The Nature and Origin of Rights, Part Two

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In part one of this two-part series of essays we explored the difference between treating social phenomena such as rights, obligations, rules, laws and conflicts as products of human interaction on the one hand and as products of explicit human construction on the other. In this second part we will proceed to explore precisely how the constructivist-rationalist approach to social phenomena came about and how devastating it can be to individual liberty when it infiltrates political philosophy. From this we can learn some important lessons when it comes to developing and shaping our own libertarian theory.

Generations after customary legal systems developed through social interaction, philosophers began to reflect upon this phenomenon, a reflection which, for Western purposes, began with the Ancient Greeks. In accordance with our view here, the purpose of this endeavour should not have been for philosophers to treat these matters as a tabula rasa on which to scribe whatever they thought was the most convincing and compelling case for a system of rules. Rather, it was to clarify that which was already occurring and to make explicit a conceptual framework that was already implicit. Indeed, as we stated earlier, this is common among most human endeavours – science, art, mathematics, economics, language and so on all flourished before we stopped to think about what we were actually doing in each of them. The fruit of this reflection was to distil from legal systems common elements such as conflicts, legal personage, property, rights, obligations, malum in se and some kind of understanding of natural justice. Thus, there existed principles that appeared to transcend expediency, self-interest, and the particular time and place, in spite of the fact that individual conceptions or realisations of those concepts differed. In other words, they were principles that were not just fashioned by leaders, intellectuals, or by “society” but spoke from some kind of universal plain. (This point should not be understood as a refutation of legal positivism. Rather, it simply says that the conceptual framework of legal systems – including the nature of a conflict and the rights and obligations that ensued – were not something that were designed and imposed).

However, this process of reflection and elaboration did not occur in a vacuum, and was (and still is) considered alongside a whole host of other philosophical problems such as knowledge, existence, morality, aesthetics, and so on. In the consideration of “the rules of conduct” there was a distinct overlap between what we might call political philosophy (broadly, what a person can be forced to do) and wider morality (that which a person should choose to do), an equivocation which has persisted to the present day. The process of identifying appropriate conduct – anything from morals, etiquette, manners, the attainment of beauty, happiness, and so on – always and necessarily involves elaborations on how rational actors should choose to behave with and towards non-rational beings/objects and towards other rational beings alike. When a proponent of certain moral rights and obligations overlaid these considerations onto the development of the understanding of legal rights (i.e. rights that could be enforced by violence) what resulted were systems of constructed conflicts, constructed rights and constructed obligations which never arose out of any interactions between individual parties.

If libertarians are to ever find the key that unlocks the door to a world of liberty, it is very important for them to understand the extent of the effects of this kind of endeavour and how it has served as the basis of countless numbers of despotic political theories. When someone constructs or proposes a system of rights and obligations and to prescribe legally enforceable rules of conduct, the result was not to engage in the process of “identifying” conflicts that exist between two other beings or objects; rather, it was to identify a conflict between himself and the particular person upon whom he claimed had an obligation. The conflict was a clash between the proponent’s values and the values of another or other individuals. In other words, the proponent sets himself up as the legally aggrieved party and bases the outcome of law and adjudication on some kind of a conflict between himself and somebody else who was behaving in a manner the proponent simply happened not to like.

Let’s say that there are three people Andrew, Bob and Charlie. Andrew and Bob are two people who live and interact in a society. Charlie, on the other hand, is a philosopher who looks upon the condition of A and B and decides for himself that Andrew owes a certain obligation to Bob. Let us say that, in order to create some kind of just and equitable society, Charlie declares that Bob should have the right to £100 of Andrew’s income every month. Andrew is therefore now burdened with an obligation of furnishing money to Bob, who now possesses the right to take this money from Andrew with the full backing of the force of law. However, the real right claimed in this situation is not by Bob. Andrew and Bob may have been perfectly happy before Charlie came along; Bob may have been content with his own income and coveted nothing that Andrew possessed. Rather, the real, substantive right is claimed by Charlie. It is Charlie who does not like the situation that Andrew and Bob are in – it is he who despises the existing property arrangements between the two. What Charlie is therefore claiming through his proposal is his right to go to court every time some action he does not like has occurred and to invoke his right to have this action stopped (or conversely to force an action that has been omitted). This desire of Charlie’s is masked in the language of providing justice and fairness for Bob, whereas Bob, in his own mind, never conflicted with Andrew at all and never had reason to invoke a right. The conflict originates wholly in Charlie’s mind.

This becomes clearer when Bob is not another competent adult but is, rather, an animal or an object. An object – let’s say a tree – as far as we know lacks any appreciation of ends, values and choices, and cannot understand any alternative situation as better, beneficial or valuable. Without being able to perceive value or any preference of ends the crucial element for the source of a conflict with another individual is missing. If there is no conflict then there are no rights and obligations. It is for this reason that we owe rights to rational beings who think, value, choose and act but we do not owe rights to non-rational beings and objects who are utterly devoid of these capacities. If, therefore, Charlie comes along and says “This tree has a right to not be cut down” and that, consequently, Andrew has an obligation to not cut down the tree, it is clear that the real conflict over the state of the tree is not between Andrew and the tree; it is, rather, between Andrew and Charlie. The tree has no capacity to care whether it is remains standing, is cut down, or is burnt to the ground. It has no values, no choices, no ends. Rather, it is clear that the person who values the tree remaining upstanding is Charlie. Charlie is seeking, by declaring a pseudo-right for the tree, a real right for himself to have his values vindicated and for Andrew to yield to these values. In short, Charlie wants to force Andrew to comply with what he, Charlie, simply wants him to do.

Usually, theories such as those of Charlie do not confine themselves to individual cases such as that of Andrew and Bob, or Andrew and some object. Rather, Charlie is normally the proponent of a much wider theory of social behaviour as he perceives a conflict between his values and the values of practically everybody else. In other words, he is claiming his right to force everyone else to conform to his grand vision of society. There can be no greater example of this kind of reconstruction of sociological concepts than that furnished by Karl Marx through his espousal of the so-called exploitation theory. Marx analysed the voluntary capitalist/employer relationship according to the equivalence of its surface phenomena with those of previous non-voluntary relationships such as serfdom, explaining the motivations, mechanics, and outcomes of this relationship with a series of fictions such as the harmony of class interests and distortions of several tenets of classical economics. From this, his labour theory of value leads to the conclusion that employer’s profit is “surplus value” appropriated from the labourers. Marx himself was careful to explain his theory as a scientific, economic theory that must be properly refuted in a scientific manner. However it is clear that he is inviting the specifically ethical conclusion that profit is theft, a conclusion to which his followers so willingly succumbed. The question of whether Marx’s scientific conclusions were the slave of his political preoccupations rather than vice versa is debatable. Either way, however, we can see that the effect of Marx’s de facto reinvention, his deliberate reconstruction, of the concept of theft was to urge the establishment of a property order that he desired – the abolition of the private ownership of the means of production – rather than that desired by everyone else. In short, he invented a conflict between two great swathes of the population that was not in any way perceived by the parties themselves. This theory, this constructivist intrusion into social phenomena, went on to enslave half of the globe for nearly a century and resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people. This trait or technique of reconstruction was not limited to Marx, however. Indeed, pretty much every significant contribution to socialist theory which denigrated the capitalists and entrepreneurs as thieves and parasites was made by middle class onlookers and observers; the working class themselves did not seek any right to protection from any alleged “theft”. So too did the backlash against the conditions of industrial workers in the nineteenth century receive its main championship from middle class intellectuals such as Charles Dickens, Lord Salisbury and Sidney and Beatrice Webb – busybodies who fought for people’s so-called rights without ever stopping to think whether or not those people wanted them. This is not to say, of course, that workers – the constructed rights holders – would not have willingly championed the apparent invocation of “their” rights. After all if someone comes along saying you can effectively have your cake and eat it you are hardly going to complain. This can be seen clearly today with the advocacy of minimum wages. Employees are lulled into thinking that there can be higher, nominal wages and plenty of jobs to go round whereas economic theory tells us that floors on wage rates are likely to lead to a shortage of available jobs and, hence, unemployment. If, however, you understand the concept of demonstrated preference – an “Austrian” insight that informs us that people’s valuations are revealed by how they act and not what they say – you would realise that their actual valuations were otherwise and they are, in fact, perfectly happy to accept full employment with lower wage rates, or “poor” working conditions. Anything they say otherwise amounts to little more than wishful thinking or whimsical dreaming of an alternative but unrealisable reality.

