Skip to content →

Mises: Actions are performed by individuals


First we must realize that all actions are performed by individuals. A collective operates always through the intermediary of one or several individuals whose actions are related to the collective as the secondary source. It is the meaning which the acting individuals and all those who are touched by their action attribute to an action, that determines its character. It is the meaning that marks one action as the action of an individual and another action as the action of the state or of the municipality. The hangman, not the state, executes a criminal. It is the meaning of those concerned that discerns in the hangman’s action an action of the state. A group of armed men occupies a place. It is the meaning of those concerned which imputes this occupation not to the officers and soldiers on the spot, but to their nation. If we scrutinize the meaning of the various actions performed by individuals we must necessarily learn everything about the actions of collective wholes. For a social collective has no existence and reality outside of the individual members’ actions. The life of a collective is lived in the actions of the individuals constituting its body. There is no social collective conceivable which is not operative in the actions of some individuals. The reality of a social integer consists in its directing and releasing definite actions on the part of individuals. Thus the way to a cognition of collective wholes is through an analysis of the individuals’ actions.

We often gloss over the personal responsibility present in certain historical events by pretending that it was a certain group or nation or social institution at fault. Referring to these collectives or groups can sometimes be convenient, and there is no problem in using them as a reference point. But it must be remembered that it is indeed merely a reference point.

In saying that “the state has committed a moral grievance” or that “the US bombed another geographical location whose residents did us no wrong,” we must remember that there are individuals consciously and willfully acting in these ways; and they will of course be held morally responsible. Whether the individual is giving a certain order or command or the individual is receiving the command and performing the action, the fact remains that moral and economic responsibility rests on human actors.

Published in C.Jay Engel