Is All Action Rational?

ludwig-von-misesWell, Ludwig von Mises thought so. I quote from Human Action:

Human action is necessarily always rational. The term “rational action” is pleonastic and must be rejected as such (P. 21.).

In view of all the irrationality we observe around us, this statement sounds … well, not exactly rational. “Weird” or even “insane” would be good descriptive terms.

So what is so immensely rational about all human action that all human action is to be labeled rational? Well, all human action is about relating means to ends. Mises has some examples:

The very existence of ascetics and of men who renounce material gains for the sake of clinging to their convictions and of preserving their dignity and self-respect is evidence that the striving after more tangible amenities is not inevitable but rather the result of a choice. Of course, the immense majority prefer life to death and wealth to poverty. (P. 20.)

But nothing could be said against those who make the opposite choice and prefer death to life and poverty to wealth. They have a different end from the immense majority and choose means accordingly.

The doctors who a hundred years ago employed certain methods for the treatment of cancer whish our contemporary doctors reject were – from the point of view of present-day pathology – badly instructed and therefore inefficient. But they did not act irrationally; they did their best. (P. 20.)

In other words: people may be wrong in their choice of means; but being wrong is not the same as being irrational.

The opposite of action is not irrational behavior, but a reactive response to stimuli on the part of the bodily organs and instincts which cannot be controlled by the volition of the person concerned. (P. 20.)

So when a man acts “irrationally”, he actually does not act at all; he merely reacts, just the way animals do.

Conspicuously absent here is any attempt to analyze criminal behavior. But a criminal also relates means to ends. A bank robber has to use reason to plan and carry out his robbery – it is certainly not just a bodily reaction. Someone who wants to get rid of his rich grand-uncle in order to inherit his money has to carefully plan and perform the murder, and in a way that minimizes the risk of discovery. (He should, for example, abstain from the attempt if there is an Hercule Poirot or a Jane Marple in the vicinity.) According to Mises, he is as rational as anyone else. Only murders committed at the spur of the moment in a drunken brawl would classify as irrational, since the murderer then does not have time to consider his means or his ends.

So what makes Mises make such a statement and seriously mean it? It should come as no surprise that it is because of his idea that ultimate ends fall outside the realm of reason. Continuing the first quote above:

When applied to the ultimate ends of action, the terms rational and irrational are inappropriate and meaningless. The ultimate end of action is always the satisfaction of some desires of the acting man. Since nobody is in a position to substitute his own value judgments for those of the acting individual, it is vain to pass judgment on other people’s aims and volitions. No man is qualified to declare what would make another man happier or less discontented. (P. 20.)

So we should not pass judgment on the bank robber or grand-uncle murderer mentioned above. Who are we to substitute our own value judgments for theirs? But it is even worse::

The critic either tells us what he would aim at if he were in the place of his fellow; or, in dictatorial arrogance blithely disposing of his fellow’s will and aspirations, declares what condition of this other man would better suit himself, the critic. (P. 20; italics mine.)

Passing judgment on the bank robber or the murderer would be dictatorial arrogance!

Of course, Mises did not mean this – he forgot to think about criminal action – but this is still what he says!

What, then, is the ultimate end of the bank robber/murderer? Is it – like for any honest worker or millionaire – to make money or to earn his living? Is it just the means that are somehow inappropriate? But the bank robber did not make the money – it was made by the persons who had deposited their money in the bank. The murdered grand-uncle, not his dishonest heir, made his money (provided he earned it honestly).[1] And, as for “earning a living”, this shows some confusion about the meaning of “earn”.

Or is it, more broadly, the pursuit of happiness? Well, most bank robbers (and murderers) get caught, and those who don’t have to live in constant fear of getting caught. It could only be called “pursuit of happiness”, if someone preferred living in jail than outside – or living in fear rather than in safety.

And what about suicide bombers? Those, too, are conspicuously absent in Mises’ reasoning – probably because he had no experience of them and could not even imagine this kind of evil. Otherwise, the existence of suicide bombers is as much proof as the existence of ascetics that some people do no not prefer life to death. And the suicide bomber can hardly be said to pursue happiness, at least not here, on earth. He would have to take the promise of paradise in the hereafter quite seriously. – But given this end – life and well-being when you are already dead – they, too, relate means to ends. But they are badly mistaken, both about the end and the means![2]

Ayn Rand made some harsh remarks in the margin of Human Action, of which I will quote just one:

Nobody can get anywhere with such a terminology! (Ayn Rand’s Merginalia, ed. by Robert Mayhew, p. 110.)

Objectivism, as you all know, holds the preservation and enhancement of life as the ultimate end and claims that this can be objectively proven. (I will not attempt to present the proof, since both “Galt’s speech” and “The Objectivist Ethics” are available for anyone to read.) This does not mean that everyone automatically agrees about this end, merely that everyone should agree. Mises claims that the majority does agree, but that is not the same thing – it leaves the possibility open that the majority is wrong.

Saying that the ultimate end is “beyond reason” and can neither be proved or disproved makes it impossible to go anywhere!

Much as I admire Ludwig von Mises, on this issue he was dead wrong.

Earlier blog posts on Mises.


[1] Off topic, but worth mentioning: If you want to equivocate, you might claim that a counterfeiter “makes money”, but that money is just that: counterfeit. The same goes for the inflation money that governments and central banks pour on us and only makes us poorer. The only ones that could be said to “make money” in this sense are those who mine and mint the precious metals.

[2] I refer you to this article in The Onion.

Immanuel Kant on this, that and the other thing …

… as they are in themselves and as they appear to us.

Leonard Peikoff once asked Ayn Rand why she was so vehement in denouncing Immanuel Kant’s theories, and she answered (according to Peikoff) in essence:

When someone says that reality is unreal or that reason is subjective, he is, admittedly or not, attacking every conviction and value I hold. Everything I love in life – my work, my husband, my kind of music, my freedom, the creativity of man’s life – all of it rests on my perception of reality; all of it becomes a delusion and an impossibility if reason is impotent.

And Peikoff adds:

If you went up to an ordinary individual, itemized every object and person he cared for, then said to him seriously: “I intend to smash them all and leave you groveling in the muck”, he would become indignant, even outraged. What set Ayn Rand apart from mankind is the fact that she heard the whole itemization and the intention to smash everything in the simple statement that “reality is unreal”. (“My Thirty Years With Ayn Rand”, The Voice of Reason, p. 337.)

And where, in the collected works of Immanuel Kant, does one find the statement that “reality is unreal”?

Or is it the case that, although he did not say or write this, he actually meant this? Is this something we can read between the lines in Kant’s works?

The basis for believing so is, of course, Kant’s distinction between “things in themselves” (or “noumena”) and “things as they appear to us” (or “phenomena”). Only those “things in themselves” represent “true reality”; but it is impossible for us to gain true knowledge of them; they are forever hidden to us.

But did Kant ever say that those “appearances” that surround us all the time are unreal? Not to my knowledge. All he said is that they are not the whole truth about reality – and that this “whole truth” is inaccessible to us.[1]

But all Kant can validly claim is that the “appearances” – the material provided us by the evidence of our senses – do not represent omniscience; and that, no matter how much more we learn, we will never reach omniscience.

