Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Quotable Mises

I think this is why, of all the various types of academics, pure philosophers tend to be my favorite. Sure, there's an element of philosophy in every branch of academia, even if it's just the natural consequence of a life spent justifying studious repose to oneself, but pure philosophers come from a place of boundless inquisitiveness that I feel imbues their work a fundamental humbleness that I respect. I can imagine philosophers making all manner of points that I might find intellectually feeble and morally reprehensible, but as a class of academic, I can't really picture them as so arrogant in their faith as to phrase a rhetorical question with the kind of dickish self-congratulation that Ludwig von Mises does in the following quote:

“Once you begin to admit that it is the duty of the government to control your consumption of alcohol, what can you reply to those who say the control of book and ideas is much more important?”

First off, let's just doff our cap to the fella (and you just know it's got to be a guy) who considers that particular line quotable. Excellent editorial decision there, champ.

Seriously, though, take a good look at that sentence and just bask in the glow cast off by the author's ego. He's so proud of his reasoning that he decides that further investigation into his line of reasoning is not only unnecessary, but even considering it would be a waste of time. “What can you reply”, he asks? Really, he implies, isn't restricting any right the moral equivalent of restricting all rights?

Well, no. No it's not. But can't you just imagine Mises giving himself a solo high-five when he came up with that one? Had they been invented at that time, of course.

It's actually shockingly easy to come up a response to Mises' ridiculous straw man argument. Here's a response crafted by an overly tired blogger at 4AM (for the record, it was me):

The difference is in proximity to the social ill being combated, as well as the difference between an 'active' ill and a 'passive' one.

Consumption of alcohol as a social ill is a PRIMARY and SECONDARY issue. Primarily speaking, the consumption itself is a direct cause of problems through personal physical illness caused by drinking to excess. Its secondary, societal effects include increased crime as well as contributions to persistent cycles of poverty, addiction, and abuse.

An idea or book, on the other hand, has only a tangential relationship to the ills that people want to address. The PRIMARY action being discussed, reading a book or hearing an idea, has no immediate dangerous physical effect on the person involved. Nor does it have a clear SECONDARY effect on the surrounding society. At worst, there's a TERTIARY social involvement - 1 - Man reads book, 2 - man does something illegal, 3 - social fabric is affected by the crime.

Mises would have us believe that curbing the first step in both cases is a moral equivalent, but that simply isn't the case. This isn't apples and oranges, it's apples and seeds.

So let's use a real-world example to make this clear: Smoking. Under Mises' logic, a government that wants to outlaw smoking in public is the exact same as a government that wants to outlaw depictions of smoking in fiction, because in his reasoning thought and action are inseparable.

I, by comparison, argue that there is a great divide between considering an action and taking it, and it's on the far side of that divide that third parties (friends, neighbours, governments) are empowered to involve themselves. I would argue that the government has the moral right to outlaw smoking in public places, since it's a social ill that effects other people, but doesn't have the right to outlaw depictions of cigarettes in fiction, even though it may encourage consumers of those fictions to smoke in public, breaking the law. I embrace the individual's right to decide for themselves whether they want to take action and break the law, and likewise I embrace the government's right to step in once that concrete, measurable action has been taken.

See? It wasn't an impossible position to defend after all, was it, Ludwig?

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