Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Mises's Defense of Liberty: A Critique

Originally published at Libertarian Papers on November 17, 2010.

The explanation and masterful defense of the philosophy of freedom is at the core of Ludwig von Mises’s 1927 treatise, Liberalism. To state where, and in what ways, proponents of limited government might find the arguments presented in this book absolutely agreeable would be to consume a degree of energy too unreasonable to satisfy the thrifty and efficient partialities peculiar to the Classical Liberal. Consequently, this paper will limit itself to the examination of the work’s one notable deficiency: the conspicuous absence in it of a moral justification for a free society; that is, an explanation of why it is morally better for a people to live freely rather than to exist in bondage.

Mises’s Defense of Liberty

Mises’s support of liberty, as approached in Liberalism, is solely vested in the promise of productivity; that a system guided by liberty is best suited to satisfy economic demand. Never to be misunderstood, Mises rightly addresses and explains the exclusively economic manner in which he champions liberty: “Liberalism is a doctrine directed entirely towards the conduct of men in this world ... it does not concern itself directly with their inner, spiritual and metaphysical needs.”

He further explains:

The liberal will not oppose [moral arguments for or against liberty] in any way because his reasoning in favor of freedom for all, without distinction, is of an entirely different kind. We liberals do not assert that God or Nature meant all men to be free, because we are not instructed in the designs of God and of Nature, and we avoid, on principle, drawing God and Nature into a dispute over mundane questions. What we maintain is only that a system based on freedom for all workers warrants the greatest productivity of human labor and is therefore in the interest of all the inhabitants of the earth.

In other words, people should be free not because liberty is to be viewed as a morally superior idea, but because freedom allows human labor to realize its highest attainable productivity. From a scientific perspective, Mises’s reasoning is inescapable; the history of man bespeaks its authenticity. However, there exists a glaring philosophical deficiency in Mises’s argument which leaves it vulnerable to broad dismissal.

Mises’s Dilemma

Mises’s dilemma reveals itself in this: if a particular government— having no interest at all in the productivity of its workers—were to dispense with freedom, then Mises would be, in all ways, restricted from gainsaying that particular government. Or to illustrate further, if a particular government—whose central aim was not productivity, but, say, conquest or material equality—were to adopt an oppressive and interventionist system, what substantive objection to it could Mises possess?

Might he repeat himself? Might Mises again offer that liberty provides better for productivity?

“Why should I trouble myself with being productive,” the Tyrant might respond, “I care only to exercise total control over my subjects.”

Might Mises again offer that higher productivity is in the interest of all the inhabitants of the earth?

“Why should I care about the interests of others,” the Tyrant might reply, “My concern is only for myself.”

If one refuses to speak morally whatsoever of a particular action, then one is forced to discuss the action only in terms of the incidental effects which may arise as a result of the action’s implementation, and which the action’s architect may dismiss as insignificant in consideration of his principal goal.

It would seem the case that many collectivist administrations have pursued redistributive agendas in spite of productivity and, historically, to its detriment, however because his reasoning in favor of liberty for all is not of a moral, but strictly of an economic kind, Mises cannot oppose such a socialistic government other than to decry its inefficiency. By Mises's standard, the degree to which the overseer succeeds in his productive efforts is the only explanation required to legitimize his command over the slave.

Without a moral justification, Mises’s defense of liberty — once the aim of productivity has been abandoned — is forced to affirm with cold indifference that a society of slaves is no better or worse than one of free men.

Who has the truth of it then, Mises or the Tyrant? Confusingly, under Mises’s worldview, both he and the Tyrant are equally correct.

Mises’s Ethical Relativism

Ludwig von Mises was an ethical relativist; that is, he believed that all statements of value were reflective of the individuals to whom they belonged, and that, because of this reality, no absolute truth could be derived from such statements. When the ethical relativist speaks of particular actions having value, what he is really saying is that he subjectively values particular actions; he does not confer any degree of worth upon the actions in question. In his Theory and History, Mises asserts:

All judgments of value are personal and subjective. There are no judgments of value other than those asserting I prefer, I like better, I wish… In view of this fact it is useless to talk about absolute and eternal values.

