Who Was Hayek, What Are Austrians, And Why Should I Care? (In 1500 Words)
On Old School Economics, someone asks:
Can anyone summarize the basic tenets of this school of economics and what are Hayeks contributions? I’ve been looking all over the place and have found some websites that are a bit confusing so if you could make a list, it would be helpful.
Hayek is one of a line of Austrian thinkers. The term ‘Austrians’ was originally, like ‘capitalism’, derogatory: meaning essentially ‘those quaint hicks’.
Austrianism is a micro-economic (versus macro), rhetorical (versus mathematical), approach to political science and economic theory. This approach suggests that we can analyze the behavior of individuals in economic affairs and from that deduce the best macro policy. It assumes (Like all systems of natural law) that people are not terribly plastic, and that they will ‘always act as humans with self interest’ and that we should enact policies that work in tandem with human behavior rather than trying to change human behavior.
Historically, the Austrian school is a German reaction to the English school’s theory of value. The English (and then marxist) schools, embraced the Labor Theory Of Value, wherein the value of an object has to do with what work went into it. The Austrians used insights gained from calculus (relative movement of bodies) to create the principle of ‘Marginal Utility’ (wherein each unit of a group of resources changes in value to the owner as they are sold) and the ‘Subjective Theory Of Value’, wherein the value of an object is in what others will pay for it, thus explaining the essentially speculative, and therefore unsettling, nature of capitalism. This theory created a much more complex world of things for economists to measure: if all values are subjective, and if each unit of a resource has a different value, then the world consists of an infinite number of unique objects whose value cannot be known until it is sold, and our attempts to measure them in real time are limited to our ability to make wide generalizations and averages about the economy.
After these initial insights, Austrians also contributed to theories of money, trade cycles, business cycles, and in particular theories of money and interest. But they all depended upon the basic innovation: relativism (like Einstein’s relative motion of bodies) and therefore subjectivism – again, the application of calculus to human affairs. (The depth of this cognitive insight into the nature of relativism might not be apparent to most people, nor the complexity of created by it. Pi For example is forever inaccurate because it is an approximation of an infinite number of triangles. It’s insolvable using the technology of mathematics as we understand it. Economics to some degree, must make similar averages and assumptions and there is simply no way around it. In fact, the only measure of what we may do, is what we did. There may be no mathematics to explain our economic activities other than the record of our economic activities, because we invent the future, we don’t discover it. )
Austrian theory, which explained the workings of money and information in the market economy, provided the analytical and mathematical methodology with which to argue against the socialist’s attempt to revert from the increasingly complex relativistic market economy to the simplicity of the predictable the village economy.
Hayek contributed to this body of economic and political theory in a range of areas. But he is particularly read for his application of the limits of knowledge to political and economic systems. These limits of knowledge are embodied in three essays. They are easy to read. And you can read them a hundred times and learn from them on every reading.
1) “Economics and Knowledge”
2) “The Use of Knowledge in Society”
3) “The Pretense of Knowledge”
(To which I would add one more “Coping with Ignorance” and another by Karl Popper: “sources of knowledge and ignorance”. THey were friends and popper’s essay is insightful. )
And after reading those, the one book he referred to as a ‘pamphlet': “The Road To Serfdom”.
One critic has stated that “all of Hayek can be understood in a few essays”. Which is true. Of course, all philosophers can be reduced to one insight. However, his insight is profound.
Along with Ludwig Von Mises, Hayek helped undermined the advance of socialism in what was called the ‘Socialist Calculation Debate”, in which he and Mises argue: first, that as populations increase and specialize in a division of knowledge and labor, the knowledge needed to coordinate production in time is so vast and so rapidly changing that it is impossible for a central authority to obtain and use that information. Second, that prices are the vehicle by which we communicate and coordinate with one another and by destroying prices you destroy that ability to coordinate our activities. Third, that without prices and competition there is no incentive for people to participate in ‘problem solving’ necessary for efficient production, and instead, production will atrophy through entropy. Fourth, that people will simply turn to recreating the price-market in the form of a black market. There are an infinite number of additions to this list, but the central themes are the same: we must increasingly coordinate our actions in increasingly large numbers, producing increasingly complex goods using increasingly fragmentary knowledge. And that without these tools we cannot coordinate our activities.
For most of his career Hayek was unhappy that ‘The Road To Serfdom’ was so well respected compared to his more ‘scientific works’ as he put it. But he changed his mind later in life.
We should note that Hayek’s ideas are not arguments against redistribution or redistributive public services, so much as arguments against interference in the market economy, and the necessity of using the market economy to provide services. The contemporary reader may not understand that the scope of socialism has changed from one of outright management of the economy to incremental management of the economy. Others have followed Hayek and stated that the behavior of people in a bureaucracy is the problem, not necessarily government itself, when we see government as limited to the use of ‘earnings’ for the provision of public services. Others have theorized that the entire state can be privatized as it was under the large monarchies and can accomplish the same ends. And it appears that this might be true.
Hayek’s strengths are also his weaknesses: he was a polite gentleman, and thus his arguments are often ‘softly spoken’. WHen he refutes someone else, he assumes that they are making a simple intellectual error and that he’s helping them correct it. He assumes all men have the best of ambitions. And in doing so does not expose their motivations. In particular he did not refute Keynes, who simply gave socialism a nicer name, and allowed government to change it’s purpose to that of reducing unemployment and increasing redistribution from that of creating competitive capital, and changing society from a system of saving for the purpose of inter-generational lending, to one of consumption and inter-generational dependence.
This gentle conservatism perhaps limited the scope of his theory. But for whatever the reason, his theory was too limited. Among all theorists back to Hamilton and Jefferson, Hayek came the closest to solving the problem of political economy in an industrial society: but failed. He gives us warnings about what not to do, and why not to do it, but despite his efforts, he failed to tell us what we should do. Or at least, he failed to sufficiently innovate such that we could implement a society that would preserve our anglo-saxon ‘rights as englishmen': those rights and obligations as a fraternal order of peers participating in a republican self-government operating a market economy. Which is really what the conservative movement is, and always will be, about.
He tried to solve the problem of political economy in the industrial age, but he failed, along with Mises, Popper and Parsons. Socialism is not an innovation. It is Luddism: the attempt to make comprehensible a market economy, which exists precisely because it is so complex and incomprehensible that we must use the pricing system and a division of knowledge and labor to administer it. But that does not mean we know how to govern a complex and diverse empire using the traditional republican methodology of opposing powers using debate and consensus over abstractions and an unaccountable legislature relying on intuition and hearsay because the numbers that they have to work with are of such imprecision and speculation that they are meaningless. And when, under fiat paper money, they are not limited by the opinions and willingness of others to comply with their ambitions.
Republicanism is a methodology for operating the extended family we refer to as the city-state in a hard-money economy: people with shared economic incentives and shared values.
We have not yet solved the problem of Imperial Government under Fiat Money. Hayek thought too small and failed us. The libertarian answer is a Luddite response as well: either reduce government and our states to city states (classical liberals) or fully embrace a market government (Rothbardian-Hoppian Anarchists). And so far, we are left with creeping socialism and no sufficient answer to the problem of preserving our freedom from within competing empires.
These articles can be read at http://hayekcenter.org/?page_id=11.