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Date: October 18, 2007 04:42PM
Ludwig von Mises
Even people who hate math actually love it. They depend on it, and they have
faith in it. The only moral truth that everyone agrees on is that "2 + 2 =
Why do I say that this is a "moral" truth? Because it brings order to
our lives. That almost every non-mentally handicapped person knows the simple
rules of addition and subtraction goes a long way toward explaining how civil
society functions. The essential function of a store clerk is to count the money
received and give exact change back, and it’s normally not a difficult thing
Nature, too, imposes order. Jumping off cliffs or tall buildings can normally be
called suicide, and it is understood that humans can’t fly. The belief that
people "ought" to fly does not make it so; instead, one must find ways
to fly that accord with the laws of nature. Humans fly, thanks to airplanes,
helicopters, balloons, and some other contraptions. But these inventions work
precisely because they conform to the laws of nature and physics. Wishing
something to happen doesn’t make it happen. Feeling that something ought to be
right, doesn’t make it right.
In other words, we live in a real, ordered natural world, not of our own
choosing. And it’s actually the world we really want, precisely because it is
ordered. Anyone who wants a world in which 2+2 can equal 5 whenever it’s
convenient, is essentially asking for the world to go to hell. To willfully
believe such a thing is to negate one’s own rational faculties, which itself
is a negation of one’s own desire for life and happiness.
I say that, fully aware that mathematics, the indispensable tool for the natural
scientist, is itself an "a priori" science – based on reason, not
facts. By that, I mean, no two seemingly similar objects in the universe are
ever, as a matter of empirical fact, "exactly" alike. No two eggs, no
two apples, no two humans, no two clones. No naturally-appearing or human-built
object has ever had an exact right angle, or had been perfectly spherical. The
study of mathematics is the study of an ideal, or perhaps we should say,
abstract, universe, which only means that reason itself recognizes the
abstracts, the patterns – as opposed to the absolutes – of our actual
universe. It is only through abstract reasoning, through logic, that we can
actually see the order within the "real" universe.
Even in some intellectual struggles between "science" and
"religion," the Creationists and other anti-Darwinists try to use
logic and evidence to make their case; it is not just "the Bible tells me
so." The argument has to make sense according to reason. The Cal-Berkeley
law professor Philip Johnson, for one, has carved out a whole new career
questioning the logic and evidence of Darwinism.
Curiously, however, reason isn’t held in much regard in the field of ethics or
the social sciences. For the most part, social scientists defer to history,
statistics, conventional wisdom, and ideology to understand the premises, and
then only use "reason" to reach the conclusions. The purpose of social
science often seems to be to find data to prove ethical and ideological points.
Pick the best arguments of your favorite economist, statistician, sociologist,
and historian, and your ideology may appear to be quite rational.
Historical or empirical "evidence" are only data. Reason must explain
the data; the data doesn’t determine the conclusion. If we do that, then
future behavior becomes a guessing game: when does "history" prove
that war is "good for the economy" and when doesn’t it; when does
deficit spending bring on excessive inflation and when doesn’t it. What
"lessons" of history should we apply to future judgments?
That creates random judgments based on generalizations. Hey, we rebuilt Japan
and Germany, why can’t we do the same in Iraq? Words like
"appeasement" haunt American politicians, who then exaggerate the
magnitude of foreign "threats" to American "security
interests." History may provide some patterns, but the job of the social
scientist is to explain the pattern, and not assume that the pattern is itself
The role of the social scientist in the political arena is to provide
politicians with explanations of social, economic, and political phenomena. It
is not to give politicians data from which they can "predict" the
outcomes of a course of political action.
If political action, and by extension, all human action and ethics, is to be
based on predictions of outcomes, then ethics does indeed become relative:
everyone doing what is right in their own eyes. Ethics would become a guessing
game, on the political and personal level, on whether the benefits outweigh the
costs and risks. But if ethical rules are random, and if ethical conduct is
arbitrary, then ethics doesn’t really exist at all. There would be neither
rhyme nor reason in the pursuit of happiness or of "the good." It is
akin to wishing for the natural order to permit 2 + 2 = 5, as stated above.
Many believe that democratic institutions provide a check on this randomness;
the moral preferences of the majority prevail. But this doesn’t prove that the
majority’s preferences are based on reason. Majority rule is still arbitrary
Yet this randomness, this declaration of ethical "norms" by appealing
to the desires of the majority, is all over the place. Think of this statement:
"Health care is a basic human right." That is, it is an inherent right
of an individual that some other individuals know how to practice medicine, and
be forced to use their skills for free. Are food, clothing, and shelter also
basic rights? If health care is, these must be, too. But also of course, someone
must know how to grow the crops, kill and butcher the animal, produce the
garments, and build the houses, and do this either for free or at fixed prices
he can’t control. One person’s "rights" require forced labor from
others. Economic "rights" are essentially the rights of the chattel
slave – being forced into work not of your choice or even best ability, but in
return you are "cared for." It is safe to say, that if our rights were
based on economic sustenance, they can not co-exist with the rights expressed in
our Bill of Rights – which guarantee not your own well-being but that you have
the right be left alone, to be free.
(This, by the way, is the myth of modern liberalism, that the productive
capacity of highly-regulated and highly-taxed markets in the modern age can make
possible both economic "rights" and individual freedom, forever. But
the record of the modern liberal, from Waco to McCain-Feingold, proves
otherwise; the liberal will sacrifice the freedom of the individual for larger
social and economic goals.)
