The harder you work, the luckier you get: You never know when serendipity will smile.
This week, the Laissez-Faire Club is offering for free download Murray Rothbard’s Education: Free and Compulsory and I’m reminded of one of the great fortunes of my life.
After moving to Las Vegas in 1986, and the tiniest of stints as a stockbroker, I was able to get an entry-level job at a local bank. The local university — UNLV — was known only for two things, Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebel basketball team and the school’s hotel and restaurant degree program.
And while I was encouraged by people I worked with to pursue an MBA, it was a master’s in Economics that I decided to work toward at night. By the fall of 1990, I had taken 12 hours worth of master’s courses and was trying desperately to stay away from statistics and econometrics classes. I spotted History of Economic Thought with Murray Rothbard as the instructor in the course catalog and thought, Perfect!
However, when I mentioned to one of my classmates that I would be taking the course with Rothbard, he strongly advised against it, contending that Rothbard was “a kook.” He said I should take the course independent study with another professor.
I didn’t know who Murray was, or what Austrian Economics was, nor had I heard the term “libertarian.” But since I worked all day and took classes at night, I didn’t have time to hassle with lining up an instructor for independent study, so I went ahead and took Rothbard.
This was during the first Gulf War, and the first night of class, Murray hit the door already talking (as if he had started his lecture out in the hallway) about dumb politicians threatening the evil oil companies that were raising gas prices. From that thought, he just continued right into his History of Economic Thought lecture. He didn’t take roll or hand out a syllabus. Murray didn’t have time for that; he had centuries of history to cover.
As Murray launched into his opening lecture for ECO742, I knew that this was economics the way it should be taught. Forget the graphs, equations and other nonsense I’d endured my first two semesters; this was good guys versus bad guys, human action stories told at the pace of a Robin Williams monolog, punctuated with the occasional cackle and a dozen or so reading references a night — book title, author, year published, and usually the publisher name.
I also took Murray for U.S. Economic History the following semester, but still didn’t know him that well. That all changed when I decided to write a thesis to fulfill the degree requirements and the first professor I approached about being my thesis adviser turned me down.
I then approached Rothbard and he welcomed me with open arms.
Murray was a walking bibliography. It seemed he had read everything. And he didn’t confine himself or his students to any sort of author ideological litmus test. For example, one of Rothbard’s assigned texts for his U.S. Economic History class was Gabriel Kolko’s The Triumph of Conservatism, a classic book that provides a riveting reinterpretation of America’s Progressive Era.
Not only is Kolko a historian, not an economist, but he considers himself a leftist and anti-capitalist. So despite holding views diametrically opposed to Rothbard’s, Murray didn’t hesitate to assign his book.
Much has been made of Rothbard’s split with Ayn Rand. In fact, Rothbard himself wrote a one-act play satirizing Ms. Rand’s circle that included Nathaniel and Barbara Brandon as well as ex-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. The play is Mozart Was a Red, and starred none other than Laissez Faire executive editor (when he was a bit younger) Jeffrey Tucker. View the play here.
When I met Murray, I had never heard of Ayn Rand, or her books Atlas Shrugged; The Fountainhead; or her first work, Anthem, which Laissez Faire Club members will be downloading for free in October.
It would been easy for Murray to dismiss her work due to their falling out. But he encouraged me to read all her books and emphasized what a great and important thinker she was. Legend has it that Murray was constantly feuding with others in the freedom movement. But I honestly saw no evidence of that.
He never once whispered words of caution about books not to read, thinkers to avoid, or people he didn’t like. He was always so cheerful and upbeat, I can’t imagine anyone being in a spat with him or vice versa. He was expansive and enthusiastic for liberty and loved learning. Being brand-new to this sort of thinking, I was intensely interested in getting my hands on all the books about liberty I could.
Murray, of course, knew where to send me: Liberty Fund and Laissez Faire Books. I was told years later that both of these organizations had broken with Murray and had treated him horribly. Again, nothing about Murray indicated that he had problems with either. He never hesitated in recommending both booksellers.
I successfully defended my thesis, Early Speculative Bubbles and Increases in the Supply of Money, which has since been published as a book. Even after I had completed my work, Murray and I stayed in touch, and he urged me to rework the portion of my thesis concerning tulip mania into an academic journal article. He believed I had made a unique contribution to the literature with my Austrian business cycle analysis of the famous speculative bubble in tulip bulbs in 1636-37 Amsterdam.
He urged me to submit to mainstream academic journals, and with each rejection, he offered other journals I should submit to and was sympathetic to my frustration. In a 1993 letter, he wrote:
That’s monstrous about these rejections; I might have told you that I’ve never received a rejection letter that furthered the alleged purpose of offering helpful criticisms, and I guess it’s still a perfect record. If you haven’t tried Economic Inquiry, and the Southern Economic Journal, you might try them, if Journal of MCB turns it down. If all else fails, don’t forget the Review of Austrian Economics, which will certainly be receptive.
After being turned down eight or nine times, I finally sent the tulip mania article to the Review of Austrian Economics after seeing Murray in Las Vegas in December 1994. Murray passed away just a few weeks later in New York. A few months later, the RAE also declined the tulip mania article.
Since his death, Rothbard has become more popular than ever. He is the intellectual backbone behind his friend Ron Paul’s political movement. Rothbard questioned the Federal Reserve before attacking the Fed was cool.
Murray is no doubt looking down and smiling. While the government leviathan continues to expand, Rothbard, ever the happy warrior, would applaud the spread of Austrian economics and the freedom movement in general.
He’s no doubt thrilled that two of his old friends and students, Jeffrey Tucker and I, are not only talking and theorizing about capitalism, but practicing it day to day. And I think he’d be happy that the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics finally published my tulip mania work in 2006, and that it is being cited more and more.
Murray was a wonderful man and friend, but above all, Murray Rothbard was a teacher. With crystal-clear writing, he educated millions through his books and articles. Comparatively, only a tiny few had the privilege of studying under him in the flesh. I am one of those few.
Education is something Rothbard devoted his life to. By reading Education: Free and Compulsory, you will get a sense of Rothbard’s brilliance and passion. His words will stay with you forever. You will never see the world the same way. That’s what a real education is.