It is true, of course, that constructivist political theories may be motivated by a genuine concern for and desire to help people. But whether this is true or not any political theorist is rarely honest enough to say that his vision simply imposes his values upon everyone else. Usually this imposition is disguised through a convolution of pseudo-concepts and dogmas, the “exploitation theory” in Marx probably being the most prominent. Other noteworthy examples are the so-called “original position” and “veil of ignorance” in John Rawls. People in the real world do not want the kind of ethics that Rawls espouses so he has to invent a fictional world with fictional situations and fictional motivations in which they do. Indeed Rawls is blatant enough to admit, in A Theory of Justice, that he fashions these pseudo-concepts in such a way as to give him the answer that he wants. Such reconstructions and reinventions are evident, though, in pretty much all collectivist philosophies in which society is deemed to have “failed” to direct its resources in ways demanded by the theory’s proponent. It is evident too in all claims of so-called “market failure” – that the choices of purposefully acting individuals have gravely decided to devote their resources to some feeble end rather than to something “better” and “higher” that exists in the mind of the proponent. Furthermore the imposing party is never starkly identified as being the proponent himself, but, rather, his proxy the state (even if the goal is, like that of Marx, an eventual withering away of the state). It is the state which is tasked with bringing the ends desired by the proponent into being so that what results is that the state itself becomes the true rights holder and everyone else is obliged to succumb to the state’s self-enforcement of its right to bring about the proponent’s vision. Any people who happen to benefit from this, although they may be described as “legal rights holders” (for example those who have a “right” to claim state unemployment and sickness benefits), do not possess any real, fundamental rights at all but are, rather, incidental beneficiaries. In modern democracies, Charlie, the philosopher from our example earlier, is not any one individual but is, rather, the majority, who claim the right to force everyone else to adhere to that which they want (assuming, of course, that democracies really do enact the ends sought by the majority, which is highly doubtful). This majority may have a revolving membership from issue to issue or from election to election but the principle is the same as when that which is desired and imposed upon everyone else originates in the mind of a single person such as Charlie.

Unfortunately, and of more direct relevance to libertarians, none of this changes with libertarian and proto-libertarian theories that are themselves motivated chiefly by the desires of their proponents – that the free market will rapidly increase societal wealth by more than we can imagine; that it makes for an affluent and prosperous society; that humanity will achieve its greatest, hitherto unimaginable endeavours, etc. These theories usually have the benefit, unlike collectivist theories, of actually being able to accomplish their aims. However, their weakness lies in the fact that they accept the same basic premise as all the other theories, which is that the desirable goal is that which is posited by the proponent of the theory. All of these proto-libertarian theories set up the wellbeing of “society” as the ultimate aim; freedom of the individual is only the means of achieving society’s betterment. By defining liberty in this way, no genuine, fundamental rights are conferred upon the individuals and they are flimsily contingent upon their contribution to the goal. In other words, the possibility, however unlikely, is left open that if the goal could be achieved through some way other than the free market then these rights and freedoms could be withdrawn. For example, if we discovered, by magic, a way to make central planning the most conducive method of generating economic progress then any libertarian theory which promoted freedom based on its ability to raise the standard of living would crumble to dust. Yet no doubt most libertarians would say that one possesses a right not to be murdered or stolen from regardless of whether such acts would increase or decrease the number of yachts we can each buy. The more basic problem, however, is why should conflicts be recognised with reference to any goal espoused by the proponent of a theory rather than with reference to all of the millions of goals and purposes that individuals strive to achieve? Man is a social animal, as the well-worn phrase goes, but he only participates in social co-operation to the extent that he feels he derives a benefit from it, whether this is material or simply a desire for companionship and friendly relations. Society, the growth of the division of labour, increasing capital accumulation and a rising standard living are the result of each individual person fulfilling his individual purposes through social co-operation; they are not the initial purpose themselves. Such a point is often countered by the argument that people should promote society if they wish themselves to flourish. Ludwig von Mises, for example, speaks of “rightly understood interests” which, in a footnote, he describes as “interests in the long run”, an ethical goal later adopted by his colleague Henry Hazlitt – interests which can only be fulfilled by preserving social co-operation under the division of labour. Although this is a far cry from imposing upon people their own lofty ends as other philosophies are wont to do, it overlooks the fact that people have a variety of localities and time spans, short and long, in mind for their own individual purposes. A person could be completely and utterly educated about the effects of the free market and totally convinced that these effects would be true. Yet it would not be inconsistent for him to still desire goals that we would regard as evil but would not have a destructive effect upon “society” (killing a single individual, or individuals based upon a common characteristic such as skin colour for instance); nor could anyone stop him from desiring goals that are detrimental to “society” only in the long run, perhaps after the particular individual himself has died; still further, however, he could have goals that confer a benefit in the short term and a detriment in the longer term, even to himself (such as smoking, for example) and he may be perfectly happy with this situation. And finally, he may desire goals even in the short run such as greater equality, and reduced affluence and materialism that are completely contrary to ends created by the free market. At the extreme, ecological fundamentalists pretty much want to decimate the entirety of the human race, including themselves, in order to preserve the sanctity of the natural world. Hence one cannot, in these instances, even invoke the golden rule or dismiss them as cases of special pleading.

None of this should be understood as a denigration of proto-libertarian theories which are often, on their own terms, entirely correct and certainly add moral weight to a case for freedom. They do, however, lack moral decisiveness. They are reduced to confronting collectivist theories with arguments about which purpose is better (or which means for fulfilling an agreed purpose are better), and only, at the very least, give the appearance of recognising that the real problem is, in fact, how to reconcile all of the billions of purposes of individual people.

It is true that if we were to refrain from indulging in any constructivist ideology which create rights and obligations fashioned by their proponent then this would not, in and of itself, be sufficient to generate strictly libertarian rights. One also has to explain why, for example, when a conflict is genuinely perceived by individual people, it must be answered in favour of the original property owner. But ascribing rights only to those who seek the valuable ends that their invocation brings about – a province exclusively of rational actors – considerably narrows the field by revealing competing theories for what they really are – the forced distribution of property according to ends valued by the proponent, together with the subordination of all of the billions of desires and purposes of individual people to the desires and purposes of the proponent.

We can see therefore that the greatest threat to liberty throughout history has been the redefinition and reconstruction of ideas and concepts that had a sociological origin. Concepts such as rights have been twisted and distorted from serving as vindications of the ends sought by individual people to serving as vindications of the ends sought by the authors of grand visions of society, visions which have, when implemented, resulted in poverty, destitution and societal degradation. In some ways this is just a more subtle version of the more explicit redefinition of a host of other concepts. A liberal used to be the equivalent of a libertarian; today, wearing such a badge would declare oneself as a socialist. If one is now a free trader, one is actually in favour of managed trade. Liberty is now social democracy, and so on. Even what is “human” has been redefined, through the exploitation of sub-categories such as races and ethnic or language groups, in order to justify ethnic cleansing or genocide on the grounds that the victims are “sub-human” or “vermin”. All of these are simply starker versions of the same constructivist methodology – the attempt to change the underlying reality of concepts to suit their own purposes. To embrace this kind of constructive rationalism, as Hayek called it, is of the same ilk as empiricism and positivism when applied to the social sciences – gross epistemological errors which vastly expand the scope of plausible social theories and lend credence to all manner of attempts at social engineering.

What can we, then, as libertarians learn from this when attempting to develop our own political theory? The most important lesson is that libertarianism is limited to distilling, from the phenomenon of social rules, basic, formal characteristics of these rules rather than their substantive content when they are concretised into actual legal rules that prevail in society. We might call these conclusions high-level political principles and concepts, an order higher than the actual legal rules that we are required to follow in our everyday lives. Some of the conclusions that we can draw legitimately are as follows:

  • Social rules arise to resolve conflicts born out of scarcity of means for attaining ends;
  • That rights and obligations apply to rational actors who possess the qualities of perceiving value, thinking, preferring, deciding, and acting to bring about a more favourable state of affairs;
  • Non-rational actors do not possess rights and obligations – they possess no ability to display moral choice nor the capacity to consciously prefer an alternative state of affairs; key requirements for rights – a perceived conflict and the ability to choose an alternative state of affairs – are therefore missing.

We are not going to proceed to justify these observations here, something which we have already done in an earlier series of essays on the scope of morality. Our concern here is to emphasise that these observations arise out of a reflective process upon the nature of social rules – we are attempting to describe a reality that is already there and not to construct circumstances that are new. When, having made and reflected upon these observations, we continue to define the uniquely libertarian content to social rules this too must also be stated in purely formal terms:

  • A rational actor has the right to own the matter that constitutes his body;
  • A rational actor has the right to own private property;
  • Consequently, no rational actor may invade, physically, the body or property of another.

