Value Freedom, Laissez Faire, Mises, and Rothbard: A Comment on Professor Gunning
Block, Walter, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology
ALTHOUOH THERE ARE ELEMENTS of Gunning (2005) with which I shall take issue, I want to begin by enthusiastically welcoming its publication. Gunning discusses the views of Rothbard and Mises on normative and positive economics, and their relationships. Since the latter two are giants in the field of laissez-faire studies, any focus on their vastly underappreciated work is thus presumptively an important contribution to the literature. Second, it is very important to reconcile advocacy of the system of economic freedom, or laissez-faire capitalism, with value freedom, or vertfreiheit, a necessary dimension of economics as a discipline. Is it possible to both favor the market system and be a value-free economist? is the vitally important question to which Gunning addresses himself, and he is to be congratulated for bringing it to our attention in the forceful manner he does. Third, this paper is welcome on the grounds that Mises and Rothbard agreed with each other on virtually all areas of political economy-with the notable exception of this one issue. Professor Gunning has unearthed a man-bites-dog story wherein these two Castor and Pollux economists strongly diverge in their perspectives. His bringing of this situation to our attention is therefore alone worth the price of admission.
Having said this, it is now time to bring forth a critical analysis of Gunning's contribution, for I believe him to be in error in many of his specific claims. He starts off attributing to Mises the view that Mises's reconciliation of laissez-faire advocacy and economic vertfreiheit (2) "stemmed from his conception of the goal of economics" (Gunning 2005: 902). He does this without benefit of any support from Mises himself. This is surprising since Gunning is very thorough throughout the remainder of his paper in citing not only Mises but Rothbard as well, to underpin his contentions about the views of these two authors. The difficulty here is that, strictly speaking, economics is not the sort of enterprise that by its very nature can have goals. Only human beings can be motivated by ends; only they can engage in human action, the attempt to substitute a less satisfactory present state of affairs for a better one that would otherwise occur in the future. Economics, whatever it is, cannot properly be anthropomorphized in such a manner. (3) Gunning takes the opposite point of view, and cites Mises in support of this contention. But nowhere in Mises can any such claim be found. Gunning, in other words, not only errs in this claim, but is also mistaken in attempting to garner support from Mises on this point.
In the next section of his paper, Gunning (2005: 908) cites Rothbard's (1976a: 101) mention of the following very important passages in Mises's (1966: 883, 764) analysis of value freedom:
An economist investigating whether a measure a can bring about the result p for the attainment of which it is recommended, and finds that a does not result in p but in g, an effect which even the supporters of the measure a consider undesirable. If the economist states the outcome of his investigation by saying that a is a bad measure, he does not pronounce a judgment of value. He merely says that from the point of view of those aiming at the goal p, the measure a is inappropriate. (Statement 1) Economics does not say that ... government interference with the prices of only one commodity ... is unfair, bad, or unfeasible. It says, that it makes conditions worse, not better, from the point of view of the government and those backing the interference. (Statement 2)
I shall refer to the first paragraph above as Statement 1 and to the second as Statement 2. Rothbard, quite correctly in my view, criticizes Mises for using a variant of the unanimity principle in these statements. …