An Austrian Tragedy

It was hardly predictable that the New York Review of Books would take notice of Marginal Revolutionaries by Janek Wasserman, marking the susquicentenial of the publication of Carl Menger’s Grundsätze (Principles of Economics) which, along with Jevons’s Principles of Political Economy and Walras’s Elements of Pure Economics ushered in the marginal revolution upon which all of modern economics, for better or for worse, is based. The differences among the three founding fathers of modern economic theory were not insubstantial, and the Jevonian version was largely superseded by the work of his younger contemporary Alfred Marshall, so that modern neoclassical economics is built on the work of only one of the original founders, Leon Walras, Jevons’s work having left little impression on the future course of economics.

Menger’s work, however, though largely, but not totally, eclipsed by that of Marshall and Walras, did leave a more enduring imprint and a more complicated legacy than Jevons’s — not only for economics, but for political theory and philosophy, more generally. Judging from Edward Chancellor’s largely favorable review of Wasserman’s volume, one might even hope that a start might be made in reassessing that legacy, a process that could provide an opportunity for mutually beneficial interaction between long-estranged schools of thought — one dominant and one marginal — that are struggling to overcome various conceptual, analytical and philosophical problems for which no obvious solutions seem available.

In view of the failure of modern economists to anticipate the Great Recession of 2008, the worst financial shock since the 1930s, it was perhaps inevitable that the Austrian School, a once favored branch of economics that had made a specialty of booms and busts, would enjoy a revival of public interest.

The theme of Austrians as outsiders runs through Janek Wasserman’s The Marginal Revolutionaries: How Austrian Economists Fought the War of Ideas, a general history of the Austrian School from its beginnings to the present day. The title refers both to the later marginalization of the Austrian economists and to the original insight of its founding father, Carl Menger, who introduced the notion of marginal utility—namely, that economic value does not derive from the cost of inputs such as raw material or labor, as David Ricardo and later Karl Marx suggested, but from the utility an individual derives from consuming an additional amount of any good or service. Water, for instance, may be indispensable to humans, but when it is abundant, the marginal value of an extra glass of the stuff is close to zero. Diamonds are less useful than water, but a great deal rarer, and hence command a high market price. If diamonds were as common as dewdrops, however, they would be worthless.

Menger was not the first economist to ponder . . . the “paradox of value” (why useless things are worth more than essentials)—the Italian Ferdinando Galiani had gotten there more than a century earlier. His central idea of marginal utility was simultaneously developed in England by W. S. Jevons and on the Continent by Léon Walras. Menger’s originality lay in applying his theory to the entire production process, showing how the value of capital goods like factory equipment derived from the marginal value of the goods they produced. As a result, Austrian economics developed a keen interest in the allocation of capital. Furthermore, Menger and his disciples emphasized that value was inherently subjective, since it depends on what consumers are willing to pay for something; this imbued the Austrian school from the outset with a fiercely individualistic and anti-statist aspect.

Menger’s unique contribution is indeed worthy of special emphasis. He was more explicit than Jevons or Walras, and certainly more than Marshall, in explaining that the value of factors of production is derived entirely from the value of the incremental output that could be attributed (or imputed) to their services. This insight implies that cost is not an independent determinant of value, as Marshall, despite accepting the principle of marginal utility, continued to insist – famously referring to demand and supply as the two blades of the analytical scissors that determine value. The cost of production therefore turns out to be nothing but the value the output foregone when factors are used to produce one output instead of the next most highly valued alternative. Cost therefore does not determine, but is determined by, equilibrium price, which means that, in practice, costs are always subjective and conjectural. (I have made this point in an earlier post in a different context.) I will have more to say below about the importance of Menger’s specific contribution and its lasting imprint on the Austrian school.

Menger’s Principles of Economics, published in 1871, established the study of economics in Vienna—before then, no economic journals were published in Austria, and courses in economics were taught in law schools. . . .

The Austrian School was also bound together through family and social ties: [his two leading disciples, [Eugen von] Böhm-Bawerk and Friedrich von Wieser [were brothers-in-law]. [Wieser was] a close friend of the statistician Franz von Juraschek, Friedrich Hayek’s maternal grandfather. Young Austrian economists bonded on Alpine excursions and met in Böhm-Bawerk’s famous seminars (also attended by the Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin and the German Marxist Rudolf Hilferding). Ludwig von Mises continued this tradition, holding private seminars in Vienna in the 1920s and later in New York. As Wasserman notes, the Austrian School was “a social network first and last.”

After World War I, the Habsburg Empire was dismantled by the victorious Allies. The Austrian bureaucracy shrank, and university placements became scarce. Menger, the last surviving member of the first generation of Austrian economists, died in 1921. The economic school he founded, with its emphasis on individualism and free markets, might have disappeared under the socialism of “Red Vienna.” Instead, a new generation of brilliant young economists emerged: Schumpeter, Hayek, and Mises—all of whom published best-selling works in English and remain familiar names today—along with a number of less well known but influential economists, including Oskar Morgenstern, Fritz Machlup, Alexander Gerschenkron, and Gottfried Haberler.

