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Lachmann and the Subjective Paradigm

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Source: Ludwig Lachmann, Capital, Expectations, and the Market Process: Essays on the Theory of the Market Economy, ed. with an Introduction by Walter E. Grinder (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1977).

In Pursuit of the Subjective Paradigm by Walter E. Grinder


For more than fifty years Ludwig M. Lachmann has been participating in scholarly debates on the development and application of economic theory; yet he is relatively unknown to professional economists and the intellectual community at large. Most mainstream economists find no comfort in his work because as a member of the Austrian school he opposes the direction taken by modern economic analysis. An intellectual descendant of Carl Menger (1840–1921), the founder of the Austrian school, Ludwig von Mises (1881–1973) and Friedrich A. Hayek (b. 1899), the Austrian school's most important twentieth-century representatives, Lachmann remains an outsider. It is hoped that this selection of his essays will introduce his thought to a wide and receptive audience.

What distinguishes Lachmann from other economists is his total devotion to subjectivism in economics. In fact, the evolution of his understanding and application of subjective concepts over the past four decades is a coordinating theme for these otherwise disparate essays and lectures. Lachmann's position today is that of a radical subjectivist.

According to Lachmann, economic phenomena cannot be explained unless they are related, either directly or indirectly, to subjective states of valuation as manifested either in choice or in expectations about the market. The implication is not that Lachmann opposes macroeconomic concepts per se. On the contrary, he has done some of his most important work in macroeconomics. His argument is that macroconcepts must be traced to their microeconomic roots in the minds of valuing individuals in the market. In this respect, he is within the Austrian tradition as established by Menger, Mises, and Hayek.

Lachmann agreed with Erich Streissler that the importance of the Austrians and the subjective revolution that took place during the 1870s lies not so much in the development of the notion of marginalism as in the subjectivism established by Menger and his followers (“To What Extent Was the Austrian School Marginalist?” History of Political Economy 4 [Fall 1972]: 426–41; see also “The Significance of the Austrian School” [references to articles included in this volume are in abbreviated form]). Lachmann did not deny the historical importance of Menger's contributions to the technical development of marginal economics, although, Léon Walras's concept of “rareté,” and William Stanley Jevons's notion of “final degree of utility” were in the air during the late 1860s and early 1870s. According to both Streissler and Lachmann the Austrian contribution was unique in its insistence on the thoroughly subjective character of utility, on the impossibility of finding an objective measure of utility for comparing or adding together levels of subjective welfare among individuals.

It is the thoroughgoing subjectivism of Menger, Mises, and, interestingly enough, Max Weber that Lachmann identified as the true heritage of the Austrian school (The Legacy of Max Weber [London: Heinemann, 1970]). Whether in defining “cost” in terms of privately perceived forgone opportunities, or in defining the market rate of interest as an expression of the individual time preferences of the members of the community, or—as is most important in Lachmann's work—in emphasizing the importance to the economy of private expectations about market conditions, subjectivism distinguishes the Austrian school.

Subjectivism as understood and articulated by the Austrians never became part of neoclassical economics after the marginal revolution of the 1870s, although several historians of economic thought, including Mises, maintained just the opposite (Joseph A. Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis [New York: Oxford University Press, 1954], pp. 849–50). Fritz Machlup stated that all essential insights of the early Austrian school had been incorporated into mainstream economics by the 1920s [lecture before the Austrian Club of New York City in 1968]; and Ludwig von Mises wrote that “all the essential ideas of the Austrian School were by and large accepted as an integral part of economic theory” (The Historical Setting of the Austrian School of Economics [New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1969], p. 41). While subjectivism dominated the early work of Jevons and Philip Wicksteed in England (in this regard philosophically more “Austrian” than other British economists), the Austrian emphasis on the subjective character of economics had almost been forgotten by the time Alfred Marshall's Principles of Economics had become the leading textbook among English-speaking economists during the 1890s and well into the first quarter of the twentieth century. English utilitarianism with its impossible program of “adding up” utilities to get a monetary measure of social or individual welfare eventually became the methodological underpinning of neoclassical economics.

