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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/3101/mises-and-rand-and-rothbard/

Mises and Rand (and Rothbard)

February 4, 2005 by

[Update: see more extensive material in my personal post of the same title here.]

In a recent thread, a commentator (Feirman) wrote: “Rand herself didn’t agree with everything Mises wrote, such as his a priori methodology, subjectivism and utilitarianism, and I am sure that other Randians pick bones with other of his ideas as well. But this doesn’t amount to not endorsing von Mises, even by contemporary Randians.”

I have long thought this is in part because Rand and/or some Objectivists misundestand Mises. His subjectivism is not subjectivism in her sense–the idea that everything is relative and non-knowable. Rather he just means that a value is a value of a person, and that they are ordinal, not cardinal, not interpersonally comparable, and only demonstrated through action. This is actually similar to Rand’s concept of value–something that mans ACTS to gain and/or keep–rand even said somehwere she added “acts” because if you say you value achieving something your whole life and never do anything about it, in what sense can you be said to value it? This is the same insight underlying Mises’ “subjectivism” and value theory. Even Randians’ confusing belief that values are “objective” does not really seem to deny the idea that in fact, individuals are the ones who *do the valuing*.Also–Rand used “rational” to mean something broader than Mises’ usage; to him, all action is rational, as it employs means to achieve chosen ends. To Rand, only some actions are “rational”, because to her the term meant something like, “action aimed at achieving happiness, peace, prosperity”. I think Mises would have agreed that from a policy perspective, “rational” action is cooperative action in a free marekt, something like this; he was not claiming that every action, even wicked or socialist or criminal action, is “rational” in the sense that it is aimed at “good” things.

As for apriori theory: Mises was a realist as Hoppe has argued. He certainly was not an idealist of the caricature Rand paints of Kant. His main point was we can know certain “apriori truths” for certain because to deny them is to contradict oneself. Rand validates her “axioms” in the same way–by showing that their denial is self-contradictory. This is again, the same.

Finally, Mises’ utilitarianism was basically the idea that institutions that maximize human wealth, prosperity, and happiness are good; and as an economist he realized that the institution that does this is property rights/capitalism. Rand’s ethics is somewhat vague, but I believe it is in essence consequentialist. Mises says IF you want to foster human life, progress, peace, productive, THEN you need the free market. Rand said, IF you choose to live, THEN you have to recognize that rationality is valuable as a means of living, peace, prosperity, harmony, cooperation among men is also valuable, and therefore the free market is valuable. In both Rand’s and Mises’ case, the value of the free market is hypothetical: it rests on someone already choosing some value that it rests on–in Rand’s case, the choice to live, and its implication of the value of peace and cooperation and prosperity; in Mises’ case, he directly assumed the value of peace and cooperation and prosperity (but I don’t think he would disagree that the choice to live is extra-moral; but once one has decided to live as man, it has implications).

One wonders how much Mises really influenced Rand, perhaps without her knowing it. And perhaps, this helps explain Randians’ accusations that Rothbard “stole” from Rand without attribution (and there are many amazing similarities in arguments and ideas between Rothbard and Rand)–it could be that both were heavily influenced by Mises, and really learned from Mises; but being Aristoteleans, Rand and Rothbard expressed these ideas and arguments in a somewhat different language–axioms instead of apriori truths, etc.

Just a thought.


bkMarcus February 4, 2005 at 9:03 pm

But Mises explicitly denied natural rights, whereas both Rothbard and Rand seem to have built their entire philosophies on this concept.

Mises even denied that socialism (and taxation, etc.) were forms of theft!

He claimed that if socialism were more productive that it would be the correct course:

I entirely agree with you that it is quite wrong to consider socialism as robbery.
The socialist system would be just as honest and fair as the capitalist one if a
social order based on common ownership of the means of production was

Mises to Meyendorff, letter dated 10 July 1928; Mises Archive 88: 6.

Contrast with Rothbard:

It so happens that the free-market economy, and the specialization and division of labor it implies, is by far the most productive form of economy known to man, and has been responsible for industrialization and for the modern economy on which civilization has been built. This is a fortunate utilitarian result of the free market, but it is not, to the libertarian, the prime reason for his support of this system. That prime reason is moral …

Murray Rothbard, The Libertarian Manifesto

Stephan Kinsella February 5, 2005 at 12:31 am

Burger King:

I find this interesting but why do you precede it with a “but,” as if this contradicts in the slightest what I said? I don’t think it does. I noted similarites and influences. Of course that does not mean the 3 thinkers were identical.

