It began with Ayn Rand, as it proverbially does. I was in 11th grade journalism class with Matt Mayers, my friend since the age of six. The course was the most notoriously undemanding in Granada Hills High School, leaving ample time for free reading. While I devoured Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra - and got through The Brothers Karamazov and Faust with less youthful exuberance - Matt read Atlas Shrugged. One day he turned around in his chair and told me “Read this part. You’ll like it.” It was Francisco d’Anconia’s speech on money, and I rushed through it in fifteen exciting minutes. But for unclear reasons, I didn’t begin reading Atlas until the last week of summer before my senior year. If memory serves me, I raced through its thousand-plus pages in three largely sleepless days.
I would not call myself an instant convert. But I did start what I call “trying on her ideas for size.” When opportunity presented itself - or when I cornered my parents or friends or teachers or random fellow students - I played devil’s advocate for Rand’s Objectivism. After a couple of months - a long time in the intellectual life of a teen-ager - I was not playing devil’s advocate any longer. I was convinced that her philosophy was by and large correct.
From there, I branched out to other libertarian works. Rand, of course, rarely recommended anything written by someone other than herself, but some liberty-loving soul had donated a copy of John Hospers’ Libertarianism: A Political Philosophy for Tomorrow (1971) to my local public library. While I doubt I would find Hospers’ book impressive today, at the time it was a thrilling read. I had never heard the “standard libertarian arguments” before. Price floors cause surpluses? It was never mentioned in my semester-long 12th-grade economics course. The minimum wage therefore causes involuntary unemployment? A shocking thought. It was obvious once Hospers pointed it out, but these ideas were never even ridiculed by my liberal teachers. They were unheard of.
Every history teacher I could remember had told me that pharmaceutical regulation was a great blessing, sparing us a generation of Thalidomide babies and God knows what else. Reading the standard libertarian rebuttal - delaying beneficial drugs kills far more people than approving ineffective or even harmful ones - made my head spin. If I asked my teachers “Is there any argument an intelligent person might make against the FDA?” I doubt one of them could have articulated this retrospectively obvious objection.
As I digested the stock of libertarian insight, I noticed a phenomenon central to my mature research: Most people violently rejected even my most truistic arguments. Yes, I was a shrill teen-ager, but it seems like anyone should have recognized the potential downside of drug regulation once I pointed it out. Instead, they yelled louder about Thalidomide babies. True, it was not a complete surprise - I had already experienced the futility of trying to convert my family and friends to atheism during the prior year. But I was frustrated to find that human beings were almost as dogmatic about politics and economics as they were about religion and philosophy.
In those dark days before the World Wide Web, it was not easy for a seventeen-year-old to get information about intriguing ideas, much less converse with real-life proponents. But I mailed away for information from the Ayn Rand Institute and the Libertarian Party, and they ultimately plugged me into an array of social/ideological networks. Through ARI I learned of the existence of “The Forum for the New Intellectual,” a monthly Objectivist discussion group that met at a bank in downtown LA. I began attending regularly. I wound up having little to do with the Libertarian Party - the one “supper club” I attended seemed far too practical! - but one of the members turned me on to Austrian economics in general and Murray Rothbard in particular.
Luckily for me, I took a couple of classes at Cal State Northridge during my last semester of high school. That meant that I had a university library card, which in turn meant that I could check out a mountain of fascinating books in philosophy, economics, politics, history, and psychology. Soon I had read Man, Economy, and State as well as Human Action. But it was Rothbard’s defense of anarcho-capitalism in For a New Liberty that shocked me. It had to be wrong.
I started asking everyone at the Forum for the New Intellectual to tell me why Rothbard was mistaken. (I had already been underwhelmed by Nozick’s response in Anarchy, State, and Utopia). Contrary to the Randians’ intolerant image, many were happy to engage me. One, Paul Beaird, informed me that he refuted Roy Child’s defense of anarcho-capitalism back in the ‘70’s. Beaird immediately ran off copies of both Child’s “Open Letter to Ayn Rand” (Childs 1994) and its putative refutation. I was not impressed by the latter, but loved Childs’ lucid and to-the-point essay. I even got the skeptical Matt Mayers to read it, and he too was favorably impressed. Two high school seniors sharing a pizza, judging the practicality and morality of anarcho-capitalism - it doesn't get any better.
