Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Libertarianism and the Leap of Faith – The Origins of a Political Cult

By Philip Pilkington, a journalist and writer living in Dublin, Ireland

You wanted God’s ideas about what was best for you to coincide with your ideas, but you also wanted him to be the almighty Creator of heaven and earth so that he could properly fulfil your wish. And yet, if he were to share your ideas, he would cease to be the almighty Father.
Søren Kierkegaard

Political cults often have the strangest and most obscure origins. Take Marxism, for example. Today it is well-known that Marxist doctrine essentially sprang out of the obscure 19th century economic debates over the source of ‘value’. By ‘proving’ – that is, lifting the assumption from classical political economy – that all ‘value’ came from labour, Karl Marx went on to show that it was therefore only logical to assume the existence of something called ‘surplus value’ that was sucked out of labourers by a parasitic capitalist class. From out of this obscure debate flowed an awesome political movement – and a tyranny to match.

What is less well-known is that today’s most popular political cult – that is, libertarianism – was born in very similar circumstances; it too, arrived into the world out of the obscure 19th century debates over economic ‘value’. But before we explore this in any detail it might be appropriate to speculate a little on what characterises a political cult and why so many of these find their sustenance in economic theories of value.

What is a Political Cult and Why Do they Often Love Economic Value Theory?

A political cult is characterised by a political or economic doctrine that answers all the ‘big questions’ about life, the world and everything else. The doctrine that is handed down is then to be conceived of as a way to live one’s life – a project, handed down from Mount Sinai, that one is under the moral obligation to spread far and wide. This is why we refer to these movements as cults. And it is this that gives them such an awesome status in the glazed eyes of their devotees.

Under such circumstances, politics becomes a sort of religious calling. In these doctrines there is usually an ‘Evil Being’ who is opposing the spread of the ‘Good’ on earth and it is these that are to blame for all the bad things in the world. In Marxism this Evil Being is the capitalist; in libertarianism it is the figure who is at different times referred to as the ‘collectivist’, the ‘liberal’ or the ‘socialist’. Needless to say that, since these figures are usually ones of Extreme Evil they must be ‘liquidated’ or ‘eliminated’ at the first possible opportunity lest they spread their Demonic Gospel to the masses.

Political cults thus provide their devotees with a firm identity in an otherwise changeable and, let us be frank, confusing world. Like all cults they provide an anchor for their devotees with which they can fasten themselves to a rigid doctrine. They also typically lend their devotees a Holier-Than-Thou attitude as they provide them with ‘secrets’ that those outside of the cult cannot grasp. Not only does this allow the devotees to feel ‘special’, in modern political cults it also gives them practical, albeit ‘secret’ advice about what they should do in their day-to-day lives. (Think of the advice to buy gold or foreign stocks coming out of certain libertarian front men, for example).

Finally, the political cult will usually offer their followers the possibility of a Heaven on Earth. If the follower behaves well and spreads their beliefs to others they will eventually arrive at some sort of Utopia. This is their reward for believing in the doctrines, despite these doctrines being ridiculed by others.

So, why do these cults spring out of economic doctrines based on value? Well, this is a very complex question but there is one key aspect that is absolutely fundamental. In order to understand it a little better we must think for a moment about what economic ‘value’ supposedly is. It is, in fact, when we boil it right down, a moral entity. If we can tell what people ‘value’ and why, then we can make prognostications on what is Good for society as a whole.

In times past organised religions handed down fixed value systems to their adherents. Today people have become disillusioned with religious systems – ostensibly because they conflict with these peoples’ supposedly ‘scientific’ worldview. But the impulse among some for the self-assurance provided by a religion is so strong that they seek out ‘scientific’ systems that operate in an identical manner to religious or cult systems.

This is why the economic doctrine of ‘value’ is such a good foundational stone for such a cult. It provides a pseudo-scientific account about how people attribute value to things and in doing so tells the cult member a ‘Truth’ that they can use to make turn the world into a Utopia in which the optimal amount of ‘value’ is realised by the optimal amount of people.

