Collingwood refutes Caplan thus

Bryan Caplan, in his "Why I am not an Austrian economist" paper, claims that it is perfectly possible to choose things based on indifference. (As I recall, without his paper at hand at the moment, the example he used was plucking a pair of socks from his drawer: he was indifferent among the various pairs, but still chose one.)

R.G. Collingwood explains why this does not qualify as a choice:

"Choice is choice between alternatives, and these alternatives must be distinguishable, or they are not alternatives; moreover, one must in someway present itself as more attractive than the other, or it cannot be chosen." -- The Idea of Nature, p. 41

What Caplan chose in his example was to get some socks. What he did in the drawer was to randomly grab one pair, not to choose it.

Does anyone want to co-author a note to the Southern Economic Journal on this point?

22 comments:

  1. I am willing to co-author, as long as I don't have to actually do any of the work.

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    1. The problem is that we can't have both co-authors participating under that arrangement.

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    2. Maybe we can get Bob to be third author and have him do the work. It's Win/Win.

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  2. For real, a few years ago I tried to send in a Note on another of Caplan's points, and the editor at the time (don't know if same person) said, "We're taking journal in a different direction." I get the sense: "I can't believe the last guy ran Caplan's critique of this scholasticism."

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  3. Gene,

    Collingwood is awesome! On your suggestion, I have bought Speculum Mentis and "The Idea of Nature"; I plan to buy all of his books. I am still working my way through Experience and It's Modes, however. It is an amazing book.

    I know that this is off topic, Gene, but aside from Keith Ward, do you know of any other contemporary Idealists out there...?

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    1. Alex, check out the British Idealism specialty sub-group of the Political Studies Association: I think we have about 100 members. Also, Imprint, who published my last book, has a whole Idealism series. And Claes Ryn of Catholic U. is a descendant of Croce, who was an Italian idealist.

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    2. Gene,

      I feel as though I have found a *goldmine*. Unbelievable! I have so much reading to do it is almost intimidating...

      *sigh* I would love to get a PhD, but I wish there was some money in philosophy. I know of too many folks who have been in post-doc hell.

      ~Alex

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  4. Gene: I'm surprised to see you of all people alluding in your title to Johnson's "refutation" of Berkeley. That would imply, given your views on Berkeley, that your "refutation" of Caplan needs to be similarly scare-quoted! (-;

    While we're on the subject of bad refutations of Berkeley, have you heard:

    Bishop Berkeley
    Whispers darkly,
    "If I don't see you,
    You don't be you."

    Cheers

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    1. Yes, Kevin, I meant to be ironical in the title.

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  5. Gene, I don't think Caplan made the point that you're critiquing. Rothbard criticized mainstream economists' invocation of indifference, by saying indifference cannot be revealed in action. Caplan's response to that is basically to say "So what?" Here's what he says:

    "Just as there is more to my action than my behavior, there is more to my preferences than my action. I can have all sorts of preferences that are not - and could not be - revealed in action. For example, my preference for ice cream yesterday can no longer be revealed, since I had no ice cream yesterday and any present action regarding ice cream would merely reveal a present preference for it, not a past one. And yet, I have introspective knowledge of my ice cream preferences from yesterday. Similarly, I can never reveal my preference for products at prices other than the market price, but by introspection I can know them.
    In precisely the same way, I can know some cases in which I am indifferent. I am often indifferent between the colors of clothes; though I pick one color, I know that I would have picked the other if the prices were not equal. The behaviorist might deny the reality of my mental states, but clearly that is not the route Mises or Rothbard would want to take. Indeed, Mises and Rothbard themselves use hypothetical preferences in other contexts. The interaction of supply and demand let us observe but a single point - the equilibrium price and quantity - but nevertheless Rothbard draws demand curves showing the quantity desired at all possible prices. Similarly, one can only observe that I choose a green sweater; but this does not rule out the possibility that I was actually indifferent between the green sweater and the blue sweater."

