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Human Action and Universe Creation

Based on a facebook post (mysteriously deleted):1

In my various arguments about intellectual property (IP) over the years (since I first started writing and speaking on this, in about 1995) I have gradually come up with new ways of explaining the issue, mostly in response to various criticisms and arguments I’ve seen raised on the pro-IP side. I don’t disagree with much of what I wrote in my 2001 Against Intellectual Property, though I was not hard enough on trademark and trade secret, and I probably would be more careful with the term “scarcity” since I have learned that its dual meanings are an unending source of equivocation by unscrupulous opponents (e.g. when they say “well good ideas are pretty scarce, in my opinion!”). I’ve learned a few supplementary arguments against IP or have learned different ways of making the case, that I would now include in the 2001 monograph, and which I may do someday if I write a new case against IP from scratch (a possibility; tentatively entitled Copy This Book).

One thing I’ve learned to emphasize is the distinct roles of scarce means (resources), and knowledge, in human action, especially, in Mises’s conception of praxeology. (See “Against Intellectual Property After Twenty Years: Looking Back and Looking Forward,” the section “The Separate Roles of Knowledge and Means in Action.”) All human action (a) employs means, (b) is guided by knowledge of causal laws and other facts about the world, and (c) is aimed at some goal or end. Both the availability of scarce means and knowledge are essential for successful action. Knowledge is always knowledge about the world. As Mises notes, the spur to action is felt uneasiness—and he also makes clear in much of his writing that all action is aimed at the uncertain future. Thus all action is action now, employing means now, aiming at some future goal. The goal has to be in the future because action and mediation takes time. Because it’s aimed at the future, all action is speculative in a sense.

The means available that one attempt to employ to achieve one’s end, are those which the actor believes can be causally efficacious at altering the course of events so as to achieve an end state different than the one the actor had envisioned that gave rise to his uneasiness. These scarce means can be the source of conflict since by their nature they cannot be employed by two actors at the same time and for similar purposes. This is why in society, in addition to merely possession or using scarce means, humans develop normative property rights schemes to better enable actors to efficaciously use their chosen means to achieve their ends.

The knowledge we possess includes a variety of forms of knowledge, but basically empirical and contingent (factual) and knowledge of the natural causal laws. For example an actor has some knowledge of how the world is arranged, how other humans behave and act, what our own values are, and we have some dim idea of the uncertain future that is heading towards us. We also have knowledge of laws of causation—of cause and effect. We understand that using a pole to knock down a coconut might work; that using a fire might help cook a fish; and so on. So our knowledge first gives us a glimpse of the future that will come if we do not intervene (act), and knowledge of how this will please us—if we suspect the future state of affairs will make us happy we feel uneasiness and use our knowledge about the world—society, facts, etc.—and about causal laws and related extant technical knowledge, to come up with some plan for a course of action (an employment of means) that we forecast will change the course of events and result in a change from the one that makes us uneasy. In sort, we act, seeking profit—the profit is the psychic satisfaction of succeeding in some action and achieving the end one desires, and in avoiding the other end that instilled uneasiness or discomfort.

And of course, then I point out how naturally this illustrates that property rights are employed to avoid conflict just in the use of the scarce means of action—things that are possibly the object of conflict; “conflictable” things (which might be a better term than “scarce” or even “rivalrous”). But the knowledge that guides human action, while important and indispensable to all successful action, is not a conflictable thing and thus not a subject of property rights.

But what I want to focus on here is this idea of envisioning one’s end as always in the future, and always a “state of affairs” that one is seeking to obtain—one different than the “default” or “autopilot” state of affairs one imagines looming if no intervening action is taken. As Professor Hoppe has written:

“Whenever we act, we employ means to achieve a valued end. This end is a state of affairs that the actor prefers to the actual (and impendingstate of affairs. Both states of affairs, at the beginning of action and at its conclusion, are constellations of means (goods) at an actor’s disposal, describing the circumstances or conditions under which he must act.”2

So the end of an action is the attainment of a certain “state of affairs” which may or may not include the “having of a thing” (or the “owning of a thing,” which is different from the having).3 If you sing a song to a baby to lull it to sleep—you employed the resources of your body, your bedroom, and so on, to achieve an end: a universe in which Baby is Sleeping. So if you succeed, then you in some sense have altered the course of affairs (by your employment of means; this is why means have to be causally efficacious—they have to work—they have to do something in some predictable way so that your action makes some desired change in the course of events). So basically what every actor aims at, in a sense, is: achieving his end: which means, achieving a world (universe) in which a certain state of affairs is the case. In other words, every action is, in a sense, aimed at creating a universe: one of a perhaps infinite number that could exist, and in particular, the one that is not the universe the prospect of which makes one uneasy in the first place.

As Hoppe writes:

“Every action is and must be understood as an interference with the observational world, made with the intent of diverting the “natural” course of events in order to produce (i.e., to cause to come into being) a different, preferred state of affairs—of making things happen that otherwise would not happen….”4

So, we can think of all human action as the attempt to create universes, to create realities. You could analogize this to the Harry Potter world where wizards wield “spells” to accomplish certain results: we human actors wield “means” to deflect the course of events so as to create a desired world, or state of affairs. In a sense, human actors are all like little wizards, seeking to create new universes.

Now the problem that arises here is that we usually think of ends or values as not being in conflict, only the means of action, which by their very nature are “scarce” or “conflictable.”5 But if we imagine a planet of 7 billion people, all acting, they are all trying to achieve new future universes. Some of these are no doubt compossible, i.e. compatible with each other: I can put my baby to sleep and you can also sell your Roomba, so we can both change the universe so that both ends are magically achieved. But not all ends are compatible. If John and Zack both want to win the heart of Jenny, they are both devoting scarce means and action to achieving this future end, but at most, only one of them will succeed. So this means that the future universes that wizards John and Zack are aiming at can’t both be achieved (here I dismiss the silly idea of the multiverse, which doesn’t solve the problem anyway) … which means that whichever one has the most “powerful” “spell” will win—i.e., whichever one employs his means more effectively.

Anyway, the more I thought about this, and after kicking it around with Gil Guillory, I think there is not much to this approach, but I still find it interesting. At least, we ought to keep in mind that the object of action is always in the future, the future is uncertain, and we are trying to change the future reality by using knowledge to achieve the best means (spells) to bring it to life.

  1. Apparently Facebook retroactively deleted it since it linked to c4sif.org which for some reason Fecebook now censors; I re-posted the link here. []
  2. Hans-Hermann Hoppe, “Two Notes on Preference and Indifference,” ch. 17 in The Great Fiction  (emphasis added). []
  3. See Libertarian Answer Man: Self-ownership for slaves and Crusoe; and Yiannopoulos on Accurate Analysis and the term “Property”; Mises distinguishing between juristic and economic categories of “ownership”; KOL395 | Selling Does Not Imply Ownership, and Vice-Versa: A Dissection (PFS 2022). []
  4. Hoppe, “In Defense of Extreme Rationalism: Thoughts on Donald McCloskey’s The Rhetoric of Economics,” in ch. 16 in The Great Fiction); bolding added; italics in original. []
  5. See “On Conflictability and Conflictable Resources”. []
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