Nietzsche’s Marginal Children: On Friedrich Hayek
With its division of intellectual labor, the modern academy often separates economics from ethics and philosophy. Earlier economists and philosophers did not make that separation. Even Nietzsche recognized that economics rested on genuine moral and philosophical premises, many of which he found dubious, and that it had tremendous moral and political effects, all of which he detested. In The Wanderer and His Shadow, Nietzsche criticized “our economists” for having “not yet wearied of scenting a similar unity in the word ‘value’ and of searching after the original root-concept of the word.” In his preliminary outline for the summa he hoped to publish on “the will to power,” he scored the “nihilistic consequences of the ways of thinking in politics and economics.”
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? As Nietzsche wrote in the late 1880s:
A reverse movement is needed—the production of a synthetic, summarizing, justifying man for whose existence this transformation of mankind into a machine is a precondition, as a base on which he can invent his higher form of being.
He needs the opposition of the masses, of the “leveled,” a feeling of distance from them. [He] stands on them, he lives off them. This higher form of aristocracy is that of the future.—Morally speaking, this overall machinery, this solidarity of all gears, represents a maximum of exploitation of man; but it presupposes those on whose account this exploitation has meaning.
Nietzsche’s response to that challenge was not to revert or resort to a more objective notion of value: that was neither possible nor desirable. Instead, he embraced one part of the modern understanding of value—its fabricated nature—and turned it against its democratic and Smithian premises. Value was indeed a human creation, Nietzsche acknowledged, and as such could just as easily be conceived as a gift, an honorific bestowed by one man upon another. “Through esteeming alone is there value,” Nietzsche has Zarathustra declare; “to esteem is to create.” Value was not made with coarse and clumsy hands; it was enacted with an appraising gaze, a nod of the head signifying a matchless abundance of taste. It was, in short, aristocratic.
While slaves had once created value in the form of Christianity, they had achieved that feat not through their labor but through their censure and praise. They had also done it unwittingly, acting upon a deep and unconscious compulsion: a sense of inferiority, a rage against their powerlessness, and a desire for revenge against their betters. That combination of overt impotence and covert drive made them ill-suited to creating values of excellence. Nietzsche explained in Beyond Good and Evil that the self-conscious exercise and enjoyment of power made the noble type a better candidate for the creation of values in the modern world, for these were values that would have to break with the slave morality that had dominated for millennia. Only insofar as “it knows itself to be that which first accords honor to things” can the noble type truly be “value-creating.”
Labor belonged to nature, which is not capable of generating value. Only the man who arrayed himself against nature—the artist, the general, the statesman—could claim that role. He alone had the necessary refinements, wrought by “that pathos of distance which grows out of ingrained difference between strata,” to appreciate and bestow value: upon men, practices and beliefs. Value was not a product of the prole; it was an imposition of peerless taste. In the words of The Gay Science:
Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature—nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present—and it was we who gave and bestowed it.
That was in 1882. Just a decade earlier, Menger had written: “Value is therefore nothing inherent in goods, no property of them, but merely the importance that we first attribute to the satisfaction of our needs, that is, to our lives and well-being.” Jevons’s position was identical, and like Nietzsche, both Menger and Jevons thought value was instead a high or low estimation put by a man upon the things of life. But lest that desiring self be reduced to a simple creature of tabulated needs, Menger and Jevons took care to distinguish their positions from traditional theories of utility.
Jevons, for example, was prepared to follow Jeremy Bentham in his definition of utility as “that property in an object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness.” He thought this “perfectly expresses the meaning of the word Economy.” But he also insisted on a critical rider: “provided that the will or inclination of the person concerned is taken as the sole criterion, for the time, of what is good and desirable.” Our expressed desires and aversions are not measures of our objective or underlying good; there is no such thing. Nor can we be assured that those desires or aversions will bring us pleasure or pain. What we want or don’t want is merely a representation, a snapshot of the motions of our will—that black box of preference and partiality that so fascinated Nietzsche precisely because it seemed so groundless and yet so generative. Every mind is inscrutable to itself: we lack, said Jevons, “the means of measuring directly the feelings of the human heart.” The inner life is inaccessible to our inspections; all we can know are its effects, the will it powers and the actions it propels. “The will is our pendulum,” declared Jevons, a representation of forces that cannot be seen but whose effects are nevertheless felt, “and its oscillations are minutely registered in all the price lists of the markets.”
Menger thought the value of any good was connected to our needs, but he was extraordinarily attuned to the complexity—and contingency—of that relationship. Needs, wrote Menger, “at least as concerns their origin, depend upon our wills or on our habits.” Needs are more than the givens of our biology or psyche; they are the desideratum of our volitions and practices, which are idiosyncratic and arbitrary. Only when our needs finally “come into existence”—that is, only when we become aware of them—can we truly say that “there is no further arbitrary element” in the process of value formation.
Even then, needs must pass through a series of checkpoints before they can enter the land of value. Awareness of a need, says Menger, entails a comprehensive knowledge of how the need might be fulfilled by a particular good, how that good might contribute to our lives, and how (and whether) command of that good is necessary for the satisfaction of that need. That last bit of knowledge requires us to look at the external world: to ask how much of that good is available to us, to consider how many sacrifices we must bear—how many satisfactions we are willing to forgo—in order to secure it. Only when we have answered these questions are we ready to speak of value, which Menger reminds us is “the importance we attribute to the satisfaction of our needs.” Value is thus “a judgment” that “economizing men make about the importance of the goods at their disposal for the maintenance of their lives and well-being.” It “does not exist outside the consciousness of men.” Even though previous economists had insisted on the “objectification of the value of goods,” Menger, like Jevons and Nietzsche, concludes that value “is entirely subjective in nature.”
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