Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Methodological musings, cultural clashes, and something in the air at Mises University 2013

When I arrived in Auburn, Alabama for Mises University 2013 I was not expecting much more than the usual mixed bag of conference attendees, standard libertarian spiels and a bit of exacting academic work thrown in. My roommate was a pleasant, quietly self-assured girl in a libertarian T-shirt. In the hour before the evening meal, all over the rooms of the Mises Institute there were knots of libertarians having animated discussions about economics. This was promising enough. 

I had come to the Institute after having read about Hayek's view of the method of the social sciences. He recognised that they cannot proceed by deriving theories from observations – that we can only interpret social phenomena in the light of pre-existing theories. Part of this clearly comes from the old debate between positivists and 'praxeologists'. But the Austrian rejection of inductivism was also endorsed in The Poverty of Historicism by Karl Popper, who argued that the natural sciences, too, do not make progress via induction, but rather by creative conjecture and refutation as attempts to solve particular problems.

So this was interesting. There was a school of thought, the Austrian School of economics, which not only had libertarianism as its conclusion, but a critical-rationalist-influenced methodology as its foundation. From my perspective this was a convergence of two pillars of rational thought. It didn't come as a surprise, then, that the opening speaker argued that it is the only school of economics which takes seriously the dignity and freedom of economic actors – of people. He also assured us that the work of Austrian economists is descriptive; prescriptive, political arguments are strictly separate.

The lectures that followed were a fascinating introduction to the science. There is a doubt about whether economics really is a 'science', if it doesn't make testable predictions. But, as I discovered over the course of the week, the central ideas of Austrian economics come from assuming the truth of certain axioms, taking them seriously and thereby using them to interpret economic phenomena. As Steve Horwitz put it, this approach of "[r]endering human action intelligible means telling better stories about what happened and why." It has a degree of sophistication which arguably brings it closer to the status of a real 'science' – or at least more deserving of the epistemological prestige of that title – than more empirics-focused mainstream economics, where naive interpretations of data are widespread. (For example, statistical significance has been prized as a mark of scientific status, even if it's not clear that this has any bearing on the economic significance of a given dataset). 

The course exceeded my expectations in all kinds of small ways. The atmosphere was like that of an actual university, because there were readings to do, lectures to attend and academics to question. But there was something more. The Institute was welcoming, comfortable, and from morning to evening there was an interesting discussion to be overheard in every room and hallway. Mingling in the social hours, I would repeatedly come face to face with an ordinary-looking student, brace myself for small talk or fruitless debate, and then quickly discover that they were in fact very well read, thoughtful and knowledgeable. This happened with practically everyone. Fortunately there were also places to be alone, and places to play chess, places to smoke and drink. The speakers were obviously passionate about their research, but the difference from my normal university life was that they were able to communicate their passion and generate an atmosphere of excitement.

Despite the first speaker's assurances, the political side of the course cast a surreal tinge on my experience of it. Judge Napolitano spoke on the growth of the Commerce Clause and how it was leading to the erosion of freedoms enshrined in the Constitution. He ended by declaring that a certain proportion of us would die in prisons, and some may die in public squares, while fighting for our principles. This got a standing ovation. But it unnerved me. For a start I wasn't sure what had just happened. While I could imagine some of the more militant attendees being arrested for civil disobedience, it's not at all plausible that this would spiral into a situation where libertarian activists get life sentences (let alone being shot in the street). This kind of unjustified alarmism, I thought, implies that the main evil to society is the state itself, rather than the overwhelmingly statist milieu. Yet the latter is the only thing that enables the former to exist. Criticism of things like excessive government surveillance is not restricted to libertarians – it's mainstream. What counts as 'excessive' is also being subjected to public debate. A government that doesn't respond to its conclusions will not survive an election.*

Discussing the speech with other students, I said it was a bad idea to cause such alarm that people are ready to defend their lives. Someone asked: "Why?" I wondered why I had said it. Why shouldn't people be ready to defend their lives? Isn't this the eternal vigilance which that Founding Father was talking about? 

I didn't think so. Holding politicians to account is one thing, but if the attitude is one of preparing for revolution (if the story of another attendee is correct, Napolitano did prophecy a revolution), time and attention are directed away from education, away from improvement, and toward antagonism. A fellow European diplomatically suggested that my perturbation was down to a cultural difference between British and American libertarians. And since coming home, it has occurred to me that it may not be necessary to take these alarmist-type claims literally. They are true, in the sense that they are expressions of a devotion to freedom. I cannot express myself in that way, nor understand expressions of that kind, because my idea of liberty is one of ancient freedoms that have grown up alongside a government and a monarchy which themselves were subject to the rule of law that secured those freedoms. This is simply a difference between the American and the British mindset – and one may not be objectively better than the other.

I went in as a conservative, libertarian to the extent of finding plausible the arguments in favour of private law. I have left more skeptical of my own cautious traditionalism. Watch this space for further arguments - for what, I don't yet know. But I do know that every week of my life should have the intellectual intensity of that week at the Mises Institute. I'm glad to have had the chance to attend.

* I'm aware that this is just a naïve statement of the argument and doesn't address public choice theory, etc. It is not meant here as a rebuttal so much as a description of what I was thinking at the time.