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Faculty Spotlight Interview: Roy Cordato

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October 5, 2010

Roy Cordato is Vice President for Research and resident scholar at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, NC. The JLF is a public policy think that focuses on North Carolina state and local policy issues. He is also visiting faculty at NC State University where, under the auspices of a grant from the John William Pope Foundation, teaches “Political Economy of the Market Process,” a course which focuses on the economic and ethical foundations of a free market economy. He is also faculty advisor for a graduate student run seminar in Austrian economics and an undergraduate club called the Society for Politics, Economics, and the Law. From 1993-2001 he served as the Lundy Professor of Business Philosophy at Campbell University in Buies Creek, NC and from 1987-1993 he was Senior Economist at the Institute for Research on the Economics of Taxation (IRET) in Washington, DC. His publications include a 1992 book, Welfare Economics and Externalities in an Open Ended Universe (Kluwer Academic Publishers republished in 2007 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute). His articles have appeared in a number of economics journals and law reviews including the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and the Review of Austrian Economics. He has also published in The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Times, Investor’s Business Daily, The Journal of Commerce, The Congressional Record, The Orange County Register, The Freeman, Human Events, National Review Online, The Washington Examiner, Tax Notes and many other newspapers and magazines. In 2000 he received the Freedoms Foundation’s Leavey Award in Free Enterprise Education. He is also a member of the Mont Pelerin Society. Cordato holds an M.A. in urban and regional economics from the University of Hartford and a Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He also plays the double bass and holds a Bachelors of Music Education from the Hartt School of Music.


What do you like to do in your free time? Do you have any hobbies?
For the last several years I’ve gotten very involved in rediscovering, or maybe discovering for the first time, my ethnic, cultural, and family heritage. I’ve become active in two Italian heritage organizations in North Carolina—The Sons of Italy and the Triangle Italian American Heritage Association. I have also started a Facebook group called Cordato the World Over with the purpose of trying to discover family members from around the world. As a result I have connected with dozens of family members from both here in the US and in Italy and Australia. Most interestingly I made a trip to my familial home village in Italy. A very small village in the mountains of Basilicata called Montemurro. Basilicata is the most sparsely populated region of Italy and Montemurro only has about 1200 people. We were able to access church baptismal records that were more than 170 years old and found the records for my great grandparents my grandfather and all of his siblings. It was an amazing experience. I also enjoy cooking (and eating) Italian food and drinking Italian wine.

What drew you to the Austrian school?
It was both a what and a who. Libertarianism was the what and Dom Armentano was the who. In the early 1970s I was an undergraduate student at the Hartt School of Music, which is part of the University of Harford in CT. I had discovered libertarianism toward the end of my high school years after reading a lengthy article about the “new” libertarian movement on college campuses, which quoted Murray Rothbard and David Friedman. So here I was a libertarian music student at a pretty serious conservatory. In my freshman year I read an article in the Uof H student newspaper by an economics faculty member named Dominick Armentano and it struck me that he sounded pretty libertarian, although I can’t for the life of me remember what the article was about. This would have been in 1971. Anyway, I trekked across campus to the business school and knocked on Dom’s door. I’ll never forget that meeting—although I am sure Dom has. It made a huge impression on me. After talking with him for a while it must have been pretty clear that I was a real neophyte when it came to libertarian ideas. Finally he said to me—“you better learn your arguments or their going to kill you.” I assumed he meant in debate not literally. Anyway, that comment, for some reason, really struck me. Of course, the implication was that I didn’t know my arguments—and I didn’t. In some sense I feel like what I’ve been doing ever since I left his office that day is “learning my arguments.”
Anyway, over my four years in music school I had many conversations with Dom and we became pretty good friends. Even though I was a music student, under his influence I started to read not only the libertarian literature of the day—For a New Liberty, the Tannehill’s Market for Liberty, and Rand’s Capitalism the Unknown Ideal were especially influential—but also some Austrian economics. Although I have to admit most of it was way over my head. At the time I had yet to have even a single course in economics and here I was trying to read and understand articles on topics like business cycle theory and competition and monopoly theory. I just decided to read it, even though I was only getting about every third word. Probably the coolest thing to happen to me during this period came in 1975 when I was a senior at the Hartt School. Dom invited me to come and sit in the back—literally on the floor, against the wall in the back of the room—at the University of Hartford conference on Austrian economics. All these heavy weights were there—Rothbard, Hayek, Kirzner. Again, I didn’t understand most of what was being talked about. I was just in awe to be in the same room with these people, especially Rothbard who I had been reading for the last several years. I am sure that this was one of the moments that eventually drew me into making a career change about 3 years later.
The upshot is that I graduated music school in 1975, went to work as a musician, playing all kinds of music, from jazz (my favorite) and classical to pop and dinner theater—anything to pay the rent. But at least I never had to wait tables. All the time I kept having conversations with Dom and my current wife Karen Palasek (also a Ph.D. in economics from GMU). A point came when I just decided to start doing formally what I had been doing informally—studying economics. In 1978 I took a few undergraduate courses in econ and statistics and in 1979 I entered an MA program in economics at U of H working closely with Armentano. I completed my degree in May 1980. After a 2-year stint in Auburn studying with Roger Garrison and Bob Ekelund (this is pre-Mises Institute) and getting my first experience with teaching, I entered the Ph.D. program at GMU in 1982, the year that their program started. I finished there in December 1986. I was the first student to actually go through the program there and receive a Ph.D. There were a couple students who transferred in ABD from VPI with the Public Choice Center in 1982 who received degrees ahead of me. Anyway, the rest is in my bio.

