Devil’s Advocate: Finally, after thousands of words about the intro, we get to the book itself. Take it away, Professor Mises:
Mises: Human action is purposeful behavior. Or we may say: Action is will put into operation and transformed into an agency, is aiming at ends and goals, is the ego’s meaningful response to stimuli and to the conditions of its environment, is a person’s conscious adjustment to the state of the universe that determines his life. Such paraphrases may clarify the definition given and prevent possible misinterpretations. But the definition itself is adequate and does not need complement or commentary.
DA: I’m glad Smiling Dave is translating that into English.
SD: All he’s saying is that in this book, the word “Action” will mean “what people do to get what they want”.
DA: That simple, hey?
SD: Yep, and there has been tons of ink spilled on these few words, lots of it nonsense. For example, plenty of time was wasted trying to prove that humans act, that they do things to get what they want. As if that needs any proof.
DA: But not everything people do is doing something to get what they want. Sometimes they sleepwalk, sometimes they sneeze and have other reflexive movements, sometimes they do things just for the heck of it, with no goal in mind. Sometimes they suffer brain damage and are reduced to a vegetable state, merely existing in a coma.
SD: Very true, and all that stuff can be ignored in an economics book. That’s why this book is only about humans acting.
DA: Professor Mises, aren’t you afraid that by using the words “act”, “action”, and “acting” in a very special way, not the way they are usually used, that some people will get all confused and have no clue what you are saying?
Mises: It’s true. I am assuming my audience has a level of intelligence above that of primitive caveman. If anyone gets flustered by my using one word in a very special sense that I defined carefully in the very first sentence, then this book is not for them.
SD: Besides, all science books do this. Ask a man in the street what “group” means, then ask a mathematician, and you will get very different answers.
DA: Dave, what do you think of the proof that humans act that’s circulating on the internet, that if you try to prove that humans don’t act, then you are yourself acting. Because you are doing something [presenting an argument] to get what you want [convince people Mises is wrong].
SD: All that would prove is that one person acted one time. Is that all you want to prove? If that’s all you want to do, there is a much simpler way. Walk to the fridge and get some food. Then say, “Look at me, I acted.” Better yet, just say “Look at me, I’m acting. I’m trying to prove people act, which is itself acting.”
Besides, as I said earlier, there is no need to prove such a self evident thing as that people do things to get what they want. I mean, seriously.
DA: What about all this stuff about Kant, that takes a lot of space on the internet when talking about Mises?
SD: Even if everything Kant said or did was permanently erased from everyones memory, the book Human Action would be exactly the same. No need to know anything about Kant to understand it fully.
DA: Say a person does nothing, because he thinks that’s the best thing under the circs. Is that an action?
Mises: Maybe it’s not an action as the man in the street uses the word, but in the technical sense “action” is defined in this book, doing nothing can be an action. If the person thinks doing nothing is the best way to get him what he wants, and makes the decision to do nothing, then doing nothing in that case is an action. To talk or not to talk, to smile or to remain serious, may be action. Action is not only doing but no less omitting to do what possibly could be done.
DA: What about psychology? How does that fit into the scheme of things?
Mises: Psychology is about what people want, why people want what they want, and other things going on peoples’ heads. It’s an important subject, but it’s not economics. Economics is about what people do, the actions they take, to get what they want. Now don’t get me wrong [as some noobies have]. I know very well that people think things, and their thoughts will influence how they “act”, obviously. In fact, I talk about this later, that people have a list in their heads, what they think is most important to get, what is second most important, and so on. But again, we are only going to talk about how what is in their heads affects what they will do, how they will act.
DA: Dave, I am too embarrassed to ask the prof, but I don’t get it. According to what he said, if Homer Simpson hears he can make a million dollars by going outside and picking up some money that fell on the street, but Homer decides to keep lying on his sofa and watching TV, that’s an action. How does that make sense? And why is Homer Simpson, lying around doing nothing, part of economics?
SD: I’m glad you asked. The old time economists, and indeed some of the current ones, have this model of people as always doing what will make them the most money. So they had an unrealistic, and therefore mistaken and flawed model, of the world. Their model has no lazy Homers lying around. This led them to conclude, for example, that if the size of a welfare check is less than what a person will make if he gets a job, then the person will get the job. How shocked they were when their model proved a flop, because we all have some Homer in us. Sometimes we prefer to be lazy, and getting more money is not an incentive to get the job. Sometimes we’d rather get a little less money for doing nothing than a little more money for working.
DA: How would Mises analyze this case?
SD: Mises would begin with what Homer wants. Homer has priorities. At the top is a roof over his head, food in the fridge, clothing and beer, in that order. Next in line in order of importance is being able to sit around and watch TV. This is more important to him than having some extra spending money. Now that we know exactly what he wants, we can analyze the options he has to get what he wants, meaning what possible actions he can take. All his first priorities, the roof, the food, the clothes, the beer, he can get by going on welfare. So he does. His next priority is relaxing, and he gets that accomplished by not getting a job, and not going outside to pick up the money in the street. So he “acts” by doing nothing.
DA: But what about the fact that he’s missing out on all that money?
SD: He has made his decision. To him, laziness is more important. Of course, if Marge would go out and work, he will gladly take her money and spend it, but him personally doing nothing is more important than anything he could buy, once he has his roof, food, clothes, and beer.
DA: Thank you, Dave. I get it. A complete understanding of Homer has to start with what he wants, and this analysis clearly has economic repercussions, so it makes a lot of sense to have it in an economics book. Without it, we will never understand the economics of welfare as it really is.
Now excuse me, I have to pick up my food stamps.