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From Mises' Human Action

Human action is purposeful behavior. Or we may say: Action is will put into operation and transformed into an agency, is aiming at ends and goals, is the ego's meaningful response to stimuli and to the conditions of its environment, is a person's conscious adjustment to the state of the universe that determines his life.

Are there any criticisms of this axiom as not being a complete description? By complete, I mean not that it describes all aspects of human behavior or fully explores it, rather I am asking whether or not it fully expounds some first cause of human action from which we can deduce answers to other questions about human economic behavior?

This question is not about whether or not the corollaries deduced from this axiom are true, simply: Is this description sufficient to allow us to, from it, describe corollaries of human behavior?

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  • $\begingroup$ I know Mises was a famous economist and that his name is hallowed in certain circles but this really seems like a question of philosophy. $\endgroup$ – Giskard Feb 16 '17 at 6:00
  • $\begingroup$ You may be right, I will flag the question to be looked at, as I could not find any page describing the rules of questions on this SE site. $\endgroup$ – G. David Feb 16 '17 at 6:33
  • $\begingroup$ That action impulses arise before conscious thought seems like a clear enough refutation of such philosophical rambling. We do not adjust consciously to stimuli. We adjust to stimuli and then become conscious of that adjustment - we then interpret this adjustment as conscious action. Can't recall the paper but shouldn't be hard to find with a quick search. $\endgroup$ – 123 Apr 21 '17 at 13:49
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I am asking whether or not it fully expounds some first cause of human action from which we can deduce answers to other questions about human economic behavior?

What it is getting at:

Praxeology [the science of human action] says that all economic propositions which claim to be true must be shown to be deducible by means of formal logic from the incontestably true material knowledge regarding the meaning of action. Specifically, all economic reasoning consists of the following:

  1. an understanding of the categories of action and the meaning of a change occurring in such things as values, preferences, knowledge, means, costs, etc;
  2. a description of a world in which the categories of action assume concrete meaning, where definite people are identified as actors with definite objects specified as their means of action, with some definite goals identified as values and definite things specified as costs. Such description could be one of a Robinson Crusoe world, or a world with more than one actor in which interpersonal relationships are possible; of a world of barter exchange or of money and exchanges that make use of money as a common medium of exchange; of a world of only land, labor, and time as factors of production, or a world with capital products; of a world with perfectly divisible or indivisible, specific or unspecific factors of production; or of a world with diverse social institutions, treating diverse actions as aggression and threatening them with physical punishment, etc; and
  3. a logical deduction of the consequences which result from the performance of some specified action within this world, or of the consequences which result for a specific actor if this situation is changed in a specified way.

Provided there is no flaw in the process of deduction, the conclusions that such reasoning yield must be valid a priori because their validity would ultimately go back to nothing but the indisputable axiom of action. If the situation and the changes introduced into it are fictional or assumptional (a Robinson Crusoe world, or a world with only indivisible or only completely specific factors of production), then the conclusions are, of course, a priori true only of such a “possible world.” If, on the other hand, the situation and changes can be identified as real, perceived and conceptualized as such by real actors, then the conclusions are a priori true propositions about the world as it really is. [19]

Such is the idea of economics as praxeology. And such then is the ultimate disagreement that Austrians have with their colleagues: Their pronouncements cannot be deduced from the axiom of action or even stand in clear-cut contradiction to propositions that can be deduced from the axiom of action. — Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Economic Science and the Austrian Method, pg 25.

What are the known refutations of Mises' Axiom of Human Action?

There aren't any that have been successful...

"All of these categories which we know to be the very heart of economics—values, ends, means, choice, preference, cost, profit and loss—are implied in the axiom of action. Like the axiom itself, they are not derived from observation. Rather, that one is able to interpret observations in terms of such categories requires that one already knows what it means to act.

No one who is not an actor could ever understand them, as they are not “given,” ready to be observed, but observational experience is cast in these terms as it is construed by an actor. And while they and their interrelations were not obviously implied in the action axiom, once it has been made explicit that they are implied, and how, one no longer has any difficulty recognizing them as being a priori true in the same sense as the axiom itself is.

For any attempt to disprove the validity of what Mises has reconstructed as implied in the very concept of action would have to be aimed at a _goal_, requiring _means_, excluding other courses of action, incurring _costs_, subjecting the actor to the possibility of achieving or not achieving the desired goal and so leading to a _profit_ or a _loss_.

Thus, it is manifestly impossible to ever dispute or falsify the validity of Mises’s insights. In fact, a situation in which the categories of action would cease to have a real existence could itself never be observed or spoken of, since to make an observation and to speak are themselves actions. — Hans-Hermann Hoppe, ESAM

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It doesn't allow for a full description of people's behavior and Mises says as much in Human Action. Data is needed as well. The Action Axiom simply states that people will select the best known means to achieve their preferred goal.

To specifically describe the particular action of time and place, then, we need to know the individual's goals and the means perceived as available, with measures of expected effectiveness.

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As a statement about human behaviour in general, it is a question of philosophy and psychology.