Again, we will not attempt to justify these conclusions and will simply assume that, as libertarians, we all hold them to be true. Here, however, comes the crunch. What cannot be done is for pure, libertarian theorising to flesh out these formal rules with substantive content. In other words, we cannot, through theory alone, determine which situations are conflicts that need to be resolved. We cannot, by mere philosophising, identify precisely which beings are rational actors and are subject to rights and obligations, nor do we know precisely which actions are aggressive and which are perfectly peaceful. These questions are and always will be the product of the individual values, desires and the resulting perception of scarcity that arises when the means for fulfilling these values clash with those of someone else, factual situations which cannot be determined a priori. In most cases, the obviousness and typicality of aggressive behaviour answers the question for us. For example, stabbing another person in the heart is almost always an aggressive act whereas sitting motionless in your living room chair is not. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that these conclusions are determined by theorising. It is only because the ends that people seek through scarce, physical means clash when one is stabbed by another, and it is only because they do not clash when you sit quietly by yourself in a chair that we know stabbing someone is aggressive behaviour and that sitting alone is not. Whether there is such a clash of ends can only be determined by real people acting in the real world. If we lived in a bizarre world where stabbing another person was perfectly acceptable and everyone was, in fact, happy to receive a brutal stabbing then this would not be aggressive behaviour.

All of this becomes clearer when we consider borderline cases or cases where a typically aggressive act consists of the same kind of behaviour as an aggressive act. For example, the light from a person’s living room window that shines onto neighbouring properties at night is probably not aggressive behaviour, yet if the person was to illuminate his property like Times Square then it probably is. However, both acts consist of basically the same thing – light beams emanating from one person’s property onto another’s. So why is the first act peaceful whereas the second act is aggressive? How bright do the lights have to get before non-aggressive behaviour becomes aggressive? The answer is because nobody, typically, perceives any interference with their own property when you merely have your living room lights on at night, whereas they probably would perceive such an interference if you were to coat your house in flashing, neon lights. Again, the distinction between one and the other rests on the ability of humans to fulfil their ends with the property in question. If each person can go about his business in the belief that he is not being interfered with by another then there is no aggression, even though we may each be experiencing acts which are of a similar, but diminished nature to aggressive acts. Ethics are the product of human action (or, rather, interaction), and all human values that motivate this action appear in discrete concrete, steps – not infinitely small, indiscrete steps which can only be measured by scientific instruments. For example, if I am thirsty and to resolve this thirst I drink 0.00001% of the water in a small glass it is not very likely that I would feel myself to be 0.00001% less thirsty then I was before. Rather, after having imbibed such a useless and imperceptibly small quantity of water I am still, in my mind, fully thirsty and am in exactly the same position as I was before even though, scientifically speaking, the quantity of water in my body has increased. Given that ethics also depend upon human valuations it is no surprise that ethical distinctions are neither surgically precise nor infinitely small.

Is it the case, then, that libertarians are all at sea when it comes to determining the practical questions of precisely which acts are aggressive and which situations are conflicts that are resolved by libertarian rights? Can a libertarian justice system develop no jurisprudence whatsoever concerning which situations are unlawful and which are not? It is true, as we argued in an earlier series on libertarian legal systems, that courts must look to the actions of the parties in order to determine their values and intentions when judging the particular incident at hand. Actions, however, cannot be judged in a void. Rather, they are always interpreted according to their customary, conventional and social context. Over time, as a legal system develops, we can understand readily that the situations which come before courts or adjudicators again and again will be of the same ilk. In other words, courts will come to realise that certain situations are typically viewed by people as aggressive and other situations are not. It is this that provides for them the key to concretising the political principles we outlined earlier – that is, the right to self-ownership and to private property – into substantive legal rules that prescribe the precise situations that violate these principles. Let us take, for example, the deliberate killing of another individual. Although it is, in a hypothetical world, perfectly possible for everyone to be perfectly happy to be killed, our experience and the experience of the court in the real world informs us that in the vast majority of instances people do not, in fact, wish to be killed. Therefore, killing someone is, at the very least, presumed to be an aggressive act in all instances and (if it has been established beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant killed the victim) the burden falls on the defendant to adduce otherwise. In other words, the victim of a typically aggressive act does not need to prove to the court that the act in this particular situation was aggressive. Let us take, as a further for example, an alleged theft. People, typically, do not want their things to be stolen. If B asserts that C stole from him an item of property the court will hold that this act was prima facie aggressive if B can establish a prior title. However, if C can produce evidence of a superior title, such as a valid receipt for the goods that he took, then he rebuts the presumption.

It is for this reason that acts which consist of minute but generally innocuous physical invasions upon another individual’s person or property are not considered to be aggressive in all instances, even when one party genuinely feels as though his property has been invaded. Earlier we mentioned the case of light from a lounge lamp emanating from a window onto another person’s property. This happens to all of us; if we look out of our windows at night onto the street we can see dim lights from all the other houses. Most people do not give this a second thought as it does not interfere with their ability to use their own property. If, therefore, someone came before the court and alleged that such an act was aggressive, the court is likely to reject the claim simply because certain types of minor and virtually imperceptible physical invasions are deemed to be socially acceptable. And if the plaintiff has a particular susceptibility to the minor invasion then the burden should fall upon him to protect himself from it, and not upon someone else who is simply going about his daily business.

Other legal rules will be designed to sift out genuine conflicts from mere grievances after the fact. One of the justifications for statutes of limitations is that the elapse of an extended period time before initiation of a lawsuit is evidence of the fact that there was no real conflict. For example, if noise emanates from a neighbour’s property onto my own and I choose not to pursue a case against the neighbour within a certain amount of time stipulated by the court then the court may conclude that this elapse of time is evidence that that the noise was not perceived by me as invasive and I am not entitled to recover damages (such a fact may also be construed as evidence that I have granted an easement right to my neighbour to continue making the noise, so that not only can I not recover damages for the previous noise but that the neighbour can go on being noisy also – but this is a separate issue).

Legal rules begin to lose a degree of steadfastness and certainty where it is difficult for the court to establish objectively the relationship between the parties. One of the most pertinent examples in this regard is the crime of rape. The conflict inherent in rape is the lack of consent to sexual intercourse by the penetrated party. Yet establishing objectively whether such consent was either present or absent is fraught with difficulty because lawful sex and unlawful rape often emerge from similar circumstances and consist of the same physical act. Because of the traumatic and, often, life changing results for both a genuine plaintiff on the one hand and a falsely accused defendant on the other, any evidential rules that are determined are likely to be heavily contentious. Yet it is here where the influence of the shifting sands of the social context are most visible. When society was heavily patriarchal and placed a moral responsibility upon females to uphold their sexual virtue, the burden was upon the victim of an alleged rape to prove to the court that she had not consented to the sexual act. Indeed, at one point the law did not even recognise a forced, sexual act as rape if it took place between husband and wife. Nowadays, however, after women have gained a greater degree of social equality with men, we can see at least a creeping movement that places an increasing amount of the evidential burden on the accused to establish that consent was, in fact, present, rather than on the alleged victim to establish that it was absent. In other words, while the concept of rape as an aggressive act has remained in place, the precise legal rules surrounding it have changed as the social, customary and conventional context has changed.

What we can see from all of this is that courts and legal systems in a libertarian world would at no time design or construct concepts such as conflicts and aggression, nor would they pronounce from on high which acts are aggressive and which situations are conflicts. Rather, their jurisprudence is moulded by (ultimately) centuries of cases that have come before it, cases that are motivated by the real perception of conflicts by real, individual people attempting to fulfil their ends with the scarce means available. Although a latecomer born into a libertarian society after many generations would see only a plethora of rules seemingly dictated to him from a single source, their origin is, in fact, the heterogeneous, and decentralised values held all of the individual people that make up and have made up that society.

