The Action Axiom, Economic Theory, and Pen and Paper Roleplaying Games

Man. I did not expect my connecting of praxeology and human action to gaming to be so interesting or triggering to people. I've had some push back on twitter and YouTube as well as some really genuine conversation about it. For context, I made the following tweet:

I then attempted to clarify this more completely for my fellow layman with this video here:

Deductive a prior logical thought and reasoning is something both confusing and alien to people it seems. Odd since we do that all of the time with mathematics. I guess when we are not adding bonuses and subtracting THAC0 from our rolls, any other kind of a priori logic not involving numbers can seem odd. Regardless, such logic is sound and quite useful for trying to understand the world around us. Perhaps I can explain the concept a third time here so that people can understand the points I am trying to make.

So please, join me on my highly absurd journey through economics and pen and paper role-playing games.

What is the Action Axiom

Murray Rothbard, a student of Ludwig Von Mises (who first really distilled the Action Axiom in his book "Human Action") said the following:

“Human beings engage in purposive behavior—i.e., they choose which scarce means are to be more fruitfully (or economically, or rationally) employed in order to satisfy their most preferred ends. This behavior—stemming from human free will—is what we call action. As long as means are scarce and wants are not fully satisfied, human beings will keep on intentionally (or purposefully) acting.”

Mises said the following as well:

"Human action is purposeful behavior. Or we may say: Action is will put into operation and transformed into an agency, is aiming at ends and goals, is the ego's meaningful response to stimuli and to the conditions of its environment, is a person's conscious adjustment to the state of the universe that determines his life. Such paraphrases may clarify the definition given and prevent possible misinterpretations. But the definition itself is adequate and does not need complement of commentary."

I quote them because some of the push back on twitter involved someone being angry I didn't want to take their bait for various red herrings that are outside of the scope I am talking about. Namely, animals. Animals are not human (that isn't to say that animals shouldn't be treated kindly though). For now, let us focus on HUMAN ACTION only. I feel I need to further elaborate and define, as concisely as I can, what human action is and is not.

"Action" in regards to man is a purposeful display of control that is limited and restrained by circumscribed powers of man's mind, his physiological and bodily limitations, the environment around him, and the scarcity of the external factors and resources his life depends on.

To use D&D terms, action is limited by our ability scores that were randomly generated at birth along with the world around us and the scarcity of gold pieces, scrolls, potions, and daily rations that are available to us.

Further more, action in this case is an attempt to substitute an unsatisfactory state of affairs for a satisfactory one by using the scarce resources available to do so. In our lives we do this through going to work (expending our valuable scarce time and energy for money), using money we earned to purchase something we think we need like a new car, a phone, or a meal at a restaurant, etc.. D&D characters do this too. They will slay the swamp hag because she's causing great discomfort for the people of a village. The people of the village pay money to the characters to rid them of the hag because they value life without the hag more than the gold they paid the adventurers. The adventurers value the gold pieces, and maybe the loot the hag has over the potential danger to their lives because they need the gold to buy a magic item, build their stronghold, hire mercenaries to help them, or maybe they are lawful and see helping the villagers as an act of worship to their god and a way to gain favor with them. Every individual sees the situation they are in as, "this could be better," and they are performing actions through the application of scarce resources at their disposal in order to make their situations better.

The "Refutations"

When I made these connections on both Twitter and on my Youtube channel, I received some pushback from people who attempted to refute the action axiom. Honestly, I find the refutations absurd and so did Rothbard.

"It is this fundamental truth—this axiom of human action—that forms the key to our study. The entire realm of praxeology and its best developed subdivision, economics, is based on an analysis of the necessary logical implications of this concept. The fact that men act by virtue of their being human is indisputable and incontrovertible. To assume the contrary would be an absurdity. The contrary—the absence of motivated behavior—would apply only to plants and inorganic matter."

Let's entertain the criticisms. In fairness, such a thing is warranted to people. A criticism that was levied at me is that the Action Axiom is a self referential statement and therefore circular. They mean that they think this axiom is false because it asserts its own truth-value. They think it is a statement like, "every word in this blog post is false." Such a statement is self referential but it's implication is makes its truth-value questionable at best. Positivists who levy this criticism assume that because some self referential statements are contradictory like this, all are, and therefore this action axiom is just as false as saying, "every statement in this blog post is false."

