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Market Data: Power, War, and Man

Mises Daily: Friday, August 20, 2010 by

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[This article is excerpted from chapter 23 of Human Action: The Scholar's Edition and is read by Jeff Riggenbach.]

"Civilization is an achievement of the 'bourgeois' spirit, not of the spirit of conquest."

1. The Theory and the Data

Catallactics, the theory of the market economy, is not a system of theorems valid only under ideal and unrealizable conditions and applicable to reality merely with essential restrictions and modifications. All the theorems of catallactics are rigidly and without any exception valid for all phenomena of the market economy, provided the particular conditions that they presuppose are present. It is, for instance, a simple question of fact whether there is direct or indirect exchange. But where there is indirect exchange, all the general laws of the theory of indirect exchange are valid with regard to the acts of exchange and the media of exchange. As has been pointed out, praxeological knowledge is precise or exact knowledge of reality.[1]

All references to the epistemological issues of the natural sciences and all analogies derived from comparing these two radically different realms of reality and cognition are misleading. There is, apart from formal logic, no such thing as a set of "methodological" rules applicable both to cognition by means of the category of causality and to that by means of the category of finality.

Praxeology deals with human action as such in a general and universal way. It deals neither with the particular conditions of the environment in which man acts nor with the concrete content of the valuations that direct his actions. For praxeology, data are the bodily and psychological features of the acting men, their desires and value judgments, and the theories, doctrines, and ideologies they develop in order to adjust themselves purposively to the conditions of their environment and thus to attain the ends they are aiming at. These data, although permanent in their structure and strictly determined by the laws controlling the order of the universe, are perpetually fluctuating and varying; they change from instant to instant.[2]

The fullness of reality can be mentally mastered only by a mind resorting both to the conception of praxeology and to the understanding of history; and the latter requires command of the teachings of the natural sciences. Cognition and prediction are provided by the totality of knowledge. What the various single branches of science offer is always fragmentary; it must be complemented by the results of all the other branches. From the point of view of acting man, the specialization of knowledge and its breaking up into the various sciences is merely a device of the division of labor. In the same way in which the consumer utilizes the products of various branches of production, the actor must base his decisions on knowledge brought about by various branches of thought and investigation.

It is not permissible to disregard any of these branches in dealing with reality. The Historical School and the Institutionalists want to outlaw the study of praxeology and economics and to occupy themselves merely with the registration of the data or, as they call them nowadays, the institutions. But no statement concerning these data can be made without reference to a definite set of economic theorems. When an institutionalist ascribes a definite event to a definite cause, e.g., mass unemployment to the alleged deficiencies of the capitalist mode of production, he resorts to an economic theorem. In objecting to the closer examination of the theorem tacitly implied in his conclusions, he merely wants to avoid the exposure of the fallacies of his argument.

There is no such thing as a mere recording of unadulterated facts apart from any reference to theories. As soon as two events are recorded together or integrated into a class of events, a theory is operative. The question whether there is any connection between them can only be answered by a theory, i.e., in the case of human action by praxeology. It is vain to search for coefficients of correlation if one does not start from a theoretical insight acquired beforehand. The coefficient may have a high numerical value without indicating any significant and relevant connection between the two groups.[3]

2. The Role of Power

The Historical School and Institutionalism condemn economics for disregarding the role that power plays in real life. The basic notion of economics, viz., the choosing and acting individual, is, they say, an unrealistic concept. Real man is not free to choose and to act. He is subject to social pressure, to the sway of irresistible power. It is not the individuals' value judgments but the interactions of the forces of power that determine the market phenomena.

These objections are no less spurious than all other statements of the critics of economics.

Praxeology in general and economics and catallactics in particular do not contend or assume that man is free in any metaphysical sense attached to the term "freedom." Man is unconditionally subject to the natural conditions of his environment. In acting he must adjust himself to the inexorable regularity of natural phenomena. It is precisely the scarcity of the nature-given conditions of his welfare that enjoins upon man the necessity to act.[4]

"Praxeology in general and economics and catallactics in particular do not contend or assume that man is free in any metaphysical sense attached to the term 'freedom'."

