1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to sidebar
Source link: http://archive.mises.org/14164/which-treatise-first/

Which Treatise First?

October 6, 2010 by

A student in Robert Murphy’s Mises Academy course Principles of Economics asked which great Austrian economics treatise to start with first: Human Action by Ludwig von Mises or Man, Economy, and State (MES) by Murray Rothbard.  I’m posting my response below, in case anyone else considering the same question finds it useful.  Also, if you’ve read both, and have your own opinion on the matter, post it in a comment!

The two books (Human Action and MES) present their own distinctive challenges. It just depends on what kind of challenges you are more up for.

With Human Action, you have to be willing to look unfamiliar things up, because Mises assumes the reader is familiar with certain things that hardly anybody is familiar with these days. This is usually as simple as typing the unfamiliar term or phrase along with site:mises.org into Google, and reading what you find.

With MES, you have to be willing to sit with diagrams and the complicated thought experiments they represent, and study them until they make sense.

With MES, you don’t need to look things up, but with Human Action, the thought experiments presented don’t take nearly as much processing.

Human Action spends a lot more time on epistemology, but it assumes the reader is already familiar with production theory. MES goes into production theory in depth, but takes the epistemological underpinnings for granted.

Human Action is more… almost “poetic”. Rothbard’s style, even in his treatise, can be somewhat brash for my taste (responding to opposing arguments with phrases like “So what?”).

Both require their own kind of concentration. In Human Action you need to concentrate on the beautiful, but “old world” prose In MES you need to concentrate to decipher the tables and graphs,

For both, Dr. Murphy’s study guides would be of great help.

Hope that helps.


Dennis October 6, 2010 at 3:45 pm

At the risk of oversimplifying, here are a few of my observations:

I have found that there are significantly stronger philosophical and historical overtones in HA than in MES. Also, MES analyzes production theory in considerable detail, an area that is not covered in depth in HA. In addition, Rothbard’s more academic works, such as MES, contain many footnotes, and these footnotes are great sources of additional reading and understanding. Mises used footnotes more sparingly. Finally, HA is more along the lines of a treatise, whereas MES is somewhat more oriented as a textbook.

I would emphatically state that both HA and MES need to be read and understood for a proper understanding of economic science.

Jonathan M. F. Catalán October 6, 2010 at 5:38 pm

…but it assumes the reader is already familiar with price formation…

This is an interesting insight on Human Action, because I was under the belief that the purpose of Human Action was to (to a substantial degree, at least) revive the Mengerian causal theory of price formation, in opposition to the prevailing general equilibrium theory as first devised by León Walras. I have not read Human Action cover to cover, so I can’t really comment beyond what I understand were Mises’s intentions when writing the book.

With that said, I am currently trudging down a literary path which includes finishing Reisman’s Capitalism, and reading cover-to-cover both Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State and Mises’s Human Action (which, fortunately, I have read most of in parts, so it won’t be so laborious to read through it). I agree that Man, Economy, and State should be read first, for a number of reasons. Predominately, it was always meant to be a “Human Action for the layman”, and although it turned into a treatise full of Rothbard’s own insights and reformulation of Misesian theory it nevertheless retains its original purpose. Therefore, by reading Man, Economy, and State the reader goes into Human Action much better prepared.

However, I agree with Reisman in that Man, Economy, and State is not a substitute for Human Action (the same may be true vice-versa, in any case), so the reader should definitely intend to read both.

mick October 6, 2010 at 6:48 pm

Depends whether you want the original minarchist analysis or the anarcho-capitalist derivation.

Mises is harder because he doesn’t cut corners and his answers are a lot messier.

Russ the Apostate October 6, 2010 at 7:13 pm

mick wrote:
“Depends whether you want the original minarchist analysis or the anarcho-capitalist derivation.”

Minarchism and anarchism really have nothing to do with it. Economics is a science (albeit a soft one), and thus should be value free. Marxists believed in special Marxist sciences, but most libertarians don’t.

Russ the Apostate October 6, 2010 at 7:15 pm

My answer to “Which treatise first?” is that it depends on whether you want to wade through 200+ pages of methodological meta-economics before you get to the economics proper. Most beginners aren’t so concerned with the philosophical underpinnings, and would probably want to read MES first.

