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Start your review of Human Action: A Treatise on Economics Write a review Shelves: landmark-books , economics , philosophy One of the most important books of the 20th century, not yet as influential as it deserves to be. I was brought to this book in after a growing feeling of dissatisfaction with "expert" explanations being offered for the various financial and economic calamities that seemed to be happening worldwide.
Economic commentary by journalists and pundits struck me as being opaque, partisan, and contradictory. Gradually I had become interested in the ideas of the so-called Austrian school of One of the most important books of the 20th century, not yet as influential as it deserves to be. Gradually I had become interested in the ideas of the so-called Austrian school of free-market economics, and eventually I decided to take the plunge and read its principal text, Human Action.
I was bowled over. In the first place, the title, Human Action, intrigued me. As a category this seemed to extend far beyond the bounds of what I thought of as economics, and indeed I was right. Von Mises founds his argument on a little-known 19th-century discipline called praxeology, or the science of human behavior.
While psychology is the study of human thoughts and feelings, praxeology is the study of human actions. To be alive is to be continually in action, doing things. Why do we do what we do? What guides our actions? What motivates us? At the bottom of all our actions lies a specific feeling: a "felt unease" that prompts us to seek its lessening, its amelioration. It was easy for me to assent to this idea, since it accords well with my Buddhist training.
Indeed, "human action" is a passable translation of the Sanskrit term karma, which according to Buddhists is the mechanism of action and reaction in which we all engage due to duhkha, usually translated as "suffering", although "felt unease" is probably a better translation.
It is usually subtle and underlying rather than something that is consciously felt, and I think von Mises put his finger on this quality of experience, and it was a mark of his genius to do so and to build his analysis from it.
Part 1 of the book, the first or so pages, deals only with the theory of human action and the categories intimately associated with it, such as time and uncertainty.
Our lives are short, and therefore time presses and we have to choose some things and forgo others; the future is uncertain, so we have to use our experience and our smarts, whatever those might be, to make the best choices we can.
Each one of us is in this situation, even as we are also unique individuals in unique circumstances. This uniqueness of constitution and circumstance means that we value things differently: differently from each other, and differently ourselves from day to day or moment to moment.
Nothing whatsoever has any intrinsic, fixed value: all is subjective and situational. Building out from these ideas, von Mises goes on to explain, logically and systematically, how the free actions of subjective individuals necessarily develop into the phenomena we call markets, and how, if allowed to follow their own course, material and social benefits necessarily flow from them.
For von Mises insists that the fields of praxeology and catallactics--its extension into the realm of production and consumption--are purely logical: their laws, based on irreducible constants of experience such as time and uncertainty, are inexorable and not falsifiable by experiment. Praxeology and catallactics are built up by theorems, exactly like geometry. Again and again while reading this book I found myself confronted with new, provocative ideas.
In this respect von Mises has few peers. In my own reading I can think of only maybe Northrop Frye or Eric Hoffer or Erich Neumann as offering such a density of surprising ideas per page. Is von Mises a capitalist? Capitalism, in its pure state, is the condition of free individuals engaging with each other without coercion. Von Mises deplores violence, and for him socialism is intrinsically violent and should be shunned because it leads inexorably to poverty and slavery--things that no human being seeks.
I do not feel competent to argue with anything that von Mises is saying, since the depth and range of his thought in these areas is so vastly greater than my own. But I did have a couple of questions or proto-critiques. Since this to me is a form of slavery, I find it hard to square with his dedication to individual liberty. Another issue was in his assertion that all values are subjective; he takes it as an axiom that no absolute value can be found.
My intuition is that this point of view is one that ignores the spiritual dimension of human life. For like von Mises, the Buddha started there--but he took that notion in a much different, and a much deeper, direction.
The Buddha taught liberation from that unease; von Mises is only teaching us how to get along with it. But in all, my considered opinion is that Human Action is one of the greatest works of literature of all time. And as such it is, I believe, worthy of your time and attention. Human Reason is his magnum opus, a thorough-going look at the way that the innate human desire to decrease uneasiness is the pursuit for which capitalism is the mechanism. The thesis is simple. Human beings take action to make things better for themselves.
If we were satisfied, there would be no economy. But most of us will be cautious in what we do, avoiding as much risk as possible in our attempt to get Ludwig von Mises is a major contributor to what is called the Austrian School of economics. But most of us will be cautious in what we do, avoiding as much risk as possible in our attempt to get what we want.
Certain individuals, the entrepreneurs, however, seek out risk when they see an opportunity to obtain capital the materials needed to produce something at a total cost less than the price that can be obtained by selling the final product - what we call profit. Of course we all seek individual profit when we do anything - even something as simple as moving an object in the living room closer to a chair so we can reach it.
If the entrepreneur is successful he or she is rewarded. If the product does not sell, he or she loses money and the business fails. Risk results in reward or failure. Rather than decrying the wealth of those who are successful in taking a risk in the hope of a reward, we should be grateful that such risk-takers exist because they are the ones who bring forth the products we desire, who take the time and money and effort to come up with the products and services that have created the huge increase in wealth obtained since capitalism took root in the 17th century.
Consumers are not victims of capitalism, but kings of the market that exists only to provide things for which we, those consumers, are willing to pay. Socialism is, according to von Mises, an idealistic fiction that cannot but end in chaos because it has no method of determining prices and is driven by the few who make policy in the name of the many who must accept what they are told is best for society as a whole.
The man or woman on the street ends up faced with great quantities of products that few want and too few of the products that many want. Only by having a capitalist system to determine prices is there any chance for a socialist system to even limp along as the USSR did for several decades.
Not a single chart or graph will be found in this lengthy work and that is in keeping with von Mises insistence that human action cannot be quantified with formulas that provide any guide to future events. Human beings decide what is best for them as individuals who evaluate conditions in non-quantitative ways. A validation of von Mises concept is presented by modern advertising that has largely thrown out plain speech advocating a product in favor of atmospherics and emotional settings that tug on the non-rational side of human thought to sway purchasing decisions.
This book is a perfect read at this time of huge interventions by government in financial affairs. We hear economists making a case for this or that government action based on what has been learned in the past, particularly in the Great Depression. But von Mises argues that history can never repeat itself because the factors that make up any economic situation are too complex for more than a very broad and hence of little use comparison between the past and the present.
Government actions are broad and blunt and slow-acting while the economy changes from minute to minute. Like the bull in the china shop, interventions are more likely to create future problems than to solve current ones.
In the careful arguments that he makes Human Reason is nothing if not a collection of solid logic von Mises provides the reader with a real education in the meaning of savings, investments, unions, welfare, prices and so much more. He makes short work of Marxism by showing the faulty premises on which it is based. Never one to rant, the author maintains that though there is a certain amount of pain in capitalism to those who lose jobs or investments it is more than offset by the vast increase in wealth for humanity as a whole that it has provided.
We may not like what the market economy does to us as individuals at certain times in our lives, but we can hardly deny the fabulous abundance of consumer goods that we can have for very little money - something that even the kings and queens of old were denied. This book is for the person who wants to know why things are the way they are. It is not for casual reading or entertainment but it is intellectually satisfying, highly educational and best of all - it makes sense!
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