Can you guess which Austrian school economist said these immortal words? Can you guess which Austrian school of economics book I am citing from when I type:

Their book takes, in the traditional style of historical apologetics, a completely deductive a priori approach.

Was it Ludwig von Mises? It might be. Take a look at one of Mises’s adversaries, the blogger Lord Keynes. Lord Keynes summarizes the Misesian methodological approach by writing in Mises’ Praxeology: A Critique:

Its [i.e., praxeological] statements and propositions are not derived from experience. They are, like those of logic and mathematics, a priori. They are not subject to verification or falsification on the ground of experience and fact.

Maybe it comes from Mises’s book on method, The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science where we are told that

economics is not history. Economics is a branch of praxeology, the aprioristic theory of human action. The economist does not base his theories upon historical research, but upon theoretical thinking like that of the logician or the mathematician. (66)

Or could it be one of Mises’s followers, perhaps? How about we try Hoppe who tells us Democracy: The God that Failed that

A priori theory trumps and corrects experience (and logic overrules observation), and not vice-versa. (xvi)

Or maybe it is tucked away in the Introduction to the Second Edition of Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market in a section that says something like this:

This explains why Rothbard identified the use of the praxeological method, rather than a loose subjectivist orientation, as the hallmark and acid test of scientific economics. (xxxiii)

Nope! It isn’t Mises, nor is it Hoppe, nor is it Rothbard. It is none of them. In fact, I didn’t cite an Austrian school economist at all! No, my opening quotation comes from Chapter 10 of The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, written by Robert M Price. His article has nothing to do with Austrian School economics; instead, it is a review essay of a “landmark work of Gospel apologetics” called The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. Price is a Jesus Seminar scholar who was originally quite the Christian if I remember correctly, but he eventually abandoned the faith and became one of the most prolific writers on atheism today. Just to give you a quick flavor of where Price is coming from, take a look at the book he co-authored with Jeffery Jay Lowder called The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, and we see how the “a priori” comes into play in an attempt to establish the historical reliability of the story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ as opposed to it just being a legend:

It seems to me that there are good reasons to reject Craig’s a priori assumptions about what an empty tomb story would have included if it were legendary. (624/1182, bold emphasis mine)

What struck me was how Price begins this essay–the one my opening quotation is from–by pointing out that Christian apologetics is based on a completely deductive a priori approach, i.e., the Austrian school of economics’s “home turf.”

Now Price’s essay is about, in part, defending the Biblical Form Critics from the attacks leveled against them by the completely deductive a priori Christian apologists. Look at the warm and fuzzy relationship that exists between these two groups when Price writes that

they [i.e., the Christian apologists Boyd and Eddy] sneer at the form-critical axiom that particular forms in which the sayings or stories meet us in any way reflect the Sitz-im-Leben [i.e., the life situation of the church at the time of the creation of these stories] of their use. (Jesus: Myth and Method, 284, bold emphasis mine)

So my educated guess at the moment is this: maybe Biblical “Form Criticism” could be used as another way to dissect and to critique the deductive a priori Austrians.

So what is “form” criticism? Well, if we go to Robert M Price’s book, The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems, we see that it boils down to this: what is useful to a community (i.e., the early Christian church community), is what gets passed down to future generations:

I referred to the central axiom of form criticism: that nothing would have been passed down in the tradition unless it was useful to prove some point, to provide some precedent….all pericopae [i.e., contained units or sayings] of the Jesus tradition owe their survival to the fact that they were useful. (20/428, bold emphasis mine)

Price then gives us the “practical implication” of all of this, namely this: the Church sticks words into the mouth of Jesus in order to give them authority. I will cite Price on this, then I want to compare this to one of the reviews of the Rothbard approach to writing the history of economic thought. They do sound very similar to me. But first, Price:

The closer a Jesus-saying seems to match the practice or teaching of the early Church, the greater likelihood that it stems from the latter and has been placed fictively into the speech or life of Jesus merely to secure its authority. (20/428, bold emphasis mine)

Now let’s turn to the essay I was reading yesterday, which inspired me to write in my notes the following: the reviewer is accusing Rothbard of putting words into the mouth of historical characters such as Cantillon, or the French laissez-faire economists, or Say, etc. It is that expression “putting words into the mouth of historical characters” that got me seriously thinking about this link between Biblical Form Criticism and the Rothbardian approach to writing the history of economic thought.  In Tony Endres’s article in the History of Economics Review, we see the reviewer complaining again and again about how Rothbard is transforming historical characters into things that they were not.  Just as the later Christian church is “sticking words into the mouth” of the earlier Jesus, so too the later Murray Rothbard is “sticking words into the mouth” of the earlier historical characters. That is how I would interpret Endres’s review of Rothbard’s works on the history of economic thought.

