Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action is an economic treatise that seeks to cover every major concept in economics. While it dates to the 1940s, its depth and breadth mean that there are few things that are left untouched throughout the book.
Or, perhaps, it would be better to say books. Human Action sometimes occupies multiple volumes, since it is about a thousand pages long.
With that said, it is not as painful as its length might make it seem. Mises is not concise, but he makes up for it by careful explorations of each concept he covers and an ability to turn phrases that make complex topics clear and long discursions bearable.
Human Action is accessible to a novice of economics, but will require some effort. While Mises does a good job of breaking down concepts into chapters and making clear when certain ideas will be explored elsewhere, the sheer magnitude of the text is a barrier to entry.
Fortunately, it is divided into several parts that can be read with a break between them without too much of a bother. This means that it can be tackled as, essentially, a series of books. Each part contains some elements critical to the understanding of the next, but it need not be fresh in memory.
The Basis of Human Action
The fundamental thesis of Human Action is that one can apply a priori reasoning to economics and history to examine the factors that lead to human action.
This is opposed to the scientific approach that relies on experimentation.
Mises’ critique of the scientific method when applied to history and economics can be summed up crudely:
- Human action always deals with unique circumstances and cannot be replicated in experiments.
- The presence of ideal types (e.g. similar events) does not violate this precept.
- As a consequence, one cannot apply the scientific method to economics or history.
- Polylogism cannot be used to create classes of thought to justify actions (e.g. Marxist “bourgeois” and “proletarian” thought)
- This attacks the historicism-derived thesis of cyclic or linear progression prevalent in Marxist economics and certain schools of historical thought
- This is also used to reject racialist doctrines (e.g. of the Hitlerian mold)
- It is possible to predict actions by logic, but not by knowledge
- People act in their interest to address sources of discomfort
- It is impossible to assign cardinal values to human action, though ordinal valuation is possible
Basically, this all sums up to the conclusion that one cannot presume to have come up with a single rule that governs all economic action. This applies both to the macrocosm of economics across all of society and to the microcosm of each individual’s life.
A Complete Treatise On Economics
One place where Human Action shines is its completeness.
If we look at the seven parts, they are:
- Human Action
- Action within the Framework of Society
- Economic Calculation
- Catallactics or the Economics of a Market Society
- Social Cooperation Without a Market
- The Hampered Market Economy
- The Place of Economics in Society
Mises wrote in response to fascism and communism rising across Europe. As a result, he examined almost every facet of economic thought that had been advanced by the midpoint of the 20th century, from the Scholastics to the Keynesians.
A result of this is that Human Action explores the great ideas of economics. It is written, of course, in opposition to many of the thinkers’ whose work it examines, but this doesn’t keep Mises from explaining in some detail what their theories are and the factors that underpin his understanding of their error.
There are some small points that have been re-examined or expounded on by later thinkers (Rothbard, for instance, expounds on Mises’ understanding of the relationships of economic actions which may be characterised as individual, bilateral, or triangular), but Mises’ work is greater in breadth in some ways than even his successors’.
Mises also avoids letting the scope of his work interfere with the details contained within. There is no point at which there is a fundamental abandonment of the depth with which he examines concepts, though he may occasionally refer to concepts that he has already discussed.
The temptation of many people to dismiss opponents’ theories out of hand is largely avoided in Mises’ work. Although the praxeological basis for economics with its a priori functions rather than econometrics as its main operating principle generally renders irrelevant some of Mises’ contemporaries and the post-Keynesians’ efforts, Mises rarely permits a difference in premises to suffice where an examination of others’ errors can be revelatory (e.g. in addressing the errors in the labor theory of value as opposed to the subjective theory of value).
Is It Worth Reading?
An obvious question emerges from Human Action‘s length alone.
Is such a massive text worth reading for someone who has no aspiration to become a professional economist?
As someone who doesn’t do anything professional in the field of economics, I think so.
Mises is a staunch defender of both capitalism and truth. One of the modern misconceptions is the idea of socialism as a benign institution, and that the current setup of our society is capitalistic and therefore flawed.
All three of these premises (that socialism is benign, that we live in a capitalist system, and that capitalism is inherently unjust) are wrong, and Mises gives compelling arguments to justify the proper approach to human action as being rooted in voluntary cooperation, not state compulsion.
For this reason alone, Human Action is worth reading.
However, there is also something to be said for the quality of writing that Mises exhibits. While he is often loquacious, this is combined with a mastery of English that makes it difficult to accept that he was not a native English speaker.
It is true that the majority of his writing is functional rather than artistic, but there are many places in Human Action where Mises crafts a statement that clearly and poignantly expresses things that he elucidates better than anyone else.
Human Action is available for free in web, PDF, epub, and audio formats from the Mises Institute.