In other words, Mises believes that value judgments are no more than individual-specific preferences of taste; the moral equivalent of being partial to the color red instead of the color blue.

So then, it is Mises’s belief that the Classical Liberal—in his espousal and promotion of competition, private property, and non-aggression—is not necessarily advocating that these values and actions are objectively good or that society rightly ought to embrace these options, instead he is claiming only that he favors these things and that they are independently no better or worse than restraint, public-ownership, and unprovoked violence.

Mises’s subjectivism restricts him from asserting that any moral action is good or right because such a commentary is a judgment of value and, as far as Mises’s relativism is concerned, such judgments are merely matters of fancy; they do not express anything of substance, merely the preference of the commentator.

Eminent philosopher, Dr. William Lane Craig, aptly explains the troubling situation faced by the relativist:

In a world [of subjective morality]… it is impossible to condemn war, oppression, or crime as evil. Nor can one praise brotherhood, equality, and love as good. For [in such a world] good and evil do not exist—there is only the bare valueless fact of existence, and there is no one to say you are right and I am wrong.

If one refuses to assert that a particular action is objectively evil or wrong, then one must assert only that the action is different from, or contrary to, the way in which he might choose to behave.

But who could happily maintain such a position?

Who could look back upon history and indifferently say of the Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, or the institution of American slavery, “There is no right or wrong. Some individuals choose to conduct themselves in one manner, while other individuals choose to conduct themselves in quite a different manner. It is useless to talk about absolute and eternal values.”

It indeed seems that some things are wrong independent of the opinions of disparate individuals.

Rothbard’s Ethical Absolutism

The ethical absolutist acknowledges that liberty is, and by necessity must be, an ideal of value, and that it possesses a distinct worth apart from its attachment to material aims. He acknowledges that liberty is good, universally good, and that the implementation of a liberty-based political and social system is universally right. He acknowledges also that he ought to attempt to reason with and persuade others, by means both philosophical and scientific, to recognize this reality.

Murray Rothbard, the prominent economist and theorist, recognized the necessity of absolutism and, though he strongly agreed with Mises on a great number of issues, he took profound exception to Mises’s ethical relativism. Rothbard offered that, “Mises’s utilitarian, relativist approach to ethics... must be supplemented by an absolutist ethics—an ethics of liberty... grounded on natural law.”

Rothbard continued:

I think it can be demonstrated that … [some actions are] contrary to the nature of man …. Yet Mises would insist on adding “from my personal point of view.” It is not just my or your subjective “point of view” that decrees this; it is our objective, absolute insight into the discoverable nature of man.

Proponents of objective morality — theists and non-theists, alike — will oftentimes appeal to their intuition of a moral order in an effort to explain, defend, or justify their belief in absolutes. But is it possible to have an immediate, direct awareness of something that cannot be experimentally examined?

Dr. Craig suggests that if one were to reject as untrue the realm of absolute morality, then one would be obligated to likewise reject as untrue the realm of physical objects:

Reality is characterized by an objective moral order, which is as real and independent of our recognition of it as the natural order of things is …. On the same ground that we assume the reality of the world of objects [through our sensory experience], we assume the reality of the moral order of objective value [through our moral experience].

Further, Dr. Craig elsewhere argues, with philosopher Dr. J.P. Moreland, that we are justified in accepting the truth of beliefs so discovered. “It [is] difficult to see what could be said more strongly for a view than that [in the absence of overriding counterarguments] it square[s] with one’s basic, reflective intuitions.”

But if the ethical absolutist worldview is more plausible than the relativist worldview—if their does exist a detectable realm of objective moral values—what is the cause of this realm and who is the author of these values? If, as Rothbard claimed, the nature of man is discoverable, where or to whom are we to look that this nature may be found?

Moral Values and the Idea of God

Is it possible that there exists a realm of absolute morality that can be scientifically or naturalistically explained?

Most plausibly not. Morality cannot be approached scientifically and one would be hard-pressed to demonstrate that objectivity might derive from biological evolution; a process subject to a degree of capriciousness so considerable that a moral system could hardly be thought of as absolute that developed by means of its randomly selective nature.

