Philip Pilkington: The Ideology to End Ideologies – A Response to Corey Robin on Nietzsche, Hayek, Mises, and Marginalism

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By Philip Pilkington, a writer and research assistant at Kingston University in London. You can follow him on Twitter @pilkingtonphil

The political philosopher Corey Robin recently published an interesting essay on what he thinks to be the connection between the late German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the economic theory of marginalism which Robin associates with the Austrian school (but which, of course, is also a mainstay of mainstream neoclassical economics). I should start by saying that I respect Robin’s work a great deal; I respect it to the extent that I did an interview with him for this very site when his last book appeared. However, his latest piece is grossly misguided and reflective of the fact that, when it comes to theoretical economics, academic critics on the left simply do not know their enemy at all.

The reason for this, I think, is because Robin does not quite grasp the essence of either modern neoclassical or Austrian economics or, consequently, how these twin doctrines establish an absurd and abstruse metaphysical system of morals that poisons the minds of everyone from academics to laymen and lawmakers. It would also appear that, lying in the background somewhere, Robin assumes that the only antidote to the scourge of marginalism is the dusty old labour theory of value – as problematic and discredited as it is. This is something of a guess on my part but if I’m correct it is but another indication that the left are fighting battles that have long since been thoroughly and completely lost. In actual fact, the questions and the answers lie elsewhere – and they lie precisely in the work of the very philosopher that Robin equates with degenerate marginalism.

It is Nietzsche’s critique of all theories of value and, by implication, all systems of morality that lay the ground for the most effective critique of the marginalist toxin – a critique that I have laid out in detail on this site before. These may seem like dusty academic issues – the realm of the literary critic than of the practical minded person – but this is not so. Because the left do not know their academic enemy he escapes with impunity and lives on, zombie-like, day after day – in our classrooms and, more importantly, in our everyday moral and political discourse.

Bastard Nietzscheanism

Robin’s key mistake is in confusing the Nietzschean argument for a truly subjective conception of values with the marginalist hoax which although it purports to be subjectivist is nothing of the sort. In his essay Robin quotes the following passage from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science as a manifestation of Nietzsche’s subjectivist philosophy:

Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature—nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present — and it was we who gave and bestowed it.

In this passage Robin sees an anticipation of the pseudo-subjectivist marginalist theory of value – that is: the theory of marginal utility. Robin writes:

That was in 1882. Just a decade earlier, Menger had written: “Value is therefore nothing inherent in goods, no property of them, but merely the importance that we first attribute to the satisfaction of our needs, that is, to our lives and well-being.” Jevons’s position was identical, and like Nietzsche, both Menger and Jevons thought value was instead a high or low estimation put by a man upon the things of life.

Disaster! He carries on equating these theories by writing “Menger, like Jevons and Nietzsche, concludes that value “is entirely subjective in nature”.” Robin has both completely misinterpreted the Nietzschean critique of values and, at the very same time, completely misunderstood the marginalist theory of value. This is extremely odd because he recognises that the Austrian apostles who followed the marginalists – that is, Hayek and Mises – elevated the marginalist theory into a metaphysical and moral structure, something Robin rightly recognises as being a path that “Nietzsche would never have dared to take”. But this is no coincidence; the reason lies in the fact that, as previously stated and as we shall now outline, the Nietzschean and the marginalist paths were entirely at odds with one another. The marginalist theory is, as we shall see, inherently static and requires that people, in a robot-like manner, order the world around them in a determinate way while the Nietszchean theory holds that subjective states are ephemeral and impossible to truly pin down in any quantifiable or quasi-scientific manner.

Mainstream Marginalism and the Organisation of Reality

In order to fully appreciate the metaphysical weight of the marginalist theory one must really work through a few contemporary “problem sets” in a course on mainstream microeconomics. I do not recommend doing this for either educational or leisurely purposes, but in order to fully grasp the essence of the theory one really must. Marginalism, and consequently modern microeconomics, is all about the ordering of one’s behaviour. It is, like any rigid metaphysical system of morals handed down from on high, about organising one’s desire. What marginalism seeks to do, at a very basic level, is to give a person a rigid worldview that is completely metaphysical and unreal in nature from which they can derive a manner in which they should act and behave.

Unlike the religious and metaphysical of yesteryear, the marginalists have found a new series of tricks to hide the fact that they’re essentially priests who are imparting to people the “correct” way of thinking and acting. They have done this because, in part thanks to Nietzsche, the mist of blind religious devotion no longer weighs so heavily on contemporary society and so the marginalists have turned that more modern subject of objectivity and devotion: mathematics. The marginalists have derived some of these mathematics from engineering (for example, the Lagrange multiplier), some from contemporary game theory and some they have simply invented themselves. However, the goal is always the same; namely, to trick the student into thinking they are learning something objective when really they are being taught how to organise their minds in a very particular way.

I shall not here get into too many concrete examples having provided them elsewhere before, but take the standard marginalist exercise in “showing” that a perfectly competitive firm in a perfectly competitive market will always equate marginal revenue with marginal cost. The student is taught to work through this problem mathematically (using the engineering math discussed earlier) in order to “prove” the truth of the proposition. Of course, the proposition itself is false because no firms operate like this in the real-world, as numerous empirical studies have hinted at, but which good theory and careful observation should tell us anyway.

So, what is the point of the exercise? Simple, it gives the student a moral story which doubles as a call to action. On the one hand, it tells the student the morally purifying tale that they should make optimal use of scarce resources – this is based on the fantasy of “utility” which we shall deal with below (and which ties this to Robin’s concerns and the Austrians). On the other hand, it hints at the fact that the world actually works this way and so begins to structure their reality. That is, it avoids the fact that the way in which firms actually operate in a capitalist economy involves distributive issues that are inherently political and open-ended (widening income disparities anyone?). The marginal cost-marginal revenue theory (i.e. the marginalist theory) puts income distribution and pricing down to some perfectly optimal allocation of scarce resources that is objectively determined by The Market. The reality is quite different. Income distribution and pricing, as any non-economist will know, are inherently political and institutional issues.

It is then strongly hinted at that this is how capitalist economies actually function – which is a complete lie. And they are then gives them the invitation to join this imaginary world – as one more cog in the Great Machine of Efficient and Fair Allocation. These are the people that then give us our moral guidance in the contemporary world. They are the ones that call for free-trade, balanced government budgets and privatisation. They are the ones that advised countries like Russia and Argentina in 1990s and collapsed them. All of this undertaken is a sort of purple haze of mathematics and nonsense. The metaphysics bleeds into reality through the halls of power but, as can be seen again and again, reality rejects the metaphysics and the economy crashes.

The Marginalist Theory of Objectively Measurable Value

Back to the Austrians; the villains in Robin’s story (although the reader should realise by now that he has his gun pointed firmly in the wrong direction). The Austrians avoid the fog of scientism and instead, as Robin correctly notes, build a straightforward metaphysical framework which devotes quite literally kneel before. In doing so they lay out marginalism in its most nakedly metaphysical form. This brings us back to the roots of marginalism and how it relates to Nietzsche. By looking at this we cut right to the heart of the mathematical marginalist theories outlined above and, at the very time, of the Austrian metaphysical system – for they are one and the same.

