- Great essay on liberty by one of my former professors at UCLA
- Suddenly, inexplicably, the NYT has begun blaming the KGB for the Middle East’s problems. No seriously.
- Homo Sovieticus and mind control
- Beware statistics backing absurd claims
- “The achievement of our times—if there will be one to write about—will depend largely on how we resist the newer, more subtle, forms of dehumanization which now, like the tireless tide, creep all around us again.“
In a recent article by The Week, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry claims that “Porn is bad!” and, in addition, we all know he’s right. Star Trek is leveraged to provide the analogy that we are all playing a game – the game of pornography and all its damaging consequences, a game from which we all need saving. It is worthwhile to note that in the featured Star Trek episode, the only one who rescues the helpless players from their entertainment is, in fact, a robot. This is excellent, because Gobry’s point might best be summarized as a plea for us to transition to unfeeling automata, which runs rather counter-intuitive to his pleasant speculations about sensuality above sexuality.
The “game” metaphor conjures feelings of triviality, and entrapment, and our human gullibility; it is an attempt at guiltiness by association. The idea of a mind trap goes at least as far back as Brave New World. The topic of pornography in our culture is better understood through a separate reference to Sword Art Online, a recent animation out of Japan in which characters engage with the world of virtual reality. (Shout-out Michelangelo Landgrave for the science-fiction expertise. ) In the beginning of the show, Gobry can find the parallel he so desperately seeks: helpless entrapment in a virtual system. Then, the system becomes therapeutic – healing for post traumatic stress, introduction to a foreign world, character development, and so on. Pornography use can provide a channel for instincts banned from the real world, educate young people that don’t know where the clitoris is, and all throughout its growth sexual violence trends fall. Gobry doesn’t care about any of this because for Gobry, sex itself is just too damn naughty to support.
It is an opinion article, without any in-depth research, and yet his sources are painfully bland or biased. One of the few articles he draws on makes a fundamental error in assuming that “Pornography and tobacco, everyone can agree … have [both] been on the receiving end of public moralizing ever since their appearance in human society.” This is patently false. Corporate defense of tobacco hardly equates to public moralizing, and in reality, religious institutions composed the parochial mantle of society since society’s birth, and have explicitly condemned tobacco use (often as “sinful”) except in rare instances. Pornography, too, has faced severe criticism since its expansion over the last hundred years, and only went without prohibition in classical antiquity as erotica (in which, I have pointed out, attitudes about sexuality seemed less sexist and less morally authoritarian than today).
The analogue between tobacco and porn is intended to be striking. Frankly, pornography is not the new tobacco. Young men don’t watch porn together. Porn isn’t “cool” or fashionable or a social activity. Pornography faces severe private forms of social control in most instances. And smoking enjoyed a relatively long period of relaxed legal policy until its multi-directional assault; online pornography has been under attack since its conception. Smoking was banned from most public spaces for the most excellent reasons: it causes second-hand harm to others that do not consent. Pornography, being a bedroom activity, does not have any such social consequences. Tobacco also lowers libido, essentially serving as pornography’s antithesis as an anaphrodisiac.
With the pleasures of smoking under varying lock and key, the new freedom, porn, must face the wrath of the pleasure-fascists. No, porn doesn’t cause cancer (Gobry likely finds this a drag); but surely it must do some harm to the family – or maybe society.
However, the allusion to “good evidence that [porn destroys] lives and families” goes unfortunately uncited, leaving us wondering which religious or conservative think tank is providing these supporting arguments. Perhaps the evidence is provided by the federal research projects that discover no negative effects of pornography consumption; or the plethora of marriage therapists that recommend watching porn to fix relationships. And yet, though porn addiction is alluded too, there is not even evidence of this – sex addiction itself is considered controversial in psychological circles. Gobry, a closeted equinophile, also beats up the dead horse, pulling out the “desensitization” argument (that I have discussed previously) which is based on lazy reasoning and not empirically supported as a psychological or neurological feature. Horror stories, that describe a hardcore acceleration in pornographic taste, are the exception, and not the rule.
His sources for individual discussion are sketchy as best. /NoFap, an internet support group to encourage extended periods of auto-abstinence, described by Gobry as “increasingly popular,” was began as a joke, and exists only on subreddits or 4chan. It’s like No Shave November but nobody even shaves their neckbeards. The name itself has a crudity no serious movement possesses, and the idea is not to quit masturbating, but, ordinarily, to take a tolerance break, so that better quality masturbating might follow. (The only other website pointed out by Gobry looks like a nightmare-generator created by fear-mongering soccer moms, and contains just speculation.) It is true, for scientific consensus, that abstinence from masturbating often leads to more energy, better mood, and more sociability. And yet, as per the aphorism of the ages – you can’t be loved, or give love, until you love yourself. Masturbation is still a taboo for certain groups in society that don’t feel comfortable exploring themselves. Vocal chastising by journalists is not helping.
Pornography is inherently an interaction with the hyper-real. It is an opportunity to engage with every possible emotion, some negative and some positive, and explore that mysterious side of ourselves so subjugated in social spheres. Recall Sword Art Online: unlike real life, videogames have the opportunity to be played multiple times. We can explore life before our incredibly consequential interactions with it. Pornography can help us recognize attractive and repulsive behaviors, and examine our sexuality. It is, surely, a cheap thrill; no cheaper than fast food or blockbuster movies (also criticized by Gobry elsewhere. He should spend more time instead on the subreddit /NoFun). Yet all of these have their place, and it is no one’s place to demand the removal of another person’s harmless pleasure.
