Murray N. Rothbard, “Individualism and the Philosophy of the Social Sciences," Part I

Individualism and the Philosophy of the Social Sciences


Murray N. Rothbard, “Individualism and the Philosophy of the Social Sciences,” Cato Paper no. 4 (1979): 1-61 (with a foreword by Friedrich A. Hayek).

Part 1: The Mantle of Science (originally appeared in Scientism and Values edited by Helmut Schoeck)

1. Introduction

Murray Rothbard’s essay, “Individualism and the Philosophy of the Social Sciences,” published as a pamphlet by the Cato Institute in 1979, attempted to dispel the scientism that had taken over the study of the social sciences by the mid-twentieth century. “Scientism,” Rothbard said “is the profoundly unscientific attempt to transfer uncritically the methodology of the physical sciences to the study of human action” (3). The problem with scientism is that only human beings act, choosing their courses of action, whereas “stones, molecules, planets cannot choose their courses.” Human beings have free will and consciousness, and to ignore this fact in studying human action is a grave error. It is through reason that man purposefully applies means to achieve his ends, finding what ends and means to embrace as he moves through the course of his life. He lists praxeology, technology, psychology, and ethics as beyond the scope of scientism, for they all coalesce around the primordial fact of human free will and consciousness (4).

2. The Problem of Free Will

Rothbard goes on to attack crude, dogmatic determinism, finding that “each human being knows universally from introspection that he chooses” (5). Each thing is determined in the sense that “every existing thing must have a specific existence. Having a specific existence, it must have certain definite, definable, delimitable attributes, i.e., every thing must have a specific nature” that each thing cannot transcend: “the actions of every being are caused by, determined by, its nature” (5). Man’s nature, particularly, is characterized by consciousness and the mind determines his actions.

Given that the philosophy of determinism contradicts man’s most basic impressions of his free will, without strong evidence to contradict this obvious fact, Rothbard said the determinists should at least “keep quiet until they can offer their determinations--including, of course, their advance determinations of each of our reactions to their determining theory” (6). In addition, he finds determinism self-contradictory, for any individual who advances the proposition of determination must believe that each individual’s mind is not free to accept or reject the theory of determinism--or any other theory, for that matter--and so “it is absurd for X to try to convince Y or anyone else of the truth of determinism” (6). Even further, Rothbard attacks determinism since the claim of determinists that they could one day foretell the future actions of every individual is itself determined, along with their own judgments about the truth of determinism (7).

He then dissipates the notion that man is not free because he is bound to obey natural laws by pointing out this blurs the distinction between freedom and power: “It is clearly absurd to employ as a definition of “freedom” the power of an entity to perform an impossible action, to violate its nature” (8). Society is not the determinant of what ideas an individual accepts, either, because individuals can respond differently to the same stimuli, that is, one individual can hear, say, determinism being espoused and accept it, while another can reject it, proving that the individual chooses and exercises his free will. Men are always free to think about a proposition before accepting it, and rethink it later in life, regardless of their circumstances or the society in which they find themselves. Furthermore, this reveals that the popular notion that things are culturally determined, or determined by institutions, is a poor explanation for historical phenomena, since it is men themselves who create culture and institutions (9). Despite the insistence by many “that all of life is multicausal and interdependent,” Rothbard says “we are confronted with the fact that there can logically be only one ultimate sovereign over a man’s actions: either his own free will or some cause outside that will” (10).

“A self-evident axiom. . . .will be a proposition that cannot be contradicted without employing the axiom itself in the attempt (10),” and, as should be evident by the preceding discussion, “consciousness is not only evident to all of us through direct introspection, but is also a fundamental axiom, for the very act of doubting consciousness must itself be performed by a consciousness” (10).

3. The False Mechanical Analogies of Scientism

First, Rothbard effectively combats the analogy that machines think--what he calls “servomechanism”--by pointing out that “What is overlooked here is that machines, no matter how complex, are simply devices made by man to serve man's purposes and goals; their actions are preset by their creators, and the machines can never act in any other way” (11). He goes on to attack “the mathematical method,” which he terms “an illegitimate transfer from physics.” It is illegitimate as applied to human behavior because mathematical function implies the possibility of determining what is held constant and what is variable, not to mention that there are quantities with discreet units that are capable of measurement, which man’s free will eliminates from possibility (13). The idea of equilibrium states, as well, is wholly inapplicable to the social sciences, where equilibrium never exists, and even to posit its possibility leads to dangerous policy conclusions, if we judge real institutions according to some utopian equilibrium state, namely, the nirvana fallacy (13-14).

4. The False Organismic Analogies of Scientism

When social scientists adopt views that imply society is akin to an organism, such as the idea that culture determines individual action, it often leads social theorists to hold the “goals” of the social entity above those of individuals, its constituent members (15). The idea that the market is “impersonal,” similarly implies that the market is a conscious entity capable of being personal or impersonal, rather than that some particular individuals are interacting in such ways that he considers impersonal (16). Rothbard gives numerous other examples of organismic analogies that signify the decay of the social sciences into a mystical worship of the fictitious collective, which at best are bound to mislead, if not cause errors to be committed by the social scientists, as well as the general public who are subjected to continual bombardment by these metaphors (17).

5. Axioms and Deductions

Rothbard sets out his definition of praxeology, namely the science of human action, concerned with studying “the universal formal fact that all men use means for chosen ends, without investigating the processes of the concrete choices or the justification for them” (19), and deducing from this a whole body of a priori theory applicable to human action as such. The study of human action, unlike the physical sciences, “begin[s] with the primary axioms” and then “build[s] upon them by logical deduction,” whereas we are stuck measuring external phenomena and generalizing from these phenomena to create testable hypotheses. We cannot conduct controlled experiments in the social sciences, for we cannot hold constant individual ideas and valuations which are “continually subject to change,” not even to mention the difficulty of holding any other factors constant (20).

6. Science and Values: Arbitrary Ethics

In this section, Rothbard criticizes the idea that there can truly be a value free social science, or Wertfreiheit, as long as these individuals accept popular values prima facie: “A man who knowingly advises a criminal gang on the best means of safe-cracking is thereby implicitly endorsing the end: safe-cracking. . . .The economist who advises the Federal Reserve System how most expeditiously to manage the economy is thereby endorsing the existence of the system and its aim of stabilization” (24). Most of the supposedly value-free social scientists have pretended to abide by Wertfreiheit but instead acquiesced in the values of those whom they are advising, as we can see above.