The summer of 1989, I finished high school and attended two conferences. The first was the Mises Institute’s summer seminar at Stanford University. It was there that I met Murray Rothbard for the first time, still in his prime. I remember his opening lecture, containing the memorable adage that “The more consistently Austrian an economist is, the better a writer he will be.” (He generously appended that you should adjust for the writer’s native language!) I did all I could to maximize my time in Rothbard’s presence. I still recall the excitement of seeing a draft of Rothbard’s latest essay, overlaid with his hand-written edits, and challenging him on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
A year later, a friend asked how I had endured the “Stalinist” intolerance of the Mises Institute’s conference. While there were a couple of faculty who brooked no contradiction, it was hardly a pervasive feature of my week at Stanford. I still recall Walter Block telling the eighteen-year-old me to drop “Prof. Block” in favor of “Walter.” But “true believer” hysteria did permeate the second conference I attended that summer - the Jefferson School. Run by Objectivist economist George Reisman with the sanction of the Ayn Rand Institute, my intellectual digestion at the Jefferson School was soured by the fallout from ARI’s recent purge of David Kelley. (Kelley’s original offense was speaking to non-Objectivist libertarian audiences; he sealed his fate with a punchy essay defending “the virtue of tolerance” from an Objectivist perspective.) The conference closed with an emotional lecture by Leonard Peikoff on the evil of Kelley and everyone who thought he had a point.
Soon afterwards I began my studies at the University of California at Berkeley. At the time, I thought of myself as an Objectivist in philosophy and an Austrian in economics. But in both cases, I already had my list of reservations. As my education - a major in economics and a minor in philosophy - proceeded, my lists of objections grew. By the time I left Berkeley, I had dropped both labels. My undergraduate deconversion from Objectivism and Austrianism, though, was nothing like my high school deconversion from Christianity. I rejected Christianity because I determined that it was, to be blunt, idiotic. I rejected Objectivism and Austrianism, in contrast, as mixtures of deep truths and unfortunate mistakes.
Let me begin with the deep truths.
The Objectivists were right to insist that reality is objective, human reason able to grasp it, and skepticism without merit. They correctly held that humans have free will, morality is objective, and the pursuit of self-interest typically morally right. Rand’s politics was also largely on target: laissez-faire capitalism is indeed the only just social system, socialism is institutionalized slavery, and the welfare state’s attempt to reconcile these poles is a travesty.
What about the deep truths of the Austrians? Perhaps the most valuable, to my mind, was their view - perhaps only implicit - that economists should focus on big questions, not the picayune minutiae that fill most academic journals. I always roll my eyes when someone alludes Keynes’ hope that economists make themselves “as useful as dentists.” The Austrians were right to emphasize elementary economic theory and introspection, and downplay mathematics and econometrics. In the field of industrial organization, they wisely rejected the perfectly competitive benchmark, arguing that the crucial issue is not how many firms exist in an industry, but whether government legally hinders competition. In labor and macro, they always remembered the inextricable link between unemployment and excessive real wages. A recurring Austrian lesson is that markets often work well even though economists have trouble understanding how they could work at all. (Ebay is a case in point. Ten years ago, I bet that 80% of economists would have declared it impossible by reason of asymmetric information!)
Now let us turn to the unfortunate mistakes. During my undergraduate years, I spent far more time reading and thinking than writing. But two essays that appeared while I was in graduate school - “Why I Am Not an Objectivist” (by Michael Huemer), and “Why I Am Not an Austrian Economist” (by myself) - ultimately articulated the main objections I formed as an undergraduate.
Michael Huemer was a fellow Berkeley student, and the most powerful influence on my mature philosophical outlook; he is now a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado. You might say that Huemer provided a modern restatement of the Scottish philosophy of common sense, best represented by Thomas Reid, but this seriously understates the originality of Huemer’s contribution. In any case, like Reid, Huemer maintains that philosophers’ great error is to set up inherently unfulfillable standards for knowledge, and then turn to skepticism once they realize that their beliefs fall short of these standards. As Reid puts it:
[W]hen we attempt to prove, by direct argument, what is really self-evident, the reasoning will always be inconclusive; for it will either take for granted the thing to be proved, or something not more evident; and so, instead of giving strength to the conclusion, will rather tempt those to doubt of it who never did so before. (1872, p.637)
I do not think that Rand would have objected to Reid’s basic point. She maintained that there were three self-validating axioms - “Existence exists,” “Consciousness is conscious,” “A is A.” But for Reid and Huemer, the set of knowledge-not-in-need-of-proof is more expansive. In particular, it includes some moral truths. It is obvious, for example, that murder is wrong. If someone denied that it was obvious, what argument could convince him?
