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A Praxeology of War: Clausewitz and the Austrians

A Praxeology of War: Clausewitz and the Austrians •

by Weimin Chen

For most readers, the lessons of the Austrian School have obvious applications to the commercial activity of markets due to the volumes of existing literature. But can we use these lessons to better understand the battlefield? It may seem out of place to explore the domain of war with the methodologies of school of economic thought. After all, where do we begin?

It may be surprising that the work of a Prussian army officer and military theorist from the early 19th century could hold the key. Carl von Clausewitz dedicated his work to establishing a general theory on war. This article highlights the overlapping basics as well as developmental convictions of both Clausewitz’s work and the Austrian School, to argue for a suitable starting point for a praxeology of war.

Praxeology and War

The Austrian School’s approach to economics encompasses the actions and interactions we see in the market, but the methods used to analyze these market phenomena were envisioned to apply much more broadly. The philosophical and methodological bedrock of considerable parts of Austrian School literature stems from the approach laid out primarily by Ludwig von Mises, who placed the field of economics within the larger field of praxeology, the study of human action. Further developments in praxeology have been undertaken by later Austrian thinkers including Murray Rothbard and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, though primarily within the scope of economics.

In a 1951 article, Murray Rothbard proposed a list of different types of praxeological theory. The list reveals the depth of insights that had been developed in the context of economics by that point, but it also revealed gaps in the understanding of additional subfields of human action including war and games. A piece by Joseph Salerno in 2008 touches upon the conditions of the logic of war-making from the perspective of the science of human action. Most recently, a 2014 article by Matthew McCaffery and a 2016 article by Joseph R. Stromberg have both served as brief sparks of revival in the line of inquiry for the exploration of praxeological considerations within the context of war and hostile action. Although advances have continued in the direction of economics, an exposition of the praxeology of war has yet to be seriously approached in the literature in a comparable way.  

On War and Human Action

Released in 1832, Carl von Clausewitz’ major work, On War, can be considered as extensive and similar in its scope on the topic of war as Mises’ Human Action (1949)  is with regard to the field of economics. Although Clausewitz certainly does not fit into the tradition of the Austrian School of Economics (he was in lifelong military service to the Prussian state many decades before the developments of the Austrian School), I would argue that his basic observations of mainstream perspectives on war and his insights into the conditions that guide the behavior of individuals in war, specifically officers in positions of high command, show remarkable parallels with some fundamentals of the Austrian School as well as with Mises’ general assessments on human action. Of particular note is the overlap in exposition of several concepts organized largely in Part One of Mises’ treatise that deal with the essence of human action itself. They include the ends and means, time, and uncertainty in the pursuit of sound praxeological analysis. Parsing these concepts would be a logical point to begin linking Clausewitzian theory to the Austrian School.

Controversy and Criticism

In their time, debates within their respective fields both sparked methodological controversies and criticism where they were criticized for their problematization of mathematical and statistical approaches. In his Principles of Economics (1871), Carl Menger maintained that human motives and social interaction were too complex to be explained purely by statistical analysis. He also took issue with what he saw as an over-dependence on historical experience in the field of economics among Prussian academics. Due to this disagreement with the mainstream, the Austrian School finds itself labeled as a heterodox school of thought. Both Mises and Hayek recognized the gap between mathematical economic prediction and real economic conditions when it comes to markets. Just as the Austrians identified the economic calculation problem that makes prediction and prescription in the market so fleeting, it can be said that Clausewitz identified the same dynamic in human action in the realm of war. 

A similar methodological disagreement occurred, in fierce fashion, between Clausewitz and his contemporaries including Prussian theorist Heinrich von Bülow and Swiss-French staff officer Antoine Jomini, who delegated war largely to the exacting tools of mathematical analysis, especially with respect to map-work, graphs, and geometric considerations in decision-making. The dominant trend of these theorists tended toward the calculated, scientific determination of strategy which was viewed with elevated legitimacy, just as mainstream economics purports to explain market phenomena with the proof of charts and graphs. With regard to tackling a complex phenomena of human action such as war, Clausewitz concludes that “in short, absolute, so-called mathematical, factors never find a firm basis in military calculations.” Because of this, Clausewitz’s qualitative approach to war was relegated out of the mainstream of military theories. 

Furthermore, the role of history in military theory ranks high among Clausewitz’s major arguments. Like the Austrians would decades later, he too argued against the rampant use of historic examples to draw general propositions in order to draw useful instructions. The historical context plays a much more distinguished role in his estimation. Not rejecting the possibility that an officer in the position of high command could create effective plans from the top, Clausewitz argues that the difficulty of such endeavors in war require superior intellectual development that move past such shortcuts in analysis. As clear as Clausewitz tried to be, he could not stop others from making such shortcuts in analysis. Thus, Austrians and Clausewitzians alike can sympathize with the feeling of misunderstanding, misuse, and ostracization of their work within their respective areas of study. 

Clausewitz takes the examination of this realm of human action further with the development of the individual actor in war, namely, the Commander-in-Chief at the position of high command. This represents a departure from the realm of Misesian praxeology into what Mises would delegate to the fields of psychology and psychoanalysis as it relates to the field of praxeology. The potential link here offered by Clausewitz may be a stepping stone for further research that may yet link the fields. 

Clausewitz and a Praxeology of War

Until now, major literature linking the work of Carl von Clausewitz to the Austrian School does not appear to exist. Indeed, a connection does not seem intuitively evident at first. We may wonder if Mises, Menger, or any of those in the Austrian School ever came across Clausewitz’ work themselves. Yet, if the Austrian approach builds economic understanding upon the foundation of praxeology, the general study of human action with all of the conditions laid out by Mises and the others, then a comprehensive study of human action must at some point explore the harrowing realm of war to which Clausewitz dedicated his life, one in which the conventions of civilized societies appear to vanish beyond recognition. It may be the next frontier of praxeological study and one that the Austrian School is well-suited to address.

Weimin Chen is a manager and project/events coordinator at the International Student Center’s Arts for Peace Initiative in New York City. He holds an joint M.A. degree in Global Studies from Leipzig University and the University of Wrocław and double B.A. degrees in History and Government & Politics from the University of Maryland, College Park.

The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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