All Commentary
Wednesday, May 1, 1996

Human Action: A Treatise on Economics

Mises' Great Work Still Inspires Legions of Young Minds

Dr. Boettke teaches economics at New York University.

The most important work published since FEE’s founding in 1946, in my opinion, is Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, published in 1949. Human Action is the English rewrite (not just translation) of Mises’ 1940 German work Nationalokonomie: Theorie des Handelns und Wirtschaftens. This is Mises’ magnum opus—combining the great contributions to economic science he made in The Theory of Money and Credit (1912), Socialism (1922), and Epistemological Problems (1933) into an integrated treatise on economics and social theory. F.A. Hayek described Nationalokonomie as having such “width of view and intellectual spaciousness” that it reminds one of the great works of the eighteenth-century philosophers rather than those of the modern specialists.

The publication of Human Action led to several important intellectual movements in the second half of this century—all of which possess an important claim to our attention. First, Mises’ book brought Austrian economics to America more than any other work. The book directly influenced the research path of Murray Rothbard and Israel Kirzner—the leading scholars of modern Austrian economics—but it also brought the public policy wisdom of the Austrian version of neoclassical economics to American audiences as represented in the essays of Henry Hazlitt, Hans Sennholz, Percy Greaves, and others. Mises’ great intellectual system more than any other became the inspiring vision behind the work of free-market intellectuals and scholars.

Second, Mises’ book rallied the anti-Communist conservative intellectual and political movement in the United States around a book that represented a direct challenge to Marx’s works on a technical, philosophical, and polemical level. If the left had Marx, the right had—and has—Mises.

Third, Mises was one of the main intellectual inspirations behind the rebirth of classical political economy, and the unification of related disciplines through a common means of analysis— methodological individualism. This movement—seen in the work of James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock in political science, as well as James Coleman in sociology—is still developing better insights not only into the operation of economies, but to the social world in general. Mises’ Human Action was the first systematic treatise to push the economic approach beyond market exchange into all realms of human action.

Future historians of the resurgence of classical liberalism in the later half of the twentieth century will have to accord Mises’ great book its rightful place as the visionary treatise around which a movement rallied and grew and boldly faced off against Communism at a time when it was assumed that Communism had not only grabbed the higher moral ground but also the economic ground as well. Mises exposed the fallacies of Communism and socialism, as well as the contradictions of statism in general.

Mises’ great work still inspires legions of young minds, and its finer points of analysis provide fodder for more mature minds to wrestle with and mull over again and again. It is a rare work. Many great books have been written by scholars and intellectuals since 1946, but none approaches the breadth, depth, and boldness of Mises’ Human Action.

  • Peter Boettke is a Professor of Economics and Philosophy at George Mason University and director of the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.