Wieser, Friedrich von

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Wieser, Friedrich von



Friedrich Freiherr von Wieser (1851-1926) was an Austrian economist and sociologist who—with his fellow student and brother-in-law Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk—developed the ideas of Carl Menger and made the Austrian school of marginal utility analysis widely known. Born in Vienna as the son of a government official of the highest rank (on whom a barony had been conferred, hence the “Freiherr von”), he studied law at the University of Vienna. Wieser’s early interest in history, stimulated by T. B. Macaulay, Herbert Spencer, and Leo Tolstoi, directed his attention to the problem of general laws of social evolution. However, the publication of Menger’s Grundsätze in 1871, just as Wieser and Böhm-Bawerk were completing their studies at the university, led Wieser to shift the focus of his interests. He thought that this change represented only a new point of departure for his work in sociology. Instead, it led him to occupy himself for forty years with economic theory, although he never entirely lost sight of his aim of giving a more comprehensive treatment to social theory.

After leaving the university, Wieser entered government service, in which he remained for about ten years, interrupted by two years of further study at the German universities of Heidelberg, Jena, and Leipzig under K. Knies, W. Roscher, and B. Hildebrand, respectively. In Knies’s seminar, Wieser produced in 1876 the first statement of what eight years later was to be the main point of his first book, an application of marginal utility analysis to the phenomenon of cost, which he interpreted as foregone utility in alternative uses. In addition to the theory of cost, this first book, Über den Ursprung und die Hauptgesetze des wirtschaftlichen Werthes (1884), contained an elaborate theory of the determination of the value of the factors of production by the “imputation” (Zurechnung) to them of an appropriate part of the utility of the final products; it also introduced the term Grenznutzen (marginal utility). The book gained him first a lectureship at the University of Vienna and soon after a professorship at the Charles University of Prague. Here he continued to work on the same problems and also on what he regarded merely as a first step toward a theory of value that was to be fully developed in Natural Value (1889). In the latter work he employed the expository device of studying value in a centrally directed economy and suggested possible applications of utility theory to public finance. The book gained him almost immediate acclaim, and it was soon translated into English.

During Wieser’s remaining 14 years at the University of Prague, he devoted himself chiefly to problems of currency, taxation, and social and economic policy, as well as to the political and cultural problems of Bohemia, particularly its German-speaking minority. He made his first excursion into sociology in an address, “Über die gesellschaftlichen Gewalten” (1901), which he delivered when he assumed the rectorship of the university. In 1903, when Menger resigned from his chair at the University of Vienna, Wieser was appointed to replace him. Here he combined work on the value of money (and an incidental but important study on the theory of urban rents) with an increasing concern with political and sociological issues. However, in 1912 an invitation from Max Weber to contribute the basic treatise on economic theory to the great survey of social economics that Weber was to edit recalled him once more to economic theory. The result, Social Economics (1914), appeared shortly before the outbreak of World War i. It is the only systematic treatise on general economic theory produced by the older Austrian school. At the same time, it is, like all works of Wieser’s, a highly personal and distinctive statement. In the pure theory of value this statement became the starting point of a Wieserian branch of the Aus trian school (represented by such scholars as Hans Mayer and Leo Schonfeld); it also contains important contributions to what later became the theory of imperfect competition.

Toward the end of the war, Wieser served first in the upper house of the Austrian parliament and later as minister of commerce in the last two Imperial Austrian governments, a position in which he was concerned mainly with the planning of a postwar customs union with Germany. After the collapse of Austria-Hungary he returned to his professorship and devoted himself to an account of the collapse, an event that had moved him greatly. It gave him the final impulse to the resumption of his sociological work; in his last years he produced his great treatise, Das Gesetz der Macht (1926), which appeared shortly before his death. Its main theme is an elaboration of David Hume’s thesis that all power rests on opinion; Wieser built on this thesis a “law of small numbers,” describing the role that elites of various sorts play in all power structures. It is even more true of this sociological work than it is of his work in economics that its highly personal character gave it a unity that had great aesthetic appeal for his pupils and admirers but made it somewhat difficult for other readers to appreciate. Since in his hands even the familiar took a different shape, it is not easy to identify his truly original contributions, with the result that in the long run his influence seems to be smaller and is certainly more difficult to identify than that of many men of lesser achievement.

Friedrich A. Von hayek

[For the historical context of Wieser’s work, seeeconomic thought, article onthe austrian school; and the biographies ofböhm-bawerk; Hume; Menger; for discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeutility.]


1884 Über den Ursprung und die Hauptgesetze des wirtschaftlichen Werthes. Vienna: Hölder.

(1889) 1956 Natural Value. Edited with a preface and analysis by William Smart. New York: Kelley & Millman. → First published as Der natürliche Werth.

(1901) 1929 Über die gesellschaftlichen Gewalten. Pages 346-376 in Friedrich von Wieser, Gesammelte Abhandlungen. Tübingen: Mohr.

(1914) 1927 Social Economics. New York: Greenberg. → First published as “Theorie der gesellschaftlichen Wirtschaft,” Volume 1, Part 2 of Grundriss der Sozialökonomik.

1926 Das Gesetz der Macht. Vienna: Springer.

Gesammelte Abhandlungen. Edited with an introduction by Friedrich A. von Hayek. Tübingen: Mohr, 1929. → Contains writings published between 1876 and 1923.


Blaug, Mark 1962 Economic Theory in Retrospect. Homewood, Iii.: Irwin.

Howey, Richard S. 1960 The Rise of the Marginal Utility School: 1870-1889. Lawrence: Univ. of Kansas Press. → See especially pages 143-154, “Friedrich von Wieser.”

Hutchison, T. W. (1953) 1962 A Review of Economic Doctrines: 1870-1921. Oxford: Clarendon. → See especially pages 153-164, “F. von Wieser (1851-1926).”

Mayer, Hans 1927 Friedrich Wieser zum Gedachtnis. Zeitschrift für Volkswirtschaft und Sozialpolitik New Series 5: 633-645.

Mayer, Hans 1929 Friedrich Freiherr von Wieser. Volume 6, pages 180-198 in Neue osterreichische Biographie: 1815-1918. Vienna: Amalthea.

Menzel, Adolf 1927 Friedrich Wieser als Soziologe. Vienna: Springer.

Schams, Ewald 1926 Friedrich Freiherr von Wieser und sein Werk. Zeitschrift für die gesamte Staatswissenschaft 81:432-448.

Stigler, George J. 1941 Production and Distribution Theories: The Formative Period. New York: Macmil-lan. → See especially Chapter 4.

Vleugels, Wilhelm 1930 Die Losungen des wirtschaft-lichen Zurechnungsproblems bei Böhm-Bawerk und Wieser. Konigsberger Gelehrte Gesellschaft, Geistes-wissenschaftliche Klasse, Schriften, Vol. 7, part 5. Halle: Neimeyer.