Maybe Gobry should just have criticized masturbating instead of porn. The entire paragraph on NoFap is a conflation of what he wants to despise, porn, and what his own testimonials criticize, masturbating. He writes as if his distaste is for pornography, but this is revealed to be a distaste for masturbation, and this too just a distaste for pleasure outside of marriage.
Gobry is enchanted with Pamela Anderson’s calls for a “sensual revolution,” which would “replace pornography with eroticism — the alloying of sex with love, of physicality with personality, of the body’s mechanics with imagination, of orgasmic release with binding relationships.” This evolution is in fact probable, and might even be happening today, except that sexuality constantly needs reinforcement for freedom. Freedom has never been free. Sexuality in particular has been brutalized for eons, with rare figures like de Sade encouraging promiscuity and removing stigma. Over millennia, sexuality has faced an unholy arsenal of reprimand, mostly along arbitrary lines, and the day when genuine sexual freedom is fostered by a culture may never come – it’s difficult to even imagine. Anderson’s quote is not about freedom and sensuality; it’s about connecting sexuality to commitment again, which is the opposite of liberation. Gobry is either ignorant to the insinuations, or the puritan inside him found a way to expose its true intentions: make sex stale and non-promiscuous again.
Gobry’s dislike of individual fulfillment is revealed in a few of his other articles, as he notes that the only way to experience God is for Him to “strip away” all the “feel-goody aspects of the spiritual life,” noting that enlightenment is thought to occur by a process of “purification”- and should be expected to be “very painful.” This metaphor for God’s purification is noticeably more akin to deflowering a virgin than offering nirvana. A thread of sadomasochism could be derived from much of his meandering arguments. Gobry is a conservative Catholic, but somehow The Week still thought it credible that he should write on millennials’ lack of sex, a piece in which he effectively blames society’s problems on men, Xbox, and Tinder. In fact, for Gobry, society is collapsing because of porn. The world is falling apart because a sixteen year old is beating his meat every night. He is a classic puritan, and a Luddite by merit of his technophobia, claiming there is no magic to casual sex. He is conflicted though, in suggesting less sex among unmarried couples is a good thing, while attempting to claim heritage to a great French tradition of expressive sexuality. France should immediately revoke his citizenship and ancestry as punishment for such unromantic viewpoints.
The article contains, alongside his claim to Frenchhood, an air of self-absorption. It is interesting that an anti-pornography (and really, anti-pleasure) essay sounds so masturbatory. More than a few great minds have posited intellectual activity, e.g., journalism, as a method for sexual satisfaction; it appears there is perhaps a sort of sadistic pleasure for Gobry in condemning others’ pleasure-avenues and simultaneously stroking his own ego. Kant’s first name is even spelled incorrectly to match with Gobry’s hyphenated name, as if to juxtapose his own intellectual endeavor with “one of the greatest ethicists of the 18th centruy” [sic]. Presumably, a great insecurity is at the bottom of his condemnation.
His essay could, and hopefully should, be read as satirical. The author doesn’t seem particularly passionate about his viewpoints (as might be surmised from the low quality research), but regardless, throwing crap opinions like this into the world does real damage if they go without criticism. Pornography isn’t “bad” in any special way; it’s bad in a way the author disagrees with. The opposition force to general pornography might attempt to award themselves the moral high ground, and assign virtue to their dissent, but they are ultimately products of oft-religious, anti-scientific reaction. Gobry also seems to have a distaste for equal protection under the law and critical thinking as another writer has illustrated. The only topic he seems to possess an adequate grasp of is Christianity’s fundamental opposition to those damn gays – an opposition it must never budge on, no matter how much open society tries to bully it by bringing up equality (this even as he awkwardly attempts to posit that China should become a Christian nation).
The only thing we really need to fight about porn is behind the scenes, and these are the legal battles and stigmatization of sex work. There are porn stars that knowingly spread venereal diseases and never receive legal accountability; these are the horrors of pornography, and they are the horrors of most industries. What is on screen and consensual is not the enemy. The expectations impressed upon people by pornographic standards – waxed mons pubis, athletic or curvy body types, well-hung penises, hours of sex – are not a battle for courts or culture. As much liberation is to be found in porn as is oppression. Columnists that still condemn pornography as sexist or oppressive are behind the times; female-centered erotica is on the rise, and the “bizarre and elaborate fetishes” are lost in the abyss of mild amateur sex tapes and high-definition, romantic cinema (PassionHD, Nubiles, etc.). The videos Gobry finds distasteful must usually be sought out, and speculatively, it is his own seeking-out that confronts him with what he so loathes.
Toward the end, we are told that the most powerful argument against porn is that his opponents denounce the arguments against porn. This is an essential part of internet argumentation: A is necessary because my opponents reject A. Here, A is anti-pornography reaction; in other places, it is other forms of authoritarianism. Ultimately, the headline of the article indicates the effort and intellectual integrity of its authorship. Porn is bad! sums up the chicken-clucking omnipresent in the work, but even better is the website address: porn-bad. Here, the true nature of the article is finally revealed, as 21st century duckspeak.
I write in reply to Edwin van de Haar’s post ‘Classical Liberalism, Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism’, which contains some generous remarks about my social media posts while putting forward a view different from my own about the role of the nation state. Edwin argues that the nation state is foundational to classical liberalism in that post. I have previously argued for the benefits of the United Kingdom staying in the European Union, just before the referendum which has put the UK on the path to leaving.
I will start with the doctrinal issues of how far classical liberalism might be considered as something that is embedded in the emergence of the nation state as we know it. It is true that classical liberalism arose as the nation state emerged and consolidated and it did not occur to classical liberals, on the whole, to question the state system as they knew it. That is a system defined in early modern natural law and contractual theory about law and state as one of a very unified system of sovereignty in a world of ‘a state of nature’, anarchy, or lawlessness between states.
