Abuse Your Illusions
Walter Block is a libertarian without guile, a theorist who refuses to confine his classical-liberal analysis to strictly economic questions. Liberty is liberty, he would argue, and value is value, whether we are deciding a question of zoning or a case of censorship. Honest man that he is, he opposes both zoning and censorship as acts of government infringement upon our liberties and as the forced substitution of other people’s values for our own. In a recent online editorial, Professor Block offers us a rigorously libertarian (to be accurate, we should say “liberal”) answer to the moral questions raised by stem-cell research.
Block is well known for defending the indefensible, and he takes the novel position that recycling fetal parts for research and medicine is morally acceptable, so long as the “parents” (i.e., those who supplied the genetic material) are unwilling to rear the child and there are no other takers for the fetus.
As a good libertarian, Block takes it as a given that we have no “positive obligations” to other people except not to harm them deliberately. Unborn babies, even from the point of fertilization, represent human life, but they are in the position of a wild cow that no one has “homesteaded”—i.e., domesticated and claimed ownership of. Therefore, if the parents choose not to rear the child and offer it up for adoption but find no one willing to assume the burden, they have the right to kill it—just as they would have the right to kill a born child.
Block’s morally revolting conclusion is not the problem. Many libertarian arguments lead to repugnant conclusions about marriage, drug use, pornography, and common civility, and their conclusions do not always remain in the realm of speculative theory. It is what Block (and perhaps most libertarians) take for granted—the underlying assumptions—that are really horrifying. Let us begin with the obvious: the ease with which human beings are equated with animals, not to mention the unproved assumption that human relations can be reduced to “homesteading.” In fact, the entire concept of homesteading requires us to regard human social life as consisting of unrelated individuals who find themselves on a frontier where there are no kinfolk, no laws, no customs—in other words, in a Lockean state of nature that has never existed.
Notice, too, the blithe indifference to facts of law in the treatment of his bovine metaphor. An animal coming out of nowhere is an uncommon experience, and children—whether the identity of mother and father is known—have two parents. In fact, the proper point of comparison is with calves that belong to the people who own the cow and the bull. Such calves are not at all open to homesteading, which would amount to rus-tling. In Ireland, the broad application of such a principle started a war, when St. Columcille refused to surrender a copy he had made of a biblical manuscript. The high king declared the calf went with the cow, but neither the saint nor his powerful clan agreed, and when the carnage ended, the horrified Columcille went off to Iona to found a monastery and save civilization.
But the principles of law and the facts of history are of only the slightest interest to libertarian theoreticians such as Walter Block and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who are both to be applauded for their candor and for the rigor with which they have applied libertarian principles beyond the point of common sense. Timid ideologues grow fainthearted as they approach the abyss, but purists keep on marching until they have revealed what lies at the end of the road. Just as the 19th-century classical liberals, in pursuing the principle of radical individualism, led Europe and America straight to socialism, they are now leading us down the road to Soylent Green.
Libertarian theory, as Ludwig von Mises insisted, was a morally neutral science. Certain courses of action might well be regarded as suicidal, but “praxeology and economics do not tell a man whether he should preserve or abandon life.” If some libertarians find the conclusions offensive, they might begin to reconsider the premises.
Most American conservatives (and many self-described libertarians) would say something like this: “I agree with the libertarian analysis of money and banking and economic liberty, but on social, cultural, and moral questions, I defend ‘traditional moral values.’” This was, more or less, what was meant by “fusionism” in those distant ages so long ago when there was a conservative movement whose chief “theoretician” was Frank Meyer at National Review. Quite apart from the obvious problem that fusionism simply did not work (there are scarcely any fusionists under 60 years old), it is—or rather was—based on a false distinction. As Walter Block and other true liberals are fully aware, libertarian economics is only an application of libertarian social and moral theory. Mises makes the point emphatically in the introduction to Human Action, a work which is widely regarded as the libertarian “bible.” Economics, says Mises, is the application to markets of “praxeology,” a science of human behavior, based on the subjective theory of value “which converted the theory of market prices into a general theory of human choice.”