An example of this is when we observe a tree. We only observe the outside of the tree – that is how it appears to us. When we saw through the tree, we also see the inside of it, and we notice the rings. As our knowledge grows, we learn that those rings tell us the age of the tree; thus we call them “year rings” or “annual rings”. Then we learn that the tree is built up by molecules, and those in turn by atoms, and the atoms by elementary particles.

Or take a house: we first observe it as it appears from the outside; we then walk into the house and visit the apartments; we then also know the house as it appears from the inside. And we look into every nook and cranny, but no matter how hard we look, we never become omniscient about this house, much less then about every house in the world.

Or take an animal or human body: we do not see how it appears from the inside until we perform a dissection; and even then, there is much more to be learned.

No matter what, there is always more we can learn about the tree, the house and the body. And this is true about everything we observe: we only observe what we observe; but there is always more to observe.

But this does not justify Kant’s conclusion that there is some kind of gulf between what we experience through our senses and what the things are “in themselves”. Everything about a thing is an aspect of the thing, or an attribute or a property of it. The fact that we do not know all those aspects or attributes, and may never come to know them all, does not mean that we do not know what we actually know.

Kant also claims that – although the “things in themselves” are unknowable – we can at least know that they exist. His argument for this is that there could not be appearances without the things that appear.

I believe, however, that there are internal inconsistencies in Kant’s view. He claims that we only perceive reality as “filtered” through the categories. Those categories only apply to the “appearances”, not to the “things in themselves”. But one of those categories is “reality” (which he contrasts to “negation” and “limitation”). So how can he claim anything about the reality of the things in themselves? And another category is “existence” (contrasted to “possibility” and “necessity”). How then can he claim that those things in themselves actually exist? And, if causality does not apply to the “noumenal” realm of “things in themselves”, how is it possible for those things in themselves to give rise to appearances?

Kant on space and time

Apart from the categories, our experience (according to Kant) is also filtered through space and time. He calls them “forms of appearance” or “Anschaungsformen” in German. They are provided, not by external reality or by our senses, but by our own minds. They are not experience, but “a priory” conditions for having experience at all.

This is really odd. Take the statement: “Immanuel Kant lived in Königsberg in the 18th and early 19th centuries; while I live in Sweden in the 20th and early 21th centuries.” Is this a statement about how it really is – about Kant in himself and me in myself? Or is it only a matter of how my mind brings order in the relationship between me and Immanuel Kant? And how would this account for the fact that I was born 218 years later than he? If time were merely a “form of appearance”, this would be a piece of cake: Kant would simply pick me (or what I have written about him) from the manifold of appearances and place me at this point in the future. If time is an aspect of the real world, this would be … well, not quite that easy.

Kant actually claims that the senses are valid (although they only give us knowledge of appearances, not about things as they really are). But space and time, he claims, are not provided by our senses.

But – just like all our abstractions – our concepts of “space” and “time” derive ultimately from sensory experience. For example, I observe that the computer is on the table, that there is a door to the left of me and a window to the right of me, that there are a couple of pictures on the wall in front of me, and (if I turn around) that there are book shelves behind me. I observe that the distance to the door is shorter that the distance to the window. Outside of the window there is another house; somewhere inside my apartment my lady-friend is watching the television; etc., etc. Likewise with time: the sentences I write come before and after one another; dawn comes after night time and dusk before night time; seasons come and go in a regular succession; and Usain Bolt traverses short distances in a shorter time period than anyone else has done before and that only he, himself, has done afterwards. – “Space” and “time” refer to the sum of all those relationships.

The “a priori” and the “a posteriori”

Kant claims that there are three kinds of statements:

  1. Analytical statements a priori – i.e. statements that are true “by definition”. For example the statement that baldheaded men (or women) lack hair. We do not have to conduct an investigation – go out and check every baldheaded person to see if he has hair or not.
  2. Synthetic statements a posteriori – i.e. statements that do require such an investigation. For example the statement that Usain Bolt holds the world records for 100 and 200 meters. It is not part of the definition of “Usain Bolt” that he holds those records; we have to actually see it (or at least read about it in the papers.). They are “synthetic” because they combine (“synthesize”) two or more facts (such as the facts that Usain Bolt exists and that he runs short distances faster than everybody else).
  3. Synthetic statements a priori. Those are statements that are not true by definition; but neither are they true by experience (by actually conducting an investigation), but true nevertheless.

Kant has some rather odd examples. For example, he claims that there is nothing about the concepts of “5” and “7” that necessitates the concept “12” when they are combined by using the concept “+”. Nevertheless, it is true the “5+7=12”. He also claims that, although it is true by definition that objects have extension, it is not true by definition that they have weight; yet it seems preposterous to conduct an investigation and weigh all objects to ascertain that there are no weightless objects. It is part of the definition of “object”, he says, that they have at least some extension; but it is not part of the definition that they can be light or heavy.

Do you notice what is missing here? There is no mention of statements that are analytical a posteriori. And I would claim that most true statements are just that: analytical a posteriori.

Take Kant’s own example. How so we know that objects have extension? By observing objects! And how do we know they have weight, that they are more or less heavy? Again, by observing them. The only difference here is that we observe extension by sight, but we observe weight by trying to lift the objects. Kant’s distinction is arbitrary: he might as well define “object” as having weight, and then claim that their having extension is a “synthetic a priori”.

More generally: What are we actually doing with the things we observe? We form concepts; we combine our concepts into sentences; we build theories (or make hypotheses); we make up whole systems of philosophy or science. Some of this is synthesis, but a lot of it is analysis of our observations. And the observations always come first: they are what is properly speaking ”a priori”.

Take such a simple statement as “this food tastes good”. It is synthetic in that it combines the food with the taste (and adds the value judgment “good”); but it is also an analysis of the meal one is eating!

Did Kant deny knowledge?

The line from Kant that is most often quoted by Objectivists is this one (from the preface to the 2nd edition of Critique of Pure Reason):

I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.

Seems clear enough. But in the original German, Kant does not use the German word for “deny” (“verneinen” or “verleugnen”); he says “das Wissen aufzuheben”. And the closest English equivalent to this expression is “to suspend knowledge”.[2]

You may say that suspending knowledge is not much better than denying knowledge; but there is a difference. Suspending may be temporary. “Suspending knowledge” does not necessarily mean closing the door on knowledge forever, which “denying knowledge” would mean.

Also, there is a double meaning to the German “aufheben” (as also to the Swedish counterpart “upphäva”): apart from “suspend” it can also mean “lift up” or “raise to a higher level”.

And you should actually know this. Leonard Peikoff has lectured on Hegel’s philosophy, and this double meaning of the word “aufheben” is a corner stone of Hegel: when a thesis turns into its antithesis, both the thesis and the antithesis are “aufgehoben”, i.e. both “suspended” and “lifted up” or “raised up” into the synthesis.

Kant, of course, wasn’t Hegel, so I do not know whether he, too, was playing on this double meaning. But it is a possibility.

