The Austrian school arise in the 1870s as part of the marginalist revolution in economic thought. The founder was Carl Menger, who wrote an influential book called the Principles of Economics in 1871.
In a previous post (see “Friedrich von Wieser and Eugen von Philippovich von Philippsberg: Austrian Economists and Fabian Socialists”), I noted that the early Austrian school was in fact split into two factions: (1) a Classical liberal wing and (2) a wing that was not opposed to government intervention per se, and that even included members sympathetic to Fabian socialism. Hayek explains the history of the Austrian school in this interview:
LEIJONHUFVUD: In economics, let me come back to a question we have touched upon before. In the twenties in Vienna, was there such a thing as an Austrian school in economics? Did you and your contemporaries perceive an identification with a school?The split in the Austrian school in the 1920s was between (1) the classical liberal wing of Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk/Mises (which evolved into modern American libertarianism), and (2) the wing of von Wieser, some of whom were leaning towards Fabian socialism.
HAYEK: Yes, yes. Although at the same time [we were] very much aware of the division between not only Meyer and Mises but already [Friedrich von] Wieser and Mises. You see, we were very much aware that there were two traditions—the [Eugen von] Böhm-Bawerk tradition and the Wieser tradition—and Mises was representing the Böhm-Bawerk tradition, and Meyer was representing the Wieser tradition.
LEIJONHUFVUD: And where did the line between the two go? Was there a political or politically ideological line involved?
HAYEK: Very little. Böhm-Bawerk had already been an outright liberal, and Mises even more, while Wieser was slightly tainted with Fabian socialist sympathies. In fact, it was his great pride to have given the scientific foundation for progressive taxation. But otherwise there wasn’t really—I mean, Wieser, of course, would have claimed to be liberal, but he was using it much more in a later sense, not a classical liberal (Nobel Prize-Winning Economist: Friedrich A. von Hayek, pp. 49–50).
However, with the migration of Austrian economics to America and the emergence of Mises as a leading figure, the Classical liberal wing won out, and modern Austrian economics developed from the Classical liberal wing under Mises’ influence.
For much of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Mises, Hayek and Rothbard were the major Austrian thinkers. However, there were a number of other less well known third-generation Austrian economists in this era, including Oskar Morgenstern (1902–1976), Gottfried von Haberler (1900–1995), Fritz Machlup (1902–1983), Paul N. Rosenstein-Rodan (1902–1985), and Friedrich A. Lutz (1901–1975). Not all of them were reflexively hostile to government. Paul N. Rosenstein-Rodan, for instance, was famous for his work on how the state can initiate industrialization in poor nations through planned investment (Rosenstein-Rodan 1943).
In the US, the Austrian tradition was strongly influenced by Mises and Rothbard. Then Austrian economics experienced a resurgence in America from the 1970s onwards:
“American Austrianism revolves around an axis that passes through Auburn University, George Mason University, and New York University. It gets its spin from a 1974 conference held at South Royalton, Vermont, a week-long affair that featured lectures by Murray Rothbard, Israel Kirzner, and Ludwig Lachmann” (Garrison 2001: 259).A proceedings of that conference was later published as The Foundations of Modern Austrian Economics (ed. E. G. Dolan; Mission, Kansas, 1976). For a fascinating discussion of the history of this Austrian resurgence, see Mario Rizzo’s post “What Is Austrian Economics?” (November 23, 2009) at the ThinkMarkets blog and the comments on it.
Modern Austrians come in a number of forms, and there are clear differences between them. In my view, a useful division of modern Austrians would be as follows:
(1) The Anarcho-capitalistsOne should note that the differences between these types of Austrians are not trivial.
E.g., Murray Rothbard, Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Jörg Guido Hülsmann;
(2) The minimal state/classical liberal Austrians in the tradition of Mises
This variety supports praxeology and utilitarianism;
(3) Hayek’s economics, with a minimal state;
(4) Moderate subjectivist Austrians
E.g., Israel Kirzner and Roger Garrison;
(5) Radical subjectivists like Ludwig M. Lachmann (1906-1990), and Austrians influenced by him.
(see Böhm 1989: 60–61; Hutchison 1994: 222).
From the 1970s, a new generation of Austrians challenged the older, pure aprioristic methodology of Mises, and advocated a greater role for empirical testing, and Hayek had already moved away from Mises’ methodology with his paper “Economics and Knowledge” (1937).
