Against Politics: 15 book recommendations

One of the best ways to communicate the general outlook of a website is to recommend a set of books that embody its perspectives on a variety of topics. Since its inception in 2000 the outlook of Against Politics has undergone some changes but there are a number of core interests that have remained the same: empiricism, non-cognitivism in ethics, an interest in (Hobbesian) contractarianism, philosophical anarchism, sociobiology, and a critical perspective on (electoral) politics. The following books reflect these topics and can command the recommendation of the writer of this website.

1. Hans Reichenbach – The Rise of Scientific Philosophy

Hans Reichenbach was one of the greatest 20th century empiricist philosophers and his brand of empiricism is distinguished by a greater emphasis on the probabilistic nature of knowledge and pragmatism. A more rigorous statement of his views can be found in his seminal scholarly work Experience and Prediction: An Analysis of the Foundations and the Structure of Knowledge.

2. Nassim N. Taleb – Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets

Nassim N. Taleb is mostly known for his writings on Black Swan events, but of broader interest is his general skeptical outlook. In Fooled by Randomness Taleb documents how poorly we are equipped to deal with the probabilistic nature of the world and how our thirst for certainty and our tendency to see patterns everywhere leads us astray.

3. Edward Osborne Wilson – Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Edward Osborne Wilson is the godfather of sociobiology and in this work (review here) he aims to bridge the gap between the biological and social sciences and seeks to resuscitate a project held dear by the early logical empiricists; the unification of science. Wilson is not trained in philosophy or philosophy of science but this “disadvantage” is mostly offset by his sane outlook on human nature.

4. Paul H. Rubin – Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom 

‘Ought’ implies ‘can’ and Paul Rubin’s excellent book Darwinian Politics treats the topic of what we can reasonably expect in political and economic affairs based on our knowledge of human evolutionary biology.  Humans are poorly equipped to recognize the non-zero sum nature of capitalism and the futile nature of (electoral) politics.

5. Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending – The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution

In this book (review here) Gregory Cochran & Henry Harpending drive another nail in the coffin of the idea that modern humans have not undergone meaningful genetic change. There is no reason to expect a “psychic unity of mankind” and social scientists who still embrace such notions do so at the cost of understanding human nature and human biodiversity. Also recommended is Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (review here) who treats the deep history of humanity from a similar perspective.

6. L.A. Rollins – The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays

L.A. Rollins’ devastating critique of natural rights exposes the careless reasoning that has been employed by libertarians who argue that people have “rights” prior to any agreement or contract. As such, The Myth of Natural Rights (review here) is a sad reminder of how much time and effort libertarians (and conservatives) have wasted by arguing for nonsensical positions.

7. David Gauthier – Morals By Agreement

In what may constitute the most rigorous work in moral philosophy to date, David Gauthier uses decision- and game theory to develop a Hobbesian account of moral contractarianism. To prevent appeals to intuition and circular reasoning, Gauthier seeks to derive morality from a minimalist (instrumental) conception of rationality and shows how self-interested individuals seeking mutual advantage will accept moral constraints on their conduct.

8. Jan Narveson – The Libertarian Idea

Jan Narveson takes Occam’s razor to David Gauthier’s  moral contractarianism and aims to show that a general agreement to respect each other’s (negative) liberty is the only kind of agreement that can command general endorsement. Such an agreement excludes coercive income redistribution and raises questions about the legitimacy of government itself. This work presents the best introduction to libertarian philosophy that neither pursues natural rights nor utilitarianism.

9. Anthony de Jasay – Against Politics: On Government, Anarchy and Order

Anthony de Jasay is the most important social philosopher of our time and all his writings are highly recommended. Against Politics is a collection of essays on a variety of topics such as political contractarianism, constitutionalism, income redistribution, and the economics of ordered anarchy. One of the great virtues of Jasay’s writings is his ability to reconcile academic rigor and common sense.

10. Bryan Caplan – The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

In The Myth of the Rational Voter economist Bryan Caplan employs economic reasoning and empirical evidence to explain why democracy leads to poor public policy. The average voter has a strong incentive to be rationally irrational about politics and the economic ignorance of elected politicians is evidence of this. This book provides no less than the microfoundations of political failure. Also recommended is Randall Holcombe’s From Liberty to Democracy: The Transformation of American Government. Holcombe uses a public choice perspective to show how the rise of democracy leads to a decline of liberty.