Be that as it may; but we must also ask what knowledge Kant wants to suspend. Is it the knowledge that grass is green, or that the earth revolves around the sun, or that the square of the hypotenuse equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides? No, it’s not. If you just read the preceding sentences, you will find that it is knowledge of God, freedom of the will and immortality. Those are the things Kant claims we have no certain knowledge of and have to suspend this knowledge in favor of faith. (Earlier philosophers, such as Leibniz, had claimed that those things could be proven; and this is what Kant turned against. And before Kant woke up from what he called his “dogmatic slumber”, he was an adherent of Christian Wolff, who in turn was an adherent of Leibniz.)

Update March 31: Here is the whole paragraph from the preface to the 2nd edition:

The positive value of the critical principles of pure reason in relation to the conception of God and of the simple nature of the soul, admits of a similar exemplification; but on this point I shall not dwell. I cannot even make the assumption—as the practical interests of morality require—of God, freedom, and immortality, if I do not deprive speculative reason of its pretensions to transcendent insight. For to arrive at these, it must make use of principles which, in fact, extend only to the objects of possible experience, and which cannot be applied to objects beyond this sphere without converting them into phenomena, and thus rendering the practical extension of pure reason impossible. I must, therefore, abolish knowledge, to make room for belief. The dogmatism of metaphysics, that is, the presumption that it is possible to advance in metaphysics without previous criticism, is the true source of the unbelief (always dogmatic) which militates against morality.

Here ”aufheben” is translated as “abolish”, but I still think “suspend” is more accurate. But it shows what kind of (alleged) knowledge Kant wanted to do away with.

The translation is published by Project Gutenberg.

This leads us to:

Kant on free will

I won’t bother with Kant’s views on God and immortality, since I believe in neither, anyway. But I sometimes hear that Objectivists should not be too harsh on Kant, since he shares with us the conviction that man has free will.

Now, the alleged “problem” with free will is that it is seen as an exception to the law of causality. But (qua Objectivists) we know that this is not the case at all. It is not an exception, but a special kind of causation. Nathaniel Branden (who at that time was speaking for Ayn Rand) explains it very well:

{The] freedom of choice is not a negation of causality, but a category of it, a category that pertains to man. A process of thought is not causeless, it is caused by man. The actions possible to an entity are determined by the entity that acts – and the nature of man (and of man’s mind) is such that it necessitates the choice between focusing and non-focusing, between thinking and non-thinking. Man’s nature does not allow him to escape this choice, it is his alone to make: it is not made for him by the gods, the stars, the chemistry of his body, the structure of his “family constellation” or the economic organization of his society.

If one is to be bound by a genuine “empiricism” – meaning: a respect for observable facts, without arbitrary a priori commitments to which reality must be “adjusted” – one cannot ignore this distinctive attribute of man’s nature. And if one understands the law of causality as a relationship between entities and their actions, then the problem of “reconciling” volition and causality is seen to be illusory. (“Volition and the Law of Causality”, The Objectivist, March 1966.)

Kant, on the other hand, does see our free will as an exception to causality, and his attempt at “reconciling” this illusory dilemma is as follows:

Causality is a category that only applies to the world of appearances or phenomena in which we live; it does not apply to the “noumenal” world of “things in themselves”. But man has a twofold nature: he is part of the world of phenomena but also part of the world of noumena. Conclusion: As a “phenomenon” or “appearance” man is totally determined – he can only act as mechanical causes force him to act – but as a “noumenon”, as he is in himself, he is totally free. Not much of an explanation, unless one accepts Kant’s premises. Leonard Peikoff has this to say:

The classic expression of this [the mystical] viewpoint is the disastrous Kantian slogan: “God, freedom, and immortality”, which has had the effect of making “freedom” laughable by equating it with two bromides of supernaturalism. What reputable thinker cares to uphold volition if it is offered under the banner, “ghosts, choice, and the Pearly Gates”? (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 72.)

Kant understood that without free will, ethics would be meaningless, which leads us to:

Kant’s ethics

What is the central concept in ethics? According to Objectivism, it is “value”, and a value is that which furthers our life and well-being. This is also implicit in Aristotle’s ethics: the term “εὐδαιμονία”, commonly translated as ”happiness”, covers such things as health and success in life.

According to Kant, it is “duty”. Duty is a matter of unquestioning obedience to some authority (be it one’s parents, one’s teachers, one’s superiors, the law and the lawmakers, bishops and popes, or God). In Kant’s case, it is obedience to an inner authority, one’s conscience.

Kant contrasts “duty” with “inclinations”, i.e., our own wants and desires. Insofar as we pursue our own values, this is outside the province of ethics; whenever there is a conflict or clash between our pursuit of values and our duties, and we nevertheless choose to pursue those values, we are immoral. Putting the pursuit of values above duty is what Kant calls the “radical evil” of man.

It is quite obvious that Kant’s ethics is sadistic. Take the often quoted example of a man, whose life has become unbearable and abstains from suicide out of duty alone. (Kant himself says that this man has been overcome with sorrow, but it is equally applicable to someone who has a painful and incurable disease.) Leonard Peikoff was right in dubbing it “the ethics of evil” (in The Ominous Parallels).

It might seem that Kant shares Ayn Rand’s view that man is an end in itself, since one of his formulations of the “categorical imperative” is:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

But in the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals this is immediately followed by the example of a man contemplating suicide. If he takes his own life because of unbearable pain, then he uses his own person, not as an end in itself, but as a means to the end of escaping pain!

Also, Kant actually did not regard the individual man as an end in himself, only the humanity that this individual represent. In a short piece titled Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View, he argues that the ultimate end is the perfection of society, to which end, of course, every individual must contribute. And he argues that, since it is impossible for an individual to achieve perfection in his own short life span, the ultimate end must lie somewhere in the distant future.

Kant’s “Copernican Revolution”

According to the correspondence theory of truth – and according to plain common sense – our cognition should conform to the objects of cognition. Kant is supposed to have performed a “Copernican revolution” by claiming the opposite: that the objects should conform to our cognition. Here are his own words:

