Rothbard was trained in…

Ever wonder why people are so obsessed with this guy?

Well, for one, he was an absolutely brilliant writer. He never pulled back punches against others and was extremely entertaining while writing informative content. Here’s one example from Man, Economy, and State, with the background first (in my multi-year expedition of this book, I am thrilled to announce I am finally on Ch.5!). You can skim through this first block-quote if you’re short on time.

The use of the mathematical concept of “function” is particularly inappropriate in a science of human action. On the one hand, action itself is not a function of anything, since “function” implies definite, unique, mechanical regularity and determination. On the other hand, the mathematics of simultaneous equations, dealing in physics with unmotivated motion, stresses mutual determination. In human action, however, the known causal force of action unilinearly determines the results. This gross misconception by mathematically inclined writers on the study of human action was exemplified during a running attack on Eugen Böhm-Bawerk, one of the greatest of all economists, by Professor George Stigler:

. . . yet the postulate of continuity of utility and demand functions (which is unrealistic only to a minor degree, and essential to analytic treatment) is never granted. A more important weakness is Böhm- Bawerk’s failure to understand some of the most essential elements of modern economic theory, the concepts of mutual determination and equilibrium (developed by the use of the theory of simultaneous equations). Mutual determination is spurned for the older concept of cause and effect.

The “weakness” displayed here is not that of Böhm-Bawerk, but of those, like Professor Stigler, who attempt vainly and fallaciously to construct economics on the model of mathematical physics, specifically, of classical mechanics.

Again, the above is just the background. In the footnotes, Rothbard states (my bold):

Stigler appends a footnote to the above paragraph which is meant as the coup de grace to Böhm-Bawerk: “Böhm-Bawerk was not trained in mathematics.” Stigler, Production and Distribution Theories. Mathematics, it must be realized, is only the servant of logic and reason, and not their master. “Training” in mathematics is no more necessary to the realization of its uselessness for and inapplicability to the sciences of human action than, for example, “training” in agricultural techniques is essential to knowing that they are not applicable on board an ocean liner. Indeed, training in mathematics, without adequate attention to the epistemology of the sciences of human action, is likely to yield unfortunate results when applied to the latter, as this example demonstrates. Böhm-Bawerk’s greatness as an economist needs no defense at this date.

The only response I can imagine Stigler coming back with is “Touché.”

Oh, and Rothbard was trained in mathematics.


Posted on January 10, 2013, in Economics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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