Two factual corrections are in order. Menger outlived Böhm-Bawerk, but not his other chief disciple von Wieser, who died in 1926, not long after supervising Hayek’s doctoral dissertation, later published in 1927, and, in 1933, translated into English and published as Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle. Moreover, a 16-year gap separated Mises and Schumpeter, who were exact contemporaries, from Hayek (born in 1899) who was a few years older than Gerschenkron, Haberler, Machlup and Morgenstern.

All the surviving members or associates of the Austrian school wound up either in the US or Britain after World War II, and Hayek, who had taken a position in London in 1931, moved to the US in 1950, taking a position in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago after having been refused a position in the economics department. Through the intervention of wealthy sponsors, Mises obtained an academic appointment of sorts at the NYU economics department, where he succeeded in training two noteworthy disciples who wrote dissertations under his tutelage, Murray Rothbard and Israel Kirzner. (Kirzner wrote his dissertation under Mises at NYU, but Rothbard did his graduate work at Colulmbia.) Schumpeter, Haberler and Gerschenkron eventually took positions at Harvard, while Machlup (with some stops along the way) and Morgenstern made their way to Princeton. However, Hayek’s interests shifted from pure economic theory to deep philosophical questions. While Machlup and Haberler continued to work on economic theory, the Austrian influence on their work after World War II was barely recognizable. Morgenstern and Schumpeter made major contributions to economics, but did not hide their alienation from the doctrines of the Austrian School.

So there was little reason to expect that the Austrian School would survive its dispersal when the Nazis marched unopposed into Vienna in 1938. That it did survive is in no small measure due to its ideological usefulness to anti-socialist supporters who provided financial support to Hayek, enabling his appointment to the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and Mises’s appointment at NYU, and other forms of research support to Hayek, Mises and other like-minded scholars, as well as funding the Mont Pelerin Society, an early venture in globalist networking, started by Hayek in 1947. Such support does not discredit the research to which it gave rise. That the survival of the Austrian School would probably not have been possible without the support of wealthy benefactors who anticipated that the Austrians would advance their political and economic interests does not invalidate the research thereby enabled. (In the interest of transparency, I acknowledge that I received support from such sources for two books that I wrote.)

Because Austrian School survivors other than Mises and Hayek either adapted themselves to mainstream thinking without renouncing their earlier beliefs (Haberler and Machlup) or took an entirely different direction (Morgenstern), and because the economic mainstream shifted in two directions that were most uncongenial to the Austrians: Walrasian general-equilibrium theory and Keynesian macroeconomics, the Austrian remnant, initially centered on Mises at NYU, adopted a sharply adversarial attitude toward mainstream economic doctrines.

Despite its minute numbers, the lonely remnant became a house divided against itself, Mises’s two outstanding NYU disciples, Murray Rothbard and Israel Kirzner, holding radically different conceptions of how to carry on the Austrian tradition. An extroverted radical activist, Rothbard was not content just to lead a school of economic thought, he aspired to become the leader of a fantastical anarchistic revolutionary movement to replace all established governments under a reign of private-enterprise anarcho-capitalism. Rothbard’s political radicalism, which, despite his Jewish ancestry, even included dabbling in Holocaust denialism, so alienated his mentor, that Mises terminated all contact with Rothbard for many years before his death. Kirzner, self-effacing, personally conservative, with no political or personal agenda other than the advancement of his own and his students’ scholarship, published hundreds of articles and several books filling 10 thick volumes of his collected works published by the Liberty Fund, while establishing a robust Austrian program at NYU, training many excellent scholars who found positions in respected academic and research institutions. Similar Austrian programs, established under the guidance of Kirzner’s students, were started at other institutions, most notably at George Mason University.

One of the founders of the Cato Institute, which for nearly half a century has been the leading avowedly libertarian think tank in the US, Rothbard was eventually ousted by Cato, and proceeded to set up a rival think tank, the Ludwig von Mises Institute, at Auburn University, which has turned into a focal point for extreme libertarians and white nationalists to congregate, get acquainted, and strategize together.

Isolation and marginalization tend to cause a subspecies either to degenerate toward extinction, to somehow blend in with the members of the larger species, thereby losing its distinctive characteristics, or to accentuate its unique traits, enabling it to find some niche within which to survive as a distinct sub-species. Insofar as they have engaged in economic analysis rather than in various forms of political agitation and propaganda, the Rothbardian Austrians have focused on anarcho-capitalist theory and the uniquely perverse evils of fractional-reserve banking.

Rejecting the political extremism of the Rothbardians, Kirznerian Austrians differentiate themselves by analyzing what they call market processes and emphasizing the limitations on the knowledge and information possessed by actual decision-makers. They attribute this misplaced focus on equilibrium to the extravagantly unrealistic and patently false assumptions of mainstream models on the knowledge possessed by economic agents, which effectively make equilibrium the inevitable — and trivial — conclusion entailed by those extreme assumptions. In their view, the focus of mainstream models on equilibrium states with unrealistic assumptions results from a preoccupation with mathematical formalism in which mathematical tractability rather than sound economics dictates the choice of modeling assumptions.