Rand of course thought she had an argument for the wrongness of murder (see “The Objectivist Ethics” in Rand (1964)). The more I reflected, though, the more I realized that her “man qua man” standard was question-begging. If Rand did not approve of an action that seemed plainly conducive to one’s self-interest, she declared it contrary to the life of “man qua man.” The Reid-Huemer route was to openly recognize the wrongness of murder as an independent moral fact. In the admittedly rare circumstances where murder serves one’s self-interest, it remains wrong.
Huemer resolved my philosophical doubts so well that I became less and less interested in pursuing a career in philosophy. I lost all urge to convince other academics that they were not brains in vats. My interest in economics, on the other hand, remained level. Yet the more I studied, the more disenchanted I became with Austrian economics. Years later, after completing my dissertation, I explained why in the webbed essay “Why I Am Not an Austrian Economist.”
Perhaps the main problem with Austrian economics is that it is not introspectivist enough. Mises and Rothbard insisted that economists could only recognize preferences “revealed in action.” Rothbard used this principle to attack several pillars of modern neoclassical economics. These ranged from the most abstract to the most applied. He rejected indifference curves because action always reveals preference, never indifference; he insisted that voluntary trade was always Pareto-improving, because participants demonstrate by their actions that they are better off, while grumbling bystanders do not; and he denied that government action could ever be Pareto-improving, because the need to use coercion proves that at least one person is demonstrably worse off.
What became increasingly evident to me was that the Austrian equation of preference and action is crude behaviorism. I know by introspection that I have preferences that I fail to act upon. And while I do not have telepathy, it is overwhelmingly probable that the same holds for my fellow human beings. Once you grant this principle, the most distinctive Austrian doctrines crumble.
I found the Austrians’ resistance to probability theory almost equally objectionable. Mises and Rothbard saw no role for quantifiable probabilities outside of games of chance and actuarial tables. They insisted that it was impossible to assign numerical probabilities to unique events. I unthinkingly accepted their view until the summer of 1992, when Michael Huemer pointed out its absurdity. Probabilities are nothing more than degrees of belief, which we know are real from introspection.
Sorting out my views on Objectivist philosophy and Austrian economics took up the majority of my undergraduate reflection. But my interests remained eclectic, and I read widely, especially in history, epistemology, and political philosophy. I eagerly studied the history of Communism while I watched its death throws on the news. Learning about horrific events such as Stalin’s terror-famine in the Ukraine enriched my political outlook. This tragedy helped me appreciate the logical conclusion of collectivist ideas: Rand’s equation of socialism with slavery was no hyperbole. At the same time, though, knowing the history of Communism helped me realize how much worse our political situation could become. To this day, I am baffled by libertarians who read the newspaper or watch the news every day, gritting their teeth at the latest petty injustice. Why do they torment themselves so? I save my moral outrage for Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. And immigration restrictions.
I lost a lot of respect for Rothbard around 1990 when he reversed his lifelong support for free immigration. If anything ever deserved Rothbard's classic "monstrous!" denunciation, it is our "kinder, gentler" Berlin Wall built to keep people from living and working in the U.S. because they happened to be born elsewhere. Rothbard had always refused to justify one injustice with another, but overnight the welfare system became his rationale for cutting immigration below its already heavily restricted level. When Libertarian Party presidential candidate Ed Clark made the same argument in 1980, Rothbard was outraged, citing it as "probably the greatest (or perhaps the second greatest) single scandal of the Clark campaign":
Note, also, how Clark has been brought to this shameful point of having locked himself into a measured, prepared order of destatization. He has already asserted that we can't slash the welfare state until we have achieved "full employment"; he now adds that we can't have free and open immigration until we eliminate the welfare state. And so it goes; the "gradualists" lock us permanently into the status quo of statism.
