Praxeology: People do the darndest things

The study of economics, properly understood, develops an understanding of the role of incentives in human action. Why do people do what they do? Or better yet, the eternal cry of wives, “Men! Who understands them!” There was a twitter conversation by a couple of fellows I often enjoy and they were discussing various aspects of human action, thought, free-will, consciousness, and so forth. So I thought I might look at the political/economic aspects of the conversation today. One could do no better than to start with a quote by von Mises:

Human action is purposeful behavior. Or we may say: Action is will put into operation and transformed into an agency, is aiming at ends and goals, is the ego’s meaningful response to stimuli and to the conditions of its environment, is a person’s conscious adjustment to the state of the universe that determines his life. Such paraphrases may clarify the definition given and prevent possible misinterpretations. But the definition itself is adequate and does not need complement of commentary.

Praxeology is the study of human action and is the distinctive methodology of the Austrian school. The term was first applied to the Austrian Method by Ludwig von Mises. Praxeology rests on the fundamental axiom that individual human beings act: that is, on the primordial fact that individuals engage in conscious actions toward chosen goals. Von Mises argued that praxeology is not concerned with the individual’s definition of end satisfaction. How could we really know that? No, we are just concerned with the way the acting human seeks satisfaction and that individual’s removing sources of dissatisfaction or “uneasiness”. An acting man is defined as one capable of voluntary and conscious behaviour. If he is not capable of that then he is reduced to a creature who simply reacts only to stimuli by instinct. Note that an acting man must have a source of dissatisfaction which he believes can be changed else he will not act.

If, in the broad sense, the axioms of praxeology are radically empirical, they are far from the post-Humean empiricism that pervades the modern methodology of social science. In addition to the foregoing considerations, (1) they are so broadly based in common human experience that once enunciated they become self-evident and hence do not meet the fashionable criterion of “falsifiability”; (2) they rest, particularly the action axiom, on universal inner experience, as well as on external experience, that is, the evidence is reflective rather than purely physical; and (3) they are therefore a priori to the complex historical events to which modern empiricism confines the concept of  “experience.” (Murray N. Rothbard)

Note, please, that an acting man may do things that look like they go against his own self interest. Are you so young that you have never known a self-destructive man or one who was his own worst enemy at times? (if not, e-mail me and I’ll tell you about myself!) A man must make choices where some are for short term satisfaction and some are for the best in “the long run”. Additionally a man may seek to reduce his discomfort by well reasoned actions that turn out later to be in error. Yes, humans make mistakes. Who knew?

Also note that we don’t consider where consciousness originally came from or where free-will came from (or even if we do, in fact, have free-will). I have definite opinions on those things but they are not the matter of studying economics. Rothbard once gave these definitions: praxeology consists of the logical implications of the universal formal fact that people act, that they employ means to try to attain chosen ends. Technology deals with the contentual problem of how to achieve ends by adoption of means. Psychology deals with the question of why people adopt various ends and how they go about adopting them. Ethics deals with the question of what ends, or values, people should adopt. And history deals with ends adopted in the past, what means were used to try to achieve them – and what the consequences of these actions were.

And apparently, this blog deals with the thoughts of one of Rothbard’s least able students. Thank the god’s he had so many better ones! I just hope Steve and the “moral libertarian” think the above added to the discussion they had last night. I also hope you, dear reader, found some subjective value in using your time to get to this sentence over whatever you gave up to do so.

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3 thoughts on “Praxeology: People do the darndest things

    • I was more talking in general about what “humans acting” was and I was chiming in on a conversation that happened on twitter yesterday so perhaps it was not my best post. If you talk about econ and human action it is hard not to sound like a von Mises parrot. I’ll try to be more lucid in the future.

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