The Austrian and Bloomington Schools of Political Economy: Volume 22

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Table of contents

(8 chapters)

Bloomington scholars are critical of the rather wide-spread “Model Platonism” of both Austrian and Chicago economists. Their empirical, B, perspective avoids the more extreme views of both Austrian “mindful economics,” A, and Chicago “mindless economics,” C. Yet the B is not a mere convex combination of A and C. It is rather a psychologically grounded empirical evidence-oriented approach that keeps clear of the non-empirical spirit of von Mises’ and Selten’s methodological dualism on one hand and the instrumentalist and behaviorist spirit of much of neo-classical economics on the other hand.


This chapter uses the theory of complex systems as a conceptual lens through which to compare the work of Friedrich Hayek with that of Vincent and Elinor Ostrom. It is well known that, from the 1950s onwards, Hayek conceptualised the market as a complex adaptive system. It is argued in this chapter that, while the Ostroms began explicitly to describe polycentric systems as a class of complex adaptive system from the mid-to-late 1990s onwards, they had in fact developed an account of polycentricity as displaying most if not all of the hallmarks of organised complexity long before that time. The Ostromian and Hayekian approaches can thus be seen to share a good deal in common, with both portraying important aspects of society – the market economy in the case of Hayek, and public economies, legal and political systems, and environment resources in the case of the Ostroms – as complex rather than simple systems. Aside from helping to bring out this aspect of the Ostroms’ work, using the theory of complex systems as a framework for comparing the Hayekian and Ostromian approaches serves two other purposes. First, it can be used to show how one widely criticised aspect of Hayek’s theory of society as a complex system, namely his account of cultural evolution via group selection, can be strengthened by an appeal to the work of Elinor Ostrom. Second, it also helps to resolve a tension – ultimately acknowledged by the Ostroms themselves – between some of their explicit methodological pronouncements and the actual, substantive approach they adopted in their analysis of polycentric systems.


What can the applied economist do? In order to explore issues playing out in the “real world” of the past or present, the applied social scientist has to make a series of decisions about what they will accept as the facts of the situation. Particularly for research questions in which the beliefs, plans, and motivations of individuals matter – such as institutional analysis – this task requires the development of some degree of intersubjective understanding, or verstehen. For over 50 years, the Bloomington School of Institutional Analysis has been using fieldwork and deep archival history to conduct meaningful institutional analysis that takes interpretation and the quest for understanding seriously. As such, those who wish to take up the call for economists to take an “interpretive turn” can gain a great deal of insight and practical advice from the study of the Bloomington School’s methods and approach.

The American National Red Cross is in many ways the iconic symbol for disaster response and recovery. The organization, founded in 1881, has a long track record for coming to the aid of those in need in the wake of wars, natural disasters, and other crises. However, in the wake of recent disasters, the Red Cross has been criticized for underperforming. By combining the literature on bureaucracy in Austrian economics and the literature on monocentricity in the work of Vincent Ostrom and Elinor Ostrom, we provide an analysis of the Red Cross that helps explain the organization’s evolution over time and that also yields implications for disaster management more broadly. Specifically, the Red Cross is a bureaucracy that has become increasingly centralized and rigid as it has become further enmeshed with governmental responsibilities.


Both the Austrian and Bloomington Schools emphasize the dispersal of information to the level of individual agents. An underappreciated difference is the Bloomington emphasis on the moral psychology of agents and its relation to covenant. Covenant refers to a habit, a sense of obligation to consider the interests of the other in decision making, and a commitment to do so that is not easily or unilaterally broken. This chapter seeks to elaborate the lineage of covenant in constituting political order and its implications for the moral psychology of agents and artisanship. This exploration raises issues of metaphysical foundations as they relate to values and to the Hobbesian–Aristotelian divide in starting points. An application to the environmental crisis, with particular reference to vested interests promoting disinformation, obfuscation, and doubt about anthropogenic climate change, suggests value in emphasizing covenant.


Political economy is a term in wide use and has been for centuries. Yet standard economic theory reduces politics to ethics or economics. This reduction is enabled by the presumption of closed choice data or given utility and cost functions. In this conceptual framework, the political vanishes into an activity of preference satisfaction according to a welfare function (ethics) or into trade (economics). To bring the political back to life within a theory of political economy requires that closed schemes of thought be replaced by open schemes. The ways in which individuals react to the indeterminacy of their subjective choice data, in innocuous small-scale settings as well as in situations of dramatic exception to constitutional rules, separates them into leaders and followers. Followership creates an opportunity for political enterprise at the social level (enterprise in rules) and at the subjective level (enterprise in visions of options, and hence preferences). At both levels the political comes to the fore of political economy as an answer to the “challenge of exception.” Much of our inspiration for this argument traces to the work of Friedrich Wieser, Carl Schmitt, and Vincent Ostrom.


Innovation – the process of transforming research ideas into marketable products and services – requires the collaboration of multiple actors across a variety of interactive situations. Increasingly, innovation is recognized as an important driver of economic growth and human development. Understanding the contexts within which these actors – including researchers, university administrators, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, private corporations, and public officials – solve recurrent and often complex problems of collective action is therefore of interest to analysts and policymakers. This task begins with the broader theoretical understanding, emphasized by Austrian economists, of the economy as an intricate, interactive, and interconnected system. In complement, the applications to practical policy analysis, developed by Vincent Ostrom and Elinor Ostrom and their colleagues at the Bloomington School, emphasize the role of crafting rules and designing policies to solve recurrent problems of collective action.

Cover of The Austrian and Bloomington Schools of Political Economy
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Book series
Advances in Austrian Economics
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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