Awful Austrians

by Swimmy5 min read12th Apr 200989 comments



Response to: The uniquely awful example of theism

Why is theism such an ever-present example of irrationality in this community? I think ciphergoth overstates the case. Even theism is not completely immune to evidence, as the acceptance of, say, evolution by so many denominations over time will testify. Theism is a useful whipping boy because it needs no introduction.

But I think the case is overstated for another reason. There are terrible epistemologies out there that are just as bad as theism's. Allow me to tell you a tale, of how I gave up my religion and my association with a school of economics at the same time.

I grew up in a southern Presbyterian church in the U.S. While I was taught standard pseudo-evidential defenses for belief, such as "creation science" and standard critiques of evolution, my church was stringently anti-evidentialist. Their preferred apologetic was something called presuppositionalism. It's certainly a minority apologetic among major defenders of Christianity today, especially compared to the cosmological or morality arguments. But it's a particularly rigorous attempt to defend beliefs against evidence nonetheless.

Presuppositionalism (in some forms) hangs on the problem of induction. We cannot ultimately justify any of our beliefs without first making some assumptions, otherwise we end in solipsism. Christianity, then, justifies itself not on evidence, but on internal consistency. It is ok for an argument to be ultimately circular, because all arguments are ultimately circular. Christianity alone maintains perfect worldview consistency when examined through this lens, and is therefore correct.

Since I've spent a lot of time thinking about this--it can take a considerable effort to change one's mind, after all--I can imagine innumerable things wrong with it, but they're not the focus of this entry. First, I just want to note how close it is to a kind of intro-level Bayesian understanding. Bayesians admit that we must have priors, that it's indeed nonsense to think we can even have an argument with one who doesn't. We must ultimately admit that certain justifications are going to be either recursive or based on priors. We believe that we should update our priors based on evidence, but there's nothing in the math that tells us we can't start with a prior for some position of 0% or 100%. (There is something in the math that tells us such probability assignments are very bad ideas, and we have more than enough cognitive bias literature that tells us we shouldn't be so damn overconfident. But then, what if you have a prior that keeps you from accepting such evidence?) It doesn't have any of the mathematical rigor, but it comes very close on a few major points.

This is why Bayesianism appealed to me. It seemed similar to the supposedly deep argument I understood for God's existence, like something I could actually work with. (This is why, I think, anti-religion Overcoming Bias posts didn't throw me into defense mode.) This is also why I used to find Austrian economics so compelling.

For those who aren't familiar, Austrian economics is a radical free-market school, the intellectual product of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek, and Murray Rothbard. Before I continue, in hopes of taking any Austrian economists reading this out of defense mode: I still find many Austrian insights useful, I admire Hayek for his work on knowledge and institutions, and Mises for the economic calculation argument. But the first section on epistemology in Mises' magnum opus, Human Action, is probably the best example of Dark Side Epistemology I have yet seen outside of religious apologetics or standard woo-woo. What does economics (or in Mises' case, praxeology, an expanded science of all human action that seeks to understand more than resource allocation) investigate? After excluding psychology, Mises tells us,

No laboratory experiments can be performed with regard to human action. We are never in a position to observe the change in one element only, all other conditions of the event remaining unchanged. . . The information conveyed by historical experience cannot be used as building material for the construction of theories and the prediction of future events. . . Neither experimental verification nor experimental falsification of a general proposition is possible in its field. (p. 31)

Well, ok. So how does economics tell us anything at all?

Praxeology is a theoretical and systematic, not a historical, science. . . It aims at knowledge valid for all instances in which the conditions exactly correspond to those implied in its assumptions and inferences. Its statements and propositions are not derived from experience. They are, like those of logic and mathematics, a priori. They are not subject to verification or falsification on the ground of experience and facts. They are both logically and temporally antecedent to any comprehension of historical facts. (p. 31)

In other words, the assumptions built into economics (which is a subset of praxeology)--people have preferences, are selfish (in the tautological sense--even altruist acts are self-serving to Mises), and they take rational action to satisfy those preferences--are unquestionable, ultimate givens. No evidence could ever confirm or disconfirm the predictions of economics, because it is an a priori science, just like math or logic. It is deductive--it starts from some assumptions, and its case rests on those assumptions alone, not on any evidence. (And he has a word for those of us seeking instances of human irrationality. On page 103, he claims out that any sign of preference reversals can never be considered irrationality, because preferences cannot be considered stable, even across spans of a few seconds. If your by-the-second preference changing leads you to be pumped for money, so be it. You're still by assumption a rational actor, satisfying his desires.)

You can understand why I think this sounds so similar to presuppositionalism. And, if you've been following Overcoming Bias, you can see how a Bayesian would differ from these views.

I saw the same problems with presuppositionalism as I did Mises' epistemology. So what if it's deductive? What if your deductive logic doesn't conform to the real world? This could be true of math just as well as economics. What if 2 + 2 didn't really equal 4 in our world? Could there be any way to convince you? If the answer is no, then aren't you just starting from the bottom line? If your deductively valid economic argument makes a prediction that is observed to never be true in the real world, would this not affect your rating of your deductions' usefulness? If your deductions are non-disprovable, why do you make so many claims regarding their predictive value? What does your logic not predict?

To really solidify the feeling that Mises' predictions about economics are comparable to the Bible's predictions about how the world works, consider the following. As I mentioned, Mises defines self-interest tautologically:

Praxeology is indifferent to the ultimate goals of action. Its findings are valid for all kinds of action irrespective of the ends aimed at. It is a science of means, not of ends. It applies the term happiness in a purely formal sense. In the praxeological terminology the proposition: man's unique aim is to attain happiness, is tautological. It does not imply any statement about the state of affairs from which man expects happiness. (p. 15)

However, Mises specifically predicts economic outcomes based on self-interest as, well, actual self-interest. For instance, on page 763, he proclaims that price controls will lead to rationing by non-price means. But this is only true if the provider of the good in question is attempting to maximize profit; if the producer is willing to take a hit in the wallet out of the goodness of his heart for his customers' well-being, as Mises' tautological definition of self-interest allows, a small price ceiling could conceivably have no effect.

So when are we to believe Mises? When he says economics is a deductive logic that can never be tested in the real world, or when he makes predictions that can be tested in the real world? When should we believe presuppositional apologists? When they claim that "the Bible is the word of God" is an ultimate given, or when they tell us all about miracles (evidence for God) that we can test in the real world (by finding evidence for a global flood)?

The insistence on placing assumptions further and further away from our real ultimate givens, our real recursions, our real mystical priors, is a dark side epistemology. If we can devise a test for one of our assumptions, by golly, as rationalists we're called to test it. If that assumption fails, we have to perform a proper Bayesian update. We have to use all of our evidence available to us.

So to answer what other forms of irrationality we can regularly cite, I'd like to nominate Austrian economics, or at least those of its followers who still eschew the introduction of statistics, behavorial economics, or experimental economics into the discipline. It certainly isn't as pervasive as religion. It's a very minor branch of a specific discipline. Not all of its conclusions are wrong, but I think there's at least a little evidence of dial-cranking in Austrianism. And I think its epistemology is quite awful, as awful as the most evidence-defying justification for theism.

Reference: Ludwig von Mises. Human Action. San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1996.