The Lausanne school, which included Walras and Vilfredo Pareto, took the mathematical-functionalist rather than the philosophical approach to the discipline of economics (Emil Kauder, “The Intellectual and Political Roots of the Older Austrian School,” Zeitschrift für Nationalökonomie 17 [December 1957]: 411–25). Individuals were viewed, not as actors pursuing ends susceptible to alteration and adjustment, but as pegs on which static indifference curves could be hung. The meaning of acts to the actors was disregarded in the methodology of the Lausanne school. Rather it was the desire to reduce economics to an “exact” science that led Walras and later Pareto to adopt the quantitative and graphical methods of the physical sciences in presenting the basic insights of marginalism. When subjective notions did enter the analysis of the Lausanne school, it was in the form of “tastes” that were regarded as basic and immutable. In fact, according to Lachmann, time and change—essential ingredients of the economic world—were subtly excluded in the Lausanne school's reliance on the technique of general equilibrium analysis. An individual free to change his mind is excluded by the assumptions of the timeless artificial world of general equilibrium.

As the concepts of neoclassical economics were developed, especially in J. R. Hicks's Value and Capital (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939), the subtle fusion of the Cambridge and Lausanne schools was completed. The subjective valuations of the individual and his task of choosing among unequal alternatives—notions considered basic discoveries of the early Austrian writers—were supposedly incorporated into neoclassical economics. But the truth is that the Austrian tradition was buried in a plethora of curves, models, and other quantitative abstractions.

The evolution of Lachmann's thought may be divided into three fairly distinct periods, which coincide with his experience in three different countries. First, there is Lachmann the young student, who is introduced to subjective economics in Germany. Second, there is the journeyman Lachmann maturing within the vibrant intellectual atmosphere of the London School of Economics during the 1930s and 1940s. Finally, there is the mature scholar at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa during the 1950s and 1960s. Unlike many who become less active as they get older, Lachmann has continued to search out new issues and push his thought in new directions to become one of the most vigorous and resolute advocates of the subjectivist position in the entire discipline of economics.

For a long time, however, Lachmann was unaware of the width of the gulf that separated his position from that of his neoclassical colleagues. For several decades he believed that almost all economists (with the exception of the Marxists) were part of one big, sometime feuding, but ultimately compatible family. In order to understand his failure to appreciate the gulf between his Austrian approach and the neoclassical school, it is necessary to trace his intellectual odyssey. This volume of essays is not only a positive contribution to an understanding of the market but also constitutes a single document about one man's intellectual development. Lachmann's work over almost five decades amounts to a forceful reassertion of the precious Mengerian insight that economic phenomena are essentially subjective.


In 1924 Ludwig Lachmann entered the University of Berlin to study economics. The formal teaching of economics had deteriorated during the Weimar Republic, and there was little interest in theoretical economics in the aftermath of the Methodenstreit (Mises, The Historical Setting). Among the economic historians only Max Weber was held in academic esteem, and he was not a technically trained economic theorist. The one theoretical economist known in Germany was Joseph Schumpeter, and the name of Pareto was beginning to be heard on the fringes of German economic discussion. Only in monetary theory were German economists accomplishing anything amounting to a breakthrough, mainly due to the efforts of Albert Hahn and Siegfried Budge (H. S. Ellis, German Monetary Theory 1905–1933 [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1934]).

During the summer of 1926 Lachmann went to the University of Zurich, where Manuel Saitzew (the Russian-born economic historian) provided him with an overview of Ricardian economics and the marginal revolution. That summer in Zurich marked Lachmann's first, if brief, introduction to the subjectivist position in economics. Already he was attracted to the subjectivism of Carl Menger. In a comparison of the marginal and classical schools not only did the marginalists outshine the Ricardians, but in Lachmann's opinion Menger's accomplishment was the most impressive among the three codiscoverers of marginal utility.

After he returned to Berlin, Lachmann studied the then-current monetary theories, which included business cycle analysis, and concentrated on the work of A. L. Hahn, whose ideas paralleled those of R. G. Hawtrey in England. At this time he also had his first encounter with the Wicksell-Mises theory of the trade cycle, which was beginning to attract attention through the writings of both Mises and Hayek (Friedrich A. Hayek, Geldtheorie und Konjunkturtheorie [Vienna; 1929]; English edition, Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle, trans. N. Kaldor and H. M. Croome [London: Jonathan Cape, 1933]).

