What Should We Call “Austrian Economics?”

In their 2008 essay “Economic Singularism,” William Barnett, II and Walter Block wondered if there wasn’t a better label we could have for “Austrian Economics.” As evangelists of the Austrian School know all too well, when we mention Austrian economics to non-economists, they typically crinkle their face and ask if we are talking about economists who happen to live in Austria. The confusion is understandable; it could probably use a different name.

Here are some potential names Block and Barnett came up with (from my favorite to least favorite):

  • Property Rights School of Thought
  • The Praxeological School of Thought
  • The Methodological School of Thought
  • The Spontaneous Order School of Thought
  • The Information School of Thought
  • The Either Success or Error School of Thought
  • The Subjectivist School of Thought

I really like the Property Rights School of Thought because property rights are the basis for any other kind of rights for a libertarian. If you don’t own your property, including your person, what benefit is any other so-called right?

Praxeology is Mises’ term for the study of human action. I do prefer it when people ask me, “What the HELL is praxeology,” to when they ask, “Are Austrian economists all from Austria?” So calling it the Praxeological School would lead more people to understand the theoretical framework of praxeology and more people to ask about it.

Block and Barnett came up with their own top choice for a new name: The Singularism School of Thought.

The Singularism School of Thought

Austrian economics is all about deducing from the idea that people act purposefully. Each choice is some action A over alternative actions B,C and D to achieve goal X,Y or Z. Different people prefer using different means to achieve the same goals, and, quite often, prefer different goals.

Singularism is the idea that a person has only a “single” choice at any given time – he can either do A, or not A (B,C,D or F). His choice, A, was not necessarily the best choice by everybody’s standards, but it was his best choice in the moment, given what he knew and what he valued.

In Human Action, Ludwig von Mises talked about a principle called Methodological Singularism:

Praxeology asks: What happens in acting? What does it mean to say that an individual then and there, today and here, at any time and at any place, acts? What results if he chooses one thing and rejects another?

A man never chooses between “gold” and “iron” in general, but always only between a definite quantity of gold and a definite quantity of iron. Every single action is strictly limited in its immediate consequences. If we want to reach correct conclusions, we must first of all look at these limitations.

Block and Barnett define Singularism as the idea that “all of human action consists of choosing one option and setting aside all others” (22).

The Escalator Dilemma

To show how the singularity principle plays out, Block and Barnett applied it the example of walking on an escalator. They mocked their colleagues at the University of Rochester who couldn’t figure out the answer to this question: “If people stand still on escalators, then why don’t they stand still on stairs?”

The Singularism Analysis:

Let’s assume that the goal, X, is to get to the top of the stairs. The binary either/or choice is clear: either do X (get to the top) or do non-X (don’t get to the top). These are different situations with distinctive opportunity costs. Only in the stair situation does he really have this binary decision to make. If he doesn’t walk on the stairs, his opportunity cost is that he won’t get to the top. If he doesn’t walk on the escalator, he will still get to the top, just not as quickly.

Thus there are two separate choices: first, he must decide whether he will use the stairs, escalator or even the elevator, and then he must decide to walk or not to walk.

Conclusion

Block and Barnett might not actually want to rename the Austrian School of Thought with the Singularity School of Thought. Their purpose, rather, was to highlight this important aspect of choice so we don’t make bizarre errors that lead to unnecessary interventions into the economy.

 

 

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