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        Austrian Economics and Game Theory:

a Stocktaking and an Evaluation

Nicolai Foss


Department of Industrial Economics and Strategy

Copenhagen Business School

Nansensgade 19,6

1366 Copenhagen K


[email protected]

June 16, 1999


Austrian Economics and Game Theory:

a Stocktaking and an Evaluation


I discuss the merits and drawbacks of game theory in economics from

the perspective of Austrian economics. I begin by arguing that

Austrians have neglected game theory at their peril, and then suggest

that game theoretic reasoning could be one way of modelling key

Austrian insights. However, admittedly some aspects of game theory

don’t square easily with Austrian economics. Moreover, a major

stumbling block for an Austrian acceptance of game theory may lie in

the traditional Austrian resistance to formal methods.


The comments of Pierre Garrouste, Ulrich Witt and two anonymous

reviewers of this journal are acknowledged and appreciated.


B21, C70, D5


I. Introduction

This paper is founded on the conviction that in order for the Austrian critique of

mainstream economics to have true bite and relevance, Austrians should be aware

of and relate to the latest advances in mainstream economics. This may sound as a

truism, but it is nevertheless the case that the Austrians have been particularly bad

at relating to one very important trend in the development of mainstream

economics during the last two decades: the rise of game theory. This is a serious

problem for several reasons, most notably for the simple reason that game theory

is so crucially important in contemporary mainstream economics.

As Franklin Fisher (1990: 113) noted, in the nineteen-eighties, “... game

theory came to the ascendant as the premier fashionable tool of microtheorists”,

and it has certainly not lost that position, as inspection of virtually any mainstream

journal will confirm. Thus, the arguably major mainstream theoretical advances in

the 1980s and 1990s, such as the theory of contracts and the theory of auctions,

have been almost completely driven by game theory methods.1 Though

admittedly simplistic, there is much to say in favor of the view - put forward with

much force by Rizvi (1994) - that general equilibrium theory died and game

theory to a very large extent took over as the analytical core of modern mainstream

economics. However, Austrians continue to direct their criticisms at general

equilibrium theory (e.g., Kirzner 1997; Boettke 1996), but neglect game theory.

They do so at their peril.

The amazing growth of influence of game theory in economics is in itself an

important reason why Austrians should take a stand on game theory. A further

reason is that game theory has been argued to address exactly the dynamics of the

market process that Austrians have so vigorously criticized mainstream economics

for neglecting.2 Indeed, the argument may be put forward that the Austrian

dynamic conception of the market process as one of entrepreneurial discovery has

been made redundant by advances in applied game theory, particularly in the

context of industrial organization. Although such is hardly the case, it does

suggest that, from an Austrian point of view, the new game theoretical industrial

organization (IO) (e.g., Krouse 1990) may be seen as an advance relative to the oldfashioned

structure-conduct-performance IO which has for a long time and for

good reasons been strongly criticized by many Austrians (e.g., Armentano 1982).

In turn, this suggests that from an Austrian point of view, there may be both cons

and pros to game theory (and to its applications in economics).3 I shall be taken up

with analyzing these in the present paper.

Because there are both pros and cons to game theory, Austrians need to

consider these and make up their mind. My own conclusion is that the pros

outweigh the cons and that Austrians are well-advised to take an interest in game

theory and even feature game-theoretical methods in their works. Granted, there

is much that is objectionable in game theory from an Austrian point of view. Thus,

Austrian subjectivism may be argued to rule out, for example, the common

knowledge assumption,4 the idea of consistently aligned beliefs,5 and the seeming

quantifiability of individual utilities, as reflected in supposedly objective pay-offs.6


Indeed, sometimes game theorists indulge in excesses that not even proponents of

the more extreme versions of general equilibrium theory would engage in, such as

the basic idea in much of game theory that agents, even in very complex settings,

can coordinate their strategies on any desired equilibrium.7 Moreover, the players

that populate game theory models come equipped with even more knowledge and

rationality than has been standard fare in mainstream economics. Finally, the

notion of the market as one of rivalrous entrepreneurial discovery in the

Kirznerian sense (Kirzner 1973, 1997) is not present in game theory (in spite of the

effort of Littlechild 1979).

On the other hand, it is also fair to say that the frontiers of contemporary

game theory are to a considerable extent taken up with issues that have been

central in Austrian economics for a very long time. Among such issues are how to

model players’ subjective perceptions of other players and of the game (e.g.,

Littlechild 1979; Rubinstein 1991); learning processes (Crawford and Haller 1990);

and the role of “rules of conduct” (Hayek 1973) and various (other) institutions in

stabilizing beliefs and expectations. This may not constitute sufficient grounds for

some Austrians to embrace game theory. However, it may be argued that game

theory and its application to economics ought to be judged against what came

before it, namely general equilibrium theory. And from such a perspective, game

theory may be seen as a distinct advance - also to Austrians. Indeed, something

like this was clearly articulated by Austrian fellow traveller, James Buchanan

(1997: 71) when he recently observed that

[a] major change in economic theory may have occurred in mid-century

when the theory of games provided an alternative mathematics to the

marginalist calculus - a mathematics that carries important implications

for the very way that economists conceive what their enterprise is all

about (Von Neumann and Morgenstern 1944). In the theory of games,

attention is immediately focused on the interaction process as such ...

During the second third of the century, the ongoing dominance of the

maximization paradigm tended to obscure the potential contribution

that game theory’s elegance can make towards restoring ... the

catallactic focus of economic theory.

The design of the paper is the following: I begin by providing some brief

background material to the discussion, notably on the history of game theory,

before I turn to a more sustained critique of the Austrian neglect of game theory. I

then discuss the pros and the cons of game theory from an Austrian point of view,

before I finally place the discussion in the context of the broader Austrian critique

of formal methods.

II. Game Theory: Some Background

To a large extent, game theory is an import from mathematics.8 The two key

persons in the early development of the theory, John von Neumann and John

Nash, were both trained mathematicians, and many of the crucial papers have


been (and continue to be) published in mathematics (and theoretical statistics)

journals. However, an Austrian economist was also instrumental in the early

development of game theory. As recent research has documented, there was a

source of disagreement and confusion in the very different backgrounds and

contextual features of the authors of Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944).

Von Neumann’s background was in the foundations of mathematics and his

involvement in economics had related to existence proofs of competitive

equilibrium and growth theory, as well as a general wish to help reforming social

science (not just economics) through the supposedly more “scientific” use of

thoroughgoing formalization. Though substantively important, his contributions

to economics were few.

Von Neumann’s co-author, Oskar Morgenstern, was an Austrian economist,

of the same generation as Hayek and Machlup, but (together with Leo Schönfeld-

Illy and Paul Rosenstein-Rodan) belonging more to the circle of Hans Meyer than

to the Mises Kreis. Morgenstern had taken over from Hayek as the director the

Vienna Institute for Business Cycle Research, a position he kept until the Anschluss

in 1938, where he - while staying at Princeton University - lost that position.

However, in Princeton Morgenstern met Von Neumann and quickly embarked

upon the project that became The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.

Morgenstern’s primary role in the project appears to have been that of the

asker of provocative questions and supplier of ideas on plans, plan compatibility

and the role of time in economic affairs - subjects that he had treated in a number

of earlier publications (Morgenstern 1928, 1935a&b). These earlier works were

clearly inspired by Hans Meyer (e.g., Meyer 1932) in their concern with individual

plans, but also were clearly related to Hayek’s (1937) interest in the interaction and

compatibility of plans. It is not difficult to see the link between mixed strategies

in two-person, zero-sum games, and the famous Holmes-Moriarty parable from

Morgenstern (1935a: 173-4):

Sherlock Holmes, pursued by his opponent, Moriarty, leaves London

for Dover. The train stops at a station on the way, and he alights there

rather than traveling on to Dover. He has seen Moriarty at the railway

station, recognizes that he is very clever and expects that Moriarty will

take a faster special train in order to catch him in Dover. Holmes’

anticipation turns out to be correct. But what if Moriarty had been still

more clever and had foreseen his actions accordingly? Then, obviously,

he would have traveled to the intermediate station. Holmes, again,

would have had to calculate that and he himself would have decided to

go on to Dover. Whereupon, Moriarty would again have “reacted”

differently. Because of so much thinking they might not have been able

to act at all or the intellectually weaker of the two would have

surrendered in the Victoria Station, since the whole flight would have

become unnecessary.9

Moreover, Morgenstern’s story anticipates quite modern discussions of the

paradoxes of common knowledge (see Bicchieri 1992) and, more generally, the role

of agents’ beliefs in game theory. The Morgenstern parable would seem to


indicate the impossibility of perfect foresight equilibria, or at least of perfect

foresight processes leading to such equilibria in situations of conflict (O’Driscoll

and Rizzo 1985). It therefore indicated, as Morgenstern (1935a) pointed out, the

necessity of inquiring into the disequilibrium market process, characterized by the

less than perfect foresight of agents, of different beliefs, etc. However, in

actuality, little of this survived in Von Neumann and Morgenstern (1944), where,

quite in contrast to Morgenstern’s emphasis on the role of different beliefs and

imperfect foresight in the market process, most of the reasoning took place with

reference to static situations characterized by homogenous beliefs and perfect

foresight (Mirowski 1992).

Historically, game theory was initially greeted with considerable enthusiasm

in the economics profession (Rizvi 1994; Hargreaves Heap and Varoufakis 1995;

Leonard 1995) - an enthusiasm that, however, quickly faded away as application

turned out to be harder to accomplish than initially envisaged. Much of the reason

was that most game theory discussions and applications were limited to the zerosum,

two-person games that Von Neumann and Morgenstern had been primarily

taken up with. But another reason, which is perhaps more interesting in the

present context, is that Von Neumann and Morgenstern’s book was actually

interpreted as a major attack on the emerging Hicks-Samuelson orthodoxy

(Leonard 1995: 731).10 Since this orthodoxy was interpreted as an attempt to

basically found the core areas of economic analysis on the competitive equilibrium

model, the game theory concern with small-scale interaction was interpreted as a

provocative new agenda, and to some extent suppressed as a dangerous heresy

that introduced unnecessary complications.

Given this, it is ironic that one the first applications of game theory in

economics to make a serious impact is Debreu and Scarf (1963). Not only was this

paper published 19 years after the publication of von Neumann and Morgenstern

(1944), but it also utilizes game theory in the context of what should be seen as an

attempt to further the general equilibrium program.11 Somewhat earlier, Arrow

and Debreu (1954) had made reference to Nash (1950),12 but only because they

were inspired by Nash’s use of the Kakutani fixed point theorem to prove

existence of equilibrium in n-person games. Of course, Martin Shubik had

published his pioneering application of game theory to IO, Strategy and Market

Structure: Competition, Oligopoly, and the Theory of Games in 1959. But it seems to be

a fair judgment13 that the first contribution to make a truly substantial impact is

the Debreu and Scarf paper. However, after the Debreu and Scarf paper, there is

again a long time lag, this time between the application of game theory and its

widespread acceptance, the take-off period being the beginning of the 1980s,14 and

the virtual dominance of economics being completed around the end of that


Speculating about the timing of this, Rizvi (1994) argues that the primary

factor explaining the spread of popularity of game theory was that it had become

apparent for most theoretical economists that the general equilibrium project had

encountered severe difficulties. Among these difficulties was the much discussed

result due to Mantel, Debreu and Sonnenschein result about the arbitrariness of


excess demand functions in GE theory and the difficulty of handling imperfect

competition in GE. In this situation, game theory simply came to the rescue of

theorists and saved them from the inherent arbitrariness of GE theory.