A common practice among students at German universities at that time was to hire a tutor for independent study. Lachmann's choice of a tutor was young Emil Kauder—a stroke of good fortune for both of them, for they shared an interest in the Austrian school. Werner Sombart, Lachmann's mentor and dissertation sponsor at Berlin, advised Lachmann to read Schumpeter and Pareto but discouraged him from spending time on the writings of the Austrian school. Here again the prejudices of the lingering Methodenstreit may clearly be seen. Kauder and Lachmann concentrated on the work of Pareto, and although through this study Lachmann mastered Walrasian general equilibrium analysis well enough to earn his doctorate in 1930, both he and Kauder became convinced that the functional analysis of the Lausanne school was unsatisfactory.

As is often true, Lachmann's real economic education—his detailed inquiry into the problems of the discipline—began after he met the requirements for his doctorate. In addition to the study of Pareto he and Kauder began work on Hayek's Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle (London: Jonathan Cape, 1933) and Prices and Production (London: George Routledge, 1931). During these sessions Kauder stressed the importance of subjectivism, especially subjective opportunity cost as the key concept in economic analysis. Lachmann also returned to the study of genetic-causal economics, the term of Werner Sombart and Hans Mayer (Hans Mayer, Der Erkenntniswert der funktionellen Preistheorien [Vienna: 1932]) for the Austrian method of reducing aggregates to statements about individual choices.

By this time, Lachmann's basic theoretical formulation, with the possible exception of the role of changing expectations in economic life, had been worked out. The foundations of Lachmann's theoretical structure were (1) a firm belief in the subjective theory of value and the related concept that the economic cost of an action always refers to a forgone opportunity; (2) a preference for the genetic-causal method of inquiry in contrast to the mathematical-functional approach of the Lausanne school, (3) a familiarity with the verstehende methode as espoused by Max Weber (an aspect of Lachmann's work that lay dormant for the next twenty years), and (4) an acceptance of the Mises-Hayek theory as a cogent explanation of the trade cycle.


In early 1933 Lachmann left Germany and settled in England, where he discovered the difference in the intellectual climate, especially in the attitude toward economic theory, to be striking. Cambridge University as well as the more cosmopolitan London School of Economics was teeming with sophisticated ideas. These were, indeed, what G.L.S. Shackle termed “the years of high theory” (The Years of High Theory, 1926–1939 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967]).

At the London school the neoclassical synthesis reigned supreme. This synthesis included elements of the Walrasian, Austrian, and classical traditions and, owing to Hayek's influence, a major emphasis on the Austrian theory of the trade cycle. At Cambridge University, on the other hand, the heritage in economic theory began with Marshall, and all contact with the Austrian tradition was avoided. When Lachmann arrived at the London School, Hayek was at the peak of his academic influence. The “big four”—John Hicks, Nicholas Kaldor, Abba P. Lerner, and Lionel Robbins—all adhered to the “new view” of production and its structure. This was definitely a period notable for the convergence of economic doctrines, as described by Lachmann in “Austrian Economics in the Present Crisis.” Other important economists of Hayek's persuasion included Gottfried Haberler (Harvard University), Alvin Hansen (Harvard University), Fritz Machlup (Princeton University), Hans Mayer (University of Vienna), Richard von Strigl (University of Vienna), and, of course, Ludwig von Mises (University of Vienna).

During the 1930s the Hayekian view of the business cycle dominated the newly emerging orthodoxy (besides Hayek's writing cited above, see G. Haberler, “Money and the Business Cycle,” in Gold and Monetary Stabilization, ed. Quincey Wright [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1932]; and Lionel Robbins, “Consumption and the Trade Cycle,” Economica 12 [November 1932]: 413–30). Moreover, the trade cycle theory of Mises and Hayek suggested explanations for macrophenomena through the use of conceptual devices that in effect reduce them to microeconomic phenomena (Gerald P. O'Driscoll, Economics as a Coordination Problem [Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, forthcoming]).

Another theoretical development at the London School that Lachmann found congenial was the notion of “opportunity cost.” Lionel Robbins among others claimed that costs were necessarily subjective and accessible only to the private decision maker (James Buchanan and G. F. Thirlby, L.S.E. Essays on Cost [London: London School of Economics and Political Science, 1973]). Elsewhere the original objective interpretation of opportunity cost prevailed, and eventually the London School accepted the neoclassical practice of grafting a monetary measure of opportunity cost onto the existing body of microeconomic analysis. Subsequently, James Buchanan tried to revive interest in the subjective interpretation of opportunity cost and the early London School tradition (L.S.E. Essays; and Cost and Choice [Chicago: Markham, 1969]).