If the general theory is false and evil, the economic version of it must be—however much we might want to believe otherwise—equally false and equally evil. Suppose we reached that conclusion—what then? Would we all become socialists or national mercantilists or Green agrarians? That is, apparently, what libertarians want us to believe: Either sign on to their ideology or be declared an enemy of human freedom. Such a fate, however, is reserved only for people who cling to the slender reed of classical liberalism as the sole support of a free society. People loved liberty, even economic liberty, long before Adam Smith (much less Ludwig von Mises) ever propounded his fallacies. Our search is for truth, not for a comforting ideology, and the things we love that are real and true—our wives and children, the freedom to buy, sell, and compete in the marketplace—cannot be defended with illusions.
Unfortunately, much of the liberals’ credo is summed up in the Guns ’n’ Roses album title, Use Your Illusion. Rather than taking up actual transactions between real human beings, liberals take their stand on abstract concepts like the Market, Freedom, and Value. “Freedom to do what?” we ask. “Freedom to choose,” answers Professor Friedman. “Choose what?” we persist, like rude children. “Whatever you like,” they answer (provided you do not harm anyone, though—as we see in Professor Block’s case—they have a rather narrow construction of harm that can exclude the death of innocent people.) It comes down to a question of value, which (at least for adherents of the Austrian school) is entirely subjective. You like Greek vases; I like baseball cards. I would not give a nickel for your black-figure pot signed by Euphorion, and you would give less than that for an original Joe DiMaggio, unless it still had the bubble gum.
This theory of subjective valuation is, perhaps, the linchpin of the Austrian/libertarian approach, though not all liberals (particularly left-liberals such as John Rawls) have achieved the terrible simplicity of Ludwig von Mises, whose entire “science” of economics and praxeology is based on it. “Ultimate ends are ultimately given,” says Mises, “they are purely subjective.” Now, Mises might simply be uttering a fatuous tautology of the type, “I want what I want what I want . . . ,” but since he is at pains to defend his position as a breakthrough in the history of thought, we have to assume that he thinks he is saying something important, not just about economics but about human nature.
The breakthrough seems to boil down to this: In assessing human behavior, we are not entitled to go beyond the fact of human actions, which are assumed always to be carried out rationally in the pursuit of what the individual wants. Some of what he wants and pursues might be self-destructive, but “the notions of abnormality and perversity . . . have no place in economics.” At first glance, this seems to be the typical sophomore’s reductionism that insists that man has no free will because there is a material cause for everything, to which the junior’s usual response is to ask why materialist ideology is not subject to the same analysis. In the case of subjective valuation, the juniors might ask Mises why the theory of subjective valuation should not be viewed as merely a means for accomplishing Mises’ own desire for money or prestige.
Mises might answer by arguing (as he does in Human Action) that human rationality, the mental mechanisms by which we achieve our desires, has evolved through natural selection to conform to the nature of reality—and that is the best answer a materialist can give. However, if Mises were really interested in human nature, as he says he is, it is strange that he gives no evidence of having studied history, biology, or anthropology. Even his psychology is of the crudest type—he quotes Locke as an authority.
The problem is that there are two Ludwig von Miseses: the Mises who claims to be offering a scientific account of human action (particularly in economic terms), and the Mises who fervently believes in the principles of 19th-century liberalism—minimal government, human individualism, the elimination of such obstacles to individual fulfillment as the Church, aristocracy, traditions, etc., the “right” to do as one chooses, even if society or other people regard it as “perverse.” Amazingly, it turns out that Misesian methods of analysis—which are purely rational, objective, and scientific—confirm the liberals’ value-free vision of society down to the last detail. His “philosophy,” in other words, is actually propaganda in the service of ideology.