Skepticism of the extreme assumptions about the informational endowments of agents covers a range of now routine assumptions in mainstream models, e.g., the ability of agents to form precise mathematical estimates of the probability distributions of future states of the world, implying that agents never confront decisions about which they are genuinely uncertain. Austrians also object to the routine assumption that all the information needed to determine the solution of a model is the common knowledge of the agents in the model, so that an existing equilibrium cannot be disrupted unless new information randomly and unpredictably arrives. Each agent in the model having been endowed with the capacity of a semi-omniscient central planner, solving the model for its equilibrium state becomes a trivial exercise in which the optimal choices of a single agent are taken as representative of the choices made by all of the model’s other, semi-omnicient, agents.

Although shreds of subjectivism — i.e., agents make choices based own preference orderings — are shared by all neoclassical economists, Austrian criticisms of mainstream neoclassical models are aimed at what Austrians consider to be their insufficient subjectivism. It is this fierce commitment to a robust conception of subjectivism, in which an equilibrium state of shared expectations by economic agents must be explained, not just assumed, that Chancellor properly identifies as a distinguishing feature of the Austrian School.

Menger’s original idea of marginal utility was posited on the subjective preferences of consumers. This subjectivist position was retained by subsequent generations of the school. It inspired a tradition of radical individualism, which in time made the Austrians the favorite economists of American libertarians. Subjectivism was at the heart of the Austrians’ polemical rejection of Marxism. Not only did they dismiss Marx’s labor theory of value, they argued that socialism couldn’t possibly work since it would lack the means to allocate resources efficiently.

The problem with central planning, according to Hayek, is that so much of the knowledge that people act upon is specific knowledge that individuals acquire in the course of their daily activities and life experience, knowledge that is often difficult to articulate – mere intuition and guesswork, yet more reliable than not when acted upon by people whose livelihoods depend on being able to do the right thing at the right time – much less communicate to a central planner.

Chancellor attributes Austrian mistrust of statistical aggregates or indices, like GDP and price levels, to Austrian subjectivism, which regards such magnitudes as abstractions irrelevant to the decisions of private decision-makers, except perhaps in forming expectations about the actions of government policy makers. (Of course, this exception potentially provides full subjectivist license and legitimacy for macroeconomic theorizing despite Austrian misgivings.) Observed statistical correlations between aggregate variables identified by macroeconomists are dismissed as irrelevant unless grounded in, and implied by, the purposeful choices of economic agents.

But such scruples about the use of macroeconomic aggregates and inferring causal relationships from observed correlations are hardly unique to the Austrian school. One of the most important contributions of the 20th century to the methodology of economics was an article by T. C. Koopmans, “Measurement Without Theory,” which argued that measured correlations between macroeconomic variables provide a reliable basis for business-cycle research and policy advice only if the correlations can be explained in terms of deeper theoretical or structural relationships. The Nobel Prize Committee, in awarding the 1975 Prize to Koopmans, specifically mentioned this paper in describing Koopmans’s contributions. Austrians may be more fastidious than their mainstream counterparts in rejecting macroeconomic relationships not based on microeconomic principles, but they aren’t the only ones mistrustful of mere correlations.

Chancellor cites mistrust about the use of statistical aggregates and price indices as a factor in Hayek’s disastrous policy advice warning against anti-deflationary or reflationary measures during the Great Depression.

Their distrust of price indexes brought Austrian economists into conflict with mainstream economic opinion during the 1920s. At the time, there was a general consensus among leading economists, ranging from Irving Fisher at Yale to Keynes at Cambridge, that monetary policy should aim at delivering a stable price level, and in particular seek to prevent any decline in prices (deflation). Hayek, who earlier in the decade had spent time at New York University studying monetary policy and in 1927 became the first director of the Austrian Institute for Business Cycle Research, argued that the policy of price stabilization was misguided. It was only natural, Hayek wrote, that improvements in productivity should lead to lower prices and that any resistance to this movement (sometimes described as “good deflation”) would have damaging economic consequences.

The argument that deflation stemming from economic expansion and increasing productivity is normal and desirable isn’t what led Hayek and the Austrians astray in the Great Depression; it was their failure to realize the deflation that triggered the Great Depression was a monetary phenomenon caused by a malfunctioning international gold standard. Moreover, Hayek’s own business-cycle theory explicitly stated that a neutral (stable) monetary policy ought to aim at keeping the flow of total spending and income constant in nominal terms while his policy advice of welcoming deflation meant a rapidly falling rate of total spending. Hayek’s policy advice was an inexcusable error of judgment, which, to his credit, he did acknowledge after the fact, though many, perhaps most, Austrians have refused to follow him even that far.

