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Cooperation, Enterprise, and Human Action
By Robert P. Murphy
The Independent InstituteCopyright © 2015 Independent Institute
All rights reserved.
The Science of Economics and Human Action
What Do Economists Study?
ALTHOUGH VIRTUALLY EVERYONE recognizes the importance of economic issues, most people have little understanding of the scope of economic science and its relation to other disciplines. Topics such as money, inflation, and unemployment are clearly ones that economists study, whereas gravity, electricity, and magnetism are studied by physicists. But drawing a precise boundary line around the subject matter of economics can be difficult; not even professional economists agree on the solution. Even so, it's important for a general introduction to economics to take a stand because defining the boundaries of economic science will clarify for the reader what economics is and, at the same time, will shed light on the proper method for "doing economics."
Before offering a working definition of the scope of economics, we should first emphasize that it truly is a separate field of scientific inquiry. As the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises wrote:
Economics is the youngest of all sciences ... [E]conomics opened to human science a domain previously inaccessible and never thought of. The discovery of a regularity in the sequence and interdependence of market phenomena went beyond the limits of the traditional system of learning. It conveyed knowledge which could be regarded neither as logic, mathematics, psychology, physics, nor biology.
Granted that economists have something to offer humanity, what exactly is it? To quote Nobel laureate James Buchanan, what should economists do?
As we already have explained, the awkward fact is that not even economists can agree on this question. For one thing, some of the most prestigious textbooks don't even bother to precisely define the topic of inquiry. For example, Hal Varian's popular graduate-level text on microeconomics jumps right into a firm's "production function" in the very first sentence. A little better is David Romer's popular graduate-level text in macroeconomics, which declares in the opening sentence, "Macroeconomics is the study of the economy as a whole." Yet this explanation sheds little light, since we want to know what does it mean to "study the economy"? If we ask whether the charging of interest is in accordance with Islamic law, does that question fall under economics, theology, or both? Sending a rocket into space involves fuel and usually government spending, so does that mean rocket science is a branch of economics?
It may be that graduate-level textbooks don't rigorously define economics because the authors assume their readers are already familiar with the nature of the science. Turning to an undergraduate macroeconomics text, we find authors Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok informing their readers, "Economics is the study of how to get the most out of life." This is promising, yet still somewhat vague. Best-selling undergraduate textbook author Greg Mankiw writes, "Economics is the study of how society manages its scarce resources." This is more informative but is hardly a crisp definition.
Perhaps our problem is looking at textbooks, which presuppose an academic environment and are understandably eager to "jump into the details." If we turn instead to popular economics books written for a general audience, maybe we will get a better sense of how economists view the nature of their discipline. For example, economist Steven Levitt, one of the authors of the bestselling Freakonomics, claims:
Economics is above all a science of measurement. It comprises an extraordinarily powerful and flexible set of tools that can reliably assess a thicket of information to determine the effect of any one factor, or even the whole effect. That's what "the economy" is, after all: a thicket of information about jobs and real estate and banking and investment.
Although Levitt's description no doubt characterizes the activities of many of today's professional economists, his explanation would apply to any scientist relying on techniques such as regression analysis, including not just sociologists and criminologists, but also meteorologists, a field that obviously is quite distinct from economics. We're still left wondering: What exactly is it about economics that sets it apart from other disciplines?
Popular economics authors Steven Landsburg and David Friedman, in their respective books for the general public, finally offer the clear statements we have been seeking. After describing his younger misconceptions, Landsburg explains:
Here is what I now think economics is about. First, it is about observing the world with genuine curiosity and admitting that it is full of mysteries. Second, [economics] is about trying to solve those mysteries in ways that are consistent with the general proposition that human behavior is usually designed to serve a purpose. (italics added)
In his own description of the nature of economic science, David Friedman elaborates on this notion of purpose: "Economics is that way of understanding behavior that starts from the assumption that individuals have objectives and tend to choose the correct way to achieve them."
Landsburg and Friedman's characterizations cast economics as a science that studies purposeful human behavior, which of course includes conventional economic topics such as starting a business, looking for a job, and investing for retirement. Yet the scope of purposeful human behavior is obviously much broader than narrowly economic matters. After all, offering a marriage proposal, kicking a field goal, and committing an act of terrorism are examples of purposeful human behavior, too — are these topics acceptable fodder for an economist to study?