After being let down by Mr. Libertarian, I was pleasantly surprised by one of his intellectual antipodes, the MIT-trained economist Bill Dickens. As my Econ 1 instructor at UC Berkeley, Bill was already well-known as half of the brains behind the Akerlof-Dickens model of cognitive dissonance; he later won prominence for his research on nominal wage rigidity with Akerlof and Perry, and his work with James Flynn (of the “Flynn effect”) on IQ and heritability. Dickens was far from libertarian, but rich in professorial virtues: thoughtful, opinionated, open-minded, curious, and generous with his time. He happily supervised my independent study on the critics of Keynesianism, often spending over an hour with me every week to point me in new directions and challenge me to do better.
In my senior year, I was still undecided about my future. I loved economics, but often hated the economics profession for being picayune, scientistic, and statist. Perhaps, I thought, I should go to law school and pursue ideas in my spare time. I kept my options open, taking both the LSAT (for law school) and the GRE (for graduate school).
I finally chose the path of hope and applied to Ph.D. programs in economics. Introspection feels unreliable to me here, but I recall re-experiencing the love of economics as I first read Posner’s Economic Analysis of Law in 1992. I wound up accepting Princeton University’s offer, largely for the narrowly economic reason that it was the only top-five program to offer me tuition and money.
The other noteworthy intellectual event of Berkeley education was my senior thesis. Under the loose guidance of Robert Cooter in the law school, I wrote a hundred-page monograph on “The Economics of Non-State Legal Systems.” In it, I analyzed privatization in dispute resolution, rule formation, and enforcement. It was, in essence, a synthesis of Posner’s law-and-economics with Rothbard’s defense of anarcho-capitalism. Unlike Rothbard, though, I tried to unbundle the various aspects of legal privatization, in the dual hope of better understanding how a free market would work in this industry, and being more persuasive to skeptics.
Serendipity struck the summer before graduate school when an internship at the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung in Germany fell through. Tom Palmer at the Institute for Humane Studies swiftly paved the way for a summer internship in beautiful Fairfax, Virginia. The summer fellows program, directed by philosopher Rod Long, was a joyous intellectual experience. The staff at IHS, especially Walter Grinder and Tom Palmer, Rod Long, and the other fellows made every day fun.
Lurking beneath that fun, however, was a mighty boost for my long-run career. IHS invited weekly speakers. One of them was Prof. Tyler Cowen of George Mason, who discussed draft chapters of what eventually became his In Praise of Commercial Culture. At the after-talk lunch, I steered the discussion to his recent critique of anarcho-capitalism published in Economics and Philosophy (Cowen 1992). I soon wrote a response and showed it to him, along with my undergraduate thesis. Tyler, a born contrarian, liked arguing with me. He told me to keep George Mason in mind once I finished my Ph.D.
In choosing Princeton’s Ph.D. program, I knowingly took the path of short-term pain for long-run gain. Like all top departments, Princeton econ was long on math and short on economic intuition. I tried to make the best of it: do an adequate job in my classes and satisfy my curiosity with free reading. I also plugged into an array of early Internet mailing lists on libertarianism, Objectivism, and anarchism, and played countless hours of Sid Meier’s Civilization. I kept up numerous email discussions with my friends, including many with Tyler Cowen and literally hundreds with Bill Dickens. All-in-all, the first year was bad, but not as bad as expected. After I married my college girlfriend, Corina Mateescu, in the summer of 1994, I felt that everything was looking up for me.
The remaining years at Princeton passed quickly. Applied game theory was valuable, and Ben Bernanke’s monetary class was superb. Donald Wittman’s Myth of Democratic Failure greatly impressed me, making me reflect on the inadequacies of public choice theory. But my hobbies were my passion. I set up my first webpage to warehouse my growing body of writings. I wrote an Anarchist Theory FAQ to dispassionately compare and contrast “left-wing” and “right-wing” anarchism, much to the outrage of anarcho-socialists on the Usenet group alt.society.anarchy. I later became a mini-expert on the Spanish Civil War and wrote the polemical essay “The Anarcho-Statists of Spain.” Thanks to publicity on various leftist websites, it became the Usenet equivalent of a best-seller, getting thousands of hits. I also taught myself Perl programming to set up my first webbed survey, “The Libertarian Purity Test.” Another feature I added later - ultimately becoming my website’s biggest draw - was the online Museum of Communism, dedicated to exposing the horrors of Marxist-Leninist regimes.
