Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Metaphysics and Murray Rothbard

Man, Economy and State is a very, very long book, an interesting book, and a worthwhile book.  But I think it also suffers from a few very big flaws.

The main problem, in my opinion, is that Rothbard is just simply 'too modern' a man.  Even as he objects to economic approaches which are too tainted with the 'scientific' slant -- inappropriately 'mathematical' and 'objective,' as if all phenomena can be distilled down to something like classical physics -- nevertheless, he too is infected with the tendency on a more fundamental and less obvious level.

(And to be fair, I probably am, too, so maybe this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.  But hopefully, maybe the pot and kettle can sometimes get together and scrape some of the soot off of each other.)

The biggest problem I have is a very broad objection which I think would qualify as what Michael Oakeshott calls 'rationalism,' but I think other authors have called by different names and addressed in slightly different ways.  Basically, I think he has some difficulty with the notion of abstraction and the application of the subjective point of view.

He actually talks about abstraction quite a bit, but in a way I've never seen anyone else use the word.  He tends to speak in terms of 'abstracting away' from certain irrelevant phenomena, such that the 'mental image' so obtained does not contain these irrelevant parts.  But, in principle, it still contains everything else. 

To my understanding (and I may be wrong, as I'm new to this myself), an abstraction is formed almost in the exact opposite manner.  This approach misses the whole point.  The reason one forms abstractions of concrete objects and phenomena is that these things in their totality are inconceivable to the human mind due to their immense complexity.  What can be conceived are idealized simplifications.  What is 'abstracted from' the concrete situation is the essential characteristics and parameters and everything else is excluded.  Thus the essential characteristics become manageable, and an idealized system with practical, predictive utility is constructed.

For example, in a problem of classical physics, one might be given an initial position, the mass, and an accelerating force applied to an object, and asked to predict its future position.  This is an abstraction of the problem in that only three parameters are used to characterize the situation (six if you want to make it a force vector in three dimensional space, but anyway...).  The position and mass of the moon and sun (with their consequent gravitational attraction), of every other particle in the universe, and the history of every particle making up the object in question, are not of interest insofar as their effects on the situation in question are minuscule.  In general, one wouldn't even think to include these things at all unless it were clear that they had some substantial bearing on the problem.

To do things Rothbard's way would have it all backwards and leave things impossibly complicated -- if one could actually do it.  He would have to expend a great deal of mental energy finding every parameter to exclude before settling on the few things that actually mattered, which tells me that he's not actually doing this.  If he were, as soon as he thought about a situation, he'd be like a computer that gets stuck in an infinite loop and winds up on the 'blue screen of death.'  He's really thinking more or less the way that everybody else thinks, but somehow his way of 'thinking about thinking' isn't quite on the same page.

Somehow he conceives of things as if his thoughts really encompassed concrete reality completely as a matter of simple inspection, and then he goes about excluding things he thinks aren't important, or more often, are complicating factors which he would like to exclude so that he can get at a particular point.  Because of this, for him, his thoughts seem more or less perfect images of the concrete, so his conclusions appear to him far more sweeping and inescapable than most people would think warranted.

Basically, he seems to believe that his thoughts and theories are actually exact expressions of concrete reality, allowing for some abstract contribution from external contingencies -- his oft invoked ceteris paribus.  This results in a curious 'feel' to his philosophy.  Sometimes he seems to want to say that his assertions are very narrow, that they apply very specifically, if absolutely, to only a narrow slice of human experience, and maybe shouldn't weigh quite so heavily on people's conscience if their thoughts don't much incline towards these matters.  Other times, he seems to think that they are extremely broad, that they touch on everything within their own peculiar capacity, in a very predictable and ironclad fashion.  This is the way he seems to view abstractions -- as 'slices' of reality, within which they are fully as concrete as reality itself, rather than as idealizations from which there may be considerable departure when the fully relevant picture hasn't quite been captured in the process of forming a mental image of the situation.

He thus falls into the trap of most modern thinkers -- of trying to take his thoughts too close to the concrete, so that rather than being valued for their capacity to convey truth to human consciousness, they fall in love with their own precision and logical 'consistency,' and emerge from the affair as ideology.  The truth which they do contain is lost in a torrid orgy of desire for absoluteness in assertion, usually expressed in an obnoxious particularness and an air of unwarranted certainty. 

For him, a good theory is like the snapshot from a good point-and-shoot camera -- all-encompassing field of view, every detail in sharp focus, all of the time, no matter what.  But most people recognize the superior quality of photograph from a professional camera, and some will pay good money for a camera that produces a much more natural image that essentially renders half or more of the image unfocused and blurry.

