March 29, 2011

Demonize and Delete the Austrians (I)

Mr. Ferrara’s first chapter, “Meet the Austrians,” reveals almost nothing about history the Austrian School of Economics (ASE), but a great deal about how Mr. Ferrara wants his readers to perceive its key figures.  (Those who do not serve that purpose are simply ignored.)  Ostensibly about “meeting the Austrians,” it manages to ignore the role of The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics (founded as The Review of Austrian Economics in 1987) and Libertarian Papers (founded as The Journal of Libertarian Studies in 1977) in American intellectual life.  Hundreds of scholars have written for just these two high-quality, peer-review publications, to name no others. You would never know that from reading TCATL. In Mr. Ferrara's (utterly non-authoritative) opinion, the ASE is not a respectable body of heterodox (non-mainstream) economic thought with which one may reasonably disagree, but an academic put-on.  His opening salvo:
Within due moral limits, private property and the market economy are indubitably essential components of a rightly ordered liberty that the Catholic Church can and does approve.  The easiest way to lose the argument in favor of property and market, however is to take extreme positions in defense of them—positions contrary to the social teaching of the Church, common sense and even basic human decency.* (8)
Let’s ignore the emotionally charged terms “extreme” and “human decency” (redolent of political campaign attack ads).  We will have ample opportunity in future posts to ask  whether “rightly ordered liberty” is liberty at all. 
Mr. Ferrara almost sounds as though he is giving lawyerly advice to Austro-libertarian Catholics on the topic of how to not to lose arguments, even though the  motivation for writing TCATL was that they are winning too darn many of them and persuading too many educated Catholics with them! 
Over the course of this series of posts, we will see that donning easily punctured pretensions to authority and expertise is one of Mr. Ferrara’s preferred methods of losing arguments.  His truncation of the history of the Church’s social teaching, including its not altogether reassuring relationship to human decency, will prove to be another. 
Mr. Ferrara introduces, in one sentence, the names of Carl Menger, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, and Ludwig von Mises, economists whose writings mark the history of the ASE from the last third of the nineteenth century to the second half of the twentieth.  He accurately enough identifies them as representatives “of the ‘fin-de-siècle Viennese modernism’ of the last years of the Hapsburg Empire” (8), although he does not elaborate on the meaning of “modernism” in this context. 
But then, “modernism” is not his word.  In sourcing this brief description, he does not cite any of the histories of the ASE that  the Mises Institute has made freely available online.  He leaves the reader to find (I almost wrote “fend”) for him- or herself Ludwig von Mises’   “The Historical Setting of the Austrian School of Economics,” David Gordon’s “The Philosophical Origins of Austrian Economics,” or Hans-Hermann Hoppe's “Economic Science and the Austrian Method,” to name but a few treatments of the ASE’s philosophical and scientific inheritance and how its members developed it.  He does not even cite Wikipedia’s neutral article on the ASE.  The principle of charitable construction would have been well honored by his drawing upon such sources (albeit it would have meant exposing his impressionable readers to them).  It would not have prevented him from also citing historical surveys written from perspectives more congenial to Mr. Ferrara.
No, his source is “Carl Menger and Viennese Modernism,” a “Study Project” of the European Forum of Hebrew University. (327, Chapter 1, note 1)  It is undated.  There is no evidence that it has ever been published or even finished.  The researcher, a young scholar of Hebrew University’s Center for Austrian Studies, is Sharon Gordon. A Ph.D. candidate in history at that institution, Ms. Gordon, as she is still listed in her online university profile, does not list this research in her profile’s short publications list. The study’s abstract refers to it in the future tense: “This research will explore how Carl Menger (1840-1921) related to fin-de-siécle Viennese modernism. 

There’s no evidence that Mr. Ferrara read further.

(To Be Continued)

I grant that one may make converts with bad arguments (at least in the short run, until the fallacies are exposed: the blurbs on the back of TCATL attest to that).  That admission, however, does not address Mr. Ferrara’s claim.  It suggests that an “extreme position,” just because it is extreme, undermines any argument that may be advanced in its favor.  One would think that embattled Catholic traditionalists, having been on the receiving end of sound-bite epithets like “extreme,” would have resisted the temptation to hurl one at fellow Catholics.  Like “beautiful,” “extreme” is in the eye of the beholder.  (“I’m principled, you’re stubborn, he’s pig-headed.”)  It serves only to stir up emotions that block thought and raise a cloud of suspicion over any reasoning about the position itself.