It appears to me that the examples of mathematics and natural philosophy, which, as we have seen, were brought into their present condition by a sudden revolution, are sufficiently remarkable to fix our attention on the essential circumstances of the change which has proved so advantageous to them, and to induce us to make the experiment of imitating them, so far as the analogy which, as rational sciences, they bear to metaphysics may permit. It has hitherto been assumed that our cognition must conform to the objects; but all attempts to ascertain anything about these objects a priori, by means of conceptions, and thus to extend the range of our knowledge, have been rendered abortive by this assumption. Let us then make the experiment whether we may not be more successful in metaphysics, if we assume that the objects must conform to our cognition. This appears, at all events, to accord better with the possibility of our gaining the end we have in view, that is to say, of arriving at the cognition of objects a priori, of determining something with respect to these objects, before they are given to us. We here propose to do just what Copernicus did in attempting to explain the celestial movements. When he found that he could make no progress by assuming that all the heavenly bodies revolved round the spectator, he reversed the process, and tried the experiment of assuming that the spectator revolved, while the stars remained at rest. We may make the same experiment with regard to the intuition of objects. If the intuition must conform to the nature of the objects, I do not see how we can know anything of them a priori. If, on the other hand, the object conforms to the nature of our faculty of intuition, I can then easily conceive the possibility of such an a priori knowledge. Now as I cannot rest in the mere intuitions, but—if they are to become cognitions—must refer them, as representations, to something, as object, and must determine the latter by means of the former, here again there are two courses open to me. Either, first, I may assume that the conceptions, by which I effect this determination, conform to the object—and in this case I am reduced to the same perplexity as before; or secondly, I may assume that the objects, or, which is the same thing, that experience, in which alone as given objects they are cognized, conform to my conceptions—and then I am at no loss how to proceed. For experience itself is a mode of cognition which requires understanding. Before objects, are given to me, that is, a priori, I must presuppose in myself laws of the understanding which are expressed in conceptions a priori. To these conceptions, then, all the objects of experience must necessarily conform. Now there are objects which reason thinks, and that necessarily, but which cannot be given in experience, or, at least, cannot be given so as reason thinks them. The attempt to think these objects will hereafter furnish an excellent test of the new method of thought which we have adopted, and which is based on the principle that we only cognize in things a priori that which we ourselves place in them. (The Critique of Pure Reason, preface to the 2nd edition, 1787.)

Clear enough – except that it is impossible to make heads or tails of this paragraph.

It must be passages like this that made Ayn Rand write:

The entire apparatus of Kant’s system, like a hippopotamus engaged in belly-dancing, goes through its gyrations while resting on a single point: that man’s knowledge is not valid because his consciousness possesses identity. (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 80 in the expanded 2nd edition.)

Was Kant an emotionalist?

Ayn Rand thought so. In the title essay of Philosophy: Who Needs It, she writes:

Have you ever thought or said the following? […] “I can’t prove it, but I feel that it’s true.” You got it from Kant. (P. 5,)

In fact, Kant said the exact opposite. In his Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloßen Vernunft), one finds the short and simple sentence

Emotions are not knowledge.

And one thing Kant was very much opposed to was “Schwärmerei”, a word that has no exact counterpart in English, but may be translated as “excessive emotion” or “mad enthusiasm”.

So much for Kant’s alleged emotionalism. Whatever else is wrong with his philosophy, he was not wrong on this.

Kant’s influence

Should everything bad that happens in the world be blamed on Immanuel Kant? Leonard Peikoff certainly thinks so:

[Ayn Rand] held that Kant was morally much worse than any killer, including Lenin and Stalin […], because it was Kant who unleashed not only Lenin and Stalin, but also Hitler and Mao and all the other disasters of our disastrous age. Without the philosophical climate Kant and his intellectual followers created, none of these disasters could have occurred; given that climate, none could have been averted. (“Fact and Value”, The Intellectual Activist, May 1989.)

This is only partially true. The greatest threat to our civilization today is Islam; and I don’t think Kant has had even the slightest influence in the Muslim world.[3] On the other hand, the West’s weak response to this threat can be blamed on Kant (although by a rather circuitous route).

Or take the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994 – or the fact that many children in Africa are forced to become child soldiers. How is this to be blamed on Immanuel Kant? Kant influence in Africa has to be negligible.

Also, many bad things (such as the Thirty Years’ War and … well, the examples are too numerous to itemize) happened before Kant was even born. Should we blame them on other philosopher, like Plato and Augustine? But bad things also happened before the time of Plato.

The main theme of The Ominous Parallels is that the philosophers (mainly Kant and Hegel, and before them Plato) are responsible for the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. Does this mean that Immanuel Kant, if he were to be magically brought back to life in the early 1940’s to see what was going on at Auschwitz, Treblinka and Soribór, would have said: “Finally the world has come to understand my ideas!”? I think not.

There are other areas where one can find the bad influence of Kant. David Harriman, in his lecture series “The Philosophic Corruption of Physics” argues that physics nowadays is not looking for actual physical causes and settle for mere mathematical descriptions of the appearances, which of course stems from their acceptance of Kant’s idea that causality does not apply to “things in themselves” – so why bother to look for actual, physical causes?

Kant on the swathing of infants

You probably did not know this, but Kant was opposed to the custom of swathing infants:

It is simply for the sake of our own convenience that we swathe our children like mummies, so that we may not have the trouble of watching them in order to prevent their limbs from getting broken or bent. And yet it often happens that they do get bent, just by swathing them. Also it makes the children themselves uneasy, and they are almost driven to despair on account of their never being able to use their limbs. (Kant on Education, published in 1803.)

A complete moral monster would not have written this. Which leads us to the question:

Was Kant really “the most evil man in mankind’s history”?

I think this is an exaggeration – I think the Prophet (damned be his name!) was even more evil – but I will not spend time and effort investigating every evil person in the history of mankind. Instead, let me ask what Kant would have thought of Ayn Rand.

Self-love, according to Kant – especially putting self-love above duty – is the “radical evil” of man. Men should fulfill their duties, not pursue their happiness. Ayn Rand formulated an ethics of selfishness, of selfishly pursuing one’s values and one’s happiness. She said that

… the achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose. (“The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness; emphasis in the original.)

The conclusion is inevitable: Kant would have regarded Ayn Rand as “the most evil person (man or woman) in the history of mankind”.


[1] The German word for ”appearance” is “Erscheinung”. This is akin to “Schein”, which means “illusion”. In his Prolegomena Kant goes to some length explaining that he does not mean “Schein” when he writes “Erscheinung”.

[2] The German language has the habit of sticking the infinitive mark “zu” into the middle of compound words like “aufheben”; thus “aufzuheben”, not “zu aufheben”.

[3] Apart from the Prophet himself (damned be his name!), the main bad philosophical influence is al-Ghazali (ca 1058–1111). See on this my blog post Islam versus Reason and Logic.

Is ”Austrian” Economics ”Rampant Rationalism”?

Facebook note from July 2011 (slightly edited).

A while ago, in a Facebook note (later reproduced on my web site[1]), I quoted someone who said that the “Austrian” objections to fractional reserve banking is an example of “the rampant rationalism of the Austrian school” – to which I answered that this is an example of the rampant empiricism of some Objectivists.

I won’t address fractional reserve banking here[2] but focus on this accusation against the “Austrians”.

What is rationalism? Originally, it is the name of a school of philosophy (the big names being Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz) that held that true knowledge is arrived at by reason alone, as apart from experience. – The opposite school, of course, is empiricism (exemplified by John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume), that held that true knowledge comes from experience, as apart from reason. (There are many differences between those thinkers, but as a rough approximation those definitions hold true.) Those two schools represent two sides of a false dichotomy, but I hardly have to explain this to students/supporters of Objectivism.

But the word is also used by Objectivists in a slightly different sense (the difference being that it is not used about a philosophical school, but about a kind of psycho-epistemological malady): the habit of using abstractions not thoroughly grounded in experience (“floating abstractions”), of making deductions in a cognitive vacuum. – “Empiricism” is also used in a transferred sense: if someone merely gathers disconnected facts and fails to integrate and to abstract from them – if someone is “concrete-bound” – he is said to be an empiricist.