Mises’ liberal bias is very clear whenever the subject of morals or religion comes up. “Ethical doctrines . . . intent upon establishing scales of value . . . claim for themselves the vocation of telling right from wrong.” People who believe in right and wrong are obviously fools. So are Christians whose economic ideals, he advises us, are similar to Marx’s. As indifferent to moral theology as he is to history, Mises conflates the teachings of Pope Pius XI, a reactionary as hostile to socialism as he was to liberalism, with those of Archbishop William Temple, a modernist as well as a liberal-socialist Anglican.
What really mattered was Mises’ singleminded commitment to eliminate all objective judgments of value. This is the opposite of what all Christians and traditional conservatives believe, and it is by no means unfair to Mises to point out that his principles are entirely inconsistent with Christianity. When Russell Kirk complained that the Mt. Pèlerin Society, whose central figure was Mises’ student Friedrich Hayek, taught dogmatic liberalism and opposed Christianity, the best that its defenders (George Stigler among them) could do was to cite the presence of several Christians in the group. This is a little like defending the Nazis from the charge of antisemitism on the grounds that there were a few Jews in the party.
Like Marxists and Freudians, liberals have created a closed system in which every question is answered before it is asked. If all moral, social, aesthetic, and political questions can be reduced to what an individual happens to prefer, then there is no objective basis for truth, beauty, and right. I think we all know where this gets us, because we are living in the amoral world that liberals created. Rejecting the really valuable contributions made by liberal economists and political analysts, we have completely accepted their childish and dangerous philosophy. Far from representing an innovative principle subversive of the regime, Mises’ theory of subjective valuation is the highly respectable platitude on the lips of guidance counselors, therapists, and pornographers. It is the “Playboy philosophy” for college graduates.
It is not that there is no subjective aspect to value, but, if we step outside the hermetically sealed system, most of us acknowledge that much of what we value—food, shelter, clothing, weapons, tools, good health and good looks—are essential to survival and reproduction. Individuals who do not “value” food simply die and eliminate themselves from the discussion, and societies that fail to value weapons (or sex) quickly disappear. In crude terms—I am scarcely a better philosopher than Mises—value has what Darwinists would describe as an adaptive element.
Mises concedes this point only to trivialize it, but a student of human nature might construct a theory of value—and of money—out of sociobiological research. What is money, after all, but a measure of value, and if there is an adaptive significance to value, why could money not be treated as marking increments of adaptive success? X amount of gold might be the equivalent of so many children (or percentages of children) begotten or, more precisely, the units of caloric energy expended on the mating process. In lower species (such as hummingbirds), there is research that shows a male bird has to invest so much caloric energy into acquiring the food it needs to survive. The “surplus” value (i.e., the excess of energy) can be converted to mating and territorial behavior. Although human beings are almost infinitely more complicated than birds, a similar calculus might be developed that would firmly set material human values in a biological framework that would fulfill the liberal dream of reducing human life to the dimensions of the mathematical sciences. It would also, unfortunately, explode all the human fantasies based on illusions like “economic man” and expose the hollow pretensions of such libertarian slogans as “free markets/free minds.”
A moderate liberal might retort: Very well, then, but even in the matter of food, clothing, and shelter, different people want different things. Of course they do, but how much of what they want is really based on individual preference? Hans drinks beer, and Pierre prefers wine: Is it an accident that the German is a beer-drinker, while the oenophile is French? Ah, says our moderate, but some Germans do drink wine. Yes, and many of them come from regions that historically produce good whites. If we take the case to the extreme, we shall have to concede that the tastes of the average American, for example, are nearly always determined by the general culture of America and by the regional or ethnic or religious subcultures to which he belongs. Only a few trivial points—a fondness for pink shirts or skinny neckties—can be attributed to his individual eccentricities or peculiar experiences. For the most part, then, what Mises regards as judgments of subjective valuation are really an expression of either natural necessity or broader social values. The individual’s subjective contribution would seem to be negligible. The necessary conclusion to this line of reasoning would be to recover, in all our social, political, and economic thinking, a healthy balance between the autonomy of individuals and the stability of the society that actually creates those individuals. The libertarian project of setting individuals free from the constraints of families and communities could then be seen for what it is—as subversive of individual liberty itself as of society.