11. David Friedman – The Machinery of Freedom: A Guide to a Radical Capitalism

David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom is a fine example of modern anarcho-capitalism. This informally written book presents classic economic arguments to argue that the market does not just excel in the production of ordinary consumer goods but that the market should be expected to excel in providing justice, police, and defense as well. David Friedman’s article A Positive Account of Property Rights is highly recommended, too.

12. Edward Stringham (ed.) – Anarchy and the Law: The Political Economy of Choice

Anarchy and the Law: The Political Economy of Choice is an ambitious collection of classic articles on anarcho-capitalism, public goods, polycentric law, and criticism of minimal government.

13. Gregory Clark – A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World

Gregory Clark’s book A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World is a Darwinian perspective on the rise of modern capitalism and the persistence of economic inequality between nations. The industrial revolution and rising living standards in the West are not explained by favorable geography or institutions but by natural selection (“survival of the richest”). An interview with Gregory Clark about his work is available here.

14. George A. Selgin – Less Than Zero: The Case for a Falling Price Level in a Growing Economy

George Selgin is one of the most interesting economists working in the classical liberal tradition and his small book Less than Zero (PDF) outlines the case for a productivity norm that permits prices to respond to rising productivity or negative supply shocks as a superior alternative to zero-inflation or positive-inflation norms. Selgin’s discussion of  monetary disequilibrium and nominal income targeting has also contributed to the rise of market monetarism. His treatment of free banking can be found in another great work,  The Theory of Free Banking: Money Supply under Competitive Note Issue.

15. Steven Pinker – The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

One of the most ambitious contributions to social science ever written. Pinker makes a persuasive case that the rise of commerce, classical liberalism, and secular reason have greatly contributed to the decline in violence. Among the weaker points in the book are his treatment of the feasibility of ordered anarchy and his rather blasé attitude towards the violence and coercion that is associated with the normal operation of government. An extensive review essay of this book by this author is available here.

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Voting anarchists

One of the longest ongoing debates in anarchism concerns the morality of voting. Thomas Woods has weighed in and not only believes that it is not immoral to vote, but that there are good reasons to vote for a candidate such as Ron Paul. He writes:

If you were stuck in a prison camp, and the guards let you vote on whether you were to have gruel or prime rib for dinner, would you be “consenting to the system” to vote for prime rib, or would you simply be doing the best you could under the circumstances to improve your material condition?

It is not clear in Woods’ example if anyone else is voting so it does not address the most obvious reason why many people in mass democracies do not vote; the recognition that there is an extremely small probability that your vote will decide the outcome, and therefore is quite a futile exercise.

Austrian economists define rationality as purposive behavior. This makes it harder to adapt the framework in which it can be hypothesized that it is irrational to vote. As a consequence, Austrians are not able to launch a research program to investigate the implications and consequences of this phenomenon for public policy. In contrast, classical economists like Bryan Caplan, who are not burdened by such a vacuous definition of rationality, have made useful contributions to the microfoundations of political failure.

One implication of the statement that not voting for Ron Paul “hurts the cause of the free society” is that it posits a “free society” as a goal that should be pursued by rational individuals. This approach reinforces the politicization of individual decision making and implies that a free society is the product instead of the absence of politics.

Much of what we call political behavior is most likely a remnant of our ancestral past where one person’s opinion and behavior mattered a lot more and the relationship between people could be characterized as a zero-sum game.

As Patri Friedman has observed at Overcoming Bias:

In the ancestral environment, pulling together to help the tribe in a time of crisis was the best way for an individual to survive.  In our modern environment, however, we are often led to identify with an entire nation as our “tribe”, and it turns out that this is an inefficiently large group for most types of collective action.  We evaluate the prospect of unity with ancient mental modules optimized for Dunbarian tribes, and that sphexishness leads us into disastrous collective ventures…Anytime you get excited about collective actions in supra-Dunbarian groups, you should be suspicious that you may be in monkey-mode… anytime you are arguing about politics as if you can do anything about them, then unless you are very wealthy or powerful, you are probably in monkey-mode.

In contemporary society the ancestral mindset still dominates, but it is hard to see how the cause for a “free society” will be strengthened by reinforcing it.

