If I had to pick my favorite sentence in all of Ludwig von Mises’s Human Action (a daunting task in a 900-page book), it would be this one: “The fact that my fellow man wants shoes as I do does not make it harder for me to get shoes, but easier” (p. 673 of the Third Revised Edition). That sentence may seem rather pedestrian compared to all the sentences Mises used to establish the science of praxeology (human action) and to spin out its countless implications for economics. But it’s a perfect example of how Mises showed that untutored intuitions about social interaction are often wide of the mark.
There is an old school of thought, widely identified with the Reverend Thomas Malthus, but actually quite older, that held the opposite of Mises’s position. Beginning with the undeniable assumption of scarcity, that school believed the human race was doomed to misery. Population would grow until it strained the carrying capacity of the environment; then starvation, disease, and conflict would set in and scale back the numbers. This process was more or less the permanent fate of mankind.
How could it not be? Growing numbers of people would be vying for limited resources. Life had to be poor, nasty, brutish, and short, though not, as Hobbes had it, solitary.
Mises was surely not the first to see it otherwise, but he was second to none in spelling out why the pessimists are wrong. He first seemed to concede their point, then zeroed in on what they missed. “The characteristic mark of the ‘state of nature,’” Mises wrote, “is irreconcilable conflict. The means of subsistence are scarce and do not grant survival to all . . . . The source of conflict is always the fact that each man’s portion curtails the portions of other men.”
What saves man from the dismal existence of wild animals? The division of labor, the first topic taken up by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. As Mises put it, “What makes friendly relations between human beings possible is the higher productivity of the division of labor. It removes the natural conflict of interests. For where there is division of labor, there is no longer question of the distribution of a supply not capable of enlargement.” (Here Mises differs with Smith. Smith thought the division of labor grew out of man’s “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” For Mises, exchange comes from the realization that gains were available from trade and the division of labor. I take Mises’s side in this controversy.) Mises drives home the point: “Because many people or even all people want bread, clothes, shoes, and cars, large-scale production of these goods becomes feasible and reduces the costs of production to such an extent that they are accessible at low prices.”
The upshot is that because of the productivity specialization makes possible, the rest of the animal kingdom holds few lessons for mankind. Anyone who believes government’s role is to temper the market with cooperation needs to learn that lesson.
For more, see Wendy McElroy, “The Efficiency of Natural Rights,” The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty, December 1997.
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Subjects for our book reviewers: campus illiberalism, Pearl Harbor, the National Education Association, college fluff, anti-discrimination laws, and Western tradition.
And don’t miss our comprehensive annual index.