Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
Justin M. StoddardThe Faith of Human Action
Posted at 11:43 am on October 7, 2013, by Justin M. Stoddard

Sometime back in the beginning of September, several of us decided to form a somewhat losely affiliated book club in order to read and discuss Human Action by Ludwig von Mises. Though some of us have read all or part of it in the past, a chance to collaborate with like-minded people on a work of such importance could not be passed up. So, the date of October 1st was chosen to start our reading. I assure you, the government shutdown that also occurred that day was pure coincidence.

I’ve sped ahead of my co-readers somewhat, so to slow myself down, I’m also reading The God That Failed, which is a collection of essays by 20th Century writers about their disillusionment with Communism. As you might imagine, the subject matter of both books go well together.

I wrote the following on our Facebook wall:

I’m reading The God That Failed by Koestler, et al. The very first line struck me as rather timely and relevant, given our reading of Human Action.

“A faith is not acquired by reasoning. One does not fall in love with a woman, or enter the womb of a church, as a result of logical persuasion. Reason may defend an act of faith – but only after the act has been committed, and the man committed to act.”

Compare this to Mises:

“Human action is necessarily always rational….The ultimate end of action is always the satisfaction of some desires of the acting man.”

The phrase “You cannot reason a person out of a position they did not reason themselves into,” comes to mind.

I’ve hated that phrase for decades now, because it’s so apodictically false.

I suspect Koestler is being poetic, and it does allow him to skip the making of the sausage in order to push his narrative along, but it bothers me, for some reason.

This struck up an interesting back and forth between Brian McCall and myself:

Brian: “I’m not so sure those two quotes are in disagreement. Something may be rational without being reasoned into. Even if the rationality of it is only found at a more meta level. Someone may not reason themselves into faith (actually the word “acquire” I think is wrong; it implies a deliberate process of reason and action). But something deep in their neurology perhaps wants it.”

“Everything is rational provided you’re looking at the right chain of causation.”

Me: “Yes, but faith is acquired by reasoning. Whether the reasoning is good or bad is another question. By Mises’ definition, faith is rational.”

Brian: “I don’t think of faith as something one acquires. Either one has it or they don’t. I consider it to be something more like one of Mises’ ultimate givens. We don’t act to acquire faith. We already possess it, almost perhaps as an instinct. What we do is act to learn particular belief systems to satisfy a sense of faith.”

Timo: “Mises was arguing against Pareto, who believed in nonrational motivation. Mises regarded preferences and motives and all ends as beyond rationality. The rational was the realm of means, where they were judged on efficiency to achieve given results. This is a demarcation problem, and a terminological matter.”

Brian may be on to something here, but I’m not fully convinced. I often accuse liberal atheists of substituting their faith and belief in God with an equal faith and belief in government. I’m not the only one. So many people have recognized this phenomenon that the phrase “secular theist” has started trending. But, really, this is just a re-discovering of old attitudes. Old school atheists were very open about why theistic religion had to be sacrificed before secular religion could be implemented. The intellectuals of the day used this cynicism brilliantly. They simply shifted (sometimes with great violence) the Proletariat’s faith in God to a faith in the government.

The new atheists fail to see the connection at all. They scoff at the idea of God, but they become indignant when their faith in government is pointed out to them. Their faith is blind to them, even though they profess it daily.

I’ve often puzzled over why people are so blind to their faith in government. Why would one choose to believe that minimum wage laws not only work, but are actually beneficial? Why would one choose to believe that there can be such a thing as “free” health care?

Back to the original quote by Koestler:

“A faith is not acquired by reasoning. One does not fall in love with a woman, or enter the womb of a church, as a result of logical persuasion. Reason may defend an act of faith – but only after the act has been committed, and the man committed to act.”

It very well may be as Brian postulates. It may be that “faith” is an inherent instinct in all of us. Some of us are better at either tuning it out or repressing it.

I think it’s a bit more nuanced than that. This faith we speak of is largely a social signaling system. It is acceptable to believe that minimum wage laws work and are beneficial because our peers believe it. It is acceptable to believe that going to the voting booth and pulling the lever actually does anything because our peers believe that it does.

That kind of faith seems incredibly rational to me.

Anyway, feel free to discuss.


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  1. […] weekend, Justin Stoddard brought up Arthur Koestler’s views on faith, in the context of Mises on human action. The discussion at […]

    Pingback by The Lesson Applied » Reasoned Out, Reasoned In — October 8, 2013 @ 11:32 am

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Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson
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