In this post, I present a critique of Mises’ praxeology. First, we should note two important caveats: (1) even historically, praxeology was not accepted by all Austrians: Schumpeter used a positivist methodology for Austrian economics (Allen 1991: 42), and it appears that Hayek never really accepted Mises’ apriorism at all (see Appendix 2 below); and (2) a number of self-described Austrian economists today do not follow Mises’ praxeology in its pure form, and some are even critical of praxeology and offer different methodologies for Austrian economic analysis (Caldwell 1984: 118 and 137, n. 45; Egger 1978). For example, Israel Kirzner appears to have taken a more pragmatic approach to Austrian methodology (Caldwell 1984: 137, n. 45) and D. Lavoie (1986) criticised rigid Misesian praxeology from the perspective of modern hermeneutics.(1) In particular, Gerald P. O’Driscoll and Mario J. Rizzo have offered a reconstructed Austrian methodology in their book The Economics of Time and Ignorance (1985; rev. edn 1996), which appears to allow some role for empirical testing of interpretive theories to see whether they apply to the real world (see also Rizzo 1982 for a proposed Lakatosian reform of Austrian economics). O’Driscoll and Rizzo’s modified Austrian methodology drew fire from older Misesians. (2) I note that other libertarians such as James M. Buchanan (1987: 74–74) and Robert Nozick (1977) have offered critiques of Mises’ praxeology as well (cf. Block 1980 for a response to Nozick).
What is Mises’ praxeology?
Mises regarded economics as the study of human choice under conditions of scarcity. He thought that the correct methodology for the study of economics was praxeology. Praxeology, the study of human action, was also the method to be used in all other social sciences, and not just in economics. Mises thus rejected as invalid any empirically-based methodology for economics. He believed that the foundational idea for his system of praxeology was the human action axiom. This proposition is that all human action is rational because all action is by definition purposeful (the word rational is here defined as “purposeful”). Mises argued that the human action axiom was a synthetic a priori proposition. Synthetic a priori propositions were a type of proposition proposed by Kant. As Ludwig M. Lachmann has argued,
“Mises drew his inspiration from … the Neo-Kantian philosophy that dominated academic Germany in the first decade of … [the 20th century]” (Lachmann 1976: 56).But it can also be noted that there is some dispute about Mises’ view of the logical status of his starting axioms. D. Gordon (1996) argues that Mises uses the expression “synthetic a priori” to refer to a necessarily true proposition that is not a tautology. Hans Albert (1999: 131) argues that Mises’ statements about aprioristic reasoning are confused. Some have even detected an influence on Mises from Husserl’s phenomenology (Addleson 1995: 100).
As in any a priori argument, in Misesian theory the inferences drawn from starting axioms by deductive logic are necessarily true or apodictically certain. No empirical evidence is necessary to demonstrate the truth of Mises’ theories, as the truth of the inferences is necessarily known in advance of experience. Even when the real world provides significant countervailing empirical evidence contradicting an inference in Mises’ system, it is irrelevant and can be explained away (Barry 1986: 60). Mises called for methodological dualism, which is the idea that the methodology of the natural sciences is fundamentally different from that of the social sciences (note that some scholars claim that Hayek apparently abandoned this idea of methodological dualism after 1952). As Mises says,
[sc. praxeology] aims at knowledge valid for all instances in which the conditions exactly correspond to those implied in its assumptions and inferences. Its statements and propositions are not derived from experience. They are, like those of logic and mathematics, a priori. They are not subject to verification and falsification on the ground of experience and facts. They are both logically and temporally antecedent to any comprehension of historical facts. They are a necessary requirement of any intellectual grasp of historical events (Mises 1998 : 32).A reading of Human Action shows that Mises firmly held that empirical evidence can never verify or falsify the inferences of praxeology:
“Praxeology is a theoretical and systematic, not a historical, science. Its scope is human action as such, irrespective of all environmental, accidental, and individual circumstances of the concrete acts. Its cognition is purely formal and general without reference to the material content and the particular features of the actual case. It aims at knowledge valid for all instances in which the conditions exactly correspond to those implied in its assumptions and inferences. Its statements and propositions are not derived from experience. They are, like those of logic and mathematics, a priori. They are not subject to verification or falsification on the ground of experience and facts. They are both logically and temporally antecedent to any comprehension of historical facts” (Mises 1949: 32).As Rothbard said, “Mises indeed held not only that economic theory does not need to be ‘tested’ by historical fact but also that it cannot be so tested” (Rothbard 1997: 72). Despite Mises’ view that empirical data can never verify praxeological theories, we find modern Austrians frequently invoking empirical evidence as if it verifies Austrian theories. But, as Mises argued, empirical data, even if they appear to support the inferences of praxeology, do not in any sense verify praxeological inferences. This means that any Austrian who invokes empirical evidence that appears to confirm the inferences of praxeology, or who implies that such evidence supports Misesian theory, has in fact not verified those inferences in any way. Consequently, there seems to be little point in the use of empirical data by Misesians.
