About This Blog

Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) was the greatest economist of my time. His greatest works can be accessed here at no charge.

Mises believed that property, freedom and peace are and should be the hallmarks of a satisfying and prosperous society. I agree. Mises proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the prospect for general and individual prosperity is maximized, indeed, is only possible, if the principle of private property reigns supreme. What's yours is yours. What's mine is mine. When the line between yours and mine is smudged, the door to conflict opens. Without freedom (individual liberty of action) the principle of private property is neutered and the free market, which is the child of property and freedom and the mother of prosperity and satisfaction, cannot exist. Peace is the goal of a prosperous and satisfying society of free individuals, not peace which is purchased by submission to the enemies of property and freedom, but peace which results from the unyielding defense of these principles against all who challenge them.

In this blog I measure American society against the metrics of property, freedom and peace.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

How To Debate A Progressive On Economics

Avoid analogies, personal experience, anecdotes, economic statistics, economic "research" and morality.

Why morality?

Because economics is not about how human beings should act; it is about how human beings do act: with purpose.

Why avoid economic statistics and the rest?

Because economics is an abstract, rational science. Economic truth is discovered by means of ratiocination. Logic is the final arbiter. And because economics is a rational science, its discoveries cannot be disproved by the empirical evidence of sociological or historical "facts." This is a difficult concept for most people to understand and accept. However, the essence of it is quite simple.

Just as the rational science of mathematics is the tool by which we understand natural phenomena, the rational science of economics is the tool by which we understand human action and human history, which is simply the record of individual human actions in the past.

We assume that there exists in natural phenomenon a regularity in the concatenation of events. If a physicist observes an apple fall from a tree to the ground, he does not assume apples have a mind of their own and that this particular apple wanted on this occasion to fall to the ground rather than fall up to the sky. He assumes that all apples fall from trees to the ground. He formulates a theory which seeks to explain why this is so. He tests his theory by experimenting in the laboratory by isolating all related variables and observing the outcomes. His observations either conform to his theory or contradict it. In a properly conducted experiment, a single instance of theory contradicted by empirical observation is evidence that the theory is not true. In physics, observation of real world phenomenon is the final arbiter of truth.

In the realm of human action this is not so. Unlike inanimate objects in the physical world human beings act with purpose, i.e., they conceive of ends and use means available to them to attain those ends. Moreover, the ends sought by human individuals are not uniformly the same. Humans actors are not mindless apples that are inexorably pulled to the ground by the immutable forces of nature. Human actors use the forces of nature to satisfy their own individually conceived purpose. The purpose or end of individual human action cannot be observed or detected by means of laboratory experimentation.

Run a thousand rats through a complicated maze and virtually all of them will behave in a uniform manner to any given stimulus because, even though rats are animate, their behavior is pushed and pulled along by the immutable forces of nature in much the same way as an apple is pushed and pulled along. Based on a careful study of the behavior of these thousand rats in the maze, a biologist can induce a theory about the forces of nature, both within and without the rat, which affect the behavior of all rats. Not so with humans. Human beings do not behave, they act with purpose.

Put a thousand human actors in a complicated maze and virtually all of them will act differently because each human actor in the maze has a separate and individual purpose in mind which motivates his action. Each individual human will use the means available to him in the maze to satisfy his purpose. Any conformity of action detected by an outside observer, say a biologist, has more to do with the conformity of the means available to the human beings in the maze than it has to do with some conformity of purpose. The biologist may suspect that the purpose of most of the human beings in the maze is the same, i.e., to escape the maze, for example. However, this suspicion cannot possibly be learned by observation alone. It can only be formed by the human biologist's subjective and prior understanding of what it is like to be a human and how most other humans of his acquaintance have acted in the past in similar circumstances.

The only regularity in the concatenation of events in the maze that the biologist might subjectively recognize that applies equally and always to all the human actors is that they all act with individual purpose. However, this regularity of purpose could not be observed by the biologist, it could only be subjectively assumed as the premise of human action, a premise that is subjectively assumed by all human actors to be self-evidently true.

Is there any human being in the universe who really believes that he speaks, writes and thinks without purpose? If so, the rest of us should ignore what is spoken, written and thought by such a creature by reason of his own argument!

All of the economist's theories with regard to human actions are deduced from the single, self-evident premise that man acts with purpose. Thus, correctly reasoned economic truth is as true as the mathematical certainty that one plus one equals two.

And so we see that economic truth is the product of logical reasoning not of the gathering and observation of "economic" statistics, which are, after all, nothing but history, i.e., the accumulated observations of individual human events in this most complicated of mazes imaginable: human life in society here on earth.

