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Mises University: A Review

August 31, 2009

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What is Mises University? It's the premier, educational week-long event at the Ludwig von Mises Institute that provides a systematic introduction to Austrian economics, libertarianism, and classically liberal political theory as a complete integral unit — not to mention forty other intermediate and advanced elective courses to choose from.

I am an alumnus of Mises University, class of 2009, and because of that, I'd like to provide an eager, first-hand, consumer review of Mises University. Toward this end, I'll explain why I feel those young Austrian students who have not yet applied should do so for next year — and as soon as possible!

No one has yet written a review of Mises University written for Mises Daily. A few days into the conference, I decided that I would be the first one to do so. Indeed, I felt an obligation to write, since I knew that there had to be a way to get the word out to the many potential students who might not think to apply otherwise.

What was the first day of Mises University like? Is Mises "University" anything like a university environment? And is Dr. Thornton really as tall as the group photos make him appear to be?

Mises University 2009 was a six-day program that started Sunday evening, immediately following registration and dinner. Many programs like this one have an orientation day; we had something more like an orientation half-evening. It kicks off with a warm welcome by host Dr. Thornton, followed by greetings from the faculty members and the new Ludwig von Mises Institute president, Douglas French (who is also a lecturer).

This year, along with most of the senior fellows of the institute, adjunct faculty members Dr. Robert P. Murphy and Professor Roger Garrison and were also lecturing. We also saw the return of Mises University alumni, Professor Art Carden, who now serves as a lecturer.

The greeting and introduction was followed by Professor Hülsmann's opening keynote lecture, "The Life and Work of Ludwig von Mises." Dr. Hülsmann's lecture surveyed the rich life and work of Ludwig von Mises. He also went into detail on what he believed to be Mises's three major contributions to economic science:

  1. application of economic calculation to a socialist economy,
  2. devising a deductive infrastructure for economics: praxeology, and
  3. his theory of money and credit, which laid the groundwork for the Austrian theory of the business cycle.

In the course of his lecture, Hülsmann cited a colossal number of obscure facts and covered many of the other intellectual thinkers of Mises's time, painting a complete picture of Mises's world. Replete with witty jokes and interesting facts, I left the room with the impression that it was Mises's grandson himself who had just told us the life story of the greatest economist of the past century.

In coming to Auburn, I had assumed that Mises University was really the same as any other conference, perhaps with a greater emphasis on education. However, I was wrong about that, as were many of my colleagues who had arrived with similar assumptions. Holding true to its name, Mises University is like a mini-university. All of the lectures are given in classrooms, libraries, or halls. You have professors walking around everywhere, graduate students working on summer fellowships projects, and all of the resources of the Mises Institute campus at your fingertips.

Students who apply to Mises University are awarded a scholarship that covers dorms, food, and the entry fee. The accommodations and hospitality are wonderful: Awardees of the scholarship stay at Auburn University's Cambridge dormitory, shared with a roommate. Complimentary breakfast is available most days. Every evening after classes, there is dinner followed by either a "Mises Circle" talk or a guest speaker who delivers a speech. (Oh, and when they cater food, it is absolutely delicious — every time.) Following that, there is a social hour on the beautiful backyard patio, where drinks are made available and the conversation carries late into the night.

The social hours are an integral part of Mises University. Unlike other colleges, the professors don't rush off campus once class is over. They want to get to know you. The faculty members are all approachable, smart, and very in-tune with the needs and curiosity of the students.

One quickly grows accustomed to the generosity of the institute, as well as the warm and friendly smiles of the ever-attentive Patricia Barnett, Kristy Holmes, and Barbara Pickard. They are the behind-the-scenes triumvirate who make the week run smoothly.

Oh, and in case you are still wondering: yes, Dr. Thornton is pretty tall.

Lectures, speeches, friends, accommodations, and food. Sounds great! But it wasn't all fun and games, was it?

As a student of Mises University, you have the option to take a final written examination as a demonstration of your learning. The exam is used to select candidates for Professor Hülsmann's Mündliche Prüfung. The professors use an oral examination to evaluate who is the most learned student of the university. The first place winner is awarded a cash prize of $3,000, with second and third place winners receiving $1,000 and $500, respectively.

There is no intellectual arrogance displayed by any of the professors. All of them have a great sense of humor, and always willing to chat or autograph a book. You can talk to them about anything, including the nitty-gritty details of anarchism or classical-liberal theory. You can ask them to read a paper you're working on, or to comment on what they would do if they were made president for a year and asked to solve the country's economic woes. Some of them can even sing a mean Neil Diamond — oh, sweet Caroline!

 

There are excellent networking opportunities with others your age, as well. You will find many kindred spirits among your classmates, and younger students like me usually form into buddy groups to exchange notes, names, and numbers. After the social hour, everyone meets and greets and shares their favorite Bushism or John Maynard Keynes joke to everyone they haven't already met. You will hear anecdotes from others' college experiences, where they (just like you) are surrounded by swarms of socialists and Keynesians.

