Faculty Spotlight Interview: Robert Murphy
Robert Murphy grew up in Rochester, NY. He got his BA in economics at Hillsdale College, and his PhD at New York University where Mario Rizzo was his dissertation chair. From 2003-2006 he taught economics at Hillsdale College, and then moved to Nashville, TN to work for Arthur Laffer’s investment firm. In the summer of 2007 Murphy become an independent consultant, and became affiliated with the Institute for Energy Research and the Pacific Research Institute. Ever since his early days in grad school, Murphy has participated at the Mises Institute’s Rothbard Seminar and Mises University, first as a student and then as a lecturer. Murphy is the author of the Study Guide to Human Action and Man, Economy, & State with Power & Market. He currently lives in Nashville with his wife and son
1. How and when did you come about Austrian economics?
My dad listened to Rush Limbaugh when I was a freshman in high school, and I would hear it when he’d drive me somewhere. I started getting interested in free market economics, and began reading the opinion section in the newspaper. My favorite writers were people like Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams. Then I found Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, which mentioned Ludwig von Mises. I read Human Action my senior year in high school, though I didn’t understand much of it.
I went to Hillsdale College to get a degree in economics, and I knew at that point that I wanted to teach Austrian economics as a career.
2. How did Austrian economics change your worldview?
Hands down, Human Action is the single book that most shaped my overall view of “how the world works.” I wouldn’t even call it Austrian economics, so much as the worldview of Ludwig von Mises. Yes, there was the theory of the business cycle and the instability of interventionism, but there was so much more than that. Mises drove home that ideas really rule the world, not guns, and it really affected me to come from such a no-nonsense kind of guy, as opposed to a romantic poet. And his explanation of why Rome really fell–because of debasing the coinage and then imposing price controls–blew me away. It was consistent with the history I had learned, but his interpretation was obviously much different. Rather than just giving a laundry list of “causes”–like barbarian invasions–Mises’ theory showed *what was different* and why the invasions succeeded when earlier they had failed.
3. Who have been your greatest intellectual influences?
As far as economics and libertarianism, it was obviously Mises and Rothbard. But before I discovered them, probably my biggest hero was the physicist Richard Feynman. Not only was Feynman a genius when it came to physics, but he was actually practical; he could *do* things. My favorite story is how when Feynman was working on the atomic bomb during World War II, he figured out a way to crack the safes of the other scientists and gain access to Top Secret documents. When Feynman brought the security flaws to the military’s attention, their solution wasn’t to fix the problem, but instead to send out a memo telling everyone to be wary of Feynman. So I think Feynman’s irreverent attitude, coupled with an insatiable thirst for knowledge in various disciplines, really influenced me, as far back as junior high.
4. What are your hobbies?
Unfortunately with my consulting position I don’t get much free time, and what time I do have I basically spend with my five-year-old son. But I have been known to hit the karaoke bar from time to time. Also, when I return to a normal life, I hope to catch up on basketball and chess.
5. What are your favorite films and/or theatrical works?
My favorite movie is Rob Roy (starring Liam Neeson), and two other great ones are Dr. Strangelove and the original Superman. My favorite Broadway show is Les Miserables but I also really like Wicked.
6. What are your favorite literary works?
John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is the greatest novel I have ever read, but I probably liked Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove more.
I also need to mention that Stephen King’s nonfiction book On Writing is absolutely wonderful for anyone who wants to understand how good fictions “works.” In his horror novels, King does something that I really liked in McMurtry’s books: They both “get inside the heads” of all the characters, and don’t explicitly judge them, but just explain how even the bad guys view the world and why they act the way they do. In contrast, when you read a Dickens’ novel you know who the good guys are–they’re the ones whose actions are comprehensible. The bad guys are black boxes of pure malevolence who are motivated by simplistic things like “I want a lot of money” and that’s that. They’re not depicted as real people.
7. What music do you enjoy the most?
I guess you would classify it as Classic Rock. Groups like the Beatles and the Hollies, but I’m also a big fan of Sinatra and Billy Joel. And I think Hall & Oates should get more airtime than they do on the radio.
8. You are heading up a new program with the Mises institute called the “Mises Academy”, can you tell the readers what the academy has to offer?
I can’t hope to do it justice in this format, so I urge people to check out the information at Mises.org. But in a nutshell, it’s everything you could hope for. The software allows live video and audio for all the students, as the professor gives the lecture with an accompanying Power Point or whiteboard if he needs to “write on the board.” Students can type in questions which the professor can see in real-time.
So far we’ve had over 70 students sign up for my class on the business cycle, which is a great response and bodes well for the success of the Academy. Over time the plan is to keep introducing more and more classes. Now that the basic infrastructure is in place, it’s really just a function of matching a professor who wants to teach a particular topic with enough students to make it worthwhile. But because of the technology, the threshold is a lot lower now than it would have been in the past. For example if someone wants to teach a class on libertarian legal theory, he or she has the whole world for potential students.
9. You also currently have a home study course on economics that is available in the Mises store, is this because you are a proponent of homeschooling or are you just trying to spread the school of Austrian economics as diversely as possible?
I am a proponent of homeschooling. When I taught at Hillsdale College, some of my best students–certainly the ones who liked learning for its own sake–had been homeschooled. We had originally planned on homeschooling our own son, but it turned out to be impractical. However, when he gets a little older I will certainly supplement his outside schooling with at-home lessons on various topics, which he hopefully will not come to dread.
But it’s true, as you say if we’re trying to broadcast Austrian-themed material to people, at first we will need them to simply teach themselves in their free time. There are a lot of roadblocks to getting our point of view into even private schools, let alone government ones.
10. Do you feel that an internet education is a new outlet to surpass traditional state controlled institutions of academia?
Definitely! There is a lot of junk on the Internet, but it also offers amazing opportunities. I can’t believe how much it evolves even in a single year. When people find online writers or bloggers whom they trust, it gets very difficult for the government to keep up its absurd justifications. Even among financial people who aren’t ideological, for example, they know full well that the government’s bailouts and other plans aren’t going to work, if they read a few key writers.
11. Is there a reason you choose to teach the business cycle as your first class in the Mises academy?
We thought–correctly, in retrospect–that there would be a high demand for this class, and we also knew it was important to get this information out *now* while people still have a chance to prepare for the coming storm.
12. What are your impressions of the future of the Austrian school?
It just keeps getting brighter, at a pace that surprises me all the time. For example, a few years ago I used to daydream that one day in the distant future, one of us would be able to package the story in such a way that we could mention it on national TV and not come off as a kook. Well, Ron Paul discussed Austrian economics on Jay Leno! I couldn’t believe it. And when he got college kids to go nuts about monetary policy, that blew me away too. I would’ve thought a libertarian needed to talk about the draft or legalizing drugs to get college kids interested, but no, Ron Paul showed up to talk about the Fed. Amazing.
On the academic front, things are more ossified, but even there I think Austrians are going to have a lot more freedom in the coming years. There is a lot more interest in Mises-Hayek business cycle theory. I don’t think you would see a QJAE-type article in a top-20 mainstream journal, but I do think a more mathematical article that is inspired by Hayek or Mises could end up in a big journal. What’s really interesting about the current crisis is all of the “extracurricular” talk coming from professional economists. When Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong go nuts over something that Eugene Fama or John Cochrane has written, it’s not in an AER piece, it’s from an interview or an op ed in the Wall Street Journal. So I think in that respect, Austrian economists will gain a lot more influence in the future, simply because their commonsense analyses will prove so much more sensible than what the Efficient Markets guys are saying, and what the Keynesians are saying.