May 15, 2008
Justin Raimando’s response to my criticism of Andrew Sullivan revealed a major source of friction between Burkean conservatives and libertarians. He brought up the point that statistics were dangerous and baleful, not least because they’re usually collected by government do-gooders seeking to re-engineers our society. I certainly have little use for the latter. But is Rothbard’s original criticism of statistics and empirical analysis in general a sound one? I don’t think so.
For starter’s, Rothbard’s point seems quaint and outdated. Ordinary people use government statistics—from the EPA or the Census, for example—in deciding where to locate businesses or homes. That is, private people making decisions affecting their private lives want to know the things that are told by statistics. This is not to say that it’s worth the expense or that the government should generally collect these data, but I hope we can concede that taking a census is constitutional. Incidentally, many of the statistics collected today are not collected by the government but by researchers at private universities, marketing gurus, pollsters, scientists, and the like. Much of the IQ data we have is not from government sources but from groups like the college board. Incidentally, the data showing various racial differences in everything from crime to IQ to participation in the welfare state are well documented.
Second, Rothbard’s point seems to reveal a real methodological flaw in Austrian Economics. I think on a policy basis much of Austrian Economics is true. I believe in a gold standard, oppose price controls, recognize the impossibility of most economic planning, and the like. Yet, even though I think Austrianism reaches the right conclusions often enough, it does so in spite of its deductive methodology. Since human groups differ wildly in their behaviors, such philosophical opposition to empirics leads to mistakes and facile explanations for inconvenient facts, such as dynamic economic regimes characterized by industrial policies and limitations on free trade. There success would be even more without the trade barriers we’re told, but without observations and empirical tools by what tool can we test these very certain explanations.
On economics, the use of sound, common sense axioms about aggregate human behavior often stands up to empirical analysis—i.e., regression analysis. Yet real economic systems are often complicated, and it’s difficult to isolate this or that variable in the form of policy to identify a particular success or failure. Sometimes the unexpected happens. It’s important to test theories and make economic theory (like any tool of analyzing aggregate human behavior) one that is grounded in reality and as predictive as possible. Rothbard himself did this in what I believe is some of his best work, the study of the panics of the 19t Century. The idea of deductively reasoning a moral philosophy and a practical matter like economics is frankly ridiculous. Human action is complicated, subject to multiple motivations, made confusing and unpredictable by various inherited heuristics, and not entirely rational and self-interested. Austrian economics and moral philosophy does acknowledge this in part—through the idea of the subjective source of value—but it also purports that careful, deductive reasoning from a few sensible and true axioms will lead to a proper practical and moral understanding of human life.
This is pretty ambitious. For starters, we know that some human societies suffer from too much government—Cuba, USSR, Nazi Germany—just as others suffer from too little—Lebanon, Somalia, etc. It is problematic and less-than-fully explanatory to ascribe all big human failings—as groups and individuals—chiefly as the consequence of some government intervention, i.e., the suggestion in the last thread that the sexual revolution stemmed solely from government action. It seems just as often people fail (or disappear) from a lack of government or a weak government, such as when they are conquered by a neighboring people. While government can faciliate massive and negative social changes, it can also preserve inherited customs from the prviate and religious realm, as in its recognition of marriage and the creation of various family laws to buttress the same. Until recently, politics had a limited and human mandate. We wanted our own governments, to protect us from external and internal disorder, just as we wanted them to work in parallel with civil societies and the like to preserve the moral order and other characteristics needed for a self-governing society. Conservatives want to be free both from too much government and the horrors of anarchy. We want statesmen and critics of statesmen to know their subject with some depth.
Quite frankly, deductive and abstract formulae are often wrong, and renouncing empircal testing and statistics makes it pretty difficult to test whatever it is one is advocating. Marxism, for example, has a certain elegance to it; it too proceeded from a few axioms and buried its head in the sand like the Ostrich when empirical data—both obvious ones like empty shelves as well as things like GDP statistics—show what an utter failure it was compared to capitalism. So I’ll take horse sense and statistics, particularly when the latter pass the “straight face” test supplied by the former. As for the specific subject matter of the last thread, it seems pretty hard to discuss elections without looking at numbers. They do involve counting votes, after all. I do not consider myself a white nationalist, but I do consider myself a race realist. The extreme media double standards on how the two groups are allowed to behave was striking, particularly in light of the fact Barack Obama’s belonged to an anti-white church for 20 years and black political leadership has been found wanting in places ranging from New Orleans to Detroit. I also found the sentimental appeals to the soul and the denial of group trends by Justin and some of his supporters shocking. But when I re-read some Austrian and other libertarian sources, I think it makes sense: Austrianism and other libertarian philosophies depend upon abstracting from the whole of humanity to posit a single human nature for political and economic purposes. A single human nature, coupled with a deductive philosophy, leads to a single political prescription for all people everywhere: more liberty all the time.
I think this is all too convenient and also wrong. In what sense do Somalians or Cambodians or Lebanese need more liberty, I wonder? Did Poles or the French need more liberty in August 1939? Or did they need a cohesive and effective defense policy? Hasn’t Russian benefited mightily from stronger and more effective government under Putin compared to the disorder of Yeltsin and his oligarchs? Times and places and people are different. It’s true we all have souls and human dignity. Then again, we’re all made up of atoms and electrons. There’s a point where emphasizing commonalities may obscure as much as it reveals. As Burke said, far from needing a deductive politics, statesmen need a deep understanding of human beings, which includes a deep understanding of both their similarities and their differences. “The legislators who framed the ancient republics knew that their business was too arduous to be accomplished with no better apparatus than the metaphysics of an undergraduate, and the mathematics and arithmetic of an exciseman. They had to do with men, and they were obliged to study human nature. They had to do with citizens, and they were obliged to study the effects of those habits which are communicated by the circumstances of civil life. They were sensible that the operation of this second nature on the first produced a new combination; and thence arose many diversities amongst men, according to their birth, their education, their professions, the periods of their lives, their residence in towns or in the country, their several ways of acquiring and of fixing property, and according to the quality of the property itself ? all which rendered them as it were so many different species of animals.”
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