Article word count: 1,193

Mises and the Buddha
Dukkha and Human Action

The Argument: Both Siddhartha the Buddha and Professor von Mises saw the crucial role of Dissatisfaction in stimulating Human Action. However, they found significantly different solutions to the problems thus facing humanity.

The Buddha expressed his view through his Four Noble Truths [1]

            First, the truth of dukkha

            Second, the truth of the cause of dukkha

            Third, the truth of freedom from dukkha, and

            Fourth, the truth of the way to eliminate dukkha, which is the Eightfold Path

Dukkha is a basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all forms of existence, because all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance. [2] Thus, the word "dukkha" that is often translated as "suffering" is a much broader concept, of which suffering, pain, and the like, are but examples.

Dukkha is any cause of dissatisfaction.

Mises' view can be summed as: All Human Action is Predicated on Dissatisfaction. 

Satisfying human needs in a world of scarcity requires continual purposeful choices among means, in a variously changing world.

"The most general prerequisite of action is a state of dissatisfaction, on the one hand, and, on the other, the possibility of removing or alleviating it by taking action. (Perfect satisfaction and its concomitant, the absence of any stimulus to change and action, belong properly to the concept of a perfect being. This, however, is beyond the power of the human mind to conceive. A perfect being would not act.) Only this most general condition is necessarily implied in the concept of action." [3]

" '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' (HA, p. 14). In order for action to occur, two conditions must be met. The actor must be dissatisfied in some manner. Furthermore, the actor must consider himself capable of remedying his specific dissatisfaction. If this is so, then the actor will pursue the dissatisfaction's elimination, provided that the benefit of eliminating it exceeds the disutility of his own labor in doing so. " [4]

Siddhartha Gautama and Ludwig von Mises were both from highly sophisticated societies, though separated by two and a half millennia and a large part of Eurasia. Both were well-educated scions of substantial families. Each would have been recognized by their contemporaries as "gentlemen of refinement."

In some ways the societies they each spoke to were similar -- urban, wealthy, appearing to be stable, with well-developed commercial and cultural traditions. Similarly, both societies were on the brink of major changes. Great dissatisfaction was felt by many of their contemporaries.

In traditional India the domination of the Brahman class was being challenged while in Middle Europe, the old Imperial Germanic ruling elite was losing its hold on power.

Both Mises and the Buddha became teachers and both had their most notable effectiveness beyond their own homelands. Buddhism, while only a minority sect in India, became a dominant religion in Eastern Asia. Mises' theories of Human Action took root especially across the Atlantic in America where Mises sought refuge from the Nazis.

What is the nature of the dissatisfaction that led Siddhartha to teach his "Middle Way" of being harmless (the Eightfold Path) while Mises developed a full theory of Human Action built on subjective choices responding to that same basic human lack of satisfaction?

"[T]he editor to the 4th revised edition Bettina Bien Greaves explains “Mises’ contribution was very simple, yet at the same time extremely profound. He pointed out that the whole economy is the result of what individuals do. Individuals act, choose, cooperate, compete, and trade with one another. In this way Mises explained how complex market phenomena develop. Mises did not simply describe economic phenomena - prices, wages, interest rates, money, monopoly and even the trade cycle - he explained them as the outcomes of countless conscious, purposive actions, choices, and preferences of individuals, each of whom was trying as best as he or she could under the circumstances to attain various wants and ends and to avoid undesired consequences. Hence the title Mises chose for his economic treatise, Human Action.” [5]

Siddhartha saw no end to suffering without acceptance of his four-fold teaching on Dukkha. He considered individual enlightenment, through release of attachments and desires, to be the only way to an end of suffering.

Mises understood that all values are individual and subjective; that all dissatisfaction is individual too. Yet he saw great risk to human civilization as a whole, and consequent suffering, if his prescriptions for an unhampered market in Human Action were ignored. He concludes his masterwork, Human Action, with this powerful warning:

"Man's freedom to choose and to act is restricted in a threefold way. There are first the physical laws to whose unfeeling absoluteness man must adjust his conduct if he wants to live. There are second the individual's innate constitutional characteristics and dispositions and the operation of environmental factors; we know that they influence both the choice of the ends and that of the means, although our cognizance of the mode of their operation is rather vague. There is finally the regularity of phenomena with regard to the interconnectedness of means and ends, viz., the praxeological law as distinct from the physical and from the physiological law.


The elucidation and the categorical and formal examination of this third class of laws of the universe is the subject matter of praxeology and its hitherto best-developed branch, economics. The body of economic knowledge is an essential element in the structure of human civilization; it is the foundation upon which modern industrialism and all the moral, intellectual, technological, and therapeutical achievements of the last centuries have been built. It rests with men whether they will make the proper use of the rich treasure with which this knowledge provides them or whether they will leave it unused. But if they fail to take the best advantage of it and disregard its teachings and warnings, they will not annul economics; they will stamp out society and the human race." Chapter XXXIX [6]

A year or so before his passing (I recall it was 1972) Mises spoke to a group of young libertarians in Philadelphia. He warned this group of long-haired students (including a future congress-critter or two; son of a Nobel laureate; future best-selling authors and heads of university departments): "You are eating your seed corn." And he was right. He predicted the course of the Baby Boomer generation.

Conclusion: Both teachers recognized the primacy of individual Human Action predicated on individual dissatisfaction.

Nonetheless, that action can be universal in application: the Buddha proclaimed, when he achieved his enlightenment, "I together with all beings and the great earth attain the Way!" [7]

Mises offered his humanitarian vision of the Way as a general prescription for the good society. From dissatisfaction comes purposeful Human Action; from Human Action in an unhampered marketplace may come satisfaction, however fleeting.

(Rev.) Ralph Fucetola JD
15 February 2016
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L von Mises and the Buddha


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