Böhm-Bawerk Doesn't Werk


An interlude, consisting of a much expanded treatment of a short section from the material I contributed to the Austrian School essay in Phil's new book, which is now on sale along with his other books.


Amended 16/8/18 to remove a factual error.


The leading Austrian economist after Menger was Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk.  He was the developer of many key Austrian mainstay theories.  The interesting thing is that he spends a huge amount of his time attacking Marx.  Indeed, as noted, his attack on Marx is to a large extent the springboard which leads him to his own theories. 

His major criticism of Marx is connected to something called the ‘transformation problem’.  But it’s a bit of a twisty story.

In a polemic published not long after the posthumous publication of Capital vol.III (1894), Böhm-Bawerk claimed that volumes I and III of Capital contradict each other when it comes to the matter of how values are transformed into prices.  Marx, says Böhm-Bawerk, claims in vol.I that commodities tend to sell at their values and promises to explain later why it seems otherwise in real life.  However, says Böhm-Bawerk, when Marx comes back to this in vol.III, he fails to explain, leaving himself stuck in a contradiction.  Commodities supposedly sell at their values, yet Marx is unable to explain how values are transformed into prices.

This claim was very influential among mainstream economists for a long time because, as Andrew Kliman says in his seminal book Reclaiming Marx’s Capital, “it reflects their view that only price and profit, not value and surplus-value, matter in the real world”.  Kliman goes on to note, in his polite way, that “[i]t has also been very influential among non-economists, probably because it is simpler than the subsequent critiques”.  Böhm-Bawerk is often mentioned when people talk about long-running and serious objections to Marx’s theory of capitalism.  He often comes up when people begin talking about what is arguably the longest running – and most damaging – controversy in Marxist economics, the issue known as ‘the Transformation Problem’.  There is no doubt that, in the loose sense, he founded the controversy.

However, as Kliman points out, “the specialist literature has all but ignored Böhm-Bawerk’s critique” since the Keynesian economist Paul Samuelson dismissed him, in the midst of his own attack on Marx in 1971.  (Samuelson’s attack is another story.  It was extremely influential but also highly peculiar, and its timing was clearly politically motivated; it was an attempt to counter the increasing popularity of Marx at the time among radicalised students.)  Any idea that Böhm-Bawerk remains a powerful enemy of Marx must flounder on the fact that his ideas have had little direct influence on anyone in the major debate for more than forty years.  That does not, of course, make him wrong (Kliman admits that Böhm-Bawerk may have been abandoned partly for political reasons), but it does make him largely irrelevant.

You see, although Böhm-Bawerk began the critical focus on Marx’s account of value/price transformation, the contradiction he supposedly detects in Marx is actually not the one that formed the basis of the long-running transformation debate.  That debate is really based on a different objection, stemming from the work of a Russian economist called Ladislaus von Bortkiewicz.  Bortkiewicz, who was sympathetic to Walrasian marginalism, had some precursors in his argument, but it was he who supposedly ‘disproved’ Marx’s account of values and prices using mathematical ‘corrections’ - a line of attack that has bemused and convinced generations of economists away from Marx’s actual ideas.  

Without wishing to sound paranoid, it seems possible that, Böhm-Bawerk having identified Marx’s account of the transformation of values into prices as a supposed weak spot, bourgeois ideology was simply unwilling to abandon its attack on that supposed weak spot, and simply changed weapons without a beat.  

The sustained focus on this area of Marx’s account seems to have led to confusion about the difference between Böhm-Bawerk’s and Bortkiewicz’s attacks on it.  But the lines of attack are distinct.  Possibly, the confusion arose because Böhm-Bawerk’s and Bortkiewicz’s critiques appeared near contemporaneously.  Also, the Marxist economist Paul Sweezy republished both Bortkiewicz and Böhm-Bawerk in 1949.  Sweezy thus brought Bortkiewicz’s previously unknown ‘correction’ of Marx to the attention of economists.  Sweezy began a process of trying to revise Marx in light of Bortkiewicz, needlessly jettisoning some of Marx’s most central arguments.  Sweezy claimed to have arrived at a Marxist explanation of the exploitation of labour by capital via a different route from Marx, albeit one which he claimed to be equally grounded in Marx’s philosophy and method.  But his revision of Marx - which we won’t go into here - is both unconvincing and unnecessary.  Unintentionally, Sweezy did enormous damage to the reputation, clarity, and power of Marxist economics. 

