Mises Made Easier: A Glossary for Ludwig von Mises' Human Action, by Percy L. Greaves, Jr., Dobbs Ferry, NY: Free Market Books, 1974, 157 pp., $6.50.
The greatest challenge facing libertarians today is winning intelligent converts. This is no mean trick. It calls for patience, manners, erudition, and consistency. In short, it calls for philosophical depth. This is especially true when the conversation turns to economics. It is not enough merely to assert that price controls create shortages, union monopoly privileges result in underemployment and unemployment, inflation breeds recession, government interventions make a shambles of economic calculation, etc. Intelligent people want to know why.
Human Action, Ludwig von Mises' magnum opus, provides the answers. It is a monumental treatise of immense scope, yet based on a simple premise that can be expressed in two words: people act. That is, to quote from Percy Greaves' glossary, Mises Made Easier, human action is:
Purposeful behavior; an attempt to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory one; a conscious endeavor to remove as far as possible a felt uneasiness. Man acts to exchange what he considers will be a less desirable future condition for what he considers will be a more desirable future condition. Thinking and remaining motionless are actions in this sense. Human action is always rational (q.v.), presupposes causality and takes place over a period of time.
From this fundamental beginning, Mises built his edifice—the greatest defense of the free market the world has ever seen. Yet, despite all its brilliance, this masterpiece does not receive the wide audience it so richly deserves.
There are two reasons. The first is prejudice. For 100 years, mainstream economists have tried to emulate the success of natural scientists by treating economics as an empirical science—despite the fact that it is impossible to perform controlled experiments in economics. As Mises stated—and proved—in Human Action, this has been a tragic mistake. Economics is an a priori science, based on postulates, and built with logic.
The second reason why Human Action is not as widely read as it should be is that Mises used words, phrases, and historical references that are unfamiliar to most readers. An unabridged dictionary, encyclopedia, and foreign language dictionaries are of some help, but Mises' precise meanings often differ considerably from "standard" usage. What has been sorely needed is a glossary prepared by a close associate with the assistance and approval of Mises himself.
This need has been ably filled by Percy Greaves' Mises Made Easier. Here, in alphabetical order, are Mises' precise meanings of praxeology, catallactics, evenly rotating economy, money in the broader sense, money in the narrower sense, and various other Misesian words, phrases, and foreign expressions, along with page references to Human Action and 11 of Mises' other books, all available in English, in which he discussed these concepts in detail. In addition, numerous historical references, such as Banking School and Currency School, are carefully explained. Many of the definitions fill half a page or more, so the glossary forms a valuable economics encyclopedia in its own right. For instance:
Neutral money, neutrality of money: The idea that there is or can be some fixed price structure, or interrelationship of all prices, that is independent of the quantity of money and which therefore is not disturbed by changes in the quantity of money. Adherents of this idea hold that changes in the quantity of money affect the prices of all goods and services proportionally and at the same time. This untenable doctrine is the basis for many attempts to maintain a so-called "stable price level" by manipulating the quantity of monetary units. Actually, all changes in the quantity of money must be introduced by changes in the cash holdings of specific individuals whose purchasing power, value scales and spending patterns are thus altered in a manner which affects different prices differently and sets in motion other price changes as the subsequent recipients of such newly induced spending find their cash holdings increased and they in turn change their spending patterns with differing effects on different goods and services. Thus every change in the quantity of money must affect different prices differently and there can be no such thing as the alleged neutrality of money. See "Quantity theory of money." For other effects of changes in the quantity of money related to the trade cycle, see Chapter 20 of Human Action.
For serious students, there is an appendix containing, for the first time in English, Mises' critique of Boehm-Bawerk's analysis of time preference.
Mises Made Easier belongs on the desk of every libertarian who hopes to meet the challenge of statism with knowledge, understanding, and logic.
Brian Summers is a staff member of the Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Mises Made Easier".