:But Mises explicitly denied natural rights…”

Did he? Where, just curious. Explicitly, that is.

“Mises … claimed that if socialism were more productive that it would be the correct course…”

Mebbe so, but I have no idea what it means for him to say “if socialism works” when he believed it was impossible. So it’s like saying, “If we don’t exist, then …. But we do, therefore…” Anyway, I take this to mean that since he favored peace, production, cooperation, harmony, civilized interaction-that IF somehow socialism was the way to achieve these things, then it would be good. And if horses had wings, they could fly. Anyway, this is nothing more than to say that he was some kind of consequentialist, who used hypothetical arguments.

He was in favor of peace and prosperity, and therefore he wanted to select means which would achieve this. The means was capitalism. If it turned out to be socialism, he would favor that as the way to achieve his ends. So what?

The interesting question is WHY Mises was personally in favor of peace and prosperity as starting-point values. Was it just random? Arbitrary? Or was it, perhaps, the exact same basis that gives rise to the desire for same in the hearts of other civilized men–which some then refer to as “natural” etc. Mises could have no argment in favor of his base personal preferences (as far as I know)… nevertheless, he had those preferences. Why? I submit it’s for the same reason held by proponents of natural rights.

Roderick T. Long February 5, 2005 at 11:54 am

Mises seems to have believed in both explanatory subjectivism (one has to explain people’s actions in terms of their own beliefs and desires) and normative subjectivism (there are no rational grounds for evaluating ends, only means). Rand seems to accept the first but not the second. Because Mises appears to have thought that the first implied the second, he didn’t clearly distinguish them, and so Rand probably rejected the whole thing as a package-deal.

But the extent of Rand’s disagreement with Mises on normative subjectivism is a tricky question. On the one hand, Rand argues that one’s own life is the only rationally defensible value because, in her view, it is the foundation and presupposition of value in general. That looks like a big disagreement with Mises, who thinks there are no rational grounds for choosing among ends. But on the other hand, Rand often says that that all imperatives are hypothetical, that one has to choose the value of life, and that moral requirements don’t kick in until after one has made that choice; there she sounds much closer to Mises.

The forthcoming issue of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies has several articles devoted to the connection between Randian and Misesian ideas, including one of mine addressing precisely these issues.

David February 5, 2005 at 6:20 pm

Actually, it is Mises who is guilty of using the terms “rational” and “subjectivism” incorrectly. It is not an issue of one definition versus another, but of Mises having a naïve view of volition and terms that differ from their generally accepted meaning.

Something subjective is “dependent on the state of one’s mind” whereas something “objective” is “dependent on external reality.” Values are chosen by individuals, but they may or may not be chosen in accordance with reality, and therefore may or not be rational. When Mises says “subjective” he actually means “volitional” since all human actions are chosen, but they are not necessarily chosen rationally. The proper statement is thus not “man acts rationally to pursue his subjective values” but “man acts volitionally to pursue values.”

Mises also has a flawed view of “apriori,” while Rand rejects the possibility of apiori knowledge as such. For her, “man acts” is a conclusion made on the basis of evidence and more fundamental principles. The ultimate axioms are validated against reality (“I am conscious of something”), not by “pure” (apriori) logic.

In ethics also, Mises suffers from simply assuming that human life and happiness is a good, without examining why or for whom it is a good. His views are essentially correct, but the absence of a proper foundation leaves him unable to prove his assumptions and open to criticism by those who don’t share his assumptions.

In sum, Mises’ held a naïve view of epistemology and utilitarian view of ethics, which led him to take many invalid views for granted. This does not diminish him as a great economist, but it did restrict his ability to provide a moral defense of freedom, or question the conventional views on political philosophy because he shared his enemies’ philosophic and ethical foundations. It is Rand who provided an integrated and complete defense of egoism and capitalism on moral grounds.

Vanmind February 5, 2005 at 7:31 pm

“…objective is dependent on external reality.”

By all means, Objectivists, let us know the minute any human being is able to define “external reality” without succumbing to their own subjective nature. According to some, a cat can be both alive and dead at the same “time.” Some fools even believe in a thing called the “Big Bang.”

“I am conscious of something”

Wonderful. Now we understand why no new species of animal ever “exists” until a human being “discovers” it and becomes “conscious” of it. Such existence is impossible before Man blesses the animal’s official quantified status within the “external reality” upon which “objective[ism] is dependent.” Do other yet-to-be-discovered species exist in the jungles, deserts and oceans of Earth? No way–not until some scientist (i.e. “objective specialist”) gets published in a “peer” journal.