We have to note at least one major deviation in the familiar list of classical liberal authors, which is Immanuel Kant, thinking of his essays ‘Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose’ (1784) and ‘Perpetual Peace: a philosophical sketch’ (1795), which do not question the internal sovereignty of states, but does argue for a law governed set of relations between states with a global institution of some sort to prevent republics going to war with each other.
We should consider John Stuart Mill’s thoughts on federal states in Considerations on Representative Government (1861), particularly chapter XVII, ‘Or Federal Representative Governments’ which looks at the possibility of a state with decentralised decision making functions. A nation state can be federalised, at least in principle, but what are the components of the federation other then sub-nations, where the population may even regard them as nations within the state. Mill was building on the experience of the United States since the constitution of 1787, and Switzerland, particularly since the federal constitution of 1848.
The United States and Switzerland did not come out of nowhere. The US consolidated the links between thirteen colonies of Great Britain while federal Switzerland built on the Swiss Confederation and its links with places like Geneva which were associated with the confederation, but were not part of it until the restructuring of European states in the Napoleonic period. The point here is that modern states may be federal as well as unitary states and that includes continuity with pre-modern links between at last partly self-governing regions-nations. We could even say that kind of state of associated states was the Medieval norm.
The example, and even idealisation, of this Medieval structure enters classical liberalism via Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748), along with the work of Swiss jurists of the time, particularly in Berne. Montesquieu was building on the experience of the kind of medieval and early modern monarchy where he thought there was liberty, moderation in government, distinguishing it from tyranny. In such situations different laws and assemblies for towns and for historic regions was quite normal under the monarchy. In so far as such states, like France, were tending to evolve in states based on the absolute sovereignty of the centre, in the formation of what we call a nation state, Montesquieu saw the danger of despotism.
The historical experience that Montesquieu was drawing on was the way that Medieval monarchies were constructed through assembling patch work of the monarch’s personal domains, regions with their own lords and institutions, and church domains, along with increasingly self-governing towns. He also looked at the antique experiences of allying republics in a federation, which he thought was preserved in the Netherlands and Switzerland of his time. Germany, which at that time was a kind of federal/confederal empire of very varied forms of sub-imperial sovereign units including princes with lands outside the Empire, was also a form of federation for Montesquieu.
If we go back to the German history of the century before Montesquieu, the idea of the modern nation state is strongly associated with the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty Years war, focused on Germany, but drawing in most of Europe. ‘Westphalian state system’ has become a label for an internal system of states which are completely sovereign internally and face each other as equal legal personalities with no higher instance of sovereignty or collective instrument for enforcing the laws of nations, which do have some basis in the natural law doctrines of the time, and earlier.
The trouble with this understanding of Westphalia is that though it has some truth for Europe outside the German Empire (officially known as the Holy Roman Empire), it is very misleading for the Empire, and therefore for those European powers, including Sweden and Denmark, which had land within the Empire. The princes, cities and other territorial units within the Empire were under the legal authority of the Emperor, who largely served as a judge of interstate disputes though with far greater powers in the lands of the Habsburg family (consolidated as the Austrian Empire in the Napoleonic era) which always had the Emperor, though the Emperor was legally an elective office. The Habsburgs land extended outside the Empire into central Europe so the Westphalian system of Imperial authority brought in other European nations and extended outside the Empire strictly speaking.
Westphalia modified a system rooted in the Middle Ages of Germany as a middle European federation or confederation, drawing in other parts of Europe and therefore anchoring a European system of some kind. Periods of dominance by France or Spain complicate this story, but French claims always overlapped with Imperial claims and the peak of Spanish power was when the Spanish monarchy was from the same family as the German Emperors.
The Napoleonic era disrupted these arrangements severely, but we can see Napoleon as trying to revive the original Empire of the Romans under Charlemagne in the ninth century, which united France, Germany and neighbouring territories under a Frankish over-king. Charlemagne was know as ‘father of Europe’ in his time, perhaps more in connection with Europe as Christendom and his wars against Muslims in Spain, then with Europe as we might think of it now, but this is part of the story of what it is for there to be a Europe and a European system. Coronation by the Pope and recognition of the Frankish kingdom as heir to ancient Rome connects the medieval German Empire with the first great European political system, the Roman Empire.
The aftermath of the Napoleonic period in Germany was a confederation, which again included those European powers (the United Kingdom was one) which had lands in Germany. This evolved into the German Empire founded in 1871, which was itself an extraordinary mixture of Greater Prussia, federation, democracy, aristocracy, monarchy, and so on. It was more of a nation state than German predecessor systems in that it was a sovereign unified part of the international state system. The size and growing economic power of the Kaiserreich, incorporating Polish, French and Danish speaking areas, made it a destabilising force in Europe. Too big for the security of other European states, too small to anchor a European system.
The First World War and the Second World War were both consequences of this unstable system. The European Union is in large part an attempt to solve the problem by creating a European system which Germany anchors, though since unification the dominance of Germany has become an issue again. Whatever the problems, the EU provides a better framework for structuring a European system in which Germany is both contained and can exert influence in a consensual manner.
Returning to the issue of the nation state, Germany was never a nation state in the strictest sense of a very unitary state with a single language and ethnicity. France has usually been taken as the model of the nation state ‘strictly speaking’, but even so it has only been a country of speakers of standard French since the late nineteenth century. As it is now, it includes speakers of Breton, Basque, Occitan and Alsace German. Corsica has special status and Alsace-Lorraine also has some special arrangements in recognition of its specificities.
