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7: Economics as a Science of Human Action - 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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Economics as a Science of Human Action
We must regard industrial and commercial life, not as a separate and detached region of activity, but as an organic part of our whole personal and social life; and we shall find the clue to the conduct of men in their commercial relations, not in the first instance amongst those characteristics wherein our pursuit of industrial objects differs from our pursuit of pleasure or of learning, or our efforts for some political and social ideal, but rather amongst those underlying principles of conduct and selection wherein they all resemble each other ...
Philip H. Wicksteed
The whole subject matter of conduct ... constitutes a different realm of reality from the external world ...
The first fact to be recorded is that this realm of reality exists or “is there.” This fact cannot be proved or argued or “tested.” If anyone denies that men have interests or that “we” have a considerable amount of valid knowledge about them, economics and all its works will simply be to such a person what the world of color is to the blind man. But there would still be one difference: a man who is physically, ocularly blind may still be rated of normal intelligence and in his right mind.
Frank H. Knight
Thus far we have given an account of a number of different conceptions of economic science, each of which reflects a fundamentally distinct understanding of what is to be meant by the economic point of view. In the present chapter we bring our survey to a close with an exposition of yet another conception of the point of view taken by the economist. In its completest form this definition of economics, by virtue of which the discipline emerges as one of the group of sciences of human action, embraces an entire and unique epistemology of the branches of knowledge commonly subsumed under the cultural and social sciences. As such, the view of economics as a science of human action deserves a close and full discussion in its own right, together with a clear exposition of its points of contact, both of agreement and of conflict, with the views treated in previous chapters.
Such a discussion is all the more in order since it has been long overdue in the methodological literature on economics. The concept of a science of human action, or, to use the term applied by Professor Mises, the praxeological view of economics,1 has been singularly unsuccessful in gaining the degree of attention that, in its significance for economic methodology, it unquestionably deserves. Although isolated aspects of the praxeological point of view have been perfunctorily treated in the literature, little attempt has been made to understand them as integral parts of a complete epistemological system of the social sciences. The result has been a tendency to replace the system as a whole, in the public view, with specific controversial propositions concerning such concepts as apriorism, rationality, and the like. Taken out of context and discussed against the background of radically different epistemological ideas, these propositions could rarely command the serious consideration to which they were entitled. Especially unfortunate has been the consequence that the praxeological view has come to be even more profoundly neglected.
It is therefore the task of the present chapter to outline in some detail the conception of the nature of economic science as viewed from the perspective of praxeology. In addition, an attempt will be made to relate this view to several of the alternative definitions treated in earlier chapters. In particular, its points of contact with that discussed in the previous chapter will require careful examination. It will be shown that, side by side with the emergence of the view of economics as the science concerned with the allocation of scarce means, which culminated in the work of Professor Robbins, there has, for over sixty years, existed a stream of thought that has recognized the praxeological aspect of economics. The view of economics as concerned with scarce means will be seen to take its place naturally as an example of a limited application of praxeological ideas; many of its apparent inadequacies are seen to disappear when it is related explicitly to the broader concepts of a general theory of human action.
Coming at the end of a book setting forth a series of widely diverging views on the nature of the economic in human affairs, the subject of the present chapter throws a revealing light on the sources of this remarkable range of disagreement. The exposition of the praxeological element in social phenomena will help to explain why it so long succeeded in eluding the attention of so many brilliant thinkers. The recurrent and unfortunate identification of this economic aspect with so many of the actual facets of social history with which the praxeological element is intimately connected will gain in intelligibility, it is believed, by an understanding of the nature of social phenomena as viewed from the vantage point of praxeology itself.
The Sciences of Human Action
The description of economics as a praxeological science must necessarily be preceded by a rather detailed exposition of the praxeological point of view in general. This will readily be seen to embrace a far wider range of phenomena than is considered in conventional economics. At this point it is sufficient that the praxeological view sees economic affairs as distinguished solely by the fact that they belong to the larger body of phenomena that have their source in human actions. The core of the concept of human action is to be found in the unique property possessed by human beings of engaging in operations designed to attain a state of affairs that is preferred to that which has hitherto prevailed. A person perceives the possibility of an improvement in his position, perhaps through possession of an additional commodity, perhaps by the abandonment of an unwanted piece of property, by a change in physical location, or through some other alteration in the configuration of matters that might affect his sense of wellbeing. The recognition of any such opportunity for improving his well-being sets in motion the actions that the person will take to secure the improvement. The pattern of action taken will be broadly defined by the circumstances surrounding the desired alteration of affairs. Sound logic will, in a given situation, point to one or several courses of action that give promise of most successfully securing the desired change. In so far as human behavior is guided by logic, then, conduct will follow a path that has been selected by reason. This path of conduct is what is known praxeologically as human action.
The concrete forms that human action may take are as innumerable as are the ways in which men can achieve relief from states of relative dissatisfaction. The particular form that an individual human action takes is determined by factors that include those making up the specific environmental conditions as well as those that have shaped the character and values of the actor. The conception of sciences of human action recognizes that the form of action as it unfolds in its historical reality is the result of influences that range from the physiological to the religious, the social to the geographical. An explanation of human action can be adequately undertaken only with full awareness of these varied influences. The historian seeking to understand what men have done in particular instances must draw on the disciplines whose task it is to explain the sequences of cause and effect in the physical, physiological, or psychological influences upon action.
The contribution that the praxeological point of view has made to the scientific explication of action in history is the isolation of an element in action the explanation of which is not exhausted by even the most complete application of the sciences concerned with the concrete manifestations of human action. This residual element is that of the operation of human action itself, which neither is explained by physical, physiological, or psychological theories nor requires the assistance of these doctrines for its own exposition. A praxeological science, using the rationality of human action as its foundation, is able to derive theorems describing the path of action under given circumstances. The reasoning that constructs these theorems mirrors the reasoning that is implied in action itself. New links in the chain of knowledge, in the form of praxeological theorems, are forged from the constraint that human purposefulness imposes on action, namely, that it be taken only with the sanction of reason.
Given all the physical, physiological, and psychological influences on the setting of an action, action of a specific form might be predicted with assurance. But such prediction is conceivable, not because these influences in themselves determine action, but because action is subject to the mandate of reason, which guides the act into the path that is to be preferred among those indicated by these external influences. A complete knowledge on the part of an observer of these external influences might allow prediction of the form to be taken by action only because the logic of the observer enables him to know with certainty the path that the actor's own logic will select. When a man is about to perform a mathematical computation upon given data, an observer of the data may attempt to predict the results that the computer will arrive at. But for such a prediction to be successful, it is not sufficient to rely on the fact that these results are “determined” by the data; it is necessary that the observer with his own logic be able to reproduce mentally the logical operations performed by the computer in arriving at his results. There is, of course, a definite meaning to the statement that the results of a mathematical computation are determined by the relevant data. An attempt at the computation by a human mathematician, however, yields these “determined” results only in so far as his logic constrains him to conform to the objectively correct computational operations. The case with human action in general is rather closely analogous to this example.
At the root of the notion of human action is the simple assumption that human reason plays a role in every action. Although, of course, by no means universally acceptable, this assumption remains a simple, and at least superficially, plausible one. No matter how compelling the physiological or physical factors that crave action may seem, it is within the power of reason to resist them. No matter how strong the psychological pressures on man may be, his actions have necessarily passed the scrutiny and gained at least the tacit assent of his reason. These pressures may well be overwhelmingly powerful, and, of course, in sanctioning or prohibiting action, men's reason is operating with the consciousness of these imperious, often contradictory forces. The concept of human action depends, however, on the introspectively valid fact that there is a form of conduct that is specifically human, i.e., conduct that is accompanied by the consciousness of volition, of something more than a bundle of reflexes responding to specific stimuli. The nature of these various stimuli and the directions towards which they variously tend to guide action are completely independent of the desires and will of the actor. As such they are part of the subject matters of the physical, physiological, and psychological sciences. Were action taken simply in instinctive obedience to these stimuli, it could be conceived as objectively determined by the data constituting its setting, in the same way as the results of a mathematical computation are determined by the data of the problem. But because man possesses the power to reject one course of action for another, to arrange the satisfaction to be derived from obeying specific impulses within a wider ordering of values, the physical, physiological, and psychological sciences do not exhaust the facts of action that are capable of scientific explanation. The element in conduct that is the reflection of man's power to weigh, arrange, and choose among courses of behavior is the specifically human element in action. The investigation of this element of human action and of its manifestation in various particular situations forms a field of study unique by virtue of the nature of human action itself. Sciences of human action will be distinct from other sciences in that the former begin where the latter end, viz., in the implications of the rationality that governs purposeful behavior.
The Emergence of the Praxeological View of Economics
Postponing for subsequent discussion the further details of the praxeological view and the consideration of the controversial points involved in it, we shall proceed to outline the development, during the past three quarters of a century, of the stream of thought to be regarded as the praxeological view of economic science. Since its emergence, the praxeological point of view has been most fruitful, not in the extensive exploration of new sciences of human action, but in the consequences of its recognizing the theorems of economics as being the propositions of a science of human action. The possibility of theoretical statements concerning economic activity was seen as not at all due to any supposed uniqueness in the phenomena of wealth or material welfare or money or any of the other numerous criteria that had been used in defining economics. It was perceived that economic theory derives from precisely that element in human behavior which we have described as human action. The particular forms of action that have been traditionally investigated by economists are, indeed, distinguished by close association with various institutions such as money or with specific patterns of action such as interpersonal exchange. But if there is any meaningful underlying unity in the theorems of economics, it is to be found only in the concept of human action. Seen from this vantage point, economic theory acquires immediately a position unique within the range of human knowledge. It is the discipline that has alone successfully sought to harness the element of human action to the scientific explanation of social phenomena.
