Hayek, Mises…and Foucault?

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You don't normally associate the leftist high priest Michel Foucault—likely the most influential figure in Americ

an academia during the last 40 years and the most cited intellectual in the humanities—with libertarian economists such as F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Joseph Schumpeter, and Milton Friedman. Yet five years before his death in 1984, Foucault gave a generally appreciative series of Paris lectures on classical liberalism that have finally been translated into English. In The Birth of Biopolitics (Palgrave MacMillan), Foucault, always focused on the exercise of power and repression, tells his students to read Hayek and crew "with special care." He found much to commend in their work. First and foremost, true liberalism is "imbued with the principle: 'One always governs too much.'" As important, it asks (and answers) the question, "Why, after all, is it necessary to govern?"

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  1. That’s actually pretty interesting. I think I’ll try to get hold of a copy.

  2. He did read Mises and Hayek, which is impressive. He was criticizing them, but he became so engaged in his critique that he didn’t end up trying to refute them. Instead he built a theory of their theory, which he called ‘homo oeconomicus,’ economic man, or man who exists solely for the purpose of productivity and economics.

    He said that ‘American neo-liberals [particularly Gary Becker] apply, or at any rate try to apply economic analysis to a series of objects, to domains of behavior or conduct which were not market forms of behavior or conduct: they attempt to apply economic analysis to marriage, the education of children, and criminality, for example. This of course poses a problem of both theory and method…These problems all revolve around a theme or a notion: homo oeconomicus…To what extent is it legitimate, and to whate extent is it fruitful, to apply the grid, the schema, and the model of homo oeconomicus to not only every economic actor, but to every social actor in general inasmuch as he or she gets married, for example, or commits a crime, or raises children, gives affection and spends time with the kids? So there is a problem of the validity of the applicability of this grid of homo oeconomicus.’

    Foucault’s analysis is consequential for the way it approaches these questions of all-pervasive financialization of daily life through the application of neo-liberal theory. Also, the way he uses the term ‘gridding’ here runs throughout his analysis of Mises and Hayek: their theory acts as a containing mechanism, an apparatus of capture, or a technology of management and organization, not unlike Bentham’s panopticon, famously used as an illustration in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.

    1. I think the reason he did not refute Mises and Hayek is precisely for the reason of the stated aim of his research. Foucault wanted to understand liberal governmental reason or what he calls governmentality. He wanted to know how government views itself. Part of the formation of liberal government reason can be attributed to neo-liberals, hence the delving into Austrian economics. For example, as a result of neo-liberal thinking Foucault argued that the goal of law enforcement has changed from its classical liberal goal of stamping out crime to the goal of achieving “a degree of compliance with the rule of prescribed behavior that society believes it can procure while taking account of the fact that enforcement is costly.” Government’s reason for law enforcement had evolved. This is a very different approach to the theory of the neo-liberal economists because Foucault has adopted the perspective of government rather than that of the governed.

  3. It is absurd to contend that Mises and Hayek implied that human action was entirely economically motivated. No person in their right mind could claim that love or child-rearing or education are solely economic activities. What Mises and Hayek rightly argued was that matters of economics are best left to the market in almost all circumstances. It was Marx who was the economic determinist.

  4. I would register “half a point” to the idea that all those actions are indeed “Economic” in this way…

    They all inevitably are constrained decisions, dependent on the effects of scarcity. Human decisions, selection of trade-offs, subject to opportunity costs and benefits.

    That the ‘values’ are individually chosen, and are not meted out in dollars, does not make them less “economical” issues. I don’t think of ‘money’ as a primary component of economics.

  5. I would register “half a point” to the idea that all those actions are indeed “Economic” in this way…

    They all inevitably are constrained decisions, dependent on the effects of scarcity. Human decisions, selection of trade-offs, subject to opportunity costs and benefits.

    That the ‘values’ are individually chosen, and are not meted out in dollars, does not make them less “economical” issues. I don’t think of ‘money’ as a primary component of economics.

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