Emergence and Complexity in Austrian Economics


A deep theme of Austrian economics has been that of spontaneous order or selforganization of the economy. The origin of this theme dates to the putative founder of the Austrian School, Carl Menger, with his theory of the spontaneous emergence of money for transactions purposes in primitive economies being archetypal example (Menger, 1892). Menger drew this approach from the Scottish Enlightenment figures David Hume, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith, with the latter’s Wealth of Nations (1776) particularly important. The most important developer of this idea within the tradition after Menger was F.A. Hayek (1948), who would identify this self-organization phenomenon with emergence, later expanding upon this into the broader concept of complexity (Hayek, 1952, 1967). Caldwell (2004) argues that this became an increasingly important focus of Hayek’s thought in the later years of his life. Among those examining this development in more detail besides Caldwell have been Koppl (2006, 2009), Rosser (2010a),1 and Lewis (2010). This essay will consider more thoroughly the relationship between the concepts of emergence and complexity and the roles that they have played in Austrian economics as well as more broadly in philosophy and science. An important point is that both of these concepts do not possess precise meanings; they are “terms of art” within philosophy. However, while closely linked through the general idea of a whole being “greater than..



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