The earliest formulations of the praxeological view of economics in anything approaching a complete statement appeared about the turn of the century. Before this there had been several penetrating attempts to elucidate the nature of economic science. Several of these, especially those seeking to distinguish a specifically “economic principle” in action, have been cited in earlier chapters. But the uniqueness of human action as seen by praxeology, that is, as making possible a characteristically distinct contribution to the understanding of social phenomena, had not been expounded. Aside from isolated statements by several writers, who seem to have caught a glimpse of such a possibility,2 it was not until the nineties that economics was clearly identified with the logic of conscious choice.
Perhaps the first discussion of the role of economics as a science of human action in this praxeological sense is that of an American, Sidney Sherwood. Writing in 1897 on the “philosophical basis of economics,”3 Sherwood declared that a general science dealing with “consciousness in action,” a “science of practical life,” was the intellectual necessity of the time. Hitherto special disciplines such as history, law, politics, and sociology had groped forward in this direction. But a “master science” was required to give a common starting point and method to these special inquiries. Such a science “must explain all the conscious activities of men by reducing them to terms of the motives and choices of the individual consciousness.” To Sherwood it seemed that economics is the science outstandingly fitted to play this role. “Economics deals with wants consciously felt, resources consciously perceived, and consciously directed to the end of gaining conscious satisfaction ... ” Any restriction of economic reasoning to the sphere of material goods is completely artificial. It seemed “inevitable” to Sherwood that economics must ultimately include all human values. “All pleasures, all values, all choices, all teleological activities, are, in fact, chosen and followed upon principles which economics alone has explained in a scientific manner.”
All human self-directed conduct, Sherwood pointed out, proceeds from choices that are simply the valuations of certain courses of action. The motive power in the practical activities of man is to be found in his consciously felt desires. Sherwood sharply criticized the temptation, to which several sociologists of the period had succumbed, of applying physical and biological concepts to psychical phenomena. The fitness that survives, according to the biological notion of evolution, is an unforeseen fitness, an adjustment wrought out in consequence of the struggle. But psychical activities are essentially purposeful; the fitness that survives in social adjustments is prearranged. Sociologists are guilty of unscientific procedure when they group the phenomena of economic adjustments together with those of unexplained and fortuitous biological change.4
Sherwood's perception of the nature of human action and of the praxeological character of economics is unmistakably clear. The adjective “conscious,” which he constantly uses to describe the types of conduct dealt with by economics, and his explicit relation of such conduct to human motives identify the “master science” for which Sherwood is searching as an all-embracing praxeology. That Sherwood's definition of economics represents, in this respect, an advance over that of his contemporaries becomes apparent from the originality of his attitude towards the use of the “economic principle” as the defining criterion. It was seen in an earlier chapter that several writers, such as Dietzel and Neumann in Germany and Hawley in the United States, had been deterred from using the economic principle as a criterion for defining economics on the very grounds that make the principal significant, namely, that it characterizes all kinds of human activity. These writers recognized the importance to economics of the rational element in economic activity; indeed, this element played so obvious and dominant a role in economic analysis that, as the “economic principle,” it suggested itself to them as the natural mark identifying the phenomena with which the discipline dealt. This suggestion they found themselves forced to reject on the ground that all human activity displays the very same hallmark of rationality, that the economic principle governs all the conscious activities of man. And this left them no choice but to seek for some other quality in economic phenomena that they, among all other social phenomena, might uniquely possess in common.
Sherwood, starting from a position substantially similar to that of these writers, was able to reach a quite different conclusion. Once it had been suggested that economic phenomena are susceptible of analysis by virtue of their rational quality, Sherwood found it impossible to discard this idea. Instead of being dismayed at finding a similar purposefulness, a similar rationality and adherence to the economic principle, throughout the range of human activities, Sherwood was awakened thereby to a new appreciation of the role of economics. Instead of impelling him to look for other characteristics by which to delineate the scope of economic science, the realization of the all-pervasive influence of the economic principle convinced Sherwood of the futility and artificiality of erecting rigid boundaries purporting to separate economic activity from human action generally. The conscious direction of resources to the end of gaining conscious satisfaction was so fundamental to the very conception of economics and was at the same time so obviously a factor decisive in all action, that Sherwood could see economics transformed into a spearhead of a new “master science” that might investigate the consequences in activity generally of the consciously motivated element in action. Hitherto economics had been confined, to be sure, to specific kinds of phenomena, but this restriction was an artificial one and in no way corresponded to a unique field of knowledge.
This statement of the nature of economics seems to have passed unnoticed in the literature. Happily, similar ideas were being formulated at about the very same time by the celebrated Italian philosopher, Benedetto Croce. His views were set down with rather greater painstaking precision and expounded against the background of a fully articulated general philosophical and epistemological system. As such, Croce's position has attracted the attention of a number of subsequent writers. It has not always been appreciated, however, how closely Croce's view of economics mirrors the praxeological outlook. This feature of Croce's ideas on the nature of economy and economics is brought clearly into focus by their juxtaposition with the radically different views of Pareto, with whom Croce conducted an elaborate exchange of opinions on the subject. A brief review of Croce's opinions as expressed in this published correspondence will at the same time provide a remarkably clear, if not complete, statement of the view of economics as a science of human action.
The root of the difference between the outlook of Croce and that of Pareto, and the source of their celebrated debate on the nature of economics, is to be found in their attitudes towards teleology. According to Pareto, the act is a subject for science only in so far as it yields “facts and concrete cases.” According to Croce, on the other hand, the act is aimed at a purpose, and economics obtains its distinctiveness and its homogeneity from this characteristic of the act itself. Croce's crusade against the behaviorism of Pareto5 a took the form of a vigorous rebellion against the latter's injunction to economists to confine their attention to the “result of action” and to leave the “nature” of action for the metaphysicians.6
Pareto's position, Croce complains, itself involves an implicit metaphysical postulate. It is implied that the facts of man's activity are of the same nature as physical facts; that in both cases regularities can be observed and consequences can be thereby deduced, but that the “inner nature of the facts” can never be exposed.7 Upon the testimony of experience, however, Croce insists on the fundamental distinction between the physical and the mental, between mechanics and teleology, between passivity and activity. From this point of view, it is of the utmost relevance (Pareto's statements to the contrary notwithstanding) to recognize that the choice with which economics is concerned is not simply “the fact of choice,” but the fact of conscious choice. And because the economic fact is a fact of conscious choice, a fact of will, its “inner nature” is not at all obscure. The nature of economic activity is grasped as immediately as is the nature of the operation of willing. An act is economic in so far as it is the consistent expression of a man's will, of his conscious aiming at a perceived goal.8
From Croce's position on the nature of economic activity flows immediately his praxeological conception of economic science. The purposefulness of human action—a category to which nothing in physical science corresponds—is the unique element that invests economic science with its individuality. The propositions of economics relate to the effective execution of the purposes willed by the actor. They are not descriptions, but theorems in the sense that they follow rigorously and necessarily from the postulated systems of ends and means. “Economic Science ... is a mathematic applied to the concept of human action ... It does not inquire what human action is; but having posited certain concepts of action, it creates formulae for the prompt recognition of the necessary connections.”9
Croce's ideas will have been perhaps more fully set forth when we shall have considered his contributions to several points of detail in the praxeological conception of economics. Although his stature as a thinker drew more academic attention to these ideas than had been given to those of Sherwood, Croce's impact on the development of economic methodology has to this day not reached its full potential. Writings during the last half century on the proper conception of economic science could in many instances have greatly benefited from familiarity with Croce's work in this field. One author whose writings do deserve a place in any discussion of the evolution of praxeological ideas, although his contribution in this respect scarcely approaches that of Croce, is Max Weber.
Max Weber and Human Action
The great sociologist's views on the nature of economics and, in particular, the significance of his ideas for the development of praxeology are closely related to his views on the social sciences in general. These in turn revolve around the concept of Verstehen, which is the epistemological tool that Weber used to distinguish the Geisteswissenschaften from the natural sciences. It is of some interest to compare Weber's way of achieving this distinction with the method used by Croce.
Like Croce, Weber sees purpose as the most conspicuous feature in action, and, because it is the foundation for the notion of Verstehen, as the source of the possibility of separating the social from the physical sciences. A motive is “a meaningful complex ... which appears to the actor himself or the observer to be an adequate ... ground for his attitudes or acts.” The significance of purpose in the scientific analysis of action is its introduction of a new notion of causality. It permits the grasping of the cause of an action through the understanding (Verstehen) of its motive. A correct causal interpretation of concrete action implies that “the outward course and the motive are each correctly grasped and that their relationship to each other is ‘understandable.’”10 And it is the possibility of making this kind of statement regarding the causation of a phenomenon of interest to the Geisteswissenschaften that marks these disciplines as distinct from the physical sciences. In the latter, events can be only “externally” observed, while the teleological orientation of social phenomena permits their being grasped completely.
