September 6, 2011

The Eminently Real Free Market (XXXII): Sketchy Stories (20): Enclosing Debate While Lengthening One's Nose


Mr. Ferrara’s recent three-part (here, here, and here), 10,400-word anti-Austrian broadside, filled to the brim as usual with sarcasm and invective, entitled “The Austrian Version of the English Enclosures,” is a critique without an object. There is no such thing as the Austrian version of that or any other historical movement.
There certainly was no such object in view when Mr. Ferrara wrote his few paragraphs on the subject in TCATL. As we have discussed in earlier posts, those thousands of acts of enclosure, which occurred legally and extra-legally over centuries in England, and which Mr. Ferrara’s prose conflated with Henry VIII’s brutal seizure of Church lands, were just convenient sticks with which to beat Austrians. Unfortunately for his propaganda, they are all irrelevant to the Catholic assessment of Austro-libertarianism.
We know of no Austro-libertarian who is a fan of the English Parliament except for the libertarian import of its resistance to absolute monarchy. In Mr. Ferrara’s code, however, Austrians’ support for free markets—not so-called “free” markets, but actual, non-coerced exchanges between traders regardless of how their trading situations evolved—implicates them criminally in the support of any aggression any capitalist ever waged on another person.
As libertarian ethicists, that is, independently of their praxeological analysis of the distorting effects of political advantages upon markets, Austro-libertarians condemn them all. It is good to recall, however, that Austro-libertarians did not, after all, influence the course of English history. If they could have, they no doubt would have ensured that the greater efficiencies that some have discerned in the consequences of enclosure would have been promoted without aggression, whether Henrican, parliamentary, or distributist in inspiration. But such counterfactuals are the stuff of methodology, not history.
And Mr. Ferrara chose not to treat praxeology or the non-aggression axiom in his book until his sketchy stories and their sordid impressions poisoned the well. We have already raised questions about what such analogously irresponsible approach to history would mean for the Catholic Church.
It bears repeating that in our lexicon the term “free market” refers to a real, interpersonal network of voluntary cooperation that naturally and persistently expresses itself through historical actors. The eminently ontologically real free market is the norm—the ideal norm, not the statistical norm—of human history for anyone guided by a eudaemonistic (good-life-seeking) ethics. (We would argue that a Catholic Christian ethics is a species of eudaemonism—with the good life sought being eternal.) Ethics needs an anthropological framework, of course, but praxeology is not anthropology, and no Austrian ever said it was. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Therefore—or so goes the Austrian “version” of any historical episode—human action has a logos that any episode will illustrate. The facts of a given episode and their weight are for specialists to explore and argue about. What the Austrian distinctively claims is that no specialist will ever discover anything that contradicts the logic of human action (let alone “confirm” that there is no such logic). No contingency can determine the outcome of such a philosophical and methodological debate.
Now, while there may not be anything called “the Austrian version of the English enclosures,” there is apparently a Ferraran version. It’s based on his reading of a few nearly century-old books that confirmed his anti-capitalist prejudices. He was momentarily flummoxed when Tom Woods, a trained historian, pointed out lacunae in Mr. Ferrara’s reading, specifically highlighting a book by G. E. Mingay that questioned the received opinion that had been built on the Hammonds’ research. Dr. Woods’ point was not that Mingay was “the last word,” so to speak, but that Mr. Ferrara wrote as though the Hammonds were.
Even as late as the second part of his article—that is, before he was relieved to find scholars on his side of what he calls the “modern research game”—he revealed the true dimensions of his exigent mind:
But why are the past fifty years of scholarship on the enclosures more reliable than the past two centuries of scholarship? Woods offers no demonstration.
Well, if reliability is to be decided after one determines whose ideological ox is being gored, then I suppose one does need a demonstration of the cumulative effect of collaborative scholarship!
Mr. Ferrara forgot all about that, however, when he discovered that a more recent scholar, Jeanette Neeson, author of the award-winning Commoners: Common Right; Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820, allegedly swung the dialectical pendulum to the “pessimist” side of the enclosure controversy for the nonce.* In any case, that’s his story and he’s sticking to it.
Unlike Mr. Ferrara, we do not pretend to be an authority in any of the fields about which he opines. We are merely evaluating his performance, ethically no less than intellectually. We reiterate that assessing the moral and economic dimensions of the enclosure of the English commons or any other historical movement does not bear on the Catholic evaluation of the twin pillars of Austro-libertarianism—praxeology and the non-aggression axiom—which it is Mr. Ferrara’s purpose to ridicule.
* * *
We would not presume to respond to Mr. Ferrara’s attack on Dr. Woods’ scholarly reputation except to say that if the latter’s response took the form of silence, it would be in our opinion without prejudice to that reputation. He who trifles with the truth deserves little more than silence.
How else might one fairly characterize one who protests that “I did not write a book on the enclosure movement in the first place, as much as Woods and Flood would like everyone to think so”? What is Mr. Ferrara’s warrant for declaring that we want anyone, let alone everyone, to believe such nonsense? Does he believe that falsehood to be a truth? Or is it the case that, despite knowing he has no such warrant, indeed, could have none for that proposition, he bears false witness anyway?
And, while we’re on the subject of spreading falsehoods: he never offered warrant for his outrageous assertion that “Woods has enlisted fellow cult member Tony Flood.” (June 24, 2011) Ignoring for them moment his multiple uncharitable personal descriptions (including several references to Flood as Woods’ “sidekick”), we observe that despite Dr. Woods’ emphatic rejection of that notion a week later (July 1), Mr. Ferrara has never retracted his assertion of that falsehood. On the contrary, he repeated it 25 days later (". . . enlisted the aid of fellow cult member . . . .).
We invite him to retract it, thereby mitigating the effect of his carelessness on his reputation. His repeated charge that Austro-libertarians form a “cult” is rash and baseless enough, but when he states that Dr. Woods and yours truly have an instrumental relationship, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that either he is deluded or, more seriously, lying. As we would very much like to avoid that unpleasant alternative, if we have overlooked a third possibility we would appreciate being apprised of it.

* We note that the late Austrian economist Sudha Shenoy, in her 2006 overview of literature on the enclosures, curiously omitted mention of Commoners, first published in 1993. There is one living expert on this period--indeed, on the vast subject of economics and its interaction with culture--whose opinion we would very much like to have: University of Illinois at Chicago Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication, Deirdre McCloskey. We will not approach her about this, however, if it involves even the slightest risk of her being subjected to Mr. Ferrara’s intemperate conduct of controversy.