Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Economic Point of View and Praxeology - The Economic Point of View
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The Economic Point of View and Praxeology - 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 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.
[]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.