Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Boettke on Berger and me on the extent of my Austrianism

It never ceases to amaze me how many formative influences on me are also embraced by the Austrian school. Peter Boettke shares a new issue of Society that highlights the work of Peter Berger in sociology, with many regulars on Coordination Problem as authors.

I studied both economics and sociology at William & Mary, and two of the biggest influences from sociology on my thought were Berger and Luckmann's work on the "Social Construction of Reality" and neo-Weberians like Peter Evans and Theda Skocpol. A little while back, I learned that Mises and Weber were good friends, and that Weber was an important figure in the Methodenstreit, which of course was a formative episode in Austrian epistemology and methodology. Now I learn that the other big influence on me from sociology - Berger and Luckmann - is well received by the Austrian school too!

I noted in an earlier post how I've had a long-standing interest in emergent behavior and complex adaptive systems - something I was introduced to through Paul Krugman's work, and only later learned that Austrians are closely attached to this literature too. And then of course there's all that throw-away stuff about "time" and "uncertainty" and "expectations".

They've surprised me by citing Minsky favorably. When Williamson and Ostrom won the Nobel Prize, the positive reception of their work among Austrians was again previously unknown to me (although at this point it wasn't particularly surprising). I cited Williamson liberally in my senior honors thesis, and I was familiarized with the whole institutionalist school of thought (including Ostrom and Greif) in a course I took on institutional economics. I've been fascinated by Ordoliberalism ever since high school, when I wrote a paper on Ludwig Erhard and the Wirtschaftswunder for German class - this was of course long before I knew that Austrians considered them close cousins.

It's so strange - all these quite random influences and interests of mine that I've collected over the years always seem to lead back to the Austrian school.

So why am I not an Austrian? I have a few theories.

1. First, I grew out of libertarianism a couple years ago basically because I thought through the full implications of what you might call "contractarian libertarianism", which I think is the dominant strain of libertarianism in America today (unlike, say, more radical libertarianisms). In my thinking on economics, I came across all kinds of cracks in the edifice of the contractual/property rights perspective, most significantly externalities, incomplete contracts, and information problems. As I think should be clear by now, I consider these to be significant issues. And unlike many people, they don't shake my faith in property rights and free contracts, for example. What they do is caveat my expectations of those things. Anyway, that's contractual economics, but it was inevitable that I would apply those problems and issues to a contract-based political philosophy, like libertarianism. I have applied it, and libertarianism has come up wanting. Austrian economics was bound to suffer as soon as I rejected libertarianism.

2. I buy liquidity preference theory and the importance of effective demand, I don't think the strong version of Say's Law holds, and I recognize that the quantity theory is an accounting identity, not a behavioral law. Some Austrians believe some of that sometimes, but all of it together puts some distance between us.

3. My epistemology. Ever since a few exchanges with Lee Kelly and Jonathan Catalán I've been fleshing more of this out for myself. Lee Kelly will be happy to know that I am quite sure that I am a fallibilist, but I think I've taken it down the Pragmatist road rather than the Popperian road. It's not that I necessarily disagree with Popper - it's more that he strikes me as somewhat impractical. As I read him (which is little and not very well), you can't do much with Popper except talk about knowledge. I'd rather pretend I can say something and then caveat it than not say anything. In that sense, I suppose in practice I'm a positivist, although I wouldn't strictly say that that is my epistemology. I verify to get around in the world, but I do acknowledge that I really oughta falsify. That alone, I think, wouldn't shut me off from being an Austrian. What might shut me off is my distrust of too heavy a reliance on rationalism. Humans are easily mislead - by their own brains and senses and by others. It seems to me that it is much easier to be mislead by seemingly accurate axioms or by seemingly logical deductions than it is to be mislead by sense perceptions. True, corroboration of sense perceptions can produce bad information too. We have a host of miracles and UFO sightings to attest to that (although even these are often bad inferences, not bad observations). But it seems to me that it's easier for me to be duped by an axiom or a logical statement when I talk with a bunch of people about what they think than it is to be duped by an observation when I talk with a bunch of people about what they observe. There is only one logic and presumably one set of valid axioms. There are lot's of chances for observation. That sort of corroboration builds a robustness into empiricism that I just don't see in rationalism. As Keynes (and perhaps others?) once said - I'd rather be vaguely right than precisely wrong.
Anyway, Roger Garrison's Time and Money just came in the mail - it's next on my list to read. We'll see if he can sway me on the Austrian School. I flipped through it and I have a few questions already about it - but we'll see. I've never done this before for casual reading, but I think I'm going to keep a set of notes on it to record my reactions, concerns, and questions.


  1. I do not understand why Popper would strike you as impractical. One can be pragmatic without being a "pragmatist," a term with connotations that I suspect you would shirk from. Though Popper would rejet pragmatism, he has always struck me as pragmatic. For example, Popper's solution to the Duhem-Quine problem was to propose social conventions and norms. He wrote at length on matters of social institutions and how they can be reformed. For Popper, all philosophy began and ended with problems, and such problems usually had their origin in practical matters. In any case, it doesn't matter all that much.

    For what it's worth, I wouldn't describe myself as a Austrian economist. For one, I am not an economist! But moreover, the dominant faction within Austrian economics is one I disagree with on too many issues.

  2. Lee Kelly -
    And certainly Popper (I'm assuming) didn't call for a halt to all empirical verification work. Perhaps this is just a matter of semantics that I'm wrestling with.

    Put it this way - the things that a Popperian worries about distinguishing between I wouldn't worry so much about. So maybe what I'm doing is what Popper would call a "social convention", but I simply don't worry about making that distinction in practice (even though if you pressed me, I'd be likely to agree with you that it is only a "social convention").

  3. You are far too prolific and I want to comment on everything but have not been able to keep up! I have some reservations about Austrians too, although I have intellectual lineage to them and in many ways am ideologically closest to them. I will get to this at some point. Enjoying reading your posts as always.

  4. It is impossible to understand Popper on the basis of the standard representation of his work and when you do get a better grasp it is a very minimal epistemology which eliminates a lot of wasted effort, like the Austrian arguments against the methods of the natural sciences which they misrepresent as positivism and empiricism.

    Repeating a late comment on an old post which people probablyl missed, Popper is generally regarded as the "falsification man" which is a very inadequate description that does not start to do justice to the breadth and depth of his work.
    To get a scan on the bigger picture, try these pieces, the first for a brief summmary and the second for an overview of his career.



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