01 Jan 2010

Boettke Et Al. Engage in Product Differentiation

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The blog formerly known as “The Austrian Economists” will henceforth be referenced by the symbol α. No no it is actually now “Coordination Problem,” and Boettke et al. ask you to update your blogroll accordingly. [Insert joke about coordination problem here.] In this post Boettke explains the decision:

As of January 1, 2010, we are changing our name to “Coordination Problem”. This name change is symbolic as well as substantive. The term “Austrian economics” has become as much a hindrance to the advancement of thought as a convenient shorthand to signal certain methodological and analytical presumptions. We started this blog with a clear purpose to emphasize ongoing research in the scientific literature, and developments in higher education as related to economics and political economy. As a group we are committed to methodological individualism, market process theory, institutional analysis, and spontaneous order theorizing. And while we do not shy away from policy discussions, we do not identify with any political party or specific political movement.

As an experiment, over the past six months we have been tracking the use of the term Austrian economics in the news and in the blogosphere. Less systematically, we have also been listening carefully to the use of the term among fellow professional economists and what they think the label means. The results do not fit our intention. Google alert, for example, inevitably points to financial advice or libertarian politics, rarely to the research paradigm of F. A. Hayek, never to the scholarship of Israel Kirzner. Mises is often mentioned, but Mises the ideological symbol, not Mises the analytical economist. The “Austrian” theory of the business cycle is mentioned, but only in relationship to anti-fed politics and hard money advocacy, and never as an ongoing research program among professional economists.

These trends are not recent, but have been constant throughout our respective careers. We have always been among those who attempted to offer resistance to this use of the term. It has become evident to us that our efforts have been futile. Rather than resist the pure ideological identification, we are choosing to devote our efforts elsewhere. The name Austrian economics has been lost as a focal point for a tradition of economic scholarship, and is now a focal point for something else. We have to let it go.

OK I have mixed reactions about this. At first I wasn’t even sure I should mention it, because I don’t want to start another civil war. But since Boettke isn’t allowing any comments on his post, we’ll have to have the discussion here. This is a rather big announcement (in the admittedly small pond of Austrian blog readers) so it should be discussed somewhere. Here are my quick thoughts:

* For sure, I think it is childish if some people flip out at the “betrayal” of Mises, the “selling out,” etc. etc. I saw that happen when Daniel Klein made a suggestion a few years back to rebrand Austrian economics as “spontaneous order studies” or something like that. I disagree with what Boettke et al. have decided, but it is a strategic disagreement and not one of “purity.”

* It is undeniably true that Arnold Kling has gotten way more mileage among professional economists with his “Recalculation Argument” concerning the recession, than Mario Rizzo or I have gotten with our explicit debt to Mises and Hayek. Note that I am not saying Kling has done anything underhanded, and I’m not saying Kling’s ideas are totally unoriginal. All I’m saying is that the progressive economists who bother to criticize Kling’s views would have the exact same response to Rizzo or me, and yet they never bothered to point out why, “Those espousing the ‘Austrian’ explanation of depressions are wrong because…” It’s true that Paul Krugman has explicitly attacked the Austrian theory of the business cycle and the “hangover” theory, but that was like a biologist at Harvard discussing creationism. The explicitly named ABCT has never gotten the courtesy from other econo-bloggers that Kling’s “Recalculation Argument” has gotten, and I suspect much of the difference is simply due to the label.

* Having said that, I think Boettke et al. are wrong. For one thing, everyone is going to still refer to it as “Austrian economics.” Yes, it’s awkward when some people think you are talking about unemployment in Vienna, but in the last two years there has been major progress on that front. When Carlos Lara and I discuss our forthcoming book with insurance industry people, he has no qualms launching into a discussion of “Austrian economics,” and half the time the people know what he is talking about already. One guy floored me by saying something like, “Look I like Schumpeter as much as the next guy, but let’s think about the regulations our industry faces…”

* And this leads into my most serious objection/observation: For a long long time, there has been a big disagreement in Austrian (coordination problem?) circles over the strategy to get the word out. For lack of better terms, some people took the Rothbardian approach of trying to stay afloat in academia, but concentrating on educating the intelligent layperson. Other people took the Hayekian approach of trying to convert the intellectual elites, especially other professional economists.

Now look closely again at Boettke’s explanation. I realize this may strike some as gloating, but that can’t be helped: What Boettke is saying is that the people who decided to “take it to the common man” have been so overwhelmingly successful that the particular spin they put on “Austrian economics” has drowned out what the other camp wants people to think the term signifies. After all, I’m guessing it’s not as if citations to Hayek or Kirzner have dropped in 2008 and 2009, relative to five years earlier. Rather, it’s that people like Peter Schiff, Ron Paul, and–dare I say it?–Lew Rockwell have gotten the term “Austrian economics” into the public discussion in a previously inconceivably short time frame. Ron Paul used the term on Jay Leno, for crying out loud!

So it is a bit exasperating when Boettke et al. decide to split off precisely when the strategy that others have been pushing has paid off so incredibly. Just to make sure my point is clear, let me say this: Five years ago, presumably Boettke et al. did not endorse the things being said in the name of “Austrian economics” referring to the evils of central bankers, the wickedness of George Bush, the dastardliness of Abraham Lincoln, etc. But they didn’t bother to change the label back then. It is only now, when the “take it to the public” strategy has been so much more successful than the “let’s take over the econ journals” strategy, that they have to disassociate themselves from the self-styled Austrians who are ostensibly pushing a narrow meaning of the term.

* Last point: When I become a rock star economist and can start charging for access to this blog, do I have to wait until January 1, 2020 before changing its name?!

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