Nietzsche, Hayek, and the Austrians: A Reply to My Critics

My article “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children” has provoked much criticism, some of it quite hostile. (Here’s a complete list of the responses I’ve received.)

The criticism focuses on four issues: the connection between Nietzsche and Austrian economists such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek; the question of Hayek’s elitism; the relationship between economic and non-economic value; and the relationship between Hayek and Pinochet.

I address three of these criticisms here—a separate post on Hayek and Pinochet follows—but first let me restate the argument of the piece and explain why I wrote it.

“Nietzsche’s Marginal Children” juxtaposes Nietzsche’s critique of the idea of objective value with the turn to subjective theories of value in economics, first among the early marginalists of the 1870s and later, and more important for my purposes, in the Austrian School coming out of the work of Carl Menger. Describing the relationship between Nietzsche’s philosophy and Austrian economics as one of elective affinity, I draw out deep structural similarities between two ways of thinking (about value, elitism, and the role of struggle and sacrifice in the creation or definition of value) that are seldom put in dialogue with each other. The reason I bring together Nietzsche and the Austrians (as opposed to other figures) is that a similar project animates their thinking: the effort to repulse the socialist challenge of the late 19th and 20th centuries and, behind socialism, the elevation of labor and the laborer as the centerpiece of modern civilization. The idea that the worker drives not only the economy but culture and society as well–and the concomitant notion that an alternative formulation of value might help repel that idea and the politics it inspires—is the polemical context that unites these figures.

Rather than treat the Austrians as the inheritors of classical liberalism, I see in their theory an attempt to recreate what Nietzsche called grosse Politick in the economy. Most treatments of the Austrians fail to capture their agonistic romance of the market, a romance that makes capitalism exciting rather than merely efficient. Far from departing from the canons of conservatism, then, Austrian economics is a classic form of counterrevolution, a la Burke. It seeks to defeat a challenge from below—in this case, the ongoing threat from the worker’s world, whether that world be found in a grain of sand (a trade union, say) or in the surrounding sea of international socialism—by transforming and reinvigorating the old regime. “If we want things to stay as they are,” as the classic formulation in The Leopard puts it, “things will have to change.”

I wrote the piece mainly in pursuit of an idea coming out of my encounter with Carl Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna. Situating the rise of modernism in the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this classic study hears the drumbeat of Viennese politics—a flailing ancien régime, a bourgeoisie struggling to extract a liberal order from “the feudals,” and a vicious street fight of right and left— in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Klimt’s Athena portraits, and other touchstones of high culture.

Schorske’s book spawned an entire literature devoted to the Viennese origins of logical positivism, psychoanalysis, atonal music, and more. Yet there has always been a conspicuous absence in that literature: the Austrian School of economics. Even though the Austrian School was forged in the same Schorskean crucible of a regnant aristocracy, weak liberalism, and anti-socialism, even though the Austrian economists offer an appreciation of the subjective, non-rational, and unconscious elements of life rivaling that of Freud, Klimt, and Kokoschka, the Austrians make no appearance in Schorskean histories of Vienna and Schorske’s Vienna makes no appearance in studies of the Austrians. It’s as if there is a tacit vow of silence among two sets of scholars: historians and leftists who do not want to concede any cultural status or philosophical depth to (in their view) vulgarians of the market like Mises and Hayek, and libertarians and economists who do not want to see their inspirations tainted by the politics of Vienna.

The text that comes closest to apprehending the swirling presence of Vienna in Austrian economics is John Gray’s Hayek on Liberty. Not only does Gray emphasize the subterranean quasi-rational currents of Viennese subjectivism in Hayek’s theories but he also captures the distinctively counterrevolutionary—as I have explained the term—character of Hayek’s enterprise, which entails “a radical revision both of current and ancient morality.”

In pursuing the re-evaluation of values that are necessary to the stability of the market order…Hayek’s doctrine issues in judgments critical of large segments of moral practice. Hayek’s example suggests that radicalism and conservatism in intellectual and moral life may not be in conflict at all….It has the paradoxical result that a contemporary conservative who values private property and individual liberty cannot avoid being an intellectual and moral radical.

Gray’s book doesn’t get too much play anymore, but at the time of its publication in 1984 one reader claimed that it was “the first survey of [Hayek’s] work which not only fully understands but is able to carry on [his] ideas beyond the point at which [he] left off.”

That reader was Friedrich von Hayek.


What is the connection between Nietzsche and the Austrians?

The most common criticism of my piece that I’ve received is that my linking of Nietzsche and the Austrians fails because many other philosophers and economists held similarly subjectivist views of value. Unless I want to make the case that Nietzsche influenced the Austrians, which I don’t, I’m either saying something trivial (i.e., like many thinkers across the centuries, Nietzsche and the Austrians held a particular view of value) or trying to smuggle lurid contraband (freedom-loving Austrians = fascist-leaning Nietzsche) inside my suitcase.

