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New Austrian Scholars and the Future

Matt McCaffrey

Tags The EntrepreneurHistory of the Austrian School of EconomicsPhilosophy and Methodology

12/16/2014Matthew McCaffrey

Former Mises Fellow and economist Matt McCaffrey recently joined the faculty at Manchester University in the United Kingdom. Prof. McCaffrey recently spoke with us about how the Mises Institute has impacted his career and what the future holds for Austrian scholarship. Support our fellows program and our scholars.

Q: Why did you decide to become a Mises Fellow? What research areas do you work in?

I attended Mises University before starting graduate school, and it had a profound effect on my career plans. In particular, the Mises fellows made a lasting impression on me: listening to them present their research, it was clear they were a group of energetic young scholars making original contributions to Austrian economics, and really trying to push the tradition forward. I knew that’s what I wanted to do as well, but I also knew I needed guidance getting there, so applying for a fellowship was the obvious thing to do.

My research focuses mainly on the economics of entrepreneurship. Austrians have always stressed that entrepreneurs are the driving force of the market, and I try to explain what that means in theory and practice. I mostly write about the role entrepreneurs play in improving society, and how government intervention undermines them. I’ve also recently been exploring the economics of strategy and warmaking, a topic that’s received relatively little attention from Austrians.

Adding to that, I’d like to stress that the history of economic thought is a wonderful source of inspiration. Unfortunately, it’s a field that’s easily overlooked, even by readers of Austrian economics. But you can’t understand the Austrian tradition unless you really explore its past. It’s easy to find yourself reading only the most well-known writers, but there are many brilliant economists, like Frank Fetter or Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, who just aren’t read anymore, yet have so much to offer those who take the time to delve into their writing.

Q: What positive impact has your time as a fellow and your work with the Mises Institute had on your academic career?

I can honestly say the Mises fellowship has been the single most important influence in my development as a scholar; no other program could have given me the resources I needed to start my career. The fellowship offers time and learning materials, of course, but the most important element of the experience is the support and guidance you receive, especially through the director, Joe Salerno. It makes all the difference to be able to walk down the hall at any time to speak with him, ask for advice, or show him the draft of a new research project. He and the other scholars at the Institute supported me throughout graduate school, and any success I’ve had I attribute to Joe and to the program.

Q: What challenges have you faced in academia because of your affiliation with the Austrian school?

I’ve always been treated fairly by my employers and colleagues. It’s commonly thought that Austrians have a rough time in academia, but I don’t think they’re discriminated against as such. However, Austrians can have difficulty because they basically speak a different language than their non-Austrian counterparts. Mainstream economists have their own ideas about what economics is and how it should be done, and as a result they often don’t understand what Austrians do. For instance, some people assume that because Austrian theory isn’t hyper-mathematical, it isn’t rigorous either. So in places where mathematical theory and extensive econometric work are highly valued, it’s harder to get a job as an Austrian. However, you don’t usually see the same kind of assumptions being made in business schools, which are often quite friendly to Austrian ideas.

Put another way, yes, problems can arise, but it’s unproductive to react simply by being defensive. Instead, you have to focus on being an excellent scholar. Being an Austrian isn’t a license to do poor work; in fact, it means you have to be even better than your competitors. Austrians have an extra hurdle to leap because they need to know Austrian and mainstream ideas, and in my opinion, that’s the academic challenge we need to meet.

Q: You have looked for positions both nationally and internationally. Have you found programs outside the US to be different than US programs when it comes to hiring Austrians?

The issue of being an Austrian rarely comes up in either job market, but it seems to be especially uncommon outside the US. Largely due to the efforts of the Mises Institute, Austrian economics is experiencing a renaissance in the US, and more economists are becoming familiar with key Austrian ideas. However, Austrian economics is not as well-known in Europe (where it’s even more desperately needed), and that lack of awareness can lead to the kind of communication problem I mentioned before.

In general though, international programs are looking for the same sorts of things in faculty members as US schools. Basically, they want bright people who’ll do good work and improve the reputation of their university. Most economists don’t care whether you call yourself Austrian or Keynesian, because many economists just don’t think in those terms. What matters is that you excel in your teaching and research, and if you have differences with your colleagues, that you can resolve them intelligently and courteously.

Teaching is one place where Austrians actually have a big advantage: because they’re passionate about ideas and genuinely care about changing students’ lives, they tend to make excellent teachers. That said, there are definitely places where promoting ideas about free markets can make you unpopular. Here in the UK, for example, it’s difficult to criticize the National Health Service, and in France, discussions of free labor markets are practically unheard of.

Q: What do you see in the future for scholars working in the Austrian school?

I think those who are willing to devote themselves seriously to studying the ideas of the Austrian school have good reason to be optimistic. Inside and outside academia, people are finally starting to realize that the conventional economic wisdom about how society works is fundamentally flawed. That change gives us a rare opportunity to spread the message of peace and prosperity to an extent that’s been impossible for a long time. But even though there’s a lot of work still to do, the new generation has a wonderful foundation of sound ideas on which to build.

Image source: Mises Institute

Matthew McCaffrey

Matt McCaffrey, former Mises Research Fellow, is assistant professor of enterprise at the University of Manchester.