Archives for category: Social Theory

There is a distinction, current in sociobiology, that is worth noting for our understanding of racism: the difference between positive and negative ethnocentrism.

As I understand it, positive ethnocentrism is the tendency to prefer your own kind over others, to give them special consideration. This is basically family love and commonality taken beyond clan and to the tribal and even national level. Negative ethnocentrism is the tendency to disfavor, discount or even hate members not of your kith and kin and country.

The importance of positive ethnocentrism to the survival and progress of our species can hardly be under-estimated. Negative ethnocentrism is a much more difficult subject, and it would be worth knowing how much of it is a mere extrapolation from positive ethnocentrism and how much derives from the same or quite distinct impulses/instincts.

Of course, one value of negative ethnocentrism is fairly obvious: it bolsters positive ethnocentrism. But it presents also a danger, for negative ethnocentrism can embroil societies in warfare that advances no group’s welfare. Internecine conflict bought on hatred, loathing or mere fear is just that, internecine, unprofitable for all parties. The obvious problem with negative ethnocentrism is that it leads to negative sum interactions.

Now, it is obvious that both forms require a regulatory propensity, tradition, or law. Or something. One can be too positively ethnocentric as well as too negatively ethnocentric. I suspect the lack of any kind of ethnocentrism is also a vice.

Now, racism takes the group particularism beyond nation (shared genes and language and culture) to a larger grouping based on certain morphological markers of no small but often less definite significance — shared genes are fewer, several language groups could be involved, and the cultures can be startlingly different. Anti-racism started out as an attack on racism as a negative ethnocentrism unbounded by nationalism. But ideas don’t stay put, and hidden in each memeplex lies the seed of its own destruction . . . when the “infected” take one salient element to an unwarranted extreme. We witness just this in current woke attacks upon racism that have led to attacks upon any kind of positive ethnocentrism (at least by powerful white people). The result is a bizarre altruism: the fear and hatred not of the outsider but of one’s own kind.

There are few mind viruses more loopy than white intellectuals hating on whites . . . in general. This cultural development is ridiculous, in that it is anti-racism carried to the unwarranted extreme of an inverse (rather than reverse) racism.

It is probably worth mentioning that one impetus for the development of this inverse racism is likely quite simple: noticing that racism-as-hatred entails fallacious discriminatory treatment against individuals because of an invidious distaste or distrust of members of their race in general, it crosses one’s mind that discriminatory treatment for individuals because of a valorized love of one’s own kind is also kind of fallacy. And it can be. But a predisposition for one’s own kind is not on the same level of error, for a number of reasons. Like what? Well, one of them is our limited capacity for altruistic action, which requires us to expect limitations in fellow-feeling, and, by a small step in reasoning, we should expect it to flourish most in cases of similarity and commonality (not “identity”); it is in family, clan, community and culture where we should expect to see altruism first flourish, and if we do not see it here, we are unlikely to see it elsewhere. A moralistic duty to cultivate altruism for people furthest from us is likely to induce a pharisaic sense of love and a heightening of ugly moralism in culture.

Which we do in fact see.

Whereas positive ethnocentrism is an oikophilia, the reversal stemming from fanatical attachment to anti-racist ideas is sometimes called oikophobia; whereas negative ethnocentrism is called xenophobia, the inverse racism valorizing others over “ours” gets the moniker xenocentrism.

So far I have not taken up the philosophical account of racism. That defines racism as the taking into the realm of justice the errors of fools: namely, the errors of judging parts by wholes and wholes by parts, the misconstruing of the relationship between sets and members, the fallacies of ad hominem and guilt by association, and even the genetic fallacy.

These are obviously complex subjects, but it has to be useful to draw out the full continua on which the concepts associated with racism and anti-racism belong. While I am aware of some of the phenomenological literature on this, and have read a few relevant papers in sociobiology, I am obviously a beginner here. But I do notice something: many well-regarded experts seem laggard in this endeavor to draw out the full range of key concepts.

So, though there has to be much good work done on this subject, it remains regrettable that it is the shoddy, beginner-level work that too often stands out. This apparent fact, however, does not mean that the subject is suspect. Merely that most participants are.

