In view of the failure of modern economists to anticipate the Great Recession of 2008, the worst financial shock since the 1930s, it was perhaps inevitable that the Austrian School, a once favored branch of economics that had made a specialty of analyzing booms and busts, would enjoy a revival of public interest.
The theme of Austrians as outsiders runs through Janek Wasserman’s The Marginal Revolutionaries: How Austrian Economists Fought the War of Ideas, a general history of the Austrian School from its beginnings to the present day. The title refers both to the later marginalization of the Austrian economists and to the original insight of its founding father, Carl Menger, who introduced the notion of marginal utility—namely, that economic value does not derive from the cost of inputs such as raw material or labor, as David Ricardo and later Karl Marx suggested, but from the utility an individual derives from consuming an additional amount of any good or service. Water, for instance, may be indispensable to humans, but when it is abundant, the marginal value of an extra glass of the stuff is close to zero. Diamonds are less useful than water, but a great deal rarer, and hence command a high market price. If diamonds were as common as dewdrops, however, they would be worthless.
Menger was not the first economist to ponder what is called the “paradox of value” (why useless things are worth more than essentials)—the Italian Ferdinando Galiani had gotten there more than a century earlier. His central idea of marginal utility was simultaneously developed in England by W.S. Jevons and on the Continent by Léon Walras. Menger’s originality lay in applying his theory to the entire production process, showing how the value of capital goods like factory equipment derived from the marginal value of the goods they produced. As a result, Austrian economics developed a keen interest in the allocation of capital. Furthermore, Menger and his disciples emphasized that value was inherently subjective, since it depends on what consumers are willing to pay for something; this imbued the Austrian school from the outset with a fiercely individualistic and anti-statist aspect.
Menger’s Principles of Economics, published in 1871, established the study of economics in Vienna—before then, no economic journals were published in Austria, and courses in economics were taught in law schools. From this less-than-marginal position, Menger and his followers, most notably Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, achieved notoriety with polemical attacks on the German historical school of economics, led by Friedrich List, which questioned whether natural laws of economics applied to all nations and emphasized the study of statistics over abstract…
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