Archive for the 'Methodology' Category

Austrian Economics: An Empirical and Experimental Science

June 26, 2012

by Mario Rizzo

I have been doing research on the ideas of the first-generation Austrian economists (Menger, Wieser and Boehm-Bawerk) as they relate to contemporary developments in behavioral and experimental economics. I have come upon a number of interesting things. I expect to share some of them here as well as in a soon-forthcoming paper. Today I wish to share this quotation from Friedrich von Wieser. These sentences are the opening words of an article commissioned by the Economic Journal to explain the ideas of the Austrian school to English-speaking economists:

“The historical school of political economists in Germany, and the Austrian, or as it is frequently termed, the abstract school are more nearly related than is at first sight apparent. Both follow the spirit of the age in rejecting speculative theory and in seeking their highest laurels in the field of observation. In art, as in science, naturalism must be distinguished from truth to nature, and we Austrians, while we have certainly no wish to be disciples of naturalism, we are wholly set on being experimentalists.”

Friedrich von Wieser, “The Austrian School and the Theory of Value,” Economic Journal (March,1891). Read the rest of this entry »

“Rationality” isn’t always Rational

February 2, 2012

by Mario Rizzo

Over the past two years I have been reading more than I ever dreamed about rationality in economics, especially in the standard neoclassical theory of choice. I have done this because I want to get at the root of the controversies concerning whether people’s behavior is, in particular contexts, rational or not.  Claims about the rationality of individual behavior are very closely linked to important policy questions about state paternalism. The highly abstract is working its way down the line to practical policy issues.

In all of this I am well-aware of the argument that “rationality” is the result of market processes and of decisionmaking institutions. I have nothing per se against this line of reasoning. Nevertheless, I want to approach the issue on the terms espoused by many choice theorists and behavioral economists themselves. This is the idea that the axioms of rational choice have a normative importance in and of themselves. By and large, behavioral economists accept the normativity of standard rational choice even as they reject the descriptive reality of rational choice.

The funny thing about all of this is that, initially, the axioms of rational choice were supposed to shed light on how people actually made choices. Then a sleight of hand occurred. It was claimed that they shed light on how rational individuals would choose – without addressing the issue of whether people were in fact rational in the sense of the axioms. Finally, it was alleged – in the face of empirical evidence that people often did not choose rationally – that the axioms defined the norms of choice. They told us how rational individuals should choose. More than that. Since being rational is taken as “good,” they show us how people should behave – full stop. Read the rest of this entry »

What Is Old Can Be New

August 9, 2011

by Mario Rizzo

This is the unedited version of my letter which appears in today’s (August 9th) Wall Street Journal. The first sentence was edited out. Too bad. 


There is a lot of discussion of the need for “new economic thinking” these days. Henry Kaufman (“Excessive Optimism and Other Economic Biases,” August 2nd) correctly criticizes many economists for underestimating the importance of structural changes in economic behavior and overestimating the capacity of economics to forecast.  

But sometimes the “old” is really the new. Echoing an older skeptical tradition in economics, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises said in 1949,” The fundamental deficiency implied in every quantitative approach to economic problems consists in the neglect of the fact that there are no constant relations between what are called economic dimensions. There is neither constancy nor continuity in the valuations and in the formation of exchange ratos between various commodities. Every new datum brings about a reshuffling of the whole price structure.”  

In a sense, it was the the “new” that misled us.

Generalizations in the Social Sciences

April 1, 2011

by Gene Callahan

On his blog, Daniel Kuehn notes that “relations in economies are not stable.” In fact, we can go further:  Relations in the social sciences are not stable. As an illustration, consider Zipf’s Law as applied to city size.

In 1700, London had about 575,000 people. According to Zipf’s Law, the next-sized city should have had about 280,000 or 290,000 thousand. What was the actual size of the second largest city? As far as I can determine, it was Norwich, with a population of about 30,000. (My source for the population figures is 1688: The First Modern Revolution.) Zipf’s “Law” is off by a factor of about ten in this instance.

