Recensione di Roy A. Childs, Jr., June 1990
Its Place in History
Why is Human Action so important? Why has it been revered and honored ever since it was first published? Why is it regarded both as an historic classic and a contemporary masterpiece, by virtually every friend of liberty who has read it? To answer these questions is to understand the special place in history of Ludwig von Mises, and the special place in the body of his works of this truly magnificent achievement.
Our century has properly been called the Era of Statism. In our time, every known form of statism has been tried, from Communism to Fabian Socialism to Fascism, military dictatorships, neomercantilist states, revived monarchies, theocracies, national socialism, and the welfare state--you name it. That's because by the turn of the century, Classical Liberalism -- with its advocacy of individualism, private property, laissez faire capitalism, free trade, and limited government -- had been soundly defeated by its numerous adversaries. By the eve of the first World War, scarcely a single intellectual figure survived to champion these splendid ideals. And no wonder, for under the constant assaults of all varieties, Classical Liberalism had been badly damaged. It needed to be reconstructed if it was to survive at all.
It was then that one young man, working virtually alone, burst on the scene with a new vision of Classical Liberalism. He had flirted with a mild version of socialism, rejected it, and gone on to reason his way to a more consistent and rigorous case for capitalism than anyone had ever before set forth.
His name was Ludwig von Mises, and he was the fountainhead of the Renaissance of Capitalism. Throughout his long life Mises was a man with a mission, and he came closer to realizing it than we have any right to expect from a mere mortal. His ambition was to completely reconstruct economics along the lines hinted at by his mentor, Carl Menger, and then to rebuild a foundation for the defense of capitalism. In successfully doing so, he became one of the great benefactors of modern civilization.
Mises produced many great works, but Human Action was his masterpiece. Late in life, according to his wife Margit, Mises would often sit holding the book, thumbing through it, with a quiet sense of pride. Its subtitle is "A Treatise on Economics," but we have to remember that, for Mises, economics encompassed virtually all of "human action." Thus this mild-mannered treatise often burst its bounds, taking in the theory of knowledge and other profoundly important philosophical issues, the nature of man, points in anthropology, the higher reaches of political theory, the grand sweep of history, and crucially important issues of the day. And--oh, yes-- economics itself, from the ground up. In its scope and sweep, no other twentieth century work in the social sciences can touch it. Why is Human Action called a "treatise"? Because it begins by establishing certain basic principles and proceeds by building an entire edifice on them, block by block. Some people have found the opening couple of chapters difficult and intimidating, because they deal with technical issues of methodology in the social sciences. Go ahead and skip them the first time around if you like -- they'll make more sense on a later reading. The rest of the book is crystal clear on its own terms.
Mises begins quickly enough with the basic principles of human action as purposeful behavior, how we rank values, establish ends and means, and engage in productive work to achieve our goals. He moves on to analyze the nature of social cooperation, criticize the collectivist concept of society, and establish the principles behind the division of labor, the law of association, and exchange. We learn how money develops, and how it functions as an aid to cognition. Then he explicates the basic principles underlying the market economy, the nature of prices and indirect exchange, the advanced money economy, exchange through time, and the origins of interest, rent and profit. All the rest of economics is constructed on this base. Mises carefully corrects one fallacy of nineteenth century classical economics after another, and digresses constantly -- those fascinating, indispensable digressions!--to clear up point after point, no matter what field it comes from. You'll be amazed at how broad Mises's knowledge is, at how easily he moves from field to field to illustrate his points and explode fallacies, common and not-so-common alike. He refutes every rationale for economic statism, exhibiting the virtuosity of reason every step of the way. Fascism, socialism of all varieties, government intervention of every stripe--all come under Mises's critical gaze.
By the end of Human Action, we have the broadest possible vision of economics before us, an unparalleled defense of capitalism and the unhampered market, and a sizzling critique of the principles underlying the interventionist welfare state. We have a commanding case for freedom, encyclopedic in scope, a true classic that remains as relevant today as the day it was written.
We at Laissez Faire Books are proud to bring you the first paperback edition of this masterpiece. There are very few books one can point to and say: "This work will change the world for the better." Human Action has, and will continue to change minds and influence events as long as we survive, and continue the quest for individual liberty on this earth.