Mises University is a very big tent. There are plenty of libertarians, but I also met conservatives, Republicans, a few borderline liberals, and even some Marxists — no, just kidding with that last one! — who were all interested in Austrian economics and libertarian theory. I've never been surrounded by so many libertarians before in my life.

It also got me thinking about a Rothbard quote that I had heard Professor Salerno relate to us, from the first Mises University in 1986: "there hasn't been gathering like this of Austrian brain power since old Vienna!" If only the late, great Murray N. Rothbard could see us today. He's probably laughing somewhere right now, saying, "we've got the statists now!"

What are the lectures like?

There is a "core" curriculum that is vigorous. In the first two days, you will receive an introduction into Austrian economics, starting from the essential principles and building up to more complex ones. On the first day alone, you leave with a clear understanding of what Austrian economics is, the methodology behind economics, the subjective theory of value, marginal utility, the firm and the entrepreneur, the structure of production, capital and interest theory, and the Austrian business cycle theory.

On the second day, you learn applications of Austrian theory, like the causal explanations for early speculative bubbles and the calculation dilemma in a socialist commonwealth. You also listen to the "Godfather," Ralph Raico, deliver his amazing talk (mp3) on the intellectually topsy-turvy world that was, and is, liberalism. I think that everyone who attended this lecture will agree with me when I say that we will never think of John Stuart Mill in the same way again.

Over the next four days, you choose your courses from a wide range of electives. Although there are myriad topics to choose from, in my mind they can be split into two basic categories: classes on policy and classes on theory. I can remember many occasions where I had to flip a coin last minute, because I couldn't choose between the two classes that interested me for the next time slot.

Some lectures related strictly to economic theory, and were an advanced-studies continuation from the lectures of the first two days. Examples include Professor Herbener's lecture, " Further Explorations in Austrian Value and Utility Theory," (mp3) and Professor Hülsmann's lecture, "Further Considerations in the Theory of Interest" (mp3). Both of these lectures developed and defined what truly distinguishes the Austrian School from the mainstream approach to economic reasoning.

There were also several lectures in the history of economic thought, such as Professor Herbener's talk on the American Psychological School, a short-lived period about a century ago in which Mengerian economists were in the mainstream. Professor Peter G. Klein, who feels a personal connection to F.A. von Hayek because he owns a car that the Nobel Laureate was once driven around in, delivered an excellent lecture in which he explains and dehomogenizes the two distinct strands of the Austrian School.

I ended up with almost two full notebooks of notes, quotes, ideas, and book suggestions. However, there were three key lectures that continue to resonate in my mind, concerning ideas that I hope to see developed further in the future. (As with all of the other lectures delivered at Mises University 2009, you can find them here.)

  • "Common Objections to Capitalism" by Dr. Art Carden (mp3) – Dr. Carden does an excellent job handling objections against the free market with a great air of humor. He actively engages with the students with tons of energy, to the point where he is actually walking up and down the aisles. Dr. Carden brought up powerful anticapitalist arguments, and then deconstructed them by citing a variety of empirical studies and insights from Austrian reasoning.

  • "The Great Depression" by Dr. Roger Garrison (mp3) – A comprehensive analysis into the causes that brought about the depression and the Hoover and New Deal policies that sustained it for so long. Garrison gives a priceless analogy midway into the lecture that explains the difference in economic analysis between Austrian and mainstream methodologies. His powerpoint slides are excellent visual companions.

  • "Austrian Answers to Neoclassical Puzzles" (mp3) by Dr. Robert P. Murphy – Murphy is the master of Keynesian disaster and Krugman's ideological counterweight. This man is an intellectual cornucopia of sound economic reasoning and razor-sharp, Maynard-shredding logic. He's one of the main reasons I decided to attend Mises University, and his lectures are more than rewarding. In this lecture, he gives multiple examples that describe internal flaws and inconsistencies within mainstream papers and mathematical models. This lecture is especially crucial for undergrads who will be taking upper-level courses in economics.

What else was there?

Aside from the lectures, there are also seminars and panels.

There were five seminars that allowed two or three professors to split off with a group of students and discuss a variety of topics and research opportunities. Here is the premier opportunity for college students (especially those seeking to do research for a senior thesis) to ask questions about economics, history, and philosophy. The professors were extremely talkative and full of ideas.

 

The panels I mentioned are three-hour questionnaire bonanzas that take place near the end of the event. This is when the unanswered questions from the week are let loose, and the session quickly erupts into an Austro-libertarian feeding frenzy. This year, the panels were split off into "theory" and "policy."

I attended the policy panel. Some of the questions that were asked included: "Is collusion ethical or sustainable in a free-market economy?" "In what sector of the economy is the next bubble appearing?" "Does the government have the right to kick a hobo out of a public library?"

One question that got the panel ripping into each other was, "do you guys disagree with each other?" That burst into a series of other sub-questions, such as "who is the most radical?" (I'd say it was a three-way tie between Professor Block, Professor Klein, and Dr. Robert Murphy.) I left this session without any unsettled questions in my mind.

That sounds pretty in-depth!

