The Economic vs. The Ecstatic Individual: Critiquing von Mises’ Thought as Possible Basis for Tradition | Carlos Perona


At least since Marcel Mauss, anthropologists have been finding that, rather than replacing barter, money as we treat it today replaces imprecise, socially embedded, exchange. Think of the ad hoc way in which a clerk extends lines of credit to his regulars. Precise exchange was traditionally viewed as a means to disentangle socially, and so, was reserved for the itinerant merchant. The late David Graeber used to illustrate this point by imagining what would happen if one immediately returned gifts for gifts of the same value. If you invite me to dinner, and the very next night I invite you to dinner right back, you will likely get the idea that I’m not interested in continued invitations. If I make a point of knowing exactly what I owe you, and paying it off without remainder or surplus, our interaction is at its end. Friends don’t go on about money and settling accounts. 

Perhaps the homo economicus doesn’t need friends. His gambit is that universal good is accessible through the calculative faculty, and that social prosperity accrues when this faculty is applied to economic exchange. The more aspects of life are made calculable, having a numerical value assigned to them – either by being brought into the market or under the scrutiny of a central planner – the more “rationally” life may be rendered, the more precisely oriented towards good ends. Other considerations are mystifying distortions of this calculating reason.

So, whether we seek a collective good in which individuals are finally free, or an individual freedom that also produces collective prosperity, we will take it for a neutral expression of reason – belief in which is the myth under whose shadow we still live. In the cool of this shadow, we are told, the part of us which deliberates on a moral, social, or spiritual basis may be safely put to sleep. It is an uneasy sleep, to be sure, rife with class antagonism, economic competition, and so on. Yet the morning after that night – or perhaps its final, dreamless coma – is to be the end of history. Utopia.

It is not that economic calculation in the pursuit of individual benefit cannot accrue a net benefit for society, as Adam Smith argued (The Wealth of Nations, I.2; The Theory of Moral Sentiments IV.1). The question is one of proportion, of stretching this rather narrow mode of action beyond its proper bounds. In Marx and Morality, Harry van der Linden writes the following on Marx’s concept of revolution (who is nonetheless ambiguous on this point, often appealing to moral sentiment), morality is not needed in order to transform the pursuit of self-interest into a pursuit that takes the interest of humanity as its guideline”. Similarly, Ludwig von Mises explains in Human Action:

“Social cooperation has nothing to do with personal love or with a general commandment to love one another. People do not cooperate under the division of labour because they love or should love one another. They cooperate because this best serves their own interests. Neither love nor charity nor any other sympathetic sentiments but rightly understood selfishness is what originally impelled man to adjust himself to the requirements of society, to respect the rights and freedoms of his fellow men and to substitute peaceful collaboration for enmity and conflict.”

Looking back at history’s great civilizations, he finds their prosperity was somehow in spite of, or ultimately restrained by, state and family, “These civilizations…have adopted in some respects bonds of hegemonic structure. The state as an apparatus of compulsion and coercion is by necessity a hegemonic organization. So is the family and its household community.”

Rather than empowering, the above impoverishes the individual. Its account of social cooperation fails to allow our personality its full range of motives, its full expression in the world, for it excludes that mode of experience and action which does not stimulate what he calls “selfishness”. It can be argued that Mises’ definition of subjective value is elsewhere broad enough to include disinterested aesthetic absorption, for example. Yet he must be admitted to at least prefer forms of social cooperation based on “selfishness” as distinct from “love”, “charity” and “sympathetic sentiment”. It is for this reason perhaps that Mises criticizes the Gospel in Socialism. Why should we conceive of the self and its interest as somehow in contrast to “sympathetic sentiment”? Why reject experiencing from the vantage of wider structures, including that of a community?

Again, the problem is not one of using individual self-interest as the primary unit of analysis in economic thought experiments here and there. The problem is with contrasting self-interest to altruism. When we accept this contrast, we are not describing the individual, but rather a certain potential therein. We have denied the self its ecstatic (exciting, expanding) dimension. We may well come up with a defense of traditional institutions, family and community despite this denial. Such will be a mere add-on, not a necessary feature of what we understand to be the human condition. Community has no real being within this paradigm. 

To highlight the moral imbecility latent here, consider that insofar as the individual only emerges into “self-ownership” with calculative, rationalizing cognition, and insofar as its interests are conceived as preexisting social interaction, such that the individual cannot be compelled to act on behalf of interests not its own, there ceases to be a basis for legislating children’s rights. This is what we find in Benjamin Tucker and Murray Rothbard’s work. “Applying our theory to parents and children…a parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also…should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children…” writes Rothbard in The Ethics of Liberty, adding that, by allowing children to be bought and sold, we can more or less rest assured that the market will assign children to decent parents (“we must face the fact that the purely free society will have a flourishing free market in children. Superficially, this sounds monstrous and inhuman. But closer thought will reveal the superior humanism of such a market.”).

Wrapping up, we should treat the homo economicus’ calculations as one instrument towards achieving moral ends, and not as itself indicative of these. Whatever moral end bases itself to seek refuge under its wing will be lulled to sleep in that shadow. If we consider marriage, for example, to be good for one as interest-maximizing individual and not as self-giving spouse, we have not really come to a defense of traditional marriage, of what is ennobling about it and of those ends to which it orients us, but to a parody thereof. We cannot defend tradition through the individualistic anthropology of thinkers like Mises, because tradition assumes the self is porous to – and disclosed by means of – the other. If our interactions with the other are predicated on self-interests as pre-existing and bound-up in our narrow individuality, we lose sight of that agapeic community which any vision of the good society must strive for.


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