“Normativity” is a tricky word, one I prefer to avoid in polite company. And yet it is taken for granted in both the legal and economic fields that their respective professionals are somehow “allowed” to make normative judgments, transcending the “is” to pontificate on the “ought.” When hybridized, law and economics or “economic analysis of law” takes the neo-classical conception of “efficiency” and applies it to all sorts of legal rules, procedures, and marginal phenomena to declare what should stay and what should go. Not all economists agree with using “efficiency” in this manner, and some reject the concept altogether. One such camp is the so-called “Austrian School” of economics which, traditionally, holds that economics is the science of “is” not “ought.” Ludwig von Mises makes this very clear in Human Action and other works; a slightly more recent Austrian, Irving Kirzner, does as well. Some Austrians have, from time to time, tried to develop normative criteria for their school, though none of it has ever really taken hold. This is perhaps why the Austrian School, as opposed to the neo-classical Chicago School, never had much influence over the law and economics movement. Without the ability to transcend the “is,” it couldn’t gain away over brilliant legal professors who—unlike the rest of us—always know the “ought.”
Strange then that so many Austrian economists, almost all of whom are epigones of Mises or Hayek, spend so much time wagging their fingers at fellow economists, lawyers, and politicians over economic policy. Despite being deprived of any right to speak of the “ought” on purely economic grounds, the Austrians continue to push for the usual menu of libertarian reforms: deregulation, limited-to-no taxation, ostensibly neutral rules affecting the economy, and so on and so forth. On what possible normative basis do they stand to make their claims? It is only after importing rickety liberal ideology, the sort which exalts individualism and personal freedom above the common good (or identifies the two with it), can they start to say something substantive about how society, particularly its economic structures, ought to be organized.
Stranger still that so many Catholics, like those associated with the Acton Institute, would be drawn to Austrianism. Setting aside the fact that the Austrian School has been marginalized by the economics profession as a whole, shouldn’t Catholics—of all people—have some worries about a school within a discipline which, by its own pure self-understanding, cannot transcend the “is” to arrive at the “ought”? Or do those Catholics who adhere to Austrianism believe that it is their duty to supply the “ought,” this time not form liberal ideology but rather from a warped understanding of both the natural-law tradition and the Church’s social magisterium? Or perhaps that’s just window dressing meant to distract from the vacuity of Austrian-style economics while drawing unsuspecting Catholics into the belief that markets will save the world. What a grisly state of affairs that would be.