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Faculty Spotlight Interview: Robert Higgs

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December 2, 2010

Robert Higgs is a Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute and is the editor of Independent Review. He is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and is also a contributor to LewRockwell.com. Higgs has held teaching positions at University of Washington, Lafayette College, and Seattle University.


What do you like to do in your free time? Do you have any hobbies?
I have no hobbies of the usual kind, and my free time is rather scarce because I am usually overcommitted to various projects – writing, editing, and speaking, for the most part. But my wife and I keep poultry as a sort of overgrown hobby. At present, we have 56 chickens, 8 ducks, and 6 geese, and a substantial amount of time is required each morning and each evening to care for them.

I also love many kinds of music, especially classical, and I greatly enjoy listening to music even though I am not a musician myself. During baseball season, I often watch the Seattle Mariners’ games on television in the evening.

What drew you to the Austrian school and to the Ludwig von Mises Institute?
I stumbled upon Hayek’s writing during the first year of my career as a professor (1968-69). Hayek’s references led me to read Mises’s Human Action several years later, and around the same time, I discovered Rothbard, Kirzner, and other Austrians. My transition from neoclassical to Austrian economist took many years, however, and I may still fall short of having become a card-carrying Austrian, at least in some people’s eyes. I’m still learning.

I found out about the Mises Institute when, in the late 1980s, Murray Rothbard invited me to join the editorial board of the Review of Austrian Economics. I have been writing for the institute’s publications and lecturing at its conferences from time to time ever since.

Who is your greatest inspiration?
Early in my training as an economist, I was inspired by Simon Kuznets and Douglass C. North. Soon afterward, I took considerable inspiration from Gary Becker, Milton Friedman, George Stigler, Ronald Coase, and Armen Alchian and from economic historians such as Nathan Rosenberg, Robert Fogel, and Stanley Engerman, among others. Later still, Schumpeter, Hayek, Mises, Rothbard, and James Buchanan exerted greater influence on my thinking. In retrospect, I regard Mises as the giant among these figures.

Your book, Crisis and Leviathan, has been quoted by many scholars as the definitive work on the growth of government in American history. What inspired you to write such a work and do you have any plans of updating it to the present day?
My first academic appointment, which stretched from 1968 to 1983, was in the department of economics at the University of Washington, where my colleague and department chairman was Douglass North. At that time, North was widely viewed as the leading authority among the economic historians with regard to the role of government in economic history. Over the years, he and I had countless discussions of this topic and related matters, even though my own research at the time dealt with other subjects. Eventually, around 1980, I decided to write my own book on the growth of government. During the five years or so that I worked mainly on this project, I broadened my initial plan for the book and deepened my knowledge of many related areas of history, law, and social science. The book was finally published in 1987.

I have no plans for updating Crisis and Leviathan, although several of my later books, especially Depression, War, and Cold War (2006), essentially amount to sequels in which I deal more fully with aspects of the topics I covered in the 1987 book, as well as with some new, related topics and with the more recent period of history.

Do you have any new works on the way?
Since I left academia, in 1994, I have found it difficult to write proper (coherent, well focused) books, so all of my books published during the past fifteen years are collections of essays. Some of these collections, such as Against Leviathan (2004) and Neither Liberty Nor Safety (2007), range widely; others, such as Resurgence of the Warfare State (2005) and Depression, War, and Cold War, have a narrower focus. I have made a plan for another collection, which would contain a number of my more substantial essays written in the past few years, but I have not yet decided whether to have this collection published.

What kind of impact do you hope to make with your work?
I hope that my work will contribute, if only in some tiny way, to professional and lay understanding of how the world works now and how it worked in the past. I currently spend a fair amount of my writing time (which is only a small part of my entire professional time) explaining and criticizing economic and foreign policies and striving to clarify people’s views of what is going on in the political economy. Whatever good, if any, this part of my writing may do, it is certainly ephemeral. One does not write op-ed articles “for the ages.”

Are there any words of wisdom you wish to pass onto the next generation of Austrian scholars?
Study the writings of the great Austrians carefully, especially those of Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard, but do not confine your study to the Austrian school or to economics alone. The greatest Austrians were men of extremely wide knowledge and understanding. This aspect of their intellects is one of the most important ways in which they distinguished themselves (greatly for the better) from the narrowly focused technicians and idiot savants who, to an appalling extent, pass as leading economists in the mainstream economics profession today.

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