April 8, 2011

Demonize and Delete the Austrians (VI): Laws and "Laws"

Mr. Ferrara continues:
At any rate, the “laws” of economics are not moral laws, violation of which would have moral consequences for the “violator.” (8)
Watch those darn scare quotes! Strictly speaking, Mr. Ferrara didn’t deny that the laws of economics are moral laws. Rather, he denied that the “laws” of economics are moral laws! Worse, will not address his ambiguity of reference to law.  Does he mean law as universal principle?  Or law as legislation expressing the will of the legislator?
Our “inconvenient Jesuit,” James A. Sadowsky, answered Mr. Ferrara’s ideological forebears this way:
One detects at times a certain impatience with economics. Talk is heard about “so called laws of economics.” I read recently of a clergyman’s saying that we ought not to treat the laws of economics as if they were the laws of God. But the laws of economics are the laws of God. They are in the same way that the laws of physics are the laws of God. They are laws, however—not legislation. They are the laws of God because He it is that decrees the existence of the entities whose nature it is to obey those laws: had He wanted other laws He would have had to create other things. He can create beings that observe other laws, but He cannot legislate alternative laws for the same kind of being. This shows how nonsensical it is to ask why God did not make the laws of nature different from what they are. To ask for a different set of laws is to ask for a different universe! “The Christian Response to Poverty: Working with God’s Economic Laws,” London, The Social Affairs Unit, 1986.
(With all due respect to Father Sadowsky, I would have referred, not to entities’ “obeying” but rather their expressing [or embodying or participating in—or some other non-anthropomorphic metaphor] laws in the sense of principles.)
While it is logically possible to violate legislation, it is impossible to violate a universal principle. A person obeys or disobeys legislation, insofar as it issues from a person, but not a principle: to the latter a person can only wisely adjust his or her behavior in accordance with his or her awareness of it or ignorantly or foolishly fail to. The science by which one discovers the principle, however, is related to but distinct from the science that guides adjustment of conduct.
Mr. Ferrara’s countenancing even the possibility of “allowing” the laws of economics to operate “unhindered” only reveals the conceptual confusion of his own mind, not the alleged moral turpitude of the Austrian’s—a confusion he seems determined to propagate. Principles do not need “allowance” to operate. If they are rationally discoverable principles, they operate willy-nilly! He continues:
Therefore, moral scrutiny of the marketplace necessarily involves individually accountable moral agents, whose freely willed acts are neither determined nor excused by the operation of any economic “law.” (8)
The “field” that is the marketplace is ontologically nothing over and above the “transactions between individuals” who alone are subject to the moral law. 
The decisive difference between us is that I hold that the moral scrutiny of the marketplace involves those personal agents exclusively. That is, there is no collectivist object of moral scrutiny. Further, as we will argue, the “hindering” that Mr. Ferrara proposes violates the dignity of persons (even when commited in the name of that dignity) and that’s why Austro-libertarian Catholics oppose such hindering.*

To Be Continued

For a fine explanation of the nature of an economic law, see Jörg Guido Hülsmann, "Facts and Counterfactuals in Economic Law," Journal of Libertarian Studies, 17:1, Winter 2003, 57-102. Hülsmann, a Mises Institute Senior Fellow and Ludwig von Mises' biographer contrasts Mises the methodologist, who promoted what Hülsmann calls the "The Myth of Gedankenexperimente" (89-93) and Mises the economist, who actually employed the method of counterfactual comparison. He draws the same contrast in Murray Rothbard's writings. On his blog Tom Woods posted the link to Hülsmann's article in a column about this blog, for which we are grateful. [Note added June 15, 2011.]