I’m getting tired of reading and listening to so-called libertarian or conservative people saying that “in theory socialism is beautiful.” No, it’s not. In theory, socialism can be summed up as “the end of private property.” This is how Karl Marx summed it up. The genius of Ludwig von Mises is precisely in the fact that he did not have to wait until 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, to realize that this does not make sense. When the Soviet Union was still a young country sweeping intellectuals around the world, von Mises made the following remark: without private property, there is no supply and demand. Without supply and demand, there is no price formation. Without prices the economic calculation is impossible. And that is precisely what happened in the USSR and happens in countries that follow the path of socialism: without the compass of free market prices, governors can not make decisions about allocating resources. Socialism is the death of rationality in economics. Socialism is rubbish in practice because before that it’s rubbish in theory. Please stop talking nonsense. The free market, on the other hand, is beautiful in practice because first of all, it is beautiful in theory.
Once, in another place, I had pointed out the misunderstandings of the common interpretation of Hayek’s road to serfdom thesis. This was not an unintended process by which government intervention on markets inevitably leads to further and increasing interventions. That might be Ludwig v. Mises’ thesis, but not Hayek’s.
What Hayek stated in The Road to Serfdom was that the checks- and-balances system of modern constitutionalism appears as an obstacle to the quick achievement of the concrete ends that an interventionist policy aims for. Thus, the road to serfdom is an unintended process by which legal constitutional processes are eroded by decisions based on expediency.
On that occasion it was left pending to solve the question of where the confusion on the central thesis of “The Road to Serfdom” came from.
The source of the answer to this question is yet Ludwig v. Mises. The Road to Serfdom was first published in 1944, but, previously, in essays published in 1935, we find Hayek, still heavily influenced by L. v. Mises, stating opinions that are very similar to the common confusion about the meaning of the road to serfdom: “In fact, however, if by planning is meant the actual direction of productive activity by authoritative prescription to be used, or the prices to be fixed, it can be easily shown, not that such a thing is impossible, but that any isolated measure of this sort will cause reactions which will defeat its own end, and that any attempt to act consistently will necessitate further and further measures of control until all economic activity is brought under one central authority” (“Socialist Calculation I: The Nature and History of the Problem”, first published in Collectivist Economic Planning, London, 1935, and reprinted in Individualism and Economic Order, Chicago, 1948).
F. A. Hayek did not change his opinions of 1935 in The Road to Serfdom (1944), he just shifted the realm of his inquiry from economics to political philosophy. Nevertheless, it would be a crass error to judge Hayek’s political and legal theory -for good or for bad- using his former opinions as an economist.
Well, I finally started reading Human Action. One connection stood out to me from the first chapter.
First, there’s much more attention paid to fundamental philosophy than I expect from economic treatises. This is understandable given that Mises felt he had to set the stage — sparring, as he says, with the irrationalists, polylogists, historicists, positivists, behaviorists, and other economists within the youngest science. Every undergrad, cracking open Hobbes’ Leviathan, is startled to find lengthy remarks on human cognition in what they thought was only a work of political philosophy; this was a similar experience.
There are noticeable allusions between von Mises and pre- and post-Tractatus Wittgenstein. Both Austrians and both Ludwigs, the economist writes that “It is impossible for the human mind to conceive logical relations at variance with the logical structure of our mind. It is impossible for the human mind to conceive a mode of action whose categories would differ from the categories which determine our own actions” (p. 25). Similarly, for the philosopher, the logical structure of thought (and language) was a central theme of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus; one of the young Wittgenstein’s conclusions was that some (ethical, aesthetic, metaphysical) postulates go beyond the limits of language and, when crunched into such human linguistic straightjackets, create sheer nonsense (leading to such maxims like, “What can be said at all can be said clearly…”) (TLP, §7).
Each Ludwig, of course, limited their inquiry to the human mind, discovering, like Kant, universal conditions of rational beings (or so I garner so far from Mises).
