Notes from Human Action, by Ludwig von Mises, published 1949 [PDF
Economics is a young science offering knowledge which did not fit into the existing disciplines of logic, mathematics, psychology or history. Its methodology is different, examining acting individuals and not historical events or social aggregates. It demonstrates social regularities or “laws” which can not be legislated out of existence or ignored, like gravity. The conclusions of economic science threaten many partisans and have led to the first debates about the validity and universality of logic itself in response. Despite the claims of critics, economic theory has achieved a lot of practical success, such as the liberalization that allowed for the “Industrial Revolution” to transform Western civilization. Knowledge of economic theory is directly intertwined with the flourishing of mankind anywhere.
Part One, HUMAN ACTION, I. Acting Man
Psychology examines WHY a man acts, praxeology studies, deductively, what we can know from the fact THAT a man acts. It views action as effective, or ineffective, never rational/irrational or “good”/“bad”. Human action requires knowledge of causal relationships and a belief in man’s ability to influence them. All human action seeks the removal of felt uneasiness.
II. Epistemological Problems of the Science of Human Action
Economics and history are the two main branches of praxeology. History is an arrangement and interpretation of data concerning human action in the past; it is not predictive but descriptive. Human action is a complex, multi-causal phenomenon and thus can not be studied according to the “empirical” methodologies of the natural sciences requiring a single variable amongst innumerate constants.
Economics demands methodological apriorism, or the acknowledgement that it is impossible for man to conceive of a reality in which the fundamental logical understanding of causality does not hold. All of his experience must be filtered through pre-existing logical (theoretical) categories, i.e., understanding money requires knowledge of the concept of money to make sense of data concerning money.
Methodological individualism asserts action can only be studied through the behavior of individuals. This is not violated by the fact that man puts meaning in collective entities and aims his actions in certain ways operating under these beliefs. Praxeology is also methodologically singular and causal-realist— it examines specific actions carried out by specific individuals at specific places and points in time. “A cathedral is something other than a heap of stones joined together. But the only procedure for constructing a cathedral is to lay one stone upon another.”
Historians can only achieve “verstehen”, or understanding, by selecting certain data as valuable and excluding other data as irrelevant to their inquiry. They must utilize the best theories of other intellectual disciplines (economics, physics, biology, etc.) to interpret the data and its significance. History is “open to interpretation” only when the underlying theories relied upon are still controversial and debated. There are no constants in the history of human action.
“The end of science is to know reality”, economic theory is developed to better understand practical economic problems men face, and this fact guides man’s inquiry into the discipline although it does not change its aprioristic character. Economics studies real acting man as he exists, not an ideal type, e.g., homo economicus.
III. Economics and the Revolt Against Reason
Socialist philosophers could not defeat the logical theories of early economists so they turned to the undermining of reason itself as a method of defending their ideas. Without any biological evidence, Marxian polylogism asserts that every class has a unique logic derived from its class consciousness. “Ideology” is any idea which deviates from pure proletarian logic but is nonetheless useful to the class espousing it. Polylogism can not explain why people of the same social class nonetheless arrive at different conclusions about the truth.
IV. A First Analysis of the Category of Action
Man refers to an internal, ordinal scale of values when acting. Action can be thought of as an exchange of one set of conditions for another, more satisfactory, set of conditions. Economics examines the meaning men give to things, as translated through their actions, not what various 3rd parties observing might think about such action in accordance with external value systems. Value is within men and therefore subjective, not within things, intrinsically, and therefore objective. Economics examines what man DOES (and DOES NOT, but could have…) do, not what he ought to do. Cost is best thought of as the value of the next best thing given up.
Action is always aimed at the future. “The present” is a praxeological category and a conceptual ideal used to examine discrete, continuous actions. In physical reality, only the past and the future exist. The future is uncertain, implying we aren’t even sure in the moment how much of our action belongs to the present versus other time periods. Time must be economized like any other scarce resource. Actions can not happen synchronously, always either sooner or later. Man’s values can and do change over time, and with it, his actions.
