On von Mises and human motivation

Forgive me if I've posted this here before; I can't remember.

Shamelessly ripping off Mark’s comment:

Being able to imagine a world better than the one we live in is not a bug, its a feature. Its how we take the world we are born into and start to adapt it to the one we want.

We call contentment or satisfaction that state of a human being which does not and cannot result in any action. Acting man is eager to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory. His mind imagines conditions which suit him better, and his action aims at bringing about this desired state. The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness. A man perfectly content with the state of his affairs would have no incentive to change things. He would have neither wishes nor desires; he would be perfectly happy. He would not act; he would simply live free from care.

--Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, p. 13

Just make sure you don't fall into a trap of despair. Von Mises' next paragraph shows the problem with this:


But to make a man act, uneasiness and the image of a more satisfactory state alone are not sufficient. A third condition is required: the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness. In the absence of this condition no action is feasible. Man must yield to the inevitable. He must submit to destiny.

Intriguing – these statements seem to mesh well with my understanding of contemporary psyc research.

Regarding the first von Mises paragraph above: If we were content, would we stop acting? Apparently. If you give a rodent a button that delivers a dose of dopamine on demand, the rodent will just push the button endlessly – ignoring all other things, such as sex, food or even sleep – until it dies.

Regarding the second paragraph: Harvard psyc prof Daniel Gilbert (author of Stumbling on Happiness) conducts research on “affective forecasting” – that is, our ability to predict how we will feel in the future if we do X rather than Y. In a nutshell, humans seem to be systemically LOUSY at this. Our minds are filled with ideas about how great our lives will be if we could just get that job, or how devastated we would be if we lost a limb. Yet the bulk of research suggests that people have a natural “set point” of happiness, and we tend to regress to that point. Certain phenomena do correlate with improved affect – having religious faith, avoiding poverty, having a marriage and social networks (but not having kids!). But most things we worry about have little long-term consequence to our happiness.

So why would humans have this curious systemic “defect”? It suggests that there’s something adaptive about being wrong. What could that be? One hypothesis is that the adaptive feature is motivation. By having an exaggerated sense about the potential risks and rewards of future events, we become more motivated to shape those events.

This has some curious implications for libertarianism:

1) People, left to their own devices, will make choices that predictably will make them less happy than they could be. In other words, you can seek to maximize freedom or maximize happiness, but not both.

2) The more discontent people are, the more adamantly they will seek change – regardless of whether the change they demand has any relationship to their discontentment. This creates problems for small government advocates because, especially during emergencies, the public will clamor for their leaders to “Do something!” even if the something is weakly correlated with the emergency. Sometimes the “something” will be to shrink government. But more often, it’s the opposite. And a humble acknowledgement that there’s little to be done and patient restraint would be the best policy – that’s never an option.

Arguably some of the New Deal programs were popular not because they did much to mitigate the effects of the Great Depression, but because they LOOKED like they were doing something about the effects of the Great Depression. Roosevelt riding around, visiting the Hoover Dam and CCC projects, created a great narrative, and he was a great narrator.

Similarly, during the OPEC oil embargo and the resulting stagflation, the public kicked out every president that came along, and voted against the Reagan-led Republican Party during Reagan’s first mid-term, in a perennial mood of “throw the bums out.” Only after OPEC collapsed and the economy revived after the 1982 midterms did the public begin electing presidents for two terms again.

The public threw George HW Bush out of office when the economy turned bad at the end of his first (and only ) term. Gore lost to W when the economy dipped. And W nearly became the first wartime president to get kicked out of office. I suspect W was spared his father’s fate only through the felicitous/strategic choice to begin a war in Iraq – a place that, unlike Afghanistan, would have targets to destroy, terrain to capture, and periodic symbols of progress.

With a terrible economy, I expect Democrats will lose seats in 2010 (unless Obama starts a new war to rally around?). But assuming the economy revives by 2012, Obama will be claiming that all his stimulus spending has made the difference. Accurate or not, it’s a narrative. Republicans will argue that they actually should be given credit for improving the economy because … they restrained Obama from making things worse? Not much of a narrative, even if true.

The public clamored for change, and change occurred. Much like Reagan got the benefit of the economy’s revival when OPEC collapsed, I expect Obama will get credit for the economy’s revival in 2012. And the public will be reaffirmed in its belief that political leaders can actually mange the economy.