The European world before the First World War was more of a Europe of multi-national Empires than nations, with four Empires (German Hohenzollern, Austrian Habsburg, Turkish Ottoman, Russian Romanov) dominating the centre and east. Spain in practice has always been an extended Castille in which other regions-nations have played variable distinct roles. The United Kingdom never completely integrated as a nation state; even at the peak of integration in the nineteenth century, Scotland kept its own legal, state church and educational system and since then in a rather complicated way the UK has become more loosely integrated and may lose Scotland in a few years.
Even with the imminent departure of the UK from the EU, Europe continues to be a political system, not just an aggregate of nation states. The larger European states are not nation states in the strictest sense. Even without the EU, European states accept various kinds of obligation with regard to north Atlantic security and global trade which limit sovereignty. The UK will negotiate some kind of membership of the internal market of the EU and its passport union aspect, as well as participation in various EU schemes. It will therefore continue to be part of a European system anchored by Germany.
Ever since the Romans, Europe has needed a European system of some kind, and the German anchor schemes going back to 800 have recognised the Roman precedent. In reality there has never been a Europe of nation states and the periods closest to that model ended in catastrophic wars. Disaggregation of the European system as it is now may not result in war, but it has the potential to unleash trade wars, protectionism, competitive currency devaluation, erosion of chances to live, work, and study abroad, associated labour market sclerosis, destabilising struggles for political-diplomatic dominance, and an incapacity to ally in order to deal with global and strategic issues affecting Europe, including migration flows, Russian expansionism, and Middle Eastern conflict and terror.
(more on the consequences of the UK leave referendum soon)
Leaving the European Union would not be a gain for liberty in the United Kingdom. This is true as a matter of general principles and is reinforced by the nature of the Leave campaign which has targeted sections of the population hostile to immigration, open markets, and free trade. Much of the Leave campaigning which has not appealed to such base arguments has at the very least appealed to a version of populist democratic sovereignty at odds with the restraints on government and the state at the heart of classical liberal and libertarian thought.
Even if we try to separate some pure classical liberal version of the Leave campaign from the crudity of the campaign, as some natural supporters of leave wish had happened to the extent they ate voting for Remain rather than go along with such an obnoxious campaign, we are still left with the question of why it liberty advocates should support Leave.
I have sometimes seen references to national sovereignty as a classical liberal doctrine. If this means never sharing sovereignty at a transnational level, then it is simply a false claim. Immanuel Kant advocated a world federation to prevent war. Kant is not often put at the centre of the history of classical liberal thought. His ideas about political institutions, individual rights, and the limits of government certainly belong in the classical liberal sphere. We should distinguish between what Kant said and what later German Idealists said, a rather big issue, and appreciate how close he is to the way of thinking of Montesquieu and Smith and even advances upon them in showing a clearer understanding of the role of representative assemblies in modern politics.
More recently F.A. Hayek advocated federation between liberal democracies. The creation and evolution of the European Union has been and continues to be supported by European political parties of a classical liberal persuasion, those liberal parties which remained most true to the principles of their nineteenth century founders and precursors. Thinkers on the left, like Albert Camus and George Orwell, known for their particular commitment to liberty and their opposition to an authoritarian state were enthusiasts for European integration. Many conservatives of the more free market and limited government sort like Ludwig Erhard (founder of Germany’s post-war, post-Nazi market economy) and John Major (UK Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997, who went further than Margaret Thatcher in privatisation and deregulation) have been and are advocates of the European Union.
The unrestrained sovereignty of the nation-state is not only not an inherently liberal idea, it is dangerous to liberalism. There is nothing illiberal in transnational rules and institutions that restrain states from violence against their own citizens, attacks on individual rights, economic protectionism, and market rigging. The European Union is particularly successful with regard to the economic and market issues at the national level. It adds huge institutional weight to the work of the Council of Europe which promotes human rights through its court in Strasbourg. The existence of the European Court of Justice is of profound importance in ensuring that national governments and peoples are accustomed to regarding the decisions of nation states as subordinate to and accountable to a judicial process enforcing transnational laws.
The EU is open to a great deal of criticism with regard to its tendencies towards over-regulation, but this represents the median attitude of the member governments, not an imposition on the nation-states of Europe. Since the UK economy is at the more free market deregulated end of the European Union, there is some plausibility in saying the UK might go further down that road if it left the EU. However, before it joined the EU it was looking less market oriented than the EU states of the time. The period during which the UK has moved from the more statist to the more limited state end of the European nations has been during the period of EU membership. The precedents do not favour the UK becoming more classically liberal because it leaves the EU and the Leave campaign has appealed to the most insular, nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner, and anti-free trade sections of the UK population.
It is possible to imagine the UK as a more libertarian kind of place in the EU, but a much more plausible use of the liberal imagination is to think of ways in which the UK can work with allies in the EU for a a less regulatory and centralised EU. This has already worked as in the adoption of the European Single Market and the diminishing role of the European Commission, the ‘bureaucratic’ part of the EU. The Commission employs as many bureaucrats as the larger local government units in the UK and is tiny compared with any national bureaucracy. Its members are nominated by national governments subject to confirmation of the European Parliament. Power has shifted from the Commission to the bodies in which national government representatives meet, the European Council and the Council of the European Union.
The Leave campaign in the UK, including self-styled free marketers in the Conservative Party, is committed to leave the Single Market as well as the European Union itself, in large part to terminate free movement of EU citizens across its borders. The reasoning offered to prevent this movement of human capital is in terms of anti-foreigner sentiment. This is not something than can be recognised as a pro-liberty program. The pro-liberty choice is to keep free movement of goods, investment, and labour within the EU while working to reform the more interventionist tendencies of the European Union, to stymie the regulatory drift which started hitting industrial market economies decades before the EU was created and which cannot be solved by smashing up the EU.