Marginalism purports to be a subjectivist theory of value. It appears, at face value, to hold that people have the freedom to choose. But it does not. This is all a well-disguised lie. In fact marginalism is a strongly objectivist system and it is for this reason that scoundrels and fools can build metaphysical systems out of it – whether clouded by mathematics or blind ideological devotion. As I have highlighted before on this site, marginalism conceives of people as fixed bundles of preferences. That means “fixed bundles” as in peoples’ preferences are assumed to be fixed. The neoclassical economist Paul Samuelson expresses this quite clearly in what is probably the most famous and widely read textbook on economics ever written:

What is assumed [in marginalist consumer theory] is that consumers are fairly consistent in their tastes and actions – that they do not flail around in unpredictable ways, making themselves miserable by persistent errors of judgement or arithmetic.

Marginalist analysis cannot exist outside of this static universe. The moment we conceive that human desire is somehow in a state of flux and change the entire marginalist doctrine breaks down completely and we enter a world that slips through the fingers of the neoclassicals and the Austrians. It is this stasis of human desire that gives the marginalist doctrine it’s strongly objectivist flavour. It is this that allows marginalists, Austrian or otherwise, to compare a basket of goods and give these weights – whether relative or numerical – which they then assume consumers will follow in an act of a sort of consumption-calculus.

Life, desire, action and everything else is reduced to a calculation that flashes through the person’s mind in line with their supposedly static preferences. Hello “rational agent” and all that garbage! The moment the marginalists have to face the fact that people may not attribute value to goods and services in such a straightforward and static manner is the same moment that the whole edifice collapses in upon itself. Indeed, the whole edifice of modern neoclassical and Austrian economics collapses and it becomes the meaningless verbiage I have no doubt it will be seen to be by future historians of thought.

At a deeper level the marginalist analysis assumes this stasis of fixity of preferences because it seeks, like the morality masking as a pseudo-science that it is, to view people as objects. It does not truly recognise subjectivity at all. Subjectivity is complex and ephemeral. The reasons why people make the choices the make – whether in love, in life or between Coke and Pepsi – is infinitely complex and very likely unanswerable. Marginalism cannot deal with this because, being a metaphysical doctrine that seeks to hand down structures of behaviour and belief to its followers, this means they can no longer exercise control over people. Because do not doubt it: any doctrine that treats people like objects is designed to control them and any doctrine that tries to objectively determine “laws” of human behaviour contains within it the worst seeds of tyranny; despite outward protestations to the contrary.

Nietzsche’s subjectivist theories of values and morals are completely different. Indeed, they are quite the opposite. Nietzsche’s theories, as those philosophers that developed them recognised well, were all about flux and change – the movement of people, their wills and their desires through time. These theories were about the mysterious forces that lay inside each individual, forces which they themselves do not properly understand, that push them to and fro, dictating their whims and desires. These forces, for Nietzsche, were above and beyond anything that could be objectively conceived in any rationalistic manner. Because these very forces determined our very ability to reason and hence our very impulse to try to determine things objectively, they could not be conceived of through the frame of objective knowledge. Such would be like an eye trying to look in upon itself.

In equating Nietzsche’s truly subjectivist thoughts on human values and morals with fashionable marginalist claptrap Robin has not only done the great philosopher a disservice, he has also unknowingly provided cover for the marginalists. In touting their silly metaphysics as being subjectivist he has given them just the cover they need to carry out their designs which seek to view people as objects and control them.

With that I leave the reader with an extended quote from the great economist Joan Robinson from her recently reissued book Economic Philosophy. I encourage any philosopher who wants to begin to engage with marginalist economics – Austrian or neoclassical – to read; for this is the metaphysics of our day; this is the language of power as it operates in the world today. To understand it is, quite literally, to understand the Zeitgeist.

Utility is a metaphysical concept of impregnable circularity; utility is the quality in commodities that makes individuals want to buy them, and the fact that individuals want to buy them shows that they have utility… The whole point of utility was to justify laisser faire. Everyone must be free to spend his income as he likes, and he will gain the greatest benefit when he equalizes the marginal utility of a shilling spent on each kind of good. The pursuit of profit, under conditions of perfect competition, leads producers to equate marginal costs to prices, and the maximum possible satisfaction is drawn from available resources… This is an ideology to end ideologies, for it has abolished the moral problem. It is only necessary for each individual to act egoistically for the good of all to be attained.

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  1. allcoppedout

    I have to agree the main thread on first reading, though I doubt I’d want to base anything on Nietzsche. Following him feels a bit like voting for Nigel Farrage so I can have a cigarette with an odd pint. Frederick was a sucker for the brothel and military marching band.
    It’s tempting to associate freedom with the subjective – but what freedom is there (and for whom) once might is right, the proper man is the warrior and women for the recreation of the warrior?
    Biology places us pretty squarely in a co-evolution of competition and cooperation. Doing something like an IT/MIS design and installation one can sense this. Ethnomethods are big in this field. We may talk of tight coupling and cohesion in hardware and software, but we are into root metaphors (no doubt a mobile army of such), power relations, sabotage prevention and all kinds subjective in the overall system.
    We can organise to structure freedom. This sounds good, as does Plato’s free table until it dawns this is provided by slaves. We lose the plot quickly on subjectivity – in phenomenology it ‘replaces’ objectivity and even in physics we let it into the modern view of structural realism and the spin of theory and data. When it comes to control, subjectivity can be the means – the govern-mentality of Foucault and Rose.
    One assumes we don’t want socially approved epistemic authority – but we also don’t want the type of rebel who would build a vast underground cavern for his chosen people to emerge from after nuclear devastation.
    Saul Bellow once jibed something like ‘beware a 19th century syphilitic preaching morals’. I’d prefer an economics grounded in science – a science trying to create something like Habermas’ lifeworld of communicative rationality in decision making. Something free of the chronic subjective claims of the rich forced down our throats as objective and the natural order of things. Most remain ready and willing subjective victims of this.
    Most of us want effective regulation in the financial sector – the control issue being about who gets controlled. A UK version of Bill Black can be found here:
    I think Nietzsche (today) might say that mass subjectivity is controlled by fear of where the next meal is coming from and still an unworthy slave mentality. We might ask why we are so scared about taking this burden off people and discovering what happens to subjectivity without this control pressure. Why, with modern IT, we still have politicians making laws? Mass subjectivity may be chemically castrated by leadership. It might even be ‘objective’ to consider it the source of the rebellion we need.

    1. banger

      I sort of agree with you. Nietzsche always struck me as having more of an interest in aesthetics than philosophy or maybe I never understood his POV well enough to take it seriously.

      But human beings, being deeply social, need social organization and laws re-enforced by ritual and they will find it one way or another. Once we sat by the fire late at night maybe eating mushrooms maybe not and listened to chants, songs, stories by the shamans that gave us a place in the universe. Today we watch TV or get online to find meaning and order to our lives–usually with only unsatisfactory results which is why we are always uneasy, searching in a kind of passive way.

      1. Nathanael

        The only useful idea I got out of Nietzsche — and I may be misunderstanding his work — is this.

        There are people who change the world by bringing new ideas into it and defiantly pushing them, whether intellectually or actively. These people can be good. Or they can be evil. Or they can be neither or both. But they are important, from the point of view of analyzing history and politics.

        Then there are people who go with the flow, are suggestible, do what others tell them to, and do NOT bring new ideas into the world. These people can be good. Or they can be evil. Or they can be neither or both But they are not important, from the point of view of analyzing history or politics; they are followers.

        Nietzsche appeared to have a personal preference for the former sort of people (“uebermenschen”) rather than the latter.

        1. Nathanael

          (And by personal preference, I mean he seemed to think they were more fun to chat with. It doesn’t seem like a moral belief…)

        2. LAS

          Except the suggestable people of presumed little/no import can seriously rock the boat when they shift position.