Considered from the vantage point of almost a century, the collapse of the Austrian School seems to have been inevitable. Hayek’s long-shot bid to establish his business-cycle theory as the dominant explanation of the Great Depression was doomed from the start by the inadequacies of the very specific version of his basic model and his disregard of the obvious implication of that model: prevent total spending from contracting. The promising young students and colleagues who had briefly gathered round him upon his arrival in England, mostly attached themselves to other mentors, leaving Hayek with only one or two immediate disciples to carry on his research program. The collapse of his research program, which he himself abandoned after completing his final work in economic theory, marked a research hiatus of almost a quarter century, with the notable exception of publications by his student, Ludwig Lachmann who, having decamped in far-away South Africa, labored in relative obscurity for most of his career.

The early clash between Keynes and Hayek, so important in the eyes of Chancellor and others, is actually overrated. Chancellor, quoting Lachmann and Nicholas Wapshott, describes it as a clash of two irreconcilable views of the economic world, and the clash that defined modern economics. In later years, Lachmann actually sought to effect a kind of reconciliation between their views. It was not a conflict of visions that undid Hayek in 1931-32, it was his misapplication of a narrowly constructed model to a problem for which it was irrelevant.

Although the marginalization of the Austrian School, after its misguided policy advice in the Great Depression and its dispersal during and after World War II, is hardly surprising, the unwillingness of mainstream economists to sort out what was useful and relevant in the teachings of the Austrian School from what is not was unfortunate not only for the Austrians. Modern economics was itself impoverished by its disregard for the complexity and interconnectedness of economic phenomena. It’s precisely the Austrian attentiveness to the complexity of economic activity — the necessity for complementary goods and factors of production to be deployed over time to satisfy individual wants – that is missing from standard economic models.

That Austrian attentiveness, pioneered by Menger himself, to the complementarity of inputs applied over the course of time undoubtedly informed Hayek’s seminal contribution to economic thought: his articulation of the idea of intertemporal equilibrium that comprehends the interdependence of the plans of independent agents and the need for them to all fit together over the course of time for equilibrium to obtain. Hayek’s articulation represented a conceptual advance over earlier versions of equilibrium analysis stemming from Walras and Pareto, and even from Irving Fisher who did pay explicit attention to intertemporal equilibrium. But in Fisher’s articulation, intertemporal consistency was described in terms of aggregate production and income, leaving unexplained the mechanisms whereby the individual plans to produce and consume particular goods over time are reconciled. Hayek’s granular exposition enabled him to attend to, and articulate, necessary but previously unspecified relationships between the current prices and expected future prices.

Moreover, neither mainstream nor Austrian economists have ever explained how prices are adjust in non-equilibrium settings. The focus of mainstream analysis has always been the determination of equilibrium prices, with the implicit understanding that “market forces” move the price toward its equilibrium value. The explanatory gap has been filled by the mainstream New Classical School which simply posits the existence of an equilibrium price vector, and, to replace an empirically untenable tâtonnement process for determining prices, posits an equally untenable rational-expectations postulate to assert that market economies typically perform as if they are in, or near the neighborhood of, equilibrium, so that apparent fluctuations in real output are viewed as optimal adjustments to unexplained random productivity shocks.

Alternatively, in New Keynesian mainstream versions, constraints on price changes prevent immediate adjustments to rationally expected equilibrium prices, leading instead to persistent reductions in output and employment following demand or supply shocks. (I note parenthetically that the assumption of rational expectations is not, as often suggested, an assumption distinct from market-clearing, because the rational expectation of all agents of a market-clearing price vector necessarily implies that the markets clear unless one posits a constraint, e.g., a binding price floor or ceiling, that prevents all mutually beneficial trades from being executed.)

Similarly, the Austrian school offers no explanation of how unconstrained price adjustments by market participants is a sufficient basis for a systemic tendency toward equilibrium. Without such an explanation, their belief that market economies have strong self-correcting properties is unfounded, because, as Hayek demonstrated in his 1937 paper, “Economics and Knowledge,” price adjustments in current markets don’t, by themselves, ensure a systemic tendency toward equilibrium values that coordinate the plans of independent economic agents unless agents’ expectations of future prices are sufficiently coincident. To take only one passage of many discussing the difficulty of explaining or accounting for a process that leads individuals toward a state of equilibrium, I offer the following as an example:

All that this condition amounts to, then, is that there must be some discernible regularity in the world which makes it possible to predict events correctly. But, while this is clearly not sufficient to prove that people will learn to foresee events correctly, the same is true to a hardly less degree even about constancy of data in an absolute sense. For any one individual, constancy of the data does in no way mean constancy of all the facts independent of himself, since, of course, only the tastes and not the actions of the other people can in this sense be assumed to be constant. As all those other people will change their decisions as they gain experience about the external facts and about other people’s actions, there is no reason why these processes of successive changes should ever come to an end. These difficulties are well known, and I mention them here only to remind you how little we actually know about the conditions under which an equilibrium will ever be reached.

