Economics, Libertarianism

Robin and the Austrians Revisited: On “Elective Affinities,” “Value,” and Other Conceptual Disasters

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 MarxCarlyle, Dostoevsky, Burckhardt, Tocqueville, MillHobbes) 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.

  • William Irwin

    I agree that Robin’s response fails. There is no indication
    of real influence and the concept of elective affinity is nonsense. But as
    someone who greatly admires both Nietzsche and Hayek, I do see important connections to make. In short, Nietzsche really should have been in favor of free markets. In “Noble Markets: The Noble/Slave Ethic in Hayek’s Free Market Capitalism,” Journal of Business Ethics 85 (2009), 57-66, Edward Romar, who is sympathetic to both Nietzsche and Hayek, makes as case for something like what I have in mind. If anyone has read the article and finds problems with it, I’d be very grateful to know about the problems. I’m well-schooled in Nietzsche but I’m a novice when it comes to Hayek.

  • Jameson Graber

    Thanks for the reply, KV. I read Robin’s response last night, and found his misreading of Hayek to be ludicrously off base. I admit it was and is a little distressing to be reminded of Hayek’s association with Pinochet, but it’s good to be reminded that every intellectual is (often tragically) fallible. History is complicated.

  • Bruno Mynthi Showers

    Mises sees Menger as transforming value-theory from a narrow theory of market prices to a “general theory of human choice… much more than merely a theory of the ‘economic side’ of human endeavors and of man’s striving for material things and services… Nothing that men aim at or want to avoid remains outside of this arrangement into a unique scale of gradation and preference.”

    So I think I’d push back a little on your claim that they (Mises in particular) think we need to keep our ideas of “value” separate

    • Kevin Vallier

      I think I say as much in my commentary on the Mises quote and Mises’ view in Socialism. But whatever Mises was after there, he still stresses that economic science is “value-free” and does not draw metaethical conclusions from the subjective theory of value. My understanding of Nietzsche is that he is trying to debunk all moral claims based on observations about the nature of value, but that’s not at all what Mises is trying to do. This is so if for no other reason that Mises is a classical utilitarian, and utilitarianism and subjectivism about value have no entailment relations with one another.

      • Bruno Mynthi Showers

        I just don’t think there’s an ambiguity about the nature of value; it’s true that both Nietzsche and the Austrians see individual valuations as creating value, although it’s not clear that the Austrians at least think this is “aristocratic” in any sense.

        The problem with Robin’s piece isn’t that he fails to distinguish between types of value as in “use-value” or “exchange-value”. It’s that he misunderstands the nature of marginal utility all together and brackets off “the market” from everything else, when the whole point is that you can’t do that even if you want to.

        Maybe that’s what you were getting at — muddled speech indicating muddled thought and all — but it wasn’t clear to me.

  • Ryan Long

    Is there any reason to believe “Austrians are nihilists” isn’t just another anti-libertarian journalistic hit job? Libertarianism is the literal opposite of fascism, and the more widespread libertarian beliefs become, the more we seem to read that Hayek was in bed with Pinochet, Mises was a student of Nietzsche, etc. etc. The modus operandi here appears to be guilt-by-association. That is all the standard of proof required for popular journalism, so Robin’s piece has already served its purpose.

    • CT

      “That is all the standard of proof required for popular journalism”
      You’ve hit the nail on the head. How many social democrats are going around right now proclaiming that M. Friedman was the founder of ‘Disaster Capitalism’?

    • good_in_theory

      Where is someone saying Austrian’s are nihilists? And if they are saying it, what does that have to do with saying Austrian’s being fascists? Or vice versa – if someone is saying Austrians are fascists, what does that have to do with them being nihilists? Are you under the impression that Nietzsche is a nihilist (he isn’t – see, for example, Nietzsche on the figure of ‘the last man,’ or what he says when he directly talks about nihilism)? Or a fascist (he isn’t – see, for example, his response to German militarism and nationalist populism in “David Strauss – the Confessor and the Writer”)?

      • I think one’s ability to say anything specific about Nietzsche’s beliefs is proportional to one’s ability to selectively omit works and passages that contradict the rest of it.

        FWIW, the idea that incoherent and contradictory beliefs are equivalent to nihilism is a regular topic of my own blog. But I do concede that I am (as far as I am aware) the only person to have concluded that nihilism and incoherence are the same thing, and that it is one of my more controversial ideas.

        • good_in_theory

          I’m not sure what the use is of calling people nihilists on the basis of their alleged conformity with a definition of nihilism one share’s with no one else.

          Holding incoherent and contradictory beliefs is something that every one does. Is everyone a nihilist?