  2. Tim

    Speaking of silly metaphysics, the silliest one of all is subjectivity. Worshipping at that altar causes otherwise intelligent people to assert tired platitudes such as “human behavior is infinitely complex”, which it clearly is not, as even rudimentary observation will confirm. For instance, how fluid is your belief in subjectivity?

    I have no sympathy with Austrian economics. But if you want to refute it, you’ll have to do better than vague appeals to mystical subjectivity.

    1. Philip Pilkington

      Nothing mystical about it. People are reflexive. Even if you came up with a theory that explained all human behavior people would soon come to know this theory and act in a different way, thus negating the theory. There’s a very solid epistemological reason why I say that subjectivity is infinite.

      1. Twice Half-Baked

        While we are on the subject of hitting people over the head with mathematics, it seems worth observing that the word “infinite” in this and probably most non-math contexts serves as a bludgeon. The question is, to what purpose is it being wielded? It appears to me that you (Philip) find that the fact of subjectivity being “infinitely complex” is a perfunctory (blunt) invitation to skepticism. And “no doubt” — wink, wink — this is a worthy cause. But perhaps when the goal is to establish a congenial atmosphere of skepticism, the more gentle the invitation, the more congenial those who will attend the call. A more subtle approach is called for! The opaque an menacing specter of infinity never sets the proper mood hovering over the table.

        And while we are on the subject of end ideologies. Perhaps the omega of philosophy is indeed its alpha — the only Christ that humanity deserves, fittingly executed by them — Socrates.

        1. Philip Pilkington

          Skeptcism insofar as we can come up with objective theories of human behavior? Most certainly. The study of human behavior is always moral. When it becomes “objective” it instantly becomes authoritarian. People have to get away from this. They have to admit that objective theories of human behavior are totally false. The question is a moral one. And we have centuries of moral philosophy in place to deal with that.

          1. Twice Half-Baked

            So, moving beyond the merely critical, are you saying that this background of consideration and understanding — the centuries of philosophy, I mean — all serving to inform the use of the potentially fraught word “morality,” are what enable us to use this old and occasionally maligned creature for our great human project? I mean, it’s Nietzsche and others which enable us to use the word “morality” without embarrassment? The sophistication of it, I would presume, has something to do with actually meaning “skepticism about morality” at the moment that “morality” is invited to enter the conversation.

            This is starting to get interesting… I gratefully acknowledge your consistent efforts at exposing the roots of the ideas which are a force in the world today. And today, it seems, you are seeking to rescue Nietzsche from an author who had seemed to throw the fellow out with a patch of these weedy things. Your interest in saving him, I guess I have established with your feedback, is for the force of his skepticism in the face of constructing an objective theory of humanity. I dunno, something like that. But the concerns — so far as I can tell through minimal actual study and effort — of those who might like to consign N to the weedbin is that this force of his — perhaps it can be described as the tendency to wield skepticism like a hammer?? — was inherited by those who have used it to make the mischief in our lifetimes, exposure of the intellectual excuse of which I take to be your motivation. When you use an (doubly!) opaque a concept as “infinite complexity” (compare to “irreducible complexity”! — bad company!) you are creating a convenient rug under which to sweep any criticism. A related point: when a idea is born out of (perhaps warranted) criticism of discredited ideas of its own day, its success in the negative direction may not be fairly used to dress its suggestions for constructions of its own projects. Perhaps that to the extent that Nietzsche was a marvelous poet of the negative, he should be treated carefully whenever those that have come after him would use his words to actually create something. You seem to be on the verge of bridging from a warranted criticism of today’s discredited and dangerous ideas to a more positive venture. But I am yet to be relieved of the suspicion with which some regard Nietzsche due to the great force which his poetry can wield on the mind of his listeners for stirring and troubling their comfortable views, if only for fear of the mold into which the poet might immediately pour the newly fluid conscious state.

            Returning to my original point of this post: When you say “morality,” which I think I must read as “skepticism about objective morality,” are you hinting at a way of constructing a new proscription that is born out of the clever moment of realizing that proscriptions are always, you know, authoritarian. Look at it this way: Hayek captures the attention of his audience with a warranted criticism of authoritarianism, of some sort. He is in effect saying: “Well, we have identified the problem and it has to do with the impossibility of legislating once and for all the correct course of human action” — you know, such acts of planning are doomed and all; so he offers a paradox: we should all plan not to plan. Or something. It seems possible that Nietzsche or sumbuddy is saying something similar: “Well, clearly, objective morality is laughable and ridiculous and hence has perished of shame; now, allow me (or whoever) to take your hand as we walk into the brave new future, armed with a paradox: rule number one, codes of conduct are bunk.” And, you know, with a nod and a wink, he somehow gets anyone to follow him anywhere.

            Just sayin. And fukkk I am distracted right now, so hopefully something of what I am vaguely thinking is being transmitted.

          2. Philip Pilkington

            “Your interest in saving him, I guess I have established with your feedback, is for the force of his skepticism in the face of constructing an objective theory of humanity. I dunno, something like that.”

            That’s PRECISELY what I’m saying! I’m glad you understood me.

          3. CLU CLU Land

            So, what is subjective morality? What does that look like, and what does it do in the world? If we can agree that “objectivity” has something to do with wanting to be supplied with a set of words or tokens representing interior notions — er, ideas — then founding a dialogue on “subjectivity” would have something to do with taking it as fundamental that there are dangers in this sort of an exchange, no? So, since it is ultimately our present interest (context=this blog) to consider how it is (proscribed to be) that people should agree to get along and all that, and to the extent that this involves settling on some sort of language, then isn’t this (yet-again) the time-honored approach of founding everything on a paradox: a philosophy invented by a guru who refuses to put his exact notions and meanings into words? The only question, then, perhaps, is whether this is committed out of a sense of irony or faith or what. Faith in reason? But tell me when it was that reason succeeded in doing anything which wasn’t strictly negative, that is, critical or skeptical. Belief in technology? Okay, whatever. Is it going to be founded in evolutionary psychology? Okay, then, let’s have that conversation. Let’s look at the pros and cons, I suppose. Or will it admit that, insofar as what gets put down into words, it is entirely negative — that is, it embraces irony? Perhaps it could primitivist: we might suppose that “ought” has been lost to the conscious age and that only pre-linguistic ways of thought can get at the thing. Is it located in our collective unconscious, biological, maybe, inheritance? Is it reinvented every generation and by every individual? Is this a solipsistic vision? Well, then, in that case, isn’t it devastatingly ironic if its whole purpose is to manage the gap between interiorities? And isn’t there a gap? So, do we leap over it or, maybe, revel in its infinitely divisible oblivion? In short, what is “subjective morality”?

            Perhaps I was wrong to have understood you to have advocated a “moral” approach to the question of how to get along. You know, someone might feel squeamish about the word.

          4. Jim Shannon

            Yep – centuries of worshiping the wealthy, a moral imperative forced upon the world, forthe ultra rich.

      2. Justus

        “There’s a very solid epistemological reason why I say that subjectivity is infinite.”

        Hmm… I assume you will make this clear in future writings.

        Kierkegaard may be a better choice than Nietzsche, as I would agree that in manys MONEY is a subjective loosely based on abstract and shifting ideas of the value it represents.

        But for all the subjectivity and abstraction that exists, it is usually a reflection of how individuals relate to and interpret the objective. Simply put, people prefer to manipulate truth instead of surrendering to it.

        What allcoppedout says above about competition and cooperation is important, and understanding the continuum of solidarity/cooperation to alienation/competition, and understanding this continuum is key to social integration. To only see half of the continuum is dangerous.

