Praxeology is Batshit Bonkers

I doubt many people know what Praxeology is despite its followers regarding it as the single most important and applicable advance in all of intellectual history. It’s more relevant than you might think. It inhabits the thoughts of many pro-market, anti-social responsibility think tanks and lobby groups. I think it’s only a matter of time before UKIP incorporate into their public manifesto.

Economics is split into ‘Schools’, one of which was called the Austrian School, which was largely similar to any neoclassical economics school until a guy called Ludwig von Mises came along and, in my opinion, fundamentally changed the school’s basic assertions. He kept the von in his name because he was a colossal snob and moved to the US  where an anarcho-capitalist movement was building political steam. The movement took the title ‘The Libertarian Party’ (a word that until then meant something completely different.) So called ‘Austrian Economics’ was chosen as its technical basis.

I say so called because nowadays ‘Austrian Economics’ means anything Mises said[2] and ‘Austrian Economists’ means a bunch of self-publishing, capitalist-funded apologists that unanimously conclude that capitalism is the answer. If you take a look at Mises.org you’ll see an obvious personality cult that literally praises Mises whenever possible.

Mises came up with Praxeology, which he presented as “the (not a) science of human action” (while spending a lot of time explaining that science is useless for understanding economic behavior). This is taken as the philosophical basis of Austrian economics. Taken in the sense that I’m not sure to what extent Austrian economists used praxeology, but Libertarians today seem to regard its position with respect to Austrian Economics as undisputed.

So, here’s the thing… Anarcho-capitalism smacks of religion. You have The Market. The Market is always right. You can’t ‘know’ The Market because it’s mysterious and if you try to know it or control it it’ll strike you down with righteous fury. If you think The Market is wrong you are wrong. There are no alternatives. There can be no compromise. This is just true, get over it. Global warming is a myth.

More similarities can be found in Praxeology texts. For example: Non-Overlapping Magisteria. This is the argument that theology and science deal with different aspects of reality and therefor cannot comment on each other’s findings. This is recreated explicitly in Praxeology, and some. They argue that “human action” can only be understood through pure-thought logic and that empirical evidence is of no consequence because it can’t prove or falsify economic theories.

Praxeology is a body of philosophical work. It presents itself as both complete and self-validating. It proves itself. It uses a kind of custom variant of logic, missing out a lot of key findings, like incompleteness. Like any quasi-philosophical crap it makes heavy use of special, private definitions of otherwise common words, while not making much effort to make that explicit. I think this is, in a sense, a useful property of the theory: it makes it very hard to think about competing ideas because it’s just confusing. It’s a bit like how companies use custom power adapters; it keeps you in the eco-system. For example, “true” means something like “valid” and/or “consistent”; and the terms “valid” and “consistent” themselves are often conflated. Formal logic allows a set of statements to be both valid and inconsistent; Praxeology doesn’t seem to allow that, or at least when this situation arises it’s discarded without justification. The same is true of words like “right”, “freedom”, “truth”, “valid”, “action”, “act”, “logic”, “axiom”, “aggression”, “state”… all of which have special definitions (sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit) in Praxeology and are often defined as derivatives of other concepts within Praxeology, making their use confusing.

Praxeology plays a strange game of switching between deduction and induction and back again (incoherently insisting it is both at once with only the fuzziest justification) to make statements that are asserted as empirical statements but defended as deductive ones. The only support for this necessary habit is to insist on the existence of a third category of statement beyond a priori and a posteriori, without providing any formalized way of deducing which of these categories a statement belongs to (arguably the third category is axioms, more on that later). This imposed ambiguity is actually used to allow unsupported shifts between deduction and induction. They argue that while many might think that a statement is either a priori or a posteriori, that in reality a statement can be a synthetic a priori (one that is deductive but tells you something about reality [5]). This is wobbly already because it’s like saying “a statement is verifiable, not verifiably, or something else”, but beyond that it also betrays a faulty idea of what a statement is. They imply that “all statements belong to one and only one of these three categories and you can just tell by looking at it”. This is not quite right. The statement “the moon is made of cheese” is neither a priori nor a posteriori in of itself. Only in it’s use in some system of statements does it become one of those things. Statements can be either, depending on use. Praxeologists assert statements, don’t specify what their usage is, and use that ambiguity to allow the impression that the statements are synthetic a priori statements by varying how it is framed.

