Austrian Economics. Some More Further Ruminations. Part 3.

The dominant British tradition received its first serious challenge in many years when Carl Menger’s Principles of Economics was published in 1871. Menger, the founder of the Austrian School proper, resurrected the Scholastic-French approach to economics, and put it on firmer ground.

Menger spelled out the subjective basis of economic value, and fully explained, for the first time, the theory of marginal utility (the greater the number of units of a good that an individual possesses, the less he will value any given unit). In addition, Menger showed how money originates in a free market when the most marketable commodity is desired, not for consumption, but for use in trading for other goods. Menger restored economics as the science of human action based on deductive logic, and prepared the way for later theorists to counter the influence of socialist thought. Indeed, his student Friederich von Wieser strongly influenced Friedrich von Hayek’s later writings.

Menger’s admirer and follower at the University of Innsbruck, Eugen Böhm-Bawerk, took Menger’s exposition, reformulated it, and applied it to a host of new problems involving value, price, capital, and interest. His History and Critique of Interest Theories, appearing in 1884, is a sweeping account of fallacies in the history of thought and a firm defense of the idea that the interest rate is not an artificial construct but an inherent part of the market. It reflects the universal fact of “time preference,” the tendency of people to prefer satisfaction of wants sooner rather than later.

Böhm-Bawerk’s Positive Theory of Capital demonstrated that the normal rate of business profit is the interest rate. Capitalists save money, pay laborers, and wait until the final product is sold to receive profit. In addition, he demonstrated that capital is not homogeneous but an intricate and diverse structure that has a time dimension. A growing economy is not just a consequence of increased capital investment, but also of longer and longer processes of production.

Böhm-Bawerk favored policies that deferred to the ever-present reality of economic law. He regarded interventionism as an attack on market economic forces that cannot succeed in the long run. But one area where Böhm-Bawerk had not elaborated on the analysis of Menger was money, the institutional intersection of the “micro” and “macro” approach. A young Ludwig von Mises, economic advisor to the Austrian Chamber of Commerce, took on the challenge.

The result of Mises’s research was The Theory of Money and Credit, published in 1912. He spelled out how the theory of marginal utility applies to money, and laid out his “regression theorem,” showing that money not only originates in the market, but must always do so. Drawing on the British Currency School, Knut Wicksell’s theory of interest rates, and Böhm-Bawerk’s theory of the structure of production, Mises presented the broad outline of the Austrian theory of the business cycle. To note once again, his was not a theory of the physical capital, but a theory of interest. So, even if some of the economists of the school had covered through their writings the complexities of the structure of production, that wasn’t really their research object, but rather what their concentration really opted for was interest phenomenon, trade cycle or entrepreneurship.

Ludwig Lachmann in his Capital and its Structure is most serious about the complexities of the structure of production, especially on the heterogeneity of physical capital not only in relation to successive stages of production, but denying any possibility of systematically categorizing, measuring or aggregating capital goods. But, does that mean he is from a different camp? Evidently not, since much of his discussion contains an important contribution to the historically specificity of capital, in that the heterogenous is not itself the research object, but only a problem statement for the theory of the entrepreneur. Says he,

For most purposes capital goods have to be used jointly. complementarity is of the essence of capital use. but the heterogenous capital resources do not lend themselves to combination in any arbitrary fashion. For any given number of them only certain modes of complementarity are technically possible, and only a few of these are economically significant. It is among the latter that the entrepreneur has to find the ‘optimum combination’.

for him, the true function of the entrepreneur must remain hidden as long as we disregard the heterogeneity of capital. But, Peter Lewin’s Capital in Disequilibrium reads Lachmann revealingly. What makes it possible for entrepreneurs to make production plans comprising numerous heterogenous capital goods is a combination of the market process and the institution of money and financial accounting. There, you can see Lachmann slipping into the historical territory. Says Lewin,

Planning within firms proceeds against the necessary backdrop of the market. Planning within firms can occur precisely because “the market” furnishes it with the necessary prices for the factor inputs that would be absent in a fullblown state ownership situation.

Based on these prices, the institution of monetary calculation allows entrepreneurs to calculate retrospective and prospective profits. The calculation of profits, Lewin states, is “indispensable in that it provides the basis for discrimination between viable and non-viable production projects.” The approach is not concerned with the heterogeneity of capital goods as such but, to the contrary, with the way these goods are made homogeneous so that entrepreneurs can make the calculations their production plans are based on. Without this homogeneity of capital goods in relation to the goal of the entrepreneur – making monetary profit – it would be difficult, if not impossible, to combine them in a meaningful way.




Austrian Economics. Some Further Ruminations. Part 2.

