Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Nature of Ends and Means - The Economic Point of View
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The Nature of Ends and Means - Israel M. Kirzner, The Economic Point of View 
The Economic Point of View: An Essay in the History of Economic Thought, ed. with an Introduction by Laurence S. Moss (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews McMeel, 1976).
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The Nature of Ends and Means
Apart from the more general considerations surrounding the “formal” character of Robbins' definition, couched as it is in terms of abstract ends and means, there has been some discussion of a narrower and perhaps more technical character concerning the nature and validity of the concepts of ends and means.30
Several writers have seen the relationship of ends and means in terms of which Professor Robbins defines economic science as an artificial schema that does violence to the true nature of human action. In a book in which the concept of an end of action is used many, many times, Robbins devoted very little space to explaining the nature of an “end” and to elucidating the difficulties that the notion involves. Robbins had described human ends as associated with “tendencies to conduct which can be defined and understood.” This description was seized upon as typical of a certain “positivism” that critics believed themselves to have detected in Robbins' position. Robbins is eager, it is contended, to invest a study of economizing—which is a subjective notion—with the objectivity of science. He has sought to achieve this by pressing human action into a mould involving ends and means that can be defined and understood. Ends are in this respect conceived of as quite analogous to the definite “external” resources of nature that constitute means. Ends, that is, are considered as “external” to the actor. The relationship between the definite means, on the one hand, and equally definite ends, on the other, defines the scope of economic science. This view of Robbins on the nature of ends has been severely criticized by several writers.
The critics, among whom may be named Souter, Parsons, and Macfie, pointed to a number of inadequacies in Robbins' schema.31 The concept of purpose as fundamental to human action seems to be wholly excluded. Ends are simply correlates of “tendencies to conduct”; this draws attention completely away from the conscious aiming that pervades economic activity. By squeezing the element of purpose out of action, Robbins' structure of ends and means is “timeless” in the sense that it ignores the fact that ends are never presented to the actor coincidentally with the means. If an economic act apportions resources among desired ends in much the same way as a pie is shared among a hungry family, then the economic act does not exist. Ends can be conceived as observable states of affairs only after their achievement. At the time of the contemplation of action, ends are to the actor only anticipations of future hoped-for states of affairs. After an action has been completed, it can be described as having achieved a certain allocation of resources among ends, but to characterize an action on these grounds as having involved the subjective notion of economizing is to consider the action from a merely behavioristic standpoint.32 This indictment of Robbins on the charge of “behaviorism” and “positivism” gains in interest in the light of the contribution of the praxeological conception of economics, to be taken up in the following chapter.
In addition to the criticisms of Robbins' concretization of ends, some debate has developed on the very obvious relativity of the ends-means schema. It has been pointed out that ends may be considered as means to further ends, and that means may be equally well considered as the ends of earlier actions. Consciousness of this flimsiness in the ends-means dichotomy must necessarily raise doubts about the validity of a category such as economizing whose claim to a definite status is based exclusively on the relationship between ends and means.
It may be observed that the facile manner in which Robbins assumes the existence of definite ends, without careful discussion of the fact that ends are, as a rule, set up merely as intermediate to the achievement of further chains of ends, is to some extent to be expected from his unconcern with the purposive element in action.33 We have noticed criticism of Robbins' formulation on this score, and there appears to be a direct link between this attitude and the postulation of absolute categories of ends and means. Felix Kaufmann has drawn attention to the fact that it is because of the element of purpose in human conduct that immediate ends are only the means to further ends.34 Kaufmann sees the lack of agreement concerning the definition of the subject matter of economics as arising out of the three possible “levels” of ends that may be considered relevant: the end of acquisition of goods, the further end of consuming them, and the supposed ultimate end of increasing one's happiness. But what is of moment in appraising Robbins' definition is not so much the particular “levels” into which ends may more or less arbitrarily be classified; it is rather the fact that ends, in so far as economic activity is described as directed towards ends, are such only relatively to the particular and immediate context of the action.35
This consideration of itself would not, of course, seriously threaten Robbins' conceptualization of action in terms of means and ends. Parsons,36 following up a classification of the chains of means-end relationships into “ultimate ends” of action, “ultimate means,” and an intermediate sector (in which actions involve both the means to more nearly ultimate ends and the ends of previous preliminary actions), has shown how economic action finds its place in the intermediate sector.
