- “Society is not merely a collection of individuals. Their interrelations in society make them quite different from what they would be in isolation. Brass is not merely copper and zinc; it is a third thing. Water is not merely hydrogen and oxygen, but something quite different from either. What an individual would be like if he had lived completely isolated from birth (assuming he could have survived at all) we can hardly even imagine…We can hope to solve many social problems not by looking at them exclusively from either an “individualist” or a “collective” aspect, but by looking at each aspect alternately.”
— Henry Hazlitt, The Foundations of Morality p.167
“Conventional thinking has greatly overemphasized and overstretched the collective perspective, whereas I think libertarianism has over-emphasized, or at the very least has a bad reputation for seeming to unrealistically over-emphasize, the individual(ist) perspective. It probably came as an understandable overreaction to the absurd overreaching of collectivism. Yet we need to be able to freely use both perspectives as tools as appropriate, as I think Hazlitt suggests here.
Here’s a different angle. Imagine a team sport match. Any sport will do. Maybe ice hockey. What is needed to watch and understand the game?
Seeing the whole field and the players, we are able to understand what is happening. Now if super video editing were used so that we could only see one of the players in the game but not any of the others, it would suddenly appear incomprehensible. What is that player doing? Why is he going this way and not that way? Why is he crashing into the wall? Just for fun? That would be an example of an extreme of missing the collective or system perspective.
Alternatively, say we were watching the game but had no idea what the rules were and what the point was. Here we are missing the individual perspective of what each player is trying to do, why, and how. Again, the whole game would be incomprehensible in that case. This is what I am trying to get at with the importance of being able to take both of these perspectives in looking at a situation or issue.”
— Konrad Graf
“What if praxeology (deductive action theory in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises) is conceived as something much larger than merely the backstop for Austrian economics or a sort of pre-Austrian-economics warm-up act? In that case, economics ought to be better defined as one branch of praxeology among others. Since Mises kept mentioning economics as the “thus-far best-elaborated part” of praxeology, shouldn’t more thinkers be taking this up and working on advancing other such parts?
This is one of the questions addressed in my 2011 paper Action-Based Jurisprudence, which, among other things, sought to more explicitly define another branch that I am now calling the theory of legal concepts. I am now working on taking this approach further and in new directions, but meanwhile here is an update on the question of defining economic theory and other fields, as parts of praxeology. One element in what originally helped me get moving further in this direction of an enlarged vision for praxeology a couple years ago was Stephan Kinsella’s compilation of references, “Mises: Keep it interesting,” (Mises Economics Blog [RIP], October 16, 2010).
Since writing the original paper two years ago, I have taken note of the discussion in Guido Hülsmann’s 2003 introduction to the third edition of Epistemological Problems of Economics, entitled, “From Value Theory to Praxeology.” This describes Mises’s process of working backward from subjective value theory to arriving at his formal concept of action. It contains a descriptor at one point of economics as that part of praxeology that deals with action that uses economic calculation. On this basis, I might suggest for economics: the study of aspects of action as they arise uniquely only within the context of an exchange economy in that the latter enables economic calculation.
We can briefly test out this “exchange economy” proposal (or some other proposal) for the case of defining economics by playing a game of takeaway: “No exchange economy? No prices.” Check. “No exchange economy? No interest rates.” Check. And then on down the list of what we think ought to be considered part of “economics” proper. “No exchange economy? No time preference.” Well, no. Not so fast. There is time preference regardless of the presence/absence of an exchange economy, so this one doesn’t pass. It looks like it must belong more to a “core” area of praxeology rather than to any particular specialized branch of praxeological investigation.
We might also then see Mises’s classic statement on the impossibility of economic calculation under socialism, “Economic calculation in the socialist commonwealth,” (original German 1920) in a new light. It becomes a particular instance of playing the takeaway game: “No private factor-of-production ownership? No (real) factor prices and thus no profit/loss calculation.” Check.
My most recent thinking on the general issue is that praxeology is a tool that we can use as one element in the study of just about anything involving human action. The parts or branches should then simply be defined by the sets of subject matter that we are using praxeology to investigate. I was pleased to see some work in this direction in criminology as presented in Renaud Fillieule’s 2012 Mises Memorial Lecture, “Misesian praxeology: An illustration from the field of sociology of delinquency,” delivered at the Austrian Scholar’s Conference in Auburn, 10 March 2012, which I also recently mentioned here.