And that wasn't all. I'd also like to tell you about the "Mises Circle" talks and the special guest speakers. The Mises Circles are a great bonding experience that allow you to peek into the minds of Austrian thinkers. Although it's a fine opportunity, it can be difficult to absorb all of the information because half of the time is spent laughing out loud from the endless humor.

This year, Dr. Robert P. Murphy gave a talk where he assessed the current economic depression. The other Mises Circle was an informal, anecdotal talk given by Dr. Woods, which dealt with the marketing behind Meltdown, and other developments in his current work. Both men were hilarious and brought together the entire circle.

The guest speakers were Stephan Kinsella and Dr. Gary North. Mr. Kinsella gave an informative lecture on the libertarian position with regards to intellectual property — something he has become famous for. Dr. North spoke about how we can find our career, and how to distinguish it from one's vocation in life. He cited the late Burt Blumert and one "Mr. Anonymous" as examples of lives that were well lived — both in terms of careers and vocations that promoted liberty. It was a stirring speech that left everyone thinking about their role in the freedom movement.

Okay, we get the picture. Do you have any criticism?

As for criticism, I confess that the only thing I would have changed would be to have had more time! I would have especially enjoyed listening Professor Raico give his Mises Circle talk as well, particularly since he is the one faculty member who has personally known all of the giants of the Austrian School and libertarianism in America. I felt he really would have given an insider perspective on the development of the freedom movement and the rebirth of Austrian Economics in the United States.

Nevertheless, many students, including myself, later cornered Professor Raico during several of the social hours and "forced" him share his anecdotes and memories of the past. I termed these informal sessions "Raico Ovals."

The only other criticism I have doesn't really deal with anything academic, but rather with the logistics of the program. I'm not sure why, during the first two days, the main lectures were held and recorded in Massey Library. Since there were a record number of students this year, and since those are the most important lectures, it would seem to make sense that for the upcoming years they everyone back down to Condon Hall, and leave the overflow seating in Massey.

Alright, you've convinced me: I'm applying. What else can you tell me about Mises University?

The Austrian School is experiencing a rebirth, and at this time it's shooting upwards both in numbers and influence. Never before in America have so many politicians, pundits, journalists, writers, students, financial analysts, professors, and politicians been as influenced by the ideas of Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard as they are today.

Willard Sitz, who is the coordinator of customer relations and manager of the book store, told me that Mises University 2009 had been the biggest event ever held at the Institute. It has been and will continue to be the best opportunity for young students to learn firsthand from today's leaders of the Austrian School. Alumni have already begun to populate academic posts around the country, including at this very conference.

The number of students who apply to Mises University has shot up exponentially, as well. In contrast to this year's record-setting enrollment of 215 students, Lew Rockwell, the founder and chairman of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, told me that at the first Mises University there were only 28 students! It's clear that demand in Austrian economics has increased drastically since 1986, when Murray N. Rothbard was still teaching on the faculty!

At all times, older students looking to go into academics swarmed around professors and the handful of summer fellows. Others (including myself) encircled Dr. Woods for a chance to get their copy of Meltdown autographed. Some advanced students, already acquainted with Austrian economics, dug through the riches of the Ward and Massey libraries, getting a chance to skim through Rothbard's personal library and hold a book with his own margin commentaries and check marks.

As of today, students who are interested in the Austrian school do not have many outlets to pursue their studies. Try bringing up Rose Wilder Lane or Lysander Spooner to your high school American history teacher. Try mentioning Bohm-Bowerkian capital theory to your economics professor or citing Murray Rothbard's essays on egalitarianism as a revolt against nature in a sociology course. You will be met with blank stares and uninterested minds.

What is a young student at the high school or undergraduate level to do?

True, there are many resources available outside. If you're at this site, then you are probably already familiar with the endless articles, literature, and media that are made available by the Mises Institute, absolutely free of charge. And there is a tremendous selection of quality books that Jeffrey Tucker is making available everyday at the online store at affordable prices. There are also forums, blogs and chat rooms where people can talk, argue, ask and interact over the plethora of libertarian issues that exist. As far as this goes, it is a great thing.

However, this individualized, book-based, internet-oriented education is devoid of personal interaction. It's to no surprise, then, that for students seeking outside recourse for their Austrian cravings, there isn't a better conference to attend than Mises University.

If there is one fundamental concept that graduates of Mises University walk away with every time, it's that more or less they understand that libertarianism and Austrian economics are the rational antidote to the toxicity of the state. It's difficult to develop ideas and spread them when you have the majority of academia against sound economic theory.

Mises University pushes young students to think critically and reassess the party line. Most significantly, it gives students the intellectual ammo to brave mainstream, academic waters. And, it connects them with a network of people they can count as their classmates and colleagues. I can say with certainty that my fellow Mises University graduates are going to return to the academic world and spread the ideas of liberty with a renewed dedication and focus.

Mises University was just one of the small steps that I and many others have to taken in our own careers and vocations for the cause of liberty. In the spirit of Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard — two great teachers who dedicated their lives to educating others —Mises University provides a venue where the accomplished Austrian scholars of today can interact with, teach, and pass on the torch to an incoming generation of academics, thinkers, and leaders of tomorrow's freedom movement.


Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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