The Austrian Church of Praxeology

May 2014  |  Status: First Draft

I recently had the pleasure of corresponding with a devout member of the Austrian Church of Praxeology, or, to be a little more neutral, an anarcho-capitalist follower of Ludwig von Mises. This guy emailed me pretending to have an honest philosophical question about something I wrote, but that was a disguise; he turned out to be just another Jehovah’s Witness, with all the same recruiting techniques (complete with pamphlets!) — only he belonged to a different religion.

The most striking feature of this ideology is that it’s the only one I’ve seen so far that manages to be even more hostile to the scientific method than the worst flavor of Christian fundamentalism. For a school of thought that claims to be utterly rational, that’s quite a distinction! And just like fundamentalism, praxeology’s hostility to science is due to the fact that its basic premises have little empirical basis. They are just assertions, believed to be true because the Great Prophet said so.

Here’s a summary of the waste of time that I incurred by talking to a “believer”.

He pointed out that I wrote a bunch of blog posts criticizing a large cross section of the governments of the world, and asked me why I wouldn’t just declare myself to be an anarchist if I hate governments so much.

I said that I hate many of the existing governments, but I don’t see how a total lack of governments would be any better. (I prefer the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish version of the state of nature. Locke’s idyllic version sounds too unrealistic.)

He categorically denied that a world with more states could ever be better than a world with fewer (or preferably no) states. It was unthinkable. Governments are extortion rackets, a cancer upon the Earth. How could more cancer be better than no cancer?

Well, I’m not sure we’re comparing cancer with no cancer. It’s more like cancer versus heart disease. If you’ve read my blog posts, you know I’m not terribly attached to any particular government, but I need to see some evidence that your alternative is better than the status quo.

For example, is there reason to think that a world without states will have a smaller carbon footprint than a world with the kind of states we currently have? If so, how much difference are we talking about? How many lives lost over the next century or so? Gimme some numbers. You said hundreds of millions of people have died due to evil states and their wars in the last century alone. Yeah, that’s pretty bad. So what about the state of nature? Can you give me a rough estimate of the death toll of a century of worldwide anarchy? There should be at least some data comparing various forms of governance around the world as well as small-scale experiments from which we can learn. Perhaps you could extrapolate from that?

And that’s where this guy begins to get both angry and evasive. He’s afraid he’s “losing me” (again, sounding like a Jehovah’s Witness) — apparently because I pulled out the “evidence or GTFO” card, which is probably a big red flag according to their recruitment manual.

Long story short, he just didn’t seem to understand why he should bother with evidence. It’s genuinely offensive — even blasphemous — to ask a member of the Church of Praxeology to produce any empirical evidence in support of their opinions, because the truth of his premises is a priori and axiomatic — far beyond the reach of mere science. Moreover, if anyone actually produced any evidence that contradicted their belief, which I think many sociologists and anthropologists have already done very well, it would automatically become worthless in the minds of the believers because how can anything be true that contradicts their Holy Book?

I was tempted to give him a lesson in basic philosophical concepts, but I decided to cut my losses and cut off contact with that godless evangelist. If any reader is still in the dark concerning what “a priori” and “axiomatic” mean, this is a priori (i.e. it can be known without collecting any empirical data):

The opposite of a true statement cannot be true.

The following statement is NOT a priori, because you need to go out into the world and collect evidence in order to know whether it is true, no matter how much Mises thinks he can figure it out from the comfort of his armchair:

Fiat currency is evil.

The following statement is axiomatic, as it is so obviously true (by definition):

A rectangle has four right angles.

The following statement is NOT axiomatic, since its truth or falsity is entirely dependent on the fickle fortunes of ape psychology and you need to study many specimens of Homo sapiens for a long long time to figure it out:

All human action is purposeful behavior.

Finally, the following is most definitely neither a priori nor axiomatic, even though, for all we know, it may turn out to be true:

There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.

The important thing to realize, of course, is that a statement doesn’t need to be obviously true in order for it to be true. Lots of non-obvious things can be true nonetheless. (How could the identity of the true prophet be obvious to me if nobody ever told me about him?)

Most of the things that are obviously true, such as the number of angles in a triangle, are so blindingly obvious that there’s not much point reiterating them. So when you’re doing political philosophy, you rarely look for obvious truths, only contingent truths for the world we currently live in — because that’s more than enough for the purpose. Anything more is asking for the impossible, and if you insist on it, you have no choice but to become an enemy of perfectly good reason.

Mises was apparently smart enough to realize that his so-called axioms were different from the axioms of symbolic logic and geometry. But he called them axioms nonetheless, effectively redefining the word “axiom” for his own purposes.

The consequence? This function:

function anyCognitiveProcess(axiom $input) {
    return applyLogicTo($input);

now throws an ArgumentTypeError.

Anyway, it was an interesting experience to be on the receiving side of this kind of evangelism. I would still prefer to talk to a Mormon instead, as they seem to have much better manners ;)