Part 1: 1988-2003
This was a really great read. Maybe my favorite of your articles
It's interesting that your intellectual ideas seem to have mostly solidified by the early 2000s at the latest, at least going by footnote dates. The core beliefs seem to have come into focus by the 1990s.
A lot of this is obviously your age, but I think it's just also the case that the sorts of ideas you espouse seemed a lot more tenable back then. During the same era I was also a libertarian that probably would have shared most of your views (maybe not all).
Have you had any major changes of heart in the 2010s or 2020s?
Very nice post! Quick devil's advocate question here. The world of supplements is largely unregulated, and consumers spend billions on St. John's Wart and colloidal silver. Why doesn't the free supplement industry generate anything positive at all? Real academic studies tend to show all these supplements consumers waste billions on at best do nothing, are occasionally harmful, and often don't even contain the materials advertised. I'd like to see this industry at a minimum taxed. Part of the problem is the natural human desire for there to be a magic wonder pill which will solve all their health problems.
All that said, agreed that the FDA processes are too slow, and particularly in the Covid vaccine case, should have been expedited in a number of ways (larger sample size, mix the first and second rounds of the tests and administer on a rolling basis). And also that this is a pretty common feature of regulation in a number of spheres (nuclear, housing, prediction markets, etc.).
Huh. You and I first read Rand and Rothbard within a year of each other. We were both at Berkeley for three of each of our four years. We subscribed to many of the same mailing lists and newsletters. We both did the LSAT and GRE. But I went the law-school route. I guess we are each other’s road not travelled.
Now I’m curious where you lived at Berkeley!
This is a great write up. It really does confirm to me why I find Bryan the most confusing of the writers I read every day - and there's a bunch of them all over many spectrums.
One point that really confused me though. I found the Mises quote on voter irrationality ("The world inclines to Socialism ....") much more eloquent than the Rand quote (which I thought was borderline incomprehensible) that Bryan states is more eloquent. No accounting for taste.
Rothbard was a dummy in many respects, but he wasn't so dumb that he didn't eventually figure out that if you don't like living in third world country, then you have to stop third world people coming to your country. And if libertarianism can't handle that, too bad for libertarianism. You'll figure it out too one day, but unlike Rothbard you won't get to live out your remaining years in a majority-white country.
P.S. While Austrian rejection of probability is a bit silly, what's really silly is rejecting Austrian Business Cycle theory and, as a result, being a prolific 'libertarian' who never engages with the reality that the whole concept of a 'free market economy' is actually one big sick joke when production of the single most important good (money) is in the hands of a cartel whose operating principle is *explicitly* to make it possible for people to become very rich by committing fraud (FRB), without going bankrupt like they would on a free market.
Ah yes, the good old days in Berkeley . . .
Bryan left out the part about how he and I carried on lengthy email exchanges about the divergences between Austrian and neoclassical views concerning the foundations of utility theory, particularly on the issue of indifference. I don't recall the accusation of "behaviorism" being raised thirty years ago, so I'll have to chime in now to point out that the only preferences that are relevant to a logic of purposeful action are precisely those that give rise to a concrete instance of an action. A state of wallowing in indifference between two possible courses of action prior to making a decision only tells us that one is not yet prepared to act; as long as one is indifferent the mental process of evaluating the available options is not yet complete.
The mental processes preceding a choice of action constitute an interesting subject of study in their own right, but the objection to including them in deductive economic theories is that while the primordial fact of human purposefulness is a self-evident, unfalsifiable, universally-applicable truth about human beings that provides an unimpeachable starting point for economics, psychological generalizations about humans are not self-evident and require _a posteriori_ validation and often many qualifications. Economics and psychology are based on vastly different methods, and even different branches of psychology (contrasting introspective data and analogical inferences about inner states versus external perceptual data, for example) exhibit significant differences in methodology from each other as well as from economics.
Of course, these methodological distinctions often get lost in a positivist fog of assuming that the only valid empirical generalizations are those that that are established by controlled experiments. However, it is the neoclassicals (most famously the Chicago school) who commit this particular philosophical sin, not Austrians.
I tried the links for why I'm not objectivist and why I'm not an Austrian and couldn't find them. Probably need to use internet archive or something for them.
The theme of Atlas Shrugged is the role of the mind in mans life, not capitalism.
What do you think your life would be like without the George Mason offer? 'm struggling to imagine you in a normal corporate job.
“ I know by introspection that I have preferences that I fail to act upon. And while I do not have telepathy, it is overwhelmingly probable that the same holds for my fellow human beings. Once you grant this principle, the most distinctive Austrian doctrines crumble.”
Do those doctrines require that we lack such externally unobservable preferences, or merely point out that they in fact cannot be observed by others? I’m not sure which doctrines you refer to, but the one you specifically attack seems like a straw man.
Are Austrian preference rankings observable? Becker wants preferences to be stable, but that requires him to link changes in behavior to changes in prices and endowments. He avoids the problem by assuming the unseen is unchanging. I’m not sure how learning gets integrated, if it can.
Mises thought he was reasoning about social facts. Friedman and Becker wanted to build mathematical models, which might be more or less accurate for making predictions, but made no claim to literal truth. I’m can see some benefits and costs to each approach.
Wasn’t Mises' major contribution his kicking off the socialist calculation debate? Economists overlooked it for a long time, and it’s not clear that many now understand his point that a central planner is unable to reliably make utility improving decisions without a market in capital goods.
I am surprised that Hayek doesn't come up here at all. Maybe that is worth writing about at some point.
“..when I cornered my parents or friends or teachers or random fellow students - I played devil’s advocate for Rand’s Objectivism.”.... Got it! I try to remember the grace hidden within these things - these fashions - these ideas - particularly (especially) when I’m dealing with highschool and college kids and (cringe) new employees. 30-something’s? Not so much. But then, isn’t 40 the new 20?
Do you ever reflect on the possibility of path dependency in your views (and those of others naturally)? For example, suppose you had discovered GA Cohen (one of the more sophisticated Marxists) first, would you have been enamored with him, then viewed Rand and Rothbard more critically, the way (I assume) you critically viewed marxists when you read them in light of your prior reading of libertarians? I wonder if many people don’t basically just recapitulate the views of the first thinker or group of thinkers to impress them.