In Praise of Israel Kirzner

Over the holiday weekend, I stumbled across, to my pleasant surprise, the lecture given just a week ago by Israel Kirzner on being awarded the 2015 Hayek medal by the Hayek Gesellschaft in Berlin. The medal, it goes without saying, was richly deserved, because Kirzner’s long career spanning over half a century has produced hundreds of articles and many books elucidating many important concepts in various areas of economics, but especially on the role of competition and entrepreneurship (the title of his best known book) in theory and in practice. A student of Ludwig von Mises, when Mises was at NYU in the 1950s, Kirzner was able to recast and rework Mises’s ideas in a way that made them more accessible and more relevant to younger generations of students than were the didactic and dogmatic pronouncements so characteristic of Mises’s own writings. Not that there wasn’t and still isn’t a substantial market niche in which such didacticism and dogmatism is highly prized, but there are also many for whom those features of the Misesian style don’t go down quite so easily.

But it would be very unfair, and totally wrong, to think of Kirzner as a mere popularizer of Misesian doctrines. Although in his modesty and self-effacement, Kirzner made few, if any, claims of originality for himself, his application of ideas that he learned from, or, having developed them himself, read into, Mises, Kirzner’s contributions in their own way were not at all lacking originality and creativity. In a certain sense, his contribution was, in its own way, entrepreneurial, i.e., taking a concept or an idea or an analytical tool applied in one context and deploying that concept, idea, or tool in another context. It’s worth mentioning that a reverential attitude towards one’s teachers and intellectual forbears is not only very much characteristic of the Talmudic tradition of which Kirzner is also an accomplished master, but it’s also characteristic, or at least used to be, of other scholarly traditions, notably Cambridge, England, where such illustrious students of Alfred Marshall as Frederick Lavington and A. C. Pigou viewed themselves as merely elaborating on doctrines that had already been expounded by Marshall himself, Pigou having famously said of his own voluminous work, “it’s all in Marshall.”

But rather than just extol Kirzner’s admirable personal qualities, I want to discuss what Kirzner said in his Hayek lecture. His main point was to explain how, in his view, the Austrian tradition, just as it seemed to be petering out in the late 1930s and 1940s, evolved from just another variant school of thought within the broader neoclassical tradition that emerged late in the 19th century from the marginal revolution started almost simultaneously around 1870 by William Stanley Jevons in England, Carl Menger in Austria, and Leon Walras in France/Switzerland, into a completely distinct school of thought very much at odds with the neoclassical mainstream. In Kirzner’s view, the divergence between Mises and Hayek on the one hand and the neoclassical mainstream on the other was that Mises and Hayek went further in developing the subjectivist paradigm underlying the marginal-utility theory of value introduced by Jevons, Menger, and Walras in opposition to the physicalist, real-cost, theory of value inherited from Smith, Ricardo, Mill, and other economists of the classical school.

The marginal revolution shifted the focus of economics from the objective physical and technological forces that supposedly determine cost, which, in turn, supposedly determines value, to subjective, not objective, mental states or opinions that characterize preferences, which, in turn, determine value. And, as soon became evident, the new subjective marginalist theory of value implied that cost, at bottom, is nothing other than a foregone value (opportunity cost), so that the classical doctrine that cost determines value has it exactly backwards: it is really value that determines cost (though it is usually a mistake to suppose that in complex systems causation runs in only one direction).

However, as the neoclassical research program evolved, the subjective character of the underlying theory was increasingly de-emphasized, a de-emphasis that was probably driven by two factors: 1) the profoundly paradoxical nature of the idea that value determines cost, not the reverse, and b) the mathematicization of economics and the increasing adoption, in the Walrasian style, of functional representations of utility and production, leading to the construction of models of economic equilibrium that, under appropriate continuity and convexity assumptions, could be shown to have a theoretically determinate and unique solution. The false impression was created that economics was an objective science like physics, and that economics should aim to create objective and deterministic scientific representations (models) of complex economic systems that could then yield quantitatively precise predictions, in the same way that physics produced models of planetary motion yielding quantitatively precise predictions.

What Hayek and Mises objected to was the idea, derived from the functional approach to economic theory, that economics is just a technique of optimization subject to constraints, that all economic problems can be reduced to optimization problems. And it is a historical curiosum that one of the chief contributors to this view of economics was none other than Lionel Robbins in his seminal methodological work An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, written precisely during that stage of his career when he came under the profound influence of Mises and Hayek, but before Mises and Hayek adopted the more radically subjective approach that characterizes their views in the late 1930s and 1940s. The critical works are Hayek’s essays reproduced as The Counterrevolution of Science and his essays “Economics and Knowledge,” “The Facts of the Social Sciences,” “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” and “The Meaning of Competition,” all contained in the remarkable volume Individualism and Economic Order.