Unable to secure an academic position in Britain, Lachmann became a student of Hayek, as were Helen Makower and G. L. S. Shackle. During his first year at the London School Lachmann made the acquaintance of Paul Rosenstein-Rodan, who before leaving Austria had assisted Hans Mayer, holder of Menger's chair at the University of Vienna. From Rosenstein-Rodan Lachmann gained insight into the importance of expectations in economic activity and hence in economic theory.

During those early years of the Great Depression, when the theory of the business cycle was of central concern, the Austrian school economists focused on the factor of changing expectations. Ludwig von Mises had examined the influence of price expectations on the demand for money (Theory of Money and Credit [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959]) and undertook to integrate expectations into the Austrian account of the business cycle. In 1933 Hayek presented his famous Copenhagen lecture, “Price Expectations, Monetary Disturbances, and Malinvestments,” in which he systematically explored the relationship between expectations and the business cycle (Profits, Interest, and Investment [New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1969], pp. 135–156). Also from this time the role of expectations became a central theme in Lachmann's writings.

Lachmann's first important article in this vein appeared in 1937 (Economica 4 [August 1937]: 295–308) under the title “Uncertainty and Liquidity Preference.” Here Lachmann explored the relationship between price expectations and the demand for money. In 1943 expectations received central attention in “The Role of Expectations in Economics as a Social Science.” Here Lachmann described how changing expectations alter plans of economic agents and upset the alleged tendency toward equilibrium. For Lachmann, the theory of expectations represents the second wave of subjectivist economics after Menger's break-through in the theory of value. According to Lachmann, economic theories that ignore the role of changing expectations are incomplete and misleading.


Hayek's criticism of John Maynard Keynes's Treatise on Money appeared in 1930 and was of a theoretical nature and analytical in form (“Reflections on the Pure Theory of Money of Mr. J. M. Keynes,” Economica 11 [August 1931]: 270–95; 12 [February 1932]: 22–44). Then the magnitude of the “secondary depression” that gripped the Western nations after the fall of the Kredit Anstalt in Vienna in May 1931 caught the Austrians by surprise. In 1936, when Keynes's General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money appeared with its argument that a deficient aggregate demand accounts for the general collapse in business and employment, the Austrian theory began to lose adherents.

During the winter of 1935–36, Abba Lerner spent a semester at Cambridge and participated in Keynes's seminar where the soon-to-be-published General Theory was discussed at length. Lerner returned to the London School convinced that Keynes was correct and Hayek wrong. During that same year, Lachmann prepared a paper under Hayek's sponsorship in which he examined Keynes's explanation of “secondary depression.” Since the Austrian theory of the business cycle was developed to explain the “primary depressions” typical in the nineteenth century, it needed to be supplemented by a theory of secondary depressions to account for the massive downturn in all sectors of the economy that immobilized the industrialized nations of the world. In Lachmann's view the cause of the primary depression was credit expansion by the banking system leading to malinvestment and later liquidation. But once in the throes of a primary depression, there was something to be said for Keynes's theory as an explanation of the secondary depression. On this point, Lachmann was closer to Gottfried Haberler (“Some Reflections on the Present Situation of Business Cycle Theory,” Review of Economic Statistics 18 [February 1936]: 1–7; and Wilhelm Roepke, Crisis and Cycles [London: W. Hedge & Company, 1937]) than he was to Mises and his disciples. Lionel Robbins defended the Mises-Hayek theory (The Great Depression [New York: The Macmillan Co., 1934]) as did Murray N. Rothbard at a later date (America's Great Depression [Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1975]). Thus in 1936 Keynes presented a challenge on which some Austrians find themselves divided.

By 1938 the Hayekian position was ignored in the enthusiasm for the new Keynesian analysis. As has been said, “[The] voices [of the Austrians] were drowned in the fanfare of the Keynesian orchestra” (John Hicks, Capital and Growth [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965], p. 185).

In brief the Austrian theory of the business cycle was never refuted or even rejected at the London School, but simply forgotten despite the efforts of Hayek and subsequently Lachmann (as noted below) to improve the theory (Hayek, Profits, Interest, and investment [1939; reprint; New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1969]). With the Keynesian revolution, macroentities had replaced the action of individuals. Subjectivism and individual causation had been superseded by functional relations among objectified aggregates, which had few if any real world referents in the actions of economizing individuals. A whole tradition transplanted to British soil vanished. When Lachmann had arrived in London during the early 1930s, everybody was a Hayekian, but by the beginning of World War II the only consistent and thoroughgoing Hayekians left were Lachmann and Hayek himself.


