It’s True, I Swear

By Dann Reid

My 5 year old is smart. As her dad of course I say she’s smart. But, she is. She can visualize a lego toy in her head based on the picture and follow the directions perfectly. She’s has the ability to see completed that which is apart. That’s smart. Or something.

This same child does not have a sense of fluid dynamics or inertia. When she pushes the milk glass with the force at the top, it spills. I point out that she should push from the base and I am rejoined with a stern “I know!”

She has a cute habit of mispronouncing multi-syllable words. Interesting becomes in-stres-ting. It’s very cute and all too soon it will go away. She corrects us when, on the rare occasion we wish to remove these cute bits, that she knows she is right, that this word or that is pronounced as she has demonstrated.

She knows. For her it is true.

True. The hunter’s arrow flew true to the heart of the elk. The scorpion was true to its nature and stung the hiker. Her true love surprised her with a marriage proposal. We say these things are true and think little more about the word. What of true things which cannot be observed? Metaphysicians wrestle with big ideas and truth is a big idea. In Natural History of Intellect, Emerson writes that a student “must find what truth is.”[1]

How do we do this?

The institutions of higher learning, colleges and universities, which were long thought, and hoped, to be champions of higher thinking are not that today. In reading Emerson, I found his sharp wit castigating the highly esteemed learned elite as being too full of themselves, possessing too much conceit. “Each savant proves in his admirable discourse that he, and he only, knows now or ever did know anything on the subject.”[2] The problem of whom to trust for learning is maybe as old as teaching itself, so what hope have we who seek not indoctrination but truth? And, yet, how will we know it when we see it?

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Philosophers would suggest truth is a belief which is consistent with other beliefs a person holds. Okay, but what if all the beliefs that person holds are false? Does the uniformity of ersatz make true that which would always be called wrong? Are these wrong ideas which remain consistent within the thinking of the person enough to make them true? Is each his own arbiter of truth? Can we then have a variety of truths and each remain as valid as the next even if they are discordant to another?

My daughter, who as far as I know, isn’t color blind, insists purple is pink and orange is yellow. She has a habit of demanding to be right and if you have ever heard a 5 year-old tantrum about being wrong, you would do as I do and grant her her stance. It costs me nothing to go along and I gain further conversation with her about whatever comes next. I gain more than I lose and such quirks will be worked out in time. But, what of the person who is colorblind? Is a red apple now not a red apple? Does the calling it else wise change its character? Is the apple juicy? Well, compared to what and does that comparison make a difference in the truth that this apple is juicy, even if not a juicy as one last week?

Much discussion is had among both economic literate and illiterate crowds about just what the economy is, what it needs, what will make it better and how to get all that done. The allegiance to a faction amongst those in the debate are as polarized as the factions around the Founding Fathers.

Of late I have become acquainted with the group of economists known as the Austrian School. My sense of history is muddled for there is no shortage of persons involved, but as I read it, Ludwig von Mises is the primary thinker of this school without walls. A school of thought. Most notable with Mises is Murray Rothbard. Between the two a canon exists which defines and directs the discipline of Austrian economics.

Ludwig von Mises

A key and important distinction between Austrian economics and all else is a study called Praxeology. Praxeology is the study of human action. It is, in a sense, a study of what is true to that person. What is true to, or of, one may not be true to another, but in each a truth exists. The apple vendor may sell an apple to one person but not another. The second person chose not to buy the apple and that choice, the behavior, was an action which praxeology considers. Why and how do people act?

Emerson was considering human action from the metaphysical position. “Metaphysics must be perpetually reinforced by life; must be the observations of a working man on working men; must be biography,–the record of some law whose working was surprised by the observer in natural action.”[3] The study of ideas is metaphysics. It seems a short hop then to study the choices people make based on the ideas they have. Of course, that can be parsed into a variety of fields, which it has. Extending peoples’ choices into how an economy works and using that as a key component to assess that economy seems the only unique position in economics in some long while.

Few of us were not exposed, albeit unwittingly, to economics of a different name. We look about and see that massive debt and politicians self-identifying with discordant positions cause confusion between them and us and almost total apathy at our too slow way to correct the issue with a vote.

Inigo Montoya, the sword fighting character played by Mandy Patinkin in The Princess Bride, said when things go bad, “go back to the beginning.” The beginning is simple voluntary exchange. I give you this in exchange for that. Easy peasy. We both agree that the exchange was value for value regardless anyone else’s views. For us, that was true.

The Princess Bride

The true thing remains elusive. True things can be hidden away behind dazzle and baffle, the slick tongue of the snake oil salesman, but yet, the true thing remains to be ferretted out. The trick is how to do that.

Emerson was a man of deep faith. We, I think as a group, are less so. I am unqualified to opine about the merits of faith being one who is still working that out (it occurs to me that that alone makes me eminently qualified, but I shall pass on that for another day). For Emerson, the true thing of man was discernable, was knowable. The true thing, and true think, might have been of Divine origin, but it was the task of man to sort that out. “Right thought comes spontaneously, comes like the morning wind; comes daily, like our daily bread, to humble service; comes duly to those who look for it.”[4] He sounds a bit like Dumbledore.

The burden to find the true thing is on the seeker. Emerson’s point, couched in his faith, is the true thing will let you know when you have found it. His suggestion, and I think it’s right, is you, we, know the true thing due to a sense, an intuition, that it is true.

Murray N. Rothbard

Mises and Rothbard worked to convey the true thing in the study and explanation of human action. I’m working my way through an overwhelming canon of work a bit at a time, but find that the basics of praxeology fit.

The true thing is we act. We act to satisfy a want or a need and sometimes that want or need is to do a nice thing for another. Generosity is a true thing. Voluntarily giving is a good thing, and true things are good things.

[1] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Natural History of Intellect, 1995 Solar Press, pg 6

[2] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, History of Natural Intellect, 1995 Solar Press, pg 8

[3] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Natural History of Intellect, 1995 Solar Press, pg 13

[4] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Natural History of Intellect, 1995 Solar Press, pg 33

Dann Reid writes the blog culinary He has dipped his toes into the pool of libertarianism and found it welcoming. He thinks about lots of things, and, actually might over think them.

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