It is suggestive, given the amount of criticism it has elicited, that Marx’s account of the relation between values and prices sits at the crux of his account of capitalism as exploitative and crisis-ridden.  Supposedly, if he can’t transform values into prices, he can’t show that profits come from surplus value, and thus ultimately from unpaid labour extorted from the worker.  Ditching this doesn’t just entail ditching the critique of exploitation, it also ruins Marx’s account of capitalist crisis being inevitably caused by the tendential fall in the rate of profit, which rests on Marx’s version of the labour theory of value.  According to Marx, the drive to compete compels capitalists to invest in more efficient production, and thus in technological innovation.  This raises the level of machinery involved in production, consequently lowering the amount of human labour involved.  Since it is abstract, homogenous human labour which is the objective source of value in exchange, the value of what is produced tends to fall.  This is why the prices of goods tends to fall as they become easier to produce.  Indeed, lowering the price is the whole point since it allows a capitalist to enjoy an advantage over competitors.  If he makes production more efficient he also lowers the cost of production, which means he can lower prices and corner the market.  For the first capitalists doing this, the advantage leads to higher profits.  Overall, however, as other capitalists invest in similar technological innovations to make their own production more efficient and hence cheaper, the price of the commodity will tend to fall overall - thus lowering the total amount of profit realised by the capitalist class as a whole.  This, for Marx, is the main cause of capitalism’s repeated vulnerability to crisis and slump.  If you ditch the relation between value and price, you have to ditch the rest of it, and hence Marx’s contention that capitalism is irreformably (because capitalists can’t not compete) driven to repeated crises, and perhaps to ultimate collapse.  

Böhm-Bawerk’s and Bortkiewicz’s lines of attack are, as I say, distinct.  Böhm-Bawerk’s being abandoned, Bortkiewicz’s was picked up.  Perhaps bourgeois ideology just couldn’t let go of the idea that someone had found a thread that, if pulled, would cause the revolutionary core of Marx’s entire critique to unravel.  Sadly, for them, Marx had actually used the thread to find his way through the labyrinth, and pulling on it only lets the monster follow it back out.

I’ll resist the temptation to dive into the rabbit hole of the transformation debate… because, as I hope to show, there’s no need for me to do so in the context of this essay.  Suffice to say, Bortkiewicz’s claims, and the edifice built upon them - widely accepted, including by many so-called Marxists, for decades - have been conclusively refuted by Andrew Kliman (in Reclaiming Marx’s Capital) who summarizes the conclusions of a group of Marxists around what is called the ‘Temporal Single System Interpretation’ of Marx’s Capital.  The point here is that Bortkiewicz’s objection to Marx’s account, and the huge debate stemming from it, though related to Böhm-Bawerk’s objection, is also distinct from it.  It is actually misleading to credit Böhm-Bawerk – and thus the Austrian School - with the damage that was actually done to the intellectual reputation of Marxist economics by Bortkiewicz and his befuddled, self-harming Marxist collaborators. 

Böhm-Bawerk actually agreed that “the total price paid for the entire national produce coincides exactly with the total amount of value or labour incorporated in it”.  His objection, as noted, is that Marx claims in vol.I of Capital that commodities sell at their values and then fails in vol.III to show how this can be reconciled with the appearance that commodities tend to sell at prices of production.  Böhm-Bawerk sees Marx as having failed to reconcile these propositions precisely because he (Böhm-Bawerk) does not see the aggregate equivalence of total values and total prices – upon which Marx’s account depends - as significant.  To him, the fact that total values equal total prices in Marx’s account (Böhm-Bawerk himself was, of course, a marginalist who saw value as subjectively created by the individual) is meaningless, a tautology, incapable of telling us anything about exchange relations.  This is definitely not the objection upon which the transformation debate rests.

