Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Assumption of Constant Wants—the Praxeological Context - The Economic Point of View
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The Assumption of Constant Wants—the Praxeological Context - Israel M. Kirzner, The Economic Point of View 
The Economic Point of View: An Essay in the History of Economic Thought, ed. with an Introduction by Laurence S. Moss (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews McMeel, 1976).
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The 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.
[]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.