You can get a taste of that when Austrian economists talk about governments causing inflation…then, when pursued, explain that they define inflation as increase in the money supply so their presented assertion about the world is just a statement about their own private definitions of common words[3].

The whole structure rests on one statement, the Action Axiom, from which Mises derived everything else. The action axiom is simply “human action in purposeful behaviour”. Mises then went on to argue that action is comprised of “categories of action” like “ends”, “means”, “profit”, “causation”, “time”, “space”. He argued that an “action” has a concept of “ends” built into it, or put another way, that an agent considering action must have an concept of end. To me, that is a boldly empirical claim, one that if demonstrated would be worth a Nobel Prize in Neuroscience. Of course, if forced to defend the assertion, it would be defended as a deductive statement. It’s as if “action includes ends” is just what those words mean… but also a statement about the world… but they don’t need to prove it empirically… so it’s deductive… so it’s just what those words mean…but it is definitely true…but they kind of use the words “true” and “valid” interchangeably…and “valid” often means “derivable from the action axiom”…which is true…because it is…

The Action Axiom is fraught with ambiguity. Is breathing purposeful? If so is every breath an action or are all breaths one action? Is every step an action with it’s own explicit purpose? What’s a purpose? Are there purposes to be found? If not in what sense is the Axiom true? Is converting oxygen to carbon dioxide purposeful? Is something not an action if it isn’t purposeful? If I don’t know I’m doing it is it an action? What are unintended consequences? How would you prove the axiom false? If the answer (which I believe it is) is that you can’t falsify it then I can use it to show that every molecule of oxygen you breath corresponds to a distinct and conceived purpose. Decomposing actions like this leads to the problem that the sum effort in performing individual acts is far higher than treating the whole breath as a single act, and that sum increases the more you arbitrarily split the action.. so the Praxeologist can’t argue that arbitrary division always adds to the same total. Obviously it limits at infinity, which has to be wrong.

Praxeologists… Praxeologians… use the word “axiom” a lot, which they define as something like “a statement that cannot be argued against without employing it”. Actually this is, again, a private definition. It’s not what an axiom is to everyone else in the world. An axiom is simply and underived statement. That’s it. Any statement can be used as an axiom. For example “the moon is made of cheese” is an axiom if it you use it as an axiom. That’s how logic works. It doesn’t deal with meaning and it doesn’t tell you anything about the world. It’s just a bunch of rules about how to derive statements from statements. Your axioms are your chosen starting point. If you can demonstrate that your axioms are true then any other statements you derive from those axioms are true, right? So, for example, if my chosen axioms are “the moon is made of cheese” and “cheese contains milk” then I can derive the statement “the moon contains milk”. If the axioms were true then all three of those statements would be true… or reality is crazy. This is going somewhere.

I really want to focus on one part of Praxeology; is it’s most clever and batshit bonkers idea: Performative Contradiction. It kind of follows from the their idea of what an axiom is. They never prove the Action Axiom (if they did it wouldn’t really be an axiom) instead they argue that a human can’t argue that humans don’t act without acting, therefor humans act. Many are very impressed with this idea. Arguing is an (intentional) action so arguing against the Action Axiom proves the Action Axiom. Brilliant and literally ridiculous.

The first problem is that contradiction happens between statements. A statement can contradict a statement. An act can’t contradict a statement. So there’s that. The act of asserting a statement is not a statement in the argument being asserted. Obviously. Perhaps the act demonstrates the arguer is a hypocrite. So by saying “the moon is made of cheese” I prove that I must believe that humans act with intention? The problem is that that still doesn’t prove the axiom is true. It simply demonstrates, at best, I presented a collection of statements that contain at least one contradiction. It doesn’t establish which side of the contradiction is false. If I say “the moon is made of cheese” and “the moon is not made of cheese”, those two statements collectively are invalid, but there is no way to deduce which of those statements is true from just those statements. Similarly the “performative contradiction” doesn’t establish that the axiom is true, only that it is either true or it’s antithesis is true, but that’s just an axiom of logic itself (it’s the definition of ‘not’). The performative contradiction argument only really works if the axiom is true, because if it is true then I did act with intention (regardless of whether I believe that I did or believe that I didn’t)… if it’s true it’s true. So what?* If it isn’t true then I didn’t act with intention regardless of what I actually said. The possibility remains that the counter-arguer doesn’t believe that humans act with intention, only that they believe they do, in which cause they could assert “humans believe they act with intention” and “humans don’t act with intention” without contradiction and therefor without proving the action axiom. This opens up the possibility of constructing an argument that disagrees with the action axiom without using the action axiom. So the action axiom isn’t an Austrian axiom.

