Quote of the Day: Mises Edition

Another from the “I want to make a note of this for future reference and a blog post seems like the easiest way to do it” files. From Theory and History, chapter 7:

In the world of reality, life, and human action there is no such thing as interests independent of ideas, preceding them temporally and logically. What a man considers his interest is the result of his ideas.

If there is any sense in the proposition that the interests of the proletarians would be best served by socialism, it is this: the ends which the individual proletarians are aiming at will be best achieved by socialism. Such a proposition requires proof. It is vain to substitute for such a proof the recourse to an arbitrarily contrived system of philosophy of history.

All this could never occur to Marx because he was engrossed by the idea that human interests are uniquely and entirely determined by the biological nature of the human body. Man, as he saw it, is exclusively interested in the procurement of the largest quantity of tangible goods. There is no qualitative, only a quantitative, problem in the supply of goods and services. Wants do not depend on ideas but solely on physiological conditions. Blinded by this preconception, Marx ignored the fact that one of the problems of production is to decide what kind of goods are to be produced.

With animals and with primitive men on the verge of starvation it is certainly true that nothing counts but the quantity of edible things they can secure. There is no need to point out that conditions are entirely different for men, even for those in the earliest stages of civilization. Civilized man is faced with the problem of choosing among the satisfactions of various needs and among various modes of satisfying the same need. His interests are diversified and are determined by the ideas that influence his choosing. One does not serve the interests of a man who wants a new coat by giving him a pair of shoes or those of a man who wants to hear a Beethoven symphony by giving him admission to a boxing match. It is ideas that are responsible for the fact that the interests of people are disparate.

Incidentally it may be mentioned that this misconstruing of human wants and interests prevented Marx and other socialists from comprehending the distinction between freedom and slavery, between the condition of a man who himself decides how to spend his income and that of a man whom a paternal authority supplies with those things which, as the authority thinks, he needs. In the market economy the consumers choose and thereby determine the quantity and the quality of the goods produced. Under socialism the authority takes care of these matters. In the eyes of Marx and the Marxians there is no substantial difference between these two methods of want satisfaction; it is of no consequence who chooses, the “paltry” individual for himself or the authority for all its subjects. They fail to realize that the authority does not give its wards what they want to get but what, according to the opinion, of the authority; they ought to get. If a man who wants to get the Bible gets the Koran instead, he is no longer free.

That’s about the best summation of the subjectivist position I’ve come across.

Quote of the Day: Subjectivism Edition


The idealists among us want to respond by postulating that participants seek “public good,” that persons try, as best they can, to take the interests of all members of the community into account when they make in-politics decisions. The extent to which individuals are motivated in this way remains, of course, an empirical question. The point to be emphasized, however, is that any degree of “other-regardingness” can be incorporated, without difficulty, into the basic contractarian paradigm. The contractarian, or complex exchange, model of politics depends not at all on the postulated motivation of the individual actors.

The contractarian model does depend, however, on the presumption that the “public good” or “private good,” or whatever mixture of these might be relevant, is internally conceived and hence is subjective to the person who acts. A person may, for example, behave strictly in accordance with the idealist’s norm; he may try to take into account the interests of all others in the community. But such interests enter as arguments in the choice calculus internally to the participant; the interests of others are imputed to them as estimated by the participant. These interests cannot reflect expressions of others in any direct manner.

Brennan and Buchanan, The Reason of Rules, p. 42. 

People tend to think altruistic preferences are entirely desirable. I think, however, that many of the meddlesome preferences which reduce liberty are based on misguided altruism. Paternalist health promotion policies seem to derive from concern for the welfare of individuals, combined with a conviction that the paternalist knows their interests better than they themselves.