There is arguably much truth to this story, although it also underestimates

the fact that (partial equilibrium) industrial organization economics became a very

fashionable field in the 1980s, and that field leaned heavily on game theory. In

other words, game theory in economics did not just emerge because of certain

logical problems in general equilibrium; it also took hold because it was inherently

better equipped than general equilibrium theory to deal with a number of issues.

This was anticipated in the early 1970s by Oskar Morgenstern (1972) when he

observed that economists had, sooner or later, to abandon “the Walras-Pareto

fixation”, that is, the preoccupation with competitive equilibrium, and turn to

analysis that includes much more comprehensively the formation of beliefs, rivalry

and competitive struggle - issues that Morgenstern implied were much more

adequately treated in the game theory that he had helped found.15 It is

appropriate at this point to turn to the Austrian critique of mainstream theorizing,

for if there are any economists who have urged the profession to abandon “the

Walras-Pareto fixation”, it is certainly the Austrians.

III. The Austrian Critique of the Mainstream

At least since the socialist calculation debate - and possibly earlier16 - the perhaps

main target for the scholarly critiques of Austrian economists has been the general

equilibrium model. Although some modern Austrians - such as Mises (1949) who

constructed his own general equilibrium pendant, “the evenly rotating economy” -

have seen some merit in the use of the construct as an analytical foil, other

Austrians, such as Lachmann (1986), have rejected general equilibrium theory

altogether and for all purposes. Presumably, all Austrians strongly reject the

Chicago “equilibrium always” strategy in which virtually all observed economic

phenomena are interpreted as realizations of an underlying stochastic general

equilibrium model.17 In fact, Austrians continue to debate the merits and

(particularly) drawbacks of the general equilibrium model (Kirzner 1997; Boettke

1997). Indeed, Austrians still tend to identify (the core of) mainstream or

neoclassical economics with the general equilibrium model. To quote Israel

Kirzner from his recent Journal of Economic Literature survey of recent Austrian

work, it is at “the basis” of the Austrian approach

... that standard neoclassical microeconomics, for which the Walrasian

general model (in its modern Arrow-Debreu incarnation) is the

analytical core, fails to offer a satisfying theoretical framework for

understanding what happens in market economies (1997: 61).

One may, of course, seriously question whether any of the major contributors to

GE theory (apart, possibly, from Fischer Black and Robert Lucas) have really ever

thought that GE theory offers “a satisfying theoretical framework for


understanding what happens in market economies” (see Hahn 1984), but that is

not the critical point here.

Rather, the point is that for a number of reasons, the centrality of the general

equilibrium model in the critiques of Austrians and their apparent identification of

it with (the core of) mainstream economics may be increasingly misguided. First,

general equilibrium doesn’t at all hold the same sway over the profession as it

possibly did two or three decades ago.18 Second, to some extent, it is descriptively

true to say that general equilibrium theory is dead - or at least dying. Third, as

we have seen already, the dominant paradigm today is game theory and not the

competitive equilibrium model. Rather, the latter is increasingly seen as a special

case of the former. Hicks and Samuelson have given way to Morgenstern and Von

Neumann (or to Nash, Aumann, Rubinstein, Selten, and Harsanyi).

The problem is that Austrians seem to be unaware of this development, or at

least, they have not explicitly reacted to it. However, the position here is that

Austrians should take a stand on game theory.19 It is fully acceptable for a small

group of economists with a distinct outlook to carve out a niche for themselves,

and Austrians may be most comfortable swimming in the waters of methodology,

economic policy and comparative systems. On the other hand, it is hard to deny

that perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the Austrian school in the last

decades - the refinement of the Austrian view of the market process in the works

of Israel Kirzner - relates directly to issues that are central to game theory. Thus,

non-Austrians may ask how the Austrian view of the market process relate to, say,

game theoretic IO, and they may be entitled to expect an Austrian answer.

Indeed, when Kirzner (1997: 64) notes that modern presentations of the

entrepreneurial discovery approach have tried to

... demote the concept of perfect competition from its position of

dominance in modern neoclassical theory, in order to replace it by

notions of dynamic competition (in which market participants are,

instead of exclusively price takers, competitive price - and quality -


any modern game theoretic IO economist is likely to retort that this is exactly what

been has going on in IO in the last two decades.

A further related consideration brings us back to the point that the Austrian

critique of equilibrium may be slightly out of date. When Austrians are criticizing

“equilibrium economics”, they are criticizing, as we have seen, the competitive GE

model. Indeed, “equilibrium” in Austrian texts is almost always synonymous

with optimal competitive general equilibrium, a view that is implicitly defended

by pointing to the importance of the latter model (e.g., Kirzner 1997).20 But surely

there is much more to equilibrium than this model. The basic textbook monopoly

model does not, for example, portray the price-taking behavior criticized by

Austrians.21 And what about ordinary Marshallian partial equilibrium; do the

reservations that may be hold with respect to GE also apply here? More to the

point, application of game theory to economics has now resulted in a plethora of

equilibrium concepts, most of which are refinements of the basic Nash equilibrium


concept, such as mixed-strategy Nash equilibrium (in two- or many-person

games), perfect equilibrium, trembling hand equilibrium, etc. Are these

equilibrium concepts equally problematic as competitive equilibrium? All of

them? Only some of them? Why? In order to ease the process of relating to game

theory, I shall in the following present two different Austrian views of game

theory, one against and one for.

