The Other Austrian
By Mark Skousen
Swashbuckling corporate raiders take heed, here’s another Austrian economist offering advice.
Peter F. Drucker once walked into the boardroom of a major company in crisis and bluntly demanded, “Gentlemen, what is your business?” Most of the executives thought it was a sophomoric question, but Drucker kept pushing. He repeated the question over and over again. “What is your business?” It took them an hour to figure out what Drucker was getting at: they had lost their vision. Once they returned to fundamentals, they found their way back to profitability — all because Drucker asked a “dumb” question.
Drucker is eclectic, independent and unpredictable. Although he is known as Mr. Management, he is a lone wolf, operates without a secretary, and has no supporting organization. He is an outsider. In the words of one admirer, he is an “iconoclast–the smasher of idols, seeker of proof, demander of evidence, gadfly, thorn in the side, tough and hard-nosed commentator on problems faced by our society.” 1
Nearly everyone in the business world is familiar with Drucker, either through his books or his columns in The Wall Street Journal. He is a household name among MBAs, corporate executives and business students. Drucker is the world’s most sought-after business consultant. His vitae are multifarious: lawyer, journalist, political theorist, economist, novelist, futurist, and philosopher extraordinaire. Now in his eighties, with 25 books under his belt, he is still active in writing and consulting, though he does not travel much anymore.
Business students and executives have often told me that Drucker’s ideas have a certain “Austrian” streak to them. They say that his emphasis on entrepreneurship, innovation and investment capital as well as his denunciations of big government, excessive taxation and Keynesian economics, has right in harmony with the ideas of Bohm-Bawerk, Mises, Hayek and the Austrian school of economics.
So: is Peter Drucker a closet Austrian?
In the very literal sense, Drucker is an Austrian. He was born in 1909 in Vienna, during the heyday of the Austrian school. But he was too young to attend Ludwig von Mises’ famous seminar. When he graduated from gymnasium in 1927, he went to the University of Frankfurt, where he got his LL.D. in the early 1930s. But his roots remained Viennese. He refused a job offer from the Nazi’s Ministry of Information. Instead, he wrote a 32-page monograph on the 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Julius Stahl. There is as much to learn about Drucker as there is about Stahl in this paper. Stahl was paradoxical: a Jew by birth, a Protestant by conversion, and a conservative opposed to absolute monarchy. Not surprisingly, Drucker’s paper was banned by the Nazis. Like Mises, Hayek, and other enemies of the Nazi state, Drucker immigrated to the West before the war broke out. He traveled to England in 1933 and the United States in 1937.
The Manager’s Manager
Of course, the question of whether Drucker is an Austrian is not a question about his birthplace. It is a question about his economic theory. If one limited the question to his management approach, the answer is clearly in the affirmative: Drucker’s style of management is Austrian through and through. Time, expectations, new information, and potential change in production processes–all Austrian focal points–are constantly emphasized in his writings and consultations. The manager must be an entrepreneur, not just an administrator. Innovation is essential. In 1985, he wrote an entire book on the subject, Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
He criticizes management for engaging in short-term planning, what he labels “industrial Keynesianism.” Long-term planning is more risky, says Drucker, but is essential for survival, especially for large corporations. Owners and managers must be future oriented, he stresses. “Tomorrow’s vision is today’s work assignment.” The Japanese have been so successful, Drucker asserts, because they’re so long-term oriented.
In Search of a New Social Order
It was his life in America that turned his interest to business management. During the late 1930s, Drucker began searching for a new social and industrial order. He became disenchanted with “unbridled” capitalism as the Great Depression wore on and on. But socialism, fascism, and communism seemed even worse alternatives to society’s ills.
He finally found his answer in the only “free, non-revolutionary way”–the large corporation. He was enthusiastic about his discovery: big business could provide a superior alternative to socialism and big government. According to Drucker, the large corporations should be the conduit through which economic stability and social justice would be established. Only big business could afford to assume social responsibilities such as job security, training and educational opportunities, and other social benefits. Such an alternative was absolutely critical in an age when free enterprise was on the defensive around the world.
After the war, Drucker got a consulting contract with General Motors, which gave him an opportunity to develop his thesis more fully. His exhaustive study of GM culminated in the 1946 publication of Concept of the Corporation. Drucker came to the unshakable conviction that the large corporation should be the “representative social institution” of the postwar period and that major American companies such as GM should take the lead in building the free industrial society.
Top officials at General Motors resented the book and scoffed at the idea that a large corporation should assume social responsibilities. But Drucker’s reputation as a management expert grew despite GM’s cold shoulder. By 1950, he was professor of management at New York University, and in 1973 he was appointed Clarke Professor of Social Science at Claremont Graduate School in California.
