Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Post-Charlatanism

Fall 1995

"ECONOMIC CONSEQUENTIALISM AND BEYOND"
Jeffrey Friedman
Critical Review, Fall, 1994. pp. 493 502.

The first part of Jeffrey Friedman's piece, an account of the stages in the intellectual evolution of Critical Review, led me to have hope for him and his journal. I do not regularly see Critical Review, but I had the strong impression it was a central organ for the promotion of hermeneutics in Austrian economics, a postmodern movement with which I am not entirely in sympathy.

But this, it appears, lies in the past. The "inadequacies of postmodernism became apparent" (p. 493); among these are its "self-undermining relativism" (p. 494). Having abandoned the postmodern, is Friedman now ready to enlist under the banner of Mises? Perhaps a merger of Critical Reviewwith The Review of Austrian Economics is in the offing.

But, it appears, my usual optimism and inability to criticize blinded me. Friedman finds in the failings of postmodernism renewed proof of the flaws of contemporary classical liberalism.

In particular, classical liberalism suffers by comparison with the left. "The difference between classical liberalism and the left is that the latter takes seriously the egalitarian premises implicit in the former. By shying away from the Stirnerite apotheosis of freedom for only one or a few individuals instead embracing equal freedom for all classical liberalism naturally leads to attempts to actualize freedom by redistributing the resources individuals need to freely pursue their projects" (p. 495).

What exactly does Friedman have in mind by egalitarian premises? If he means that everyone has the right to be free, how does this lead to equal distribution of resources? Why cannot one have equal freedom understood in a classical liberal way? So eminent an intellectual historian as Friedman will no doubt be able to identify the pedigree of the "law of equal freedom." Or is Friedman's point that equal freedom amounts to little or nothing without the resources to "actualize" it? But that is simply the usual leftist complaint against classical liberalism, not a natural development of it.

Libertarianism, says he, suffers from another failing: "its aprioristic approach to the nature of the state" (p. 495). To remedy this defect, Critical Review embarked on its second stage, "postlibertarianism." In this stage, Friedman and his fellow ex-libertarians sought "to investigate the effects of capitalism on the good'" (p. 496). He and his associates "experienced the characteristically liberal contradiction between apriorism and consequentialism . . . and have chosen consequentialism" (p. 497).

Here once more Friedman baffles me. Why is it inconsistent to think that an a priori argument rules out state intervention and at the same time think the consequences of intervention bad? I should have thought it a strength of a view that two converging lines of argument support it.

Perhaps the "contradiction" is that the consequences of state intervention might turn out to be good, but our benighted classical liberal will still find himself committed to his a priori argument against the state. But it is not contradictory to think that something with good consequences is wrong; and in any case, why should the mere possibility that state intervention have good consequences be supposed even to raise a problem, let alone generate a contradiction? Isn t it enough that the consequences of intervention be in fact bad?

But the Weltgeist, incarnated in Jeffrey Friedman, has moved on. Critical Review has now reached the Third Stage, postliberalism. Economics alone, those who have reached this level realize, cannot "compare all the consequences of different social systems" (p. 498). In particular, various social systems must be compared to determine the degree of happiness they are apt to generate.

We await with eager interest the results of such inquiry. Friedman offers us one preview of his rigorous analysis: "as the mere ability to choose either goods or evils, it [freedom] cannot be considered intrinsically good" (p. 498). But why can't one of the intrinsic goods just be the ability to choose other intrinsic goods? Or, for that matter, the ability to choose non-intrinsic goods?

Having sampled Friedman's skill in philosophy, readers will have no difficulty in imagining a fourth stage of Critical Review, for which we must hope.


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