Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Assault of Thoughts - 5/31/2011

"Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking" - JMK

- A discussion of "the eclipse of pragmatism", downplaying the idea that it ever happened. The authors don't sound especially pro-Rorty.

- Jonathan shares an interesting passage from Menger on property, but then provides an odd little claim: "I think that this is a strong case against arguments that private property is itself a coercive institution, which is something economists such as Gene Callahan have presented in the past." Of course, this is a sentiment you've heard on Facts and Other Stubborn Things too. In neither Gene's case nor my case will you ever find a hostility to property - simply an acknowledgement that this marvelously functional system or private property that we have is necessarily coercively maintained, like any social arrangement, so that pretentious ethical systems grounded on contrary assumptions are dead in the water. Anyway, what baffles me is why Jonathan thinks Menger's point is a "strong case" against this argument. I have no idea how to reconstruct his train of thought on this, and he doesn't provide the arguments so perhaps I'll leave that to him in future posts. Well, he does write this: "The institution of property isn’t coercive, it’s inevitable, because it’s the only method of solving conflict over scarce goods", but I assume that's not the full argument. Why would the inevitability of something imply it's not coercive, after all? Why can't coercive institution solve conflicts and problems? They seem to have been doing just that for quite a while now.

- LK on Kirzner on ABCT.

- I saw Tyler Cowen on Clarendon Boulevard yesterday. I should have said hi, but I didn't. First it might have been weird and second I was with other people who wouldn't have known him. Plus he's already been featured in Businessweek and I wouldn't want the fact that random people recognize him to go to his head :)

- Some people are aware I haven't exactly been impressed with much of the criticisms raised by Casey Mulligan over the last couple years. Peter Boettke is. Thankfully, a lot of his commenters (including those who often agree with him) agree with me. Boettke is usually one of my favorite Austrian economists, but lately there's been a lot of unfortunate stuff coming from Coordination Problem!


  1. I loved that LK post about Kirzner when I read early in the morning.

    It's like a punch in the tummy for those people that LK likes to call "internet pop Austrians".

    I am starting to believe that LK himself may be, in SOME respects, far more Austrian than the self-proclaimed Austrians who comment on internet message boards. He is at least nearly as well learned in Austrian economics as JMF Catalan.

  2. "...simply an acknowledgement that this marvelously functional system or private property that we have is necessarily coercively maintained..."

    Because adding the word "necessarily" makes the claim absolutely absurd. If two people voluntarily agree to respect each other's property then it's not coercive. It's only coercive when you force somebody else through the use of force to recognize your property (i.e. defending your property).

  3. Yes, I would agree your completely irrelevant and unrealistic hypothetical is uncoercive.

  4. That was very interesting entry by LK. I've known about Kirzner for some time, but outside of Mises and Rothbard, you never hear him mentioned by Austrians on the internet despite the work hes' done.

  5. Why would the inevitability of something imply it's not coercive, after all?

    Because inevitability erases any concept of good or bad, right or wrong. Things that necessarily must exist are outside the realm of good and bad. To use Leibniz' unfortunate phrase, only those "contingent" things and events can be described such.

    If I asked your opinion on death, would you say death is good or death is bad? Would you attest the fact that we all must consume energy to overcome entropy as a good or bad thing? Some might say good, others bad. But ultimately (death and eating) are absolutely necessary and so cannot be thought in terms of good or bad.

    Jonathan is saying that in any social arrangement - there will be property. There will be some people deciding how to control resources for certain ends. The institution of property (a poor phrase as well) is inevitable in any social arrangement. This places it outside the good/bad, moral/immoral, right/wrong dichotomy because morality is intrinsically connected to free will. Where there is universal determinism and inevitability, concepts of right and wrong do not exist.

  6. I am starting to believe that LK himself may be, in SOME respects, far more Austrian than the self-proclaimed Austrians who comment on internet message boards. He is at least nearly as well learned in Austrian economics as JMF Catalan.