IV. Against Game Theory: a Negative Austrian View

Among the few Austrians who have explicitly commented upon game theory is

Ludwig von Mises (1949). Characteristically frank, he entertained a hostile view

of game theory:

There is not the slightest analogy between playing games and the

conduct of business within a market society. The card player wins

money by outsmarting his antagonist. The businessman makes money

by supplying customers with goods they want to acquire … He who

interprets the conduct of business as trickery is on the wrong path


Writing in 1949, Mises appears justified in his critique of the zero-sum character of

the game theory of his day. And one can certainly direct his objection against

modern game theoretical IO that fanatically attempts to reduce virtually all market

phenomena to a matter of “oursmarting” opponents. However, game theory has

come a long way since 1949. And there are many other Austrian-style critiques

that may be launched against game theory. These are discussed in the following.

Formalization. One fundamental reason why Austrians should dislike game

theory is that game theory uses formal methods, a reason that may be further

supported by the Misesian position (Mises 1949) that there are no constants in

human and that therefore quantitative and formal methods are not warranted in

the social sciences.22 I confess to finding this view both superficial and dangerous,

first, because it seems to rest on a conflation of “formal” and “quantitative”, and,

second, because it amounts to a wholesale rejection of all formalization in

economics. While formalization may often go too far and live a life of its own,

although its advocates may have grossly oversold it in many instances, and

although it seldom brings much that is genuinely new,23 formal modelling is often

simply the only way to handle a complex world. It is exactly because it is so

difficult to analytically keep track of “the everyday business of living” (to use

Marshall’s terms) that formal modelling may (sometimes) be useful - not, as

Boettke (1996) thinks, the reason why it is of little or no value. (More about this


Misrepresenting Human Action. A more substantial objection is that game

theory appears to either equip agents with hyper-rationality (standard game

theory) or portray them as completely stupid programmed puppets (evolutionary


game theory) - both arguably denials of the praxeological character of human

action (Mises 1949). Thus, in many (standard) game theory analyses, agents are

supposed to know things (e.g., all other players’ preference orderings) that they

wouldn’t even know in the canonical GE model. In these respects, game theory is

sometimes epistemically more extreme than GE theory. In evolutionary game

theory, on the other hand, one goes to the other extreme and portrays agents as

following rigid rules, even if these turn out to be completely irrational.24 The

critical point here is that both approaches - the standard and the evolutionary

game theory approaches - essentially imply that the entrepreneurial process of

discovery becomes suppressed: in the standard approach there is no need for it,

because, roughly, agents already know all that is worth discovering, and in the

evolutionary approach, they are too stupid to discover anything anyway.

Equilibrium Methodology. Closely related to this, the coordination

problem that Hayek (1937) forcefully highlighted in the economics of his day is

still very much present in most of game theory; most game theorists simply

assume, without giving substantive reasons for this, that agents can coordinate their

strategies on any desired equilibrium through purely ratiocinative processes, and

without any genuine learning, discovery, surprises, etc.. Game theory rests on

equilibrium notions, and game theorists, like earlier neoclassical theorists, have

spent comparatively little time examining the process of adjustment to an


As has already been suggested, much recent work in game theory has

consisted in refining various equilibrium concepts (Fudenberg and Tirole 1995). In

contrast, the basic issue of how players actually home in on a coordinated state -

how the Hayekian knowledge problem is actually solved - has been offered less

attention. Indeed, the suspicion may be entertained that game theory has become

so popular because it seems to solve the coordination problem (or, stability of

equilibrium problem) that characterized general equilibrium theory. It does so,

however, by appeal to pure ratiocination: agents simply reason their way to

equilibrium, as it were - a procedure expounded already by Von Neumann and

Morgenstern (1944: 146-148).

Some justification for focusing on only Nash equilibria (or, per implication,

derived equilibrium concepts) was provided by Aumann (1974). He argued that if

pre-play communication was allowed, but players couldn’t commit to certain

actions, they would only consider self-enforcing outcomes, that is, Nash equilibria,

the basic reason being that no external enforcement was available. However, the

basic justification for focusing on outcomes that are Nash still mostly proceeds in

terms of pure ratiocination; there is an underlying assumption that players can

coordinate their strategy choices on any desired equilibrium.25 But if that is the

case, the hand running the market is very visible indeed; standard game theory

analysis has difficulties make sense of the notion of unintended consequences,

simply because it makes so strong assumptions about the epistemic powers of


It is worth confronting this with Morgenstern (1935a&b) and Hayek’s (1937)

analysis of the connection between knowledge and equilibrium. In terms of game


theory, they both questioned the legitimacy of beginning from what is essentially

an existence claim, namely that if rational players have commonly known and

identical beliefs about all other players’ strategies, then those beliefs are consistent

with some equilibrium in the game. The problem is that nothing is said about the

origin and formation of beliefs. This is bad enough in itself. However, there is

also the problem it is in principle possible that although there exists an

equilibrium in players’ strategies, they may never be able to realize that

equilibrium. Clearly, simply proceeding by eliminating various equilibria by

means of various refinement procedures will not do. There is still a need to

rationalize the emergence of beliefs that can sustain the final equilibrium - and

here existing game theoretical work is sparse compared to the enormous amount

of work that is exclusively concerned with game theoretic equilibria.

V. For Game Theory: an Austrian View

The purpose of this section is to present arguments in favor of game theory that

should appeal to Austrians. Also, many of the arguments in favor of game theory

in this section answer the critiques of game theory listed in the previous section.