In August 2011, Stefan Molyneux (for this views on voting, listen to this) released a video aimed at addressing arguments by libertarian economist Walter Block about libertarian anarchists such as Wendy McElroy and Molyneux himself who do not support Ron Paul’s political campaign. Stefan objects to Ron Paul’s incoherent “constitutionalism,” discusses the costs and benefits of political action, presents anarchism as a multi-generational effort, and also gives a Burkean perspective on what might happen if a libertarian President would attempt to roll back the state in a country where libertarianism is a minority outlook (social unrest and violence).

If you think of a libertarian society as an emergent outcome that arises from evolving social interaction between rational individuals instead of an “ideology” that requires people to conform to categorical imperatives like the non-aggression principle, a lot of the debate about the morality of voting is not useful. Stefan’s treatment of Block’s arguments is not confined to such a moralist perspective; he also discusses what Wendy McElroy calls”non-ideological objections to electoral politics,” such as the effectiveness of changing things that are within individual control versus participating in collective action. He seems to recognize that one of the consequences of advocating people to vote and campaign for Ron Paul is to induce them to adopt a rigid and politicized framework for thinking about personal liberty.

Anarchist economists routinely contrast the operation of a free market with collective choice but many of them do not recognize that the postulates about individual decision making and value in their economic theories present major challenges for traditional thinking about morality, collective action, and (electoral) politics. In an older post on this topic Wendy McElroy quotes Sunni Maravillosa to contrast her individualist perspective with that of the voting anarchists:”What happened to the understanding that liberty is, first and foremost, an individualistic idea and pursuit? How did it happen that to achieve liberty we must all unite and act as one, pulling the great lever for The One Man Fit to Rule Us All.

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Humans are still evolving

A defining characteristic of ideologies is an implicit or explicit theory of human nature. For example, modern libertarians like Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard derived bold normative conclusions from the fact that humans are endowed with reason. In such attempts, an abstract theory of human nature is made to do more work than it can possibly do; provide all humans with a set of normative guidelines for social interaction. The failure of such “rationalist” approaches to draw ideological conclusions from human nature does not mean that knowledge about human nature has no role to play in social philosophy or public policy at all. Absent deriving grandiose categorical imperatives, knowledge of human nature can provide us with knowledge about the limits of human malleability or the feasibility of specific public policy proposals. To be able to play this role, however, it needs to satisfy at least two criteria; it needs to be based on experimental evidence and it should be situated in an evolutionary context.

Many writers about human nature are aware of the social sensitivities surrounding this topic. As a consequence, most contemporary books that aim to provide a theory of human nature need to walk a fine line between providing a plausible evidence-based perspective and avoiding presenting an account of human nature with controversial social-political implications. What makes many books about human nature not entirely persuasive is the implicit premise that humans have stopped evolving since our descendents left Africa around 50,000 years ago. Stephen Jay Gould was quite explicit about this when he wrote that “there’s been no biological change in humans in 40,000 or 50,000 years. Everything we call culture and civilization we’ve built with the same body and brain.” One problem with these accounts is that genetic evidence keeps accumulating that humans not only kept evolving over the last 50,000 years, but that the pace might even have accelerated after the start of agriculture and modern civilization. Two books about human nature that explicitly depart from the view that humanity has not experienced meaningful genetic change over the last 50,000 years are Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (2006) and Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending’s The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution (2009). Before the Dawn provides a general evolutionary account of human origins and The 10,000 Year Explosion specifically aims to provide theoretical arguments and empirical evidence for recent genetic change and its implications. As such, The 10,000 Year Explosion can be read as a sustained, detailed treatment of one of the themes in Before the Dawn and constitutes a major contribution to the resuscitated field of “biohistory.”

Since both authors reject the theory that 50,000 years is too short for genetic changes to occur, both books discuss emerging evidence that diverging populations responded with different genetic adaptations to the environments they encountered. Nicholas Wade devotes a whole chapter to the view that the concept of race may have been abandoned without good scientific reason and that this concept can do meaningful work in population genetics, history, medicine, and forensic science. Such a perspective makes evolutionary scientist Steven Pinker uncomfortable. In an interview in New Scientist magazine he admits, “People, including me, would rather believe that significant human biological evolution stopped between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago, before the races diverged, which would ensure that racial and ethnic groups are biologically equivalent.”

