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Epistemological Problems of Economics
Ludwig von Mises

The Task and Scope of
the Science of Human Action

III. Science and Value

1. The Meaning of Neutrality With Regard to Value Judgments

The fact that the science of economics had its origin in economic policy explains why most economists use expressions in the presentation of the theory that involve judgments and standards of value accepted by all mankind, or certainly by almost all men. If, for example, one is discussing the effects of tariffs, one usually employs, or at least one used to employ, terms that call a situation in which a given amount of capital and labor was able to produce a definite quantity of material economic goods "better" than a situation in which the same amount could produce only a smaller quantity.

The use of such expressions can hardly be said to imperil seriously the scientific character of the investigation, which precludes all standards and judgments of value. Whoever is of the opinion that economic policy ought to be differently oriented, i.e., in such a way that men become not richer in material goods, but poorer, can learn from the doctrine of free trade all that he needs to know in order to enter upon the path that leads to the goal he aspires to reach. If he himself were to undertake to develop the theory, he would, provided his reasoning were correct, arrive at the same results as other theorists, except that in his presentation he would use different expressions in a few incidental remarks and digressions that are unimportant from the point of view of what is essential in the theory. The objectivity of bacteriology as a branch of biology is not in the least vitiated by the fact that the researchers in this field regard their task as a struggle against the viruses responsible for conditions harmful to the human organism. Their theories are completely objective even though their presentation may be interlaced with terms like "harmful" and "useful", "favorable," and "unfavorable," and the like, implying judgments of value. They neither raise nor answer questions concerning the value of life and health; and their findings are independent of the individual researchers' valuation of these endowments. Whether one wishes to destroy rather than preserve human life, or whether, like the doctor, one seeks to cure and not to kill, he will, in either case, be able to draw from the results of their research all that he needs to know to accomplish his purpose.

One can be of the opinion that the "unfavorable" effects of tariffs, as set forth by the theory of free trade, are more than counterbalanced by other effects that warrant paying the price of the former. In that case one has the task, if one wishes to be scientific, of first of all pointing out and demonstrating these other effects as exactly and as clearly as possible. It then becomes the concern of politics to make the decision. In this connection it is by no means undesirable for the economist to take part in the discussion of policy. No one is better qualified to explain the matter at issue clearly and completely to those who have to make the decision. Of course, in doing so the economist is always under the obligation to make clear where the scientific explanation of causal relationships ends and where a clash of values requires to be resolved.

What is impermissible, however, is the obliteration of the boundary between scientific explanation and political value judgment. Although themselves guilty of this very failing, there are those who continually reproach economics for its alleged political bias because in writings on this subject one often employs terms that do not call into question generally accepted standards of value. Precisely these critics know only too well that they would be unable to attain their political goals if they were to admit that their proposals do not prove acceptable when gauged by such standards. The protectionists are well aware of the fact that they would have no hope of achieving their objectives if those called upon to decide the issue were to realize that protectionism lowers the productivity of labor as regards material goods. Because they know this, and because they want to set up protective tariffs notwithstanding, they go to great lengths to try to prove that Protective tariffs are to be regarded as advantageous even "from the economic point of view." And because they fail lamentably in these endeavors, they charge economics with political bias.

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