So we’re out here investigating what praxeology/thymology can show us if we apply it to issues x, y, and z, extending to all the things in the social sciences that we are interested in understanding better. This could become useful in the entirety of the social sciences—as opposed to the natural sciences—which I think is more what Mises had in mind with praxeology/thymology vis-à-vis natural science methods.
In other words, there ought to be plenty of work to do to carry forward the actual “program” that Mises launched, which was much larger than economics. It was a call for a revolution out of historicism (see especially Theory and History) and positivism (see especially The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science) in the social sciences as such and was by no means limited to economics. Economics was Mises’s own primary specialization within praxeology; it doesn’t have to be everybody else’s.”
“Great quote that suggests another psychological barrier that may go something like this: “If it is so ‘self-evident,’ why haven’t I seen it?” (!). Or “Why didn’t great philosopher X see it if it was self-evident?”. Or “Why not my mom and dad and Obama?” “If all these people also don’t see it, it must be wrong!”
This is harder to grasp even than that there was a time before there was an iPhone (that is, five and a half years ago). “Self-evident” only applies after you get it. Before the particular understanding has arisen in the particular mind, there is “nothing to see” in the space where a few of us have the action axiom installed.
Rand used to always say “knowledge is not automatic.” Well, here it is. The knowledge just isn’t there yet because the person doesn’t get it yet. Sort of like if you don’t know calculus. Well then…you don’t know calculus. The difference with praxeology and economics is that far fewer people go around denying the validity of calculus because THEY don’t happen to understand it. They understand that it is there for the learning, but to learn it, they would have to engage in a particular process: study, think.
Notice also that all of these learning injunctions are also themselves… actions, whether in sensory or mental realms:
- “In order to see the moons of Jupiter, you need a telescope. In order to understand Hamlet, you need to learn to read. In order to see the truth of the Pythagorean theorem, you must learn geometry. If you want to know if a cell has a nucleus, you must learn to take histological sections, learn to stain cells, learn to use a microscope, and then look. In other words, all of those forms of knowing have, as one of their significant components, an injunction: If you want to know this, you must do this.”
— Ken Wilber, The Marriage of Sense and Soul (1998, 156)
“I think the importance of praxeology is far from recognized. Mises said that it was the only truly new science since ancient times. Everything else had some precedent even in the ancient world; this is a totally new field of knowledge and people don’t know what to make of it yet, or even how to mentally recognize what it is.
It cannot be overemphasized what a radical development it is to say that there is definite knowledge about humanity that is not part of ethical or “ought” sciences, and is not merely contingent or conventional in nature.
People just cannot wrap their heads around this easily because they intuitively assume that free choice automatically removes all structural constrictions, which it does not. Of the six modes, core praxeology, at least the fundamentals, gives rise to a type of knowledge that is under the mode of necessity (Notwendigkeit), of what cannot be otherwise (nicht anders sein können), whereas most people would place anything to do with knowledge pertaining to people and societies (or any empirical knowledge at all) in the modes of either actuality and possibility (is or isn’t, could be or could not be; but never MUST BE!).
Here is the section in Human Action, p.1 (!). What do you put on page one of a book like Human Action? This:
I. Economics and Praxeology
- “Economics is the youngest of all sciences. In the last two hundred years, it is true, many new sciences have emerged from the disciplines familiar to the ancient Greeks. However, what happened here was merely that parts of knowledge which had already found their place in the complex of the old system of learning now became autonomous. The field of study was more nicely subdivided and treated with new methods; hitherto unnoticed provinces were discovered in it, and people began to see things from aspects different from those of their precursors. The field itself was not expanded. But economics opened to human science a domain previously inaccessible and never thought of. The discovery of a regularity in the sequence and interdependence of market phenomena went beyond the limits of the traditional system of learning. It conveyed knowledge which could be regarded neither as logic, mathematics, psychology, physics, nor biology.”
And then this on p.4:
- “In the new science everything seemed to be problematic. It was a stranger in the traditional system of knowledge; people were perplexed and did not know how to classify it and to assign it its proper place. But on the other hand they were convinced that the inclusion of economics in the catalogue of knowledge did not require a rearrangement or expansion of the total scheme. They considered their catalogue system complete. If economics did not fit into it, the fault could only rest with the unsatisfactory treatment that the economists applied to their problems.”
