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Self Survey Fall 2011 Part 1


Click on a topic to expand a summary of my stance on it.

  • When approaching philosophical problems I prefer the method employed by the Austrian School of Economics, which is to start with “simple and evident axioms” and “deduce step by step” the various logical implications of those axioms. (Murray Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State) This approach is in opposition to empiricism, or applying the methodology of the natural sciences to the understanding of human action. This is primarily due to the fact that the factors determining human action are too complex or are simply not able to be isolated and true control/variable groups can not be created as they are in laboratories. (For further information check out the Introduction to the 5th edition of “Americas’ Great Depression by Murray Rothbard.) I will attempt to clarify what I believe to be axioms, or self-evident truths, throughout this survey.

    The second part of my philosophical approach is the recognition of the limits of human reason. The limited nature of man’s ability to reason, the fallibility of man’s senses and his inability to fully observe and experience the world around him, or his obvious shortcomings in processing and retaining an infinite volume of information that is available should be acknowledged and humble our observations on the nature of man, in general, or even ourselves. By acknowledging this limitation I accept that it is possible, even probable, that I will fall prey to logical fallacies, make theoretical leaps without due justification, give in to bias or prejudice, improperly categorize experiences or phenomenon within my logical framework, or to put it simply….make mistakes. However, this also further justifies beginning philosophical inquiry with “simple and evident” truths to best avoid mistakes in the infancy of our thoughts. Also, it gives weight to “common sense,” traditions, and culture even when they are not fully understood by individual actors. I will explain this more in a later section.

  • The foundation of my philosophy is the belief that all things must be considered at an individual level. This contradicts theorists who rely on “general will” or the idea that amorphous entities such as “society” and “the state” can be analyzed separate from the individuals that compose them. Also, individualism is built on the axioms of free will, the inseparability of the will from the individual, and self-ownership and all of the logical implications that follow.

    • The level of debate over the concept of free will baffles me. The alternative to humans having free will is that we are equal to robots, programmed to perform certain actions based on the inputs provided to us. Every choice we make every day confirms that we have free will unless we make a deliberate effort to deny it. I am constantly aware of my consciousness, and thus my free will and being, so long as I am awake. Denying this seems like an exercise of philosophical futility and is pursued primarily by those who were able to see the “Emperor’s new clothes” or in more malicious cases by those peddling sheer intellectual dishonesty in order to advance their cause (the scoundrels who sold the Emperor the new clothes.)

    • This is concept is the key to libertarian ethics and natural law theory and simply states that each individual has 100 percent self-ownership over his own person, to include body, mind, and spirit. This may seem less than self-evident since there is a history of slavery, indentured service, and many examples of people acting “against their will.” However, if we stick to the simple and evident truths of self-ownership then these can be explained as submitting to the will of another due to coercion, but the individual’s person never leaves their ownership unless they are dead as body, mind, and spirit are inalienable from each other otherwise. Murray Rothbard demonstrates the fallacies of the alternatives to 100 percent self-ownership in “Ethics of Liberty,” as either “the ‘communist’ one of Universal and Equal Other-ownership, or Partial Ownership of One Group by Another—a system of rule by one class over another.” (Ethics of Liberty, Interpersonal Relations: Ownership and Aggression.)

    • (Just trying to impress myself with big words) The opposite of an individualistic approach to philosophical or sociological problems is to attribute human characteristics to entities that are composed of groups of individuals abstractly. For example, attributing goals, actions, and beliefs to society, the state, or the general will as opposed to the individuals who actually took the actions or hold those beliefs. I refer to these entities as amorphous, a term used mostly in science to mean: “having no definite form;” “shapeless;” “being without definite character or nature,” because everyone discussing any of these entities will define them their own way to match their ideas or philosophy and this is possible because they have no definitive nature of their own. This makes them dangerous in philosophical reasoning because they can be “formed,” as a potters clay, to justify or match almost any conclusion or agenda. Ludwig von Mises said the following: “All rational action is in the first place individual action. Only the individual thinks. Only the individual reasons. Only the individual acts.”