OK, this is a bad habit.

But what makes “Austrian” economics rationalistic in this sense? It is the insistence of Mises and many of his followers that economics is an “aprioristic” science, that its theorems are not derived from experience (they certainly apply to experience, but are not derived from it) The whole of economics, on this view, is derived from the “category of action”, sometimes also called the “axiom of action”. [3] This reflects a heavy Kantian influence on Mises and his followers, and, of course, a Kantian influence is always bad, isn’t it? A theory such as Kant’s can only lead to disasters, when put to practice.

But wait a minute now. Of all the schools of economics, “Austrianism” is the one closest to the truth. It is the only economic school that champions full, laissez-faire capitalism. (There are some “Austrians”, e.g. Hayek, who are not fully consistent on this point, but it is true as a general rule – “for the most part”, as Aristotle would say.) But how could this be, if rationalism and “apriorism” can only have disastrous consequences? Wouldn’t one instead expect the “Austrians” to be Marxists or Keynesians or environmentalists or even theocratic thugs?

Or take the connection to real-life events in today’s world. Who best predicted the current financial crisis? The bursting of such bubbles as the IT bubble and the real-estate bubble? Well, most of them are economists of the “Austrian” school.[4]

Other schools of economics may be accused of “rampant empiricism”. A case in point is the German Historical School. Members of this school merely gathered historical and statistical data, and even rejected the very idea that there can be such things as “economic law” (such as the law of supply and demand). They ended up as socialists (“Kathedersozialisten” or “socialists of the chair”).[5]

There is also a British (or English) Historical School, but it does not seem to be much better. For example, according to Wikipedia:

They rejected the hypothesis of “the profit maximizing individual” or the “calculus of pleasure and pain” as the only basis for economic analysis and policy. They believed that it was more reasonable to base analysis on the collective whole of altruistic individuals. (Italics mine.)

But the paradox remains: If rationalism is such a bad thing, and if Immanuel Kant is the worst of all philosophers (and even “the most evil man in mankind’s history”), then why do we get the best economic theories from someone who was a rampant rationalist, even a Kantian?

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Addendum: A particularly obnoxious example of calling “Austrian” economics rationalist I found in a blog post from 2006 by Diana Hsieh, Fractional Reserve Banking: Fraud or Not?. After quoting the relevant part from Reisman’s Capitalism on why a 100% gold standard is morally superior to any “fractional” system (p. 957f), she dismisses it without giving any real counter-argument, and then writes:

Over the past few years, I’ve heard various Objectivist scholars complain of the heavy rationalism of George Reisman’s work.

Although Diana Hsieh has a PhD in philosophy, she obviously has not learned what is wrong with giving an ad verecundiam argument. But then, “various Objectivist scholars” have good reason to find rationalizations for how they have treated George Reisman. Accusing him of having this psycho-epistemological malady is as good a rationalization as any (or as bad, rather).


[1] It is also included in my essay Is Fractional Reserve Compatible with Objectivism?.

[2] If you are interested, you may read my collected blog posts on the subject.

[3] See on this my blog post Is Action an A Priory Category?.

[4] A case in point is George Reisman’s article When Will the Bubble Burst?. But there are other examples.

[5] If you want to know more about this, read Carl Menger’s Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences.

The Choice to Live

My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists – and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these. – Galt´s speech.

An objection to this is that one does not explicitly choose to live. We do not choose to be born; that choice was made by our parents (and their ancestors before them). Before we were born, we had no choice about anything.

The only situation I can think where one explicitly chooses to live is if one is seriously considering suicide and then decides against it. But this cannot be what Galt means. It is unimaginable that Galt, or any other Ayn Rand hero or, for that matter, most of the rest of humanity, does this.

My conclusion is that the “choice to live” is an implicit choice: it is implied in all (or most) other choices we make. We make pro-survival choices – and only the suicide candidate (or the mystic, whose standard is death, not life) makes anti-survival choices.

It seems that few, if any, have raised this objection – for the only one I know of who has brought it up and answered it is Tara Smith in Viable Values, who writes:

Admittedly, the embrace of life is not usually crystallized in an unmistakable, do-or-die moment when well-defined options are laid out and a decision is imperative. […]

Rather, we choose life by choosing all sorts of specific things that constitute and further our lives. In embracing countless people, projects, objects and destinations – in loving Megan, saving money, buying coffee, studying French, playing jazz, having a child, building a career, planning a vacation, or planting a garden – a person may be choosing life. By getting out of bed in the morning and having at a day, a person may be choosing life. In setting any life-enhancing aims for himself, be they modest or ambitious, trivial or profound, short or long range, a person may be choosing life. Remember that life consists of a person’s activities, all that he does in pursuing his various ends. Thus, life is not a distinct aim that one can adopt in addition to learning French, saving money, building a career, and so on. To embrace life is to embrace the condition of having specific ends (and more, of having consistent and life-furthering ends). – Viable Values, p. 105.

Which is to say that this choice is implicit rather than explicit.

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On a similar note: Some years ago, there was a person here in Sweden who jumped into every discussion about Objectivism and pestered us with the idea that “life as the standard” means that the goal of the Objectivist ethics is to live as long a life as possible. No matter what I or anybody else answered, he stuck to this idea and repeated it over and over again.

We could answer that there is “quality of life” as well as “quantity of life” – that

it is not the years in one’s life that count, it’s the life in one’s years.

We could quote the following (from “The Objectivist Ethics”):

Such is the meaning of the definition: that which is required for man’s survival qua man. It does not mean a momentary or a merely physical survival. It does not mean the momentary physical survival of a mindless brute, waiting for another brute to crush his skull. It does not mean the momentary physical survival of a crawling aggregate of muscles who is willing to accept any terms, obey any thug and surrender any values, for the sake of what is known as “survival at any price”, which may or may not last a week or a year. “Man’s survival qua man” means the terms, methods, conditions and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan – in all those aspects of existence which are open to his choice.

None of this helped. (And since Ayn Rand speaks out against merely momentary survival, What else than “longevity” could be implied? The rest of the paragraph gets lost in such a person’s mind.)

If I said that an implication of this “longevity” idea is that Bertrand Russel must be exactly twice as good as Thomas Aquinas, since he lived till the age of 98, while Aquinas only lived till the age of 49 – he would of course have accepted it.

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In getting this off my chest, I have chosen life – albeit implicitly.

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Addendum: On Facebook, I got this comment.

Moral issues ought to be something more concrete.

Well, “life” is an extremely abstract concept, since it subsumes − how should I put it? − a vast number of concretes. For examples, it subsumes every living organism that lives now, has ever lived, and will ever live. It subsumes the lifespans of every man, and every organism, that lives now, has ever lived, and will ever live. And you may certainly think on other things, as well.

“Choice” also subsumes every choice that is made, has ever been made, and will ever be made. But is is far easier to form this concept, since it only requires a simple act of introspection. If you have ever made a choice or a decision, you know what a choice or decision is.