Liberals are fond of ridiculing the utopian projects of Marxists, who thought they could build a world without social classes, and of traditionalist conservatives, who are accused of yearning for the simplicity and community of a medieval social order. What they conveniently choose to ignore is the fact that the liberals had their chance. In the second half of the 19th century, liberalism was the dominant ideology of the West. Britain, the United States, Austria-Hungary (and, at times, even France and Germany) pursued the liberal agenda. They lowered tariffs, whittled away the privileges of the Church and the nobility, and gradually bled social institutions and moral traditions of their vitality. Britain undoubtedly prospered as a whole; the bourgeoisie became rich, and, for the most part, wages and working conditions for the lower classes improved.
Working men, nonetheless, were un-impressed. Torn up from their rural and regional roots, stripped of their allegiance to nobility and the Church, indoctrinated with the grim teachings of utilitarian and liberal philosophies that told them to look out for number one, the lower classes began turning to socialism before the end of the 19th century. Liberalism was dead in England before World War I and in America before 1932, and its doctrines were only to be revived, briefly and in adulterated form, in the years of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who have both been followed by socialists and state capitalists. Nothing could be more utopian and more naive than to believe that the failed liberal experiments of the past will be tried again in the near future. If Mrs. Thatcher, who regarded Hayek as a prophet, could not make it work, no one can.
Neither Thatcher nor Reagan were liberal dogmatists; both had their conservative sides, and both were willing to maintain a high level of socialism in their countries. Mises apart, it is hard to find a pure liberal. The greatest critics of liberal dogma in the glory years of the Victorian Age were themselves disgruntled liberals like Sir Henry Maine and Fitzjames Stephen, and even such radical individualists as John Stuart Mill, Albert Jay Nock, and the great Murray Rothbard were intellectual or social elitists who had to compartmentalize their beliefs: here, a radical commitment to individual liberty; there, a set of convictions about good manners, classical education, and moral responsibility. The really thoroughgoing liberals—such as William Godwin or Ayn Rand—were disgusting and unreliable people.
Economic liberty and political liberty are part of the good life to which many of us aspire, but they are not universal givens or precious jewels picked up by the first men living in a state of nature. They are the hard-won cultural achievements of the Greek and Roman, English and American political thinkers who discovered and expounded them and of the soldier-farmers who defended them. In other societies, freedom is as little prized as the principles of logic, and in abandoning the West’s moral, social, and cultural traditions, liberals make it im possible either to defend the liberties we have left or to recover those we have lost, and so long as “conservatives” attempt to base their defense of liberty on liberal grounds, they will continue to fail as miserably as they have failed over the past 50 years.
Mises’ most famous student came to understand part of the problem. Although he professed high moral standards, Friedrich Hayek had little problem, apparently, in dumping his wife of 23 years and abandoning his children. His Arkansas one-sided divorce (which was really an act of repudiation) drove Lionel Robbins, one of his closest friends and colleagues, to resign from the Mt. Pèlerin Society. In the years that followed his divorce, however, Hayek increasingly came to realize that economic liberty itself had to be rooted in some principle that lay beyond subjective value, and at the end of his life—and against the wishes of some of his libertarian friends (so one of them told me)—he published The Fatal Conceit, a book that permanently gives the lie to liberal amoralism. But even Hayek’s search for the moral and cultural preconditions for economic liberty put the cart before the horse. The free market is not an end in itself but a part—albeit an important part—of the good life. Trapped in the constrictive mind of Enlightenment rationalism, Hayek could not solve the problem he set for himself, but his thought represents a major step away from the nihilism of 19th-century liberalism and toward the sane grasp of reality held out by those who seek a truth that lies beyond the whims of fashion and the promptings of our glands.
This article first appeared in the January 2002 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.