Economics, like verstehende Soziologie in general, becomes in this way, for Weber as for Croce, a science of human action. That which is understood is purposeful human action.11 But it is here that Weber and Croce part company and that Weber's progress in praxeological thought becomes diverted. Croce had not understood the economic aspect of human action to consist merely in the simple fact that action is aimed at a purpose. In perceiving the economic aspect, Croce recognized the constraint that purposefulness imposes on action, i.e., that action actually tend to achieve the purposes that serve as its inspiration. Economics, for Croce, is the science that investigates the extensive implications and consequences of precisely this tendency. But this aspect of purpose in action plays no role in Weber's conception of economic activity or of the nature of economic science. Weber's science takes notice of the teleological character of human action merely because this purposive feature opens a window on the “internal” nature of the act, not at all because it implies that the action is constrained to follow a specific path. The fact that human actions are motivated is in itself sufficient only to invest them with the property of being “understood”; it is not sufficient to set up a category of “economy,” still less to establish an economic science.
Weber, indeed, is able to extend the concept of Verstehen to grasp the behavior of the most unreasonable or emotional human beings. To approach the construction of an economic science, it is necessary first for Weber to introduce the notion of the “ideal type,” i.e., the formulation of abstract, arbitrary models of acting man. Only one of Weber's four ideal types finds a place in his concept of economics. This is the ideal type of rational action, the model of a coldly calculating human being conscious of ends and means. Within the range of actions that can be intuitively grasped because of their motivations there exist patterns of action that are distinguished in that they are in fact suited to the attainment of the chosen goals. Among these patterns are to be found the materials to be studied by the economist as Weber conceives him.
The necessity that Weber felt of introducing rationality into economic activity as a specific assumption limiting the general concept of human action reveals the limited extent to which he appreciated the praxeological content of action. For Weber, the common denominator of all human actions that are “understandable” is not their conformity to a rational pattern of utilizing given means towards a desired end, but simply their conscious “direction” towards an end as such. We can understand an action, not necessarily because we ourselves would, under similar circumstances, act likewise, but because we can sense and appreciate the possibility that such an action could be induced by the agent's mental posture of desire towards the end. For Weber, there is no presumption that the action so induced will at all hasten the attainment of the end concerned. A man seeking a desired object may, in his anger at being thwarted, or in the excitement of pursuit, act in a manner that, in the judgment of both the cool observer and subsequent history, is supremely capable of frustrating the attainment of the sought-for end. Such a conception of action is, of course, incapable in itself of serving as a foundation for economic science. Only by imposing an artificial abstraction of the ideal type is Weber able to reach economics. And it is apparent that when conformity to an ideal type must be assumed for the deduction of the propositions of economics, these propositions cease to be the logical implications of human action, and economics ceases to be a branch of praxeology.12
Acting Man and Economizing Man: Mises and Robbins
In the decades following the age of Weber, praxeological ideas developed in two directions, yielding two related, but significantly distinct, conceptions of economic science. On the one hand, there developed, partly under the influence of Max Weber, the conception of economics that has been treated in the previous chapter. Here the ends-means dichotomy came to serve as the framework for the construction of an economic science that took as its foundation the idea of economizing. The previous chapter has described the culmination of this stream of thought in the work of Professor Robbins. This must now be clearly related to another direction of praxeological thought, to the influence of which, indeed, the development of the first must in some degree be ascribed.
This second line of praxeological thought has been led by the work of Professor Mises. It is in this direction that we find the most complete and consistent development of the praxeological concept, and it is this development that the present chapter set out to describe. Mises' explicit enunciation of the character of economics as a science of human action, the most highly developed of the potential praxeological disciplines, represents one of his most seminal and original ideas. It may be reasonably asserted that most, perhaps all, of Mises' characteristic contributions to the various branches of economic theory are, in his eyes, simply the consistently worked out corollaries of this fundamental thesis concerning the nature of economics.13 If economic theory, as the science of human action, has become a system at the hands of Mises, it is so because his grasp of its praxeological character imposes on its propositions an epistemological rationale that in itself creates this systematic unity. It is unfortunate, but not difficult to understand, that disagreement with some of Professor Mises' economic theories on the part of his critics has induced in them a tendency to ignore, if not to disparage, the epistemological basis from which Mises' conclusions seem to follow so rigorously. The truth is that the comprehension of economics as a science of human action provides a basis broad enough to support widely diverging conclusions. The validity of the praxeological approach must be tested on its own merits and by its internal epistemological adequacy.
Although praxeological ideas already appear in germinal form in Mises' first book, The Theory of Money and Credit (1912), it was not until the twenties that they became explicitly formulated. By the early thirties Mises' ideas on the nature and scope of economics had reached their full development,14 and some of these ideas attracted the attention of writers on the methodology of economics in a number of countries.15 The works in which Professor Mises has most fully presented the case for praxeology are his Grundprobleme der Nationalökonomie. (1933), Nationalökonomie (1940), and its English counterpart Human Action (1949). A vigorous restatement of the position of the sciences of human action and a spirited defense of their epistemological assumptions are to be found in Mises' recently published Theory and History (1957).
In comparing the two views of economics represented by the works of Mises and Robbins, it is necessary to notice carefully their points of similarity and to observe even more carefully the degree to which they differ from one another. Writers have tended to group Mises and Robbins together as continuators of Weber in their stress on the ends-means dichotomy and its importance for economic activity.16 But the two views place economic science in two quite distinct positions.
Economizing consists in the allocation of scarce resources among competing ends. Acting, in the praxeological sense, consists in selecting a pattern of behavior designed to further the actor's purposes. Of course, the particular allocation that, in any given situation, will be made of scarce means in respect of different ends will constitute a course of action, a pattern of conduct designed to further the achievement of as many of those goals (in their preferred order) as possible. But the concept of action is wider and at the same time more fundamental than that of economizing. Although action may be described in terms of ends and means, such a description is quite different from that of an operation of economizing. In the concept of economy, ends and means constitute a scheme more or less artificially imposed on action so that the relative valuations of ends can be reflected in the specific pattern in which resources are allocated. The essential idea becomes, not the intent pursuit of a set purpose, but the almost mechanical translation of the scale of “ultimate” ends into appropriately apportioned shares at the level of means. “Means” are required for the notion of economy because they are the entities that must be “allocated”; it is in the comparison of different ways of utilizing resources that economizing finds its place.
With the broader notion of action, on the other hand, we are not primarily interested in the particular pattern in which resources will be apportioned among ends. Such an allocation, if carried out, will be of interest as one of the possible implications of action and will, of course, as such, find a place somewhere in the science of human action. But on the basis of Robbins' conception of the nature of economic science, economics can achieve homogeneity and individuality only by virtue of its concern with the existence of such operations of comparison and allocation of means. The praxeological approach, on the other hand, finds a basis for the homogeneity and individuality of economics at a deeper level, which does not necessarily require a clearly recognizable pattern of allocation. This basis is found in the fundamental characteristic of action, viz., that it is conduct directed at the achievement of a purpose.
In this characteristic, praxeology finds a sufficient source of explanation for the specific patterns of action, among which the judicious disposal of scarce means appears as a frequent example. But a really unique criterion for the definition of economics is not to be found in the idea of allocating scarce resources, nor can this concept serve as an adequate foundation on which that science can be constructed. The key point is not that acting man ponders the comparative efficacy in different uses of certain given “means,” but that he behaves under a constraint that he himself has imposed, i.e., the necessity of acting in order to achieve what he wants to achieve, so that his behavior tends to conform to the pattern implied by his scale of ends. “Means” exist as such for acting man only after he has turned them to his purpose; acting is not apportioning, but doing—doing what seems likely to further one's purposes.
The remainder of this chapter, which attempts to set forth several details of the praxeological view and to consider various criticisms levelled against it, will serve at the same time as a commentary on the similarities and distinctions between an economics built around homo agens and one centered around economizing man.
Praxeology and Purpose
We shall begin the more detailed dissection of the category of human action and the discussion of its suitability to serve as the focus of the economic point of view with a survey of the role of purpose in action. It has already been noticed in this chapter that it is purpose that endows the behavior of men with the unique properties that praxeology finds in human action. The views of Croce and Weber have been cited in this connection as expressions of the discovery, in the act, of a phenomenon unlike anything coming within the range of observation of the physical sciences. Stones dislodged from a hillside by the elements and hurtling down on the unsuspecting traveller in the valley are part of a different “event” than stones hurled with intent by men waiting in ambush. The latter are hurled with purpose; they are—in this case literally—aimed by human beings. Stone-throwing by human beings is something that the scientist can in part “explain” by reference to an element not present in natural phenomena, viz., the conscious aim of the thrower. Praxeology takes this very element as its point of departure; it finds human actions amenable to analysis in that they bear the imprint of a constraint imposed by chosen goals.
Now, the recognition of purposefulness in economic activity did not begin with the emergence of praxeological ideas. It is, of course, true that the older conceptions of economic science, which saw it as concerned with an objective entity such as wealth or goods, did not require reference to the purposefulness of human action. The scope of their discipline was described completely by the character of the objects whose “laws” it investigated. But even here it was difficult to avoid the implication of purposefulness in men's attitude towards these objects. This implication was given tacit recognition in the substantive analysis that the classical economists employed, and it tended to be brought into the open in the more sophisticated of the classical attempts to define “wealth.”
