I’ve been thinking about praxeology recently, especially as it pertains to information acquisition.
This is a synthesis of two ideas that don’t seem to come together often. On one hand, understanding praxeology–the study of human action–and information acquisition–the perpetuation of knowledge and ideological constructs–partially go hand in hand.
But I believe that praxeology has a piece of the picture missing, and memetics likewise has an oversimplified view of reality. The former field of study cares more about how people act on information rather than how they acquire it. This is because it is most often applied in the field of economics, especially by those in the Austrian school.
The Acquisition of Information
Information is what we know about the world around us.
Praxeology does not deal with information directly.
Praxeology looks at value judgments–although it is value-free in its own assessment of these judgments–that people make based on the information they have available to them.
A major consequence of this is that it does not deal with the acquisition of information.
To grossly simplify things to the point of potentially causing error, praxeology in economics looks like this: People gauge the investment of time and resources (capital) in a line of production (industry), and then compare it to all other endeavors they could engage in (opportunity cost) to determine whether it is the best possible use of their resources (i.e. if they will profit).
In economics, the data source is clear. Market prices guide behavior. Lacking a market, barter exchange is used. Lacking even barter, people act in the way that best removes their discomfort with their available resources.
An important thing to note here is that there are two things that praxeology does not presuppose:
- People act rationally.
- People cannot want things other than “economic” gain.
The first mistaken case presumes that people have perfect (or at least sufficient) knowledge and a logical process that guides all their action. People decide based on imperfect data and emotion all the time. This does not mean that they act against their interests. Though they may do so in a colloquial sense because of fraud, coercion, or deliberate sacrifice, they always act based on what seems fit to them in the moment.
In the case of sacrifice, they are pursuing their own interests indirectly. In the case of fraud or coercion, someone else’s immoral action has caused them to choose a less desirable course of action.
And, to tie into that, people act on the basis of things other than what we would consider, in a colloquial sense, “economic.” Austrian economists would expand the definition of this to cover almost everything (including such things as leisure and the ability to live in line with moral principles).
People decide on courses of action because of their values and emotions, not just on account of calculation and perceived benefit.
For instance, I, being influenced by the Tolstoyan school of thought, would not seek the imprisonment of someone who robbed me because I do not believe incarceration to be moral and because I follow a radical Christian interpretation of forgiveness.
This does not mean that I enjoy being robbed, but as a deterrent pacifist I do not believe in using force to redress grievances while I may use it to prevent evil.
This decision would still be an economic decision in the field of Austrian economics, because I am choosing one good (a clean conscience) over another (the return of my property). My motives are irrelevant in the final analysis, but the decision I make matters from an economic and praxeological perspective.
But what are the implications of economics in praxeology, and can we apply it elsewhere?
The Boon of Economics
One benefit of pairing praxeology with economic thought is that it is a way to cover a lot of ground very quickly.
Another case is that economics makes very clear what is not within the field of praxeology.
For instance, the consumption of air is not an economic decision outside contrived circumstances. This is not because of necessity; water is equally necessary and often becomes a subject of praxeology and economics. Rather, air is not scarce. It is readily available in a supply that exceeds demand and requires no deliberate action to gain it.
Praxeology does not care about the unconscious, or for that matter the conscious psychological processes that go into actions. It cares about the material preferences of its subjects, and chooses those revealed through action over those revealed by statements.
We can apply the distinction between stated and revealed preference in any other field. In a moment, I will lay out the link between information gathering and praxeology as it might apply to other fields.
First, it is important to note what the difference between stated and revealed preference is.
A revealed preference comes out in action. A stated preference does not really exist, and instead reveals a desire to be perceived a certain way.
Let me explain.
If I complain that my bank does not treat me fairly, I am stating a preference. That preference is to have a bank that treats me differently than my current bank: whether they have better customer service, higher rates of interest on deposit, or are more willing to extend me credit is irrelevant.
But if I do not move my accounts to a different bank, I do not have a revealed preference. If one local credit union cannot handle international transactions, so I open an account with a different institution that can, I have revealed a preference for sending and receiving international transactions.
Taking a Hammer to a Screw
One issue with the association between praxeology and economics is that it carries baggage with it.
Thinkers like Mises place praxeology between psychology and economics. This is correct to a degree, but praxeology is its own distinct discipline.
Praxeology does link to both domains. The psychological functions of an individual determine the aims about which they act, and economics studies the means they choose to strive toward those aims.
But praxeology is not inherently tied to economics any more than psychology is tied to pharmaceuticals. Of course one has a useful effect in informing the other.
But it is not necessary to limit ourselves to this assessment.
