Power & Market

A Birthday Tribute to Murray Rothbard’s Favorite Economist

(This past Saturday, February 12, marked the 171th anniversary of the birth of Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk [1851-1914].)

In a talk I gave at a conference celebrating Murray Rothbard’s sixtieth birthday, I opined that, as an economic theorist, Murray N. Rothbard was more Böhm-Bawerkian than his mentor, Ludwig von Mises. My incidental remark evidently impressed Rothbard because, in an interview several years later, he gave an interesting answer to the question “Is there any doubt that Mises was your primary influence?” 

I didn’t think so, but Joseph Salerno once gave a talk in which he said Man, Economy, and State is more Böhm-Bawerk-oriented than Mises’s Human Action. I never thought of it that way, but it may be true. When I was spelling out capital theory, I used Böhm-Bawerk primarily. I didn’t think about it since I thought Mises was a Böhm-Bawerkian and didn’t see any contradiction.

A few years later I was having lunch with Murray when he asked me whom I would rank as the greatest economist. The question caught me off guard and before I could answer, he interjected, “I think Böhm-Bawerk was the greatest economist of all time. He developed a magnificent system of economic theory and then defended it against all comers.” A little surprised by his answer, I timidly suggested that I thought Mises was the greatest economist. He thought for a moment and then replied, “Well, a strong case can certainly be made for Mises.”

I was recently reminded of Rothbard’s interview and our luncheon exchange when I was reading through the memos and correspondence from the Rothbard archives at the Mises Institute. In a 1959 memo evaluating a new English translation of Böhm-Bawerk’s Capital and Interest for the Volker Fund, Rothbard wrote a wonderful, heartfelt tribute to Böhm-Bawerk that indicates his central role in the development of sound economic theory and, implicitly, in Rothbard’s own theoretical system:

[I]f someone wanted to learn economics, and could take only two books with him to a desert island to do so, I would recommend taking Human Action and this work of Böhm-Bawerk’s. Böhm’s book is the great classic of economic thought, still sound today, very little outdated. The achievements of economics since have been more added on to economics (largely by Mises) rather than refuting much of what Böhm-Bawerk contributed. . . . In contrast to the confused garble of the styles of Ricardo, Marshall or Keynes, indeed, Böhm-Bawerk’s style is a delight . . . . Such is Böhm-Bawerk’s Capital and Interest, which should be absorbed by every economist. If one-tenth of the time and the energy that has been lavished during this century over an enormously inferior work like Marshall’s Principles ha[d] been spent on this work, the history of economic thought in our time would be enormously different.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
What is the Mises Institute?

The Mises Institute is a non-profit organization that exists to promote teaching and research in the Austrian School of economics, individual freedom, honest history, and international peace, in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard. 

Non-political, non-partisan, and non-PC, we advocate a radical shift in the intellectual climate, away from statism and toward a private property order. We believe that our foundational ideas are of permanent value, and oppose all efforts at compromise, sellout, and amalgamation of these ideas with fashionable political, cultural, and social doctrines inimical to their spirit.

Become a Member
Mises Institute