Karl Marx claimed that ‘value’ was embodied labour and hence his followers concluded with him that all that was Good sprang from labour and that society should thus be based on free labour. The libertarians – together with the neoclassicals that they otherwise scorn – believe that all ‘value’ springs from utility maximisation. While the neoclassicals simply tinker with toy-models of ‘value’ to bolster their pseudo-scientific prestige, the libertarians undertake a leap of faith into the unknown and claim that in the theory of marginal utility they have found a ‘Truth’ that must be brought down from Heaven to Earth.

The Birthing of a Cult

Libertarianism was born out of the late 19th century doctrine of marginalism; a doctrine that went on to gain popularity with those opposed to Marxism. We will not dwell too much on the doctrine of marginalism when applied to the analysis of ‘value’ – having done so elsewhere. Here we will merely note that marginalism provides a moral defence for the supposedly ‘free market’ system that we live under today.

Marginalism, when applied to ‘value’ analysis, holds that it is in Man’s nature to follow a certain path in his consumption habits. These habits are determined by his maximising his utility. Most modern marginalists claim that they can use this concept to show that a ‘free market’ system is the fairest social system possible, since it responds automatically to Man’s marginal utility preference it delivers ‘value’ in a perfect and harmonious manner.

Markets deliver this ‘value’ through the mechanism of price. Prices, which reflect peoples’ desires to maximise their marginal utility, ensure that the most equitable distribution of ‘value-in-the-abstract’ is accommodated for by the ‘free market system’. And this is the point at which marginal value analysis becomes a value judgment in a very real sense.

The neoclassicals held, and continue to hold, that their models could capture this complex dynamic. Such an assertion was and is, of course, absolute rubbish. But the Austrians took a different tack. “Yes,” they said, “marginal utility theory is the correct way to go, but we cannot formulate models that adequately capture the inner workings of this great mechanism.”

In their book Modern Political Economics: Making Sense of the Post-2008 World, the authors provide a good summary of this approach. In the book they discuss what effect the discovery of marginalism’s inherent uselessness had on the Austrians:

Faced with the impossibility of mathematically deriving prices and quantities on the one hand and a metric of social welfare on the other, some Marginalists understood the limitations of their utility calculus. Mainly of an Austrian persuasion (most notably Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek and Joseph Schumpeter), they even gallantly tried to use this failure to the advantage of their claims on behalf of untrammelled markets and against the encroachments of collective agencies, trade unions, governments etc.

This was a clever move. While the neoclassicals tinkered with their silly toy-models, trying to show how prices are determined through a sort of grand marginal calculus, the Austrians shrugged their shoulders as to how such a Divine Event could occur. Instead they began to think of price as a sort of Miracle that proved the divinity of the Market mechanism. They then went on deploy this argument to show that anything that encroached upon this Divine Being’s presence was inherently Evil:
If no degree of mathematical sophistication can pin down the ‘right’ prices and quantities, how can a government or any other form of collective agency work them out? How could a socialist economy, or even a national health service, ever price things? Thus, the market mechanism is indispensible because of the radical indeterminacy of prices.

Note what is happening here. The Austrians, like their marginalist brothers and sisters, thought that in marginal utility theory they had found the source from which ‘value’ truly flowed. They never for one moment questioned that. Even when they came to conclude that marginalist analysis could never definitively show anything useful about price determination, they remained confident – indeed, they became even more confident – that such an analysis was Truth.

In short, they postulated a theory and then when confronted with the inconsistencies of the theory when it was applied to any practical ventures they simply threw up their arms and claimed that such inconsistency showed just how true theory was and how much we should respect it. The knowledge that the theory imparted then became, in a very real sense, Divine, in that we meagre humans would never be able to grasp it and instead should simply bow down in front of the Great Being that possessed this knowledge – that is: the Market.