Another methodological point in common. Ludwig von Mises, in section The Alter Ego, remarks on “the ultimate given,” an idea which, I believe, is unpopular in contemporary epistemology. The empirical sciences must reach final points of inquiry, upon which their tools fail to produce deeper insight. This is so because, to Mises, there are only “two principles available for a mental grasp of reality, namely, those of teleology and causality” (p. 25): teleology belonging to purposeful behavior, and causality to non-purposive objects of study. The former, applied ad infinitum, must stop at the unmoved mover, and the latter can only invoke an infinite regress. This point is important for deploying praxeology as a deductive science.
This doesn’t seem like a new insight, but it’s also one that Wittgenstein touches upon in a different way in Philosophical Investigations, writing in the first segment “Explanations come to an end somewhere.” The use of language in daily life does not imply ultimate, elucidated concepts between speakers; we never ask for these and likewise we do not need them to communicate. Reaching deeper into shared insight also leads to confusion; we talk of objects and ideas as ‘wholes’ and ‘composites,’ but these categories are not unambiguous. Wittgenstein situates the sense of concept-analysis only within a language game: “The question ‘Is what you see composite?’ makes good sense if it is already established what kind of complexity — that is, which particular use of the word — is in question. If it had been laid down that the visual image of a tree was to be called ‘composite’ if one saw not just a single trunk, but also branches, then the question ‘Is the visual image of this tree simple or composite?’, and the question ‘What are its simple component parts?’, would have a clear sense — a clear use.” So therefore, “To the philosophical question: ‘Is the visual image of this tree composite, and what are its component parts?’ the correct answer is: ‘That depends on what you understand by “composite”.’ (And that is of course not an answer but a rejection of the question.)” (PI, §47).
In the future I might post on Mises’ short use of terms like “being,” “change,”and “becoming,” which he uses in a sense reminiscent of Parmenides.
Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. G. E. M. Anscombe trans.
von Mises, Human Action. Scholar’s Edition. Ludwig von Mises Institute.
The title of this text can already cause controversy since many understand that there was no dictatorship in Brazil, but a series of military governments that could not be classified as dictatorial. But the fact is that, in 1964, Castelo Branco became president in place of João Goulart, being succeeded by Costa e Silva, Medici, Geisel and João Figueiredo. Calling this dictatorship or not, the fact is that João Goulart was deposed and Castelo Branco occupied the presidency to avoid that the country was taken by groups sympathetic to the communism, making Brazil a “Big Cuba”. And it is against this fact that I ask if it was worth it: was it worth having 21 years of military governments to prevent a socialist government from being implanted in Brazil?
A socialist government was implemented in Brazil in 2003 by popular vote. Although political propaganda in 2002 had proclaimed an inclination towards the center of the political spectrum, the fact is that the PT never completely abandoned its socialist inclinations. It could even be said that FHC is worthy of the same comment: although less inclined to the left, the PSDB does not carry “democratic socialism” in the name for nothing. In light of this, I ask if it was worth having 21 years of military governments in Brazil. In 1988, just three years after João Figueiredo left the presidency of the country, a Constitution was promulgated with a strong Progressive character. In 1994, less than 10 years after the last military president stepped down, Brazil elected a “Third Way” president. In 2002 a president with a past of explicit connections with socialism came to power, and in 2011 the country happened to be governed by a former guerrilla warrior. If the objective of placing the military in power has been to avoid the implantation of socialist governments in Brazil, it can be said that this goal was not achieved. It was only postponed for just over 21 years.
What is socialism? Why is it so bad? Even without any empirical research, I am quite sure that most of the Brazilian population would not know how to answer these questions. In a similar vein, I am quite convinced that most of the country’s “literate class” (artists, academics, and intellectuals of all kinds) is sympathetic to socialism. Many of the political parties in Brazil carry “socialism” or “communism” in the name.