3. Von Mises and Gibert seem to point to a common conclusion: happiness is maladaptive. The individual that is most likely to pass on genes to the next generation is the discontented, and therefore active, individual.

Query: So what? Does the fact that something is adaptive make it virtuous? Consider the rodent on the dopamine drip. Lacking external constraints, it has freedom to refrain from pushing the dopamine button. Yet it chooses that option. It seems to be maximizing its utility. Should we not all emulate the rodent?

Seems like an icky outcome. Yet I don’t see why I could feel that way unless I value something more highly than the freedom of the individual to choose how to live his own life. The fact that I would reject that kind of life suggests I believe people have some kind of duty higher than the duty to pursue their own choices. I’m still struggling with this.

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You are right about what Republicans can't do...

Republicans are not going to be making the case that they helped things get better in 2012. Unless the economy is somehow going gangbusters, they are going to have to claim that things are still bad. They will point to the (most likely) still high unemployment numbers to make the point that people are struggling because of Obama's policies. They may point to higher oil prices that will inevitably occur if growth does resume at a rapid pace. Whether or not there will be significant causality between the policies implemented by Obama and the negatives will be very debatable, but as with most issues people will assume the POTUS has more power to change the world than he actually does.

The republicans will make the negative argument whether or not things are really getting better, since as you mentioned, they probably won't have a narrative to explain how they helped things get better.

With regards to the trade off between freedom and happiness, I think this issued is covered well both in Huxley's Brave New World and in Nozick's "experience machine" hypothetical.

greed, our sin nature

Mises was referring to the greed factor of human psychology. Humans are not happy unless they are climbing the food chain or pushing someone else down. This is why people with billions in invested assets can't quit working.

Not really...

It will be difficult to argue that von Mises was making a reference to the psychologically sinful nature of man.

The quote appears at the beginning of Human Action, an attempt to explain the fundamentals of why and how humans act. The title above the passage is "The Prerequisites of Human Action." The larger context of the passage is very amoral in relation to how humans should act--that is, he isn't contrasting the quoted motivation to some nobler alternative motivation for action. Just the opposite; on the page following the passage in the post, he goes on to say that even noble motivations are included in his description of dissatisfaction as a motive:

The ultimate goal of human action is always the satisfaction of the acting man’s desire. There is no standard of greater or lesser satisfaction other than individual judgments of value, different for various people and for the same people at various times. What makes a man feel uneasy and less uneasy is established by him from the standard of his own will and judgment, from his personal and subjective valuation. Nobody is in a position to decree what should make a fellow man happier.

To establish this fact does not refer in any way to the antitheses of egoism and altruism, of materialism and idealism, of individualism and collectivism, of atheism and religion. There are people whose only aim is to improve the condition of their own ego. There are other people with whom awareness of the troubles of their fellow men causes as much uneasiness as or even more uneasiness than their own wants. There are people who desire nothing else than the satisfaction of their appetites for sexual intercourse, food, drinks, fine homes, and other material things. But other men care more for the satisfactions commonly called “higher” and “ideal.” There are individuals eager to adjust their actions to the requirements of social cooperation; there are, on the other hand, refractory people who defy the rules of social life. There are people for whom the ultimate goal of the earthly pilgrimage is the preparation for a life of bliss. There are other people who do not believe in the teachings of any religion and do not allow their actions to be influenced by them.

Praxeology is indifferent to the ultimate goals of action. Its findings are valid for all kinds of action irrespective of the ends aimed at. It is a science of means, not of ends.

The moral spin was layered on top of von Mises' passage by me as a response to Jacob's lament that dissatisfaction was a part of the human condition. I was hoping to relieve his angst by pointing out that dissatisfaction is a necessary part of acting. Analogously, you could lament that humans must live with the constant fears of suffocation and starvation, or you could just accept it as part of the the mechanism by which we stay alive.

The psychological spin was layered on top of my quote in this post by nobody.really, who thought it was odd that humans don't seem to be consistent in judging their future happiness as a result of acting, compared to their happiness after the action has been taken. Von Mises was trying to avoid saying anything about psychology. I could quote some more, but anyone who is still interested would probably benefit more by reading (or listening to) Human Action, even if only this first part.

Same thing

>The ultimate goal of human action is always the satisfaction of the acting man’s desire.

Christian theology attributes this characteristic to our sin nature, call it defective DNA if you wish. Our desire as civilized people should be to love God and help our neighbors even if we dislike them for personal reasons.