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Friday, December 1, 1978

A Human Action Taxonomy

Mr. Haywood is associate professor of business and finance at Northwood institute, Midland, Michigan. This article is from a speech at Northwood’s 1978 summer seminar on “Freedom in Third America.”

A taxonomy is a technique of classification. The zoologist, for example, uses the categories phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species to classify animals. This system of classification makes the zoologist’s study more manageable, thus enabling him to “peg” correctly any given member in the entire animal kingdom.

The student of liberty may also find it useful to have a taxonomy, a taxonomy of human action. In his book, The Law, Frederic Bastiat provides just such a system for classifying human action. With knowledge of this taxonomy, the student of liberty can readily “peg” any human action and thus distinguish between actions that promote liberty from actions that erode liberty.

I have tried to extract the essence of The Law and put that essence in the form of a diagram—my human action taxonomy.

Reading the diagram from left to right, the starting point is the individual. All human action ultimately reduces to the actions of specific individuals. The individual is the most important element in society.

The individual may choose to be self-sufficient or to interact with others. At least theoretically, an individual can go it alone in life. However, at this stage in history, it is practically impossible to be self-sufficient. Realistically, we find ourselves on the “Individuals—Interacting” branch of the diagram.

There are alternative ways of interacting. We may interact with others freely, voluntarily, peacefully. Individuals interacting with others voluntarily are motivated by the prospect of profit, by the prospect of gain for all parties to the transaction. Thus, it seems logical to try to maximize the number of voluntary human actions.

Alternatively, we may interact with others forcefully, under coercion or the threat of coercion. When an individual interacts with others under compulsion or the threat of compulsion, not all parties gain. The predator may gain; the individual preyed upon certainly loses. Thus, it seems logical to try to minimize the number of human actions rooted in force.

Note that “Force” has two branches in the diagram. The upper branch is “Illegal.” From time immemorial, some types of human action have been generally condemned. Actions such as theft, rape, and murder are examples of illegal, forceful interactions of individuals. Since most people are alert to such actions and since there is widespread agreement that these actions are reprehensible, these constitute a relatively small percentage of all human action. It is doubtful that the greatest perils to civilizations come from this category of human action.

We come now to perhaps the most instructive part of the diagram, the “Legal” branch of “Force.” Government subsidies are examples of legal, forceful interactions of individuals. It is obvious that subsidies are legal, being duly sanctioned by law. Although the force in subsidies may not be so obvious, it is there nonetheless.

Subsidies are financed with taxes such as federal personal income taxes. I pay income taxes partly in fear of forceful reprisals if I do not. Tens of thousands of other citizens of the United States reason and act the same way I do, I surmise. So it is from the threat of force that at least some of us pay income taxes, from which subsidies are paid. Thus, it seems to me, subsidies are an example of legal, forceful interactions of individuals.

There is a feature of legal, as opposed to illegal, forceful interactions of individuals that makes this category of human action a special threat to our welfare. Since the federal government of the United States was founded, in part, to “establish justice,” I suspect we may be lulled into thinking that all of the federal government’s activities are consistent with this objective, i.e., that all such activities are just. Thus, legal, forceful human actions may insinuate themselves into a society of inattentive, uncritical individuals. But the fact that actions rooted in force are implemented by a government designed to “establish justice” leaves such actions still rooted in force.

Recall that in transactions rooted in force, the predators may gain but those preyed upon certainly lose. Those preyed upon are necessarily the producers in society. Surely as predators prey upon producers, the producers will become less inclined to produce. True, if the producers have accumulated output from the past and if they are currently very productive, they may endure considerable predation with no apparent harm to society for a while. But if the amount of predatory human action keeps growing and growing, the producers will, sooner or later, become less inclined and then disinclined to produce no matter how well off they are at the outset. With predation waxing and production waning in a society, that society is surely doomed.

It is not inevitable that this destructive process continue. By increasing the proportion of their voluntary, mutually profitable transactions, any group of individuals can invigorate, or reinvigorate, their society. Equipped with this human action taxonomy, the proponent of liberty can readily “peg” any human action and thus decide which actions he will take or support, and which actions he will reject or oppose. I trust that others may find this human action taxonomy helpful in the cause of human liberty.  

  • Dr. Dale M. Haywood taught economics and philosophy at Northwood University from 1965 until his death in 2006. He was loved by students and faculty, and famous for his 12-cell matrix which the Mackinac Center for Public Policy believes properly "describes why private property, a free market, a profit and loss system and limited government are necessary components for allowing people to prosper." Dr. Dale M. Haywood served on the board of scholars for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and delivered his 12-cell matrix speech to an audience of summer interns over two-days.