Metaphysically, the world may in fact be deterministic; but man’s experience is one of choice. In matters of uncertainty, man faces class uncertainty (the qualities of the members of the class are known, but the character of a specific event which might take place within that class are unknown; e.g., dice roll) and case probability (some causal factors guiding the outcome are known but others are not and the case itself is unique compared to other events; e.g., presidential election). Human action falls under the rubric of case probability. Case probability can not be statistically quantified because it would involve summing items with no common denominator. Game theory is also an inappropriate means for studying human action within the market economy because it adopts the metaphor of combat when the competitive division of labor is cooperative and positive-sum. All praxeological prediction is based on “understanding”, not quantification.
VII. Action Within The World
Utility is how we describe those things which help remove felt uneasiness. Subjective utility is different than objective, or technological, utility. Man does not choose between total supplies of goods but only those discrete amounts of the supply useful to his specific end. He satisfies his most urgent wants before his less urgent wants and therefore values the means “at the margin” of what less urgent want he has to give up (Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns). Supply is a set of homogenous goods which could equally satisfy a given end. Technological recipes are not part of supply because they are inexhaustible once discovered. The Law of Returns identifies the fact that there is always a most efficient, or optimum, way to utilize scarce means to achieve a desired end; but this optimum can only be discovered through experience because of the uncertain nature of human action. “Men do not economize labor in general, but the particular kinds of labor available.” The supply of labor available is conditioned upon genetics, social conditioning and innate human subjective preferences for labor vs. leisure. The potential supply of labor for each kind of work necessarily exceeds the demand in the long run because labor can be shifted and retrained to perform new tasks. Labor is always more scarce than the material factors of production (land, capital). The substitution of “labor saving” machinery for human labor does not render labor abundant so long as there are still more material productive factors available to combine with the freed up labor to pursue additional human well-being. Activities which provide immediate gratification are not labor nor work but consumption goods themselves, of the first order. Production is not a creative act but one of rearrangement of already existent phenomena. Man is creative only in thinking, not rearranging the world according to his thoughts. The material changes of man’s economy are due solely to the ideas he holds in his head about what is desirable. “Production is alteration of the given according to the designs of reason.”
The introduction of the book is Mises’s explanation for why he wrote the book— to ground economics in the science of praxeology and to refute the various anti-economic philosophies. It seeks to answer the simple question, “Why did Mises write this book?”
1. Economics and Praxeology
Economics is a young science. It introduced new knowledge about human society that did not fit into the existing disciplines of logic, mathematics, psychology, history or biology. It stood in opposition to earlier methodologies for explaining social phenomena, such as historicism, which focused on social aggregates and metaphysical supernaturalism. Other social philosophers focused on practically changing society through forms of social engineering, believing any kind of regularity to social relationships was non-existent and thus not worth considering in their schemes. The discovery of social regularities contained within economic study proved an intellectual revolution. But the revolution was limited in scope until a general theory of human choice (praxeology) could be developed.
2. The Epistemological Problem of a General Theory of Human Action
Economic study suffered a serious early crisis during the “Methodenstreit” in which the epistemology of economics was argued between historicists (economic history), logical positivists (emulators of the natural sciences) and praxeologists (methodological individualists and deductive logic). These economic methodology debates quickly became radical in nature, leading to the first charges against rationalism in all of scientific debate which up to that point had accepted human logic as universal and immutable. Such criticisms bring into question ALL scientific findings, but they are really aimed only at economics specifically. Thus, Mises wants to ground economic theory in the general theory of human action to demonstrate it’s universality and defend it from polylogist and anti-rational criticisms.
3. Economic Theory and the Practice of Human Action
Economics receives criticism as being an imperfect science. All science is imperfect, and is subject to change and improvement over time. One major school of criticism comes from naturalist scientists who blame economics for not adopting their own methodology— they suffer from a narrow focus and can not see the virtue in doing things any way but their own. The other major school of criticism is that economics hasn’t solved all social problems, so it must be barren. This perfectionist fallacy ignores the great progress economic theory in action has achieved so far, such as the “Industrial Revolution”, which was directly enabled by progress in economic thought applied to the political realm which freed the energies of entrepreneurs and creators. The modern era is characterized by ignorance and hatred toward economic science, it is also an era of social disintegration, wars and mass social calamities. The fate of civilization’s progress and the progress of economic science are directly intertwined.
