Is Austrian economics “atomistic”?

Most enthusiasts of classical economics have probably been through it before.  The setting is something like a family Christmas party or a church picnic.  In spite of the conventional wisdom, “polite discussion” often does drift into matters such as politics and religion.  Economics, too, may as well be considered politics these days.  A perfectly nice conversation about economic theory comes up; perhaps two or more people who’ve read this or that book are batting around the ideas of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, or Ludwig von Mises.  Or maybe they’re just talking about the massive ponzi scheme known as Social Security.  All is well until the Do-Gooder chimes in.

The Do-Gooder.  Every party seems to have one.  He or she usually enters at some point, blowing a loud trumpet with nauseating tones of moral self-righteousness.  A lecture ensues on the evils of materialism, and, if they’re particularly myopic, this sermon also attacks the technology that hampers the realization of their vision of an idyllic world, even if such advances actually improve overall health, increase life expectancy, and multiply productivity (and by implication, leisure, too).  These facts are nevertheless considered irrelevant by these self-appointed crusaders, many of whom think that shoveling heaps of cow dung as a peasant in the verdant hills of 16th century England is somehow preferable to our modern way of life .

There is a kind of Do-Gooder out there, and in fact it is only of a certain, fairly well-read type, who likes to take aim at Austrian economics.  They will use fancy philosophical terms (as if none of the rest of us read, or, if necessary, know how to consult a dictionary) and quote Thomas Aquinas (selectively, of course), all in an effort to bring a (stinky) air of authority to their Solemn Pronouncements.   This sort of Do-Gooder usually prefers a universalist or theocratic grand discourse in the organization of society.  (So, how did that all work out the first time….you know, the Tudors, the Hohenzollerns, and all that?)  They view society as an entity unto itself, independent from individuals and opposed to the interest of individuals.  They often label Austrians, and perhaps other classical economists, with the epithet “atomistic,” that is, individualistic and unconcerned with the interests of society.  This is meant to be a “devil term,” as Richard Weaver called it, a kind of rhetorical show-stopper which leaves the opposition with nothing to say.

One must, however, be careful in how he uses devil terms.  In this case, for instance, it is simply false, and the critics would know this themselves if only they would read……..drumroll…….the Austrian economists!  Certainly anyone who thinks that the classical economists are atomistic has not read Ludwig von Mises.  For example—and this is but one example—Mises devotes twelve pages to a critique of the holistic and metaphysical view of society in his magnum opus, Human Action.  As he does in his other works, such as his critique of socialism, the author shows that the interests of the common weal and the interests of the individual are not opposed, but rather coincide.  This is why we trade, engage in the division of labor, and make business deals.  It’s good for everyone.  Even the accumulation of capital by a business owner helps others, since these assets enable more people to be employed.  Only a fool would think that a philosophy that advocates free markets is “atomistic.”  

The universalists, collectivists, Marxists, Christian Socialists, and the like, all insist that each must sacrifice his own personal interests for the sake of society.  But Mises points out that most acts of societal cooperation are only apparent sacrifices; at worst, a more immediate want is foregone in favor of a much greater return in the future.  Perhaps this is too simple and too wonderful for those who would have us bow down before a totalitarian worldview.  It means that we can create our own happiness, that we do not have to find it by divesting ourselves on behalf of the overlords who seek to rule our lives.  The fact that my “selfishly” purchasing a widget which I desire helps other people to make a living is very inconvenient for those who would prefer to run the world through brute force rather than rational discourse.  

In this light we can see that “atomistic” is an irresponsible malapropism when it comes to Austrian economics.  I am not opposed to morality, or even to doing good, but I am opposed to misconstruing the facts of the matter in high-handed fashion, because this impedes the progress of everyone.  Classical economics has advanced mankind in every way, yet the mountebanks continue to denounce it.  Isn’t it ironic that the Do-Gooders are often the most effective at preventing more good from coming about?

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