39. “Austrian Economics and the Transaction Cost Approach to the Firm”

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Abstract: As the transaction cost theory of the firm was taking shape in the 1970s, another important movement in economics was emerging: a revival of the ‘Austrian’ tradition in economic theory associated with such economists as Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek (1973; Dolan, 1976; Spadaro, 1978). As Oliver Williamson has pointed out, Austrian economics is among the diverse sources for transaction cost economics. In particular, Williamson frequently cites Hayek (e.g., Williamson, 1985, p. 8; 1991, p. 162), particularly Hayek’s emphasis on adaptation as a key problem of economic organisation (Hayek, 1945). Following Williamson’s lead, a reference to Hayek’s ‘The Use of Knowledge in Society’ (Hayek, 1945) has become almost mandatory in discussions of economic organisation (e.g., Ricketts, 1987, p. 59; Milgrom and Roberts, 1992, p. 56; Douma and Schreuder 1991, p. 9). However, there are many other potential links between Austrian and transaction cost economics that have not been explored closely and exploited.

This article argues that characteristically Austrian ideas about property, entrepreneurship, economic calculation, tacit knowledge, and the temporal structure of capital have important implications for theories of economic organisation, transaction cost economics in particular. Austrian economists have not, however, devoted substantial attention to the theory of the firm, preferring to focus on business-cycle theory, welfare economics, political economy, comparative economic systems, and other areas. Until recently the theory of the firm was an almost completely neglected area in Austrian economics, but over the last decade, a small Austrian literature on the firm has emerged. While these works cover a wide variety of theoretical and applied topics, their authors share the view that Austrian insights have something to offer students of firm organisation.

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