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“Given” 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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“Given” Ends and Means
Implicit in the formulation of the nature of economic activity in terms of the allocation of scarce resources with regard to alternative ends is the assumption that the ends of action are merely “data” for the economist investigating economic activity. This property of Professor Robbins' definition, that is, its treatment of wants as given (and, for the purpose of a given economic problem, constant), has been accorded considerable attention. It has, of course, already been noticed in this chapter that an important and widely discussed characteristic of Robbins' definition was its identification of the economic by singling out an aspect of phenomena. This, too, is closely related to his treatment of ends and wants as data. Where earlier definitions had identified economic activity with action directed toward certain more or less well-defined ends, Robbins cultivated an unconcern for the nature of the ends involved in action. Necessarily this meant the removal of these ends from the range of phenomena to be studied and their relegation to the realm of given information upon which the problem to be investigated is based. All this, of course, gave rise to criticism on the part of those wishing to see the economists, in close collaboration with students of the neighboring disciplines, pay more attention to the realities of concrete action.40
But apart from the complaint that the treatment of ends as mere data is an unholy attempt to extrude from economics the contributions of the psychologist and the sociologist, this notion of ends implies a profoundly important outlook on the very nature of human action and the possibility of its scientific explanation. In the full reality of human action the values of men and the ends to which they direct their energies are continually changing, continually becoming modified under the impact of outside changes as well as through the effect of changes wrought by the very action aimed at the original ends and by the very effort of pursuing those ends. The attempt to introduce scientific explanatory analysis into the study of human action has involved the isolation, from the tangled intricacies of the web of action, of an element in it that we call its economic aspect. According to Robbins' conception of the precise nature of this element, its isolation involves the analysis of action in terms of its relation to the array of ends as they are esteemed at a given moment in time. Any proposition deduced from the fundamental concept of the economic act will thus have relevance only within the particular frame of reference relatively to which the economic aspect of action has meaning—i.e., the ends whose respective values were the data of the problem.
This view of the nature of the assumptions implicit in economic theory involves two important corollaries. First, economic theory can only analyze the implications of given wants; it cannot as such explain or determine changes in wants themselves (although, of course, its explanations can throw enormous light on these questions). Second, economic theory has validity only on the assumptions of the constancy of wants throughout the duration of the problem under consideration.
The danger in the conception of ends as data has already been commented on in this chapter. To construct a model of action in terms of ends so conceived may well lead one unwittingly to disregard the fact that to the actor himself ends are not data at all, but have been purposefully chosen and are constantly in danger of being supplanted by newly prized ends.41 In viewing economics as concerned with preselected ends that are the ultimate frame of reference for a particular economic problem, one must exercise constant care not to transform these chosen ends into objective “pulls” similar to physiologically conditioned “needs,” for this would turn economic activity into a series of reflexes responsive to quasi-biological tropisms.
Several writers have pointed out that from the economic point of view it is not only the ends that are data, but also the means. The economic element is the coordination of given ends and means whose substance economic analysis does not and cannot attempt to explore. Professor Knight especially has deplored the unfortunate habit of describing economics as concerned with means, but not with ends. In any sense in which ends are data for economics and are thus not the concern of the economist, means are no less “given” and beyond the range of the economic problem.42
In this respect it is interesting to examine the formula with which Max Weber attempted to distinguish between economics and technology. The problem of expressing such a distinction seems to have exerted some fascination, as attested by the recurrence of passages in Weber's writings discussing this question. Weber brought the distinction into clear relief by asserting that “economic action is primarily oriented to the problem of choosing the end to which a thing shall be applied; technology, to the problem, given the end, of choosing the appropriate means.” A genuinely economic character is that which “takes account of alternative ends and not only of means for a given end.”43 This way of expressing the distinction may at first give the impression that in economic action the means are given, and the ends are still to be selected, whereas in technology the ends are given, and the means are to be selected.44 It would be an error, however, to draw the conclusion that Weber in any way disagrees with the writers who stress that in economics the ends as well as the means are given. Weber too recognized that the economic view of action takes the actor's valuation of ends as a datum. After all, it is this idea that is the cornerstone of the concept of Wertfreiheit that Weber championed as the proper setting for the analysis of economic activity. Weber too is thinking of a given array of ends ordered by the (not-to-be-studied) valuations of the actor. What he has in mind, of course, in describing economic action as the choice of ends to which given means are to be applied is simply the fact that a given ordering of ends will necessitate the allocation of means among these ends in a manner peculiarly consistent with this given order of estimation. Ends are to be “chosen,” not in the sense of being arranged in order of relative esteem, but in the sense of their receiving allocations of resources. With alternative ends competing for given means, these means must be allocated by “choosing” for each resource an end such that its allocation is in harmony with the (already) adopted ordering of ends.