Oh, and it is OK to be white. If you think otherwise, on what grounds? That some who say this are racist? That is illogical, as we say: fallacious. The fallacy is guilt by association.

For the record, I rarely think of myself as “white.” But because I am of solid Yamnaya genetics, hailing from Finland with genetic markers labeling that heritage at about 96 percent, I sometimes express commonality with my fellow Finns and Finnish-Americans. But because I am also an individualist, my particular flavor could be called Finndividualism.

There are not many of us Finndividualists, but perhaps more in America than in the woke home country.

twv

Why were the ideas of the Austrian School of Economics never implemented?

. . . as answered on Quora. . . . 

The “Austrian School” is a movement of social scientists sharing similar method while working out a rigorous analysis that first flowered in late 19th century Vienna. The tradition started with Carl Menger’s Grundsätse in 1871, and carried on in several major works by Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk and Friedrich Freiherr von Wieser in the 1880s, till their deaths. Böhm-Bawerk’s work quickly became world-famous, especially his writings on capital and interest, his extremely clear explanations of Menger’s price formation theory, and his understanding of subjective value in the concept of what Wieser called Grenznutzen (“marginal use” or, more commonly, marginal utility). Wieser formulated the crucial concept of opportunity cost, building on work of the French Liberal School economists Frédéric Bastiat and Courcelle-Seneuil. Menger, Böhm-Bawerk, and Wieser were all Austrians, as were a great number of the next generation of the movement — Eugen Philippovich von Philippsberg, Viktor Mataja, Richard Strigl, Hans Mayar — and, of course, the two that remain the most famous, Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek.

Menger gave up academia for tutoring the crown prince of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. He hoped to influence policy — and it is policy that is meant by “ideas” to be “implemented” in the OQ, right? — through his instruction of that one man. Who committed suicide for murky reasons, making Menger’s career bet a bad one. But both B-B and Wieser held major positions in the government. B-B was even on currency.

They did implement Austrian ideas on policy, B-B especially. Later on, Mises, working for the Chamber of Commerce, advised the government. Some say he helped save as much of the old liberal order that could have been, by fighting inflationism. Mises developed a coherent and powerful theory of the business cycle (trade cycle) which was taken up by the younger scholar, F.A. Hayek, who predicted America’s Great Depression while the great Irving Fisher asserted it was all roses just on the eve of disaster in 1929. Hayek went to the London School of Economics, where he elaborated the Misesian theory in interesting and perhaps ungainly ways, caused quite a furor (convincing many), but was then outdone by Keynes.

Why did Keynes “win” this debate? He offered a few very enticing things, the most important being an excuse for politicians and ideologues-on-the-make to engage in governmental fiscal recklessness, spending more than revenue and increasing the levels of debt, and push monetary inflation, as well. Austrian policy is designed to restrain government and serve the greatest number of people through stability. That is, politically, no match for the Keynesian Temptation. Besides, Keynes’s General Theory, his second big book to push his favorite policy (Hayek “destroyed” the first one, which almost no one reads any more), was such a conceptual mess it gave academics whole careers trying to make sense of it and defend it. Hayek was late in the game with his behemoth failure, The Pure Theory of Capital, which could have had a similar effect, except that the Austrians never encouraged elaborate mathematical formalism, and economists hoping to become court wizards to the emerging welfare state order needed that bit of hocus pocus to advance their social position.

Mises, meanwhile, belatedly fleeing Austria from the Nazis (who hated Mises for being a liberal and a Jew), moved to Switzerland and then the States, in which he could not get a good teaching position through normal means: the crowding-out effect of the order of wizards meant that the universities had no interest in this pioneer theorist of ordinal utility, money, boom-bust and banking, and the impossibility of economic calculation in a socialist commonwealth — he was shut out. He was left to pick up just a few students who carried on this now quite fugitive and subversive work: Israel Kirzner and Murray N. Rothbard are the two great Austrians who came out of the 1960s.