There are two Austrian theories of capital, at least surfacially with two completely different objectives. The first one concentrates on the physical activities roundabout, time-consuming production processes which are common to all economic systems, and it defines capital as a parameter of production. This theory is considered to be universal and ahistorical, and the present connotation of Austrian Theory of Capital falls congruent with this view. This is often denoted by physical capital and consists of concrete and heterogenous capital goods, which is nothing but an alternative expression for production goods. The second and relatively lesser known theory is the beginning point for a historically specific theory, and shies away with the production process and falls in tune with the economic system called capitalism. Capital isn’t anymore dealing with the production processes, but exclusively with the amount of money invested in a business venture. It is regarded as the central tool of economic calculations by profit-oriented enterprises, and rests on the social role of financial accounting. This historically specific theory of capital is termed business capital and is in a sense simply money invested in business assets.

A deeper analysis, however, projects that these divisions are unnecessary, and that physical capital is not a theory of physical capital at all. Its tacit but implicit research object is always the specific framework of the market economy where production is exercised nearly exclusively by profit-oriented enterprises calculating in monetary terms. Austrian capital theory is used as an element of the Austrian theory of the business cycle. This business cycle theory, if expounded consistently, deals with the way the monetary calculations of enterprises are distorted by changes in the rate of interest, not with the production process as such. In a long and rather unnoticed essay on the theory of capital, Menger (German, 1888) recanted what he had said in his Principles about the role of capital theory in economics. He criticized his fellow economists for creating artificial definitions of capital only because it dovetailed into their personal vision of the task of economics. In respect of the Austrian theory of capital as expounded by himself in his Principles and elaborated on by Böhm-Bawerk, he declared that the division of goods into production goods and consumption goods, important as it may be, cannot serve as a basis for the definition of capital and therefore cannot be used as a foundation of a theory of capital. As for entrepreneurs and lawyers, according to Menger, only sums of money dedicated to the acquisition of income are denoted by this word. Of course, Menger’s real-life oriented notion of capital does not only comprise concrete pieces of money but

all assets of a business, of whichever technical nature they may be, in so far as their monetary value is the object of our economic calculations, i.e., when they calculatorily constitute sums of money for us that are dedicated to the acquisition of income.

An analysis of capital presupposes the historically specific framework of capitalism, characterized by profit-oriented enterprises.

Some economists concluded therefrom that “capital” is a category of all human production, that it is present in every thinkable system of the conduct of production processes—i.e., no less in Robinson Crusoe’s involuntary hermitage than in a socialist society—and that it does not depend upon the practice of monetary calculation. This is, however, a confusion (Mises).

Capital, for Mises, is a device that stems from and belongs to financial accounting of businesses under conditions of capitalism. For him, the term “capital” does not signify anything peculiar to the production process as such. It belongs to the sphere of acquisition, not to the sphere of production.  Accordingly, there is no theory of physical capital as an element or factor in the production process. There is rather a theory of capitalism. For him, the existence of financial accounting on the basis of (business) capital invested in an enterprise is the defining characteristic of this economic system. Capital is “the fundamental notion of economic calculation” which is the foremost mental tool used in the conduct of affairs in the market economy. A more elaborate historically specific theory of capital that expands upon Mises’s thoughts would analyze the function of economic calculation based on business capital in the coordination of plans and the allocation of resources in capitalism. It would not deal with the production process as such but, generally, would concern itself with the allocation and distribution of goods and resources by a system of profit-oriented enterprises.

Austrian Economics. Some Ruminations. Part 1.


Keynes argued that by stimulating spending on outputs, consumption, goods and services, one could increase productive investment to meet that spending, thus adding to the capital stock and increasing employment. Hayek, on the other hand furiously accused Keynes of insufficient attention to the nature of capital in production. For Hayek, capital investment does not simply add to production in a general way, but rather is embodied in concrete capital items. Rather than being an amorphous stock of generalized production power, it is an intricate structure of specific interrelated complementary components. Stimulating spending and investment, then, amounts to stimulating specific sections and components of this intricate structure. Before heading out to Austrian School of Economics, here is another important difference between the two that is cardinal, and had more do with monetary system. Keynes viewed the macro system as vulnerable to periodic declines in demand, and regarded micro adjustments such as wage and price declines as ineffective to restore growth and prosperity. Hayek viewed the market as capable of correcting itself by taking advantages of competitions, and regarded government and Central Banks’ policies to restore growth as sources of more instability.

