Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics
Review of Living Economics: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow by Peter Boettke
This is a book about the general applicability of economics and how it “affects all walks of life” (from the back-cover blurb). No less than 23 endorsing statements are printed at the front end of the book, including praise from luminaries such as James Buchanan, Vernon Smith, Gordon Tullock and Israel Kirzner. Nassim Taleb also chips in. Given the way the book is described, one may perhaps expect a Becker or Landsburg kind of book which applies economics to unusual settings, generating new insight. However, the book is very different from this. Instead, Boettke delivers a set of highly personal statements in the form of 22 informal essays, most of which have been previously published, and which describe his “love affair with economics” (p. xv). Perhaps because of the way in which the book has been conceived and put together, there is a good deal of repetition; indeed, the book could have been compressed to something shorter and more succinct (my preference would have been for a deeper examination of the differences between “mainline” and “mainstream” economics; more about which later). However, Boettke writes in an engaging and often journalistic way, so the book is an easy read. He is also good at coming up with fancy and helpful 2x2 matrices to organize the material; in fact, while reading through the book, the thought struck me more than once Boettke could have been an excellent management writer.
However, while Boettke’s book is highly personal, it actually, but perhaps less intentionally, gives a portrait of a specific way of thinking about Austrian economics as well as practicing it. We may call this the “Masonian way,” not just because George Mason University is where our author is institutionally located, but also because of his institution-building efforts in that place. To be sure, parts of the book are dedicated to traditional Austrian projects, such as criticizing Keynesian economics, and I doubt any Austrian will found much to disagree with in these parts. However, Boettke has long more or less explicitly argued that there is a specific way of doing Austrian economics which (at least to this outside observer) seems to be an amalgam of, on the substantive side, traditional Austrian economics (perhaps more with a leaning towards Hayek and Kirzner than Mises and Rothbard), the economics of governance as represented by Oliver Williamson and Elinor Ostrom; public choice economics á la Buchanan and Tullock; on the philosophical side “Continental” influences, notably ideas from hermeneutics and phenomenology; and on the methods side, fundamentally anthropological empiricism.1
Because of Boettke’s institution-building efforts and general influence in parts of the Austrian community, it appears that a number of other Austrians, mainly (but not exclusively) associated with George Mason University, buy into the Boettkian worldview. It is therefore of interest to look more closely into this view. The present book serves as a handy guide.
- 1. Note that Boettke’s approach to Austrian economics is one among other approaches. For example, see Salerno (2002) for a very different approach to modern Austrian economics.