Posts Tagged With: Ludwig von Mises

Against Gun Control Hysteria

After the shooting in Colorado this past summer, Roderick Long had an important insight, which applies equally to the Connecticut shooting.

Whenever there’s a violent tragedy, someone immediately starts using it as an excuse to restrict civil liberties. Many on the left understand this when it comes to the Patriot Act, but not when it comes to gun control. (Conservatives have selective blindness in the opposite direction.). . . .

In consequentialist terms, gun control is a perfect example of the broken window fallacy. Deaths caused by gun use are seen, because they happen. Deaths prevented by gun use are not seen, because they don’t happen. (By “gun use” I mean not just firings but also mere brandishings.) First, preventions are underreported (since few are eager to be victimised twice—first by a freelance attacker and second by the cops), and second, when they are reported, they’re not exciting enough to get much publicity.

If anything, I think Long understates his point. Deaths prevented by guns are not only underreported and unexciting. Gun ownership also deters people from even trying to commit crimes in the first place: it is much riskier to go on a shooting spree when you know that potential victims might be armed than it is to shoot up a “gun free school zone.” So when a would-be killer decides to stay home instead of shooting people, that is a murder averted through gun ownership.

But the arguments for and against gun control have all been heard before. The present debate will probably not be won or lost by which side has the stronger arguments. Given that the latest shooting is particularly horrifying, its political ramifications will more likely depend on how effectively the anti-gun crowd can appeal to emotionalism, and on how effectively everyone else can resist them.

Lest we forget, the PATRIOT Act and the TSA also came about in the fit of emotion following 9/11. And after the BP oil spill, similarly emotional people cried out for a total moratorium on oil drilling. (On my drive between Ithaca and Boston I still see signs that say, “No Drill, No Spill.” Granted, without oil drilling we wouldn’t have any oil spills. We would also regress back to a horse-and-buggy economy. With a full drilling moratorium, these upstate New Yorkers will have to wait for their children’s polio vaccines to take the 200-mile stagecoach journey through foot-deep snow, but at least they can take comfort in the fact that they’ve eliminated the threat of occasional drilling accidents.)

Today, we’re hearing the same types of people tell us how gun control can “save the children.”

Implicit in all these arguments is the belief that, with just the right government interference, we can eliminate terrorist attacks, or oil spills, or mass murders. But the arguments against such interventionist policies are different. Most people who support oil drilling do not think that allowing a free market in oil production will eliminate all accidents, just as people who believe in gun rights don’t think the gun ownership can totally deter all crime. Even with true laissez-faire in oil drilling or gun ownership, the BP oil spill or the Newtown shooting still might have happened in exactly the same way. Life can be tragic. It’s just that we believe that responding to tragedies by banning guns or oil drilling will only compound the problem.

Therefore, the most important part of responding to the Newtown shooting must be to keep your cool. The TSA is living proof that politics plus emotionalism is a bad mix. Given that the first tragedy happened and is therefore irreversible, we should not compound the loss through more ill-conceived, emotionally-induced political follies. As Ludwig von Mises noted in the context of a different debate:

[Advocates of a deflationary monetary policy] do not realize that by this procedure they do not undo the social consequences of the first change [i.e., inflation], but simply add to it the social consequences of a new change. If a man has been hurt by being run over by an automobile, it is no remedy to let the car go back over him in the opposition direction.

Supporters of gun rights should not cede the moral high ground to their opponents. They should not allow themselves to be painted as callous or uncaring—and they especially should not acquiesce in the argument that gun control saves lives. Rather, they should constantly reaffirm Mises’s message: do not let concern for the past obscure rational thought about the future. Do not believe that just because tragedies happen now, further government action can eliminate them. Instead, always point out how the government’s cure is worse than the disease.

Hopefully, emotions will die down before politicians and the gun-control lobby have the chance to do any real damage. In this, as in all else, rational thought is our only hope.

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Be Merry!

No matter who wins tonight, it is difficult to be anything but despondent.  So let’s remember the example of two of the greatest (and most stylistically different) conservative and libertarian optimists.

G.K. Chesterton:

The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones. Nevertheless (I offer my last dogma defiantly) it is not native to man to be so. Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live.

Ludwig von Mises:

This pessimistic point of view is completely mistaken in its estimate of the influence which rational and quiet reflection can exercise on the masses. . . . The power of Socialism too, is like any other power ultimately spiritual; and it finds its support in ideas proceeding from the intellectual leaders, who give them to the people. If the intelligentsia abandoned Socialism its power would end. In the long run the masses cannot withstand the ideas of the leaders. True, individual demagogues may be ready, for the sake of a career and against their better knowledge, to instill into the people ideas which flatter their baser instincts and which are therefore sure to be well received. But in the end, prophets who in their heart know themselves to be false cannot prevail against those filled with the power of sincere conviction. Nothing can corrupt ideas. Neither by money nor by other rewards can one hire men for the fight against ideas.