In this theoretical muddle, Keynesian economics and the neoclassical synthesis were abandoned, because the key proposition of Keynesian economics was supposedly the tendency of a modern economy toward an equilibrium with involuntary unemployment while the neoclassical synthesis rejected that proposition, so that the supposed synthesis was no more than an agreement to disagree. That divided house could not stand. The inability of Keynesian economists such as Hicks, Modigliani, Samuelson and Patinkin to find a satisfactory (at least in terms of a preferred Walrasian general-equilibrium model) rationalization for Keynes’s conclusion that an economy would likely become stuck in an equilibrium with involuntary unemployment led to the breakdown of the neoclassical synthesis and the displacement of Keynesianism as the dominant macroeconomic paradigm.

But perhaps the way out of the muddle is to abandon the idea that a systemic tendency toward equilibrium is a property of an economic system, and, instead, to recognize that equilibrium is, as Hayek suggested, a contingent, not a necessary, property of a complex economy. Ludwig Lachmann, cited by Chancellor for his remark that the early theoretical clash between Hayek and Keynes was a conflict of visions, eventually realized that in an important sense both Hayek and Keynes shared a similar subjectivist conception of the crucial role of individual expectations of the future in explaining the stability or instability of market economies. And despite the efforts of New Classical economists to establish rational expectations as an axiomatic equilibrating property of market economies, that notion rests on nothing more than arbitrary methodological fiat.

Chancellor concludes by suggesting that Wasserman’s characterization of the Austrians as marginalized is not entirely accurate inasmuch as “the Austrians’ view of the economy as a complex, evolving system continues to inspire new research.” Indeed, if economics is ever to find a way out of its current state of confusion, following Lachmann in his quest for a synthesis of sorts between Keynes and Hayek might just be a good place to start from.

30 Responses to “An Austrian Tragedy”


  1. 1 Richard Ebeling May 24, 2020 at 8:46 pm

    For a more critical review essay of Wasserman’s book on the Austrians, see my piece:
    https://www.aier.org/article/wassermans-twisted-tale-about-the-austrian-school-of-economics/

  2. 2 David Glasner May 24, 2020 at 9:23 pm

    Thanks for your the link, Richard. I actually have not read Wasserman’s book, only Chancellor’s review. I did pick it up at Politics and Prose a few months ago and glanced at it, but not closely enough to detect the animus you find. I have always viewed the Austrian School with a mix of sympathetic approval for their insights and profundity on the one hand and exasperated disapproval at their dogmatism and insularity on the other. Hayek, for the most part, rose above those shortcomings.

  3. 3 Benjamin Cole May 24, 2020 at 10:39 pm

    The differences between the three founding fathers of modern economic theory were not insubstantial,

    “among,” not “between” .

  4. 4 Biagio Bossone May 25, 2020 at 2:49 am

    Another enriching contribution. Thanks David!
    I like it all, but particularly agree with your last sentence.

  5. 5 Kurt Schuler May 25, 2020 at 9:00 am

    You write, “Similarly, the Austrian school offers no explanation of how unconstrained price adjustments by market participants is a sufficient basis for a systemic tendency toward equilibrium.”

    There is even so the reality that markets work, and generally work well. The world of today is much wealthier than the world of 50 years ago, and enormously wealthier than the world of 100 years ago. It is more fruitful to acknowledge this reality as a brute fact than to neglect it because it doesn’t fit well with our current modes of explanation.

    Ludwig von Mises was at least part of the way towards your position. He called equilibrium a “foil,” that is, a useful concept that should not however be the dominant metaphor of economics.

  6. 6 David Glasner May 25, 2020 at 9:25 am

    Kurt, Thanks for your comment. I wouldn’t disagree that markets work, but it’s important to understand why and under what conditions they do work, and under what conditions they don’t, or may not. Is the glass half empty or half full? If some are too quick to condemn markets, there may also be some who assume it will all work out for the best. Striking the right balance isn’t so easy.

  7. 7 Scott Sumner May 26, 2020 at 9:10 am

    Very good post. While models featuring rational expectations often also feature market clearing prices, there is no necessary association. John Taylor and Stanley Fischer produced ratex models with sticky wages, and all my macroeconomic analysis features rational expectations plus sticky prices. That’s all I ever use.

    Rational expectations means expectations that are not inconsistent with the model. No more, no less. (The term “rational” is exceedingly misleading, as many have pointed out.) A model with zero ability to forecast anything is a ratex model, as there are no expectations that are inconsistent with the model.

    It’s very unfortunate that ratex was first linked with market clearing models, but fortunately the New Keynesians fixed the problem.

  8. 8 David Glasner May 26, 2020 at 3:43 pm

    Thanks, Scott. I am aware that there are ratex models with sticky prices. My complaint is that I don’t understand what the expectation is that everyone agrees on when the model, by virtue of prices being inconsistent with equilibrium, is not in equilibrium. There seems to be an inconsistency in that scenario that I don’t understand.