        While I can agree that there may be infinite ambiguity, that is not the same thing as infinite subjectivity. Maslow and others have shown that humans tend (there are always outliers – mental instability, abuse, trauma, etc.) to be motivated in largely universally ways, but it is also true that on a micro level individuals (mis)interpret the value of their own actions in subjective ways. So whether willfully or ignorantly, not every true or objective data point is properly evaluated. But even the way that people tend to subjectively evaluate and related to truth tends to fall into pretty predictable patters along the solidarity/cooperation to alienation/competition continuum. To paraphrase the apostle “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but one day face to face. Now I know in part; then we shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” There are objective truths, including a hiearchy of value, motivation, and benefits to humanity, but we all see and understand a little less of it than we would like.

        1. Philip Pilkington

          Kierkegaard went in the same direction as Nietzsche but then he reconstructed theology from the ground up. The Austrians, as I’ve shown before, did precisely the same thing:

          As far as patterns to behavior, I agree that there are some. And you can discern them, certainly. But they are ephemeral. They appear and they disappear and are not subject to general theories.

          The best way to test for this is to follow/play the markets. If you’re honest with yourself you’ll see very quickly how desire ebbs and flows. Can you pick up trends? Sure. Can you anticipate them? I believe so. Can you come up with general theories? I would say absolutely not. And if someone wants to prove me wrong, invent it and then make a few billion in the markets.

          1. Justus

            I think you are hung up on the ephemera. Sure, it exists, but underneath the chaos is order. It is a matter of time and scale. Over the long haul, have people’s desires change with respect to:
            1) Owning their own land and/or shelter?
            2) Feeding & Clothing themselves?
            3) Caring for their offspring and loved ones?
            4) Finding purposeful work?
            5) Making their lives more convenient and leisurely?
            6) Being entertained and amused?
            The specific set of technologies, politics, communities, organizations, brands, and services that make the above possible all fluctuate, change and evolve, destroying value one day where it may have been the day before, but that is the beauty of the marketplace, that collectively a price is set that both sides agree on. Zooming our of the short term chaos is an incredible amount of order, and a trajectory of sustained human progress. It is why no one has to invent anythng to make money in the markets, as history shows progress over time. Are you really trying to say that because there is nothing static, then there is nothing objective? That change is the evidence of a completely subjective reality?

          2. Gary

            I think modern marketing originally relying on techniques suggested by Eddie Bernays (off his uncle Siggy Freud) go well to make use of consistency of human desire and trends. But Marketing and Advertising isn’t a moral theory. It’s a trial & error set of messages that attempt to appeal to emotions. If one approach doesn’t work, try another.

            Digression – I’m not a marketing person, so I don’t know the kinds of discussions that take place, how much is based on reason or math, how much on emotion and gut feeling. I know surveys and focus groups are used. The Taco Bell Chihuahua and the Hyundai hip-hop hamsters — I wonder how much was rational calculation vs. inspiration and “cute”.

            Part of what PP is pointing at is taking the ideas of surveys, focus groups, and sales trends and creating a Moral Theory of everything and justification for lassez-faire out of that.


            So why pick on this guy?

            The answer is that the overwhelming priority of [William, not Paul; related?] Volker’s “philanthropy” was focused, not on public spaces but on reactionary ideology. Dismayed by the rise of Socialism in America and doubly dismayed by what he saw as the evolution of government and political thinking towards accommodation and a “new liberalism”, eventually personified by the widespread adoption of the economic views of John Maynard Keynes and the New Deal policies of Franklin Roosevelt, Volker set out to create a new and much more reactionary “mainstream” ideology based loosely around his own ideas of “laissez-faire” capitalism (i.e. a largely unregulated economy) and social Darwinism (the pseudo-scientific notion that in society, unhindered competition would allow the “cream to rise to the top”).

            In truth, Volker was no great scholar or thinker. The ideology he set out to create was built upside down, starting only with a set of foggy conclusions for which he had a predisposition.

            From these conclusions, it was the task of Volker’s considerable fortune to find a set of justifications, then an enabling ideology or “theory” that gave it all perspective and unity and, eventually, a true philosophical platform from which to launch the whole.

            But if this task was analogous to building the Great Pyramid, starting from the top, Volker was undaunted. He may not have had a brain but he had money… and he had a personal connection to one of the most reactionary sections of that most reactionary of organizations – the National Association of Manufacturers.

            Volker’s “associates”, who would all participate closely, included Jasper Crane of DuPont, B. E. Hutchinson of Chrysler, Henry Weaver of General Electric, Pierre Goodrich of B.F. Goodrich, and Richard Earhart of White Star Oil (which through many mergers and acquisitions would eventually become Mobil Oil). Moreover, Volker had “influence” at the leading scholarly institution in his home town: The University of Chicago was founded by none other than John D. Rockefeller and created with a certain ideological “bent”.


      3. Nathanael

        Phillip, I know my math. Subjectivity is not infinite. Human behavior is not infinitely variable.

        If you mean “human behavior is too variable for any human to fully map”, sure, that’s true. But it appears very definitely to be finite.

        1. Philip Pilkington

          I’m not using “infinite” in the mathmetical sense — which is very limited — I’m using it in the philosophical sense:

          I like this though:

          “If you mean “human behavior is too variable for any human to fully map”, sure, that’s true. But it appears very definitely to be finite.”

          So, it’s finite for some Being. But its not finite for individuals. That Being sounds strangely like… our Lord and Saviour… Haha! Whenever people broach these questions they always slip into theological discourse without realising it. God never died, he just hid inside seemingly innocuos concepts!

          1. Nathanael

            I’m trained as a mathematician, I tend to use mathematical terms for their technical meanings. If you want to use another jargon, OK.

          2. Jan

            Thank you Philip.A very clear and interersting article.And i agree,i think Robin Corey overstreacht in his,in many sence interesting article,when link together Nietsche with Marginalism,it is a nice story,that seem to fit after a quick look but as you pointed out,it´s not that simple.First of all what i read the Nietsches influence with all his contraditionary and straggling views from time to time,of course had a wide influence on intelletcuals on the left and right,many times more on the leftist or socialist,(how oddly it may look to day) than conservatives and liberals.His influence was in some way attractive to such as Sorel,but his aesthitic although,not all his ideology was mainly a great impact on radical writers in the fien-de-siecle Europe ,but later also of course on fascism and other movements.One could read some here and there from Nietsche and build a story,an ideology like the nazis did of course.But i can´t really get the connection to either Walrasian or Jevon´s or Mengerian marginalism.It seem to me like a longshot.First of all we should not underestimate the cultural rivalty among “Big German Reich” and the “Little Austrian Reich”.There were indeed a cultural competion ,the ideas from those countries was not adopted easily throw the borders.A perfect example is Histrorical vs Austrian school that was a real “Culture Kampf”. A German, Nietsche may have more influence in France or Italy and Nordic countries than Austria,even if he was read,but if so i can´t see Nietche had any influence economits with Marginalist of any kind.I could be wrong but i can´t see it.As you pointed out there is to much discrepance between Mengerian schoolars utility theory and a Nietschean subjectivism,it has different roots.And when it comes to the Marginalism,of the Walrasian sort,it must be noted,that many of those marginalist was very radical.Take a look at the second generation Walrasians Marginalists and you also find a large crowd of fare left economists.Ragnar Frisch,Havelmoo,Oscar Lange and many more.It is not
            that Marginalism is a rebutal of Socialism,because of it´s critique of LTV.Infact it´s very compatible with some sort of planning as well if not more.Infact it´s not so very wellknown but Oscar Lange the marginalist-market-socialist,that was close to Joeseph Stalin infact convinced Stalin to be Marginalist
            and made him reject LTV.So the simplest story is not often the true one,it use to be more complicated.