With the tendency, during the nineteenth century, to place man at the center of economics, the recognition of the role of purpose became almost a matter of course. Political economy was, in fact, the extended exposition of the consequences of one of man's many purposes, the acquisition of wealth. Discussions of the character that was thrust upon homo oeconomicus could hardly avoid the central fact of his purposefulness. Towards the close of the century economics came to be identified explicitly as a “teleological” discipline.17 Wealth came to be endowed with a “teleological nature.” Discussions of the assumption of rationality made by economists necessarily involved the notion of purposive behavior, of “ends” and “means,” and consequently pointed to the distinction that this characteristic conferred on any human, as against physical, phenomena. The emergence, during the early decades of the present century, of the concept of Verstehen brought the teleological character of human action still further into the forefront.
However, it is of some importance to appreciate the quite different role that praxeology assigns to human purposefulness in economic activity from that assigned by other points of view. Wesley Mitchell could point out that economists cannot understand what men do if they treat them as molecules, leaving their purposes out of account. He and other economists could draw attention to the new element of causality introduced by teleology in human affairs. They could recognize a chain of cause and effect in which the usual temporal relation is reversed, the present being “caused” by the goals set up for the future.18 But all this does not necessarily lead to a praxeological position. The economic point of view could be held to imply any arbitrary criterion that might be imagined, without in any way ruling out recognition of the causal element introduced by the teleological character of economic activity. Mitchell, for example, saw economic activity as essentially connected with phenomena of money. This was perfectly consistent with his stress on the usefulness of referring to purpose in providing the economists with “explanations.” The phenomena of the real world are the products of a number of diverse chains of causes and effects. The investigation of any group of phenomena in the real world must take into account as many such causal relations as possible. In the class of phenomena constituted by “economic affairs,” there exists a causal relation, the consequence of human purposefulness, that is absent among phenomena of the physical world. But no attempt need necessarily be made to state explicitly the distinctive qualities of “economic affairs” in terms of this purposefulness or of the causality to which it is admitted to give rise.
The part played by purposefulness in the praxeological conception of economic activity is a far more important one. Purpose is not something to be merely “taken into account”: it provides the sole foundation of the concept of human action. When Engliš defined economics as a teleological discipline, he was attempting to place his finger on the very nerve center of the subject.19 There is place for a distinct science of economics only because the teleological quality of action makes possible a unique kind of “explanation.” The theorems of economics are derived for praxeology exclusively on the basis of the purposefulness of human behavior. Other determinants of behavior—heredity, environment, and the like—are on a completely different level of “explanation”; as such, they belong to other disciplines; they have no place in a “pure” economic science.
The crucial position that purpose fills in the praxeological system is intimately connected, of course, with the conception of human action as rational. Rationality in human behavior consists, after all, in the consistent pursuit of one's own purposes; in selecting the means that appear best adapted to the achievement of one's goals; in refraining from courses of action that might frustrate their achievement or promise only the attainment of less valued, at the expense of more highly prized, objectives. The place of the rationality of action is sufficiently important for the praxeological point of view to deserve separate discussion in a subsequent section of this chapter. It is sufficient at this point, for the appreciation of the praxeological importance of human purposefulness, to emphasize as much as possible that a concept of rationality exists for praxeology only as the expression of human purposes.20
Emphasis of this kind is called for, perhaps, in order to disassociate the praxeological approach from what may be called the “positivist” conception of rationality in human action. It was seen in the previous chapter that Professor Robbins has been charged with employing the ends-means dichotomy in too positivistic a fashion. An “end” in Robbins' scheme, it has been alleged, is set up by an external observer as something positive, as a “correlate of a tendency to conduct”; it is used by Robbins in a way that abstracts from the conscious aiming and striving that characterizes human actions before they have been completed. “Rationality” in the disposition of means with regard to such denatured ends becomes simply the mechanical ordering and sharing of resources according to a given pattern.
Without our entering here into a discussion concerning the justice of this objection to Robbins' system, it is worthwhile to make explicit the quite different kind of rationality that is central to the praxeological view. Action is not described as rational because it involves the automatic manipulation of resources into a pattern faithfully reflecting a given hierarchy of ends. Rationality consists rather in the transference, to conduct involving means, of those features in behavior that accompany the direct pursuit of ends. Rationality involves the conscious effort to make one's conduct conform to a given path; it calls for the same aiming and striving by the economic agent towards necessary intermediate goals as he displays towards the “final” goals themselves. It is only from the “outside” that such rationality can be described merely in terms of a particular pattern of resource allocation. The full praxeological grasp of human action perceives its rationality as completely pervaded by the “aiming” quality bestowed on action by its teleological character. This aspect of purpose leads, in fact, directly into the more detailed exposition of the praxeological view of rationality, which is the subject of the succeeding section.
Praxeology and Rationality
Few features of the praxeological position seem to have been more seriously misunderstood than the very special significance that it attaches to the rationality of human action. In the praxeological view, action is rational by definition; and this has been attacked from two directions. On the one hand, it has been branded as palpably false and contrary to the facts of experience.21 On the other hand, it has been interpreted as a vicious misuse of language, in which the word “rational” has been emptied of all meaning, so that its use to describe action, while not false, conveys no information whatsoever. The insistent description of action as rational is thus a misleading attempt to appear to be saying something, without, in fact, doing anything of the sort.22 To say that a man acts rationally, it is complained, tells us nothing more about what it is that he does than that he does it. Both these types of criticism rest on a quite incomplete appreciation of how the rationality of action is used in the praxeological system.
The concept of rationality in human behavior has long been a topic for discussion in the literature on the methodology of economics. Attacks on the undue reliance which economic theory has been accused of placing upon human reason are as old as attacks on the very notion of an economic theory. Historically-minded critics of theory long ago discovered that man is possessed of “instincts,” that he is a creature of “habit,” that he is capable of being carried away by mass hysteria and other psychological aberrations. Economic theory, it was found, had blindly ignored the realities of life. Where it had not explicitly endowed economic man with an exclusive thirst for “wealth” or with an utterly selfish character, economics had apparently proceeded on the quite gratuitous assumption that men behave sensibly from the point of view of their own interests. It was easy to demonstrate how far from the truth economics must be; it was easy to point out the true character of men with their full array of impulses, instincts, and stupidities. On the other hand, it was not difficult for economists to defend their theorems as hypothetical constructions with a definite, if limited, applicability to the real world, or, alternatively, as providing norms for the appraisal of actual performance. And debates on these lines abound in the economic journals of the decades around the turn of the century and later.
In all these discussions the assumption of rationality made by traditional economic theory was treated in a special sense; and what is chiefly responsible for the misunderstandings mentioned above is the confusion of this traditional conception of rationality with the conception of it employed in praxeological discussions. The point at issue in the earlier discussions concerning the empirical validity of economic theorems that treat men as reasoning beings free of irrational impulses and instincts was the fruitfulness of a particular simplifying abstraction. The social phenomena of the real world are the consequences of human actions in which all types of influences have played a part. One of these influences stems from man's reasoning powers, which urge him to pursue a selected goal with a steadfastness and tenacity unperturbed by human weaknesses and passions. Economic theory, it was believed, investigates social phenomena on the assumption that this influence of cool reason is, in fact, sufficiently powerful to make man pursue unwaveringly a goal once chosen. And this assumption, introduced in order to make analysis possible, was criticized or defended in respect to its justifiability, in the light of the realities of human nature.
It was quite natural for the conception of rationality that was made central to praxeological ideas to be discussed in a similar fashion. When these ideas are made to hinge on a conception of rationality as a pervasive quality of all human action, they of course invited criticism as being in contradiction to the facts. And when it is pointed out that in the sense in which the praxeological view sees human actions as rational, no such contradiction exists, then the praxeological postulate of rationality is criticized as a misleading and empty use of words. It is explained, for example, that a man who is swayed from the pursuit of his own best interests by falling prey to a fleeting temptation is yet acting “rationally” in the praxeological sense. In the praxeological view, the man has simply substituted a new set of ends, represented by the fleeting temptation, for the previously chosen ends. The fact that in the eyes of an outside observer, or even in the eyes of the man himself at a cooler moment, it is the original set of ends that constitutes the man's “best interests,” is not sufficient to justify our labeling the man's pursuit of his newly selected goal as “irrational.” The selection of an end can never, as such, be judged in regard to its rationality; and there is no reason to question the rationality with which the man pursues his newly chosen end.
It is this kind of explanation that provokes the annoyance of the critics and incurs the charge of using the word “rational” in a viciously misleading manner. These strictures are, in fact, quite undeserved; and it is worthwhile to devote attention to clearing up the confusion on this point. We can perhaps best succeed in this by considering in some detail the contribution of Tagliacozzo, mentioned in the previous chapter, to the clarification of the notion of “economic error” or “uneconomic behavior.” Tagliacozzo deals with the “Rhine-wine” situation which had been involved in the Pareto-Croce correspondence cited earlier in this chapter at the turn of the century.
