Faculty Spotlight Interview: Walter Block
Walter Block is a professor of economics at Loyola University in New Orleans. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy at Brooklyn College and his Ph.D. from Columbia University. He is the author of Defending the Undefendable and Privatization of Roads and Highways: Human and Economic Factors, and a dozen other books. He has written 350 articles in scholarly refereed journals, and several thousand op eds and magazine and newspaper articles.
What do you like to do in your free time? Do you have any hobbies?
Before I answer this question, let me say that I think it is a very good one. We Austro-libertarians are more, much more, than economists and political philosophers. In addition to being scholars, we are also human beings, with many, many other interests. This is one of the reasons I was instrumental in publishing this book Block, Walter E., editor. 2010. I Chose Liberty: Autobiographies of Contemporary Libertarians; Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, so as to show the human side of people who share our calling. Now, to answer your question.
My hobbies are (or were) volleyball, chess, handball, swimming, running, music, solitaire, television.
Volleyball. I used to love to play volleyball. It was just fascinating to me how good teams could keep the volleys going for so long; how cooperation could triumph over individual ability. The team work in this sport is the most intensive of any game I have ever played. I was quite serious about this game, going to week-long volleyball camps to improve my skills. I played in a league with pretty good athletes. But, I had to give up volleyball. I could dig the ball right before it hit the floor by rolling along the ground get to it. I could set pretty well. I could even spike adequately, given my short stature: height, 5’8”. But, there was one thing I couldn’t do at all, at least at anywhere near the level of my other skills: I couldn’t bump the ball, or pass it very well, for example on receipt of serve or on defense. A very eminent coach (he was in charge of the woman’s Puerto Rican Olympic team) once took me aside to try to help me. We went through all of the usual check marks: am I bending my knees, is my back straight, am I keeping my eye on the ball not just while it is in the air but all the way until it touches me, are my arms in the right spot with regard to each other, etc. I convinced him I was doing all these things. And then he said, and I’ll never forget this, Wait a minute, let me see something. And he looked at, of all things, my elbows. He pointed out to me that there was a gigantic gap between them. Try as I might, I just couldn’t touch my elbows to each other when they were both straight. I couldn’t even come close. This, too, I learned, much to my dismay, was a biologically necessary characteristic to be able to play volleyball at anything but the jungle ball level. Without it, it was as if I was trying to bump the ball with but one arm. A horrid lack, on my part, at least if I wanted to pursue this sport seriously. After that learning experience, I never played again, but still enjoy watching the game played well.
Chess. I am endlessly fascinated with chess. One of my favorite novels is Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis, which tells the coming of age story of a chess prodigy. The first thing I look for in the newspaper is the chess column. I used to spend hours and hours playing. I would study opening moves, the middle game, the end game. I remember watching the Fischer-Spassky match, spellbound, at the edge of my seat for the entire duration, panting, I think. I used to enter tournaments (I achieved a rating of about 1700, which means that I am a decent wood pusher; I know the moves, but get slaughtered by good players.) But then I gave it up, except for a brief relapse maybe once in a rare while for an hour or so, and daily newspaper perusals that take five minutes: it just took too much time away from writing, my primary goal. If I wanted to be really good at this game, I would have to devote, oh, 8-10 hours a day to it, and I really didn’t want to do that.
Handball. My handball story appears here, so I won’t say much about this at present, except to note that, on the rare times I am not injured, I play twice a week or so, for an hour each time. I justify taking so much time away from writing on the ground that I need the exercise, if I’m to keep my weight from ballooning upward, and keep my pulse rate and blood pressure down.
Swimming, running. When I can’t play handball, I swim or run (or race-walk when my knees give out). I find these activities very boring. To me, all sports that I participate in, apart from handball, are tedious. But, I have to do something physical or I’ll burst. I still enter swimming tournaments and track meets at the masters competitive level. My times are pathetic (when I was in college, I could do the quarter mile run in about 55 seconds, and the 100 yard backstroke in about 65 seconds; nowadays, I can’t break two minutes in either event), but, at least the competition keeps me going. And, I do alright in my age category (we all slow down as we age).
