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Anatomy of the Austrian Movement

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Tags BiographiesHistory of the Austrian School of Economics

11/10/2011Peter G. Klein

I met my first Austrians, and first libertarians, at Stanford University in the summer of 1988, at the Mises Institute's Advanced Instructional Program in Austrian Economics, which evolved into the annual Mises University. There were about 40 students, mostly PhD students in economics, with four instructors: Murray Rothbard, Hans Hoppe, Roger Garrison, and David Gordon. Lew Rockwell, Pat Barnett, and Jeff Tucker were there too.

What a week! I had never experienced anything like it. I had read some Mises and Rothbard as an undergraduate economics major, presumably comprehending very little, and had spoken by phone to Murray Rothbard, Israel Kirzner, and Mario Rizzo while considering graduate programs. But I had never really talked to anyone about Austrian economics, about free markets, about liberty and justice. Now here I was, surrounded by experts and fellow learners, listening, discussing, laughing, and arguing late into the night. The participants were smart, passionate about ideas, and eager to soak up more — even the speakers, whom I assumed knew everything already. (I remember sitting behind Rothbard at one of the other speakers' lectures and watching in amazement as he took page after page of notes in his distinctively unreadable scrawl.)

Until that conference, Austrian ideas had existed for me only in the university library (remember, there was no Internet in those days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth). Thanks to the Mises Institute, the Austrian School became to me a living, breathing entity — a social movement rather than a footnote in modern intellectual history. I felt a bit like Luke Skywalker, experiencing the Force for the first time during his light-saber training on the Millennium Falcon, when told by Obi-Wan Kenobi, "That's good. You have taken your first step into a larger world."

I went on to earn a PhD in economics and have been a university professor for the past 15 years. I enjoy university life, though I don't smoke a pipe and own but a single tweed jacket. (Of course, I still have the lifetime supply of elbow patches I received upon earning tenure.) I have published many articles in academic journals, participate in the usual professional meetings and societies, and have even won a few research awards. I have taught hundreds of undergraduate students and have had the pleasure of supervising several PhD dissertations. I am privileged to preside over a small Mises Kreis at the University of Missouri, with our own PhD seminar, an informal reading group, and more. But the highlight of every year since 1988, for me, is a Mises event, sometimes several. I've attended the summer conference — now rechristened Mises University — every year since 1988, along with dozens of other special conferences, seminars, and events, including the Rothbard Graduate Seminar the last several summers, occasional Mises Circle events, special conferences on Marx, Keynes, central banking, egalitarianism, secession, and more, and the annual Supporters' Summits in the fall. Two years ago the fall conference was in Salamanca, Spain, the birthplace of economic theory. To meet this year in Vienna, home of the Austrian School from its birth in 1871 until the 1930s, is particularly special.

The Mises Institute has been important for me personally, as well as professionally: I met my future wife at a Mises Institute conference, a 1992 meeting in Jekyll Island, Georgia, on the origins of the Federal Reserve System. Ron Paul was a featured speaker at that conference, and initially she showed more interest in Ron Paul than in me. Eventually, my strong anti-Fed views must have won her over.

By the time I entered the movement, the "Austrian revival" that started in 1974 with the South Royalton Conference and Hayek's Nobel Prize was some two decades underway, and the Austrian School was in the middle of a remarkable rebirth.1 From its modest beginnings, in a German-speaking world dominated by the antitheory, antimarket German Historical School, the Austrian School had grown into a major intellectual force, becoming until the late 19th and early 20th centuries one of the leading economic schools of thought in Europe and the United States, only to fall into decline in the 1930s and 1940s. This story has been told expertly by others, most recently by Guido Hulsmann in his brilliant intellectual biography of Mises, and there is no need to repeat it here.2 The point is that while the school continued to grow, intellectually, and to produce some of its greatest accomplishments later in the 20th century — Ludwig von Mises's Human Action and Rothbard's Man, Economy, and State, of course, along with other great works by Ludwig von Mises, Murray N. Rothbard, F.A. Hayek, Ludwig Lachmann, and Israel Kirzner — there wasn't an Austrian movement during this time.