Personally, I have little time for Austrians of types (1) and (2). The anarcho-capitalists (1) have a radical view that the state must be completely abolished and all of its functions privatized. In the form developed by Rothbard, the case for anarcho-capitalism is based on an untenable and deeply flawed moral argument using natural rights and Aristotelian, neo-Thomist natural law theory (Rothbard 1998). Though my purpose here is not to offer a detailed critique of anarcho-capitalism, one of the most convincing arguments against it is that private protection firms would in fact have an incentive to victimise potential customers to increase market share. Violence of the type that already happens between private mafia groups might occur. A natural monopoly would probably develop as the most powerful firm drove its competitors out of business (or a cartel might become dominant), and one would be left with a de facto state, the very thing anarcho-capitalism sought to abolish! (see Holcombe 2004: 330–331). Moreover, the power relations in an anarcho-capitalist society would appear to be rather like feudalism, with no sense of the common good (Freeman 2001: 147–149). If history is any guide, a movement towards anarcho-capitalism might well result in the kind of incessant violence and warfare between private warlords/protection agencies, as in medieval feudalism. Above all, do we really want to privatise the ownership, use and production of nuclear weapons or biological and chemical weapons? Quite frankly, an anarcho-capitalism system would be one of utter insanity.
The classical liberal Austrians (2) in the tradition of Mises support a minimal state with limited functions, like justice and defence. But Mises’ praxeology is heavily aprioristic, involves an absurd and radical rejection of empirical evidence, and falls apart once one sees the vast number of unsupported subsidiary hypotheses, both present and assumed, that underlie his deductive arguments. Moreover, by admitting the possibility of rational government intervention on utilitarian grounds, Mises’ ideology has a severe logical contradiction (see “Was Mises a Socialist?: Why Mises Refutes Himself on Government Intervention”).
Austrians of type (5) are more interesting. The Austrian radical subjectivists have a “kaleidic” view of economics influenced by the views of the peculiar Austrian–Keynesian hybrid George L. S. Shackle (Lachmann 1976) and stress the subjectivist nature of value, expectations, and knowledge. Lachmann, for example, even denied that free market systems tend to equilibrium or have coordinating processes (Kirzner 2000: 46–47). Lachmann’s radical subjectivism is rejected by Austrians of type (4), who condemned his position as “nihilism” (Kirzner 2000: 47). This rejection is not unreasonable from the perspective of those who support extreme laissez faire economics, because, if there is no neoclassical tendency to full employment equilibrium or Hayek’s plan coordination in a free market system, the alleged economic or moral superiority of such a system collapses. It is thus not surprising that the Lachmann-inspired wing of Austrians aroused some hostility from the moderates who defended the free market as an equilibrating or coordinating mechanism (Dunn 2008: 136).
I am not certain whether Gerald P. O’Driscoll and Mario J. Rizzo are moderate subjectivist Austrians of type (4). Their interesting book The Economics of Time and Ignorance (Oxford, UK, 1985) appears to use Lachmann’s views on the role of time and fundamental uncertainty, but also tries to overcome the charge of “nihilism” by postulating the idea of pattern coordination in place of equilibrium (Gloria-Palermo 1999: 138).
O’Driscoll and Rizzo have made some favourable comments about Post Keynesian economics:
“[i]t is evident that there is much more common ground between post-Keynesian subjectivism and Austrian subjectivism …. the possibilities for mutually advantageous interchange seem significant” (O’Driscoll and Rizzo 1985: 9).There are indeed some limited similarities in economic analysis between Austrians of type (4) and (5) and the Post Keynesian economists (Böhm 1989: 61).
Paul Davidson, one of leading American Post Keynesians, criticised The Economics of Time and Ignorance in his classic articles “The Economics of Ignorance or Ignorance of Economics?,” Critical Review (1989) 3.3/4: 467–487, and “Austrians and Post Keynesians on Economic Reality: Rejoinder to Critics,” Critical Review 7.2/3 (1993): 423–444. Clearly, there are also very significant differences between Austrians and Post Keynesians.
Austrians of type (4) include Israel Kirzner, who argues that plan/pattern coordination (the Austrian substitute for neoclassical equilibrium) in a free market economy can be achieved by entrepreneurial discovery and creation (Parsons 2003: 7). Type (4) Austrians also include Roger Garrison and others who even engage in “Austrian macroeconomics,” which seems peculiar, given that other Austrians reject the whole concept of macro-theory in economics.
