In this article I want to mention some preliminary thoughts that jumped into my mind after reading Philip Pilkington’s article, The Austrian Disease–Poor Scholaship, a Priori Bias. What I am thinking is that in this article I will mention quickly some of my ideas; later, I will develop these ideas more thoroughly with citations and references to other books.

Pilkington clearly dislikes the Austrian school’s methodology, and I think he is going in the right direction; however, I want to suggest some possible ways to extend and further refine his argument. Again, in this post I will just give a quick inchoate discussion of these ideas; later, I will develop them as entries in other posts.

The article is saying that the Austrian school methodology is an attempt to avoid serious scientific and fact based discussions by replacing all of that with a “political cult”:

The libertarians even have a pseudo-rational name for this proud perversion of the scientific method: praxeology. Praxeology is to the libertarians as diamat [I think he means dialectical materialism?] was to the Marxist-Leninists; an a priori pseudo-philosophy that allows them to ignore unwelcome evidence and insulate themselves from criticism.

If what Pilkington says is true, that the praxeology method of the Austrians functions much like the “a priori pseudo-philosophy” of the Marxist-Leninists, then Pilkington has come across a much larger irony that what he says:

For all their hatred of primitivism, the libertarians are the primitive ones. They have not yet entered into the civilised world of disinterested, factual argument.

The glaringly large irony is that Mises’s whole purpose for developing praxeology was to undermine the Soviet Union–the Leninists! I sense that the entire Mises program was meant to be anti-Soviet Union. Notice how Mises’s writing career takes off in the early 1920s with his article about rational economic calculation. This is of course right around the time of the Bolshevik revolution. You further see this in Mises’s book Planned Chaos. He tries very hard to dismiss the “Soviet experiment,” i.e., empirical research be damned because you are supposed to, instead, use Mises’s a priori method. So it sounds as though Mises is attacking one a priori system, namely the Marxist-Leninist one–with his own a priori system.  Maybe that is all that Mises’s praxeology is: a gigantic version of fighting fire with fire. This sounds like a repeat of what the blogger named Lord Keynes mentions in his critique of Mises’s praxeological system. Lord Keynes writes in Mises’s Praxeology: A Critique that

Another problem for Misesian economics is that it is not the only praxeological system. The fact is that there are a number of other systems of thought that are (allegedly) derived by deduction from universally true axioms…Marxists like M. Hollis and E.J. Nell have propounded a system using deduction from (allegedly) universally true axioms in their book Rational Economic Man (1975). Their system is the antithesis of Mises’ Austrian economics, but supposedly arrives at laws which are universally true.

So maybe this shouting match over who has the “correct” a priori argument is a product of the 1920s and 1930s? A similar problem, by the way, comes when you look up “natural law” theory. You can find, apparently, lots of different types of “natural law” out there supporting pretty much a collection of contradictory ideologies. Take for example L.A. Rollins’ paper The Myth of Natural Rights where he writes that

since the many different inventors of natural laws and natural rights have had different interests to further, it is not surprising that they have invented a wide variety of different and conflicting natural laws and natural rights. As George H. Smith has written, “In its various manifestations throughout history, natural law theory has been used to justify oligarchy, feudalism, theocracy, and even socialism.” Aristotle, for example, held that some men are slaves “by nature.” But Etienne de la Boetie claimed that “we are all naturally free.”

I also find this to be quite ironic. Pilkington complains in his article that they are seeking “absolute Truth”:

they are in search of Absolute Truths about the world and when they have posited them to themselves these Truths enter an intellectual sphere where they are beyond empirical reproach.

“Absolute Truth” seems to be a code word for its opposite, namely, preconceived personal prejudices.

Look at how this is all playing out. If I pick “universal truth” version 1, I can deduce out Marxism. If I pick “universal truth” version 2, I can deduce out Mises’s capitalism. If I pick “natural law” version 1, I can deduce out fascism. If I pick version 2, I can deduce out Rothbard’s system of absolute property rights. In other words, I can get whatever conclusion I want by just picking the “correct” method. This hardly sounds like a rigorous procedure for finding “absolute truth.” This sounds like a self-serving system of political propaganda.

Related to all of this “cherry picking” of methods to arrive at preconceived political outcomes is the running theme of “religion” in Pilkington’s paper. Now we are “cherry picking” the “good” from the “evil” or the Jesus versus Satan, kind of a black-and-white view of the world. As a quick aside, I noticed that in critical papers reviewing Stefan Molyneux’s Universally Preferable Behavior, there is this tendency towards unworkable black-and-white moral systems in anarcho-capitalist land. Pilkington makes this point clearly when he states

Because the libertarian’s world is divided up into ‘good’ ideologies and ‘bad’ ideologies it is inevitable that they should actively seek out some reason that the ‘bad’ ideologies will eventually be punished. When one engages in this sort of moralistic and theological dividing up of the world, it is not surprising that one soon falls back on the old religious ways of thinking about Judgement and Punishment.

