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Portable von Mises
on November 30, 2010
This new edition is, obviously, more affordable and portable than prior editions. This is helpful, as one can now take this classic book to read most anywhere. It is a long and complicated book, so finding enough time to read it is problematic.
Human Action is one of the ten most insightful books on economics ever written. This is impressive, but even more impressive that Mises has more than one book on this list (in my opinion). Human Action is the most recent (hopefully not the last) great treatise on political economy. While some treatises compile the ideas of others, there are many original and important insights to this book. Perhaps the most important insight of this book concerns economic calculation. Mises sees economic calculation as the most fundamental problem in economics. The economic problem to Mises is that of action. We act to dispel feelings of uneasiness, but can only succeed in acting if we comprehend causal connections between the ends that we want to satisfy, and available means. Mises is drawing upon Menger's brilliant 1871 book here, but he has his own ideas as well. The fact that we live in a world of causality means that we face definite choices as to how we satisfy our ends. Human Action is an application of Human Reason to select the best means of satisfying ends. The reasoning mind evaluates and grades different options. This is economic calculation.
Economic calculation is common to all people. Mises insisted that the logical structure of human minds is the same for everybody. Of course, this is not to say that all minds are the same. We make different value judgments and posses different data, but logic is the same for all. Human reason and economic calculation have limitations, but Mises sees no alternative to economic calculation as a means of using scarce resources to improve our well being.
Human Action concerns dynamics. The opposite to action is not inaction. Rather, the opposite to action is contentment. In a fully contented state there would be no action, no efforts to change the existing order of things (which might be changed by merely ceasing to do some things). We act because we are never fully satisfied, and will never stop because we can never be fully satisfied. This might seem like a simple point, but modern economics is built upon ideas of contentment- equilibrium analysis and indifference conditions. It is true that some economists construct models of dynamic equilibrium, but the idea of a dynamic equilibrium is oxymoronic to Mises. An actual equilibrium may involve a recurring cycle, but not true dynamics. True dynamics involve non-repeating evolutionary change.
Mises explains dynamic change in terms of `the plain state of rest'. A final state of rest involves perfect plans to fully satisfy human desires. A plain state of rest is a temporary and imperfect equilibrium deriving from past human plans. Though any set of plans is imperfect, to act means attempting to improve each successive set of plans. Movement from one plain state of rest to another represents the process of change, either evolutionary or devolutionary. How then do we experience progress?
Mises links progress and profits. Profits earned from voluntary trades are the indicator of economic success. It is monetary calculation of profits that indicates whether an enterprise has generated a net increase in consumer well being over true economic costs. The close association that Mises draws between economic calculation and monetary calculation leads him to conclude that market prices (upon which monetary profits are calculated) are indispensable to progress in bettering the human condition. Without markets there are no prices, and without prices there is no economic calculation. One point that Mises made, but did not get enough attention, is that monetary calculation takes place primarily in financial markets. This is especially clear on page 704 of the scholar's edition. Monetary calculation is vitally important, but who actually carries out these calculations?
Mises stresses the importance of entrepreneurship because it is entrepreneurs who actually do monetary calculation. This fact puts entrepreneurs at the center of all progress (and failure). Entrepreneurs who estimate costs more correctly than their rivals earn high profits while also serving consumers. Such men rise to top positions in industry. Entrepreneurs who err seriously in their calculations experience financial losses and cease to direct production. Mises described this market test of entrepreneurial skills as the only process of trial and error that really matters. The concepts of monetary calculation, financial speculation, and entrepreneurship form the basis for the von Mises critique of socialism.
Mises has nothing good to say about interventionism either. As for the business cycle, this is generated by the manipulation of interest rates by central banks. It is fairly obvious that Mises opposed the idea of government run economic systems, but Mises did see limited roles for government in providing national defense, police protection, and criminal justice. Some contemporary Mises enthusiasts would disagree, yet the state proposed by Mises would (in my opinion) be a vast improvement over our present state of affairs.
There are too many angles to this book to discuss fully in this review, but the more controversial parts concern methodology. Mises rejects positivism and mathematical economics. As for positivism, Mises does not argue that economics should not be empirical. Mises argues that it CANNOT be empirical. Ideas are logically prior to data of complex phenomena. Without ideas to interpret data on social phenomena we could not make sense of anything in society. Critics of von Mises tend to be totally unaware of this argument.
Mises sees ideas as all-important. It is our ideas that govern our actions. We act because we have ideas as to particular means of dispelling uneasiness. Some see causal connections between government intervention and increased societal welfare. Students of Mises see things differently, because we hold different ideas. This is a very important angle of the Mises paradigm. As Mises wrote in 1922, only ideas can overcome ideas. Marxian notions of the material forces of history and class interest as the prime movers of history are not only wrong, but dangerous because they are anti-rationalist. Ideas matter above all else, and the ideas developed by Mises in Human Action matter above all others.