F. A. Hayek notes in his introduction to Mises’s autobiography Memoirs that “considering the kind of battle that he [Mises] had to lead, I also understand that he was driven to certain exaggerations, like that of the a priori character of economic theory, where I could not follow him” (p. xx). The comment refers to the many setbacks and unfortunate developments that Mises experienced during his life. But the conclusion is very interesting, and parallels with a common sentiment in present science as well as public debate: the threat of extremism or radicalism.

Hayek’s statement is very interesting from a theoretical point of view, since it subjects theorizing and science to a type of Aristotelian (okay, Nicomachian) moral standard. The latter is the well known golden middle, where e.g. courage is a virtue but deviating exaggerations in both directions are vices: neither recklessness nor cowardice are virtuous. It should be noted that these “exaggerations” of both ends of a virtue create vices not because the virtue is virtuous in moderation – but because the virtue itself is moderated by the unvirtuous extremes. It is not the case that the “middle” is necessarily better, just like the middle ground “hungry” is not preferable because it is between the states not hungry and utterly starving.

What Hayek says in the quote above seems to apply the “moderation” logic rather unreflectively on Mises’s theory. I say “unreflectively” because it is stated in a very strange context – economic science (and even methodology). Let us look at what an “exaggeration” means in this context.

The method for economics that Mises expounded on is the purely deductive method that is necessary in Praxeology. It takes as point of departure self-evident axioms, revealed through introspection, from which truths about human action both individually and in combination are derived logically. Such self-evident axioms are of course known a priori, which Hayek notes above. If this were not the case, which means they need to be established ex post through for example empirical testing, then they could not be a true starting point for deductive reasoning. A self-evident fact does not need to be measured or experimented with in order to be established. It is known to be true because there is no other possible way it could be.

This is in itself “extreme,” especially if we contrast it with what the natural sciences do that is based on inductive measurement that through repeated tests establish significant probabilities that certain relationships are (and remain) as measured. We may even say that truth, in itself, is extreme due to its purity. All other shades and nuances are at least in some respects untrue, whereas truth is “black or white.” The same argument can be applied on the concept of “freedom,” which is as absolute as “truth”: you are either [completely] free or you are not free. There are no degrees of freedom in this sense. To illustrate, consider the concept of free speech that states that all should be able to express their opinions and, basically, “say” whatever one pleases. If I tell you that I will allow you to say anything and everything as long as you don’t say one of the seven dirty words, then your speech is ultimately restricted and therefore not free. (Whether or not this actually affects what you wish to say is another matter.)

The reasoning may be even more obvious if we apply it on Mises’s preferred method following the a priori truths: logic. Naturally, logic states that a chain of reasoning is either true or not. The chain itself cannot include flaws for the outcome to be true (assuming the starting point is true). It is fundamentally a means for assessing whether a conclusion is true; the conclusion itself, if we use logic, can be false only under two circumstances: if the starting point is untrue or if the logic is faulty. If both the starting point is true and the logic is flawless, then one cannot rationally oppose the conclusion since it must be true.

This is, ultimately, the necessary nature of deductive theorizing. It follows that Mises’s economic theories can be scrutinized only by assessing the starting point and the logic by which the theories are generated. To the extent that Mises was wrong, it must be the case that his starting point (for example, the action axiom) is in some way untrue – or that the logic employed to derive theoretical statements is faulty in some respect.

There is no such thing as a “moderately” true starting point, from which we use “moderately” correct logic to generate conclusions about the world. For most people, such a statement appears (for good reason) preposterous. If the starting point cannot be shown to be true and the following logical argument also is not fully true, then the conclusion does not necessarily tell us anything at all. It all becomes highly arbitrary, and is a game for the sake of entertainment rather than a real inquiry into the state of things.

To reiterate the common misperception of the golden middle, there is no such thing as a statement being “over-true” to which the truth can be moderated. Truth is not a “middle” between falsehood and “too much” truth. It is an absolute concept.

This is of course also true (pun intended) for scientific inquiry, which is not a “middle” ground between (for example) arbitrariness and “too much” (?) knowledge. Scientific endeavors do not aim to reveal “kind of true” statements about the world. Nobody would want to take off in a space shuttle constructed based on the principle that its engineering takes a “middle ground” between obvious false relationships and knowledge. We want (demand?) its engineering to be top notch, the best we can possibly do.

The same of course applies to any method or approach to economics. It may be the argued that a “middle ground” policy for credit expansion is preferable to the extremes (no credit expansion, endless credit expansion), but it is an argument about the application of knowledge for certain ends. Those ends are based on values, so they are in a sense scientifically arbitrary. It is quite different from saying it is better to develop moderately true knowledge or that we should aim to be moderately knowledgeable.

So what is Hayek saying when he states that Mises was “driven to exaggerations” in his methodology? Hayek obviously takes a stab at Mises, but by what means? He claims that Mises had been better off had he not taken a view that differentiated so clearly from most people’s. This may be true, at least in terms of popularity and (possibly) career possibilities. This may not be what Hayek meant, however.

Hayek in fact attacks Mises’s method for being “too extreme” in the sense of saying truth is too true. This becomes clear when we consider Hayek’s exemplification of the exaggeration, “like that of the a priori character of economic theory,” and the context it is in:

The arguments by which he [Mises] supported his unpopular views were not always completely conclusive, even though some reflection could have shown that he was right. But when he was convinced of his conclusions and had presented them in clear and plain language—a gift that he possessed to a high degree—he believed that this would also have to convince others and only prejudice and stubbornness prevented them from understanding. For too long he had lacked the opportunity of discussing problems with intellectual equals who shared his basic moral convictions in order to see how even small differences in one’s implicit assumptions can lead to different results. This manifested itself in a certain impatience that was easily suspected of being an unwillingness to understand, whereas an honest misunderstanding of his arguments was the case. (pp. xix-xx)

The statement that when Mises “had presented them [his conclusions] in clear and plain language…he believed that this would also have to convince others and only prejudice and stubbornness prevented them from understanding” is as relevant as it is revealing. This is the type of “exaggeration” along which Hayek “could not follow.” Yet what is the alternative?

Hayek is not saying that Mises never considered being wrong or that he refused to listen to argument. Contrarily, there are plenty of testimonies stating the opposite. As Mises himself states, in his Privatseminar he “was neither teacher nor seminar leader. I was merely a primus inter pares [first among peers], who received more than gave” (Memoirs, p. 81).

The exaggeration should therefore not lie in the (grantedly arrogant) belief that one is right (and therefore unwillingness to listen to other explanations) – but in the truthfulness of the argument. This is a highly disturbing conclusion, since it suggests that Hayek, in contrast, strove to find scientific consensus. Even if it would be at the cost of the known truth.