Means are always scarce?

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    Mises states:

    Means are necessarily always limited, i.e., scarce with regard to the services for which man wants to use them. If this were not the case, there would not be any action with regard to them. Where man is not restrained by the insufficient quantity of things available, there is no need for any action.

    (Human Action, p. 93)

    If I have one good, let’s say a machine that helps me stretch, and there is only one use to which I want to put it to, to help me stretch, am I not using the machines as a means when I choose to use it to help me stretch? (for the sake of argument, I don’t want any more of these machines, would be annoyed if someone gave me a second one)

    In this situation, the means are sufficient to satisfy all my ends correct (1 means, 1 ends)? They are not scarce in the sense that there are not enough to satisfy my ends.


    If you really have only one end for the machine and the machine fully satisfies that end, then the machine is not scarce. But, machines wear out and therefore, they do not fully satisfy even a single end as long as at end continues beyond the useful life of the machine.

    Furthermore, for almost any valuable good one could imagine, there is always another end to which it could be put besides personal use and that is trading it to obtain something else.


    I completely agree that almost any good will be able to be traded and therefore will have a secondary end, but I want to make sure I have the implications right.

    “If you really have only one end for the machine and the machine fully satisfies that end, then the machine is not scarce.”

    If the machine is not scarce, as it is in such a situation, does that mean 1) it’s not a means in the praxeological sense, and 2) that we are not purposefully acting on it?

    If machine is a bad example to use, replace it with two wooden boards that have been put together in a position to help you stretch, that will, generally speaking, last you a lifetime before you (well, someone else, since you’d be dead) have to repair or remake it.

    I can understand not purposefully acting on air – we just breathe it in without thinking about it – but it’s hard to imagine this case as nonpurposeful action. It seems strange that a key criteria for a use of a means in purposeful action is the fact there there are more ends than means. I, again, agree realistically that this would have another end, the fact that you can trade it. (At this point, this objection is just really theoretical, because I think you have definitely answered my question for the real world. I cannot imagine a good that has only one end, so perhaps it is even silly of me to ask.)



    In answer to your initial question, I would agree with Prof. Herbener in stressing that scarcity is a purely quantitative phenomenon, in the sense that a given stock of a particular means is scarce if the available amount of it is insufficient to satisfy all the wants that could be satisfied with it. So, if you have 1000 pails of water in your possession and can potentially utilize 2000 pails of water to satisfy various ends, then a particular quantity of water (say, 500 pails) is a scarce good because the satisfaction of certain ends are dependent on your having the water in your possession. In other words, if you lose the 500 pails you must endure some loss of satisfaction.

    However,, if the available supply of the means is more than sufficient to satisfy all your ends (so if, for example, you have not 1000 but 2500 pails of water in your possession), then water is no longer scarce in that losing an amount of water that is less than 500 pails does not involve any loss of satisfaction. For a detailed analysis of the nature of scarcity along these lines see Menger’s Principles (Chapters 2 and 3) and Bohm Bawerk’s Positive Theory of Capital (Book 3, Chapters 1-3).

    Regarding your follow up question, I would argue that what Mises is trying to say is that we do not make any choices with respect to a good that is not scarce. Thus, we do not allocate units of goods that are useful but available in abundance (in the sense outlined above) amongst ends or purposes. We do not, for instance, allocate a breath of air to the purpose of breathing and not to some other use, since we do not give up any other ends in using that amount of air to satisfy the end of acquiring oxygen. The stock of air available is so abundant that we can waste a breath or in fact a roomful of air and not face any potential loss of satisfaction because this does not impair our ability to satisfy wants in the least.

    Similarly, in your example you are not engaging in choice with respect to those boards. You are not allocating them to one purpose or end (exercising) in preference to other ends that could also be satisfied using them (if the boards were not as durable as posited in your example you would still be engaging in inter-temporal choice with respect to them, i.e., using the boards now would entail not using them to satisfy the same end in the future). That is what Mises means when says that there is no action with respect to those elements of man’s environment that are not scarce.


    Thank you Dr. Manish. After thinking it over, it seems to me I am confusing two different definitions of the word “choice.” The definition you, Dr. Herbener, and Mises are using, at least for this case, is that when you choose a means to satisfy a particular end, you are choosing to use that means for that end rather than using it for another end (and here it is clear to me now how scarcity follows). The definition of choice that I was thinking of, and that was confusing me, was choosing a particular means to satisfy my ends rather than another means to satisfy the same end. For example, rather than using the boards to stretch, I could stretch using some other device (to satisfy my end of stretching).

    Is the second definition of choice not sufficient (absent the presence of the first definition, but with everything else we consider part of action, e.g. takes time, trying to change future state into one you prefer, etc.) to establish a purposeful action? And is it that, somehow, the board is not a means, but something else is a means?

    Also, I will take note of the book sections you have outlined and read them as soon as I can.


    Economizing has two dimensions: choosing higher valued ends to attain with given means and choosing lower-valued means to use to attain a given end. As long a stretching is just one alternative end you can pursue with given means and as long as using the boards in combination with other means is just one alternative combinations of means, then you have choice in both dimensions of the action.

    Hypothetically, there could be actions for which there is only one combination of means that can attain the end. In that case, a person has only one dimension of choice. In choosing the end he simultaneously chooses the means. But, even in this case, the means are still scarce.

    Every action takes place in the set of circumstances. These circumstances are either general conditions, i.e., elements of the situation that a person does not control in the action, or means, i.e., elements of the situation that a person does control in the action. If something is abundant to a person, i.e., if he has more than enough of it to satisfy all his ends, then it is a general condition. He does not need to integrate a general condition into his valuing and choosing when he acts. He may technically or physically employ it, but he does not act with respect to it. If we could imagine a situation in which all elements were general conditions for a person (which is obviously impossible in our world), then he would not engage in human action. He would be engaged in activity but his behavior would not be categorized as human action.


    Thanks Dr. Herbener, I follow. An analogous example to my own would be if someone decided to go underwater and use an air tank to breathe rather than breathing outside. Underwater he is purposefully acting with respect to air, a scarce resource, but outside water he is not: air is just a general condition. Similarly, if I choose to use some other device (that is scarce) to stretch, I am using them as means, but if I use the boards I mentioned, then they are simply a general condition.

    Thank you both for your responses!

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