Kliman admits that Bohm-Bawerk is still influential in certain quarters, but also notes that his critique is “rather different” to the critiques which form the basis of the transformation debate.  Those critiques “are not,” he says, “based on the claim that Marx asserted that commodities tend to sell at their values, and they do not allege that his solution is tautological or meaningless.”  Böhm-Bawerk’s claim “that the value theories of volumes I and III of Capital contradict one another… has had almost no influence on the value theory controversy for more than thirty years” says Kliman, in a book published ten years ago.  I’m not aware of anything having changed.

Moreover, Kliman makes short work of the claim, showing it to be based merely on Böhm-Bawerk’s dodgy parsing of Marx’s text (a theme to which we will return):

Böhm-Bawerk’s interpretive practice was unsound. His interpretation of what Marx meant when he promised to solve the “apparent contradiction” was very implausible. Could Marx, who held a doctoral degree in philosophy, really have promised to show that “commodities tend to sell at their values” and “commodities do not tend to sell at their values” are not really, but only apparently, contradictory propositions? Given the implausibility of this interpretation, and especially its inability to make sense of Marx’s solution, Böhm-Bawerk should have searched for a more successful interpretation. There is no evidence in his text that he did so.

Kliman goes on to explain that not only are the snippets of Marx selectively used by Böhm-Bawerk better interpreted as meaning the opposite of what Böhm-Bawerk claims they mean, but also that Marx actually makes it explicit in other statements that he does not believe that commodities sell at their values!  This was pointed out by the Marxist economist Rudolf Hilferding (an Austrian in the sense of nationality only) in his devastating response to Böhm-Bawerk, published hot on the heels of Böhm-Bawerk’s polemic.  Marx occasionally assumes the identity of values and prices for the sake of argument - but he explicitly repudiates this as an actual claim.  Marx often does this sort of thing.  In Capital Vol.II, for instance, he assumes (for the sake of argument) a capitalist market in equilibrium - something he did not actually think possible - in order to use such a model for clear explication of some aspects of how the system works.  It is precisely because Marx understood that actually-existing capitalism is such a complex and dynamic system that he sometimes has to use abstractions, or examine bits of it in artificial isolation.  As Fred Moseley notes in passing in his excellent book Money and Totality: “Böhm-Bawerk did not understand Marx’s logical method of the two levels of abstraction - the total economy and individual industries. In Marx’s theory, total price = total value, but individual prices = prices of production. There is no contradiction with Marx’s logical structure of the two levels of abstraction.”

As Kliman says of Marx’s actual words (rather than Böhm-Bawerk’s partial and misleading usage of them): “[t]hese statements strongly suggest that the alleged contradiction between what Marx claimed in volume I and what he conceded in volume III is nonexistent,” making Böhm-Bawerk’s claims groundless. 

As for his claim that Marx’s account is tautologous (again, very much not the basis of the transformation debate), Kliman explains that this is based entirely on unfounded assumptions of Böhm-Bawerk’s as to the nature of money, assumptions not shared by Marx and thus not part of his framework.  Böhm-Bawerk’s

conclusion that the equality of total price and total value is tautological rests entirely on his very controversial premise that money is an inessential veil. Marx did not accept that premise... Böhm-Bawerk put forth an argument to support it, but did not really prove it, especially because the fact that commodities “eventually” exchange with other commodities does not mean that money and value play no other essential roles, apart from the exchange process. … Böhm-Bawerk was entitled to his theory that money is a veil, but in the absence of conclusive proof that Marx’s contrary theory was false, he was not entitled to declare Marx’s solution tautological.