Mises was considered an “intransigent,” occasionally embarrassing fellow liberal/libertarians like Milton Friedman (who was not Austrian in approach). Like in the case of business cycle theory, the Mises-Hayek critique of socialist calculation (another of Hayek’s LSE projects) was said to have been “won” by their enemies. Then, after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, the Austrian position triumphed. Even the egregious Robert Heilbroner admitted that “Mises was right.”

Every time a socialist state dies, replaced by something more market oriented, I tip my hat to Mises’ shade and smile when I say “now that is a kind of implementation of Austrian policy; step in the right direction, anyway.”

twv

Pssst: World War III began in 2020 and the West is losing, in no small part because almost no one realizes we are at war.

Sure, it is a new kind of war — bioweapon combined with a massive psy-op campaign — and we are expected to give up without fighting. And it looks like we will.

The COVID Reset is in full swing, the old order is dead man walking, and most folks — being hyper-partisan ideologues stuck in creaky old paradigms — will only realize it after the fact. How many will never realize it, I don’t know. And I of course refer to the casualties coming. The dead are utterly incapable of changing their minds.

[the above is a confidently stated conjecture]

Derelict silo.
Photo: Ralf, Flickr, some rights reserved

For right-wing libertarians: Why should a factory owner receive more profit than the workers who constructed and maintain said factory?

. . . as answered on Quora. . . .

In classical political economy, profit is the return on capital, wages are the return on labor, and rent the return on land. That is, those who hire themselves out as laborers get wages in payment, and those who invest their savings in productive processes receive profits as their reward — if their ventures prove successful.

The wage contract is fairly simple, and laborers get their rewards whether or not the business earns a profit. When the entrepreneur can no longer pay them, they go elsewhere. Profit is something identified and recoverable after all the hired factors have been paid off. The wiser question is not whether factory owners* should receive moreprofit than workers, but that they should any receive profits while workers continue to receive wages, because anything else would be, well, stupid. Against the terms of relevant contracts.

The differences between contract labor and owning and managing a business are key to making sense of things. Economist Yves Guyot put it this way:

Wages are a speculation. The laborer who offers his labor to a trader or a contractor, argues thus with him: “I deliver to you so much labor. It is true that you run the risks of the enterprise. You are obliged to make advances of capital. You may gain or lose. That does not concern me. I do my work, I make it over to you at a certain price; you pay this to me whatever happens. Whether it redounds to your benefit or causes you loss is not my affair.”

Yves Guyot, The Tyranny of Socialism (1894).
Guyot by Gill

All who favor market cooperation over forms of coercion and expropriation — not just principled libertarians — look at claims of workers’ key contributions being the sole and overriding contributions to production as being rather witless. We shake our heads when we encounter these hoary socialist clichés.

And we imagine what a targeted entrepreneur might say:

‘You think that because you sweep a floor you should own it? Is it some Lockean “mixing of labor” that gives you this purported right to property? You were hired on specific terms for specific tasks! If the terms are invalid and the hiring amounts to a ceding of my property to you, then I will simply not hire you. Your new terms are unacceptable. You are basically saying that all my and my investors’ [the capitalists’] past savings that went into this enterprise should be yours because I have offered you a contract for a limited purpose. Don’t be absurd.’

But absurdity is precisely what all these retro socialist arguments amount to.

Libertarians often respond politely and even carefully to such arguments, in part because unraveling farragos is fun. But, in truth, we tend to regard the people who ask such things as cretins. Dumb-asses. Or else as con artists plying tricky arguments to engage in some grift. Socialism we regard as the Super Grift. We libertarians often roll our eyes at the insanity and folly.

And then some greasy grifter calls us “greedy”! For defending the rights of capitalists and entrepreneurs to their property, of all things. I am neither a capitalist nor an entrepreneur. But I know greed when I see it, and I see it when laborers hired for specific tasks rise up to demand more than specified in their contracts on the basis that, well, they “do some work.” Of course, most wage-earners of profitable American enterprises despise socialism. They aren’t greedy. They know they haven’t earned what socialists demand.

The bulk of socialists are college kids and professors and government functionaries and . . . journalists caught up in dreams of utopia. Thankfully, most nowadays don’t even ask these question in the old naive Marxoid fashion. They have moved on to the cult of “social justice” and “intersectionality.” They have their own follies. But at least they have abandoned this witless gambit.


