Sunday, February 27, 2011

George Selgin on the Action Axiom

Plus my reply.

I was pleasantly surprised to see George Selgin leave a comment underneath my previous post concerning Mises's action axiom. In case you missed it, I had quoted a paragraph from an old journal essay of his before voicing my concerns over the extent to which Mises's action postulate could be defended as a truly self-evident axiom (i.e. along the lines proposed by Immanuel Kant [*]). Instead of responding further in the comments section of that post, I rather feel that my reply here is long enough to warrant a post of its own.

[Obviously, I encourage you to read my original post and see his full comment before continuing...]

While I wish to address several points simultaneously, I think that it's best to acknowledge Selgin's final point first:
I don't mean to suggest that I would go out on a limb to defend everything that's in my essay (I wrote it as a grad school paper in '82, and like to think that I've learned plenty since).
Of course, and I would not expect him to. That being said, I should think that he still regards the quoted paragraph as an accurate reflection of what Mises believed and what most Miseans continue to assert to this day. Indeed, I could cite a number of near identical quotes by other authors in confirmation of what Selgin wrote. (E.g. Compare the top paragraph of page 7 in Hans-Herman Hoppe's widely cited essay, Economic Science and the Austrian Method.)

That being said, I'm not claiming to be an expert on the praxeological method or the extent to which Mises anticipated the criticisms of his therory. If this wasn't clear enough from my essay, it was precisely for this reason that I have invited rejoinders to my argument from people who are more familiar with Mises than myself. Among other things, I appreciate the pointers to original material where Mises and his followers have tried to address some of specific issues that I highlighted.


I will certainly object to Selgin saying that I missed the part about purposeful behaviour. Indeed, I see the issue of "purpose" as being at the very crux of my argument. Thus, when he writes "praxeology is only concerned with explaining human action to the extent that it is purposeful", I would submit that this simply reinforces the tautological bent that praxeologists are so keen to defend against. Put differently, this is really just an admission to framing economics within the constructs that specifically suit praxeological analysis[**]. This may be a convenient tautology arrangement, but:

1) It then begs the question: Why the need to invoke Kant at all? When you have already specified the terms and limits of your engagement -- i.e. purposeful behaviour -- all this Kantian talk about (non) self-contradicting synthetic a priori truths becomes redundant. I mean, would it really be that different to saying "Homo economicus is only concerned with explaining human behaviour to the extent that agents are rational and narrowly self-interested"? I don't think so.

2) Praxeologists (and Austrians in general) need to be very, very specific about what they regard as non-falsifiable truths and the extent to which it applies to economics in general, or even invalidates other economic theories. While good praxeologists may already have suitably honoured this requirement -- I'm not in a position to say for sure -- I certainly don't think that they've done a very good job of communicating this to the broader economics community, which leads me to...

A final comment: I am rather new to this debate and all this may be old hat for people like George. Indeed, looking back over his comment, I get the strong impression that we may ultimately be saying the same thing; perhaps just coming from different perspectives. However, as per the thrust of my original argument, I would be fine with all this if it weren't for the fact that I keep encountering (so-called) Austrians who emphatically insist that economics requires no empirical validation or arbitration between competing theories.[***]


[*] In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argued that we can establish known truths, free of the need for any empirical validation. He proposed the existence of so-called synthetic a priori truths, which could not be denied without  some element of self-contradiction. In other words, you require X to attempt a denial of X and thereby, implicitly, admit to its truth.

[**] Not that there is anything wrong with making simplifications and assumptions; any theoretician does this (though some are undoubtedly better than others). However, as long as you admit to doing this, then you necessarily narrow the scope of what you are able to study or "prove" without the aid of good empirical work or further theoretical consideration.

[***] I blame the internets! On a more serious note, I am aware that there is something of Austrian schism between the followers of Hayek and Mises on this issue of epistemology. Indeed, Hayek's "Popperian" stance is one reason why I find him a much more compelling economist that Mises.


  1. Good post.

    However, I think the correct response to Austrians pushing their human action axiom, as if everything that (allegedly) flows from it in praxeology is certain is this:

  2. Hello,
    I am quite confused on the critique still. So by all means, clear all this up if I misrepresent your claim. What I get from your post is this:

    Austrians say that by act or action, they only mean purposeful action but Kant framework is clear that the framework should not use exceptions of any sort...

    If that is the case, then I think that isnt a fair critique on the Misesian framework. The 'axiom'* is that humans act... thats it. Now, one must define 'act', which is humans using means to achieve ends. But there is not an exception here, Mises simply defines act as humans using means to attain ends.

