What To Do With What You Did Over Your Summer Vacation (2010)
Perhaps you’ve been to a seminar sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies, or perhaps you’re attending Mises University right now. Some of you are probably going to a seminar sponsored by the Foundation for Economic Education next week. You probably have (or will have) pages and pages of notes to go with a very long list of books, articles, interviews, podcasts, and lectures that cover some of the issues you’ve discussed in much greater detail. So what do you do with what all this? I reproduce here the Rhodes Vision, which articulates my employer’s guiding principles:
“Rhodes College aspires to graduate students with a life-long passion for learning, a compassion for others, and the ability to translate academic study and personal concern into effective leadership and action in their communities and the world.”
You can translate your academic study and personal concern into effective leadership and action several ways. First, find your comparative advantage. What do you do better than anyone else? If it’s making money, then put money in your purse. If it’s writing, do that. If it’s speaking, do that. If it’s raising money for worthwhile nonprofit endeavors, then do that. Avoid evil, and use your skills to advance freedom on every margin.
Second, get involved in the Great Conversation. It’s easier now than ever; indeed, it only takes a couple of minutes to register a blog on blogspot.com. Another option is to try to find outlets for short op-eds, which are hard to place in major newspapers but which you might be able to place in local independent weeklies or campus newspapers.
One way to pick up some big bills on the sidewalk would be to write letters to the editor of your local newspaper (and blog them after they’re written). If you read the letters to the editor sections of most major newspapers, you can see where there’s a lot of room for improvement. If you’re uncomfortable signing your name to something, look at the comments section of any controversial article on any news site and behold what you see. You can certainly do better than that. Adopt a pen name—a lot of the debates surrounding the American founding took place among patriots concealing their identities behind names from antiquity–and write better comments (but don’t feed the trolls).
It’s difficult, and it might be intimidating. Developing a competent writing style takes a lot of time and energy, but as Deirdre McCloskey puts it, “fluency can be achieved through grit.” I cut my teeth writing letters to editors of Alabama newspapers and a few columns for the student newspaper at Alabama in 2000-2001. I wrote and blogged some in grad school, and in recent years, I’ve taken a lot of my inspiration from George Mason University’s Don Boudreaux (he probably writes four or five letters a week, and he blogs them all at Cafe Hayek). I started writing for the public and blogging again in earnest in 2008; I found this to be a useful complement to rather than a substitute for my scholarly work, and the articles I’ve written for the Independent Institute, the Mises Institute, and elsewhere have led to a very agreeable gig contributing occasional commentaries to Forbes.com.
I’ve been happy to see that some of the students from summer seminars I’ve taught at before have been successful placing commentaries, letters, and analyses. But maybe writing isn’t really your thing just yet. If you don’t want to write, you can always try to start a reading group. I’ve recommended The Road to Serfdom, for example, and while it is dense, it is a very, very important book. You might be able to find a faculty member who is interested in leading you through it. Then (seriously) work on writing about what you discuss. To paraphrase 1986 Nobel Laureate James Buchanan, writing is thinking. Your understanding of an issue is reflected in your ability to convey that understanding using the written or the spoken word. It’s hard, but it’s worth it.
Of course, some of you might be best suited for on-the-ground action. You can almost certainly find some government board or agency or commission that’s having a public hearing on something this week. Go. Make your presence felt and your voice heard. Ask the big, important questions: what right does the council have to tell Big Bob’s Biker Bar that they can’t sell liquor? Back up your arguments. When everyone in the room looks at you as if you’ve just grown a third eye, don’t despair. Remember that you’re helping to strike a blow for liberty.
Your participation in a summer seminar sponsored by the Mises Institute, IHS, FEE, or any of a number of other organizations equips you to better understand how the world in which we live came to be and how we can make it better. I encourage you not to let these summer seminars be just something you did when you were in college. The ideas we are discussing are of the utmost importance because they determine whether people stay poor or get rich and whether some people live and some people die. You are a carrier of the ideas that have helped make civilization possible, and there is work to be done to make sure that these ideas spread. I’m sure you’re up to the task.