    When you say that ratex means nothing more than that there are no expectations that are inconsistent with the model, what you describe sounds to me like a chaotic model with no systematic relationships.

  9. 9 sumnerbentley May 26, 2020 at 4:49 pm

    Two points. In ratex models it is not necessary that everyone “agrees” on anything. Thus if the model implies the expected rate of inflation is 2%, it’s perfectly OK for some people to have a 1% expected rate, some to have a 2% expected rate, and others to have a 3% expected rate. Think about an “archipelago” ratex model where people can only observe local conditions. Obviously they won’t all agree on the expected rate of inflation, but their aggregate view should not be systematically off course.

    The term ‘rational expectations’ actually means consistent expectations. It rules out expectations that are inconsistent with the model. But it also allows for vast uncertainty, mostly because in the real world there is vast uncertainty. If people peering through a thick fog have trouble seeing certain objects, it’s not because they have irrational eyesight, it’s because the fog makes it hard to see. That’s OK.

  10. 10 Charles St Pierre May 26, 2020 at 7:44 pm

    Will a game with an accumulating advantage destroy itself? Therefore, a perpetual game cannot have accumulating advantage.

    Sorry, just thinking about the neglect of game theory in economics.
    Thanks.

  11. 11 rhmurphy May 27, 2020 at 8:54 pm

    Didn’t Rothbard get his PhD at Columbia, and he would just sorta show up at Mises’s seminars?

  12. 12 David Glasner May 27, 2020 at 9:03 pm

    Yes, thanks. You’re right. My mistake, I just assumed that he wrote under Mises. Do you know whom he wrote under at Columbia, and what his dissertation topic was?

  13. 13 Inal May 28, 2020 at 1:27 am

    Thank you for a very interesting post, David.

    I would just like to add that when thinking about Menger, we should not forget the ‘American Menger’ — Frank Fetter and the ‘English Menger’ — Philip Wicksteed.

    Wicksteed’s treatise on marginal utility and pricing was highly valued among Austrians from Mises to Kirzner and Rothbard. Mises even called this book as “great treatise” (see — The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science). And Wicksteed was libertarian socialist close to Henry George.

    To some extent, to the Menger close H. J. Davenport (author of ‘The Economics of Enterprise’) as Salerno writes in “The place of Mises’s Human Action in the development of modern economic thought” (1999).

    Also, do not forget that Menger had his own views on government intervention, as Ralph Raico writes:

    «Margarete Boos cites the letter Menger wrote to Kaiser Franz
    Josef, in which he outlined his political views. Here Menger distinguishes
    between the “individualists” and the “ethicists” (Ethiker); “the ethicists
    [also] hold freedom of economic activity to be the natural and normal
    state of affairs, but are aware of conflicts between individual and common interest in economic affairs, and attribute to the state…the right to
    influence economic affairs in the direction of the common interest.” He
    himself, he writes, adheres to the “moderate school of the ethicists.”» — Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School. // Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2012.

  14. 14 rhmurphy May 28, 2020 at 10:01 am

    I don’t know Rothbard’s dissertation topic offhand. But “Rothbard’s political radicalism, which, despite his Jewish ancestry, even included dabbling in Holocaust denialism, so alienated his mentor, that Mises terminated all contact with Rothbard for many years before his death” also needs a source. I believe that during the period in question, Rothbard’s political strategy was still trying to cajole antiwar protestors into becoming libertarians, and that getting in bed with crazy right wing weirdos wasn’t a thing until the mid 1980s. I have never heard that he alienated Mises with that.

  15. 15 David Glasner May 28, 2020 at 11:26 am

    For Mises and Rothbard, it seems to me that it was common knowledge that they had a bitter falling out over Rothbard’s anti-Vietnam-War stance when he was trying to convince the New Left of the “virtues” of anarcho-capitalism. Mises was on the editorial board of American Opinion, the official magazine of the John Birch Society, so you can see that the challenges to peaceful co-existence between them at that point in history were very steep. Mises died in 1973 when the Vietnam War had not yet reached its final act. I have asked some people who knew Rothbard personally about his Holocaust denialism, and the reaction I got was that yes, he had dabbled in it, but eventually gave up on it. Whether he gave up on it because it was too risky even for him, or because he decided it was nonsense, I don’t know. By the time Rothbard decided to seek detente with the Ku Klux Klan, Mises had long since left the scene.

  16. 16 David Glasner May 31, 2020 at 12:43 pm

    Scott, You could be right about what ratex means because it’s a very slippery concept, and, even now, 40 years on, there may not be a definite consensus on what it means. But I think that your understanding of a weak version of ratex is a minority opinion. But I would welcome others to weigh in about what their understanding of rational expectations is in conventional modern macro models. I think the explicitly Walrasian GE posture of most New Classical, RBC and even New Keynesian models does not accord with your understanding. Nor does the scandalous resort to Representative Agent modeling by workhorse DSGE models.