    Of course there are people that critique praxeology because of the Mises definition on act . Some claim that this is not a proper definition on the word. But that is not critiquing praxeology, per se. That is only critiquing Mises on his word choice.

    *I put quotes on axiom because Mises never used the word axiom when explaining praxeology.


  3. Ps (clicked the post comment button too soon)
    I will post my response to your post, in a little more detail, on my blog soon...

  4. Izzy (if I may?),

    Thanks for dropping by. You've caught me at a bit of an awkward time, but I'll try a brief response:

    I must admit to being slightly confused by your comment. Am I correct in saying that you agree that the Misean definition of "act" is essentially concerned with purposeful behaviour?

    If so, then let me say that I am not critiquing Mises's "word choice" (as you put it)... Rather, I am critiquing "act" as per the way that he has chosen to define it (i.e. the purposeful behaviour of using means to achieve chosen ends).

    My basic point then is that the Kantian defence of the action axiom is redundant, exactly because you have already defined "act" as purposeful behaviour. In other words, you do not need to go through the whole Kantian rigmarole of trying to invalidate the fact that you can think/act purposefully (i.e. trying to deny the action axiom), because you have already chosen to limit praxeological analysis to "purposeful action" at the outset!

    It's like you're trying to prove something that you have already defined as true.

    Does that help? I hope I have addressed your comments correctly...

  5. stickman,

    first off, I explain this in my blog post but i'll explain it here quickly. It is important to realize that you critique right from the very start because Mises never called for an Axiom, nor did he mean to. This is a fallacy that even some Austrians are guilty of. the Action Axiom is an axiom brought up by Rothbard using an Aristotle framework towards praxeology, not Kantian... By combining the Action Axiom and Kantian framework, you misrepresent the whole Misesian stance.

    So yes, you are right that if one uses the Action Axiom and Kantian framework, the propositions are redundant... for example, if humans = actor, then one could say, "Actors act!" but Mises, nor any good Misesian praxeologist, should use the Action Axiom with the Kant framework because of this reason.

    I am also busy, so sorry if my reply is not addressing all of your points. My main point though, is that if you are going to critique Mises and how he thought of praxeology, it is important to consistently use only Mises framework to do so.

    Nevertheless though, I do praise that you go out of your way in trying to learn something new, especially if this subject that you are learning is something you are against. I really wish the world worked this way in that instead of fighting, one can engage in peaceful debate. I do encourage you to go to my blog and respond to my reply, when you have time of course. and if you want to learn more about praxeology, the best intro to Misesian praxeology has to be an article titled: "Mises on Mind and Method." (just google the title, should be the first result).


  6. Izzy,

    I'm still busy travelling at the moment, but will have a look at your blog when I get back. For the moment though...

    I do know that Rothbard, as an Aristotelian, disagreed with Mises's neo-Kantian approach. (I've actually written a brief post on this previously...) And, to that extent, I can certainly agree with you that we should judge Mises according to the same framework that he himself used. Indeed, my aim in writing this post and the one before it, was partly to confront inconsistencies in the way that I've seen many "Austrians" approach their theories.

    However, I think that, whether we call it an "axiom" or not, my critique is still valid for the Misean framework (in it's original Kantian form). From my readings of Mises, including the introductory chapter of Human Action, he was most certainly concerned with "purposeful behaviour" himself. Now, please note that this is not to deny that you can make very useful deductions[*] from the premise/fact that humans act purposefully (which, after all, was Mises's goal for praxeology). It is just to suggest that Kantian defence becomes irrelevant.[**]

    FWIW, I have actually read the Sanchez article that you mention... Which reminds me, you may be interested in the comments here and here. The second of these contains a link to a paper by Barry Smith, which you may particularly enjoy in the context of this discussion.

    Still, as I said, I'll visit your blog later during the week to have a look at your comments in more depth!


    PS - Completely agree with you on the civilised debate aspect... I'm tiring of the flame wars on the the blogosphere (though I slip into that mode myself sometimes.)

    [*] As I've tried to intimate above, essentially all economic theories invoke some form of deductive reasoning... even if they employ very reasonable assumptions or "empirical" facts to begin with (which is obviously where praxeologists would claim to part company).
    [**] I also still feel that the Kantian requirement for apriorism in this case -- i.e. the self-contradiction which occurs in trying to refute the notion that humans "act" -- is only momentarily true at a strictly philosophical level. See my previous post to this one.


No anonymous comments please. (Pseudonyms are fine.)