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Chapter 4: The Discipline of Liberty
Probably the most common question that has been hurled at me—in some exasperation—over the years is: “Why don’t you stick to economics?” For different reasons, this question has been thrown at me by fellow economists and by political thinkers and activists of many different persuasions: Conservatives, Liberals, and Libertarians who have disagreed with me over political doctrine and are annoyed that an economist should venture “outside of his discipline.”
Among economists, such a question is a sad reflection of the hyperspecialization among intellectuals of the present age. I think it manifestly true that very few of even the most dedicated economic technicians began their interest in economics because they were fascinated by cost curves, indifference classes, and the rest of the paraphernalia of modern economic theory. Almost to a man, they became interested in economics because they were interested in social and political problems and because they realized that the really hard political problems cannot be solved without an understanding of economics. After all, if they were really interested mainly in equations and tangencies on graphs, they would have become professional mathematicians and not have devoted their energies to an economic theory that is, at best, a third-rate application of mathematics. Unfortunately, what usually happens to these people is that as they learn the often imposing structure and apparatus of economic theory, they become so fascinated by the minutiae of technique that they lose sight of the political and social problems that sparked their interest in the first place. This fascination is also reinforced by the economic structure of the economics profession (and all other academic professions) itself: namely, that prestige, rewards, and brownie points are garnered not by pondering the larger problems but by sticking to one’s narrow last and becoming a leading expert on a picayune technical problem.
Among some economists, this syndrome has been carried so far that they scorn any attention to politico-economic problems as a demeaning and unclean impurity, even when such attention is given by economists who have made their mark in the world of specialized technique. And even among those economists who do deal with political problems, any consideration devoted to such larger extra-economic matters as property rights, the nature of government, or the importance of justice is scorned as hopelessly “metaphysical” and beyond the pale.
It is no accident, however, that the economists of this century of the broadest vision and the keenest insight, men such as Ludwig von Mises, Frank H. Knight, and F.A. Hayek, came early to the conclusion that mastery of pure economic theory was not enough, and that it was vital to explore related and fundamental problems of philosophy, political theory, and history. In particular, they realized that it was possible and crucially important to construct a broader systematic theory encompassing human action as a whole, in which economics could take its place as a consistent but subsidiary part.
In my own particular case, the major focus of my interest and my writings over the last three decades has been a part of this broader approach—libertarianism—the discipline of liberty. For I have come to believe that libertarianism is indeed a discipline, a “science,” if you will, of its own, even though it has been only barely developed over the generations. Libertarianism is a new and emerging discipline which touches closely on many other areas of the study of human action: economics, philosophy, political theory, history, even—and not least—biology. For all of these provide in varying ways the groundwork, the elaboration, and the application of libertarianism. Some day, perhaps, liberty and “libertarian studies” will be recognized as an independent, though related, part of the academic curriculum.