The criterion of truth is that it works even if nobody is prepared to acknowledge it.
~Ludwig von Mises
The criterion of truth is that it works even if nobody is prepared to acknowledge it.
~Ludwig von Mises
Some people think the most rigorous way of thinking about the world is “empiricism”, their word for looking at the “facts” (accumulated statistical data) and making up their minds on that basis.
There are at least two glaring issues with that approach:
Number one is always a risk because the hardest person not to fool is yourself, and most people won’t even realize they’re selectively picking data points until they’ve already been happily surprised to realize the facts agree with them and their mind is made up.
Number two is far more sinister because it corrupts the entire empirical enterprise. You can’t reason about the facts when they have no connection to reality.
Few people, if any, take the time to sniff through their sources. They see some number, they assume it was compiled accurately or honestly (or both!) and get on with reasoning from the data. The questions of methodology, competency and partisanship are not part of the equation, and if they were considered, one might be taken aback at just how long it takes to conduct a verified empirical study.
Using logic is more efficient. I don’t have to worry about whether someone is trying to mislead me with bad data. I can think about the logical structure of the argument in question and make up my own mind about its soundness.
by Maria Montessori, published 1936, 1982
If you’re looking for a “how-to” on the Montessori Method, this isn’t it. What this book is is an exploration of the philosophical foundations of Maria Montessori’s view of the child in society, based upon some of her historical experiences and study of related social research.
Although this book was published long ago, Montessori’s revelation appears to be, by and large, still a secret. Sadly, it is not just a cultural secret. Even in the West, and particularly the United States, where her ideas seem to have the strongest following, the parenting and educational mainstreams seem to have done little to absorb Montessori’s insights into both theory and practice. If Montessori was correct in her discovery, then it says something both appalling and demoralizing about the failure of society to integrate such important truths. So, what is this “secret”?
The secret of childhood is that it is a period of time during which the child works, not to assimilate himself into society, but to assimilate himself into himself. We hear echoes of Max Stirner (1806-1856, Germany) in Maria Montessori (1870-1952, Italy), for example, compare Stirner,
school is to be life and there, as outside of it, the self-revelation of the individual is to be the task… only freedom is equality… we need from now on a personal education (not the impressing of convictions)… knowledge must die and rise again as will and create itself anew each day as a free person.
Adults look upon a child as something empty that is to be filled through their own efforts, as something inert and helpless for which they must do everything, as something lacking an inner guide and in constant need of direction… the adult makes himself the touchstone of what is good and evil in the child. He is infallible, the model upon which the child must be molded… An adult who acts this way… unconsciously suppresses the development of the child’s own personality.
or to Montessori’s son, Mario, from the preface,
Man has discovered flight, he has discovered atomic energy, but he has failed to discover himself.
or to Margaret Stephenson, a Montessori instructor, from the foreword,
How can one learn through group play what it means to be a mother, father, space pilot, dog, when one does not yet know what it mean’s to be one’s self?
This psychic development of the child, a “universal” as Montessori puts it, into an individuated person, the man, unfolds along a predetermined path dictated by nature.
Childhood constitutes the most important element in an adult’s life, for it is in his early years that a man is made.
That is not to say that man’s childhood development is deterministic, but that there is a logic and a succession of predictable stages and events to it, much like a caterpillar becomes a cocoon and then a butterfly.
The place an animal will have in the universe can be seen at birth. We know that one animal will be peaceful since it is a lamb, that another will be fierce because it is a lion cub, that one insect will toil without ceasing since it is an ant, and that another will do nothing but sing in solitude since it is a locust. And just as the lower animals, so the newly born child has latent psychic drives characteristic of its species… A child develops not simply as a member of the human species, but as a person.
And the implication of this fact is that the child, in his childhood, has special needs during this period of development which will allow this process of psychic development to occur without obstruction or injury, ranging from the suitability of his environment, to the tools and instruments he has at his use, to the way he is interacted with and communicated with by adults, who he sees as omnipotent, almost magical, beings of power and authority. (Isn’t it funny to stop for a moment and consider how sure of ourselves and the nature and limits of the adults around us we are, and how truly mysterious any of this was when we first made our way into the world as small children? Just ponder that for a moment if you’re having trouble grasping the significance of Montessori’s “secret”.)
What are some of these differences and needs between children and adults? The first is understanding the significance of work to each. For adults, work is a means to obtain a fixed and known goal, and the general idea is to work efficiently, that is, to get the highest yield in terms of outcome for the smallest amount of resources and energy expended. But for children, the purpose of work is to learn about the self– work is not performed to obtain an income, or to be fed, or to avoid a threat, but rather work is performed to experience the psychic benefit of knowing how to perform the work.