Who is your greatest inspiration?
As an economist it is clearly Armentano. If I hadn’t met Dom I’m not sure what I’d be doing right now but it probably wouldn’t be economics. The other economist I owe a whole lot to is the late Norman Ture’ the well-known and influential supply side economist. He was my boss for six years at the Institute for Research on the Economics of Taxation. As I told him when I left there in 1993, every day when I came to work was like going to class. He was one of the best economists I’ve ever had the chance to associate with. And while he was a Chicago Ph.D.—he studied with Frank Knight and Henry Simon–he liked a lot of the Austrian arguments; especially in the areas I was most interested in, welfare and environmental economics. Our big area of disagreement was capital theory but I guess that should be expected from someone who studied with Frank Knight. Norman made me realize that when it came to tax analysis the Austrians could learn a lot from supply siders. Probably everything I know about tax analysis I owe to Norman. I also can’t leave out Israel Kirzner. Among the leading Austrian scholars Israel’s writings have both influenced me and inspired me more than anyone else’s. As a libertarian and a policy analyst my greatest inspiration has been Murray Rothbard. Over the years, especially at conferences in the late 1970s and early1980s and when I was teaching at Mises University, I had the opportunity to spend a good deal of time with Murray. And in all of the conversations we had I came to understand what it meant to “study at the feet of a master.”

One of your works concerns externalities and their perceived effects on the market. Would you say this work is a retort to many mainstream economists who try to use externalities to justify the intervention of the government?
Without a doubt. I’ve always viewed the market failure paradigm as methodologically flimsy and a huge threat to liberty. I can probably trace everything I’ve done in this area, including my 1992 book (currently published by the Mises Institute as Efficiency and Welfare Economics in an Open Ended Universe) back to a paper I wrote as a master’s student at the University of Hartford. I took a course in public finance and was fed all the usual stuff about public goods, externalities and market failure. This inspired me to go and look at what the Austrians were saying, particularly about the concept of efficiency, which of course is what the entire market failure paradigm is based on. The only place I could find any lengthy discussion of the topic was in Kirzner’s 1963 book, Market Theory and the Price System. Anyway, I wrote a paper about it for a seminar class I had with my public finance professor. The paper was titled “The Austrian Theory of Efficiency and the Role of Government.” This paper ended up being my first publication. It appeared in the Journal of Libertarian Studies, (1980). The whole idea was to respond to what I was being fed about this topic in my master’s program. I was probably still responding to in the early 1990s when I wrote my book.

Do you have any new works on the way?
Right now just about everything I’m doing is oriented toward nuts and bolts policy. That is the nature of my job. So I am not focusing on academic writing at all. I am always working on something, usually having to do with putting out some fire in the world of North Carolina public policy. Write now I am working on a piece which focuses on something called demand side management, which is a particularly evil approach to government policy, heavily embraced by environmentalists and smart growth planners. It is all about social engineering. The idea is to manipulate demand for energy, transportation, housing, and land in order to rearrange how people live. It’s a very dangerous movement and it is not really on most libertarians’ radar because it is occurring primarily at the state and local level. Also, a couple years ago I wrote a monograph on the concept of sustainable growth and development, which, as is typically invoked, is a completely vacuous concept. But it has been very successful as a tool in advancing an eco fascist agenda. I hope to get back to this piece and expand on it.

What kind of impact do you hope to make with your work?
At the Locke Foundation I hope to, at whatever margin I can, keep the tyrants in North Carolina state government and on the city councils and county commissions across the state from stealing my money, property, and liberty and the money, property, and liberty of my fellow North Carolinians. With my work at NC State my hope is that through my teaching and through my interaction with students in our Austrian seminar and the Society for Politics Economics and the Law that I can help prepare students to fight the battle on other fronts, including within the economics profession.

Are there any words of wisdom you wish to pass onto the next generation of
Austrian scholars?

Don’t be afraid to engage the battle at the margin. Sometimes, both as grad students and as academicians, we get so bogged down in our own work, which, given the demands of tenure and promotion, is almost by definition inframarginal, it is easy to lose sight of where the front lines are. Over the last decade, since I’ve
come to work for the Locke Foundation, I’ve realized how important it is to have good minds engaged in the nitty gritty of public policy. And I think it is more important now than at any point in my lifetime.

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