Game Theory as a Part of the Austrian Tradition. A favorable Austrian

view of game theory may begin by noting that game theory is simply one

outgrowth of the Austrian research program founded by, in particular, Menger

and Böhm-Bawerk.27 Specifically, game theory, and its applications in economics

(particularly in IO), is arguably Austrian in its concern with plan formation and

plan consistency, in its much more explicit treatment of the role of time in

economic affairs, and in its insistence that the competitive equilibrium model is

merely one (very unrealistic) model among many others and certainly not the one

that all of economics should be founded upon.28

In such a reading, there is rather direct line of influence from Menger and

Böhm-Bawerk’s concern with less than perfectly competitive situations (e.g.,

Böhm’s famous horse-trading example, Schotter 1974) over Hans Mayer’s (1932)

concern with plan-formation and -interaction to Morgenstern (1935a&b) and

Hayek’s (1937) concern with the epistemic preconditions of equilibrium to

Lachmann’s (1986) radicalization of the very same themes. And Von Neumann

and Morgenstern (1944) is simply one, formal, instantiation of this Austrian

tradition, although any Austrian would regard as merely a very first step than

needed to be taken in a much more dynamic direction. Andrew Schotter (1992:

97) argues in favor of this position:

In terms of economics ... [Von Neumann and Morgenstern 1944] was a

natural outgrowth of several earlier ideas of Morgenstern’s and must be

appreciated as a milestone in the evolution of Austrian economics.29

Such an interpretation is admittedly somewhat extreme. For example, it

would need to adopt a somewhat peculiar understanding of Austrian economics;

for example, it needs to suppress the traditional Austrian critique of formalization.


Moreover, it overlooks that the fact that rather few of Morgenstern’s distinctly

Austrian themes actually emerged in Von Neumann and Morgenstern (1944).

However, one could perhaps defend it by taking a broader view, and see

the“Austrian’ness” of game theory more as a matter of stressing the subjectivism

of plans (i.e., the “beliefs” that underlie “strategies” in games), the critique of

competitive equilibrium, and the sequential nature of actions in the market process

(which may be given to an equilibrium interpretation).

The Market Process and Entrepreneurship. Although disequilibrium

behavior and the market process in the Austrian sense have not been much treated

in game theory, at least some aspects of entrepreneurial behavior and the market

process are given to game theoretic formalization. In a splendid, but neglected

paper published almost twenty years ago, Stephen Littlechild (1979) tried to

accomplish exactly this, arguing that cooperative game theory could be used to

model an entrepreneurial bargaining process, and undertook some formal

modelling of this. Austrians have unfortunately paid no attention to this work.

Other recent insights in game theory also offer the possibility of finding a

room for the entrepreneur. For example, in many coordination games, there may

be multiple equilibria, some of which may be symmetric (same pay-offs for the

involved agents). Although repeating coordination games is one way of making

sense of conventions (Young 1996), it can also be used to make sense of the

leader/entrepreneur, since he can be thought of as selecting a specific equilibrium.

A somewhat related example occurs in connection with iterated prisoners’ games.

As is known from the Folk Theorem, even very simple iterated PD games are

likely to have multiple equilibria (depending on what is assumed about discount

rates), and more complex games with multiple players and incomplete

information - that is, real life games - certainly do have multiple equilibria.

There are many implications of the multiplicity of equilibrium phenomenon

that should be of interest to Austrians. First, it supplies a powerful argument

against the standard mainstream instrumentalist position that because the

economy somehow will home in on “the” equilibrium, there is no need for an

inquiry into the disequilibrium market process. If the resulting equilibrium is

crucially dependent on the process, this argument does not hold water. Secondly,

the introduction of multiplicity of equilibria means that there may be a room for

the entrepreneur, broadly understood as the agent that helps pushing the system

from one equilibrium to another. For example, applied to firms, the Folk

Theorem tells us that there may be many different ways of motivating cooperation,

for example, many different ways of structuring retaliation schemes. However,

the problem of choosing one such way - that is, make players coordinate on a

specific equilibrium - is fundamentally a coordination problem whose solution

may require the intervention of somebody equipped with “entrepreneurial”

qualities, broadly conceived (for further examples and discussion, see Foss 1998).

Later work on learning processes in games may also be argued to have taken

a broadly subjectivist stance. Although much game theory begins from a situation

in which players have perfect knowledge of virtually anything but a few variables,

a growing literature asks much more radical questions, such as, How do players


acquire knowledge of the game in which they take part? How do they acquire

knowledge of other players? If several equilibria exist in the game, how do players

over time coordinate on one equilibrium? Etc. This literature is a considerable

advance relative to earlier, non-game theory approaches to learning that tend to

look on only competitive situations, represented as sequences of temporary

equilibria. This means that severe restrictions are placed on the possible behaviors

of agents, because they have to respect the restrictions imposed by a competitive

set-up (Kreps 1990). In contrast, game theory allows what seems to the Austrian to

be the natural procedure: first we specify the behaviors of agents and then we

examine the interaction of those behaviors. Thus, disequilibrium situations are

given to formal treatment.

In a fascinating study, which is representative of a number of similar studies,

Crawford and Haller (1990) discuss the issue of how agents may learn to cooperate

in the context of a repeated pure coordination game30 with imperfect information.

The imperfection of information in the games that they consider is a matter of

strategic uncertainty, stemming from the presence of symmetric equilibria and the

complete absence of any focal points.31 The only way in which players can

communicate is through playing the game. However, eventually sort of

convention (or focal point) about which strategies to play will emerge and produce

optimal subgame perfect equilibria. Thus, to put it in Austrian terms, there is no

end-state (the subgame perfect equilibrium) existing ontologically separate from

the process of coordination, so that indeed “order is defined in its process of

emergence” (Buchanan 1982).