An adult walks to reach some external goal and he consequently heads straight for it… An infant, one the other hand, walks to perfect his own proper functions, and consequently his goal is something creative within himself.
In working, a child applies their intellect to the world, they come to understand their power and ability as a person to influence and change the world more to their liking, a fact that mature adults take for granted.
His hands under the guidance of his intellect transform this environment and thus enable him to fulfill his mission in the world.
Because of this, a child may be seen to work “aimlessly”, or “inefficiently”, or “incompetently”, but this observation is made from the point of view of an adult which is not applicable to the child and their psychic purpose in working. Montessori relates how adults who are finished working are typically tired and in need of rest or recreational stimulation, whereas children who are finished working are exhilarated and self-satisfied at accomplishing whatever it was inside of their psyche that compelled them to perform their work.
Another need is the need for separate property. Children exist in a world created by adults, for the benefit of adults and adults can be capricious with their property and arrangements in ways that are befuddling and intimidating to children. Everything in the child’s world (for example, in the home) belongs to the adults– the furniture, which is sized for the adults; the dishware and glassware and silverware, which is sized for the adults; the books, the clothes, the walls, the art, even the pets!
[An adult is tempted to overvalue his material possessions when they’re being handled by a child, such as with a glass of water being carried by his child.] The adult who does this may even be very wealthy and intent upon increasing his fortunes many times over in order to make his son still more wealthy than himself. But for the moment he esteems a glass as something of greater value than the child’s activity and seeks to prevent its being broken [and so interferes needlessly with the child’s development in stopping him from his activity with the glass].
Montessori describes the adults as “kings”, who may of occasion grant the child a right to temporary use of the king’s property, but never the right to possess the property themselves.
An adult, however high or low he may be, is always a powerful being in comparison with a child.
The child can feel as if it lives only at the mercy and privilege of the king. The child is constantly being instructed and informed how to use something, what to touch and what not to touch, to keep away from this or to go be near that. The child needs some of its own things, in sizes and qualities specific to its uses, so that it may explore and understand and “work” in the world around itself without constantly being in conflict with the adults.
An adult is constantly interrupting the child and breaking into his environment. This powerful being directs the child’s life without ever consulting the child himself. And this lack of consideration makes the child think that his own activities are of no value.
A final need is for adults to appreciate the differences in perceptive faculties of children, who, as Montessori describes, pay attention to details not just different in magnitude, but in kind.
A child’s psychic personality is far different from our own, and it is different in kind and not simply degree.
Adults are accustomed to looking at the world and paying attention to details in a particular way based upon their individual goals, ambitions, professional outlook, educational level, etc. etc. But children often pay attention to details quite differently, and in ways that conflict with adult perceptions or treat them as non-sensical or unimportant.
Children an adults are in possession of two different mental outlooks… Adults frequently attempt to point out ordinary objects to three- or four-year-old children as if they had never seen anything before. But this must have the same effect on a child as one shouting at another whom he thinks to be deaf [who is not so].
An adult may wish to draw a child’s attention to the beach and the ocean, but the child is fascinated by a tiny bug crawling across the sand. Adults are often quick to pass judgment on the child in these moments, as if they are “wrong” for not being interested in what the adult wants them to be interested in, or even questioning their intelligence or development when they seem incapable of taking such an interest. But as with work, observation serves a different purpose for the child than for the adult– it is not to satisfy his desire for recreation, or to attend to a productive goal, but to stimulate his psyche according to these innate, natural needs of his development.
Here are some other interesting quotes I collected:
I enjoyed reading this book, it stimulated MY psyche and made an impression upon me in terms of how much more there is to think and know about this subject than what I possess currently. I also enjoyed the archaicness of it, Montessori writes like a civilized person of years gone by, speaking articulately and frankly about the world around her without apology and with much conviction and passion for her subject, something which doesn’t seem to exist anymore in our world of sterile, clinical academics reluctant to take a position on anything of import. But it was not always an easy read and it was fairly repetitious. I will likely come back to the book at some point to re-read certain passages that I found hard to appreciate without an experience of raising a child myself. Yet, I wouldn’t recommend this as an “essential” title for someone looking to up their parenting game unless I already knew they were more philosophical in their approach.
A genius is always a teacher, never a pupil; he is always self-made.
~Ludwig von Mises, “Bureaucracy”
In 2014 I attended the Rothbard Graduate Seminar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, AL as an observer. The following are notes I typed while listening to lectures and discussions between faculty and graduate students. They have been edited for clarity, organization and in some cases privacy.