Lachmann spent the next decade trying to piece together what had gone wrong. In 1938 he was appointed Leon Fellow of the University of London to examine economic theory on the causes and phenomena of the Great Depression. He traveled extensively in the United States, where he did research at Columbia University, Harvard University, and the University of Chicago. While at Chicago he participated in Frank H. Knight's famous seminar in economics. Knight, though one of the great defenders of subjectivism in economics, had little sympathy with Austrian capital theory and the theory of the business cycle erected on those foundations. Perhaps after being stimulated by Knight's seminar, Lachmann wrote two articles—“On Crisis and Adjustment” and “A Reconsideration of the Austrian Theory of Industrial Fluctuations”—in which he tried to reestablish the validity of the Austrian position. However, as World War II grew in intensity and the economies of the industrialized countries began to mobilize for the war effort, Lachmann's work failed to attract attention. The same was true of Hayek's Profits, Interest, and Investment (1939), another restatement of the Austrian theory. Keynesian theory was better suited to the direction of a command economy mobilizing for war, and perhaps for this reason the Austrian analysis was ignored.

In a final effort to familiarize English readers with Austrian capital theory, Hayek published The Pure Theory of Capital (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1941). This important work systematically developed the main points of his own investigations in neoclassical terminology. Hayek's treatise did not attract the scholarly attention it deserved, and Hayek, somewhat discouraged, turned his attention to political philosophy and the philosophy of science. Hayek's brilliant Counter-Revolution of Science (London: Free Press, 1955) and the essays included in Individualism and Economic Order (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1949) largely date from this period and document the gradual shift in his research interests form pure economics toward social philosophy.

Although there were many areas of intellectual agreement between Lachmann and Hayek, Lachmann was not really satisfied with Hayek's Pure Theory of Capital. Hayek based a large part of his 1941 analysis on Böhm-Bawerkian foundations, and Lachmann considered Hayek's work to possess many of the disadvantages of the current macroeconomic approach. Lachmann considered himself a follower of Menger's subjectivism, and he, like Menger, criticized the work of Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk as a deviation from the main line of development of Austrian economics, in that Böhm-Bawerk's analysis lost sight of the individual and built a model of capital accumulation based on the older Ricardian notion that capital was a “subsistence fund.”

In 1941 Lachmann was appointed a lecturer at the University of London and later moved to Aberystwyth, Wales. In 1943 he received an appointment at the University of Hull, where he remained until 1948. In Wales and later at Hull he perfected his subjectivist position. His work on expectations continued (“The Role of Expectations”). In reaction to Hayek's Pure Theory of Capital and also in response to the general character of modern capital theory, he began a project that was to occupy him for the next ten years. He believed that by analyzing defects in capital theory, he could expose misconceptions in other areas of macroeconomic analysis.

Building on the essential insights of Hayek's classic 1935 paper, “The Maintenance of Capital” (Economica 2 [August 1935]: 241–76), Lachmann attacked the assumption that capital is a homogeneous and measurable aggregate in his article “On the Measurement of Capital” (Economica 8 [November 1941]: 361–77). His later paper “Complementarity and Substitution” is a detailed presentation of the view that capital is not a homogeneous aggregate but rather a complex interdependent structure of heterogeneous producer's goods. This line of inquiry culminated in the publication of his book Capital and Its Structure in 1956 (2d ed., Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, forthcoming).

Despite his differences with Hayek on certain aspects of capital theory, Lachmann found Hayek's work on methodology both a guide and an inspiration. The key to a proper understanding of the discipline of economics is the realization that there is more to economic analysis than the pure logic of choice. This criticism was implicit in Hayek's methodological writings. Still it was not clear what that something “more” was. Not until after Lachmann became head of the department of economics at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg did he succeed in settling the problem to his own satisfaction.


In 1947 Paul Samuelson attempted to fuse the ideas of Keynes and general equilibrium analysis into a new neoclassical synthesis. Lachmann read Samuelson's Foundations of Economic Analysis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1947) and, not surprisingly, found the synthesis unconvincing. Although Keynesian economics had some relevance to extreme situations such as the Great Depression and the command economies of World War II, its prescriptions were unsound for an economy functioning under normal conditions.