 For the mode references, Nicolai Hartmann. Möglichkeit und Wirklichkeit, 1938, pp. 33; way overdue English translation of this book to come out in the next few months.
Several folks have highlighted this Romneyism from the US presidential debate:
- “You can’t have a free market work if you don’t have regulation.”
This is a good opportunity to consider the more globally relevant question of the meaning of “free market” in the eyes of the conservative variant of statism.
To a conservative statist, part of the “free market” “working” means that citizens work more effectively for the state when they are able to produce a larger extractable wealth surplus. Permitting a “free market,” from this perspective, is a concession, a strategic relaxation of the conservative version of the default totalitarian dream. As Hoppe has explained, states that allow somewhat freer markets simply win out as a practical matter over those with a more totalitarian economic strategy because economic totalitarianism makes it impossible for people to actually produce any significant wealth at all that can then become a target for expropriation by the bureaucracy (see former Soviet Union, etc.). The strategic conservative statist views the “free market” as justified to the extent that it raises the quantity of bureaucratically “legible” (professor James C. Scott’s language), and thus more readily extractable, wealth created within its geographic tax base.
The modern “debate” is largely over the question of how—not whether—to increase the power, funding, and glory of the state. This is why it is so intolerable to allow libertarians into the debate who might ask precisely this “whether” question. It is also relevant to the foregoing argument to understand how “regulation” favors larger and more formal enterprises that can more easily fund fixed compliance costs. Individuals and more informal and smaller enterprises have greater compliance burdens relative to the scale of their operations at all levels (product design, HR, tax, legal, and so on). The larger firms also happen to be more visible and therefore easier to monitor and collect revenue from. You can see where this is going.
From the state’s perspective (“seeing like a state” in Scott’s memorable phrase), quasi-private wealth production is more useful to the extent that the state’s own cut can be most efficiently and reliably extracted. This is one factor (among others) that helps explain the alliance between larger businesses and bureaucracies in relation to “regulation.” The larger businesses gain a relative advantage over the smaller ones (including those ever-pesky start-up challengers), while the bureaucrats get a more visible, trackable, and “orderly” market from which to conduct institutionalized wealth extractions. This is the conservative dream of law and order (that is, legal and orderly expropriation of large amounts of wealth).
“In general, I am moving in the direction of a one-step argument in which self-ownership is not treated separately from homesteading, but as a special example of homesteading such that there is a single unified justification of both “self-ownership” and homesteading of external resources. I think the key to resolving this issue more clearly is once again better applying the subject/object distinction, in this case to the precise meaning of “self.”
In this view, the act of making use of one’s own physical body before anyone else does as part of the natural process of human development is simply the prototype of a first-appropriation (“homesteading”) act. The whole body is a “relevant technological unit” in Rothbard’s sense, a natural unity for appropriation by an actor (Let’s say you are hunting and kill a deer. If a stranger shows up and tries to arbitrarily claim a section of it, which part of the deer is yours? The whole deer; not just the patch where the arrow struck! That would be another application of the RTU idea).
Now, in the idea of self-ownership, who is doing the appropriating of the “self”? Can the “self” appropriate the “self?” What does that mean? This is where this literature has sometimes gotten confusing. The answer is there, but it’s not always clarified as well as I think it could be.
Much of the confusion stems from a double meaning attached to “self” (sorting this out is also a resolution path for the larger “mind-body problem” controversy, as Ken Wilber has suggested). To unpack this, I define the “self” as the subject, the actor. That subject can claim the physical body associated with itself, which is the “self” as an object, that is, “empirically” measurable in the physical world. Thus, the human being considered as an acting person is a SUBJECT and not any kind of physical “object.” An acting person is not just a body, not just an empirical object, like a kidney or a stone (or a kidney stone…). A subject as contrasted with a physical object is not measurable or claimable as property at all. This (subject) “self” is an intangible like an idea (the basis of anti-IP thought too, is that ideas are not scarce objects and can therefore not be properly owned). The acting person has a physically observable aspect, but is not reducible to physical substance. We are subjects-and-objects by nature.