  • My journey into politics and philosophy actually began with economics. I came across an article on school vouchers that made an interesting argument that I had never considered (I had not considered much of anything at this point) and it cited Milton Friedman as on of the pioneers in the voucher movement. I was intrigued by the idea and decided to study it further so I picked up both “Capitalism and Freedom” and “Free to Choose” by Milton Friedman, both had sections on education to include advocacy of vouchers. However, I was introduced to a whole plethora of new ideas in those books, most questioning the efficiency of government and making convincing “empirical” arguments as to why those inefficiencies exist and sometime offering convincing solutions to those problems. Most importantly it put capitalism and free markets in a positive light and I wanted to know more. Next I discovered a documentary called Commanding Heights that also seemed to put a positive spin on capitalism, mostly from Milton Friedman, but it introduced a school of thought that claimed even Milton Friedman and the Chicago School were not free market enough…the Austrian School headed by Ludwig von Mises and claimed by F.A. Hayek. Hayek’s name came up again as a source of counsel to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who both recognized the flaws of Keynesian economics and wanted to take their respective countries on new paths. This led me to Hayek’s “Constitution of Liberty” which acted as a nice bridge between the Chicago School and the Austrian School due to the fact that it was more friendly towards the idea of the need for a state, which I was not ready to let go of yet. “Constitution of Liberty” opened new doors in mind and allowed me a whole new world view and made me a real pupil of the Austrian School. As a pupil of this lesser known school of economics I felt compelled to study Ludwig von Mise’s “Human Action” which demonstrated a very logical method of approaching philosophical and economic problems and introduced me to “praxeology,” the study of human action, of which he deemed economics part of. After “Human Action” I began reading material provided by the Ludwig von Mises Institute on their website ( and came to learn that Murray Rothbard wrote a book meant to be used as a college text book to teach the ideas of Mises in a more accessible way so I began to study “Man, Economy, and State,” which ended up being an economic treatise in and of itself. I found Rothbard much easier to follow and tended to agree with his analysis in the few areas where he differed from his mentor, von Mises. I have continued to study the Austrian School and the writings of the many scholars linked to it. Following are some of the key ideas that I have taken away but I encourage anyone who is interested to check out “Man, Economy, and State” for the fullest understanding.

    • “Human action is defined simply as purposeful behavior…The purpose of a man’s act is his end; the desire to achieve this end is the man’s motive for instituting the action…All human beings act by virtue of their existence and their nature as human beings. We could not conceive of human beings who do not act purposefully, who have no ends in view that they desire and attempt to attain.” (Man, Economy, and State, The Concept of Action) “The first truth to be discovered about human action is that it can be undertaken only by individual ‘actors.’” (Man, Economy, and State, First Implications of the Concept)

    • “With reference to any given act, the environment external to the individual may be divided into two parts: those elements which he believes he cannot control and must leave unchanged, and those which he can alter (or rather, thinks he can alter) to arrive at his ends. The former may be termed the general conditions of action; the latter, the means used…[A]ll means are scarce, i.e., limited with respect to the ends that they could possibly serve,” so “the necessity for a choice among ends arises” and “action takes place by choosing which ends shall be satisfied by the employment of means.” (Man, Economy, and State, First implications of the Concept) Further as it applies to time: “All human life must take place in time” and “a man’s time is always scarce.” (Man, Economy, and State, First implications of the Concept) In other words, you can only achieve so many ends in a certain amount of time and time always marches forwards so that every second that passes is irretrievable making them scarce.

    • “A fundamental and constant truth about human action is that man prefers his end to be achieved in the shortest possible time…This is the universal fact of time preference…Time enters into human action not only in relation to the waiting time in production, but also in the length of time in which the consumer’s good will satisfy the wants of the consumer,” this is known as the “duration of serviceableness.” (Man, Economy, and State, Further Implications: Time) In short, man wants his in the shortest time and wants them to last the longest time.

