“Sidelining” Austrian Economists: A Reply to Klein and Salerno

by Stefan Kolev

I am grateful for the valuable comments by Peter Klein and Joseph Salerno at the Ludwig von Mises Institute to my previous post on Friedrich von Wieser and the historiography of the Austrian School. Some lines of clarification seem necessary.

My plea certainly did not aim at “homogenizing” the Austrians, quite on the contrary. Grouping authors into collective boxes like schools can be helpful but is equally able to create problems, among others with unwarranted homogeneity and the borders of such boxes. In history of economics, we always deal with individual thinkers and their idiosyncrasies, so “lumping them together” – in one generation or across time – can blur such specificities. The problem of who is the last one still belonging to a school and who is the one beyond is also often quite an arbitrary matter. Thus, “dehomogenization” is certainly the way to go. I see no disagreement here.

However, such exercises can pursue different paths. Apart from a purely epistemic goal, they can also aim strategically at shaping a specific narrative about the history of a research program. It is understandable that the Mises Institute promotes those in the Austrian tradition who are closer to Mises. Unfortunately, a problematic literature has emerged that depicts, for example, a central figure like F.A. Hayek as an outlier or a social democrat and aims to cut off or marginalize parts of the Austrian tradition. To this end, some authors associated with the institute commonly employ a “litmus test” of a praxeology-focused understanding of Austrian economics or, even worse, some ideological “purity test” of libertarianism to judge the affiliation and relevance of scholars in the Austrian tradition. And by that I do not mean Peter Klein or Joseph Salerno.

Deirdre McCloskey has constantly reminded the economics profession of how much rhetoric matters. And the rhetoric of a “mainline” versus “sidelines” – even if I may not be a native speaker – is a very specific one: a “mainline” clearly dominates a “sideline”.

So if we start such “measurements” of domination, we need to ask ourselves: who is to judge? Sure, Hayek in the late 1970s agreed that the new developments among the American Austrians were primarily motivated by the Misesian tradition. But is this still true today? Is this true beyond the US? Is it the Austrians’ self-perception that matters alone here, or perhaps also the perception of the Austrians by the economics profession at large? Opinions on the work of different scholars naturally differ, but if we take into account the latter question, pushing the names of Hayek or Kirzner out of the core of the Austrian program is simply bizarre.

Joseph Salerno helpfully conjectures about a “revival of Wieser” in the title of his comment. I am happy to read this. Apart from my belief as a historian of economics that going beyond the “usual giants” can provide intriguing new insights: if this debate helps us a step further to a revival of a broader understanding of Austrian economics, it has indeed achieved its purpose.

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