Drucker maintains that a company is more than an economic entity. “Even more important than economics are the psychological, human, and power relationships which are determined on the job rather than outside it. These are the relationships between worker, work group, task, immediate boss, and management.” 3 A company’s administrators have a moral purpose and social responsibility beyond making short-term profits. Drucker envisions the large corporation as the social institution, far superior to government in providing a retirement income, health care, education, childcare, and other fringe benefits. He argues that corporate welfarism should replace government welfarism. Drucker acknowledges that such social activity could undermine economic performance, but he rejects Milton Friedman’s admonition that business’ only legitimate responsibility is to increase its profits. A lethargic government has created a “vacuum of responsibility and performance” which big business must fill.
A Moral Dimension
Drucker’s attitudes toward business management and government may not be economic in origin, but religious. “The only basis of freedom is the Christian concept of man’s nature: imperfect, weak, a sinner, and dust destined for dust; yet man is God’s image and responsible for his actions.”‘ He calls for a return to spiritual values, “not to offset the material but to make it fully productive.”
But how far he is willing to carry this insight is open to question. Drucker has been criticized as an apologist for big business. And it is true that he has been reluctant to discuss big business as a special interest lobbying power. Drucker usually envisions business and government in an adversarial role rather than a cooperative one. In his massive volume, Management, his chapter on “Business and Government” fails to mention how big business often uses its power to gain special tax breaks, subsidies, monopoly power and restrictions on foreign competition.
Paul Weaver, a former Ford executive, describes the extent of corporate statism as follows: “From the beginning it [big business] has worked aggressively and imaginatively in this spirit, and over the years it has won a dazzling array of benefits — tariffs, subsidies, official monopolies, tax breaks, immunity from certain tort actions, government-supported research and development, free manpower training programs, countercyclical economic management, defense spending wage controls, and so on through the long list of the welfare state’s indulgences and beneficences.”6 Unfortunately, the master is oddly silent on this critical issue.
Drucker Qua Economist
Drucker is much more than a management consultant and writer. He is also a commentator on politics, economics and culture. Here Drucker is less easy to categorize.
His economic views are often in line with Mises and today’s Austrians; other times they are not. He often rejects notions that Austrians consider essential. Ludwig von Mises and he were colleagues at New York University in the 1950s, but they did not see much of each other. “Mises considered me a renegade from the true economic faith,” Drucker says, and “with good reason.”‘ Drucker became disenchanted with pure laissez faire capitalism during the Great Depression. Today he supports a Hamiltonian approach to government — small, but powerful. He believes in a strong president and a central government that plays a serious role in education, economic development, and welfare. Furthermore, he rejects the gold standard and favors a central bank.
At the same time, however, Drucker advocates many positions that free market economists would applaud.
Inflation is a “social poison.” Government has gotten bigger, not stronger, and can now only do two things effectively — wage war and inflate the currency. The state has become a “swollen monstrosity.” He continues, “Indeed, government is sick–and just at a time when we need a strong, healthy, and vigorous government.” 8 Drucker advocates privatization of government services as a way to reduce a bloated bureaucracy. Indeed, Drucker claims he invented the term, calling it reprivatization in his 1969 book, The Age of Discontinuity. 9 Social Security should be gradually replaced by private pension plans. The corporate income tax, says Drucker, is the “most asinine of taxes” and should be abolished (but replaced with a value added tax). Defense spending is a “serious drain” on the civilian economy, and should be cut sharply. The costs of “free” government services are “inevitably high.” 10 Echoing Hayek, Drucker claims that no public institution can operate in a businesslike manner because “it is not a business.”
Drucker is largely optimistic about he future. He talks excitedly about an expanding global economy and the collapse of Communism. Multinational corporations, both large and small, are far more important than foreign aid or domestic spending programs by the state, and will lead the way into a new nirvana. The more firms become “transnational,” the healthier the world economy will be.
Drucker is encouraged by events in developing countries, especially efforts to privatize and denationalize and open up domestic economies to foreign capital. The worst move a developing country can make is to adopt Marxism. “Communism is evil. Its driving forces are the deadly sins of envy and hatred. Its aim is the subjection of all goals and all values to power; its essence is bestiality; the denial that man is anything but animal, the denial of all ethics, of human worth, of human responsibility.” 11 Drucker debunks Soviet-style central planning, which only produced “disdevelopment.” He rightly concludes that Soviet economic growth rates are largely figments of the bureaucratic imagination.
