Corey Robin has replied to (mostly my) criticisms of his piece in The Nation linking Hayek and the Austrians with Nietzsche. To prepare for this post, I reread the original piece, Robin’s introduction to the piece on CT, my response, Corey’s responses to my response, many of the other blog posts on Corey, and nearly all the comments on the original piece at BHL and comments on Corey’s reply at CT. I have not watched the BloggingHeads. That is too much Robin. Seriously. I’ve given his work due diligence.
My conclusion: Robin’s argument is still really bad. In fact, it’s even worse than I thought, given Robin’s poor defense. In his post, Corey commits three errors: (i) his idea of “elective affinities” is hopelessly vague, (ii) he refuses to be clear about what he (or anyone else) means by “value” and (iii) his reading of Hayek is culpably and embarrassingly wrong. (iii) is so serious and important that I’m going to devote an entire post to it. This post consists in rebutting (i) and (ii).
To see all this, however, we need to spend some time trying to figure out what Robin’s thesis is. It’s not easy.
I. What is Robin’s Thesis?
From my reread, the best statement of Robin’s thesis is this, not from the article, but from his introduction on CT:
No, the connection between Nietzsche and the free-market movement is one of elective affinity, at the level of deep grammar rather than public policy. It will not be found at the surface of their arguments but in the lower registers: in the startling [emphasis KV’s] symmetry between Nietzschean and marginal theories of value; in the hostility to labor as the source or measure of value; in the insistence that morals be forged in a crucible of constraint; in the vision of an idle class of taste-makers creating new values and beliefs.
In his reply to (mostly) me, he says the following:
Rather than treat the Austrians as the inheritors of classical liberalism, I see in their theory an attempt to recreate what Nietzsche called grosse Politick in the economy. Most treatments of the Austrians fail to capture their agonistic romance of the market, a romance that makes capitalism exciting rather than merely efficient. Far from departing from the canons of conservatism, then, Austrian economics is a classic form of counterrevolution, a la Burke. It seeks to defeat a challenge from below—in this case, the ongoing threat from the worker’s world, whether that world be found in a grain of sand (a trade union, say) or in the surrounding sea of international socialism—by transforming and reinvigorating the old regime. “If we want things to stay as they are,” as the classic formulation in The Leopard puts it, “things will have to change.”
Ok, so putting it all together, I think this passage means that Nietzsche and the Austrians share several beliefs: (i) subjectivist theories of economic value, (ii) hostility to the labor theory of value, (iii) that morality is a social construct based on certain sorts of cultural and legal restrictions and (iv) that elite cultural figures are the drivers of not only new values and beliefs, but of correct or “better” values and beliefs, and (v) that we must struggle to defeat the socialist challenge offered by the working class.
Robin does not claim that no one else holds views (i)-(v). But there is some idea of exclusion at work, because if people besides Nietzsche and the Austrians shared most of these beliefs, then the connection probably wouldn’t be illuminating or important.
Now, is Robin’s thesis true? To be honest, I can’t assign it a truth-value, since I don’t even understand it. That’s because I don’t understand what an “elective affinity” is.
II. “Elective Affinities” = Nonsense
Robin’s first complaint against me is that my standard for intellectual influence is too high. Robin does not need to demonstrate that there is a unique connection between Nietzsche and the Austrians. Robin:
But that’s not how elective affinities work. It’s not that one argument or tradition logically entails another—marching its proponent down the road, forcing him to take a right at the intersection—or that the two arguments are found together and only together. There clearly is an elective affinity between liberalism and contractarianism, for example, even though there are liberals who are not contractarians (Montesquieu, Constant, Tocqueville, Hegel, and Dewey) and contractarians who are not liberals (Hobbes).
The point of an elective affinity is that there’s something in the two traditions—a deep structure of thought common to both that might not be immediately visible in each or arguments peculiar to each that are nevertheless congenial to both—that draws their proponents to each other. Or that explains why proponents of the one, once they have abandoned it, may subsequently be drawn to the other. Or why a culture—or political movement—may comfortably birth or house both at the same time. In the case of a political movement, where power and interests and ideas mix and mingle in ways that don’t always logically fit or follow, elective affinities can be especially potent.
So to vindicate Robin’s thesis, all we need to show is that Nietzsche and the Austrians share enough views, inspirations, motivations, or whatever, that are “congenial” or that “draws their proponents to each other” or that explain how a movement could “house both at the same time.”