Music. I have also written about music, , so I’ll not say much about this now. But, I do want to note that I write a lot, and when I do so, I invariably listen to baroque or classical music.
Solitaire. True confession, guilty pleasure, I play solitaire. Sometimes, to wake myself up, at other times, to bore myself, when I can’t sleep. But, most often, I play this solitary card game as an aid to writing: when the “flow” just isn’t there, and I can’t figure out what I want to say. Then I play solitaire, just to take my mind off of what I’m writing, to allow my subconscious, or whatever it is, to grapple with the issue that is bollixing me up. And, upon occasion, when I get back from this card game, the “flow” is back, and I see things more clearly. Ayn Rand, I think, did this sort of thing when she had writer’s block. Hey, I’ve known Ayn Rand, I’m no Ayn Rand, but, if she can play solitaire, I can do it too.
Television. Here is my history of television watching, one of my (former) habits: When I left my home and family in 1991, and went off to teach at Holy Cross (until 1997, when tenure there was denied me), I had thought I would work hard 9am-5pm, ok, 9am to 10pm (minus time out for physical recreation), and take the entire weekend off to watch television, do tourist things, etc. But, I found I couldn’t bear to be away from my office and computer (well, typewriter in those days) for more than one day per week. So, I would work six days a week, and maybe watch television for an hour each night. When I got to the University of Central Arkansas (1997-2001) I started out that way but soon learned that I had to, absolutely was compelled, to work every day of the week. So tv watching was reduced to an hour every evening. But when I arrived at Loyola University New Orleans (2001-present), I escalated even more. Seven days a week, and no television at all, is my usual pattern. I guess the older I get, the more workaholically inclined I become.
I sometimes look outside my office window and see that it is a nice day. I ask myself, shouldn’t I be out there, enjoying myself? Wouldn’t my life be better if I snuck away from my computer and “smelled the flowers”? I then picture myself doing precisely that, but, not enjoying it as much, not nearly as much, as staying in my office and writing just that one more journal article, or book, or contribution to LR.com. Moreover, I have become bored doing anything else. So, hooray for workaholism. When my kids were small I enjoyed doing those other things with them and my family. But they are grown up now, and out of the house, and I would rather write than do much of anything else (with time off for swimming, sports). I sometimes lecture to audiences in other cities, countries. Invariably, they offer to take me around town, to show me the sights. When I think I can get away without appearing too churlish, I decline these invitations; I’d rather stay in my hotel room and read or write.
What drew you to the Austrian School and to the Ludwig von Mises Institute?
Murray Rothbard is the guilty party here. When I first met him, I was a minarchist. It took Murray about 10 minutes to convert me to anarcho capitalism, but my acceptance of Austrianism was far more gradual, and took several years. For me, the sticking point was the synthetic apriori nature of Praxeology. I was inured with the empirical logical positivist neoclassical view that statements, truth claims, were either apodictic, in which case they were mere tautologies, or they were empirical hypotheses, which could never be known with absolute certainty, but at least they applied to the real world. I now see this as the very core of the Austrian enterprise; it tops my list of the most important attributes of Austrianism.
Walter Grinder was also instrumental in my conversion to Austrian economics. He was a sort of mentor of mine during the period that we were both members of Murray’s living room crowd.
I don’t like to brag, ok, ok, I do like to brag, but I am probably one of the few living people who had met Ludwig von Mises in person. The occasion was that of his last lecture at NYU. Murray brought the entire gang down to NYU for this momentous event. I am honored to have met von Mises, the best economist of the 20th century, in my view; hey, wait a minute, the best economist, period, at least so far in the history of the universe. Of course, reading these two magisterial books also “drew” me to the Austrian School: Human Action and Man, Economy and State. What brought me to the Ludwig von Mises Institute? You know, I don’t really remember. I was a friend of Murray’s, and honor of which I am greatly proud, and he probably drew me into this ambit. I think I have lectured at every annual Mises University event, except for maybe one or two, and have in many other ways been heavily involved in this Institute.
Who is your greatest inspiration?
