What is Austrian Economics?

Thursday, December 31, 2009

The story of the Austrian School begins in the fifteenth century, when the followers of St. Thomas Aquinas, writing and teaching at the University of Salamanca in Spain, sought to explain the full range of human action and social organization.

These Late Scholastics observed the existence of economic law, inexorable forces of cause and effect that operate very much as other natural laws. Over the course of several generations, they discovered and explained the laws of supply and demand, the cause of inflation, the operation of foreign exchange rates, and the subjective nature of economic value--all reasons Joseph Schumpeter celebrated them as the first real economists.

The Late Scholastics were advocates of property rights and the freedom to contract and trade. They celebrated the contribution of business to society, while doggedly opposing taxes, price controls, and regulations that inhibited enterprise. As moral theologians, they urged governments to obey ethical strictures against theft and murder. And they lived up to Ludwig von Mises's rule: the first job of an economist is to tell governments what they cannot do.

The first general treatise on economics, Essay on the Nature of Commerce, was written in 1730 by Richard Cantillon, a man schooled in the scholastic tradition. Born in Ireland, he emigrated to France. He saw economics as an independent area of investigation, and explained the formation of prices using the "thought experiment." He understood the market as an entrepreneurial process, and held to an Austrian theory of money creation: that it enters the economy in a step-by-step fashion, disrupting prices along the way.

Cantillon was followed by Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, the pro-market French aristocrat and finance minister under the ancien regime. His economic writings were few but profound. His paper "Value and Money" spelled out the origins of money, and the nature of economic choice: that it reflects the subjective rankings of an individual's preferences. Turgot solved the famous diamond-water paradox that baffled later classical economists, articulated the law of diminishing returns, and criticized usury laws (a sticking point with the Late Scholastics). He favored a classical liberal approach to economic policy, recommending a repeal of all special privileges granted to government-connected industries.

More at: http://mises.org/etexts/austrian.asp

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