Mises wrote this book to situate economic theory within a wider body of human choice, known as praxeology. He did this to defend it from its critics, but also to expand the breadth and knowledge of the science to gain new insights on social phenomena. In that sense, Mises’s book is both reactionary, and revolutionary.
Part One, HUMAN ACTION, I. Acting Man
Human action is the study of means used to obtain certain ends. It does not study the ends themselves nor does it administer judgments about personal values. Human action is purposeful action, it is not animal action, instinct or reflex. And it does not concern itself with the reasons for ends being chosen. Within the framework of human action, all actions taken are either effective, or ineffective, they can never be judged as irrational or rational. For man to act, he must be aware of causal relationships that he believes he can influence. Human action demands methodological dualism— human action is assumed as an ultimate given, it is beyond the scope of praxeology to investigate causes antecedent to it. Human action is a necessary category of the life of man, he can not avoid choosing in the act of living, life itself being a choice over death. What man strives for in acting is to relieve felt uneasiness— some call this happiness but it is not an objective category and can best be thought of as an improvement in his position as judged by himself, though happiness is a commonplace referent for the concept. Positivism demands an experimental, inductive, natural sciences approach to knowledge of human action yet it tacitly accepts the methodological dualism of praxeology in appealing to man’s rational mind to consider an alternative way of performing economic science.
II. Epistemological Problems of the Science of Human Action
Praxeology and history are the two main branches of the science of human action. History is a collection and systematic arrangement of data of human action experience in the past; it can not tell us anything that is valid for all human action and thus can not predict anything about the future, it can only tell what has taken place before. Complex phenomena with interlaced causal chains can not be used to validate an existing theory— the natural sciences require the ability to set constant all entities but one variable which is then tested. All human experience is filtered through human reason, which is a priori valid and universal to all individuals. It is the unique structure of the human mind and it is impossible to conceive of or interpret human experience other than through the logical structure of man’s mind. This gives rise to methodological apriorism, which means that it is impossible for man to conceive of a reality in which the fundamental logical relationships of his mind and his understand of causality do not hold. “Human knowledge is conditioned by the structure of the human mind.” Primitive man who is said to understand miracles is a man who has a difference of content of thought, not of the process of thought itself— the attribution of miracles to life phenomena was an early attempt at establishing causal relationships in the world around man. The concept of action implies belief that the means chosen are valid and that the end sought is valuable— it does not imply that the action is guided by a necessarily correct theory or appropriate technology for achieving the end sought. Action == reason, action is how man effects his reason in the world around him. All human experience must be filtered through pre-existing logical categories, for example, experience of money requires knowledge of the theory of medium of exchange to make sense of the data of money. “It is the meaning which acting individuals and all those who are touched by their action attribute to an action, that determines its character.” In this way, collective entities can have meaning for man’s actions even though methodological individualism holds, which implies that only individuals are capable of acting. “There is no social collective conceivable which is not operative in the actions of some individuals.” Methodological collectivism is revealed to be a false idol when considering the fact that there is a multiplicity of coexisting social units and mutual antagonisms— which social collective is “acting” in this case? Human action also follows methodological singularism, it is convened with concrete action of a definite person, at a definite date and a definite time, not action in general. Praxeology is causal-realist— what happens in acting? what does it mean to say that an individual did X, at Y place and Z time, and not A at B place and C time? What is the result of him choosing one thing and setting aside another? Human life is an unceasing sequence of individual actions, though these actions may be taken in the context of a larger project to which they belong. For example, “A cathedral is something other than a heap of stones joined together. But the only procedure for constructing a cathedral is to lay one stone upon another.” Historians must select which data are valuable to study by referencing a specific end or theory which they are using to make their choice. The historian seeks at “verstehen”, or understanding, he does not make up facts or interpret data as he likes but applies all his best knowledge of existing science in other branches to understand the “meaning” of the data he looks at— its implications and significance. However, this “understanding” is always limited by the current state of the underlying sciences he depends upon. Empirical data by itself is seen to be hollow when we acknowledge the recording of miracles and witchcraft by numerous human witnesses in past history— these events can not have logically occurred even if we have collected data of people verifying them in the past. Where the underlying science is unsettled, history may prove to be “open to interpretation” as to the