Commenting on Jared Diamond’s (mostly) environmentalist perspective, Wade writes, “If New Guineans adapted genetically by developing the intellectual skills to survive in their particular environment, as Diamond says is the case, why should not other populations have done exactly the same?” Both books argue that this is exactly what has happened, and give a number of examples. In particular, they discuss the hypothesis that the unique history of the Ashkenazi Jews triggered genetic adaptations that make them excel in cognitive tasks. In addition, Cochran and Harpending do not just argue that race is more than skin-deep, but also explain why similar traits can reflect different genetic adaptations. In the closing chapter they write, “If researchers in the human sciences continue to ignore the fact of ongoing natural selection, they will have thrown away the key to many important problems, turning puzzles into mysteries.”

Nicolas Wade also expresses concern over the tendency of many post-war archeologists and anthropologists to play down or even deny the prevalence of warfare (and other cruel practices) in primitive and pre-State societies. This theme has been treated in detail by Robert B. Edgerton in his book Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony, and, more recently, in Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of our Nature. Such wishful, or anti-Western, thinking not only obscures the progress that has been made in many modern societies, it also prevents scholars from properly assessing the role that warfare and competition has played in shaping human nature. In fact, in his book The Dawn Warriors: Man’s Evolution Toward Peace, Robert Sidney Bigelow dispels the myth of primitive harmony and proposes that continuous warfare gave rise to increased in-group cooperation and increased brain size.

If natural selection is still at work in humans, an obvious question is where we are heading, or could be heading, if we allow for the possibility that humans may soon have real control over their genetic destiny. This topic is treated in a very interesting manner in the last chapter of Before the Dawn. Nicholas Wade discusses the current trend that the rich and more intelligent tend to have fewer children but without reaching a firm conclusion whether this will produce natural selection to act against genes that promote intelligence. Even if such a scenario would occur it might be offset by new technologies that allow genetic human enhancement. Such developments could even produce new post-human species who are not capable of breeding with modern humans. “Our previous reaction to kindred species was to exterminate them, but we have mellowed a lot in the last 50,000 years,” writes Wade. Whether un-enhanced humans will survive in the long run is an open question.

An extensive 5-part interview with Gregory Cochran is available here:
Part One

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

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The Psychology of Liberalism

Modern liberalism is characterized by a set of beliefs that stand in such strong contradiction to what we know about human nature and society that some authors believe that a psychological assessment of this movement will give insights that cannot be gained by simply identifying its claims and demands. In this tradition, the Catholic reactionary Andy Nowicki has published a short book called The Psychology of Liberalism: Character Study of a Movement.

It should be noted from the outset that the author does not have in mind what today would be called “classical liberalism,” although one could argue that all forms of liberalism have some beliefs in common (a point that he addresses at the end of the book). On the other hand, the author’s analysis does not just refer to those who self-identify as liberals, but to all those who (unconsciously) state their beliefs in the framework of liberalism, which includes most contemporary conservatives.

Nowicki identifies the promotion of tolerance while excluding oneself from its requirements as the essence of the psychology of liberals. This is not a straightforward issue of hypocrisy because, in their own mind, they are the truly tolerant. This lack of recognition that they do not value diversity at all is what characterizes the liberal mind. “But should one point this out to liberals, one discovers to one’s perplexity that what is apparent to people of below-average intelligence is not necessarily so to a victim of “doublethink,” no matter how clever and well read the latter might be,” he writes.

Liberals often counter that tolerance does not require “tolerance of the intolerant,” but then re-define tolerance in such a manner that tolerance requires conforming to liberal ideas. Such selective and circular reasoning constitutes modern liberalism.

One thing that puzzles the writer is how liberals can persist in believing that they are an oppressed minority who speak “truth to power” when they are the status quo in the media, academia, public policy, etc. But as he correctly notes, progressives have to believe this or be faced with the uncomfortable fact that they are not fighting power but exercising it. And that their demands for tolerance are not demands for justice but commands to conform.

Nowicki observes that liberals reject the doctrine of “Original Sin,” but only to resuscitate the doctrine in a secular and highly selective manner, where it seeks to induce guilt in people who belong to a certain groups (males, individuals of European descent, etc.) and place other groups beyond all criticism.

