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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Austrian Economics Hits the Headlines

When a presidential candidate declares, as Ron Paul has, “We’re all Austrians now,” it’s inevitable that his critics would try to discredit him—whether they understand what he’s talking about or not. That’s what Matthew Yglesias does in his Slate piece “What Is ‘Austrian Economics’?”

I recommend the piece because it’s highly informative—about what Austrian economics is not.

We’re off to a rocky start with this: “The Austrian school originally referred to a set of classical liberal thinkers with diverse interests who came out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.”

The earliest Austrian economists did not make their marks by advocating free markets and other classical-liberal ideas. In fact most of them were not classical liberals. They made their marks by proffering a revolutionary positive (not normative) theoretical approach to understanding how markets work, focusing on value, price, and capital theory. What Wikipedia says is consistent with my understanding of the matter: “When Carl Menger, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, and [Friedrich von] Wieser began their careers in science, they were not focused on economic policy issues, much less in the rejection of intervention promoted by classical liberalism. Their common vocation was to develop an economic theory on a firm basis.”

Yglesias thus conflates Austrian economic theory with libertarian political theory. In fairness, he is not alone in committing this error. Many libertarians do the same, which is unfortunate. Austrian economic theory describes how purposive action by fallible human beings unintentionally generates a grand, complex, and orderly market process. An additional ethical step is required to pronounce the market process good. Economic theory per se cannot recommend but only explain markets. This is what Ludwig von Mises meant when he insisted that Austrian economics is value-free. Anyone of any persuasion ought to be able to acknowledge that economic logic indicates that imposing a price ceiling on milk will, other things equal, create a shortage of milk. But that in itself is not an argument against the policy. Mises assumed the policymaker would have thought that result bad, but the economist qua economist cannot declare it such.

Yglesias writes: “Austrians reject the idea that there is anything at all the government can do to stabilize macroeconomic fluctuations.” It’s odd to say this without also pointing out that Austrians believe that government causes the instability of inflationary booms, recessions, and depressions. In light of that point, the suggestion that government is capable of stabilizing the economy may be properly assessed.

That said, Yglesias’s statement is not quite right. Some prominent Austrian macroeconomists think that in a second-best world, the central bank (which of course wouldn’t exist in a first-best world) should counteract a sudden and substantial monetary contraction. In other words, deflation is not necessarily a cure for inflation. Mises made the point metaphorically in 1938: “If a man has been hurt by being run over by an automobile, it is no remedy to let the car go back over him in the [opposite] direction.” (Though let us not forget the knowledge problem that plagues the Fed under any circumstances. See Steven Horwitz’s Freeman article “Deflation: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”)

“In the view of the Austrians,” Yglesias goes on, “practically every economic policy pursued by the federal government and Federal Reserve is a mistake that distorts markets. Rather than curing recessions, claim Austrians, stimulative policies cause them by producing unsustainable bubbles.” Well, yeah, and it’s amply demonstrated by George Selgin, William D. Lastrapes, and Lawrence H. White in “Has the Fed Been a Failure?” (See my summary, “‘F’ as in Fed.”) As they put it:

 Drawing on a wide range of recent empirical research, we find the following: (1) The Fed’s full history (1914 to present) has been characterized by more rather than fewer symptoms of monetary and macroeconomic instability than the decades leading to the Fed’s establishment. (2) While the Fed’s performance has undoubtedly improved since World War II, even its postwar performance has not clearly surpassed that of its undoubtedly flawed predecessor, the National Banking system, before World War I.

Yglesias understands that the Austrian theory of the business cycle has something to do with artificially low interest rates breeding malinvestment, but he thinks that can’t be right because “it’s hard to understand why business people would be so easily duped in this way. If Ron Paul and Ludwig von Mises know that cheap money can’t last forever, why don’t private investors? Why wouldn’t firms avoid making the supposedly dumb investments?”

Gerald P. O’Driscoll and Mario Rizzo addressed this long ago in The Economics of Time and Ignorance:

[T]here are profits to be made from exploiting temporary situations. . . . Though entrepreneurs understand [the macro-aspects of a cycle] they cannot predict the exact features of the next cyclical expansion and contraction. . . . They lack the ability to make micro-predictions, even though they can predict the general sequence of events that will occur. These entrepreneurs have no reason to foreswear the temporary profits to be garnered in an inflationary episode. . . . From an individual perspective, then, an entrepreneur fully informed of the Austrian theory of economic cycles will face essentially the same uncertain world he always faced. Not theoretical or abstract knowledge, but knowledge of the circumstances of time and place is the source of profits.

Puzzlingly, Yglesias also thinks he can refute the Austrian theory by noting that “[s]pending patterns shift all the time without sparking a recession.” To which Peter Klein replies, “Of course, Yglesias’s breezy summary of the theory skips over the time structure of production, the difference between consumption and investment, the role of interest rates in securing intertemporal coordination, the problem of expectations, and the other basic elements of the theory, which ten minutes of Wikipedia browsing could have explained.”

Yglesias reveals his unfamiliarity with the Austrian literature when he writes, “Many of the original Austrians found their business cycle ideas discredited by the Great Depression, in which the bust was clearly not self-correcting.” Considering that Herbert Hoover’s and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal impeded the market’s correction process, one wonders how the 1930s could possibly have discredited the Austrian theory of the origin of recessions.

Finally, Yglesias contends that “the Austrian school . . . preaches despair and demands no action at all.”

Balderdash. Since it explains that busts are central-bank-caused and hence avoidable through market-based money and banking, its implicit message is one of hope and optimism. And as for demanding no action, on the contrary, it puts forth a long list of actions for those who want stable economic growth—all of them designed to dismantle the interventionist State.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.