Summing up, Kliman writes that

Böhm-Bawerk’s critique of Marx’s account of the value-price transformation is insupportable. His key claim—namely, that Marx denied that it was self-contradictory to hold that prices do and do not tend to equal values—is implausible and unsubstantiated. Also, Böhm-Bawerk’s conclusion that Marx’s account is tautological rests on a very controversial premise.

As with so many of the old and persistent objections to Marx, any attempt to claim that Böhm-Bawerk – and thus the Austrian School – scored a major coup against Marx’s analysis must now reckon with Kliman’s powerful refutation.  The main strategy utilised by those who wish to continue to claim that Marx is internally inconsistent has been to simply ignore Kliman and the circle of Marxists around the ‘Temporal Single System Interpretation’, whose arguments he synthesised in his book.  But with Böhm-Bawerk, there is the other issue: that he is, at least at the non-specialist level of the argument, frequently credited with having founded a long-damaging debate that, at least as far as I can see, he did relatively little to found except in spirit.  Not only is the actual (supposed) problem lying in ruins (thanks to Kliman et al) but Böhm-Bawerk actually had comparatively little to do with it.

Böhm-Bawerk has other criticisms of Marx.  They tend to arise from his adherence to the economic doctrine of marginalism, and so may be addressed using a wider critique of marginalism which is outside our scope here.  (Bukharin wrote an entire book using Böhm-Bawerk as a way in to a wider critique of marginalism but, while it contains many good arguments, I'm leery of using it since I'm actually sceptical of some key aspects of Bukharin's treatment of Marx.)  Suffice to say, despite talking a good talk about remembering that reality is temporal and dynamic (because he’s an Austrian as well as a marginalist), Böhm-Bawerk is ultimately coming from an ideology which has an essentially static and axiomatic view of capitalism.  Much as it can introduce time into its equations as a concept, it can’t get to grips with the actual histories of actual things and actual people in actual marketplaces.  

Böhm-Bawerk’s inability to think sufficiently far outside the marginalist box perhaps tells us something about the Austrian School’s claims to distinctness from the mainstream.  The fundamental and persistent marginalist failure to understand Marx, exacerbated by Böhm-Bawerk, centres on marginalism’s inability (or refusal) to recognise that Marx’s dialectical method is not a form of abstract sophistry but rather an attempt to grapple with the complex material realities of a fluid, dynamic, temporal system – the very reality, the very material history, that marginalism forgets when it imagines that you can analyse markets, commodities, and people, in isolation, and from first principles.

As illustrated above, Böhm-Bawerk criticises Marx’s abstractions because he doesn’t understand what Marx is using them for, that Marx is using them to elucidate points rather than as axioms from which to reason.  (Marx, as we’ve already noted, is clear and adamant that he does “not proceed from ‘concepts’” but from social forms.)  Böhm-Bawerk criticises Marx for relying faithfully upon the labour theory of value (LTV) because the classical economists – Adam Smith and David Ricardo – hand it down from on high, without taking account of the fact that Marx is actually revising the LTV to solve the very problems which led the marginalists to reject it. 

It is this same revision of the LTV which, in one place, allows Marx to explain more or less uniform average profit rates across the system with reference to its dynamic, temporal nature.  Put insanely simply: over time, competition between capitals tends to equalise average profit rates because capital will flow to more profitable sectors – an empirically verifiable theory.  Meanwhile, Böhm-Bawerk’s belief that the overall equality of value and price in Marx’s system is tautologous is itself an axiomatic assumption (i.e. value and price are the same thing), of the kind of which he accuses Marx.  And it stops him being able to see that Marx has solved one of the central old problems of the LTV that bedevilled Smith and Ricardo.  Similarly, the failure to grasp the temporalism and dynamism of Marx’s system is what lies at the root of Böhm-Bawerk’s criticisms of Marx’s account of skilled and unskilled labour. 

