by Mario Rizzo
There is a tradition of thought in economics that views the rationality of individual actions as non-falsifiable. There are variations in how this tradition might be justified. These do not concern us to any significant degree here. For concreteness I shall examine the position of Ludwig von Mises (excerpted below) because of the purity and clarity of his argument.
Economists want to abstract from any particular theory of human motivation. In particular, in the early years of the twentieth century, they were keen to distinguish between the subjective theory of value and hedonistic (pleasure-pain) theories associated with Bentham and later W.S. Jevons and F. Y. Edgeworth. So they wanted to say that people choose according to whatever standard they might consider important or on whatever deep basis psychologists might discover. This is not the concern of economists (or so Mises and others argued).
Therefore, when economists speak of people seeking to increase their well-being they mean that they do so in terms of whatever they consider important – pleasure, moral values, long-term interests, short-term fancy, and so forth. Economists also did not want to take a position on how carefully individuals choose what goals they want to attain. Thus, an individual increases his well-being, as he sees it, when he drinks away his paycheck as when he spends it on supporting his family. Continue reading