Thursday, November 20, 2003

The furor over Nick Confessore's hitjob on Tech Central Station led me to read Arnold Kling's TCS article on the Austrian School of free-market economics. I'm passingly familiar with the Chicago School - I don't think you can get through a decent college education in the states without having encountered it at least once - but the Austrian School is confusing and more than a little gnomic. Descriptions of the Austrian School seem to revolve around the idea that central banks poison the knowledge-base of investors and businesspeople by creating false ideas of the available pool of capital - I get that much. It's when they start in on all of these labored analogies about time preferences and long-term projects versus short-term projects that I tend to lose the train of their argument in a crowded thicket of metaphor and simile.

I went looking for comparisons of the two schools, when I came across this article by an Austrian which makes a great, if somewhat tangential, argument about why high-level economics is such a doubtful science. He makes the point that the development of economic theories resembles the behavior of fads more than it does scientific paradigms or the free-market evolutionism preferred by mainstream triumphalists. A dominant theory tends to glide in stasis until catastrophic error causes a spasm of reconsideration, whereupon a replacement theory is adopted, until the next catastrophic error. I suspect the author is underplaying the degree of hypothesis-testing that goes on during periods of triumphal stasis - young economists do have a slight incentive to tear down the existing paradigm in order to get noticed. But it's this worry, the danger of fads, that makes me suspicious of the "soft" sciences, and their claims to rigour.

It is this fear that "there can ... be no presumption whatever in economics that later thought is better than earlier" that makes me leery of the more religiously progressive supply-siders. If economics, the hardest of "soft" sciences, is so unstable and fickle, how much more so can the political "science" be? Nothing alarms me more than this fear of quicksands beneath the feet of the evangelical philosophers of Democracy.

No comments: