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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

3. The Universalist Critique of Methodological Individualism

The reproach of individualism is commonly leveled against economics on the basis of an alleged irreconcilable conflict between the interests of society and those of the individual. Classical and subjectivist economics, it is said, give an undue priority to the interests of the individual over those of society and generally contend, in conscious denial of the facts, that a harmony of interests prevails between them. It would be the task of genuine science to show that the whole is superior to the parts and that the individual has to subordinate himself to, and conduct himself for, the benefit of society and to sacrifice his selfish private interests to the common good.

In the eyes of those who hold this point of view society must appear as a means designed by Providence to attain ends that are hidden from us. The individual must bow to the will of Providence and must sacrifice his own interests so that its will may be done. His greatest duty is obedience. He must subordinate himself to the leaders and live just as they command.

But who, one must ask, is to be the leader? For many want to lead, and, of course, in different directions and toward different goals. The collectivists, who never cease to pour scorn and derision on the liberal theory of the harmony of interests, pass over in silence the fact that there are various forms of collectivism and that their interests are in irreconcilable conflict. They laud the Middle Ages and its culture of community and solidarity, and with romantic sentimentality they wax ecstatic over the communal associations "in which the individual was included, and in which he was kept warm and protected like fruit in its rind."[2] But they forget that papacy and empire, for example, opposed each other for hundreds of years and that every individual could find himself at any time in the position of having to choose between them. Were the inhabitants of Milan also "kept warm and protected like fruit in its rind" when they had to hand over their city to Frederick Barbarossa? Are there not various factions fighting today on German soil with bitter anger, each of which claims to represent the only true collectivism? And do not the Marxian socialists, the national socialists, the church, and many other parties approach every individual with the demand: join us, for you belong in our ranks, and fight to the death the "false" forms of collectivism? A collectivist social philosophy that did not designate a definite form of collectivism as true and either treat all others as subordinate to it or condemn them as false would be meaningless and vain. It must always tell the individual: Here you have an unquestionably given goal, because an inner voice has revealed it to me; to it you must sacrifice everything else, yourself above all. Fight to victory or death under the banner of this ideal, and concern yourself with nothing else.

Collectivism, in fact, can be stated in no other way than as partisan dogma in which the commitment to a definite ideal and the condemnation of all others are equally necessary. Loyola did not preach just any faith, but that of the Church of Rome. Lagarde did not advocate nationalism, but what he regarded as German nationalism. Church, nation, state in abstracto are concepts of nominalistic science. The collectivists idolize only the one true church, only the "great" nation?the "chosen" people who have been entrusted by Providence with a special mission?only the true state; everything else they condemn.

For that reason all collectivist doctrines are harbingers of irreconcilable hatred and war to the death.

The theory of the division of labor?the starting point of sociology?demonstrates that there is no irreconcilable conflict, as collectivist metaphysics maintains, between the interests of society and those of the individual. In isolation the individual cannot attain his ends, whatever they may be, or at least not to the same extent as by social cooperation. The sacrifices be makes for the maintenance of social cooperation arc therefore only temporary: renunciation of a momentary benefit for the sake of an advantage that endures throughout the continued existence and evolution of the division of labor. Society comes into being and develops not by virtue of a moral law imposed on mankind by mysterious powers bent on forcing the individual, against his interests, into subordination to the social whole, but through the action of individuals cooperating in the attainment of ends that they severally aim at, in order to take advantage of the higher productivity brought about by the division of labor. The sum and substance of the "individualistic" and "atomistic" theory of society is that every individual benefits from the existence of society and that no one would be better off as a freebooting individual in an imaginary state of isolation, searching for food on his own and engaging in the war of all against all, than as a member of society, though a thousand times more constrained and circumscribed.

The collectivists contend that "individualism" sees in society only the sum total of individuals, whereas society is really something specific.[3] However, science is not at all concerned with determining what society is, but with the effect of labor performed under conditions of social cooperation. And its first statement is that the productivity of social cooperation surpasses in every respect the sum total of the production of isolated individuals.

For the purposes of science we must start from the action of the individual because this is the only thing of which we can have direct cognition. The idea of a society that could operate or manifest itself apart from the action of individuals is absurd. Everything social must in some way be recognizable in the action of the individual. What would the mystical totality of the universalists be if it were not alive in every individual? Every form of society is operative in the actions of individuals aiming at definite ends. What would a German national character be that did not find expression in the Germanism of individuals? What would a church be that did not express the faith of individuals? That one is a member of a market society, a party comrade, a citizen, or a member of any other association must be shown through his action.

Spann, the most prominent present-day champion of universalism, strongly emphasizes that universalist sociology deals with spiritual facts that cannot be drawn from experience because they "possess, by virtue of their a priori character, a pre-empirical, supra-empirical existence."[4]

In the first place, this is not accurately expressed. Only the laws of human action can be derived a priori; but it is experience alone that can establish whether or not the categorial prerequisites of action are also present in the concrete case. (Here we may pass over the fact that every experience presupposes something given a priori.) One can infer from the a priori theory of action that the division of labor is not practicable without some way by which men can communicate with one another. But only experience can show whether the division of labor and language exist in fact. And experience alone can tell us that different linguistic systems are to be found in the world and that from this fact particular consequences must follow?consequences which, a priori, are at best recognized as possible, but certainly not as having been established as existing. It cannot be deduced a priori that between the totality constituted by humanity or the totality constituted by a world state, on the one hand, and the individual, on the other, stand the totalities constituted by people, race, state, and linguistic community; this can be ascertained only through experience.

However, what Spann has in mind when he declares the a priori method to be the only one appropriate for sociology as he conceives it is not at all a priori reasoning, but intuitive insight into a whole. Again and again science is reproached for its inability to grasp the whole of life, becoming, and being. In its hands the living whole becomes a dead patchwork; the brilliance and color of creation pale, and the infinite variety and beauty of the universe wither into a rational pattern. A new science must arise which would teach us to grasp the whole in its entirety. Only knowledge of this kind deserves the name of true science. Everything else is merely rational explanation and as such is untrue because it is unable to approach the splendor of creation.


[2] Sombart, Der proletarische Sozializmus (10th ed.; Jena, 1924), I, 31.

[3] Spann, article "Soziologie," Handw?rterbuch der Staatswissenschaften (4th edition), VII, 655,

[4] Ibid.

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