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Austrian School of Economics

Genesis & Emphasis

The Austrian School has its roots in the theoretical work of three late 19th and early 20th century Austrian-born economists: Carl Menger, Friedrich von Wieser, and Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk.

Austrian economics is distinct from other schools of economic thought, such as the Ricardian and Keynesian Schools, and at times, the Chicago School. This is primarily because of its reliance on, and advocacy of, subjective choice within the marketplace, as well as its embrace of individualism, while rejecting the rigid formulas and unattainable equilibriums of laboratory economics.

In the words of Ludwig von Mises (perhaps the most high-profile figure within the Austrian School), “Economics is not about things and tangible material objects; it is about men, their meanings and actions.

The Austrian School stands as a bold contrast to the more prevalent and accepted definitions of what an economy is. Whereas most economists are taught to see economies in terms of societies, Austrians understand that it is individuals with their distinct motivations that inspire, spur, and spontaneously define commerce.

Notable Contributions

It was Menger’s concept of “marginal utility” that first set the “classical” world of economic theory spinning on its head. Distinct from the widely used supply and demand model, marginal utility has more powerful implications, chiefly because of Menger’s ability to show the interdependency and subjective nature of goods. As Henry Hazlitt puts it,

Bread is valued because it meets a direct consumption need. Flour is valued because it is needed to bake bread. Wheat is valued because it is needed to produce flour. Plows, seed, land, and labor are valued because they are necessary to produce wheat, and so on.

Values are also interdependent because, for example, if one raw material necessary in combination for the production of a final product is missing, that lack reduces the usefulness and value of the other raw materials needed.

Therefore, not only the goods, but the need—the value—of goods becomes diminished. In short, it was Menger who was responsible for suggesting that economics is largely a subjective science.

Additionally, the Austrian School is notable for enunciating the concept of “opportunity” cost and “forgone opportunity” costs. For example, by accepting one particular client, a lawyer limits his ability to take on another, potentially more profitable client, or to focus on his personal life, or to expand his career beyond the walls of his firm.

Less nuanced Austrian trademarks are reliance on the gold standard (or another true currency media), low taxation, limited government and free enterprise.

Evolution & Challenges

The Austrian School began as a small, unorthodox collective of European economists, and has expanded over time to include some of the most notable economic minds of the past one hundred years. A vast network of Austrians, among them Mises and See what we've been working on.   Network with FEE's sponsors and donors at FEEcon this June. Visit FEEcon.org.

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