The “Rhine-wine” case concerned the man who does not wish to indulge in gluttony, who has in fact budgeted all his money for other, more highly valued purposes, but who, yielding to the temptation of the moment, buys and drinks Rhenish wine. Croce had written that by so acting the man has placed himself in contradiction with himself23 and that his sensual pleasure will be followed by a judgment of reprobation, an economic (to be carefully distinguished from a moral) remorse.24 The man is guilty of what Croce has elsewhere called “economic error”: the “failure to aim directly at one's own object: to wish this and that, i.e., not really to wish either this or that.”25 By contrasting this concept of economic error, as an error of will, with a technical error, which is an error of knowledge, Croce was enabled to criticize Pareto's distinction between logical (i.e., rational) actions, which are economic, and illogical actions, which are not. Action, Croce explains, is a fact of will, not of knowledge. The will presupposes reasoning, it is true, but action, which is the expression of will, cannot itself be qualified by adjectives such as “logical” or “illogical,” which pertain only to the application of reason.26
It was with this example of an economic error, the consumption of wine in defiance of a previously chosen program, that Tagliacozzo dealt at length. Tagliacozzo pointed out that the purchase of wine can be appraised from various vantage points. From the standpoint of full reality, no distinction between means and ends need be made at all. Wine has been purchased because such a purchase was desired, and that is all. There is no recognition of any “program” against which the man's action is to be compared and in terms of which it can incur disapproval or excite remorse. There is, consequently, no notion of an “end” separate from the means that might “bring about” the realization of the end.
From the point of view of the man's own budget plan, however, the case is very different. Here a yardstick has been set up by the man himself against which the “economic” correctness of his actions can be measured and found wanting. The artificial creation of a “plan” in the form of a prior selection of ends necessarily carries with it a “point of view” from which it is possible to appraise the wine purchase and to convict it of economic error.
Finally, the man's action can be contemplated with the realization that any one yardstick in the form of a program will necessarily be quite arbitrary; that the span of time over which such a “program” is to have validity may be as long or as short as we please. From this point of view it is clear that what is a “temptation” from the standpoint of a long-range program becomes itself an independent “program” in its own right in relation to a suitably brief span of time taken as a frame of reference. The consumption of wine has now become the desired end; the man's actions can still be appraised, but only for their consistency with this newly adopted “program.”
The distinguishing of these possible attitudes towards the wine purchase and the recognition of the relativity of the notion of an economic error enable Tagliacozzo to pursue Croce's theme to its ultimate praxeological conclusion. In a real action, taken as an independent event, there is no room for any discrepancy between the conception of a program and its realization; the two concepts coincide completely. But this understanding of the situation does not at all exhaust its significance. Actions can be “judged” with regard to the faithfulness with which they conform to “programs.” And there can exist a complete range of such “programs” against which any action may be appraised, depending on the particular frame of reference selected. The important fact is that the very conception of an economic “judgment” implies a particular tendency on the part of human beings such that deviation from it incurs (economic) “disapproval.” This tendency is one that makes for an identity of means and end, comparable to the intrinsic coincidence of means and end that is present in any real action considered as an independent event with no frame of reference other than itself. It is this “tendency” that demands “that given programs be respected; that wine not be bought, if the program does not provide for such purchase; that given means go as far as they can in the fulfilment of the ends.”27
Together with the consciousness of a chosen set of ends that comprise a program there is an inevitable consciousness of an inclination to reduce all the means and resources required for the attainment of the program to the same rank as the chosen purposes themselves. Failure to achieve such a complete coordination of ends and means, which spells susceptibility to the distractions of “temptations of the moment,” can be sustained only at the expense of fighting free of this conscious inclination—a struggle that makes up the sense of economic error. Now in so far as all human action is teleological and is the expression of purposes consciously chosen, it is clear that all action must necessarily be part of the operation of the tendency toward the identification of means and end. The man who has cast aside a budget plan of long standing in order to indulge in the fleeting pleasure of wine still acts under a constraint to adapt the means to the new program. Should a fit of anger impel him to forgo this program as well and to hurl the glass of wine at the bartender's head, there will nonetheless be operative some constraint—let us say the control required to ensure an accurate aim—which prevents his action from being altogether rudderless. It is here that praxeology has grasped the possibility of a new scientific range of explanation of social phenomena. Precisely because man's actions are not haphazard, but are expressions of a necessity for bringing means into harmony with ends, there is room for explanation of the content of particular actions in terms of the relevant array of ends.28
During the course of this discussion of the nature of economic error, the sense in which praxeology sees human action as “rational” will have become abundantly clear. It will also have become clear how the praxeological use of the concept of rationality is quite unaffected by both types of criticisms that we noticed to have been levelled against it. Its description of all human action as rational constitutes a proposition that is, in fact, incapable of being falsified by any experience, yet does, nevertheless, convey highly valuable information. Action is necessarily rational because, as we have seen, the notion of purpose carries with it invariably the implication of requiring the selection of the most reasonable means for its successful fulfilment.29 Such a proposition cannot be proved empirically false because, as we have seen, programs can be changed, so that evidence that a man no longer “follows his best interests” proves only that he has chosen a new “program” the necessary requirements of which no longer permit him to follow—what used to be identified as—his best interests. Despite the impossibility of its empirical contradiction, this proposition yet conveys highly useful information because the insight it provides makes possible the derivation, in regard to whatever program is relevant in given circumstances, of highly developed chains of theorems. The kind of knowledge that such theorems can convey, their dependence on the praxeological postulate of rationality, and the implications of the italicized qualification in the previous sentence will become more easily comprehensible in the subsequent sections of this chapter.
The Assumption of Constant Wants—the Praxeological Context
Closely related to the preceding definition of the sense in which praxeology depends on the rationality of human action is the further clarification of the relevance of such rationality for a praxeological science, and especially of the character of the assumption of a constancy of wants. A praxeological theorem becomes possible because of the quality of purpose in action. This quality enables the praxeological theorist, by resorting to his own reason, to predict the path that a given person will follow under the requirement of using his reason in order to fulfil his purposes.
The appreciation of the character of a praxeological theorem so derived throws immediate light on the notion of “given ends” and the assumption of a constancy of wants, both of which are inevitably involved in such a theorem. The previous chapter dealt in some detail with Robbins' conception of ends as data for economics. It will be noticed that the praxeological view places equal emphasis, and for substantially similar reasons, on the notion of given wants and purposes. The point at issue hinges on the very possibility of knowledge acquired through praxeological excogitation.
A great city is served by alternative means of transportation; one of these means of transportation has been crippled by an accident. It will be obvious to the observer of the effects of the accident that the alternative means of transportation will tend to be employed in larger than normal volume. In making this prediction the observer has made a simple application of his reasoning powers to a problem of human action; he has applied a theorem of praxeology. The knowledge that he has so acquired is a piece of information different from the data from which he began, but which was, nevertheless, implied in the assumptions concerning human purposes that the observer felt entitled to make. Because he was able to assume that many people desired transportation with sufficient urgency, the observer was able, from his own knowledge of the alternatives open to them, to predict the course of action that they would take. It is clear that this newly acquired knowledge was gained only because of the existence of given purposes, and it is only in relation to these given purposes that this praxeological knowledge has significance.
Analysis of human action can proceed only by the treatment of given purposes as data; the effects of a change in surrounding circumstances can be deduced only on the assumption that these purposes are adhered to with constancy, that no new “program” has been substituted for the old. These restrictions on the derivation of praxeological knowledge follow from what has been said in the previous section concerning the rationality implicit in the concept of human action. It was seen that the rationality of action can be appraised relatively to various mutually inconsistent programs that a person may, under different sets of conditions, have chosen. Because this is the case, it is essential, for the derivation of a praxeological theorem, that it be formulated in reference to one such program, whose dominance and relevance must, along with other information, be supplied by the data. Once the data have been supplied, theorems may be derived that will possess necessary truth, but their validity remains strictly dependent on the data; their truth is limited to the “programs” to which they are relevant.
It is a curious fact that critics of economic theory have time and again seized on this feature as a central and damning weakness. The application of economic theorems to the explanation of concrete historical situations requires careful scrutiny of the data on which such theorems are to be grounded. The data will vary, of course, from one concrete case to another. The correct use of economic propositions in particular real situations presupposes, as a matter of course, adequate factual information regarding changes in the data. The writers who have from time to time disparaged the work of economic theorists altogether and urged economists to devote themselves more or less exclusively to the description and classification of those changing facts themselves have pointed to the “relativity” of theories. They considered the necessary limitations on theoretical constructions, which are imposed by virtue of the fact that they are valid only in relation to given programs, as grounds for believing that economic knowledge can be derived more efficiently by simple reference to the changing programs themselves. An economic theory might be an elegant source of intellectual satisfaction, but the severe circumscription of its applicability made it of only academic interest.
It seems worthwhile to point out that, as our discussion of the foundations of praxeological knowledge makes clear, the acknowledged relativity of a praxeological theorem to a given program as its frame of reference is, in fact, not a weakness at all, but is, on the contrary, a reflection of remarkable scientific achievement. Contemplation of the raw data alone presents a range of social phenomena that seem to defy orderly explanation altogether. It seems impossible to develop chains of cause and effect that can bring any semblance of determinacy into the data. Certainly mere analysis of the masses of empirical figures cannot yield any stable “laws” and relationships. The very fact of changing programs, changing tastes and prejudices, makes for an area in which no logical necessity is visible at all and in which everything seems to be in a condition of haphazard flux.