In acting, man is directed by ideologies. He chooses ends and means under the influence of ideologies. The might of an ideology is either direct or indirect. It is direct when the actor is convinced that the content of the ideology is correct and that he serves his own interests directly in complying with it. It is indirect when the actor rejects the content of the ideology as false, but is under the necessity of adjusting his actions to the fact that this ideology is endorsed by other people. The mores of their social environment are a power that people are forced to consider. Those recognizing the spuriousness of the generally accepted opinions and habits must in each instance choose between the advantages to be derived from resorting to a more efficient mode of acting and the disadvantages resulting from the contempt of popular prejudices, superstitions, and folkways.

The same is true with regard to violence. In choosing, man must take into account the fact that there is a factor ready to exercise violent compulsion upon him.

All the theorems of catallactics are valid also with regard to actions influenced by such social or physical pressure. The direct or indirect might of an ideology and the threat of physical compulsion are merely data of the market situation. It does not matter, for instance, what kind of considerations motivate a man not to offer a higher bid for the purchase of a commodity than the one he really makes without obtaining the good concerned. For the determination of the market price it is immaterial whether he spontaneously prefers to spend his money for other purposes or whether he is afraid of being looked upon by his fellow men as an upstart, or as a spendthrift, afraid of violating a government-decreed ceiling price or of defying a competitor ready to resort to violent revenge. In any case his abstention from bidding a higher price contributes to the same extent to the emergence of the market price.[5]

It is customary nowadays to signify the position the owners of property occupy on the market as economic power. The expediency of this terminology is questionable. The term is at any rate inappropriate as far as it is intended to imply that under the impact of economic power the determination of the market phenomena is controlled by laws other than those dealt with by catallactics.

3. The Historical Role of War and Conquest

Many authors glorify war and revolution, bloodshed and conquest. Carlyle and Ruskin, Nietzsche, Georges Sorel, and Spengler were harbingers of the ideas that Lenin and Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini put into effect.

The course of history, say these philosophies, is not determined by the mean activities of materialistic peddlers and merchants, but by the heroic deeds of warriors and conquerors. The economists err in abstracting from the experience of the short-lived liberal episode a theory to which they ascribe universal validity. This epoch of liberalism, individualism, and capitalism; of democracy, tolerance, and freedom; of the disregard of all "true" and "eternal" values; and of the supremacy of the rabble is now vanishing and will never return. The dawning age of manliness requires a new theory of human action.

However, no economist ever ventured to deny that war and conquest were of utmost importance in the past and that Huns and Tartars, Vandals and Vikings, Normans and conquistadors played an enormous part in history. One of the determinants of the present state of mankind is the fact that there were thousands of years of armed conflicts. Yet, what remains and is the essence of human civilization, is not the legacy inherited from the warriors. Civilization is an achievement of the "bourgeois" spirit, not of the spirit of conquest. Those barbarian peoples who did not substitute working for plundering disappeared from the historical scene. If there is still any trace left of their existence, it is in the achievements they accomplished under the influence of the civilization of the subdued peoples. Latin civilization survived in Italy, France, and the Iberian peninsula in defiance of all barbarian invasions. If capitalist entrepreneurs had not succeeded Lord Clive and Warren Hastings, British rule in India might one day become such an insignificant historical reminiscence as are the one hundred and fifty years of Turkish rule in Hungary.

It is not the task of economics to enter into an examination of the endeavors to revive the ideals of the Vikings. It has merely to refute the statements that the fact that there are armed conflicts reduces its teachings to naught. With regard to this problem there is need to emphasize again the following:

  1. The teachings of catallactics do not refer to a definite epoch of history, but to all actions characterized by the two conditions private ownership of the means of production and division of labor. Whenever and wherever, in a society in which there is private ownership of the means of production, people not only produce for the direct satisfaction of their own wants but also consume goods produced by other people, the theorems of catallactics are strictly valid.

  2. If, apart from the market and outside of the market, there is robbing and plundering, these facts are a datum for the market. The actors must take into account the fact that they are threatened by murderers and robbers. If killing and robbing become so prevalent that any production appears useless, it may finally happen that productive work ceases and mankind plunges into a state of war of every man against every other man.