Shouldn’t Rand have admitted that she was trying to manufacture support for the Virtue of Narcissism?

Stephan Kinsella February 6, 2005 at 1:36 pm

“It is Rand who provided an integrated and complete defense of egoism and capitalism on moral grounds.” David–we’ll have to agree to disagree. I used to be a pretty hardcore Randian, but now believe there are many errors and deficiencies in her substantive views and arguments (leaving aside all the other problems w/ the behavior and attitudes and personalities of her and many of her followers). Therefore, I don’t think her defense is “complete” at all, since that implies it is correct and not deficient.

Bill R February 7, 2005 at 1:51 pm

On “objective reality”:
The “universe” is “objective” in a very limited sense. Irrespective of our thoughts/feelings/desires, certain “rules” or “laws of nature” seem to apply, i.e., if the bus hits us, we stand of good chance of becoming injured – our thoughts/feelings/desires didn’t change reality. Now, if you believe in telekinesis, feel free to argue that point. No human can have objective knowledge of the universe, however. All knowledge is subjective since we filter it through our thoughts/feelings/desires at a variety of levels.
There are persistent calculation errors in spreadsheets and computers that exist because they do their work in binary whilst we work in a ten-digit world. Would a race of 13-fingered humans think about math differently? How would that starting point influence their development of number theory? How would that change their “history of science?”
The Eskimo have hundreds of words for snow, other ethnic groups have hundreds of words for banana, etc. How does the language filter change what we think?
We continue to search for extraterrestrial life by looking for extraterrestrial earths. Is it because life based on carbon and liquid water is the only possible type? Or because it’s the only type WE understand through our carbon and liquid water filters?
The best we can hope for from the rational mind is verisimilitude, and I’m not certain we can get that.

For David:
“In ethics also, Mises suffers from simply assuming that human life and happiness is a good, without examining why or for whom it is a good.”
It seems self-evident that individual happiness is a “good” from the standpoint of THAT PARTICULAR individual, i.e., each person attempts to maximize individual happiness at the margin. What is also self-evident is that some individuals choose to maximize their personal good through coercion, force, or fraud – hence, peace and prosperity don’t represent a “good” for certain individuals, for example, those in the democratic political class or the military-industrial complex. The slippery slope of ethics occurs when one tries to ascertain an objective ethical code that could apply to all persons, or tries to create some calculus that “measures” good across some fictitious group like “society.” Could all of the following four statements be true?
Society consists of all individuals in a certain territory.
I am an individual in that territory.
Voluntary cooperation, peace, and prosperity are best for Society.
I maximize my standard of living through coercion, force, or fraud.
In practice, the first statement is ALWAYS false. “When you see an apparent contradiction, check your premises.” Rand used similar situational arrangements to argue against the existence of “society” when discussing various social welfare programs, but the arrangement creates an interesting lens to view any structure of morality or law, in my opinion.

Roderick T. Long February 7, 2005 at 3:08 pm

David writes: “Actually, it is Mises who is guilty of using the terms ‘rational’ and ‘subjectivism’ incorrectly.”

Well, he uses them differently from the way Rand does. I don’t see why we should suppose that there is just one philosophically correct way to use these terms whose ordinary usage is so varied and vague. The author should just make clear what he means by them. I think both Rand and Mises do that.

Jim Bradley February 11, 2005 at 8:46 am

I think Rand was looking for an objective value system and Mises was denying that there was one.

But Rand did have a point that comes clearly out of the post by Bill R when he says “No human can have objective knowledge of the universe, however.” … That cannot be true as the statement IS “objective knowledge of the universe”.

In other words, the foundational basis of knowledge is axiomatic and undeniable. Rand appeared to argue, however successfully or unsuccessfully, that man has a nature and that his nature (and the nature of the universe in which he lives) demands that he have a certain value structure.

Mises appeared to argue that ultimate values were able to be chosen by men and were independent of their nature. While Mises has a point in terms of the inability of Rand to defend her view completely (values do not HAVE to fit any pre-existing moral structure if one does not regard their own life or mental stability as important), I think it is instructive to realize that the concept “value” cannot have meaning unless there is an objective ultimate goal of man. In other words: choose your God.

Interestingly Rand was atheistic which mean her “ultimate God” was matter (as she presents the axiom of existence being subject to existing some place, at some time, in some form). She seemed perilously close to belief in a necessary being, but unfortunately never came (or allowed herself) to be converted.

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