A good thing about the quote from Tara Smith above is that she gives a few concrete example of what this “choice to live” implies. But such a list could never be made exhaustive, since it would then list every choice that has been made or even could be made.

Take the choice or decision to get out of bed in the morning (or afternoon, as the case may be). One then has to decide to put on one’s clothes, brew some coffee, make a sandwich, go to the bathroom to take a leak, getting off to work, etc., etc.

Most of those choices/decisions are so self-evident that we hardly think of them as choices; they are automatized. It is only if one is very sleepy that one would regard getting out of bed as a choice that require some will-power.

The “choice to live”, most often, is not experienced as much of a choice. That we want to live, we simply take for granted  unless we are extremely disappointed with life or tired of life.

Now, I will make the life-enhancing decision to stop blogging about this and prepare today’s dinner. 😉

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Update November 16: Come to think of it, the word ”choice” is equivocal: it may refer to ”the act of choosing”, but also to ”the thing chosen”, ”the result of the choice”.

Let’s say, to give an example, that there are two women I want to marry. I’m attracted to both of them – even in love with both of them − and both of them are willing to marry me. But, marriage laws being what they are, I cannot marry both of them; I have to choose between the alternative possible wives. But after I have made the choice, I can say: “She was my choice”, and others can say “She was his choice”.

Or take the situation I was in right before writing this down: Should I bother to publish this now? Or should I wait till later on? Or is it too unimportant to even mention it? But now I have made my choice: publish it.

The failure to make this distinction might be one reason why discussions about “free will versus determinism” seldom lead anywhere. I, as a free will advocate, will insist that the choice is actually a choice and that to say it is determined is nonsensical and a contradiction in terms. And the determinist will insist the thing chosen, the result of the choice, as determined by everything that has happened in the past. The point the determinist is missing here is that one determining factor is precisely my act of choosing.

Murray Rothbard on the Soviet Union

My latest blog post, Murray Rothbard on Organized Crime, was shared by a couple of persons on Facebook – and in one comment, I was accused of “cherry picking”, because I chose only one article and took it as representative of Rothbard’s entire view.

Cherry picking” is an inductive fallacy which consists in taking the inductive generalization one wants to reach for granted and then only giving examples that support this generalization and ignoring or suppressing evidence that points in another direction. Proper induction, of course does not start with a generalization; the generalization is the end product of the induction. (This fallacy could also be called “inductive circularity”: it begs the question, just like deductive circularity does.)

As an aside, I was not accused of “cherry picking” for linking to several books and pamphlets by Rothbard, leading to the inductive generalization that he was a great economist. But if Rothbard has made major mistakes as an economist (as opposed to a political thinker), I have not discovered them; so I can hardly be accused of deliberately ignoring or suppressing them.

Anyway, I will now “cherry pick” some things that Rothbard has written about Communism and the Soviet Union in particular.

In his pamphlet Left, Right, & the Prospects for Liberty (first published in 1965) one can read the following:

Libertarians of the present day are accustomed to think of socialism as the polar opposite of the libertarian creed. But this is a grave mistake, responsible for a severe ideological disorientation of libertarians in the present world. […] Socialism, like Liberalism and against Conservatism, accepted the industrial system and the liberal goals of freedom, reason, mobility, progress, higher living standards [for] the masses, and an end to theocracy and war; but it tried to achieve these ends by the use of incompatible, Conservative means: statism, central planning, communitarianism, etc. Or rather, to be more precise, there were from the beginning two different strands within Socialism: one was the Right-wing, authoritarian strand, from Saint-Simon down, which glorified statism, hierarchy, and collectivism and which was thus a projection of Conservatism trying to accept and dominate the new industrial civilization. The other was the Left-wing, relatively libertarian strand, exemplified in their different ways by Marx and Bakunin, revolutionary and far more interested in achieving the libertarian goals of liberalism and socialism: but especially the smashing of the State apparatus to achieve the “withering away of the State” and the “end of the exploitation of man by man.” (P. 15f; italics mine.)

So Libertarianism (of the Rothbardian variety) has the same ultimate goal as Bakunin and Marx: the smashing, or withering away, of the State. Bakunin and Marx are allies in this struggle. (While thinkers like Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand, who did not want to smash the State, only to reduce it to its proper functions, are not allies but rather enemies. Rothbard would not call Mises an enemy, but this is the clear implication.[1])

It was in reaction to this collapse that Lenin broke out of the Second International, to re-establish classic revolutionary Marxism in a revival of Left Socialism. […] In fact, Lenin, almost without knowing it, accomplished more than this. […] There were, indeed, marked “conservative” strains in the writings of Marx and Engels themselves which often justified the State, Western imperialism and aggressive nationalism […] Lenin’s camp turned more “left” than had Marx and Engels themselves. Lenin had a decidedly more revolutionary stance toward the State, and consistently defended and supported movements of national liberation against imperialism. The Leninist shift was more “leftist” in other important senses as well. For while Marx had centered his attack on market capitalism per se, the major focus of Lenin’s concerns was on what he conceives to be the highest stages of capitalism: imperialism and monopoly. Hence Lenin’s focus, centering as it did in practice on State monopoly and imperialism rather than on laissez-faire capitalism, was in that way far more congenial to the libertarian than that of Karl Marx. (P. 22f.)

In other words: Bakunin and Marx are regarded as allies, because they were against the State; but Lenin is even more of an ally, since he was even more against the State!

There is, of course, one big question that Rothbard should have had the sense to ask of himself: How come those state haters and would-be state-smashers, Marx and Lenin even more, founded what is probably the most totalitarian and most oppressive state in all of history? Rothbard has no explanation for this – unless you call this an “explanation”:

… the Communists did not attempt to impose socialism upon the economy for many years after taking power: in Soviet Russia until Stalin’s forced collectivization of the early 1930s reversed the wisdom of Lenin’s New Economic Policy, which Lenin’s favorite theoretician Bukharin would have extended onward towards a free market. (P. 45.)

What, then, does Rothbard have to say about Communism’s and the Soviet Union’s quest for world domination, about the fact that the whole of Eastern Europe were satellites to the Soviet Union from the end of World War II and until the late 1980’s, about its efforts to export Communism to Cuba and to Third World countries? Rothbard explains that those thing have never taken place. In his For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto there is a chapter on Libertarian foreign policy, in which he writes:

Any idea of “exporting” communism to other countries on the backs of the Soviet military is totally contradictory to Marxist-Leninist theory. […] When the Bolsheviks took power in Russia in1917, they had given little thought to a future Soviet foreign policy, for they were convinced that Communist revolution would soon follow in the advanced industrial countries of Western Europe. When such hopes were dashed after the end of World War I, Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks adopted the theory of “peaceful coexistence” as the basic foreign policy for a Communist State. The idea was this: as the first successful Communist movement, Soviet Russia would serve as a beacon for and supporter of other Communist parties throughout the world. But the Soviet State qua State would devote itself to peaceful relations with all other countries, and would not attempt to export communism through inter-State warfare. The idea here was not just to follow Marxist-Leninist theory, but was the highly practical course of holding the survival of the existing Communist State as the foremost goal of foreign policy: that is, never to endanger the Soviet State by courting inter-State warfare. Other countries would be expected to become Communist by their own internal processes. Thus, fortuitously, from a mixture of theoretical and practical grounds of their own, the Soviets arrived early at what libertarians consider to be the only proper and principled foreign policy. As time went on, furthermore, this policy was reinforced by a “conservatism” that comes upon all movements after they have acquired and retained power for any length of time, in which the interests of keeping power over one’s nation-state begins to take more and more precedence over the initial ideal of world revolution. This increasing conservatism under Stalin and his successors strengthened and reinforced the nonaggressive, “peaceful coexistence” policy. (P. 290f.)