    • Often in economics or in common usage value is used almost interchangeably with price or refers specifically to monetary value. However, value in its most basic form refers simply to the perceived gain (psychic gain) that an individual expects. “In order for any measurement to be possible, there must be an eternally fixed and objectively given unit with which other units may be compared. There is no such objective unit in the field of human valuation. The individual must determine subjectively for himself whether he is better or worse off as a result of any change.” (Man, Economy, and State, Further Implications: Ends and Values) Price on the other hand is a market mechanism that helps match the psychic value of the consumer to the [monetary] value of the producer or laborer.

      • “All action is an attempt to exchange a less satisfactory state of affairs for a more satisfactory one…The psychic gain (or profit) and loss cannot be measured in terms of units, but the actor always knows whether he has experienced psychic profit or psychic loss as a result of an action-exchange.” Of important note, “leisure is a consumer’s good,” or an end that is valued in and of itself. (Man, Economy, and State, Factors of Production: Labor versus Leisure) Consequently, “people work only when they value the return of labor higher than the decrease in satisfaction brought about by the curtailment of leisure.” (Ludwig von Mises, Human Action)

      • “Human actors value means strictly in accordance with their valuation of the ends they believe the means can serve.” (Man, Economy, and State, Further Implications: Ends and Values) “Each physical unit of a means (direct or indirect) that enters into human action is valued separately. Thus, the actor is interested in evaluating only those units of means that enter, or that he considers will enter, into his concrete action. Actors choose between, and evaluate, not ‘coal’ or ‘butter’ in general, but specific units of coal or butter. For example, “if one pound of butter was considered by the actor as of better quality than another pound of butter” then, “in that case, the two “butters” are really different goods from the point of view of the actor and will be evaluated differently.” (Man, Economy, and State, The Law of Marginal Utility)

      • The “process of valuation according to the specific units involved provides the solution for the famous ‘value paradox’ which puzzled writers for centuries. The question was: How can men value bread less than platinum, when ‘bread’ is obviously more useful than ‘platinum?’ The answer is that acting man does not evaluate the goods open to him by abstract classes, but in terms of the specific units available. He does not wonder whether ‘bread-in-general’ is more or less valuable to him than ‘platinum-in-general,’ but whether, given the present available stock of bread and platinum, a ‘loaf [unit] of bread’ is more or less valuable to him than ‘an ounce [unit] of platinum.’ That, in most cases, men prefer the latter is no longer surprising…Thus, for all human actions, as the quantity of the supply (stock) of a good increases, the utility (value) of each additional unit decreases…[This] is the law of marginal utility, sometimes known as the law of diminishing marginal utility.” (Man, Economy, and State, The Law of Marginal Utility)

    • If self-ownership is the foundation of libertarian ethics and natural law then property rights are the corner stone. They are the most direct logical step from self-ownership. Again, I turn to Murray Rothbard in “Man, Economy, and State” to offer the best explanation of property rights, which has a firm basis in Lockean principles:

      On the free, unhampered market, a man can acquire property in scarce goods as follows: (1) In the first place, each man has ownership over his own self, over his will and actions, and the manner in which he will exert his own labor. (2) He acquires scarce nature-given factors either by appropriating hitherto un­used factors for his own use or by receiving them as a gift from someone else, who in the last analysis must have appropriated them as hitherto unused factors. (3) He acquires capital goods or consumers’ goods either by mixing his own labor with nature­-given factors to produce them or by receiving them as a gift from someone else. As in the previous case, gifts must eventually re­solve themselves into some actor’s production of the goods by the use of his own labor. Clearly, it will be nature-given factors, cap­ital goods, and durable consumers’ goods that are likely to be handed down through gifts, since nondurable consumers’ goods will probably be quickly consumed. (4) He may exchange any type of factor (labor service, nature-given factor, capital good, consumers’ good) for any type of factor. It is clear that gifts and exchanges as a source of property must eventually be resolved into: self-ownership, appropriation of unused nature-given fac­tors, and production of capital and consumers’ goods, as the ulti­mate sources of acquiring property in a free economic system. In order for the giving or exchanging of goods to take place, they must first be obtained by individual actors in one of these ways. The logical sequence of events is therefore: A man owns himself; he appropriates unused nature-given factors for his own­ership; he uses these factors to produce capital goods and con­sumers’ goods which become his own; he uses up the consumers’ goods and/or gives them and the capital goods away to others; he exchanges some of these goods for other goods that had come to be owned in the same way by others. These are the meth­ods of acquiring goods that obtain on the free market, and they include all but the method of violent or other invasive expropri­ation of the property of others. (Man, Economy, and State, Types of Interpersonal Action: Voluntary Exchange and the Contractual Society)