        2. ChrisPacific

          Phillip, I know my math. Subjectivity is not infinite. Human behavior is not infinitely variable.

          Sure it is. Suppose I ask you to pick a number which is a positive integer. What’s the range of possible answers to that question? Obviously, the set of positive integers. Is there any positive integer that CANNOT be an answer to the question (i.e., for which the probability that you will choose that number as the answer is zero?) No, there is not. So just based on this simple question, you already have an infinite range of possible behaviors (answers).

          Since asking and answering this question is a type of human behavior, the set of all possible human behavior must include the question and all possible answers as a subset. Therefore it must be infinite as well, since finite sets can’t have infinite subsets.

          There – mathematical proof that human behavior is infinitely variable. Since you claim you can show the opposite mathematically, perhaps you’d care to refute this?

          1. Calgacus

            Well, the length of the answer is limited by the finitude of human lifespans. So you could answer lots of numbers, including, say Graham’s number. But could you get every number below that number? I doubt it. :-)

            So the range is not the set of positive integers.

          2. Twice Half-Baked

            I spotted a juicy little nit:
            “(i.e., for which the probability that you will choose that number as the answer is zero?)”
            You misunderstand how probability works in the infinite case. So, we are talking about trying to assign a probability to picking any given, say, positive integer, at random, assuming each to be equally likely. Well, what then is the probability of choosing any given one? Can it be non-zero (no, here’s why…)? Well, say it is p > 0. We are saying that they are all equally likely to be chosen, so they all have probability p. But, it is always possible to find a positive integer n such that, np > 1. So, evidently, the probability of the result of the section being one of these first n numbers is greater than 1 — an absurdity, ,or, if you prefer, a violation of what is meant (defined as) by probability. That is, the probability of selecting any given number is exactly 0. Neat, huh? Furthermore, it hopefully isn’t hard to see that the probability of the result of the selection being one member of some specified finite subset is also zero (this follows immediately from, again, what is meant by probability — its definition, a set of rules). A more interesting question would be whether there are any infinite subsets of the positive integers, say, for which there is a probability zero that one of its members would show up. Math is fun, but not necessarily useful!

          3. ChrisPacific

            Ah, I see the point now. (Engaging Sheldon Cooper mode…)

            You are talking about the volume of information needed to uniquely specify a particular number as distinct from all other positive integers (entropy?) Graham’s Number might be very large in magnitude but it’s quite small in this sense, since it can be precisely defined using just the paragraph or two from Wikipedia.

            If you set an upper bound on the units of information that can be used to describe a number (say, the amount that could reasonably be written/spoken in an average person’s lifetime) then I agree that the set of numbers that can be thereby described is finite. Very large, but finite. So if there is a number that can’t be uniquely defined by any currently known means without taking longer than a human lifetime to do it, we can probably exclude that from consideration as a possible answer. I can’t even give it a concise nominal designation, say “ChrisPacific’s number,” because I still need to uniquely specify what number I’m referring to (your two paragraphs of Wikipedia text for Graham’s Number) and now I’m back to dying of old age before I finish. And in fact all but finitely many positive integers fall into this category. Graham’s Number may sound big, but it’s really quite tiny in this sense. There’s a sobering thought.

            However, even if that torpedoes my proof as written, I can reframe it in a way that doesn’t require a question/answer format and run into human physical limitations. Suppose that, instead of thinking of a number, I decide to move in a random compass direction. How many choices of direction do I have? (Let’s suppose you can measure my trajectory in degrees or radians with arbitrary precision). Is it finite or infinite? And isn’t this a subset of human behavior in the same way the question/answer scenario was?

          4. ChrisPacific

            In response to Twice Half-Baked:

            I didn’t say they were all equally likely. You assumed it (and you’re right that it leads to a contradiction).

            If you use unequal probabilities it’s easy enough to have infinitely many choices with probability larger than zero that all add up to 1 – for example, P(N) equals 1 divided by 2 to the power of N.

          5. Twice Half-Baked

            Ah yes, but you forgot my last point: math is fun but not necessarily useful. Final score: Smarty-pants 1, Know-it-all 1. (Deuce!)

  3. craazyman

    I predicted this. I knew Phil was brewing up something big.

    You’re getting better Phil. More focused, tighter, less wobbly.

    If you apply for a $250,000 grant from INET I’ll write a letter of recommendation. There’s a final reality here and it has to do with what money is and why it is and what that means for the limits of subjectivity and the inherent contradiction posed by the conception you can sum individual “utility” functions using matrix algebra to arrive at a social utility. It has to do with Jesus and Freud and even (who else can I throw in here) Camus and Thomas Paine and even Eduard Manet. There are so many dots if I connect them all I get a big blob on the page. It requires judicious selection and interpretation, but that’s why the grant is $250,000 and one has a year or two to work it all out. It’s like untangling a fishing knot when it’s 34 degrees outside but when the going gets tough, the tough make it happen. D. Tremens NFL, GED at your service.

    1. Susan the other

      “There are so many dots all I get is a great big blob on the page.” It’s like the reason you even need an objectively measurable value is because you don’t know where you are going and thus you dont know what you are doing. It will take some serious investigation of the grass roots to analyze this “big blob” question.

      1. craazyman

        where does any objectivity come from? this is a question for Master Po. INET would not understand the futility of all research they’d be prepared to sponsor, but that’s not likely to stop them. The problem isn’t figuring it all out. That’s easy. The problem is convincing other people that you’re right. I noticed today all the lunatics escaped from the Kenya pyschiatric hospital. It must have been quite a rebellion, something worthy of Antonin Artaud. One wonders what philosophical principle was invoked to justify the collective action.

    2. MaroonBulldog

      “There’s a final reality here, and it has to do with what money is and why it is and what that means for subjectivity …” Here is a non-economist view of what money is–since the days of primitive law, money is what the government requires and demands that one accept in settlement of private disputes, instead of other, self-help remedies, like vengeance or arson. Romans started the practice. Even Vikings adopted it. In Niall’s Saga, a bag of coins changes hands after slave murders. When someone murders Niall’s servant, he accepts it, and keeps it safe until the day when one of his servants murders someone else’s. In that economy, 11th century Iceland, the money seemed to be used for nothing else. Money is wer-geld. It is the chief interest of lawyers. It’s highest value lies in this: it can pay your fines and the damages you owe and so buy you out of trouble.

  4. banger

    Ironically, the whole thing rests on Adam Smith and Smith understood the importance of morals and would not have approved of the Austrian school, in my view.

    This whole philosophical movement that has it’s apotheosis in Ayn Rand and her philosophy of radical selfishness is based on what was once called “evil.” By evil I mean something that goes against our fundamental nature. We are deeply hard-wired for sociability and connection. How we got to Randian notions is too much to write about here (I’ll be glad to do so if anybody is interested in two paragraphs) but suffice it to say that it is a dead-end. The Austrian school and their sheer and (to me) obvious nonsense is a part of this anti-humanist and anti-Western Civilization and anti-Christian movement towards dissolution and nihilism that exhibits itself in the contemporary conservative movement.

    1. looselyhuman

      Agree. And herein is the fundamental problem with invoking Nietzsche, Rand’s predecessor (and superior of course) in many ways. For it’s pretty easily argued that her radical egotism would still be considered evil if it weren’t for him.