What ethics frequently does, is inherit pre-conceived religious and political
doctrines, combine them, and pass them off as universal truth. Hence the
supposed split between what passes for "liberalism" and
"conservatism" today. Liberals seek individual freedom provided there
are economic guarantees; conservatives want a strong State and a free market,
but only prefers the free market because it has traditionally worked, and has no
idea of how or why it works. The inability of morally concerned clergy to
competently "speak truth to power" whenever they recognize a grave
evil is that they have abandoned, or never really had, the rational faculty to
tell the truth. All they have, instead, is their moral beliefs based entirely on
religious faith. These beliefs may be true, in a cosmic, spiritual, and
religious sense, or maybe not. But they lack the logic, the reason, which is our
only guide to discern and articulate the truth.
In other words, social science and ethics, to be effective, must insist on
abstract, logical thinking, just as mathematics plays that role in the natural
sciences. This is not utopian analysis of envisioning the "good
society" or the "moral human being" and deriving principles from
them. It does not insist on exactitude in the real world.
Reason, instead, is derived from self-evident axioms. No two snowflakes, or
dogs, or apples, or horses, or human beings are exactly alike, and mathematics
does not urge that they ought to be so. But we must recognize an apple as an
apple, if we are to count how many apples we have. By "self-evident
axioms," I’m only suggesting that an apple of a different color is still
an apple, and that an orange is not an apple. Mathematics is based on our
recognition of the real world; our rational faculty is based on recognition of
objects and the recognition of structure and patterns. It doesn’t tell us what
ought to be or what is "perfect" or "ideal," but in telling
us the patterns and structure of what is, it does something better: it brings
order to our lives.
For ethics to be ethics, it must do the same thing: bring rational order to our
lives. Which means explaining how human action really works, the raw reasoning
we need before we let ideology, religion, or tradition determine our conduct.
Furthermore, it must not create theories out of raw historical data, it must
rather, use reason to explain the historical data. Like mathematics, it must
provide rules to be heeded for an ordered universe.
And in ethics and social science as a whole, it is the logic of human action
itself, as opposed to finding the quirks of this or that individual or the
beliefs of this or that population, that ultimately explains social phenomena.
Not how many of what race voted for whom; not how a nation’s Gross Domestic
Product rose because of tax cuts (or tax hikes). Or rose, or fell, on account of
war. The relationship of two or more sets of statistical data does not prove or
disprove anything. We must use reason to understand what’s really going
And this is the ultimate, supreme debt we owe to Ludwig von Mises. He
established, in Human Action, the premises and logic of human behavior. Not that
human behavior is moral, or even reflects "rational self-interest."
But rather, that human beings act by making choices through time, and that these
choices are a reflection of costs and benefits according to one’s values at
the time of his decision and action. Just as green apples, red apples, and
rotten apples are all still apples, it is self-evident – a rational
discernment of recognition – that a human being makes choices through time.
And that a human being’s will is self-governing – that is, one person can
influence, but not control, another person’s will. An organism’s will, and,
as Rose Wilder Lane put it, "control of his own energy" is entirely up
to the organism. Politics can influence us by imposing additional costs on
certain behaviors, and provide rewards for others. But politics can not control
behavior or control values. In establishing these axioms, Mises systematically
destroyed the conceit of The State, that its laws and coercion can function as
values that can persuade people to become "good" in The State’s
eyes. Instead, he advanced the idea that The State only imposes additional costs
and impediments on human action and thereby distorts it and takes away the
freedom and prosperity we otherwise would have had.
Mises’s greatest achievement was the very concept of "praxeology,"
the a priori science of human action. Praxeology is to social science what
mathematics is to natural science: just as mathematical theorems explain natural
data, so does praxeology explain human behavior – of human action as
constituting choices through time. Physical evidence does not change
mathematical analysis, nor could it. Likewise, social change does not alter
praxeology. It is praxeology that explains the social change.
This is important. Mathematics not only best explains natural phenomena, it the
tool of technology, telling architects and engineers what can and can’t be
built. The slightest miscalculation in physics can cause an entire bridge to
collapse. Mathematical precision is crucial to technological advancement.
Mathematical equations describe the "order" of nature so as to make
understanding it, and subduing it with technology, even possible.
Likewise, praxeology performs the same vital function in the social sciences and
ethics. By describing the nature of human action, it reveals the order that is
often hidden in the social world. It provides the social scientist the means to
explain the statistical data, and it informs ideologues and ethicists that their
dreams of a better society can not emerge if they desire to subvert the
deductions of praxeology in the process.
That’s because the human being is an independent source of energy, with an
independent will, and merely "complying" with The State’s demands,
which is avoiding punishment, is not the same as advancing The State’s ends.
Doing as little as possible in obedience to The State, is not the same as
advancing the State’s goals. The more The State imposes, the more costs are
burdened on the people, the more the people will do as little in compliance to
get by and become "outlaws" to improve their condition. Civilization
crumbles, and with it, The State. Mises predicted this of communism in 1922 with
his book Socialism. It also explains our crumbling moral fabric today. It will
always be so when the people’s individual desires and goals are not the same
as those of the people who control the State.
Mises saw the logic – the order – of human action. It is to the extent that
people were free, as opposed to being burdened by the demands and taxes of their
authorities, that civilization flourished. And that is his lesson for us today.
The less powerful, and less centralized, the government, the better. Because
that leaves us with more freedom, with more initiative, to improve ourselves and
society as a whole.
To desire another world, in which people are "good" or
"virtuous" to your satisfaction and convenience, is like desiring that
2 + 2 should equal 5. When counting your own money, that might seem like an
alluring fantasy, but deep down, nobody wants to live in that world.
And that is my debt to Mises. He provided substance and reason to a value I
already held dear: liberty.
"Ron Paul Girl"