Arnold Kling  

Empiricism and Dogma

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Virginia Postrel writes,

For decades, the deductive tradition has defined libertarian identity and dogma, while the empiricist tradition has achieved libertarian goals. For parallelism, we can call this second intellectual strand the Hayek-Friedman tradition, though that unnecessarily truncates the list of Nobel laureates it has produced. (It also understates the cultural libertarianism of Friedman’s popular works and the Continental influences on Hayek’s thought.) Libertarianism need not be formulaic. There has long been a lively, open-ended libertarianism for inquiring minds, whether curious about the results of trucking deregulation, the consequences of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the incentives that shape bureaucratic action, the neurological basis of interpersonal trust, the causes of the Islamic world’s economic decline, or the predictive potential of idea futures markets. Not all this work has been empirical. The tradition has produced great theorists, including Hayek, Coase, James Buchanan, Armen Alchian, and Richard Epstein, to name just a few. But their theories are informed, tested, and revised by empirical observation, just as Adam Smith’s were. Most of the libertarian movement’s persuasive and policy triumphs have come from this non-utopian, empiricist approach.

...Surviving the 21st century with our sanity and civilization intact will require less Nietzsche and more Hume.

Or, dare one say, less Mises and more Hume?

Read her whole essay.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy

COMMENTS (11 to date)
Matt writes:

OK, I read it.

Sécessionniste writes:

It would be nice to have some feedback on the essay of the blog's authors. In my opinion, it is complete BS, but hey, what can you expect of Bush-voter.

Urstoff writes:

So why not just give up the libertarian title and call ourselves utilitarians? Small-l libertarianism seems like a pretty good way to maximize utility, if only because governments are so bad at doing it.

Of course, declaring ourselves all utilitarians won't look good with either the natural rights crowd or the current mainstream of moral philosophy which is mired in deontological intuition-pumping. The metaphysics of morality, though, is a mug's game, so we'll all be arbitrarily choosing the mixture of the three approaches that most comports with what we feel (yes feel, not think) is right. At least the utilitarian approach allows for a flexibility in policy proscription as our knowledge of what makes people happy and how to achieve those things advances; the other two approaches by their very nature lack such flexibility.

John Goes writes:

There is only good economics and bad economics, right? Seems like a false choice between Mises and Hume (or Friedman, Hayek, etc). Empirical observations without logical foundation is worth little without logical interpretation (i.e. comparing in the light of praxeology) just as pure reasoning divorced from empirical observations would be just as worth less. Mises analysis is successful partly because of its admission of certain empirical information, and lacks completeness because of the lack of empirical methods. The goal should be integration.

Martin writes:

"Most of the libertarian movement’s persuasive and policy triumphs have come from this non-utopian, empiricist approach."

Are you seriously suggesting that libertarianism has had 'policy triumphs'?

If so, what are they?

"Or, dare one say, less Mises and more Hume?"

Wow, that's a comment that really bears failure's heavy odour, doesn't it?

paul writes:

I agree, debating whether or not garbage collection should be privatized doesn't seem to be working. The state grows and grows. The principle of non coercion allows human action that most people fear or abhor. But this is the idea that distinguishes libertarians from everyone else. This is the idea that needs to be presented and defended.

Buzzcut writes:

There have certainly been libertarian triumphs. Sadly, they all occured in the '70s and '80s, when the alternatives to libertarianism were working so poorly that things like de-regulation were tried in desperation.

In the meantime, in recent history, libertarianism seems to be on the decline. Socialism has abandoned the "commanding heights" of the last century (steel mills, railroads, whatever), but has made stunning advances in the new commanding heights (education, health care).

I don't see why there needs to be tension between theory and empiricism. One compliments the other. In fact, good science forces the two together. You form a theory that you then test in experiments.

Matt writes:

The idea I picked up in the essay was the concept of libertarianism working for stability. This is new, it is a reaction to something gone haywire in conservative economic policy.

If I'd meant Mises, I would have said Mises. The 20th century did not suffer from an overdose of Mises. It did suffer from an overdose of Nietzsche. There continues to be a common intellectual belief that absent some objective authority--God or nature or something--telling you what to do, it's impossible to have a civilized society. Hume knew better.

Fundamentalist writes:

Virginia: ...absent some objective authority--God or nature or something--telling you what to do, it's impossible to have a civilized society.

Virginia gets the argument wrong. It's not that without God civilized society is impossible; morality is inherent in man's nature. The argument is that without God, morality is irrational because we have no way of explaining why humans have a built-in sense of morals when the animals we supposedly evolved from don't. Since we have no rationale for morals, a lot of people are suspicious that they were artificially imposed on us by the ruling elite and should be shed.

Jason Ruspini writes:

Nietzsche once wrote, "Don't confuse me for someone else", and this is exactly what Postrel did here.

She wanted to write "less Rand", but she knew that "less Nietzsche " would rub fewer libertarians the wrong way - but for the wrong reason. It is easy to confuse Nietzsche for Rand since 80% of what is valuable in Rand came from Nietzsche. Nietzsche however was no dogmatist (except for some late metaphysical* notes on the "Will to Power" that he didn't publish). Nietzsche was an experimentalist and anyone who has read him will know that one of the main thrusts of his thought is rejection of absolutes. By citing Nietzsche instead of Rand, Postrel is relying on the orthogonal issue of calm, collected thought vs. dangerous passion - not empiricism vs. dogma.

* in one of the sensible uses of the word, i.e. a totalizing ontology, not in the empty sense that Rand used it, namely as a signal that she was attempting a philosophical thought.

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