Reflections on the Advanced Austrian Seminar at Mercatus

As I said in my review of Pete Leeson's Anarchy Unbound, I am in Washington, D.C. at the Mercatus Center. Actually, I'm now in a hotel lobby. That's not the point.

I came out here for the Advanced Austrian Economics Seminar, a 3 day conference/seminar for students interested in the ideas of Austrian economics, broadly defined. It was a gathering of around 20 students from around the world and faculty members from George Mason. Israel Kirzner, Pete Boettke, Pete Leeson, Larry White, and Chris Coyne gave lectures. Virgil Storr was also around and active in discussions. All of them know more economics in there pinky than I know in my body, to steal Pete Boettke's cheesy line.

Any students interested Austrian economics should apply for next year's program. The people are fun and Mercatus treats guests well. I'm talking putting us up in one of those places where the shower head is some weird set-up you've never seen before. Fancy stuff like that.

Plus, I got a lot of books as reading material, aka Christmas for me.

If I can go again, I definitely will.

The goal of the weekend was to show how modern research can use the ideas of Austrian economics. The presenters emphasized that Austrian economics is not a body of settled doctrine, but a framework for furthering economic science. Although we discussed the famous Austrian names (Mises and Hayek especially) quite often, the lens looked forward. We want to use these insights to move forward, not just look back.

The weekend started off with Israel Kirzner presenting on the market process.That talk sticks in my brain. First, for me Kirzner is a towering figure. The first few chapters of Competition and Entrepreneurship are a major reason I'm doing a PhD. I told Pete Boettke that I was like a teenage girl at a boy-band concert (with slightly less screaming). I was much more intimidated by him than even people like Robert Lucas, Ed Prescott, or Raj Chetty. Heck, I named my blog after Kirzner's dissertation. And this is a guy that 99% of economists have (wrongly) never read.

Second, Kirzner brought an energy to the podium that I was not expecting. He's no longer Mises's young student, but still has pure passion and excitement for the science. Plus, I learned a lot. While I have watched lectures of YouTube from him on similar topics, this had a new bend. To get a flavor of his ideas and the talk, check out the video below.

How do we understand an open-ended world that cannot be collapsed down into a probability distribution? If you understand, let me know how. It's tough. It's also right at the heart of the differences between Austrians' understanding of the market as a discovery process and non-Austrians' framework. That's what Kirzner has struggled with for 50+ years and still presenting on.

The rest of the weekend involved 5 more lectures and 2 breakout sessions. On top of that were meals and free time to talk about this subject that I love. I can't express how fun that was for me.

The passion differed from other seminars I've been to. Everyone there loves economics with a fervor. Mercatus, particularly the Hayek program there, is daring to be different, following the recommendation of James Buchanan.

This weekend was especially unique for me personally because it was the first time I had ever talked with an academic Austrian economist. Literally, I have never talked with people who want to do research in this field.

I didn't realize that until the first night. It hit me. I am around people who actually share my interests. Now, I was able to talk with other academics interested in the ideas. It overwhelmed me for a moment.

Beyond what I've mentioned, the highlights for me were:

  • connecting with a whole new set of economists. I know have a larger network of interesting young scholars.
  • the food (both for the seminar and outside of it). I had my first Pakistani meal and my first meal off a "hidden" second menu.
  • discussing Austrian economics and political economy over beers and whisky.

However the seminar wasn't without some disappointments. Mainly, it disappointed me to see the collective lack of understanding of non-Austrian models from us students. There were a few situations where I felt like we didn't arrive at a proper understanding of what non-Austrians are saying on an issue.

For example, Larry White asked a fairly simple question about Keynes's model. I forget the exact question. No one, myself included, knew the answer. Upon reflection, I remembered the point, but I had no internalized the model well enough to even answer a simple question quickly. That's disappointing to see. Most people were happy to sneer at Keynes, but didn't know the model.

In other discussions, less glaring examples came up. I don't think we had a correct understanding of how and why other economists use words like information or rationality. People were slaying strawmen. If Austrian economics is going to interact with the rest of the profession, the Austrian economists need to at least be able to understand others. That's a necessary condition for minimal conversations.

Maybe this is me looking for a negative thing to write so this post isn't just "GO AUSTRIANS." Maybe not. Who knows. Overall, the weekend has been what I hoped for and more. I can't praise the seminar enough. If anyone involved at Mercatus ever reads this, thanks for the weekend.

So if anyone is even remotely interested in the Austrian school of economics, apply to attend next summer here.

5 thoughts on “Reflections on the Advanced Austrian Seminar at Mercatus

  1. I agree with your sentiments here, though my perspective is somewhat different. I studied undergraduate economics at Grove City College, where Austrian economics is the norm. I've actually spent more time with Austrian economists than non-Austrian economists! But unfortunately, this has taken its toll on my understanding of mainstream models. We reviewed them in class, but I spent considerably more time studying how they fail from an Austrian perspective than trying to seriously see things from their point of view.

    But then again, this problem is certainly not confined to Austrians. I suspect many of this seminar's attendees were better-versed in non-Austrian models and methodologies than most non-Austrians are in things like Austrian Business Cycle Theory.

    • Nick-

      You are absolutely right that this is not a problem for only Austrians. Most economists, actually people in general, do not well understand other positions. On one level, it is reasonable. I really don't care to learn about certain ideas; time is scare.

      On another level, I think it is especially problematic for Austrian economists. First, from a purely professional point of view, Austrians cannot engaged the broader community if they don't know the models. If Austrians want to be heard, they have to understand where the disagreements are. That involves a solid understanding of different models.

      Now, the group at the conference was almost all first-years or undergrads. One of the goals of the first year or two of graduate school is to get all students talking the same language. I would be much more worried if Austrians don't know what non-Austrians are saying once they are writing a dissertation.

      However, there is a second problem that I think is more troublesome. Most non-Austrians in the profession don't make remarks about how dumb the Austrians are; they just ignore them.

      Austrians love to talk about how dumb Keynesians are. I think that makes the situation different for Austrians. If Austrians are going to say other models are wrong, they should know the model first. If Austrians are going to ignore some models, I don't think they need to understand it as well. Maybe there isn't a difference, but for me there is.

      But as I said, this is not a uniquely Austrian problem. To the extent other economists make fun of Austrians without understanding the Austrian framework, I would call them out for the same problem (and have).

    • For as much as I have read and listened to Boettke (which is a quite a bit), I have not run across that claim. Or at least, I don't remember his argument. Do you have a post or article that I could check out to see what he means by that?

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