02 Jan 2010

Final Thoughts On Boettke Et Al.’s Preferred Nomenclature

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Whenever you get into Internet arguments it soon becomes apparent that your own comments sow confusion / hurt feelings / etc. because other people don’t understand where you are coming from. In my previous post regarding the decision of GMU’s Pete Boettke and the his co-bloggers to rename their site “Coordination Problem” instead of “The Austrian Economists,” I surely did not win hearts and minds when I said: “So it is a bit exasperating when Boettke et al. decide to split off precisely when the strategy that others have been pushing has paid off so incredibly.”

Let me clarify. Ever since I have been active in circles where the economics of Mises and Hayek are held in high esteem, there has been a question of strategy. Obviously no one is saying, “We know all we need to learn about economics. Let’s stop doing research.” No, the strategic point was always, “We are shut out from the mainstream. Our kids won’t get a job unless they learn a bunch of math and Keynesian models, and publish accordingly. What should we do about this?”

So some people decided to focus their efforts on making these ideas and techniques more palatable to mainstream economists who were used to 8 page journal articles with 3 paragraphs of text and the rest filled with equations. Other people decided to focus their efforts on transmitting the basic ideas to a broad audience, both for general purposes of education and defense of liberty (since the public won’t endorse tyrannical measures if they understand sound economics), but also as a way of tipping the scales in favor of the Misesian and Hayekian ideas. After all, if 95% of the incoming economics undergrads loved Human Action, and financial analysts and WSJ editorialists always discussed how flawed the Keynesian approach was and praised Mises instead, then it would be a lot harder for the big schools to keep their intellectual lock on economics.

But guess what? There are obvious flaws with both strategies in their pure form. If it were really the case that only pundits and radio talk show hosts praised Mises, while all the PhDs thought he was a crank, then it could actually backfire and ensure that the “smart people” distanced themselves from him. But by the same token, the other strategy could backfire too: If nobody in the public cared about “Austrian economics,” and all incoming freshmen who wanted to major in economics thought in terms of macro aggregates and spent their time studying set theory and differential equations, then there would be little hope of ever changing the professional structure such that it wasn’t suicidal for, say, someone to do his economics dissertation on the Hayekian triangle.

So, duh, the obvious “solution”–and one which appealed to all the econ geeks in the discussion–was to have a division of labor. Obviously someone like Walter Block was simply meant to be an undergrad professor at a school where you didn’t need an 800 on your math SAT to get in. And–holy cow!–it was amazing what tenure track positions Pete Boettke’s students out of GMU were getting.

I am not reinventing history here, that was how I saw things back when I was teaching at Hillsdale College (2003-2006). I thought the Mises Institute and LewRockwell.com were doing wonders in evangelizing to the masses, and were doing a great service (especially Mises.org with all the free stuff it was putting online) in getting young people interested in Austrian economics. The job of people like Walter Block (and way way way less so, me at Hillsdale College) was to prep kids to then go off to GMU where Boettke would find them a job at a mid-level PhD-granting university. (If I came across someone with very good math skills, I would mention the possibility of NYU and explain the pros and cons.) Over time, other places like San Jose State were becoming meccas too, and I’d mention that to students.

It seemed like the strategy was working, and much better than anybody would have guessed ten years previously. Pete Leeson for example published a paper discussing anarcho-capitalism in a prestigious journal out of Chicago, for example (edited by the Freakonomics guy)!! I was flabbergasted. Wow that was awesome, Boettke was surprising me by showing it wasn’t a career killer if you published on “Austrian” themes, you just had to do it right.

Then my next shock was when Tom Woods was on the New York Times bestseller list. What the heck, can that possibly be right?!! I must confess when I first saw someone refer to him as a “bestselling author” on LRC, I assumed it must have meant, “Among the books we sold at our conference last year, Tom Woods was #1…”

And if you had asked me in 2006, “How long before Austrian economics becomes ‘cool’ enough so that someone can matter-of-factly discuss it on Jay Leno?” I would probably have said, “Let me work on my stand-up act and maybe in 20 years we’ll get there.”

And if you had asked me in 2006, “How long before angry college crowds chant ‘end the Fed’ because they are vaguely familiar with the Austrian business cycle theory and realize the central bank is an evil institution?” I would have laughed in your face. Yeah right, we’re going to get college students riled up about central banking? You must be a libertarian nutjob, since you’re clearly smoking something, buddy.


So, given the above, I hope people at least understand my profound frustration when Boettke et al. give as one of their explicit reasons for changing their name that Google alerts has shown over the last year how much discussion there has been linking the Austrian business cycle theory to anti-Fed rhetoric. For anybody who thought the “big plan” that would bring great results in 10 years was to distribute our efforts as I’ve described above, it is rather a let-down when the GMU-associated guys are explicitly renouncing the brand name.

What happens now when someone asks me, “Yeah I’m in an economics program at small school XYZ, my professors are Keynesians but I love Mises. My GREs are such-and-such. Where should I go to learn more about Austrian economics?”

Am I supposed to even mention GMU at this point? I’m not being rhetorical, I’m serious. Does GMU want people who like the term “Austrian economics” or do they want to get blank slates?

Like I said, this isn’t an empty question. I give free advice to at least a dozen such students a year. I honestly don’t know how I’m supposed to tell them the landscape at this point, since the “division of labor” in getting Austrian ideas into the mainstream was obviously not a universally shared one.

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