Böhm-Bawerk’s attack on Marx’s account of skilled and unskilled labour was influential for a long time, and has often been said to reveal a fundamental incoherence in Marx’s account of value.  Schumpeter characterizes the issue this way - in a footnote, oddly - in his magnum opus Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy.  Yet Hilferding provided a perfectly satisfactory response to Böhm-Bawerk almost immediately.

Once again, the criticism rests on misreading and misunderstanding Marx.  It is claimed that he relies upon the greater pay required by skilled workers to explain the greater value of skilled labour than unskilled labour, and thus falls back into the same circularities which plagued Adam Smith.  Actually, Marx’s overhaul of the LTV allows him to escape this trap - something Böhm-Bawerk (like the critics who adopted his argument) completely misses.  As Ernest Mandel succinctly explains in his Introduction to the Penguin edition of Capital vol.1, Marx says that

[t]he higher value produced by an hour of skilled labour, as compared to an hour of unskilled labour, results from the fact that skilled labour participates in the 'total labour-power '… of society (or of a given branch of in­dustry) not only with its own labour-power but also with a fraction of the labour-power necessary to produce its skill. In other words, each hour of skilled labour can be considered as an hour of un­skilled labour multiplied by a coefficient dependent on this cost of schooling.  Marx speaks in this context of ‘composite labour' as against ‘simple labour'. The skill, by analogy, can be compared to an additional tool, which is in itself not value-producing, but which transfers part of its own value into the value of the product pro­duced by the skilled worker.

As Mandel makes clear, “Marx never explained the higher value content of an hour of skilled labour as compared to an hour of unskilled labour by the higher wages which skilled labour re­ceives”.  Böhm-Bawerk is looking for circularities, so he finds circularities which simply aren’t there.

Böhm-Bawerk’s wider critique of Marx involves many accusations that his system relies upon ignoring reality, upon unfounded assumptions, upon abstract reasoning, etc, but provides very little actual demonstration of such things.  He is guilty of many of the crimes he ascribes to Marx.  As noted, Böhm-Bawerk misrepresents Marx’s opinions several times.  He mistakes elaboration for deduction, and conclusions for proof.  He does these same things repeatedly.

Hilferding put his finger on all this back in the day, writing that in his “polemical method” Böhm-Bawerk

completely ignores his opponent's actual line of argument, and quotes an illustrative example (which he proceeds to interpret falsely) as if it had been alleged to be a proof; he then triumphantly announces that an example is not a proof.

He’s never guiltier of this than when looking at Marx’s account of value and abstract social labour at the start of Capital vol.I. 

It is fair to say that Böhm-Bawerk spearheaded the assault on Marx’s value theory, but this is more to do with timing than influence, and is also nothing to be proud of, since all he did was inaugurate a long tradition of missing the point.  As Mandel notes, Böhm-Bawerk mistakes the opening chapters of Capital vol.I as the elaboration of a logical ‘proof’ of the LTV, and then proceeds to argue against this nonexistent exercise in a priori reasoning.  

For instance, Böhm-Bawerk thinks he can refute Marx’s logical ‘proof’ of the LTV by pointing out that Marx has no reason to choose abstract social labour as the quality common to all commodities, the quality which therefore makes them commensurable and exchangeable.  Other qualities may be substituted.  Ergo, all Marx’s subsequent ‘deductions’ from his original arbitrary premise are equally arbitrary.  

But as Mandel says:

To say that commodities have qualities in common other than the fact that they are products of social labour transforms an analysis of social relations into a logical parlour game. Obviously, these 'other qualities' have nothing to do with the nexus between members of society in an anarchic market economy. The fact that both bread and aeroplanes are 'scarce' does not make them commensurable. Even when thousands of people are dying of hunger, and the 'intensity of need' for bread is certainly a thousand times greater than the 'intensity of need' for aeroplanes, the first commodity will remain immensely cheaper than the second, because much less socially necessary labour has been spent on it’s production.

Because he is looking for a ‘logical parlour game’, Böhm-Bawerk finds one.  But Marx refuses to choose ‘scarcity’ or ‘utility’ as the qualities which make commodities commensurable because, by themselves, they are too abstract!  They have no meaning without reference to their origins, which lie in human activity.  By themselves, they are just a way of talking about relationships between things. 