Filed under Self Survey
Sep 6, 2011

Resources of Power: Fear, Love, and Dependency/ Machiavelli’s Prince and Modern Politics


Throughout chapters XV and XVII of “The Prince” by Machiavelli, it becomes apparent that power is the goal, to include increasing and maintaining power, as opposed to a means to achieve other goals.  Also, it is necessary to view “the prince” as power incarnate, so that what ever benefits the prince benefits the pursuit of power and vice versa.  This helps to make sense of troubling “principles” advocated by Machiavelli, such as the prince “need not make himself uneasy at incurring reproach for those vices without which the state can only be saved with difficulty, for if everything is considered carefully, it will be found that something which looks like virtue, if followed, would be his ruin; whilst something else, which looks like vice, yet followed brings him security and prosperity.”  (Machiavelli, Chptr. 15)  If power is the only true goal for the prince then it would follow that anything that advanced that goal would be virtuous and that other moral guidelines or cultural views would be moot, and adhering to them would, according to this view, be considered a vice to the degree that they detracted from the goal of increasing or maintaining power.  In chapter XVII of “The Prince”, Machiavelli continues with another principle, that should be troubling for those not in power, that it “is much safer to be feared than loved” since “men loving according to their own will and fearing according to that of the prince” it would be wise for a prince to “establish himself on that which is in his own control” and not rely on that which is in the control of others.  The only limit Machiavelli puts on the prince in regard to using fear to establish his is power, is to “avoid hatred” as that may make “the prince” intolerable and lead to his ouster.

Piven and Cloward, in their essay “Rule Making, Rule Breaking, and Power”, tend to classify power as a means to achieving and individual’s or group’s goals through a series of “zero-sum” contests.  They cite Max Weber’s definition: “power is understood as ‘the chance of a man or a number of men to realize their own will in a social action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the action” (Janoski, 2005, 35) and that of R.H. Tawney: ( power may be defined as the capacity of an individual, or group of individual, to modify the conduct of other individuals or groups in the manner which he desires, and to prevent his own conduct being modified in the manner in which he does not.” (Janoski, 2005, 35)  Their view of power posits that most, if not all, human interaction involves one dominant party who exploits the dependency of another party, or uses force as their source of power, in order to gain at their expense.  The authors seem to conclude, as a result of this view, that seeking power to exercise over those who have much few resources to exert influence through “social interdependence” is a vice, or social harm and that power should be diffused so that the degree that one party gains at the expense of another party is minimized as much as possible.  However, this is not to say that individuals or groups who did not wish to act socially responsible could not use Machiavelli’s principles to gain power and increase their exploiter status, it just is not the position advocated by Piven and Cloward.

When Machiavelli wrote “The Prince,” it was with monarchy in mind.  The advent of the modern state, new tools and resources of power have been developed and some of the principles found in “The Prince” have become outdated.  However, several tactics advocated by Machiavelli have been modified and carried over to the modern state.  One of the primary differences, though, is that politicians are not power incarnate since they are mere “caretakers” of the state and the expanse of its sovereignty.  Whereas the King was the state, politicians are seen as representatives, sent to enact their constituent’s wills through the state, or as employees of the state.  This “caretaker” position drastically reduces the incentive to seek “absolute power” or power as a goal in and of itself.  Since politicians are only temporarily in power and can not, necessarily, pass power that they gain to their heirs, they are more focused on using resources of power, or “political capital” accumulated by their predecessors or during their temporary terms to achieve more immediate goals that can increase their actual wealth or that of their heirs.  This divergence from the goal of “the Prince” will definitely have an impact on the strategies they pursue, as they will be more short term and consist of utilizing, or spending power, as opposed to building and maintaining it.

