But a debate has raged about whether Menger had a clear notion of economic equilibrium and tendencies to equilibrium (Tieben 2012: 315).
Some few have that held that Menger had some notion of supply and demand equilibrium via price coordination (Moss 1978), but most argue that Menger did not have any such theory (Streissler 1972, Kirzner 1978; Endres 1995). Indeed, even Hayek remarked on “the absence in Menger’s work of the conception of a general equilibrium” (Hayek 1992: 104).
So, fundamentally, compared to both modern neoclassical and modern Austrian price theory, Menger’s price theory appears undeveloped (and it is also different from Marshallian partial equilibrium analysis).
Streissler (1972: 276) contends that “market clearing by price adjustment was inessential to … [sc. Menger’s] theory of price formation.” (And, as an aside, nor does Menger seem to conceive of the competitive entrepreneurial process as operating with a tendency to drive profits to zero [Kirzner 1978: 33].)
Indeed, Tieben contends that
“[sc. Menger] … rejected the static notion of economic equilibrium – the equality between quantities supplied and demanded – as a starting point for theoretical analysis.Furthermore, Menger’s own analysis of multilateral exchange shows that negotiated prices can cause excess demand to persist (Tieben 2012: 322) – which is contrary to modern price theory in which flexible prices cause equilibration of supply and demand.
But also as a dynamic conception there was no role for the conception of economic equilibrium in Menger’s theory of prices. Menger addressed the relationship between competition and prices as a secular trend, but there is hardly any reference in his theory of price to the capacity of competitive markets to establish equilibrium between supply and demand. Surprisingly, Menger never stressed the capacity of the market process to safeguard the relative harmony of the exchange mechanism, a function that is usually associated with the tendency of prices to move towards a supply and demand equilibrium.” (Tieben 2012: 319).
Moss argues that Menger thought of true “equilibrium prices” as the price that emerges when completely determined by the preferences of economic agents and not influenced by their relative bargaining strengths (Moss 1978: 28; Tieben 2012: 320) – a definition contrary to the usual idea of an “equilibrium price” as a price that equates quantity demanded with total quantity supplied for sale.
Menger’s actual process of market “equilibration” is also quite different from modern Walrasian general equilibrium theory or even Mises’s market coordinating tendency towards the “final state of rest”: Menger thinks that economic progress consists in transformation of monopolistic markets into competitive ones, which boosts economic welfare via greater supply, less abuse of market power, and a more equitable distribution of wealth (Tieben 2012: 323). (Menger, it should be noted, held that monopoly was a quite significant market phenomenon, perhaps even the rule rather than the exception [Kirzner 1978: 41; Streissler 1973: 168].)
Arguably, it was Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk who extended Menger’s price theory to stress the idea of demand and supply equilibrium in prices (a concept which was called Gleichgewicht in German), and the (alleged) tendency of the market process via price formation to equilibrate demand and supply in auction-like markets (Endres 1996: 96; Tieben 2012: 323), even if Böhm-Bawerk’s view is that market clearing in this sense occurs in a given range of possible equilibrium prices rather than a unique Walrasian point price (Endres 1996: 96).
This concept of market clearing is central to modern Austrian economics: it cannot be stressed how dependent modern Austrian theory is on this idea. Without a tendency towards demand and supply equilibrium via flexible prices, so much of Austrian economics – such as the belief in rapid and smooth recovery from recessions and Misesian economic coordination – is undermined and left without foundation.
But it is strange indeed that Menger – the founder of Austrian theory – did not conceive of the price system as equilibrating supply and demand.
Endres, A. M. 1995. “Carl Menger’s Theory of Price Formation Reconsidered,” History of Political Economy 27.2: 261–287.
Endres, A. M. 1996. “Some Microfoundations of Austrian Economics: Böhm-Bawerk’s Version,” European Journal of the History of Economic Thought 3.1: 84–106.
Endres, Anthony. 1997. Neoclassical Microeconomic Theory: The Founding Austrian Vision. Routledge, London. 60–84.
Hayek, Friedrich A. von. 1992. “Carl Menger (1840–1921),” in P. G. Klein (ed.), The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek. Volume IV. The Fortunes of Liberalism: Essays on Austrian Economics and the Ideal of Freedom. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 61–107.
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Moss, L. S. 1978. “Carl Menger’s Theory of Exchange,” Atlantic Economic Journal 6: 17–29.
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Streissler, Erich. 1973. “Menger’s Theories of Money and Uncertainty—A Modern Interpretation,” in J. R. Hicks and W. Weber (eds.), Carl Menger and the Austrian School of Economics. Clarendon Press, Oxford. 164–189.
Streissler, Erich. 1990. “The Influence of German Economics on the Work of Menger and Marshall,” in Bruce J. Caldwell (ed.), Carl Menger and His Legacy in Economics. Duke University Press, Durham.
Tieben, Bert. 2012. The Concept of Equilibrium in Different Economic Traditions: An Historical Investigation. Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA. pp. 315–319.
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