Ludwig von Mises on Economics and the Broader Study of "Human Action"
Ludwig von Mises, and many of the Austrian economists who followed him, resolved these thorny problems in the following way. He first recognized that the classical economists — giants such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo — made immortal contributions to the field by explaining certain patterns in the movement of prices and other events in the marketplace. These pioneers showed that there were indeed laws of economics that were just as real as laws of physics or chemistry and which government officials had to acknowledge if they wished to be successful in their own actions.
However, the great deficiency of the classical economists was that they tried to explain the market price of a good by its cost of production and, ultimately, by the human labor embodied in its construction. During the marginal revolution of the 1870s, economists abandoned the labor theory of value and instead embraced the modern subjective theory of value. Rather than explaining the price of a good by reference to its costs, now economists started with the fact that the buyer derives satisfaction or utility from obtaining one more unit of the good; that is the bedrock principle to understand why a buyer willingly pays for it.
This new way of thinking ushered in a transformation of the scope of economics itself. As Mises describes it:
[T]he transition from the classical theory of value to the subjective theory of value was much more than the substitution of a more satisfactory theory of market exchange for a less satisfactory one. The general theory of choice and preference goes far beyond the horizon which encompassed the scope of economic problems as circumscribed by the [classical] economists. ... It is much more than merely a theory of the "economic side" of human endeavors ... It is the science of every kind of human action. Choosing determines all human decisions. ... The modern theory of value widens the scientific horizon and enlarges the field of economic studies. Out of the political economy of the classical school emerges the general theory of human action, praxeology. The economic or catallactic [i.e., events involving an exchange] problems are embedded in a more general science, and can no longer be severed from this connection. No treatment of economic problems proper can avoid starting from acts of choice; economics becomes a part, although the best [developed] part, of a more universal science, praxeology. (italics in original.)
We now understand why Mises chose to give his grand treatise on economics the initially odd title Human Action. It is because Mises views the conventional topics of economic inquiry — prices, money, the business cycle — as falling under the umbrella of a more general subject matter, namely human action itself. Rather than looking at "economic man" the way that the classical economists did — as a fictitious being motivated by the desire to accumulate material wealth — the new approach looked at acting man or woman as such. In other words, Mises argued that it was no longer necessary to assume, as the classical economists did, that people, at least in their roles in the marketplace, were motivated by selfish, pecuniary desires. All the economist had to assume was that people were motivated by desires, period. The same analytical tools that best explained greedy hedge fund managers were also appropriate for explaining the actions of Mother Teresa.
In the present book, we will follow the example of Mises in his approach to this subject matter. In Part One, we explore the general implications of the fact that humans act, meaning that they make conscious decisions in an attempt to achieve desired goals. Once we have outlined the scope of a scientific study of human action in general — what Mises dubbed praxeology — we will narrow the focus to human action within the context of society and the institution of private property. In this realm of the study of market exchanges — what Mises dubbed catallactics — we will find the traditional subject matter of economics textbooks.
To many professional economists, the attention we give here to the boundaries and nature of economic science may seem excessive. After all, natural scientists such as physicists don't spend a lot of time pontificating about what physics is, but instead roll up their sleeves and start doing it. Yet Mises and many of his followers thought that it was crucial to study the foundations of economic science in order to develop it properly. Very few people dispute the current understanding of what physics is and how it can help humanity, but there is far less consensus — even among economists themselves — on the proper scope, use, and method of economic science. As we will see throughout the course of this book, how economists view the nature of their field ends up having a strong impact on the way they do their economics and can affect the policy conclusions they may give to government officials. Therefore, although our discussion so far may appear as irrelevant philosophy to some economists, for those following in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises, these matters are as critical as laying a proper foundation before building a house.CHAPTER 2
The Definition and Components of Action
MODERN ECONOMISTS VIEW the conventional study of prices, money, and recessions as part of a broader study of intentional human choices that are guided by underlying desires or preferences. For this reason, economists feel justified in commenting on apparently noneconomic areas, such as marriage decisions and the impact of seatbelt legislation. In the terminology of Mises, modern economics is just one important part of the broader scientific study of action.
