Wednesday, July 24, 2013

So Mises did not Subscribe to Freudian Pseudoscience?

Some anonymous commentator, in a previous post, complains that the word “Freud” did not actually “appear” in the passage in Human Action where Mises says that praxeology “owes much to psychoanalysis” (Mises 2008: 12), presumably with the implication that Mises wasn’t endorsing Freudian psychoanalysis.

I disagree. And we need only look at a passage from Liberalism: A Socio-Economic Exposition:
“It cannot be the task of this book to discuss the problem of social cooperation otherwise than with rational arguments. But the root of the opposition to liberalism cannot be reached by resort to the method of reason. This opposition does not stem from the reason, but from a pathological mental attitude – from resentment and from a neurasthenic condition that one might call a Fourier complex, after the French socialist of that name.

Concerning resentment and envious malevolence little need be said. Resentment is at work when one so hates somebody for his more favorable circumstances that one is prepared to bear heavy losses if only the hated one might also come to harm. Many of those who attack capitalism know very well that their situation under any other economic system will be less favorable. Nevertheless, with full knowledge of this fact, they advocate a reform, e.g., socialism, because they hope that the rich, whom they envy, will also suffer under it. Time and again one hears socialists say that even material want will be easier to bear in a socialist society because people will realize that no one is better off than his neighbor.

At all events, resentment can still be dealt with by rational arguments. It is, after all, not too difficult to make clear to a person who is filled with resentment that the important thing for him cannot be to worsen the position of his better situated fellow men, but to improve his own.

The Fourier complex is much harder to combat. What is involved in this case is a serious disease of the nervous system, a neurosis, which is more properly the concern of the psychologist than of the legislator. Yet it cannot be neglected in investigating the problems of modern society. Unfortunately, medical men have hitherto scarcely concerned themselves with the problems presented by the Fourier complex. Indeed, they have hardly been noticed even by Freud, the great master of psychology, or by his followers in their theory of neurosis, though it is to psychoanalysis that we are indebted for having opened up the path that alone leads to a coherent and systematic understanding of mental disorders of this kind.” (Mises 1978: 13–14).
So there you have it!: opposition to classical liberalism is apparently to be blamed on the widespread “neurosis” elucidated by psychoanalytic theory developed by the followers of Freud, “the great master of psychology.”

While Freudian psychoanalysis was later developed by Alfred Adler and Carl Gustav Jung, it is hard not to see their theories as anything but an equally deluded legacy of Freud’s work.

If this isn’t proof that Mises was a supporter of Freudian psycho-babble, then I don’t know is.

Mises, L. von. 1978 [1927]. Liberalism: A Socio-Economic Exposition (trans. Ralph Raico). Sheed Andrews and McMeel, Kansas City.

Mises, L. von. 2008. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. The Scholar’s Edition. Mises Institute, Auburn, Ala.


  1. Despite the dismissive tone of something I suspect you don't understand, this does highlight how psychoanalysis can be misused. Mises -- who was not the most stable individual one might come across -- was just making up conditions which he ascribed to his opponents.

    But this is not unique to psychoanalysis. Modern diagnostic terms like "sociopath" and "narcissist" (the latter of which has its origins in Freud, by the way...) are often thrown at opponents of one's views. If Mises were writing today he would almost certainly be calling socialists "narcissists" rather than "neurasthenics". People will always find a way to be idiots, no matter what psychology is popular at the time.

  2. Freud aside, demonizing one's opponents as being mentally imbalanced as a group, without case by case professional diagnosis, is just a cheap shot and show Mises up as the ideologue he was. Ideologues are uni-dimensional and take reality to be identical with their point of view, which is framed on their assumptions, norms, criteria and method. Those who disagree with this POV as "reality" are asserted to be stupid, liars or crazy. It's the syndrome of the true believer aka closed mind.

    In sociology, "belief" signifies what one assumes as reality as opposed to other beliefs about what constitutes reality. Mises articulates a belief system entwined with an attempt to justify it by appealing to its own criteria — which is, of course, circular reasoning.

    But his assertion of "envy" as an explanation for proponents of socialism attacking "capitalism" — really his extreme laissez faire version of capitalism based on radical individualism — is just pathetic. Unfortunately, it has become a meme among neoliberals.

  3. By pointing out that "Freud" didn't appear in the quoted passage, I was not defending Mises so much as challenging you to substantiate your claim -- i.e., something like this follow-up post. Thanks for doing so.

    I dunno why you've got such a hate-on for psychoanalysis on the whole. It's true: the qualitative, highly individualized nature of it does not lend itself to the sort of naive scientism that economists love. But I thought you generally make it your business to rail against that very tendency? If you're really empirically/consequentially minded, then the results should probably sway you more than the existence of a perfectly satisfying methodological uniformity, yes? It's sort of like Taleb's point about acupuncture; the fact that we can't satisfy ourselves as to the mechanisms involved shouldn't deter us from its use if it is demonstrated to do what it purports.

    And even on a theoretical level: Sure, Freud had some cockamamie ideas, but he also intuited quite a bit of value and paved the way for theorists who would later improve upon his work. There is also useful insight in Jung's work. If it weren't for the progress (and, yes, also the missteps) of such pioneers, we'd never have had celebrated psychological theorists like Carl Rogers, Aaron T. Beck, or Albert Ellis.

    But hey, they're your priors, and you're entitled to them. If everyone agreed with me on everything, the world would be kind of a boring place, no?

    1. My response: psychoanalysis can provide a placebo effect in the way acupuncture can. There is no scientific evidence that either "work" in the way antibiotic treatment treats bacterial infection.

    2. As for Freud, I would take as my starting analysis:

      Frank Cioffi, Freud and the Question of Pseudoscience, Open Court, Chicago, 1998.

  4. Of course you can't see, under laboratory conditions, that psychoanalysis works in the same way antibiotics do; there are no "mental illness" cells or particles we can measure. Social sciences don't always lend themselves to quantitative analysis as readily as physical sciences. I am certain you are aware of this, as a student of economics.

    I would offer that suggesting that psychology be held to the same standards as immunology rings of precisely the sort of naive, reductionistic scientism I was referencing earlier. I daresay it is a rather "neoclassical" thing to do; ignoring the "structural" qualities of many mental pathologies effectively throws complexity out the window, and as a long-time reader of this blog I know you've cautioned about doing that very thing any number of times.

    If we're taking empiricism seriously, then further consideration of the essay I linked is probably warranted. (Also, for what it's worth, there are also studies indicating that acupuncture outperforms placebos, too.)

    As I said, it is good to have one's own priors. But one must use facts to see which priors pass muster, not vice versa.