Friday, September 27, 2013

Praxeology and Identity

Konrad Graf released a fresh article on nature of praxeology recently, and if you've taken any interest in what praxeology is, you should read it. It works as a solid introduction into this little corner of ideas, providing a helpful dose of clarity.

The first thing to notice is how individualistic such thought is. Graf clearly lives on an individualist plane, which is obvious even before he actually states it mid-way through the piece, and turns the thing into a stump speech for libertarianism. Like many others, Graf is a pure autonomy lover who reviles force. It's very simple: Pushing people to do things they don't want to do is bad because you're pushing people to do things they don't want to do, which is bad. Libertarians assume that society has no greater good than individual liberty. The reason they do that is, of course, because they have generally accepted that any "greater goal" is chimerical, an excuse for authoritarian behavior and nothing more. To use the old, repugnant terminology split, these are people interested in negative freedom, not positive freedom.

At the end of the day, this is a perspective that says Nozick was wrong, and man really does want to get his own Experience Machine, provided that machine knows enough to give us the occasional ego-boosting challenge as well as pure bliss.

If this doesn't pass the sniff test for you, then join the club.

It's not wrong, per se; I wouldn't be interested in praxeology if it was. Naturally, people want to be in control, setting their own goals and driving towards those goals at their own pace, seeking a sense of "flow" which lives between frustrated overwork and bored underwork. But there has to be an out for the unexplained, non-solipsistic elements of life, and Graf provides it, saying,
Even for goals that had originated elsewhere, say, in the person’s organizational leadership or as a client request, flow effects could still be found if the person proactively invested themselves in such goals, “made them their own,” as opposed to acquiescing.
God, I hope so. If we can't jump in to a necessary task with an understanding of their value, and find ways to own this work that we don't necessarily choose, then just about any group-based activity will never cause anything but misery. No matter your political inclinations, this would be a problem; it can hurt private business and family as much as government.

But Graf insists that the problem is muted, because people make goals which are decided outside themselves to be their own. They get invested in the decisions of others. They give themselves the impression that whatever the group is making them do is what they want to do. So... why? And how?

Well, because people identify with the groups they are a part of. They trust the people in them, including, dare I say it, authority figures. Their values are in line, as the shared inputs of culture, including symbolism and expectations, come into play. Some of this identity relies on individual, utilitarian thinking, like the decision to join a company just to make money. But in cultural terms, the people you grew up around will affect, not just your happiness within the context of your value system, but your value system itself. You pick up what is good and worth pursuing from the reinforcing experiences of your life, which are largely cultural. The saying goes, "you can take the farmer out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the farmer."

This matters for a couple of reasons. First, you have to understand the nature of praxeology; what's basically being said is that you can best understand people by their actions, which indicate their preferences, rather than trying to do what the West has been doing with philosophy and psychology since Socrates: trying to understand what is "truly" rational and inform people of it. A sensible, level-headed person can easily look at this and come to the rather striking conclusion that praxeology really is self-evident and that academia is trying to fit round pegs into square holes in a manner similar to what religion does. Academic philosophy is seeking "truth" in values for the sake of making human affairs work better, which comes down to message discipline as to what constitutes truth. Praxeology is seeking to understand, and understand alone, no normative judgment. This is economics at its essence; if there's a way to understand values in an objective sense, then this is it.

And this is also what I like about praxeology. By looking at rationality this way, the "rationalist" model of Western thought gives way to different interpretations of what is rational, inherently subjective interpretations that do not point towards any deeper truth that can lead to a utopia. Praxeological rationality can be culturally variable, and in fact it must be culturally variable, given that value is individually variable and yet will be more closely shared by people with similar life experiences.

Graf makes praxeology out to be a new way of thinking, but it isn't quite so dramatic. Really, it's merely subjectivism in values put into practice; if you can believe that all preferences are subjective and there is no "right" way to evaluate existence, then you understand praxeology. There's nothing new in saying that you can figure people out better by their actions than by anything else. But the importance of identity needs more elaboration, because as it stands, not enough people are paying attention to it.

The Economy as Replacement for Faith

Understanding the importance of this perspective might be difficult, so try to imagine this:

A large, wealthy secular country communicates with, and trades with, an economically weaker but strident Muslim country. Over time, the relationship results in the Muslim people seeing a degradation in the adherence to their own ways and a move towards Western individualism, as Western ideas - which serve the interests of the individual - get adopted by people who would rather avoid the strictures of their native culture. Is this bad? Well, if you're a Westerner, you probably won't think so, as these changes will be along the lines of appealing to your values. They're becoming more like you. If you're a traditional Muslim, then your culture is dying. It's an overtaking, a destructive attack on the identity of your people. That your people, as individuals, are choosing it would probably look more like fast-talking salesmen bribing people with easy answers than "progress".

And that's exactly what it is. Western secular ideas, democratically reliant on popularity among individuals, must sell well first and foremost, so ideas that are "happier" and give the sense of liberation gain big traction here as a matter of systematic bias. We prefer the short-term pleasure over the long-term investment that requires present sacrifice. Religion, it must be noted, could easily be viewed as a mechanism for convincing a people to place the long-run view, longer than the course of their own individual lives, over the short-run view. It's certainly not always successful, but the metaphysical basis gives an ace card to the leadership who wants and needs serious discipline and commitment from the populace.

Look at market economics long enough, and it becomes quite clear that market economies are replacements for other forces which, in the past, organized society. Religious faith or force give way to simple, broadly effective material bribery, easy to quantify and arrange through property rights, albeit capriciously granted property rights with no real legitimacy outside of democratic fiat.

In spite of Graf's heavy-handed defense of said property rights, it's easy to see what he calls "individualism" in the sense he describes it as being a preference, just like the Muslim preference, for how society organizes itself, nothing more. If this is the case, then praxeology is not so much the answer to why property rights = good, so much as a systematic way of thinking that clarifies the problem of their legitimacy. And the problem is that until one single ideology comes to dominate the world without question, conflict is inevitable, so there will always be those who dislike the current state of affairs.

That's even more true if, like me, you assume hierarchy to be inevitable and equality to be ridiculous. Say what you want about the rigors and inequalities of Islam, but religion blunts this problem in cultures where metaphysics can grant legitimacy to authority; it addresses the reality that the preferences of some will have to give way to the preferences of others. Even within a culture, some will have more power than others and some will be pissed off about it, and diminishing this as jealousy changes nothing if you admit that the inevitable interdependency that results in market societies grants undue leverage to those with certain skills or types of property.

Graf briefly spoke of "timescale", an important concept here. Western culture looks incredibly decadent because it lacks the justification necessary to convince people to work for the future on a long timeline. You won't find people who will come out and say that they don't care about society beyond the length of their own lifespan, but in a culture with no conception of God, where people increasingly aren't having children and are studiously avoiding any talk about unsustainable environmental practices and unsustainable entitlement programs and generally stupid finance, how can you avoid coming to the conclusion that they really don't give a shit?

Praxeology can tell us what people value, and then you can say, for reasons of blunt humanism, that people should have opportunity to pursue it. But to state the blindingly obvious, not everyone can have what they want at the same time, even in shallow material terms. All these philosophies and ideologies and moral concepts and systems of authority and structure did not develop in a world where they had no value. They are not parasitic memes. They are core to a society's identity, and we need them.

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