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The Economic vs. The Ecstatic Individual: Critiquing von Mises by Carlos Perona Calvete

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The Economic vs. The Ecstatic Individual: Critiquing von Mises

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (ca. 1818), a 94.8 × 74.8 cm oil on canvas by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), located in the Hamburger Kunsthalle in Hamburg.

At least since Marcel Mauss, anthropologists have been finding that, rather than replacing barter, money as we treat it today replaces imprecise, socially embedded, exchange. Think of the ad hoc way in which a clerk extends lines of credit to his regulars. Precise exchange was traditionally viewed as a means to socially disentangle, and so, was reserved for the itinerant merchant. The late David Graeber used to illustrate this point by imagining what would happen if one immediately returned gifts for gifts of the same value. If you invite me to dinner, and the very next night I invite you to dinner right back, you will likely get the idea that I’m not interested in continued invitations. If I make a point of knowing exactly what I owe you, and paying it off without remainder or surplus, our interaction is at an end. Friends, to the contrary, don’t go on about money and settling accounts. 

But perhaps the homo economicus (economic man) doesn’t need friends. His gambit is that universal good is accessible through the calculative faculty, and that social prosperity accrues when this faculty is applied to economic exchange. The more aspects of life that are made calculable, having a numerical value assigned to them—either by being brought into the market or under the scrutiny of a central planner—the more “rationally” life may be oriented toward good ends. Other considerations are merely mystifying distortions of this reason. 

I want to emphasize that the ideal of a market society (distinct from a society with markets) and that of an all-regulating central government, in principle, arise as opposite paths to the same destination: the imperatives of a narrow reason that collapses the qualitative into the quantitative. Whether we seek a collective good in which individuals are finally free, or an individual freedom that also produces collective prosperity, we will take this to be a neutral expression of reason. And it is belief in just such a “neutral reason” that constitutes the modern myth under whose shadow we still live. In the cool of this shadow, we are told, the part of us which deliberates on a moral, social, or spiritual basis may be safely put to sleep. It is an uneasy sleep, to be sure, rife with class antagonism, economic competition, and so on. Yet the morning after that night—or, more pessimistically, its final, dreamless coma—is to be the end of history. Utopia.

Of course, economic calculation in the pursuit of individual benefit can accrue a net benefit for society, as Adam Smith argued (in The Wealth of Nations, I.2 and The Theory of Moral Sentiments IV.1). But the question is one of proportion, of stretching this rather narrow mode of action beyond its proper bounds. In Marx and Morality, Harry van der Linden writes the following concerning Marx’s concept of revolution: “morality is not needed in order to transform the pursuit of self-interest into a pursuit that takes the interest of humanity as its guideline.” In other words, the worker’s own self-interest should be enough to congeal an effective worker’s movement (granted, Marx is ambiguous on this point, often appealing to moral indignation over the plight of the proletariat). In the same vein, Ludwig von Mises has the following to say in Human Action:

Social cooperation has nothing to do with personal love or with a general commandment to love one another. People do not cooperate under the division of labor because they love or should love one another. They cooperate because this best serves their own interests. Neither love nor charity nor any other sympathetic sentiments but rightly understood selfishness is what originally impelled man to adjust himself to the requirements of society, to respect the rights and freedoms of his fellow men and to substitute peaceful collaboration for enmity and conflict.

Looking back at history’s great civilizations, he concludes their prosperity came about in spite of, or at least was ultimately restrained by, the state and family: 

These civilizations…have adopted in some respects bonds of hegemonic structure. The state as an apparatus of compulsion and coercion is by necessity a hegemonic organization. So is the family and its household community.

This view impoverishes, rather than empowers, the individual it purports to champion. Mises’ account of social cooperation fails to allow our personalities their full range of motives, their full expression in the world, for it excludes that mode of experience and action which does not stimulate what the Austrian School luminary calls “selfishness.” It can be argued that Mises’ definition of “subjective value” is elsewhere broad enough to include disinterested aesthetic absorption, for example. Yet he must be admitted to at least prefer forms of social cooperation based on “selfishness” as distinct from “love,” “charity,” and “sympathetic sentiment.” Perhaps for this reason Mises finds himself quite at odds with the ethic he reads in the Gospel. From Socialism:

One thing of course is clear, and no skilful interpretation can obscure it. Jesus’ words are full of resentment against the rich, and the Apostles are no meeker in this respect … This is a case in which the Redeemer’s words bore evil seed.

