Are ordinal preferences statist? One might think so from talking with some libertarians. All statism is bad, and all state actions are bad, they say. Which means that to be “principled,” a libertarian must oppose all statism equally, and preferring one form of statism to another is an “unprincipled” compromise with evil.
I have already written a lengthy article on the dangers of libertarian purity-spiraling, so I will not rehash all of those points here. Rather, this will serve more as a follow-up piece where I focus on pointing out the failure of modern-day libertarians to properly apply economic theory to political theory. Economics itself, as Ludwig von Mises defined it, is the science of human action. As such, its axioms apply to any area of life that involves human action, not only within the narrowly defined “marketplace” as many understand it, but also within the realm of politics.
The Subjective Theory of Value
One of the first major developments within the Austrian School of Economics was the subjective theory of value (STV). This theory arose as a solution to the “diamonds and water” paradox which had exposed a major gap in classical economic theory. According to most classical economists, the value of a good or service was based on the amount of labor that had gone into its production or on the objective measure of its usefulness. This theory, however, could not explain why a diamond found and picked up by a traveler would be valued more than a bucket of water, given that the bucket of water would have much more practical use than the diamond and that neither (in this specific case) would require any labor to obtain.
By contrast, the subjective theory of value (developed by Austrian economist Carl Menger) correctly recognized that individuals do not choose between “classes” of goods in an abstract sense, but between definite quantities of different types of scarce goods. Furthermore, the values of these quantities are determined subjectively by the individual’s ordinal preferences, not by some objective, cardinal scale of value. One of the useful aspects of this theory is that it avoids the criticism that many people make of economists in general. It is often claimed that economists view human nature in an unrealistic, overly narrow sense where each individual is assumed to be a perfectly rational robot who is only concerned with the maximization of financial profit. To the contrary, the subjective theory of value completely refutes this “homo economicus” view of human nature by recognizing that individuals can have many different, competing priorities (i.e. taking care of one’s family, increasing one’s social reputation, obeying the tenets of one’s religious faith, etc.) which may take precedence over the maximization of one’s financial profit. So while the “homo economicus” criticism may have some validity for those who believe that human preferences are based on a cardinal scale of value which places financial profit at the top, it is not a valid criticism of economists who adhere to the subjective theory of value.
From this theory, we see that humans make choices based on their subjective preferences which are ranked ordinally, not cardinally. If I had a choice between eating chocolate ice cream or vanilla ice cream, and I chose chocolate ice cream, all it would indicate is that I prefer chocolate ice cream over vanilla ice cream. It would not mean that I believe chocolate is the best ice cream flavor or that I prefer chocolate to any other flavors besides vanilla. That is, if I were to claim that strawberry was my favorite ice cream flavor, me choosing chocolate over vanilla (given those two choices) would not contradict that statement.
The subjective theory of value can be easily derived from the human action axiom, that an individual purposefully employs scarce means to achieve particular ends which are valuable to that specific individual. An individual’s subjective assessment of the value of a particular end and of the value of a scarce means (i.e. a good or a service) in achieving that end must be a precondition for that individual’s purposeful, voluntary action. To assert that an individual’s assessment of the value of goods and services is based on an objective, cardinal scale of value would be nonsensical since it is plainly obvious that different individuals pursue different ends in life. Because individuals pursue different ends, their preferential valuation of the scarce means used to achieve those ends must be subjective, not objective. And because there are no concrete units by which one can quantitatively “measure” the degree of human preference, it must be concluded that human preferences are ordinal, not cardinal. This theory as a whole is irrefutable due to the impossibility of denying the human action axiom from which it is derived without falling into a performative contradiction, so to speak. For a more detailed explanation of the subjective theory of value, see Robert Murphy’s excellent article here.
The Application of Economic Theory to Political Theory
To anyone remotely familiar with economics, the above explanation should not have been too difficult to understand. Unfortunately for many libertarians, understanding of basic economics goes completely out the window when discussing political theory. As I argued in my previous article, far too many libertarians lack a rigorous understanding of the economics and ethics of private property. But even the economics they do understand, they fail to properly apply to human action in the political realm.
