Steve, George and Bryan debate Austrian economics and empirics

I am a huge fan of Here you find good insightful and intellectual debates amount classical liberal, libertarian and conservative scholars on a number of topics. The quality of the pieces on Cato Unbound is always very high. That is also the case for the latest “debate”. As always there is a “Lead Essay” and a number of “Response Essays”. This time the topic is “Theory and Practice in the Austrian School”.

The lead essay is written by Steve Hortwiz and the response essays are by George Selgin and Bryan Caplan.

Fundamentally Steve’s claim is that Austrian method – praxeology – is not as strict anti-empirical as it is often said to be. In his essay “The Empirics of Austrian Economics” Steve makes an heroic attempt to argue that there is no real conflict between praxeology and empirical studies. Everybody who know me would know that I have greatest respect for Steve and I think he is a very open-minded Austrian. However, sometimes Steve’s attempt to defend Austrian economics goes too far. Fundamentally Steve is making up a version of Austrian economics, which never really existed – or rather the Austrian economics that Steve describes is not really Austrian economics, but rather it is how Steve would like to think Austrian economics should be. And I certainly admit I that I prefer Hortwizian economics to Misesian-Rothbardian economics and Steve certainly knows (much!) better than me what “Austrian economics” really is. However, his essay did not convince me that Austrians are as methodologically open-minded as he claims. Neither has he convinced Bryan Caplan and George Selgin.

Both Bryan and George are well-known friendly critics of Austrian Economics. My own feelings about Austrian economics are similar to those of Bryan and George. To me the world of economics would be very empty without Austrian economics. The contributions to economics by Mises, Hayek and Kirzner etc. can certainly not be overestimated. But I also share the view of particular Bryan who rightly notes that it is too bad that Austrians tend to marginalize themselves and the contributions of Austrian economics by their eagerness to not speak in language of mainstream economics. It is hard not from time to time to feel that Austrian economics is a cult. That is sad because it means that far to many economics students around the world are never introduced to Austrian economics (if you are one of them get a copy of Human Action and start reading NOW!).

Furthermore, I share George’s view that empirical research can be useful in understanding what is important and what is not important. Empirical research is also useful in figuring out the magnitude of a certain economic problem. We can deduct from praxeology that an increase in minimum wages will increase unemployment, but praxeology is not telling us anything about how large that the increase in unemployment will be if minimum wages are increased by X dollars. Both Mises and Rothbard were negative about this kind of empirical analysis – Steve tries to argue that that is not the case, but George shows that his arguments for this is rather weak.

Anyway, the three gentlemen have much better arguments than I have on these issues so read their pieces yourself:

Steve Horwitz: “The Empirics of Austrian Economics”

Bryan Caplan: “Horwitz, Economy and Empirics”

George Selgin: “How Austrian Is It?”

Update – follow-ups:


“Conditionality” is ECB’s term for the Sumner Critique

Some time ago Scott Sumner did a number of blog posts on fiscal policy and why he believes that the budget multiplier is zero. At the time I was somewhat frustrated that the amount of time Scott was using to focus on an issue that I found quite obvious. However, I now found myself doing exactly the same thing – I can’t let go of the game played by central banks against governments and impact this has on the economic policy mix. This is maybe because I find empirical evidence for the so-called Sumner Critique popping up everywhere.

The Sumner Critique basically says that the central bank can always overrule any impact of expansionary fiscal policy on aggregate demand by tightening monetary policy and if the central bank is targeting for example inflation or nominal GDP then it will do so. Therefore, under inflation targeting or NGDP targeting the budget multiplier will always be zero even if the world is Keynesian.

Last week’s policy announcement from the ECB gives further (quasi) empirical support for the Sumner Critique. Hence, the ECB announced that it would conduct what it calls “Outright Monetary Transactions” (OMT) – that is it would (or rather could) buy euro government bonds.

But see here what the ECB said about the conditions for OMT:

“A necessary condition for Outright Monetary Transactions is strict and effective conditionality attached to an appropriate European Financial Stability Facility/European Stability Mechanism (EFSF/ESM) programme. Such programmes can take the form of a full EFSF/ESM macroeconomic adjustment programme or a precautionary programme (Enhanced Conditions Credit Line), provided that they include the possibility of EFSF/ESM primary market purchases. The involvement of the IMF shall also be sought for the design of the country-specific conditionality and the monitoring of such a programme.

The Governing Council will consider Outright Monetary Transactions to the extent that they are warranted from a monetary policy perspective as long as programme conditionality is fully respected, and terminate them once their objectives are achieved or when there is non-compliance with the macroeconomic adjustment or precautionary programme.

Following a thorough assessment, the Governing Council will decide on the start, continuation and suspension of Outright Monetary Transactions in full discretion and acting in accordance with its monetary policy mandate.”

The important term here is “conditionality”. The ECB’s condition for buying government bonds is that the individual euro zone country has a EFSF/ESM macroeconomic adjustment programme. Such a programme is basically a pledge of a given government to tighten fiscal policy. In other words – the ECB could buy for example Spanish government bonds, but the condition would be that the Spanish government should tighten fiscal policy.

Therefore, what the ECB is doing is basically asking the Spanish government and other euro zone governments to be the “Stackelberg leader”: First you tighten fiscal policy and then we will ease monetary policy.

As a consequence the ECB has basically said that the fiscal multiplier should be zero – the ECB will “neutralize” any impact on aggregate demand of changes in fiscal policy. This is better news than it might sound. Obviously European monetary policy is much too tight in the euro zone and I would have liked to see a lot more action from the ECB. However, one could understand “conditionality” to mean that the ECB will fill the possible hole in aggregate demand from fiscal consolidation in euro zone – monetary policy will be eased in response to fiscal tightening. That is good news.

However, the crucial problem of course is that the euro zone needs higher aggregate demand and therefore I would have been much happier if the ECB had announced a clear plan to increase aggregate demand (or rather nominal GDP) – it did not do that. However, if the ECB at least will try to counteract the possible negative impact on aggregate demand from fiscal consolidation then that is good news. One could of course say that this is a completely natural consequence of the ECB’s inflation targeting regime – if fiscal tightening reduces aggregate demand then the ECB should ease monetary policy to avoid inflation undershooting the inflation targeting.

Concluding, “conditionality” is another term for the Sumner Critique and it is in my view yet another illustration that expansionary fiscal policy is unlikely to bring us out of this crisis if central banks is not playing along.

Related posts:

In New Zealand the Sumner Critique is official policy
Policy coordination, game theory and the Sumner Critique
The fiscal cliff and why fiscal conservatives should endorse NGDP targeting
The Bundesbank demonstrated the Sumner critique in 1991-92
“Meantime people wrangle about fiscal remedies”
Please keep “politics” out of the monetary reaction function
Is Matthew Yglesias now fully converted to Market Monetarism?
Mr. Hollande the fiscal multiplier is zero if Mario says so
Maybe Jens Weidmann and Francios Hollande should switch jobs
There is no such thing as fiscal policy

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