Front Page Titles (by Subject) 5: The Narrower Concept of the Economic - Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis
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5: The Narrower Concept of the “Economic” - Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis 
Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, trans. J. Kahane, Foreword by F.A. Hayek (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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The Narrower Concept of the “Economic”
The common habit of economists of distinguishing between “economic” or “purely economic” and “non-economic” action is just as unsatisfactory as the old distinction between ideal and material goods. For willing and acting are unitary. All ends conflict among themselves and it is this conflict which ranges them in one scale. Not only the satisfaction of wishes, desires and impulses that can be attained through interaction with the external world, but the satisfaction also of ideal needs must be judged by one criterion. In life we have to choose between the “ideal” and the “material.” It is, therefore, just as essential to make the former subject to a unitary criterion of values as the latter. In choosing between bread and honour, faith and wealth, love and money, we submit both alternatives to one test.
It is, therefore, illegitimate to regard the “economic” as a definite sphere of human action which can be sharply delimited from other spheres of action. Economic activity is rational activity. And since complete satisfaction is impossible, the sphere of economic activity is coterminous with the sphere of rational action. It consists firstly in valuation of ends, and then in the valuation of the means leading to these ends. All economic activity depends, therefore, upon the existence of ends. Ends dominate economy and alone give it meaning.
Since the economic principle applies to all human action, it is necessary to be very careful when distinguishing, within its sphere, between “purely economic” and other kinds of action. Such a division is indeed indispensable for many scientifc purposes. It singles out one particular end and contrasts it with all others. This end—at this point we need not discuss whether it is ultimate or not—is the attainment of the greatest possible product measured in money. It is, therefore, impossible to assign it a specially delimited sphere of action. It is true that for each individual it has such a delimited sphere, but this varies in extent according to the general outlook of the individual concerned. It is one thing for the man to whom honour is dear. It is another for him who sells his friend for gold. Neither the nature of the end nor the peculiarity of the means is what justifies the distinction, but merely the special nature of the methods employed. Only the fact that it uses exact calculation distinguishes “purely economic” from other action.
The sphere of the “purely economic” is nothing more and nothing less than the sphere of money calculation. The fact that in a certain field of action it enables us to compare means with minute exactitude down to the smallest detail means so much both for thought and action that we tend to invest this kind of action with special importance. It is easy to overlook the fact that such a distinction is only a distinction in the technique of thought and action and in no way a distinction in the ultimate end of action—which is unitary. The failure of all attempts to exhibit the “economic” as a special department of the rational and within that to discover still another sharply defined department, the “purely economic,” is no fault of the analytical apparatus employed. There can be no doubt that great subtlety of analysis has been concentrated on this problem, and the fact that it has not been solved clearly indicates that the question is one to which no satisfactory answer can be given. The sphere of the “economic” is plainly the same as the sphere of the rational: and the sphere of the “purely economic” is nothing but the sphere in which money calculation is possible.
In the last resort the individual can acknowledge one end, and one end only: the attainment of the greatest satisfaction. This expression includes the satisfying of all kinds of human wants and desires, regardless of whether they are “material” or immaterial (moral). In the place of the word “satisfaction” we could employ the word “happiness,” had we not to fear the misunderstandings, for which the controversy on Hedonism and Eudaemonism was responsible.
Satisfaction is subjective. Modern social philosophy has emphasized this so sharply in contrast to former theories that there is a tendency to forget that the physiological structure of mankind and the unity of outlook and emotion arising from tradition create a far-reaching similarity of views regarding wants and the means to satisfy them. It is precisely this similarity of views which makes society possible. Because they have common aims, men are able to live together. Against this fact that the majority of ends (and those the most important) are common to the great mass of mankind, the fact that some ends are only entertained by a few is of subordinate importance.
The customary division between economic and non-economic motives is, therefore, invalidated by the fact that on the one hand, the end of economic activity lies outside the range of economics, and on the other, that all rational activity is economic. Nevertheless, there is good justification for separating “purely economic” activities (that is to say, activity susceptible of valuation in money) from all other forms of activity. For, as we have already seen, outside the sphere of money calculation there remain only intermediate ends which are capable of evaluation by immediate inspection: and once this sphere is left, it is necessary to have recourse to such judgments. It is the recognition of this necessity which provides the occasion for the distinction we have been discussing.
If, for example, a nation desires to make war, it is illegitimate to regard the desire as necessarily irrational because the motive for making war lies outside those customarily considered as “economic”—as might be the case, e.g. with wars of religion. If the nation decides on the war with complete knowledge of all the facts because it judges that the end in view is more important than the sacrifice involved, and because it regards war as the most suitable means of obtaining it, then war cannot be regarded as irrational. It is not necessary at this point to decide whether this supposition is ever true or if it ever can be true. It is precisely this which has to be examined when one comes to choose between war and peace. And it is precisely with a view to introducing clarity into such an examination that the distinction we have been discussing has been introduced.
The Organization of Production Under Socialism