Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Libertarianism and the paleo diet - Natural or strange bedfellows?

I want follow up on the previous post by making a side observation on the paleo diet's marked popularity within libertarian circles -- especially anarcho-capitalists. Certainly, prominent libertarians like Lew Rockwell, Tom Woods and even Russ Roberts have gone "primal" in a very public sense.

Now, sure, this makes sense at the superficial level: It probably comes very naturally to many libertarians that they reject government-endorsed advice, take pride in swimming against the tide of mainstream thought, and so forth. Indeed, here is an article from LRC that openly flaunts the "ideological parallels" that underpin the libertarian-paleo connection. (Thanks Google!)

However, doing something simply because it feels "familiar" is likely to produce counterproductive results sooner rather than later. This is particularly likely to be true when it comes to endorsing heterodox thinking across unrelated topics.[*] After all, there's a reason why certain ideas tend to emerge as dominant over time: They explain the world around us better than the competing paradigms. (Obviously, this can change as we gain more knowledge. Science is a process after all and not an end result.)

More fundamentally, it seems to me that the underlying scientific approach of the paleo movement -- as outlined by Gary Taubes at least -- is at odds with much of what characterizes libertarian economic thought of the variety. I've had my say about the dangers of extreme a priorism before and still consider the rejection of empirical testing by some Austrians to be a completely nonsensical dead end. Indeed, the a prioristic approach is antithetical to the empirically-based scientific approach that Taubes so strongly advocates.

Given his popularity among these groups, I wonder what Taubes makes of this?

[*] Rockwell, in particular, seems prone to indulging just about every crank,conspiratorial, anti-science theory around. (They're all there, by the way. HIV/AIDS, evolution versus creationism, vaccines and autism, climate change... Even David Icke, alien technology and unlimited energy!)


Speaking of libertarian-based economic research, a good example of why experimental design is so important can be found by looking at Selgin, Lastrape and White's (2010) much-circulated paper, Has the Fed has been a failure?. The study itself is a great piece of historical writing that makes an important contribution to the literature. It also uses some fairly advanced empirical techniques such as GARCH time-series modelling. However, SLW don't provide a compelling counterfactual and, as such, their work can at best be described as a "pre-post" evaluation. Despite some overzealous reviews in libertarian circles then, this study was never meant to provide a definitive answer to the question that it asked. To their credit, SLW actually emphasize right at the outset (p. 1):
These findings do not prove that any particular alternative to the Fed would in fact have delivered superior outcomes: to reach such a conclusion would require a counterfactual exercise too ambitious to fall within the scope of what is intended as a preliminary survey. The findings do, however, suggest that the need for a systematic exploration of alternatives to the established monetary system, involving the necessary counterfactual exercises, is no less pressing today than it was a century ago. 

UPDATE: Dan Kuehn weighs in with some thoughts here.  He's not completely convinced that SLW heed their own warning...


  1. "Indeed, the a prioristic approach is antithetical to the empirically-based scientific approach that Taubes so strongly advocates."

    Twig, I think you are asserting a false choice here. It is possible to advocate a priorism in economics and empiricism in natural science without creating a contradiction.

    1) First off, as a point of clarification, Austrians or 'Praxeological Causal-Realists' advocate an 'a priori' logical approach to theorising. Some of these scholars may also be libertarians or 'anarcho-capitalists', but certainly may libertarians/anarcho-capitalists do not follow this approach.

    2) Rothbard makes a superb case for 'a priorism' as actually a kind of "radical empiricism" here: (read from bottom of page 6 to the end of the Hayek quote on page 9)
    I read this paper about 3 years ago and it really helped me understand the whole 'a priori' proposition. Note though his distinction between praxeological empiricism and what he calls 'post-Humean' empiricism.

    3) Austrians make it very clear that the praxeological method is to be applied in the social sciences as wholly distinct from the application of data empiricism in the natural sciences. So, an austro-libertarian, for example, can hold a fully consistent view by advocating an 'a priori' praxeological approach to economics AND a conventionally empirical approach to nutrition science. Nutrition science is a real chemical-biological natural science while economics is a study of human action and human reason IN REACTION to natural laws or natural stimuli.


  2. Hi Russ,

    As always, thanks for your thoughts. This is going to be a late reply after travels and catching up on other work, so I'll try to keep 'er as brief as possible:

    1) Yes, but I expect the general overlap to be pretty substantial.

    2) I've actually read (the whole of) Rothbard's essay before and, to be blunt, remain unconvinced. (For instance, I take issue with the awkward distinction between conscious human thought and decision-making; versus knee-jerk behaviour "which is not directed toward goals". Such distinctions are flawed next to what modern science -- e.g. fMRI of brain activity -- has actually taught us about the instinctual processes that underlie much of choice behaviour... c.f. This post. There's also much handwaving about the subjective focus of Austrians when, of course, subjectivity is the province of all standard economics.)

    I do acknowledge Rothbard's departure from the neo-Kantian view of Mises, towards what you have called "radical empiricism". However, his sweeping criticism of empirical methods in economics remains threadbare IMHO. It's telling that he (like virtually all praxeologists) still invokes the authority of Mises with regard econometrics, for example... despite the fact that Mises voiced his criticisms when this discipline was still in its very infancy. The general advances since then have, of course, been tremendous and are far too numerous and complex for me to detail in this comment. Also, as I have pointed out to you previously, Hayek actually rejected the a priorism of Mises and Rothbard in favour of the Popperian method found in the natural sciences (see here, for example.). For their part, none of the credible modern Austrians economists that I know of -- Steve Horowitz, etc -- display any marked aversion to modern empirical methods either.

    At this juncture, let me just say that I have often found myself in the absurd situation of being lectured on the shortcomings of numerical methods in economics or econometrics by Austrian-types that have clearly never taken maths beyond standard grade at high school... Or have never taken any substantive course in empirical methods at university. It would like be like me going up to a string theorist and telling him how dumb his fancy physics ideas are. NB: I'm really not trying to have a dig at you, personally, here -- I know you took higher grade maths for one thing :) -- but I do want to give you an insight into how frustrating this kind of thing is.

    3) Actually, I think that biology is extremely close to economics. Indeed, the point that Taubes' was making is that complex interactions between cells, people and their environment make it virtually impossible to suggest how well a diet will affect someone from first principles. (That is, even though we might have perfect knowledge about how, say, a fat cell forms and divides.) The same is true for economic interactions. The list of subsidiary and unstated claims made by praxeologists becomes enormous as they begin to assess higher order interactions in the economy. Some of the most interesting results in economics from my perspective can't be divined from simply looking at individual behaviour and motivations.

    All, this is not to knock the role of deductive thinking in economics (or science in general). As I have said many times, all economic theorising is, to some extent, deductive. However, my broader point is that the praxeological fixation among its proponents has created a hermetic seal; a complete aversion to empirical methods that far surpasses the limits of what praxeology could (conceivably) claim to hold sovereignty over.


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