What neoclassical economists who developed this deterministic version of economic theory, a version wonderfully expounded in Samuelson Foundations of Economic Analysis and ultimately embodied in the Arrow-Debreu general-equilibrium model, failed to see is that the model could not incorporate in an intellectually satisfying or empirically fruitful way the process of economic growth and development. The fundamental characteristic of the Arrow-Debreu model is its perfection. The solution of the model is Pareto-optimal, and cannot be improved upon; the entire unfolding of the model from beginning to end proceeds entirely according to a plan (actually a set of perfectly consistent and harmonious individual plans) with no surprises and no disappointments relative to what was already foreseen and planned — in detail — at the outset. Nothing is learned in the unfolding and execution of those detailed, perfectly harmonious plans that was not already known at the beginning, whatever happens having already been foreseen. If something truly new would have been learned in the course of the unfolding and execution of those plans, the new knowledge would necessarily have been surprising, and a surprise would necessarily have generated some disappointment and caused some revision of a previously formulated plan of action. But that is precisely what the Arrow-Debreu model, in its perfection, disallows. And that is what, from the perspective of Mises, Hayek, and Kirzner, is exactly wrong with the entire development of neoclassical theory for the past 80 years or more.

The specific point of the neoclassical paradigm on which Kirzner has focused his criticism is the inability of the neoclassical paradigm to find a place for the entrepreneur and entrepreneurial activity in its theoretical apparatus. Profit is what is earned by the entrepreneur, but in full general equilibrium, all income is earned by factors of production, so profits have been exhausted and the entrepreneur euthanized.

Joseph Schumpeter, who was torn between his admiration for the Walrasian general equilibrium system and his Austrian education in economics, tried to reintroduce the entrepreneur as the disruptive force behind the process of creative destruction, the role of the entrepreneur being to disrupt the harmonious equilibrium of the Walrasian system by innovating – introducing either new techniques of production or new consumer products. Kirzner, however, though not denying that disruptive Schumpeterian entrepreneurs may come on the scene from time to time, is focused on a less disruptive, but more pervasive and more characteristic type of entrepreneurship, the kind that is on the lookout for – that is alert to – the profit opportunities that are always latent in the existing allocation of resources and the current structure of input and output prices. Prices in some places or at some times may be high relative to other places and other times, so the entrepreneurial maxim is: buy cheap and sell dear.

Not so long ago, someone noticed that used book prices on Amazon are typically lower at the end of the semester or the school year, when students are trying to unload the books that they don’t want to keep, than they are at the beginning of the semester, when students are buying the books that they will have to read in the new semester. By buying the books students are selling at the end of the school year and selling them at the beginning of the school year, the insightful entrepreneur reduces the cost to students of obtaining the books they use during the school year. That bit of insight and alertness is classic Kirznerian entrepreneurship in action; it was rewarded by a profit, but the activity was equilibrating, not disruptive, reducing the spread between prices for the same, or very similar, commodities paid by buyers or received by sellers at different times of the year.

Sometimes entrepreneurship involves recognizing that a resource or a factor of production is undervalued in its current use. Shifting the resource from a relatively low-valued use to a higher-value use generates a profit for the alert entrepreneur. Here, again, the activity is equilibrating not disruptive. And as others start to catch on, the profit earned on the spread between the value of the resource in its old and new uses will be eroded by the competition of copy-cat entrepreneurs and of other entrepreneurs with an even better idea derived from an even more penetrating insight.

Here is another critical point. Rarely does a new idea come into existence and cause just one change. Every change creates a new and different situation, potentially creating further opportunities to be taken advantage of by other alert and insightful individuals. In an open competitive system, there is no reason why the process of discovery and adaptation should ever come to an end state in which new insights can no longer be made and change is no longer possible.

However, it also the case that knowledge or information is often imperfect and faulty, and that incentives are imperfectly aligned with actual benefits, so that changes can be profitable even though they lead to inferior outcomes. Margarine can be substituted for butter, and transfats for saturated fats. Big mistake. But who knew? And processed carbohydrates can replace fats in low-fat diets. Big mistake. But who knew?

I myself had the pleasure of experiencing first-hand, on a very small scale to be sure, but still in a very inspiring way, this sort of unplanned, serendipitous connection between my stumbling across Kirzner’s Hayek lecture and, then, after starting to write this post a couple of days ago, doing a Google search on Kirzner plus something else (can’t remember what) and seeing a link to Deirdre McCloskey’s paper “A Kirznerian Economic History of the Modern World” in which McCloskey, in somewhat over-the-top style, waxed eloquent about the long and circuitous evolution of her views from the strict neoclassicism in which she was indoctrinated at Harvard and later at Chicago to Kirznerian Austrianism. McCloskey observes in her wonderful paean to Kirzner that growth theory (which is now the core of modern macroeconomics) is utterly incapable of accounting for the historically unique period of economic growth over the past 200 years in what we now refer to as the developed world.