          • The use is: It helps me develop my own thoughts, and you are naturally free to disagree.

            I actually don’t know very many people who hold incoherent beliefs. Contradictory beliefs definitely seem to be more common, but typically if a person thinks enough about his/her own beliefs to write about them, he/she successfully manages to address apparent conflicts. Does that answer your question about whether everyone is a nihilist?

            Of course, all of this conveniently sidesteps the plain fact that Nietzsche is a special case of incoherence and contradiction. He certainly provided us with some interesting ideas, but your comments seem to imply that his work is no more incoherent and contradictory than anyone else’s. I find that opinion untenable. But I’m no expert.

          • good_in_theory

            Most people don’t think enough about their beliefs to write about them.

            As to how widespread incoherence is, 9/10 Americans, for example, believe in God. Incoherent belief, check. But one need not stick to religion – if one pushes on all sorts of beliefs one can construe them as incoherent. The Vienna School had a fun time of that.

            I don’t mean to imply that Nietzsche is more or less incoherent and contradictory than anyone else. BUt I don’t remember finding anything of his that I’ve read particularly incoherent, and I’ve read quite a lot of what he’s written. As far as contradiction goes, I don’t see anything particularly problematic about writing formally contradictory things. This has all sorts of purposes or can be an expression of various states of mind, only some of which need be nihilistic in character or intention.

          • Jake Witmer

            Ayn Rand had a similar belief. She believed that all beliefs must attempt to reconcile or resolve contradictions, and throw out self-contradiction and inconsistency. She ultimately rejected Nietzsche as a valid influence because he failed to rule out the initiation of force as a means of acting on the “will to power.”

            This is entire discussion is interesting to me as a means of showing that some of my thoughts had previously been arrived at by some great thinkers, but the more I read, the less interested I am. It seems to me that the person who suggested the title “Niggling over nitnoids” as the theme for the 2008 LP Convention, was right.

            Nietzsche was often self-contradictory, and often incoherent. He didn’t really attain a high level of internal consistency, and seemed to not be bothered by that. He also seemed to like to make very bold statements, that sometimes make good quotes. Stylistically, some of the things he wrote are interesting. One of the best quotes attributed to him is also attributed in different form to Goethe. “Mistrust all in whom the urge to punish is strong.”

            I like Hayek. I tend to be a “bleeding heart libertarian” or a “liberal.” (We should drop the “classical” from “classical liberal” and do battle to retake the term. There’s a reason the socialists defeated us in ideological warfare for controlling the use of that term: Altering the accepted meaning of terms is a powerful dishonest means of controlling the debate, by destroying high-hierarchical-level meanings and then controlling low-hierarchical-level arguments that are more easily accepted.)

            Taking Hayek out of context, is most probably like taking Stafford Beer out of context, in his attempt to infiltrate the Allende governnment. Neither of these men had control of the state, and neither of them should necessarily be blamed for collectivism’s failure. (Keep in mind that I need to read more of each of them, on their collectivism-corrupted influence on the respective governments they allegedly influenced. I’m not an expert at this time.)

            Socialist leftists regularly take “free market scholars” out of context, because they value political victory over philosophical integrity.

            We’re getting murdered out here, in reality. The FDA murders millions of innocent people every year, by preventing the innovation necessary for the sick to survive. The IRS does the same, by taking the wealth needed for individuals to discover and invest in computation-driven futurism, regenerative medicine, and biology. A plethora of government agencies damage and destroy the lives of various minority-vote demographics (the DEA, the ATF, the SEC, etc…).

            Libertarians should learn to value freedom as much as socialists value political power. As “nattering nay-bobs of negativity niggling over nitnoids” we don’t do much good to any living human being, including ourselves.

      • Jameson Graber

        Nihilist, I have no idea. But fascist, yeah, actually Robin was pretty clearly insinuating as much when he referenced a book on fascism in France in reference to the “neither left nor right”-ness of libertarianism.

        • good_in_theory

          Your reference to a reference is rather opaque to me, I’m not sure why I should think whatever you’re referring to suggests Austrians are fascists.

          But I wasn’t really struck by the Austrians-fascists connection per se, rather I was responding to the attempt to bring nihilism into the mix as some sort of equivocal term used to mediate between Nietzsche, the Austrians, and Fascism. I don’t see why it enters the picture here.

          • Jameson Graber

            Just look at the last paragraph of Robin’s response. The implication is fairly clear. “Like some of their counterparts outside the academy, at Reason and elsewhere, academic libertarians often like to describe themselves as neither right nor left—a political space, incidentally, with some rather unwholesome precedents []—or as one-half of a dialogue on the left, where the other half is Rawlsian liberalism or analytical Marxism. What they don’t want to hear is that theirs is a voice on and of the right.”