significance of events recorded. There are no constant relations in the field of economics and so establishing things such as the “elasticity of demand” of a good are nothing more than historical facts, not future-predicting theories of human action. “Happiness” is not an inappropriate measure of human action due to technological limitations but because it is not objective and universal in its implications— it means different things to different people. Logic, mathematics and praxeology are universally valid for all humans capable of reason. “What counts for history is always the meaning of the men concerned.” All historical events are described and interpreted by means of ideal types, e.g., general, president, businessman, entrepreneur, doctor, tyrant. But ideal types belong only to history— human action concerns itself with real acting man as he is, which is the mistake made by the German Historical School or the American Institutional School, which built their theory around the “ideal type” of “homo economicus”. This was a make believe intellectual phantom with no connection to real, acting man. “Praxeological knowledge is within us” and is in this sense experience based, but it is something that belongs to everybody who is capable of human reason, and no amount of experience or description to an entity not capable of it could lead to their understanding. “The end of science is to know reality”, and we use our experience of daily life to decide what interests us and what we should explore, but not how we should explore it (theory building). Economic theory refers to practical problems simply because that is what man is concerned with understanding. Economics is necessarily politically contrarian because it serves to provide knowledge of the limitations of human action and thus the necessary restraints that exist for human legislators and warlords in their social engineering endeavors. Economics is holistic, special theories of economics must be encased in a greater framework which is itself consistent in order for special theory to be valid. Praxeology belongs only to man— superhuman entities capable of anything would not fit into a theory involving entities which have limited means of satisfying their ends.
III. Economics and the Revolt Against Reason
The classical economists destroyed all socialist theories and demonstrated their impracticality. Instead of admitting defeat because they could not construct a logical theory, the socialists turned to questioning the efficacy of human reason itself. They decided to substitute mystical intuition for universal logic (similar to divine right of kings for monarch). Marxian polylogism states that every social class has its own distinct logical structure within the mind. There is no biological support for this assertion and Marxists make no attempt to establish anything beyond this assertion. Marxian “ideology” is a doctrine which is incorrect from proletarian pure logic but which is beneficial to the class interests of the one who espouses it. Marxists provide no explanation for why minority policies which are deemed injurious to the wider social body nonetheless come to pass without the majority stopping them. “The fundamental logical relations and the categories of thought and action are the ultimate source of all human knowledge.” We can not even imagine a system that operates otherwise without referring to this logic in our inquiry, and we can not explain logic without using logic. This means logic is an ultimate given. Polylogism scan not explain why people of the same social class nonetheless arrive at different conclusions about the truth.
IV. A First Analysis of the Category of Action
Economics concerns itself with the way thinking man turns things into means by way of action. It is concerned with the meaning men give to things through their action and not what third parties think about such action. Man’s ends can be thought of as existing on a scale of values, which are ordinal. It is a simple rank of things he’d like more over things he’d like less, the satisfaction of which serve to remove felt uneasiness. These scales don’t exist in any real sense and are simply a tool used to understand the concept of action, and they are revealed definitely only through concrete action. The values that things have are within the person of whom action is taken, they are not intrinsic to the things themselves. Economics concerns itself with what man DOES do, not what he should or ought to do, e.g., prices of “sinful” goods must be explained from the way men value them, not how an ethical system claims they should. Action can be thought of as an exchange, where a less satisfactory set of conditions is given up for a more satisfactory set of conditions. Costs are the value of the next best thing given up. Profits are the excess of gains over costs. Anytime costs exceed gains, loss is incurred.
Change and time are two aspects of the same phenomenon. Thinking takes time and is itself an action. Action is always aimed at altering the events of the future because the present moment is fleeting. The present is an ideal boundary line separating the past and the future. The past is designated as the place where opportunity to consume or do has passed. The future is designated as the place where the opportunity to do or consume has not yet taken place. The present is the place in which it is too early to do some things and too late to do others. The uncertain nature of the future means that we have a vague notion at any given moment of how much of our action we can consider “now” or present. Time must be economized like any other good due to the fundamental nature of reality. Actions are never synchronous, they always are in a relation to one another of being sooner or later. Man’s values and thus actions can change over time. There is a difference between logical consistency, and praxeological constancy. Irrationality does not apply.