Mark October 6, 2010 at 8:33 pm

That’s a great description of why Rothbard is so crystal clear to me. Give me the graphs, the diagrams and the thought experiments. That’s the way I think. Rothbard communicates like an engineer, and I think (and am trained) as one.

byafi October 6, 2010 at 11:27 pm

I put off reading Human Action for decades, intimidated by its size and vocabulary. What a mistake! I was finally motivated to begin reading this year, and by Chapter 2, I was hooked. Had I known of Mises’ aprioristic approach, I would have read this long ago.

Eventually, I stopped midway through Part Four to begin Bob Murphy’s class on the business cycle, and I won’t get back to it for a while. I’m reading Hayek now (The Fatal Conceit, a most amazing essay). After learning what I can about spontaneous order (yes, my head is in the clouds), I’ll most likely tackle Rothbard.

I have to admit that I really don’t like economics very much. MES will be a labor for me, but I think I need the knowledge as background, at least. Then I can get back to Mises and Hayek, with the three volumes of Law, Legislation and Liberty as dessert. Man, am I hungry …

Jedi X'Bones October 7, 2010 at 1:53 am

I have read Mises first and Rothbard after that.

Mises wants to show the shortcomings of mainstream economics. Therefore he begins with dozens of pages concerning epistemology, probability, and human action. This part of the book is difficult to read. The remainder of the book is much easier. In many cases, Mises writes something and you have to think what the implications might be

Rothbard appears to be much easier. He uses examples and charts, wheras Mises uses only text. Therefore, Rothbard’s discussion of price formation is much easier to understand. Rothbard shows how this works; Mises discusses the process and not the details. Rothbards’s theory of the firm and his discussion of the production process are great.

Mises likes the German philosopher Kant; therefore he uses “categories” of human action. These are a priori true (but you have to read other books like “Theory and History” in order to understand this)

Rothbard was a (Randian) Objectivist and therefore shares Aristotle’s methods of logic. His style ist crystal clear. All arguments are deduced and proven if necessary. Steps and arguments are numbered.

Good starting points are the books of Cox, Ballve, Callahan and Kirzner’s book on Mises. Browse Mises and Rothbard and decide yourself. You should read both books. A standard textbook with Austrian economics might help (Skousen: “Economic Logic”).

Jedi X’Bones

scineram October 7, 2010 at 6:16 am

Good point. Meticulous weighing of cost and benefit could be applied to every regulation.

Jake Roundtree October 7, 2010 at 7:16 am

“Rothbard was a (Randian) Objectivist and therefore shares Aristotle’s methods of logic. ”

Rothbard was never an objectivist. At one point he was a fellow traveler. Nevertheless, its fine to classify him as an Aristotelian of sorts.


Jedi X'Bones October 7, 2010 at 7:30 am

Therefore, I wrote “was”. I know that he didn’t support Rand. (But Objectivism remains a good philosophy.)

Greg October 7, 2010 at 7:24 am

“This despite his argument that ANY system of intervention is inefficient and contrary to economic law, and will be unstable and lead to chaos.”

Where does he say that? Serious question. Mises advocates government coercion many times throughout his book. It seems to me he was more apt to judge the effects of all interventions separately.

Slim934 October 7, 2010 at 7:32 am

Actually by nature of the fact that he was a minarchist he was ALREADY violating his doctrine of government intervention.

This point was made to Rothbard in debates in scholarly journals. When he was asked about that he said that the point was essentially correct and that in certain very narrow areas Mises was self-contradictory concerning the logical conclusions of his own doctrine. This does not prove that his doctrines are all incorrect, it simply proves he did not follow his arguments out to their philosophical limits (in this area).

But so what? No one here claims Mises was an anarcho-capitalist. In the field of economic science he led the way there but did not follow his own doctrines to their logical conclusions.

Sorry to spoil your “A HA!” moment, but in reality it is non-existent insofar as it is not anything new.

Madhusudan Raj October 7, 2010 at 12:03 pm

I personally read HA first and then MES, but from my experience I will advise beginners to read MES first, and then pick up HA. Once one understands MES thoroughly then it is easy to understand HA.

Jonathan M. F. Catalán October 7, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Has anybody here heard news of a possible two-volume treatise being written by Jesús Huerta de Soto?

Russ the Apostate October 7, 2010 at 1:54 pm

“No one here claims Mises was an anarcho-capitalist. In the field of economic science he led the way there but did not follow his own doctrines to their logical conclusions.”