Some say that human beings are no different than rats in a maze, that they are not motivated by different and individual ends, that they do not seek to attain these unique ends by the varied means available to them. They say that human beings are merely biological machines, far more complicated than rat machines, but machines nevertheless, driven by biological impulses such as genes and DNA. They say human beings considered in the aggregate are no different than any animal species considered in the aggregate, or any inanimate phenomena considered in the aggregate, like weather, for instance. They say if man's tools or technology becomes powerful enough and fine enough not only will scientists be able to forecast individual human behavior, they will be able to mold individual human behavior into something more peaceful and likeable by tweaking the social forces that push and pull man's behavior this way and that.

The goal of some scientists is to manipulate the weather, which has always been the unpredictable bane of man's existence. These scientists theorize that weather, properly considered in the aggregate, is nothing more than the system of accumulated atoms in the atmosphere the world over pushed and pulled by various natural sources of heat, radiation, animation and the like. They imagine, probably correctly, that if they could construct a computer powerful enough, and software intelligent enough, to account for every, single variable which causes what we know as "weather," they could learn to control weather by manipulating these variables.

Scientists who compare human beings in society to atoms in weather, who claim that the actions of human beings might eventually be predicted and altered just as, with the proper tools, weather might be predicted and altered, fail to consider that each human being does have a mind and a will and purpose of his own. No scientist in his right mind, equipped with the most advanced and powerful computer, would claim he could predict and control the weather if each atom in the universe had a mind and a will and a purpose of its own. So no "social scientist" can predict and control human action unless, that is, the mind, will and purpose of each human being can be coerced to act in common purpose.

Modern liberals and progressives are, as Ayn Rand would say, "concrete-bound." They see the world and everything in it in materialistic terms of cause and effect. There is no difference between a human being and a rat in a maze or a hydrogen atom in the atmosphere. All are inexorably subject to the laws of nature which science can learn to manipulate in man's favor. Progressives endlessly quote economic studies and statistics. They exist in the world of "macro" economics where individual mind, will and purpose are pushed and pulled by the immutable, political forces of "society" which direct and control the "macro" economy. Of course, we understand this direction and control is accomplished by means of state coercion, but progressives would never face up to that truth.

When debating a modern liberal or a progressive, this mindset that individual men are no more than nature-directed animals must be challenged. The debate must immediately be brought around to the abstract, to the individual, to individual purpose, and to ends and means.

Economists have "discovered" the inevitable effects of the laws of supply and demand over centuries of extensive and arduous ratiocination. Progressives believe they can void these reasoned economic truths by citing the results of an economic survey of West Virginia coal miners conducted by an obscure Harvard professor in 2002. Over the years economists have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that minimum wage laws, for instance, create unemployment when the enforced minimum wage is set above the wage rate that would otherwise obtain in a free and unhampered market. Progressives seek to discount this truth by citing the results of a "study" of a small town in Vermont where a minimum wage law was imposed and the results predicted by economists were not "scientifically" observed.

It never occurs to these progressive social "scientists" that employed and unemployed human beings are not rats in a maze, and that a small town in Vermont is not a hermetically sealed scientific laboratory in which every single variable that influences human action, save one, can be controlled and isolated or neutered. Real human beings live their lives in an ever-changing sea of variable and interconnected means and influences that motivate their action. No observer could possibly detect, let alone isolate and control these variables.

When debating economics with a progressive the best tact is to begin the conversation with a question: Do you believe in unfettered capitalism? In other words, Do you believe in an economic system in which each human individual uses the means available to him as he sees fit, free from state or individual coercion, to seek in peace after his own particular and unique ends?

Perhaps the vast majority of progressives will answer with a flat "no." This is fine. At least you will know where you stand with your opponent and you will be able to decide how much, if any, of your valuable time you want to spend exploring the depths and sources of this progressive's intransigence and/or ignorance.

Perhaps a few will answer with a qualifyied "maybe," or even with a more hopeful "well sure, but...." These are the few progressives who might still be open-minded and worth your time. When they say they would support a free market but only if it were regulated, you can easily point out the absurdity of what they just said.

When they object that corporations and other successful individuals become greedy and powerful in the free market and are able to control and exploit others who are less greedy and successful, you can ask them to explain to you the nature of the "power" of which they speak, and how such power could be wielded in a system in which the only legitimate means of commerce are persuasion and uncoerced trade.


John Galt said...

Excellent post, Sherman. Good writing!

Sherman Broder said...

Thanks, John. Since you're not commenting on politics, I'll assume you're not just blowing smoke! LOL