What did the military governments offer in exchange for socialism? Although they had varied characteristics, most of the governments between 1964 and 1985 tended to be a modernized version of Positivism. Positivism states that all knowledge (tradition, common sense, religion) will be superseded by positive scientific knowledge. Another way of defining it is to say that only what is empirically proven is true. Positivism, however, presents some problems. First, it is self-defeating, that is, it does not stand up to its own validation criteria: “Only what is empirically proven is true.” Is this empirically proven? Is it empirically proven that “only that which is empirically proven is true”? No. And it could not even be. Another difficulty is to carry out the empirical tests. It is possible, even with constraints, to conduct empirical tests in a controlled environment (in laboratories) to test theories and hypotheses. But it is not possible to declare the universality of the results, even if the tests are performed a very large number of times.
This “problem of induction” (to draw universal conclusions from particular, albeit many, observations) was famously answered by Karl Popper: in Popper’s definition, the aim of science is not to prove universal truths, but to affirm with confidence a set of information. In other words, nothing is “scientifically proven,” but many things are scientifically falsified by the lack of favorable evidence. Ludwig von Mises answered the problem of induction in another way: not everything has to be empirically tested to be considered true. There are truths that are self-evident, even without any empirical test. Despite the differences, both Popper and Mises offered possibilities of non-positivistic sciences (in the sense of systematic knowledge), especially valid for the study of human beings living in society.
Positivism and Marxism are sister doctrines. Both emerged in the 19th century in response to liberalism. The origin of liberalism lies in Christianity, if not in the affirmation of the existence of the Christian God in all the details presented by the Bible, at least in elements such as Natural Law and an anthropology similar to that of Christian teaching. Positivism and Marxism have moved away from Christianity by adopting a materialist view of reality (it only exists, or at least it only matters what we can experience empirically) and by denying the natural limitations of the human being.
Following von Mises, the Austrian School rejects the positivist methodology, and therefore is classified as heterodox. Although we should avoid anachronisms, the tendency of classical economists was the same: from introspection and axioms, rather than from empirical tests. It is not a matter of despising the scientific method altogether, quite the opposite! The scientific method is excellent for taking the man to the moon and discovering the cure of diseases. It just is not fit for a human “science.” To believe so is to fall into a “fatal conceit”. The military that governed Brazil between 1964 and 1985 can be accused of this fatal conceit. They generally believed that they could rule the country as if it were a barracks.
In conclusion: was it worth it? Certainly avoiding Socialism is a great and necessary goal. But combating it with Positivism is not the right path. Two mistakes do not make a hit. Was there the possibility of combating socialism with liberalism? I think not. Brazil didn’t have the liberal tradition necessary to confront socialism and other forms of authoritarianism or totalitarianism (and maybe it still hasn’t). Looking back, we can only regret that the options were so bad. Looking forward, we can try to improve our options by building a true liberalism in Brazil.
One of the questions that led me to libertarianism was “what is the state?” More than that: Where did it come from? How it works? What’s the use? Analogous questions would be “what is politics?” and “what is economics?” If my classroom experience serves as a yardstick for anything, the overwhelming majority of people never ask these questions and never run after answers. I do not blame them. Most of us are very busy trying to make ends meet to worry about this kind of stuff. I even sought an academic training in politics just to seek answers to these questions. For me it’s nothing to have answers, after all, I’m paid (albeit very poorly paid) to know these matters. Still, I wish more people were asking these types of question. I suspect that it would be part of the process to review the political and economic situation in which we find ourselves.
Many times when I ask in the classroom “what is the state?” I receive in response that Brazil is a state. In general I correct the student explaining that this is an example, not a definition. The modern state, as we have it today, is mainly the combination of three factors: government, population, and territory. The modern state, as we have it today, can be defined as a population inhabiting a specific territory, organized by a centralized government that recognizes no instance of power superior to itself. Often, in the academic and popular vocabulary, state and government are confused, and there is no specific problem in this. In fact, the two words may appear as synonyms, although this is not a necessity. It is possible to distinguish between state and government thinking that the state remains and governments go through.
