Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mises's action "axiom" or false dichotomy?

I've been watching the recent libertarian conundrum - concerning the morality of using taxes to prevent a killer asteroid from wiping out humanity - with great fascination. For anyone not privy to the whole saga... Essentially, some (uber) libertarians have made it plain that they would rather die with their principles than see some thievin' gub'mint send up a Bruce Willis-type into space to blow up any asteroid on the back of stolen tax money. [Side note: I was planning to draw some fun parallels to global warming, but John Quiggin beat me to it.]

Lest it be unclear, I am firmly in the camp that proclaims such positions as absurd. Further, it appears that many self-proclaimed libertarians count themselves in the same boat. I'd be worried if they didn't; it would elevate a cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face mentality to an astronomical level, so to speak. Now, there have since been some more nuanced defences along the lines of: "I would contribute; I just don't think you can force other people into contributing." However, from my perspective these positions still overlook the free-rider problem and ultimately equate to little more than a form of culpable homicide. (You can see some of my comments on these issue here.)

All this, however, is just a prelude to what I want discuss here.

Amidst the whole asteroid palaver, I saw an interesting discussion between Daniel Kuehn and Jonathan Catalan. In particular, on why we shouldn't conflate the responses of Austrians with libertarians regarding this matter; even though many Austrians would certainly identify themselves as libertarians, and (I imagine) vice versa. I thought Jonathan's point about these two groups deriving their end-points as the result of distinctly different processes - positive for Austrians vs normative for libertarians - was well made. My interest piqued, I started doing a little internet research to see what else might have been said about the strong link between Austrian economics and libertarianism in spite of their opposing methodologies. Had they been unified through a grand string theory of liberty?

Unfortunately, I got distracted.

And now, finally, we get to the meat of today's post...

A question occurred to me while I was reading a passage by George Selgin, explaining why (many) Austrians hold Ludwig von Mises's praxeological method to be the most valid form of all economic reasoning. Following Immanuel Kant, it basically boils down to a belief that the human action axiom cannot be refuted, because, as per Selgin (pg 22):
To meaningfully deny the "action axiom" (i.e., the claim that people act purposefully) is difficult. Denial of the axiom's empirical validity involves a purposeful act on the part of skeptics. It therefore confronts them with the uncomfortable choice of either conceding the issue or proclaiming that their own disagreement is purposeless. Thus, any denial of the action axiom is self-contradictory.
Am I the only that sees an obvious philosophical objection to this? It extrapolates from a single (contrived?) instance and purports to have shown that the same rules must hold for all human actions over all of time. Near as I can tell, this is done without further justification.

To put things differently, just because I act purposefully at this one particular moment in time (i.e. by denying the action axiom), how does rule out the possibility that I may have acted in a non-purposeful way at any other moment? Indeed, I would think that if someone did try to deny the action axiom, their position would very likely be based on past events and experiences that are completely independent of the present “catch-22” moment. You could easily argue that framing things in such a way – to assume that people act must purposefully at all times, or not at all – is a false dichotomy that invalidates the claim to (strict) apodictic truth.

At best – or worst, depending on your position – it therefore seems to me that denying the action axiom is only momentarily self-contradictory, not an exhaustive set that is valid over all time.[*]

A rather laboured analogy [slightly adapted to make things a bit clearer- Ed.]:
MARIO: "Hey Luigi, are you awake?"
LUIGI: "No."
MARIO: "A-ha! But you have to be awake, since you just answered me. So... Proof that you don't sleep!
LUIGI: "Huh?"
Anyway, this seems such an obvious objection to me that I can't shake the feeling that a) someone has already proposed it (to possible counter-argument), or b) I'm wrong in an even more obvious way. So, followers of Mises: Hit me with it! 

OTOH, if there is merit to my argument, then I imagine that it opens up the possibility for Austrians, on philosophical and logical grounds, to at least engage in empirical testing of their theories and thus expose them to the scrutiny of falsifiability.

UPDATE: See follow-up here.

Disclaimer: I am in no way disputing the argument that the people generally act with the purposeful intention of improving their situation... i.e. the benefits of voluntary trade, etc. Indeed, I take this to be one of the fundamental pillars of economics and, despite his novel application, Mises was hardly the first to suggest it.(I'm not suggesting that he made this claim.) What I am trying to establish, however, is whether we can truly and with universal certainty describe "human action" as an apodictic axiom, when the key defence rests on a flitting moment of self-contradiction under very specific circumstances.
[*] Compare Decartes’s epiphany: “I think therefore I am”. I regard this as a valid synthetic a priori fact (a la Kant), precisely because it concerns only the present moment, i.e. “I am”.


  1. 1. You mean positive for Austrians and normative for libertarians.

    2. Jonathan went way off the deep end in interpreting what I was saying. I was only mentioning libertarians and Austrians together because they both rely on deductive logic to an excessive extent, IMO. Of course they're not the same just because they share that fault. I'd say the same of any remorseless logician.

    3. You raise an interesting point here! Your argument, if I understand it right, is that noting that the active denial of action is an action doesn't negate the possibility that one can not-act and not note the fact that one is not-acting. The axiomatic status relies on a non-actor negating his non-action by even engaging in the conversation.