I decided to read Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Economic Science And The Austrian Method (1995) in order to grasp a deeper philosophical understanding of the Austrian School’s methodology of economic inquiry. I was especially interested in Immanuel Kant’s influence on Ludwig von Mises and how Mises had used Kant’s epistemological insights to construct praxeology, the study of human action (economics included) that is purely deductive in nature.
Those who are acquainted with scientific methodologies in the field of economics may have heard of the controversies surrounding praxeology. Living in an empirical age, many people may be inclined to question the validity of a science that claims to arrive at economic laws from pure deduction whose validity can be established independently from observations. Praxeological propositions are indeed much more “like those of logic and mathematics, a priori” (Mises, 1966, p. 32). Such a science may strike the skeptics as being disquietly dogmatic.
In this book review, I will firstly give a brief discussion why it is important at all to discuss the epistemological foundations of economic science. Thereafter, I will discuss Hoppe’s thesis. I will describe the philosophical aspects of praxeology that can be traced back to Kantian epistemology. I will moreover summarize Hoppe’s critique of empiricism and historicism, and why Mises believed that economics is essentially praxeology. Lastly, I will give my personal thoughts on the book.
Why should we discuss the epistemological foundations of economic science?
The most immediate answer to this question is that different epistemological foundations lead to different methodologies and different theories, which can lead to different interpretations of real-life phenomena. Take for example the interpretation of an historical economic event, the Great Depression. Murray Rothbard, because he is working within the context of praxeology makes use of the praxeological Austrian Business Cycle Theory. This theory focuses on the expansion of the money supply as an explanation of the onset of the ‘boom’ in the 1920’s which eventually resulted in the ‘bust’ in 1929. Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz in A Monetary History Of The United States (1963), while not applying the ABCT, have focused only on the contraction of the money supply and the resulting higher interest rates in 1928 as the main cause of the Great Depression. Their application of different economic methods has led them to look for different possible historical causes of the Great Depression which has effectively resulted in different accounts of the same historical event. It therefore matters what economic methods are employed in economic research.
Now that we have established the importance of inquiring epistemological foundations and methodologies of economic science, I will turn to Hoppe’s thesis.
Kant and synthetic a priori propositions
Working within the rationalist tradition of Leibniz and Kant, Mises attempts to present the proper way through which economic science – a science that according to Mises falls within the broader science of human action, praxeology – should be conducted. He resorts to the Kantian conception of the nature of knowledge and explains praxeology in terms of Kantian terminology. Hence, Hoppe firstly directs the reader to Kantian epistemology.
Kant had developed the idea that all propositions are either analytic or synthetic and either a priori or a posteriori. The difference between analytic and synthetic propositions is that the former is true by virtue of their meaning or as Kant would have phrased it himself, “the predicate B belongs to the subject A as something that is (covertly) contained in this concept A” (Kant, 1781, A:6-7). Take for instance the following proposition: “Bachelors are unmarried.” This proposition is analytic, because the predicate, ‘unmarried’, is part of the concept of a bachelor. Analytic propositions are regarded as tautological propositions; they simply restate the definition or a concept incorporated within a word and therefore they do not tell us anything meaningful about the world. A synthetic proposition on the other hand is a proposition whose predicate concept is not contained in the subject’s concept. It could therefore express something meaningful about the world. An example of a synthetic proposition is: “All bachelors are unhappy.” The concept ‘unhappy’ is not contained within the definition of ‘bachelor’, and expresses something meaningful about ‘bachelors’.
The distinction between a priori and a posteriori is as follows: a priori propositions are propositions whose justification does not rely upon experience, but solely on logical reasoning. The justifications of a posteriori propositions on the other hand, do rely upon experience. Examples of a posteriori propositions are “Some bachelors I have met are unhappy” or “Siddharta Gautama left the palace.”
The big question is: do synthetic a priori propositions exist? Kant certainly believed that they do exist, “and it is because Mises subscribes to this claim that he can be called a Kantian” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 18). In Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant contended that synthetic a priori propositions do exist and as an example he took mathematics (Kant, 1781, p. 55). The statement “7 + 5 = 12” is not dependent on experimentation and the concept 12 is not contained in either the definitions of 7 or 5. According to Kant, a priori propositions are derived from self-evident axioms. We can find such axioms by reflecting upon ourselves and understanding ourselves as knowing subjects. However, how can truth claims derived from reflection in our mind have any basis in reality? Is Kant here running into the problem of idealism – a notion that it is the mind that constructs reality and superimposes itself upon reality in such a way that it fits within the mind’s necessary laws?
According to Hoppe, Kant had not given a satisfactory response to this issue and future thinkers would have to take on the challenge of solving this problem. Hoppe believes that Mises had done so successfully when he had averred that action provides the link between mind – body and between mind – external world: “[W]e must recognize that such necessary truths are not simply categories of our mind, but that our mind is one of acting persons. Our mental categories have to be understood as ultimately grounded in categories of action” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 20). It is through action that the mind and reality are related: “[A]cting is a cognitively guided adjustment of a physical body in physical reality” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 70).
Another issue that arises with regards to the possibility of synthetic a priori propositions, and which I have found quite confusing myself is the following: does Hoppe suggest that we can arrive at knowledge without any experience of ourselves or the external world at all? No, according to Hoppe “the truth of a priori synthetic propositions derives ultimately from inner, reflectively produced experience” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 19). This experience is phrased by Stolyarov II as “the mind’s identification of facts about actually existing entities, including the identifier himself” (Stolyarov II, 2007, p. 53). In this sense, the action axiom is experientially-derived, but it is not subjected to the empiricists’ narrow view that all knowledge must be testable, verifiable, or falsifiable.