Institutions and Spontaneous Order. Game theory ideas have been used in

a number of attempts during the last 10-15 years to address Austrian and classical

liberal ideas on the spontaneous emergence of beneficial institutions (e.g., Schotter

1981; Sugden 1986, 1989; Young 1996). Indeed, game theory appears ideally suited

to deal with issues that have traditionally been a major concern to (Hayekian)

Austrians, such as the formation of conventions and other spontaneous orders.32 A

number of these make the connection to Menger and Hayek explicit (e.g., Schotter

1981; Sugden 1986). Similarly, a number of non-Austrian but clearly sympathetic

economists (e.g., Langlois 1986; Witt 1986; Buchanan 1997; Klein 1997) have

utilized game theory to analyze institutions, in some cases extensively.

Summing Up. To sum up, the bottomline of a positive Austrian view on

game theory is that, first, historically there is a close connection between Austrian

economics and game theory through the important influence of Oskar

Morgenstern, second, that game theory appear to be able to address favorite

Austrian explananda (such as spontaneously emerged rules) that standard

neoclassical economics cannot handle, third, that game theory in economics means

that the formal economist is no longer tied to the competitive general equilibrium

model, and, finally, that game theory makes it possible to treat learning processes

(and therefore also market processes) in a sophisticated way. It should finally be

added that game theory is an area increasingly characterized by methodological

and philosophical discussion of core issues of central interest to Austrians, such as

methodological individualism (Vromen 1997) and problems of how to justify


beliefs (Bichieri 1993; Colman 1997; Colman and Bacharach 1998). It would appear

that there are clear gains for Austrians of familiarizing themselves with game

theory, and even make use of game theory in theorizing.

VI. Discussion

The purpose of this section is to briefly discuss some further problems that

influence Austrians view of game theory. I shall also briefly take stock on the

preceding sections and argue that the pros are more important than the cons,

although Austrians should not embrace game theoretically uncritically.

Different Types of Austrian Reactions to Game Theory. The way in which

Austrians are likely to react to game theory is arguably dependent upon how they

themselves conceive of Austrian economics. Thus, a Lachmannian or Shacklian

radical subjectivist is likely to react with outright hostility to game theory.33 In his

view, game theory does the bad thing that all formal theorizing does, namely it

illegitimately portrays creative and imaginative human beings as preprogrammed,

stimulus-response puppets. An Austrian who, inspired by Kirzner’s

work, thinks that what fundamentally sets Austrian economics apart from other

approaches is the emphasis on the market process as an entrepreneurial process of

discovery of hitherto undiscovered new knowledge may criticize existing game

theory for its neglect of this aspect. The die-hard Misesian may criticize game

theory for its supposed introduction of “constants” in human action. Those with a

more Mengerian “essentialist” attitude may think that formalization directs

attention away from the important task of conceptual analysis and general inquiry

into the true nature of social phenomena.34 Austrians with a more Hayekian

leaning may, on the other hand, like game theory for its attempt to deal with

favorite Hayekian themes, such as spontaneous order, the emergence of

conventions, etc.

Austrians and Formal Modelling. There is the possibility that ultimately the

crux of the matter concerns Austrians’ relations to formal modeling, so that before

Austrians can make up their mind on game theory, they need to make up their

mind on formal methods. Formal modeling always involves mind constructs

(Machlup 1978) that are only intended to capture some aspects of reality.

Moreover, there are things that a formal mind construct cannot do; for example,

we cannot let the mind construct introduce actions that are completely new to us,

the modellers. It is contradictory to model such “objective novelties” (to use Witt’s

1989 terms). This is the limitation of all modeling. However, it is surely possible

to model more limited versions of “novelty”, for example, to let one agent (an

entrepreneur) introduce actions that are novel to the other agents being modeled

(as in Littlechild (1979) or Fisher 1983).

Austrians may object that typically formal modeling equips mind constructs

with wildly unrealistic epistemic powers. O’Driscoll and Rizzo (1985: 21) present

an argument against this procedure:


The creator of the mind construct cannot attribute any type of

knowledge to it that will ultimately rationalize the phenomenon in

question. The construct ought to possess only that knowledge which, in

terms of its position or what it deems relevant would have been

reasonable to acquire. It is not appropriate to attribute to a farmer

construct, for example, knowledge of demand and supply conditions in

the steel industry or of the general equilibrium of the commodities he


While this is indeed a strong and justified critique of at least strong versions of

rational expectations modeling methods, and perhaps also of common knowledge

assumptions in game theory, it is not a critique of formal modeling per se: One can

certainly construct formal mind constructs that do conform to the requirement of

“understandability” that O’Driscoll and Rizzo (1985: 21) impose on mind

constructs.35 The usual mainstream argument against working with what an

Austrian may think of as an “understandable” mind construct - that is, one whose

epistemic powers may be much more limited than the standard rational economic

man but who, on the other hand, is also possessed of entrepreneurial alertness - is

that anything but perfection is arbitrary. In other words, while the perfect

rationality (Robbinsian maximizing) model gives unequivocal answers (single-exit

solutions), anything can happen once we leave this ideal and introduce

considerations of bounded rationality, alertness, etc.

Well, one obvious Austrian answer is: So what? If the real world really is

fundamentally messy, we are likely to be fundamentally misled by models that

abstract from this, and we are, at any rate, certainly capable of modelling messy

behaviors and their aggregate implications, even if the modelling is much less

tractable than much of what goes today in mainstream economics. Indeed, in

principle many of the ideas that Austrians have focused upon - subjectivism (e.g.,

differing expectations and knowledge), the market as a social learning process

(Hayek 1968), and entrepreneurial alertness (Kirzner 1973) - are in fact given to

formal modelling, although formal accounts is never likely to capture the richness

of verbal discourse. Therefore, it is to misunderstand the nature of formal

modelling to believe that it commits one to, for example, the behavioral

assumptions of mainstream economics, although, undeniably, these assumptions

have historically taken hold in their specific forms precisely because they easily

lend themselves to formalization. In sum, the fact that game theory is (largely)

formal should not in itself constitute a problem for Austrians.


