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Advice to Young Austrians

by George Selgin September 13th, 2012 10:02 am

The advice is for self-styled Austrian economists, and younger ones especially, who want to do good economics, and not just to "belong" to a school of thought. It is simple, and it applies to any research that's not intended to be a contribution to the history of economic thought.

Here it is: search for the word "Austrian" in your research papers, delete it, and rewrite where necessary. Next ask yourself whether what's left can stand on its own merits. Would your fellow Austrians find it interesting and persuasive without the help of all the winking, nodding, and fraternal handshaking aimed at declaring yourself one of the team, and at thereby evading friendly fire? Would they find the conclusions firmly attached by a series of solid links to some indisputable premises, as they should if you are really a competent praxeologist? Are they likely to find the evidence you supply persuasive, should you be so bold as to offer such? Would they, in short, find merit in what you've written even if they had no reason to suspect that you are one of the gang, or even a fellow traveler? If not, then your paper is good for nothing but joining a club that is, face it, all too willing to have you as a member.

But being able to win over Austrians without declaring yourself one of them is the least of it. The more important question you need to ask is, "Can my stealth-Austrian paper not only sneak past mainstream radars, but do some persuading once across enemy lines?" It surely will not be less persuasive than it would be with all that Austrian flag-waving, since the flags might as well be bright red so far as the rest of the profession is concerned. But if it still can't persuade at least some persons who aren't pals of yours at the Mises Institute or at GMU or at some other Austrian hang-out, what good is it?

Persuading non-Austrian economists with what are, in substance, "Austrian"-style arguments is, admittedly, rough going: all too many so-called economists today are mere technicians who care only for the latest mathematical and statistical gimmicks, and give not a jot for genuine economics. But there are thank goodness also plenty of real economists who aren't Austrians and who don't want to hear about Austrian economics, but are willing to hear any good argument and to be persuaded by it and by evidence that seems to support it. Persuading them is hard too. It's also every economist's job.

17 Responses to “Advice to Young Austrians”

  1. avatar Roger Koppl says:

    George,

    I certainly approve of trying to persuade "them" rather than "us," at least, you know, a lot of the time. I've made that pitch any number of times, I guess, including in my SDAE presidential address. Right on. But the way you put it . . . Are you suggesting the much-denigrated "stealth strategy"?

    • avatar George Selgin says:

      Hi Roger. I hadn't been aware of prior discussions among Austrians of a "stealth strategy." By "stealth" Austrian I myself only mean Austrian economics without the identifying label, where "Austrian economics" is presumed to be the sort of economics that the researcher sincerely believes in. I didn't mean to recommend being sneaky or insincere--just doing without labels, focusing on the substance, and making the latter do all the persuading. If a reader can't tell what school the writer is coming from, that is not itself, I hope to have implied, a bad thing.

      • avatar Roger Koppl says:

        All sounds reasonable to me, George. I think there can be a role for labels such as "Austrian" and I put no taboo on using such labels outside of methodology and history of thought. But your argument should be good and solid with or without labels. And you should try to be respectful of your target audience, which often implies that you don't bore or mislead them by brandishing a label they may not understand. I guess that adds up to some disagreement with you on the utility of labels, but we seem to be fully agreed on that you don't *burden* your reader by brandishing about some self-identifying label.

        Pete has a post on labels at CoordinationProblem. Presumably, it is at least in part a reaction to your post here.

  2. avatar laurelcreek says:

    Mises called his own work just "economics," not "Austrian economics." But of course it's perfectly fine to talk about the Austrian school when doing economic history.

  3. avatar Mark Brady says:

    Laurel, do you mean economic history or the history of economics?

  4. avatar Mark Brady says:

    George and Roger, I'm sure you remember that Israel Kirzner was opposed to offering a course on Austrian economics. As he pointed out, there is good economics and bad economics.

  5. avatar Martin Brock says:

    Your advice seems sound, regardless of which "school of thought" one adopts.

    I'm not sure that praxeology requires indisputable premises or that it's as strictly "deductivist" as critics claim. Many of its proponents seem to think so, but other proponents disagree.