            Whether or not nihilism enters into the equation (the reference to fascism is more damaging anyway), I think Ryan Long’s original comment was likely on target in saying this is a journalistic hit piece.

          • good_in_theory

            Ha! It’s a mildly amusing joke. But feel free to be flustered by it.

  • Freddie_deBoer

    I genuinely wonder why you guys pretend to offer some sort of substantive difference from all of the other cultish libertarian sites out there. When push comes to shove, you always simply devolve into clownish, over-the-top wagon circling. Ludicrous! Unhinged! Ignorant! That’s fine; the internet has a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for fanboy libertarianism. But why go to all the trouble of branding yourself differently? It’s an odd affectation.

    Incidentally: failing to mention the historically inarguable material and intellectual support that Hayek offered for Pinochet = hilarity.

    • thegreekbook

      So let me get this right.

      A few years ago there was a Linux filesystem called “reiserfs”, written by a guy called Hans Reiser.

      It was so fast and sophisticated that it was selected to be the default filesystem in many linux distributions, and part of it is still the base of the latest journaled file systems in linux today.

      Unfortunately Mr Reiser was charged with murdering his wife.

      Does this make his work worthless? Is that your point?

    • j r

      In the past few months, this site has had numerous posts critiquing the non-aggression principle, a few arguing for a libertarian conception of social justice, and at least three calling on libertarians to take progressive feminist concepts like rape culture and patriarchy more seriously. All of that and yet one post defending Hayek’s ideas from Robin’s hit piece has you calling them cultish and libertarian fanboys.

      You are engaging in exactly the sort of leftist status signaling that you so eloquently argue against on your own blog.

    • Michael J. Green

      When push comes to shove, you always simply devolve into clownish, over-the-top wagon circling. Ludicrous! Unhinged! Ignorant!

      OK… three words that were not used in Kevin’s post at all.

      You’re a regular Corey Robin.

      • good_in_theory

        Right, it’s just “really bad, “hopelessly vague,” “culpably and embarrassingly wrong” “almost certainly nonsense or trivial”

    • Kevin Vallier

      Dude, I can only write so many 2000 word posts at a time! Give me a break! We’ll get to Pinochet.

    • Theresa Klein

      Hayek supported Pinochet. Chomsky supported Pol Pot. There. We’re even.

      • Jake Witmer

        People should be judged by their errors, but not as much as they are judged by their achievements. This is especially true if the errors came from their attempt at “damage control” over a subject which they had little or no definite control. Also, their errors should be seen as mitigated by any corrections they issued, based on expanding knowledge. Also, their intellectual errors should be seen as more or less damning if they were ever admitted to, or if they were ever rationally and truthfully explained as the results of ignorance, not moral turpitude.

        Frederick Douglass also became a U. S. Marshal, and worked to retaliate against slave-owners in the reconstruction era USA. If he were alive today, having seen the degraded democracy the USA has become, I doubt he’d have chosen to be a U. S. Marshal, or I believe he’d have become a U. S. Marshal like Matt Fogg, who uncovered racism at the highest levels of the US DOJ, Marshal Service, and DEA.

        Philosophical consistency, and the application of philsophy to political strategy is so rare as to be virtually non-existent. Perhaps the Leveller John Lilburne was both. Perhaps Douglass was both. Perhaps one could make the claim that Spooner was both.

        Those who place a high value on philosophical consistency are almost always going to be disappointed, because human beings are so stupid, and most of their brains are too small to allow optimal action. John von Neumann (about as intelligent as any human gets) suggested pre-emptively bombing the USSR. …I’m glad we didn’t!

        In short, I’m looking forward to the increase in intelligence that some people label “the singularity.”

    • matt b


      I’m not sure whether or not your friends with Corey Robin but your response here reveals a “took it personally” tone that I find people often adopt when people their friends with are criticized. Anyway, I’m sure you have considered certain arguments to be “ludicrous”, “unhinged”, and “ignorant” (though Kevin never used any of these words in his piece) so your beef is not with the use of those words or similar ones as such but rather the use of those words to describe an argument you obviously don’t think fits that description. That’s fine but you actually have to demonstrate the argument deserves respect rather than acting as if it’s so obvious that Kevin’s critique is mistaken and that he wrote in an over the top way.

      As for branding, you really clearly don’t read the blog. The criticisms offered of standard orthodox libertarianism on here have been remarkably sharp and direct. I’m telling you, being a BHLer is to libertarianism what RINOS are to the GOP and that’s because the bloggers and many of the commentators on this site have offered serious, substantive critiques from a heterodox libertarian perspective. So if you’re going to slam a site, at least know what you’re talking about.