It must now be communicated that if one accepts the notion that some actions are independently and universally better or worse than some others, then it seems that one should also accept the existence of an objective Anchor against which this value can be measured. Simply put: if there exists a moral law, then there must exist a Moral Law Giver (This is a variation of the Moral Argument for the Existence of God, which is formulated as follows: (1) If God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist; (2) Objective moral values and duties do exist; (3) Therefore God exists).

To help explain the origin and existence of moral laws, Dr. Craig defers to Cambridge University professor William Sorely’s 1918 lecture, Moral Values and the Idea of God. “The moral order is the order of an infinite, eternal Mind who is the architect of nature and whose moral purpose man and the universe are slowly fulfilling,”

Since God is the foundation for objective moral values, any consistent argument for liberty must be within the framework of a larger argument for His existence. To dismiss this notion is to bar God from liberty, a domain to which He is so principal, and to attach no fundamental value at all to something that has proven itself the most central and meaningful idea in man’s history.


Mises’s refusal to include in his monumental treatise a moral justification for freedom limits Liberalism to being only a partial — though — important contribution to the science. Consistency necessitates that preference be given to the grand and exceedingly comprehensive contributions of absolutist liberals, such as Rothbard and Bastiat, who describe a liberalism which, if effectively argued and combined with the technical science of Mises, would doubtless possess the mettle to satisfy all objections to its primacy. “I have faith in the wisdom of the laws of Providence,” Bastiat proclaimed, “and for the same reason I have faith in liberty.”


Bastiat, Frederic. The Bastiat Collection. Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute,
2007. 11–13.

Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Illinois:
Crossway Books, 1994. 60–68.

Craig, William Lane and Moreland, J.P. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian
Worldview. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2003. 490–96.

Mises, Ludwig von. Liberalism: The Classical Tradition. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 2005. 4–22.

———. Theory and History: An Interpretation of Social and Economic Evolution. Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2007. 19–25.

Rothbard, Murray. Murray N. Rothbard vs. the Philosophers: Unpublished Writings on Hayek, Mises, Strauss, and Polanyi. Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2009. 107–12.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Ugly Side of Social Justice

Originally published at American Thinker on May 16, 2010.

Behind the social justice banner lurks an ugly choice.

Nineteenth-century French thinker Frédéric Bastiat's summation of free will is quite succinct: "Society has for its element man, who is a free agent; and since man is free, he may choose -- since he may choose, he may be mistaken -- since he may be mistaken, he may suffer."

A basic understanding of free will elicits a particular truth about God's ordained relationship with man: that He wishes for us to obey Him, but for us to obey Him freely.

Can a comprehension of free will -- of our relationship with God -- give us clues as to how He would have us relate to each other? Can it give us clues as to how He would have our institutions relate to each of us individually?

If it is agreed, for instance, that charity is a desirable human action, should charity therefore be a forced action? And if charity becomes a forced action -- if governments, rather than citizens, mandate its application -- does it cease to be charity? Is it reduced to mere obedience?

This is the essence of the debate over social justice.

The faith-inspired proponents of social justice seek not only to assist the poverty-stricken, but also to altogether dissolve the conditions that allow for poverty. These noble ends, though they may appear universally appreciated, have drawn vehement opposition due to the coercive means through which they are to be obtained.

On his website, Reverend Jim Wallis -- ringleader of the leftist anti-poverty group "Sojourners" -- has outlined the mission of his organization: "... to articulate the biblical call to social justice." Further perusal of the site elicits how this "biblical call" is to be answered:

By means of a government-directed redistributive effort.

By spreading the wealth through taxation.

By force.

To this end, the "Sojourners" site stipulates that "[t]here is a biblical role for the state," and "social justice requires economic support from government."

It is this governmental role that has the critics of social justice reeling. One such critic is conservative Fox News host and liberal media lightning rod Glenn Beck. Beck has been attacked for his opposition to social justice, most vocally by Reverend Jim Wallis, and the clash between the two has been much-publicized.

Although Beck has been adamant in expressing that his objections are concerned solely with how -- not whether -- the needy should be assisted, Wallis nonetheless seems content in portraying him as antagonistic to the plight of the poor. And because of this unfair portrayal, Beck has been painted in the media as a monster for simply emphasizing his belief that it is better for individuals to donate their assistance to the downtrodden by choice rather than by dictate.