I can deal with the idea that (one version of) libertarianism logically leads to anarcho-capitalism, but the idea that Austrian economics per se leads logically to anarcho-capitalism is just too much. For one thing, economics as envisioned by Mises is a science, and as such, should be value-free (wertfrei). For another thing, Mises believed that more-or-less free markets could not exist without a limited government to provide an underlying framework of law, order and property rights on which the free market could be based. This is not inconsistent, because Austrian economics per se does not say that free markets can exist without a government. This is an issue outside of economics proper, in the realm of political philosophy.

Alexander S. Peak October 7, 2010 at 9:30 pm

Dear Russ the Apostate,

While I would agree with you that Austrian economics does not per se logically lead to anarchism, I would like to respond to the statement that “Mises believed that more-or-less free markets could not exist without a limited government to provide an underlying framework of law, order and property rights on which the free market could be based.”

Apologies if I am reading too much into your comment, but it appears that you are under the impression that law and order cannot exist without the state apparatus. If this is not actually your view, then please disregard what I have to say below.

It is true that the minarchist believes in maintaining a limited government in order to secure law, order, and property. But, does the anarchist disagree with this? It would seem the sole difference between the anarchist’s view and the minarchist’s is that the anarchist does not believe the minarchist advocates a limited-enough “government.”

The anarchist does not reject law, and in fact anarchism requires law. What anarchism rejects is the state, which the anarchist recognises to be a hindrance to the underlying framework of law, order, and property rights. Anarchism requires law, for the moment an individual aggresses against another, the aggressing individual has created a coercive hierarchy, with himself as ruler and his victim as the ruled. Anarchy can only exist where the nonaggression axiom is fully respected, and thus lawlessness (or anomie) cannot coexist with anarchy.

The anarchist is not opposed to having a framework of law, order, and property rights. Rather, the anarchist is opposed to giving any person or group a monopoly on law enforcement or adjudication. This is why some anarchists use the term polycentric legal system instead of anarchy to describe their ideal system. The anarchist is also opposed to taxation (theft) and regulation (enslavement).

I agree that one can be an Austrian economist without being an anarchist, but would go further and say that one can be an Austrian economist and be nevertheless completely anti-libertarian. Let’s say an individual–let’s name him Stan–decides to learn about economics. So, he studies and studies, and comes across the Austrian school. Suddenly, Stan is reading Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, and others, and Stan comes to understand that minimum wage laws, rent control, centralised banking, etc., all lead invariably to lower standards of living. But let’s say Stan is also a sadist, and wants people to suffer. In this event, Stan may decide to advocate Stalinism, despite being an Austrian economist. He knows that statism leads to poverty and misery, and yet advocates it anyway.

So, I would agree with you that Austrian economics does not logically lead to market anarchism. But, I would nevertheless say that libertarianism does logically lead to market anarchism.

Again, if you already agree with everything I said above, then my apologies for the long post.

Best regards,
Alex Peak

newson October 9, 2010 at 8:46 pm

to russ the apostate:
you may be interested in this “old right” site. an excellent recommendation by beefcake the mighty. http://www.thornwalker.com/ditch/index.html

Alexander S. Peak October 7, 2010 at 11:47 pm

I had started reading Human Action a few months ago, but have since taken a hiatus. I’m somewhere in chapter two of Human Action. My impression thus far is that it is very meticulous yet not entirely clear. What has been said above is true: one definitely needs to look things up while reading it.

I was reading it with a friend, a fellow who became an anarchist about six months or so after I had. I found that method–reading with a friend–very useful, because we often found we could answer one another’s questions and work out the problems we were having with the text. Thus, we had a weekly study-group going on for a little while.

The only reason we stopped is that I’m in the process of trying to move to another state. As such, I’m currently reading Rothbard’s Austrian history of economics instead. For me, I think this is good. For lack of a better phrase, this is where my brain is at right now: I need (or want) more background on the history of economic thought before I submerge myself back into the theory.

But I’m glad I had the opportunity to read this thread. I’m definitely the kind of person who handles concepts better when they are accompanied by thought experiments. Even when they’re a bit outlandish, thought experiments provide conceptual examples which I find to be extremely helpful. Thus, it appears, from what I’ve read, that I should have started with Man, Economy, and State with Power and Markets prior to venturing back into Human Action.

Alex Peak

Bruce Koerber October 10, 2010 at 8:46 pm

Which treatise first? Theory and History!!!!!

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: