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Wednesday
Feb202013

Misesian action theory is an approach to social theory, not just economics

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.

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