By the time Lachmann reviewed Ludwig von Mises's Human Action (1949) in 1951 (“The Science of Human Action”) he had become reacquainted with the writings of Max Weber. The combined influence of Mises and Weber prompted Lachmann to censure Samuelson and others for trying to graft new concepts onto old ideas until economic theory had lost all proportion. To Lachmann there were basically two distinct and mutually exclusive ways of analyzing complex economic phenomena. The Samuelson-Keynes synthesis in positing quantitative relationships between fictitious entities represented the failure of modern economics. The Mises-Weber approach, on the other hand, belonged to a tradition that endeavored to understand the essence of economic action. It embodied and introduced the subjective, or interpretive, economic analysis.

In this inaugural lecture at the University of the Witwatersrand (“Economics as a Social Science”) Lachmann presented a synthesis of his views with those of Mises and Weber. In agreement with Mises, he conceived human action to be more than automatic reaction within a given economic environment; therefore any theory professing to interpret economic activity must refer to the purposive actions of individuals. Since choice is an activity of the human mind, it is impossible to divorce choice from the larger notion of purpose. Economics is therefore a discipline that promotes understanding of economic activity, and not a discipline that uses the methodology of the natural sciences to predict the outcome of economic activity.

Lachmann's work during the 1950s may be described as a fusion of (1) his concept of the role of expectations in capital theory, (2) the Misesian view of human action as purposive, and (3) the verstehende sociology of Max Weber. Since thought and action are identical categories, an understanding of thought will also furnish an understanding of action. To understand action is to comprehend the thought that sets that action in motion. Interpretive economics relates complex economic phenomena to the individual plans and purposes that set them in motion, and this analysis requires constant reference to the plans, preferences, values, and expectations of acting individuals.


In assessing the evolution of economic theory during the decades 1933–1953 (“Some Notes on Economic Thought”), Lachmann attached great significance to the use made of expectations in economic analysis. He took issue with the basic premise of Keynesian analysis that the market economy requires constant stimulation by the state to avoid general stagnation. He also criticized microeconomists who view competition as a state of affairs (that is, “when the demand curve facing the firm is perfectly elastic”) rather than as a process In “Ludwig von Mises and the Market Process” Lachmann found the neoclassical view of competition not only defective but totally misleading as a standard for judging the efficacy of real world market conditions. He concluded that both micro and macroeconomics had led contemporary economists down dead-end streets.

In his 1956 article “The Market Economy and the Distribution of Wealth” Lachmann applied the Misesian notion of market process to the distribution of social income. Here he attacked the concept that the distribution of wealth should be taken as a datum rather than a result of the market process. The market economy constantly adapts to changing historical conditions and alterations in the plans of acting individuals. As conditions change, Lachmann pointed out, the mode of distribution of wealth changes also. These views led Lachmann to join with Mises in a critique of neoclassical economists' use of equilibrium analysis as a blueprint for reordering the social world. This point of view is expressed in “Methodological Individualism and the Market Economy.”


In his review of Joan Robinson's Accumulation of Capital (1956) Lachmann sought to place the book within the traditional framework of economics. Because she was interested in long-run equilibrium questions, not the mainstay of early Keynesian analysis, Robinson could not be called a Keynesian. In his review “Mrs. Robinson and the Accumulation of Capital” Lachmann dubbed her a “latter-day Ricardian” and thus classified her and her followers as counterrevolutionaries to the subjectivist revolution that Menger has initiated in reaction to Ricardo and the adherents of classical analysis.

The counterrevolutionary character of a growing body of current economic thought deeply disturbed Lachmann. Throughout the next decade he worked out a counterattack against the neo-Ricardians. A most insightful article in this vein first appeared in German (translated under the title “The Significance of the Austrian School in the History of Ideas”).

At this same time Lachmann was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the neo-Keynesian model builders, or “neoclassical formalists” as he called them. He questioned the value, either for understanding the economy or for formulating policy, of elegant models without a base in the microeconomic realities of the market. Once again he deplored the rejection of the subjective springs of economic phenomena for mathematical formulations and misleading equilibrium models. He singled out for criticism the work of the post-Keynesian theorists J. R. Hicks, Paul Samuelson, and Robert Solow (translated under the title “Model Constructions and the Market Economy”) in an article that originally appeared in German.