Good and Bad Aspects of Game Theory. It is likely that while some

aspects of game theory will appeal to Austrians, other aspects are likely to make

them balk. While Austrians may appreciate the detailed modeling of agents’

information sets and of agents’ interaction, they are still likely to criticize the

strong equilibrium orientation in game theory, even in cooperative game theory,

as well as the sometimes bizarre epistemic assumptions that are routinely made in

much game theory.

However, although there are crucial shared concepts and insights, game

theory is not monolithic. On the most basic level, there is, for example, a

distinction between “cooperative” and “non-cooperative” game theory. As

Aumann (1985: 463) explains, whereas non-cooperative game theory is

characterized by carefully detailing the “protocol” of the game, ”[c]ooperative

theory starts out with a formalization of games … that abstracts away altogether

from procedures … It concentrates, instead, on the possibilities for agreement”.

Hence, the central focus on the ”core” (roughly, the contract curve in the standard

Edgeworth box analysis) in this approach. Some Austrians may find that because

of its emphasis on free-form, active deal-seeking, and therefore also in principle

unrestricted discovery, a cooperative game theory view is actually more consistent

with an Austrian view of economic activities than the more restrictive noncooperative

approach. However, even cooperative game theorists should be told

that achieving core allocations is not unproblematic; that, too, requires the

entrepreneurial process of discovery.

This suggests that although Austrians may benefit from exposure to, and use

of, game theory because game theory allows them to formalize some of their key

ideas, they may also have a critical mission in game theory. For example, many

game theorists haven’t learnt, or at least appreciated, the fundamental lesson of

Hayek (1937) that there is a basic distinction between equilibrium for the

individual agent and equilibrium for an economic system. The much used

assumption of common knowledge amounts to a conflation of these two levels,

and game theorists and those economists that use theory still need to be told. To

sum up, then, a closer interaction between game theoretical economists and

Austrians are likely to benefit not only Austrians, but also those who practice

game theory.

VII. Conclusion

This paper has been an attempt to identify the pros and cons of game theory from

an Austrian perspective and thus perform a stocktaking and an evaluation that

hopefully may be useful to Austrians. While there are many strong arguments

against game theory, it is also the case that game theory may be the best existing

analytical vehicle to choose to the extent that Austrians want to dress their

arguments in more formal garb. Game theory allows the Austrian to come

formally to grips with key ideas on subjectivism, coordination, rules and

institutions, and the entrepreneurial market process. In particular, the emerging

literature on repeated coordination games may be of appeal to Austrians because


this literature asks the fundamental questions, such as how diverse players, with

different knowledge and expectations, may eventually home in on a coordinated

state (Crawford and Haller 1990; Young 1996).

Moreover, it is a literature that stresses the role of beliefs rather than the role

of (misaligned) incentives in coordination problems. This should also be

appealing to Austrians. At least since the calculation debate, Austrians have

emphasized that the economic problem of society is not merely one providing the

right incentives, but more fundamentally one of coordinating knowledge and

expectations. The emerging game theory literature on iterated coordination games

is perhaps the first serious mainstream attempt to address some of these

coordination problems, and it is a literature that is just too interesting for

Austrians to be ignorant of.

The main conclusion, therefore, is that Austrians should approach and make

use of game theory in economics. This one important way in which Austrians can

relate to those parts of the mainstream that are most congenial to Austrian

thought. This is also where Austrians themselves may have something to

contribute because of their long standing concern with non-standard coordination

problems and with the market process. Game theorists, too, need to be told about

alertness, entrepreneurship, learning, etc.



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1 Moreover, game theory has invaded political science (e.g., Calvert 1995) and biology.

2 See Vickers (1995) for this argument (complete with references to Hayek).

3 There are certainly many general problems with game theory, such as the uncertainty

surrounding the so-called “Nash project” (that all cooperative games can be reduced to non-


cooperative games by modelling pre-play communication in non-cooperative terms) (see also

Tullock 1992 for some interesting reservations). In this paper, however, I concentrate on those

aspects of game theory that are particularly problematic to Austrians.

4 “Common knowledge” is an approach to expectations formation that may be represented by the

following sentence: “Jack knows that Jill knows that Jack knows .... that X” - an infinite sentence.

For a discussion of some of the problems of common knowledge, see Bicchieri (1993). One problem

with common knowledge is that small deviations from it can completely change outcomes

(Rubinstein 1989).

5 “The idea of consistently aligned beliefs” is closely related to a number of related ideas, such as

the so-called common priors assumptions. It essentially means that rational people who have

access to completely identical information cannot develop different thought processes with respect

to the issues that the information concern - an idea that doesn’t seem to square easily with the

Austrian emphasis on the active and creative mind (e.g., Lachmann 1986).

6 However, this is not a serious problem, since game theorists do not assert that utilities and payoffs

are identical (although admittedly in simpler expositions, there is often a conflation between

these). Pay-offs simply reflect ordinal rankings, not cardinal.

7 For example, this is characteristic of much of the game theoretic literature on the theory of the

firm (see Foss 1998).

8 In contrast to mainstream economics (and assuming that the Mirowski story is valid (Mirowski

1989), game theory apparently has few, if any, obvious physics connotations. Actually, both

Morgenstern and Von Neumann scorned the fascination with physics that many leading

economists have entertained. Not surprisingly, Paul Samuelson has been very critical of game

theory (cf. Mirowski 1992: 116n).