The 1970s and 1980s brought an Austrian revival, however, led by Rothbard and Kirzner and coalescing into the modern Austrian movement. Central to the revival was not just ideas, but institutions — funding, organization, events, outreach, and other activities central to movement building. Lew Rockwell's establishment of the Mises Institute in 1982 was critical in this regard. First, and perhaps most important, the Mises Institute gave Rothbard an institutional home — an outlet for his writings, a platform for his lectures, a center for the intellectual camaraderie that is essential to this kind of movement, a camaraderie that I experienced firsthand at that Stanford conference in 1988, and have continued to experience in the years since. During my graduate-student days in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Mises Institute's administrative offices were in Burlingame, California, a short drive from my home in Berkeley, and I spent one day per week in the office as a student intern, as well as being a Mises fellow, generously supported by the institute. My graduate program at Berkeley was not exactly a hotbed of Austrian or libertarian sentiment, and the weekly visits to Burlingame did a lot to preserve my sanity.

Second, Rockwell and Rothbard poured their energies into outreach, not only to fellow intellectuals, but also to students, businesspeople, journalists, and the lay public. (Policy makers were welcome to listen too, but were not the primary targets of the outreach effort.) The result is the modern-day Mises Institute, a diverse and multifaceted research, teaching, and outreach institution that supports academic research in the Austrian tradition, publishes scholarly and popular books and articles, hosts conferences for scholars, students, and laypeople, maintains the world's largest collection of online literature in Austrian economics and libertarian political economy, and more.

The Mises Institute's Internet presence is remarkable — usually topping various rankings of economics and policy websites — and has a special meaning for me, as I was the institute's first webmaster, back in 1994. "Webmaster" is an anachronistic term, in this context; I arranged some rented space on an Auburn University server and put up a few simple pages, using the HTML skills I had recently learned (and which peaked around 1995). Shortly thereafter the domain Mises.org was purchased, a real programming staff was assembled and, like Topsy from Uncle Tom's Cabin, it just growed.

Since the 1940s, the Austrian School's intellectual home has been in the United States. "Today's active Austrian school," wrote Hayek in 1978, "almost exclusively in the United States, is really the followers of Mises, based on the tradition of Böhm-Bawerk."3 Besides the Mises Institute, various other US-based organizations, societies, think tanks, and individual faculty members and students have promoted and developed the Austrian tradition. Until recently, the Austrian School was largely forgotten in Europe, particularly in Austria itself. After the fall of communism in the 1990s, Austrian groups emerged in Eastern Europe, particularly in the Czech Republic, Poland, and Romania. Now Austrian organizations, societies, and student groups are sprouting around the world; as of this writing, there are Mises Institutes in Brazil, Canada, Catalonia, China, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Finland, Germany, Israel, Japan, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and Ukraine; Hayek Institutes in Austria and Canada; and a Rothbard Institute in Belgium. The University d'Angers in France, under Guido Hülsmann, and the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Spain, under Jesús Huerta de Soto, are training a new generation of Austrian scholars in Europe. Can an Austrian School Olympics be far behind?

Thanks to the hard work of many scholars, students, academic entrepreneurs, and private donors, and greatly facilitated by the Internet, the Austrian movement is once again — as in its heyday — a global movement. As such, now is the perfect time to celebrate the Austrian School at its Viennese birthplace, not only to look back and marvel at what's been accomplished so far, but to look forward to the Austrian School's continued growth, development, refinement, and influence.

  • 1. See Joseph T. Salerno, "The Rebirth of Austrian Economics — In Light of Austrian Economics," Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics 5, no. 4 (Winter 2002): 111–28, for the case that the Austrian revival is more properly dated to 1962–63 with the publication of Murray N. Rothbard's Man, Economy, and State (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand, 1962), America's Great Depression (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Co., 1963), and What Has Government Done to Our Money? (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Pine Tree Press, 1963).
  • 2. Jörg Guido Hülsmann, Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2007).
  • 3. F.A. Hayek, "Mises's Notes and Recollections," in Peter G. Klein, ed., The Fortunes of Liberalism: Essays on Austrian Economics and the Ideal of Freedom, volume 4 of The Collected Works of F.A. Hayek (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 153–59. Hayek adds here that Böhm-Bawerk's tradition represents "only one of the branches into which Menger's theories had already been divided by his students, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk and Friedrich Wieser," contrasting Mises's influence with that of Wieser's successor Hans Mayer, whose work is mostly forgotten. Outsiders often view the Austrian tradition monolithically, not understanding that it was a diverse, vibrant, and growing movement from the beginning, and continues to be so today.
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