Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
Wirkman VirkkalaReasoned Out, Reasoned In
Posted at 11:31 am on October 8, 2013, by Wirkman Virkkala

This weekend, Justin Stoddard brought up Arthur Koestler’s views on faith, in the context of Mises on human action. The discussion at first struck me as tangential to the main thrust of the first chapter of Human Action, which we both read as part of an attempt at a tandem, co-ordinated reading. But considering that in that first chapter Mises tries to mark the differences between praxeology, the theory of action, and other domains of thought, such as psychology, epistemology, metaphysics, etc., and that faith would normally be thought to reside somewhere in these other domains, perhaps it is not so tangential. Perhaps it is a good prefatory discussion.

Like Justin, I see that the common maxim that warns us that you “cannot reason a person out of a position that person did not reason himself into” is obviously false. It may be that I did not “reason myself into” the religion of my family; it was “in the air,” a part of my heritage as much as the house I lived in the and the forest nearby: I did reason myself out of it, though.

Most people never accomplish any task of a similar nature. They fall into a religion, or an ideology, like they fall into love: the object of adoration was near at hand, and quite serviceable, and seemed willing to reciprocate and meet some basic needs of the psyche. Most people become liberals or conservatives in this way, and I’m sure some libertarians are born this way, too.

It was Justin, also, who brought up matters of belief as an element of reason, rationality. This is not the primary object of Mises’ interest, in Human Action. But, to clear the way for future commentary, I’ll consider, briefly, the doctrine of the minimum wage legislation, which Justin mentioned as if a stand-in for the many positions of libertarianism (a social philosophy Justin and I both hold to). And I’ll do this in frank autobiography.

When I was a teen, and extricating myself from the faith of my mother and my aunts, et aliae, I was also beginning the process of settling on a political ideology. I considered myself a liberal. I deemed my basic attitudes liberal, and on some important issues I favored liberty over regulation. But I had been taught in school and from the TV (and in part from my encyclopedia set) that concern for the poor had led to laws like those establishing a minimum wage, and I was basically accepting of the practice, and many others of our society and its government.

But I had the wit enough to see that minimum wage laws were comparable to laws about marriage and sex (say, the prohibition of prostitution) that I objected to. So I thought the only rational thing to do was consider the case against the minimum wage, as made by some economists and most libertarians.

That case involved scarcity, wealth production, supplies and demands, etcetera, and I became convinced that minimum wage laws didn’t have the univocally good results hoped for and trusted in — as, I could see, a matter of faith — by proponents of the dirigiste state. I knew some folks who, without blinking, supported minimum wage laws and legal prostitution, both, without blinking an eye. And yet it was obvious that laws against prostitution were of a similar nature to minimum wage laws. Both prohibited certain contracts at certain rates. Both had seemingly plausible arguments in their favor, but neither worked as their proponents thought.

The “faith” element, here, is the belief in the advisability of a program while refusing to believe in the negative effects of the program in question, or of judging the program on the general results, or with reference to those results. Some evidence must not be not considered.

And the world is a complicated enough place that one can easily shield one’s eyes from things one doesn’t want to see. There’s always something else to look at.

In the case of the political opponent of prostitution, it’s the inherent vileness of the activity as it is when the practice is illegal, and the pure morality of sexual activity confined to pure barter in bilateral monopoly. The negative effects of anti-prostitution laws are just a “cost of promoting the good.” Or, it is asserted, though without much careful thought, “the cost of ameliorating a great evil.”

Mutatis mutandis, it is just so with the opponents of low wage contracts. The suffering of the people who must endure low-paid work gets concentrated on, as does, even more so, the imagined alternative: higher wages — hooray! The idea that the actual alternative under minimum wage laws is that at least some segment of the low-skill labor force will suffer no employment? Blankout. Not addressed.

I noticed this at the time. I was the only liberal I knew who had looked squarely at the arguments made against minimum wage laws. And when I would relate these arguments back to fellow liberals, they dismissed them, not merely with lack of interest, but derision. These people who made them did not care about the poor!

And I have heard this reaction many times since.

My own take was that a person who wishes to help the poor, upon hearing that one’s chosen means to do the work would not work, instead of rejecting the news, would be concerned, and look into it. Why? Because of the ostensible aim, helping the poor. If one did not look closely at the challenge, then it was obvious that helping the poor was not the real aim. The real aim might be something more like “seeming to help the poor” or “appearing moral.”

And this is where my commonality with Mises becomes clear. He aims to provide reason to the processes of causation from human choice, to clear up the confusions, and to find the regularities in social causation. His science, that of a rather formal ends and means structure, he calls praxeology. It is the underlying principle to much of the work done by economists up to his time.

As Mises saw it, the main opponents of the development of such a science have been those whose approach to social life and public policy relied too heavily on faith and defensive inattention. And so Human Action, in the course of developing the principles of praxeology, also elaborates quite a few critiques of the dominant faiths of the age — many of which remain dominant after all the years since Mises first published his great book.

Praxeology does not itself require faith. It requires careful reasoning to figure out. One reasons one’s way into an understanding of economics.

But it is possible to sloppily approach a doctrine of laissez-faire, and proceed on faith. I know many libertarians who rely entirely on their bets about the world, and do little actual investigation into the reality of the underlying claims. That’s only natural. Human beings have limited time. Not everyone can be an economist, or philosopher.

But I don’t think we should equate those libertarians whose approach is almost entirely intuitive with those who have engaged in deep study. The libertarian faith and the libertarian wisdom have at least some differences. Much of it relies on what we bring to the issues. A deep prejudice for freedom is a great thing in a person, and it often leads to the full flower of a libertarian individual. But it’s not enough. Not if you really want to understand the world.

I am not sure that I’ve addressed what Justin was broaching. I’m pretty sure I have not in any way summarized the first chapter of Human Action.

But perhaps now we can proceed to a discussion of the book? We can return to the issue of faith — and, in general, of non-rational approaches to belief and action — as we proceed.

Filed under: Economic Theory, Philosophy
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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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