The best known Austrian capital theorist was Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, though his teacher Carl Menger is the one who got the ball rolling, providing the central idea that Böhm-Bawerk elaborated. For the Austrians, the general belief lay in the fact that production takes time, and more roundabout the process, the more delay production needs to anticipate. Modern economies comprise complex, specialized processes in which the many steps necessary to produce any product are connected in a sequentially specific network – some things have to be done before others. There is a time structure to the capital structure. This intricate time structure is partially organized, partially spontaneous (organic). Every production process is the result of some multiperiod plan. Entrepreneurs envision the possibility of providing (new, improved, cheaper) products to consumers whose expenditure on them will be more than sufficient to cover the cost of producing them. In pursuit of this vision the entrepreneur plans to assemble the necessary capital items in a synergistic combination. These capital combinations are structurally composed modules that are the ingredients of the industry-wide or economy-wide capital structure. The latter is the result then of the dynamic interaction of multiple entrepreneurial plans in the marketplace; it is what constitutes the market process. Some plans will prove more successful than others, some will have to be modified to some degree, some will fail. What emerges is a structure that is not planned by anyone in its totality but is the result of many individual actions in the pursuit of profit. It is an unplanned structure that has a logic, a coherence, to it. It was not designed, and could not have been designed, by any human mind or committee of minds. Thinking that it is possible to design such a structure or even to micromanage it with macroeconomic policy is a fatal conceit. The division of labor reflected by the capital structure is based on a division of knowledge. Within and across firms specialized tasks are accomplished by those who know best how to accomplish them. Such localized, often unconscious, knowledge could not be communicated to or collected by centralized decision-makers. The market process is responsible not only for discovering who should do what and how, but also how to organize it so that those best able to make decisions are motivated to do so. In other words, incentives and knowledge considerations tend to get balanced spontaneously in a way that could not be planned on a grand scale. The boundaries of firms expand and contract, and new forms of organization evolve. This too is part of the capital structure broadly understood.

Hayek emphasizes that,

the static proposition that an increase in the quantity of capital will bring about a fall in its marginal productivity . . . when taken over into economic dynamics and applied to the quantity of capital goods, may become quite definitely erroneous.

Hayek stresses chains of investments and how earlier investments in the chains can increase the return to the later, complementary investments. However, Hayek is primarily concerned with applying those insights to business cycle phenomena. Also, Hayek never took the additional step that endogenous growth theory has in highlighting the effects of complementarities across intangible investments in the production of ideas and/or knowledge. Indeed, Hayek explicitly excludes their consideration:

It should be quite clear that the technical changes involved, when changes in the time structure of production are contemplated, are not changes due to changes in technical knowledge. . . . It excludes any changes in the technique of production which are made possible by new inventions.



Kōjin Karatani versus Moishe Postone. Architectonics of Capitalism.

Kōjin Karatani’s theory of different modes of intercourse criticizes architectonic metaphor thinking that the logic of mods of production in terms of base and superstructure without ceding grounds on the centrality of the critique of political economy. the obvious question is what remains of theory when there is a departure not from the objective towards the subjective, but rather the simultaneous constitution of the subjective and the objective dimensions of the social under capitalism. One way of addressing the dilemma is to take recourse to the lesson of commodity form, where capitalism begets a uniform mode of mediation rather than disparate. The language of modes of production according to Moishe Postone happens to be a transhistorical language allowing for a transhistorical epistemology to sneak in through the backdoor thus outlining the necessity of critical theory’s existence only in so far as the object of critique stays in existence. Karatani’s first critique concerns a crude base-superstructure concept, in which nation and nationalism are viewed merely as phenomena of the ideological superstructure, which could be overcome by reason (enlightenment) or would disappear together with the state. But the nation functions autonomously, independent of the state, and as the imaginative return of community or reciprocal mode of exchange A, it is egalitarian in nature. As is the case with universal religions, the nation thus holds a moment of protest, of opposition, of emancipatory imagination. The second critique concerns the conception of the proletariat, which Marxism reduced to the process of production, in which its labor force is turned into a commodity. Production (i.e., consumption of labor power) as a fundamental basis to gain and to increase surplus value remains unchanged. Nonetheless, according to Karatani surplus value is only achieved by selling commodities, in the process of circulation, which does not generate surplus value itself, but without which there cannot be any surplus value. Understanding the proletariat as producer-consumer opens up new possibilities for resistance against the system. In late capitalism, in which capital and company are often separated, workers (in the broadest sense of wage and salary earners) are usually not able to resist their dependency and inferiority in the production process. By contrast, however, in the site of consumption, capital is dependent on the worker as consumer. Whereas capital can thus control the proletariat in the production process and force them to work, it loses its power over them in the process of circulation. If, says Karatani, we would view consumers as workers in the site of circulation, consumer movements could be seen as proletariat movements. They can, for example, resort to the legal means of boycott, which capital is unable to resist directly. Karatani bases his critique of capitalism not on the perspectives of globalization, but rather on what he terms neo-imperialism meaning state-based attempt of capital to subject the entire world to its logic of exploitation, and thus any logic to overcoming the modern world system of capital-nation-state by means of a world revolution and its sublation in a system is to be possible by justice based on exchange. For Postone Capital generates a system characteristically by the opposition of abstract universality, the value form, and particularistic specificity, the use value dimension. It seems to me that rather than viewing a socialist or an emancipatory movement as the heirs to the Enlightenment, as the classic working class movement did, critical movements today should be striving for a new form of universalism that encompasses the particular, rather than existing in opposition to the particular. This will not be easy, because a good part of the Left today has swung to particularity rather than trying to and a new form of universalism. I think this is a fatal mistake.