Power & Market

Remembering Robert Ekelund, A Good Colleague and Friend of the Mises Institute

When Robert (Bob) Ekelund passed away Thursday, August 17, just short of his eighty-third birthday, the academic world lost a truly great economist, the world lost a talented artist and musician, and many of us lost a man who was a good friend. The Mises Institute also lost someone who was a fellow traveler with the Austrian school and someone who was a mentor to those of us who did our graduate work at Auburn University while tied in various ways to the institute.

There have been many tributes written to him, including one by his former student Donald Boudreaux, and one could fill cyberspace with all of the accolades that he has received in the past few days. All are worth reading, if for no other reason than to start to gain an accurate picture of this most remarkable man.

Instead, I will write from the perspective of the graduate student who had the privilege of learning about him from the position of someone who was not his peer. In this time, when the ongoing cultural revolution has undermined traditional academic relationships, we should remember that those old relationships were important, and I was fortunate enough to have such a relationship with Bob.

I entered the PhD program at Auburn in September 1995. I was in my early forties, making me the oldest student in our cohort. Having met Bob earlier, I already had an inkling of the energy and enthusiasm he brought to the program, but because he opted out of teaching the introductory microeconomics course, I didn’t have him until the spring quarter, when he taught the second of the History of Economic Thought courses.

Before taking that class, I thought I understood Austrian economics, not to mention had at least some competence in historical economic thinking, but Bob quickly shot down that foolishness not by admonishment, but by his remarkable teaching. More than a decade earlier, I had purchased Carl Menger’s Principles of Economics but had never read it. Bob made us read all of it, and after he explained Menger’s theory of value, the scales fell from my eyes. It was not necessarily the Damascus Road experience, but it was close. My thinking—for that matter, my life—was changed forever.

I began to read some of Bob’s voluminous work afterward (it would take my lifetime to read everything he wrote) and was even more impressed. That work would introduce me to men like Jules Dupuit, a man obscure to most economists but someone who made quiet advances in better understanding marginal utility, the backbone of economic value theory as we know it. The economics program at Auburn became a much richer intellectual environment.

Bob’s creativity was also expressed in his test questions and in the questions that he produced for our doctoral exams. He especially loved to ask about joint production (where the production of one good also provides factors of production used in making other things) and I am ashamed to say that I blew his question about turkey production (I won’t say what I did, but it really was unbelievably stupid). He also loved examples of price discrimination, and his text cowritten with the late Richard Ault had some rich ones.

During the winter quarter of 1997, I was privileged to have Bob for two classes, Institutions and Regulation, and his expertise made every session a sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seats moment. Before taking those classes, I thought I knew something about each of the subjects but was reminded once again that my knowledge was deficient. The experience was life changing, and while at the time I had a vague idea of just how important these classes were, I have drawn from them each day since.

Graduate students often choose a program because of the presence of a certain faculty member, and for Auburn University’s PhD program in economics, that person was Bob Ekelund. I chose history of economic thought as one of my fields because he and Robert Hébert, both world-class scholars in that field, were in our program. Even though many economics programs have eliminated this area of study, I have no regrets about my choice.

Because of his extensive knowledge of economic thinking and history, Bob was able to “discover” and interpret the works of Jules Dupuit and Edwin Chadwick and point out how their ideas and actions could be applied to economic issues of our day. He also teamed up with his good friend, the late Robert Tollison, to use economic analysis to cover topics from mercantilism to the medieval Catholic Church.

Bob was more than just a classroom teacher, however. He was a mentor and chaired numerous dissertation committees, providing guidance to a generation of economics professors who have done well in the profession. In fact, even after retirement, he continued to write, even publishing a paper in the prestigious Journal of Political Economy.

Not to be satisfied with being a world-class economist, he also was an artist whose paintings enjoyed numerous exhibitions throughout the Southeast. He was a classical pianist and so much more. One of my classmates told me that Bob Ekelund was someone we thought would live forever, as few men his age had both the intellect and the energy to carry on as long as he did.

The economics profession, the Mises Institute, and countless others will miss him. His passing leaves a void that ordinary people—and even extraordinary individuals—cannot fill. Bob was one of a kind, and I doubt we will know anyone again who was like him. Rest in peace, good friend.

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