My critics are certainly correct that many other writers held subjectivist theories of value and that many of them were socialists and leftists. What’s puzzling is that I make that very point in my article, repeatedly in fact. So why do these critics believe it is so fatal? Because they ignore the argument I do make in favor of an argument I don’t make.

Notice how these critics set up my argument. At The American Conservative, Samuel Goldman writes:

According to Robin, both Nietzsche and the Austrians saw value as a subjective commitment under conditions of constraint rather than an objective contribution by labor. For this reason, they endorsed agonistic social relations in which individuals struggle to express and impose valuations to the limits of their differential strength, while rejecting egalitarian arrangements that attempt to give producers a fair share of the value they have generated.

Bleeding Heart Libertarians’s Kevin Vallier writes:

Robin roughly claims that the move to the subjective theory of economic value in economics was a move towards a form of objective value nihilism. Objective value nihilism in turn allows Austrian economists in particular to argue that markets are an expression of morality because markets are expressions of subjective value.

In both formulations, value subjectivism (I don’t know where Vallier gets value nihilism from) is doing the work of leading Nietzsche and the Austrians to their dark end, whether in politics or the market. That makes an easy target for both critics because it allows them to point to other subjectivists who did not take the path of anti-socialism or elitism and thereby to dismiss the Nietzsche Hayek connection. (“If even Mises’s chief [ideological] opponent shared his theory of value,” claims Vallier, “how can there be an interesting, illuminating connection between Nietzsche and the Austrians?”)

But that’s not how elective affinities work. It’s not that one argument or tradition logically entails another—marching its proponent down the road, forcing him to take a right at the intersection—or that the two arguments are found together and only together. There clearly is an elective affinity between liberalism and contractarianism, for example, even though there are liberals who are not contractarians (Montesquieu, Constant, Tocqueville, Hegel, and Dewey) and contractarians who are not liberals (Hobbes).

The point of an elective affinity is that there’s something in the two traditions—a deep structure of thought common to both that might not be immediately visible in each or arguments peculiar to each that are nevertheless congenial to both—that draws their proponents to each other. Or that explains why proponents of the one, once they have abandoned it, may subsequently be drawn to the other. Or why a culture—or political movement—may comfortably birth or house both at the same time. In the case of a political movement, where power and interests and ideas mix and mingle in ways that don’t always logically fit or follow, elective affinities can be especially potent.

For all their peculiar insistence on the need for me to demonstrate uniqueness—to establish a connection between Nietzsche and the Austrians, Vallier says, I must show they “were unique in sharing these views” about value, a stipulation so eccentric it would render unintelligible such classics of intellectual history as Richard Hofstadter on Calhoun (“The Marx of the Master Class”), Louis Menand on pragmatism and the Civil War, or Schorske on Vienna and modernism—my critics overlook what is in fact unique to Nietzsche and the Austrians as well as some of their followers: not their subjectivism but the fact that they saw in their subjectivism a comprehensive vision of politics, morals, and culture, a renovation of the human estate so complete as to rival that of the left. More than a simple theory of economics or metaethics, subjectivism offered these writers a glimpse of counterrevolutionary eternity,

Like Nietzsche, the Austrians were political theorists, men who sought to set the world ablaze. They understood that the battle against socialism would not be won by a dry recitation of economic facts or a dull roster of normative arguments. A truly political theory had to seize our sense and our sensibility. “I do not think the cause of liberty will prevail unless our emotions are aroused,” Hayek announces in the opening pages of The Constitution of Liberty. “If politics is the art of the possible,” he adds, “political philosophy is the art of making politically possible the seemingly impossible.”

That is why this particular objection from Goldman is so off base.

Robin generally ignores the technical mathematical background of the marginal revolution, which he presents primarily as debate in moral philosophy. That decision obscures the most important cause of the transformation of economic thought in the 19th century: the demand that economics become a science on the model of physics.

Goldman is wrong, of course, about Menger, one of the three founders of marginalism who was notoriously hostile to mathematical and scientific models of economics. He’s also wrong about Menger’s successors, who are the main topic of my article: Mises was contemptuous of “mathematical modes of representation” and the “drawing of such curves” as well as of the effort to model economics on the example of physics or chemistry. In one of his seminal articles, Hayek states that the problem of economics has “been obscured rather than illuminated by many of the recent refinements of economic theory, particularly by many of the uses made of mathematics.” That “misconception,” he goes onto say, “is due to an erroneous transfer to social phenomena of the habits of thought we have developed in dealing with the phenomena of nature.”

But more important, Goldman misses the entire point of the Austrian enterprise: to transcend the narrow confines of economics (as well as the natural sciences) and to fashion a genuinely political theory of markets and morals. In Hayek’s words, “I have come to feel more and more that the answers to many of the pressing social questions of our time are to be found ultimately in the recognition of principles that lie outside the scope of technical economics or of any other single discipline.” That was the music of these marginalists’ morals.

