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Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Libertarian Class Analysis and Methodological Individualism

Chidem Kudras discusses a paper by Ralph Raico over at Think Markets.What this paper, and similar class analysis by, say, Murray Rothbard, illustrates is the actual way that methodological individualism functions in many libertarians' thinking: it is an ideological weapon with which to dismiss social explanations that one doesn't like, to be picked up when handy but dropped whenever another weapon will suit better. Thus, when, say, someone makes the point that individuals preferences themselves are often not a matter of their own choosing but are, as it were, handed to them by their social environment, including marketing, then such libertarians can load and fire methodological individualism and avoid having to really address the issue. On the other hand, when class analysis might serve to advance a case against the State, then methodological individualism is put back in the closet and ignored.

9 comments:

  1. A lot of right-libertarians play this game with welfare economics too. (Probably also with economic efficiency.) One possibly minor example is the libertarian critique of fair-trade consumerism. If you suggest that it's just individual actors willingly pricing a basket of labor and environmental norms into their purchase and individual sellers choosing to meet that demand, they respond that it's bad because it causes comparative harm to the class of farmers not employed by fair-trade producers, or to the fair-trade producers themselves (welfare argument) or that it encourages "overproduction" of coffee/sugar - however the hell they're sure they can define that (efficiency).

    That's a specific example, but the general form recurs.

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  2. Meanwhile if you protest sweatshop conditions somewhere the same people turn around and argue that nobody forced the workers to take those jobs (sometimes even true!) so you have no business complaining on their behalf.

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  3. Wait until you see tomorrow's post, Jim!

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  4. Methodology is applied epistemology. Methodological individualism a la Hayek et al. is epistemological, not ontological. Your potentially quite valid point about culture's role in the formation of individual values is completely irrelevant (and not disputed by any methodological individualists of which I am aware). This is pretty common knowledge. Consult JSTOR and search "methodological individualism."

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  5. "Methodology is applied epistemology. Methodological individualism a la Hayek et al. is epistemological, not ontological."

    I really don't know what you're saying here -- if our way of knowing things doesn't reflect something about the things, then won't it be wack?

    "Your potentially quite valid point about culture's role in the formation of individual values is completely irrelevant ..."

    So say you. This looks like mere assertion to me.

    "and not disputed by any methodological individualists of which I am aware). This is pretty common knowledge."

    Yeah, and common knowledge to me, too. And common knowledge to Tony Lawson, Geoff Hodgson, Paul Lewis, and others who share my critique. So what?

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  6. "I really don't know what you're saying here -- if our way of knowing things doesn't reflect something about the things, then won't it be wack?"

    No, there's a reason epistemology and ontology are distinguished. If one agrees that individual values are completely formed by some combination of genetics and environment, this does not entail an argument for a method because it does not tell you the means by which you can come to know how genetics/environs form individual values. Methodology as the study of correct method has nothing to do with ontology (other than priors/premises, and no methodological individualism is premised on individual values forming in an isolated vacuum).

    Methodological individualism is based on unassailable epistemology simplistically summarized in something like "I can't know what you value better than you know what you value." It has nothing to do with the formation or fundamental nature of value i.e. ontology. Your point about society is irrelevant to methodological individualism, and many methodological individualists (Greif, Boettke, Hayek etc. etc.) including numerous libertarians have specifically argued for the significance of culture to the ontology of value and its revelation in economy and society.

    Furthermore, as any competent Marxian academic will tell you, "class" analysis and methodological individualism are not mutually exclusive. Class analysis as such is simply a categorical argument regarding practice (e.g. relationship to means of production, to state, etc.). It's not properly understood as collectivist "classes" of persons, but proposed categories of relation to some action or practice.

    The point here is that your post is incorrect in its implication that libertarians are deliberately not consistent in method.

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  7. "Methodology as the study of correct method has nothing to do with ontology..."

    Sorry, I think this is wrong. See, say, Lawson's work. We ONLY know things when we reflect their structure in our mind.

    'Methodological individualism is based on unassailable epistemology simplistically summarized in something like "I can't know what you value better than you know what you value."'

    Not only is that not unassailable, it's nonsense. We often don't know our own minds when someone else does.

    "Your point about society is irrelevant to methodological individualism..."

    Now you've merely asserted that twice. Do you think if you just keep saying it enough I will become convinced?

    "The point here is that your post is incorrect in its implication that libertarians are deliberately not consistent in method."

    I never said "deliberately."

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  8. Sorry, whakahekeheke, you've become boring and needlessly contentious. Goodbye.

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  9. I've always thought pretty much the same. Most libertarian favour methodological individualism, and they call them selves like that. But when they refer to "the State", they throw that analysis through the window.

    But I also consider MI and "the most comprehensive and basic" methodology for dealing any social event. The identity of the group is not the same as the *aggregate identity* of its members, but at any moment, the group *is* its members (and its identity is reflected by what members and non-members think about that group, idea which can have varying degrees of collectively applied properties and individually applied ones).

    Even when we think about practical matters, such as moral responsibility and punishment enforcement, methodological individualism applies and is the rule.

    By this, I don't mean in any way that MI is the most *practical* approach (for instance, thinking about collectives is more practical, not better in a "more refined" way, but more practical, and we should reach more advanced conclusions than we could using MI).

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