Austrian Economics Page
November 28, 2004
What Is Austrian Economics? A View from Pat Gunning
Austrian economics is defined here as the economic theory that resulted from consistently
following the revolution in thinking about market interaction that was instituted by the subjective
value theory as described in Carl Menger'sPrinciples of Economics.(1981 ) Identifying the
nature of this economic theory and separating it from other writings by the students of Menger,
other economists, and later so-called Austrian and neo-Austrian economists, is arguably the most
important task facing those scholars who are interested in the subject today.
There is no reason to believe that all of
what is promoted as Austrian Economics
today is consistent with the subjective
theory of value.
Most of those who claim to be Austrian
economists today are located in universities,
where they face numerous constraints on their
professional development and teaching. The
private foundations and institutes that support
Austrian economics are dominated by
free-market liberals whose main interest is not
economic theory but the promotion of liberal economic policies.
It so happens that the first step in the study of the subjective theory of value is the elucidation of
economic interaction under the conditions of the pure, unhampered market economy. The fact
that subjective value theorists begin here gives them a huge advantage over other professional
economists in understanding how liberal economic policies give individuals incentives to produce
wealth for others. In addition, understanding the imaginary construction of the pure, unhampered
market economy demonstrates the illusions and fallacies of the notion that a managed society can
achieve comparable results.
It is not surprising that free market liberals
are attracted to economists in subjective
However, there is nothing in the study of the
subjective theory of value that warrants the
assertion that the everyday condition of
individuals cannot be improved through
government policies. The conditions in
everyday life do not match those that are
assumed in the imaginary construction of the pure market economy. First, private property rights
are never fully defined and enforced partly because it is costly to define and enforce them. Thus,
there are common property resources. Second, the image of the pure market economy contains
unbridled copying of the products and the techniques of production and distribution. This
dampens incentives to invent and be creative. Accordingly, the unhampered market economy
limits investment incentives. Third, individuals make erroneous decisions. As a result, others
attempt to take advantage of and to promote error. Fourth, some goods have the characteristic of
jointness in demand. Finally, there is the problem of the monopoly price.
In fact, we learn from the study of economic
interaction under more realistic conditions that
there is scope for corrective action. Of course,
the possibility that there is scope for
corrective action does not mean that such
action can be discovered. We almost certainly
cannot expect central planning to more effectively satisfy consumer wants than the individual
planning that occurs under the conditions of the market economy. Moreover, even if a corrective
action can be discovered, it may be impractical to implement. "Market failure" may be outweighed
by "government failure." The point is not to claim that government intervention is warranted in
every case where these "market failure" properties can be shown to exist. It may well be that in
most cases, government intervention would make things worse. The point is that the economist
qua economist must approach the subject of market intervention with an open mind.
The free marketeer funding naturally biases
the work of the Austrian economists who
work at the free market think tanks.
Economists supported by such think tanks are not inclined to explore the economic theory
involved in these cases of so-called market failure.
The proper study of Austrian Economics
begins with the master, Carl Menger. After
Menger, the next step is to identify those
Austrian and neo-Austrians who have
proposed flaws, corrections, or extensions of
Menger's ideas. Each of these challenges and extensions must be analyzed carefully to see whether
it warrants being part of the initial program or whether it should be cast aside. What did Friedrich
von Wieser add to, or take away from, Menger? Eugen von Bohm Bawerk? J.A. Schumpeter,
Ludwig von Mises? F.A. Hayek? And so on.
The proper study of Austrian Economics
begins with the master, Carl Menger.
In my view, modern students who believe that they can learn Austrian economics by studying it in
any other way are deceiving themselves. It is mistaken to think that one could learn Austrian
economics by studying the papers and books of professional economists whose goal is to achieve
recognition by their peers. Nor is it correct to think that one can learn Austrian economics by
attending seminars taught by "Austrian scholars" supported by free market institutes. Austrian
economics is not "what Austrian economists do." To know how to study Austrian economics, one
must form an independent judgment based on the understanding of the subjective theory of value
that he learns from Menger. There are no shortcuts.
After you read Carl Menger’s Principles of Economics, the next step is to accumulate a full
bibliography of Austrian and neo-Austrian literature. Then accumulate every paper or book about
Menger or which has Menger's name in the index. Check out all of them, compare them to
Menger's Principles, and evaluate them. The following web-published papers by or about Austrian
or Austrian-related economists may help. You may also want to browse the publications of the
Ludwig von Mises Institute , which are now on line.
My personal view of the foundations and procedure of Austrian economics is contained in my
essay on the subject. Click here. Links to other essays on the methodology of Austrian economics
can be found on my What is Praxeological Economics page.
J. Patrick Gunning
Professor of Economics/ College of Business
Feng Chia University
100 Wenhwa Rd, Taichung
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