The speaker at my next Last Friday of the Month meeting will be Richard Carey of Libertarian Home, and the title of his talk is: Austrian Economics: What It Is and How It Relates To Libertarianism.
And yes, Friday March 29th is not any old Friday. It is Good Friday, which may thin out the ranks of attenders somewhat. Not too much, I hope.
About what he will be saying, Richard Carey says this:
What I intend to look at is as follows: the Austrian School: what it is; what it was; its relationship to libertarianism and its relevance to today. I’d like to look at how it fits into the development of economic thought, its distinguishing features, the main protagonists, some of the most important works. If the task of answering such questions is beyond me, I should at least be able to provide a guide to where such answers can be found.
I have a very selfish motive in getting Richard Carey to talk about Austrian Economics, which is that I personally find it rather hard to get to grips with this subject, and with subjects like this. What I mean by “subjects like this” is subjects which consist of a lot of logically interconnecting concepts, each of which you have to understand, and the interconnections between which you likewise have to understand, in order to make sense of it all.
What makes me want to make sense of Austrian Economics is that I have become entirely convinced, as have millions of others in recent years and decades (years especially), that Austrian Economics doesn’t just supply the best explanation of what has been going on in the financial world lately (and for that matter for the last several decades and even several centuries); it supplies the only explanation. All else in the way of economics is statistically disguised, fumbling, blundering nonsense, enlivened with many amusing details and incidental truths, but nevertheless, underneath it all, when it comes to the most important questions of all, just plain wrong. I already feel about Austrianism (as I like to abbreviate it) in the way many self-declared Marxists felt about Marxism when the Great Crash and then the Great Depression were unfolding. They didn’t really understand Marxism, but they had heard enough to be utterly convinced that This Is It, as in: This is the place to keep looking to work out what the hell is happening, and what the hell to do about it. The difference being that whereas the Marxists were all deluded and stuck up an intellectual and political blind alley, the Austrianists, and I, are not.
My problem is that I find the great Austrian School writings very hard to actually read, and I typically find your average spoken exposition of Austrianism, by someone long steeped in the subject, very hard to follow.
Part of this is that I am a slow and easily distracted reader, slow partly because so easily distracted, but also just slow. And when listening to a talk, I likewise get easily distracted (for example with trying to get my head around the previous interconnected concept but one, even as the latest one is being expounded), and if the talk is the kind of talk with a logical thread to it (as it so often is when the subject is Austrian Economics), any distraction guarantees that I lose that thread.
But I have another problem, which is that a great deal of Austrian School writing consists of belabouring the obvious.
Consider the following paragraph, taken pretty much at random and got to literally in a few seconds of searching for something appropriate to make my point, from Murray Rothbard’s mammoth tome, Man, Economy and State (p. 86):
It is clear that the things that must be exchanged are goods, which will be useful to the receiving party. The goods may be present or future goods (or claims to future goods, which may be considered as equivalent to future goods), they may be capital goods or consumers’ goods, labor or nature-given factors. At any rate, the objects of an exchange must be scarce means to human ends, since, if they were available in abundance for all, they would be general conditions of human welfare and not objects of human action. If something were a general condition of human welfare, there would be no need to give something up to acquire it, and it would not become the object of exchange.
Yeah. I kind of know this. It is, as Rothbard himself starts the paragraph by saying, “clear”. I do not think that my inability to stay, as it were, riveted by such explication is entirely my fault.
Now do not get me wrong. I am not criticising Rothbard for writing paragraphs like this. They are essential to what he is trying to accomplish. The reason why the obvious keeps having to be emphasised by Austrianists is that regular economics is bedevilled with assumptions about reality which we all, including even most economists, know to be untrue, but which economists have felt it necessary to assume anyway, because that way they can erect an intellectual structure that resembles one of the “proper” sciences, like physics, far more than it otherwise would. Such assumptions enable economists to make what have at least the superficial appearance of exact predictions.
Austrian Economics, on the other hand, is based on assuming nothing about human thought processes and human behaviour that is not true. It is in a perpetual dialogue with regular economics, seeking to draw mis-educated minds away from falsehood and towards the truth. It does not ignore regular economics. It contests it at every turn. So it is that explications of Austrian Economics often contain an enormous number of statements which (a) correct false assumptions embedded in regular economics, but which (b) are not merely true, but clearly true. And then, on the basis of these clear truths, other truths that are not so clear are identified and elaborated upon.
The idea is to give the regular, non-Austrianist and anti-Austrianist eonomists no wiggle room. The Austrianists are concerned to cleanse economics of all untruths, to make it the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, to be as honestly sure as we can possibly be about whatever in economic life it is possible to be sure of, and to be honestly unsure about the rest.
Unsureness about many things being a typical Austrian stance. A characteristic Austrian statement of the obvious is that, when it comes to future economic behaviour, then what with economic life consisting of people making free choices rather than reacting like molecular robots to an absurdly restricted range of stimuli (to say nothing of government officials doing whatever crazily unpredictable things they may or may not take it into their crazily unpredictable heads to choose to do), we just don’t know.
Are you more excited by the spurious certainty with which the regular economists predict, in the manner of chemists pondering the contents of a test tube, what “the economy” will definitely do next year, if Policy X is applied now, than you are by Austrianist assertions that sooner or later things are going to go pop in an Austrian sort of way, but that nobody can possibly know exactly when or exactly how?
Are you bored or frustrated by the mere truth? Too bad. The truth does not care how entertained or enriched or empowered you may or may not be by it; it does not care whether it holds your attention or lines your pocket or stops the populace from hating you. It is what it is.
This relentless belabouring of the obvious (Man, Economy and State runs to 1438 pages), however, is liable to be a problem for someone like me who has never been immersed in regular economics, but who has instead inhabited an intellectual milieu steeped in Austrian doctrines, even if I’ve never read much of the stuff very carefully myself. To me, all this Austrian obviousness has no scandal value, no shock-of-the-different quality, the way it might have for a second-year student of regular academic economics, deep into the swamp but still not beyond redemption. To me, a lot of the obviousness is merely obvious. So, when the bits where the not-so-obvious stuff cuts in, I am liable not to have been paying proper attention.
Going by his words quoted at the beginning of this, Carey is going to approach things historically, which always appeals to me. The development of Austrian School ideas will be told as the story of the people who thought them, which I always find to be a good way to understand ideas, even if in the end it’s the ideas themselves that matter. There will, I presume, be a lot of who said what, when, where, in response to whom. He will present it as a human drama, a journey of intellectual discovery, and not merely as a finished intellectual edifice.
There is the further advantage, for me, that Carey, just like me, only started taking Austrian Economics seriously rather recently. Listening to him talk will, I hope, be like being guided a bit further up a mountain by a rather better mountaineer than me, but as of now one who is only a few steps ahead of me. That may work rather well, and rather better than merely being shown a relief map of the entire thing.
Meanwhile, I really need to read this, properly I mean. Should’ve done this years ago.
Email me if this meeting, or future Last Friday of the Month meetings at my home in London SW1, are of interest to you. To do that, go here and click top left where it says “Contact”.