Murray Rothbard, personally, tops the list, and his, and the writings of Ludwig von Mises, I have been the most inspiring to me. But, I am also inspired by a whole bevy of people who are my contemporaries, and even younger people, many of them who are the senior scholars at the Mises Institute. To me, attending a Mises Institute event is sort of like an Objectivist going to Galt’s Gulch. But it is even better, since the former is real, but not, unfortunately, the latter. I am also inspired, in a different way to be sure, by my favorite composers, such as Bach, Mozart, Handel, Vivaldi, Beethoven. I guess I’m an inspirational slut, since I am also inspired by pretty much anything I find admirable: Terry Fox’s run across Canada, Bill Gates’ entrepreneurship, Stephan Hawking’s triumph over his physical ailments, Hussain Bolt’s world record in the 100 meter dash, Michael Phelps’ swimming in record time at the Olympics, Lew Rockwell’s creation of the Mises Institute, Earl Boykins’ basketball playing in the land of the giants, Ron Paul’s cocking a snook at the powers that be, Mises’ escape from the Nazis, a beautiful sunset, the beauty of nature, etc. Of course, I don’t mean to equate these very disparate things, except, they all do inspire me to be a better teacher, better writer, better mentor, better in all aspects of my life.
How important is ethics in relation to economic theory and the progression of free-market ideals?
Ethical considerations are crucial in promoting free enterprise and a civilized order. To me, the Non Aggression Principle of libertarianism works in tandem with the economic or utilitarian goal of wealth maximization and the curtailment of poverty. Sometimes, when an ethical issue is unclear, an economic consideration can shed light on it, and vice versa. For example, in my work in the economics and ethics of abortion, stem cell research, obligations to children, I was lead to what I consider my “donut” or “bagel” theory of land settlement and homesteading. I guess in my mind all of these issues come together. Given my limited IQ (hey, you’ve got to do the best with what you are given), and the complexity of the issues that challenge us, and my inability to focus on more than one thing at a time,… now wait, where am I going with this? I guess what I am trying to say is that when desperate, which is pretty much all the time when I’m writing, I look for help in any direction I can find it, and one of these dimensions is the Venn diagram overlap between considerations of ethics and economics. I know, I know, there’s a sharp distinction between the normative and the positive, but, still, there are issues, many, many of them, e.g., minimum wages, that focus on both.
Do you have any new works on the way?
Now that I have published more than just a little bit, I am starting to see critiques of my previous writings. Robert Nozick never wrote a rejoinder to any of his critics, not a single one of them. It is my understanding that this was because he thought that if he did, then his critics would set the agenda, not he. I wish I could be like him in this regard, but, I have to face the fact that I’m no Robert Nozick. When someone publishes a negative comment on something I have written, I would like to do one of two things: congratulate him on exposing my error, and thank him for contributing to my education (happily I have not so far had to do this too much), or, defend my original work in a rejoinder to my critic, pointing out his errors. I confess, I find it very difficult to avoid this latter course of action. An unanswered criticism seems to me to be like a blight on my escutcheon. So, yes, I have lots of works on the way: replying to critics of mine on pretty much every thing under the sun: blackmail, road privatization, discrimination, abortion, voluntary slavery, counterfeiting (counterfeit money), Austrian business cycle theory, fractional reserve banking, indifference, Ronald Coase (I have got to keep smashing away at the neo Coaseans), James Buchanan and Public Choice, escalators (don’t ask), borrowing short and lending long, for starters. Bill Barnett and I have co–authored some five dozen articles in the last ten years, and the critical comments are starting to come in. Bill is a bit of a Nozickian on this issue, but, as I’m stronger, pushier and more of a bully than he is (I’m also more handsome than him) I think I’ll prevail and get him to co author upcoming responses to these critics.
What would I do, what will I do, apart from writing rejoinders? Well, I have several projects in mind. One of them is a follow up to Defending the Undefendable; actually, I now have enough material for an entire series of maybe three or four follow up books in this regard. Another long term project is looking into the privatization of the oceans, lakes and rivers. This is a rough one for me, because I am accustomed to writing right off the top of my head, and this will take some knowledge of water pressure, ocean currents, storms, etc., areas in which I am now rather weak. But, at least I’ve got the goal in mind: privatization of every square inch, no, make that cubic inch, of the entire earth.