It is into this bewildering mass of empirical data that the economic point of view throws a ray of light. It enables us to grasp an element that does introduce a measure of explanation into social phenomena. This element is laid bare by subjecting the empirical data to a systematic abstraction, made possible by recognition of the character of human action. By taking a cross section of social phenomena at a particular instant in time, by considering the programs that members of society have chosen at that instant and by mentally arresting program changes, one can apply praxeological theorems to these various programs and deduce the consequences. The conclusions so derived are valid in relation to the assumed programs, and provide an explanation of the concrete phenomena of the real world in so far as there is a tendency for men to adhere to programs once they have been initiated. Moreover, once the possibility of this type of explanation is grasped, it is clear that all historical phenomena admit, at least in principle, of being treated in such terms. It becomes merely a matter of feeding the suitable assumptions and data into the theoretical system and extracting the appropriately complicated chains of reasoning.
The crucial point is that the perception of any kind of explanatory framework has been made possible only by prescinding from any conceivable change in a given set of programs. The introduction of any kind of order into the jungle of empirical data has been accomplished by abstracting from full reality and accepting a hypothetical state of affairs as a frame of reference. It is the outstanding achievement of economic theorists to have been able to recognize determinate causal chains within the tangles of statistics; they were able to succeed in this only by treating social phenomena as the systematic working out of the praxeological consequences of given programs that were adhered to. A particular program may not necessarily be adhered to, but the emergence of human action at all presupposes the existence of some program that was adhered to, and it is in reference to this that praxeological reasoning provides the explanatory key.
An economic proposition referring to a given set of circumstances, a particular configuration of demand, a specific technological context will provide information concerning this definite situation. Changes in the data, a revolution in tastes, the acquisition of new habits, the discovery of more efficient techniques will all make up a situation to which a new praxeological solution will be relevant. To deny the applicability of economic reasoning because of the change in conditions is to deny that the old set of conditions did set up specific “forces” constraining action; it is to deny that these “forces” provide an interpretation of action that goes beyond a mere cataloguing of observed events. “But,” as Professor Knight has commented, “this fact certainly cannot be denied.”30
The position that the praxeological element occupies within the whole class of social phenomena has been set forth by various writers. Professors Mises and Knight have devoted considerable attention in their writings to the elucidation of this point.31 Within narrow limits man can be observed and his behavior explained purely mechanically. At this level of interpretation human behavior is considered only in the positive terms of stimulus and response; it is completely “caused” in the sense that the problem-solving elements in human conduct are ignored. On higher levels of interpretation, however, the conduct of men involves recognition of their putting forth effort, of their attempt to solve problems—in short, of their human actions.
Here again various levels of discussion are possible. Unquestionably the most “interesting” and, for the business of living, the most important is the consideration of the ways in which men have acquired their particular interests; the development of particular programs that men believe worthy of undertaking; the forces that determine people's value judgments and the emergence of their sense of absolute moral appraisement. The level of interpretation on which praxeology has a contribution to make is, however, a more modest one. It is willing to accept the interests and programs of men as data and seeks to understand, in terms of these interests and programs, the chains of consequences that can be deduced. The principles of human action make it possible to ascribe and refer back historical events to such interests and programs as “final causes” that can be accepted without further explanation.
Praxeology, Apriorism, and Operationalism
The considerations set forth in the previous section are sufficient to make clear what writers have had in mind when they have characterized economics as an a priori science. This description of economic knowledge has been repeatedly misunderstood; it has been repeatedly taken out of context and held up for ridicule.32 But the matter is essentially logical and clear.
Professor Mises in particular has stressed the a priori nature of praxeological knowledge. A theorem of a praxeological science provides information that has been derived by sheer reasoning; it is the product of pure logic without the assistance of any empirical observation. As such, a praxeological theorem is congeneric with a theorem of geometry; being the rigorously derived consequences of given assumptions, it partakes of the “apodictic certainty” that is necessarily possessed by such an exercise in logic.
Disagreement with this approach has been vigorously expressed by a number of writers. Dissatisfaction has arisen from several points of view. On the one hand, it is pointed out that an a priori theorem, being derived by sheer logic from given axioms, is necessarily circular, in that it merely tells us in a different way what we already know by our knowledge of the axioms themselves. All the information provided by economic reasoning is thus merely extended circumlocution. So long as economics was not acknowledged as a praxeological science, it is argued, this objection could not be raised. So long as it had been necessary to introduce specific postulates about the way in which people actually behave, an economic theorem did tell something new. If, for example, it was postulated that men behave “rationally” and rationality was defined so as to possess definite empirical content, such as a pattern of behavior that maximized money profits, and the like, then the consequences of this assumption do provide new information. Deduction from the specific assumption made has yielded a theory, against which the assumption could, in fact, be tested for its faithfulness to the facts. But with the emergence of the view of economic knowledge that saw it as completely independent of particular empirical assumptions, the situation became completely altered. A theorem describing the consequences of human behavior that does not take into account the concrete content of that behavior must remain, it has been repeatedly asserted, simply a different way of saying that people behave as they behave.33
Closely connected with this criticism of economics a priori are the objections raised against its supposed misuse of a method of doubtful respectability, viz., introspection. Implicit in much of the unfavorable discussion of apriorism in economics is the current belief that only “operationally meaningful” propositions ought to find a place in science.34 A theorem which makes no direct reference to observable facts, and which therefore cannot be “tested” against observable facts, is one the interpersonal validity of which must remain in doubt and to which “scientific” status is to be denied.
Now, these are issues that concern basic epistemological problems far wider than the range of this book. Closely though they relate to the praxeological view of the nature of the economic aspect of affairs, they themselves are concerned with inquiries into the nature of science and knowledge that would carry us far away from our own subject. Professor Robbins has gone so far as to relegate completely to philosophy all such discussions concerning the a priori character of economics.35 Mises, Knight, and Hayek have most vigorously justified the kind of introspection that is necessary for the conception of economic knowledge as “scientific” without being empirically “testable.”36 We are not so much concerned here with the scientific validity that may be attributed to a priori economics as with the clarification of the precise sense in which the praxeological conception of the economic point of view does, in fact, imply a strictly a priori position.
The concept of human action is sufficient, in the praxeological view, for the deduction of complex chains of reasoning concerning the choices men will make, the alternatives from which they will be forced to choose, and the like. Human action relates to real entities, goods, or services; it develops against the background of objectively measurable price relationships. Economic science seeks to provide an explanation of these real phenomena; it seeks to explain the consequences of given changes in data, to relate market phenomena to the underlying human motives. Praxeology envisages the successful attainment of these goals through the scrutiny of human affairs from a specific point of view that recognizes the teleological and rational nature of human action. This point of view makes possible the construction of chains of reasoning that are purely formal, in the sense that they refer to goods, services or factors of production only abstractly; they depend for their validity not on the specific objects with which human action may be concretely concerned, but only on postulated attitudes of men towards them. The propositions that can be deduced in this manner may thus, of course, include the analysis of situations that may be quite unreal. And in order to be of service in the understanding of reality, praxeology must direct its attention exclusively to the analysis of situations that correspond to the actualities of the external world. It would be possible, for example, to examine the consequences of a world in which labor was preferred over leisure. Economics could certainly deduce theorems concerning prices, incomes, and production in such a world. But this would be intellectual gymnastics of a fruitless kind.37
To maintain contact with situations that do in fact require explanation, economics must thus resort to experience for guidance. It must take the facts as they are and apply to them the a priori logic of human action. “It adopts for the organized presentation of its results a form in which aprioristic theory and the interpretation of historical phenomena are intertwined.”38 It is clear that the exposition of economics as an a priori science has never implied that it can dispense with references to factual observation in the final statement of its results. Particular economic propositions will concern human attitudes and conventions that do conform to those of the real world. The sense in which it is maintained that economics is an a priori branch of knowledge is a much narrower one. It concerns the contribution that the recognition of the concept of human action makes to the explanation of social phenomena.
The observation of facts provides useful knowledge. This is the procedure of history. But observation does not exhaust the knowledge and understanding that we can attain concerning these affairs. The economic point of view injects an immediate sense of order into these affairs, an order that brings with it a large measure of explanation. This explanation is achieved by subjecting the observed data to a specific scientific procedure, praxeological reasoning. This procedure is in itself quite independent of the facts to which it is applied. It could be applied to conditions that are nonexistent. It is itself the contribution of human logic and reasoning alone. In this sense the theorems of economics, closely though they refer to concrete reality, are to be described as a priori. They are derived purely from the knowledge that the human mind possesses of the category of action.39
The separation that is thus emphasized, between the facts and their logical analysis through economic reasoning, is a fruitful one. It stresses the quite distinct operations that are being performed in the observation of economic history and in the development of economic theorems. It focuses attention on the new source of knowledge that is provided by our understanding the nature of action. It illuminates the striking fact that pure reason can convey knowledge concerning brute facts of the real world. Because men act as reasoning beings, it is possible to explain their concrete patterns of behavior by applying to their attitude the theorems that our own reason has supplied.
All this does not prevent the praxeologist from maintaining a becoming modesty with regard to his own contribution. He does not in any way believe that his theorems can exhaust all that can be known about social phenomena; he does insist on the unique assistance he can provide. He does not deplore close attention to market data, to masses of statistics, and the like; but he does deprecate the view that this kind of scrutiny can be a substitute for economic reasoning or that it needs to be resorted to as a “test” for the correctness of such reasoning. His recognition of the category of human action does impress upon him most forcefully the utter helplessness with which the masses of facts must be faced without the illumination provided by a procedure of analysis that itself owes nothing to these facts—the application of economic reasoning.
