Patterico's Pontifications


Almost Everyone Wants the Same Thing

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 6:53 am

I mentioned recently that I have been reading Ludwig von Mises’s Human Action. I’m maybe a third of the way through this monster and don’t expect to finish it until July. However, I have been intrigued by some of Mises’s observations I have seen so far, and wanted to blog about one or two of them. Today I’ll focus on a point that Mises makes about the economy — namely, that all parties and social groups promise the same thing to their followers: “health and abundance” rather than “misery, starvation, and death”:

The liberals [Mises here means classical liberals] do not assert that men ought to strive after the goals mentioned above. What they maintain is that the immense majority prefer a life of health and abundance to misery, starvation, and death. The correctness of this statement cannot be challenged. It is proved by the fact that all antiliberal doctrines — the theocratic tenets of the various religious, statist, nationalist, and socialist parties — adopt the same attitude with regard to these issues. They all promise their followers a life of plenty. They have never ventured to tell people that the realization of their program will impair their material well-being. They insist — on the contrary — that while the realization of the plans of their rival parties will result in indigence for the majority, they themselves want to provide their supporters with abundance.

Moreover, the differences between groups with fundamentally different world views do not concern their goals or ends — which are health and abundance for their members — but rather the means they believe are best suited to achieve those goals or ends.

People believe that differences in world view create irreconcilable conflicts. The basic antagonisms between parties committed to different world views, it is contended, cannot be settled by compromise. They stem from the deepest recesses of the human soul and are expressive of a man’s innate communion with supernatural and eternal forces. There can never be any cooperation between people divided by different world views.

However, if we pass in review the programs of all parties — both the cleverly elaborated and publicized programs and those to which the parties really cling when in power — we can easily discover the fallacy of this interpretation. All present-day political parties strive after the earthly well-being and prosperity of their supporters. They promise that they will render economic conditions more satisfactory to their followers. With regard to this issue there is no difference between the Roman Catholic Church and the various Protestant denominations as far as they intervene in political and social questions, between Christianity and the non-Christian religions, between the advocates of economic freedom and the various brands of Marxian materialism, between nationalists and internationalists, between racists and the friends of interracial peace. It is true, that many of these parties believe that their own group cannot prosper except at the expense of other groups, and even go so far as to consider the complete annihilation of other groups or their enslavement as the necessary condition of their own group’s prosperity. Yet, extermination or enslavement of others is for them not an ultimate end, but a means for the attainment of what they aim at as an ultimate end: their own group’s flowering. If they were to learn that their own designs are guided by spurious theories and would not bring about the beneficial results expected, they would change their programs.

The pompous statements which people make about things unknowable and beyond the power of the human mind, their cosmologies, world views, religions, mysticisms, metaphysics, and conceptual phantasies differ widely from one another. But the practical essence of their ideologies, i.e., their teachings dealing with the ends to be aimed at in earthly life and with the means for the attainment of these ends, show much uniformity. There are, to be sure, differences and antagonisms both with regard to ends and means. Yet the differences with regard to ends are not irreconcilable; they do not hinder cooperation and amicable arrangements in the sphere of social action. As far as they concern means and ways only they are of a purely technical character and as such open to examination by rational methods. When in the heat of party conflicts one of the factions declares: “Here we cannot go on in our negotiations with you because we are faced with a question touching upon our world view; on this point we must be adamant and must cling rigidly to our principles whatever may result,” one need only scrutinize matters more carefully to realize that such declarations describe the antagonism as more pointed than it really is. In fact, for all parties committed to pursuit of the people’s earthly welfare and thus approving social cooperation, questions of social organization and the conduct of social action are not problems of ultimate principles and of world views, but ideological issues. They are technical problems with regard to which some arrangement is always possible. No party would wittingly prefer social disintegration, anarchy, and a return to primitive barbarism to a solution which must be bought at the price of the sacrifice of some ideological points.

In party programs these technical issues are, of course, of primary importance. A party is committed to certain means, it recommends certain methods of political action and rejects utterly all other methods and policies as inappropriate. A party is a body which combines all those eager to employ the same means for common action. The principle which differentiates men and integrates parties is the choice of means. Thus for the party as such the means chosen are essential. A party is doomed if the futility of the means recommended becomes obvious. Party chiefs whose prestige and political career are bound up with the party’s program may have ample reasons for withdrawing its principles from unrestricted discussion; they may attribute to them the character of ultimate ends which must not be questioned because they are based on a world view. But for the people as whose mandataries the party chiefs pretend to act, for the voters whom they want to enlist and for whose votes they canvass, things offer another aspect. They have no objection to scrutinizing every point of a party’s program. They look upon such a program only as a recommendation of means for the attainment of their own ends, viz., earthly well-being.