Empiricism, Historicism, and Praxeology
When Mises systematically constructed the foundations of praxeology, he faced a double-challenge; (A) empiricism which was quickly becoming the main influence in the economics discipline, and (B) historicism which was then a prevailing ideology at German-speaking universities.
Empiricism is the “philosophy which thinks of economics and the social sciences in general as following the same logic of research of that, for instance, of physics” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 28). Hoppe writes that empiricism is governed by the following two related basic propositions:
(1) that empirical knowledge, knowledge about reality, must be subjected to falsifiability and verifiability by observational experience;
(2) and that empiricist research formulates their explanations in terms of causality, i.e. “if A, then B”. (Hoppe, 1995, pp. 28-29)
Hoppe continues to write that the validity of empirical statements
can never be established with certainty… The statement will always be and always remain hypothetical… Should experience confirm a hypothetical causal explanation, this would not prove that the hypothesis was true. Should one observe an instance where B indeed followed A as predicted, it verifies nothing… Later experiences could still possibly falsify it. (Hoppe, 1995, p. 29)
Empirical knowledge is hence contingent on historical facts. Neither confirmation nor falsification by observational experience can prove that a relationship between phenomena does not or does exist. By emphasizing that our knowledge of reality must stem from observational experience, they directly deny a science that avers that a priori knowledge can give us any meaningful explanation of real phenomena. However, as Hoppe and Mises point out, the statement that meaningful synthetic a priori propositions cannot exist is itself a synthetic a priori proposition. Mises has put this empiricist contradiction the following way in The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science (1962):
The essence of logical positivism [logical empiricism] is to deny the cognitive value of a priori knowledge by pointing out that all a priori propositions are merely analytic. They do not provide new information, but are merely verbal or tautological, asserting what has already been implied in the definitions and premises. Only experience can lead to synthetic propositions. There is an obvious objection against this doctrine, viz., that this proposition that there are no synthetic a priori propositions is in itself a … synthetic a priori proposition, for it can manifestly not be established by experience. (Mises, 1962, p. 5)
Hoppe mentions a second contradiction of empiricism which regards historical events. Empiricists believe that particular events may cause any particular human action. They attempt to find such causal relationships in order to explain historical events. However, in order to do so, empiricists must assume that causality within historical sequences exists through all times. This assumption itself is not based on experiential observations, and must presuppose a priori knowledge that “time-invariantly operating causes with respect to actions exist” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 36). In addition, Hoppe identifies a third contradiction with respect to social phenomena. The empiricists believe that in order to confirm and falsify hypotheses, one must be able to learn from historical and social experience. If one would deny this, then why should one engage in empirical research at all? This however presupposes that “one admittedly cannot know at any given time what one will know at a later time and, accordingly, how one will act on the basis of this knowledge” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 37). Admitting that humans learn from historical and social experience, one cannot deny that empirical causal constants in human action do not exist. “The empiricist-minded social scientists who formulate prediction equations regarding social phenomena are simply doing nonsense” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 38). Predicting human action is not a science according to Hoppe.
The empiricists are mistaken in applying the methodology of the natural sciences into the fields of social science in order to predict human actions. Unlike natural elements, human beings can and do act differently under equal conditions. Thus, social history cannot yield any knowledge that can be employed for predictive purposes. Relating this to the quantity theory of money; if the money supply for instance increases, one can still not predict whether the demand of money will change as this is entirely dependent on human action. Nonetheless, one could assert that if the demand for money stays constant and the money supply increases, then the purchasing power of money will fall (Hoppe, 1995, pp. 44-45).
Historicism, the second challenge that Mises had to face, does not take nature as its model but literary texts. Historicists believe that there are no objective laws in economics, and that “historical and economic events are whatever someone expresses or interprets them to be” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 54). Historicism is therefore extremely relativist. However, according to Hoppe also historicism is fundamentally self-contradictory. If there are only interpretations and hence no constant time-invariant relations, then there is also no historicist constant truth about history and economics. If historicism does not give us any reason to believe in its doctrine, why should we adhere to its epistemological philosophy if its proposition implies that they themselves may not be true?
Next to his refutations of empiricism and historicism, Mises had hoped that he could demonstrate the existence of true synthetic a priori propositions. Such propositions would (1) not be derived from experience, and (2) they must yield self-evident axioms so that when one tries to deny it one is involved in self-contradiction. Mises believes that these two requirements are met by the axiom of action – the proposition that human beings act and display intentional behaviour (Hoppe, 1995, pp. 60-61). According to Mises, purposeful human behaviour exhibits a person’s pursuit of an end which he attempts to reach through the employment of particular means (at least time and body). The fact that a person pursues a particular goal with his action reveals that he places a relatively higher value (preference) on the goal than any other goals of action that he could have thought of at the beginning of his action. Human action also happens sequentially, implying that the actor can only pursue one goal at a time in which he has to forego other valuable goals temporally. Action therefore also implies choices and costs. An action furthermore implies loss (and profit), because every action accompanies a certain degree of uncertainty, whether the goal achieved has resulted in the value one has expected can only be known in retrospect. All these categories of action – values, ends, means, choices, preferences, costs, profit, loss, and time – are at the heart of economics (Hoppe, 1995, pp. 61-63). This insight establishes economics as a science of human action. Or as Hoppe asserts more precisely,
all true economic theorems consist of (a) an understanding of the meaning of action, (b) a situation or situational change – assumed to be given or identified as being given – and described in terms of action-categories, and (c) a logical deduction of the consequences – again in terms of such categories – which are to result for an actor from this situation or situational change (Hoppe, 1995, pp. 63-64).
