Mises Wire

Wieser and the Austrians

Over at ThinkMarkets, Stefan Kolev provides an excellent summary of Friedrich von Wieser’s career and contributions to Austrian economics. Wieser and his brother-in-law Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk formed the second generation of the Austrian school, helping develop Carl Menger’s ideas into the rich, varied, and flourishing tradition we know today. As Kolev points out, Wieser was not only an important (if idiosyncratic) theorist but also an effective organizer and champion for the Austrian school in Vienna and in the larger profession.

Unfortunately, Kolev grossly misinterprets the “dehomogenization” debate of the last twenty years as an attack on Wieser or an attempt to marginalize Wieser’s contributions. On the contrary, the dehomogenization literature — launched by Joe Salerno’s reevaluation of Mises’s and Hayek’s contributions to the socialist calculation debate (here and here) and featuring contributions from Rothbard, Kirzner, Yeager, and many others, including myself — is an exercise in exactly what Kolev endorses, the careful analysis of the history of economic thought. 

Following the Austrian revival of the 1960s and 1970s it became common, both inside and outside the Austrian school, to refer casually to “the Austrian view” on X, Y, or Z. But, it is obvious from reading the Austrian literature from Menger onwards that the Austrian school, while having shared commitments to methodological individualism and subjectivism, is remarkably diverse. The second, third, and fourth generations in particular developed their ideas in different directions and there is no unique “Austrian” view on core issues or valuation, production, and exchange. 

Indeed, Salerno’s papers on economic calculation were a specific response to the notion of a ”Mises-Hayek argument” against socialism. Salerno showed, thorough careful exegesis and interpretation, that Mises and Hayek offered distinct, yet complementary, critiques of socialist economic planning and organization. It does both Mises and Hayek a disservice to lump their contributions together and, even worse, to imply that by tracing out their similarities and differences one is, in Kolev’s words, building “models of intellectual dynasties or of litmus-test purity checks as to ‘who is an Austrian.’” Of course, Wieser is an Austrian — I have never heard anyone claim otherwise! — but his version of Austrian economics is unique. Indeed, no two “Austrians” have identical views on any fundamental issues of theory, method, or application. Three cheers for that, the hallmark of a flourishing intellectual tradition!

In my own work on entrepreneurship I have developed what I take to be a thoroughly “Austrian” understanding of the entrepreneurial function, one that is distinct from Israel Kirzner’s well-known writings on the entrepreneur. I critique Kirzner’s interpretation of entrepreneurship as alertness or discovery (a view I trace to Wieser, by the way). Along with Nicolai Foss I have built upon Mises, Frank Knight, and other thinkers to elaborate an alternative view of entrepreneurship as judgment about the use of heterogeneous resources under uncertainty. (For an introduction to some of the different interpretations of Kirzner, see this dialogue between Boettke, Rizzo, Sautet, and myself.)

I often hear Kirzner’s ideas on discovery and alertness described as “the” Austrian approach to entrepreneurship. On the contrary, as I discuss in my own work, there is no single Austrian take on the entrepreneur. Indeed, I see Kirzner’s view as very different from the view held by most of his Austrian predecessors. For this, I have been accused of “Kirzner bashing!”

On the whole, there is great value in tracing out not only the similarities but also the differences among thinkers and ideas, especially within a broad tradition. Of course, the interpreter is likely to prefer some thinkers and ideas more than others. But recognizing, discussing, and evaluating these differences is an essential task in the development of ideas and should be embraced, not shunned.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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