  • JT

    It’s worth noting, too, in case anyone missed it, that Corey’s “work” was published not in a peer-reviewed academic journal, but a propaganda magazine.

    He only has like 2 real academic publications to his name. I guess his school has super low tenure standards.

    • Sean II

      “I guess his school has super low tenure standards.”

      I had the same suspicion. My first three clues: a) it’s a school, b) the year is 2013, and c) his field is not STEM.

  • Theresa Klein

    The worst part of Corey Robin’s piece, along with his responses, is the continued insistence that Hayek and Mises were elitist. Why is it that when someone talks about individuals with local knowledge being free to make rationally self-interested decisions that benefit everyone, certain people immediately assume that the ONLY people that statement could possibly apply to are elites – then immediately jump to the conclusion that we mean for the elites to make decisions for others? It’s as if I was to start a discussion about distributed computing and then someone replied “well clearly you mean that SOME computers are BETTER than others and that THEY should be the ones controlling the network”.

    • j r

      The whole libertarians as elitists meme is pretty silly all around. Go to places where elites congregate and tell me how many libertarians you find. How many libertarians are there walking through Harvard Yard? How many libertarians are members of Augusta National? How man libertarian partners are there at Goldman Sachs? How many libertarians are there in the audience at the Oscars… in the newsroom of the NY TImes? You’re much more likely to find progressives and conservatives in any of those places than libertarians.

      Libertarians are partly to blame for this conception, because some folks love to put forth this John Galt/Patrick Bateman/Master of the Universe image. In truth though, libertarians trend toward the geeky and aspergery, which is why tech might be the one scene in which libertarians are over-represented. You are much more likely to find libertarians at a hacker or comic book convention than you are the next meeting of the Bilderberg Group.

      • Les Kyle Nearhood

        You are exactly right. Libertarianism is about as anti-elitist as you can get because it is about empowering the individual. Not just the “right ” individuals, but all individuals.
        Now in practice, free markets will abound with some individuals who can create something valuable and will become “elite” and wealthy, but it is an ever changing and dynamic mix of new elites.

    • good_in_theory

      I think the question is more, “why is it that when someone says inequality of wealth, the idle rich, and concentrations of wealth and social capital in particular familial dynasties are necessary for creating the standards of action and consumption for the poor masses, driving social and moral progress and development by their disclosure of new possibilities of human activity, certain people immediately assume they are being elitist?”

      The answer to that question would likely be, “because they are being elitist.”

      • j r

        The idle rich? What year do you think this is?

        • good_in_theory

          A year in which the idle rich still exist. Are you under the delusion that they don’t?

          • j r

            Look at the research and decide for yourself..

            You can start here:

          • good_in_theory

            What does a broad-based increase in leisure time have to do with the alleged trend setting function of the leisure activities of the very rich?

          • Theresa Klein

            Why are you against leisure time? If someone has leisure time, why do you want to take it from them?

          • good_in_theory

            This question is irrelevant.

      • Theresa Klein

        Where do Mises or Hayek say that idle rich or familial dynasties are necessary for creating standards of action or driving social or moral progress?

        • good_in_theory

          You could just read what Robin wrote and quoted, but here, I’ll bring his Hayek quotes to you:

          “The important point is not merely that we gradually learn to make cheaply on a large scale what we already know how to make expensively in small quantities but that only from an advanced position does the next range of desires and possibilities become visible, so that the selection of new goals and the effort toward their achievement will begin long before the majority can strive for them. If what they will want after their present goals are realized is soon to be made available, it is necessary that the developments that will bear fruit for the masses in twenty or fifty years’ time should be guided by the views of people who are already in the position of enjoying them.”

          “However important the independent owner of property may be for the economic order of a free society, his importance is perhaps even greater in the fields of thought and opinion, of tastes and beliefs.”

          “The importance of the private owner of substantial property, however, does not rest simply on the fact that his existence is an essential condition for the preservation of the structure of competitive enterprise. The man of independent means is an even more important figure in a free society when he is not occupied with using his capital in the pursuit of material gain but uses it in the service of aims which bring no material return.”

          “What little leadership can be expected from the majority is shown by their inadequate support of the arts wherever they have replaced the wealthy patron. And this is even more true of those philanthropic or idealistic movements by which the moral values of the majority are changed”

          “The leadership of individuals or groups who can back their beliefs financially is particularly essential in the field of cultural amenities, in the fine arts, in education and research, in the preservation of natural beauty and historic treasures, and, above all, in the propagation of new ideas in politics, morals, and religion.”