In this spirit of cheer, we read about Chesterton’s distributist followers:

The formal business of the League was followed by after-meetings in the general bar of the Devereux, where an account by one of the members describes pint pots banging on the tables and members ‘shouting texts of St. Thomas at each other, calling on the people of England for the overthrow of their taskmasters, and a return to the religion of their forefathers.’

There was also much singing. ‘I have always,’ writes Titterton, ‘regarded this singing as an essential part of Distributism.’

Likewise, while living in Vienna, Mises hung out with a merry group of economists who, at their regular meetings, would write and sing their own songs, with (translated) words like this:
I have a point of doctrine
That you should really hear.
Attempt a refutation
But you will not come near.
I call myself a liberal,
But not from days of yore.
I say all things differently
Than those who came before.
A liberal anyone can be
But in Vienna alone the reasons see.
I know this ’cause marginal utility
Sheds proper light on economy;
I know this ’cause marginal utility
Sheds light on economy.
Since I’ve come to political consciousness, Austrian economics is enjoying a renaissance, the center-left is pushed into the defensive position of lamenting “anti-government extremism,” Ron Paul inspired a whole generation of young activists, the tide keeps turning against drug prohibition, the most populous state in the union essentially nullified the Supreme Court’s awful Gonzales v. Raich decision, while legal academics quake that the Supreme Court could be entering a new libertarianish “Lochner era,” and F.A. Hayek and Ayn Rand’s books top the Amazon best-seller lists.
That seems like cause for cheer.  Sure, tonight the statists will be triumphant.  But in the long run, it is cliched but true that…
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The Great Traditionalism Debate, Part 73

The debate on this blog over rationalism vs. traditionalism has been fun so far, even though at time it has kind of an esoteric quality.  I don’t have a lot more to say on it, because I think that most of what needs to be said has already been said, and also because I don’t think my position is really as far from Ben’s as some of these posts might make it seem.  That is, we both agree on most of our substantive political goals and, as I will discuss below, I am certainly no armchair “ideologist,” as in Ben’s caricature of rationalism.  I believe that it is important to understand your own tradition, but, unlike Ben, I do not believe that doing so is the only way to be rational.

Nevertheless, there are still a few points to clean up.

First, Ben keeps arguing that reason can’t be separated from tradition.  The actual evidence for this, beyond mere assertion, is only contained in a few pithy examples.  For instance, he notes in an earlier post that if it weren’t for John Locke, the Magna Carta, and the Scottish Enlightenment, I would not be the thinker that I am today.

Okay, sure.  But so what?  The fact that I am not able to conjure up an entire, completely correct philosophy out of whole cloth is surely no argument against rationalism.  Everyone is dependent on the people who came before them–Isaac Newton famously stated that he could only as far as he could because he stood on the shoulders of giants.  But that isn’t an admission that physics is governed by tradition.  Far from it; Ben admits as much when he states that the same law of gravity that applies to us also applies to primitive tribes.  (Although admittedly, tribesmen do have a tradition of falling when they stumble over logs.)

Understanding this point also shows the error behind Ben’s insinuation that libertarian rationalists must believe that “Murray Rothbard was the first rational man,” because otherwise they couldn’t possibly explain why libertarianism wasn’t all thought up at once, centuries ago.  Of course, I don’t know of anyone who believes anything close to this.  Indeed, because libertarians tend to value the division of labor–Ludwig von Mises called it the “fundamental social phenomenon”–they easily grasp the point that Ben has missed.  Just as no one person could live entirely cut-off from society and maintain a modern standard of living, so too no one person can simply deduce the entire corpus of knowledge all on his own.

Indeed, Rothbard was heavily influenced by the Spanish Scholastics, the French classical liberals, and the American Old Right.  But, once again: so what?  That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t engaged in a rationalistic project.  Just like the physicist who deduces real-world phenomena, the social scientist can deduce the nature of man and therefore the society that is best for man without being bound by any historical tradition.  The fact that every social scientist is influenced by those who came before him is true, but does not change the nature of the project that the social scientist engages in.