In Macro-economic Thinking and the Market Economy (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1973), Lachmann found fault with both the neo-Keynesians and the neo-Ricardians for ignoring the real issues in their disputations. He also sketched the subjectivist, or Austrian, answers to such important questions as the nature of techniques of construction to profit relationships in a market economy. In short, the controversy over “reswitching,” as it came to be known, is largely due, in Lachmann's estimation, to a confusion about the nature and source of profit. Profit is a result of adjustment to unexpected change, and therefore the magnitude of profit is constantly changing. Moreover unexpected change cannot be integrated within an equilibrium model of the economy. In equilibrium profit cannot exist.


During the 1950s and 1960s Lachmann continued to work on two lifelong interests, that is, the role of changing expectations in the economy and the theory of capital. His advanced concepts about expectations are formulated in “Professor Shackle on the Significance of Time.” Static equilibrium models are misleading because they ignore the importance of unanticipated change. Is there any reason to believe a tendency toward equilibrium really exists? Static equilibrium analysis and the models distilled from it assume that equilibrium can be attained automatically. To the contrary, in any real world market situation whether individual plans diverge or converge depends on the way expectations adjust. But inasmuch as expectations are conjectures about the future, it is presumptuous to graft expectations onto equilibrium models where the final position is predetermined by conditions stated at the outset.

Lachmann's concepts of expectations are both novel and intriguing. The future is unknowable but not unimaginable. Persons differ in their mental projections, since it is improbable that any large number of persons will ever anticipate the future exactly, expectations will always diverge. According to Lachmann (following G. L. S. Shackle), the forces for the divergence of plans are likely to be stronger than those for their convergence.

Fluctuations in economic life continuously alter the basic constellation of knowledge; and this fluidity is; after all, the essence of the economic problem and the reason why efficient central planning is impossible (see, for example, Hayek, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” in Individualism and Economic Order, pp. 77–91). In his review of Shackle's Time in Economics (“Professor Shackle”), Lachmann pushed the logic of Hayek's insight to the conclusion that any attempt at economic prediction is futile: “The impossibility of prediction in economics follows from the fact that economic change is knowledge, and future knowledge cannot be gained before its time.” In a review of one of Shackle's later works, Kenneth Boulding called this stand on prediction and knowledge “Lachmann's Law” (“A Review of Epistemics and Economics by G. L. S. Shackle,” Journal of Economic Literature 11 [December 1973]: 1373–74). Thus after Mises and Hayek, Shackle was the economist whose thought had a tremendous impact on Lachmann's intellectual development.

As noted, the Lachmann-Shackle position that forces of divergence tend to outweigh forces of convergence makes a general market equilibrium unlikely. According to Lachmann, the strength of the forces of convergence depends almost entirely on the activities of entrepreneurs. If entrepreneurs take advantage of the price-cost discrepancies attending changing circumstances, the entrepreneurial function of using resources in search of profit (the process of innovation and imitation) will, as most Austrian economists agree, lead to a convergence of the plans of individuals in markets. However, because change is ever present and unpredictable, individuals have different expectations about the character and extent of change. It is this factor more than any other that precludes anything approaching a macroeconomic general equilibrium in the uncertain world of market activity.


Lachmann's policy positions are consistent with his basic approach to economic analysis. Although a determined opponent of interventionism in the market, his opposition is less philosophically founded than that of either Mises or Hayek. In many ways he is the perfect example of the traditional “classical liberal” economist. His defense of the market economy derives mostly from a deep concern for the historical development of Western civilization. All interference with the entrepreneurial process of adjustment and the market's consequent diffusion of knowledge weakens the forces of equilibrium and impedes rapid market clearing. Either piecemeal or planned market intervention inevitably creates dislocations that lead in turn to more extensive market interventions—a spiral that eventually cripples the market economy without providing a satisfactory substitute.

From the twelfth century onward Western civilization and the market economy developed side by side. During the nineteenth century the market economy experienced an accelerated development to the material advantage of the expanding populations of the Western world. During this century, and especially after World War I, both economic theory and economic policy have deteriorated to the point that the survival of the market economy is threatened. For the greater part of the twentieth century Western society has been sustained by the past accomplishments of the relatively unhampered market economy of the nineteenth century; however, such capital consumption cannot go on forever.

Interventionism in one form or another has become the stated policy of Western governments. Planners profess the ability to coordinate economic affairs better than the freely operating market process, which they often characterize as “chaotic” or “anarchistic”. In one form or another central governments cooperate with the private sector in programs to “rationalize” or “improve upon” the market system by cultivating “balanced growth” (“Cultivated Growth and the Market Economy”). However, intervention, no matter how well intentioned, leads to secondary economic dislocations that further hamper the market process and set the stage for more severe maladjustment.

