Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What is Austrian Economics? What is it's future?

What is Austrian Economics? What is it's future?

The first things that struck me about "Austrians" are - a nice subset of very interesting people (many of who dropped the label and moved on - such as Bryan Caplan), a larger pool of crackpots (note: this post evolved out of my comment to above link), "whats up with the name? Seems crankish.", and a strange focus of a sizable subset on defining themselves to the exclusion of creating themselves via works.

Basically, a small set of very productive, interesting, thoughtful people in a group of not so much. But is it even meaningful to call this subgroup "Austrian"? Do Austrians have a good definition of themselves - it does not seem so, despite the efforts, and little work seems to be focused on creating evidence to discriminate between "orthodox" and "Austrian". We are in a golden time, in terms of a lot is happening socially and economically, where is the public and intellectual muscle?

What appears to discriminate "Austrian" from "orthodox" economics seems to be mostly the personal history and interests of practitioners: many Austrians come into the field from a philosophical rather than technical perspective - they care about deep and subtle ideas and reality, not cranking out technical machinations. As such we can label Austrians as being more of this type, but from looking at the apparent large subset of Austrians that don't seem to challenge themselves and instead focus on intragroup peer acceptance, this seems a poor labeling - there are also many people like this in "orthodox" economics, and indeed, there is a subset of the curious and engaged in all fields. In addition we can identify a tradition of libertarianism, some key figures (von Mises & Hayek & others) and their bodies of work, and a few key theories. But these anchors of Austrianism are somewhat arbitary, as others can and do read them, and many who do not identify as Austrian are inspired by those and other works. And the theories do not seem to be very distinct, or correct. This is also an insufficient labeling scheme.

I look at Austrianism as forming two components: a "core economics" that is not actually viable as an alternative, at least Austrians themselves have not demonstrated that it is, and as a community that attracts those interested in deep ideas, people, choices, actions - philosophers in the good sense. These people are influenced by "Austrianism", and may even label themselves as so, but they are merely curious and engaged people who are intellectually honest (the opposite of crackpots).

I see the future of Austrianism as being dictated by the subset of Austrians I would not label Austrians - either they will actually distinguish Austrian Economics in a meaningful manner, or they will continue to engage other intellectuals with what is essentially not exclusivly Austrian methods and approaches and Austrianism will wither as a meaningful community.

Right now, to an outside observer, it appears that Austrian Economics is a community that grew out of a failed, but important experiment, and "top Austrians" are actually "just" intetellecually curious and honest economists who have come through the Austrian community (and continue to self-identify with the community).

"Interesting Economist" = (economist|"intellecually curious & honest")

where "intellecually curious & honest" = subset of (Austrian community, "masonomics", philosophy interest, basically any group....).

Some Austrians seem to think they have an exclusive niche on "intellecually curious & honest", but they are just one of many communities, people, backgrounds, and disciplines that are (or rather, a subset of Austrians, like a subset of other groups, are part of this niche). "intellecually curious & honest" does not equal "Austrian Economics", and to an external observer it seems that as time goes by "intellecually curious & honest" people will have to increasingly strain in order to stomach the label of Austrian Economics (unless something fundamentally changes, and the programme because a viable possiblity again - so far the experiment seems to have failed, the evidence suggests moving on).

If and when that time comes that Austrian Economics wimpers into the trashbin of history, will we lose anything? I don't think so - we always will have a subset of the "intellecually curious & honest", and they will always tend to find each other and work together. In the medium run GMU and other current departments will will hold the mantle that Austrian Economics once did (I see it as an ember, now dying), in the long run other groups with spark up, carry the mantle for a while, and then die. There are markets in everything - it is not the particular insitutions we care about, but the availablity of the "products". The market for likeminded honest & curious minds will remain, and insitutions will evolve, grow, and die in meeting this want. That is the beauty of the market.

Holding onto Austrian Economics seems like trying to prop up GM or Chrysler - release the resources to productive ends already. Stop blowing on the ember and accept the evidence at hand.

1 comment:

  1. Austrians absolutely must read this. I suggest you send it to Peter Boettke (in my opinion, the "top Austrian" of today, particular wrt his students). If the "Austrian" label dies at GMU, it is fully dead I think.

    I see the useful elements of Austrianism - a distrust of complicated mathematics that obscure poor economic logic and the use of the analytic-narrative approach to empirical institutional analysis as eventually being embraced by the mainstream, at least to some degree, just as most of the Austrians salient contributions have been absorbed into the mainstream historically.