What divides those parties which one calls today world view parties, i.e., parties committed to basic philosophical decisions about ultimate ends, is only seeming disagreement with regard to ultimate ends. Their antagonisms refer either to religious creeds or to problems of international relations or to the problem of ownership of the means of production or to problems of political organization. It can be shown that all these controversies concern means and not ultimate ends.

This is a long passage, but I urge you to read it. For those who have simply moved their eyes over it, I’ll give you the gist: It is possible to cooperate with people who have different world views. Most groups ultimately want the same things for the members of their groups. Mostly, they disagree about how to get there. Party leaders may try to make the means sound like the ends, but they are really just the means.

For example, people might squabble over whether we should have “universal health care” provided by government. This might sound like a disagreement over ends: do you support the end of universal health care, or do you oppose it? But really, universal health care is just one means to attempt to achieve an end: the greatest possible access to quality health care by the greatest number of people. One can desire the end while thinking the means is counterproductive. I happen to desire the greatest possible access to quality health care by the greatest number of people, but I think the market has the best chance of providing that.

This admonition that most people want the same ends is something that, when I keep it in mind, helps me to moderate my antagonism towards those in other parties — whether it be the Democrats, or the Trumpist party that has split off from the anti-Trumpist party.

I have always believed what Mises says above, but seeing it written explicitly is an aid to me. For example, during Obama’s presidency I often heard conservatives arguing that he was trying to hurt the country and make things worse for people. I always found that sort of argument entirely unconvincing. Why isn’t it enough to say that you disagree with his methods? Why must he be made out to be someone who wants to harm the country? I don’t even believe that about Trump. I believe he primarily does what is best for himself, but I never think he is actively trying to harm the country. What motive would he have to do that? Similarly, even Trump’s biggest fans support him because they truly think he is what’s best for the country. Understanding that others share your ultimate goals, but that they merely believe in different means of getting there, helps a person be less judgmental.

Note well, however, that the fact that we are aiming at the same ends does not mean that we can’t do evil in the process. As Mises says: “It is true, that many of these parties believe that their own group cannot prosper except at the expense of other groups, and even go so far as to consider the complete annihilation of other groups or their enslavement as the necessary condition of their own group’s prosperity.” And seeking “the complete annihilation of other groups or their enslavement” is obviously evil.

For example, even Nazis, who wanted to exterminate the Jews, believed that was the best action for their own group. Islamic terrorists think that murdering children can be a way to Paradise. Acknowledging these facts does not make these people’s actions any less evil. If anything, it’s a warning to those who even today advocate evil acts because they believe that those acts are necessary to achieve their ends. The fact that people do evil does not mean they aren’t human — and by the same token, the fact that you believe your goals are right and your means the best, does not compel a conclusion that your means are good as opposed to evil.

Even if your means would achieve your ends, they may be evil. (Thanos may be right or wrong about the relationship between his goals and the ends he chose, of eliminating half of all life, but regardless of how well suited his means are to his ends, his means are evil.) If you find yourself advocating evil deeds to achieve a result you think is good, consider that virtually every evildoer in history believed he was doing good, in some way.

But even if your opponents advocate evil, they’re usually doing so because they believe they are seeking good. It’s a good thing to remember — not because it should cause you not to oppose your opponents, but because it helps you to understand them better.

P.S. Buried in the long quoted passage above is another contention that flies in the face of much modern theorizing about persuasion: the idea that differences between groups can, in theory, be overcome by reason. I bolded the words above: “If they were to learn that their own designs are guided by spurious theories and would not bring about the beneficial results expected, they would change their programs.” Sometimes it seems as though it is impossible to convince someone with a different world view that their ideology is a deficient way of getting to the proper end. But it’s possible — and if a group really does become convinced that they are wrong, of course they will consider a different approach.

People like Jonathan Haidt are committed to the idea that humans engage primarily in emotional reasoning, with pure reason generally serving as a rationalization for conclusions already reached through non-rational processes. This probably deserves its own post, but there is reason to question the all-out assault on reason and rationality. For one thing, folks like Haidt use reason to try to convince us of their premises. Reason is more important than it’s given credit for.

As I have said before, all we have is conversation. The alternative to conversation is violence. That’s a very bad alternative. So, since all we have is conversation, let’s do better at it — and let’s start by understanding one another better. And let’s start that understanding by realizing that, whatever our differences, on abortion or tariffs or the free market or immigration or health care, we want the same thing: a society where humans flourish and prosper.

We have a lot in common about what we ultimately want. Let’s talk like we do, and use reason to work our way through our differences about how to get there.

[Cross-posted at The Jury Talks Back.]

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