    I'm not. He found an interview on Kirzner who said some interesting things (things that a lot of professional Austrians agree with!) on capital structure and Hayek. Cool.

    I actually agree with a lot of what Kirzner said, but I don't agree with LK's response. His gratuitous use of quotation marks aside, he's trying to show Kirzner arguing something that he's not.

    Look - we all know Mises borrowed from Wicksell, we know he borrowed from Say, we know he borrowed from Hutt, etc. Are these guys specifically Austrian? Of course not. Mises attributes a large part of his 1912 work to Wicksell's theory on the natural rate of interest. But that concession (that Mises didn't "think it all up himself") doesn't lead to:

    (1) Kirzner never felt “that the Hayekian business cycle theory was essentially Austrian.”

    Hayek's contribution to ABCT were Hayekian. Only if you equate Austrianism with Mises, Bohm Bawerk and Menger do you get a ridiculous claim like (1). Hayek differs from Mises in parts of theory, of course. Hayek is not a practitioner of praxeology, he has a Walrasian equilibrium background, and he was taught by von Wieser. He is certainly going to have slightly different understandings of complex phenomena! I would need to go back to Mises 1912 work (which I havent read in a long time) to see exactly where they differed, but reading Prices and Production made it clear to me that we aren't dealing with a homogeneous Austrian movement, but different thinkers.

    That doesn't mean that Hayek's work on ABCT isn't Austrian.

    (2) Hayek’s version of ABCT contains “aspects” that are “non-Austrian.”

    Duh. The Currency School and Wicksell, not to mention Say, can claim some credit for spreading these early ideas. But so can the Salamanca school in Spain take some of the credit. These are all "Austrian" because it wasn't until Menger, BB, and Mises formulated them into a cohesive, coherent whole that they made sense. LK is adopting a definition of Austrian that is way too rigid. Misesian =/= Austrian.

    (3) Austrians do not even need to adhere to ABCT, as it is not some fundamental idea of Austrian economics.

    Well it actually is fundamental to Austrian economics (the theory that credit expansion leads to business cycles). What Austrians don't need to adhere to is that EVERY downturn (a third poor word) is attributable to ABCT. I certainly don't.

    (4) Hayek’s development of ABCT was not “quite consistent with the way Mises laid it out in 1912.”

    This is what happens when you have different people working on it.

    (5) Kirzner did not even think that all recessions could be explained by ABCT.

    LK seems to be using the words recession and downturn interchangeably. ABCT predicts that credit expansion causes business cycles. A recession is a phase of a business cycle. All recessions are downturns, but not all downturns are recessions. ABCT is very specific about the conditions for its successful prediction.

    Prateek, this is why I disagree with you. These points he's making are pedantic, and really without substance. He has a certain base knowledge of Austrian economics (as do you and Daniel) but he takes Kirzner's comments to strong unjustified conclusions.

  7. Catalan,

    Apparently telling someone that they may not steal from you is "coercion."

    Anyway, whether one wants to engage in this sort of foolish logomachy that Daniel appears to want to engage in, making some claim about property rights being coercion doesn't really solve the issue that is presumably at hand - is the individual sovereign or not? Indeed, all trying to link the notion to of coercion to property rights does is merely move the locus of debate - in much the same way that say religionists/theists argue that there must be some cause which caused the natural world (first cause or prime mover argument) - but that doesn't explain what caused such a creature as God, it merely leads to another question. It is turtles all the way down - in other words - with that way of thinking.

  8. Gary -
    How exactly can you define "steal" without first identifying property rights? That setnence doesn't even make sense as an explanation of what I'm saying - just like before where you bizarrely came to the conclusion that mentioning Rand Paul was logically equivalent to accusing him of racism.

    Isn't sound logic considered something of a pre-requisite for lawyers?

  9. "Yes, I would agree your completely irrelevant and unrealistic hypothetical is uncoercive."

