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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Human Action as a Work of Art

What can one say briefly about Human Action? When it was being written and people would ask what it was to be about, the answer given among Mises’s students was: Everything.


From the setting forth of praxeology as the a priori science of human action, to the description of the market’s operation, to the explanation of the business cycle, to the proof that rational central planning is impossible, Mises’s work is nothing less than a work of art. It faithfully captures the elegant orderliness of social reality that grows out of the logic of human action. I could go on, but instead I will reprint here, slightly edited, what I wrote in these pages nine years ago. I can’t improve on it.

If I had to pick my favorite sentence in all of 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 assumed to be 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.” 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. The market is cooperation.


To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the publication of Mises’s Human Action, we’ve brought together several high-powered contributors, spanning several generations, all with a special connection to the man and the groundbreaking book: Israel Kirzner, who earned his Ph.D. under Mises at New York University and who is regarded as the dean of Austrian economics; Bettina Bien Greaves, a retired FEE staff member who was Mises’s close friend, attended his NYU seminar, and compiled a bibliography of his work; Peter Boettke, a leading member of the “third generation” of American Austrian economists and professor of economics at George Mason University, which has the most Austrian-oriented economics department in the United States; and Peter Leeson, visiting professor at the University of Chicago and one of the rising stars of Austrian economics. Finally, the Human Action tribute winds up with Henry Hazlitt’s 1949 Newsweek column about the treatise. Hazlitt had much to do with introducing Mises to American readers.

I hope you enjoy the photo spread of Mises reflecting his close association with FEE.

Also in this issue, Sanford Ikeda registers his discontent with economics reporting in the newspapers, especially the way the definitions squeeze out any place for Austrian economics.

Barack Obama would have us believe he is ushering in a post-ideological age, where preconceived notions are equated with dogmatism. Mario Rizzo cautions that to throw out ideology is to throw out something important.

The last year of Fed expansion, bank nationalizations, “stimulus” spending, and bailouts has put the American economy even deeper into the arms of the State. In fact, Randall Holcombe says, these measures and precedents have fundamentally changed the U.S. economy.

Congress has decreed that tobacco will no longer go unregulated. Unregulated? Are those folks in Washington joking? Bruce Yandle relates the long history of tobacco regulation.

Here’s what our columnists have whipped up: Lawrence Reed wants to know who bailed out whom over the last year. Robert Higgs looks at big business’s role in the emergence of American statism. John Stossel imagines what would result from a truly competitive healthcare system. Charles Baird looks at the Employee Free Choice Act. And Steven Horwitz, reading claims that saving is keeping the economy in recession, responds, “It Just Ain’t So!”

This issue’s reviewers scrutinize books on the New Deal, ownership, global economics, and debt.

Readers react to past articles in Capital Letters.
Sheldon Richman

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.