* Or some other entrepreneur and some other business enterprise — the socialist obsession with “the factory” is so old-fashioned! I have never worked in a “factory,” the magazine I worked for being closest. Oh, and as a teen-ager I worked on a dairy farm one summer. Remember that Marx hated country life!

Why can women forgive their cheating husband, but men can’t? (or, Why, traditionally, have women more easily forgiven their cheating husbands than men forgiven their cheating wives?)

. . . as answered on Quora. . . .

A basic element, here, is that while

  • women have a rather limited number of eggs and bear the natural, biological burden of investing in progeny prenatally, as well as being better adapted to nurture young children (breast milk, for starters),
  • men have a startling amount of sperm and do not bear the natural, biological burden of prenatal investment in the production of children, and are less well suited to raising children in their very young years.

Because of this inequality, the “deals” men and women make in sexual relations have tended, across cultures, to demonatrate quite distinct supply and demand schedules. Women have tended to offer sure paternity of their children to their spouses in exchange for the man providing physical and political and “economic” security.

A woman who engages in sexual activity with a man not her spouse betrays the essential element of the deal. This is a direct abrogation of the basic agreement. A man who engages in sexual activity with a woman not his spouse is not directly violating the terms (or basic requirements) of the “deal.”

But a husband who ceases to support — or slacks off in supporting — his wife while diverting his resources to a mistress, say, that would be on the level of a cheating wife.

It has been a staple of feminist thought that there is something horrible about this double standard. The more I investigate the nature of sexual relations, the less sense this makes to me, since the very contract itself is based on a double standard — or, better yet, like almost all trades, the deal is, in essence, the satisfaction of two distinct sets of priorities. So a double standard is precisely what we would expect to see evolve.

Now, in couples who do not have, cannot have, or do not want children, the nature of the deal changes. Also the importance of the deal tends to lessen as well, which is why we would expect to see more divorce and more “cheating” in families with no children.

So, no wonder wives tend to forgive cheating husbands more often than men forgive cheating wives — at least in the past. These days, with fewer children being produced and with more households dependent upon the State (taxpayers) for the maintenance of children, we should see this double standard weaken, perhaps even to the point of reversal — in cases where other pressures are brought to bear.

In fine, we should expect distinct behaviors and value-standards along sex lines for a sexually dimorphic species.


N. B. I assume a mix of naturally selected habits and attitudes and economically-induced ones, as well as culturally variable influences. We always expect variety. But patterns of behavior can nevertheless be teased out, with causal relations introduced in multiple dimensions, honing in on a number of factors. The fact that, in complex systems (such as societies) there are outliers and divergent behaviors does not preclude the making of generalizations subject to the usual caveats and statistical distributions.

twv

Some plays are daring but pay off.

Say you want to remove a sitting president, but your repeated efforts fail. And then it looks like you cannot even beat him at the ballot box — your favored stooges are unpopular. With actual voters.

So you attempt major electoral fraud, focusing on swing states, under cover of a pandemic released from a lab your side “just happened” to fund. This amounts to a coup, sure. Whatchagonnado? Well, when the president resists, you call his efforts a coup.

Long shot, right?

Not if you can get the bulk of the media to repeat the message, relentlessly framing the issue always narrowly — as a coup by the defender rather than a coup by you, the offense.

Helping to keep this going? The very notion that “conspiracies” are non-existent and only believed by nuts.

Only “conspiracy theorists” are stupid enough, you see, to believe that complicated machinations can be kept secret. When the folks floating the conspiracy conjecture return volley, and state obvious truths such as that most of the facts have already been revealed, you just laugh and deny the facticity in some cases, deny the relevance in others, and call those who dare break ranks anti-social.

This works for inattentive people who want to believe that their side, at the very least — and, generally, “the government” — is good. 

It also works for sophisticates, who want to believe that all major social processes are Invisible Hand processes, not Hidden Hand processes. They’ve been trained. Even #libertarians fall for this.