Liberal guilt is concerned with abstractions; the “system” is to blame. Those who prosper under the system, the “privileged,” ought to feel guilty, even if they themselves  have done nothing personally to oppress or tyrannize others. Liberal guilt, again, is corporate; it is no respecter of persons, but rather of groups. While original sin is applicable to everyone, liberal sin only taints those groups which it designates as “privileged.”

Of course, many liberals themselves are part of the privileged. As Nowicki notes, the more prestigious the school, the more likely that it promotes a liberal outlook. These “limousine liberals” can hardly claim to be among the oppressed but they do see themselves as a vanguard for the oppressed. The problem is that their translation of the concerns of the oppressed are highly contestable. Feminists may claim to speak for women but most women reject feminism, labor unionists speak on behalf of the workers but many workers are not supportive of unions. Black community leaders justify and excuse violence that is condemned by many ordinary black people. Undeterred, the vanguard considers such objections as evidence of the degree that the victims are brainwashed to condone their own oppression, which produces a perfect, circular, self-justification of liberalism.

As with tolerance, liberals also have a complicated relationship with anger. When liberals are angry it is because they are outraged about injustice and oppression but when their opponents are angry this indicates “hate.” As a consequence, anger from the right people reinforces the correctness of liberalism, while anger of the wrong people indicates an inability to reason and “insensitivity.” One might add that if we recognize that in many cases liberals are those who yield power, their anger takes on a different, darker, dimension. It is not the anger of the victims of oppression but the anger of rulers who are provoked by people not conforming to their views.

Closely tied with progressive thinking is the cult of self-esteem. “..where Marxism aimed at redistributing the wealth, self-esteemism wants to redistribute the praise. Marxism, self-esteemism, and all other humanistic philosophies pragmatically fail because they ignore the obvious reality – that we are all unequal.” Self-esteem is a necessary condition for “empowerment” and liberals show little restraint in exercising political  power on behalf of the powerless, despite their obligatory “Question Authority” bumper stickers.

After offering such level-headed insights about modern liberalism, Nowicki seeks to make sense of the fact that progressives undoubtedly share certain features with Christianity (such as a belief in universalism, a “golden future when all shall be well,” and a missionary mindset) but also reject certain aspects of Christianity. I must admit that I find his discussion of the similarities more persuasive and decisive. I doubt it is a coincidence that political correctness has been perfected in the country that was settled by Puritans with a strong sense of guilt. His case against liberalism seems to depend quite strongly on designating it as an individualist, nihilist movement, but after spending a lot of pages documenting its ultra-moralism and collectivism that is not completely persuasive either.

It is correct that liberalism seeks to undermine much of traditional morality, but it also aims to strengthen and purify certain aspects of it to the point where it has to exclude other aspects, including the divine derivation of morality. At some point, progressives recognized that this requires a break with Christianity itself, but its moralist eschatological framework remained intact, albeit in a secular form. Of course, this sets the stage for a never-ending debate between Traditionalists and secular zealots about which values really matter because their is no meta-perspective agreed to by both parties that can mediate such disagreements.

There is a strain in social thought that attributes the existence of  oppressive and murderous regimes to a lack of recognition of objective values. One problem that has plagued these kinds of theories is that the regimes in question were never composed of card-carrying nihilists. The outlook of their leaders may not always have been universal, but they were strongly convinced of the truth of their moral views. In a sense, one could argue that this is inevitable because power needs a claim to legitimacy to grow and persist. A regime that would claim that truth, morality, and progress are nonsense and that it is solely pursuing its own self-interest against the interests of the people is not ensured a long existence. It is also doubtful that real nihilists will be drawn to the political process and public policy.

It is not really possible to predict the outcome of a society composed of people who do not recognize the existence of objective morals (or “rights”) because we have never been in such a state. But we can reasonably claim that morality is not dependent on the discovery of God-given or absolute values and will thrive whenever people with shared and competing interests recognize the need for coordination and rules.  The evidence for this can even be observed in the world of the great apes and prehistoric humans. The source of complex moral behavior may not have been a supernatural being but something as “trivial” as the discovery of fire.

