Rezension: The Austrian School of Economics
von MATTHEW MCCAFFREY
Eugen Maria Schulak and Herbert Unterköfler have produced in this book a concise and accessible – though eminently scholarly – history of the "Austrian" school of economic analysis. The text is a translation of a German-language edition, which appeared in 2008. The book is divided into small but dense chapters addressing the most significant developments and persons within Austrian economics. As opposed to narrower studies of the academic contributions of the school, this book is a broader and more colorful portrait of "its ideas, personalities, and institutions" (p. xvi). Therefore, it contains not merely summaries of the major contributions and conflicts of the Austrian school, but a wealth of biographical and historical information as well.
Schulak and Unterköfler first describe the intellectual and cultural milieu of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Vienna, describing the "tension-filled polarity of tradition and avant-garde, faith in progress and pessimism, and love of life and yearning for death that was to become fertile soil for Viennese art, literature, music, and science" (p. 6). This paradoxical Vienna was the setting in which the Austrian school was born and first flourished.
Although histories of the older Austrian school often focus on the triumvirate of Menger, Böhm-Bawerk, and von Wieser, Schulak and Unterköfler chronicle the contributions of many other students of the early Austrians (particularly those of Menger). The older Austrian school was much larger than its three most eminent economists, and contained significant insights into, and extensions of, the value theory put forward by Menger, Emil Sax, to some extent both a competitor and follower of Menger, receives his own chapter. Twelve students who received their Habilitation under Menger are also discussed, as well as a handful of minor writers. Schulak and Unterköfler emphasize the importance of these oft-dismissed scholars, not only for the developments and spreading of Menger's ideas, but also for their roles in Austrian politics and government.
Many of these works, as well as diverse supplementary materials, have never been translated, and have been mostly lost to the English-speaking tradition. For an English-language audience, Schulak and Unterköfler bring many of these sources to light for the first time. The authors are thus able to discuss many claims and conventional wisdoms that Austrian economists possess regarding their own history that have not received critical attention. For instance, the authors note there is no evidence to support the idea that the term "Austrian" was first applied pejoratively (pp. 27-28), as Ludwig von Mises claimed. More significant examples can be found as well. It is shown, for instance, that even in the earliest days, there was significant tension among the followers of Menger concerning the development and application of the subjective theory of value, especially with regard to Böhm-Bawerk's work on capital and interest theory, still considered one of the great achievements of the older Austrian school. Vigorous debate and criticism existed among the followers of Menger from the beginning, and there was certainly no smooth transition between successive generations of Austrian economists. The authors argue, however, that these early disputes were overlooked, due to Menger's early retirement, the First World War, and Böhm-Bawerk's untimely death (pp. 36-38).
One particularly interesting point regards economic policy. The Austrian school is well known for its affinity for the laissez faire policies of classical liberalism, but, as Schulak and Unterköfler point out, the majority of the scholars influenced by Menger were staunch supporters of state intervention in economic affairs, and were not liberals in any meaningful sense (pp. 53-63). Furthermore, the authors show that there were close ties between the older Austrians and many government institutions in Austria and Germany, an attitude that developed despite Menger's liberal stance (pp. 99-103). Connections to liberal policies were particularly strained during World War I and Austria's wartime experiment with central planning, when many Austrian economists played important roles in economic affairs, some becoming outright political entrepreneurs. Many of the older Austrians also drifted away from teaching economics in this period, and the younger Austrians were ostracized to some extent from public institutions such as the University of Vienna, at least in part due to their liberal leanings, and this explains the decline of the older Austrian school (pp. 105-114).
This book also deals effectively with the transition between the older and younger Austrian schools, giving due attention to Mises and Hayek, but also to many other students who were educated predominantly in the inter-war Austrian tradition, and who made contributions to theory and policy analysis. Some fifteen of these economists receive special attention: Hans Bayer, Martha Braun, Gottfried Haberler, Leo Illy, Fritz Machlup, Alexander Mahr, Hans Mayer, Oskar Morgenstern, Richard Reisch, Paul Rosenstein-Rodan, Edwald Schams, Erich Schiff, Karl Schlesinger, Richard von Strigl, and Franz Weiss. A small group of less prolific authors is mentioned as well. As with the students of Menger, most of these writers have been neglected in histories of the Austrian school.
Last chapters deal with Mises and Hayek, focusing on their particular interests, especially later in their careers (topics such as the problems of socialism and the Austrian business cycle theory are explored in earlier chapters). The section on Mises' later writing focuses on his development of "praxeology", the deductive method of economics, described in its simplest form as merely "logic plus time within the framework of causality" (p. 144). Likewise, Hayek's work on spontaneous, evolutionary social orders is also emphasized, along with its component parts, such as the problem of the use of knowledge in society, and the perils of collectivism and scientism.
Other topics that have been of special interest to the Austrian school are also discussed. The chapter on entrepreneurship finds the roots of the Austrian theory of entrepreneurship in Menger, but also contains a serious discussion of the work of Menger student Viktor Mataja, whose contribution to this theory has been forgotten. Another chapter of note deals with the failed attempt to revive the Austrian school in Austria after the Second World War.
A final chapter briefly describes the rebirth of the Austrian school, with focus on the scholars most influenced by Mises after his emigration to the United States: Israel Kirzner, Hans F. Sennholz, and Murray N. Rothbard. Various contemporary researchers in the Austrian tradition are mentioned as well, although only a few of the European Austrians are described in any detail, and no American economists, other than those listed above, receive any attention. This is in tune, however, with the German-language orientation of the book.
The lives and work of both well- and little-known Austrian economists are successfully explored in this book, and even though other authors have written extensively on the major figures, the discussions feel fresh. The careful documentation, especially of sources unknown in English, lends further authority to the work. The style of the writing is also exceptional. The portraits of the individual economists are vibrant and powerful. The chapter on von Wieser in particular leaves a lasting impression. Schulak and Unterköfler have done a great service, both to historians of thought generally und those specifically interested in Austrian school. This book will undoubtedly serve as an educational tool and inspiration for future scholars.