Vienna and Chicago: Friends or Foes? A Tale of Two Schools of Free-Market Economics

By Ebeling, Richard M. | Freeman, November 2005 | Go to article overview

Vienna and Chicago: Friends or Foes? A Tale of Two Schools of Free-Market Economics


Ebeling, Richard M., Freeman


Vienna and Chicago: Friends or Foes? A Tale of Two Schools of Free-Market Economics by Mark Skousen Capital Press * 2005 * 304 pages * $24.95 paperback

In the post-World War II era, two of the leading voices for a return to a competitive free-market economy have been the Austrian and Chicago schools of economics. Both schools have influenced many people about how markets work and how government affects economic affairs.

To many, the Austrian and Chicago economists seem to be saying the same thing: markets are an efficient way of using scarce resources to best serve consumers; individuals know their own interests and circumstances better than government regulators and planners; political controls tend to distort supply and demand and the price system through which markets are kept in balance. In addition, members of both schools of thought have long warned that inflation and its negative consequences stem from government monetary mismanagement.

As a result, on the surface there seems not to be much difference between the two schools. Yet anyone fairly familiar with the Austrian and Chicago approaches knows that in fact they not only look at the world through significantly different conceptual lenses, they often are extremely critical of each other.

In his recent book, Vienna and Chicago: Friends or Foes?, Mark Skousen tries to explain the history of the Austrian and Chicago approaches, and critically evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. Skousen explains the beginnings of the Austrian school in the last decades of the nineteenth century, during which Carl Menger, Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk, and Friedrich von Wieser developed the theory of marginal utility and opportunity cost; formulated a theory of capital, investment, and interest; and undermined the foundations of Marxian economics. He then traces the contributions of such leading twentieth-century Austrians as Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek in the areas of monetary and business-cycle theory, their insightful criticisms on socialist central planning, and their conception of the market as a dynamic competitive process.

The Chicago school developed later, in the 1920s and 1930s, out of the writings of Frank Knight, Jacob Viner, and Henry Simons, who were early critics of some aspects of Keynesian economics and of government planning. But the Chicago school only really flowered in the postwar era out of the contributions of Milton Friedman and George Stigler, who challenged, respectively, some of the rationales for macroeconomic and regulatory management of market activities.

For the remainder of the book, Skousen contrasts the two schools on a variety of topics, including methodology; inflation, business cycles and the monetary system; and government regulation and intervention. Somewhat irritatingly, Skousen concludes each section by declaring which school "wins the debate," using the language of tennis: "advantage" Vienna or Chicago. While seeming to be a cute way to evaluate the two schools, it comes across as rather sophomoric. Also, it often seems that Skousen's decision reflects his judgment about which school has been more influential among economists or in the policy arena. But the correctness of an idea is not measured, per se, by the number of its adherents. Alchemy and astrology have had wide followings, after all.

The core of the differences between the Austrian and Chicago schools is the question of how one tries to understand the world, including the market. Imagine that two objects are observed moving toward each other at a certain velocity. What can we predict about what will happen? Well, we can attempt to estimate their respective speeds and calculate when they are likely to collide, given the measured space between them. …

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