One does not need a “coherent argument” against Nazism when its policies clearly contradict the interests of many people. Arguments are often powerless in the face of coercion and violence and the best one can hope for is to establish an equilibrium in which resorting to violence will be a self-defeating strategy. Ironically, such as state of affairs is prevented as long as those seeking power can command submission by claiming some mysterious legitimacy for their conduct.

The power that liberals exercise, and that others of different ideological persuasion enjoyed in times past, goes beyond what is needed to coordinate and regulate mutually beneficial human interaction. The ideology of modern liberalism looks particularly incoherent and tortured but, as the author has so perfectly identified, this should be expected if one claims to fight power and hold it at the same time. This feature of modern liberalism also explains why the libertarian socialism that preceded the rise of the Protest Generation to power looks at least somewhat coherent compared to its contemporary form, in which the “libertarian” element has strangely disappeared.

Nowicki believes that in the end liberalism will self-destruct because as its dark nihilism will be recognized and practiced by society, no moral order will be possible.  An alternative perspective is that liberalism still draws upon the residual moralism and herd behavior of Christianity and as soon as that is recognized people will no longer submit to its demands and more enlightened arrangements will emerge. Yet another perspective is that power and struggle have followed humans since they were great apes and that the real difference between us and them is that we can create elaborate thought systems that seek to “justify” such behavior. As a consequence, we can get too carried away by the analysis of “ideas” and pay insufficient attention to the dynamics that regulate power. It is only quite recently that evolutionary theory and economics seek to identify the biological basis and “micro-foundations” of political power.

Andy Nowicki is one the sharpest observers of contemporary liberalism that I know and it is unfortunate that his little book on the peculiar reasoning of modern liberals is now out of print. Unlike his book on suicide, there is no strong language or treatment of sexually explicit themes in this book. As such, there is no excuse for contemporary liberals to read it. If they would, many of them would prefer to skip his relentless assault on the incoherent nature of their ideology and focus on the “no morality without God” message, which I suspect, is an easier target. Such an approach would not be possible in the case of the atheist conservative Gustave Le Bon, whose 1898 classic, The Psychology of Socialism, analyzed socialism as yet another manifestation of the religious mindset and group hysteria that needs to be overcome.

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Richard von Mises: Positivism – A Study in Human Understanding

Unlike his rationalist brother Ludwig von Mises, Richard von Mises had strong empiricist leanings, which found expression in hisfrequency interpretation of probability and his qualified endorsement of logical positivism (or logical empiricism).  His Kleines Lehrbuch des Positivismus was published in 1939 and translated and revised in English in 1956 as  Positivism: A Study in Human Understanding and carried the following subtitle, “How the aims and attitudes of science apply to all the intellectual endeavors of mankind – whether in science, the arts, or ethics.” Sadly, the last edition of the book was published in 1968 and has long been out of print, a fate which sets him apart from other major 20th century empiricists such as Rudolf Carnap, Hans Reichenbach, and Alfred J. Ayer, whose major expositions of their views are still in print. The preface of the English edition of Positivism closes with a remembrance of Otto Neurath, one of the co-authors of the original Vienna Circle statement, The Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle, and one of the most passionate advocates of empiricism and the unity of the sciences.

Contrary to popular opinion, 20th century empiricism was not a rigid set of beliefs, and many of the original logical empiricists kept revising their views in response to the reception of their work and further investigations. What united the original logical positivists was an unwavering commitment to empiricism and a firm rejection of dualism in the scientific method. In a sense, one could argue that many of the core beliefs of the Vienna Circle have become so accepted among many scientific practitioners that there is no longer a need to argue for them. On the other hand, the worldviews of public opinion makers and public officials are still largely shaped by modes of thought and superstitions that have remained fairly immune to the rise of  the experimental method and the rejection of metaphysics. In the case of politics, there is little reason to be surprised about this, because politics encourages irrational thinking, conformism, and atavism. Interestingly, Richard von Mises also offers his views on economic methodology and political economy and it will be rewarding to return to these views at the end of this review.