What distinguishes the Austrians and Nietzsche, then, from other subjective theorists (indeed, from practically all the names that have been raised in response to me: Oskar Lange, Karl Marx, Carlyle, Dostoevsky, Burckhardt, Tocqueville, Mill, Hobbes) is: a) the polemical target and context of their subjectivism—the threat of socialism and the labor question more generally; b) the connection they draw and that can be drawn between their subjectivism and their anti-socialism and elitism (a connection, it bears repeating, that is neither necessary nor inherent but contingent and peculiar to this moment and to the subsequent development of the right); and c) the cultural scope and political ambition of their subjectivism.



A second criticism I’ve received is that I offer virtually no evidence to support my claim that Nietzsche and the Austrians share a belief in great men as the creators and legislators of new forms of value, not just economic goods but also political, moral and cultural norms. Here is Vallier (if I cite him more than my other critics it is simply because his post has served as the touchstone for so many of the rest):

But suppose we scrutinize one of Robin’s most well-developed and specific claims, namely that there is an interesting and illuminating connection between Nietzsche’s and Hayek’s view about the importance of great men setting out new forms of valuation for social development. Even here the argument fails. The only passages from Hayek that can even be construed out of context to support this argument is Hayek’s claim in The Constitution of Liberty that synchronic (simultaneous) inequalities of wealth can work to the benefit of the least-advantaged over time because the luxury consumption of the rich paves the way for manufacturers to create cheaper versions of the same goods and market them to the masses.

This is ludicrous.

Immediately after he makes this narrow point about luxury goods, Hayek insists that the trickle-down effects of great wealth and inequality far outstrip the simple creation of mass consumption items.

The important point is not merely that we gradually learn to make cheaply on a large scale what we already know how to make expensively in small quantities but that only from an advanced position does the next range of desires and possibilities become visible, so that the selection of new goals and the effort toward their achievement will begin long before the majority can strive for them. If what they will want after their present goals are realized is soon to be made available, it is necessary that the developments that will bear fruit for the masses in twenty or fifty years’ time should be guided by the views of people who are already in the position of enjoying them.

The role of the wealthy it is to “guide” the development of the “range of desires,” the “selection of new goals,” of “the masses.” These elite effects are not merely economic but also cultural and moral. Far from saying this only once, Hayek says it a great many times.

However important the independent owner of property may be for the economic order of a free society, his importance is perhaps even greater in the fields of thought and opinion, of tastes and beliefs.

The importance of the private owner of substantial property, however, does not rest simply on the fact that his existence is an essential condition for the preservation of the structure of competitive enterprise. The man of independent means is an even more important figure in a free society when he is not occupied with using his capital in the pursuit of material gain but uses it in the service of aims which bring no material return.

What little leadership can be expected from the majority is shown by their inadequate support of the arts wherever they have replaced the wealthy patron. And this is even more true of those philanthropic or idealistic movements by which the moral values of the majority are changed.

The leadership of individuals or groups who can back their beliefs financially is particularly essential in the field of cultural amenities, in the fine arts, in education and research, in the preservation of natural beauty and historic treasures, and, above all, in the propagation of new ideas in politics, morals, and religion.

It is only natural that the development of the art of living and of the non-materialistic values should have profited most from the activities of those who had no material worries.

Beyond being wrong, this particular criticism fails because of the implicit separation it draws between economic and cultural development, moral and material progress, patterns of consumption and a broader way of life. That way of thinking is utterly foreign to Hayek.

Here again some acquaintance with the Viennese context, particularly the aristocratic context, might be useful. In the course of defending familial inheritance, for example, Hayek repeatedly makes the point that the transmission of elite values, tastes, and beliefs is predicated on the transmission of wealth. The “external forms of life” condition and support the inner forms of life.

Many people who agree that the family is desirable as an instrument for the transmission of morals, tastes, and knowledge still question the desirability of the transmission of material property. Yet there can be little doubt that, in order that the former may be possible, some continuity of standards, of the external forms of life, is essential, and that this will be achieved only if it is possible to transmit not only the immaterial but also material advantages.

The family’s function of passing on standards and traditions is closely tied up with the possibility of transmitting material goods.

Elsewhere, after claiming that “the freedom that will be used by only one man in a million may be more important to society and more beneficial to the majority than any freedom that we all use”—a statement taken by my critics to mean that any random individual may make economic contributions to the society as a whole—Hayek favorably cites this statement of support from a nineteenth-century philosopher:

The plea for liberty is not sufficiently met by insisting…upon the absurdity of supposing that the propertyless labourer under the ordinary capitalistic regime enjoys any liberty of which Socialism would deprive him. For it may be of extreme importance that some should enjoy liberty—that it should be possible for some few men to be able to dispose of their time in their own way—although such liberty may be neither possible nor desirable for the great majority. That culture requires a considerable differentiation in social conditions is also a principle of unquestionable importance.