The blurriness is an essential feature of such a camera, not a liability.  The image it produces, with its indistinct suggestions of detail beyond and before the focal plane, but wonderfully sharp focus and detail at the point of interest, rings of truth because this is the way the eye sees the world.  Likewise, truth and understanding is not generally to be found buried in a morass of undifferentiated detail, however precise and fine, it is to be apprehended in a clear understanding of the relations of things.  The clearer, simpler, more elegant and vivid manner in which relations are manifested in thought, so much the better the apprehension of truth.  Detail which is unessential is detail which distracts, which is detail which obscures. 

This is not to belittle the necessity of precision or detail, but it is to point out the danger of habitually swimming as close to the shoals of the concrete as possible at all times.  Too often, in the pursuit of certainty, modern thinkers like Rothbard want to abstract as little as possible, and in doing so confuse themselves into thinking that they are not abstracting at all.  Thought exhausts itself at such an effort, and ultimately destroys itself when it is inevitably smashed against the concrete.  Thought which is too concrete ceases to be thought at all.  In attempting to apprehend reality too perfectly, it ceases to actually apprehend, and falls into an endless cataloging.

Anyway, enough flowery metaphors.  You get the idea.

This kind of confusion Voegelin identifies with positivism, and Oakeshott with rationalism.  Or perhaps these are two slightly different tendencies that revolve around a confusion of subject and object, the concrete and the abstract.  In any event, Rothbard's tendency is to believe that since he has perfectly apprehended reality in this body of semi-abstract theory, that it constitutes some body of inarguable truth perfectly binding upon all of reality.

That leads to the second major problem -- the ideological aspect.  A mathematician knows the laws of geometry, but if he's intelligent and given it some thought, he knows that geometry can never apply perfectly to reality.  There are, for example, no such things as Euclidean lines.  A true Euclidean line has zero thickness, and in a three-dimensional world, that corresponds to a nothingness.  Real lines must have thickness else they cannot exist, are never perfectly straight, etc.  Euclidean lines are an ideal never realized in reality.  Like all abstractions, they are a tool for thinking about other things.  Like all theoretical systems, geometry can only work perfectly applied to abstract idealizations. 

Rothbard does not seem to think that he has idealized anything, so he sometimes takes some things a bit too far, as it seems to me.  This becomes particularly acute and obvious as he wanders into territory outside his economic abstractions but continues to apply the same supposedly concrete and universally binding laws inappropriately.  I do not generally hold contradiction against people, at least at a certain level, and I'm not really doing it here.  I'm just using it to point out where he has made a mistake of application.

On page 1215, he argues that --
There is no objection at all to discussion of ethical concepts  when they are needed, provided that the economist realizes  always (a) that economics can establish no ethical principles by  itself—that it can only furnish existential laws to the ethicist or  citizen as data; and (b) that any importation of ethics must be  grounded on a consistent, coherent set of ethical principles, and  not simply be slipped in ad hoc in the spirit of “well, everyone  must agree to this. . . .” Bland assumptions of universal agreement are one of the most irritating bad habits of the economist-turned-ethicist.
Yet just 97 pages before, in dealing with the political problem of the administration of justice, he says that even in a completely free system--
Every legal system needs some sort of socially-agreed-upon cutoff point, a point at which judicial procedure stops and punishment against the convicted criminal begins.
Why did he cross himself up like this?  Because he wandered into the moral/political realm, where his theories do him little good because their abstraction of the situation is in at least some ways orthogonal to the dynamics actually in operation in this realm of thought.  If they didn't apply perfectly before, they will apply even less well now.

The 'we can all agree' blunder of 'democratic logic' is pretty typical of philosophers who want to construct viable 'value-free' legal systems out of pure logic.  Inevitably they trip themselves up with a statement like this, which gives away the true moral core about which their system turns.  They would have you believe (and they may truly believe themselves) that the core is actually the logical structure they have built up, that its most basic principles are readily observable, objective facts of the universe.  But in reality, the core will be found to actually consist of a body of  sentiment -- which the logical system will be found to protect and defend.  And try to hide.  At least, that is my experience with such things.  All such systems eventually boil down to moral sentiments; some of their purveyors are just not willing to admit it.

But this example is just to illustrate a general mistake -- thinking that since he is not really using abstractions, that the situation and the theories he derives apply to all sorts of areas where they do not.  The manner of thinking then goes on to produce a lot of nonsense and ideology.  If I were to choose a general abstraction under which to operate in the political realm of thought, I would probably go with something like Eric Voegelin's way of looking at things.  He really thought about the problem and came up with a powerful way to abstract it.  Rothbard, through his insistence on 'doing geometry' with everything, would not be anywhere near the top of my list in terms of politics.  I think that if he'd cleared this up a bit, he would have made a better thinker in this department, would have formulated some better ideas, and been able to defend them better.

Which is not to say that he has absolutely nothing interesting to say here at all, just that I'm more interested in his economics than his politics.