What kind of impact do you hope to make with your work? What drives you to do what you do?
I try not to concern myself, too much, with the impact my work will have. Hopefully, it will turn some people’s thinking around. I’ve had hundreds of letters from students, young people, even from a couple of oldsters, saying that my publications, especially Defending, caused them to change their minds in a free market libertarian direction. I’m delighted that I’ve made somewhat of a contribution in this way. I have also been fortunate, as a teacher, in that several of my former students have gone on to get Ph.D.s in economics, and are now professors, spreading the word of the freedom philosophy. Many more have gone into journalism, law, business, the think tank world, where they also make contributions to libertarianism and Austrianism. But, I’m only one small cog in this gigantic movement. When I was the only Austro libertarian at Holy Cross for example, I fear I made very small contributions in this regard. The other professors would tell students I was a nut, and to avoid taking my classes. It is only when I was a professor at a place where I am really appreciated, such as my present university post at Loyola, that I was able to make a bigger contribution. Similarly, as part of the Mises Institute (I am not now nor have ever been employed by them, but I yet consider myself a member of the MI family) my contribution is greatly enhanced by working alongside of, and standing on the shoulders of, the giants of liberty.
Why do I write and teach? There are several reasons. I list them in order of increasing importance to me.
a. To improve things. Milton Friedman once said (paraphrase): “Thanks to us economists, all of us for the last 200 years or so, tariffs are now, oh, .01% lower than they otherwise would have been without our efforts … (dramatic pause here; Milton always had great timing) … and in so doing, we have earned our salaries more than ten thousand-fold.” Now, I have had my differences with Prof. Friedman over the years. But, this statement of his is inspirational. I am honored to belong to a profession where, perhaps 95% of its membership opposes laws like rent control, minimum wages, trade restrictions. In so doing, we can all make at least that modest .01% contribution toward increasing wealth, fighting poverty. Mel Brooks once said it was great to be king. Well, it’s pretty good being an economist, too.
b. Twist noses. I confess: I greatly enjoy tweaking noses, particularly pompous ones, and the more high falutin the better. I have no doubt that those of my colleagues who have recently made it a part of their careers to take Paul Krugman down a peg or two or three can emphasize with the delight they can accrue by so doing.
c. Give something back; pay off Rothbard. I’m an atheist, but, still, every once in a while I have this feeling that Murray is up there, somewhere, looking down upon us all. I want him to be proud of me. I don’t want him to ever think he wasted his time by taking me under his wing, being so nice to me, encouraging me, inspiring me. I want him to acknowledge that I did my best, worked hard, tried my utmost to cleave mightily to the path he set out for us.
d. Immortality. Ok, ok, I admit it. I would like to have my words, spoken or written, mean something, not merely to present generations, but to future ones as well.
e. Beauty. The most important reason I promote liberty through writing and speaking is the sheer beauty of it. Much as I appreciate the smile of a baby, a beautiful sunset, a rainbow, the music of Mozart, the love of my family, the magnificence of top handball players, the brilliance of chess grandmasters, the sheer exquisiteness, gorgeousness of the idea of human freedom and liberty, and of how the free enterprise system is one vast means of human cooperation, means even more to me. For, without at least a modicum of this, all the rest vanishes, and the human race comes to an end. I don’t mean to be overly dramatic about this, but Austro-libertarianism, in my view, is the last best hope for humanity. When its fires go out, the human race disappears. But, that is to revert to practicality. I mean, here, to focus on my own interests, what gets my crank going, why I am so passionate about it. It is abeautiful philosophy, and it attracts my aesthetic sense like nothing else in my life.
Are there any words of wisdom you wish to pass onto the next generation of Austrian scholars?
Work hard. But, most of all, have fun. It is exhilarating to be an Austro-libertarian. Enjoy this blessing to the full extent possible.