    Um, what makes it "completely irrelevant" and "unrealistic hypothetical"? Are you saying people have never agreed to property rights non-violently. Another absurd statement to make on top of the ones that have already been made.

  10. Octahedron,

    "That was very interesting entry by LK. I've known about Kirzner for some time, but outside of Mises and Rothbard, you never hear him mentioned by Austrians on the internet despite the work hes' done. "

    I don't think this is true. He may not be mentioned a lot over at Mises.org, but he is fairly popular amongst the GMU crowd.

  11. No, Jonathan. Clearly this can happen. What I was pretty clearly saying is that this is completely irrelevant to the private property as it exists. Certainly two people, in a vaccuum, could make this sort of agreement. Do you really think this has anything to do with actual property rights?

  12. I was thinking the same thing on Kirzner - if you follow the Coordination Problem blog he comes up there a lot.

    I think Kirzner is good, probably for some of the same reasons that LK is sympathetic to him. But he (and those who like him) can very easily fall into that trap of assuming "mainstream economics" is ridiculously dense. So you have claims like mainstream economics can't handle entrepreneurial discovery, which is obviously silly. Kirzner emphasizes and theorizes the entrepreneur in far more detail than a lot of mainstream economists, but he has no warrant to make some of the claims that he does about them or the limitations of their analysis.

    It's the same as "radical subjectivity" with the Austrians or uncertainty with the Post Keynesians - they often establish themselves by misrepresenting and dumbing down others.

  13. A prominent Kirzner critique for those who are interested: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1542177

  14. Daniel,

    I am not a lawyer and never have been one.

    (a) You didn't just mention Rand Paul.

    (b) So, in simply identifying property rights, are we exercising coercion? Coercion should probably mean something more than that. The point is that your definition is far too loose in its construction than I think is proper. I think it just gets swallowed up by noise at some point.

  15. Let's for the sake of argument accept that the classical liberal notion of property rights are based on coercion. My thought in response is "So what?"

    I'm not going to wake up in night sweats a result of nightmares based on such a thought. Why? Because the "coercion" which you're talking about (if it exists) is an eighth order problem in comparison to what I really worry about.

  16. I should hope you wouldn't wake up in night sweats. Have I ever suggested you ought to?

    Here's the thing, Gary - certain people walk around with a political philosophy that holds status quo property rights as inviolate on the basis of their non-coercive character. That's the problem. I've said before that I am fine with this sort of coercion. I understand that life is coercive - it's always been coercive and it always will be coercive. So I'm not suggesting that we be afraid of the coercive character of property rights. I'm saying that we should not build up a political philosophy that rules other collective action by free men and women out by defining away the possibility of those actions with a mistaken assumption that we can free ourselves from coercion simply by adhering to a laissez faire embrace of property rights. I have always said that instead of getting tangled up in that doomed project we ought to look for a way to minimize coercion. I would rather to that and countenance other prospects for collective action than tilt at windmills with libertarians making poor assumptions about property rights.

  17. Just like free will, whether they are coercive or not, it is best to treat them like they are not coercive (or like free will exists). I define away those actions because even though it might seem that in a competitive system some people get shafted, the alternatives are far, far worse.

  18. To reiterate, Gary - if you want to ignore the coercion associated with private property as being inconsequential that is fine with me. Notice I generally act as if it is inconsequential as well.

    So why do I point out that - technically - it's still there?

    I point that out because too many people - including you - peddle a bad political philosophy that is contingent on this special status for status quo property rights.

    Notice I don't go around bad-mouthing property rights or saying we should abolish private property. I am saying that we can't construct an absolutist political philosophy on a confusion about property rights.

