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Epistemological Problems of Economics
Ludwig von Mises

6
The Psychological Basis of the Opposition to Economic Theory

4. Freedom and Necessity

The ultimate statement that the theory of knowledge can make without leaving the solid ground of science and engaging in vague speculations on fruitless metaphysical concepts is: Changes in what is given, as far as our experience is concerned, take place in a way that allows us to perceive in the course of things the rule of universal laws that permit of no exception.

We are not capable of conceiving of a world in which things would not run their course "according to eternal, pitiless, grand laws." But this much is clear to us. In a world so constituted, human thought and "rational" human action would not be possible. And therefore in such a world there could be neither human beings nor logical thought.

Consequently, the conformity of the phenomena of the world to natural law must appear to us as the foundation of our human existence, as the ultimate basis of our being human. Thinking about it cannot fill us with fear, but, on the contrary, must comfort us and give us a feeling of security. We are able to act at all?that is to say, we have the power to order our conduct in such a way that the ends we desire can be attained?only because the phenomena of the world are governed not by arbitrariness, but by laws that we have the capacity to know something about. If it were otherwise, we should be completely at the mercy of forces that we should be unable to understand.

We can comprehend only the laws that are revealed in the changes in the given. The given itself always remains inexplicable to us. Our action must accept the given as it is. However, even knowledge of the laws of nature does not make action free. It is never able to attain more than definite, limited ends. It can never go beyond the insurmountable barriers set for it. And even within the sphere allowed to it, it must always reckon with the inroads of uncontrollable forces, with fate.

Here we encounter a peculiar psychological fact. We quarrel less with the unknown that comes upon us in the form of fate than with the result of the operation of the laws we have comprehended. For the unknown is also the unexpected. We cannot see its approach. We do not apprehend it until it has already taken place. Whatever follows from a known law we can foresee and expect. If it is inimical to our wishes, there is sheer torment in waiting for the approaching disaster that we cannot avoid. It becomes unbearable to think that the law is inexorable and makes no exceptions. We build our hopes on the miracle that this time, this one time, the law, contrary to all expectations, might not hold true. Faith in a miracle becomes our sole comfort. With it we resist the harshness of natural law and silence the voice of our reason. We expect a miracle to turn aside the foreseen course of events, which we find disagreeable.

It was thought that in the field of human conduct, and accordingly in that of society, men are free from the pitiless inexorability and rigor of law, which our thought and action had long since been compelled to recognize in "nature." Since the eighteenth century the science of praxeology, and especially its hitherto most highly developed branch, economics, has enabled "law" to be apprehended in this realm too. Before the dawn of the realization that the phenomena of nature conform to laws, men felt themselves to be dependent upon superhuman beings. At first these deities were thought to possess complete free will; that is, they were believed to be raised above all bounds in their acts of commission and omission. Later they were thought to be at least sovereigns who in individual cases are capable of decreeing exceptions to the otherwise universal law. Likewise in the domain of social relations, until that time men were aware of nothing but dependence on authorities and autocrats whose power over others seemed boundless. Everything and anything could be expected from these great and noble beings. In good as well as in evil they were bound by no earthly limitations. And one liked to hope that their consciences, mindful of retaliation in the life to come, would most often restrain them from misusing their power for evil purposes. This whole way of thinking was violently shaken in a twofold way by the individualist and nominalist social philosophy of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment disclosed the ideologically[12] basis of all social power. And it showed that every power is limited in its effect by the fact that all social phenomena conform to law.

The opposition to these teachings was even stronger than the resistance to the doctrine of the subjection of nature to law. just as the masses want to know nothing of the inexorable rigor of the laws of nature and substitute for the God of the theists and the deists, who is subject to law, the free ruling divinity from whom mercy and miracles are to be eagerly expected, so they do not allow themselves to be deprived of faith in the boundless omnipotence of the social authorities. As even the philosopher catches himself hoping for a miracle when he is in distress, dissatisfaction with his social position leads him to long for a reform that, restrained by no barriers, could accomplish everything.

Nevertheless, knowledge about the inexorability of the laws of nature has so long since forced its way into the mind of the public?at least of the educated public?that people see in the theories of natural science a means by which they can attain ends that would otherwise remain unattainable. But, in addition, the educated classes are possessed by the idea that in the social domain anything can be accomplished if only one applies enough force and is sufficiently resolute. Consequently, they see in the teachings of the sciences of human action only the depressing message that much of what they desire cannot be attained. The natural sciences, it is said, show what could be done and how it could be done, whereas praxeology shows only what cannot be done and why it cannot be done. Engineering, which is based on the natural sciences, is everywhere highly praised. The economic and political teachings of liberalism are rejected, and catallactics, on which they are based, is branded the dismal science.

Scarcely anyone interests himself in social problems without being led to do so by the desire to see reforms enacted. In almost all cases, before anyone begins to study the science, he has already decided on definite reforms that he wants to put through. Only a few have the strength to accept the knowledge that these reforms are impracticable and to draw all the inferences from it. Most men endure the sacrifice of the intellect more easily than the sacrifice of their daydreams. They cannot bear that their utopias should run aground on the unalterable necessities of human existence. What they yearn for is another reality different from the one given in this world. They long for the "leap of humanity out of the realm of necessity and into the realm of freedom."[13] They wish to be free of a universe of whose order they do not approve.

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[12] The expression "ideological" is used here not in the Marxist sense or in that in which it is understood by the sociologists of knowledge, but in its scientific meaning.

[13] Engels, Herrn Eugen D?hrings Umw?lzung der Wissenschaft (7th ed.; Stuttgart, 1910), p. 306.

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