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The Austrian School of Economics at the University of Vienna

by Ludwig von Mises

[Audio File]

Address at New York University Faculty Club, May 2, 1962. Dr. Mises was introduced by Dr. William H. Peterson, then a professor at New York University Graduate School of Business Administration. In the audience was Friedrich A. Hayek, professor of social and moral science of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Reprinted in Bettina Bien Greaves, Austrian Economics: An Anthology (Irvington, NY: Fee, 1996), pp. 77-82

Usually when referring to economics in Vienna and Austria, one speaks of the "Austrian School." Many people misunderstand this term, believing there was a special Austrian school of economics in Vienna, an organized institution like a law school in this country. Now the fact is that the term "school" in connection with Austrian economics refers to a certain trend in doctrines; it is a doctrinal term. 

The term "Austrian School" was originally given to a small group of Austrian economists by their adversaries in Germany. When the term was first used against the Austrians in the 1880s, it was used as a pejorative, with a certain amount of contempt. In this respect, it differed greatly from the names of the other two Austrian groups-the Psychoanalytical Movement and the Vienna Circle of Logical Positivism, both of which chose their names themselves. Both these other two groups have become internationally known as scientific groups. As a matter of fact, the so-called Logical Positivists have come to dominate the teaching of philosophy in the Anglo-Saxon universities, first of all in England and in the United States, not so much in France. What all these three groups had in common is that they were not very popular with the authorities of the official Austrian academic hierarchy. 

All the universities in Continental Europe are state universities. Even the idea that a university could be a private institution is foreign to most of these countries. So the universities are operated by the government. But there was a fundamental difference between them and other governmental institutions; the difference was that the professors enjoyed academic freedom. 

All government employees, functionaries of the government, are bound, in the exercise of their functions, to obey strictly what they have been told and ordered to do by their supervisors. But although the teachers at the universities, technological universities, and all other schools of the same rank, were government employees, they had no superiors; they enjoyed academic freedom. Nobody, not even a member of the cabinet supervising the duties of the supreme management of instruction, had the right to interfere in any way with their teaching. This was of very great importance because the tendency has prevailed again and again for the government in these countries to influence the teaching of law, also of economics, political science, and the social sciences in general. 

Now the important fact was that these three groups-the Austrian School of Economics, the Vienna School of Logical Positivism, and the Psychoanalytical Movement-had one thing in common. In the post- war period, at least, they were represented, not by professors appointed to teach, but by Privatdozents. A Privatdozent is an institution unknown to the universities of the Anglo-Saxon countries. A Privatdozent is a man who is admitted as a private teacher at the university. He does not receive any payment from the government; actually he has only the very unimportant right to receive the fees paid by his students. Most Privatdozents made the equivalent from their fees of about $5.00 or $10.00 a year. Therefore they had to find some other means of making a living in whatever way they wanted. As for me I served as economic adviser to the Austrian government's Chamber of Commerce. 

I had been admitted to lecture at the University of Vienna as a Privatdozent a little over a year before the outbreak of the first World War. The War interrupted my teaching. When I came back from the War many years later; I found that many young men were very much interested in the" study of economics; they wanted not only to pass the examinations but to become economists and contribute something to teaching and research in the field. 

In regard to the study of modern languages the preparation of students in Austria for economics and legal studies, which were combined at the university, was very unsatisfactory. Instruction was rather good in Greek and Latin at the lower level of the Austrian Gymnasium [high school/junior college], as well as at the Gymnasiums of other European countries, say in France and Germany, but modern languages were neglected. Those who knew French and English had acquired their knowledge privately, which was not so easy to do during the War. And after the War the young men, who came to the seminar that I conducted as a Privatdozent, were practically not at all familiar with any foreign language. One of these men, Fritz Machlup, now a professor at one of the best known and biggest American universities, Princeton, tells me every time we meet, "Do you remember you gave me a list of books for a paper I had to prepare for your seminar, and on this list English-language books dominated?" Dismayed, Machlup had told me, "But these are English books!" Machlup reminds me I had then answered, "Certainly. Learn English." 

Already at that time, immediately after the war, I had my first American student. This American student came to Vienna, not as a private citizen, but as a lieutenant in the U.S. army, as the aide-de-camp to another American, an older man, a colonel. The colonel's assignment in Vienna gave him practically nothing to do so he had a lot of leisure time. His young assistant had still less to do, and still more leisure time. He decided to use his leisure time in a way that would make it possible for him to take back to the United States with him, to Harvard University, a ready-made doctoral dissertation. In my seminar he wrote a doctoral dissertation on direct taxation in Austria. In the United States the income tax was at that time very new. Austria, with its 100-year history of income taxes and its corporation tax, had far more experience than the United States, so there was a lot for Americans to learn from Austria about taxes. This young man, John Van Sickle, became a very well known author of books and is today a retired professor of Wabash College. 

I had a two-hour seminar once a week at the University. But very soon that appeared insufficient. There were students in the seminar who had already acquired a very good knowledge of economic problems and who wanted to do serious research work. And then there were beginning students. So very soon I started a Privatseminar, which is considered by the German, French, and Austrian systems to be the most important work a professor can do. A Privatseminar has practically no official or legal connection with the university; it is simply an institution which permits a member of the faculty to meet regularly with his students to work and discuss problems of economics and history. 