  19. “Coercion should be carefully distinguished from the conditions or terms on which our fellow men are willing to render us specific services or benefits. It is only in very exceptional circumstances that the sole control of a service or resource which is essential to us would confer upon another the power of true coercion. Life in a society necessarily means that we are dependent for the satisfaction of most of our needs on the services of some of our fellows; in a free society these mutual services are voluntary, and each can determine to whom he wants to render services and on that terms. The benefits and opportunities which our fellows offer to will be available only if we satisfy their conditions.
    This is as true of social as of economic relations. If a hostess will invite me to her party’s only if I conform to certain standards of conduct and dress, or my neighbor converse with me only if I observe conventional manners, this is certainly not coercion. Nor can it be legitimately called “coercion” if a producer or dealer refuses to supply me with what I want except at his price.

    True coercion occurs when armed bands of conquerors make the subject people toil for them, when organized gangsters extort a levy for “protection”, when the knower of an evil secret blackmails his victim, and, of course, when the state threatens to inflict punishment and to employ physical force to make us obey its commands.

    Liberty can be so defined as to make it impossible of attainment. Similarly, coercion can be so defined as to make it an all-pervasive and unavoidable phenomenon. We cannot prevent all harm that a person may inflict upon another, or even all the milder forms of coercion to which life in close contact with other men exposes us; but this does not mean that we ought not to try to prevent all the more severe forms of coercion, or that we ought not to define liberty as the absence of such coercion.” Hayek - The constitution of liberty (Emphasis mine)

    As can be seen Hayek clearly sees no true coercion in private property rights, except in extreme monopolist cases (like his oasis example he gives with only one spring in which the owner has theoretically the power to be truly coercive). Nevertheless he defines Liberty as absence from coercion, although he is for quite limited government, and at the same time acknowledges that any act of government is by necessity truly coercive.

    Yet according to Hayeks definition of coercion anarchists can claim to propose a society free of coercion (except the oasis possibility). But your point was clearly not about such exceptions. At least I understand your argument that you define coercion as an “all-pervasive and unavoidable phenomenon”. You are free to do this, but neither does such a definition disprove anything nor does it add anything to the discussion.

    I am sorry if I am misunderstanding how you define coercion.

  20. ok emphasis not working here.. ;)

  21. Thanks Jon and Daniel,

    Yeah I was mostly referring to LVMI. I'll take a look at that paper in a few Daniel.

  22. Daniel,

    (a) I don't think it exists.

    (b) Even if it did, then I would not be troubled by it.

    The reason that I accord property rights a special status is simple - as Bastiat and many others have pointed out, from property rights flows freedom. Or to more directly quote someone:

    "Private property was the original source of freedom. It still is its main bulwark." - Walter Lippman

    Bad political philosophy or not, I stand by such sentiment, I can do no other.

  23. Sorry I forgot to add, that my long post above is directed at Daniel.

  24. status quo property rights.

    Daniel, what does this phrase mean?

  25. Mattheus,

    He means that libertarians think only a certain system of property rights is appropriate; that is both true and not true. It really depends on who is talking about; in relationship to the state, yes, a fairly rigid notion of property rights is what works (or what is moral depending on one's POV), whereas the arrangements which people make between themselves ought to be as flexible and open as possible. Which makes one ask, should the state get out of the property rights business?

  26. Property result of the fruits of the labor of the property owner. Recognition of property rights don't need any coercion, but a close to normal moral compass. Sure, it takes force to protect your property from the coercion of others who want to steal it from you. That doesn't mean that property rights are inherently coercive.

  27. mattheus -
    You know what "status quo" means, right? You know what "property rights" means?

    Gary -
    re: "Bad political philosophy or not, I stand by such sentiment, I can do no other."

    I stand by precisely that sentiment as well. I don't think that's our disagreement. Our disagreement is that you will rule out other actions of free men and I find that destructive of liberty. The source of that decision to rule out other actions of free men is an idolization of property rights that fails to recognize the coercion inherent in society.

    sandre -
    Right, the enforcement of existing property rights - contingent on those rights - isn't particularly coercive. It is really the initial claim that's coercive. Which is not to say that liberty doesn't flow from property rights (as Gary points out) or that property rights aren't an extremely functional system.

