In Human Action, Mises anticipates an issue that has been at the heart of political philosophy for the past thirty years or so. The discussion in political philosophy has centered on issues raised by John Rawls in Political Liberalism (1993). Rawls says that in modern nation-states, individuals and groups have different “conceptions of the good.” People have religious and philosophical views that lead them to different ideas about how society should be organized and how individuals should act.
Rawls thinks that there is no way to settle conclusively, to the satisfaction of all rational people, which “conception of the good” is the best. He calls this inevitable disagreement “the fact of reasonable pluralism.” This state of affairs raises a problem: How can people with clashing world views live together in the same society? What happens, for example, if religious believers maintain that society and the economy should be organized a certain way, but atheists reject these opinions?
Rawls answers that in these circumstances, people in deliberating publicly should not appeal to their conceptions of the good, or at least not do so exclusively. Instead, they should rely on “public reason.” That is, they should appeal to neutral principles that everyone who shares the desire to reach agreement with others could reasonably accept. If they do, they will wind up endorsing Rawls’s own theory of justice. In what he calls an “overlapping consensus,” each person will find reasons within his own conception of the good to endorse Rawls’s theory.
The view is open to fatal objections, not the least of which is that Rawls’s theory of justice is mistaken. Aside from this, isn’t Rawls’s account of public reason itself vulnerable to disagreements that can’t be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction? It comes as no surprise that Mises‘s way of dealing with these issues avoids some of the difficulties that entangled Rawls. In what follows, I’ll try to explain Mises’s position. My main aim will be to describe his ideas, rather than argue for or against them.
Like Rawls, Mises notes that people differ in worldviews, but he goes further than Rawls. He thinks that these worldviews, particularly the ones that address “ultimate” questions, aren’t subject to rational assessment.
Human thoughts about things of which neither pure reasoning nor experience provides any knowledge may differ so radically that no agreement can be reached. In this sphere in which the free reverie of the mind is restricted neither by logical thinking nor by sensory experience man can give vent to his individuality and subjectivity. Nothing is more personal than the notions and images about the transcendent. Linguistic terms are unable to communicate what is said about the transcendent; one can never establish whether the hearer conceives them in the same way as the speaker. With regard to things beyond there can be no agreement. Religious wars are the most terrible wars because they are waged without any prospect of conciliation. (p. 179)
We can see that Mises sets himself what at first seems a more difficult task than the one that confronts Rawls. Rawls asks, “What can we do when people cannot agree about the ‘ultimate’ questions but have to live together?” Mises thinks that our access to the transcendent is purely personal and can’t be expressed in language at all. You might at first think that this makes the prospects for agreement harder: not only do people differ in the religious doctrines they hold, but they are unable even to talk about what they experience. In fact, though, Mises has neatly derailed religious doctrines that might cause trouble for the economic views he favors. If these views cannot be expressed, they don’t have to be confronted. Of course, a difficulty for Mises is that his picture of religious disagreement is highly controversial. If Mises has successfully sidestepped one sort of controversy, he has not avoided conflict altogether but rather has shifted the battlefield elsewhere.
Mises can however respond to another objection and it is here that I think the main value of his approach lies. If people cannot express their visions of the ultimate, how can they reach agreement on political and social issues? Mises’s answer is that practically everyone wants material prosperity. Only a few ascetics aren’t interested in material goods, and, even among ascetics, almost no one goes all the way down this path.
Asceticism teaches that the only means open to man for removing pain and for attaining complete quietude, contentment, and happiness is to turn away from earthly concerns and to live without bothering about worldly things. There is no salvation other than to renounce striving after material well-being, to endure submissively the adversities of the earthly pilgrimage and to dedicate oneself exclusively to the preparation for eternal bliss. However, the number of those who consistently and unswervingly comply with the principles of asceticism is so small that it is not easy to instance more than a few names. It seems that the complete passivity advocated by asceticism is contrary to nature. The enticement of life triumphs. The ascetic principles have been adulterated. Even the most saintly hermits made concessions to life and earthly concerns which did not agree with their rigid principles. But as soon as a man takes into account any earthly concerns, and substitutes for purely vegetative ideals an acknowledgment of worldly things, however conditioned and incompatible with the rest of his professed doctrine, he bridges over the gulf which separated him from those who say yes to the striving after earthly ends. Then he has something in common with everyone else. (pp. 178–79)
Given this near-universal desire for peace and prosperity, rational agreement is within reach. Economics establishes that only a free market economy can attain this result. What is crucial for Mises is that “reasonable pluralism” does not hold here. Though many people in fact challenge the free market, their doing so is unreasonable.
Praxeology and economics are not qualified to deal with the transcendent and metaphysical aspects of any doctrine. But, on the other hand, no appeal to any religious or metaphysical dogmas and creeds can invalidate the theorems and theories concerning social cooperation as developed by logically correct praxeological reasoning. If a philosophy has admitted the necessity of societal links between men, it has placed itself, as far as problems of social action come into play, on ground from which there is no escape into personal convictions and professions of faith not liable to a thorough examination by rational methods. (p. 180)
As always with Mises, he gives us something worth thinking about, agree with him or not.