“To acting man the future is hidden”, it is possible in a metaphysical sense that events are entirely deterministic but this is not the experience that man himself faces; he faces an experience of choice. In matters of uncertainty, acting man faces two kinds of probability, class probability and case probability. In class probability, the actor knows all qualities of the class itself, but knows nothing of the character of any specific event which might take place within that class. In case probability, he knows some of the factors guiding the outcome of a specific event but not all of them and the outcome itself is unique and not categorizable with other “class” events. The case is characterized by its uniqueness, not its similarities, to other identical events. Human action is based upon case probability, where no safety or stability can be purchased or achieved— all human action is inherently speculative with regards to the likelihood of a given action achieving the aimed at end. Case probability can not be quantified because it would require the summing of non-identical items. And game theory is an inappropriate means to study human action because human action in the division of labor aims at benefitting all participants, not just sum (i.e., zero sum game). Competition has been wrongly characterized as a form of combat when really competitors win their customers by achieving excellence and preeminence. All allusions to military terminology or characteristics is purely metaphorical. Because praxeology studies multi-causal events, its prediction is necessarily qualitative and reliant on “understanding” (verstehen), it can never be quantifiable or mathematical in nature and there can never be any certainty with regards to its outcome.
VII. Action Within The World
Utility is that which has causal relevance to removing felt uneasiness. Subjective use-value utility is different than objective (or technological) use-vale utility. Objective use-value may be obscured, incorrectly utilized or multiplicitous in comparison to subjective use-value. Acting man does not choose between total supplies of various goods serving as means— he chooses only between the relative, discrete amounts for his purposes against other ends he could pursue. And because he satisfies his most urgent wants before his less urgent wants, he values the means “at the margin”, meaning in consideration of the value of the least urgent want he’d have to give up. The law of diminishing marginal utility is implied in the category of action. It is futile to attempt to calculate composite values of total supply based off of knowledge of partial supplies— this is not how acting man utilizes discrete amounts of supply. Supply itself is characterized by a set of homogenous goods which could equally satisfy a given want. Technological recipes are not part of supply, once known they are inexhaustible and can be used as many times as is desired— however, the action leading to their discovery does involve scarcity and supply. The law of returns simply states that for any combination of real factors of production there is an optimum in relation to the productive end desired with regards to most efficiently utilizing scarce resources. It can only tell us that there is an optimum. It can not tell us how to arrive at it— this is something that must be achieved through experience (technological vs. teleological knowledge). The law of returns applies to all branches of production equally. The indivisibility of certain means of production is what gives rise to the fact that often large-scale production is more efficient and therefore optimum than small scale variants. Labor is the employment of human physiological capacities as a means of obtaining desired ends. Leisure is preferred to labor and labor itself suffers from the law of diminishing marginal utility. Additionally, not all labor is equal in quantity and quality within an individual or population. “Men do not economize labor in general, but the particular kinds of labor available.” The supply of labor available is conditioned upon genetics, social conditioning and innate human subjective preferences for labor vs. leisure. The potential supply of labor for each kind of work necessarily exceeds the demand in the long run because labor can be shifted and retrained to perform new tasks. Labor is always more scarce than the material factors of production (land, capital). The substitution of “labor saving” machinery for human labor does not render labor abundant so long as there are still more material productive factors available to combine with the freed up labor to pursue additional human well-being. Activities which provide immediate gratification are not labor nor work but consumption goods themselves, of the first order. Mises believes the creative genius is a special case which does not subscribe to the praxeological laws conditioning labor and is more equivalent to “manna from heaven” in that he toils under different conditions, for different reasons, and he can not be substituted, ordered/planned nor replaced. Production is not a creative act but one of rearrangement of already existent phenomena. Man is creative only in thinking, not rearranging the world according to his thoughts. Man’s capacity to work is a given much like the state of natural resources and animal substances. The material changes of man’s economy are due solely to the ideas he holds in his head about what is desirable. “Production is alteration of the given according to the designs of reason.”