow through the implications of their arguments, such as Rothbard who did argue in favour of a free market in the sale of babies. The average proponent will merely place a limit at some point which is determined by their inherited prejudices. An objective claim becomes a “common sense” tempered one which rejects rational discussion at this point and makes claims to nonsense like unexamined wisdom or appeals to just screaming. Its the standard mode of operation for conservatism since at least Burke, and likely much longer.
The Alt-right is especially interesting in this regard as they often push the hyper-capitalism nonsense whilst complaining about immigration, completely skipping the incoherence of these positions. Immigration increases the economic activity within the area that receives the immigrants so it is positively a good from the angle of economics as currently formulated. I’m sure a series of specious arguments applying unprincipled exceptions could be concocted to try and refute this, I have seen many, but they all fail. One of the more common arguments is to appeal to HBD and point out that immigrants are less economically productive over the long run, but what has that got to do with economics and capitalism which are about the relationships between agents? They have nothing to say about future time periods or society as such. If you feed value judgements and a consideration of overall good separate from the immediate economic activity or any value external to it then it is not economics, maybe you could claim it is political economics at a stretch, but this all doesn’t really make sense. But this is all central to economics, take a step back and look at it in its entirety and it does not contain a context within which claims can be measured, there is no allowable telos or context, it is a continuation of anarchistic theorising. We will see this later when we get to Mises.
One problem that I commonly find is that many don’t quite understand the claim that all modern society and mainstream theory is basically anarchist because maybe they find a major thinker who puts in writing that they don’t believe in hyper individualism such as Mises, or that a particular thinker like Hume or Kant promoted conservative values like marriage. To this complaint I would counter that the thinkers in question demonstrate conceptual confusion, that they were fooling themselves and being inconsistent. I can again direct the reader to McIntyre who has investigated this issue in far, far greater depth than I could ever hope to, and especially to his critique of the ethical basis of liberalism. In Whose Justice? Which Rationality? MacIntyre writes of Hume’s moral scheme:
“Property and the rules for its safeguarding and transmission — the rules which on Hume’s view specify the content of justice — thus are made the focus for pride, love, hatred, and humility. Our passions according to Hume are such that they produce in us a definition of our interests in terms of our relationship to property, and it is as propertied or unpropertied in particular ways and to particular degrees that we participate in those social exchanges and transactions whose outcome is either the increase or diminution, or at least the sustaining or the undermining, of the pride and love felt by particular individuals. The rights of property are absolute. There is and can be no standard external to them in the light of which some particular distribution of property could be evaluated as just or unjust. Justice on this view serves the ends of property and not vice versa”. [p. 295]
Hume is valuable in that as an outsider to English society which was already fully immersed in this scheme, he was able to see and articulate what was simply existence for English society at this point. This is furthered in the following passage:
““With [Thomas] Reid [1710-1796], … the exercise of fundamental rationality, practical or theoretical, was taken to require no particular type of social setting. … his books appeared in a period in which a number of other such philosophical conceptions of practical rationality as a property of individuals apart from and prior to their entry into social relations were being elaborated, most notably by Bentham in England and Kant in Prussia … we move into a world in which the exercise of practical rationality, if it is to occur at all, has to be embodied in social contexts of fundamental disagreement and conflict”. [p. 325]
Let us narrow in on a particular sentence here – “practical rationality as a property of individuals apart from and prior to their entry into social relations.” This is pure anarchism. Hume, Kant, Bentham, the whole spectrum of liberalism is pure anarchism at base with various attempts to formulate a defence of geographically, spatially and socially determined values being concocted with the delusion of being objective. This would make pure anarcho-capitalists simply the most honest and clear-head proponents of liberalism with all others being various degrees of delusional. So when we get to Mises who writes in Human Action:
“If praxeology speaks of the solitary individual, acting on his own behalf only and independent of fellow men, it does so for the sake of a better comprehension of the problems of social cooperation. We do not assert that such isolated autarkic human beings have ever lived and that the social stage of man’s nonhuman ancestors and the emergence of the primitive social bonds were effected in the same process. Man appeared on the scene of earthly events as a social being. The isolated asocial man is a fictitious construction.”
We can see this for the conceptually confused statement it is. This is made more pointed when you ask the question of what a human agent actually is which Mises to his credit is very clear on:
We call contentment or satisfaction that state of a human being which does not and cannot result in any action. Acting man is eager to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory. His mind imagines conditions which suit him better, and his action aims at bringing about this desired state. The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness. A man perfectly content with the state of his affairs would have no incentive to change things. He would have neither wishes nor desires; he would be perfectly [p. 14] happy. He would not act; he would simply live free from care.
But to make a man act, uneasiness and the image of a more satisfactory state alone are not sufficient. A third condition is required: the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness. In the absence of this condition no action is feasible. Man must yield to the inevitable. He must submit to destiny.
These are the general conditions of human action. Man is the being that lives under these conditions. He is not only homo sapiens, but no less homo agens. Beings of human descent who either from birth or from acquired defects are unchangeably unfit for any action (in the strict sense of the term and not merely in the legal sense) are practically not human. Although the statutes and biology consider them to be men, they lack the essential feature of humanity. The newborn child too is not an acting being. It has not yet gone the whole way from conception to the full development of its human qualities. But at the end of this evolution it becomes an acting being.
Notice that Mises has declared the asocial being a myth, but at each point his acting agent operates on an “I” basis, a “me” basis, never a “us” or “our” basis. So when he says “The isolated asocial man is a fictitious construction” we have to be very careful here. We have to be careful because there is a complex web of meaning behind this claim. Mises still believes that man is an individual, that all his thinking is done on an individual “me” basis, and that all social relationships are then a matter of these individuals engaging in practical rationality on this individual basis just as Kant, Bentham and Hume did. So when Mises calls man a social being, he means an anarchistic individual engaging in rational actions to co-operate with others as such, which is not very helpful. Mises in effect is claiming man is a social being only in so much as he is an individual which engages in rational cooperation for his own benefit. We see Hobbes, Locke and the rest show up right here.
Every criticism that MacIntyre throws at Hume and the rest also applies to Mises precisely (Mises being a derivative of Hume.) We can raise a number of MacIntyre flavoured questions regarding the above passage relating to the human agent. At what point does the baby become a human agent? That would be societally dependent even by Mises standards. How about “His mind imagines conditions which suit him better,” this implicitly assumes that the desires of the agent are interior, and not derivative. Or how about the line “Acting man is eager to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory” which rejects telos, and instead makes an agent a kind of pain and pleasure seeking reflexive creature, like an amoeba being moved by heat or cold in a particular direction. Or even the assumption that man is in society for his individual benefit, which despite Mises claim to the contrary is not separable from the state of nature thought experiment from which it claims. The passage in effect is just liberalism, or rather the assumptions of Protestant North-Western European society circa 16- 17th century dressed up as objective thought. We could go on, and on, but we are better served by picking fights with liberalism and its anarchism much further upstream than Mises.