      1. jurisV

        I still find her “evil” even after reading on and about Nietzsche. Also humorless and deranged — thoughts that were only amplified while watching the second film installment of “Atlas Shrugged” last night. Aaaarrrggh

        What I get from reading Nietzsche (and this essay by Pilkington) that “morality” is a cultural construct by a society. Nietzsche described the two poles of “morality” as a “Master” morality and a “Slave” morality. These two are in constant tension in a culture. I think Nietzsche and Pilkington are saying that if you start believing that the “Master” morality is the objectively “right” one — then you are drifting into Tyranny because you are not really understanding that human behavior is fundamentally subjective, but a culture will be developing what their society thinks is the “Right” morality.

        Ayn Rand clearly thought the “Master” morality was superior. She may have thought that Nietzsche justified her beliefs, but I believe that he did not.

        And, if you have any conclusive evidence that Nietzsche preferred “Master” over “Slave” morality I will be surprised, but pleased to read about it — and grateful for the information. From what I understand currently it is debatable that he had a preference.

        1. banger

          Nietzsche was just flat wrong. He personified the end of the 19th century and the birth of nihilism. There is no such thing as an inherent master/slave relationship as he describes. We know now we are inherently connected and master/slave relationships (except in S/M) are profoundly harmful for all concerned. The benefit I get from making you submit to me is akin to masturbation or rape compared to very cool love-making–it’s sand that our leaders don’t get that.

          1. Joe

            You’re right to say that he was wrong when he argued that master/slave relationships are somehow inherent to the human condition, but his assessment of capitalist morality is spot on.

          2. Joe

            And hey, there’s nothing wrong with masturbation-quite the contrary. After all, the difficulty that many women have in achieving orgasm stems in large part from their reluctance to masturbate.

    2. The Rage

      The Austrians would tell you they are the definition of what “humanism” is. Which they would be right. Your not thinking this one out quite clearly.

      1. looselyhuman

        Secular humanism is quite concerned with community and rejects egotism which are the inverse of the philosophies closely associated with the radical free-market ideology of Austrians. They can argue all they like but by the time Hayek “became” an Austrian he was free markets at any cost, with society, community, civilization playing a subservient role (despite their argument that these things will prosper as a symptom – they don’t). This is not humanism.

  5. looselyhuman

    Only economists would apply philosophical discourse on moral values to ideologies and systems of material values.

    And it’s funny… In the moral universe I pretty strongly disagree with Nietzsche – I think there are some “loosely” universal Kantian moral truths, and certainly don’t hold with ubermenschen, last men, or not looking down (no pity) – all of which starts to feel pretty objectivist, actually – with the individual as the core and ultimate value.

    But in this economic parody I certainly see the subjectivist value system as the correct one. Again, ascribing it to Nietzsche (actually on either side) is a bridge too far.

  6. Theo

    Think this piece is a bit strong on Corey Robin. Would have been nicer to tone it down a little, even though you think him wrong. He is unfailingly polite to others, it seems to me.

    1. JTFaraday

      I rather like Corey Robin–I’ve been looking for a chance to say that actually–and have plans to read his book.

      In terms of criticism, he does have this great post on Katie Roiphe that begins

      “WTF is Katie Roiphe talking about?”

      and ends with

      “This one I’ll give to Roiphe: when it comes to being inattentive to a writer’s words, she knows whereof she speaks.”

      There may be a lesson in there somewhere.

  7. allcoppedout

    Well, another read and I still broadly agree, even if I don’t believe stuff about infinite subjectivity or human nature. Reflexivity ain’t changing mind and strategy because you know something new either. Solid epistemological reason and infinite subjectivity don’t run together well and nor does the concept of epistemology with Nietzsche. But these are trifles. Subjectivity is rather fucked over by the anything goes idiocy of some postmodernism that followed Lyotard and its an easy target in Philip’s form.
    We need to accept human situations are messy. People may not use the new well and clean water because a witch-doctor points a bone at it. There’s a point when ethnomethodological approaches in systems design stop looking individual and more a case of a few sizes do fit everyone.
    I hope no one in here spends time contemplating sharp knives applied to genitals after sex or selling their daughters into blood debt peonage – perm any of a thousand from anthropology. But it is likely we all would be doing stuff like this if born into such cultures. The shift in getting students to questions on what in our society is the equivalent of what to us looks like lunacy in PNG and Africa is a big one. We need to get somewhere beyond cultural relativism.
    My current area of study is “stupidity” – no doubt because I have so much subjective content to focus on. One of the available tests has 100 questions that have an objective, right answer that most people get wrong. I found it difficult to get research funders to understand the economic consequences of a decent theory of stupidity and used a ‘utility functions matrix’ and 101 terms from business economics I regard as ‘the enemy’. Economics is largely about intelligent people being stupid and rationalising such as paranoid narcissism being for the greater good.

    Anyway, if we are to go subjective, I don’t like the T-shirts and tote bags – far too girlie and I don’t know what a tote bag is (carry one’s winnings from the Paris Mutuel Urbaine in one?) – and this needn’t affect Yve’s niche marketing at all. I’m an outlier. Subjectivity usually fits some kind of frequency distribution curve and market segmentation. Which rather suggests most of it isn’t original and any infinities in it are of the kind science renormalises or ignores as OK approximation. Part of Nietzsche lay in steeling oneself against the compassion of the slave mentality. Economics of the wrong kind (nearly all of it) shares this tough love, at its worst in fascism and imperialism. I’m not sure Philip was right at all now and I’m starting to want a T-shirt, but one with the Llama not wearing a scarf!
    PhD candidates are supposed to demonstrate some of the epistemology underlying their methods. Yet epistemology itself may be a mistake by Locke (Rorty). Chronic wealth distribution is as old as philosophy – maybe we should ignore the lot and learn some real science? There’s a real lack of that in the subjectivity Phil relishes! And who cares about T-shirts (even with Nietzsche on) if we could reduce banking and finance to a transparent machine?

  8. Lafayette

    Lest we get too far from basic economics – and over the edge into the abyss of irrelevance – value is defined in two ways – one Subjective and the other Objective.

    The subjective value is the worth we give to either an inanimate or animate objects out of personal desire. The objective value is the worth of an inanimate/animate objects decided by negotiation. The first is a matter of personal esteem, the latter a question of mutual negotiation of an acquisition.

    The latter is the mechanism that gave birth to first barter exchange and then whole Market Economies. Humans deduced – upon leading a sedentary rather than nomadic existence and finding the benefit on specialization – that they produced together more than the could consume. Naturally, they desired to employ the surplus to exchange/acquire other objects (animate and inanimate) they desired in a market context.

    Given our present existence, the Market Economy still determines how well or not we all live in collective societies.

    1. looselyhuman

      I suppose that (by negotiation) is one definition of objective. The other is a quality that is intrinsic and universally true (or perhaps universally accepted – rendering it an impossibility).

    2. MaroonBulldog

      The “objective value” established by negotiation and subsequent exchange, is ephemeral. It changes from exchange to exhange–even exchanges involving the same automobile dealer and the same new model with the same options on the same day. What is here being called “objective value” might just as well be called “price”.

