domingo, 12 de setembro de 2004

Mises e Oakeshott versus Friedman

The view that theorizing human action is a distinct activity from theorizing mechanicalrelationships among not- intelligent goings-on contradicts the popular notion that if anydiscipline is to be regarded as rigorous or scientific, it must deal solely with objectivelymeasurable quantities and must attempt to establish constant relationships between them.

Such relationships, according to this view, should yield predictions that can confirm orrefute theories built around them. (...)

As Friedman said of Mises:

"...his fundamental idea was that we knew things about "human action"… becausewe are human beings. As a result, he argued, we have absolutely certainknowledge of the motivations of human actions [Friedman misrepresents Miseshere: Mises contended that we have a priori knowledge of the postulates ofhuman action, not of the "motivations" of particular actions] and he maintainedthat we can derive substantive conclusions from that basic knowledge.

Facts,statistical or other evidence cannot, he argued, be used to test thoseconclusions…. Suppose two people who share von Mises's praxeological viewcome to contradictory conclusions about anything. How can they reconcile theirdifference? The only way they can do so is by a purely logical argument. One hasto say to the other, "You made a mistake in reasoning." And the other has to say,"No, you made a mistake in reasoning." Suppose neither believes he has made amistake in reasoning. There's only one thing left to do: fight. "(1991: 18)

But, as Peter Klein (e- mail, 5/21/2003) insightfully remarks:

You have to admire Friedman's chutzpah. As is painfully obvious from reviewingthe mainstream literature in almost any field of economics, there are assuredlymore disagreements among Friedmanite positivists about the interpretation of empirical data than among praxeologists about the conclusions of deductive reasoning. One could even say the following:

"Suppose two people who share Friedman's methodological views come tocontradictory conclusions about anything. How can they reconcile theirdifference? The only way they can do so is by appealing to the econometricevidence. One has to say to the other, 'You made a mistake in your empiricalanalysis.' And the other has to say, 'No, you made a mistake in your empiricalanalysis.' Suppose neither believes he has made a mistake in his empiricalanalysis. There's only one thing left to do: fight."

Both Mises and the Oakeshott held that mathematical approaches to the social sciencesare inherently limited and are not a replacement for an approach that takes into accountthe intelligent nature of human conduct. Since action is grounded in the meaning an agentassigns to her situation, and since meanings are inherently not open to measurement,there is no stable basis for the quantitative comparison of different actions.

Oakeshott (1975, p. 53) says:

"[A]n action is a chosen response to an understood contingent situation and isrelated to an imagined and wished- for outcome; that is, the spring of conduct is asituation in respect of its being recognized to contain a specific unacceptability."

As I understand Oakeshott, he is claiming that we cannot calculate the "utility" gained orthe "disutility" suffered as a result of an action, because every action is a response to aunique situation, every action attempts to address a unique unacceptability found in thatsituation, and every action achieves (or fails to achieve) a unique satisfaction.

(...)Without any means to make such quantitative distinctions, the social scientist cannotestablish the sort of constant relationships that form the basis for the physical sciences.

As Mises put s it:

"In the realm of physical and chemical events there exist (or, at least, it is generallyassumed that there exist) constant relations between magnitudes, and man iscapable of discovering these constants with a reasonable degree of precision bymeans of laboratory experiments. No such constant relations exist in the field ofhuman action outside of physical and chemical technology and therapeutics."([1949] 1998, p. 55)

Nardin (2001a) succinctly summarizes Oakeshott's analysis of statistical social science:

"Generalizations about how people usually behave are not scientific generalizations abouta truly time- independent class of phenomena; they are more or less well-disguiseddescriptions of customs specific to a particular historical situation."

Mises' comments on econometric studies echo the view of Oakeshott:

"If a statistician determines that a rise of 10 per cent in the supply of potatoes inAtlantis at a definite time was followed by a fall of 8 per cent in the price, he doesnot establish anything about what happened or may happen with a change in thesupply of potatoes in another country or at another time. He has not "measured"the "elasticity of demand" of potatoes. He has established a unique and individualhistorical fact. No intelligent man can doubt that the behavior of men with regardto potatoes, and every other commodity is variable. Different individuals valuethe same things in a different way, and valuations change with the sameindividuals with changing conditions." ([1949] 1998, pp. 55-56)

Oakeshott and Mises on Understanding Human Action by Gene Callahan (Mises Institute) 10/7/2003

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