  3. "One of the determinants of the present state of mankind is the fact that there were thousands of years of armed conflicts. Yet, what remains and is the essence of human civilization, is not the legacy inherited from the warriors. Civilization is an achievement of the "bourgeois" spirit, not of the spirit of conquest."
  4. In order to seize booty, something to be plundered must be available. The heroes can only live if there are enough "bourgeois" to be expropriated. The existence of producers is a condition for the survival of conquerors. But the producers could do without the plunderers.

  5. There are, of course, other imaginable systems of a society based on the division of labor besides the capitalist system of private ownership of the means of production. Champions of militarism are consistent in asking for the establishment of socialism. The whole nation should be organized as a community of warriors in which the noncombatants have no other task than that of supplying the fighting forces with all they need. (The problems of socialism are dealt with in the fifth part of this book.)

4. Real Man as a Datum

Economics deals with the real actions of real men. Its theorems refer neither to ideal nor to perfect men, neither to the phantom of a fabulous economic man (homo œconomicus) nor to the statistical notion of an average man (homme moyen). Man with all his weaknesses and limitations, every man as he lives and acts, is the subject matter of catallactics. Every human action is a theme of praxeology.

The subject matter of praxeology is not only the study of society, societal relations, and mass phenomena, but the study of all human actions. The term "the social sciences" and all its connotations are in this regard misleading.

There is no yardstick that a scientific investigation can apply to human action other than that of the ultimate goals the acting individual wants to realize in embarking upon a definite action. The ultimate goals themselves are beyond and above any criticism. Nobody is called upon to establish what could make another man happy. What an unaffected observer can question is merely whether or not the means chosen for the attainment of these ultimate goals are fit to bring about the results sought by the actor. Only in answering this question is economics free to express an opinion about the actions of individuals and groups of individuals, or of the policies of parties, pressure groups, and governments.

It is customary to disguise the arbitrariness of the attacks launched against the value judgments of other people by converting them into a critique of the capitalist system or of the conduct of entrepreneurs. Economics is neutral with regard to all such statements.

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Audiobook read by Jeff Riggenbach

To the arbitrary statement that "the balance between the production of different goods is admittedly faulty under capitalism,"[6] the economist does not oppose the statement that this balance is faultless. What the economist asserts is that in the unhampered market economy this balance is in agreement with the conduct of the consumers as displayed in the spending of their incomes.[7] It is not the task of the economist to censure his fellow men and to call the result of their actions faulty.

The alternative to the system in which the individual's value judgments are paramount in the conduct of production processes is autocratic dictatorship. Then the value judgments of the dictators alone decide although they are not less arbitrary than those of other people.

Man is certainly not a perfect being. His human weakness taints all human institutions and thus also the market economy.

Notes

[1] See above, p. 39.

[2] Cf. Strigl, Die ökonomischen Kategorien und die Organisation der Wirtschaft (Jena, 1923), pp. 18 ff.

[3] Cf. Cohen and Nagel, An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method (New York, 1939), pp. 316–322.

[4] Most social reformers, foremost among them Fourier and Marx, pass over in silence the fact that the nature-given means of removing human uneasiness are scarce. As they see it, the fact that there is not an abundance of all useful things is merely caused by the inadequacy of the capitalist mode of production and will therefore disappear in the "higher phase" of communism. An eminent Menshevik author who could not help referring to the nature-given barriers to human well-being, in genuinely Marxian style, calls Nature "the most relentless exploiter." Cf. Mania Gordon, Workers Before and After Lenin (New York, 1941), pp. 227, 458.

[5] The economic consequences of the interference of external compulsion and coercion with the market phenomena are dealt with in the sixth part of this book,

[6] Cf. Albert L. Meyers, Modern Economics (New York, 1946), p. 672.

[7] This is the general feature of democracy whether political or economic. Democratic elections do not provide the guarantee that the man elected is free from faults, but merely that the majority of the voters prefer him to other candidates.