If you are an undergraduate, and want to get a PhD in economics, at least minor in math and stats. Possibly, take a dual major in both economics and math stats. If you want to get into any of the very prestigious graduate schools, it may even pay you to major in math, and, paradoxically, minor in economics, so much has the math virus taken over our discipline.
If you are a high school student, consider attending Loyola University New Orleans. If you are reading this, I would LOVE to have you as a student. If you come here, you’ll be among friends. We have several Austro-libertarian professors besides myself (Bill Barnett, Dan D’Amico, Stewart Wood) and several others who are very sympathetic to this philosophy (John Levendis, Nick Capaldi, David Gruning, Jim Viator among others). And, as can be expected, many, many students are receptive to these ideas. Our economics club, which meets about twice a month, typically attracts over 50 student at its seminars.
If you are already in a graduate school, the key to earning the Ph.D. is getting your dissertation accepted. In order to do so, if you have any choice whatsoever regarding the makeup of the committee that must approve of your dissertation, make sure you pack it with professors who are at least open toward Austro-libertarianism, if not friendly to it. I made this mistake at Columbia, and almost paid for it by having to do another dissertation, which usually takes two years or so.
One more bit of advice: don’t get caught up in the debates over pessimism vs optimism in terms of the prospects for liberty. Although these can sometimes be fun, nothing, really hinges upon them. For, no matter which way we are really going, our human actions should remain the same. Precisely identical. If we are going to hell in a hand basket, then our task is to work hard to promote liberty. And, if the prognostication for freedom is a good one, then our task is still to work hard to promote liberty, just as hard as under the opposite assumption.
What convinced you of the merits of the Austrian School of Economics over other schools of economic thought?
The Marxist school is just plain silly, with its labor theory of value. The only other school I am familiar with is the mainstream or neoclassical school, with its emphasis on math and statistics (see above), its denial of apodictic certainly (how are they going to testthe praxeologically certain insight that voluntary trade benefits all participants in the ex ante sense?), its insistence on indifference and transitivity, and all the rest of its methodologically erroneous views. Then, too, these are the economic equivalents of court historians: they support the warfare welfare state, weave apologetics for government intervention (market failures), and by and large are dirigistes (yes, they are better than sociologists, literature professors and political scientists, but that is not saying very much at all.) In macro economics, the right wing monetarists, and the left wing Keynesians (there are lots of theme and variations on these distinctions) both reject the correct Austrian Business Cycle Theory, with its emphasis on disaggregation and the structure of production. The big difference amongst them is to whether government shall intervene in the economy through monetary or fiscal policy. To this I say, Feh! What convinced me of the merits of the Austrian School of Economics over other schools of economic thought? The truth and beauty of the former, and the utter fallaciousness of the latter.
Who have been your greatest intellectual influences?
There are many of them, and I fear that in mentioning them, I will inadvertently leave out a few who should be on my list. Of those who I knew only from their writings, I would include the members of the School of Salamanca, Adam Smith, John Locke, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Carl Menger, Eugen Bohm Bawerk, Lysander Spooner. Of those whose lives overlapped with my own, but who are now departed, there are first and foremost Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises. Also on this list of mine are Henry Hazlitt, Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek and Robert Nozick. As for contemporaries, I have learned the most from Bill Barnett, David Gordon, Walter Grinder, Hans Hoppe and Stephan Kinsella.
Strangely, each of these scholars labors somewhat under a cloud. Bill Barnett published very little before I arrived at Loyola in 2001, and lots afterward, mostly with me as his co author. From which facts many people infer that he is riding on my coattails, and serves as a sort of assistant to me. But this is the very opposite of the truth. Much to the contrary, at least as concerns macro economics (the overwhelming majority of our output together), he is my mentor and I am his student. The “knock” against David Gordon is that he is not an economist, but rather a philosopher. Not true, not true at all. Well, maybe, insofar as mere formal credentials are concerned this is the case, but David is actually a world class polymath, even, possibly, more so than Murray Rothbard himself (I cannot say, since I am woefully ignorant of the many, many disciplines which David’s expertise cover.)