So Stalin was a man of peace, according to Rothbard. No explanation is given for the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the joint attack on Poland that inaugurated World War II; but he makes some fuss about the necessity for the Soviet Union to defend itself against the German attack later in the war. Another quote:

So unprepared was Stalin for the assault, so trusting was he in the rationality of the German-Russian accord for peace in Eastern Europe, that he had allowed the Russian army to fall into disrepair. So unwarlike was Stalin, in fact, that Germany was almost able to conquer Russia in the face of enormous odds. (P. 292.)

And to the question why Stalin, after the end of World War II, took the opportunity to take over the whole of Eastern Europe, Rothbard does have an answer: It was to protect the Soviet Union from the threat of invasion from the West!

Since their victory over German and associated military aggression [from, e.g. Finland] in World War II, the Soviets have continued to be conservative in their military policy. Their only use of troops has been to defend their territory in the Communist bloc, rather than to extend it further. Thus, when Hungary threatened to leave the Soviet bloc in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviets intervened with troops—reprehensibly, to be sure, but still acting in a conservative and defensive rather than expansionist manner. (P. 295.)

And:

Russia, therefore, governed Eastern Europe as military occupier after winning a war launched against her. Russia’s initial goal was not to communize Eastern Europe on the backs of the Soviet army. Her goal was to gain assurances that Eastern Europe would not be the broad highway for an assault on Russia, as it had been three times in half a century—the last time in a war in which over twenty million Russians had been slaughtered. In short, Russia wanted countries on her border which would not be anti-Communist in a military sense, and which would not be used as a springboard for another invasion. Political conditions in Eastern Europe were such that only in more modernized Finland did non-Communist politicians exist whom Russia could trust to pursue a peaceful line in foreign affairs. And in Finland, this situation was the work of one far-seeing statesman, the agrarian leader Julio Paasikivi. It was because Finland, then and since, has firmly followed the “Paasikivi line” that Russia was willing to pull its troops out of Finland and not to insist on the communization of that country—even though it had fought two wars with Finland in the previous six years. (P. 294.)

Another word for the “Paasikivi line” is Finlandization. In short, Finland had to very carefully toe the line in its dealing with the Soviet Union.

If the Soviet Union and Communist states in general were so peaceful and never waged war except in self-defense, then what states are not that peaceful?

… empirically, taking the twentieth century as a whole, the single most warlike, most interventionist, most imperialist government has been the United States. (P. 277.)

If it is understood and expected, then, that the United States will try to impose its will on every crisis everywhere in the world, then this is clear indication that America is the great interventionary and imperial power. The one place where the United States does not now attempt to work its will is the Soviet Union and the Communist countries … (P. 278.)

One does not have to be an ardent admirer of US foreign policy to sense that there is something wrong here …[2]

Well, I think this is just about enough “cherry picking” for today.[3]

(For Scandinavian speaking readers: I said much the same in an article I wrote in 1993.)

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Update August 5 2014: Rothbard also admired Che Guevara. Why? Well …

… we all knew that his enemy was our enemy – that great Colossus that oppresses and threatens all the people of the world, U.S. imperialism.

The obituary is not signed, but it was published as an editorial in Rothbard’s own newsletter, so if he did not write is himself, he at least must have approved of it.

(Hat tip to Justin Templer.)

Back in the late 50’s, on the other hand, he admired Ayn Rand. (Hat tip to Stephen Hicks.)

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Update June 11 2015: With regard to Soviet foreign policy, Mises held the exact opposite view. I quote from Planned Chaos:

For the time being [1947], the ominous peril of the communist parties in the West lies in their stand on foreign affairs. The distinctive mark of all present-day communist parties is their devotion to the aggressive foreign policy of the Soviets. Whenever they must choose between Russia and their own country, they do not hesitate to prefer Russia. Their principle is: Right or wrong, my Russia. They strictly obey all orders issued from Moscow. When Russia was an ally of Hitler, the French communists sabotaged their own country’s war effort and American communists passionately opposed President Roosevelt’s plans to aid the democracies in their struggle against the Nazis. The communists all over the world branded all those who defended themselves against the German invaders as “imperialist warmongers”. But as soon as Hitler attacked Russia, the imperialistic war of the capitalists over night changed into a just war of defense. Whenever Stalin conquers one more country, the communists justify this aggression as an act of self-defense against “Fascists”. (P. 43f; or p. 504 in Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, where this short book is included as an epilogue.)

According to Rothbard, the Soviets foreign policy after World War II was not aggressive at all! It was all a matter of self-defense! Mises certainly was more realistic.


[1]) On Mises’ view, see my short piece Ludwig von Mises on Anarchism. – Rothbard did view Ayn Rand as an enemy, but that is beside the point in this context.

[2]) Murray Rothbard was not personally oppressed by the Soviet Union, since he did not live there. He was, no doubt, oppressed by the government of the United States. But I am oppressed by the Swedish government, and it does not make me an apologist for the Soviet Union.

[3]) Just one epistemological note: If one has reached an inductive generalization from observing a few instances, one would expect future observations to fall into line – just as one expects all future tables to be pretty much similar to the few tables from which one originally formed the concept. This is not “cherry picking”.

One may find exceptions – and then one will have to look into what explains those exceptions. A simple example: One has formed the inductive generalization that paper quickly starts burning, when it comes into contact with fire. Then one finds a counter-example: paper that does not catch fire or does so only slowly. Looking into the matter, one finds that this particular paper bundle is soaked with water. The exception is explained.

And it might just happen that one finds some instance of Rothbard making sense, even when he writes about politics; and then one has to look for an explanation …

A Short Note on Independence…

…and on the virtues in general.

The following is probably nothing new to you – you may have figured it out for yourselves – but I think it is worth mentioning and elaborating on.

Quent Cordair (the proud owner of an art gallery and of a dog named  Mollie) recently posted this on Facebook:

The man who needs you to know how independent he is, isn’t.

True enough. The truly independent person has no need to talk about his/her independence.

One commenter asked this rhetorical question:

Now I’m thinking about a man telling me how independent he is, or demonstrating how independent he is. Is purposeful demonstration of independence the same as declaration of independence?

Well, if one’s purpose in taking an action is to demonstrate one’s independence, then I don’t think the person is truly independent. A truly independent man, or woman, would simply feel no need to demonstrate his/her independence, neither to him- or herself, nor to others.[1]

The same holds true of the virtue of honesty. An honest person has no need to talk about his honesty. If someone has to speak about his own honesty, he/she probably has something not quite honest to hide. Likewise if he/she has to demonstrate or make a show of his honesty.