Please notice that Robin’s clarification is phrased as a disjunction. There are a huge number of ways two systems of ideas or whatever can have “affinities.” That’s a problem, because it makes “affinity” is a very vague relation (it’s not even clear what Weber meant when he used the term as a metaphor). Also, notice that Robin never specifies the object of the affinity. Is it “arguments” that have the affinities? Doctrines? Historical motivations? Common fears? Or some combination? In the passage I cited in section I it looked like elective affinities hold between beliefs, but this passage mucks that up. Now we’re talking about “something in the two traditions” and “deep structures of thought” and “arguments peculiar to each.”
So we not only don’t know what an affinity is, we don’t even know what two things are supposed to have affinities. We have neither a clear idea of the relation or the relata. Surely you can’t do responsible intellectual history this way, can you? Robin’s standard is hopelessly vague and loose. From what I can tell Robin’s use of the idea of elective affinity is nonsense.
The best Robin does to avoid nonsense this:
What distinguishes the Austrians and Nietzsche, then, from other subjective theorists (indeed, from practically all the names that have been raised in response to me: Oskar Lange, Karl Marx, Carlyle, Dostoevsky, Burckhardt, Tocqueville, Mill, Hobbes) is: a) the polemical target and context of their subjectivism—the threat of socialism and the labor question more generally; b) the connection they draw and that can be drawn between their subjectivism and their anti-socialism and elitism (a connection, it bears repeating, that is neither necessary nor inherent but contingent and peculiar to this moment and to the subsequent development of the right); and c) the cultural scope and political ambition of their subjectivism.
So affinities can hold between targets, contexts, intellectual connections drawn, scopes of theories and ambitions of theories. Doesn’t that help?
Doing my best to translate, it seems that an elective affinity holds between what the Austrians and Nietzsche believe and the attempt to use these beliefs to justify cultural elitism. They (i) believe in resisting socialism, they believe in value subjectivism and that value subjectivism can justify rejecting socialism and “the labor question” (whatever that means), and they believe that value subjectivism can justify some form of elitism in culture and political “ambition.”
Obviously, a belief in resisting socialism doesn’t exclude enough other people and movements. What’s more, Nietzsche and the Austrians don’t believe in the same form of value subjectivism (Robin never claims otherwise, to his discredit). If Robin wants to claim otherwise, he can reply by simply defining his terms. So those “elective affinities” don’t hold.
The only interesting claim is that both Nietzsche and the Austrians use their (different) value subjectivisms to justify some form of elitism. Now I have something I can sink my teeth into. Let’s call this the elitism charge. The elitism charge is false because Mises and Hayek don’t use their value subjectivism to justify elitism. I will argue as much in the next section and in my next post.
III. Doubling Down on Incoherence about Value
In my first post on Robin’s article, I complained that he equivocated on the notion of value. Nietzsche’s concerns were about moral and aesthetic value, whereas Mises and Hayek wrote primarily about economic value in the context of economic theory. You can only draw a connection between their theories of “subjective” “value” if they mean the same or similar things by “subjective,” and by “value,” but they don’t.
Robin’s response is to double down on this confusion:
There’s no question that my piece mixes different notions of value, blurring distinctions that philosophers like to keep separate. But far from haplessly misconstruing one mode of value for another, I intentionally pressed these definitions and usages together. And for a simple reason: that’s what the Austrians did.
Read: “Mises and Hayek were incoherent and so am I!” This simply will not do. If Robin’s thesis involves a claim about the value theories of Nietzsche and the Austrians, he can’t cover up his own unclarity by saying that someone else was unclear about the same thing. An intellectual historian clarifies inconsistencies rather than simply repeating them carelessly.
Furthermore, Robin’s claims about the Austrian understanding of value are grossly false. I stressed in my first response that Hayek and Mises both used value in different senses. Qua economists, they spoke about economic value as the result of rational human valuation, the placing of value on units of goods or services. Of course they also used the term “value” to talk about goods and achievements important to people. But they always thought that these forms of value should be separated, the scientific economic idea, and the broader forms used in their other writings. So that’s the first thing.
Next, it is plain that Robin’s citations are wildly out of context, so they cannot vindicate the elitism charge. Consider his Mises quote,
Unless Ethics and “Economy” are regarded as two systems of objectivization which have nothing to do with each other, then ethical and economic valuation and judgment cannot appear as mutually independent factors….The conception of absolute ethical values, which might be opposed to economic values, cannot therefore be maintained (Mises, Socialism, Ch.27).