Especially libertarian intellectuals! It is very hard to be a libertarian, since libertarians oppose so much of what modern states do, and how half the population lives. Intellectuals yearn to be treated with respect. One way to do this is grant to statists their good intentions. But these libertarians forget that this grant is best seen as merely a dialectical convention, or a show of manners. And thus they pretend that the state really isn’t that bad, and its participants just misinformed. Nonsense, of course.

But the nonsense is truly believed by most libertarians, and they usually side with statist intellectuals against the Conspiracy Theorists, whom they lampoon as boobs and worse.

Which is one reason libertarians have been treated so gingerly treated by the Deep State establishment, despite libertarians’ obvious ideological menace.

Libertarians have served as a loyal opposition to the Deep State, not a disloyal opposition. For their key role in the success of the Deep State psy-op that has been running for 60 years or more, they have been granted a special dispensation.

But things are changing. As soon as the beltway libertarians open up their eyes and see actual conspiracies when in play, libertarians will be quickly Brennaned. “Even libertarians” are a threat, and Brennan has shown us the next level of play.

Meanwhile, the reflexive disbelief and mockery of conspiracy theories by libertarians helps actual, existing conspiracies (of whatever nature, whether grand or petit, meticulous-and-cosmic or improvised-and-local) carry on.

This attitude by libertarian intellectuals may be one of the chief reasons why libertarianism has scant practical effect.

It is kind of amazing to watch, as they witlessly refuse to see what should be obvious to any smart person: just as altruism will be the favored public ideology of committed egoists, scorn for conspiracy theories will be one cultural meme that actual conspirators will most actively support — if behind the scenes.

Of course the epistemic problems are just as obvious. Which puts us in a trap. But we should be able to think our way out of such traps. We should be able to entertain a conspiracy conjecture without the now de rigueur freak out, look at the evidence, and draw conclusions. The number of grand hoaxes now coming to light is perhaps daunting — 1,2,3,4: an election, a pandemic, a half-assed foreign policy, a UFO cover-up and its half-assessed disclosure — but smart people should be able to handle them without feeling anxiety.

Buck up, smarties.

twv

If libertarians had their way, would they pay entry level unskilled workers much less than today’s prevailing minimum wage?

 . . . as answered on Quora. . . .

If libertarians “had their way,” they wouldn’t allow you or anyone else to prohibit any adult from accepting a job from anyone else at any rate of remuneration mutually agreed upon. Further, libertarians would prevent you from bullying or threatening employers from offering lawful jobs at any rate to any adult.

“They pay” is a weasel phrase. Most libertarians are like most people, and do not hire anyone for wage contract work. They are themselves wage contractors, or else professional service contractors, or artisans who make things and sell them. When we discuss economic policy, we should not use weaselly phraseology. It is not a question of policy makers “would pay” anyone, it’s a question of allowing wage contracts to form or not.

The questions in policy pertain to when and why and on what terms the state and political actors employ threat of force to interfere in free contract of whom. Libertarians want merely to defend freedom of contract. Of everybody.

Libertarians would allow people to be paid what they are worth as determined by bids, asks and deals on the labor market. More people would be working. More people would indeed be working at lower wages. And thus more people would be rising in rates of remuneration as they develop more skills on the job. This scandalizes the easily scandalized, but people with some common sense should be able to see the relevant factors involved.

twv

Is Ludwig von Mises relevant to economists?

. . . as answered on Quora. . . .

He was relevant to many economists in his day, and at least two of his contributions to economics — his business cycle theory and his economic calculation argument about socialism — were well respected beyond even his circle of seminar attendees, which included Fritz Machlup, Gottfried Haberler, and F. A. Hayek. Among his admirers were Lionel Robbins.

For some reason he was never given much credit for clearly spelling out an ordinalist approach to marginal utility before big names like Hicks and Allen. I have read histories of marginal utility theory that ball up the Austrian School understanding of marginal utility, from which Mises emerged and to which he contributed. So the whole approach is definitely not well understood outside the actual Misesian readership.

Several economists of high fame, today — Nobel Laureates James Buchanan and Vernon Smith, prominent among them — wrote about and praised Mises’ contributions.