There is a good example of this in literature. If you have read Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea (Les Travailleurs de la Mer in the French original), you will recall that one of the protagonists works very hard to acquire a reputation for being completely honest; but he does so in order to commit a theft which no one will suspect him of, since he is perceived as such an honest fellow. (It does not end well for him.)

This is of course an extreme and stark example – an artist stylizes reality, as Ayn Rand writes somewhere in The Romantic Manifesto. But I am sure you can find less extreme examples in real life.

One could make the same point about the other virtues, as well. For example, a productive person does not talk about how productive he/she is (unless it is necessary when writing a CV); he/she just goes on producing. And the man/woman of pride and unbreached self-esteem has no need of talking about it or making a show of it. The person who does most probably is trying to overcome some self-doubt. (Parenthetically, I don’t think Quent Cordair talks a lot about how proud he is of his art gallery; I just assume he is; and he should be.)

Humble people, on the other hand, seem to have a need to talk incessantly – not about their own humility, or even about the pride they take in being humble – but about how humble the rest of us should be.[2]

There is also a good literary example concerning the virtue of courage. In Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone, one of the protagonists thinks of himself as a coward and is ashamed of his own fear; so he performs brave acts just to prove to himself that he is, after all, not a coward. This does not help him overcome his fear. When the other protagonists find this out, they all tell him that they, too, are very frightened when they perform their courageous acts. The moral sense of this is that fear by itself is not cowardice; succumbing to the fear is.

And I cannot withhold from you a great quote from Aristotle:

It is well said, then, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate; without doing these no one would have even a prospect of becoming good. But most people do not do these, but take refuge in theory and think they are being philosophers and will become  good in this way, behaving somewhat like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do. As the latter will not be made well in body by such a course of treatment, the former will not be made well in soul by such a course of philosophy. – The Nicomachean Ethics in David Ross’ translation, Book 2, Chapter 4; italics mine.

In other words: one does not become virtuous by thinking or talking about virtue (or even writing treatises on the subject), but only by practicing the virtues.[3]

And whether I myself am a truly independent person, or an abject second-hander, who just repeats what better thinkers have said before – that is a closely guarded secret. The same goes for the question whether I have a sense of humor or not.


[1]) Someone truly independent might write a novel featuring independence versus second-handedness. I have a vague memory of having read such a novel.

[2]) The exception to this rule is Uriah Heep in Dickens’ David Copperfield – and if you have read the book, you know where that ends.

[3]) For Scandinavian speaking readers, I have written about this here.

Should Governments Be Replaced by Insurance Companies?

Or, to put the question more precisely: Should the legitimate functions of a government (police, military, courts) instead be provided by insurance companies? This is what Hans-Hermann Hoppe proposes in his Democracy: The God that Failed, where he devotes a whole chapter (chapter 12) to this idea and explains in some detail how such an arrangement would work in practice.

I am skeptical to this idea; but before I vent my skepticism, I want to say the following:

Historically, governments have been lousy as regards those legitimate functions. True, there are laws against such obviously rights-violating crimes as murder and manslaughter, theft, robbery, rape, arson… you name it. Governments do try to enforce such laws. Sometimes, they even succeed. But neither can it be denied that governments have done much more to violate our rights than they have done to protect them. They rob us of much of our income and call it taxation; they erode the value of the money they don’t steal outright by inflation; they conscript us and sacrifice our very lives in wars, most of which are senseless; and you can expand that litany, if you wish. So it is no wonder that people are looking for alternatives.

Even die-hard “minarchists” (adherents of a strictly limited government) recognize that government, if not severely restricted, are the worst and most dangerous rights-violators:

Instead of being a protector of man’s rights, the government is becoming their most dangerous violator; instead of guarding freedom, the government is establishing slavery; instead of protecting men from the initiators of physical force, the government is initiating physical force and coercion in any manner and issue it pleases […] so that we are fast approaching the stage of the ultimate inversion: the stage where government is free to do anything it pleases, while the citizens may act only on permission; which is the stage of the darkest periods of human history, the stage of rule by brute force. (Ayn Rand, “The Nature of Government” in The Virtue of Selfishness; also reprinted in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.)

…the government’s capacity for violating freedom is incomparably greater than that of any private individual or gang whose aggression it fights. One has only to compare the Gestapo or the KGB with the Mafia to realize how much greater is the potential danger that comes from government than from private individuals. […] Thus, freedom must be defined not merely as the absence of the initiation of physical force, but, in addition, in order to highlight its most crucial aspect, the absence of the initiation of physical force by, or with the sanction of, the government. (George Reisman, Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, p. 22.)

But if governments do not live up to the ideal of only protecting our rights and never violating them, it is no wonder that people are looking for an alternative way of organizing society.

Now to my objections to the idea of letting insurance companies take over those legitimate functions.

First of all: would insurance companies even be interested in taking over those functions?

It would mean that they would have to take over the police, the military and the courts. Each and every insurance company would have their own police force, their own armed services and their own court system. Would they want to do this? Well, I haven’t asked them, but my best guess is that they would not. (I don’t think Hans-Hermann Hoppe has asked them either; if he had, he would have mentioned it in his book.)

Secondly, to some extent insurance companies already insure us against crime. To take a drastic example, if you take out a life insurance and then get murdered, the insurance policy would fall out. This doesn’t bring you back to life, but your family and heirs are indemnified against any financial disaster your death could bring on them. – To take less drastic examples, we can insure against thefts, burglaries, robberies and the like.[1]

But this is insurance against the effects of crime, not against the crimes themselves.

It is the function of a proper police and court system to apprehend the perpetrator of crime, bring him to justice and mete out the appropriate punishment. This is not the function of insurance companies, and I doubt that they would want to make it their function.

Does Hoppe himself have an answer to those objections? I have looked in vain in his book for such an answer, and I haven’t found one. I don’t think he is aware that those objections could be raised.

But if this idea is not the way to get out of our present predicament of rights-violating governments, then what is? I won’t pretend to have a full answer to this; but I would like to quote Craig Biddle:

In addressing this question [government funding in a free society], it is important to emphasize that the elimination of taxation is not the first but the last step on the road to a fully rights-respecting society. The first steps are to educate people about the moral propriety of freedom, to cut government spending on illegitimate programs, and to begin the process of limiting government to the protection of rights.

But this is a slow process. Even the first step – educating the public and swaying the public opinion – would take a couple of generations. And the other steps, too, seem to meet with insurmountable difficulties – politicians have power and privileges, and how easy is it to make them give these up? (I would like to be more optimistic, but I cannot.)

Nevertheless, there are no short-cuts. We have to fight the uphill battle.


[1]) Quite often, such small crimes are reported to the police only because insurance companies demand that they be reported. At least here in Sweden, the police doesn’t even bother to investigate them; it is not much better in the other Scandinavian countries; I don’t know about other countries. But this mainly serves to show how bad present day governments are at their legitimate function of protecting our rights.