In addition to determining the distinctions between aggressive and non-aggressive acts, another area where this line of thinking comes into play is the distinction between beings which have rights and those which do not. As we outlined earlier, a being has rights if it is a rational actor, that is it is able to undertake actions that are motivated by thought, desire and choice as opposed to actions that are motivated wholly by the laws of physics or by instinct. The existence of rights is impossible in a situation where both the desire and ability to bring about alternative outcomes with the scarce means available is absent. With such an absence, the determination of outcomes is solely a product of might and inertia – the stronger force always winning – simply because there is no impetus to bring about any alternative. This is all that strict libertarian theory has to say about the matter. However, the question of precisely which beings are rational beings and thus enjoy rights cannot simply be a product of theory. It may be plainly obvious to see that a fully grown human adult, as a thinking, desiring, choosing and rational being will clearly be a rights holder while a dead plank of wood clearly will not be. But we only know this precisely because, at some point in history, the earliest humans experienced interpersonal scarcity and each consciously recognised certain possessions as belonging to him in order to meet his ends. Indeed, the most likely way in which we each recognised another human being as a rational entity that should possess rights is whether or not that being made an appeal for these rights to be upheld as this, itself, is a rational action to devote means towards ends. At first this was most likely made tacitly or through body language, aided by our empathy from being in exactly the same position as our neighbour. It is from this earliest seed that entire systems of rights and obligations between individual humans grew. No one at any point commanded from on high that “X has rights, Y does not have rights” and so on. Rather, because of our shared quality of acting rationally, our status as rights holders was enforced from the bottom up as we each sought to progress our lives by directing scarce resources to the uses that satisfy us the most. This brings into the foreground the question of marginal cases such as foetuses, children and higher primate animals. Let us take, for example, abortion. Libertarians are often chided for not having an agreed “solution” to the issue of abortion (as if everyone else is blessed by such agreement). Yet, as we have argued here, this disagreement is not one that is inherent in libertarian theory. Libertarian theory tells us only the qualities that a being has in order to enjoy rights. In an earlier essay, which focussed exclusively on the issue of children and abortion the present author suggested that this question must always be answered in the negative in regard to these beings – that it is so obvious that foetuses and very young children are incapable of acting rationally that they would only come to possess rights, probably in a graduated fashion, as they age. Yet whatever support could be mustered for such a position, it is not strictly a conclusion of libertarian theory. In contrast to this initial conclusion we went on to discuss in a second essay an alternative view which could also, in accordance with libertarian theory, grant rights to children. These questions – whether a particular being such as a foetus possesses those qualities – concerns the application of libertarian theory, not the theory itself. This application will also vary according to the social context, just as the precise acts which can be categorised as aggressive are dependent upon this context. A clear example of this is the changing nature of the rights of children. Even if we admonish the statist intervention into the family unit and the ridiculous and irreconcilable one-size-fits-all cut offs for when children can carry out such acts such as having sex, driving or drinking alcohol, it is tempting to say that it is obvious that children must be regarded as independent, human beings who at least have some rights. In other words, the rights of infants are a universal an immutable fact, independent of time and place. However, this could not be further from the truth. In pre-industrial, agrarian societies where the main economic unit was the family, children were regarded as little more than the property of their parents and their chief worth was their economic value, with any rights they had subsumed by the welfare of the family unit. Although research produced by scholars since the 1960s has indicated that child rearing was not brutal and parents did make sacrifices for their children to maximise their welfare such as care during sickness, the general attitude is hardly unsurprising in an epoch of extreme poverty characterised by persistent hunger, malnutrition and an infant mortality rate as high as one third of babies born. Indeed, we can surmise that telling a mother that she may legally kill her child may have been greeted with an acknowledged, if reluctant acceptance if there simply wasn’t enough food to eat and if the consumption of whatever resources were available was prioritised towards the able bodied population. The more familiar view of children as having an independent identity that accorded them certain rights was born during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, along with the romanticised view of childhood as an “age of innocence”. However, thoughts during this time were far from uniform. On the one hand, there was the nurturance or caretaker view which was, at its earliest, espoused by John Locke, and Thomas Spence’s “The Rights of Infants”, one of the first pamphlets to specifically consider the issue, is subtitled “Imprescriptible Right of MOTHERS to such a Share of the Elements as is sufficient to enable them to suckle and bring up their Young” (emphasis in the original). This work is written as a plea from the mothers of children to the aristocracy. In other words the rights advocated were of the mother to demand from the gentry the wherewithal to nurture her infant from the produce of the land and were not directly held by the child. The alternative view, that children have much more independent rights, became augmented and subsumed by the onset of industrial society (in which children often worked in factories and down mines), and the backlash of the middle class intelligentsia against the “squalid” and “destitute” conditions of industrial workers generally, a backlash that was itself subsumed by the descent into socialism and communism. Of course, what truly abolished child labour was not a call for children’s rights, but the fact that adults could produce enough wealth for a child to survive and flourish without the latter having to work. The right of a child not to labour and, instead to be supported by its parents, are, like any positive obligations, wholly dependent on there being enough wealth to accomplish this. Thus the specific rights, and to whom they applied, were very much a product of the socioeconomic context. For the sake of completion, we might as well mention that the development of children’s rights in the twentieth century has, unsurprisingly, been welded to the growth of the state and all of its catastrophes and calamities. The Declarations of the Rights of the Child, the precursor to the modern UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which is, as of this day, enshrined in international law, was drafted by Eglantyne Jebb, the founder of the charity Save the Children that was set up to alleviate the starvation and poverty of German and Austrian children as a result of the First World War, a war which would not have occurred without imperialism, state militaries, the drive to autarky, central banking, and so on. The creation of the welfare state and the subsequent disintegration of the family it has caused, together with government provision of education, have all served to make the rights and conditions of children a public affair.

It is not, therefore, a matter for theorists to determine from on high whether or not specific beings such as very young children or foetuses should have rights and what these rights, precisely, will be. In other words, libertarian theory does not demand that children and foetuses, nor any other specific being, have rights. Rather these rights, if they exist, will be generated from the bottom up and will depends very much on the customary, conventional and socioeconomic context. We explained in detail how a modern libertarian legal system may approach the question of the rights of children in this manner in our second essay dedicated to the topic and we will not repeat this in detail here. But we can mention briefly that a series of legal presumptions is likely to govern these rights. There is likely to be at least a legal presumption that a child is a rational being when it comes to the right to bodily integrity (so that a child may not be legally killed); further legal presumptions will grant further rights to children (i.e. to enter contracts, to drink, marry, enter employment, etc.) either at ages where the court has previously found children to be generally competent for these acts, or at ages or milestones which are important in the social context, such as the Bar Mitzvah in a Jewish community. One unique aspect of a libertarian legal system, however, is that these milestones need not be concrete or set in stone as the state makes most of them today. It may well be open to the child, or to another individual, to rebut the presumption. If, say, there is a legal presumption that a child cannot enter a contract of employment below the age of thirteen, a child below this age may contest any challenge to a prospective contract if he (or the prospective employer) can demonstrate to the court’s satisfaction that he made this decision in the manner of an adult – i.e. it was a rational choice to better his life. There should be no danger of a perpetual, enforced childhood in state run schools if the child is uniquely mature enough to seek a better life for himself. Conversely, if a child is mentally impaired the rebuttal may work the other way with the parents or guardians establishing before the court that, at a presumed age, the child is still not competent to undertake certain acts in his or her own right. Abortion may be more difficult but we can suggest, for example, that if advances in medical science reduce the amount of time for which a pregnancy has to elapse before the foetus is considered viable then the law may regard the foetus as a whole, legal person much sooner that it previously did. If and when we have the technology and are able to establish communication with some of the higher functioning animals, these too may be regarded as rights holders in at least limited circumstances. To repeat again, however, this discovery of certain animals as rights holders would be made as a result of the recognition of these animals as independent, rationally acting beings. The rights will be dependent upon what these animals want because we discover that they are able to want, to desire, to choose different outcomes and to act accordingly. Contrast this to the current statist enforcement of so-called “animal rights” from the top down. These rights are not really animal rights at all – they are the rights of certain people who claim to care about animals enforcing how they believe other people should act vis-à-vis animals. The benefit gained from a vindication of any of these “rights” exists in their minds, not in the minds of the animals.

This, then, is a suitable concluding note to emphasise from what this series of two, rather long, essays. That these phenomena – rights, obligations, conflicts, aggression and so on – serve to regulate the desires of individual, rationally acting beings, a regulation that is necessary to resolve the perception of scarcity that exists in these people’s minds. The existence and content of rights is driven by this impetus. Rights are not designed or constructed from on high by an intellectual in an ivory tower, nor are those who benefit from them assigned by a politician. Any attempt to design rights is akin to treating to individuals as pieces on a grand chess board – pawns in a game of shaping society according to what the intellectual or politician wants. Our conception of rights here is focussed firmly on vindicating the individual and, while it may appear as a limitation upon libertarian theory to answer certain precise and practical questions, ultimately strengthens it.