To avoid confusion, and to be sure the reader understands exactly what economists have in mind with such language, we should provide some further clarification. First, when we say that economists study action, we mean purposeful behavior, which does not include all human behavior. If a patient lifts his leg in response to the doctor tapping his knee with a small hammer, that isn't action in the way we are using the term; it is merely a reflex. However, if the doctor insults the patient, who then kicks him in retaliation, that is action.
Also keep in mind that action need not involve observable bodily movements. If one student in class is listening intently to the lecture while another is on the verge of dozing off, the professor might not be able to distinguish between the two merely from looking at their faces. Yet the former student is engaging in action — she is choosing to pay attention — whereas the latter student might be falling asleep without even realizing it.
In a related vein, sometimes the significance of an action consists in the failure of a person to behave in a particular way. For example, if everyone in a neighborhood ignores the cries for help emanating from someone on the street, outsiders will be outraged when they learn of the episode. In our terminology, these neighborhood residents still acted because they consciously chose to stay indoors, rather than rendering assistance.
Having defined the concept of action as purposeful behavior, several results logically follow, simply by thinking through the definition and what it entails. We'll explore some of these results in the remaining sections of this chapter.
If There's Action, There Must Be an Actor
The most obvious implication of invoking the notion of action is that we are admitting the existence of another mind at work. We do this so effortlessly in our everyday lives that we take it for granted, but it is quite an extraordinary hypothesis. When the physicist looks at a falling rock, for example, it would be considered quite unscientific to explain the phenomenon by suggesting that the rock "wants to get closer to the center of the earth." Yet in economics, it is perfectly acceptable to explain high beachfront real estate prices by suggesting that homeowners "want to get closer to the ocean."
The reason for the different approach in the case of the rock versus the homeowners is that each of us knows what it "feels like" to be a thinking being — or so the author of the present book hypothesizes! — and it sure seems as if other human beings are quite similar to ourselves. Thus, it is quite reasonable to assume that there's "something going on inside their minds," just as our own bodily movements seem to be motivated by conscious intentions. We perceive an "ego" or "will" that is somehow anchored in the physical bodies of other human beings. Philosophers and cognitive scientists have much to say on these weighty matters, but for our purposes, we need only to point out that this is what we're doing, every time we interpret an event as an example of action, as opposed to the mindless movement of matter according to the laws of physics.
When we interpret events as being at least partially due to one or more actions, it forces us to specify who the actors are. For example, we might say, "In 1941 Japan bombed the United States." Yet if we think through the statement more carefully, we realize that it's just shorthand, since a nation per se isn't really an actor with an independent mind and desires. A more accurate statement would be, "In 1941 various Japanese pilots chose to obey orders to drop bombs on an American naval base."
Purposeful Behavior Implies an Underlying Purpose (Preferences)
Another obvious implication of invoking the concept of action is that the acting individuals must have underlying goals or desires, what economists more formally call preferences. After all, if the observing economist is going to explain an event by saying a conscious mind is behaving purposefully, then it only makes sense to attribute an actual purpose to that conscious mind.
Excerpted from Choice by Robert P. Murphy. Copyright © 2015 Independent Institute. Excerpted by permission of The Independent Institute.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Donald J. Boudreaux,
Relationship between Contents of Choice (Robert Murphy) and Human Action (Ludwig von Mises),
PART I Human Action,
1 The Science of Economics and Human Action,
2 The Definition and Components of Action,
3 Economic Theory versus Historical Understanding,
4 Further Economic Concepts and Principles Flowing from Action,
PART II Action within the Framework of Society,
5 Human Society and the Division of Labor,
6 The Role of Ideas and the Importance of Reason,
PART III Economic Calculation,
7 Even the Economists Missed the Importance of Monetary Calculation,
8 What Economic Calculation Can and Can't Do,
PART IV Catallactics: Economics of the Market Society,
9 Defining and Studying the Market Economy,
10 How Prices Are Formed on the Market,
11 Indirect Exchange and Money,
12 The Misesian Approach to Money & Banking,
13 Capital, Time Preference, and the Theory of Interest,
14 Austrian Business Cycle Theory,
PART V Social Cooperation without a Market,
15 The Impossibility of Economic Calculation under Socialism,
PART VI The Hampered Market Economy,
16 Government Intervention in the Market Economy,
PART VII The Place of Economics in Society,
17 Economics and Public Opinion,
About the Author,