What I suspect is that there is some historical circumstance that leads to Zipf’s Law applying to city size in recent centuries, which was not present in 1700. As political scientist Terry Nardin put it: “Generalizations about how people usually behave are not scientific generalizations about a truly time-independent class of phenomena; they are more or less well-disguised descriptions of customs specific to a particular historical situation.”

The Genius of Weber

March 4, 2011

by Gene Callahan

This semester, I am having the pleasure of teaching Max Weber‘s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism for the second time. Doing so is renewing my appreciation for one of the great works of social science.

Weber’s historical thesis is fascinating in itself, but what really makes the work is that it is a mini-study in how to historically investigate a social-science proposition, complete with asides on method were Weber explains what he is doing. He takes two situations that are in most respects the same (that of German Catholics and that of German Protestants) and notes a crucial difference (besides religion): the two populations have significantly different degrees of participation in the capitalist mode of economic organization (as of 1905). Read the rest of this entry »

Attributing Agency

February 27, 2011

by Gene Callahan

In C. Mantzavinos’s Philosophy of the Social Sciences there is a paper by Philip Pettit entitled “The Reality of Group Agents.” (He decides, by the way, that sometimes it makes perfect sense to attribute agency to a group, but that’s a topic for a different day.) What I wish to talk about today is the following passage, a preliminary to the issue of group agency, which discusses when it is sensible to posit agency for an individual creature such as, say, a wasp: Read the rest of this entry »

The Blinders of Behavioral Economics

February 17, 2011

by Mario Rizzo 

At the turn of the new-year the Financial Times published two small articles about why people often do not adhere to their new year’s resolutions. One article was by a philosopher (Julian Baggini) and the other by a psychiatrist (Antonia Macaro). Interestingly, they each seem to focus on whether people really want what they resolve to do or not do. More fundamentally, the authors say, if people understood themselves better they would know more fully what their personal goals are and not have so difficult a time achieving them.   Read the rest of this entry »

Predictably Rational: A Brilliant Book by Richard B. McKenzie

December 26, 2010

by Mario Rizzo 

This is the time of the year that various publications recommend Christmas books or the best books of 2010. (I have never known what a Christmas — or summer – book is. Are they supposed to be light reading? I don’t believe in reading “light.” When I am in the mood for that, I watch TV.)  In any event, I have a serious book to recommend.

Every so often a brilliant book comes out on a topic of great academic importance that is in danger of not getting the attention it deserves. I am thinking about Predictably Rational: In Search of Defenses for Rational Behavior in Economics by Richard B. McKenzie. Read the rest of this entry »

Further Thoughts on The Sensory Order

December 4, 2010

by Roger Koppl

Over at Austrian Addiction, Dan D’Amico responds to my recent post on The Sensory Order.  Dan wants to know “what Hayek’s theory of neuorscience is really adding here that a more basic understanding of subjective preferences does not already imply?”  Dan is not the only one with this question.  I think enthusiasts for The Sensory Order have given pretty good answers to Dan’s question, but it seems clear that we need to do a better job. Read the rest of this entry »

The Sensory Order

November 28, 2010

by Roger Koppl

Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen recently said The Sensory Order is “Hayek’s most overrated book.”  In part he was complaining that “many call it his most underrated book.”  Unfortunately, he does not name names.  In any event, Tyler has other gripes including the mistaken suggestion that the science in it was not current.  As I said in a comment, “I don’t understand why TSO gets lukewarm to negative reactions from serious people who are otherwise keen on Hayek.”  The most salient example of TSO bashing may be that of Dan D’Amico and Pete Boettke, who criticize “neuro-Hayekians.” Let me go on record as an enthusiast for The Sensory Order.  The latest expression of my enthusiasm is forthcoming in JEBO. Read the rest of this entry »


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