Mises engaged in a kind of formal theory that deprecated mathematical exposition, so his method ran counter to much of Anglo-American economics from World War II onward, and (rightly or wrongly) he would have regarded the bulk of the statistical work of contemporary economics as “history.” That being said, there is a whole school devoted to his general approach, and only ideologues of state-worship and scientism dismiss him out of anything other than ignorance. Still, let us be frank, most economists have never heard of him, much less studied The Theory of Money and Credit or Human Action.

twv

Why are libertarians against raising the minimum wage to $15.00? Do they expect the working poor to subsist on $7.25 forever and somehow not be a burden on taxpayers?

. . . as answered on Quora. . . .

  1. Because it is based on coercion, threat of force.
  2. Because a legal wage minimum does not raise wages, it prohibits employers from hiring workers at rates less than set, so it is de facto an unemployment technique — which some libertarian aficionados of history note was why many of the early minimum wage laws were in fact enacted, to harm the employment opportunities of “undesirables.”
  3. Because libertarians know that, ultimately, wages are paid to workers on the basis of productivity (marginal productivity, to be exact) and that regulations and prohibitions like minimum wage laws are attempts to get something for nothing, and never work out as billed. That is, such regulations have “unintended consequences” — though how “unintended” those consequences are is in doubt, because some folks malignly do promote these regulations knowing about their negative effects. (Many politicians advance bad ideas merely to appease the rubes.)
  4. Because libertarians believe that people should aim to be more productive, not seek for Salvation from the State.
  5. Because libertarians know that most people in the workforce who start out at the lowest wages in the marketplace do not stay at the low rates, but increase their remuneration rates as they develop skills.
  6. Because libertarians know that competition among employers for good workers do in fact reward workers with higher wage rates than the minimum.
  7. Because libertarians expect people to aspire to better themselves and the lives of their families, not depend on others for charitable or forced aid. People with low productivity shouldn’t start families, for instance, but wait until they have proven themselves capable of productive living before engaging in unprotected heterosexual intercourse and launching babies onto the world — babies that somebody’s got to take care of.
  8. Libertarians realize that if you make it easier to live without producing, you will get more non- and under-producers. So “burden on the taxpayer” is one of their concerns. And making some people unnecessarily unemployable, by minimum wage regulation and by unemployment subsidy, is no way to decrease this burden.
  9. Because libertarians generally prefer distributed responsibility to centralized and socialized responsibility, knowing that the latter turns people into dregs of society, economic leaches — and minimum wage laws set higher than the productivity of the potential workers does increase unemployment and prevents the lowest-skilled workers from developing working skills in the most effective manner: by actual labor.

I could go on and on like this, but you get the idea: minimum wage laws don’t work as political activists pretend they do. Intent does not determine the utility of a law, outcomes do. Libertarians have wit enough to see the reality of such programs. And they are more than familiar with inconvenient facts about these de facto employment prohibitions. They understand that such regulations actually hurt the employability of the lowest skilled workers. And will likely regale you with statistics about how African-American teen unemployment, for example, increased over the decades with each effective increase in the minimum wage.

But most voters regard legislation and regulation as magic. So they simply deny truths repeatedly demonstrated. Economic policy is not a means to an end, for many voters, but rites in the cult of the omnipotent state, which they worship instead of a deity, and in defiance of reality. The state is not omnipotent. It has limitations. It does not work by magic, no matter how cultic its adherents prove themselves to be — as routinely revealed in the perennial nonsense over minimum wage laws.


Oh, and why not raise it higher than it is now, to $15/hour?

Well, a federal regulation of this nature would do more harm than a local regulation in a wealthy region, for some regions of the country can bear only very low wages: increasing the minimum would disemploy more people in Arkansas and Missouri than in New York or San Francisco.

The higher the minimum is raised, the greater the number of workers who would be negatively affected.

This is why no one in his right mind demands a $1000 per hour “raise” for “everybody” using this method.

Only fools make a bad policy worse.

twv

Why is western economics based on self-interest?

. . . as answered on Quora. . . .

It isn’t.

Self-interest is a moral concept, and economists are supposed to be Wertfrei (value-free) social scientists — if on track of value.