“Even the most faithful examination of a chapter of economic history, though it be the history of the most recent period of the past, is no substitute for economic thinking. Economics, like logic and mathematics, is a display of abstract reasoning. Economics can never be experimental and empirical. The economist does not need an expensive apparatus for the conduct of his studies. What he needs is the power to think clearly and to discern in the wilderness of events what is essential from what is merely accidental” (Mises 1949: 864).
“What assigns economics its peculiar and unique position in the orbit both of pure knowledge and of the practical utilization of knowledge is the fact that
its particular theorems are not open to any verification or falsification on the ground of experience. Of course, a measure suggested by sound economic reasoning results in producing the effects aimed at, and a measure suggested by faulty economic reasoning fails to produce the ends sought. But such experience is always still historical experience, i.e., the experience of complex phenomena. It can never, as has been pointed out, prove or disprove any particular theorem. The application of spurious economic theorems results in undesired consequences. But these effects never have that undisputable power of conviction which the experimental facts in the field of the natural sciences provide. The ultimate yardstick of an economic theorem’s correctness or incorrectness is solely reason unaided by experience” (Mises 1949: 858).
Is Misesian praxeology defensible? Are there flaws in it? I argue below that there are fatal flaws in praxeology.
Mises thought that only criticisms of the verbal chain of logic in his arguments could refute the theorems of praxeology. Thus empirical evidence is irrelevant. Another way to put this is that Mises’ theories are not falsifiable empirically, and Misesian praxeology is radically different from Karl Popper’s falsificationist methodology for scientific knowledge (for the view that economics should embrace Popperian methodology, see Blaug 1980). Many economists who think that Popper’s falsificationism provides the best methodology for discovering genuine, new knowledge about the real world look upon Mises’ praxeology as a deeply flawed system (Blaug 1992: 80–82), and this is a view I am sympathetic to. Certainly Austrian economics has been accused of intellectual stagnation for failing to take empirical research seriously (Paqué 1985: 426).
Mises’ praxeology is a system that is a perfect example of apriorism. There is no reason to believe that apriorism provides a consistent and reliable method for obtaining true theories about the real world. Praxeology has obvious affinities with the theories of the great rationalist system-builders of the early modern period, like Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz, whose systems, as we now know, were utterly false (Bunge 1998: 209). For example, Leibniz’s monadology was an elaborate theory arrived at by aprioristic argument – but completely refuted by modern science. There is, then, no reason in principle why aprioristic systems must always be considered as consistently reliable and true ways of obtaining knowledge about the real world: many such systems have turned out to be false, and Mises’ praxeology could possibly be another such failed system, if we can show this convincingly by external and internal criticism.
B. J. Caldwell (1984) has pointed out that the best refutation of praxeology is by internal criticism. Mises himself recognised that such internal criticism of praxeology’s “chain of deductions” and “assumptions” was a valid way of refuting its inferences:
“From the unshakable foundation of the category of human action praxeology and economics proceed step by step by means of discursive reasoning. Precisely defining assumptions and conditions, they construct a system of concepts and draw all the inferences implied by logically unassailable ratiocination. With regard to the results thus obtained only two attitudes are possible; either one can unmask logical errors in the chain of the deductions which produced these results, or one must acknowledge their correctness and validity” (Mises 1949: 67).Cleary even Mises himself admitted that synthetic propositions as auxiliary hypotheses entered into his praxeological deductive reasoning. If such assumptions do not correspond to the “real conditions of the external world,” then his inferences are unsound and untrue.
“Man … can never be absolutely certain that his inquiries were not misled and that what he considers as certain truth is not error. All that man can do is to submit all his theories again and again to the most critical reexamination. This means for the economist to trace back all theorems to their unquestionable and certain ultimate basis, the category of human action, and to test by the most careful scrutiny all assumptions and inferences leading from this basis to the theorem under examination. It cannot be contended that this procedure is a guarantee against error. But it is undoubtedly the most effective method of avoiding error” (Mises 1949: 68).
“Every theorem of praxeology is deduced by logical reasoning from the category of action. It partakes of the apodictic certainty provided by logical reasoning that starts from an a priori category. Into the chain of praxeological reasoning the praxeologist introduces certain assumptions concerning the conditions of the environment in which an action takes place. Then he tries to find out how these special conditions affect the result to which his reasoning must lead. The question whether or not the real conditions of the external world correspond to these assumptions is to be answered by experience. But if the answer is in the affirmative, all the conclusions drawn by logically correct praxeological reasoning strictly describe what is going on in reality” (Mises 1978: 44).
