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Understanding “Austrian” Economics

September 11, 2010

By Henry Hazlitt

[This article was published at on July 20, 2009. It originally appeared in The Freeman, February 1981.]

“Austrian” economics owes its name to the historic fact that it was founded and first elaborated by three Austrians-Carl Menger (1840–1921), Friedrich von Wieser (1851–1926), and Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk (1851-1914). The latter two built upon Menger, though Böhm-Bawerk, in particular, made important additional contributions.

Menger’s great work, translated into English (but not until seventy-nine years later!) under the title of Principles of Economics, was published in 1871. In the same year, by coincidence, W. Stanley Jevons in England published his Theory of Political Economy. Both authors independently developed the concept now known as “marginal utility.” (Menger never used the term. Jevons called it “final degree of utility.” It was Wieser who first employed the German term Grenznutzen, which translates as “marginal utility.”)

But as few American or British economists read German in the original, it was years before the real extent of the revolution begun by Menger was realized outside of German-speaking countries. For it was Menger, by recognizing most fully the implications of the marginal-utility concept, who opened up new paths and, so to speak, turned the old classical economics upside-down.

Menger insists throughout his work that value is essentially subjective, and that therefore economics must be in the main a subjective science. Goods have no inherent value in themselves. They are valued because they help to satisfy some human want or need. A given quantity or unit of a certain good will satisfy a man’s most intense desire or need. He may also want a second, third, or fourth increment. But after each unit consumed or employed, his desire or heed for a further unit of that good may be less intense, and may finally become completely satisfied.

It follows that each increment of that good at his disposal will have a reduced value to him. But as no unit of the total available quantity of that good can have a greater value in exchange than any other (of the same quality), it follows further that no other unit will be worth more in the market than the “final” unit of the supply. Thus in a given community the exchange value of a given increment of each good will be determined by the relation between its total available quantity and the intensity of the human need or want that it fills.

So far this may seem like little more than a refinement on the old classical doctrine that value and price are determined by supply and demand. It seems merely to state that doctrine in subjective rather than objective terms. But then Menger comes to point out some of its implications. The values of goods are mutually interdependent. Bread is valued because it meets a direct consumption need. Flour is valued because it is needed to bake bread. Wheat is valued because it is needed to produce flour. Plows, seed, land and labor are valued because they are necessary to produce wheat, and soon.

Values are also interdependent because, for example, if one raw material necessary in combination for the production of a final product is missing, that lack reduces the usefulness and value of the other raw materials needed.

Goods wanted and ready for direct use or consumption are called by Menger “goods of the first order.” Raw materials and other factors necessary to produce these are called “goods of the second order.” Materials, machinery, labor and other factors needed in turn to produce these goods of the second order are called goods of the third order, and so on. These goods of the second, third, and other “higher” orders are valued because of the consumption goods that they produce.

Thus while the classical Ricardian doctrine held that the “normal” value of consumption goods was determined by their “cost of production,” the Austrian doctrine holds that the “cost of production” itself is ultimately determined by the value of consumption goods.

These two doctrines can be partly reconciled in the statement that though what a good has cost to produce cannot directly determine its value, what it will cost to produce determines how much of it will continue to be made. It is the limit that cost of production puts upon the total quantity of a good produced that determines its marginal value and therefore its market price. Thus there is a constant tendency for marginal cost of production and market price to equal each other, though not because the first directly determines the second.

Something should be said also about the sharp distinction between the Ricardian and the Austrian concept of “cost.” The Ricardian (and the modern businessman) thinks of cost as a money outlay. But the Austrian economist has a much wider concept, what economists now call “opportunity” costs, or “foregone opportunity” costs. Such costs exist, of course, not only in business but in all our decisions and actions in life. The cost of learning French in any given period is to forego learning German, or to learn less mathematics, or to give up some tennis or bridge, and so on.

Menger emphasizes the importance of time and the role of uncertainty in the whole productive process. He also points out that no single good, no matter how abundant, can maintain life and welfare, but that these depend upon the production of combinations of goods of different kinds in the proper proportions. And he points out, finally, that the process of production cannot be expected to go on at an adequate rate unless there is adequate protection of property.

The economic value of goods, to repeat, depends upon their respective quantities in relation to the human needs they meet. It does not necessarily depend upon the amount of labor expended in their production. To quote from Menger’s Principles of Economics,

“If there were a society where all goods were available in amounts exceeding the requirements for them, there would be no economic goods nor any ‘wealth’…. Hence we have the queer contradiction that a continuous increase of the objects of wealth would have, as a necessary final consequence, a diminution of wealth.” (p. 109–10)

(In other words, Menger pointed out more than a century ago a basic fallacy in the now-fashionable national income statistics.)

“The value of goods arises from their relationship to our needs, and is not inherent in the goods themselves.” (p. 120)

“Objectification of the value of goods, which is entirely subjective in nature, has nevertheless contributed very greatly to confusion about the basic principles of our science.” (p. 121)

The importance that goods have for us and which we call value is merely imputed.” (p. 139)

“There is no necessary and direct connection between the value of a good and whether, or in what quantities, labor and other goods of higher order were applied to its production…. Whether a diamond was found accidentally or was obtained from a diamond pit with the employment of a thousand days of labor is completely irrelevant for its value.” (p. 146)

Menger goes on to discuss further how higher goods, including capital goods, get their value:

“It is evident that the value of goods of higher order is always and without exception determined by the prospective value of the goods of lower order in whose production they serve.” (p. 150)

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