The state as we know it today is a product of the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age. I believe that this information alone should draw our attention enough: people have lived in modern states only in the last 500 years or so. Throughout the rest of human history other forms of political organization have been used. I am not saying (not here) that these other forms of organization were better than the modern state. I am simply saying that the modern state is far from being natural, spontaneous, or necessary. Even after 1500 the modern state took time to be universally accepted. First, this model of organization spread throughout Europe at the beginning of the Modern Era. It was only in the late 18th century and early 19th century that this model came to be used in the American continent. The modern state spread globally only after the decolonization movement that followed World War II. That is: the vast majority of modern states are not even 70 years old!
What is the purpose of the state? At least in my experience, many people respond by “providing rights” or “securing rights.” People think about health, education, sanitation, culture, security, etc. as duties of the state towards society. It is clear that many people think about health, education, housing, etc. as rights, which in itself is already questionable, but I will leave this discussion for another time. The point I want to put here is that empirically states have only cared about issues like health and public education very recently. In the classic definition of Max Weber (late 19th century), the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. In other words, virtually anyone can use violence, but only the state can do it legally. That is: the primordial function of the state is to use violence within a legal order. Other functions, such as providing health and education, came very late and only became commonplace with the welfare state that strengthened after World War II.
I find it always interesting to see how we live in a young world. Basically the entire world population today lives in some state and expects from this state a minimum level of well-being. However, this reality is only about 70 years old. The idea that we need to live in states that provide us with a minimum of well being is not natural and far from obvious. To understand that the modern state is a historical institution, which has not always existed, it is fundamental to question its validity. Moreover, to note that the functions of the state that seem obvious to us today did not exist 70 years ago leads us to question whether it is valid to expect things such as health and education from the state.
My personal perception is that the modern state (defined by territory, population, and government) is better than any alternative that has already been proposed. However, the state of social well-being is only a sugar-watered socialism. Socialism, by definition, does not work, as Ludwig von Mises very well shows. Partial socialism is as likely to function as full socialism. Expecting the state to use violence within legal parameters is valid and even fundamental. But to expect that this same state may successfully diversify its activities entering the branches of health, education, culture, etc. is a fatal conceit.
Last week, a debate was initiated via an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that relates to the clash between historians and economists over the topic of slavery. The debate seems acrimonious given the article and at the reading of a special issue of the Journal of Economic History regarding the Half has never been told by Edward Baptist, its hard to conclude otherwise. Pseudoerasmus published comments on the issue in a series of posts and a Trumpian twitterstorm (although the quality is far from being Trumpian). I find myself largely in agreement with him in response to the historians, but there are some pêle-mêle points that I felt I needed to add.
On Historians Versus Economists
To be honest, when I took my first classes in economic history, it seemed clear that there were important points that were agreed upon in the literature on slavery. The first was that the accounting profitability of slavery was not the same as the economic profitability (think opportunity cost here) of slavery. Thus, it was possible that (concentrating on the US here) the peculiar institution could more or less thrive regardless of the social costs it imposed (i.e. slavery is a tax on leisure which also increases the expropriation rate from slaves, and non-slaveowners often had to shoulder the cost of enforcing the institution). This argument is not at all new; in fact it is basically a public choice argument that Gordon Tullock and Anne Krueger could have signed on to without skipping a heartbeat (see Sheilagh Ogilvie – one of my favorite economist who does history in equality with Jane Humphries). The second point of agreement is that no one agreed on how to measure the productivity of slavery in the United States and the distribution of its costs and gains. The second point has been a very deep methodological debate which related to the method of measuring productivity (CES vs Translog TFP – stuff that would make your head blow and which also lead to the self-invitation of the Cambridge Capital Controversy to the debate). The quality of the data has been at the centre-stage as well, and datasets on slave prices, attributes, tasks and many other variables are still being collected (see notably the breathtaking work of Rhode and Olmsted here and here).
