Human Action

Foreword to the 4th Edition by Bettina Bien Greaves

Mises’ contribution was very simple, yet at the same time extremely profound. He pointed out that the whole economy is the result of what individuals do. Individuals act, choose, cooperate, compete, and trade with one another. In this way Mises explained how complex market phenomena develop. Mises did not simply describe economic phenomena -- prices, wages, interest rates, money, monopoly and even the trade cycle — he explained them as the outcomes of countless conscious, purposive actions, choices, and preferences of individuals, each of whom was trying as best as he or she could under the circumstances to attain various wants and ends and to avoid undesired consequences. Hence the title Mises chose for his economic treatise, Human Action. Thus also, in Mises’ view, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” was explainable on the basis of logic and utilitarian principles as the outcome of the countless actions of individuals.

Sprinkled throughout Mises’ scholarly and erudite explanations of market operations are many colorful descriptions of economic phenomena. For instance, on the difference between economic and political power: “A ‘chocolate king’ has no power over the consumers, his patrons. He provides them with chocolate of the best quality and at the cheapest price. He does not rule the consumers, he serves them. The consumers ... are free to stop patronizing his shops. He loses his ‘kingdom’ if the consumers prefer to spend their pennies elsewhere.” (p. 272) On why people trade: “The inhabitants of the Swiss Jura prefer to manufacture watches instead of growing wheat. Watchmaking is for them the cheapest way to acquire wheat. On the other hand the growing of wheat is the cheapest way for the Canadian farmer to acquire watches.” (p. 395) For Mises a price is a ratio arrived at on the market by the competitive bids of consumers for money on the one hand and some particular good or service on the other. A government may issue decrees, but “A government can no more determine prices than a goose can lay hen’s eggs.” (p. 397)

In Mises’ view, the inequality of men was the beginning of peaceful interpersonal social cooperation and the source of all the advantages it brings: “The liberal champions of equality under the law were fully aware of the fact that men are born unequal and that it is precisely their inequality that generates social cooperation and civilization. Equality under the law was in their opinion not designed to correct the inexorable facts of the universe and to make natural inequality disappear. It was, on the contrary, the device to secure for the whole of mankind the maximum of benefits it can derive from it.... Equality under the law is in their eyes good because it best serves the interests of all. It leaves it to the voters to decide who should hold public office and to the consumers to decide who should direct production activities.” (pp. 841-842)

Mises’ 1949 comments on Social Security and government debt read as if they had been written yesterday: “Paul in the year 1940 saves by paying one hundred dollars to the national social security institution. He receives in exchange a claim which is virtually an unconditional government IOU. If the government spends the hundred dollars for current expenditures, no additional capital comes into existence, and no increase in the productivity of labor results. The government’s IOU is a check drawn upon the future taxpayer. In 1970 a certain Peter may have to fulfill the government’s promise although he himself does not derive any benefit from the fact that. Paul in 1940 saved one hundred dollars.... The trumpery argument that the public debt is no burden because ‘we owe it to ourselves’ is delusive. The Pauls of 1940 do not owe it to themselves. It is the Peters of 1970 who owe it to the Pauls of 1940.... The statesmen of 1940 solve their problems by shifting them to the statesmen of 1970. On that date the statesmen of 1940 will be either dead or elder statesmen glorying in their wonderful achievement, social security.”(pp. 847-848)

In the “Foreword to the Third Edition” of Human Action Mises mentioned the Italian and Spanish translations of this book. Since then it has been translated by Tao-Ping Hsia into Chinese (1976/7), by Raoul Audouin into French (1985), by Donald Stewart, Jr., into Portugese (1990), and by Toshio Murata into Japanese (1991). Its German-language precursor, Nationalokonomie (1940) has also been republished (1980).

The publishers of this new edition of Human Action have tried to correct the typos that inevitably creep into almost any book, especially one of this size. They have also included a completely new index, which they hope will help make the ideas in this book more readily accessible to readers.

Bettina Bien Greaves
Irvington-on-Hudson, New York
February 1996