Do People Really Have a “Scale of Values?”… Was Rothbard Wrong?

Walter Block and William Barnett’s answer is NO! And their reason is simple: scale of values is incompatible with Singularism, which must be true.

This idea of Singularism is a big deal to Block and Barnett; the two scholars had previously co-authored a paper positing that the Austrians start going by the clunky name “the Singularity School of Thought.” Basically, the singularity principle means that all of our actions are based on choosing one option above all others.

Scale of Values

Two of the most prominent Austrians in history, Murray Rothbard and Carl Menger, supported the idea of a scale of values. And it makes a lot of sense. The idea is that each human actor has a hierarchical scale of values out of which he makes every decision. He values A more than B, values B more than C, and so on. They see people as making decisions based on, not just one value ranking—that would be simple, but many separate value rankings all at the same time. Carl Menger also adds to the decision-making process an added layer of complexity: levels of utility. So that, people are making decisions based on maybe hundreds of distinct value rankings simultaneously.

Block and Barnett wonder if humans are really going through such a complex process for their every decision or if there is something simpler, more limited going on.

Singularism: One Choice at a Time

The authors saw a “contradiction” between Rothbard and Menger’s scale of values and Ludwig von Mises’ theory of singularism. The core issue for Mises (and now Block) is that only one single human action can take place at one time. Therefore, a person cannot make multiple decisions/actions at the same time. Block concedes that such a hierarchy of values might well exist in the form of “preferences,” but says that this is outside the domain of economics, which is only concerned with choice. Block and Barnett conclude, “Economic action consists of choosing one thing, and setting aside all others. It is logically impossible to do more than one thing at a time. Yet, that is precisely the implication of the scale of values” (91).

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