Thus, I will admit to being unimpressed by the use of oral histories to contest that literature. In addition, the absence of theory in Baptist’s work yields an underwhelming argument. Oral histories are super-duper important. The work of Jane Humphries on child labor is a case in point of the need to use oral histories. She very carefully used the tales told by children who worked during the industrial revolution to document how labor markets for children worked. The story she told was nuanced, carefully argued and supported by other primary evidence. This is economic history at its best – a merger of cliometrician and historian. In fact, while this is an evaluation that is subjective, the best economists are also historians and vice-versa. The reason for that is the mix of theory with multiple forms of evidence. But they key is to have a theory to guide the analysis.
Unexpectedly for some, the best exposition of this argument comes from Ludwig von Mises in his unknown book Theory and History. I was made aware of that book in a discussion with Chris Coyne of George Mason University and I proceeded to reading it. I was surprised how many similarities there were between the Mises who wrote that book and the Douglass Norths and the Robert Fogels of this world. The core argument of Theory and History is that axiomatic statements can be applied to historical events. The goal of historians and economic historians is to sort which theory applies. For example, the theory of signaling and the theory of asymmetric information are both axiomatically true. Without the need for evidence, we know that they must exist. The question of an economic historian becomes to ask “did it matter”? Both theories can compete to offset each other: if signaling is cheap, then asymmetric information can be solved; if it is not, asymmetric information is a problem. Or both may be irrelevant to a given historical development. To explain which two axiomatic statements apply to the event (and in what dosage), you need data (quantitative and qualitative). Thus, Theory and History actually proposes the use of econometrics and statistical methods because it does not try to predict as much as it tries to a) sort which axiomatic statements applied; b) the relative strengths of competing forces; c) the counterfactual scenario.
Without theory, all you have is Baptist’s descriptions which tell us very little and can, incidentally, be distorted by he who recounts the tales he read.
On the Culture of Peasants/Slaves/Slaveowners
When I started my PhD dissertation Canadian economic history, the most annoying thing I saw was the claim that the French-Canadians had “different mentalities” or “more conservative outlooks”. This was basically the way of calling them stupid. This has recently evolved to say that they “maximized goals other than wealth”. Regardless, this was basically: the French-Canadian was not culturally suited for economic development.
But culture is not a fixed variable, it is not an exogenous variable. Culture is basically the coherent framework built by individuals who share certain features to “cut out” the noise. Everyday, we are bombarded with tons of pieces of information and there is no way that the human brain can process them all. Thus, we have a framework – culture (ideology does the same thing) – which tells us what is relevant and what is irrelevant and what interpretation to give to relevant information.
People can cling to old beliefs for a long time, but only if there is no cost to them. I can persist in terrible farming practices if I am not made aware of the proper valuation of the opportunity I am foregoing. For example, British farmers who arrived in Quebec in the 19th century tended to use oxen as they did in England for tilling the soil. They had probably been taught to do that by their parents who learnt it from their grandparents because it was part of the farming culture of England. The behavior was culturally inherited. However, when they saw that the French-Canadians were using horses and that horses – in the Canadian hinterland – got the job done better, they shifted. The culture changed at the sight of how important was the foregone opportunity by continuing to use oxen. Where the British and the French co-existed, both were equally good farmers. Where they could not observe each other, they were all sub-optimal farmers. Seeing the other methods forced changes in culture.
The same applies to slaveowners and slaves! Slaveowners were a more or less tightly knit group that frequented similar circles and were constantly on the lookout to increase productivity. If some master had noticed that he could increase production by whipping more slaves, why would he not adopt this method? Why would he leave 100$ bill on the street? Why did the masters growing cotton in South Carolina not adopt the method of whipping adopted by growers in Louisiana? Without a theory of how culture changes (and what purposes it serves beyond the simplistic Marxist power structure argument), there is no answer to this question. With the work of Rhode and Olmstead, there is an answer: the type of cotton that had higher yields was not suited for growing everywhere! In this case, we are applying my comment from the section above on Historians versus Economists. There are competing theories of explaining increasing output: either some slave masters were unable to observe the other slave masters and adopt the torture methods they had (which would need to be the case for Baptist to be right) or there were biological limitations to growing the better crops in some areas (Rhode and Olmstead).
