This is Part 6 of a 17-part series of posts summarizing Bob Murphy’s indispensable book Choice: Cooperation, Enterprise, and Human Action. Murphy’s book is itself is a summary of Ludwig von Mises’s classic treatise “Human Action.” As a result, this is a summary of a summary. Blog life.
The idea here is to popularize and spread the word about Austrian economics and educate the public. (Several of you have bought Murphy’s book, and that is very pleasing to me. Some have even started reading Mises himself, which is fantastic!) Rather than list all the previous parts, I have created a category for all these posts, called “Human Action and Choice,” so that all these posts can be read (in reverse order) with a single click. Note well: any errors in these summaries are mine and not Murphy’s.
Chapter 6 is a chapter devoted to summarizing Mises’s views on the importance of ideas in history. As Keynes said, most men are “the slaves of some defunct economist.” How ironic that quote is to the Austrian economist! — who watches governments haplessly careen from one absurd Keynesian “solution” to another, always prescribing the most counterproductive “cure” imaginable to the given diagnosed economic disease. The Austrian watches countries in a “bust” try to “fix” everything with huge infusions of cash and lowering of interest rates. The Austrian sees these actions as insane — like using trepanation to cure headaches, lobotomies to cure depression, or cigarettes to cure asthma. The Austrian longs for the day when the basics of economics are widely understood by policymakers, as real human suffering will thereby be alleviated to a previously unheard-of extent.
Mises literally believed that using reason “to grasp the advantages of social cooperation” (to use Murphy’s phrase) is the key to preventing the collapse of society.
Murphy spends much of chapter 6 drawing contrasts between Mises’s Austrian economics and other economic philosophies, such as Marxism and logical positivism.
The contrast with Marxism might sound like it would require a long explanation, but for now Mises (and Murphy) are concerned mainly with showing that Marx believed society molded men’s ideas, while Mises believed that ideas molded society. Other stark differences between Austrian economics and Marxism/socialism, such as Mises’s famous explication of the “socialist calculation problem” (also discussed by Hayek) will be reserved for future posts.
Probably the most interesting contrast is that between Mises and the logical positivists asserted that statements about economics lacked value unless they could be “verified.” This contrast, to me, appears related to Murphy’s final topic of the chapter: the notion that economics cannot be a “science” unless it makes testable predictions. Although Murphy separates the sections, I will discuss them together in this post.
Here, Murphy contrasts Mises with another well-respected economist (and a Patterico favorite): Milton Friedman. It turns out that Friedman and Mises are severely at odds with one another on the notion of economics as a “science” — and whether the correctness of economic principles depends upon those principles being validated by real-world data.
At this point the reader may be uneasy. We’re taking issue with Milton Friedman and rejecting the notion of using real-world data to validate our principles? Surely we are on shaky ground here! The fact that I know you are thinking this, to me, means I need to spend a little extra time on this final point.
This reminds us of Murphy’s analogy to geometry in Chapter 3 (see post number three in this series). As I summarized it in that post:
We do not derive the Pythagorean theorem by building 500 right triangles and measuring the angles and the sides. The proof of the theorem does not depend on experimentation. The proof is within us — it is simply a logical chain of thoughts that we need to reflect on.
Murphy quotes Mises on this point in chapter 6. Mises argued that while the Pythagorean theorem could be considered a “tautology” in the sense that “its deduction results in an analytic judgment,” that does not mean it is to be discounted:
Nonetheless nobody would contend that geometry in general and the theorem of Pythagoras in particular do not enlarge our knowledge. Congition from purely deductive reasoning is also creative and opens for our mind access to previously barred spheres. . . . It is its vocation to tender manifest and obvious what was hidden and unknown before.
Mises makes an analogy here to the quantity theory of money (the cornerstone of which he elsewhere modestly defined as “the idea that a connection exists between variations in the value of money on the one hand and variations in the relations between the demand for money and the supply of it on the other hand” — Theory of Money and Credit, p. 130) and says that it is like the Pythagorean theorem:
The quantity theory does not add to our knowledge anything which is not virtually contained in the concept of money. It transforms, develops, and unfolds; it only analyzes and is therefore tautological like the theorem of Pythagoras in relation to the concept of the rectangular [right] triangle. However, nobody would deny the cognitive value of the quantity theory. To a mind not enlightened by economic reasoning it remains unknown. A long line of abortive attempts to solve the problems concerned shows that it was certainly not easy to attain the present state of knowledge.
In chapter 6, Murphy gives us a hypothetical in which aliens visit Earth. We might not expect them to already know things that are purely a matter of human convention — such as the idea that a “bachelor” is someone without a wife. But we would expect that they would know geometry. And (if they engage in specialization and trade) we would expect that they would know economic principles like marginal utility theory. And if the aliens didn’t know geometry, or economic principles, we would expect that they would be grateful to learn these things — and that they would recognize their inherent truth.
Murphy quotes Friedman as disdaining an economic theory based on “a structure of tautologies” as being nothing but “disguised mathematics” if it cannot predict action in the real world. Let me quote Murphy at length in response:
From the starting point that humans act, the economist could logically deduce — thereby forming a tautology, it’s true — that individuals have subjective preferences with ordinal rankings, that choices come with opportunity costs, and that the value of second-order capital goods is dependent on the value of the first-order consumer goods that the individual believes they have the technological power to produce. Say what one will about these types of statements, they are clearly within the realm of economics and are not merely “disguised mathematics.” Although they have not been derived by reference to empirical observation, thinking through these tautologies definitely aids acting individuals as they navigate the real world. Logical, deductive economics as championed by Ludwig von Mises is not mere word games.
That’s how Murphy ends his chapter, and it’s a good way to end this blog post. We’re about 1/3 of the way through the project so far. Keep reading and sharing!