There’s no wisdom of crowds here. Not only is Hayek speaking of the wealthy, but he is also claiming that their wealth, and the inequality it generates, will have cultural benefits for the masses.

But more generally, if the claim of Austrian elitism is as outlandish as my critics seem to believe, would Mises have praised Ayn Randwhose economic Nietzscheanism (though not subjectivism) is not in doubt—thus?

You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.

Or characterized the popularity and appeal of Marxism thus?

The incomparable success of Marxism is due to the prospect it offers of fulfilling those dream-aspirations and dreams of vengeance which have been so deeply embedded in the human soul from time immemorial. It promises a Paradise on earth, a Land of Heart’s Desire full of happiness and enjoyment, and—sweeter still to the losers in life’s game—humiliation of all who are stronger and better than the multitude.

Non-elitists tend not to speak this way.



A third criticism of my piece is that I make a muddle of the question of value by failing to distinguish between economic and moral value, use-value and exchange-value—“between any particular form of value and ‘value’ itself,” as Vallier puts it. I also misfire when I claim that Mises and Hayek “made the market the very expression of morality.” Neither man, Vallier says, “makes market relations ‘the very expression’ of morality.”

There’s no question that my piece mixes different notions of value, blurring distinctions that philosophers like to keep separate. But far from haplessly misconstruing one mode of value for another, I intentionally pressed these definitions and usages together. And for a simple reason: that’s what the Austrians did. This was a critical part of their project, which I was trying to capture.

Let’s recall the political and intellectual context in—and against—which the Austrians were writing. For nearly a half-century, leftists had been arguing that economic questions should be subordinate to moral questions. More technocratic types argued that the government could solve the economic problem in an apolitical fashion, freeing men and women to pursue their visions of the good life with the resources they needed. What made these arguments possible was the notion that economics and morals occupied distinct spheres.

Hayek understood this threat all too well. (Some libertarians still do.) Economic planners, he said, believe their actions “will apply ‘only’ to economic matters.”

Such assurances are usually accompanied by the suggestion that, by giving up freedom in what are, or ought to be, the less important aspects of our lives, we shall obtain greater freedom in the pursuit of higher values.

It was as if, in the minds of the planners, “economic activities really concerned only the inferior or even more sordid sides of life.” But that vision, Hayek insisted, “is altogether unwarranted. It is largely a consequence of the erroneous belief that there are purely economic ends separate from the other ends of life.”

Mises was equally clear on the matter:

Unless Ethics and “Economy” are regarded as two systems of objectivization which have nothing to do with each other, then ethical and economic valuation and judgment cannot appear as mutually independent factors….The conception of absolute ethical values, which might be opposed to economic values, cannot therefore be maintained.

Instead of separating economic and moral values, the Austrians sought to join and mix them. They further argued that moral values are best revealed, or most likely to be revealed, in the marketplace because it is in the marketplace that we are forced to give something up for them. Deep inside their conception of moral action was a notion of sacrifice—“Moral behavior is the name we give to the temporary sacrifices made in the interests of social co-operation,” declared Mises; “to behave morally, means to sacrifice the less important to the more important”—which was most tangibly demonstrated and viscerally experienced in acts of market exchange.

According to Hayek, morals “can exist only in the sphere in which the individual…is called upon voluntarily to sacrifice personal advantage to the observance of a moral rule.” One must prove “one’s conviction by sacrificing one’s desires to what one thinks right.”  In the economy we are constantly forced to give up something of ourselves, something material, in order to honor our notions of what is right or good. What Hayek calls the “economic problem”—the fact that “all our ends compete for the same means,” which are limited and scarce—provides the best, indeed the only, habitat for that kind of moral action.

Contra Vallier—who claims that Hayek believes that “morality can be expressed in all sorts of ways” and “can be promoted outside of the market”—Hayek states quite clearly that

freedom to order our own conduct in the sphere where material circumstances force a choice upon us…is the air in which alone moral sense grows and in which moral values are daily re-created.

The fact that “almost everything can be had at a price” in the market, that “the higher values of life” are “brought into the ‘cash nexus,’” is not to be regretted, says Hayek, but celebrated. By honoring the notion “that life and health, beauty and virtue, honor and peace of mind, can often be preserved only at considerable material cost,” the economy elevates those values, reminding us that they cannot be had on the cheap. By forcing us “to make the material sacrifices necessary to protect those higher values against all injury,” the economy also serves as divining rod of our morality, revealing to us what we truly believe and value.

What makes electoral politics, by contrast, such a dismal measure of moral value is that politicians promise their constituents everything without asking them to sacrifice anything.

The periodical election of representatives, to which the moral choice of the individual tends to be more and more reduced, is not an occasion on which his moral values are tested or where he has constantly to reassert and prove the order of his values and to testify to the sincerity of his profession by the sacrifice of those of his values he rates lower to those he puts higher.

