There is no way I can say all that I want to say in this review. Murray Rothbard has aptly said: "Every once in a while the human race pauses in the job of botching its affairs and redeems itself by producing a noble work of the intellect. . . . To state that _Human Action_ is a 'must' book is a greater understatement. This is the economic Bible of the civilized man."
I would take Rothbard's praise further. This is not only the single most important economic tome ever, but also the most pathbreaking, definitive exposition of praxeology, the correct basis for social sciences and also necessarily the foundation for epistemology. Only a few living economists of the "Austrian" school of economics seem to have truly absorbed the true praxeological methodology forged by Mises.
Mises' contribution to economics cannot be understated. In basing economics on the axiomatic status of action, Mises established the ultimate foundation for economic science. The fact that humans act -- that is, human beings *act* purposively to reach subjectively chosen ends -- is, of course, irrefutable (to argue against the axiom of action is itself an action). This, however, may seem like a trivial observation. Humans act, big deal? Why is it so important? Its importance is in praxeological economics' methodology deductive chains of reasoning to realize the implications. In understanding what is implied by action - values, ends, means, choice, cost, preference, profit, and loss - economic science can be deduced logically, so it is a purely an a priori science where economic laws tell describe apodictically true relationships in the real world. In this way, key economic principles follow from the action axiom (as well as a few general, explicit assumptions about the empirical reality in which the action occurs), such as the law of diminishing marginal utility, how taxation changes time-preference schedules, the counterproductive nature of interventionism, involuntary unemployment, and so on. So long as the logic deriving the principles is correct, then economic laws are a priori-valid, and empirical testing has no bearing on them.
This book initially appeared in a difficult time, when positivist methodology and the Keynesian paradigm were dominant. Thus, upon _Human Action_'s release it was mostly derided and ignored by the mainstream, rather than studied and criticized. It did, however, gain notoriety among academic circles for rebuilding economic science from the ground up, all the while plowing through the epistemological shortcomings of previous standards.
Mises has provided considerable ammunition for institutional critique. He uncovered the socialist calculation problem -- a central planning authority has no rational way to allocate resources for production without market prices -- and this is an insurmountable hurdle for any state-run economy. In fact, when analyzed fully, it shows that _any_ government intervention in the economy results in market distortion and inefficiency. In essence, nothing can ever be provided more efficiently by the government nor can the government do anything to make the market more efficient. Murray Rothbard, who was of course Mises' student, explored this thoroughly in his critique of interventionism, _Power and Market_ (now available with the Scholar's Edition of _Man, Economy_ and State_).
Lee Carlson's shamefully inane review can be wholly disregarded. Although he appeals to authorities it does not change the fact that the search for mathematical parameters for economic analysis is utterly impossible because of the existence of human choice. But would finding such parameters be possible even if one could isolate all the factors involved that affect decision-making? Again, no, simply because of the fact of human choice. You cannot quantify economic laws mathematically. All parameters quantifying human choice are historical data and nothing more.
In regards to the reviews criticizing Mises extreme rationalism, they would do well to better understand Mises' methodology and the epistemological nature of economic science. To Mises, ultimately, all economic laws were derived from the incontestable axiom that, trivially enough, humans act, choosing between alternatives in a finite universe. In understanding the effects of different forms of economic activity, the economist must determine correct theory by relying on human choice as the guiding factor. To consider the effects of a change brought about by action, we need recognize that by taking certain choices, the opportunities for other choices are destroyed. And because the relationship between these universes resulting from different choices are a priori related to the others, there is no need to rely on empirical confirmation for correct theory. The corpus of economic science is essentially a system of counterfactual laws where empirical testing is completely useless. For example, it would be foolish to argue that consumption need not be preceded by production, just as it would be foolish to argue that money inflation does not raise prices higher than otherwise, just as it would be foolish to argue that 1+1=3. Like a mathematical proof, all economic laws must be refuted by identifying errors in the axiomatic-deductive chain. This is also the only truly valuable way to understand complex economic phenomena. For example, were rising real incomes in Canada 1950-1990 a result of increased taxes, or despite of more taxes? Would they have been higher still with higher or lower taxes? Counterfactual laws of case-probability are greatly more valuable than any mathematical model because of their counterfactual method. They require no qualifying considerations and are always true.
Finally, on the Scholar's Edition itself: This is a BEAUTIFUL book. From the Mises Institute:
"The Scholar's Edition is printed on stunning, pure white, acid-free Finch Fine 50 lb. paper; carefully set in the readable and beautiful Janson typeface, including the 1954 index, the most comprehensive ever done; covered in spectacular dark azure Odyssey cloth from Prague, the finest natural-finish, moisture-resistance book fabric in the world; secured by the finest caliper Binders board; protected by an impressive slipcase from the famous Old Dominion company; graced with antique-soapstone endpapers from Ecologic Fibers; casebound with the strongest Smyth-sewn signatures; fitted at head and foot with silken endbands, thick wrapped for durability; complemented with a double-faced, satin-finish ribbon marker; stamped with brilliant, non-tarnishing gold foil from Japan's Nakai International; and produced at R.R. Donnelly's famed Crawfordsville Bindery, where's America's finest books are assembled." Pretty delicious, actually!
The Scholar's Edition also features an exhaustively compiled index and -- most importantly -- restores all the ambiguities and deleted material from the third and fourth editions.
UTTERLY ESSENTIAL FOR ALL CIVILIZED HUMAN BEINGS.