One of the clearest instances of this was in the widespread criticism of Lew Rockwell during the last presidential election season for his sympathetic attitude toward Donald Trump. Rockwell was condemned as “unprincipled” and “statist” for refusing to purity-spiral and treat both Trump and Clinton with equal disdain, even though he himself made it clear he was not actually endorsing either of them and would not vote for either of them. Many libertarians wondered how he could possibly root for Trump in spite of his protectionist economic policies, his support for the welfare state, his police-state domestic policies, and many other of his un-libertarian positions. What they ignored, however, was the fact that he was simply expressing an ordinal preference for Trump over Cruz, Rubio, Kasich, and the other neocons in the Republican primaries (with the exception of Rand Paul who dropped out early) and over Clinton in the general election. And given the extremely high probability that Clinton would have started World War III with Russia, (especially compared to Trump’s relatively dovish stance on Russia during his campaign), was this truly an unreasonable stance to take? Or was Rockwell simply following the Rothbardian tradition of expressing an ordinal preference for the least hawkish candidate? Rothbard himself famously said that “the war-peace question is the key to the whole libertarian business,” and as such, developed a habit of endorsing candidates like Adlai Stevenson and even Lyndon B. Johnson over their supposedly more “pro-liberty” opponents solely on the basis of their respective foreign policy stances. After all, what good are slightly lower taxes and slightly fewer business regulations if the entire country is engulfed in a nuclear fallout? While one might debate the soundness of some of Rothbard’s choices in retrospect (i.e. whether Goldwater’s supposedly trigger-happy advisers truly presented a greater World War III risk than did LBJ), the motivation behind them (wanting to prevent nuclear war) is by no means “un-libertarian.”
Again, to fully understand the reasoning behind the attitudes of Rothbard and Rockwell toward presidential elections, it is vital to understand the concept of ordinal preferences. Rockwell preferring Trump to Clinton and the other neocons in no way indicates that he agrees with all of Trump’s political stances. It also in no way indicates that he would have rooted for Trump over Ron Paul if he was an option, or even Rand Paul if he had remained a viable candidate for longer in the race. As he explained in an interview at one point, all the issues that Trump was bad on, the other candidates were just as bad, if not worse. Sure, Trump is a protectionist, but is this necessarily worse than Clinton’s support for managed trade deals like TPP which would only have led to the further erosion of national sovereignty to transnational committees and faceless bureaucrats? Sure, Trump may not have Ron Paul’s foreign policy stances, but are his stances worse than Clinton’s “invade the world, invite the world” doctrine which would have escalated the fighting in Syria and increased tensions with nuclear-armed Russia? (Admittedly, Trump has become much more hawkish since the start of his presidency, but we’re talking specifically about Rockwell’s attitude toward Trump during the campaigning season, in which he repeatedly questioned the merits of American intervention in Syria and (in)famously told the truth about the Iraq War, much to the ire of his neocon opponents.) And while Trump may be bad on civil liberties, is he truly worse than Clinton, who would have eviscerated the private property rights of conservative Christian business owners and healthcare providers with all sorts of “anti-discrimination” laws? (Perhaps, if you’re one of those “libertarians” who is ok with private property violations as long as they’re for “socially liberal” purposes.) To be clear, the point here is not to defend or justify Trump’s objectionable stances. The point, rather, is to demonstrate how expressing an ordinal preference for one presidential candidate over another is not necessarily “unprincipled” or “statist.” Obviously, if one is an anarcho-capitalist, one would prefer there to be no president at all. But as I demonstrated in my previous example with ice cream flavors, preferring the candidate who is less likely to start a nuclear war to the one who is more likely to start a nuclear war does not indicate a preference for a society governed by the former over a completely stateless society. The failure of so many libertarians to understand this reveals a dangerous lack of understanding of the nature of human action and human preferences.
In fact, even Lysander Spooner (who many anarchists misinterpret as being opposed to voting) recognized how ordinal preferences play into a voter’s decisions in his essay “No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority.”
In truth, in the case of individuals, their actual voting is not to be taken as proof of consent, even for the time being. On the contrary, it is to be considered that, without his consent having even been asked a man finds himself environed by a government that he cannot resist; a government that forces him to pay money, render service, and forego the exercise of many of his natural rights, under peril of weighty punishments. He sees, too, that other men practice this tyranny over him by the use of the ballot. He sees further, that, if he will but use the ballot himself, he has some chance of relieving himself from this tyranny of others, by subjecting them to his own. In short, he finds himself, without his consent, so situated that, if he use the ballot, he may become a master; if he does not use it, he must become a slave. And he has no other alternative than these two. In self-defence, he attempts the former. His case is analogous to that of a man who has been forced into battle, where he must either kill others, or be killed himself. Because, to save his own life in battle, a man takes the lives of his opponents, it is not to be inferred that the battle is one of his own choosing. Neither in contests with the ballot – which is a mere substitute for a bullet – because, as his only chance of self-preservation, a man uses a ballot, is it to be inferred that the contest is one into which he voluntarily entered; that he voluntarily set up all his own natural rights, as a stake against those of others, to be lost or won by the mere power of numbers. On the contrary, it is to be considered that, in an exigency into which he had been forced by others, and in which no other means of self-defence offered, he, as a matter of necessity, used the only one that was left to him.