The criticism of Walter Grinder is that he has not published much in a long career as an Austro libertarian. True, but he is a charismatic and very knowledgeable person who has helped the careers of numerous people in our movement, certainly including my own.
Hans Hoppe is perhaps the most hated and reviled Mises-associated scholar, at least on the part of the inside-the-Beltway “libertarian” crowd. This stems, I think, from his excellent and well-deserved debunking of Don Lavoie at a Mont Pelerin Association meeting, as well as from the fact that Hans has a mind like a steel trap, is perhaps the most creative of all Austro-libertarians now practicing, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
And, the “problem” with Kinsella is that he is a lawyer by trade; again, not an economist. Ah well, you can’t have everything. I have also been heavily influenced by Gary Becker, my mentor at graduate school when I was a student at Columbia and he a professor there. He, too, has a failing: he is not an Austrian economist, my best efforts to change this state of affairs notwithstanding.
If you were not a scholar, what would you be doing?
I used to dabble in real estate, and did reasonably well at it, so, if I needed to earn a living, that would be one option. But, I found buying and selling and managing properties boring. More likely, much more likely, I would become a psychologist. I have been heavily influenced in this direction by my good friend Michael Edelstein, and his mentor, Albert Ellis (I’ll never forget the time that three of us, and Murray Rothbard, sat around Al’s office singing REBT songs). I would choose this field because it is a way to help people. Come to think of it, this was really my first mentioned motivation when I answered the question, above, of Why do I write and teach? My first answer was: a. To improve things. To me, economics is also a way of helping people; helping them communicate and coordinate better with one another through markets, helping them to stave off starvation and poverty by promoting economic freedom. Psychologists help people, too, albeit in a very different way. Come to think of it, pretty much every occupation is a helping one (apart from government bureaucrats, and most politicians). I guess that psychology would be the other way I would choose to help people if, arguendo, I couldn’t do what I am now doing.
What do you see as the greatest threat to liberty today?
Obviously, the greatest threat to liberty today is the U.S. government. It has some 1000 military bases abroad, on the territory of about 200 foreign countries. Its military budget is larger than such expenditures of virtually all other countries put together. It is fighting 2-3(?) wars at present against countries that have not first invaded us or credibly threatened to do so, the only justification for defensive wars for the libertarian. If any other country did this, say, China, or India, or Brazil, our neo cons would be seething (to an even greater degree than at present) at the injustice of it all. But, since it is America that is guilty of these outrages, and we are, of course, “exceptional,” this is perfectly alright to the members of government, with the exception of Ron Paul of course, and, maybe, just a few others. It is despicable that “our” troops are everywhere in this country honored; they are applauded a ball games, invited onto airplanes first, etc. But hey are murderers, plain and simple, engaged in the killing of innocents, and should be despised by all men of good will. How would we feel if there Chinese, or Indian, or Brazilian troops were stationed in the domestic United States, swaggering around, killing members of our society, engaged in rape, while in China, or India, or Brazil, they were honoring “their” troops?
Domestic incursions against liberty pale into insignificance by comparison, and, yet, they, too, are serious. We live in a nanny state, where we mundanes (boobus americanus) are forced to obey orders. Obama has stepped up the incursions, but, he is not doing much of anything that was not done by Bush either in domestic policy, or, come to think of it, in foreign affairs either. A pox on both major parties as threats to liberty, except, of course, for a certain Congressman from Texas.
Then there is the libertarian movement. There are threats to liberty here, too, when people who once were libertarians, who still think they are libertarians, who should really once again return to libertarianism, instead support the Fed and fiat currency, do not want to end foreign entanglements, denigrate Ron Paul, oppose the full privatization of health, education, welfare, and instead come up with all sorts of vacillating, compromising programs such as educational vouchers, government-business partnerships, and engage in consulting for the state, etc. There are so called right wing “libertarians” who favor foreign imperialistic ventures, and left wing “libertarians” for whom profits and corporations are per se a dirty word. These internal threats to the plumb line, Rothbardian type libertarian movement cannot be considered “as the greatest threat to liberty today,” at least not compared to the warfare-welfare state, but they certainly should not be ignored.
