TO 'AUSTRIAN SCHOOL' ECONOMISTS
DESCRIBES IT BEST
The federal government should take economics lessons from Robinson Crusoe. At
lease that's what a group of staunch free-market defenders concluded when they met
in Claremont, Calif., recently. Their annual get-together is aimed at promoting the
"Austrian School" of economics - primarily to graduate students in economics
- and networking with fellow "Austrians."
About 50 economists and 30 students attended the week-long conference. These followers
of the Austrian school of economics reject the empirical approach of mainstream economists;
instead, they use examples such as Robinson Crusoe to explain certain principles.
In an age when most economists turn to calculus and statistics for answers, Austrian
economists prefer to rely on logic and deductive reasoning, peppered with colorful
metaphors. Followers say they practice economics that is literary, accessible, and
relevant to the real world.
Carl Menger, an economist from the University of Vienna, founded the Austrian
school in the 1970s. Though it soon sank into obscurity in Europe, its ideas were
kept alive through the efforts of F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, both of whom taught
in the United States and became the school's main contributors.
When Mr. Hayek won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974, the Austrian school received
renewed attention. Since then, Austrian political thought has gained ground by influencing
such organizations as the Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank that actively
promotes free-market ideas in conferences, seminars, and publications. Even Federal
Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan has given speeches leaning toward some of the
A leader of the Austrian movement, Murray Rothbard, an economics professor at
the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, says he remembers when economics journals
were literary. In the last 40 years, the field has become increasingly mathematical
and abstract; today, these journals read more like their physics counterparts, he
says, "It's just a lot of math completely removed from reality," Professor
AUSTRIAN POSITIONS ON MAINSTREAM ISSUES
- Money. Austrians oppose currency inflation and support a return to the gold standard.
- Banking. The central bank, by manipulating interest rates, creates an artificial
investment environment. There should be no central bank, and interest rates should
fluctuate freely in the market.
- Privatization. Austrians support the privatization of most government functions
- from the Postal Service to roads and bridges. Some even feel the courts system
and national defense should be privatized.
- Immigration. Austrians are split on this issue. Ideally, the flow of migrant
labor should be free and unrestricted. However, some say immigration can disrupt
the market system and social cohesiveness. These Austrians oppose, for example, bilingual
education in America, and favor restrictions on immigration.
- Anti-trust laws. Austrians oppose anti-trust laws, asking why a firm should be
punished for performing better than its competitors.
- Trade. It shouldn't be any harder to trade with Mexico than with California,
Austrians say. They oppose quotas and tariffs.
- Mandated health care. Austrians attribute any current failure in health care
to existing government programs. Further government intervention will only decrease
quality of care.
- Labor. An employer should be able to hire freely and have the right to discriminate
in the hiring process, Austrians hold.
Followers of Austrian economics contend that the mainstream makes sweeping and
unrealistic assumptions about people and prices to facilitate economic calculations.
Austrians explicitly avoid these types of generalizations, they say, recognizing
that people and markets are inherently dynamic and unpredictable.
"The Austrian school is based on things which jibe with the average person's
understanding that we're all unique, we can change our minds, we have goals, and
we seek to achieve them, says Llewellyn Rockwell, president of the Mises Institute
in Alabama, which organized the California conference.
"We feel that all of economics can be deduced logically from certain self-evident
axioms. Rockwell adds, "Mainstream economics rejects that."
Mainstream economists use econometrics modeling as well as a number of other techniques
borrowed from the natural sciences. Econometrics, which relies heavily on statistics
and math to analyze data, has become popular recently. One reason is that increased
computer-processing power has allowed for highly complex models capable of crunching
a lot of numbers.
But even the most powerful computers are not able to mimic reality. "Given
that the market is composed of hundreds of millions of people making billions of
decisions every day, each one of them unique, there's no computer model that could
encompass all that," Mr. Rockwell says. As an alternative, an Austrian economist
might perform a thought experiment using the Crusoe illustration as his starting
Crusoe, stuck alone on an island, was forced to take certain actions in order
to live effectively. To act, he had to choose between alternatives in allocating
resources and time. From this example, Austrian economists draw some basic, "self
evident" axioms: Humans act, their decisions are based on subjective values,
uncertainty exists, and so on.
For Austrians, such axioms from the fundamental foundation of economics, as true
for Crusoe as they are for a business executive. These economists describe markets
as dynamic processes that result in innovation and are driven by entrepreneurs. (Reprint,
The Christian Science Monitor, 1996)
Copyright © 1996. The Light Party.