    4. None of this really bothers me, personally. I am always happy to grant them its axiomatic status, but if it is just an assumption rather than an axiom it doesn't make much of a difference to me. Deriving all your insights about the economy from a single axiom is still an impoverished way of understanding the world - and a lot of people confuse what it produces. It's correct to say that what you appropriately derive from that axiom is "true". But it is not correct to then say that claims that cannot be derived from that axiom are "not true". Does that make sense? You may be able to derive a few interesting insights from the axiom, but you can't refute Keynesianism or any other claim unless you can demonstrate that that axiom exhausts the foundational claims that are essential for understanding the economy. If they want to play around with their axioms, that's fine with me - but it doesn't seem especially promising. I'd rather have somewhat less dependable observations and non-axiomatic assumptions that can nevertheless provide a richer (if imperfect) understanding of the economy.

  2. 1. Er, that I did! Thanks, will correct now.

    2. Ya, I got you. I think you had some very valid points in your post, but I particularly liked the way Jonathan highlighted this methodological distinction, which - to be honest - was something I had never paid that much attention to.

    3. I'm used to double negatives from speaking Afrikaans, but even I'm confused here! Jokes, yes, I believe that we are on the same page :)

    4. I agree with several of your points here and I even think that a number of Austrians would happily concede to them on principal. However, I'm trying to limit myself specifically to the consideration of the action axiom's apodictic validity because:
    a) It's something that seemed obvious to me, even though I've never seen it discussed elsewhere.
    b) What I said at the end before my "Disclaimer". It's hard to enter into a debate with someone that's sealed themselves off to your preferred way of testing. If this lets Austrians feel more comfortable about the idea of exposing their theories to the test of falsifiability, then I would consider that mission accomplished.

  3. Perhaps we are overthinking this.

    Does it matter if some humans don't act purposefully? Is it only necessary to know that humans do act purposefully and that Austrian economics pertains to those purposeful actions?

  4. The claims is "humans act purposefully" not "everything a human does is purposeful action".

  5. Does it matter if some humans don't act purposefully? Is it only necessary to know that humans do act purposefully and that Austrian economics pertains to those purposeful actions?

    Well, I would think that it is very important from the perspective of qualifying as an apodictic axiom. These are, by definition (haha), meant to hold universally under all conditions.

    We don't refer to maths as apodictic and a priori because it holds 99% of the time, but rather because it makes it to that crucial final 1%.

    On a broader level, as I said; I've no dispute with the general proposition that humans do act purposefully. I just disagree - until someone shows me where I am going wrong! - that it can be defended along Kantian lines (i.e. being a true synthetic a priori fact).

  6. Stickman misses another part of the praxeology argument, which is that praxeology is only concerned with explaining human action to the extent that it is purposeful. Mises was quite emphatic about this (see his "Treatment of Irrationality in the Social Sciences"). So, yes, one can consistently argue that not all action is purposeful, but that wouldn't do other than to establish that there are some things praxeology (or economics) just can't explain.

    The context of my argument, moreover, was one concerning whether the "action axiom" could claim to be more than a simple tautology. Someone who denies, say, that 2+2=4, though he or she may not be someone we wish to carry on conversing with, cannot be said to argue in a self-contradictory manner. In that sense there's more synthetic "meat" to the action axiom.

    I don't mean to suggest that I would go out on a limb to defend everything that's in my essay (I wrote it as a grad school paper in '82, and like to think that I've learned plenty since). But I don't think the argument is so flimsy as has been suggested here.

  7. George, thanks for your comments. Needless to say, I especially appreciate your stopping by in the context of having quoted you in the above post. You can see my reply here.

  8. "Further, it appears that many self-proclaimed libertarians count themselves in the same boat."

    The difference between Austrians/libertarians who would accept some government intervention to save the earth and those who would reject such intervention lies in their ethics.

    The Misesian classical liberals who believe in a minimal state and use utilitarianism as an ethical theory can justify government intervention in such a case (whether they all do so in practice, I dont know).

    Natural law/natural rights based Austrians in the traditon of Rothbard will vehemently reject
    ALL govenrment intervention, even to save the earth.

    This proves how insane natural law/natural right based anarcho-capitalism is. It has no sense of the public good, and its ethical theory would place absolute rights to property above not just a single human life but above the lives of ALL humans on the planet.

    Natural rights/law is untenable, as shown by other libertarians incidently:

    See L.A. Rollins, The Myth of Natural Rights.

  9. um... there's no conundrum here. If a massive amount of money is needed to save the human race, people will give it to you freely. You wouldn't need to tax'd just have to offer up a collection and people would volunteer their money.

    1. Um, did you read my request RE "anonymous" commentators?

      As to your "solution", I'm afraid that's all rather besides the point. Just read Sasha Volokh's initial post; he is specifically evaluating this as a binary outcome, where only Government intervention can help prevent the asteroid collision.[*] That's what thought experiments are for, after all. You limit hypothetical scenarios to their critical components and so compare an isolated set of possibilities.

      [*] Volokh also implies quite absurdly that Government and other actors should not provide warnings of the impending collision, lest it encourage looting.


No anonymous comments please. (Pseudonyms are fine.)