This is what gives the libertarians their religious zeal. In their quest for the Grand Truth they find this Truth to be inaccessible to Man. But in this inaccessibility they find a Higher Truth again; namely, that there is some other entity out there – a benevolent entity called ‘the Market’ – that possesses this Truth and all we have to do is follow the Laws which it has handed down to us and we will eventually reach Utopia. This is, of course, a leap of faith – a truly Kierkegaardian Leap of Faith.

From the Leap of Faith to the Knight of Faith

The Austrians were never quite content with the chicanery and political posturing that they had passed off as scientific debate. As alluded to above, their theories about market prices were forged in the debates with those who advocated a socilialistic planned economy. Being ideological to the core, the Austrians were, for a while at least, perfectly content with saying that while no economist could say anything worthwhile about price determination – and thus, any attempt at a socialist planned economy would be doomed to fail because there could be no perfectly informed coven of evil socialist economists who could administer it – they were still happy with the airy theory of market prices that they had just poked such a large hole in. Yes, they had undertaken a Leap of Faith by admitting that their logical constructions would never be whole but, as Kierkegaard well knew, every Leap of Faith needs a hero, a Knight of Faith – and the Austrians soon found theirs.

The Austrians had, although one suspects that they never fully realised this, essentially proved that their theories were inconsistent. There was always, lurking somewhere, that element that disturbed the calculation of prices in the market models.

Let us emphasise here that this element of disturbance was found, not in reality, but only in their models and in their minds. The fact is that the Austrians, even in out-stepping their neoclassical brethren, were still only exploring their own fantasies. This fact must always be kept in the front of one’s mind when considering their doctrines.

We highlight this because it was precisely at this point that the Austrians could have conceded that they were building castles in the sky – ideologically and emotionally motivated castles in the sky, no less – and that it might be time to grow up and give up on the whole sordid venture of trying to establish a ‘logical’ ‘economic’ basis for ‘value’ that would temper them with the moral certainty they needed to carry on their political crusade. But not so. Instead they found a Kierkegaardian Knight of Faith to fill the gap in their logic. And that Knight of Faith was the entrepreneur.

The Austrian economist Israel Kirzner put it as such in his fine paper ‘The Economic Calculation Debate: Lessons for Austrians’ (which is also an excellent historical overview of much of what we have here been discussing):

[T]he truth is that Hayek opened the door to an entirely new perspective on the “goodness” of economic policies and institutional arrangements. Instead of judging policies or institutional arrangements in terms of the resource-allocation pattern they are expected to produce (in comparison with the hypothetically optimal allocation pattern), we can now understand the possibility of judging them in terms of their ability to promote discovery.

And this ‘discovery’, of course, comes from the entrepreneur who was hereafter identified by the libertarian as the social hero who broke through all barriers in the pursuit of the creation of new ‘values’ – and by that, we mean economic ‘values’ – for the community as a whole. Kizner again:

For Austrians, prices emerge in an open-ended context in which entrepreneurs must grapple with true Knightian uncertainty. This context generates precisely the kind of choice that stimulates the competitive discovery process. In this context, the entrepreneur does not treat prices as parameters out of his control but, on the contrary, represents the very causal force that moves prices in coordinating directions.

In Kierkegaard’s writings which, like the writings of the Austrians sought to establish a theological metaphysic from which an individual could derive principles of moral certitude, it was the Knight of Faith – the true believer with complete faith and certainty in both himself and God – that filled in the logical gaps inherent in even the greatest philosophical systems. For the Austrians the entrepreneur filled the same role – except that this was a great hero that had both full faith in the Market and the ability to find opportunities to inject disequilibrium into the price system through innovation.

By now we are far outside the realm of anything even remotely resembling a science of ‘value’. What we have instead is a vast metaphysical and moral system that is built around a very specific – not to mention very narrow – conception of value, together with a sort of existential appendage in the form of the hero-entrepreneur. The hero veneers over the logical flaws in the metaphysical system, while that system remains in place as a faith-based explanatory schema which can be applied to the world around the libertarian.

