The Problem of Immoral Choices in the Marketplace
[Excerpt from Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market, chapter 6: Antimarket Ethics: A Praxeological Critique (2009), pp. 1303–06.]
Some writers are astute enough to realize that the market economy is simply a resultant of individual valuations, and thus they see that, if they do not like the results, the fault lies with the valuations, not the economic system. Yet they proceed to advocate government intervention to correct the immorality of individual choices. If people are immoral enough to choose whiskey rather than milk, cosmetics rather than educational matter, then the State, they say, should step in and correct these choices. Much of the rebuttal parallels the refutation of the knowledge-of-interests argument; i.e., it is self-contradictory to contend that people cannot be trusted to make moral decisions in their daily lives but can be trusted to vote for or accept leaders who are morally wiser than they.
Mises states, quite rightly, that anyone who advocates governmental dictation over one area of individual consumption must logically come to advocate complete totalitarian dictation over all choices. This follows if the dictators have any set of valuational principles whatever. Thus, if the members of the ruling group like Bach and hate Mozart, and they believe strongly that Mozartian music is immoral, they are just as right in prohibiting the playing of Mozart as they are in prohibiting drug use or liquor consumption.5 Many statists, however, would not balk at this conclusion and would be willing to take over this congenial task.
The utilitarian position — that government dictation is bad because no rational ethics exists, and therefore no person has a right to impose his arbitrary values on someone else — is, we believe, an inadequate one. In the first place, it will not convince those who believe in a rational ethics, who believe that there is a scientific basis for moral judgments and that they are not pure whim. And furthermore, the position involves a hidden moral assumption of its own — that A has no right to impose any arbitrary values on B. But if ends are arbitrary, is not the end “that arbitrary whims not be imposed by coercion” just as arbitrary? And suppose, further, that ranking high on A's value scale is the arbitrary whim of imposing his other values on B. Then the utilitarians cannot object and must abandon their attempt to defend individual liberty in a value-free manner. In fact, the utilitarians are helpless against the man who wants to impose his values by coercion and who persists in doing so even after the various economic consequences are pointed out to him.6
The would-be dictator can be logically refuted in a completely different way, even while remaining within Wertfrei praxeological bounds. For what is the complaint of the would-be dictator against free individuals? That they act immorally in various ways. The dictator's aim, therefore, is to advance morality and combat immorality. Let us grant, for the sake of argument, that an objective morality can be arrived at. The question that must be faced, then, is: Can force advance morality? Suppose we arrive at the demonstrable conclusion that actions A, B, and C are immoral, and actions X, Y, and Z are moral. And suppose we find that Mr. Jones shows a distressing propensity to value A, B, and C highly and adopts these courses of action time and again. We are interested in transforming Mr. Jones from being an immoral person to being a moral person. How can we go about it? The statists answer: by force. We must prohibit at gunpoint Mr. Jones from doing A, B, and C. Then, at last, he will be moral. But will he? Is Jones moral because he chooses X when he is forcibly deprived of the opportunity to choose A? When Smith is confined to a prison, is he being moral because he doesn't spend his time in saloons getting drunk?
There is no sense to any concept of morality, regardless of the particular moral action one favors, if a man is not free to do the immoral as well as the moral thing. If a man is not free to choose, if he is compelled by force to do the moral thing, then, on the contrary, he is being deprived of the opportunity of being moral. He has not been permitted to weigh the alternatives, to arrive at his own conclusions, and to take his stand. If he is deprived of free choice, he is acting under the dictator's will rather than his own. (Of course, he could choose to be shot, but this is hardly an intelligible conception of free choice of alternatives. In fact, he then has only one free choice: the hegemonic one — to be shot or to obey the dictator in all things.)
Dictatorship over consumers’ choices, then, can only atrophy morality rather than promote it. There is but one way that morality can spread from the enlightened to the unenlightened — and that is by rational persuasion. If A convinces B through the use of reason that his moral values are correct and B's are wrong, then B will change and adopt the moral course of his own free will. To say that this method is a slower procedure is beside the point. The point is that morality can spread only through peaceful persuasion and that the use of force can only erode and impair morality.
We have not even mentioned other facts that strengthen our argument, such as the great difficulty in enforcing dictatorial rules against people whose values clash with them. The man who prefers the immoral course and is prevented by the bayonet from acting on his preference will do his best to find ways to circumvent the prohibition — perhaps by bribing the bayoneteer. And, because this is not a treatise on ethics, we have not mentioned the libertarian ethical theory which holds that the use of coercion is itself the highest form of immorality.
Thus, we have shown that would-be dictators must necessarily fail to achieve their professed goal of advancing morality because the consequences will be precisely the opposite. It is possible, of course, that the dictators are not really sincere in stating their goal; perhaps their true purpose is to wield power over others and to prevent others from being happy. In that case, of course, praxeology can say no more about the matter, although ethics may find a good deal to say.7
- 5. Mises, Human Action, pp. 728–29. The same total dictatorship over consumer choice is also implied by the knowledge-of-interest argument discussed above. As Thomas Barber astutely says:
It is illegal for pleasure-boaters to fail to carry a life preserver for every person on board. A great number of young men are publicly employed to go about and look for violators of this law. Pleasant for the young men, of course. But is it really any more the government's business that a man goes canoeing without a life preserver than that he goes out in the rain without his rubbers? ... The law is irritating to the individual concerned, costly to the taxpayers, and turns a lot of potential producers into economic parasites. Perhaps the manufacturers of life preservers engineered its passage. (Barber, Where We Are At, p. 89
- 6. It is true that we do not advocate ends in this volume, and in that sense praxeology is “utilitarian.” But the difference is that utilitarianism would extend this Wertfrei injunction from its proper place in economics and praxeology to embrace all of rational discourse.
- 7. Mises often states that interventionary measures in the market, e.g., price controls, will have consequences that even the government officials administering the plans would consider bad. But the problem is that we do not know what the government officials’ ends are — except that they demonstrably do like the power they have acquired and the wealth they have extracted from the public. Surely these considerations may often prove paramount in their minds, and we therefore cannot say that government officials would invariably concede, after learning all the consequences, that their actions were mistaken.