Front Page Titles (by Subject) 2: Past Failures to Conceive the Problem - Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 3 (LF ed.)
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2: Past Failures to Conceive the Problem - Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 3 (LF ed.) 
Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, in 4 vols., ed. Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). Vol. 3.
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Past Failures to Conceive the Problem
For more than a hundred years the substitution of socialist planning for private enterprise has been the main political issue. Thousands and thousands of books have been published for and against the communist plans. No other subject has been more eagerly discussed in private circles, in the press, in public gatherings, in the meetings of learned societies, in election campaigns, and in parliaments. Wars have been fought and rivers of blood have been shed for the cause of socialism. Yet in all these years the essential question has not been raised.
It is true that some eminent economists—Hermann Heinrich Gossen, Albert Schäffle, Vilfredo Pareto, Nikolaas G. Pierson, Enrico Barone—touched upon the problem. But, with the exception of Pierson, they did not penetrate to the core of the problem, and they all failed to recognize its primordial importance. Neither did they venture to integrate it into the system of the theory of human action. It was these failures which prevented people from paying attention to their observations. They were disregarded and soon fell into oblivion.
It would be a serious mistake to blame the Historical School and Institutionalism for this neglect of mankind’s most vital problem. These two lines of thought fanatically disparage economics, the “dismal science,” in the interests of their interventionist or socialist propaganda. However, they have not succeeded in suppressing the study of economics entirely. The puzzling thing is not why the detractors of economics failed to recognize the problem, but why the economists were guilty of the same fault.
It is the two fundamental errors of mathematical economics that must be indicted.
The mathematical economists are almost exclusively intent upon the study of what they call economic equilibrium and the static state. Recourse to the imaginary construction of an evenly rotating economy is, as has been pointed out,1 an indispensable mental tool of economic reasoning. But it is a grave mistake to consider this auxiliary tool as anything else than an imaginary construction, and to overlook the fact that it has not only no counterpart in reality, but cannot even be thought through consistently to its ultimate logical consequences. The mathematical economist, blinded by the prepossession that economics must be constructed according to the pattern of Newtonian mechanics and is open to treatment by mathematical methods, misconstrues entirely the subject matter of his investigations. He no longer deals with human action but with a soulless mechanism mysteriously actuated by forces not open to further analysis. In the imaginary construction of the evenly rotating economy there is, of course, no room for the entrepreneurial function. Thus the mathematical economist eliminates the entrepreneur from his thought. He has no need for this mover and shaker whose never ceasing intervention prevents the imaginary system from reaching the state of perfect equilibrium and static conditions. He hates the entrepreneur as a disturbing element. The prices of the factors of production, as the mathematical economist sees it, are determined by the intersection of two curves, not by human action.
Moreover, in drawing his cherished curves of cost and price, the mathematical economist fails to see that the reduction of costs and prices to homogeneous magnitudes implies the use of a common medium of exchange. Thus he creates the illusion that calculation of costs and prices could be resorted to even in the absence of a common denominator of the exchange ratios of the factors of production.
The result is that from the writings of the mathematical economists the imaginary construction of a socialist commonwealth emerges as a realizable system of cooperation under the division of labor, as a full-fledged alternative to the economic system based on private control of the means of production. The director of the socialist community will be in a position to allocate the various factors of production in a rational way, i.e., on the ground of calculation. Men can have both socialist cooperation under the division of labor and rational employment of the factors of production. They are free to adopt socialism without abandoning economy in the choice of means. Socialism does not enjoin the renunciation of rationality in the employment of the factors of production. It is a variety of rational social action.
An apparent verification of these errors was seen in the experience of the socialist governments of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. People do not realize that these were not isolated socialist systems. They were operating in an environment in which the price system still worked. They could resort to economic calculation on the ground of the prices established abroad. Without the aid of these prices their actions would have been aimless and planless. Only because they were able to refer to these foreign prices were they able to calculate, to keep books, and to prepare their much talked about plans.
[1. ]Cf. above, pp. 246–50.