    He's not saying that the action was based on indifference. He's just saying that just because we can't observe indifference in action doesn't mean that we can't know it exists via other means, such as introspection.

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    1. Can you provide a link to this text?

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    2. I think that Caplan's quote is a bit muddled here, especially in terms of economic statements. Economics is a positive science, therefor, action is the only real data of inquiry to the economist.

      He (Caplan) is attempting to say that we can identify preferences without action. To me, that seems absurd in an economic framework. If we continue on in this line of thinking, then any action that occurs cannot be explained positively, and furthermore, all normative concepts automatically become part of the economics framework, even if they have not been engaged in (i.e. they have not been acted upon). So then, opinions can then find themselves within the arena of economic enquiry.

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    3. Here:
      econfaculty.gmu.edu/bcaplan/whyaust.htm

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    4. Thanks, Keshav. I think my analysis stands: "I am often indifferent between the colors of clothes; though I pick one color..."

      He did not *pick* the color is he was indifferent: he just randomly grabbed one.

      And here is the Rothbard quote he thinks he is refuting: "The crucial fallacy is that indifference cannot be a basis for action."

      Rothbard does not say indifference cannot exist, he says it can't be the basis for one's action.

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    5. Gene, I think all he's trying to say is "I am often indifferent between different-colored clothes; though I buy a piece of clothing that happens to be of one color, I know that I would have bought the piece of clothing that happens to be other if the prices were not equal."

      You say "And here is the Rothbard quote he thinks he is refuting." But Caplan isn't trying to refute that quote at all. Like I said his reaction to that quote is basically "So what?" Caplan is trying to refute the position that that statement implies that indifference doesn't exist. He says that Rothbard believes that mainstream economists are doing something illegitimate when they draw indifference curves and write U(x) = U(y) for two two different things x and y.

      Perhaps you think that Caplan is mischaracterizing Rothbard's views?

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    6. Keshav, I disagree with how you are reading this. You may be right, and I may be wrong, but right now you haven't convinced me.

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    7. You disagree that Caplan is accusing Rothbard of believing that indifference does not exist? He specifically says this:

      "The crucial assumption - shared by both Mises and Rothbard - is that no preference can exist which cannot be revealed in action. But why assume this? Is this not a peculiar importation of behaviorism into a body of economic thought which purports to be militantly anti-behavioral?"

      He's saying that Rothbard is mistakenly concluding that indifference cannot exist just because it can't be revealed in action.

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    8. "You disagree that Caplan is accusing Rothbard of believing that indifference does not exist?"

      What? I never said that! If you're not even going to pay attention to what I have written, please let's stop!

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    9. And anyway, Caplan is wrong here: "The crucial assumption - shared by both Mises and Rothbard - is that no preference can exist which cannot be revealed in action. "

      I don't think either of them ever said that.

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    10. "What? I never said that! If you're not even going to pay attention to what I have written, please let's stop!" I apologize Gene, I think we're having a miscommunication. You said
      "And here is the Rothbard quote he thinks he is refuting," and I responded that Caplan isn't trying to refute that quote at all, but rather trying to refute a conclusion he thinks Rothbard is drawing from that. So when you said we're reading Caplan differently, I assumed you meant that I was mistaken about what Caplan was attacking Rothbard for. Did I misunderstand you?

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    11. "I don't think either of them ever said that." OK, but let me ask you this: did Mises or Rothbard ever say that indifference doesn't exist and/or criticize mainstream economists' use of indifference curves? Because that's what Caplan is alleging. He isn't accusing Mises and Rothbard of actually stating a behaviorist principle that the only preferences are the ones revealed. He thinks they're implicitly relying on a fallacious behaviorist assumption, even though they've explicitly criticized behaviorism in other contexts.

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  6. My question is what insight does this provide us with? I've always been a little skeptical of Austrian economics and its "action axiom".

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