Here Mises is trying to do two things: (i) expand the notion of the economic, consistent with the rest of Socialism and other works like Human Action and Epistemological Problems of Economics, and (ii) contract the notion of the ethical to the praxeological. Mises argues across his entire corpus that economists construe the idea of the economic too narrowly. In fact, “economic” reasoning is praxeological reasoning, which is, roughly, all means-end reasoning under normal conditions. So “economic” here does not mean “in the marketplace.” Now, it is true that Mises narrows the notion of the ethical, but if you read the passage, he is largely trying to reject (his poor understanding of) certain intuitionist and non-consequentialist moral theories because he thinks they imply that people have reasons to act apart from their praxeological aims. This is a far cry from “mixing” theories of value.
If Robin understood Mises’s core idea of praxeological reasoning, he could not have honestly used this passage to illustrate his point. This is a big theoretical fail because it shows that Robin does not understand Mises’s core contribution to economic methodology.
What’s worse, Mises thinks his consequentialism is anti-elitist because it defends ordinary people’s values rather than the values an intellectual elite thinks they should have.*
The Road to Serfdom passage Robin cites concerns Hayek’s claims that our more purely material aims are situated within a large hierarchy of ends, many of which concern matters beyond what we ordinarily term “economic.” This is emphatically not a claim about the nature of economic value.
Neither passage can even begin to support Robin’s description of the Austrian account of value as it is related to Nietzsche’s. He’s taken two passages out of context, and ignored countless cases where Hayek and Mises insist that economics is “wertfrei” or a value-free science, and that economic reasoning should be understood broadly as praxeological reasoning (for Mises) or catallactics (for Hayek).
Which makes Robin’s next claim either culpably irresponsible or the result of a total misunderstanding of value theory:
Instead of separating economic and moral values, the Austrians sought to join and mix them. They further argued that moral values are best revealed, or most likely to be revealed, in the marketplace because it is in the marketplace that we are forced to give something up for them.
In what sense are they “mixing” economic and moral value? Are they mixing the definitions of economic and moral value? Are they claiming that people trade off “economic” and “moral” values? I guess what Robin is saying is that Mises and Hayek thought that we could observe what people valued in the marketplace because they were free to construct their own projects and plans, whereas under socialism, given the absence of markets, people’s valuations were obscured. But what does that have to do with Robin’s thesis? All they’ve said is that when people are free, we can observe what they want!
In my first post, I claimed that Hayek thinks morality can be expressed in non-market contexts. That’s such an obvious point I can’t believe Robin would even dispute it. Any sensible person thinks you can “express morality” outside of the marketplace, in your home, in church, etc. Robin actually, ridiculously, thinks the following RTS quote shows otherwise:
… freedom to order our own conduct in the sphere where material circumstances force a choice upon us…is the air in which alone [Robin’s emphasis] moral sense grows and in which moral values are daily re-created.
Let’s look at the full quote from RTS:
Freedom to order our own conduct in the sphere where material circumstances force a choice upon us, and [KV’s emphasis] responsibility for the arrangement of our own life according to our own conscience, is the air in which alone moral sense grows and in which moral values are daily recreated in the free decision of the individual. Responsibility, not to a superior [KV’s emphasis], but to one’s own conscience, the awareness of a duty not exacted by compulsion, the necessity to decide which of the things one values are to be sacrificed to others, and to bear the consequences of one’s own decision, are the very essence of any morals which deserve the name.
Robin omitted the critical “and” with good reason. If you include it, the quote does not help Robin’s point. All Hayek is claiming is that when people are free and responsible for their choices, they can come to exercise their moral sense most fully.
Also notice that it is responsibility to one’s own conscience and not to a superior. If anything, the passage is anti-elitist!
Hayek’s broader point in the passage is that if we have central control, we can’t have morality, because people won’t be free to be moral. In other words, morality can’t be expressed through state domination. This is completely different from what Robin is after.
From what I can tell, the elitism charge is false. Or so I will argue in much more detail in my next post.
IV. Conclusion – Robin’s Reply Fails
We can see now that (i) the Robin’s use of the idea of an elective affinity is almost certainly nonsense or trivial, and (ii) that Robin won’t do the value theory he needs to vindicate his thesis. Worse, he distorts texts, over and over again.
And his reply isn’t just wrong, it’s hypocritical. Robin says that, “My critics can hold onto their beliefs by ignoring inconvenient parts of the text.” And: “If anything it seems to be my critics who are insufficiently acquainted with the material about which they so confidently pronounce.”
But as you can see, it is Robin who has committed a series of obvious intellectual errors.
*Thanks to Roderick for conversation on this matter.