I think Pilkington is right to see a lot of “religious” style issues when it comes to the Austrian school. He mentions two things that I think could be fruitfully expanded upon. One is this idea of Rothbard’s “failed prophecy.” A fair chunk of Pilkington’s article is about Rothbard’s putative failed prophecy about hyperinflation in the United States. A couple things came to mind. Maybe the Austrian school could be analyzed as a failed “doomsday” cult as opposed to just a “political” cult. My guess is that the “doomsday” hyperinflation stuff that Rothbard was predicting is just a natural extension of the agorist idea that the current system will be brought down through hyperinflation. The state will not be able to pay for its soldiers and the anarcho-capitalist “private defense firms” will be able to take over and defeat the state at this point. Specifically, I am thinking of maybe trying to expand upon Chapter 12 of the book The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails. This chapter, by John W Loftus is called At Best Jesus Was a Failed Apocalyptic Prophet. Briefly, the idea is that a failed “doomsday” cult will form around some horrific or catastrophic prophecy. In the Jesus case it is the end of the world and the second coming of the Messiah. With regard to Pilkington’s article, it is the coming Rothbardian hyperinflationary apocalypse which will bring not angels from heaven but private defense forces to liberate mankind from his oppressors and usher in the millennial reign of free-market capitalism and anarcho-capitalism. Just as the Christians wait for the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, so too the anarcho-capitalists are waiting for the private defense forces to liberate them from the government shackles.

But failed prophecies require stalling and delaying techniques, to rewrite what happened. This is exactly what happened with Christianity. Originally the second coming was supposed to happen when the initial disciples were still alive. This is called the Mark 9 problem, the people with Jesus would see his second coming. Then we get delay, rewrites, stalling. If I recall, the original story was an imminent coming in 1 Thessalonians. Then the delaying in the known forgery of 2nd Thessalonians. Then we get the “thousand years as a day” stalling in one of the letters attributed to Peter. So maybe the same thing exists in Austrian school literature. I am wondering if the same investigative techniques used by Biblical scholars could be applied to the Austrian school. Are they rewriting failed doomsday prophecies as well? How do the rewrites evolve over time, and so on? In other words, does the Austrian school of economics have its on “eschatology”? Is this “hyperinflationary” crisis that is supposed to lead to a collapse of the state its “eschaton”? Does the Austrian school have its own version of Christian legerdemain called the “Great Parenthesis” that is

they dodge the impact of the NT texts describing an imminent eschaton with a coming “Son of Man” by claiming God’s clock stopped with the advent of the church and will start up again in the last days when the tribulation begins, called the Great Parenthesis. (The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, 334)

Maybe one could demonstrate that the Austrian school is doing what is called “secondary exegesis” on its text. Following Pilkington and the claim of Rothbard’s “failed prophecy,” we would then expect to see “rewrites” to “reinterpret” why the initial prophecy failed:

This is just what apocalyptic movements do with the prophetic texts when their prophecies fail. They use what has been aptly described as “secondary exegesis”…to reinterpret them, and this is exactly what we see in the NT. (333)

The final observation I want to make, inspired by Pilkington’s article, is that his last comment implies Biblical rhetorical criticism could be applied to the Austrian school. Pilkington’s comment, reminds me of my textbook Handbook of Biblical Criticism, and its discussion of the diatribe. First, Pilkington’s comment:

When you argue with them they, like Rothbard in his ‘debate’ with Polanyi, tend to attack you based on assertions that they attribute to you–and so it becomes a solipsistic argument with a single interlocutor bouncing two assertive dialogues against each other that he himself created. (bold emphasis mine)

Now compare Pilkington’s comments to those found in Richard N. Soulen’s Handbook of Biblical Criticism, 2nd Edition, under the article entitled “Diatribe,” page 55:

In antiquity, as used by Zeno, Cleanthes, et al., it denoted a brief lecture on various ethical issues related to the public good…According to H. I. Marrou, the D., in literary-critical sense, is an imaginary or fictitious dialogue of moral paraenesis (55, bold emphasis mine)

The word “paraenesis,” a technical term used in Biblical Form Criticism, means “a series of admonitions, usually ethical and eclectic in nature and without any reference to concrete situations” (140).

If we look at Bailey and Vander Broek’s Literary Forms in the New Testament: A Handbook, they mention specifically that the diatribe uses an “imaginary interlocutor” (38). And this reminds me of what Pilkington is complaining about with regard to the Austrians–these imaginary debates that one cooks up. The Austrians are engaging in “imaginary debates” or what Pilkington says here:

They are only comfortable when making broad-sweeping moral or metaphysical arguments–and so, a typical rhetorical tactic is to assign a moral or metaphysical point-of-view to the opponent and then take this apart.

So my educated guess is that Form Criticism and related forms of Biblical Criticism such as Rhetorical and Literary could be fruitfully applied to the Austrian School, and hence further strengthen Pilkington’s thesis. What I am thinking is that maybe these texts of Rothbard, Mises, Hoppe etc., could be deconstructed in the same manner that Biblical scholars take apart New Testament texts. Maybe I could find the chiasm structure in Rothbard, for example, and so on.

My plan is to think about my thoughts in more detail and then to write more detailed articles on the points I have just raised in the future. But I am glad that Pilkington’s article has given me a basic foundation for further research. I too have often suspected that the Austrian school is some sort of religion, but my suspicions were inspired by my readings from the Anarchist Writers about why the libertarian socialists (i.e., anarchists) reject Rothbard’s natural law approach.

And that could pretty much be applied to most libertarian arguments: they are usually based on assertions, and these assertions are typically unconvincing. When you argue with them they, like Rothbard in his ‘debate’ with Polanyi, tend to attack you based on assertions that they attribute to you – and so it becomes a solipsistic argument with a single interlocutor bouncing two assertive dialogues against each other that he himself created. The libertarians may think they win this type of game, but all they’ve done is create an echo chamber.