A key difference between Austrian economics and the neoclassical-mathematical economics developed in the mid-twentieth century by Paul Samuelson and others is the assumption by the latter that people are essentially omniscient. What neoclassical economists call “rationality” effectively means omniscience. When the agents in neoclassical models face any uncertainty, the uncertainty is always fully understood in advance; for instance, a stock’s value tomorrow might be drawn from a normal distribution with a known mean and variance. Without the assumption of omniscience, the Austrian school faces the important question of how people can make economic decisions in a complex, uncertain world.
Ludwig von Mises’ answer (see his 1920 essay, Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth) was that capitalist entrepreneurs calculate in monetary terms. That is, they use the prices of the immediate past as their starting data, and attempt to direct factors of production in such a way as to maximize the spread between costs and revenues. If their predictions of price changes are good, they earn profits. If their predictions are bad, they earn losses. Thus, their direction of scarce resources is subject to immediate and consequential feedback allowing a selective process for only the best entrepreneurial forecasting methods. Without monetary exchange and prices, the problem of directing factors of production to their highest uses becomes intractable.
An interesting thing about Mises’ calculation argument is that it does not only relate to socialism, but to free, capitalist societies also. Mises states that, “Economic goods only have part in this system [of monetary calculation] in proportion to the extent to which they may be exchanged for money.” Thus, when a good cannot be exchanged for money, for any reason, it is subject to a Misesian calculation problem.
One type of capital good that I have identified as facing a calculation problem is education. The present value of an education is nowhere represented as a market price. The rental rate of the education is represented in the price spread between educated and uneducated labour, but the present value of the education is not a price because the education itself cannot be exchanged.
The present value of the education would correspond to the expected discounted stream of income generated by the education, but this income is not represented in prices until years after the education is complete. Thus, students cannot use monetary calculation to allocate their time, funds, and efforts to being educated. They cannot refer to the present value price of the education in their initial estimation of the education’s value, nor can they refer to that price to evaluate their decisions in real time.
In my view, the way to introduce economic rationality to education is to have a well-functioning market in student debt. Student debt can be priced in the market, and can thus be efficiently allocated according to monetary calculation. The value of a student loan is related to the value of the student’s education. To the extent that the availability of credit can affect people’s educational choices, lenders will be able to steer the allocation of resources towards more productive lines of education.
The student loan markets are not healthy, however, because of decades of government interventions intended to increase the availability of credit for students.
Garrett M. Petersen is an economics PhD student at Simon Fraser University. You can find him online at the economics detective blog.