  17. 17 sumnerbentley May 31, 2020 at 1:27 pm

    In the first Lucas RATEX models not everyone had the same expectations. I’m speaking of the archipelago models of the business cycle.

    It may be convenient to assume everyone has the same expectations in a given model, but generally nothing important hinges on that assumption. If you have a model where heterogenous expectations are important, you make that assumption.

    I prefer sticky-wage ratex models, where nothing important hinges on the variance of expectations.

  18. 18 David Glasner May 31, 2020 at 1:48 pm

    That was the first Lucas model. There was a one-period lag based on the ad hoc assumption of that everyone is on an isolated island of his own. That model has not really survived in the New Classical literature. RBC people didn’t buy it and Lucas couldn’t sell it, so that attempt to modify rational expectations did not last very long. So if you adopt the now standard ratex assumption, you have to introduce some other ad hoc device, e.g., Calvo pricing, to rationalize trading at prices that are “known” to be false. My argument is that the conventional understanding of ratex — now that the archipelago model has been thrown under the bus — is incompatible with non-market clearing. I understand why you, as an unreconstructed Friedmanit, are impatient with overly fastidiousness about assumptions and care about generating useful results, but the mainstream in macro has opted for mathematical formalism and “logical rigor” in modeling and I arguing that the dominant understanding of rational expectations that all agent share the same expectations of future prices necessarily entails market clearing.

  19. 19 George Selgin June 1, 2020 at 5:35 am

    At Columbia Rothbard wrote under Arthur Burns (not the economic historian but the one who later became Fed chair).

  20. 20 David Glasner June 1, 2020 at 8:53 am

    Thanks, George. Do you know what topic was?

  21. 21 viennacapitalist June 19, 2020 at 8:27 am

    I generally agree with your criticism of the anarcho-capitalist wing that is often dominant at the Mises Institute. It remains nevertheless a valuable and unique source on economic education having enabled many people around the world to read primary sources including non-Austrian ones.
    And where do you get the link between white nationalists and the Mises Institute from?

    Some of your statements I do not agree with at all:

    I do not see, however, how, for instance, Machlup, most of whose work I have read, has broken with the Austrian tradition later in life. I have just finished reading his papers on the Eurodollar market (written early 70ies) and his methodology is pure Austrian. Same for Haberler, whose prosperity and Depression also includes decend criticism of Hawtrey along Austrian grounds which you might be interested in. Same for Morgenstern, whose “on the accuracy of economic observations” is masterpiece in the Austrian tradition written in the 60ies.

    Schumpeter, while Austrian, is generally not considered an Austrian economist on methodological grounds so there was Nothing to break with.

    When you say that Hayek’s policy prescriptions during the Great Depression has been devastating, are you implying that the policies he suggested were implemented? I doubt that he was that influential in the US at the beginning of the 30ies.
    Also, most Austrians are certainly not deflationists:
    There is collection of newspaper articles (in German) written by Haberler, Hayek and Machlup as well as Strigl with a focus on the situation in Austria. They never advocate deflation but try to strike a balance between inflationary policies and deflation. Here is the link:

    Mises in his lectures to students in Buenos Aires even stated that deflation is not an answer to inflation, famously comparing it to being overrun by a car twice.
    I agree, however, that it is a major shortcoming of the Austrians that the have not worked more on the Great Depression.

  22. 22 viennacapitalist June 24, 2020 at 1:45 am

    Any reason you do not approve of my post?

  23. 23 David Glasner June 24, 2020 at 12:41 pm

    No reason other than negligent moderation for the delay in the posting of your previous comment. Please excuse the delay.

    On your substantive comments, Rothbard and his disciple H.H. Hoppe were pretty explicit about their outreach efforts to “old right” and neo-confederates. There has been a lot written, including by lapsed white supremacists about the libertarian white supremacy nexus. Also see

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeffrey_Tucker
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mises_Institute

    I agree that neither Machlup nor Haberler ever repudiated his Austrian background in the way that Lionel Robbins repudiated his 1934 book, The Great Depression, but there was very little in their work written after 1940 that was distinctively Austrian. Austrian methodology is a pretty vague description. They were comfortable writing works like Period Analysis and Multiplier Theory that was explicitly Keynesian even as they took major exception to much of the standard Keynesian analysis. I’ve read Prosperity and Depression and his discussion of Hawtrey. My recollection is that his overall assessment of Hawtrey’s work was very favorable, though I agree that he did not reject on theoretical grounds, at any rate, Austrian Business Cycle Theory.

    Obviously, Hayek’s policy prescriptions for responding to the Great Depression were not adopted in total, but his central policy position was that the Great Depression had been caused by monetary expansion and that therefore it would be a cardinal error to try to remedy the Great Depression by still more monetary expansion.

    To say that most Austrians are not deflationists is strictly true, but it is misleading in the context of the Great Depression. Mises opposed deflation to reverse a prior inflation, but he did not understand that reversing a deflation might be necessary to remedy a depression caused by a prior deflation.