But while the concept of economy and the operation of economizing does not depend on the “absolute” status of an “end” of action, at least one writer has shown the weakness of the ends-means dichotomy as a method of separating the science of economics from technology. It had been one of the principal merits of Robbins' formulation that it provided an elegant and conceptually neat device for distinguishing between problems of economics, on the one hand, and problems of technology, on the other. Where alternative definitions of economics, being classifi- catory in character, failed to provide a satisfactory means of excluding technology, the analytical definition advanced by Robbins enabled him to use Mayer's distinction: “The problem of technique arises when there is one end and a multiplicity of means, the problem of economy when both the ends and the means are multiple.”37
There will be occasion later in this chapter to review some criticisms of the validity of this distinction; at this point the objection must be noticed that the very nature of the concepts, ends and means, makes the distinction inadequate. In a recent paper Rivett38 has contended that while Mayer's distinction is valid in itself, “it cannot be used to separate the science of economics from the science of technology, pushing some relationships into the first field and others into the second.” This is ultimately due to the fact that any course of action undertaken to achieve a desired end thereby becomes itself an end intermediate to the achievement of the originally conceived end. In Rivett's example, if a pencil is picked up in order to accomplish the end of writing, there has been introduced an additional, subordinate end of picking up the pencil. Pursuing this line of thinking, Rivett has no difficulty in demonstrating that the attempt to attain the single end—which, according to the Mayer-Robbins view is the problem of technology—may involve the intermediate pursuit of various subordinate ends that may well conflict with one another. The same problem of securing the single end, a problem of technology from the point of view in which the subordinate ends are seen merely as means, thus becomes a problem of economy from the point of view of a more minute scrutiny in which the harnessing of any of these means is recognized as itself possessing all the qualities of an end.
Once again Robbins' disregard of these considerations seems in consonance with his lack of concern for the element of purpose in human action. Once an end has been postulated as the goal of action, then all the actions undertaken with this end in view can, ex post facto, be grouped in a separate class from that of the end. All the chains of subordinate ends and means leading up to the final goal can be telescoped together to form a homogeneous pool of “resources” and “means” for the final goal. But from the point of view of the actor, such a dichotomy is in no sense unique or even especially significant. To him these resources, means, and subordinate courses of action are all arrays pointing purposefully to the final end, but at the same time and for the same reason containing subpatterns of purposefully ordered arrays, within each of which the ex post facto dichotomy betweens ends and means could be distinguished with equal validity.
These criticisms of Robbins' formulation in terms of ends and means may perhaps be most illuminatingly summed up by reference to the very interesting discussion by Tagliacozzo.39 In the course of an exhaustive analysis of the nature of economic “error,” i.e., of “uneconomic” behavior in failing to resist the temptation of the moment, Tagliacozzo points out that in full reality action necessarily involves the complete identity of ends and means. Tagliacozzo's work has especial relevance for the praxeological view of economics and will be discussed more thoroughly in the succeeding chapter. At this point we note Tagliacozzo's contention that when the economic agent succumbs to a fleeting temptation (e.g., the purchase of wine) at variance with a prearranged economic program, his “error” exists only as relative to the arbitrarily postulated goal of the program. To judge his action as “uneconomic,” because it involves an inappropriate disposition of “means,” is to impose from the outside an ends-means schema that does not conform to the real situation. Seen from the standpoint of full reality, the purchase of wine, as an autonomous act, involves the full identity of the end and the means. Without becoming involved at this point in the significance of these ideas for the concept of economic “rationality,” this discussion focuses attention very clearly on the weakness of Robbins' ends-means formulation. Ends and means are clearly imposed categories artificially dissecting the elements of action; recognition of the relativity of these categories leads to the demand for their far more careful use in attempts to define the nature of economic activity and the scope of economic science.
[]On these matters see G. Myrdal, Value in Social Theory (London, 1958), pp. 206 ff. See also the Introduction by P. Streeten, pp. xxi f.
[]R. W. Souter, op. cit., p. 379; T. Parsons, op. cit., pp. 513–516; A. L. Macfie, An Essay on Economy and Value, p. 16; see also F. H. Knight's review of Robbins' Nature and Significance in the International Journal of Ethics, April, 1934, p. 359.
[]T. Parsons, op. cit., pp. 514 f.
[]For Robbins' views on the purposive element in economic activity, see Nature and Significance, p. 93.
[]F. Kaufmann, “On the Subject Matter and Method of Economic Science,” Economica, November, 1933, p. 383.
[]See F. Zweig, Economics and Technology (London, 1936), p. 20.
[]T. Parsons, op. cit., pp. 523 f.
[]Cited in L. Robbins, Nature and Significance, p. 35. See also E. Fossati, The Theory of General Static Equilibrium, ed. G. L. Shackle (1957), p. 9.
[]K. Rivett, “The Definition of Economics,” Economic Record, Vol. XXXI, No. 61 (November, 1955), pp. 217–219.
[]G. Tagliacozzo, “Croce and the Nature of Economic Science,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, May, 1945.