Attack on Austrian Apriorism Refuted

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Today there was a most unfortunate post at Bleeding Heart Libertarians that attacked “extreme apriorism” among Austrian economists. The attack was focused on an unnamed “Austrian Dude,” but Mises’ own position is nowhere explained or clarified as a counterpoint — one suspects that Mises, too, is an “extreme apriorist.”

I asked Jeffrey Herbener, department chairman at Grove City College and the professor for our Austrian economics course here, to reply:

Anti-Extreme-Austrian-Apriorism as the Straw Man Fallacy

At Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Jason Brennan dismisses Ludwig von Mises’s view of a priori knowledge by reducing it to a statement from the mouth of “Austrian Dude” about a distinction between action and behavior. What Mises himself claimed is that one can know something about human action without learning it from experience. The conceptual framework by which we understand the meaning of human action is known a priori. The concepts of ends and means, for example, are part of the categorical structure of the mind, Mises claimed, which is itself a requisite of understanding the movements that one observes in himself and others as human action, i.e., an attempt to attain ends by using means.

Because each person possesses a human mind with the same categorical structure, the a priori knowledge about human action that one can learn is universal. It is true for any and all human action. Knowledge about human action learned by experience is contingent on the person, place, time, and circumstances of the action. For Mises, then, the relevant distinction is between universal knowledge of human action and contingent knowledge.
Mises called the realm of universal knowledge “economic theory” and the realm that blends together universal and contingent knowledge “economic history.”

Mainstream economists reject Mises’s distinction and instead consider “economic theory” a formal model which generates testable hypotheses. The hypotheses of a superior theory are not often rejected while the hypotheses of an inferior theory are too often rejected. Behavioral economists have been pointing out to neoclassical economists that some of the hypotheses of their models, models which postulate “rational economic agents,” are being too often rejected. To correct this flaw, behavioral economists have postulate models with “less than fully rational economic agents.”

Whatever one thinks of this sectarian squabble within the mainstream, it has nothing to do with economic theory as Mises thought of it. The universal features about human action stand regardless of its contingent aspects. Whether a person chooses “rationally” in the neoclassical sense or “less than rationally” in the behavioral sense, in a human action the person chooses. Choice is a universal feature of human action.

It is no mark against the Misesian conception of economic theory that it does not address the contingent features of human action. That’s the task of economic history.

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