The existence of the categories of action is derived a priori from the axiom of action, and not through observation. Any attempt to disprove it is futile, since “a situation in which the categories of action would cease to have a real existence could itself never be observed or spoken of, since to make an observation and to speak are themselves actions” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 63).
My thoughts on Hoppe’s book
The book serves as an excellent summary of praxeological philosophy and is a must-read for anyone who wants to start learning more about the subject. Reading the book, one feels that it is extremely concise (around 80 pages), but also dense. Hoppe directly discusses the essential philosophical aspects that one must know in order to understand praxeology as developed by Mises, and fortunately he leaves many footnotes for further reading.
I believe that Hoppe has skillfully shown that economics is part of praxeology, and that it indisputably deals with such categories of human action as values, ends, means, choices, preferences, profit, loss, time, and causality. He has furthermore provided a well-reasoned critique of the empiricist and historicist-hermeneutical interpretations of economics by showing that they are necessarily self-contradictory.
Understanding that economics should not be conducted within the methodological framework of the natural sciences has severe implications to the ways we should deal with data of real world phenomena. If, like praxeologists claim, we cannot predict human action then there is also little reason to believe that effective social engineering is possible. The fundamentals of the praxeological methodology are therefore also immediately relevant within discussions on the roles of the state in planning the economy.
 Hoppe calls it entrepreneurship.
Friedman, M. & Schwartz, A.J. (1963). A Monetary History of the United States 1867-1960. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Hoppe, H.H. (1995). Economic Science and the Austrian Method. Auburn: Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Kant, I. (1781). Critique of Pure Reason. (W.S. Pluhar, Trans.) Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Mises von, L. (1942). Social Science and Natural Science. In R.M. Ebeling (Ed.) Money, Methods, and the Market Process (pp. 3-15). Retrieved from http://mises.org
Mises von, L. (1966). The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science. Retrieved fromhttp://mises.org
Stolyarov II, G. (2007). The Compatibility of Hoppe’s and Rothbard’s Views of the Action Axiom. The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, 10, 2, pp. 45-62.
- Our own Edwin van de Haar being interviewed about Degrees of Freedom (audio interview)
- Does Gun Control Work? Ben Carson Says Yes. ADL Says No but Yes
- The Vanishing Europe of Jürgen Habermas
- Leviathan (movie review)
- Thinking Anew | What, precisely, changed in the 18th century? (book review)
- This Is What Russia REALLY Fears in Syria
Some thoughts in reply to Edwin’s recent very interesting piece on the European Union.
The Greek crisis, the refugees crisis and the recently announced German suspension of the Schengen agreement on free movement are all very testing for the European Union. I certainly agree with Edwin that ideas of a highly integrated European Union superstate are in a bad state, but that has been the case for some time now, it is just that some European Commission people and ‘federalist’ enthusiasts have been very slow to realise this. I put ‘federalist’ in the scare quotes because ‘federalist’ can mean so many things as a form of relation between existing states and should not be only identified with highly integrated forms of federation in which the central state is dominant. Any such idea was effectively killed off years ago by a mixture of British opt outs from the Maastricht Treaty and the Danish referendum rejection of that treaty.
Of course these were thought by some to be secondary events which could be given temporary ad hoc solutions while the integrated superstate juggernaut rolled on. It is worth remembering that the phrase ‘ever closer union’ was in the Maastricht Treaty as a substitute for ‘federalism’ at the insistence of John Major (the then British Prime Minister) as a way of signalling the end of federalist ambitions. Since ‘ever closer union’ is open to not just integrated federalist meanings, but even unitary state interpretation, this is perhaps a bit strange, but the fact is the phrase signalled an end to integrationist federalist dreams in which John Major was probably quietly supported by some other states (including the Netherlands I believe) which did not want to stand out as anti-superstate. All this created the illusion of a process that only the UK and Denmark were standing aside from and they could be expected to join in later.
However, the integrated superstate model of federalism was already a paper tiger, a rhetoric only used as a way of legitimising a Franco-German dominated Europe, in which EU unity was heavily dominated by the wish to keep the French-German partnership going and offer everyone else the hope of a voice in an essentially Franco-German dominated process in which the two key states sought trade offs between individual national goals. Events since then have unravelled the superstate ideology as the French-German partnership has been reduced in importance by German unification, with some help from French failures at internal reform. The emergence of a reality concealed by the older sort of ‘federalist’ language can be seen in the referendum ‘no’ to the Lisbon Constitution in a few countries and the move to a Treaty. The Lisbon process was one of shifting power to the Council, to the place where intergovernmental decisions are made. The Eurozone upheavals have made it clear that Germany has a role in the EU unmatched by France.
On the current refugee crisis, the suspension of Schengen free movement is very disappointing, but an unavoidable response to such a massive tide of refugees. To my mind it may well be possible to integrate them, but clearly it is a challenge and clearly it is a challenge that public opinion does not seek, or not beyond some defined number of the most ‘real’ refugees. Anyway, this is not a completely new problem for the EU, France for example, has previously imposed border controls to deal with migrant influxes and deported unemployed migrants from eastern EU member states. This is a crisis situation which would exist with or without the EU and would lead to exceptional measures with regard to external border controls and internal security measures, including checks on identity papers. So I suggest it is not in itself an end to free movement within the EU, but more an indication that free movement will be subject to qualification in any foreseeable future. That still leaves the very real achievement of the EU in making movement between states easier, with all the attendant benefits for individual liberty and prosperity.
The Greek crisis has emphasised a form of economic integration in the Eurozone dominated by Germany, which is not what anyone would have put on paper as a federalist dream, but the reality is that the Eurozone was always about turning the Deutschmark into a European currency in which all members would benefit from the German reputation for sound finances and a strong currency, and therefore a de facto agreement to be subject to German economic discipline. No one used those words in public and everyone hoped that the crisis situation in which someone would have to impose order would never arise, but it has and we can see what was really been agreed to in the first place. That arrangement has worked at least moderately well so far. Ireland has actually done very well out of going along with German economic discipline. Italy, Spain and Portugal at the very least seem to have got past the worst. Greece is the most dubious case, but wild left populism has now receded in that country and that must be a success for the German led Eurozone. We are waiting to see whether the deal works in the long term in Greece. This does not have to be a complete German hegemony. In defence and foreign affairs, for example France and the UK are still strong compared with Germany.
The current regional tensions make it unlikely to my mind, as Edwin suggests, that the EU will not develop in the foreign and defence spheres. It would be more accurate, I believe, to say that the EU will develop an opt in personality in these areas in which not all states participate, but the core makes the EU more important in that field. Putin’s direct and indirect provocations, the nightmare in Syria and Iraq, and the threat of Islamist fundamentalism in west Africa, have all pushed EU states and previously neutral European states to become more engaged with security and defence issues. Now of course NATO is important here, but US willingness to look after Europe’s security for it is in decline and rightly so.
A response to the dangers I’ve just mentioned requires increased defence spending and and co-operation for European states and we can see this happening. Some of it cuts across the EU, as in co-operation between Nordic countries including Norway, which is outside the EU, but does not separate defence from the EU sphere. The membership of previously neutralist Sweden and Finland in the EU is clearly helping them co-operate with NATO countries. EU states are increasingly working with regard to a total European defence presence in which smaller states will limit the military spheres which the operate so that there is a co-ordinated division of labour. The UK is engaged in co-operation with the EU states on the border and hinterland problems in eastern Europe and the Middle East and this is likely to be a way over time in which the UK becomes more European oriented. This is a gradual process in which we will not see a Euro-army and a treaty in which the EU becomes sovereign in security matters, but we will see the EU mattering more in the defence and security sphere. One of the factors contributing to this is the refugee crisis.
Edwin raises some issue of (classical) liberal thinking in these areas and that is the final topic I will address, hopefully providing a framework for addressing the public policy and institutional issues above. Edwin is correct to say that voters want to see some important issues addressed on the national level and feel remote from the EU level, but let us be clear about what this means in reality. No individual voter has more influence over national policy that EU policy. Even in Luxembourg any one voter has no real voice, does not make a difference, in a community of three hundred thousand. There is no real difference between Luxembourg and the 500 million of the EU on this issue.
What people like when they think of the national level is that decisions are made by people like them, people with whom they can identify. Immigration and other forms of social change which undermine notions of self-contained homogeneity, such as the Internet, increased travel, decreasing identity with national religion, and regionalist movements, do not put am end to national identity, but they do qualify it. The recent EU crises have increased the visibility of European leaders across the continent, Angela Merkel must be more familiar to most Europeans than all but a handful of their own national politicians. The national level will not disappear and we will probably seem more shifts towards national and inter-governmental decision making, but let us not ignore the qualifications and opposite tendencies.
The point of the above paragraph is that we are not returning to the time of absolutely sovereign national governments in Europe (and of course the sovereignty was always limited in practice, particularly for the smaller and poorer countries) and I dispute what I take to be Edwin’s assumption that this is what is happening and should be welcomed. Apologies for any misunderstanding, but it looks very much to me as if he is saying that classical liberalism has preferred and should continue to prefer interaction between sovereign states over federalisation of any kind. He mentions David Hume, Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek in this context.
However consider this quotation from Adam Smith: ‘Were all nations to follow the liberal system if free exportation and free importation, the different states into which a great continent was divided would so far resemble the different provinces of a great empire.’ (An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. IV.v.b). Surely this contradicts Edwin’s claim. Hayek was the author of ‘The Economic Conditions of Inter-State Federalism’, which advocates federation between democracies to entrench free trade and basic rights. Similar comments can be found in The Road to Serfdom. Now maybe Hayek did not mean to advocate something like the EU as it is now, and even less what the most pure advocates for integrationist federalism wish for, but he did offer support to federation and constraints on national sovereignty.
Going back to the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant, a liberal advocate of market economies, limited government and freedom under law, wrote essays favouring ‘federation’ or ‘confederation’ to enforce world peace. We can take it that Kant meant a kind of European federation as like most of the time he did not really regard non-Europeans as equals, even if he should have according to his own philosophical principles. Anyway, he had liberal arguments for constraints on national sovereignty, even if very limited in scope.
Edwin may perhaps feel that what Smith, Kant and Hayek said fits with what appears to be his desire for a European Union limited to free trade issue. However, it is important to establish that classical liberalism is open to federation or ’empire’ (which for Smith can be a confederation) and furthermore that a federation for very limited purposes is likely to spill over into other spheres. How do you guarantee peace, security and free trade without a lot of other connected government functions. It could be argued that classical liberal federation is limited to pure minarchist functions of national defence, and enforcement of laws, but why should we expect transnational federal states to stay limited within such a sphere when national states never do.
Liberal economics leads us to regard upheaval, change and destruction as healthy, within the limits of law and contract, as this is how there can be innovation and prosperity. We can think of politics in the same way. Current crisis conditions will change the EU but are at least as likely to do so in ways which reconstruct its various activities, and the ways in which they are conducted, to the benefit of its health, as to lead to an EU restricted to free trade or in a state of complete collapse.