Rothbard’s book (Economic Controversies) had great depth, not just covering epistemology and economic theory but historical commentary, etc., this book is also digestible, repetitive so you get the same concept dissected from different angles, straight to the point, challenges the mainstream orthodoxy, accessible to the layperson, Rothbard starts with realistic premises and deduces from there which makes this approach even more empirical (econometric models falsify the real world), his criticisms are very thorough and you want to smile after you read them which is unique in reading academic papers. Rothbard isn’t ashamed to say there is meaning and truth.
Methodological individualism applies only to the concept of action, it does not exclude the idea of something like a “cosmic consciousness”, there is a difference between ontological and methodological claims; praxeology is not a metaphysical system, it simply takes the world as we find it
Mathematical annotation is more precise than verbal logic, but one problem is how do you convert initial premises into mathematical annotation (and back when a conclusion is reached)?
“Academic choice”, public choice analysis applied to the incentive structure of academia and how this influences their search for truth
Kirzner and Schumpeter restrict entrepreneur to nothing but alertness, the Misesian approach is more expansive and includes everyone in some capacity acting as an entrepreneur
Mises in Human Action talks about the entrepreneur as a leader, who is far-seeing, comes from Weiser, who also mentored Schumpeter; Mises was uncharacteristically fuzzy and unclear on his writings on the entrepreneur, occasionally he refers to the “promoter” (ideal type) involving leadership, having a quicker eye than the crowd, etc., but typically he refers to the function of entrepreneurship
Kirzner is talking about alertness to opportunities for profit, but entrepreneurs create goods, capital, companies, etc., not “opportunities for profit”, opportunity implies objective configurations of resources that allow for a decision or action or take place, but is this analogous in the business world? Or is “opportunity” a metaphor? Do we need the construct of “opportunity” to explain what entrepreneurs do?
Salerno, “The Entrepreneur, Real and Imagined” [PDF]
Kirzner’s equilibrium is the condition under which no unfound profit opportunities exist
Mises vs. Knight on judgement— Mises never refers to Knight in this context, judgement is more of a black box for Mises than for Knight
Klein, “The Capitalist and The Entrepreneur” [PDF]
How to explain countries where majority of taxes are paid by a minority of people, as Calhoun’s analysis suggests the majority bear the costs for a small minority to benefit from? The answer could be additional implicit subsidies such as protections from the State in terms of liability or regulation that they see taxation as payment for
Can the State make investments? Rothbard is writing against the idea of “social investment” such as infrastructure spending, and he is writing in terms of capital structure— they’re not integrated into economic calculation, they’re not part of the capital structure; counter-example, State-owned oil production
“What Has Government Done To Our Money?” is Rothbard’s explanation of how an economy “progresses” from commodity to fiat money, because Mises said that a true fiat money is a historical question given that every episode in the past has been a form of “credit money” based on expectations about an eventual return to a commodity money that predated it
Lecture 6, Professional Strategies, Career Advice and Current Research Topics, Peter Klein
[I did not take any notes during this discussion.]
[I did not take any notes during this discussion.]
[I did not take any notes during this discussion.]
Crony capitalism is the modern day equivalent of mercantilism
Old wine in new bottles, people can intellectually reject an idea like mercantilism as an historical phenomenon but if it is repackaged in a new brand they might adopt it as sensible
Are many of the distinctions of totalitarian regimes explained by the path to power? IE, Hitler came to power through the ballot box, Mao led a peasant rebellion, Lenin was elected by the army
Democracy is one of the most stable forms of the State; democracy involves participation of the population, and has a process for slowly implementing policies vs. unitary or limited participation and the ability to make drastic, sudden changes via emperor or dictatorship; democracy tends to hand out favors to large groups of people so it is hard to create an opposition coalition to overturn it
Mises’s three pre-conditions of the division of labor and economic specialization: private property in the means of production, free exchange (for price formation) and ???
[I did not take any notes during this section.]
Lecture 10, Current Debates and Critiques, Joe Salerno
[I did not take any notes during this section.]
Is the term “Austrian” valuable as a marketing concept? “Capital Based Macro”, “Causal Realism”
You don’t want to be the kid at camp who picked their own nickname, names come from the outside
Is there rhetorical value in labeling opponents in sensational ways (“Friedman is a socialist”) or does that hurt your cause more than it communicates information?
The contents of this post are adapted from e-mail correspondence with an acquaintance.