Continue reading

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“Why I Am a Utilitarian,” or “A Round-About Response to Ben David”

Reason magazine published a review of some new book about the Tea Party, edited by two Berkeley (!) sociologists (!!).  I haven’t read the book, but one passage from the review stands out:

Postel, the author of The Populist Vision, asks whether Tea Party groups are authentically “populist.” Setting the tone for the book, he argues that the Tea Parties cannot be legitimately understood within the late 19th century populist tradition, which he characterizes as “a democratic movement for economic justice,” because they stand fundamentally opposed to many of the original populist reforms. Instead, he says, the movement has to be understood within a right-wing history that includes the likes of the John Birch Society and Barry Goldwater. Authentic populists would address the concerns of the middle class, he continues, while Tea Partiers are free-market fundamentalists in league with a corporate elite, struggling to dissolve what remains of a middle-class safety net. “In this time of crisis of political economy,” he writes, “where is the populism in a movement that demands hard money and to revert to the gold standard?” (Emphasis added.)

This type of argument should be familiar to anyone who has ever spent time on a college campus.  It is also, in my opinion, one of the Left’s most annoying conceits.  It is an effort to win a debate by simply defining terms in your own favor and thereby pigeonholing the other side.  Briefly, the argument (in an admittedly cleaned-up and idealized form) goes something like this:

  1. I support Social Security because it helps the middle class.
  2. You might not support Social Security, and that’s fine, to each his own.  But if you don’t support Social Security, that means you don’t think that helping the middle class is a big priority.  Maybe you think that “only the strong should survive” or maybe you believe in some abstract right to be free from taxation.
  3. Given the above, people who support policies that help people will support Social Security, whereas people who believe in following some abstract philosophy, regardless of the horrible impact it might have on the most vulnerable classes, will oppose it.

Admittedly, conservatives and libertarians often don’t do themselves any favors in these debates.  Often, they will reply with something like, “Sure, Social Security helps people, but ‘helping’ some people by extorting the taxpayers is still immoral!”

I’m not saying that that reply is wrong (in fact, I’m fairly sure that I believe it to be right).  But the vast majority of people won’t find it convincing–most people are practical consequentialists rather than philosophers.  So in defining terms this way, the leftist almost always wins.

One of the most important projects for conservatives and libertarians, then, is not to frame arguments in terms of morality or deontology, but rather in terms of consequences and utility.  It was in this vein that Ludwig von Mises wrote (as I recall) to Fritz Machlup to say something along the lines of: “Socialism is not wrong because it is a form of theft.  If socialism were beneficial we should all hurry to embrace it.  The reason we oppose socialism so harshly is because it is destructive.” (Quoted in Jorg Guido Hulsmann, Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism.  I can’t find the page number–it’s a very long book!)

In a sense, this is what conservatives have been doing all along (though they might not like the term “utility”).  Edmund Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution was based primarily on the bad consequences that he thought (correctly) the Revolution would engender.  But libertarians tend to get caught up in some of the abstract rationalism of philosophers like Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard and start to miss the point of what they should be arguing all along.  They think that, if they can prove that Social Security is theft, then they have refuted all the arguments in favor of it.

But in so doing, they misapprehend why we oppose theft in the first place.  Theft is not wrong just because it is theft; rather, it is wrong because its acceptance would undermine the basic values necessary to a functioning society.  To a certain extent, this proposition is so basic that it doesn’t need restating.  But it is important to remember it, because, when we phrase things this way, we can easily see that if it were possible to think up a form of theft that actually led to beneficial consequences, it is not at all clear that we should oppose it.

Moreover, I think that this understanding of “utilitarian” libertarianism is pretty much in keeping with Rand and Rothbard’s basic methodology (even if many of their other followers would disagree).  Both of their philosophies are essentially variants of natural law theory, whereby we can deduce both the nature of the human being and the nature of his or her environment, and thereby understand what kind of society is best for human beings.  Rand and Rothbard both concluded that a society that prohibits coercive force is best.  I certainly agree.  But the key point for our analysis is not the coercion is per se wrong.  It is that coercion leads to bad consequences, and, given the nature of humans and of the world, its rejection will leave people better off.

On this note, there is an exciting new undercurrent in libertarian thought–“bleeding heart libertarianism“–which attempts to use the methodology of left-wing statists like John Rawls (most notably, the idea that justice requires that all social institutions should be judged by whether they benefit a society’s least well-off members)  to reach libertarian conclusions.  I plan to have a post on this sometime soon.  Moreover, John Tomasi’s book Free Market Fairness is excellent exposition of this new development–particularly the “Hit Parade” section of chapter 5, where he shows how most of the greatest libertarian thinkers throughout history have been motivated by a desire to help society’s most vulnerable.  The chapter even includes Ayn Rand! (The “everyman” character Eddie Willers of Atlas Shrugged ends the book stranded in the desert after the world has fallen apart, which demonstrates how rejection of Rand’s libertarian philosophy tends to hurt everyone, not just the brilliant and heroic.)

