Reply on Austrians and Math

(I apologize to any commentators for the slow response. I just got back from my honeymoon and as much as I love discussing economics with you, it wasn't my first priority.)

We should not write so that we can, but that we must, be understood. - Marcus Quintilian

One might think that after 4 years at a good liberal arts college I might be able to write. You'd think I'd be able to make a small point. A las, that is not so. I will keep working. Thank you to all who put up with my poor writing.

My goal in my last post was simple. I wanted to encourage people, like myself, who are interested in Austrian economics to do one thing:

Give math a shot.

That is all I wanted to do. It wasn't a bold claim and I don't think anyone disagreed with that point. Most people probably dismissed it as trivial.

Yet, I didn't believe there is a single post/article by someone friendly to Austrians urging people to study math. I still haven't heard of one. If you know of one, please let me know and I will post it.

I didn't want to get into discussions of the usefulness of continuity or the benefits of advanced mathematical economics. But people latched on to the continuity or mathematical economics. Those are interesting conversations, but they've been had other places.

I just wanted to say to someone like me during my undergrad, someone who had read more Mises.org than academic Austrian journals, "Hey, Austrian economics is really cool. Keep studying it. But also don't be turned off to math. It can be helpful to understand the world if used right."

Instead, people focused on other parts of the article. That's my fault as a writer.

First Criticism: I painted with too broad of a brush.

Of course this is a valid concern. I knew it would be. Both "Austrian" and "Math" are broad.

Anytime someone writes about a group of scholars that is as wide-ranging as the Austrian school, the writing won't apply to everyone. Once you throw in everyone who is not a strict academic, it becomes even messier. Not everyone could hate math. Obviously.

My already too long post convinced me to leave out the nuances about who my lede dealt with. A good editor would have maybe changed that, but I'm stuck with me. That's how I wrote the post. I will work to distinguish the different types of Austrian economists and people interested in Austrian economics.

Second Criticism: Good Austrians don't hate math.

Of course no one will come out and say that hate math in the abstract. To do so would be equal to throwing your hand up and saying "I'm an idiot." Just like no one hates music or books in the abstract.

But looking at revealed preferences, I'm less convinced. I had never seen anyone connected with the Austrian school promote math. My impression of the general trend has always been a negative feeling towards math. Maybe that is just my wrong impression. Who knows?

Was I completely talking about a straw-man? That wasn't my thinking and still is not. Let's go to Mises.org, which was my main inspiration when I discovered economics. I searched "mathematics." ("Math" turns up mostly things unrelated to my point.) I come across articles like "How Mathematics can make Smart People Dumb." Or, statements like this from Mises:

The truth is that these scholarly treatises [on mathematical economics] give the businessmen only one piece of advice: to buy when he expects prices to rise and sell when he expects them to drop. Everything else they offer is insignificant. It is a waste of time to publish voluminous books on the best size of an inventory. (emphasis added)

Insignificant, a marginal product of approximately zero? There is zero to learn from mathematical economics? That's bad economics. Diminishing marginal returns to math, for sure, but zero returns?

Or from Rothbard:

For mathematical logic must deal with meaningless symbols; hence its use would strip economics of all its meaning.

I likely improperly extrapolated these comments to think Austrians hate math. I understand the era and people who Mises and Rothbard were writing about. I would have probably shown as much hatred. You hopefully will forgive me for reading this as hated of all math. It's more nuanced likely.

Neither Mises nor Rothbard specifically talk about math in the way I was looking at it, so I don't know how the greats would react to my point. But these are the statements I have read for years and had been ingrained into me.

However from my personal conversations online and with my students, I'm not the only one left thinking Austrians hate math. I have received several emails, Facebook messages, and other contacts from the exact people I was trying to communicate with, those entering the field of economic science. They all enjoyed and supported my post.

They felt the same thing that I did; Austrians scare some students off from math.

That might be the wrong lesson to draw from Austrian economics, but I'm afraid that is the lesson some students draw.

But again, none of this was my intention or focus. To err on the side of clarity, I only wanted to encourage people interested in Austrian economics to study math. It's a fun subject and one you shouldn't disregard so easily.


A note to Bob Murphy-

I'm sorry if my post gave ammo to Noah Smith. Anyone who has seen my discuss with Noah would know that I would never want to give him ammo. Collateral damage, I guess. My apologies Murphy. 🙂

One thought on “Reply on Austrians and Math

  1. This is good.

    I just finished reading Vienna & Chicago by Mark Skousen (a self-proclaimed Austrian) and here's what he says on the first page of the chapter titled Should a Theory be Emperically Tested?: "Austrians reject mathematical formulas and econometric modeling, or any kind of empirical methods to "test" or "prove" an economic hypothesis...Misesians are highly critical of "scientism", attempts to imitate the physical sciences in economics." (p 105)

    Another fine quote: "Larry Wimmer...attended a week long seminar at the Foundation of Economic Education in the late 1960's. At the time, Mises was the resident scholar and dominated the group's thinking. During a discussion, Wimmer went to the blackboard and proceeded to draw a supply and demand curve. He was immediately reprimanded for using such a 'distorted' device." (p 107)

    This isn't exactly "Austrians hate math", but it doesn't make the austrian-oriented reader feel like math has much of a home within the school. It should. Not as a replacement of logic, but as a compliment to logic and a bridge to the neoclassical framework. Austrian economics would probably gain more momentum with this shift. That would be pretty cool.

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