Sunday, April 22, 2018

Demarcation: Metaphysical vs. Empirical

English: The front book cover art for the book...
English: The front book cover art for the book The Ethics of Liberty by the author Murray Rothbard. The book cover art copyright is believed to belong to the publisher or the cover artist. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I recently had an interaction on Facebook in which someone who I thought was enthusiastic about my approach suggested that demarcating between science and non-science was "unhelpful for promoting understanding" – that it "smacks of some kind of positivist impulse."* Of course, I disagree.

In economics the demarcation is between the metaphysics of economic theory – where the "action axiom," marginal utility, the law of supply, and the law of demand lie – and the trial-and-error empirical science involved in market processes – the creation of business plans that result in profit (non-falsification) and loss (falsification).

If we do not understand what is metaphysical and, hence untestable (although subject to criticism), and empirical, hence subject to test, we risk the creation of disputes where none would otherwise exist. Examples are the rejection by some adherents of the Austrian school of fractional reserve banking and intellectual property. The first of these rejections is largely because of the "absolute morality" detailed by Murray Rothbard in The Ethics of Liberty, and the latter because of the belief by some (generally followers of Rothbard led by Stephan Kinsella) that economic goods must be "rivalrous" to
qualify as property. These rejections are both attempts to characterize the problems as metaphysical rather than empirical.

Both fractional reserve banking and intellectual property represent business plans that could not be prevented in a free society and would be empirically tested in the event that their realization becomes possible. Confusing the empirical with the metaphysical has led to a great deal of acrimony.

As a final note, the determination of what is and what is not property is empirical in every case. Definitions may be created in an attempt to distill what is apparent in market processes, but any such definition will be subject to revision as its costs and benefits are weighed in the market.

*Full quote:
Personally, I find the "not science unless empirical" distinction to be unhelpful for promoting understanding. I believe too much is being taken for granted in our use of the word "science" in common discourse, and the urge to make this science/non-science distinction smacks of some kind of positivist impulse, leading us to make haughty pronouncements.

No comments: