The Mississippi, Disco, and Defending von Mises
The preferred format of this weekly column is pretty simple: a short essay, largely autobiographical, followed by a series of blurbs. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to stick to it. Last week, the essay was longer, followed by one blurb.
This week, it’s just three short essays (extended blurbs).
But: I think all three are pretty good.
To a podcast episode about the Mississippi River: Life on the River.
I never gave much thought to the Mississippi, probably because I’d never gotten close to it. I have driven over it a dozen times, but I’d never gotten close enough to touch the water.
That changed last Saturday morning, when I enjoyed myself, knocking around the shores of the great river while killing time in Alton, Illinois (memo to self: kill more time).
It dawned on me that the once-great small town of Alton was molded around the river . . . or maybe two rivers, since it’s situated at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. Everything in Alton, it seemed to me, was built to accommodate, use, exploit, serve, and obey the Mississippi.
I was stunned to see foot markers on the bridge, indicating the river depth. Last Saturday, the river was really low, but it was still wide, deep, and impressive. It made me a little dizzy to imagine its waters rising as high as the foot markers. I then realized that downtown Alton itself is situated far (far) from the river shore, but it still gets flooded once in a while (like in the Great Flood of 1993).
Later that day, I went to pick up my daughter (whom I had been waiting for all morning) and pulled into the wrong driveway. I saw a guy who looked like Mark Twain (a “Sam Clemens-lookin’ mother-f***er,” Bernie Mac might say). I thought to myself, “I gotta read his Life on the Mississippi.
Instead, I listened to that podcast episode. It was well worth the 45-minute investment of time.
Whenever a disco song comes on my local oldies station, I turn it up. That’s my immediate instinct and I normally follow it (unless my radio is within earshot of someone halfway cool).
A few weeks ago, Joe Rogan said he really likes the Bee Gees.
Years ago, I read an essay about Barry Gibb that argued that he is one of the greatest musical geniuses of the 20th century. The essayist made a compelling case. Gibb, I concluded, was definitely a musical genius. Whether he was relatively “one of the greatest,” I don’t know, but definitely great.
So I made a Spotify playlist of 30 disco songs, each one bringing back memories of awkward junior high school years, each one making me look over my shoulder to make sure none of my high school friends (who were partial to ZZ Top and Van Halen) could see me making the list even though I rarely, with a few exceptions, see any of my high school friends, such is the power of memory and fear of social opprobrium combined.
In addition to the Bee Gees disco standards, the list contains a lot of KC & The Sunshine Band. Most other acts only got one song on the list: Disco Infernal by the Tramps, Funky Town by Lipps Inc., Le Freak by CHIC, etc.
The Demon in Democracy by Ryszard Legutko.
This might be the finest book of conservative political philosophy in the past five years. Legutko analyzes the relentless and totalitarian impulses of liberal democracy (reference my “Do You Have a Totalitarian Impulse?”) from the eyes of watching Poland go from Communism to democracy.
I’m really enjoying it so far, though I almost put the book down when he quoted von Mises for the proposition that the classical liberal does not believe that certain human objectives are better than others. He quotes von Mises:
“It is neither less nor more rational to desire the wealth of Croesus than the poverty of a Buddhist monk.”
That, to be bluntly crass, is bulls&*!.
That quote comes from the last chapter of von Mises’ 1,000-page Human Action. It’s an accurate quote but it doesn’t support Legutko’s criticism of classical liberalism.
Von Mises was merely pointing out that economics doesn’t concern itself with what the ultimate goal is. Economics, says von Mises, deals with human action: the “purposive aiming at the attainment of ends chosen.” It judges and advises on the actions, not the ends themselves.
Murray Rothbard (no doubt tired of the misplaced criticism) further clarified this point in his 1,000-page Man, Economy, and State. He said economics and praxeology (the study of human action) don’t prescribe the ends. They merely say, “If those are the ends, then these are the means.” Nothing more. It is, Rothbard explained, the jurisdiction of ethics, philosophy, and other studies to tell us what ends to pursue:
To sum up the relationship and the distinctions between praxeology and each of the other disciplines, we may describe them as follows:
Why man chooses various ends: psychology.
What men’s ends should be: philosophy of ethics. also: philosophy of aesthetics.
How to use means to arrive at ends: technology.
What man’s ends are and have been, and how man has used means in order to attain them: history.
The formal implications of the fact that men use means to attain various chosen ends: praxeology.
So, I’m still reading Legutko, though I am now gravely concerned about his intellectual integrity.
If you’re ever dealing with “traditional conservatives” and they criticize libertarians, citing the supposed moral nihilism of von Mises and Rothbard, please use the preceding as a crib sheet to correct them.