Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Hayek, Statistics, and Trade-Cycle Theory

Austrian economics is often caricatured and criticized because of its approach, or deliberate lack of an approach, to mathematical models, multivariable calculus, and econometrics. Attacks are leveled against Austrians such as Mises, Rothbard, and Kirzner for their failure or refusal to avail themselves of applied empirical research in their scholarship. The Austrian methodology most frequently targeted is praxeology.

It is not the purpose of this short article to refute these attacks or to explore their errors and merits. That has been done ably by others (see, for example, the series of debate-essays available here, here, here, and here). Nor does this article attempt to stand up for the deductive reasoning of praxeology or to defend its claims about a priori truths, a task better suited for a lengthy work of scholarship, not a short article. This piece instead asks one simple question: does Hayek’s early work on trade-cycle theory complicate stereotypes about the methods of Austrian economics or clarify the manner in which Austrians can and do approach economic theory? The answer, of course, is yes.

Hayek proposed that the purpose and function of trade cycle theory was strictly limited: it was “to explain how certain prices are determined” and “to state their influence on production and consumption.” Expanding trade cycle theory beyond that purpose and function was, he believed, fallacious. “Any attempt to forecast the trend of economic development,” he claimed, “or to influence it by measures based on an examination of existing conditions, must presuppose certain quite definite conceptions as to the necessary course of economic phenomena.” But economic development — and the trade cycle in particular — is too important and complex to be guided by mere suppositions regarding matters about which there is much disagreement.