In this polysemous discourse of value, we see that mix of elements—moral and economic, material and philosophical—that the labor question had galvanized and that the Austrians and Nietzsche in response sought to reorder and rearrange. What divides me from my critics is that they either don’t know or don’t care about that context and the project it provoked. They wish to assimilate the Austrians to a more circumspect tradition, which has little interest in this nexus of moral and economic power and the cultural politics of which it is a part. That’s not an illegitimate enterprise—action intellectuals construct usable pasts for themselves all the time—but it comes at a cost: It cannot account for much of what the Austrians wrote. My critics can hold onto their beliefs by ignoring inconvenient parts of the text, but they run the risk of repeating the mistakes of an earlier generation of Hayek readers. “People still tend to go off half-cocked about it,” Hayek’s editor wrote about critics of The Road Serfdom in 1945. “Why don’t they read it and find out what Hayek actually says?” Indeed.



I’m a historically oriented political theorist who has argued that there’s a surprising unity on the right across time and space. This is a controversial thesis, no more so than when it comes to Mises and Hayek and the followers they’ve inspired on the right. Though I didn’t initially approach conservative defenders of the market with that thesis in mind—for many years, I thought the opposite—I now believe the evidence upholds rather than refutes that thesis.

I recognize the heterodoxy of this reading of the Austrians as well as the perils and pitfalls, which John Holbo has described so well, of my argument about elective affinities. Even so, I’m surprised by the personal nature of some of the criticism I have received. It’s not simply that these critics think I’m wrong. They go further, claiming my alleged errors are signs of my questionable character and second-rate mind. Matt Zwolinski, for example, accuses me (falsely and unfairly, as I pointed out to him in an email) of deliberately misrepresenting data to fit my thesis, an offense “indicative” of more general shortcomings. Goldman accuses me of trying to “dazzle readers who know little intellectual history with a flurry of impressive names.” Like Zwolinski, he sees my article as a symptom of larger failings: “As in The Reactionary Mind, Robin assigns guilt by association (or insinuation).” Vallier agrees with that claim, and chalks it and other supposed lapses up to my “career-long attempt to shoehorn every non-leftist into a single group of people who hate equality.” Jason Brennan has publicly urged Chris Bertram to have me kicked off the Crooked Timber blog because I’m “intellectual corrupt” and my work—a term Brennan surrounds in scare quotes—is “bad in the way that first-year undergraduate essays aren’t up to snuff.”

It’s jarring to hear this kind of talk from accomplished academics rather than mindless trolls. Particularly when their case against me is so flimsy. It would be one thing if I had made errors of the sort that can only be ascribed to epic malfeasance or malpractice. But as I’ve shown, there’s much evidence to support my interpretations. If anything it seems to be my critics who are insufficiently acquainted with the material about which they so confidently pronounce. Even if one disagrees with me about Nietzsche and the Austrians, it’s difficult to see how one could see in the disagreement anything more than an academic dispute: we simply read the texts differently. That my critics would leap so quickly over that interpretation of our disagreement is telling. But of what?

One possibility is that my work unsettles the boundaries so many libertarians have drawn around themselves. (The liberal-ish conservative Goldman is a different matter; in his case, I think the problem is simply a lack of familiarity and experience with these texts.) Like some of their counterparts outside the academy, at Reason and elsewhere, academic libertarians often like to describe themselves as neither right nor left—a political space, incidentally, with some rather unwholesome precedents—or as one-half of a dialogue on the left, where the other half is Rawlsian liberalism or analytical Marxism. What they don’t want to hear is that theirs is a voice on and of the right. Not because they derive psychic or personal gratification from how they position themselves but because theirs is a political project, in which they borrow from the left in order to oppose—or all the while opposing—the main projects of the left.

That kind of politics has a name. It’s called conservatism.


  1. Diana June 25, 2013 at 12:10 am | #

    this is brilliant …

    • Charles Peterson June 29, 2013 at 12:35 am | #

      Brilliant, to the point, and desperately needed. Logically crafted, well informed, and fully annotated. No wonder critics resort to ad hominem attacks, including the one that Robin’s thesis an ad hominem attack (thereby being judged as the sort of person that does that).

      I’ve always felt that Hayek had a peculiar project in cultural elitism and have been stunned by how many don’t immediately see it. But my feeling was uninformed, now Robin gives me the information I needed, and from this vantage, it’s obvious.

      But now I wonder, where have all these elites gone? Now we seem to have nothing more than mean ugly shills for plutocracy. Nobody can possibly believe in a conservative cultural elite anymore, can they?

      • Justin Beck October 11, 2013 at 1:28 pm | #

        But that’s the essential issue of political and cultural theory, isn’t it? Theory versus practice. The conservative cultural elite died when the romantics of modernism became frowned upon. (Really birlliant articel by the way!)