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The “Austrian” Method Part Two of Two – Human Action and the Natural Sciences

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In part one of this two-part series of essays on the “Austrian” method, we explored how action forms the grounding of our epistemology. We will now, in this second and final part, determine the correct approaches for humans to go out into the world and study the complex phenomena that exist.

Methodological Dualism

The “Austrian” approach to the explanation of phenomena is that science must apply a definitive and rigorous methodological dualism – taking one approach towards the study of human action on the hand and a different approach towards the study of the actions of unconscious matter on the other. The study of humans – that is, of their conscious actions as opposed to the actions motivated by the chemical and biological physiology of their bodies, such a heartbeat – must be validated by deduction from the action axiom. Within this category of study falls praxeology and the parts of it that branch into economics and ethics. The study of unconscious matter, on the other hand, must be validated empirically, encompassing all of the areas of study to which we typically apply the epithet “science” – physics, chemistry, biology and so on. This position of the “Austrians” is contrary to that of the mainstream economics profession which takes a methodological monistic approach, with the study of human action being categorised in exactly the same way as dead, unconscious matter and subjected to validation by evidential testing. Indeed science these days is almost synonymous with “evidence” and any conclusions that are not validated through evidence are seen to be worthless. The huge myriad of facts and statistics that are gathered about society are all used as “evidence” to indicate a particular problem or that a government intervention is or is not working. Indeed the entire approach gives credence to those who seek to bring about social engineering – if humans are merely mechanical objects that always behave in manner X when action Y is imposed then society can be manipulated like a puppet on a string in accordance with the will of the political leaders. If the product of this engineering is a failure then the hypothesis is merely viewed as being incorrect and – regardless of the lives ruined or lost in the first round – perhaps we should try seeing if humans behave not in manner X but in manner Z when action Y is imposed. By failing (or refusing to acknowledge) that it is the method itself and not the specific conclusions under it that are at fault, endless rounds of programmes and interferences are justified in order to try and get government to shape society according to whatever preoccupations – justice, equality, fairness etc. – happen to rule the roost. It is not too outlandish to suggest that the biggest social experiment of this kind – the Soviet Union – took seventy gut-wrenching years and countless millions of lives before it was abandoned as a failure. The settlement of this question, therefore, and proof of the necessity of methodological dualism is one of the most important bulwarks against tyranny that liberty-minded individuals should be prepared to understand.

Deduction

Our first task is not to establish whether this dualism is justified, but, rather, whether it is possible to learn anything of substance at all through reasoning and deduction. A positivist objection to validating knowledge through reasoning is that it must necessarily be analytical and tautological rather than synthetic and progressive of knowledge. In other words, everything we need to know is contained in the original proposition and deducing further knowledge from it amounts merely to an engagement in endless definitions that teach us nothing new about the world whatsoever. But just because something is deduced from a given proposition does not mean that it is simply an elaborated definition of that original fact; rather, we very much learn something new about the world that affects how we interact with it. Even a very simple proposition – such as two parallel lines will never meet – will have impacts on geometry, design, endeavours in construction and even our spatial awareness. Try building an object where your design relies on the false proposition that two parallel lines will, at some point, meet and you will probably find that it will collapse. Similarly, the fact that we derive the whole corpus of economic theory from the simple proposition that “humans act” does not mean that we are expressing redundant and pointless definitions through economic theorising. All of the subsidiary axioms – that humans choose means, towards ends, at a cost, resulting in profit or loss – as well as concepts we derive from them – supply and demand, marginal utility, prices, exchange, interest, capital goods – and not to mention all of the further complex laws that we deduce from them all collapse into the basic axiom that humans act. Yet to understand these concepts and laws is not to engage in endless tautology. Do we not learn anything new about the world by deducing from the fact that humans act that price controls will cause either a shortage or surplus of the controlled goods? Do we not gain something from realising that increased taxation will raise the cost of production and hence retard its extent? All of these concepts and laws tell us something we did not know before about how we interact with the world and we would be very much at a loss without their realisation.

Unconscious and Conscious Beings

Having established this, therefore, let us proceed to justify the methodological division between the validation of knowledge of the actions of unconscious matter on the one hand and the actions of humans on the other. As we mentioned in part one, the seeking of knowledge in inherently bound with our role as actors and how we can enhance our use of means towards ends motivated by choices. The study of all complex phenomena in the universe is fundamentally an endeavour to enhance our understanding of another fundamental category of action, that of causality and the operation of causes – how one event causes another. It is through our role as actors where we must display and utilise an inherent understanding of the causal link between events that we come to realise the necessity for methodological dualism.

The physical objects around us in the world are all capable of being categorised as means through which we may meet our ends. A particular action utilising an object as a means will give a certain result – the end may be fulfilled, unfulfilled or fulfilled to a degree short of that desired; “over-fulfilment” – that is that the means through action produce more of an end that that which was sought may also be considered but it overlaps with un-fulfilment if the result is to create a net loss by impacting on other ends. This success or non-success of actions – that is, the suitability of means for ends – determines our knowledge of causes between these two categories of action. With unconscious objects humans tend to find that the same outcomes occur from repetition of a certain action under like conditions – if I let go of a ball it drops to the ground; if I do it a second time it drops to the ground again. In other words I find that on each occasion repeated actions to attain an end display a universal causal link between means and ends. However, if I shout at the ball to wash my laundry for me, I will learn that there is no causal link between shouting at a ball and my laundry being cleaned, however much I may repeat the action. This forms the basis of all approaches to the gaining of knowledge of unconscious matter – by holding all other variables constant and altering only the variable under examination we derive the laws of physics and chemistry from our observation, through action, of this matter. Importantly, these laws are invariably true and operate whenever the conditions are fulfilled. A further aspect that we know innately from our actions is that these truths tend to be quantitative as well as qualitative – that a given quantity of means is necessary to produce the end and variations of that quantity may either enhance or spoil attainment of the end. If I wish to sweeten my hot beverage I may add a spoonful of sugar; half a spoonful giving half the sweetness would be too little and two spoonfuls giving twice the sweetness would be too much. In the laboratory this translates into quantitative or proportionate laws; when we examine the boiling and freezing points of water, for example, we do not simply form a broad, qualitative law that increasing temperature will increase the energy of water molecules and lowering it will decrease the energy; rather, we know that a temperature of 100 degrees Celsius will boil water and a temperature of 0 degrees will freeze it, with each degree towards those points approaching it incrementally. As we know from observing our kettle or a pot on the stove, water doesn’t sit their tepidly until the boiling point is reached then vaporise suddenly; rather it starts to bubble and steam at much lower temperatures. Similarly, water approaching freezing will not suddenly ice over all at once but begins to turn to frost and slush at 2-3 degrees. Quantitative laws whose effects occur in infinitely small steps are precisely those truths of unconscious matter that are determined by the natural sciences, validated fundamentally through our inherent understanding of our use of them as means in actions towards ends. As we stated in part one, the fact that we continue to act to utilise means towards ends indicates that these causal links are not random or spontaneous but are, rather, objective laws of reality.

From our actions towards humans, however, we learn something markedly different. The realm of the physiological and chemical properties of their bodies is, of course, the same as that of unconscious matter – prick a man and he will bleed; hold a flame to him and his skin will burn. The domain of his consciously chosen actions, however, is where we find two important differences. First, the same human will not necessarily behave in the same way when the same situation is repeated, even if all other variables are held constant. Second, two humans will not necessarily behave in the same way in the same situation at the same time, even though they may each be acting under the same conditions. If I walk into a busy shop and shoot a gun in the air, some of the people will dash for cover, some will stand petrified, others will scream, others still may rush to tackle me to the ground and so on. Different people respond to the event in different ways. If I then leave and, a few minutes later, walk in and do the same thing again what will I find? Will the same people who dashed for cover last time do the same thing this time? Will the exact same people who screamed last time do so a second time? The answer is likely to be no – some of those who dashed for cover or stood petrified last time may now be buoyed up by their prior experience and join the ranks of those who rush to tackle me; those who tried to stop me last time, however, may not wish to risk their lives a second time and will run for shelter. Of course it is equally possible that they will all behave in exactly the same way – what is important is the fact that this aspect cannot be determined. The conscious choice of human actions serves to break those actions free of reliance upon the laws of physics. I don’t have to wait for the wind to push me two metres to the left; I can just decide to move my legs and walk that distance in that direction. Actions must, of course, always be in congruence with natural laws; I can’t for instance, jump and expect to be propelled into space. I can, however, make the conscious decision to build a rocket that will take me into orbit if the means are available and I don’t need to sit around and wait for the inertia of physical matter to do it for me. Human choice and volition, therefore, replaces the laws of physics as the cause of human action. Importantly, the place of human choice must be regarded as not just a cause but the ultimate cause of such action. The very existence of free will precludes the possibility of universal laws regarding the substance of a given action that is motivated by that will. Either an individual is free to do what he wants or he is not and his actions are reliant upon some other inertia. Psychology – the study of why humans make the choices that they do – may one day determine whether given physical or chemical impetuses in the brain always result in a given action; but until that stage is reached we must regard human choice as a distinctly teleological phenomenon. Economic science therefore proceeds in a markedly different direction from that of the natural sciences. Economists begin from the general, ultimate cause of human action and deduce from it the specific laws of phenomena; natural scientists, on the other hand, begin with the specific phenomena and work “backwards” to determine their more general causes.