The state, itself, is seen as a more ambiguous and anonymous phenomenon that is supposedly created by the “collective consciousness” or “general will” of the people.  However, as Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises wrote in his book, “Socialism:”

“All rational action is in the first place individual action. Only the individual thinks. Only the individual reasons. Only the individual acts.”
The modern state has achieved the illusion of dichotomy, being divided into one part consisting of some metaphysical representation of the “general will,” the State, and the other of individuals in the employ of the State , and thus theoretically subordinated to the “general will,” politicians and the bureaucracy.  However, as with anything supernatural or based on superstition, closer examination reveals that there is no real evidence of its existence, no actions that can be directly attributed to it, without use of its supposed proxies, no boundaries the demarcate where its existence begins or ends, or any other measure of reality that can be applied to it.  Instead, objective observation, reveals that the masses are still subjected to the coercive power held by a few elite individuals, who when the curtains are pulled back, like in the Wizard of Oz, are normal men acting in their own self-interest.

This illusion of a dichotomous state allows politicians and the bureaucracy to more easily achieve the ideal means to power, according to Machiavelli, fear and love simultaneously.  The ruling elite, presenting themselves as representatives of the masses, can gain the love of the people by advocating for favors on their behalf, while their losses and necessary fear can be attributed to the State.  This phenomenon is apparent in most polls where the American Public, usually, approves of their own Congressman but holds Congress itself in the lowest regard.  They view the system as working against them, and every favor achieved by their representative as being wrestled from the tight jaws of the fearful State on their behalf.  If the public ever realized that the individuals and the State are one and the same the illusion would crumble.

The members of the State are also to achieve both love and fear through dependency, or the threat of withdrawing “love.”  Authoritarian parenting uses this technique to control children.  Children are made to believe that their parents’ love is conditional and can be lost if they do or do not act a certain way.  This method of control tends to be more effective at controlling behavior than fear of corporal punishment or overt reward/punishment schemes.  The State has realized the potential of utilizing this technique on its populations and so attempts to increase dependency and remove competitors of services it provides so that the threat of losing government services has that much more impact on controlling its citizens.  This also fits with Piven and Cloward’s theory of interdependence as a power resource, where the State attempts to raise the dependence of other parties while at the same time reducing its dependence on them so that it can more effectively exploit them with little resistance.

The reason for all the manipulation and illusion to maintain and increase power is because the ruling elite realize that their power truly comes from the people they rule and the legitimacy they grant them and that if the masses realized this, if they are not controlled by sufficient fear or love of the current power holders, they could take that power back at any time.  French philosopher, Etienne de la Boetie, in “The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude”, explained it best:

He who thus domineers over [you]…has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you. Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do not provide them yourselves?  How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you?  The feet that trample down your cities, where does he get them if they are not your own?  How does he have any power over you except through you? How would he dare assail you if had no cooperation from you?… weaken yourselves in order to make him the stronger and mightier to hold you in check. (1975, 52)

While Machiavelli’s principles may have been meant for monarchs, the techniques chosen by the modern holders of power should be no less unsettling and if Piven and Cloward are correct that the exercise of power leads to “zero-sum” contests with one party as the exploiter and the other the exploited, then we should recognize that the State is, or strives to be, always the exploiter and we should not give it a pass or make an exception for it in our agreed upon principles and ideas.

Works Cited:
Boetie, E. (1975). The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. New York: Free Life Editions.
Machiavelli, N. (1916). The Prince. The Macmillan Company.
Mises, L. (1982). Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund Inc.
Piven,F.F., & Cloward, R.A. (2005). Rule Making, Rule Breaking, and Power. In T.A. Janoski, A.M. Hicks, & M.A. Schwartz (Eds.), Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Societies, and Globalization (33-53). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Filed under Philosophy, Politics
Apr 2, 2011