Ludwig von Mises
The Task and Scope of
the Science of Human Action
I. The Nature and Development of the Social Sciences
The scattered and fragmentary insights of the historical and normative sciences themselves achieved scientific status only with the development of economics in the eighteenth century. When men realized that the phenomena of the market conform to laws, they began to develop catallactics and the theory of exchange, which constitutes the heart of economics. After the theory of the division of labor was elaborated, Ricardo's law of association enabled men to grasp its nature and significance, and thereby the nature and significance of the formation of society.
The development of economics and rationalistic sociology from Cantillon and Hume to Bentham and Ricardo did more to transform human thinking than any other scientific theory before or since. Up to that time it had been believed that no bounds other than those drawn by the laws of nature circumscribed the path of acting man. It was not known that there is still something more that sets a limit to political power beyond which it cannot go. Now it was learned that in the social realm too there is something operative which power and force are unable to alter and to which they must adjust themselves if they hope to achieve success, in precisely the same way as they must take into account the laws of nature.
This realization had enormous significance for men's action. It led to the program and policies of liberalism and thus unleashed human powers that, under capitalism, have transformed the world. Yet it was precisely the practical significance of the theories of the new science that was responsible for its undoing. Whoever wished to combat liberal economic policy was compelled to challenge the character of economics as a science. Enemies arose against it for political reasons.
The historian must never forget that the most momentous occurrence in the history of the last hundred years, the attack launched against the universally valid science of human action and its hitherto best developed branch, economics, was motivated from the very beginning not by scientific ideas, but by political considerations. However, the science of human action itself is not concerned with these political backgrounds, but with the arguments with which it has been confronted. For it has also been confronted with arguments and attacked by objective reasoning. Its nature remained problematical as long as no one succeeded in achieving clarity about the question what this science really is and what character its propositions have.