You might say, “but economics is all about the results of people choosing according to their own values, thus all about choices dependent upon a kind of perceived or self-constructed interest.” And I reply, “well, OK, if you must — but it is just as much a science exploring other-interest, for these selves doing their choosing also value others, and their interests in others figure into their demand and supply curves just as much as does their self regard.”

The truth is this: the logic of choice at the heart of subjective value and marginal utility and marginal rates of substitution and satisficing and all that is not egoistic . . . according to economists. When they say it is — as they sometimes do, in large part because they are not always good philosophers — they err.

The brilliant Jevonsian economist P. H. Wicksteed tried to make this clear when he argued that economists are not pushing a rationale of egoism when they develop their notion of a demand schedule, nor negating altruism, either. What they apply, he argued, is a concept of non-tuism, a coinage he offered to help explain that when a person economizes in his purchases and asks for the highest prices possible in his sales, he may do so for egoistic or altruistic reasons, but still works to maximize the interest of the transaction, either egoistic or altruistic, when he makes those trades. (Or when she makes her trades, for one of Wicksteed’s better examples was of a housewife deciding the basic economy of the household under her charge.) Non-tuistic interest is a worthwhile concept to try to understand: see Israel M. Kirzner’s The Economic Point of View: An Essay in the History of Economic Thought (1960), for a good treatment.

But even Wicksteed did not get it exactly right, for nearly all our choices involve demand schedules made up of both egoistic and altruistic ends.

It helps to focus not on “interest” — which, as I assert above, has too moral a component — and not on “utility” — which is unduly abstract, and gets students confused. Concentrate, instead, on the specific uses to which a good may be put. Under the theory of Grenznutzen (border use) of the Austrian School economists (from which English-language economists got their term of art marginal utility), the various uses to which a fungible good may be put, and against which value is to be understood (as dependent upon the importance of the specific use the last unit of a good decided upon has to the economic actor), can be almost any mix of self-regarding and other-regarding purposes.

In my personal economy, my first gallon of clear water goes to drink, the second and third to food preparation, the fourth to cleaning myself, the fifth to my neighbor, the sixth to my dog, the seventh to washing the dog, the eighth to washing the house, the ninth to letting the neighbor’s cow to drink, and so forth.* All of these uses satisfy me, but several also satisfy others. Do you see how useless quibbling about whose interests are being served?

The economist does not usually inquire deeply about the egoism and altruism of the goals, or uses, that are the foci of the border use (Grenznutzen) that goes into explaining the formation of prices and the rates of exchange. Because such concerns are irrelevant to what economists are usually trying to explain.

Similarly, economists rarely fret about how a person forms the value scales which place the various uses to which goods are put into order. Not because they cannot be analyzed, but because they are mostly irrelevant to what economists do.

Who is concerned? Moralists, whose traditional and self-appointed job it is to get people to change their values.

But when moralists get worked up over whether choices on the market are “too egoistic” or “not altruistic enough,” they go too far if they also castigate all economic choice as selfish. And usually they descend into a very deep error.

The error was identified clearly by Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong in his Ethische Bausteine (see Marie-Luise Schubert Kalsi, Alexius Meinong’s Elements of Ethics, 1996), where he explores the difference between subject and object, egoand alter. Of egoism and altruism, Meinong argued that, before any deep inquiry, one might think that “a value is egoistic if the subject is egoistic, altruistic if the alter is the subject. However, that this is not so can be seen in the fact that I myself have altruistic desires and valuations besides egoistic desires and valuations. Thus, no objection should be raised that there are altruistic and egoistic values for me. Then, the ego is subject of even altruistic values. But the altruistic nature of these values must be grounded on something other than the valu[ing] subject.”

The notion that economics is “based on self-interest” is actually a misguided philosophical complaint, and though I recommend Wicksteed and Kirzner and other economists to clear this up, it really is a philosophical error, and should be dealt with philosophically.


N.B. In addition to the texts explicitly cited, above, one should consult

And the reader may note that I deliberately ignored another possible meaning of “western economics” that the questioner may in fact have intended: the system of private property “capitalism.” I simply won’t get caught up in the habit of calling a practiced economic order “economics.”