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Mises Reviews Rothbard's Man, Economy, and State

Mises Daily: Wednesday, March 18, 2009 by

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[This review, "Man, Economy and State: A New Treatise on Economics," originally appeared in New Individualist Review, Autumn 1962. It was reprinted in Economic Freedom and Interventionism.]

Economic Freedom and Interventionism with Man, Economy and State

Most of what goes today under the label of the social sciences is poorly disguised apologetics for the policies of governments. What the philosopher George Santayana (1863–1952) once said about a teacher of philosophy of the, then Royal Prussian, University of Berlin, that it seemed to this man "that a professor's business was to trudge along a governmental towpath with a legal cargo," is today everywhere true for the majority of those appointed to teach economics. As these doctors see it, all the evils that plague mankind are caused by the acquisitiveness of greedy exploiters, speculators, and monopolists, who are supreme in the conduct of affairs in the market economy. The foremost task of good government is to curb these scoundrels by suppressing their "economic freedom" and subjecting all affairs to the decisions of the central authority. Full government control of everybody's activities — whether called planning, socialism, communism, or any other name — is praised as the panacea.

To make these ideas plausible one had to proscribe as orthodox, classical, neoclassical, and reactionary all that economics had brought forward before the emergence of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and the New Frontier. Any acquaintance with pre-Keynesian economics is considered as rather unsuitable and unseemly for an up-to-date economist. It could easily raise in his mind some critical thoughts. It could encourage him to reflect, instead of meekly endorsing the empty slogans of governments and powerful pressure groups. There is, in fact, in the writings and teaching of those who nowadays call themselves "economists," no longer any comprehension of the operation of the economic system as such. Their books and articles do not describe, analyze, or explain the econonomic phenomena. They do not pay attention to the interdependence and mutuality of the various individuals' and groups' activities. In their view, there exist different economic spheres that have to be treated by and large as isolated domains. They dissolve economics into a number of special fields, such as economics of labor, agriculture, insurance, foreign trade, domestic trade, and so on. These books and articles deal with the height of wage rates, for example, as if it were possible to treat this subject independently of the problems of commodity prices, interest, profit and loss, and all the other issues of economics. They assemble, without any idea for what purpose they are doing it, a vast array of statistical and other historical data about the recent past, which they choose to style the "present." They entirely fail to comprehend the interconnectedness and mutual determination of the actions of the various individuals whose behavior results in the emergence of the market economy.

The economic writings of the last decades provide a pitiful story of progressing deterioration and degradation. Even a comparison of the recent publications of many older authors with their previous writings, shows an advancing decline. The few, very few, good contributions that came out in our age were smeared as old-fashioned and reactionary by the government economists, boycotted by the universities, the academic magazines, and the newspapers, and ignored by the public.

Let us hope that the fate of Murray N. Rothbard's book Man, Economy, and State (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand, 1962) will be different. Dr. Rothbard is already well known as the author of several excellent monographs. Now, as the result of many years of sagacious and discerning meditation, he joins the ranks of eminent economists by publishing a voluminous work, a systematic treatise on economics.

The main virtue of this book is that it is a comprehensive and methodical analysis of all activities commonly called economic. It looks upon these activities as human action, i.e., as conscious striving after chosen ends by resorting to appropriate means. This cognition exposes the fateful efforts of the mathematical treatment of economic problems.

The mathematical economist attempts to ignore the difference between physical phenomena, on the one hand, the emergence and consummation of which man is unable to see the operation of any final causes — and which can be studied scientifically only because there prevails a perceptible regularity in their concatenation and succession — and praxeological phenomena, on the other hand, that lack such a regularity but are conceivable to the human mind as the outcomes of purposeful aiming at definite ends chosen.

Mathematical equations, says Rothbard, are appropriate and useful where there are constant quantitative relations among unmotivated variables; they are inappropriate in the field of conscious behavior. In a few brilliant lines he demolishes the main device of mathematical economists, viz., the fallacious idea of substituting the concepts of mutual determination and equilibrium for the allegedly outdated concept of cause and effect. And he shows that the concepts of equilibrium and the evenly rotating economy do not refer to reality; although indispensable for any economic inquiry, they are merely auxiliary mental tools to aid us in the analysis of real action.

The equations of physics describe a process through time, while those of economics do not describe a process at all, but merely the final equilibrium point, a hypothetical situation that is outside of time and will never be reached in reality. Furthermore, they cannot say anything about the path by which the economy moves in the direction of the final equilibrium position. As there are no constant relations between any of the elements which the science of action studies, there is no measurement possible, and all numerical data available have merely a historical character; they belong to economic history and not to economics as such. The positivist slogan, "science is measurement," in no way refers to the sciences of human action; the claims of "econometrics" are vain.

