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Corey Robin’s Dubious Nietzsche-Hayek Connection

Corey Robin has a long, provocative essay in The Nation about how Austrian economists like Menger, Mises, and Hayek are really just aristocratic, reactionary Nietzscheans. It “seeks to put the Austrians back in Vienna, where Nietzsche was a presiding influence,” according to a blog post at CT, and basically relies on a tenuous connection between the Austrians’ skepticism about the labor theory of value, and Nietzsche’s skepticism of values in general. He writes of Nietzsche:

For that reason, Nietzsche saw in labor’s appearance more than an economic theory of goods: he saw a terrible diminution of the good. Morals must be “understood as the doctrine of the relations of supremacy,” he wrote in Beyond Good and Evil; every morality “must be forced to bow…before the order of rank.” But like so many before them, including the Christian slave and the English utilitarian, the economist and the socialist promoted an inferior human type—and an inferior set of values—as the driving agent of the world. Nietzsche saw in this elevation not only a transformation of values but also a loss of value and, potentially, the elimination of value altogether. Conservatives from Edmund Burke to Robert Bork have conflated the transformation of values with the end of value. Nietzsche, on occasion, did too: “What does nihilism mean?” he asked himself in 1887. “That the highest values devaluate themselves.” The nihilism consuming Europe was best understood as a democratic “hatred against the order of rank.”

Part of Nietzsche’s worry was philosophical: How was it possible in a godless world, naturalistically conceived, to deem anything of value? But his concern was also cultural and political. Because of democracy, which was “Christianity made natural,” the aristocracy had lost “its naturalness”—that is, the traditional vindication of its power. How then might a hierarchy of excellence, aesthetic and political, re-establish itself, defend itself against the mass—particularly a mass of workers—and dominate that mass?

And of the Austrians:

Moralists traditionally viewed the pursuit of money and goods as negative or neutral; the Austrians claimed it embodies our deepest values and commitments. “The provision of material goods,” declared Mises, “serves not only those ends which are usually termed economic, but also many other ends.” All of us have ends or ultimate purposes in life: the cultivation of friendship, the contemplation of beauty, a lover’s companionship. We enter the market for the sake of those ends. Economic action thus “consists firstly in valuation of ends, and then in the valuation of the means leading to these ends. All economic activity depends, therefore, upon the existence of ends. Ends dominate economy and alone give it meaning.” We simply cannot speak, writes Hayek in The Road to Serfdom, of “purely economic ends separate from the other ends of life.”

Though some similarities are clearly evident, it’s a pretty circumstantial, tenuous connection, to which Kevin Vallier has already offered a decisive rebuke over at BHL:

Robin roughly claims that the move to the subjective theory of economic value in economics was a move towards a form of objective value nihilism. Objective value nihilism in turn allows Austrian economists in particular to argue that markets are an expression of morality because markets are expressions of subjective value. And since (Robin assumes) Austrians admit that aristocratic tastes drive economic productivity, we can infer that Austrians believe that aristocratic valuations (and thus aristocracy) expresses moral value. This contorted argument serves Robin’s career-long attempt to shoehorn every non-leftist into a single group of people who hate equality.

Philip Pilkington has another rejoinder to Robin’s piece over at Naked Capitalism (by no means a blog for doctrinaire free-marketers).

(Needless to say, Robin agrees with me that Hayek is a conservative.)

about the author

Arthur Bloom is managing editor of The American Conservative. He was previously deputy editor of the Daily Caller and a columnist for the Catholic Herald. He holds masters degrees in urban planning and American studies from the University of Kansas. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The Spectator (UK), The Guardian, Quillette, The American Spectator, Modern Age, and Tiny Mix Tapes.

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