Testing Economic Theory


  • Christopher P. Guzelian




Two years ago, Bob Mulligan and I empirically tested whether the Bank of Amsterdam, a prototypical central bank, had caused a boom-bust cycle in the Amsterdam commodities markets in the 1780s owing to the bank’s sudden initiation of low-fractional-re-serve banking (Guzelian & Mulligan 2015).1 Widespread criticism came quickly after we presented our data findings at that year’s Austrian Economic Research Conference. Walter Block representa-tively responded: «as an Austrian, I maintain you cannot «test» apodictic theories, you can only illustrate them».2

Non-Austrian, so-called «empirical» economists typically have no problem with data-driven, inductive research. But Austrians have always objected strenuously on ontological and epistemolog-ical grounds that such studies do not produce real knowledge (Mises 1998, 113-115; Mises 2007). Camps of economists are talking past each other in respective uses of the words «testing» and «eco-nomic theory». There is a vital distinction between «testing» (1) an economic proposition, praxeologically derived, and (2) the rele-vance of an economic proposition, praxeologically derived. The former is nonsensical; the latter may be necessary to acquire eco-nomic theory and knowledge. Clearing up this confusion is this note’s goal.

Rothbard (1951) represents praxeology as the indispensible method for gaining economic knowledge. Starting with a Aristote-lian/Misesian axiom «humans act» or a Hayekian axiom of «humans think», a voluminous collection of logico-deductive eco-nomic propositions («theorems») follows, including theorems as sophisticated and perhaps unintuitive as the one Mulligan and I examined: low-fractional-reserve banking causes economic cycles.

There is an ontological and epistemological analog between Austrian praxeology and mathematics. Much like praxeology, we «know» mathematics to be «true» because it is axiomatic and deductive. By starting with Peano Axioms, mathematicians are able by a long process of creative deduction, to establish the real number system, or that for the equation an + bn = cn, there are no integers a, b, c that satisfy the equation for any integer value of n greater than 2 (Fermat’s Last Theorem).

But what do mathematicians mean when they then say they have mathematical knowledge, or that they have proven some-thing «true»? Is there an infinite set of rational numbers floating somewhere in the physical universe? Naturally no. Mathemati-cians mean that they have discovered an apodictic truth — some-thing unchangeably true without reference to physical reality because that truth is a priori.


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How to Cite

Guzelian, C. P. . (2018). Testing Economic Theory. REVISTA PROCESOS DE MERCADO, 15(2), 303–313. https://doi.org/10.52195/pm.v15i2.54