I’ve been teaching the socialist calculation debate again this spring. Each time I return to these arguments, I think I see them more clearly. Here is my latest try at summing up the Austrian position and its implications for potential economic systems, capitalist or otherwise. The web is crawling with Austrophiles, so they can tell me whether I am walking in light or darkness.
1. The key concept is discovery: discovering what consumers need and want, and discovering the true costs of providing these things. Since they are subject to tacitly known and otherwise irreducibly qualitative determinants, values and costs cannot be ascertained apart from the actual processes of producing and marketing, so the technical problem of number crunching—devising algorithms to calculate equilibrium prices and quantities out of cost and demand information—is secondary. Any reasonably efficient economic system has to have processes of discovery, some for costs, others for the value of goods and services as determined by consumers. These processes need to be specified concretely.
2. Discovery requires trial and error. In an economy with a vast number of goods, and with complicated production and consumption relationships surrounding each good, it is inconceivable that trial and error can be sequential. Rather, there have to be many trials simultaneously, along with a process for determining which succeed or fail. That is the role of rivalry (competition) in a market economy, with the market test assessing success and failure. “Cost” is discovered by firms that succeed in being low-cost producers; “value” is discovered by those who succeed in marketing. This information is transmitted via prices to other firms, telling them whether they are producing at- or above-cost, and whether they are producing and selling at- or below-value. Any plausible economic system has to have a structure of multiple, simultaneous trials, a “hard” test that tells enterprises whether their trials are succeeding, and a vehicle for transmitting the results of these tests to all participants—in real time. On top of this, of course, there needs to be an incentive structure that causes those who failed the test to abandon the methods that were retrospectively unsuccessful.