Should the teleological nature of human action be doubted then consider the case of the individual who seeks to derive knowledge of other humans. Knowledge, as we have said, is the perquisite of actors – its purpose is to determine more accurately the technical requirements for future action, enhancing the understanding of the suitability of means directed towards ends. Let’s say that a man wants to hold a dinner party and wishes to serve either steak or salmon – whichever is less expensive (or more expensive, if he was trying to impress his guests). If the steak is cheaper he will serve steak and if salmon is cheaper he will serve salmon. Before this knowledge is gained his future action – whether he will serve steak or salmon – is uncertain and conditional upon the content of the knowledge. When he receives that knowledge – let’s say that steak is cheaper – he makes a choice to serve steak at his party. But he could easily have chosen salmon if salmon had been the less expensive of the two. In other words the very seeking of knowledge itself proves the uncertainty of future action and any attempt to seek knowledge of other, equally acting human beings, and derive concrete laws concerning the substance of their action would be contradictory.

Our knowledge of humans, as opposed to that of unconscious matter, therefore appears to be curtailed by a very wide margin. For we cannot, in our actions, approach other humans in the same way as we approach other matter – we cannot mould and shape humans in the way that we can other means to which we devote our ends. Does this mean, then, that we can know nothing at all about human action? Does our attempt at any study at all necessarily lead us into a dead end and should we give up? Not at all; we learnt in part one how our actions form the bedrock of our epistemology and how it necessarily constrains and conditions our search for knowledge. In exactly the same way, while we cannot form strictly substantive laws of human action, we can discover laws regarding their formal requirements – laws that exist by virtue of action itself regardless of the content of the individual action. In short, if we cannot examine the impetus towards the substance of actions and derive no laws at all from their observation we need to return to the root of the formal constraints of action by examining action itself.

The Characteristics of Laws of Human Action

There are three important qualities regarding the truths that we derive from the fact of action – first, they are deduced logically from the action axiom; second, they are formal and not substantive laws; and third, they are qualitative and not quantitative. They are deduced because only an actor has the innate ability to understand the meaning of action. In our own role as actors, we have an introspective understanding of the meaning of action and what it is to be an actor and we rely upon this understanding to draw conclusions about other actors. When a person picks up a cup in order to drink for instance, we know that this is not a random movement instigated by the laws of physics; rather, we know, from the knowledge we have validated from our own action, that this person is using means towards ends as the result of a choice. Simply observing and cataloguing the physical movements would tell us nothing at all – we might know that his arms move 46.3 centimetres to the left and his fingers clasp the cup and raise it 31.7 centimetres from the height of the table; but only reflection upon these movements, derived from our own role as actors, will tell us anything about these movements as freely chosen actions using means towards ends. Any kind of empirical validation of this knowledge is therefore impossible. Second, the laws are formal in that they specify the qualities of actions as a general category but have nothing to say about their substance. We may deduce, for example, the law that, all else being equal, an increase in the demand for a good will raise its price. But we have nothing to say on precisely what this good will be and when it will be demanded. Indeed, nothing about the physical quality of objects tells us whether they will be economic goods at all – such a categorisation being dependent upon the volition of the human mind. What is desired today may be discarded as useless tomorrow and vice versa. And finally, these truths are qualitative and not quantitative because actions occur in whole, discrete and concrete steps that take place in one go and do not proceed in infinitely small increments or decrements. If the temperature of a room is raised by one degree per minute water in the room may gain energy gradually by a measurable step per degree. Yet a human in the same room will not start shedding small parts of his jersey gradually at each degree; rather, there will come a point later where he perceives himself to be too hot and will take off the entire jersey in one go. Further, the impetuses that result in a change of choice resulting in an action are not uniform between human beings – others might find that they get too hot at a lower or higher temperature. And on a different day they may all make a different decision. Similarly, two objects that contain minute, physical differences may be regarded as the same good by the acting human. One bottle of water might contain exactly one litre of water; another might contain 1.0001 litres. Yet to the acting human this difference may be negligible and he will happily regard each bottle as interchangeable. It is partly for this basic reason that the application of mathematical formulae to explain (or rather, to predict) human action is invalid – mathematical sequences proceed in infinitely small gradations, the result of which would lead one to expect that human action also proceeds in such tiny, measurable steps.

It is these aspects that cause much ire and infuriation in the mainstream economics profession. Under the mantle “science is measurement” any method that rejects the formation of quantitative and substantive laws is seen as inherently unscientific. Science, however, is the seeking of knowledge as it exists in the universe; it is therefore perfectly scientific to state that laws must be qualitative if that is all they ever can be; grossly unscientific behaviour – indeed, an aberration on the part of anyone who proclaims to respect discovery of the truth – is to attempt to make known that which never can be. If quantitative laws cannot be determined then that is the boundary of scientific discovery.

The attempt to ascertain laws of human action through empirical validation produces only statistics and historical truths about the choices that were made at that particular time and place by those particular humans. Simply because the price of meat doubled during a shortage of cattle in Ruritania in 1952 does not mean that such a shortage in 2014 will also cause a doubling in price – or any change in price at all. Empirical validation fails to work in the realm of human action because none of the variables are ever held constant in two situations. The laws must instead be validated by holding the variables constant in one’s mind and deducing what must be the necessary result by virtue of the formal qualities of action. It follows from this also that the laws cannot be used to predict, with any scientific accuracy, future action – something that “Austrians” sometimes unwittingly overlook in their zeal to promote their otherwise correct understanding of economic theory. “Austrians” who have predicted a heavy increase in price inflation following the Federal Reserve’s money printing have had to cope with the smug retorts of the mainstream as this inflation has not emerged, largely because the demand to hold cash, particularly by the banks, has also increased. We cannot ever say that, for example, if the quantity of money is increased that there will be price inflation of any measurable quantity or even if price inflation will appear at all. All we can say is that, if all else remains equal, one is betting very heavily on the result of price inflation by carrying out the action of printing money. The focus of “Austrian” economists is to explain phenomena and not to engage in the Friedmann-ite obsession with the prediction of future events. Ironically, however, given their superior explanatory power, “Austrian” predictions tend to be more accurate than those of the mainstream – “Austrians”, for example, were among the few to recognise the instability of the housing bubble prior to the 2008 crash. Furthermore, being derived from absolutely true, self-evident premises the laws themselves – should our logic be correct – must also be absolutely true for the entirety of time, regardless of whether the particular phenomenon with which the law is concerned ever appears in society. A Robinson Crusoe island, for example, would be devoid of interpersonal exchange; and yet the laws of interpersonal exchange would still be true and valid. Phenomena which appear in society may determine the scope and direction of that which we wish to study, but they do not preclude the truthfulness of phenomena that have not made an appearance or do so to a lesser extent. Even if empirical validation in this field was possible, therefore, its limitation to present and visible phenomena would result in knowledge of a markedly poorer tapestry. It is unlikely that the Robinson Crusoe situation of unilateral exchange has ever existed to be observed and yet so informative is this situation of our basic economic understanding that we would be worse off without it.

Does this mean that we can never say anything at all about the content of actions? We can, but only on the basis of empathetic understanding of our fellow human beings and not upon any strictly defined laws. The realms of entrepreneurship and historical analysis use this method to determine and explain the actions and choices of humans in the future and the past respectively. Profit opportunities exist precisely because future actions cannot be embedded in concrete law; if they were everyone would know what they would be and every good and service would consequently be bidded up or down to precisely its cost. Rather, entrepreneurs must take their empathetic understanding of human desires in the future and combine it with superior logistical and technical knowledge of his goods or services and methods of production in order to make a profit. The historian, in forming explanation of past choices, must do this retrospectively. Use of the natural sciences and the sciences of human action will provide a circumscribed explanation for the most part – an historian who attempted to explain the effects of the Irish potato famine as the result of witchcraft would clearly be a charlatan, for example. Yet the key question of why historical figures acted as they did, their thoughts and feelings that motivated them towards action – a branch of historical investigation that Mises labelled thymology – can only ever be based on the historian’s empathetic view of the factual conditions under which the historical character was acting. The result is historical explanations that are based not upon concrete and certain knowledge but are simply more or less persuasive than others.