Two competing theories (they are not mutually exclusive though) that can be tested with data and they set a counterfactual. That is why you need theory to make good history.
One last thing: slave owners were not capitalists
This is probably the most childish thing to come out of works like those of Baptist: to assert that because slaves were capital assets, that the owners were capitalists. That is true if you want to adhere to the inconsistent (and self-contradicting) Marxist approach to capital. In fact, as Phil Magness pointed out to me, slave owners were not free market types. They were very much anti-capitalists. Slavery apologists like Fitzhugh and Carlyle were even more anti-capitalists than that. It’s not because you own capital that you are a capitalist unless you adhere to Marxist theory.
But, capital is just a production input. Its value depends on what it can produce. As Jeffrey Hummel pointed out, there is a deadweight loss from slavery: enforcement costs, the overproduction of cotton because slavery is basically a tax on leisure and the implicit taxation of the output produced by slaves. All three of these factors would have slowed down economic growth in the south. Thus, as capital assets, slaves were relatively inefficient.
Brazil is going through a deep crisis right now. It is tempting to say that this is the greatest crisis in the country’s history, but I am quite afraid to make this comment. Unlike England and the United States, which have experienced significant institutional stability in the past 200 or 300 years, Brazil has gone through several political breakdowns in its history, and the current economic crisis is far from the hyperinflation of the 1980s. But there is a characteristic that links the present crisis to the previous ones: the presence of a tendentially authoritarian state.
Although Brazil was governed by an openly socialist party only between 2003 and 2016, this does not mean that socialist characteristics were not present in the country much earlier. One of the central theses of F.A. Hayek in the Road to Serfdom is that the democratic socialist parties of Western Europe (notably the Labor Party in England) had more features in common with the Nazis and fascists than they would have liked to admit. In other words, the differences between left (even a moderate left) and extreme right were illusory: they both had the fundamental characteristic of trying to plan society centrally.
The opposition between spontaneous order and central planning was one of the central theses in Hayek’s career. In Fatal Conceit he develops this theme a lot, showing how the opposition between central planning and lack of planning is a fallacy: society will forcibly be planned. The question is by whom: for a small group of people on behalf of all the others, or for a large group of individuals, each with limited responsibilities? According to Hayek, this distinction between central planning and individual planning is one of the central separations between an authoritarian society (left or right) and a truly free society.
It is difficult to say if the PT (“worker’s party”) government between 2003 and 2016 was the most corrupt in Brazilian history. Homesick people can always claim that corruption was also present in previous governments (it was just not investigated), and possibly they would be right. Before becoming a country ruled by a socialist party, Brazil has always been a patrimonialist country. And this is a fundamental point that adherents of socialism cannot understand: Brazil has never been a capitalist country, at least not in the sense that the liberal tradition employs.
Starting from Hayek, we conclude that central planning is impossible. Planners do not have the information they need to make their plans. As Mises taught, without private property there is no price formation, and without price formation the economic calculation is impossible. This opens space for what Hayek calls a fatal conceit: the assumption that it is possible to run a country from a central body, a presupposition that not only fails to achieve its goals, but also leaves piles of corpses on the way.
The PT government was probably the most corrupt in Brazilian history because it was what most rejected capitalism. The opposite of the free market is the attempt to centrally plan the economy. To centrally plan the economy, an army of administrators is needed. To watch over these administrators, a host of supervisors is needed, and so on. Corruption is inevitable.
Socialist governments are always among the most corrupt, and the reason is simple: the more government, the more corruption. A simpler, more decentralized government is not perfect. But it’s the best we can wish for. It would certainly be a government with less control over money, and thus less likely to steal.