9 Actually, it is conceivable that it was Morgenstern’s concern with such infinite regress situations

that led to the idea of a mixed (probabilistic) strategy (Holmes and Moriarty should flip the coin

and choose a strategy). In a related context, Tullock (1992: 28) argues that the feeling that because

of the infinite regress there is actually no true solution is “... a correct description of the game ...

Von Neumann and Morgenstern (1944) purported to get out of this problem by producing a mixed

strategy for such games”.

10 This may also have something to do with the fact that Morgenstern earlier (1941) had penned a

vitriolic attack on Hicks’ Value and Capital.

11 Specifically, Debreu and Scarf (1963) showed that under perfect competition conditions, letting

the number of agents in the market tend towards infinitiy collapses the core of the market game

into the set of equilibrium prices.

12 But only because they wished to draw on Nash’s use of Kakutani’s fixed point theorem, and

could see the strong similarity between proving the existence of competitive equilibrium and

proving the existence of equilibrium in an n-person, non-cooperative game.

13 Although I cannot back this claim up by quotation data.

14 As late as in 1979, Littlechild notes that “... for some time there has been a state of disillusion

with the whole approach. Some game theorists believe a feeling of optimism is gradually

returning” (1979: 145).

15 Indeed, the probably first area that was completely and successfully conquered by game theory

was one in which at least the rhetorics concerns the formation of beliefs, rivalry and competitive


struggle. This area is industrial organization economics, where the SCP paradigm associated with

Bain, Mason, and others is now virtually completely defunct.

16 This issue is a little bit tricky, depending somewhat on one’s understanding of “Austrian” and

dating of the socialist calculation debate. Both Wieser, Schumpeter and the early Hayek admired

general equilibrium economics, and Böhm-Bawerk essentially also constructed general

intertemporal equilibrium models. The critique of general equilibrium theory in Austrian thought

was anticipated in Menger’s critical attitude towards Walras, but does not seem to have been

carefully articulated before Hans Mayer’s work (Mayer 1932). There is an argument that is was

the socialist calculation debate that finally made the Austrians realize how different they were

from the Walrasian orthodoxy that was slowly beginning to emerge as the dominating core theory

in the mind-nineteen thirties (e.g., Kirzner 1988). For the argument that internal problems in

Austrian business cycle theory were also important in this process, see Foss (1995).

17 This is what Reder (1982) calls the “tight prior assumption”.

18 “Possibly”, because the number of academic economists who worked on refining GE was

actually quite small and there has continuously been a large number of mainstream economists

who haven’ been so charmed by the GE model, for example, older (pre-Lucas) Chicago economists

such as Stigler, Friedman, Coase, and others.

19 The point that there are many research traditions in modern economics that Austrians ought to

relate to, and perhaps join forces with, is elaborated in Foss (1994).

20 See also Machovec (1995) for a brilliant discussion and critique of the sway that the perfect

competition model held over the minds of economists in this century.

21 Although admittedly the monopolist’s choice is in reality just as constrained as the choice of an

agent in competitive equilibrium. However, such is the nature of all (single-exit) modelling.

22 It is noteworthy, however, that a recent collection of papers on “market process economics”

contains a number of formal papers (Boettke and Prychitko 1998).

23 The economic substance is usually provided in what formalists usually, and somewhat

pejoratively, characterize as ”intuition” (a remarkably imprecise use of that word!), and which

has historically normally been put forward by non-formal economists.

24 A number of attempts to add more behavioral realism in the form of bounded rationality have

been made (see Kreps 1990).

25 The exception is, of course, constituted by evolutionary game theory, which, in some

interpretations, provide a justification for focusing on Nash equilibria (Weibull 1995). See

Aumann and Brandenburger (1995) for a recent discussion of the “epistemic conditions for Nash


26 Notice that I am not here talking about game theory in general, but about “standard game

theory”, which is more less models with complete information and common knowledge. In

contrast, game theory work by, for example, Sugden (1986) certainly successfully makes sense of

the notion of unintended consequences, as observed earlier.

27 In many respects, Wieser was closer to the competitive equilibrium vision of Walras and Pareto

than Menger and Böhm-Bawerk.

28 For example, a key point in both game theoretic contract theory (e.g., Salanié 1997) and in IO

(Krouse 1990) concerns the timing of actions, because final outcomes are often crucially dependent


upon this. Thus, in a contractual relation, the timing of payments may influence how much effort

is exerted.

29 Actually, we need an article-length study of the “Austrian’ness” of Oskar Morgenstern. Schotter

(1992) is a first step in that direction.

30 This is a game in which there is no conflict of interests, as, for example, when players in a “state

of nature” has to choose which side of the road to drive in.

31 At the outset, the players have different descriptions of the game. For example, they may both

think of themselves as, for example, the row player.

32 The point that game theory is much better equipped to come to terms with institutions than

standard neoclassical theory is made several times in Von Neumann and Morgenstern (1944) (see

also Morgenstern 1972; Schotter 1992).

33 Actually, Shackle (1972) contains a critique of game theory that is essentially the same as

Shackle’s general critique of economic doctrines: game theory cannot accomodate human creativity

and neglects surprises.

34 This particular objection is not likely to have much success against game theory. Game theorists

are very much bent on essentialism and conceptual analysis.

35 They are not completely clear here, but seem to mean that what the mind construct can do shall

be realistic in a broad sense: “An ‘understandable’ relation must be understandable in the

structural terms of commonse interpretation of everyday life. Hence the scientific constructs must

be consistent with, although not identical to, the mental constructs of everyday life” (ibid.).