Front Page Titles (by Subject) Single End and Multiple Ends - The Economic Point of View
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Single End and Multiple Ends - 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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Single End and Multiple Ends
One of the basic components of Robbins' formulation of the nature of economic activity is its assumption of the presence of a multiplicity of ends to which the scarce resources can be applied and among which they must be judiciously allocated. It has been seen that Robbins himself pointed out that where a single ultimate end, such as “utility,” is considered as the goal of action, then the process of economizing resources among competing ends reduces to the operation of maximizing this ultimate end. It has been shown earlier in this chapter that the superiority of the definition of economics in terms of economizing over the definitions couched in terms of the maximization principle has its source in the more penetrating analysis of action that is made possible by the recognition of numerous competing wants whose satisfaction is conducive to the ultimate end of utility.
It was the conception of economic activity as involving numerous ends that enabled Robbins to adopt Mayer's distinction between economics and technology. Technology involves selection among means for the attainment of only a single end, whereas economics necessitates comparing the urgency of several competing ends.45 At this point attention must be turned to the question of the actual multiplicity of ends which, it is alleged, are to be found in economic action, and, on the other hand, of the extent to which the idea of an underlying single ultimate end is to be considered essential to the Mayer-Robbins conception of economizing. The problem arises partly from the very premise from which the Mayer-Robbins formulation starts—the existence of a given ordered array of variously prized ends.
It was seen in the previous section that given wants in Robbins' sense implied an ordering of ends separate from the economic act itself. It is on the assumption of previously ordered ends that the process of allocation of resources can proceed. Professor Knight, among others, has repeatedly stressed, however, that the comparison of ends as to their importance and the allocation of resources consistently with such a comparison imply “quantitative comparability in the final results of all uses of any ‘resource’”; they imply, in other words, that “there is really only one end.”46 It would have to be admitted, if this argument be accepted, that economic action too is merely a matter of technique in so far as the ultimate (single) end of action is concerned.
It must be noted that the reservations that these considerations inspire concerning the validity of the notion of a multiplicity of ends are rather different from those expressed by Souter and Parsons on the same topic. The latter writers too laid stress on the unified character of systems of ends, whether of the individual or society; but their criticisms focused chiefly on Robbins' exposition of the ends of individual economizing in terms of psychological “pulls” that, when unified into a “system,” seem to contradict the very concept of economy.47 The points raised by Knight, on the other hand, do not at all lose their force even if the nature of the ends of action is set forth in less “positivist” terms. If ends can be compared and arranged in order, it is argued, there must be some common denominator relating them to one another. However revealing and significant it may be to break down this single ultimate end of maximization into the numerous intermediate ends of economizing, the elegant Mayer-Robbins distinction between economics and technology seems difficult to salvage.
It is interesting to draw attention at this point to a somewhat different characterization of economic activity as directed to a single end, which was developed by Robbins himself, and which has been used with great effect by Hayek. This is the view that recognizes the economic motive as “merely desire for general opportunity, the desire for power to achieve unspecified ends.”48 Money has come to be linked with the economic motive, according to this view, because it offers the means to enjoy the widest choice of goods and services that we may desire. (One is reminded of a century-old definition of wealth that saw it, not as particular goods and services, but as the “power” to command goods and services in general.)49
The relation between this understanding of an economic “end” and the economic aspect of activity in general is clear. We have, in the description of the economically motivated act as one directed at gaining the power to achieve unspecified ends, the view precisely opposite to the older notion of economic activity as directed to a single, sharply defined end (such as material goods and the like). The first step taken by Robbins away from the older type of definition was the recognition of an economic aspect to activity in general, regardless of the concrete nature of the particular ends involved. With the adjective “economic” freed of positive association with specific ends, Robbins is now able to press still further and identify the economic motive with activity distinguished precisely by the lack of any specifically selected ends.
It is unnecessary to examine the doubts that have been expressed whether Professor Robbins has in fact been able to salvage a scientifically acceptable notion of an “economic” objective distinct, let us say, from military and political objectives.50 What is of interest in the present connection is the significance of the very conception of an activity distinguished by its orientation to ends-in-general rather than to particular ends. The view of economic activity as the effort to gain power to obtain ends that are to be selected only later represents an analysis of action that is intriguingly parallel to that which ignores altogether the multiplicity of ends in human action. We have seen that activity, as analyzed from the economic aspect, may be described in terms of one of two patterns. Either it may, with Robbins, be seen as the allocation of means with regard to numerous, ordered ends; or it may, with Knight, be seen as the technique of maximizing, with given resources, the single ultimate end, “satisfaction,” in terms of which alone the numerous intermediate ends can conceivably be compared. The concept of an activity directed at ends-in-general involves the isolation of one kind of activity, which is, indeed, related to numerous, desired ends, but in which the latter have been superseded by a single end, not as their resultant, but as the preliminary to their attainment. Action was entirely deprived of its economic aspect, in the Robbins-Mayer view, when the ends of action were replaced by the end of “satisfaction,” to which they are conceived as being subservient. Where many ends were supplanted by a single end, viz., the resultant of them all, activity became merely a question of technique with regard to this single, ultimate end. Now, on the other hand, we have isolated an activity in which numerous desired ends are superseded by the single intermediate goal of attaining power in general to command the as-yet-unspecified further ends.
The recognition that a large part of human activity, that directed at gaining general purchasing power in the form of money, does, in fact, conform to this pattern is highly revealing. The maximization of money income, of “wealth,” as the essence of economic activity was one of a group of concepts underlying many older definitions of economics. The maximization of some less specific entity, such as satisfaction, utility, welfare, and the like, came to be identified with economics as a result of the introduction of subjective thinking into the discipline in the latter part of the previous century. Robbins' formulation of the economic aspect of activity in terms of the allocation of scarce means among numerous alternative ends is now seen to occupy a very special position in respect to these two types of maximization. It begins by pressing on to the multiplicity of ends of action that lie behind the quest for wealth. It sees the economic aspect of action to exist precisely in the circumstances brought about by this multiplicity of real goals and action. But it is, on the other hand, able to retain its grip on this economic aspect of action only by deliberately refraining from submerging the multiplicity of these ends into a single, more ultimate end. The economic aspect of affairs, as seen by Robbins, is predicated on an interpretation of action that, while reaching beyond the false homogenization of ends implicit in the definition of all economic activity as the maximization of the single end, “wealth,” is able to resist the parallel homogenization of ends in terms of their resultant that is implicit in the characterization of action as the maximization of “satisfaction.”
[]For an example of the use of this kind of distinction, see Dorfman, Samuelson, and Solow, Linear Programming and Economic Analysis (1958), p. 202.
[]F. H. Knight, “The Nature of Economic Science in Recent Discussion,” American Economic Review, June, 1934, p. 228; see also Knight's review of Robbins' Nature and Significance in the International Journal of Ethics, April, 1934, p. 359; and his “Professor Parsons on Economic Motivation,” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 1940, p. 463.
[]See especially T. Parsons, Quarterly Journal of Economics, May, 1934, pp. 516–518.
[]F. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (University of Chicago Press, copyright 1956 by the University of Chicago), p. 89, and footnote. See also above, ch. V, n. 6.
[]P. Plough (pseud.), Letters on the Rudiments of ... Catallactics (London, 1842), p. 15.
[]For such criticism see K. Rivett, “The Definition of Economics,” Economic Record, November, 1955, pp. 227 f.