In Human Action (Mises 1949: 65–68) and The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science (Mises 1978 : 44), Mises thus concedes that praxeology’s deductive reasoning will sometimes rely on some empirical assumptions, although these are (allegedly) generally accepted or obvious (Rizzo 1982: 64).
But synthetic propositions as premises in deductive arguments must be sufficiently justified (see Appendix 3 below for a simple example of a valid but unsound syllogism), and this is precisely what can make Mises’ arguments unsound and threaten the truth of his inferences. And there are of course numerous specific critiques of Mises’ praxeology from such an internal perspective. My discussion below is based in part on Caldwell 1984 and 1985.
There are four main ways in which praxeology can be criticised:
(1) questioning the truth of Mises’ axioms;I want to focus on points (2), (3) and (4) in my discussion below.
(2) showing flaws in the verbal chain of logic used to draw the inferences arrived at in praxeology.
(3) demonstrating unjustified subsidiary propositions or hidden assumptions in Mises’ reasoning that invalidate his conclusions, and
(4) the question of how to choose between competing praxeological systems derived by a priori deduction from (allegedly) certain starting axioms.
“Are the praxeological axioms universally and incontestably true in the same sense as the laws of logic? The denial of the laws (or rules) of logic results in absurdity. The denial of Mises’ laws does not … The higher a deductive edifice is built, the more numerous are the syllogistic steps required in its construction and the more numerous are the assumptions (stated or implied) on which the structure rests. The probability of error (except for supermen) increases with both” (Schuller 1951: 186).More recently, M. Blaug has criticised Mises’ system by giving specific examples of these hidden assumptions:
“Acceptance of Mises’ stated axioms does not necessarily imply acceptance of the “principles” or “applications to reality” which he has drawn from them even though his logic may be impeccable. When a logical chain grows beyond the limits set by stated assumptions, it uses unstated assumptions. The number of unstated assumptions (axioms, postulates, or other) in Human Action is enormous. If Mises denies this, let him try to rewrite his book as a set of numbered axioms, postulates, and syllogistic inferences using, say, Russell’s Principia” (Schuller 1951: 188).
“[sc. there is a] the fundamental flaw in Ludwig von Mises’ ‘praxeology’: [sc. it is] the notion that purposive choice as a Kantian ‘a priori synthetic proposition’ is more than sufficient to account for negatively inclined demand curves. This ignores the fact that a number of a posteriori auxiliary propositions are also required, such as transitivity or consistency of choices ... To this day, this failure to recognize the limited power of a priori synthetic propositions to generate substantive implications for economic behaviour characterises neo-Austrian writings in defence of Mises” (Blaug 1994: 132–133, n. 14; see also Blaug 1997: 332ff.).W. Meyer has also shown how Mises does not even follow his own methodology consistently, and how Mises assumed various unproven hypotheses about expectations and information in free market economies, hypotheses which cannot be derived deductively from the axiom of human action (Meyer 1987; see also Albert 1999: 133 and Meyer 1980: 82–91; Albert 1980, which offers a critique of Mises, appears to be unpublished; see also Gutiérrez 1971 for a critique for Rothbard’s praxeology; on problems with Mises’ theory of money, see Meyer 1987; Albert 1999: 132). Meyer proposes a completely reformed Austrian methodology that uses Popperian falsificationism (Meyer 2002: 278).
Bruce J. Caldwell also notes that Mises requires subsidiary hypotheses to apply his praxeological system to the real world. These hypotheses appear to be synthetic, and subject to empirical confirmation or falsification. One such hypothesis is the “disutility of labor for all humans” (Caldwell 1984: 376), and even Mises himself admitted that the disutility of labour was not an a priori axiom:
“The disutility of labor is not of a categorial and aprioristic character. We can without contradiction think of a world in which labor does not cause uneasiness, and we can depict the state of affairs prevailing in such a world …. Experience teaches that there is disutility of labor. But it does not teach it directly. There is no phenomenon that introduces itself as disutility of labor. There are only data of experience which are interpreted, on the ground of aprioristic knowledge, to mean that men consider leisure—i.e., the absence of labor—other things being equal, as a more desirable condition than the expenditure of labor. We see that men renounce advantages which they could get by working more—that is, that they are ready to make sacrifices for the attainment of leisure. We infer from this fact that leisure is valued as a good and that labor is regarded as a burden. But for previous praxeological insight, we would never be in a position to reach this conclusion” (Mises 1949: 65).A specific and important praxeological argument that can be refuted by false hidden assumptions is Mises’ argument for free trade by comparative advantage (or the “Ricardian law of association”), given in Human Action: A Treatise on Economics (4th edn, 1996), pp. 159–164. On this, see my separate post “Mises on the Ricardian Law of Association: The Flaws of Praxeology” (January 25, 2011).