As a professor of economics, how do you go about introducing your students to Austrian economics?
I assign as required readings Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, and Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. These were the two books that converted me to Austro libertarianism, and I have had some success in using these books with my students. Then, I assign pretty much anything written by Murray Rothbard or Ludwig von Mises, depending upon the level and subject matter of the course. For example, I use this in my classes on law and economics and environmental economics:
Rothbard, Murray N. 1982. “Law, Property Rights, and Air Pollution,” Cato Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring; reprinted in Economics and the Environment: A Reconciliation, Walter Block, ed., Vancouver: The Fraser Institute, 1990, pp. 233-279.http://www.mises.org/rothbard/lawproperty.pdf
What do your students think of Austrian economics?
When I was at Holy Cross, most (but certainly not all) students thought Austro libertarianism was stupid, unscientific, etc., because that was what they were told by several of the members of my department. At Loyola, the introductory students fall into three categories: about 20% hate it, and think of it in a similar manner to their counterparts at Holy Cross, about 60% are indifferent to it, or see it as just another school of thought, and about 20% seize upon it with alacrity. Of the students who take my advanced courses, I estimate that the percentage in the first category is occupied by 5%, the middle ground has another 5%, and the overwhelming majority, say 90%, appreciate it very much. But then, I mostly teach advanced courses, nowadays, and before students get to me, they have already introduced to these ideas by Bill Barnett, Dan D’Amico and John Levendis; they wouldn’t likely take my advanced courses if they didn’t major in economics, and they wouldn’t likely major in economics if they disliked what I and my colleagues had taught them at the introductory level. We have had so much success in inculcating Austro libertarianism into the student body that I and my colleagues have in the past been able to bring to the Austrian Scholars Conferences some 15-20 students. Thanks to the efforts of our department, this school is a hotbed of Austro libertarianism.
What is your outlook for the future of Austrian economics in academia?
The mainstream will fight us tooth and nail, just like they have been for decades (that is, when they even condescend to notice us at all). They will engage in restricting entry by perverting economics into some sort of second degree mathematics discipline. They will continue to dismiss us because of our views on synthetic apriori statements. They will abuse us as “market fundamentalists,” since we reject their notions of market failure.
There are two possible responses to this sort of thing. One, I call the “suck up” philosophy. Here, the “Austrian” apologizes for Austrian economics. He never so much mentions praxeology, since this would offend the mainstream as unscientific; instead, he defines Austrianism in terms of its facets that are less objectionable to the neoclassicals, such as market process, entrepreneurship, coordination. He will never, or rarely, mention Rothbard and Mises as the leading lights of Austrianism; instead, he will give this honor to lesser contributors such as Hayek and Kirzner. In the extreme, the suck up “Austrian” will even advocate jettisoning the Austrian name, entirely, as too controversial, and substitute something of lesser importance for it, such as “market process” or “coordination problem” analysis.
The second response might well be called the “kick butt” school of thought. Butt kickers will hone in on the works of explicit Austrian denigrators such as Milton Friedman, Gary Becker, James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, and, guess what?, yes, kick their butts. This second type of Austrian will leave no stone unturned in his effort to show the benefits of Austrianism vis a vis mainstream economics as articulated by neoclassical scholars such as these. He will also call into question the publications of mainstream heroes such as Ronald Coase who offers an economics very much at variance from Austrianism. I must confess, I have done less than my fair share of criticizing explicit leftist economists such as Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong and Joseph Stiglitz. I regard attacking them as akin to shooting fish in a barrel. I am delighted that I have colleagues with a greater capacity to delve into these depths than I. In my own defense, at least these lefties do not have the audacity, the effrontery, to announce themselves as advocates of free enterprise. The same cannot be said for my own targets.
You’ll never guess into which of these of these two categories I fall.
On the other hand, and, there is indeed another hand here, a very strong other hand, in my view the outlook for the future of Austrian economics in academia depends, and crucially so, on our young people getting Ph.D.s in economics, and entering the professoriate. And, focusing on the U.S. only, there is one and only one university that awards this degree where Austrianism, no matter how watered-down, is an integral part of the program: George Mason University.