During a March 12 interview on MSNBC's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann," after repeatedly mischaracterizing the subject at the core of Glenn Beck's criticism, the Reverend offered Beck a challenge: "Let's go back through the bible, verse by verse, and look at what in fact God says about justice."

Here, Wallis uses the term justice as if it were synonymous with coercion. This is no mistake. However, if such a verse-by-verse challenge were ever to take place, the results would likely have the Reverend quite dismayed, because such a detailed biblical review -- once the subject of the debate had been adequately defined -- would place the onus on Wallis to demonstrate where the Good Book calls for a governmental role in charity.

Its often the case that liberal Christians, like the "Sojourners" and others, will operate under the misconception that government is the subject of the Gospel's appeal to charitable action. Christian apologist Greg Koukl, in articulating this error, aptly describes the fallacy upon which it is based:

A significant mistake ... is to take the commands that Jesus has given ... applying to the church; the followers of Christ; the believers ... and then apply that principle to government. Government cannot be loving because an organization -- a government -- cannot love.

Such mischaracterizations of biblical verse are representative of the way in which the advocates of social justice would prefer the debate be carried out: based on subjective interpretation. Passages like Luke 4:18 are perverted and said to express God's desire for man to strong-arm his brothers into donation. And for every 2 Corinthians 9:7 that the conservative claims for his side, the liberal will find countless other verses to misconstrue.

The subscribers of social justice -- socialists using the guise of Christianity to promote their unpopular view -- offer their deliberately twisted interpretation of the Gospel as a means of having the public at large conform to their notions of proactive and coercive government redistribution.

These constant manipulations should prompt conservative Christians, and indeed all opponents of redistribution, into redirecting the debate away from the analysis of biblical verse and toward that which is objectively evident in the truth of our existence -- the nature of free will.

Our experience shows us that we are not forced to love God, or to obey Him, or even to acknowledge His existence. He has left those decisions to us.

But which philosophy should we adopt based on this reality: Conservatism or Progressivism?

Freedom or obedience?

Bastiat acknowledged that he found this choice to be quite simple when he declared, "I have faith in the wisdom of the laws of Providence, and for the same reason I have faith in liberty."

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Equal treatment vs. equal results.

Originally published at American Thinker on April 27, 2010.

There has been, for some time in this country, a polarizing political discussion. The debate has hinged on people's idea of the term "fairness" and how this idea is to be applied. The result of the exchange has been the widening ideological gap between conservatives, who believe that fairness is best ensured by obedience to the rule of law, and liberals, who quite adamantly attest that fairness can best be realized through the satisfaction of individual wants as a consequence of a government redistribution of property.

Equal treatment vs. equal results.

And though the discourse has remained constant throughout the twentieth-century, it has not, as a result of its long duration, lost any of its heated contention.

As recently as the end of March, this year, Vice-President Joe Biden (God bless his soul) revealed, during an interview with Yahoo Finance, the philosophy into which his conviction was vested: "I don't call it [a redistribution of income]... I call it just being fair."

It is true, economically speaking, that people are not born into equal circumstances. And it is also true that life is not fair; what one strives diligently to obtain can be tragically lost. However, in a society where citizens are guaranteed equality before the law, those financially less fortunate or those who may be upon hard times can find solace in the fact that there would be, in the very foundation of their system of laws, no favoritism among the people; no privileged classes. In such a society, the rule of law would lay firm and every attempt made by any citizen to improve his condition would not be hindered by either individuals or the government, but instead fostered by the protection of an objective legal arrangement.

On the other hand, if by choice or dictate, a people were to enter into a system which navigates its laws not on the warrant of objectivity, but on the basis of the achievements or property of some as compared to those of others, then fairness and equality as they are typically understood would be, in all ways, lost.

F.A. Hayek, in "The Road to Serfdom," (1) masterfully explains that, in an economic and political system where equality is arrived at through the procurement of results, the rule of law cannot exist:
Formal equality before the law is in conflict, and in fact incompatible, with any activity of the government deliberately aiming at material or substantive equality of different people and... any policy aiming directly at a substantive ideal of distributive justice must lead to the destruction of the rule of law.