To give some context, this e-mail was prompted by a friend who made the point that our (by then) lengthy discussion on theoretical economic and political concepts was not a productive use of time and was little more than mental masturbation. In replying to this insistence (and attempting to refute more of what I saw as fallacious arguments), I tried to plead the case for caring about stuff like economic or political theory, esoteric or otherwise.
I wanted to make the case that these ideas had real, practical validity in our everyday lives, not just in the narrow halls of academia or someplace equally arbitrary and detached from the real world of everyday issues:
On the contrary, I believe these discussions can always be a constructive use of time if they lead one or both parties closer to an understanding of the truth on a given issue. I don’t know if Mises was the first to say it, and certainly he wasn’t the only one because Ayn Rand articulated a similar philosophy, but he had a slogan, “Ideas move society.” Over time, the structure of production and the political system overarching any society will come to be informed by the prevalent ideas held by its individual members.
In a grand and very real sense, every erroneous idea we hold takes us a little bit further from a harmonious, progressing, civilized society, while every truthful idea we hold takes us a little bit closer. This is not a matter of elegant armchair theory but of cold, hard, factual reality and it is all a consequence of Mises’s famous dictim, “Man acts.”
Every man acts, this is an inescapable fact of life. But what every man acts upon, well, that is informed by the ideas he holds and the values he determines to be worth pursuing.
We live in a time of gross ignorance of many simple truths, among the bitterest of which happen to be economic laws of cause and effect. Unfortunately, we also live with the consequences of this ignorance. It is not our duty in a universal, cosmic sense, but it is our obligation in a means-end sense, that if we wish to push back this tide of ignorance and live our lives on the dry-land of reason, we must fight it with sea walls of truth, not attempt to gather it up in fishermen’s nets of half-truth, pseudo-reason and arbitrary preference. Only consistent, logically-sound ideas can replace the fallacious if hope of progress is to be made, else you simply replace one flawed system with another.
I take a personal interest in the ideas of people who fascinate me because I think it is a natural implication to be curious about the beliefs and reasons of those I respect, and because in my own quest for truth and understanding I try to be ever vigilant that I may not have all the facts and perhaps someone can respectfully cross me on something I thought was true and show me why it is not. I am not content to simply say “My mind is made up” and carry on merrily when someone claims the truth is not my own.
This is why I have made an honest and sincere attempt to engage you on this subject and others in the past. I feel if you are to be my acquaintance and in some ways my friend, and if I am to respect your judgment in things, I must test you on these matters for the good of us both.
We all act, all day, every day. The actions we choose are based upon our values and our values are informed by our understanding of truth. Our understanding of truth, by shaping our values which inform which actions we take and when, has a direct, tangible bearing on the practical manner in which we live our lives.
The following is an essay written for a monthly company newsletter in 2015:
While business books are helpful, I find reading books from a variety of intellectual disciplines helps me gain new perspectives on our industry and business. One of my favorite reads is called “Human Action” by a social philosopher named Ludwig von Mises. Recently, I was struck by the following passage as von Mises commented on what drives consumer behavior:
The consumers patronize those shops in which they can buy what they want at the cheapest price. Their buying and their abstention from buying decides who should own and run [businesses]. They make poor people rich and rich people poor. They determine precisely what should be produced, in what quality, and in what quantities. They are merciless bosses, full of whims and fancies, changeable and unpredictable. For them nothing counts other than their own satisfaction. They do not care a whit for past merit and vested interests. If something is offered to them that they like better or that is cheaper, they desert their old purveyors.
Does this sound like our customers? Cheapest price? Changeable and unpredictable? Values their own satisfaction above all else? No loyalty? Keeping an eye on their pocketbook and not yours?
Of course it does! In fact, this well describes all customers, ours, those of our competition and even me and you as buyers of goods and services ourselves.
There’s a simple truth about customer service in a competitive market environment buried underneath this description of consumer behavior. That truth is that our customers have CHOICES. Not one of them has to do business with us. Not one of them has to be impressed by our prices, our commitment to their satisfaction, the quality of our effort or the consistency of our desire to please. If any one of these things does not manage to live up to their expectations, you can bet that our competitors will take notice and provide it to them instead.
But there is more to the story than consumer behavior and competition affecting our customer service, according to Ludwig von Mises:
The consumers determine ultimately not only the prices of the consumers’ goods, but no less the prices of all factors of production. They determine the income of every member of the market economy. The consumers, not the entrepreneurs, pay ultimately the wages earned by every worker… With every penny spent the consumers determine the direction of all production processes and the details of the organization of all business activities.
What this means is quite simple. When we adopt innovations or change aspects of how our businesses are organized, they are never changes made arbitrarily. Every change must in some way lead to improved customer satisfaction to enhance the desirability of our offering in the market or the effort is wasted.