I have send off undergraduates of mine to this school, and, mirible ductu, virtually all of them graduate with Ph.D.s, six, five and even four years later, as Austrians. Paradoxically, Mason is the headquarters of suck up Austrianism, and, thus, my students often emerge with this malady. But, better, far better, no, infinitely better, a suck up Austrian than an ugh, mainstream economist, say I.
In very sharp contrast undergraduate students of mine have gone off to the University of Missouri, the University of Georgia, Suffolk University and have either quit at the outset or failed out ignominiously; very few of my undergraduate students have succeeded at schools other than Mason (exceptions: Emory University and Ohio State). The quality of the students going to GMU and to these other places is about the same, in my estimation. No, there is something special going on in Fairfax in my opinion, and particularly good. Of course, I am herein relating my own experiences which are of course anecdotal. Perhaps a careful, intensive exhaustive study of this phenomenon ought to be made, so crucial is the awarding of Ph.D.s in economics for the future success of the Austrian school.
What advice would you give to a student who is afraid to discuss Austrian economics with fellow students and with professors?
I assume here that we are dealing with a professor who is adamantly opposed to Austrianism. There are two types of advice that can be given. One, keep a low profile; keep your mouth shut; don’t argue with your professor, or ask him questions you think will embarrass him, that is, point out his contradictions. Just take notes, and spit back on the exams what he and his mainstream textbooks say. In that way, you’ll get a good grade. The other advice is to be confrontational. The benefit, here, is that it’s fun to watch them squirm, and, in .01% of cases, you can actually make a convert. (I have yet to hear of any such case, but, this is an empirical issue, not an apodictic one.) The cost is that you will get a lower mark, maybe even a failing one. I advise students to take the former stance. Be, in effect, a suck up. I wish I had had the ability to follow such sage counsel when I was a student, but I was always too mouthy for my own good.
Why this disparity between my advice to students and my implicit counsel to my fellow professors? Here is a one word explanation: tenure. When you have it, go for the kick butt strategy; but for students and assistant professors, the best way to go is non confrontational.
What is your favorite film and/or theatrical work?
I like Blade Runner, the Godfather series (all three of them!), Cider House Rules, the Hustler, Breaking Away, Ordinary people, the South Park movies (and tv series).
What is your favorite literary work?
My favorite literary work is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. The first time I read it, I was 22 years old. I literally couldn’t put it down, it so floored me. I hardly slept the entire weekend it took me to read this book. Ever since then, I have reread Atlas every ten years or so (except for that tedious Galt speech), and have gotten more out of it each time. My other favorite novelist is Chaim Potok, particularly The Promise, The Chosen, and the Asher Lev series. But there are many other fiction writers I like, even though I would categorize them as escape reading. Such authors include Jeffrey Archer, Lewis Auchincloss, Jean Auel, Dave Barry, James Lee Burke, Orson Scott Card, Robert Crais, Michael Crichton, Nicholas Evans, C.S. Forester, Dick Francis, John Grisham, Arthur Hailey, Donald Hamilton, Robert Heinlein, James Herriot, Alexander Kent, Ira Levin, John D. MacDonald, Somerset Maughm, Larry McMurtry, John Mortimer, Patrick O’Brian, Robert B. Parker, Dudley Pope, Mario Puzo, Lawrence Sanders, Rex Stout, Walter Tevis.
One might ask how I ever get any Austro libertarian writing done, when I read so much escape literature. Well, Murray Rothbard accomplished much (I dare compare myself to him not in terms of quality of output, merely quantity), despite playing Risk until all hours of the morning, and watching, wait for it, soap operas. Hey, I knew Murray Rothbard, and I’m no Murray Rothbard, but if he can assiduously watch soap operas (I remember hearing Murray enthusiastically discuss them with Art Carol; wasn’t this one a bitch? Wasn’t that one awful? I was simply amazed and aghast), then I may be forgiven for spending time reading escape novels. Some of them are really pretty good, way better in my opinion than the work by that pre commie, Charles Dickens.