Human Action. The Foundation of Society
This text is:
(a) an attempt to bring to discussion some fascinating concepts: socialist utopia (dystopia), reason, human action, praxeology, economics, apriorism, society and liberalism;
(b) an invitation to read: Human Action – Ludwig von Mises (available in Romanian, you can order it here).
Socialist utopia (dystopia)
Over time, numerous socialist utopians have sought the perfect society. Some had colossal plans and some claimed good intentions, but when social conditions would not meet their hopes and dreams, they blamed moral precariousness. In order to achieve their ideal society, they needed only the “good princes” and the so called “virtuous citizens”. In some cases, these utopians (or their followers) used brute force to reshape society for “a greater good”. They brought concentration camps, instituted reeducation programs, abolished all beliefs that were not theirs, rebuilt the past to match their claim, and redesigned the language in order to limit and control the thought process. In all of these cases, socialist utopia, through the application of brute force, leads to dystopia.
I assume that it is the duty of the free man to stand against these atrocities, not as mere a reactionary individual, but as a promoter of a simpler way of thinking regarding his fellow men – liberalism based on human action.
The premise of this method is that each and every individual is the sole owner of their body by the force of their reason. Whether it is God-given or a mere fact of evolution, reason represents the bedrock of civilization. In order to prove the existence of human reason it is necessary only to think about the concept of human reason. This process implies that thinking is the use of reason; hence, the initial assumption becomes self-evident. The attempt to define reason presupposes its existence. One will not be able to think about a definition or anything else in the absence of the ability to reason.
Reason is an ultimate given, it is not relevant for this discussion to go back in time before reason emerged, but it is important to understand that reason produces human action and human action is the foundation of society.
The human being has reason and he or she acts accordingly. He or she sets goals and chooses between means in order to fulfill their ambitions. That is why, Homo sapiens is Homo agens, –the human being as an acting being. It is also true that reason is fallible; an action unfit for a purpose will not meet expectations. Through training the human being becomes only more effective in achieving goals, but cannot increase his reason.
Acting is not just doing – it is, likewise, abstaining from doing something that could be done. For example, the limits of a survey are self-evident because the survey will only show intentions or preferences, not real actions that someone will take. An action differs from a mere preference when the will is set in motion. Even the insane have the ability to set a goal and to follow it. To an outsider, their action will appear “irrational”, but irrational means reflex only, the real irrational person being the somnambulist.
The human being acts in search of happiness – that state of mind which does not require or cannot generate any action whatsoever. The action is started in order to eliminate the discomfort state in existence.
Human action and social cooperation make up a science of relations, not a normative discipline of what should happen. Human action means choosing one thing and letting another aside. Praxeology is a deductive science (Ancient Greek “praxis” – meaning “action”, and “-logos” – meaning “science”). Moreover, praxeology is the general theory of human action. While psychology looks at the subconscious, praxeology studies the conscious side of human action and it includes all social sciences. Economics is, perhaps, the most elaborate part of praxeology.
Economics has to answer one question, at least. What is the relation between its theory and the reality of human action? Economists have to explain human action and, in order to do that, they must explain: money, property, capital, goods, credit, price, exchange, interest, production, labor, salary, unemployment, opportunity cost, market, competition – and so on, in no particular order. The aim of economic studies is to clarify concepts such as these and the problems that they will generate. What is money? How has money appeared? How are prices formed? Who is the actual entrepreneur? Is interest a real thing? What is the right salary? Can we be well off without capital and capital goods? What is an economic crisis? Do business cycles really exist? Is there an invisible hand that guides the market? Is it possible to avoid the opportunity cost? And the list goes on endlessly.
Economics is a theoretical science which does not impose value judgments; hence, it is not its duty to tell people what to do or what purpose to choose. It is a science of means that can be applied in order to obtain the desired results. The teachings of Economics are valid for any human action regardless of its motivations, causes and goals. Economics it is not a laboratory science, it is not similar to natural sciences – which owe their success to the observation and experiment method. Take, for instance, a molecule of water – it is formed by two atoms of Hydrogen and one of Oxygen and, every time, this combination will form a water molecule. It is not possible for an atom to change its mind, it has no reason, and therefore it cannot act.
The human being has the advantage of reason manifested through human action and has a priori knowledge about society – knowledge without looking for empirical verification. Reason cannot make him or her omniscient – no matter how much they would increase his knowledge, there will still be at least one ultimate given, reason itself. If the human being wants to gain knowledge, they have to rely on reason. Using the deductive method the human being understands how Economics works.
For example, in case of an exchange, undertaken as a voluntary agreement between two people, both parties gain from it; if they did not expect to benefit, they would not agree to the exchange in the first place. In order to get a hamburger, it is necessary to pay for it. If you decide to buy it, it means that you value the hamburger more than you value that sum of money. The same is valid for the vendor, but in reverse. He values more that sum of money, the price you have to pay, than he values the hamburger. If these two conditions are not met simultaneously, the voluntary exchange will not take place.
In each and every action, the individual is the one who acts, whether we think about a state or a group of people. Nevertheless, “the mob mentality” could take over. For example, a group is formed in order to catch a thief, whereas no individual would have done that alone, but, the correct interpretation is that the individuals in the group did that, not the group by itself.
Society is voluntary cooperation between people. It is an intellectual and spiritual phenomenon. The principle of division of labor is the main pillar of society that made possible the emancipation of mankind. Social cooperation is based on natural conditions: the innate inequality of people in their ability to perform different types of work; the unequal distribution of production factors; the success of some attempts requires higher forces than those of one man. Society does not have its own life and its own purposes; it is formed through individuals’ peaceful cooperation within the division of labor.
Liberalism is a political doctrine. It is not a theory, but a way to apply theories created within the realm of praxeology, especially in Economics. Liberalism seeks to establish a system of government susceptible to preserving peace because the division of labor is a consequence of peace and the only way the society can thrive. It implies that people act by pursuing goals and aims to create the optimal framework for using the appropriate means to obtain the expected results. Furthermore, it seeks to make the average human freer from material worries so that they may become interested in higher goals than mere subsistence.
Liberalism is rationalistic. It affirms that it is possible for the majority of people to understand that their purposes, correctly understood, are better served under peaceful cooperation within society than by mutual conflicts and social disintegration.
A final thought
Ludwig von Mises said that this optimism may be unfounded and that liberals may have been mistaken, but, in this case, there will be no hope for the future of mankind. Moreover, free human action will disappear and society as we know and love will falter.
1. Human Action, Ludwig von Mises, Mises Bookstore (available in Romanian).
3. Human Action, Robert P. Murphy, MisesMedia.