    Scientific assumptions are tentative, and logical consequences of scientific assumptions are empirically falsifiable. I might deduce conclusions from axiomatic assumptions for years before arriving at an empirically falsifiable conclusion, whereupon I must carefully examine all of my assumptions to determine the error in my thinking.

    Praxeology requires that economics begin with assumptions about human action, not that the assumptions be indisputable. Peter Surda and I are practicing praxeology now in Kurt's "Gold Debate" thread. No one suggests any indisputable assumptions, but the assumptions we're debating involve human action, specifically what sort of good people will use as a medium of exchange. Peter objects that I don't cite empirical studies supporting particular assumptions, and I take these objections seriously, but if we refrain from theoretical speculation until assumptions are irrefutable, we stop thinking altogether.

    I love mathematical and statistical gimmicks myself, and I'd toss around more mathematical jargon here if I thought anyone cared. I tried it once with Michael Sproul, but I didn't get far.

  6. avatar engelhardtlm1 says:

    George,

    I'm curious, what do you think of doing whatever winking and nodding is needed to get the audience that needs to hear your message?

    For example, throw in some statistical/mathematical gimmicks to tell an "Austrian" story to a mainstream audience filled with technicians.

    Then, when talking to LvMI people about things where Austrians have ignored "mainstream" insights, throw in the Austrian winks and nods.

    Personally, I'm a bit torn on this strategy, so I'm curious what you think of it.

    • avatar George Selgin says:

      That's a good question. The answer is that this must be a personal choice. I myself firmly believe that one should not include anything in one's work that one doesn't consider to be truly relevant as well as persuasive; to add equations and regressions and such, for example, merely for the sake of pandering to prospective readers who may expect to see such things, without actually believing that they serve as anything but window dressing, seems to me a form of intellectual dishonesty. On the other hand, there's no denying that it can get stuff into print that would not otherwise make it, thanks to idiot bells-and-whistles obsessed editors and referees. For me its easy to say, "stuff them." For an un-tenured assistant, not.

    • avatar Martin Brock says:

      If you go out of your way to avoid mathematics, you're also making a mistake. Mathematics ideally requires you to pose very precise questions and to explore the logical consequences of your assumptions systematically.

      • avatar George Selgin says:

        I quite agree, Martin: when math clarifies, there's no good reason for not using it.

        • avatar Martin Brock says:

          I also spent lots of time and money on graduate school and must rationalize the cost somehow.

          • avatar Eitan says:

            Me too! Time anyway. They paid me. But I agree with you and think that sometimes a distaste for the ways statistics and calculus have been misapplied in economics has led some people to scorn any use of mathematics. That seems to me to be a tragedy since math provides an extremely precise vocabulary with which to describe natural (including social) phenomena.

          • avatar Martin Brock says:

            "Lies, damned lies and statistics" should be "lies, damned lies and inept statistics". That people apply the central limit theorem without understanding its assumptions is not a fault of statistics, but people will go on misapplying it this way for quite a while. This understanding is not remotely common. Information asymmetries are huge, and the problem is not unique to economics.

            For example, the V/Vmax test of spatial homogeneity in astrophysics assumes a thin-tailed distribution of luminosity, and astrophysicists with phds routinely apply the test without understanding this assumption, including the astrophysicist that developed the test. I saw this fact demonstrated at a conference personally.

            Practitioners of finance misapplying the Black-Scholes model for similar reasons need more mathematics rather than less.

  7. avatar ndcdavis says:

    Interesting article.

    Has anyone a recommendation of a suitable introductory text for a 14 year old who has just started a GCSE course in economics? Human Action?

  8. avatar Karmaisking says:

    Advice to young Austrians: get out of America. It's going to blow up now that QE to infinity has been declared. If you know anything about Austrian monetary theory you wouldn't care what Selgin says. You'd be packing your bags for Argentina, where there's less chance of a currency devaluation.

  9. avatar gregransom says:

    Here's better advice.

    Search through your papers for the word "subjective" and every time you find it, delete it, and explain precisely what it is you are talking about, with examples and contrasts.

    You'll find that you have a half dozen different things your are talking about -- the deleted word was covering up matters with a different significance and a different set of exemplars and contrasts. I.e. you will find you were using one word to,do a variety of different jobs, jobs with a different significance in the providing of economic explanations.

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