  9. Jim Shannon

    …”Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature—nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present — and it was we who gave and bestowed it.”
    …”the goal is always the same; namely, to trick the student into thinking they are learning something objective when really they are being taught how to organise their minds in a very particular way.”
    “Utility…It is only necessary for each individual to act egoistically for the good of all to be attained.”
    To believe that has clearly entered the realm of the metaphysical with a ‘Belief” that Wealthiness is next to Godliness! That personal Narcissism is always and everywhere a Social “Good”, and be totally oblivious to the harm caused by Governmental sponsored GREED throughout all human history!
    ALL KNOWLEDGE is sponsored by “Government” and “Government’s” interest in perpetrating ownership of Real Wealth.
    A world deluded by Leaders of Governments whose sole objective is to convert the labor of the masses into the wealth of the few. The CentaMillionaire$ who use human nature and a social construct for personal gain.
    It is “We The People” who have allowed Governments to bestow that “Present” of Wealth.
    Unconscionable Wealth should not be valued and we need leaders to stop pretending to “educate” when in reality every means available is used to brainwash “We The People”!

  10. Liah

    Perhaps, Charles, but it is a fascinating discussion that covers several hundred years of thought. I would come back and study so as to be more informed.

    Then I might grumble more intelligently…

  11. Daniel From Paris

    “…income distribution and pricing down to some perfectly optimal allocation of scarce resources that is objectively determined by The Market. The reality is quite different. Income distribution and pricing, as any non-economist will know, are inherently political and institutional issues.”

    Well, IMHO your position is absolutely excessive as well. As much as the people you are trying to contradict.

    America is really a damn’ curious beast. Looks like you are going to re-invent some sort of new age “Marxism” soon… Merci j’ai déjà donné!

    “It is then strongly hinted at that this is how capitalist economies actually function – which is a complete lie.”

    A complete lie, not. A big partial one, most certainly:)

    “And they are then gives them the invitation to join this imaginary world – as one more cog in the Great Machine of Efficient and Fair Allocation. These are the people that then give us our moral guidance in the contemporary world. They are the ones that call for free-trade, balanced government budgets and privatisation.”

    Yep! Great garbage but do you really believe that this great neo-con thinking was what we admire US for? Do you reckon this thinking has any appeal to anyone?

    Do you really believe that that Thatcher and/or Reagan, neo-con economists are some sort of model roles for anyone outside their own countries?

    Even among foreign right wingers, intellectual support for recent ideological drivel originating from Anglo-Saxon countries has lost most of its initial prestige.

    What the world is calling for from the US is:
    1-democracy and Free speech (thanks the Brits as well),
    2-the invention of the “middle class” (yep!),
    3-technical and scientific progress.

    We want more of the same. Including a working “middle class” in the US…

    The world is not calling for economic thinking from a country that can not currently have their own house(s) in order and balance its commercial sheet (Yep I know that is a “monetary service” offered to the world).

    “They are the ones that advised countries like Russia and Argentina in 1990s and collapsed them”

    Absolutely unfair! These two countries and a few others by the way did not need external help to dive. They did it by themselves. Do not underestimate them:)

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      With all due respect, are you off your meds?

      First, Pilkington is Irish.

      Second. despite your “Paris” handle, you’ve seemed to have missed that neoliberalism is the dominant strand of economics outside the US and UK. The Germans and ECB have embraced it firmly. The only policy debate in Europe isn’t about whether to go the neoliberal route, but how hard and fast (ie, as in whether it is necessary to ease up on austerity in order to preserve political cohesion and spread the pain out). Even your Holland, despite his Socialist branding, is on board and only making noises for public show.

      1. James

        @The Rage

        I don’t know what you smoke, brother, but I can corroborate that it really works well.

  12. allis

    Perhaps, after all, Nietzsche has something important to say about economics. Perhaps economists should look at his “will to power”?

    “Suppose, finally, we succeeded in explaining our entire instinctive life as the development and ramification of one basic form of the will–namely, of the will to power, as my proposition has it… then one would have gained the right to determine all efficient force univocally as–will to power. The world viewed from inside… it would be “will to power” and nothing else.” (from Beyond Good and Evil, s.36, Walter Kaufmann transl.)

    Is marginalism anything more than a camouflage for the exercise of power? In a competitive market Money has the power; in a monopoly market Producer has the power. Is the “competitive” price more “natural” or “moral” than the “monopoly” price? Is the factory owner more deserving than the raw materials owner? Where would The Market Economy be without farmers and workers who buy retail, sell wholesale, and pay the shipping both ways…without the powerless?

    Is not the capitalists’ and financiers’ goal to amass surpluses, and are these surpluses not both the means and symbol of their will to power? Economics would be more interesting if it studied how power is used to accumulate these surpluses.

    1. MaroonBulldog

      Money is not power. Legally recognized claims against the obligations owed by other persons is power. Property is power. Money merely facilitates exchanges of property and settlements of obligations. The state makes money seem like power by making it “legal tender,” with the consequence that, if I owe you an obligation, and “tender” the requisite amount of money to you to discharge it, the law will regard the obligation as discharged, whether you accept the money or not.

      As far as capitalists and financiers are concerned, their primary objective seems to be to keep their enterprise as a going concern, so they can continue to make a living. To do this, they must not make losses, but profits. If they make losses time after time, eventually they will run out of property and their firms will fail. The major problem of large-scale late-term financial capitalism is the “agency” problem–the capitalists who own the residual claims against the business are robbed and embezzled to death by managers they can’t control, managers who defraud the owners and customers alike. What I count as “evil” in all this is the fraud and deception they practice, and the unconscionable political practice of the government bailing them out. But the “evil” is not practiced by greedy shareholding capitalists (a class that includes hospital endowments, university endowments, teacher pension funds, and other “institutional” investors), no: the evil is practiced by dishonest, greedy management employees.

      1. LifelongLib

        I think you’re right, but in a system where maximizing short-term return on investment is the main goal the investors shouldn’t be surprised if the managers rip off the customers. Nor should it be surprising that the same managers will fleece the investors if they get the chance. No honor among thieves…

      2. Joe

        I’m inclined to disagree with you in the light of Monsanto’s recent rehabilitation of the legal system.

  13. papicek

    Well, regarding Nietsche, that’s not what I thought Robin was getting at. In fact, I rather think Robin was looking behind the philosophy to look at the way the man reacted to contemporary events, illustrates his predispositions, and how that shaped his work. I also gave little weight to the labor theory of value vs marginalist theory – except as it may have reflected the thinking of the time, and confined to that domain, his point is well taken. Rather like Glenn Greenwald having a go at Bill Maher, only Robin is much more rewarding.

    I think Robin’s point is much simpler than how Nietzsche foreshadows von Mises, Hayek, Friedman et al: that power relationships in society tend toward aristocracy, and that this has an ancient pedigree (predating the 19th century), which democratic societies even today ignore at their peril. Plenty of Americans today loathe and fear the great unwashed – and fear democracy.

    1. MaroonBulldog

      Joan Robinson also remarked that one studies economics to learn to avoid being fooled by economists. To which I would add, if university students are to learn the critical judgment to distinguish good ideas from bad ideas, the univeristy must expose them to many bad ideas as well as good ones. The economics profession provides the requisite supply of bad ideas.

      When I observe the heat of a debate between two economists with opposing views, informed by opposing schools of thought, I remember that while they assuredly cannot both be right, it is not only possible, but likely, that they may both be wrong.

      1. papicek

        Which is exactly why I undertook the study myself. As for both being wrong, I’d have to say the entire field as I know it is never infallible. Putting a theoretical stamp on what is inherently chaotic – impossible.

      2. jake the snake

        Sort of like a Baptist and a Campbelite debating instrumental music. A subject of great dogmatic importance, but opaque to the rest of us.

  14. jrs

    Oh dear heaven is Nietzsche’s moral subjectivism really being equated to the subjective theory of economic pricing in the Austrian school etc?