Perhaps the most alluring and ultimately most pernicious of planned interventions are the expansionary, or “easy money,” policies of the central banks. It is monetary or credit expansion, causing a system-wide distortion of the price structure and the entrepreneurial process, that makes economic calculation difficult and sometimes impossible. Why do central banks inflate their currencies, and why do the Austrian economists see the consequences of this inflation to be so economically and socially disastrous?

Originally the money supply is increased with the object of artificially lowering market rates of interest in order to stimulate investment, production, and employment. However, along with the massive infusions of new money into the various banking networks is the ominous development of powerful and government-favored labor unions. Faced with the political-economic power of organized labor and the knowledge that monetary deflation would create labor unrest, governments resort to expansion of the money supply as a method of temporarily achieving full employment. In their privileged position, unions force a continued upward movement in money wages that can only be sustained by resorting to further increased in the money supply. Therefore the twin causes of the Western monetary malaise are monetary expansionism and powerful labor unions that prevent downward movements in wages and prices (“Causes and Consequences of Inflation in Our Time”).

To Lachmann the significance of inflation among the Western nations is not simply the continual rise in prices or the consequent redistribution of income from creditors to debtors. Equally important is that the artificial booms and consequent slumps caused by the infusion of money into the loan market make the market economy appear inherently unstable. This encourages the clamor for further intervention, such as planning for “investment stabilization” and the related call for “indicative planning.” With wages not permitted to fall because of the threat of union unrest and prices and wages moving upward at an accelerating pace, the planners opt for wage and price controls. At this point the market process cannot operate effectively, and if the wage and price controls are enforced, the market system comes to a halt. For these reasons government intervention in economic affairs should be minimal. The role of government should be as circumscribed as possible and conform to the classical liberal ideal of supporting the free market by strengthening the institutions of private property and voluntary business contract.


The roots of Lachmann's subjectivism date from his student days in the 1920s and his discovery of Menger's writings. However, while the subjectivist position in economics including the views that utility, cost, and market phenomena are rooted in the private plans of individuals was never dominant during the 1920s, it was considered a respectable position. By 1960 all had changed. Lachmann viewed with alarm the trend to ignore the Austrian, or subjective, contribution to the discipline. While to some observers Lachmann's subjectivism appeared increasingly uncompromising, his basic position was that, in Hayek's words, “every important advance in economic theory during the last hundred years was a further step in the consistent application of subjectivism” (The Counter-Revolution of Science [New York: Free Press, 1955], p. 31). Consequently, as subjectivism lost favor in academic circles, Lachmann defended it with greater intensity. The form of Lachmann's defense was heavily influenced by the work of Alfred Schütz.

In 1935 Felix Kaufmann lectured at the London School on the recent writings of the Austrian philosopher and sociologist Alfred Schütz (A. Schütz, Der sinnhafte Aufbau der sozialen Welt [Vienna: Julius Springer, 1932; translated as The Phenomenology of the Social World [Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1967]). In synthesizing the philosophy of Edmund Husserl and the sociology of Max Weber. Schütz presented a forceful antipositivist defense of the subjective foundations of the social sciences. While the Kaufmann lecture did not create much of a stir among the London School economists, Lachmann found it meaningful. Several years later he read an account of schütz's Der Aufbau that appeared in Economica (A. Stonier and K. Bode, “A New Approach to the Methodology of the Social Sciences”, Economica 4 [November 1937]: 406–24) but was not motivated to study Schütz in depth. Not until the midfifties when the subjectivist position was badly in need of defense did Lachmann begin a systematic analysis of Schütz's philosophy.

According to Lachmann, if the methods of the social sciences are to elucidate social phenomena, they must be based on the concept that the social world contains not only objective measurable facts but the “perceptions” of these facts by social actors, each of whom plans on the basis of his unique perceptions. If the social sciences are to mature, they must follow the course laid out by Mises, Hayek, and Schütz. Lachmann's work in this area is contained in “The Historical Significance” and his full-length study of Max Weber's thought, The Legacy of Max Weber.


In 1975 Ludwig Lachmann was named Visiting Professor of Economics at New York University and spends the academic year in New York City and the summer months at his home in Johannesburg, South Africa. He remains an active teacher and scholar, and a listing of his most recent publications appears at the end of this volume.

Last modified April 10, 2014