  28. It is really the initial claim that's coercive.

    What the heck are you talking about?

    Anyways, I wish there was some edit button for the comments!

  29. mattheus -
    You know what "status quo" means, right? You know what "property rights" means?

    Of course I do. I didn't come here to be ridiculed.

    I wanted you to explain precisely what you meant by that phrase because you use it so often, and I have a feeling you and I differ on this topic.

    Not to mention it's just weird. Status quo property rights? Like.. the property rights I have RIGHT NOW?

  30. Sorry you feel ridiculed, Mattheus. But it's pretty self-explanatory and it's been discussed a lot here before.

    Status quo property rights are property rights as they exist at a given point in time.

    You might find these discussions clarifying:



  31. Daniel,

    I rule them out for the simple reason that they generally squash the minority view, lifestyle, way of being, etc. and one cannot tell when they are not going to do that. Without that minority the majority never changes; that is, the day to day activities which are the laboratories of our lives are not allowed to take place so as to inform larger groups of people. Individual humans are the greatest resources. Freedom, individualism, experiments in living, etc. aren't, well, free; they come with costs associated with the unity of the community, or the common sense of purpose, etc.

  32. Mattheus,

    Whether one agrees with Daniel or not depends on a whole bunch of presuppositional queries that are easy to figure out once you think about them a bit.

  33. In a democracy the people are free to set the rules without the need of a centralized state -- i.e., anarchy. That's what anarchy is and somewhat how it existed prior to the formation of society. The reason that pre-civilization was so "violent" was because they hadn't perfected the art of democratic rights. Keep in mind the worst forms of torture were established after the formation of property rights -- occurring in medieval times, when the world followed centralized religions (which is what the cult of property would turn into) -- and we civilized when democracy was brought back.
    In anarcho-capitalism and free-market anarchism, you end up establishing absolute property and a bunch of laws like a "gold standard" FIRST - i.e., a centralized state and a bunch of rules have to exist prior to the formation of society. Rothbard even said that his form of anarchism was inconsistent with real anarchism:

    "Furthermore, we find that all of the current anarchists are irrational collectivists, and therefore at opposite poles from our position. We must therefore conclude that we are not anarchists, and that those who call us anarchists are not on firm etymological ground, and are being completely unhistorical."

    (Leaving aside the fact that his formation of rules prior to the establishment of society is far more "collectivist" than anything in history, his statement is accurate that they are not anarchists. REAL anarchists oppose all coercive hierarchy, all masters.)

  34. Their political/economic system is incompatible with human nature. Their concept of "finders' keepers" in regards to property is basically a form of slavery -- people could become slaves just because they have no property -- and, as I said, presupposes a system of ethics and property prior to community. I can't people favoring such a tyrannical system when our current system provides far more freedom of travel and of rights, and humanitarianism, than pure market tyranny.

    It's also incompatible with justice. Suppose I violate somebody's property rights and return to my community for protection. Or suppose a community falsely accuses me of theft and I refuse to show up to court. How would such disputes be resolved? Bullets go flying. We see this in Somalia and so on. Anarcho-capitalists think people are "blank slates" who will just accept whatever the "masters" give them. This is a flawed view of human nature. They also want a master/slave society by using the gold standard, deflation, monopolization of land and resources, and so on, to weaken the power of the lower classes and strengthen the property owners so as to create less resistance. In fact, every single time people have tried to establish a society based on "property principles" without any democratic oversight it has led to disasters: in the early American colonies where there were endless disputes over who owned the colonies (which were resolved by England granting charters or proprietorships), in cities where the police force collapsed which quickly led to chaotic anarchy, and in current Somalia. In contrast, the Israeli kibbutzim was the freest society that has ever existed. Or, on the reverse side, it simply leads to despotism or monarchism, which is preferred by Hoppe.