When we change computer systems, or business processes, or pay plans, or job descriptions or prices, or anything, these new arrangements must meet the market test. If the changes don’t help us serve our customers better in some way they will not be sustainable. If they don’t help us to provide something better than what our competition can provide, we will find our customers going elsewhere.
It also means we have a responsibility to stay on our feet and try to improve our service offering every chance we get. As a team, we can come up with new processes, new cost structures, new service offerings, new conveniences, new methods of communication and new attitudes toward service that can keep our customers surprised and smiling. In other words, embracing the nature of change and competition in the marketplace can help us “to keep our customers, our customers” (and to help us gain new customers, too!)
Knowing all of this, what are some things you could do to improve the quality of service you and your team provide to our customers every day? And how will you react the next time someone tells you that we’ve got to make changes to better accommodate our customers’ needs? Taking care of our customers how they expect to be taken care of has to be at the center of why we do what we do. You can embrace it or you can resist it– but you can’t avoid it. Which will you choose?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Mises was attempting a scientific analysis of the socialist program as a philosophical and economic doctrine. Up until this point in the development of ideas (1922), most writings on socialism concerned themselves with ideological propaganda and sloganeering, with socialist supporters actively trying to prevent people from a scientific examination of social problems and the socialist response. Mises wanted to explain: what is socialism? how does it compare to capitalism? what claims does socialism make about society? are they true? what can we expect the world to look like under a socialist order?
Some people find Mises’s writing confusing. He uses big words (“panegyrists”) and archaic or seemingly obscure references (quotes in Latin, nods to long-extinct philosophical schools). Mises possessed a Classical education like many educated Europeans of his time. He saw himself as part of a grand intellectual tradition and sought to make his own contribution to a shared Western civilization that had taken over two millennia to develop. He saw himself as a scientist of social phenomena responding to important debates and schools of thought of his era. He was often speaking TO a particular person, school or idea which was well-known and publicly debated in his day. Finally, he is a systems-builder. He always starts with a foundation, then adds a block, adds a block, adds a block. At the end one finds oneself standing atop an intellectual skyscraper they didn’t realize they were building when they started reading.
If you remember only a few things from the first hundred pages of Socialism, remember these quotes and try to think about their significance:
“The word Capitalism expresses, for our age, the sum of all evil. Even the opponents of Socialism are dominated by socialist ideas.”
“To drink coffee I do not need to own a coffee plantation in Brazil, an ocean steamer, and a coffee roasting plant, though all these means of production must be used to bring a cup of coffee to my table. Sufficient that others own these means of production and employ them for me.”
“If the State takes the power of disposal from the owner piecemeal, by extending its influence over production… then the owner is left at last with nothing except the empty name of ownership, and property has passed into the hands of the State.“
Mises’s Liberalism stood for the essential social principle of a social order built on respect for private property rights and contractual negotiation of social conflicts. In other words, peace abroad, freedom at home and an economic system consisting of nothing more than “consumer sovereignty” over the productive process and voluntary exchange within the confines of the marketplace. This was once an intellectual project of thinkers of all nations and ethnicities participating in “Western civilization”. Today, Liberalism lives on most strongly in the ideas of the Libertarian movement, which was originally a mostly American project ironically kick-started in large part by the publishing of Mises’s “Human Action” in 1949. Today, socialists have co-opted the Liberal name, having rightfully seen it as valuable due to its old popularity and intellectual prestige.
The demands of the socialist program have changed over time but they have come to settle, as Mises said, on the idea of “a policy which aims at placing the means of production in the hands of the State.” It is the antithesis of the private property order of Mises’s much-cherished Liberalism, and diametrically opposed to the “consumer sovereignty” of the marketplace, replacing it with production, organization and exchange according to the “will of the people.” But how, and why, could these two concepts be different? That is the heart of Mises’s book-length analysis. According to Mises, Socialism is Utopian by nature. It promises to deliver a perfect economic, political and social environment where all inequalities and disputes are resolved forever and the end of history, in the sense of a constantly-evolving, ever better social order, arrives.
No! And this is the most fascinating part of the analysis. Socialist propaganda strives endlessly to create contrast between the goals of Liberalism and the goals of Socialism. And while it is true that Liberalism does not share all the concerns of Socialism (mostly because it has deemed these concerns to be impossible or nonsensical), the goal of both is to raise the material standard of living of humanity as a whole. The only thing that differs is the means chosen to secure those ends. But it is that choice which ultimately makes all the difference.