This is why I try to bring in Ken Wilber to re-emphasize the importance of better refining our differentiation of the interior perspective of a subject (an acting person) and the exterior perspective of an object, which can be a non-bodily external “object” or a bodily “object” such as a particular part of the body in just the same sense. AE [Argumentation Ethics] is talking about subjects making statements and the nature of justifiability of claims so made. It bridges subject/object in that it treats claim-making as a physical action, which it is, rather than a disembodied one, which is impossible. It depicts a subject making use of physical resources (objects) to make propositional claims. Such resources include the acting person’s physical body, etc. In contrast to this necessary dualism, two flavors of reductionism will get you either “an object making claims” (an internal contradiction) or “a subject making claims without any physical means for making them” (an absurdity).
Actually appropriating physical objects through a process of action and claiming is a different layer from having a consciousness capable of acting/claiming. The prototype of appropriation, as I said, is using and claiming one’s own physical body. It may already be evident from the above that I am working to develop this into a one-step argument, whereas Hoppe’s presentations have been multi-step, in that self-ownership is given first and then the justifiability of other appropriations are based on it in step two. However, if we maintain a clear subject-object duality of personhood the whole way through, “self-ownership” (meaning an acting subject’s ownership of its own physical body) is not any different from any other case of homesteading scarce physical resources; it is just another result of the acquisition by an actor/subject of a physical resource, in this case, the acting subject making use of the physical body that is associated with that subject in “a subject/object duality pair” (that is, “a person” ☺). This has also been harder to see, because relative to the case of a truly external resource such as an apple, a subject is uniquely positioned to make use of and claim the physical body uniquely associated with itself, the alternative being some kind of fantastic neurobiological remote control system (although guardianship of someone incapable of acting, as below, is a more realistic alternative).
So we actually embody methodological dualism because we are more or less integrated subject/objects. Yet in theorizing, we always have to go back to asking which perspective we are talking about or taking. We may have been missing that self(own-body)-appropriation is just another case of homesteading, simply because it is so obvious that it is hard to even reflect on it. The physical body is one case of first appropriation in which it is basically impossible for it to be otherwise. (I say, “basically” because, in extremis, one could imagine a hypothetical human who was born, but never developed in such a way as to be able to discernibly act or make choices. Such a person would never develop the ability to “take over” the reigns of their own life from their initial caretakers and would presumably remain a ward of a parent or guardian).”
I thought I would recommend some of the not so well known but nevertheless mind-blowing journal articles that should be read by everyone in the movement, especially by those outside it. This will be the first in a series of many.
If you’re just starting out it is probably best to study the classics and introductory books. However, understanding the framework of knowledge, praxeology — the science of human action — and where the two important fields of economics and jurisprudence (political philosophy) reside is very helpful. This is the most cutting edge article out there that exists today.
Action-based legal theory is a discrete branch of praxeology and the basis of an emerging school of jurisprudence related to, but distinct from, natural law. Legal theory and economic theory share content that is part of praxeology itself: the action axiom, the a priori of argumentation, universalizable property theory, and counterfactual-deductive methodology. Praxeological property-norm justification is separate from the strictly ethical “ought” question of selecting ends in an action context. Examples of action-based jurisprudence are found in existing “Austro-libertarian” literature. Legal theory and legal practice must remain distinct and work closely together if justice is to be found in real cases. Legal theorizing was shaped in religious ethical contexts, which contributed to confused field boundaries between law and ethics. The carrot and stick influence of rulers on theorists has distorted conventional economics and jurisprudence in particular directions over the course of centuries. An action-based approach is relatively immune to such sources of distortion in its methods and conclusions, but has tended historically to be marginalized from conventional institutions for this same reason.
I don’t think the above will be bested in a very long time. It is a big read for a journal article, but do not let that put you off. It is well worth it. If you’re not a fan of reading online, I would suggest printing it out - which can be done very easily for around $5. It’s something you will come back to often. A one stop shop for understanding Austro-Libertarianism in one read.