Search for the “Next Economics”
Drucker expresses a withering contempt for the economics profession, which he says is still largely Keynesian in nature. Economists are too concerned with the equilibrium theory of a closed economy rather than the growth, innovation and productivity of a global economy. Drucker claims that contemporary economics is where medical school or astronomy was in the 17th century. “There are no slower learners than economists. There is no greater obstacle to learning than to be the prisoner of totally invalid but dogmatic theories.” 12
He blames Keynesianism for an unhealthy anti-saving mythology, causing “undersaving on a massive scale” among the western nations, especially the United States. Moreover, “Keynes is in large measure responsible for the extreme short-term focus of modern politics, of modern economics, and of modern business … Short-run, clever, brilliant economics — and short-run, clever, brilliant politics — have become bankrupt.”
The management guru is also discouraged by today’s popular schools of economics, including the monetarists and the New Classical school. They too ignore entrepreneurship, uncertainty and disequilibrium. Drucker calls for the “next economics” to be “microeconomic and centered on supply,” not aggregate demand, and should emphasize productivity and capital formation.”
Contemporary Austrian economics seems very much like Drucker’s vision of the “next economics.” Somewhat surprisingly, Drucker’s writings do not mention the work of today’s Austrians, like Murray Rothbard, Israel Kirzner and Roger Garrison. When I asked him his opinion of contemporary Austrians, he told me that he was not familiar with their writings. He had not heard of Kirzner’s major work, Competition and Entrepreneurship, even though Kirzner and Drucker both taught at NYU in the sixties.15
Drucker’s favorite economist is Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian-born Harvard economist. In a 1956 article, Drucker advocates privatization of government services as a way to reduce a bloated bureaucracy. Indeed, Drucker claims he invented the term, calling it “reprivatization” in 1969.
“Modern Prophets: Schumpeter or Keynes?,” he clearly sides with Schumpeter, predicting that of these “two greatest economists of this century … it is Schumpeter who will shape the thinking … on economic theory and economic policy for the rest of this century, if not for the next thirty or fifty years”16 Drucker likes Schumpeter’s emphasis on dynamic disequilibrium and innovation by entrepreneurs who engage in “creative destruction.” In his 1985 book, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, he emphasizes the impact of technological change, innovation, the unexpected and new knowledge on business and the world economy.
But, of course, Schumpeter was an enfante terrible and renegade from the Austrian school as it developed under Mises and Hayek. In this sense, Drucker fits more into the Schumpeterian mode, although he does not share Schumpeter’s pessimism about the future of capitalism.
In the final analysis, Peter Drucker is his own man.
Drucker’s mind is like a rough diamond, providing flashes of insight at every turn. He is able to analyze complex subjects so that his readers and clients catch Drucker’s vision, seeing the essential simplicity behind the apparent chaos.
Sooner or later, every student of business discovers Peter Drucker. Now it is time for economists and social scientists to discover him too.
1 Tony H. Bonaparte, Peter Drucker: Contributions to Business Enterprise (New
York: NYU Press, 1970), p. 23.
2 Peter F. Drucker, Preparing Tomorrow’s Business Leaders Today (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1969), p. 290.
3 Drucker, The Unseen Revolution (New York: Harper 6r Row, 1976), pp. 134-35, 168.
4 Quoted in John J. Tarrant, Drucker: The Man Who invented the Corporate Society (Boston: Cahners Books, 1976), p. 30.
5 Drucker, The Landmarks of Tomorrow, p. 264.
6 Paul H. Weaver, The Suicidal Corporation: How Big Business Fails America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), p. 18.
7 See Drucker’s autobiography, Adventures of a Bystander (New York: Harper k Row, 1979), p. 50. In an interview in 1991, Drucker told me that on the few occasions they met, Mises was always depressed. “He was one of the most miserable men I ever met.”
8 Peter F. Drucker, The Age of Discontinuity (New York: Harper k Row, 1969), p· 212
9 ibid., p. 234.
10 Drucker, The New Realities (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), p. 215.
11 Drucker, The Landmarks of Tomorrow (New York: Harper & Row, 1959), p. 249.
12 Drucker, The Frontiers of Management (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), p. 13. 13 Drucker, The Unseen Revolution, pp. 114-15.
14 Drucker, Toward the Next Economics and Other Essays (New York: Harper k Row. 1981), pp.1-21.
15 Israel M. Kirzner, Competition and Entrepreneurship (University of Chicago Press, 1973).
16 The Frontiers of Management, p. 104.
John A, Jones says
Excellent assessment and encouraging respect. My limited small business use of Drucker’s logical & statistical approach to management of both processes and the infusion of SPC for systems control provided me with a healthy respect for this giant of industry. I was not aware of his expanded interest and influence into economic issues but after reading your assessment am equally impressed.
Exceptional review, Thanks, Johnny
Arch G. Woodside says
An insightul and useful paper on Drucker’s contribtions by Mark Skousen. Thank you!