Because the government would be required to regard supposedly equal individuals or entire classes of citizens in a different manner than it regards others, the law would have to be applied inconsistently.

What the agents of the liberal philosophy do not understand, or perhaps what they understand so well, is that equality of results, as a necessary condition of its existence, forbids the equality of treatment. And by promising to distribute to the people fairness, the liberals would have instead delivered its counter and, in so doing, they would have crippled any chance that the ordinary man ever had to foresee the actions of his government that would keep him ordinary forever.

1. Hayek, F.A. The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents--The Definitive Edition. Routledge, London: The University of Chicago Press. 2007 (Originally published - 1944). Page 117.

American Thinker: Obama's Tea Party Straw Man

Originally published at American Thinker on April 27, 2010.

Why does it seem that the public is being told that the only demand the Tea Party activists have is that their taxes be lowered? Though the activists would doubtless welcome such an outcome, it is by no means the sole impetus of their objections. In fact, the demand is explicitly absent from their "Contract from America."

The contract -- a written expression of the will of those like-minded Americans who would sign it -- serves to convey to U.S. public officials a consensus outcry for a policy agenda of individual liberty, limited government, and economic freedom.

Interestingly, only two of the ten recommendations from the Tea Party's contract involve the topic of taxation, and contrary to what the public has been presented from both the White House and the news media, each of these recommendations is devoid of any mention of protest in response to cripplingly high taxes. The movement's members request, and the contract stipulates, that the U.S. government ought to:  

Adopt a simple and fair single-rate tax system by scrapping the internal revenue code and ... permanently repeal all tax hikes, including those to the income, capital gains, and death taxes, currently scheduled to begin in 2011.

It should be evident from this declaration that rather than concerning itself with tax rates, the Tea Party pines for the upheaval of the current tax code. The distinction is an important one, and the fact that it has not been recognized by the administration is seriously troubling.

This mischaracterization of the Tea Party's view reigns broadly. We hear it, most conspicuously, from President Obama:

In all, we passed 25 different tax cuts last year. And one thing we haven't done is raise income taxes on families making less than $250,000 a year ... so I've been a little amused over the last couple of days where people have been having these rallies about taxes. You would think they would be saying thank you.

The same straw man argument was presented last week by intellectual powerhouse Bill Maher. On his absurd cable television show (just before -- in absolute defiance of history -- he accused all staunch conservatives of being Ku Klux Klan members), Maher offered that the Tea Party people "were venting their anger, their rage, at taxes. Which of course, in most cases, for them went down."

But if a brief look at the Tea Party contract could aptly elicit the truth of the matter -- that tax rates are so obviously not the issue -- then why the misunderstanding?

The answer is that there is no misunderstanding; we are witnessing a deliberate misclassification. The administration and the media are, at all times, intentionally misrepresenting the goals of their opponents.

Is it not reasonable to accept the sorry conclusion that those who pursue tangents rather than facts perhaps have as their aim diversion rather than solutions?

And if it is agreed that this administration's most vocal and sincere conservative opposition is purposefully misidentified (though their goals have been expressly documented), then the question inescapably arises:

To what end?

It indeed seems the case that without first attempting to correctly identify a problem, the chances of encountering a solution grow increasingly slim. And because it seems to me impossible that such an uncomplicated concept could slip so effortlessly over the heads of our nation's leaders and opinion-makers, I believe that there is something much more sinister at work

The public is being misinformed plainly because the Obama administration wishes to redirect the public away from a recognition and understanding of a political philosophy that desires to implement a redistributive social system.

In its call for individual liberty and economic freedom, the Tea Party expresses an understanding that the redistribution of wealth presently desired by Washington, the media, and liberals at large would be best guaranteed by the continuation of the current tax code -- a tax code perceived by its critics as perpetuating a gross injustice by utilizing the coercive income tax to negotiate the satisfaction of ends to which those fleeced have not consented.