"The action axiom is itself a self-referential proposition; the statement, 'Humans act,' constitutes an action. The goal of the action is the positive assertion of the action axiom; the means is the statement. The positive assertion of the action axiom can be read thus: 'This assertion of the action axiom is itself an action.' It is thus a self-referential statement. The attempt to deny the action axiom is also self-referential. It amounts to stating, 'Action does not exist; therefore, this statement is not an action.' Yet the positivists are wrong to discard both of the statements. The statement that humans act — while self-referential — differs in essence from the statement that action does not exist."

One of us, the critics or myself, is saying a contradictory statement. And look. It isn't me. This is because the Action Axiom fits the mold of a "synthetic a prior proposition" meaning that the truth or falseness of the proposition is proved or disproved by whether or not the statement conforms to the way the world is. Critics of this proposition regarding human action may deny that it is true, but their actions will always attest to its truthfulness regardless of what they say. Mr. Stolyarov explains further by saying, "Action is the deliberate employment of means for attaining ends. In this case, the actor's end is the denial of the action axiom. His attempted means is the statement, 'Humans do not act.' While his endeavor is bound to fail, he still acts so long as he thinks that the means he employs will arrive at the end he seeks."

What Does This Have To Do With TTRPGS?

As participants in this hobby, our games become more immersive when take the goals of our characters seriously. When players really think about what their character wants and therefore how that character would act, they are helping the GM make a more immersive world. When the GM is doing this for the various NPCs the players encounter, they are doing the work required for making the world immersive. Why? Because they are simulating how conscious and intelligent beings behave in reality. It's true of our world and when we make it true of the fantasy world we are adventuring in, the world seems real and the role-playing is top tier.

"Man thinks not only for the sake of thinking, but also in order to act."
- Ludwig Von Mises, Epistemological Problems of Economics

We make an immersive fantasy world to adventure in when we simulate essentially, how humans make economic choices every day. The NPCs and our PCs feel more real and living when we do this. I will note that this can be done without being a voice actor or an Emmy winning actor. The requirement is merely taking the subjective value scales of the character seriously and presenting them that way.

Why Would People Attempt to Refute This?

People seek to disprove this because it is an a priori proposition that if taken to its logical ends, brings someone to classical liberal values. As we have seen over the last few years, this hobby has been infiltrated by activists who champion an ideology in direct opposition to classical liberal values. Classical liberal values would be individual liberty, economic freedom, personal autonomy, free speech, and other such ideals.

How does the Action Axiom lead to this? Consider these quotes from Ludwig Von Mises:

"A judgment of value does not measure, it arranges in a scale of degrees, it grades. It is expressive of an order of preference and sequence, but not expressive of measure and weight."
-Mises, Human Action

"It is vain to speak of any calculation of values. Calculation is possible only with cardinal numbers. The difference between the valuation of two states of affairs is entirely psychical and personal. It is not open to any projection into the external world. It can be sensed only by the individual. It cannot be communicated or imparted to any fellow man."
-Mises, Human Action

"There is no yardstick to measure the aesthetic worth of a poem or of a building."
-Mises, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality

"Value is not intrinsic. It is not in things and conditions but in the valuing subject."
-Mises, Theory and History

"There are no such things as absolute values, independent of the subjective preferences of erring men. Judgments of values are the outcome of human arbitrariness. They reflect all the shortcomings and weaknesses of their authors."
-Mises, Bureaucracy

I shotgun blasted you with Mises buckshot because these quotes define the implications of the Action Axiom. Economics consists of the acting individual. Individuals will have varying and different "value scales." This is due to "marginal utility." Marginal utility is defined as the added satisfaction an individual receives from owning one or more units of something. This concept of marginal utility appears in our everyday lives and it occurs in our games too (like the example of the swamp hag above). If every individual acts, and every individual has a subjective value scale, that means no one but that individual knows what will improve their situation better than them. There are people in this hobby who hate that idea. They want to be the GM that removes all agency from the players and railroads them in the adventure. They know what is best. They are would be tyrants really. Because of this, I don't think they can handle the idea of the game and hobby they have taken over relying on the action axiom being true in order for the game to function and have any meaning. They have to admit that the game they play disproves their warped view of the world.


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