Positivism starts with a discussion of language. According to von Mises, many philosophical mistakes reflect misunderstandings about the function and limitations of language. He writes, “many problems of school philosophy are of this type: expressions, referring in ordinary language to a very vague and varying content of experience, are supposed to have some “objective” meaning and then attempts are made to “disclose” this meaning by kind of a definition.” For example, there is no God-given definition of the word “rationality.” But when a group of academics (such as economists) converge on the use of the word, it is a misunderstanding of the function of language to insist on a different definition of the word because its current use is “wrong.” Of course, when science evolves there is often a recognition that the original  language is too crude and finer distinctions are being introduced to replace the older vocabulary. One of the defining characteristics of positivist philosophy is clarification of the use and abuse of language.

Like most authors in the positivist tradition, von Mises is interested in the question of what distinguishes true, false, and meaningless statements. He rejects the idea (which he attributes to Rudolf Carnap) that statements that do not satisfy the rules of logical grammar should be considered “meaningless” because it is not “possible to anticipate the rules of language in any exhaustive manner before knowing the sentences that will have to be tested by them in order to decide their admissibility or inadmissibility.” As an alternative, von Mises proposes the concept of “connectibility.”  A sentence is connectible if  it is compatible with a system of statements that regulate the use of language in that system. The statements of metaphysics, at best, only connect to each other in a very narrow range (they do not connect to the rules of formal logic, the natural sciences, ordinary language, etc.) and are of little practical use. Using this concept of connectibility makes it possibles to characterize the movement for a “unified science” in terms of connectibility of all scientific statements. Positivism concerns itself largely with the exposition of the concept of connectibility.

Von Mises then devotes two chapters to Mach’s elements and protocol sentences. Despite his own admission that “it is utopic to think that, starting from a given complex of element sentences, one could, by carefully following all the syntactic rules, arrive at an “encyclopedia of the sciences” which could command a validity of higher rank than that possessed by any of the existing  individual sciences” he seems quite occupied with identifying the nature and structure of such element sentences. Instead of looking for such an Archimedean point it might be more practical to decide in favor of the language of the sciences that have been successful in understanding and predicting the observable world. Statements of chemistry can be reduced to statements in physics, statements in biology can be reduced to statements in (bio)chemistry, statements about behavior and psychology can be reduced to statements in biology etc. The remaining (social) sciences contain either statements that are of little descriptive or predictive value, or contain statements that have been successful in understanding and predicting human behavior but still cannot be connected to the statements of the exact sciences. The use of game theory in both the biological and economical sciences is a good example of an attempt to bridge that gap. As von Mises himself notes, “All we can attempt to do is by analysis and continuous criticism of linguistic usage to further the connectibility.”

In the chapter about probability, von Mises introduces his frequency interpretation of probability and distinguishes it from the use of probability in ordinary language and alternative conceptions of probability (subjective probability, logical probability). In this chapter, von Mises is quite insistent upon the view that an exact theory of probability can only refer to mass phenomena and repetitive events. It does not make sense to use the probability calculus for future unique events or single cases probabilities. He takes issue with attempts of logical empiricists like Hans Reichenbach and Rudolf Carnap to apply probability far beyond its range of validity. Considering the generally hostile attitude of Austrian economists towards positivism and empiricism, it is interesting to note that prominent Austrian economists who work in the Misesean tradition have endorsed Richard von Mises’ strict frequency interpretation of probability. In an article called The Correct Theory of Probability Murray Rothbard writes:

“While probability theory is generally thought of as a branch of mathematics, its foundations are purely philosophic, and Richard von Mises, in his great work Probability, Statistics, and Truth, developed the correct, objective, or “frequency” theory of probability….if one holds to the objective Mises theory, it is unscientific and illegitimate to apply probability theory to any situations where the events (like the tossing of a die) are not strictly homogenous, and repeated a large number of times. And since, outside of die tossing or roulette, all the events of human action, economic or political or in daily life are clearly not homogeneous and therefore not repeatable, the Mises view demonstrates that all use of probability theory in social science is illegitimate.”

Along the same lines, Hans-Hermann Hoppe writes approvingly that for Ludwig von Mises “there is no such thing as a priori probability. Nor is there such a thing as the probability of a singular event. Probability statements refer to “objective” probabilities of collectives (classes). They are based on empirical observations. And they are corrigible by such observations.” Whether the positions of Mises, Rothbard and Hoppe constitute a partial endorsement of positivism in case of the probability is a complicated matter because it is not unambiguously clear what the proper empiricist interpretation of probability should be, and in this chapter Richard von Mises is too partial to his own views (and too dismissive of the works of other empiricists) to offer a more systematic treatment of the question of the relationship between probability and his general positivist outlook.