          “It is only natural that the development of the art of living and of the non-materialistic values should have profited most from the activities of those who had no material worries.”

          “Many people who agree that the family is desirable as an instrument for the transmission of morals, tastes, and knowledge still question the desirability of the transmission of material property. Yet there can be little doubt that, in order that the former may be possible, some continuity of standards, of the external forms of life, is essential, and that this will be achieved only if it is possible to transmit not only the immaterial but also material advantages.”

          “The family’s function of passing on standards and traditions is closely tied up with the possibility of transmitting material goods.”

          “the freedom that will be used by only one man in a million may be more important to society and more beneficial to the majority than any freedom that we all use”

          Hayek favorably quoting someone else:

          “The plea for liberty is not sufficiently met by insisting…upon the absurdity of supposing that the propertyless labourer under the ordinary capitalistic regime enjoys any liberty of which Socialism would deprive him. For it may be of extreme importance that some should enjoy liberty—that it should be possible for some few men to be able to dispose of their time in their own way—although such liberty may be neither possible nor desirable for the great majority. That culture requires a considerable differentiation in social conditions is also a principle of unquestionable importance.”

          • CT

            You know, 99% of political beliefs are elitist. Even the most hard core socialists (whether they wish to admit it or not) are elitist. Hayek is simply saying that not everyone contributes to society equally and that this is a good thing.

          • good_in_theory

            If you simplify what he’s saying, perhaps that’s all he’s saying, but it’s definitely not just what he’s saying.

            And no, 99% of political beliefs aren’t elitist. But convenient way to dodge any substantive engagement with the issue, regardless.

          • Theresa Klein

            None of that adds up to saying that idle rich or familial dynasties are “necessary”.

            There’s a lot of discussion about how the fact that SOME people can achieve a very high standard of living drives development. But he doesn’t say those people need to come from familial dynasties or need to be idle. They could be self-made men, for all you can tell.

            You quote a couple of lines where he comments favorably on the practice of inheritance, but they are in no way connected to his comments on the effects of wealth driving development.

            Basically, you are reading into his writing what you want to see, not what’s actually there.

          • good_in_theory

            I’m not reading into his writing, Robin is. I’m reading into what Robin wrote, which you might want to try doing if you’re going to comment on what Robin is saying.

            Hayek says it is “necessary” that people occupy advanced positions in order to precipitate change and development.

            Naturalizing the case for elitism and inequality (e.g. saying progress doesn’t occur without elites) as opposed to moralizing about elites (e.g. elites should lead not the masses because the masses are dopes) is not an escape from having elitist elements in one’s thought.

            If you think the stuff about inheritance is in no way connected to the stuff about wealth driving development, you aren’t really thinking about things very much. It should be obvious how a defense of the transmission of material wealth across generations connects to a defense of those who have much wealth and no need to work.

  • good_in_theory

    ““the labor question” (whatever that means)”

    “The Labor Question” is, like, “The Social Question,” a debate, both popular and academic, occurring from the late 19th century into the early 20th in newspapers, pamphlets, books, compilations, &etc. Perhaps a good thing to know about if one wants to write about political economy.

    From a treatise published in 1885, subtitle: “The Historic Development of the Labor Question”,

    “The real inequality under seemingly equal rights, has given to employers a power over laborers that is almost unlimited…

    “In truth, in the inseparability of the commodity labor from the person of the vendor of said commodity, lies the cause of the unlimited domination of employers over the economic and moral existence of laborers. This proves that the presupposed liberty and equality in the formation of labor contracts is only an illusion wherever the system of individual contracts has been adapted as an equitable means to regulate the relations between employers and laborers.”

    This might sound somewhat familiar to the debate that first brought CT and BHL into formalized contact. All that’s old is new again.

    • j_m_h

      ‘The Social Questions”? Are you referring to The Socialist Calculation Debate?

      • good_in_theory

        No, I’m referring to “the social question” (or, in German, die soziale Frage, though it was not a uniquely German debate or phrasing) which predates the socialist calculation debate by close to a century, counting liberally. “The social question” and “socialism” arise at the same time, in the early 19th century, and they’re distinct things. Socialism is a specific politlcal ideology; the social question is a set of problems (concerning pauperism and poverty) to which a variety of political ideologies were responding.

    • good_in_theory

      To be less indirct, this sort of basic historical knowledge would seem to be important to know about, because part of Robin’s claim is that the conditions which trigger the Wahlverwandtschafte between Nietzsche and the Austrians is this particular politcal-historical situation and the particular milieu from which both parties were viewing it(e.g. Fin de Siecle Vienna and the surrounding regions, as per the reference to Carl Schorske’s book.)