Conclusion

What we have outlined in these two parts is only the briefest possible sketch of the “Austrian” method as it applies both to economics specifically and to wider epistemology. It is therefore appropriate to end with a core bibliography of works that explore the “Austrian” method in more detail than we have been able to here:

 

Introductory Works:

Gordon, David                    An Introduction to Economic Reasoning

White, Lawrence                The Methodology of the Austrian Economists

 

Texts:

Menger, Carl                          Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences

Mises, Ludwig von               Epistemological Problems of Economics

Human Action, Part One, “Human Action”

Theory and History

The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science

Robbins, Lionel                    Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science

Rothbard, Murray N            The Logic of Action, Section One, “Method”

Hoppe, Hans Hermann      Economic Science and the Austrian Method

                                                   The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, Part Two , Chs. 9, 10, 14

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The “Austrian” Method Part One of Two – Foundations of “Austrian” Epistemology

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One of the primary dividing lines between practitioners of the “Austrian” School of economics and those of the mainstream is the appropriate method of economic reasoning – how are economic theorems validated and thus known to be true? “Austrians”, of course, are famous for their assertion that all of economic theory is deduced from a handful of axioms concerning human action, plus one or two empirical truths, such as the desire for leisure time. The mainstream, on the other hand, treats economics as being more akin to the natural sciences, where propositions are first formulated as hypotheses that must then be tested and validated empirically by sensory observation.

In commenting on this disagreement we shall, in this first part of our examination, go to the very heart of the matter and first of all define what we mean by epistemology and secondly to examine how it is that we know absolutely anything whatsoever. This is necessary before we look more closely at the “Austrian” method as it applies specifically to economics in part two.

Once more we must say that we are tackling here a very deep and extensive area of philosophy and much of that which we present will necessarily be brief, undeveloped and possibly incomplete. Nevertheless we hope here to outline the foundations of this important and much derided area of “Austrian” theory and its implications not only for economics but also for the social sciences and philosophy more widely.

The Purpose of “Austrian” Epistemology

One of the most frequent objections to the “Austrian” method is the misunderstanding that its chief concern is with how knowledge is acquired. Surely, these critics contend, we must have experience of, for example, what is supply and what is demand, or how to use money before we can formulate any theorems that concern them? We cannot just sit back and muse in our mind over these concepts divorced from any real, sensory interaction with what these things mean. However, the a priori nature of “Austrian” economic reasoning has less to do with how knowledge is attained and more to do with the cardinal question of how knowledge is validated – in other words, how do we know a given proposition to be true? Take, for example, the assertion that two parallel lines will never meet. We are not interested in the particular origins of my experience of parallel lines; rather, the question we want to answer is given that I have an experience of parallel lines what validates my conclusion that they will never meet? Do I need to construct the proposition “two parallel lines will never meet” as a hypothesis and then validate that hypothesis by empirical testing? Or will critical reflection upon the problem resolve the matter? In other words, do I need to go out and test a large sample of parallel lines in the real world in order to determine whether they will never meet; or can I reason in my mind that this must be absolutely and undeniably true?

The two titans of the twentieth century “Austrian” School, Ludwig von Mises and Murray N Rothbard, disagreed on the epistemological status of the fundamental categories of human action. Mises, who was influenced by Kantian epistemology, regarded them as “categories of the mind” and that they therefore existed prior to any experience. On the other hand Rothbard, an Aristoletian, denied this and regarded them as “broadly empirical”, something that could only be realised through experience. In other words they did not share the same theory concerning how we come to know the fundamental categories of human action. This divergence of opinion, however, did not prevent them both from recognising the essential self-evident truth of these fundamental categories and from recognising that such categories, regardless of how they come to be known, will always be a priori to the complex phenomena for which economics seeks an explanation. In spite of their differences in some of the more esoteric questions of epistemology, therefore, both could agree that all of the laws of economics are validated by reasoning and deduction from these self-evident categories and not from empirical testing. It is, therefore, the requirements for the validity of economic theory that separates practitioners of the Austrian School from their mainstream colleagues. This will be the focus of our attention in these essays.

Epistemology and Human Action

Let us therefore turn to the foundations of the “Austrian” method in wider epistemology. Contrary to what empiricists and relativists may claim, what is true and valid is heavily constrained by certain conditions of the universe in which humans find themselves. Truth and knowledge are not a tabula rasa upon which we can scribe whatever interesting pieces of information happen to come along. Even if they were we would first have to presuppose the existence and understanding of certain concepts simply to make such a record and communication – concepts such as identity, non-contradiction, alternatives, possibilities, causality, language, quantities, and of course, at the base of it all,  truth itself. You cannot record or communicate unless you have a common understanding of the concepts that you are recording or communicating. It is such presupposed concepts that heavily anchor the ambit of that which constitutes objective knowledge. Where does our knowledge of all of these aspects come from and how does it constrain or condition our search for further veracity?

It is submitted that at the very basis of all knowledge are a limited number of self-evident truths – truths that are proven simply by the endeavour of attempting to validate them. Furthermore, these self-evident truths are revealed to us through our action and the action axiom – the fact that we act in the universe and interact with reality – as all human endeavours in acquiring knowledge are actions and it is the formal conditions of actions that constrain the boundaries of knowledge.

The unique quality of self-evident truths is that they do not need further validation – to validate a proposition is to make it evident; yet if either stating or enquiring into the proposition is to validate it then one does not need to waste time and effort seeking further validation through observation, evidence or whatever; it is absurd to endeavour to make evident that which already is.

The first self-evident truths that we can derive from the action axiom are the individual actor’s identity, his consciousness and his existence. For any enquiry into the question of whether he exists and whether he is conscious answers that very question itself; for he cannot make such an enquiry without demonstrating to himself his existence and his consciousness. Furthermore, he presupposes his identity and his separation from other beings and objects – his enquiry being “do I exist?” and not whether a tree or China exists. He would settle the former question by introspection but not the latter questions, indicating his realisation of his identical separation from those other concepts, objects or beings. Any attempt by the individual to deny his existence, consciousness and identity would be to prove them – one cannot deny that one exists or is conscious; nor can one construct such an argument without recognising that he and he alone is the subject separate and distinct from other beings and objects.

Second, we have the constraints imposed by the formal categories of action itself – ends, means, choices and so on. All action must make a choice to direct means to an end at the exclusion of other ends with the outcome of either a psychic profit or a psychic loss. All enquiries are themselves actions that make use of these categories and so any attempt to disprove them would be futile. But what other self-evident truths are revealed by these categories of action? All actions must combine two or more means to produce an end at the cost of another end; what this reveals is our knowledge of conjunctions – “and” and “or” – for we must combine one means and another in order to produce either end A or end B. We also reveal our knowledge of quantities – for every end requires a specific quantity of a combination of means. A single cup and half a pint of water may be enough to satisfy the end of quenching my thirst; fewer cups or less water would fail to quench it; more cups would be superfluous and more water would cause a flood. Our actions always aim at combining means in the correct proportions. Quantities, incidentally, are a praxeological concept and are not reliant upon whatever we choose to represent them in notation or communication. We know that 2 plus 2 will always equal 4 whenever we act in relation to goods in the real world. The numbers themselves – 1, 2 3, 4 etc. – are simply symbols that we apply to the praxeological concept of each given quantity, routed in our understanding of action – 1 to a single unit of a good, 2 to double that quantity of units, 3 to triple the quantity, and so on. On paper 2 plus 2 could equal 5 but this only serves to change the symbols that we apply to these concepts and all that we have done is renamed that which we once called “4” as “5”. The concepts of 2, 4 and 5 always remain constant and routed in our action and regardless of what we call these quantities a fixed quantity of a good plus another fixed quantity will always arrive at the same quantity in sum however much the operation is repeated. Moreover, regardless of the symbols we choose our expression of quantities is always in a form or magnitude that best serves to meet our ends – both the diameter of a screw and the distance between London and New York City are lengths in space, yet it is praxeologically convenient for us to express the former in millimetres and the latter in either kilometres or miles.

