Before Economics

July 11, 2022
The birth of economic thought was a watershed moment because it revealed the operation of laws for the social order which were distinct from moral or physical laws (both acknowledged to operate before economics was discovered).
Writes Mises (from Interventionism):
The pre-scientific mind distinguished between the good and the bad, the just and the unjust in human action. It believed that human behavior could be evaluated and judged by the established standards of a heteronomous moral law. It thought that human action was free in the sense of not being subject to the inherent laws of human behavior. Man should, it argued, act morally; if he acted differently God would punish him in the hereafter if not during his lifetime; man's actions do not have any other consequences. Therefore, there need be no limit to what the authority might do as long as it did not come in conflict with a stronger power. The sovereign authority is free in the exercise of its power provided it does not exceed the boundaries of the territory in which it is sovereign; it can accomplish everything it desires. There are physical laws which it cannot change; but in the social sphere there are no limitations on what it may do.
The science of political economy began with the realization that there is another limit for the sovereignty of those in power. The economist looks beyond the state and its power apparatus and discovers that human society is the outcome of human cooperation. He discovers that there prevail laws in the realm of social cooperation which the state is unable to modify. He recognizes that the process of the market, which is the result of these laws, determines prices and that the system of market prices provides the rationale of human cooperation. Prices no longer appear as the result of an arbitrary attitude of individuals dependent on their sense of justice but are recognized as the necessary and unequivocal product of the play of market forces. Each specific constellation of data produces a specific price structure as its necessary corollary. It is not possible to change these prices-the "natural" prices-without having previously changed the data. Every deviation from the "natural" price releases forces which tend to bring the price back to its "natural" position.
This opinion is directly contrary to the belief that the authority can alter prices at will through its orders, interdictions, and penalties. If prices are determined by the structure of data, if they are the element in the process which effects social cooperation and which subordinates the activities of all individuals to the satisfaction of the wants of all members of the community, then an arbitrary change of prices, that is one independent of changes in the data, must necessarily create a disturbance in social cooperation. It is true that a strong and determined government can issue price orders and can cruelly revenge itself on those who fail to obey. But it will not achieve the aim it seeks through the price orders. Its intervention is but one of the data in the market which produces certain effects according to the inevitable laws of the market. It is extremely doubtful whether the government will be pleased with these effects and it is extremely doubtful whether government will not consider them, when they appear, as even less desirable than the conditions it sought to change. At any rate these measures do not achieve what the authority wants to accomplish. Price interventions are, therefore, from the standpoint of the initiating authority not only ineffective and useless, but also contrary to purpose, harmful, and thus illogical.
Anyone attempting to refute the logic of these conclusions denies the possibility of analysis in the field of economics. There would otherwise be no such thing as economics and everything that has been written on economic matters would be meaningless. If prices can be fixed by the authority without producing a reaction in the market which is contrary to the intentions of the authority, then it is futile to attempt an explanation of prices on the basis of market forces. The very essence of such an explanation of market forces lies in the assumption that each constellation of the market has a corresponding price structure and that forces operate in the market which tend to restore this-"natural"-structure of prices if it is disturbed.
If I encountered a more compelling idea on my thought while an undergraduate, I don’t remember it now.