  24. 24 viennacapitalist June 25, 2020 at 3:34 am

    Thank you, thought you were objecting to my typos

    As far as I understand Tucker and Hoppe are not on speaking terms anymore due to the latter’s turn to the alt-right. I do not think that the Mises Institute has picked a side in this fight – Tucker (a very important figure for the Mises Institute), or Ron Paul to name another famous person associated with the institute are certainly no white supremacists (Rothbard I do not know, sounds unplausible). I also do not remember reading anything of that sort on the site, although I haven’t spent much time on the comment section recently (apart from their vast historic library) and it might well be that the recent polarization in US politics has left a trace there. To discredit the entire site is unfair, I would say, since Mises has suffered from totalitarian ideologies more than most other economists (and has been a documented critic of the latter when it was much more dangerous than today).

    Enough about politics, back to economic theory.

    Haberler admired Hawtrey’s exposition of how an increased credit supply works its way through the economy (although I personally find Wicksell’s exposition far superior) and how it influences the business cycle by way of the inventory of wholesalers. However, Hawtrey’s approach cannot explain the empirical observation that swings in higher order goods constitute the business cycle and that the business model of a wholesaler (closer to consumption) is much less affected by a change in the interest rate as Machlup has shown in his book-thus cannot logically be the main driver. Further Haberler doesn’t seem to agree with Hawtrey’s stance that the business cycle is a mere monetary problem (caused by adherence to gold reserves), but believes that changes in the money supply do affect real world variables through (Cantillon effect, Forced saving, the price relationship between higher order and lower order goods, etc…)…

    I do think that Hayek was too vague in his policy prescriptions during the great depression and myself have always struggled to understand why Mises himself did not write more about it (his contributions are limited to transcripts of speeches and smaller essays). The reason probably lies in the fact that Mises put a larger emphasis on the importance of maintaining private property and continue trading with each other, things we take for granted today, but were seriously under fire (and also unnecessarly contributed to deflation) in his days. On the other hand, the credit theory of the business cycle, was much less disputed than it is nowadays. Maybe that explains the emphasis in his wrtings.

    However, there can be no doubt IMHO, that the leading Austrians, as opposed to some anarcho-libertarians today, understood the dangers of deflation….

  25. 25 David Glasner June 25, 2020 at 7:03 pm

    Concerning the Mises Institute, Lew Rockwell, Tucker, Ron Paul and white supremacy see

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ron_Paul_newsletters#Responsibility_for_articles

    https://www.economist.com/democracy-in-america/2008/01/11/the-rockwell-files

    https://reason.com/2008/01/16/who-wrote-ron-pauls-newsletter/

    On investment goods and the business, there is no question that there is correlation, but the direction of causation is ambiguous. Hawtrey was not unaware of the correlation and was not incapable of accounting for it.

  26. 26 Jeff Deist July 4, 2020 at 12:33 pm

    It’s bizarre to link the Mises Institute with “white nationalism.” I work there and assure you this is not correct. A strange axe to grind, and a false one.

  27. 27 David Glasner July 4, 2020 at 8:54 pm

    Thanks for your response, Jeff. I am not an expert about Murray Rothbard, but I know enough about him to doubt that there is no connection between the Mises Institute which he helped found and the alt-right. HH Hoppe, a current fellow of the Mises Institue, is an equally disturbing figure who has been linked to the alt-right. The Institute has long-standing connections with Ron Paul, whose white supremacist newsletters were exposed to wide public view in his final Presidential run in 2011-12. Lew Rockwell and Jeffrey Tucker were mentioned as having been involved in ghost-writing those newsletters, do you have any knowledge about the authorship of the Paul newsletters? I would welcome your comments on this article in the Washington Post

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2017/09/19/libertarians-have-more-in-common-with-the-alt-right-than-they-want-you-to-think/

  28. 28 David Murphy August 23, 2020 at 7:01 pm

    Sorry for getting to this so late – I enjoyed the post a lot.
    I stumbled on the Austrians while I was a freshman in high school and didn’t realize how marginal (no pun intended) they were until I had read through much of Hayek and Mises, and was starting on Rothbard.
    It’s too bad, and I wonder if there is much of a research program still to be done in that tradition – Boettke’s intellectual biography of Hayek hinted at several topics, but I’m unsure.
    Anyway, Rothbard’s thesis was on the Panic of 1819. I’m not certain if this is what ended being published as his book ‘The Panic of 1819’ or if the book grew out of it.
    I’m not at home right now so I don’t have the book on hand to check. It might be interesting to some as it is Rothbard at his least Rothbardian.
    I have seen this referenced several times, but on a brief search this is all I could find (toward the end of the article): https://mises.org/library/burns-diary-exposes-myth-fed-independence


  1. 1 Nightcap | Notes On Liberty Trackback on May 25, 2020 at 8:17 am
  2. 2 Nightcap (again) | Notes On Liberty Trackback on May 25, 2020 at 8:17 pm

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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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