I had faced repeatedly 1964 to 2010 the failure of oomph in the routine, Samuelsonian arguments, such as accumulation inspired by the Protestant ethic, or trade as an engine of growth, or Marxian exploitation, or imperialism as the last stage of capitalism, or factor-biased induced technical change, or Unified Growth Theory. My colleagues at the University of Chicago in the 1970s, Al Harberger and Bob Fogel, pioneered the point that Harberger Triangles of efficiency gain are small (Harberger 1964; Fogel 1965). None of the allocative, capital-accumulation explanations of economic growth since Adam Smith have worked scientifically, which I show in depressing detail in Bourgeois Dignity. None of them have the quantitative force and the distinctiveness to the modern world and the West to explain the Great Fact. No oomph.

What works? Creativity. Innovation. Discovery. The Austrian core. And where did discovery come from? It came from the releasing of the West from ancient constraints on the dignity and liberty of the bourgeoisie, producing an intellectual and engineering explosion of ideas. As the banker and science writer Matt Ridley has recently described it (2010; compare Storr 2008), ideas started breeding, and having baby ideas, who bred further. The liberation of the Jews in the West is a good emblem for the wider story. A people of the book began to be allowed into commercial centers in Holland and then England, and allowed outside the shtetl and the ghetto, and into the universities of Berlin and Manchester. They commenced innovating on a massive, breeding-reactor scale, in good ways (Rothschild, Einstein) and in bad (Marx, Freud).

Ridley explains how the evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen proposed in 1973 a Red Queen Hypothesis that would explain why commercial and mechanical ideas, when first allowed to evolve, had to run faster and faster to stay in the same place. Economists would call it the dissipation of initial rents, in the second and third acts of the economic drama. Once breeding ideas were set free in the seventeenth century they created more and more opportunities for Kirznerian alertness. The opportunities were alertly taken up, and persuasively argued for, and at length routinized. The idea of the steam engine had babies with the idea of rails and the idea of wrought iron, and the result was the railroads. The new generation of ideas-in view of the continuing breeding of ideas going on in the background-created by their very routinization still more Kirznerian opportunities. Railroads once they were routine led to Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. And the routine then created prosperous people, such as my grandfather the freight conductor on the Milwaukee Road or my great-grandfather the postal clerk on the Chicago & Western Indiana or my other great-grandfather who invented the ring on telephones (which extended the telegraph, which itself had made tight scheduling of trains possible). Some became prosperous enough to take up the new ideas, and all became prosperous enough under the Great Fact to buy them. If there was no dissipation of the rents to alertness, and no ultimate gain of income to hoi polloi, no third act, no Red Queen effect, then innovation would not have a justification on egalitarian grounds-as in the historical event it surely did have. The Bosses would engorge all the income, as Ricardo in the early days of the Great Fact had feared. But in the event the discovery of which Kirzner and the Austrian tradition speaks enriched in the third act mainly the poor-your ancestors, and Israel’s, and mine.

It is the growth and diffusion of knowledge (both practical and theoretical, but especially the former), not the accumulation of capital, that accounts for the spectacular economic growth of the past two centuries. So, all praise to the Austrian economist par excellence, Israel Kirzner. But just to avoid any misunderstanding, I will state for the record, that my admiration for Kirzner does not mean that I have gone wobbly on the subject of Austrian Business Cycle Theory, a subject on which Kirzner has been, so far as I know, largely silent — yet further evidence – as if any were needed — of Kirzner’s impeccable judgment.

8 Responses to “In Praise of Israel Kirzner”

  1. 1 elwailly July 9, 2015 at 8:41 pm

    Excellent as usual. Not least in that it gives me insight into the mystery of the Austrian school.

  2. 2 Hugo André July 10, 2015 at 4:09 pm

    Very interesting! Might you be able to give an example of something that can be derived from the Austrian model of growth?

    For example with the Solow model you can show that the accumulation of capital does not account for the large difference in income between countries or for the large growth in income over the last two hundred years. What does the Austrian model show?

  3. 3 David Glasner July 17, 2015 at 12:30 pm

    elwailly, Thanks.

    Hugo, I don’t think that there’s a specific Austrian model of growth in the way that Solow had a model. It’s all open-ended and discursive, not a model that posits some critical variables that determine how the model performs, at least that’s my possibly imperfect understanding.

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About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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