However, economics is generally viewed as a study of decision-making, and not generic human behaviour. Since you can always rationalise any economic decision as being "your will," the statement appears to be true, but has little predictive power. Alternatively, since any decision can be portrayed as reflecting conscious will, it cannot be falsified (following Popper's notion of falsifiability).

As an analogy, you can imagine an "axiom" about oxygen: All humans need access oxygen to take part in transactions. This statement appears to be true, but how does it help us analyse economies on Earth? There's not a lot of information in there that can help us build better models. In other words, most economists try to avoid cluttering arguments with irrelevant yet true statements.

In order for economist to have anything useful to say about Mises' Axiom, it needs to be strengthened so that it has some predictive power. (Certain possible decisions have to be ruled out.) For example, it could be restated to be equivalent to the classical nation of rationality - where it immediately is covered by decades of critiques (as seen in the work on behavioural economics).

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As with all the others, I would agree "no." I am only treating the first sentence as the axiom as the "corollary" implied in the second sentence is actually less clear. As the axiom I am taking it to be

Human action is purposeful behavior

This could almost make it as a game theory axiom. de Finetti's coherence principle, for example, or Cox's axioms are not in mathematically disciplined language yet they found two entire schools of thought for decision making under uncertainty. This is in sharp contrast to Leonard Jimmie Savage's first postulate which is

The relation $\ge$ is a total preorder.

What makes it a problem is that it confounds distinct things. First is inaction purposeful? Is the action "do nothing" an action. That might seem weird or picky, but I can think of at least one game theoretic situation where that distinction would have profound implications. There isn't enough here to define what actions mean. Additionally, how do actions map to and from utilities? How do we know that the correct ones are the purposeful ones? Do we have "accidents?" Are mistakes made? How are forced actions understood? For the right price are you willing to be "non-purposeful?"

At a deeper level, it either subsumes preferences so that they cannot be distinguished, or it presumes people lack preferences. Action is the result of the interaction of changes in the state of the internal and external environment and utility. Utility, however, is a derived concept from preferences.

That does not make this statement wrong, it makes it a theorem and not an axiom, if you add sufficient additional clarity as to what "purposeful" means. I think that if you treated this as an axiom, you would run into problems with probability theory and measure theory as well.

Savage derives probability theory and utility theory from preferences. He does this, in part, because probability and utility cannot be distinguished in de Finetti. They are not actually different things, which most people find weird or confusing at first, but de Finetti begins with observable behavior and walks backwards into the mind.

The issue is that by not dealing with preferences, you may accidentally end up with a system where decision makers do things that does not match the laws of probability. Of course that branch of Austrian thinking says you cannot study behavior statistically, which would be consistent with my concern. If this is your axiom, it may be the case it goes somewhere unfortunate, depending upon what your other axioms look like.

It isn't a primitive, it is a derived statement.

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Is this description sufficient to allow us to, from it, describe corollaries of human behavior?

Short answer: no.

Slightly longer answer: It sounds like it's written by someone with no self-insight who was unaware that humans are just mammals with slightly-enhanced intelligence. Do you really need it refuting? Do you sincerely believe that all your actions are meaningful expressions of conscious will? Did that start at a particular age? Was a switch flipped in your brain on your 18th (or 21st or 25th or 40th) birthday, causing you to become a rational agent despite all that had gone before?

The full answer is contained in a whole field of science on this subject - psychology. Indeed, many good universities have whole libraries dedicated to it And that's a bit too long for here. As you're interested, then you could start with behavioural economics - there are plenty of books on that alone.

Here's Bertrand Russell for starters - philosophy rather than economics, so let the etymology of the word "philosophy" guide you:

Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.

Economics is still recuperating from the shock of the irrational. Some try to extend the rational-agent framework, for example with penalties for partial information, and so on, to rationalise, post-hoc, observed sub-optimal actions (such post-hoc rationalisation being a very common manifestation of human irrationality). A confidence-tricksters' tools still out-perform these extended models.

There's a lot of very good empirical work going on in behavioural economics. One could choose to axiomatically ignore it, but that would be to hold a pre-judged belief as superior to any and all empirical evidence. That doesn't seem very rational to me.

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  • $\begingroup$ To expound with context, this is not a description of all human action. Rather it is an a-priori approach to economic theory that presupposes that the actions of humans relevant to economics fall under the category of the axiom of "human action" described in the question. $\endgroup$ – G. David Feb 16 '17 at 4:17
  • $\begingroup$ Don't worry, I understand that. So do you think that all your economic actions are rational? If so, at what age did that begin? $\endgroup$ – EnergyNumbers Feb 17 '17 at 9:48
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    $\begingroup$ I think you misunderstand the axiom. Acting with purpose or with perceived end as motivation is not the same as acting rationally $\endgroup$ – G. David Feb 18 '17 at 7:41
  • $\begingroup$ @G.David You are absolutely correct. Mises is talking about purposeful action, not rational action. (Though of course all rational action is a subtype of purposeful action.) This answerer does not understand Mises at all. $\endgroup$ – Gregory Higley Sep 19 at 0:08

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