Deductive legal theory, when properly applied in a given context, objectively and descriptively defines the parameters of what justice is in relation to questions of property rights, contracts, torts, and other legal matters. This yields a deeper-than-expected foundation for the traditional libertarian insistence on not mixing law with morality and the corollary opposition to “legislating morality.” Legal theory is a discrete field that, like Mises’s conception of economic theory, can provide descriptive, categorical input for use in “ought” considerations, even as legal theory and ethics remain distinct in foundations, scope, and method.
Action-based legal theory provides tools to take into each case. It supplies some of the underlying questions to which case-specific details shape answers. Legal principles guide inquiry into specifics while emerging details suggest the most relevant set of legal principles to apply. Justice may be found at the meeting theory and practice—of deduction, institutions, and the details of specific cases. Sound theory functions as a service to legal practitioners, enabling them do their jobs more easily and reliably. […]
Legal practice should always be on trial in the court of legal theory, while legal theory should be recognized as insufficient to do justice in any real case. Legal theory and legal practice must therefore persist in a challenging but necessary marriage between distinctive partners if they are to produce the offspring of justice. Used properly, praxeological legal concepts not only boost the clarity of legal theorizing from “the armchair,” they also enhance the ability of practitioners to parse specific cases from “the bench.”
To summarize up to this point, using a simple tree metaphor, the root of praxeology can be derived using the analysis of the actions of an isolated individual—the concept of action and its first implications. The trunk comprises the analysis of interaction with classes of communicative acts—embordering/claiming and consenting—and accounts of the concept of first appropriation and the possibility of the consensual transfer of property titles. These concepts are logically prior to branching into economic theory and legal theory because the concepts of both branches logically presuppose some account of the root and trunk foundations, even if this is unacknowledged. The transition into branching may be identified with the move from universal features of all action or interaction to axiomatic deductions that are more narrowly specified with increasing factual or contextual assumptions that assure the relevance of analysis to the parameters of the type of world and context being considered.
The comparative, ordinal nature of the “better claim” test
Under the homesteading principle, it is not necessary to establish a first appropriation claim that lives up to any absolute standard of evidence of what is “sufficient” to be a valid claim. It is only necessary to establish that one party has the better or best claim when compared with conflicting claims.
This is analogous to Mises’s conception of ordinal valuation. The praxeologically defined act of choice means preferring “this” to “that” in a specific rank order, which carries no implication of any cardinal valuation scale. It is a criterion concerned with relative order only. Any alternative to this ordinal approach would require a claim to meet some devised standard of evidence showing some objectivistically defined degree of linkage. However, the legitimacy of an appropriation claim requires no such technocratic approach.
Assuming a competition among claims, each of which are based on some objective links between claimant and resource (some act of appropriation), the first such claim in time is likely to be superior to any later claim. While it is categorically true that the first claim is superior to any later claim, exceptions are possible when an earlier claim is found to lack evidence of an applicable act of appropriation. A first claim may have been overstated in relation to the “relevant technological unit” of the particular claimed resource. For example, perhaps I invented a radio transmitter and sold radios in a certain area. My device transmits only in a certain spectrum over a specified usable radius, but I thereby attempt to claim ownership of all radio waves in all possible spectra and in all places, even with regard to frequency bands and locations that in no way interfere with my radio operations.
Or say I have built a log cabin in one nook of a valley, and announce, “this entire valley is now mine,” expecting the valley to be socially recognized as mine. Clearly, my objective linkage to the use of the entire valley is probably too weak to hold up to any reasonable counterclaim that others might make to other parts of the valley on the basis of their respective activities. I have never put those areas to use in any way that others could possibly perceive.
The clarification and elucidation of the homesteading principle which many would-be libertarians, and even solidly advanced ones can sometimes get perplexed about. You often see this when inevitably someone searches for an objective absolute standard by which they can suddenly proclaim: “If you homestead this land for X time or degree, you can then claim legitimate ownership of it”. Or if you have “mixed your labor with it in such a way you can now claim Y.” As has been shown, it is not necessary to establish a first appropriation claim that lives up to any absolute standard of evidence of what is “sufficient” to be a valid claim.
The above is an excerpt from: “Action-Based Jurisprudence: Praxeological Legal Theory in Relation to Economic Theory, Ethics, and Legal Practice” by Konrad Graf. It is merely one of many gems, in an article that provides the best overarching structure of legal theory and ethics I have ever read. It is fairly long, but mind-blowing in how it puts everything into sharp perspective.