Ought an injustice be permitted to endure so long as some class or constituency benefit from its presence? Signers of the contract, liberty-oriented people from across the growingly constrained nation, all rightly reason, "No!"

There is a danger in the Obama White House honestly appraising the Tea Party's criticisms: It may bring illumination to the consequences of their policies. And because, as poll after poll suggest, an enlightened citizenry would reject absolutely the continuation of said policies, such honesty would be politically suicidal.

Where the Tea Party openly provides its recommendations and cites its complaints, the Obama White House and its allies in the media take quite a separate approach. It is difficult to tell behind which goal they place the stronger thrust of their efforts: concealing their own agenda or wrongfully portraying the intentions of their critics.

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama sold a bill of goods (to those interested in his product): the possibility that this nation might finally be presented with the opportunity to rip through the ever-present and seemingly insurmountable partisan divide to achieve the Holy Grail of political discourse more commonly known as the civil debate of issues. However, now it is evident that he is actively pursuing an attitude of the very dissension which it was his stated goal to diminish.

Candidate Obama once said, "Let's debate our genuine differences on the issues that matter."

Hear, hear, Mr. President!

Hear, hear.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Walrus and Mr. Clinton

Originally published at American Thinker on April 20, 2010.

There is a special type of idiocy that finds its hiding right out in the open. It's the smartest type of idiocy in existence. For the most part, it's not even recognized for what it is due to its being smuggled into ire-filled diatribes; blasted over by booming sentiments of passion and accepted as intelligent on the basis of its author's authoritative and spirited style. This breed of idiocy is particularly dangerous because its often demonstrated by those we are apt to trust; the news media, for instance, or former presidents. My first recent witness to such an account occurred two weeks ago while watching MSNBC.

I'm sure by this time we are all familiar with Chris Matthews' Walrus comment, but I'd like to briefly recite the statement in an effort to offer a more telling examination and as a favor to those who were so much drawn into his caustic rant that they may have missed the smart idiocy of it all. Matthews, as if in the throes of a fiery sermon, offered to a guest:
I`ve never seen language like this in the American press, referring to an elected representative government, elected in a totally fair, democratic, American election... And this guy, this walrus underwater, makes fun of this administration, calling it a "regime."

Okay. Lots to look at here.

Forget for a moment that it has been shown that language like this has previously been used in the American press (including - oh, jeez! - by Matthews himself). Forget for a moment that, negative connotation aside, the term "regime" is synonymous with the term "administration." And please pay no attention to the idea that Mr. Matthews believes that authority, democratically originated, is sole evidence of its absolute legitimacy.

Wait... What was that last part?

The focus of most all of the surrounding popular criticism has been sadly donated to Matthews' hypocrisy and to the shock value of his Limbaugh-directed ad hominem, where it should have been on Matthews' totally flawed notion of tyranny. My good friends! Ask yourselves, "Which is more important for the security of the freedom of a people: that they fairly elect their leaders or that their fairly elected leaders follow a set of rules that determine the borders of their governance?"

Matthews is not alone in his confusion; his sentiments were echoed on Friday by Former President Bill Clinton; a Rhodes Scholar. Clinton claims that the current tea parties are somehow less genuine than the Boston original because the colonials were protesting taxation without representation and the current dissidents are rallying in opposition to taxation from elected officials who must account for their actions at the end of their terms.

Here, Mr. Clinton partially mistakes both the subject of the tea party movement's opposition and the mechanism by which power becomes arbitrary. Is taxation the important mutual concern between eighteenth and twenty-first century tea party attendants?

Or is the issue representation?

If the consent of the governed is shed - even if for a potentially short period - or ideas are made law through means of some unenumerated or irresolute charter, does it make a difference somehow if a leader is appointed courtesy of a democratic election or if his authority is qualified by the divine right of kings?

As Americans, we should take great pride in our democratic procedure, however infinitely more gratification should be derived from the presence of our constitution and our obedience to it. After all, what achievement is it if a people freely select who is to run them and not how they are to be run? And what great glory can a nation claim if the architects of its cultural and political society are permitted to pervert its greatest victory by misclassifying its greatest threat?

A threat which is continually misapprehended by the agents of the public should not be doubted to be among the public's most dangerous.