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Graduate Students: Go Mainstream

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Those searching for a Ph.D. that will allow them to pursue an academic career in Austrian economics should read Michael Rozeff’’s article on LewRockwell.com. Although the topic of the article is “Stimulus as Seen through Becker’s Chicago Lens,” Dr. Rozeff provides in passing an instructive description of his own graduate education at the University of Rochester’s School of Management which stimulated and encouraged his interest in Austrian economics.

Although the program he describes existed forty years ago, it broadly illustrates the type of mainstream graduate program that is amenable and even welcoming to Austrians. Despite the fact that the program was part of a business school, its focus was economics. There was a distinguished faculty that included Martin J. Bailey and Don Gordon, a former colleague of and important influence on Douglass North.

As Rozeff notes, the faculty was open-minded and questioned each other’s work continuously. Furthermore, “The excellence of this faculty lay, not so much in propounding a particular point of view as such, but in providing an immersion into intellectual challenge. . . . Students were treated as equals in the sense that they could raise objections and command a hearing as much as a faculty member could.”

In one course, Rozeff recalls, Martin Bailey had students write their own constitutions to rectify flaws in the U. S. Constitution, a project which eventually was published as a book. Most importantly, his teachers “emphasized qualitative, not quantitative economics. Mathematical economics was not part of the curriculum. Price theory was. Economic reasoning was. Inquiry emphasized theory, thought, ideas, and interpretation above empiricism. . . . They did not neglect economic history. Sooner or later, the inquiry fell on Wicksell, Böhm-Bawerk, Knight, Hayek, and others. One easily discovered the Austrians.”

There are a number of lessons to be learned from Rozeff’s discussion for those who are currently considering pursuing a Ph.D. as a means to an academic career in which they can teach and do research in Austrian economic theory or political economy.

1. You do not need to enroll in a traditional Ph.D. program in a department of economics. Economists hold prominent positions on the faculties of business schools, schools of public policy and of international relations, and departments of agricultural and natural resource economics. The number of disciplines, sub disciplines and specialties within these schools and departments are proliferating and now include entrepreneurship, strategy, contracts and institutions, business ethics etc. all of which are amenable to a broadly Austrian approach.

2. Many of these programs, while rigorous, are not overly quantitative and stress mainstream verbal-logical price theory and applications. The Austro-Mengerian, or causal-realist, approach to price theory was once the mainstream theory, and there still exists some kinship between qualitative Chicago and Marshallian price theory and Mengerian price theory. In fact, one of the main goals of Murray Rothbard in writing Man Economy and State was to recover and advance 1950s mainstream price theory which had been hijacked by the positivists and mathematical modelers.

3. Becoming an economist requires rigorous training and critical thinking, and institutional ranking is crucial in job placement. As things stand today in the U.S. one is probably best served in both regards by enrolling in a high quality mainstram Ph.D. program in one of the alternative disciplines such as management, public policy or even in mainstream economics, which feature superior and accomplished faculty who are at the top of their specialties. Enrolling in a heterodox economics program just because there is an “Austrian economist” or a few libertarians or anarchists on the faculty, while a possible alternative, may not be an optimal strategy in terms of intellectual development or career prospects.

Joseph Salerno is academic vice president of the Mises Institute, professor of economics at Pace University, and editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics.

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