Böhm-Bawerk makes the accusation that Marx can only deduce that it is labour which forms the substance of value of commodities because he chooses a definition of the commodity which excludes exchangeable items which are not the result of labour.  Sayeth Böhm-Bawerk:

From the beginning he only puts into the sieve those exchangeable things which contain the property which he desires finally to sift out as “the common factor,” and he leaves all the others outside.
To exclude the exchangeable goods which are not products of labor in the search for the common factor which lies at the root of exchange value is, under the circumstances, a great error of method.

But Marx is intentionally only considering as commodities those things which are produced through labour.  Those are the terms Marx sets.  This isn’t a mistake - it’s deliberate!  Marx says as much in the text!  Marx isn’t trying to deduce universal laws to explain abstract concepts like ‘exchangeability’.  He is specifically trying to understand the commodity, because it is the most basic unit of production in the capitalist historico-social mode. 

Böhm-Bawerk’s criticism amounts to saying that Marx’s account of the commodity flows from his chosen definition of it… but surely that’s what it’s supposed to do!  What he really means is that Marx is wrong to define a commodity that way; he should include things which are not produced… which is just Böhm-Bawerk saying that Marx ought to be using subjective, abstract definitions instead of concrete, objective historical ones.  Essentially, Böhm-Bawerk is saying Marx is doing marginalism wrong.  But Marx isn’t trying to do marginalism.  He simply isn’t reasoning that way.  Marx selects abstract social labour as the factor which makes commodities commensurable and exchangeable because that choice expresses the actual, material, social histories of commodities.  It is most certainly not all they have in common, and Marx is not claiming this.  It is, however, their common actual, material origin in a capitalist society. 

Sorry, Eugen, but “You’re wrong because you don’t agree with me!” isn’t a good look… though a lot of your ideological great-great-grandchildren on YouTube still use it.

There are, as Böhm-Bawerk points out, things that are commodities in capitalism which are not products of labour… but his examples include natural things like land and minerals, i.e. things that would have to be worked or workable in order to be commodifiable!  His atemporal, ahistorical marginalism is showing again.  Does he really imagine that there is land that can be commodified without labour?  Land that can be sold for reasons other than working it in some way?  This is nonsense.  (Also, Marx covers the complexities of the issue of land in his theory of rent.)

Marx is trying to understand capitalism as a social system rather than as just ‘an economy’, which means he’s trying to understand the relations between people in capitalist society.  For Marx, capitalism abstracts human relations until they appear as relations between things.  That’s commodity fetishism.  Explaining capitalism by relying on its own abstractions simply fails to penetrate this veil.  It just reproduces it.  But surely any meaningful theory of society has to start with human activity – and not individual human activity because that too is an abstraction, because people are inherently social and cannot exist on their own.  The individual exists, but the rest of human society is a pre-requisite for her.  The individual human acts, but they act in society.  If not, the statement is meaningless.  Of course, humans can be alone – like Robinson Crusoe – but what they do in that state is no basis for an understanding of society.  (And even Robinson Crusoe is actually only comprehensible in terms of the society and history from which he comes and is isolated!)  Marginalism, however, with its reliance on the isolated subjectivity of the atomised individual, acts as if the opposite is true.  For the marginalists, you can extrapolate how an entire civilisation works from how lots of disconnected individuals feel. 

As Hilferding acutely observed:

It is the social relationship… and changes in that relationship, which control and elucidate the movements of individual capitals, themselves no more than portions of the total social capital. But the representative of the psychological school of political economy [marginalism] fails to see this social nexus, and he therefore necessarily misunderstands a theory which definitely aims at disclosing the social determinism of economic phenomena, a theory whose starting point therefore is society and not the individual. In apprehending and expounding this theory he is ever influenced by his own individualistic mentality, and he thus arrives at contradictions which he ascribes to the theory, while they are in truth ascribable solely to his interpretations of the theory.
This confusion may be traced in all the stages of Böhm-Bawerk's polemic.