Using Spooner’s battlefield analogy, we can see how the concept of ordinal preference plays out. When a soldier kills an enemy in battle (who is at the same time trying to kill him), he is expressing an ordinal preference for the enemy soldier’s death over his own. This does not mean that the soldier takes pleasure in the death of his enemy. As Spooner points out, the situation itself in which one must kill his enemy in order to survive is not necessarily of the soldier’s own choosing. Thus, if given a third option to not fight the battle at all, it is likely that many soldiers would opt out of the fight rather than placing themselves in a “kill, or be killed” scenario.
Similarly, voting can be seen as a defensive act of sorts. While a libertarian anarchist would obviously prefer there to be no state, no president, and therefore no voting, the fact that the state exists and initiates violence against people would be a reason to prefer a candidate who will initiate less violence over one who would initiate more violence. Thus, by voting, one is not endorsing the un-libertarian stances of the former candidate as a cardinal value judgment but is expressing an ordinal preference his comparatively more libertarian stances. Voting for a candidate who supports a 30% income tax over one who supports a 50% income tax, for instance, should not be taken as positive support for a 30% income tax, but rather as a defensive action against a 50% income tax. Now, there are some people who do not view voting as a purely defensive action but also as some kind of a moral statement, and those people may understandably have ethical objections to voting for “the lesser of two evils” if they deem both choices to be sufficiently bad. Lew Rockwell, who did not vote in the last election, is likely one of these people. But even a non-voter can still express an ordinal preference for one result over another, without logical contradiction.
The concept of ordinal preference, as I argued in my previous article, can also be applied to government policies. Again, as anarcho-capitalists, we would prefer that the state not exist and that all goods and services be provided by private market actors. But given that the state exists and is involved in the production of certain legitimate goods and services, it is not “unprincipled” to prefer that the state act in a less destructive manner as opposed to a more destructive manner. For example, which is preferable: that the police spend their time and resources catching murderers, rapists, and robbers, or on raiding the homes of non-violent people suspected of drug possession? Which is preferable: that government-funded scientific research be geared toward curing diseases and developing useful technologies, or that the funding go toward “projects” like these? Which is preferable: that government schools teach children useful skills like mathematics, reading, and writing, or that they teach children about the dozens of different genders that they can supposedly choose for themselves?
It is important to note, of course, that preferring less destructive to more destructive government policies is different from supporting government policies which are only claimed by its proponents to be less destructive, but really aren’t. A prime example of this would be the Republican health care bill proposed a few months ago, dubbed “Ryancare,” “Trumpcare,” “Republicancare,” and perhaps most appropriately, “Obamacare-Lite.” The problem with this bill, as was pointed out by many libertarian commentators, was not that it would fail to immediately produce a completely free market in healthcare, but rather that it would not have fixed any of the problems created by Obamacare, and if anything would have been even worse. If the bill had passed and indeed led to worse results, the political consequences would have been catastrophic. Leftist pundits across the country would have pounced on the opportunity to blame the healthcare fiasco on the “free market,” to which the masses would have responded by calling for Canadian-style single-payer healthcare, effectively entrenching healthcare socialism in the United States and eliminating any possibility of free-market reform. To support this bill, in other words, would have been completely different than supporting a small tax cut or a small cut in the welfare state, as it only presented the illusion of a marginal step toward free markets, not an actual one. As such, principled libertarian opposition to “reforms” such as the Obamacare-Lite is not based on opposition to incrementalism in general, but on a careful assessment of whether or not the reform in question would actually serve as incremental progress.
Humans act and make decisions based on their subjective, ordinal preferences. This is universally true in all areas of life. In the same way that a consumer expresses his ordinal preferences for specific quantities of goods, a voter expresses ordinal preferences for particular candidates or policies. As such, supporting a certain candidate or policy over another one does not reflect a cardinal value judgment of that candidate or policy being “good,” but simply an ordinal value judgment of it being better (or less bad) than the presently available alternatives. It’s time that libertarians understand this and stop with the counterproductive purity-spiraling. It’s time that libertarians actually apply their understanding of economics to the realm of political theory.