Liberty Matters

Can You Answer Empirical Questions Philosophically?

Storr, in response to my remarks about the aesthetic of Marx's claims, argues that many find those claims empirically grounded. No doubt. But in some ways, that is my point. The purpose of theory is to produce history. Better theory, assuming no errors in execution, produces better history. The theoretical eyeglasses we wear either hinder our vision or improve it. My aesthetic charge is that Marx's theoretical set of lens distorts our vision of the workings of the system and hinders our ability to get a full understanding of how the world works. But the success of Marx and Marxism is that the aesthetic defined the tacit presumptions of political economy among what McCloskey dubs the "clerisy," or what others might call the "intelligentsia," since the mid-19th century. Commercial society is not described by the doux-commerce thesis of Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, Hume, and Smith, but as the contra-Enlightenment thinkers from Rousseau to Marx described it -- exploitive, alienating, and ultimately enslaving.
As summed up nicely in the recent book by William Clare Roberts, Marx's Inferno (2017, 85): "Marx sees in this exposure of decisions to market forces -- the price sensitivity of buyers and sellers -- an encroachment upon the sphere of deliberate action." The fetishism of the market is "to be understood as a form of domination, rather than a form of false consciousness." Market forces are beyond the direct control of actors and thus within commercial society, they suffer from impersonal domination.
How would one go about exploring that claim? I'm not sure you can, and that is the problem. It is simply a way of seeing, a perspective you adopt, and thus a story you tell about the world around you.
If you look through that "window" you will see domination and control by impersonal forces that result in a sacrifice of human agency. Monopoly power reinforces this domination, and periodic crises both reveal the inherent contradictions of the system and reinforce the increasing power of a few to lord over the many.
Classical and early neoclassical economists developed arguments and methods of measurement to counter these claims. Exploitation doctrines were debunked, as I mentioned in my first comment, by Böhm-Bawerk, who besides is Karl Marx and the Close of His System had earlier published Capital and Interest, which included a tour through various exploitation doctrines and debunked them theoretically. But it is also the case that between 1900 and 1950, many economic thinkers analyzed the extent of enterprise monopoly and such Marxian claims as the increasing concentration of capital, finding that the measures moved in the opposite direction. Yet in dealing with complex phenomena, the results of empirical testing are never definitive; ambiguity is always present; interpretation is necessary -- and thus disagreements often turn on perspective. We must always ask "as compared to what" and "how big is big" in any empirical investigation. Aesthetics in so many ways can never be defeated by reason and evidence alone.
This is why Marx remains appealing despite the millions of lost souls that resulted from Marxism in political action in the 20th century and despite the theoretical and empirical challenges to Marxism as a scientific program that were leveled against the claims in the late 19th and throughout the 20th centuries. The intelligentsia wants to believe.
Storr also raises the standpoint problem. In a sense, of course, he is correct. To say a situation is hopeless is to say it's ideal, as Frank Knight used to say. Obviously the world is not ideal, and so all is not hopeless. There is scope for reform to bring us greater freedom. But that direction indicates a standpoint -- greater freedom. We all face a standpoint problem.
But I think that rather than addressing the challenge put to him about Marx, Storr is cleverly sidestepping it. Of course, we all face a standpoint problem, but the question is how we face up to. And here there are two points to make -- the first is Hayekian in spirit, the second Buchananesque. First, in "Why I am Not a Conservative" (1960), Hayek lays out the argument that the social theorist must reserve the right to question all of society's values. Nothing can be held as sacrosanct. The scientific attitude for the student of society, just as for the student of nature, must always be to prefer questions that cannot be answered to answers that cannot be questioned. But everyone who reads that famous essay must also read his "The Errors of Constructivism" (1978), where he points out that while students of society must take the critical stance to all of society's values, they cannot criticize those values all at the same time: they face an epistemological constraint. There is no Archimedean point for social theorists to stand on; they must always critique from within a set of values that are taken as given, and the critique is always on the margin. We cannot step outside of time and offer, from on high as it were, correctives to the social ills that plague society in a root-and-branch fashion. We must begin with the here and now and work from there.
This leads directly to the Buchananesque point about politics, constitutional contract, and workable utopias. We cannot begin discussions of politics-as-exchange from imaginary starting points or with visions of incoherent utopias that will be implemented by rainbow-colored unicorns. Political bargaining for reform begins in the here and now and seeks structural changes in the rules that will produce Pareto improvements. Our guiding standpoint must be a direction of change toward a workable utopia. No transformation of the human spirit is allowed as a requirement for the system to work; no positing of benevolent dictators can be done, let alone omniscient ones. Our workable utopias must be subject to the ordinary motives of human beings and to their cognitive limitations. Working within that intellectual discipline, we can strive to find that set of institutions that will deal with the sharp edges in our social intercourse, ameliorate social ills, and enable us to live better together than we ever could in isolation. We can engender with appropriate constitutional craftsmanship a social order that exhibits neither discrimination nor domination.
Marx's vision violated the "workability" criteria, and thus the standpoint collapses. That "test" must be met by others as well -- as Storr rightly points out. But that others have criticized from an "ideal standpoint" irrelevant to humanity does not excuse Marx and Marxism from the problems whenever theorists engage in this sort of undisciplined flights of fancy. Students of society must do better, even if it costs us some cherished stories we have been persuaded to believe. The Easter bunny and tooth fairy also had to be given up as we matured.