    • Scott Boykin August 9, 2013 at 1:46 am | #

      Hayek was a kind of utilitarian in moral theory. He believed that markets and individual freedom are good because they had given rise to societies that could sustain larger populations than any known alternative. That’s pretty mundane, but that’s really what he believed. He definitely did not celebrate inequality or view people with some tastes or lifestyles as being in any sense better than others. Nothing in his writings would support such a view. In fact, what he wrote would suggest that such views (like Ayn Rand’s) are nonsense.

      A central thing Corey Robin doesn’t get is that Hayek viewed economic inequality as morally indifferent. It is neither good nor bad. People who are rewarded by the market are not necessarily better than anyone else, and their earnings bear no relation to moral desert. They simply did something that enabled them to reap a profit, and that is neither morally good nor bad in itself. It has nothing to do with good or bad, better or worse. Hayek actually writes about this (Law, Legislation, and Liberty: vol. 2, The Mirage of Social Justice), so it is remarkable that Robin doesn’t understand this.

  2. Rogers Smith June 25, 2013 at 5:40 am | #

    Very well done.

    Sent from my iPad

  3. Aaron June 25, 2013 at 9:01 am | #

    This will all be much easier to peruse once it’s collected in book form 😀

    I find both your original essay and response here very provocative, and ultimately something that points readers to the source texts to resolve for themselves. For your critics, though, it really seems to be a matter of whether or not they view elective affinity as being legitimate or not.

    Your quote: “The point of an elective affinity is that there’s something in the two traditions—a deep structure of thought common to both that might not be immediately visible in each or arguments peculiar to each that are nevertheless congenial to both—that draws their proponents to each other” strikes me as potentially seeing a pattern that isn’t really there. That’s why your critics are becoming reactionary, in my opinion. You wrote “Even if one disagrees with me about Nietzsche and the Austrians, it’s difficult to see how one could see in the disagreement anything more than an academic dispute: we simply read the texts differently”. But I see it more as a matter of how one reads texts in general, vs. how you’re reading the specific texts. Without the Austrians pulling direct quotes from Nietzsche to draw on, your critics can say there just isn’t enough solid evidence within the texts themselves to show such an affinity. Then from the pro-Nietzsche side you have the century+ long debate on how to properly interpret Nietzsche. When you have an explosion of ideas coming around and after the turn of the century, Nietzsche could be seen as a too-convenient fountainhead (so to speak). Finding unconscious streams of thought within different writers is something I personally associate more with the postmodernism and deconstruction, and the French thinkers who were influenced by Nietzsche; I’d actually say that your writing strikes me as being in-line with what Nietzsche was actually doing in re-evaluation values. But then again, I’m a sympathetic reader of Nietzsche and a skeptical reader of the Austrians.

  4. jonnybutter June 25, 2013 at 9:05 am | #

    … it seems to be my critics who are insufficiently acquainted with the material about which they so confidently pronounce.

    What makes it hard to argue with people like this is that the burden of *their* introspection is on their *critic’s* shoulders (slick, no?). If you (the critic) impute to them a conscious political plan of strategically eliding certain parts of their foundational texts, they have a plausible reason to howl about it; but it’s hard to believe professional libertarians don’t know their own texts. Maybe libertarians could argue that they are advocating for the idea itself, not its mere authors. Foundational texts – bibles – are notoriously messy. What matters is the ideas and the Truth thereof.

    Whatever it is, I see this phenomenon again as an expression of the power of paradox, as soaking in a sea of paradox. Market fundamentalism is a passivity – a surrendering of judgement to a (supposedly) automatic ‘system’; it is a passivity and anxiety and melancholy and fear which masquerade as Will and strength and incisiveness. It’s the power of being not just somewhat, but *perfectly* contradictory.

    Libertarians are Beyond Introspection, I guess. Introspection – including theirs – is our problem; like what the Bush advisor (Rove, was it?) told Ron Suskind: “We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” They don’t think, they know. I mean, ‘..the truth of libertarianism..’? Isn’t just writing that phrase without qualification kind of preposterous?

    • Benjamin David Steele June 25, 2013 at 4:22 pm | #

      I loved the way you explained that. You grasped the essence of the conundrum.

      Those who know their truth need not prove it. To such a person, a truth that needs to be proven is an unworthy truth. A truth must me taken as an unquestioned axiom. Many right-wingers are in love with axioms which in their rhetoric is a fancy word for belief.

      They know it is true because they believe it is true. And they believe it is true because they know it is true. Ergo, it is true because they said so.

      There are some right-wingers and reactionary conservatives who don’t fall into this trap, but they can seem extremely rare when one peruses the internet and even more rare on the right-wing media.

      • jonnybutter June 25, 2013 at 5:38 pm | #

        Thank you for saying so BDS. Our host is really doing yeoman’s work on this. Any small insight I have is due to having argued with these guys for years (what was the internet invented for?!), and also to being old enough (50s) to remember both the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the big Clamp Down in the US known as the Reagan Revolution. Good thing those bad old days are behind us now and we’re more ‘mature’. Thank you lord.