The conception of the ends of economic action as data involves, we have noticed, two corollaries. It is implicit in this conception that the selection and ordering of ends do not constitute an economic problem; and it follows that for the duration of any economic problem its analysis must assume constancy in the relative urgency of the wants that economic action seeks to satisfy. Both these implications of Robbins' formulation are revealing. It requires no great insight into the affairs of the world with which economists largely deal to realize that if the economist is to work under the restraints imposed by these implications, he must, in his capacity as an economist, renounce interest in perhaps the most fascinating and important aspects of the data with which he works. The economist qua economist (and this phrase of Robbins has been used by critics with characteristic, but hardly deserved, sarcasm) must ignore the fact that tastes and values are swiftly changing variables and must avert his eyes from the intensely interesting and important processes whereby men arrive at their judgments of value.
These limitations on the scope of the economist's area of competence have, of course, been condemned again and again by historically-minded and institutionally-conscious critics of economic theory. The fact that the validity of these limitations follows rigorously from Robbins' definition of economics reveals the close faithfulness with which this definition of the subject mirrors the procedures that economic theorists have, in fact, been following all the time. What the explicit recognition of the fact that the phenomena with which the economist deals are data does achieve is the appreciation that self-restraint by economic theorists does not spring from blindness to the facts of economic life. The “abstractions” of the economists, against which realistically-minded critics have so vigorously rebelled, are inherent in the nature of the problems to which they address themselves. Their subject matter forms a distinct field precisely because there exists an element in action that is distinct from the nature of the ends of action and at least conceptually independent of the processes whereby ends are selected and ordered. It must surely be regarded as a merit of Robbins' definition that it isolates this element with clarity. A grasp of the character of this element in action makes it immediately evident that the severely circumscribed applicability of the propositions enunciated by the economic theorist, far from being the necessary result of a crudely unrealistic methodology, is but the properly incomplete contribution of the specialist whose skills have been developed by a judicious and fruitful division of labor. Specific policy recommendations on economic affairs may require long and careful study of the actual attitudes of human beings, their wants, valuations, and expectations. Crucially important though such information may well be, the research and scholarship involved in its compilation is different from the application of economic reasoning. Robbins' definition brings this distinction into sharp focus.
[]Cf. Parsons, The Structure of Social Action, ch. IV, for a discussion of the degree in which Marshall refused to consider wants as data for economics.
[]On this see, e.g., F. H. Knight, “Professor Parsons on Economic Motivation,” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 1940, p. 464.
[]The fact that means as well as ends are data for the economist is made clear by a number of writers; see A. Lowe, Economics and Sociology, p. 43: F. H. Knight, “The Nature of Economic Science in Some Recent Discussion,” American Economic Review, 1934, p. 229. Among the writers apparently not admitting this, see W. C. Mitchell, Backward Art of Spending Money, p. 224.
[]Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization (translated by A. M. Henderson and T. Parsons, New York, 1947), pp. 162, 209. For passages in which Weber discusses the distinction between economics and technology, see Shils and Finch, eds., Max Weber on the Methodology of the Social Sciences (Glencoe: Free Press, 1949). pp. 34–35; and “R. Stammler's ‘Ueberwindung’ der materialistischen Geschichtsauffassung,” Archiv fur Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, 1907, reprinted in Gesammelte Aufsatze zur Wissenschaftslehre von Max Weber, p. 328.
[]See, e.g., F. Zweig, Economics and Technology (London, 1936), pp. 20 f.