The Economic Point of View and Praxeology
Our discussion thus far in this chapter has made no attempt to distinguish a specifically economic point of view from the general praxeological outlook. We set out, in this book, to examine the various points of view held to characterize economic science and through which an “economic” aspect of social phenomena has been distinguished. Our search has led us in this chapter to consider the filiation of ideas that have found the specifically economic point of view to be merely part of a broader perspective, the praxeological view. The economic aspect of affairs is simply the praxeological; a theorem of economics is simply a praxeological proposition.
To be sure, the praxeological perspective embraces a range of human action far wider than that usually treated in economic theory. All human actions, motivated though they may be by the entire range of the purposes that have inspired and fired men to act, come within the sway of the ideal praxeological discipline. The constraint that men feel to fulfil their purposes in spite of obstacles pervades all aspects of life. It is the position of praxeology that the common category that embraces the entire range of human efforts is the key to economic science. We have seen at various points in this book that economists have again and again searched for something in economics that should differentiate it from the rest of human action. These thinkers were deterred from expounding the praxeological character of economics for the very reason that this character is common to other aspects of social life.
The praxeological view sees economic science as the branch of praxeology that has been most highly developed.40 Perhaps other branches will one day attain a similar stage of development. The important point is that distinctions between various “branches” of praxeology must be arbitrary. Economics is a “given pie”; it is not a pie that every economist can make at will or for which he can prescribe his own recipe. Economic theory has a “nature of its own” that must be respected; certainly it must be recognized if its distinctive contribution is to be made at all. But the pie that is the economic aspect of affairs is bigger than that traditionally treated by economists; it embraces all human action. The slice that makes up economic theory may—so long as it is cut from the correct pie—be cut in any arbitrary way. “It is impossible to draw a clear-cut boundary around the sphere or domain of human action to be included in economic science.”41 “The scope of praxeology, the general theory of human action, can be precisely defined and circumscribed. The specifically economic problems ... can only by and large be disengaged from the comprehensive body of praxeological theory.”42
Economic theory has traditionally dealt with the phenomena of the market, prices, production, and monetary calculation. In these spheres of human activity, theorists have developed constructions that help to explain the regularities these phenomena evince and to bring into clear focus the tendencies for change in these phenomena consequent upon given autonomous changes in the data. Writers on economics have striven to present precise definitions of the scope of this discipline. From the point of view of praxeology, the earlier attempts suffered from their tendency to seek for the defining criteria in the nature of the specific affairs with which market phenomena are concerned. The consequence of these searches was the series of formulations examined in the earlier chapters of this book. The subject matter of economics came to be connected with the material things that are the objects of traffic in the market; it came to be linked peculiarly with the use of money in market transactions or with the specific social relationships that characterize the market system. Where writers came closest to the recognition that these criteria were only accidental characteristics of the affairs upon which economic analysis could be brought to bear, where they were able to glimpse the congenerousness of the specifically economic type of analysis with the underlying actions of men, they were unable to follow this clue to the conclusion to which it pointed. Precisely because those features in action that made it susceptible of economic analysis seemed common to all human activities, these writers were driven back to look for some other defining characteristic. And this meant again the search for some arbitrary quality to justify selecting the particular slice of pie that made up economic theory; but it meant in addition the relegation yet further into the background of the true recipe of that larger pie from which their conception of economics was being arbitrarily hacked.
From this point of view the formulation of the nature of the economic in terms of the allocation of scarce means among competing ends occupies a rather special position. This definition, discussed at length in the previous chapter, differs from the rest in its approach to the problem. It defines an aspect of human activities in general; it does not look for the key to economic phenomena in the specific kinds of activity with which they are mostly concerned. In finding the economic aspect of activities in general to consist in concern with the ends-means relationship, this conception too includes within its scope kinds of actions with which economics has had traditionally little to do. From the praxeological standpoint, in fact, the idea of economizing scarce means in allocating them among alternative ends, when used as a criterion for defining the domain of the economic, is nothing but a convenient, though artificial, framework in which human actions can be analyzed. The allocation among competing goals is a technical concomitant of a good deal of purposeful behavior. Human action does frequently call for carefully apportioning scarce means among competing projects. In a formal sense it is even possible to consider all human action as consisting in such allocation; but this involves the kind of artificiality in the conception of ends and means with which Professor Robbins' definition was charged. The principal merit of the latter is thus its implicit dependence on the concept of human action; its apparent inadequacies stem from its attempt to consider action as conforming to a particular technical pattern. Much of the criticism Robbins' definition received will be seen to dissolve when his conception of economics is related more clearly to the idea of human action. The allocation of scarce means among alternative ends simply signifies the consistent pursuit of ends, the consistent pursuit of the more highly valued ends taking precedence over the fulfilment of the less highly esteemed ends. It means, in fact, the exercise of the human faculty for purposeful action.
It is not to be denied that the ends-means formulation seems to fit with remarkable neatness the phenomena treated by economic theory. But this neatness has been achieved at the cost of a failure to press on to the very crux of the economic point of view. We are not thereby apprised, as the expression of this economic point of view is able to apprise us, how an analysis of human affairs by economic science is made possible by the very perspective from which the economic theorist views them. The ends-means dichotomy does not show how the recognition of the principle that governs the allocation of means conduces at the same time to a recognition of the possibility of scientific analysis and explanation of economic phenomena. Only when the economic point of view is conceived as focusing attention on the nature of human action is it able to provide the key to economic science. And in this sense it can indeed be contended that the definition of economics in terms of the economizing of scarce means (like others before it) “fails to convey an adequate concept of its nature,”43 until this definition is superseded by the fully developed conception of economics to which it logically leads, viz., the praxeological point of view.
“Economists would agree,” Cannan wrote, “that ‘Did Bacon write Shakespeare?’ was not an economic controversy. ... On the other hand, they would agree that the controversy would have an economic side if copyright were perpetual and the descendants of Bacon and Shakespeare were disputing the ownership of the plays.”44 This is so, Professor Robbins explains,45 because the supposed copyright laws would make the use of the plays scarce and would in turn yield their owners scarce means of gratification that would otherwise be differently distributed. Of course, Professor Robbins is correct, but the same explanation can be given in terms that make it immediately clear how the economic side of such a controversy is able to yield material for the economic theorist.
It can be explained, that is, that the controversy has an economic aspect because the assumed copyright laws affect the conditions of human action in either or both of two ways. In the first place, as they render the use of the plays scarce, the laws will have altered the pattern of action on the part of prospective producers. An additional obstacle has been placed in the way of persons desiring to produce the plays; and it will be obvious that a prospective producer will be constrained to forgo some less highly prized gratification in order to fulfil his dramatic purposes. On the other hand, it will be clear that this state of affairs opens up a new avenue by which the legal owner of the plays may possibly be enabled to fulfil his own purposes more completely, through taking advantage of the producers' attitudes. Either of these two influences of the controversy on human actions is sufficient to invest it with interest for the economic point of view. This way of expressing the nature of this point of view, however, reveals at the same time the very nature of the analysis that it makes possible.
[]On the term “praxeology,” see A. Espinas, “Les origines de la technologie,” Revue philosophique de la France et de l'étranger, 15th Year, July-December, 1890; L. Mises, Human Action (1949), p. 3; F. A. Hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science, p. 209, note 20.
[]For such early glimpses of the possibility of a science of human action, see H. Storch, Coursd'économie politique (St. Petersburg, 1815), I, ii; R. Jennings, Natural Elements of Political Economy (London, 1855), p. 41, where political economy is described as “a science of human actions”; W. E. Hearn, Plutology: or the Theory of the Efforts to Satisfy Human Wants (London and Melbourne, 1864).
[]Sidney Sherwood, “The Philosophical Basis of Economics, A Word to Sociologists,” Publications of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, October 5, 1897.
[]See further above, ch. II, in the section entitled “The Science of Subsistence.”
[]See, however, T. Parsons, “Economics and Sociology: Marshall in Relation to the Thought of His Time,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, February, 1932, p. 340, for the emphasis on that aspect of Pareto's thinking which cuts him off from economic behaviorism.
[]See International Economic Papers, No. 3, pp. 190, 204.
[]For a similar charge of implicit metaphysical bias in the position of those denying the concept of human action, see L. Mises, Theory and History (Yale, 1957), pp. 3 f.
[]The writings of R. G. Collingwood reveal some similarity to Croce's views. See, e.g., his “Human Nature and Human History,” Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. XXII (1936): “The self-knowledge of reason is not an accident; it belongs to its essence.” See also his “Economics as a Philosophical Science,” Ethics, Vol. XXXVI (1926).
[]B. Croce, Philosophy of the Practical (English ed.; London: Macmillan & Co., 1913), pp. 365–371. For a brief exposition of the position which Croce's views on economy occupy within his complete system of philosophy, see G. Tagliacozzo, “Croce and the Nature of Economic Science,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, May, 1945.
[]M. Weber, “Die Objektivitat sozialwissenschaftlicher und sozialpolitischer Erkenntnis,” Archiv fur Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, 1904; translated in Shils and Finch, eds., Max Weber on the Methodology of the Social Sciences (Glencoe: Free Press, 1949), p. 83.
[]See, e.g., M. Weber, “Die Grenznutzlehre und das ‘psychophysische’ Grundgesetz,” Archiv fur Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, 1908; reprinted in Gesammelte Aufsatze zur Wissenschaftslehre von Max Weber (Tübingen, 1922), pp. 364–365.