  5. Scott Preston June 25, 2013 at 3:39 pm | #

    “The reason I bring together Nietzsche and the Austrians (as opposed to other figures) is that a similar project animates their thinking: the effort to repulse the socialist challenge of the late 19th and 20th centuries and, behind socialism, the elevation of labor and the laborer as the centerpiece of modern civilization. The idea that the worker drives not only the economy but culture and society as well–and the concomitant notion that an alternative formulation of value might help repel that idea and the politics it inspires—is the polemical context that unites these figures.”

    ‘Fraid not, so you wrong-foot yourself right off the start. You should pay more attention to Peter Pilkington’s critique of your attempt to link Nietzsche and the Marginals.

    Nietzsche’s objection to the collectivisation, aggregation, massification, and quantification of the human — as a mere totality or “herd” — which he sees idolised in the collective noun “Labour” in the socialism of his day, is something you seem to embrace here, and that’s why your having trouble with Nietzsche, I suspect. It is, at least, no part of even Marxism to elevate “labor and the laborer as the centerpiece of modern civilization”. What does that have to do with the classless society? What does that have to do with emancipation of the human form from the reification of “Labour”. Absolutely nothing.

    How did Marx actually understand socialism? Well, thanks to we have a definition of what Marx intended to be understood,

    “Their dream – the Communist Society – was a free association of completely free men, where no separation between ‘private and common interest’ existed: a society where ‘everyone could give himself a complete education in whatever domain he fancied’. For ‘man’s activity becomes an adverse force which subjugates him, instead of his being its master’ when there is ‘a division of labour’; everyone must then have a profession, that is a ‘determined, exclusive sphere of activity’ he has not chosen and in which ‘he is forced to remain if he does not want to lose his means of existence’. In their Communist Society, on the contrary, a man would be given ‘the possibility to do this today and that tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, to go fishing in the afternoon, to do cattle breeding in the evening, to criticise after dinner’, as he chose (‘The German Ideology’, MEGA, 1/5).”

    Gee… sounds like a self-determining, even “aristocratic” way of life. Nothing here about elevating “Labour and the Labourer” to the centre. Rather, about emancipating the human form from reification — from an “exclusive sphere of activity’ he has not chosen and in which he is forced to remain if he does not want to lose his means of existence”. A classless society means the end of classes and thus collectivisation — not the elevation to the of one class or another to the ‘centre’.

  6. Mark Erickson June 25, 2013 at 11:58 pm | #

    Great stuff. Here’s a quote from the amazon page that I found on topic: “Countering these centuries of assumptions and unexamined thinking is Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues, a magnum opus that offers a radical view: capitalism is good for us.”

  7. Erik Davis June 28, 2013 at 8:51 am | #

    I agree that intellectual histories of fin de siècle Vienna have repeatedly overlooked the Austrian School, and I hope that you will continue in your efforts to acknowledge and contextualize it. I also agree that the Austrian School can largely be understood in terms of a radicalization of the subjective theory of value. However, Mises and the Misesians would have been a far better point of reference for Nietzsche’s Children than “Hayek and the Austrian School”. The main point of reference would be Mises’s “The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality” (, which makes obvious use of a Nietzschean sense of resentment and envy. There is some counterpoint even within that work, but it largely supports your thesis. Hayek has many differences with Mises; Hayek made several concessions to the emerging welfare state of his time; and Hayek was even despised by Ayn Rand. For example, Hayek was hesitant to equate success on the market with any morally superior achievement. Indeed, *Hayek argued precisely that because they are not the outcome of human design, general market outcomes could be not morally assessed*. I’m afraid that this example alone largely undermines your thesis as far as Hayek is concerned. However, by adjusting your target to Mises and the Misesians, I think that you may furnish some insight into the Austrian School.

    • Corey Robin June 28, 2013 at 2:15 pm | #

      “I’m afraid that this example alone largely undermines your thesis as far as Hayek is concerned.” Can you explain to me exactly how? Please let me know which particular thesis of mine — preferably with quotations (you’ll notice that there’s a lot of evidence-free accusation from certain quarters around here, so I prefer to know precisely what it is you think I am saying, again with actual textual evidence) — is undermined by which particular claim of Hayek’s. Thanks.