As well as further embedding the law of identity in our recognition of these categories of action, we also reveal an understanding of the law of non-contradiction (A or not-A). For an action is motivated by the condition of scarcity thus revealing that we know that we cannot have our cake and eat it; nor can we swim and remain dry; nor can we be in two places at once. To believe the contrary would mean that a human would never act as he would expect all of his ends to arrive at his doorstep immediately. Action pursues either one end or another and is routed in the realisation that to achieve both or all of them would be a contradiction.

Third, actions all have to take place in space and we interact with this space in order to fulfil our ends. Hence we know automatically that our world is constructed in three dimensions and that certain interactions with space will fulfil our ends whereas others will not. If an apple is to my right then I reach out to my right and I am able to take possession of the apple; if it is on my left then I reach out to the left. More importantly, from this knowledge we derive all of the laws of Euclidean geometry that we use in order to interact with space.

Fourth, we have an understanding of the nature of causality as all actions are designed to produce a causal interference in the world that alters the assumed chain of events. If I wish to eat an apple and proceed to pick an apple from a tree I demonstrate that I know that my action will cause me to take possession of the apple and will cease its hanging from the branch. If I kick a ball my action causes it to fly through the air to another location. If humans did not have an innate understanding of causality then they would never act as they would not know that their movements would bring about the end desired. Action therefore demonstrates an understanding of the phenomenon of causality.

Fifth, we must know through our actions that we live in an aura of uncertainty – uncertainty in the sense that the actor does not know whether a given event is certain to materialise – not whether it is actually certain to do so in practice. If the actor knows that it is certain that event A will happen at point T then there would be no purpose in acting in order to bring about event B. An action to bring about event B at point T indicates that the actor knows that the materialisation of event A at point T is not certain and is subject to change. In any case, regardless of the knowledge of the certainty of events, action itself – the individual motivation towards ends by desires and choices – demonstrates that the world is not ruled by determinism. If it was the materialisation of all future actions of any individual would be motivated not by the individual desires of the human but by a pre-ordained plan that is written into the fabric of the universe. The fact that an actor expresses desires and choices that result in actions that change the course of events demonstrates that there is no fixed course to occurrences in the universe and that they can be altered by an expression of free will, if the means are sufficient. Furthermore, the act of making an enquiry also demonstrates the universal fact of uncertainty – the nature of an enquiry is that the answer is uncertain and could be one way or another. If the answer was certain then we would never bother to make an enquiry as we would already know the correct answer.

Finally, we have an understanding of the nature of time. All actions must take place through time and thus we know that we exist in a linear continuity. If actions did not have to take place through time then the ends would be achieved instantly and thus there would be no action – nor would there be any need to sequence the attainment of ends in order of preference. Indeed time, like quantities, is an inherently praxeological phenomenon. If humans were not subject to the condition of scarcity that motivated them to act and all of their ends were attained to their fullest instantly then the universe might physically exist in what we know as the “passage of time” but humans would have no awareness of this concept. All events would be contemporaneous and all enjoyments received instantly – there would be no comprehension of historical sequence and temporal distance would be non-existent. Any measurement of this non-existent distance in hours, minutes and seconds – let alone centuries, decades and years – would clearly be impossible.

By virtue of the inescapable fact that humans act we lay the groundwork for epistemology through our revelation of these self-evident truths – self-evident because any attempt to deny them must reveal their truth. We therefore realise that there is a body of truths that we know to be absolutely and apodictically true. The fundamental importance of this realisation cannot be denied – these categories of action that we have elaborated constrain and condition our search for knowledge and we cannot imagine knowledge that is incompatible with them. They are not mere conventions or choices of enquiry but are, rather, incontestably and undeniably true presuppositions of all arguments and theorems that may be posited. They are not the results of such arguments but are, rather, the starting blocks – that with which we must work in order to deduce further truth. More importantly, however, it anchors our search for objective truth of reality without having to investigate metaphysical and supernatural problems. In the deepest and murkiest waters of epistemology “truth” could mean pretty much anything we want it to mean. We could hold that simply because something is perceptible and realisable to us does not mean that it is “truthful” according to some as yet unknown, higher plain of understanding. Take, for example, the sensory perceptions. The fact that I can see an object, can touch it, can smell it taste it and if I drop it I can hear it break does not necessarily mean that the proposition “this object exists” is necessarily true – I am just perceiving it to be true. The world is not really full of colour nor do noises actually exist – these are simply interpretations by the brain of particular frequencies of light wave and sound wave respectively. Indeed there may be other senses that I do not possess that may depict hidden reality that I cannot perceive. Taken to an extreme, for all I know nobody else may exist and nothing of what I can perceive around me may be real – it might be some giant hallucination or a video game concocted by some other being who inhabits the genuinely real universe. Is it not possible that reality could just be a product of my consciousness and could I not be deluding myself when I try to concoct objective truths to comprehend that reality? These questions, however, do not concern us when we ground our epistemology upon action. If I act so as to use a cup as means from which to drink a beverage in order to satisfy the end of quenching my thirst I demonstrates my knowledge of the cup’s existence and its possession of certain qualities that affect its suitability as means in action and its direction towards the end of quenching thirst. I can try and deny this and reason that, upon some “higher” plain of understanding, this cup does not exist or that it possesses qualities which it does not. Yet my actions towards this object will always prove the opposite, from actions that both succeed in attaining their ends and those that fail. I might claim that the law that the angles of all triangles sum to 180 degrees is not really true according to some mystical level of knowledge. And yet when I act so as to construct one, or if I try to build a structure that relies on triangles, I will always have to use triangles with angles that sum to 180 degrees; if I did not the outcome would be a failure to attain my end. There is therefore a distinct epistemological harmony and coherence that is revealed to us through the categories of actions – choices, means, ends, results – that ground our knowledge in objective reality and rescue it from ethereal musings. If there was no such coherence between these categories then a person would simply never act at all as there would be no objective laws that link these categories. The characteristic of genuine hallucinations is that they display discordance between the categories of action. In a real case, an individual experienced a hallucination induced by LSD in which he believed his partner had turned into a vicious snake; terrified, he grabbed a knife and proceeded to stab the snake. His end was to kill the snake – a being that looked like a snake, behaved like a snake, hissed like snake and to all intents and purposes was, to him, a snake. And yet the result was that he killed not a snake but his partner. It is clear that where the identities and qualities of means and ends change randomly at will it would be impossible to ground our epistemology on any plain of reality at all. The fact that we are able to continue to act, to meet ends through means motivated by choices indicates that this is not so. Even the failure to meet ours ends indicates not a lack of objective law but the fact that the means were not appropriate for the ends sought – and will be inappropriate once again if the action is repeated under the same conditions. Unless interactive flaws, such as the appearance of the snake, begin to emerge in our current reality then we can be content that we are not all undergoing a mass hallucination, that this is the reality in which we live and this is what we are interested in as the object of our study. More powerfully, however, any action whatsoever demonstrates an individual’s belief in an objective knowledge of this reality that he is powerless to deny – for to do so would itself be an action that displays knowledge of the harmony between choices, means and ends.

We are with confidence, therefore, able to take a position contrary to those of positivism, relativism, skepticism, nihilism and the like and hold that there is a body of truths that are absolutely and undeniably true, undeniable because their self-evidence is revealed to us through the fact their denial would simply end up proving them. It is this springboard – epistemology grounded upon an action – that leads directly to the “Austrian” understanding of how to derive knowledge of other humans and of inanimate, unconscious objects.

Finally, we must also state the fact that the endeavour to attain knowledge and truth is itself bound inherently with our role as actors. Our goal in explaining complex phenomena and gaining an understanding of the world around us is to enhance the effectiveness of our actions – even if the end is merely to attain knowledge for some aesthetic purpose such as the exercising of the mind and the enjoyment of an inherent sense of beauty and order that one may perceive in truth. Non-actors, those creatures whose movements are motivated simply by instinct, never seek the attainment of knowledge for they do not possess the rational mind through which to process it; and if we were humans living in a world of total abundance the seeking of knowledge would be superfluous. Not only would a lack of knowledge itself indicate scarcity but when all enjoyments and satisfactions are achieved instantaneously the attainment of knowledge would have no purpose. Al things would be known and enjoyed immediately and there would be no enquiry into anything whatsoever. At its most basic level, therefore, knowledge itself is a category of action and is intimately bound with our role has human actors.

Conclusion

Having sketched the foundations of our epistemology, therefore, we can go on in the next part to the “Austrian” understanding of human action and the actions of non-humans and the implications of this understanding for economics.

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