    Straight out fallacy of equivocation:

    “Equivocation (“to call by the same name”) is classified as an informal logical fallacy. It is the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning or sense (by glossing over which meaning is intended at a particular time). It generally occurs with polysemic words (words with multiple meanings”

  15. allcoppedout

    Enjoyable thread – though I suspect we miss the exquisite humour and irony running in the times of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard (plenty of ‘serious’ books on the latter as an example of deep and slow Danish humour).

  16. mookie

    Behold, philosophers, the bitter fruit of your sciences! Poverty—nothing but poverty. Nevertheless, you pretend to have perfected human reason, while you, its oracles, have known only how to conduct mankind from one abyss of suffering to another. Yesterday, you reproached religion with the massacre of St. Bartholomew; today she reproaches you with the scaffolds of the revolution. Yesterday, it was the Crusades which depopulated Europe; today it is the doctrine of equality which mows down three million of our young men; and tomorrow some new fanaticism will bathe our civilized empires in blood. Perfidious guides! To what an abject condition have you reduced Social Man, and how prudent have been the governments most extolled by you in suspecting your theories! You were always a subject of alarm, even to the sovereigns you counted among your disciples. Sparta cast you from her midst, and Cato would have had you driven out of Rome. In our own days, again, Frederick the Great declared that had he wished to punish one of his provinces, he would have put it under the government of the philosophers; and Napoleon excluded moral and political philosophy from the temple where preside the useful sciences. And are you not even more suspected among yourselves? Do you not confess that in operating upon the passions, you resemble children playing with firebrands amid barrels of powder? The French Revolution has come to put the seal upon this truth and to cover your sciences with an ineffaceable opprobrium. You foresaw that your absurd theories would be annihilated from the moment they were put to the proof, and hence you conspired together to stifle the voice of men inclined to be sincere—men like Hobbes and Rousseau, who perceived that civilization was a subversion of the laws of Nature, a systematic development of all social vices and abominations. You have rejected these glimpses of light to repeat your boasts of civilized progress and perfection.

    The scene changes, and the truth which you feigned to seek is about to appear to confound your theories. It only remains for you, like the fallen gladiator, to die honorably. Prepare yourselves the hecatomb demanded by truth; collect the faggots, apply the torch, and commit the rubbish of your philosophic systems to the flames.

    I came across this passage by Charles Fourier today while reading a back issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. The endless procession of horrific disasters motivated by claims to ultimate truth shows no signs of abating. It’s fitting that Fourier himself had a grand Utopian plan doomed to failure.

  17. The Rage

    The Austrian school along with the Marxist school represented the decadent side of Khazar philosophical training. Mind numblingly boring materialism and humanistic expressions of utopias.

    To a true conservative, the only individuals who should be available full individual power are the natural aristocracy beghest by the Gods themselves.

    The origin of “Western Civilization” starts with the Vedic Culture and its sweeping west from the Caucasus mountains. The first victory over the Dravidians to the south, instilling the “Vedic” spirtual caste system that would become known as Hinduism and its many seperations. Indian people still believe the lighter you are, the more “superhuman” you are. That goes back to their defeat at the hands of the Aryans then worshipping them like Gods after that defeat.

    It all started with King Nimrods empire and the trinity. Nimrod(who was known in other names, but unsurprisingly given that name in the Talmud, old testament). Nimrod was the father, Tammuz the son and Semiramis the mother(holy ghost). After Nimrod was killed by a enemy, Semiramis had his son after his death, in a “immaculate” way. Sound familiar? Nimrod reborn as Tammuz.
    This spread to the Causasus area and began the “Aryan” domination of the world via the Vedic system. The Catholic Church essentially took the Vedic system and replaced the polytheism and sexual rituals with loose Hewbrew sacraments. The Reformation churches further moved away from the Vedic system while trying to keep the religion “racially” intact to Aryans. That has been troublesome.

    Also birthing near the same Caucasus area, where the Khazars. A “competing” race developed during that time. People like Karl Marx, Murry Rothbard, Ayn Rand got their “anti-christian” and anti-western” philosophies from these sources. Khazars were hostile toward the Greek Catholics when they started spreading out 1500 years ago. So they “converted” to Judaism and thus became the modern world we live in today. True “Jews” are not and have never been Khazars. True Jews had dark, Dravidian and Negro features. Most likely the mythical Jesus was of this stock. The Khazars were considered materialistic, nihilistic and obsessed with property and profit.

  18. Mark Pawelek

    That’s a very long essay Robin’s written, 8 pages. It’s lazy mistake to drag in dreaming Nietzsche because his essay looses focus. Better to have written 2 essays, Anti-Margin, followed by Anti-Nietzsche. I’m guessing that Nietzsche’s been dragged into this because Robin’s an academic philosopher; it’s what he knows best.

    Economics is a political institution and Nietzsche isn’t. If Robin wants to make a difference he should focus on Marginalism. See what I did there, equating Marginalism with economics? That’s the extent of Marginalism’s influence. It’s the Metaphysics of the Age. The most important thing my study of philosophy taught me was that origins don’t really mean a thing. What count’s is utility. Marginalism is useful to ideology, Nietzsche useless.

  19. Alex K.

    Early marginalists made simplistic assumptions about human behavior, agreed. Does it mean that the generally accepted, preference-based theory of economic behavior deserves to be trashed? I don’t think so. Preferences can be assumed to be stochastic and altruistic and whatever else we think appropriate, based on our view of humans. The rational choice approach will still work nicely although the math will become more complex. Our brain does millions of complex calculations every second so we can measure distances or pitches, so why not accept it can be a conditional maximizer? Robinson did not attack this approach itself, it seems, but only the wrong assumptions about consumer preferences such as posited by Samuelson.

    (Where real-life consumers are indeed intransigent egotists is a different question.)

  20. Camillo Desmoulins

    “Robin’s key mistake is in confusing the Nietzschean argument for a truly subjective conception of values with the marginalist hoax which although it purports to be subjectivist is nothing of the sort.”

    Philip, this is the very point where you misread the entire thrust of Robin’s essay. He’s not writing about the objective effects of marginalist theory, what its outcomes have been in practice — his is another work of political philosophy: what did the Austrian economists believe themselves about marginal theory and subjective value?! You’re whole response here is to write of the long history of marginal theory’s real world impact as if you’ve never read Hayek’s “Constitution of Liberty.” You call it a “hoax” which “purports to be subjectivist”. Yes, that “purports” is precisely what Robin is inquiring of. Why, and from where? That it isn’t real doesn’t mean its not believed, as you yourself have written so clearly.

  21. steelhead23

    Phillip, I might argue a bit more about the silliness that the aggregate of self interest equals the public interest, a statement I suspect you would strongly agree with as regards economics, but might be a tad less so inclined were it made in reference to politics. That is, if everyone’s pursuit of self interest degraded life on Earth, it could not be said to be in the public interest. Yet, if 100 million Americans vote to elect leaders who eagerly support the pursuit of individual self-interest, as contrary as that may be to our rational view of public interest, it would be, by definition, the public interest. My conclusion is merely that it is difficult, if not impossible, to be an advocate for the public interest in a world in which ignorance and propaganda create broad swaths of irrational self-interests amongst the public. Don’t get me wrong. I love what you do, tilting at those ivory towers. I merely suggest that it would be irrational to believe you can win. Never underestimate the power of marketing and groupthink to manipulate the public interest and render it grossly irrational. BTW – rhetoric, propaganda, and marketing work precisely because human decision-making is far from rational. The big players learned this long ago. Classical economists argue that it doesn’t matter if individuals are irrational, the aggregation of individual interests via the market cleasnses it of bias. Bah.

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