      • Erik Davis June 29, 2013 at 2:38 am | #

        In the article you write that “economists like Mises and Hayek pursued a different path, one Nietzsche would never have dared to take: they made the market the very expression of morality.” I have to admit that, after rereading your article, I feel that I may have misunderstood you. I thought that you were suggesting that the market as a whole was a moral order that could be evaluated in terms of good and bad. Hayek would certainly disagree with that. However, I think that you are making a different argument: “While progressives often view this discourse of choice as either dime-store morality or fabricated scarcity, the Austrians saw the economy as the disciplining agent of all ethical action, a moment of—and opportunity for—moral artistry. Freud thought the compressions of the dream world made every man an artist; these other Austrians thought the compulsions of the economy made every man a moralist.” You suggest that the Austrians’ radicalization of the subjective theory of value culminates in their subjectivist sense of individual moral choices. There is certainly truth in this, and the widening of marginal utility theory to accommodate moral choices was made perhaps most implicitly by Bohm-Bawerk, then most explicitly by Ludwig von Mises’s development of praxeology. (I think it’s unfortunate that you do not treat Bohm-Bawerk at length in your article, especially his extended critiques of Marx; see, for example,; this really gets at some key issues regarding the labor theory of value vs. the subjective theory of value; perhaps we can discuss that later.) The Austrians had their own unique brand of what is now commonly termed “economic imperialism”; it wasn’t mathematical like much of contemporary rational choice theory, but it did seek to expand economic understanding of choice beyond merely producing and consuming material goods; Mises suggested that the subjective theory of value applied to everything (see, for example, his treatment of value in part one of “Theory and History” [])

        I must say though that, stepping back, Max Weber captured much of the dynamic about which you are writing, far more so than Hayek or Mises; Weber was clearly aware of and influenced by Nietzsche and fully acknowledged marginal utility theory; Weber’s own sense of purposive human action in terms of ends and means had deep affinities with the praxeology of Ludwig von Mises; even more important, Weber saw both the freedom and the danger of losing all anchors of individual choice; that is, Weber saw the possibilities and the dangers in a fully expressed ends-means rationality.

        Stepping still further back, I’ve long wished that others would do a serious study of the Austrian School in relation to the so-called existentialist philosophers. The philosopher Barry Smith explored the relationships between the first–Menger, Bohm-Bawerk, and Wieser–and second–Brentano, Meinong, and Ehrenfels–schools of Austrian value theory in his books “Austrian Economics: Historical and Philosophical Background” and “Austrian Philosophy” ( Don Lavoie and others explored the much later phenomenological hermeneutics of Gadamer and Ricoeur in relation to the work of Hayek and Mises (see Lavoie’s edited book “Economics and Hermeneutics”). However, few scholars have addressed the ideas of the Austrian School in relation to phenomenological existentialists–Heidegger, Sartre, Jaspers, etc.–who came after Husserl, Meinong, Ehrenfels, and Brentano, but who came before Gadamer and Ricoeur. I think that the labor theory vs subjective theory of value tension you point out certainly became problematic among phenomenological and existential attempts to incorporate Marx, but only implicitly, perhaps never explictly. That is, existential Marxists–for example, the later Sartre and the early Marcuse–unwittingly took a subjectivist theory of value from the phenomenological tradition and tried to integrate it with the labor theory of value from the Marxist (or classical) tradition. Certainly, exploring the Austrian School in relation to Nietzsche could only facilitate a project of exploring the Austrian School in relation to existentialism in general, and I can only hope that you will continue research along these lines.

        In any case, Mises is still a better target for your comparison with Nietzsche than Hayek.

  8. Perren June 29, 2013 at 4:50 pm | #

    Jean Baudrillard once suggested an important correction to classical Marxism: exchange value is not, as Marx had it, a distortion of a commodity’s underlying use value; use value, instead, is a fiction created by exchange value…. How deeply have you mined Baudrillard’s thoughts on this issue?

    • Ezequiel June 8, 2014 at 11:12 am | #

      I´m sorry, that´s not classical marxism. That´s classical ignorance from Baudrillard. Exchange value is a distortion of underlying “value”. The existence or the non-existence of such value depends on the answer to the following observable phenomenon: do prices (exchange value) move around a centre of gravity, mantaining stable exchange ratios for long periods of time (are average cars always more expensive than average bykes and so on?), or do prices simply modify their levels randomly every week, making it impossible to find long-term levels (which would demand an explanation: theory of value)?

  9. David B. July 1, 2013 at 5:11 pm | #

    You’re missing an obvious reason why many prominent libertarians were “elitist.” They (Mises, Rand), Jews, and it was the “common” man, the same type drawn to Socialism, who most likely to be drawn to demagogic appeals to anti-Semitism. The Jewish socialists, including early Zionists, tended to think that if Jews could become working class farmers and factory workers themselves, they would eliminate anti-Semitism. They were fools, as the project was both impossible and mistaken.

  10. gcallah July 2, 2013 at 10:30 am | #

    As an actual conservative, it is obvious to me that libertarians are part of the liberal / progressive project, merely with different means chosen to achieve utopia. Watching this argument is like watching the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks have at it in 1917.

    • Benjamin David Steele July 2, 2013 at 11:07 am | #

      If you got rid of everyone from the conservative movement who wasn’t a hardline conservative true believer with a consistently principled and consistent adherence to both social conservatism and fiscal conservatism, there wouldn’t be many left to have much of a movement. In such a scenario. conservatives would become a miniscule minority among political groups and their influence would be almost nil. So, the only thing that would be clear in a fight among left-wingers, liberals and libertarians is that conservatives would be the loser by being left out of the battle for power entirely.

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