Now I started such a Privatseminar, and I must say that, looking back today, this Privatseminar was a success. In this very room I see one of its earliest members, Professor Hayek. And there are others from my seminar who are now teaching in this country-Gottfried Haberler at Harvard, Fritz Machlup and Oskar Morgenstern at Princeton. At Marquette University, there is Walter Froelich. Then there is a lady, Dr. Ilse Mintz, professor at Columbia University's School of General Studies. 

We dealt with all kinds of problems which related economics to the other social sciences, for there were not only economists in my Privatseminar. Many of the students were less interested in economics as such than in the general problems of the social sciences and the sciences of human action. One of these was Eric Voegelin, for 20 years professor at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, and now Professor of Philosophy at the University of Munich in Germany. Voegelin's name may perhaps be known to you as he acquired some fame as an author of philosophical books. Then there were two professors who taught at the New School for Social Research, Dr. Alfred Schutz and Dr. Felix Kaufmann. You will be perhaps astonished to learn that one member of my seminar, Dr. Emanuel Winternitz, teaches, or taught, history of art at Yale. You may be still more astonished to hear that Dr. Winternitz was a practicing lawyer and that when he came to this country he was almost immediately appointed by the Metropolitan Museum to a position in his specialty, a very special field dealing with problems in which painting and music come together; he is now head of one of the departments of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

There were others, foreigners who came to Vienna for a time and attended my seminar, not very regularly but often enough. I shall mention only a few. As you know I am not very much in favor of Marxism and similar doctrines, so you will be astonished to hear that one of these foreigners was Hugh Gaitskell, the present chief of the British Labor Party. Again you will be astonished to learn that another was a Japanese professor, Kotari Araki, who, later as a professor at the University of Berlin during the time of the Axis, taught about Japanese economics and Axis economic problems. I want to mention one other foreigner who attended my seminar, Francois Perroux, the present professor of economics at the College de France, the most renowned institution of French learning. There were also many others. 

Due to the inflation and the economic conditions in Europe at that time, the problem for European students in general and for young students in Austria in particular was to a great extent financial. The regular study of economics was rather difficult for persons who couldn't afford to buy texts and other books, especially as libraries, even the official libraries, didn't have the money to buy them either. Therefore, it was of very great importance to find the means and the method to give these young men an opportunity to go abroad. 

The first student of mine who went to a foreign country in this way was Professor Hayek. A distinguished professor at New York University, Jeremiah Jenks, who had written important studies on the gold exchange standard in the Far East; one could say that Jenks was the man who made the gold exchange standard known to economists. Jenks came to Vienna because he wanted to study and write about European conditions and I introduced him to Hayek. Later by special arrangement, Dr. Hayek became Jenks' secretary for some time in New York. This was an exceptional case. Both Jeremiah Jenks and Hayek were exceptional men. To help others, it was necessary to find some other way.

One American institution that did an excellent job in this regard was the Laura Spelman Foundation, better known as the Rockefeller Foundation. Laura Spelman was the wife of the original old Rockefeller. This Laura Spelman Foundation made it possible for young European scholars to spend one or two years in the United States. They could attend universities if they wanted and visit different parts of the country; they could really derive great advantages from the arrangement. 

The man who represented the Foundation in Austria was a professor of history, Francis Pribram. Pribram also accepted economists whom I recommended, and in the course of the years Gottfried Haberler, Oskar Morgenstern, Fritz Machlup, and several others came to the United States, spent two years here under the Foundation's auspices, and then went back as, I would say, "perfect" economists. As you know, they later wrote many very interesting and good books. One other Laura Spelman student I might mention was the German, Professor Wilhelm Roepke. 

Another thing that developed out of my Privatseminar and my activities as economic adviser to the Austrian Chamber of Commerce was that in 1926 in Vienna we started the Institute for Business Cycle Research., Its first manager was again Professor Hayek. When Hayek left Vienna in 1931 to teach at the London School of Economics, Morgenstern, now professor at Princeton, succeeded  him. In spite of. some unpleasant experiences with the Nazis, this Institute still exists in Austria, although it is no longer the Institute for Business Cycle Research but a more general institute, the Austrian Institute for Economic Research.

What is very interesting is that these students, who studied in the 1920s at the Austrian universities and wanted to choose a scientific career and contribute to the development of science, let us say, as researchers in economics, had at that time in Austria very slim chances of making sufficient money or earning a living in this capacity. As students they knew very well that they would have to work in some other field and would only be able to devote their leisure time to their true interest, the study of economics. At that time they couldn't know that, when Austria was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1938, many of them would be able to find teaching positions in foreign countries, especially here in the United States, and that they would find here a much broader field of activity than any they could ever have found in Austria. 

Therefore, I must say that I consider the real success of mwork as a professor of economics in Vienna was that I made it possible for a number of very gifted and able men to find a way to devote their lives to scientific research. This, of course, was not due to my merit. It was something that developed because of the general attitude in this country that accepted these young European refugees as teachers without regard to the fact that they were not born Americans and that they had been educated and had reached maturity in Europe under very different situations. What this country gained from these former students of mine is not bad; certainly today they now hold very good positions. As teachers of economics in this country, they have contributed to the success of American universities and especially to the departments of the social sciences and economics. Many are also working in other fields and in branches of business, often academic businesses.

There is a lot of talk today about international cooperation and international friendship among nations. In fact, nothing has been done officially in this regard. On the contrary the world is still divided in hostile camps, which is very unfortunate. But what has really developed unofficially in the world is an internationalism of science and teaching. I am proud that I could contribute a little bit to this internationalization. The fact that today there is international cooperation among members of the same field of research is one of the most important developments of recent years. We can all be proud of the fact that we have contributed a little bit to its development.


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