Praxeology should inform more than just economics in the way that psychology should inform more than just pharmaceuticals.
Praxeology has been left out of the political domain despite its ability to inform on that front. Even the Austrian economic thinkers who get involved in politics often focus their praxeological efforts toward individual policies rather than understanding praxeology as a way to guide a foundational approach to political thought.
Rather, when the Austrian-school thinkers delve into politics, they almost always do so from the starting point of the non-aggression principle, which itself is derived from one of several first principles (rationalism, deontology, utilitarianism, and more exotic philosophical frameworks have all been used to arrive at the NAP).
It is easy to point to the conservative who decries the drug war for creating organized crime but who fosters the creation of profitable black and red markets by criminalizing drugs or the progressive who demands affordable housing while pushing for government interventions that have prevented people who would have been on the road to property ownership from getting their first step in upward economic mobility.
We would point to these people as having flawed thinking, and everyone knows why.
The policies they propose do not have the outcomes they desire.
They seem to violate the idea that politics can be examined through the lens of praxeology.
A common explanation for this is the Marxian doctrine of false consciousness or the more broadly palatable and fashionable idea of political tribalism. A more elegant take on it comes from Johnathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (Amazon affiliate link), which takes a step beyond the laughable idea of people operating against their own interests and toward the idea of values-driven action by looking at the cross-sections of moral and political thought.
But praxeology already accounts for values.
What is the missing part of the picture?
Good Information, Bad Information
The flaw that critics of praxeology overlook comes into something that I already mentioned in passing during my first examination of praxeology in general.
It is that imperfect data (or fraud, which is itself just deliberately imperfect data) can lead people to act in ways they would not act with perfect information.
So what’s the remedy to this?
Frankly, good information. The conservative who supports the war on drugs and the progressive who supports low-income rental housing both push policies at odds with their goals. They are not acting against their interests because they believe that the policies they endorse will lead to the fulfillment of their interests.
They act in accordance with their interests, but their action falls short.
It is a technical failure that causes their woes, like the technical failing of an electrician who attempts to use rubber as a conductor.
And as with economics, politics has information gathering. This is true of any field in which praxeology could factor in. We could say that engineering is praxeology plus science (use abstract knowledge to achieve a desired concrete end), for instance.
In engineering, the information gathering process is sensory. If I build a bridge, I can observe whether it stands up to the tests of time, weather, and load. If it does, I consider it a success. If it does not, I adjust my designs until I succeed (or until I run out of materials to build bridges or the patience of my fellows).
But political information gathering lacks market mechanisms or the presence of any clear analog like observation.
Political science, for this reason, is usually an oxymoron. It is subject to the same limitations of any other “social science,” namely the fact that it attempts to measure things that are fundamentally abstract. The role of entities and ideas in its field of study are entirely devoid of continuity across time; the president was a substantially different figure in terms of public role before mass media, and will continue to have a changing role based on political climates, technological innovations, and social environments.
When the political scientists make predictions about the election of a president (assuming that their data and presuppositions aren’t so flawed that they’re moot to begin with), they must contend with the fact that no two presidents throughout time are going to be equivalent in their substance and this difference is so great that many apparently equivalent quantitative bases are going to be incompatible.
How, then, can we assess praxeology in a political sphere?
I’ll use myself as an example. I consider myself a political Tolstoyan. This means that my political action takes three characteristics (among others, but I do not intend to write a manifesto):
- I will never take any action that I consider violent, nor will I endorse any policy or position which encourages or relies on violence.
- I consider the state to be, at best, in serious danger of becoming an immoral idol and seek to curtail its power and influence.
- Because I consider property part of a person’s being, I do not consider compulsory taxation moral and will oppose it in all cases.
Understanding politics as an extension of praxeology means that one can understand that I will act–in so much as I act politically–to bring about a world which is more in conjunction with my values.
If I vote, I do so to minimize violence, the state, and taxation.
When I speak on politics, I do so in a way that I believe minimizes violence, the state, and taxation.
When I act, I seek to edify those who share my values.
The Production of Information
When we say that people act against their own interest, we typically mean that they err because of a lack of information.
This is where I will raise a call to action.
Identify the issues that interfere with individuals bringing about improvement in their situations. Create action steps that minimize discomfort and increase value-alignment. Figure out how to present this knowledge. Then start the process over again.
Praxeology seems to be correct as an understanding of human action, but we find ourselves consistently confronted with a lack of alignment between values and outcomes.
We will never bring about utopia. That is not possible. Just as scarcity prevents unlimited economic satisfaction, the sins of the past (and the present) limit any chance that the future will be perfect.
But that does not mean that we cannot advocate for and espouse the things which bring about positive changes in the world.