    "Anarcho-Capitalists" are really no different from ecofascists and other oddities you will find on the Internet, except even less moral. Their private property cult is ridiculous and you can see their "intellectuals" advocating all kinds of strange positions like IQ testing immigrants, AIDS denialism, deporting hippies and hedonists from the productive anarcho-capitalist communes (Hoppe), to the belief that the human race should be exterminated if the property owners feel that is justified (even though there is no to determine who is an "absolute" owner of the property in the first place). Hoppe has also advocated "kinship" and "clans" based cults over current democracy and has denigrated the modern, liberal Western values. This was also echoed by Block (who claims he invented his own system of mathematics), who has said the Christian medieval times were more peaceful. This is actually more revisionist history and easily refuted. Why did so many people leave England, for example? To escape the tyranny of the Old World, which was full of religious disputes, despotism, and so on due to lack of democratic rights. It (and Libertarianism in general) is a theory that is economically, historically, politically incoherent and refuted by massive scientific evidence about the way societies function.

    For the layperson, if anarcho-capitalism is so good how come anarcho-capitalists and the Mises cultists are all crazy? They're claiming now Hayek laid the foundations for modern psychology. I'd put Chomsky's contributions to cognitive science ahead of Hayek's (whatever they are) any day.


  35. Daniel can you elaborate on what you mean by the following:

    "the enforcement of existing property rights - contingent on those rights - isn't particularly coercive. It is really the initial claim that's coercive."

    To me it seems just the opposite. If a man makes a claim against me, I don't consider myself coerced. If his friend comes to my house with an axe ready to kill me if I don't honor the claim, I feel coerced.

  36. It's coercive because the property owner is telling other people they can't use the property and expecting everybody to agree with him.


  37. Anon/SB I don't think the definition of "coercive" goes that far. Maybe that's how Daniel uses the word, but I'm pretty sure coercion implies either the use of force (or threat thereof) or at least the use of actual authority to compel another.

  38. Kevin - that's a good point. Really the point is that defending a claim isn't an aggressive coercion (contingent on the establishment of the claim). It is a justified coercion - self-defense, essentially.

    My point has been that the initial property claim is an aggressive coercion - an appropriation of an external object based on the threat of violence. It's an aggressive coercion that isn't particularly problematic or dysfunctional, but it's an aggressive coercion nonetheless and certainly not an obvious standard for a coercion-minimizing ethic.

  39. Status quo property rights are property rights as they exist at a given point in time.

    Okay, now we're getting somewhere.

    My opinion of the matter is that most libertarians - at least the ones who advocate a full private property society - do not advocate for status quo property rights (I sure don't!).

    Property rights, as deduced from irrefutable axioms, is different than "property rights as they exist at a given point in time."

  40. It's coercive because the property owner is telling other people they can't use the property and expecting everybody to agree with him.

    Okay, maybe. But that's not the libertarian definition of coercion (a better word - force). Is it forceful to exclude others from your property? Probably. But excluding others is not an initiation of force. And that's the only relevant moral criterion.

    Saying that protecting myself against a rapist is "coercion" might fit your strange lexicon, but it doesn't present any problems for libertarians.

  41. You certainly seem to defend currently existing property rights against intervention by defending property rights generally, but perhaps I have confused your position and the position of libertarians.

  42. How is protecting yourself not coercion?

    Isn't coercion just using some leverage, threat, or force to make someone do something involuntarily.

    If they voluntarily would want to rape, and you forced them not to how is that not coercion?

  43. Daniel,

    That is not remotely how the term is used in the legal field, philosophy, etc. For sort of obvious reasons.

    Your argument at base is this: you don't agree with the way I've framed or defined the scope of the term coercion, thus you are wrong.

    Anyway, next time you hear about someone who was almost raped but fended off his/her attacker, go talk to him/her and ask them about their "coercive" actions.

    That's about as far as I want to follow you down this Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole you are plunging into.


All anonymous comments will be deleted. Consistent pseudonyms are fine.