In the chapters about deterministic physics, statistical physics, and miracles von Mises argues quite persuasively that positivism should not be identified with a set of dogmatic prohibitions or should rule out certain observations about reality when they do not conform with materialism or a deterministic outlook. What we should require from extraordinary statements (or miracles) is that they are subjected to the same kind of scientific investigation and corroboration as we expect from other claims to knowledge. This approach harks back to von Mises’s concept of “connectibility.” His open mindedness in this chapter is reminiscent of a statement by Rudolf Carnap in his seminal article Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology (1950):

The acceptance or rejection of abstract linguistic forms, just as the acceptance or rejection of any other linguistic forms in any branch of science, will finally be decided by their efficiency as instruments, the ratio of the results achieved to the amount and complexity of the efforts required. To decree dogmatic prohibitions of certain linguistic forms instead of testing them by their success or failure in practical use, is worse than futile; it is positively harmful because it may obstruct scientific progress.

Perhaps the most interesting chapters in Positivism deal with his positivist outlook on the social sciences and ethics. Von Mises rejects methodological dualism; the idea that the approach and methods that are used in the physical sciences are inappropriate for the sciences that study man: “We find in all fields  a progression from single observations to comprehensive generalization which corresponds to the essence of scientific work…”.  As other logical  positivists writing in the same period, von Mises recognized that one day human action could be analyzed and explained by “organic processes,” but the rather premature state of fields like neuroscience in his age prevented von Mises from stating his position much more strongly than is possible now.

Today, when we compare the progress in fields that study man from a biological perspective with fields that claim a unique approach for the humanities,  it is clear that the case for dualism has further weakened. Humans are not exempt from the laws of physics and disciplines that recognize that fact clearly such as biochemistry, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience, have made significant progress in understanding man. Von Mises notes that progress in the study of man is slower because of “retardations due to organized prejudices.” In many places in the world (including the United States) evolution is still widely contested and it is only quite recently that scholars who approach human psychology from an evolutionary perspective are no longer meeting major obstacles to disseminating their work.

Richard von Mises has a distinctly different perspective on social science and economics than his brother Ludwig von Mises.  He has little patience for the idea that economic theories are not subject to empirical testing: “mental reconstructions of observed facts must be tested to determine how far their consequences agree with continued observations.” Similarly, he does not reject the use of mathematics in economics and actually credits mathematical economics for offering “promising starting points for a rational treatment of economic problems.” In particular, von Mises praises John von Neumann and O. Morgenstern for introducing strategic behavior and expectations into economic theory. New classical economists like Robert Lucas, Jr., later recognized that expectations cannot be ignored in macroeconomics either.

Von Mises closes his book with a number of chapters on morals, law, and religion. Not surprisingly, von Mises states that “…in spite of centuries of endeavor  one has so far not been successful in demonstrating any substantial ethical theorems that would enjoy unanimous recognition; and there is no hope that the goal of a “normative” ethic will be reached in in the future.” He argues against the idea that reason can discover objective normative rules and highlights the conventional and pragmatic nature of morals.  There is little in these chapters that could not have been written by contemporary authors. He ends his book by situating his perspective in the broader empiricist tradition and with a succinct summary of his own perspective.

It is fair to say that this book cannot compare with the rigorous writings of scholars like Rudolf Carnap or Hans Reichenbach, but it is doubtful that he aimed at such a work. His book is basically a plea for the scientific view of the world and how this approach applies to various topics. As such, his basic outlook on knowledge deserves study and recognition.

Richard von Mises has now been largely forgotten as a writer about knowledge but his general outlook is still alive. For example, despite the fact that the writings of his brother have seen multiple editions and reprints, there is a broad consensus that economics, or any social science, should be conducted as an empirical science. On matters of morality, serious scholars have become more interested in the evolutionary, psychological and social sources of moral conduct than the futile search for categorical imperatives. Most of all, much progress has been made in connecting the physical sciences and the humanities through modern evolutionary biology. In this sense, Richard’s perspective has clearly prevailed, albeit not to the degree that he would have preferred.

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