For example, Endres writes, how Aristotle becomes an Austrian School economist: “Aristotle’s fragmentary remarks on money are exemplary because they are viewed as ‘predating parts of the economics of the Austrian school.'” Cantillon becomes a defender of the Austrian Business Cycle Theory: “Cantillon ‘provides the first hints of the later Austrian theory of the business cycle’ simply because he understood that ‘expanding credit lower[s] the rate of interest.'” Say turns into earlier version of Mises! This reminds me of how the Joseph of the Old Testament gets transformed into the Joseph (Jesus) of the New Testament. It is a common observation in critical studies of the Bible, namely, older traditions get reworked into later traditions. Another example is how the story of Daniel in the Old Testament gets rewritten into the tomb story in the New Testament (see Richard C Carrier, Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus, 199-204, “But even using those criteria alone it’s sufficiently strong to be clear…that Matthew made all this up to equate the tomb of Jesus with Daniel’s den of lions”). As Endres tells us “Say becomes, in Rothbard’s hands, a ‘praxeologist.'”

What it all seems to boil down to is this: our “Old Testament” characters in economic history are all foreshadowing our “New Testament” character of the “marginalist revolution” that ushered in the Austrian School of Economics later in history. And we can see that Endres seems to be thinking that Rothbard is “sticking words into the mouths” of historical characters when he sums up by saying:

As Skinner argues “the only plausible answer is of course fatal to the claim [made by Rothbard] itself; that the author [J. B. Say in this case] did not (or even could not) have meant after all to enunciate such a doctrine.”

Let me mention a few other things quickly, that suggest that this “Biblical Form Critical” approach might be very useful in dissecting the Austrian School of Economics. Notice how Price emphasized that what is useful for the Church is what gets passed down to later followers of Christianity (aka what we get to read about in the New Testament). If it is useful it gets passed down; if it is not useful it gets discarded.  Maybe this will explain some of the “bombshell” observations–i.e., shocking observations–made by the blogger Lord Keynes.  For example, Lord Keynes has a blog entitled Friedrich von Wieser and Eugen von Philippovich von Philippsberg: Austrian Economists and Fabian Socialists and we get this shocker:

And now for what might be a bombshell for some people. Two of the first generation of Austrian economists were clearly supporters of Fabian socialism. Yes, you heard me right: they were advocates of early 20th century Fabian socialism.

Or take a quick look at Lord Keynes’s blog, Rescuing Menger from the Austrians, where we find this rather shocking statement from Lord Keynes:

That book shows that the founder of Austrian economics was worlds apart from the modern cult of anarcho-capitalism.

Why does Lord Keynes say this:

All in all, the founder of Austrian economics appears to have accepted the existence of the state and a number of interventions, perhaps on utilitarian grounds.

One rarely hears from modern anarcho-capitalists the fact that Mises thought that natural law theory would lead to tyranny. In Mises’s Economics as a Bridge for Interhuman Understanding we see Mises dismissing natural law, yet I am told by some that Mises is an anarcho-capitalist (hence Mises is “safely” in the Rothbard natural law camp):

The doctrine of natural rights can be traced back to ancient and medieval philosophy. It was easy to coin this natural rights doctrine into popular catchwords which appealed to the masses [maybe “non-aggression principle”]. It supplied the revolutionaries with fanatical fervor. But its illusiveness again and again frustrated the initial success of the reforms inaugurated, and resulted in terrorism and tyranny. (Ludwig von Mises, Economic Freedom and Interventionism: An Anthology of Articles and Essays,258, bold emphasis mine)

So I am thinking, following this Biblical Form Critical approach, that to understand the Austrian school, we have to study how ideas get “passed on” from one generation to the next. What gets passed on. What gets dropped.

And finally, the form critical idea of Sitz-im-Leben or life situation might be relevant for understanding the Austrian school literature. If we look at the Handbook of Biblical Criticism, 2nd edition, by Richard N Soulen we see that Sitz-im-Leben means:

setting in life, or life situation…in Form Criticism to refer to that sociological setting within the life of Israel or the early Church in which particular rhetorical forms (legends, sayings, liturgical formulae, psalms, prophecies, parables, etc.) first took shape. (178)

In other words, maybe the Austrian school’s “praxeology” is not so much their “methodology” of science but rather, maybe praxeology is their “rhetorical form” that emerged in a particular Sitz-im-Leben in the past. Praxeology, this “literary form” then gets passed down because of its usefulness in beating off uncomfortable empirical evidence, such as administered prices. What might this particular Sitz-im-Leben be?

I am thinking that one of the comments on Lord Keynes’s blog might be the answer to the question I just asked, what might have been the Sitz-im-Leben behind the “literary form” of “praxeology”? The article is called Barrotta’s Kantian Critique of Mises’s Epistemology, and the comment in particular is by Georg Thomas:

I suspect, Mises was traumatised by the terrible attacks levelled against the Austrian school by the hugely preponderant German Historical School. The latter denied the possibility of a general science of economics, and so Mises developed an exaggerated rationalist ambition to provide an unshakable epistemological foundation for economics, and ended up with his highly questionable praxeology – which really is rather an unsavoury attempt at cornering absolute truth. This attitude attracted truly dogmatic minds, especially that of Rothbard who transplanted Mises rationalistic ambition into his hubristic system building efforts in the area of ethics and political theory.

In other words, the life situation or Sitz-im-Leben for the creation of a “literary form” of “praxeology” might have been the “terrible attacks levelled against the Austrian school by the hugely preponderant German Historical School.”

Please understand that this essay is a collection of inchoate thoughts by me. So I am still developing my ideas in this area. That is why this essay is a bit disjointed and the arguments are not fully developed. That is because I am still developing them in my own mind. But I wanted to write it down and share it with some of you!