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.

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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 …

Christianity and Time Preference

Adaptation of a Swedish blog post.

If you are acquainted with “Austrian” economics, you know what is meant by “time preference”: it refers to the fact that, everything else equal, a need satisfaction today is more important and higher valued than the same need satisfaction  at some time in the future. You also know that time preference is the ultimate determinant of the level of profit and interest in the economy, of what is commonly called “originary interest”.[1]

Is time preference a good thing or a bad thing? Well, if we had no time preference at all, we would not consume anything in the present and save and invest everything we have. But this, of course, is not possible: if we consume nothing in the present, we would quickly starve to death, and then, what point would there be to saving and investing? (I know this is a drastic example.) But neither would it be a good thing if our time preference were infinite and we were to consume everything today with no provision at all for the future. So we weigh the past against the future and decide how much we can consume today against saving and investing for the future.

A poor man tends to have a higher time preference than a rich man. For example, a homeless person is not in a position to plan very far ahead; he lives “from hand to mouth”. A multimillionaire, on the other hand, does not have to worry at all about how to get his next meal or finding shelter for the night, and is in a position to plan how to best invest his millions. And the rest of us are somewhere in between those extremes.

On the other hand, even a poor man can have relatively low time preference – if he is struggling to rise above poverty. (Many millionaires have started their lives as relatively poor.) And the other extreme would be the worthless heir who is squandering his wealth.

Time preference also varies with age. A baby or a toddler has high time preference, simply because he is not yet aware of such a thing as a “future”. But it is rather early in life that a child starts to think about what he wants to become when he is grown up. And old people may have high time preference, because they do not have much of a future to plan for; but this is mitigated if one has heirs and cares for their future.

But what has Christianity to say about time preference? Let me quote the Sermon on the Mount:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?  Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?  Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:25–34.)

In short: Why care about the future? God will take care of you! Well, is God really taking care of the homeless? No. The homeless are able to survive, because they live in a world where even the poorest enjoy some standard of living – a standard of living provided by capitalists and business men, i.e. by people with a very low time preference. (For more on this, see George Reisman’s article In Praise of the Capitalist 1 Percent, also available on Reisman’s blog.)

Now, I do not think many Christians actually live by Jesus’ recommendation here – if they did, they would all be homeless and beggars, and if they live in a world of Christians following Jesus’ advice, from whom would they beg? – Nevertheless, this is what he preaches.

Is this idea compatible with capitalism or with civilization? The question is rhetorical.


[1]) See on this Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, Capital and Interest, Vol. II, Book IV; Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, chapter XVIII. – On exactly how time preference determines the profit and interest rate, see George Reisman, Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, especially p. 492ff.

Horror Quote from Joseph Schumpeter

Joseph A. Schumpeter was one of Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk’s star pupils; another one was Ludwig von Mises. A couple of years ago I wrote a piece called Stray Observations on Joseph A. Schumpeter, where I tried to sort the wheat from the chaff in his book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. I also read his The Great Economists (in a Swedish translation), a series of monographs on some economists, from Marx to Keynes. One thing that struck me was that he lavishes as much praise on Marx and Keynes as he does on Menger and Böhm-Bawerk. This should be enough to establish that I regard Schumpeter as a “mixed bag”.

But there is some real poison in the mixture. From a Mises.org article by Gary North[1]:

Felix Somary records in his autobiography a discussion he had with the economist Joseph Schumpeter and the sociologist Max Weber in 1918. Schumpeter was an Austrian economist who was not an Austrian School economist. He later wrote the most influential monograph on the history of economic thought. Weber was the most prestigious academic social scientist in the world until he died in 1920.

Schumpeter expressed happiness regarding the Russian Revolution. The USSR would be a test case for socialism. Weber warned that this would cause untold misery. Schumpeter replied, “That may well be, but it would be a good laboratory.” Weber responded, “A laboratory heaped with human corpses!” Schumpeter retorted, “Every anatomy classroom is the same thing.” [Felix Somary, The Raven of Zurich (New York: St. Martin’s, 1986), p. 121.]

Schumpeter was a moral monster. Let us not mince words. He was a highly sophisticated man, but he was at bottom a moral monster. Anyone who could dismiss the deaths of millions like this is a moral monster. Weber stormed out of the room. I don’t blame him.

I don’t blame him either.


[1]) Gary North is a new acquaintance to me, but Wikipedia informs that he tries to combine “Austrian” economics with Christian beliefs.