In fact the Action Axiom isn’t event a genuine axiom. Another common property of internet nonsense is the use of hidden axioms. These are things that are axiomatic in the theory but never explicitly stated. This can be done intentionally or not, it’s hard to tell. Praxeology has a lot of them. If the Action Axiom is indeed proved by use of Performative Contradiction in an argument then the Action Axiom clearly isn’t axiomatic; the content of the Performative Contradiction argument is. The theory should, if it were proper formal logic, construct Performative Contradiction from other statements or it is itself axiomatic. Contradiction can be taken as given from logic theory itself but the theory has to establish that making an argument can somehow prove that the arguer has assumed something and how to derive what that something is. This is never given as far as I can tell but more importantly it isn’t derived from the Action Axiom. It’s just there. So the whole “praxeology proves itself” is plain wrong.

There are many other hidden axioms in Praxeology. Big ones too. Like “homesteading”; also known as “original appropriation”. It is held that people own themselves (which is bonkers in of itself). A statement that is defended with Performative Contradiction (bonkersly).  They then argue that owning something can only happen by voluntary exchange or original appropriation, by which I mean that they are established as congruent but not proved, and further that something can become owned once a moral agent “mixes his labour (as far as I can tell there are literally no women in Praxeology except Ayn Rand)” with the whatever it is. That’s right… mixes labour with stuff. Those people who snigger at “leftists” and “socialists” and “liberals” for being “economically illiterate” believe that mixing an action with a substance makes sense. This mixing is never derived. It’s just held that it can be done. How this mixing causes something to become owned is never demonstrated or derived from the Axiom Axiom. It’s not even proved by Performative Contradiction. Even further they make unfounded leaps; you “mix your labour” with soil but end up owning a geographic region. How? How do you “mix your labour” with a geographic region? As far as I can tell the only validation of homesteading is that it doesn’t, and cannot, be an act of aggression and therefor doesn’t breach their non-aggression principal. But this is clearly not true. I suspect that if you push a Praxeologian on it they’ll likely fall back to that being what the word “aggression” means i.e. a breach of property rights and nature has no property rights (another hidden axiom).

While Praxeology is presented as logically infallible it skirts over all kinds of ambiguity. A good example is the idea of a “threat.” You can’t initiate force, but you can use force to stop your property rights being breached, which is the basis of self/property defense. This argument is intrinsically flawed because you can’t use force to stop something that has already happened. If someone invades your property they have already done it. Using force can never stop them from doing it. If you use force before they invade your property you are the originator. Their theory only seems to permit something that it also forbids. It does however allow someone to respond to a threat but does so in a categorical way: if someone breaches your property rights then you can breach theirs (note that to a Praxeologian that includes murder). Praxeology removes the problematic ambiguity of lesser moral systems… but what constitutes a threat? A threat is, and can only be, a perception in the mind of the threatened. Remember that these are people who complain about the arbitrary power of states to deprive you of property, but have no problem peddling the idea that if someone steals your pen you can murder them. Of course, surely, no Praxeologist would argue that murdering someone over a pen is something that should be happening in any functional society, but how do they resolve that inherent ambiguity? We can employ arbitration, I have no objections to systems that need arbitration, but I do have a problem when people claim that they have a logically airtight moral system that generates such ambiguity. Praxeology doesn’t set a good foundation for resolution of what constitutes a threat, because, ultimately, who has the authority to deny anyone the right to murder a pen stealer? Any such authority is, by their own arguments, invalid. Some might argue that the only force that is allowed is whatever is necessary to return the pen to it’s owner, but, again, what is necessary? The approach also renders any third party force intervention invalid, because the third parties rights were never breached. The only way around that is to allow the third party to joint-own everything that could be stolen, granting them rights to use force against theives… sounds familiar. Or perhaps they could argue that anyone whose property rights are indirectly breached by the pen owner’s act to return the pen (say the pen owner’s boss who lost a day’s labour because the pen owner skipped work to murder someone) also have the right to use force against the pen thief, but who isn’t in that group? Something I have never understood about this is what happens if the pen thief kills the pen owner? Very caustic social castigation?

