Austrian school economist Steven Horwitz offers the uninitiated a brief introduction to Ludwig von Mises’s seminal work, Human Action:
It is hard to summarize one of the most important, and one of the longest, books in twentieth-century economics in a single column. Its three core insights are its emphasis on the subjective nature of value, knowledge, and human choice; the market as a process; and the role markets play in facilitating broad social cooperation. — Steven Horwitz, “On Human Action,” The Freeman Online, September 13, 2012
Those “core insights” cut through all the political nonsense that passes for economic wisdom these days.
A free market environment, unencumbered by government intervention, was for Mises a vital means of reducing conflict while maximizing human potential:
Like his student F. A. Hayek, he saw competition in particular as a “discovery procedure” by which producers figure out what consumers want and how to produce it at the lowest cost. This is the result of conscious entrepreneurship, the active appraisal of the present and possible futures in a world of pervasive, but not debilitating, uncertainty. Economic calculation using money prices is the process by which we are able to peer through that fog of uncertainty and meet the demands of consumers. The market as portrayed in Human Action is part of the broader human struggle to overcome ignorance. — Ibid.
But Mises and his school had—and still have—to contend with the commonly accepted notion that social and economic engineering by the government would “cure” market uncertainties:
Paul Samuelson – The villain of the piece
Mises’s grand vision of economics and its place in society were very much at odds with the trends in economics of his day. In the very same year Human Action was published, Paul Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis was also published, and it set the tone for the rest of twentieth-century economics. It viewed economics as largely an engineering problem of constrained maximization by all-knowing agents in an equilibrium. For a number of complex reasons, not the least of which was that Samuelson’s vision was more amenable to the interventionist policy preferences of the postwar era, the engineering view won out and Mises’s Austrianism underwent a near-death experience for several decades. — Ibid.