action (human)

DEFINITION: Human action is the totality of the goal-directed, or purposive, acts in the behavioral repertoire of the human animal.

The capacity for human action lies at the foundation of political economy as a science. Therefore, the study of human action (called “praxeology”) is conceptually prior to the study of economics.

ETYMOLOGY: The noun “action,” and the related noun and verb, “act,” derive, via Middle English, from the Latin substantive actum, meaning a “thing done,” which derives in turn from the past participle, actus, of the verb ago, agere, meaning “to set in motion,” “to drive,” “to do,” or “to perform.”

“Action” is attested in English beginning in the fourteenth century.

The word “human” derives, via Middle English and Middle French, from the Latin adjective hūmānus, meaning “human,” which is related to the noun homo, hominis, meaning a “human being.”

USAGE: The study of human action views the human being, first and foremost, as an animal or, indeed, as a generic organism.

Certain things about the nature of life itself are still little understood and may be quite contentious.

However, no one can dispute the fact that living systems behave in such as way as to maintain themselves in existence, both as “tokens” (individuals) and as “types” (kinds).

Biological tokens, or individuals, are perpetuated through action, while biological types are perpetuated through reproduction.

However, reproduction in all cases consists in a sequence of actions. Therefore, individual action is the logically prior category.

The upshot of this foray into the still-murky conceptual foundations of biology is that action is an intrinsic feature of life itself. A living thing that does not act is inconceivable.

Given this background, economists who pursue the conceptual foundations of political economy—such as, above all, Ludwig von Mises in his 1949 classic, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics—look at the basic concepts of economics through the lens of human action.

A number of economic principles can be directly derived from the perspective of the theory of human action:

  1. Purpose is at the heart of all human action and of life itself
  2. Purposive actions ultimately subserve the goal of the preservation of life
  3. However, most purposive actions consist of sequences of multiple steps
  4. This means that “proximate” (or “instrumental”) actions may have their own subsidiary goals
  5. According to the second law of thermodynamics, living systems cannot exist unless they manage to replenish their sources of energy.
  6. Therefore, some instrumental actions will involve incorporating external molecules (at the cellular level), or, generally speaking, “food” and other necessary resources
  7. This means that all purposive actions involve distinguishing between external resources that further the attainment of instrumental goals from those that do not
  8. Such a capacity for distinguishing between necessary and neutral (or harmful) resources is the source of all valuing in nature

One can readily see that the last point, #7, directly implies the truth of the subjective theory of value, which was only achieved by economists after a long period of theoretical struggle during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Similarly, the universality of the reliance of living systems on external resources—or, in a word, property—may be seen to follow from point #5.

Moreover, the simple fact that all human life rests upon the foundation of action goes to show the wisdom of basing economic arrangements upon natural human propensities, motivations, and intentions, including private property.

The laws of supply and demand also arises directly out of the phenomenon of human action.

Finally, the praxeological perspective on the human condition emphasizes the fact that the world is not ready-made for our convenience. Rather, we human beings must wrest our livelihood from the world. (See the Glossary article “scarcity” for discussion related to this point.)

Taken together, all these considerations reveal the fallacy at the heart of socialism, communism, and similar ideologies.

Namely, they overlook the unconditional necessity for human beings to extract the conditions of their survival through action.

In addition, they ignore the entire psychological structure of rewards, satisfactions, virtues, duties, and other moral imperatives that have grown up around the phenomenon of action over the course of human history.

These blind spots in socialistic thinking amount to what one might call “cornucopianism”—namely, the idea that the goods necessary to support human life do not have to be produced by anyone in particular, but just appear out of thin air, so that they can be “distributed” in an equal manner to all.

But cornucopianism is a sort of childish fantasy, which flies in the face of what human beings are as finite, material beings.

All such utopian thinking studiously averts its gaze from the nature of human action, as well as from its iron necessity, if human life is to continue at all.