Session 5: Can We Criticize or Defend Capitalism in a Non-Normative Manner?

Guest speaker: Sina Badiei (program director in Philosophy and Human Sciences department, Université Paris Lumière)

SEPTEMBER 22nd, 2022


Karl Marx, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman are among those economists who are highly skeptical of the possibility of rational discussions and analyses of the norms that should govern the reform of public institutions. However, unlike most other economists who take this skeptical stance, their writings on capitalism are eminently normative and political. Marx is often considered the thinker who has produced one of the most rigorous critiques of capitalism. Mises was one of the last economists to systematically and explicitly defend laissez-faire, unlike more contemporary proponents of laissez-faire, who often criticize public interventions because of their so-called paternalistic presuppositions. Friedman, for his part, was one of the first ultraliberal American economists to break explicitly with laissez-faire, which did not prevent him from maintaining that what he called competitive capitalism was the only form of social organization compatible with respect for individual freedom.

In this presentation, and building on the work done in my book Économie positive et économie normative: Marx, Mises, Friedman et Popper (forthcoming in English by Routledge as Normative Economics in the History of Economic Thought: Marx, Mises, Friedman and Popper), I will try to show that Marx, Mises and Friedman fail to justify their critique or defense of capitalism convincingly. I will try to show that this is the case mainly because of their disregard for the rational and systematic analysis of norms and values. I will further argue that challenging Marx, Mises and Friedman’s skeptical stance toward normative analyses is easier if we distinguish between systematic evaluations that study the norms governing the reform of public institutions and evaluations that study the norms and values governing the personal behavior of individuals.

Suggested reading before the meeting 

Meeting report 

How are we to solve our disagreements over normative claims? There is a popular view in the history of economic thought on which our disagreements in the normative domain must be addressed by a positive analysis of the relevant social reality. Advocating this view, Karl Marx, Ludwig Von Mises, and Milton Friedman, among others, assessed the capitalist economic system by exploring what this system is and what are its consequences. After discussing his methodological stance as a form of historical epistemology, Sina rejected the epistemological-methodological commitment of the thinkers above, arguing that our analysis of economic-political systems should leave some room for a rational appraisal of norms and values which goes beyond a positive analysis. For Sina, a such rational appraisal is not only possible but also desirable. 

In the Q&A section, Sina clarified some further aspects of his overarching philosophical insights. He argued that those defending the claim that normative disagreements must be resolved by positive analysis tend to assume that objectivity belongs to the domain of facts, not values. To Sina, however, there is room for objectivity in the domain of values that enables us to have rational appraisal over normative claims. Furthermore, Sina argued that we can defend this claim without falling into the trap of Platonism and its famous epistemological issues. We learned that Sina’s preferred epistemological stance on the fact-value or the positive-normative dichotomies can be motivated by certain writings of Karl Popper that are less popular and have not attracted the attention they deserve. 

Sina’s works are great examples for those who would like to see how history and philosophy can inform each other. It was a joy to have him as our presenter. He has a sophisticated and articulated mind, together with a warm and humble character. We wish him the best in his future projects.