The incorporation of threat into Praxeology also leads to a clear self-contradiction with other parts of the theory. Praxeologians hold that the point of property norms is to minimize conflict (another hidden axiom) and that exclusive private property norms are the only realistic option[6] (which is a fantastic coincidence because by a completely unrelated argument exclusive property rights are undeniable). They argue that “argumentation” can never cause conflict but that is clearly false. A threat is a statement and arguments contain statements, so an argument can contain threats of any type. And anyone can be the target of the threat. So any “argumentation” between any two people can constitute a threat to any number of people. Obviously. They allow, by the use of the concept of threat, for “argumentation” to be a literal source of conflict. And, even more, the inclusion of a threat in an argument can happen without breaching any “argumentation” principals. For example, the arguer might not know it’s a threat. So there is no get out clause. They can’t say “the inclusion of the threat terminates the argumentation and avoids the contradiction” but even if that were valid argumentation would still clearly have the potential to lead to conflict. The only remaining defense is that responding to a threat doesn’t count as conflict, which would show that a world filled with people brutalizing each other all day long, because some third party argued that some pens might get nicked, is perfectly congruent with Praxeological morality, while a world in which no-one kills anyone but everyone pays tax isn’t and, as such, that this system of thought minimizes conflict by simply defining it a certain way. Good work guys.

So far I have dealt with Praxeology on a mostly logical level but there are some aspects that are worrying, rather than just absurd. They argue all rights are derived from self-ownership, which is itself just a special example of property right. But who has rights? You might think that those that have the right to not be harmed are those capable of suffering, right? Wrong. Harm to others is framed purely in terms of damage of property; the individual’s body being property. Rights are granted to “moral agents” and “moral agents” are individuals capable of deliberately respecting or breaching property rights. If a given being is not capable of conceptualizing their principals, like the principal of private property or self ownership or purposeful action, then they don’t have rights. That’s how they exclude animals. What is worrying is how easy it would be to include anyone in that category and how, coincidentally, that category seems to include anyone who disagrees with them. Not believing their fundamental principals is the same as not being able to deliberate over their implications. How can someone truly deliberately respect someone’s property rights while not believing they have them? So if you disagree you are either wrong or you have no basis claim your rights can be breached. Sound familiar? Like the annihilation of entire indigenous populations? It also demonstrates a tragic irony: no one has rights unless it can be established that they are moral agents… how would that be established?

[1] At best all Mises did was show that humans think that humans act with intention and can’t think otherwise, but that’s a pretty generous description, really he showed that any human that thinks the way Mises did will find it hard to conceive of themselves as not being intentional (we can easily conceive of others as not intentional), but clearly not impossible because his only proof requires humans to be able to at least conceive of themselves as not being intentional actors else how could they, even in theory, form the invalid argument Mises needs to prove his Action Axiom?

[2] Although they convieniently miss out when Mises said that any regulation that is beneficial to the efficacy of the market is valid, citing fire regulation as something that no sane man could disagree with. Or how Mises didn’t believe “Fiat Currency” existed. They also don’t mention that Hayek thought that government control of interest rates could have no significant effect (they very much disagree with him on that) because the expansion caused by private bank lending far outpaced it’s effects. That one isn’t so yay-capitalism.

[3] All government managed currencies inflate because that’s what those words really mean to them. They’ll never point out the epistemic invalidity of data gathering if people find data to back their ideas up but no data can prove them false.

[4] This video contains a few more examples of this similarity. A few minutes in Hoppe starts a slightly mocking attack on empirical scientists (positivists) with an inaccurate caricature of the scientific method (he hedges early on by saying he used to be an expert in this but forgot most of it). He says that they lack the luxury of absolute certainty possessed by praxeologians and that they repeatedly modify predictions until data fits them. You can find identical recreations of these criticisms in fundamentalist/creation science/intelligent design literature. He then argues that if Praxeology was accepted economists would all be out of work and as a result they all have a vested interest in opposing it (he missed out how Austrian Economists would also be out of work, but whatever). This persecution complex non-sequitur, again, can be found in anti-secularism texts; specifically that atheists like atheism and hate faith because it allows them to get away with their amoral way of life.

[5] I suspect that this is another special use. They seem to assume that a synthetic a priori tells you something about reality, but that’s not the classical meaning. A synthetic statement is one that asserts a concept not found in it’s subject concept (regardless of whether it refers to reality).

 [6] Yes, practicality is included in Praxeology despite it not accepting empirical methods.

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