In every chapter of his treatise, Dr. Rothbard, adopting the best of the teachings of his predecessors, and adding to them highly important observations, not only develops the correct theory but is no less anxious to refute all objections ever raised against these doctrines. He exposes the fallacies and contradictions of the popular interpretation of economic affairs. Thus, for instance, in dealing with the problem of unemployment he points out: in the whole modern and Keynesian discussion of this subject the missing link is precisely the wage rate. It is meaningless to talk of unemployment or employment without reference to a wage rate. Whatever supply of labor service is brought to market can be sold, but only if wages are set at whatever rate will clear the market. If a man wishes to be employed, he will be, provided the wage rate is adjusted according to what Rothbard calls his discounted marginal value product, i.e., the present height of the value which the consumers — at the time of the final sale of the product — will ascribe to his contribution to its production. Whenever the job seeker insists on a higher wage, he will remain unemployed. If people refuse to be employed except at places, in occupations, or at wage rates they would like, then they are likely to be choosing unemployment for substantial periods. The full import of this state of affairs becomes manifest if one gives attention to the fact that, under present conditions, those offering their services on the labor market themselves represent the immense majority of the consumers whose buying or abstention from buying ultimately determines the height of wage rates.

Less successful than his investigations in the fields of general praxeology and economics are the author's occasional observations concerning the philosophy of law and some problems of the penal code. But disagreement with his opinions concerning these matters cannot prevent me from qualifying Rothbard's work as an epochal contribution to the general science of human action, praxeology, and its practically most important and, up to now, best-elaborated part, economics. Henceforth all essential studies in these branches of knowledge will have to take full account of the theories and criticisms expounded by Dr. Rothbard.

The publication of a standard book on economics raises again an important question, viz., for whom are essays of this consequence written: only for specialists, the students of economics, or for all of the people?

To answer this question we have to keep in mind that the citizens, in their capacity as voters, are called upon to determine ultimately all issues of economic policies. The fact that the masses are ignorant of physics and do not know anything substantial about electricity does not obstruct the endeavors of experts who utilize the teachings of science for the satisfaction of the wants of the consumers. From various points of view, one may deplore the intellectual insufficiency and indolence of the multitude. But their ignorance regarding the achievements of the natural sciences does not endanger our spiritual and material welfare.

It is quite different in the field of economics. The fact that the majority of our contemporaries, the masses of semi-barbarians led by self-styled intellectuals, entirely ignore everything that economics has brought forward, is the main political problem of our age. There is no use in deceiving ourselves. American public opinion rejects the market economy, the capitalistic free-enterprise system that provided the nation with the highest standard of living ever attained. Full government control of all activities of the individual is virtually the goal of both national parties. The individual is to be deprived of his moral, political, and economic responsibility and autonomy, and to be converted into a pawn in the schemes of a supreme authority aiming at a "national" purpose. His "affluence" is to be cut down for the benefit of what is called the "public sector," i.e., the machine operated by the party in power. Hosts of authors, writers, and professors are busy denouncing alleged shortcomings of capitalism and exalting the virtues of "planning." Full of a quasi-religious ardor, the immense majority is advocating measures that step by step lead to the methods of administration practiced in Moscow and in Peking.

If we want to avoid the destruction of Western civilization and the relapse into primitive wretchedness, we must change the mentality of our fellow citizens. We must make them realize what they owe to the much vilified "economic freedom," the system of free enterprise and capitalism. The intellectuals and those who call themselves educated must use their superior cognitive faculties and power of reasoning for the refutation of erroneous ideas about social, political and economic problems and for the dissemination of a correct grasp of the operation of the market economy. They must start by familiarizing themselves with all the issues involved in order to teach those who are blinded by ignorance and emotions. They must learn in order to acquire the ability to enlighten the misguided many.

It is a fateful error on the part of our most valuable contemporaries to believe that economics can be left to specialists in the same way in which various fields of technology can be safely left to those who have chosen to make any one of them their vocation. The issues of society's economic organization are every citizen's business. To master them to the best of one's ability is the duty of everyone.

Now such a book as Man, Economy, and State offers to every intelligent man an opportunity to obtain reliable information concerning the great controversies and conflicts of our age. It is certainly not easy reading and asks for the utmost exertion of one's attention. But there are no shortcuts to wisdom.