From 2009 to 2012 I taught an introductory course in Austrian Economics at the University of Iowa. On the first day of class I would tell my students that Austrian economics would change the way they looked at the world, not just from an economic perspective but from an overall life perspective. Nothing would ever appear to be the same again. They would learn to think for themselves and would not fall prey to all the propaganda from government, the mainstream news media, and poorly thought out opinions of friends and acquaintances. Of course, that does not make one the most popular person at a cocktail party!
Methodological Individualism vs. Collectivism
I would explain that economic science falls within the overall science of human action. All action is individual, subjective, and purposeful. Ludwig von Mises used the phrase Methodological Individualism to explain the basis of what can be known about economics in particular and human action in general. It is the individual, and not the group, that attempts to achieve a higher level of satisfaction as he perceives it at this point in time. Of course, these “preferences” are subjective for the individual, meaning that they undoubtedly are different for different people and are subject to constant change within the individual himself. (Consider the subjective desire for a glass of water after mowing the lawn on a hot day. At that point in time a cool glass of water ranks very high on a person’s individual preference scale, but once satisfied drops down the scale. Others may not be satisfied with a glass of water; perhaps only a cold beer or a lemonade will do.)
There is no such thing as “group” human action, such as Americans chose to sell stock last week, Frenchmen like to go to the Riviera in August, or Germany declared war on America on December 11, 1941. Some individual Americans may have sold stock last week, and some individual Frenchmen go to the Riviera each August, and certain people controlling the German government passed a resolution declaring war on America on December 11, 1941. Aggregates do not act; only individuals act. Ludwig von Mises explained the fallacy of collective action. At first this seems strange, but upon further reflection it becomes self evident and many bogus statements are dethroned. For example, the mainstream media is noted for headlines such as “Americans are fearful of the coronavirus”. This is a meaningless statement, since there is no such entity as Americans, only individual people who live in America. The fear of catching the coronavirus that is attributable to Americans in general ranges individually from so afraid that one will not leave one’s home to hardly any fear at all.
Government Restrictions are Collective and Illogical
Since all action is individual, purposeful, and subjective, in the case of a crisis it is impossible for government to take collective action that would not be coercive to almost everyone. The coronavirus is a case in point. At the present time (April 16, 2020) forty-one of the fifty US states have declared some form of what is called a “lockdown”. Non-life saving businesses must remain closed and there are various restrictions on the movement and interaction of the populace. The stated purpose in all cases is to “stop the spread” of the virus.
But Austrian economists and students of human action in general dispute the very basis of these government coercions. If all action is individual, the individual himself must decide what action he will take or not take in order to both prevent catching the disease AND satisfy his other preferences, such as keeping a roof over his head and feeding his family. If it were the preference of all people to isolate themselves, close their businesses, not patronize businesses, refuse to show up for work, or refuse to socialize with their friends and neighbors, then the government would not need to implement any of these measures. The only conclusion to be drawn is that the state-imposed restrictions are violations of the preferences of many individuals. Since it is only the individual who acts purposefully and not groups, then government restrictions upon these individuals are illogical and cannot be justified.
Man is an End and Never a Means to an End
Suppressing the spread or lethality of the virus is a result of individual human action and is not an end in itself that justifies using man as a means. Immanuel Kant expressed it best in his Humanity Principle; i.e., that man is an end and must never be treated as a means to an end. Individuals have different preferences and only the individual may determine what is and is not in his own best interest. An individual who desires to keep his business open will deal only with others who individually desire to patronize his business. The business owner and his customers may take whatever protective actions that they deem mutually appropriate. No one is forced to patronize a business that he believes is not taking appropriate safety measures, and business owners may require customers to take some sort of protective action in order to obtain the business owner’s goods or services. All individuals have expressed their preferences as only each may determine for himself. This is fully consistent with Kant’s Humanity Principle and the recognition of Austrian economic science that society advances through social cooperation via the division of labor. In other words, there can be no such thing as a collective goal as set by government. Government is composed only of individuals expressing their own preferences. But each individual expresses his own preference through cooperative interaction with other individuals. No one, not even government, may ethically force people to act against their preferences. This is a violation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative that each person should act only as if his action should be a universal law. In other words, everyone should always and everywhere obey the Golden Rule.
Stopping the spread of the coronavirus is NOT a proper role of government. Government should restrict its actions to protecting those three inalienable rights as expressed in America’s Declaration of Independence: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Lockdowns explicitly violate the latter two inalienable rights and probably the first through psychological harm from police enforced house arrest and even the prohibition that the seriously ill and injured in hospitals be kept in isolation from loved ones. This is monstrously cruel and undoubtedly has resulted in depressing the spirit-to-live in many. All of us are children of God and may not be used as means to the ends of others. No one may deign to choose what is best for us; only we can do this individually, because we all have different subjective preferences which we have the moral right to pursue as long as they are in line with the Golden Rule. Even in this age of the coronavirus, social cooperation through the division of labor will result in the best outcome as defined by each of us individually.
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file