From the perspective of Post Keynesianism, Austrians of type (4) and especially (5) are the most interesting. Ludwig Lachmann, like Keynes, stressed that expectations are subjective, and Lachmann even produced work that has a positive view of aspects of Keynes’ thought. Lachmann’s paper “John Maynard Keynes: A View from an Austrian Window” (South African Journal of Economics 51 (1983): 253–260) argues that
“In the field of methodology Keynes and the Austrians agree that economics is a social science to which methods that have proved successful in the natural sciences should not be applied without careful inspection, …. But Keynes’s mind also moves in another direction. ‘I also want to emphasize strongly the point about economics being a moral science. I mentioned before that it deals with introspection and with values. I might have added that it deals with motives, expectations, psychological uncertainties. One has to be constantly on guard against treating the material as constant and homogeneous. It is as though the fall of the apple to the ground depended on the apple’s motives, on whether it is worthwhile falling to the ground, and whether the ground wanted the apple to fall, and on mistaken calculations on the part of the apple as to how far it was from the centre of the earth’ … Keynes sees in social facts manifestations of the human mind. While to Hayek it is the complexity of these facts, their multitude and diversity, that defies the attribution of numerical values to social concepts, to Keynes it is their mental character … that does so. Rather to the surprise of some of us, Keynes emerges as being more deeply committed to subjectivism than is his Austrian opponent (Lachmann 1983: 256).These similarities have been noted by other scholars too (Caldwell 1989; Parsons 2003: 6).
Though the practical policy recommendations and political outlook of Post Keynesians and Austrians will remain deeply in conflict, there might be something that Post Keynesians can learn from studying the theories of Austrians of type (4) and (5) above.
WALTER BLOCK’S CLASSIFICATION OF AUSTRIAN SUBJECTIVISM
In an article published in 1988, Walter Block proposes a useful division of different types of Austrian subjectivism:
1. The nonsubjectivistsCategories (2) and (3) here include my category of “Moderate subjectivist Austrians.”
2. The moderate subjectivists (i.e., Yeager)
3. The Austrian subjectivists (i.e., Rothbard, Kirzner, Buchanan)
4. The ultra- or extreme subjectivists (i.e., Jack Wiseman, G.L.S. Shackle, Ludwig Lachmann, and “hermeneuticians” associated with the market process group located at George Mason University) (Block 1988: 201).
Böhm, S. 1989. “Subjectivism and Post-Keynesianism: Towards a Better Understanding,” in J. Pheby (ed.), New Directions in Post-Keynesian Economics, Edward Elgar, Aldershot, Hants, England. 59–93.
Block, W. 1988. “On Yeager’s ‘Why subjectivism?,’” Review of Austrian Economics 2: 199–208.
Caldwell, B. J. 1989. “Post-Keynesian Methodology: An Assessment,” Review of Political Economy 1465-3982, Volume 1, Issue 1, 1989, Pages 43 – 64
Dolan, E. G. (ed.). 1976. The Foundations of Modern Austrian Economics, Sheed & Ward, Mission, Kansas.
Dunn, S. P. 2008. The “Uncertain” Foundations of Post Keynesian Economics: Essays in Exploration, Routledge, London and New York.
Freeman, S. R. 2001. “Illiberal Libertarians: Why Libertarianism Is Not a Liberal View,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 30.2: 105–151.
Garrison, R. W. 2001. Review of Subjectivism in Economic Analysis: Essays in Memory of Ludwig M. Lachmann (Routledge, London, 1998), Review of Political Economy 13.2: 258–262.
Gloria-Palermo, S. 1999. The Evolution of Austrian Economics: From Menger to Lachmann, Routledge, London and New York.
Holcombe, R. G. 2004. “Government: Unnecessary but Inevitable,” Independent Review 8.3: 325–342.
Honderich, T., 2005. Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair? (rev. edn), Pluto, London.
Hutchison, T. W. 1994. The Uses and Abuses of Economics: Contentious Essays on History and Method, Routledge, London.
Kirzner, I. M. 2000 The Driving Force of the Market: Essays in Austrian Economics, Routledge, New York.
Lachmann, L. M. 1976. “From Mises to Shackle: An Essay on Austrian Economics and the Kaleidic Society,” Journal of Economic Literature 14.1: 54-62.
Parsons, S. D. 2003. “Austrian School of Economics,” in J. E. King (ed.), The Elgar Companion to post Keynesian Economics, E. Elgar Pub., Cheltenham, UK and Northhampton, MA. 5–10.
Rosenstein-Rodan, P. N. 1943. “Problems of Industrialization of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe,” Economic Journal 53.210/211: 202–211.
Rothbard, M. N. 1998. The Ethics of Liberty, New York University Press, New York and London.
Vaughn, K. I. 1994. Austrian Economics in America: The Migration of a Tradition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York.
Yeager, L. B. 1987. “Why Subjectivism?,” Review of Austrian Economics 1: 5–31.