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Corey Robin on Nietzsche and Austrian Economics

As Jordan Bloom mentioned yesterday, Corey Robin has a provocative essay on the connection between between Nietzsche and the “Austrian” economists in The Nation. The piece is titled “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children”, as if Menger, Mises, Hayek and Schumpeter were Nietzsche’s direct heirs. The actual argument is more subtle: “the relationship between Nietzsche and the free-market right…is thus one of elective affinity rather than direct influence, at the level of idiom rather than policy.”

According to Robin, both Nietzsche and the Austrians saw value as a subjective commitment under conditions of constraint rather than an objective contribution by labor. For this reason, they endorsed agonistic social relations in which individuals struggle to express and impose valuations to the limits of their differential strength, while rejecting egalitarian arrangements that attempt to give producers a fair share of the value they have generated. Although he was most interested in philosophy and art, Nietzsche also described the conditions necessary for cultural renewal as “great politics”. For the Austrians, by contrast, the marketplace was the setting for contestation over value.

Like Robin’s argument in The Reactionary Mind, this interpretation is bound to appeal to leftists who are already convinced that there’s something sinister about conservative and libertarian thought (see the comments at Crooked Timber here). But it has serious problems, which Brian Doherty and Kevin Vallier have already begun to point out.

For one thing, there’s nothing unique to Austrian economics about the subjective theory of value. As Robin acknowledges, the foundations of the so-called marginal revolution were laid by the Frenchman Walras and the Englishman Jevons, as well as the Austrian Menger. That wouldn’t matter if the influence of these writers had been especially strong in the milieu that eventually produced Mises and Hayek. But in fact, almost all modern economists, whatever their theoretical or political orientation, accept some descendant of Walras, Jevons, and Mengers’ arguments. What’s more, Robin generally ignores the technical mathematical background of the marginal revolution, which he presents primarily as debate in moral philosophy. That decision obscures the most important cause of the transformation of economic thought in the 19th century: the demand that economics become a science on the model of physics.

Robin is also evasive in his chronology. He acknowledges that “[a]round the time—almost to the year—that Nietzsche was launching his revolution of metaphysics and morals, a trio of economists [Walras, Jevons, and Menger], working separately across three countries, were starting their own.” But he doesn’t deal explicitly with the possibility that this temporal coincidence makes any connection between Nietzsche and marginal economics circumstantial.

It’s true that Hayek and his Austrian contemporaries received the new theories of value in economics in a cultural context influenced by Nietzsche. But that tells us nothing about those theories’ original inspiration—let alone their truth. In any case, the fact that marginal economics became dominant in a setting where Nietzsche had little or no influence, such as the British academy, suggests that the heroic individualism he so brilliantly articulated was by no means a necessary condition of the transformation of economics. And given the variety of reactions to Nietzsche in the 20th century, it’s clearly not a sufficient one.

It’s also crucial to remember that Nietzsche was not the only 19th century thinker who challenged the leveling tendencies of democracy and socialism. On the contrary, this concern is among the major themes of Tocqueville, Carlyle, Mill, Kierkegaard, Burkhardt, Freud, Dostoyevksy, and Pareto, to name only a few. Robin knows too much to ignore these names, some of which occur in the piece. But Robin’s focus suggests that they served, at most, as adjuncts or supplements to Nietzsche.

Robin’s central error, in other words, is an uncritical acceptance of Nietzsche’s evaluation of himself as a “fate” rather than an articulator, however brilliant, of ideas that were very much in the air of the 19th century. In this respect, Robin shows an odd affinity for Leo Strauss, who tended to reduce intellectual history to a decontextualized dialogue among great thinkers.

Robin’s treatment of Hayek also relies on the Straussian technique of treating isolated comments rather than systematic development as the key to unlocking a thinker’s intention. The linchpin of his characterization of Hayek as a Nietzschean is his remark in The Constitution of Liberty that What is important is not what freedom I personally would like to exercise but what freedom some person may need in order to do things beneficial to society. This freedom we can assure to the unknown person only by giving it to all.” For Robin, this amounts to an argument that society should be organized in such a way that the strong can develop and impose new valuations. On Hayek’s view, as Robin presents it, free markets are no more than the setting for new, dynamic forms of hierarchy.

But that’s not what Hayek is saying. In the context of the whole book, he’s making the straightforwardly consequentialist argument that protecting economic freedom will tend to produce more general benefits than systems of intentional control. Robin may not think this argument is correct. But he would have to do a great deal more to show that it is in any significant way comparable to Nietzsche’s.

What Robin does find in Hayek is the suspicion that people who spend their lives in employment to others are unlikely to possess the talent for innovation that he sees as crucial to the improvement of economic and social conditions. Hayek also suggests that great wealth liberates individuals to take great risks or develop their faculties to unusual heights, and can therefore be justified on instrumental grounds. But there’s little here that could not also be found in Burke, or ultimately in Aristotle. Put differently, Robin discovers that Hayek was in important ways a conservative. So what?

As in The Reactionary Mind, then, Robin assigns guilt by association (or insinuation) rather than engaging the serious issues raised by the conservative tradition. Among them, as Tocqueville showed with more wisdom if less flamboyance than Nietzsche, are the issue of what kinds of inequality may be necessary for individuals to reach the peaks of achievement, and whether such achievements justify the economic and political hierarchies that make them possible. In “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children”, Robin dazzles readers who know little of intellectual history with a flurry of impressive names. But he treats the real questions as if their answers were settled, showing precisely the complacency that Nietzsche and his spiritual comrades tried to make impossible.

about the author

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, where he has also taught writing. In addition to The American Conservative, Goldman’s work has appeared in The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, and Maximumrocknroll. Follow him on Twitter.

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