Note how fantasy blends into reality almost completely at this point. No longer do we separate our supposedly ‘factual’ ideas about ‘value’ from the mythological figure of the entrepreneur. Fact and fantasy merge to form a sort of continuum the purpose of which is to insulate the devotee from any empirical evidence that might arise to prove them wrong – or, at least, misled – regarding, for example, more fundamental and more pressing macroeconomic questions. They simply know what is what because they have it all worked out – and no silly facts are going to tell them otherwise.

From the fertile source of marginal utility value calculus the Austrians thus constructed a pristine moral and metaphysical system. But in doing so – like all metaphysicians – they allowed their imaginations to run away with them. They never noticed the point at which they crossed that fateful line; that line that separates our attempts to represent the world accurately and dispassionately to ourselves from our attempts to create a fantasy world in which we can live. The Austrians had, at first, attempted to use their imaginations to explain the world around them and, in doing so, had fallen into a dream world of their own creation.

And so the foundations of the political cult we call libertarianism were firmly in place. It is an ingenious creation which even came to include what CG Jung and other mythologists might call a central ‘archetypal’ or mythic figure. Even more specifically, what the Austrians have done is insert into their narrative what the great American mythologist Joseph Campbell called the ‘monomyth’. The monomyth is a recurrent theme in mythologies from all over the world. It is essentially a ‘hero myth’ and, as Campbell argues, can be located in most major religious narratives (Christ, Buddha etc.). In this the Austrians provided the libertarian religion with their very own version of the monomyth.

That most libertarians are ignorant of the source of their beliefs – just as most of them are not very conversant with economic theory generally, their protestations to the contrary notwithstanding – only adds a sociological dimension to their cult. Their cult forms a hierarchy where those who are closer to the Grand Truth are supposed to know more than those who are less conversant. Those who are less conversant then scrutinise the Great Texts – which are largely taken to be Holy Writ – until they can advance up the priestly ranks.

The Malign Consequences of Political Cults

After experiencing what used to be called ‘Bolshevism’ we are well aware of the dangers of political cults if they should ever ascend to power. Indeed, we already had forewarnings of this danger in the cult of Reason that Robespierre erected in revolutionary France upon the intellectual architecture that Jean-Jacques Rousseau had constructed for him. All of these cults espouse liberty and freedom and end up creating regimes of pure tyranny. Why? Because in their violent desire to turn reality into a Utopia, they stamp all over reality as it fails to conform to the images in their minds.

Some have objected to fellow Naked Capitalism writer Andrew Dittmer’s ‘interview’ series as an attempt to misrepresent the libertarian movement by espousing the ideas of an extremist. This is unfair. The views of people like Hoppe may be fringe among libertarians – then again, they may not be – but the zealousness is the same across the whole movement.

Libertarians think that they have unearthed a Truth that no one else can grasp (because, of course, this Truth being so pure, anyone who could possibly grasp it must then by default recognise it as Truth). And they think that if they can get adequate social and political power to enforce this Truth we will all be better off for it. Hoppe’s vision of a totalitarian, corporatist future is thus realistic in that if libertarians were ever truly to get into power they would have to enact an immense violence upon the world to try to get it to conform to their vision of Utopia. In this, they are like every other political cult that has ever existed. And they are just as dangerous.

In fact, the libertarians are the direct heirs to the Marxist-Leninist throne. Even though their motives differ substantially, their Faith is based on very similar principles – which is not surprising given that both movements grew out of the same 19th century debate over economic value. In this regard it is useful to recall John Maynard Keynes’ characterisation of Marxism-Leninism:

[It] is the combination of two things which Europeans have kept for some centuries in different compartments of the soul – religion and business.
Keynes also highlighted an important point about how such cults become influenetial:
[They derive their] power not from the multitude but from a small minority of enthusiastic converts whose zeal and intolerance make each one equal in strength to a hundred indifferentists.

The goal may have changed, but the unswerving faith in pseudo-scientific – or, to be very precise, in the Austrians case, because they tend to eschew ‘scientificity’: pseudo-rational – economic doctrines has not. Let us just hope that such a cult does not deliver to us another era of primitive tyranny and medieval inquisition. It is our democracies that are at stake.

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