Resentment there is not, and Mises certainly misreads the scriptures. But we should not soften the blow here. The Gospel does indeed make it plain that the poor are to be a priority, and to the degree that an economy makes its peace with some quantum of human deprivation, however negotiated, it is not Christian. 

Likewise, human flourishing is to be sought actively, rather than arrived at through the inertia of individual self-interests, if for no other reason than that a focus on self-interest precisely impedes our true flourishing. And this is not a Christian anomaly, but simply the view of the preponderance of human systems, religious or otherwise, throughout history. 

Why should we conceive of the self and its interest as somehow in contrast to “sympathetic sentiment?” Why reject experiencing from the vantage of wider structures, including that of a community? Such a rejection effectively abolishes human differentiation into households or nations, except as temporary, rather cold, conveniences. It is, further, to embrace our condition of social atomization, accepting arrangements that are personally beneficial, even if unsustainable and damaging to our grandchildren, all the while sublimating our conscience by believing that the alchemy of the market (like that of the total state) will produce the most ethically desirable end (precisely because we have banished ethics from our decision-making). 

Again, the problem is not one of using individual self-interest as the primary unit of analysis in economic thought experiments here and there. The problem is with contrasting self-interest to altruism. When we accept this contrast, we are not describing the individual, but rather a certain potential of his, a certain, rather miserable, mode of doing and thinking. 

By inhabiting this view of individuality, we deny the “self” its ecstatic (self-exiting, expansive) dimension. We may well come up with a defense of traditional institutions, family and community despite this denial. But such will be a mere add-on, not a necessary feature of what we understand to be the human condition. Community has no real being within this paradigm. 

The reason why conservatism periodically dips into the waters of free-market economic determinism (apart from reacting to its mirror opposite in the left), is that libertarian rhetoric seems to share its ideal of a well-constructed person, the heroic character, and the conditions that allow him to thrive and create. My remarks here are relevant to Europe, even if the phenomenon in question is partly an American import. A kind of one-dimensional libertarianism has become popular on Spanish YouTube, for example (and I’ve noticed acquaintances texting Ayn Rand quotes as a revolutionary, intellectual balm for dark times). The mistake is clear: the concept of the individual one finds in this school is not the individual according to Plato, St. Gregory, or Shakespeare. For such libertarianism, reason is calculation, and calculation is market exchange—this makes nonsense of tradition and identity. 

To highlight the moral idiocy at play here, consider that, in systems like those of Mises, insofar as the individual only emerges into “self-ownership” through a calculative, rationalizing cognition, and insofar as his interests are conceived as preexisting social interaction, such that the individual cannot be compelled to act on behalf of interests not his own, there simply ceases to be a basis for legislating children’s rights. This is what we find in Benjamin Tucker and Murray Rothbard’s work:

Applying our theory to parents and children…a parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also…should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children…

Writes Rothbard in The Ethics of Liberty, adding that, by allowing children to be bought and sold, we can more or less rest assured that the market will assign children to decent parents:

we must face the fact that the purely free society will have a flourishing free market in children. Superficially, this sounds monstrous and inhuman. But closer thought will reveal the superior humanism of such a market.

Wrapping up, we should treat the homo economicus’ calculations as one instrument towards achieving moral ends, and not as itself disclosive of these ends. Whatever moral end abases itself to seek refuge under its wing will be lulled to sleep in that shadow. If we consider marriage, for example, to be good for one as an interest-maximizing individual and not as self-giving spouse, we have not really come to a defense of marriage, of what is ennobling about it, but to a parody thereof. We cannot defend tradition through the anthropology of thinkers like Mises, because tradition assumes the self is porous to—and disclosed by means of—the other. If our interactions with “the other” are predicated on self-interests as pre-existing and bound-up in our narrow individuality, we lose sight of that agapeic community which any vision of the good society must strive for.

Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.

An earlier version of this essay was published by The Mallard in October 2021.


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