[]For criticism of Weber's conception of economics, see L. Mises, “Soziologie und Geschichte, Epilog zum Methodenstreit in der Nationalökonomie,” Archiv fur Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, 1929, pp. 465 ff. See further T. Parsons, The Structure of Social Action, ch. XVI, and Essays in Sociological Theory, Pure and Applied (Glencoe, 1949), pp. 67–147.
[]Cf. F. A. Hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science, p. 209, n. 24.
[]See also L. Mises, Socialism (English ed.; London, 1936), pp. 111 ff.; L. Mises, “Vom Weg der subjektivistichen Wertlehre,” Schriften des Vereins fur Sozialpolitik, 183/1, pp. 76–93; L. Mises, “Begreifen und Verstehen,” Schmollers Jahrbuch, 1930.
[]See, e.g., L. Robbins, Nature and Significance (1930); also his “Live and Dead Issues in the Methodology of Economics,” Economica, August, 1938; F. Kaufmann, Methodology of the Social Sciences (English ed.; New York, 1944), ch. XVI; M. Bowley, Nassau Senior and Classical Political Economy (1937), p. 64; T. W. Hutchison, The Significance and Basic Postulates of Economic Theory (1938); O. Morgenstern, The Limits of Economics (English ed.; 1937), p. 154.
[]See, e.g., L. M. Lachmann, “The Science of Human Action,” Economica, November, 1951, p. 413.
[]See, e.g., G. H. Schmidt, “Rapports de l'économie politique avec la morale et le droit,” Revued'économie politique, 1900, p. 334; G. Trade, Psychologie économique (Paris, 1902), p. 151.
[]On the use of teleology for the recognition of causation as running from the future back to the present, see W. C. Mitchell, “Commons on Institutional Economics,” American Economic Review, December, 1935, reprinted in The Backward Art of Spending Money, p. 334; Z. C. Dickinson, “The Relations of Recent Psychological Developments to Economic Theory,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, May, 1919, p. 388; see also the reference to Weber's writing above in note 10. Cf., however, M. J. Plotnick, Werner Sombart and His Type of Economics (New York, 1937), pp. 88–89.
[]K. Engliš, Grundlagen des wirtschaftlichen Denkens (Brunn, 1925).
[]See J. N. Tewari, “What Is Economics?” Indian Journal of Economics, April, 1947, pp. 421 ff., for the identification of rationality with purposefulness.
[]For an example of this kind of criticism, see J. Robinson, Economics Is a Serious Subject (Cambridge, 1932), p. 10.
[]For this type of objection, see L. M. Fraser, Economic Thought and Language, p. 37 n.; T. W. Hutchison, Significance and Basic Postulates of Economic Theory, pp. 115 ff.
[]Croce's characterization of the action of a man yielding to temptation as placing himself in contradiction to himself finds a recent echo in a passage in Little's Critique of Welfare Economics, p. 23. Little makes it clear that what is meant by a man's maximization of his utility is simply his behaving in the way in which he said he would behave. “Roughly speaking, maximizing utility means telling the truth.”
[]International Economic Papers, No. 3, p. 201. For an appraisal of Croce's position, see A. L. Macfie, An Essay on Economy and Value, Appendix B, pp. 143 ff.
[]International Economic Papers, No. 3, p. 177.
[]Professor Mises has not recognized the close similarity to his own position which is evidenced in Croce's writing (see L. Mises, Theory and History, p. 308). What appears to be the principal point of difference between their positions has little relevance to the conception of the character of economic science. Both writers emphasize the rationality of all human action; both recognize that a chosen program may fail to be adhered to either because of a technical error (an error of knowledge) or because of the choice of a new program of ends with respect to which action will be “rational.” Where the two writers disagree is that the discarding of a chosen program in favor of one chosen in response to a “temptation of the moment” is, for Croce, itself a special kind of error—an economic error, an error of will. For Mises, there is room for only one kind of error, an error of knowledge (see Theory and History, p. 268). The conscious abandonment of a chosen program under the influence of a fleeting temptation is considered “positively” as merely the adoption of a new set of ends instead of the old, and that is all.
[]G. Tagliacozzo, “Croce and the Nature of Economic Science,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, May, 1945, pp. 319–320.
[]Especially relevant to the considerations of this section are Mises' strictures on Weber's “ideal type” of rational economic behavior. See above, note 10.
[]The proposition that the notion of purpose implies a constraint that one select the most suitable means for the fulfilment of the purpose is not a proposition about that purpose. The proposition as such cannot, for example, be “explained” (as Macfie does) by the postulation of a moral urge to fulfil one's purposes. Rather, the proposition, on the praxeological view, sets forth the nature of purpose itself. The statement that man's actions are purposeful is thus only another way of saying that man feels constrained to match means to ends.
[]F. H. Knight, “Professor Parsons on Economic Motivation,” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 1940, p. 463. In this connection it is of interest to notice that the position of economic science in the face of changing hierarchies of chosen programs has been set forth with exceptional clarity by F. S. C. Northrop in his article “The Impossibility of a Theoretical Science of Economic Dynamics,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, November, 1941, reprinted as ch. XIII in his The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1947). Northrop demonstrates the impossibility of theoretical economic dynamics (on the assumptions and with the method of contemporary economic theory) by pointing out the lack, in economic affairs, of the conditions for such a theory. The data of economics (human wants) are, for its theorems, purely formal entities, whose specific properties are necessarily not to be considered. Moreover, there is no way of deducing the structure of future wants from present wants because wants obey no “conservation law.” Nor, Northrop adds, is there any a priori reason why the subject matter of economics should be conceived in terms of concepts obeying such a law. The quest for an economic dynamics may well “have its basis in a dogmatic assumption, with respect to which our empirical knowledge already gives the lie.” Northrop takes two groups of critics to task: those who mistakenly demand of economics that it take account of changes in the basic data—the relevant chosen ends; and those who, despairing of such an achievement, conclude that economics is of no use whatsoever. Both extremes err in their assessment of the nature of the scientific contribution that it is in the power of economic theory to make.
[]See, e.g., L. Mises, Theory and History, ch. XII; F. H. Knight, “Professor Parsons on Economic Motivation,” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 1940, pp. 463 ff.; F. H. Knight, “‘What Is Truth’ in Economics?” On the History and Method of Economics (Chicago, 1956), pp. 171–173.
[]For passages in which the a priori view has been compared to scholasticism, see R. F. Harrod, The Trade Cycle, pp. 38–39; E. C. Harwood, Reconstruction of Economics, p. 39.
[]See, e.g., T. W. Hutchison, Significance and Basic Postulates of Economic Theory, p. 116; P. A. Samuelson, Foundations of Economic Analysis (Cambridge, 1948), p. 91.
[]On this see the references in the previous note; see also A. G. Papandreou, Economics as a Science (1958). For a criticism of this position, see F. Machlup, “The Inferiority Complex of the Social Sciences” in On Freedom and Free Enterprise, Essays in Honor of Ludwig von Mises, ed. M. Sennholz (1956).
[]L. Robbins, “Live and Dead Issues in the Methodology of Economics,” Economica, August, 1938, p. 348.
[]See, e.g., L. Mises, Theory and History, pp. 283 ff.; F. H. Knight, “‘What Is Truth’ in Economics?” On the History and Method of Economics, p. 160; F. A. Hayek, Counter-Revolution of Science, Part I, ch. III; cf. also P. A. Sorokin, Socio-cultural Causality, Space, Time (Durham, 1943), ch. I. See also F. S. C. Northrop, Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities, p. 247, for the recognition of the “empirical verification” of economic theory in the confirmation of its logical derivation from the immediately confirmed postulates. On this see also M. Rothbard, “Mises' ‘Human Action’: Comment,” American Economic Review, March, 1951, p. 181; M. Rothbard, “Towards a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics” in On Freedom and Free Enterprise, Essays in Honor of Ludwig von Mises, ed. M. Sennholz (1956), pp. 225–228.
[]L. Mises, Human Action (Yale, 1949), p. 65; cf. M. Pantaleoni, Pure Economics (English ed.; London, 1898), p. 8.
[]L. Mises, Human Action, p. 66. See also F. A. Hayek, “Economics and Knowledge,” Economica, 1937; reprinted in Individualism and Economic Order (1948), pp. 47–48.
[]See especially the remarks on Mises' “apriorism” by H. Bernadelli in his “What Has Philosophy to Contribute to the Social Sciences, and to Economics in Particular?” Economica, November, 1936, p. 449. For an analysis of propositions concerning land rent which displays the a priori nature of the pure economic theory involved as well as its relation to the empirical finding that makes the theory applicable to specific situations, see Hayek, Counter-Revolution of Science, p. 32.
[]For a systematic table of the possible praxeological sciences and the place that economics occupies within the system, see M. Rothbard, “Praxeology: Reply to Mr. Schuller,” American Economic Review, December, 1951, pp. 945–946.
[]F. H. Knight, “The Common Sense of Political Economy,” Journal of Political Economy, October, 1934, reprinted in On the History and Method of Economics (University of Chicago Press, copyright 1956 by the University of Chicago), p. 110.
[]L. Mises, Human Action, p. 235.
[]C. L. Robbins, Nature and Significance, p. 22.
[]E. Cannan, Wealth (1st ed.), ch. I.
[]L. Robbins, Nature and Significance, p. 22.