Well, this is a lot to say in reply to a review of an inconsequential book.  But I think it also answers some of Ben’s criticisms of my own rationalism–or at least clarifies what I mean by “rationalism.”  Whereas Ben seems to think of people like Descartes and Diderot when he thinks of rationalists (that is, people who think they can deduce the entire world of knowledge by pondering in their studies), I base my rationalism on natural law theorists following in the tradition St. Thomas Aquinas as well as the later “practical” utilitarians.  That is, I take reason as my means of understanding human beings and understanding the world around them, and then applying that understanding to deduce what kinds of social arrangements are best suited to human beings’ needs.

This analysis will be inherently utilitarian.  And by its very utilitarianism, it also exposes the conceit of certain campus leftists who believe that caring for the poor or worrying about real world consequences inevitably lead one to embrace the nanny state.

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There Are No “Binders Full of Women” at Bain Capital

At the last presidential debate, Mitt Romney inspired a derisive internet meme when he awkwardly bragged about how, as Governor of Massachusetts, he requested and received “binders full of” women job applicants to fill executive-branch positions.  But what one Atlantic magazine columnist considers the real “heart of the issue,” is that, notwithstanding Romney’s performance as governor, “there were no women partners at Bain Capital during [his] tenure.”  The columnist claims that while Romney did “a good job” promoting women for political benefit as governor, he did “a terrible job” promoting them in his private business.

But is the difference between Romney’s actions as Governor and his actions as a Bain executive really as hypocritical as the Atlantic writer believes?

I don’t think so.  A half century ago, the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises addressed this very issue in his book Bureaucracy.  He pointed out that the divergent natures of “market society” and of “bureaucracy” force each to adopt entirely different methods of organization, and that neither can successfully adopt that of the other.

The objective of business management is to make a profit.  As success or failure to attain this end can be ascertained by accounting not only for the whole business concern but also for any of its parts, it is feasible to decentralize both management and accountability without jeopardizing the unity of operations and the attainment of their goal. . . . There is no need to limit the discretion of subordinates by any rules or regulations other than that underlying all business activities, namely, to render their operations profitable.

The objectives of public administration cannot be measured in money terms and cannot be checked by accountancy methods.  Take a nationwide police system like the FBI.  There is no yardstick available that could establish whether the expenses incurred by one of its regional or local branches were not excessive.  The expenditures of a police station are not reimbursed by its successful management and do not vary in proportion to the success attained. . . . In public administration there is no market price for achievements.  This makes it indispensable to operate public offices according to principles entirely different from those applied under the profit motive (Liberty Fund edition, pp. 37-39).

Because private businesses are able to make profit-and-loss calculations, they are able to determine whether each component of the firm is profitable.  “The profit motive through the instrumentality of which the entrepreneurs are driven to serve the consumers to the best of their ability is at the same time the first principle of any commercial and industrial aggregate’s internal organization” (p. 29).

By contrast, because government operations are not subject to any profit-and-loss test, their personnel cannot be evaluated by the same measure of how well they benefit the organization.  Arbitrary standards must carry the slack for economic efficiency.  As Mises writes, in the U.S. (at least at the time of his writing),

regulations require that [bureaucratic job] applicants be a certain age, graduate from certain schools, and pass certain examinations.  For promotion to the higher ranks and higher salary a certain number of years in the lower ranks and the passing of further examinations are required.  It is obvious that such requirements refer to things more or less superficial.  There is no need to point out that school attendance, examinations, and years spent in the lower positions do not necessarily qualify a man for a higher job.  This machinery of selection sometimes bars the most competent men from a job and does not always prevent the appointment of an utter incompetent.  But the worst effect produced is that the main concern of the clerks is to comply with these and other formalities (p. 45).

Mises, of course, wrote well before the age of political correctness and seemingly did not envision that hiring binders full of women to executive branch positions would some day take its place alongside other arbitrary criteria like school attendance or years spent in lower positions.

But he would not necessarily be surprised.  He understood that government is always shaped by popular ideas and that, therefore, the standards necessarily imposed by government bureaucracies–as a necessary tool to make up for government’s inherent economic inefficiencies–would rely on future popular shibboleths like political correctness.  As long as governments are governments, they will be forced to employ these kinds of standards, or else disintegrate into calculational chaos.  Nor would Mises be surprised that a businessman like Mitt Romney seems to intuitively grasp the concept that the standards for hiring people into a business are much different.  These latter rely on increasing profits and thereby serving the consumer, regardless of what the fashionable ideologies, as promulgated in the Atlantic, might dictate.

Nevertheless, Mises, who believed that, in order for civilization to even survive at all, economics must be “the main and proper study of every citizen” (Human Action: The Scholar’s Edition, p. 875) would certainly be dismayed to learn that columnists, decades after his own death, still believe that businessmen should base their hiring decisions on arbitrary criteria like proportionate representation of women, all without the smallest reference to whether doing so will enable that business to produce a better product.

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