It is clear from all this that Mises’ praxeology does have severe flaws in its verbal chain of logic and argumentation. When unreal or false subsidiary hypotheses are used in an a priori argument, the resulting inferences do not describe the world in which we actually live. That is, any conclusions that are necessarily drawn by deduction will only be true of the imaginary world where one’s subsidiary hypotheses are hypothetically true. But that imaginary world is not the real world we know and live in. It is a fantasy world.
Those who advocate the use of an empirical or Popperian methodology for economics have solid and independent reasons for rejecting the praxeology of Mises as well.
Moreover, it appears that some modern academic Austrians have moved beyond Mises, and have argued that Austrian economics needs to formulate hypotheses allowing prediction and subject to empirical testing. If this trend continues, Austrian method will converge with mainstream methodology, and it is quite possible that the Misesians might one day become a minority even in their own school.
APPENDIX 1: MISES’ ETHICS
I note that Mises has a subjectivist view of ethics and rejected natural law ethics:
“There is, however, no such thing as natural law and a perennial standard of what is just and what is unjust. Nature is alien to the idea of right and wrong. “Thou shalt not kill” is certainly not part of natural law. “Thou shalt not kill” is certainly not part of natural law. The characteristic feature of natural conditions is that one animal is intent upon killing other animals and that many species cannot preserve their own life except by killing others. The notion of right and wrong is a human device, a utilitarian precept designed to make social cooperation under the division of labor possible. All moral rules and human laws are means for the realization of definite ends. There is no method available for the appreciation of their goodness or badness other than to scrutinize their usefulness for the attainment of the ends chosen and aimed at” (Mises 1998 : 716).Mises did not believe that his system of praxeology was derived from any ethical theory. In fact, praxeology was independent of ethics, and its alleged “objectivity” was the result of its being “value-free’ (or wertfrei, in German). Nevertheless, in ethics, Mises was a utilitarian (Yeager 1998: 328).
APPENDIX 2: DID HAYEK EVER ACCEPT MISES’ APRIORISM?
It appears that in an article called “Economics and Knowledge” (1937) Hayek criticised Mises’ apriorism. But there is debate about whether Hayek ever accepted an aprioristic methodology, and to what extent he was influenced by Popperian methodology.
Terence W. Hutchison divided Hayek’s thought on economic methodology into two periods that might be called Hayek I (before 1937) in which Hayek adopted the a priori/apodictic view of Mises’ praxeology, and Hayek II (post-1937) where he was more open to empirical evidence and was influenced by Popperian falsificationism (Ebenstein 2001: 158). J. Gray (1998: 17–18) argues that Hayek never accepted Mises’ pure praxeological method. In a letter that Hayek wrote to Terence W. Hutchison dated 15 May, 1983, Hayek stated:
“I had never accepted Mises’ a priorism .... Certainly 1936 was the time when I first saw my distinctive approach in full clarity – but at the time I felt it that I was merely at last able to say clearly what I had always believed – and to explain gently to Mises why I could not ACCEPT HIS A PRIORISM” (quoted in Caldwell 2009: 323–324).APPENDIX 3
In any a priori argument, one must be aware of the difference between validity, soundness and truth. For example, consider the following argument:
Major premise: All elephants are pink.
Minor premise: Nellie is an elephant.
Conclusion: Therefore, Nellie is pink.
This is a formally valid syllogism. Validity concerns the form of the argument. The argument is valid because it is a correct form of the modus ponens. If one accepts the truth of the major and minor premise, then a priori/deductive reasoning will yield a conclusion that follows with apodictic certainty.
However, the trouble with the syllogism is that it is unsound. Soundness in argument depends not just on validity but also on the truth of premises. This syllogism has a major premise that is false. The major premise is a synthetic proposition, which must be justified by empirical evidence. A false premise yields a false conclusion and, while the argument is still formally valid, the inference is untrue and does not apply to the real world.
(1) There appears to be a “hermeneutic” tradition of Austrian economics. Koppl (2005: 8–9 and 2008 107–111) argues that the Austrian economist Lavoie adopts “universal hermeneutics” in the tradition of Heidegger, Gadamer and Ricoeur, and contends that “classical hermeneutics” (in the tradition of Dilthey and Max Weber) is to be distinguished from this later, more extreme tradition of hermeneutics.
(2) I will quote Murray N. Rothbard’s view of the methodology of O’Driscoll and Rizzo: “The Economics of Time and Ignorance was a fortunately short-lived attempt to replace the Misesian paradigm with Bergsonian irrationalism … In the course of writing that work, Professor Rizzo, the philosophical leader of the duo, was moving visibly away from the Misesian paradigm. In a Mises centennial volume edited by Israel Kirzner, Rizzo first flirted with the then-fashionable philosophy of science of Imre Lakatos as a replacement for praxeology; in a postscript written a mere six months after the text, Rizzo announced another radical change of mind even further away from Mises. The final result in 1985 was the Bergsonian dead-end.”
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