For Hilferding, Böhm-Bawerk is essentially criticising Marx for having a bizarrely wrongheaded version of marginalism, and for basing his case on nothing more than coherent arguments from first principles… but of then being incoherent.  He proceeds from this assumption, consciously or not, because he cannot see any other perspective. 

As Hilferding sums it up:

From the subjectivist standpoint, therefore, the standpoint from which Böhm-Bawerk levels his criticism, the labour theory of value appears untenable from the very outset. And it is because he adopts this standpoint that Böhm-Bawerk is unable to perceive that Marx's concept of labour is totally opposed to his own.
We are thereby led [by Marx], in the most striking contrast to the outlook of the psychological school, to regard political economy as a part of sociology, and sociology itself as a historical science. Böhm-Bawerk has never become aware of this contrast of outlooks.
Thus it happens that Böhm-Bawerk, unfailingly carrying on the controversy from his subjectivist and psychological standpoint, discovers contradictions in the Marxist theory which seem to him to be contradictions solely because of his own subjectivist interpretation of the theory.

We won’t prove or disprove Marx’s value theory here.  It’s a complex issue, to say the least.  But the point is that Böhm-Bawerk’s objections certainly won’t conclusively settle it either - whatever is claimed for him.  He makes other criticisms which I haven’t addressed here, but I hope I’ve demonstrated the basic problem with his approach to Marx.  Most of his criticisms are undermined by sharing this same basic, underlying problem. In the end, what I want to stress is that far more is claimed for Böhm-Bawerk than can actually be found in him. 

But then I suspect that, in practice, at least for many of those who cite Böhm-Bawerk, the point is not whether Austrian arguments actually do or don’t demolish Marx, but rather that they sound good.  Superficially plausible arguments that appeal to intuition and prejudice are the stock-in-trade of the online Austrian.  And indeed, most people who chuck Böhm-Bawerk’s name around online fail to understand him and offer vulgarised caricatures of his arguments.  But that’s poetic justice if you ask me.  And ‘actual’ Austrian arguments, though more complex than the friendly caricatures of the keyboard class warriors, are still based on appeals to plausibility more than anything else.  Such flourishes of impressive names like “Böhm-Bawerk” and “von Mises”, etc, provide a plausible-looking facsimile of demolition.  They may – with all their cache – always be pulled out of the back pocket.  They act as guarantors, with a sheen of glamour that is both prestigious and intellectual, and heterodox and truculent.  They exist not to actually refute, but rather to always look as if they have a valid and arguable claim to having had just refuted.  Their true nature – as an ideological, class project – are thus revealed.

Actually, however, Böhm-Bawerk’s effect was - if you’ll pardon me - marginal.



Kevin Carson 3 years, 2 months ago

That screaming you hear is the entire Austro-libertarian tradition outraged at being consigned to irrelevance.

But marginalism itself is taugological. Bohm-Bawerk himself admitted that marginal utility was a dependent variable, determined by supply. And in particular, time-preference was determined by relative wealth and economic security. So the steep time-preference of the propertyless laboring classes is a result of their lack of ownership of the means of production, and the reverse is true for the capitalist class -- both the result of the historical process of primitive accumulation (i.e. robbery, whose history is written in letters of fire and blood).

And Clark's marginal productivity theory is equally tautological, because the "marginal productivity" of any factor input is whatever it adds to the final cost of a good. So enclosed land, monopoly control of capital, oligopoly pricing, etc., are all treated as naturally "worth" whatever they can extort from the consumer, regardless of the artificial scarcities and artificial property rights that enable rent extraction.

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Jack Graham 3 years, 2 months ago

The quintessential problem, then, at the heart of all this sort of theorising - and probably of all reactionary ideas, in different ways - is the subtraction from the mix of the material and socially-embedded history.

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