All of this I'm afraid too many readers will interpret as me 'bashing Rothbard,' which is unfortunate, because to my mind, I'm not really doing that.  I'm only criticizing, and my way if thinking and evaluating -- so I've learned -- is not like most other people's.

To most people, it seems that the measure of an idea's worth is how expansive and detailed it can get without getting 'contradictory.'  (Heaven forbid it outright contradict itself!)  It also needs to encompass a great deal of 'known fact' without getting anything wrong.  Once it starts getting a few things wrong, well, it IS wrong, and the holder of it needs to chuck it altogether if he is 'intellectually honest.'

I don't really care much if some idea -- or its purveyor -- contradicts itself or 'known facts' to some degree.  All thought and all theory is abstraction, which means it is simplification, which means it is 'wrong' from the outset.  I expect every idea to be 'wrong' -- at least if this is the measure of 'wrong' -- from the get-go.  To me, that is not the measure of an idea.  The only way a thought could not be 'wrong' would be if it corresponded exactly to concrete reality itself.  If it did that, it would in fact be a perfect articulation of concrete reality itself, unimaginably complex, meaningless, and unintelligible to the human mind.

But more damning, it would provide no window into truth.  It would be totally worthless as an idea. 

On top of this, consider that 'theory' (and everyone has heard at least one of these) that is totally consistent with an extensive body of 'known fact,' but presents a totally absurd, plainly incorrect interpretation of a situation.  One (supposedly, anyway) can't argue with it, but clearly it is totally wrong.  Now, which is the worse -- that 'consistent' system of thought, or one that gets some of the facts wrong and contains a few contradictory elements, but provides a reasonable, useful interpretation of things and clear insight into a situation?  I say the latter is better by far.

At least, that is my understanding of metaphysics, to this point.  I have heard that some philosophers think that the concrete reality of the mind, at least, can be known completely -- "I think, therefore, I am," and all of that -- but I am not that far along, and I'm not sure I'll agree when I get there.  But since we are talking about the concrete reality of economics, which encompasses more than a human mind, I think I can say with a fair amount of certainty that it falls under the aforementioned regimen of thinking -- that abstraction is instant death as far as contradiction and an incorrect correspondence to reality is concerned, but necessary to making reality intelligible.

Insight is a window into truth.  My measure of an idea is the degree which 1) it shows insight or reveals truth, and/or 2) it provides a useful 'mental picture' of things under which to operate that makes the universe more easily grasped, i.e., it is a good abstraction of a system.  I do confess that that might be two ways of saying the same thing.  I like good analogies, models, and insights.  To say in an argument that one had contradicted himself with most people would mean the argument was over and done with.  With me, it is a minor quibble, maybe something that might need a little work.  To say that something (or someone) is insightful, on the other hand, is no mere observation but very high praise in my book – about as high as you can get.

With that in mind, Rothbard is both very insightful and very good at constructing abstract systems for thinking about economic systems.  I got a great deal out of his discussion of the division of labor, the production structure, the relationships between price, income, profit, interest, wages, rents, factors of production, and the like, which I hadn't quite had straight in my mind for a long time.  His discussion of supply and demand were excellent.  Even his discussion of the incidence of taxation I found extremely worthwhile -- even where I disagreed with him!  What it really did was to help me to think about the problem, which is immensely helpful.  The post I did criticizing him on the sales tax was really a minor thing, in my opinion.  I wouldn't have even known how to think about the problem if I hadn't read his treatment of it.

But the reason I could get all of that out of the book is that I didn't blow it off as 'wrong' at the first problem I had with it.  I could spend months criticizing parts of it (especially at my pace of things...) but what would that accomplish?  To treat it the way most modern thinkers seem to operate would be like entering a vast and beautiful garden and getting hung up on a patch of thorns right at the entrance and never getting any further.  You'd never get to see anything else, because you got hung up on one stupid thing right at the beginning.  Even if it's a big thornbush, it's not worth it missing all the good things by getting caught up in nitpicking the bad.

Another great thing about the book is that the writing is very approachable and expressed very clearly.  Actually, I prefer slightly more convolution and 'vivid vagueness' than he uses, but I realize that that is a matter of taste, and it is a great thing to be able to express exactly what you mean so clearly and simply.  You may not agree with Rothbard, but you are never confused about where he stands.  Such precision and approachability is very difficult on such a complex topic. 

There are really only a few places in the book that become intellectually demanding, which is pretty amazing to me.  While it does make it a bit simpler to do such analyses when you decide ahead of time to simplify a problem the way that he did -- by abstracting it rather unrealistically -- still, if one just accepts that the way the situation has been framed is a little off, his approach is a very clear and useful way to get at some important insights.  I don't think there are many people, living or dead, who could pull off something like that.

***

Apparently, I'm getting at least fairly close with most of my metaphysics.  Ed Feser -- a professor of philosophy -- has a post discussing more or less exactly the error I'm talking about here.

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