In my spare time, I did what I was supposed to be doing, writing a “plain vanilla” dissertation on the economics of state and local government. It was an unpleasant experience, but I picked up the basics of academic writing and finished the Ph.D. in four years, so I have no cause for complaint. When I went on the job market, my earlier contact with Tyler Cowen served me well. I had nine interviews, one fly-out at George Mason, and one offer from George Mason. As in marriage, I reflected, it only takes one.
Living the Dream
The position at Mason was my big break. From the outset, I knew that I had to navigate between two dangers: (1) failing to publish and thus perishing, or (2) wasting my life writing boring, plain vanilla papers. In retrospect, I struck a good balance. I turned all of my dissertation chapters into articles and put them in the mail. I then initiated new lines of research, tied together by the common theme of voter irrationality. Since I was at Mason, I felt free to be creative before getting tenure.
Donald Wittman’s work, showing how rational voters (in the rational expectations sense of the word) could easily make democracy work well, had already inadvertently convinced me that voters are not rational. I began to wonder: If a voter has no chance of changing electoral outcomes, why would he strive to be rational? Geoffrey Brennan and Loren Lomasky’s wonderful work on expressive voting, Democracy and Decision, helped me visualize the expansive implications of voter indecisiveness. Inspired by these two works, I began years of fruitful reading and writing. I discovered empirical public opinion research, and learned that political scientists had long since debunked economists’ silly cliche that voters maximize their financial self-interest. I struck gold when I realized that an already-existing data set, the Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy, had not been used to test for the rationality of voter beliefs - but could be. Working with this data gave me my first taste of the joy of empirical research. Too much of the empirical work I saw at Princeton was little more than using econometrics to shoehorn the facts into preconceived molds. As I analyzed the data on economic beliefs, I felt like I was unearthing novel facts about the world.
The underlying goal of my research on voter irrationality, in brief, is to resurrect the 1970’s Chicago “markets good, government bad” consensus. This intuitively plausible view has fallen out of favor in academic economics, largely because its defenders blamed too much on special interests. The real problem with democracy is not that special interests frustrate the will of the people. It is, rather, that people are smart as consumers but stupid as voters.
Though my position seems novel to other academics, anyone who knows my intellectual history should not be surprised. Rand, Mises, Rothbard - all three held that statist ideas were false, widespread, and politically influential. This gives them a clean explanation for what is wrong with the world and how to fix it. The problem with government policy is not that the majority is right and ignored, but that it is wrong and heeded. Mises puts it well:
The world inclines to Socialism because the great majority of people want it. They want it because they believe that Socialism will guarantee a higher standard of living. The loss of this conviction would signify the end of Socialism. (1981, p.462)
Rand is still more eloquent:
Look around you: what you have done to society, you had done it first within your soul; one is the image of the other. The dismal wreckage, which is now your world, is the physical form of the treason you committed to your values, to your friends, to your defenders, to your future, to your country, to yourself. (1957, p.984)
While Atlas Shrugged is a work of fiction, John Galt’s analysis of the cause of social and economic collapse is clearly her own. Indeed, after living through Lenin’s takeover, Rand might have longed to say these very words to her fellow Russians.
Both my dissertation and my post-dissertation papers sold well. In fact, the papers written to satisfy my own curiosity sold better than the papers written to satisfy the expected referee. The more lines I added to my vita, the more confident I felt to branch out to whatever questions interested me. I noticed a connection between my work on voter irrationality and the puzzle of “why poor countries stay poor.” So I voraciously read the growth and development literature, and wrote “The Idea Trap.” I later became curious about personality psychology. So I learned all I could on the subject, and wrote “Stigler-Becker vs. Myers-Briggs.” The intellectual latitude I now enjoy exceeds all my hopes. Indeed, I often delve into subjects purely out of curiosity, as I have since my teens. For example, I consume mass quantities of research on human intelligence and behavioral genetics. It would be good if they gave me new topics for professional papers. But even if they never do, these are areas worth understanding.
The quality of my colleagues immediately rose when I moved from Princeton to George Mason, and improved every year. A few of my fellow students at Princeton, especially Jim Schneider, were excellent friends and debating partners. But most of the students at Princeton were what I dismissively call “careerists,” and in spite of their high IQs, the Princeton faculty - with the notable exception of Ben Bernanke - were sadly narrow. At Mason, I found colleagues - faculty and students alike - who love talking about economics as much as I do. Tyler Cowen, Pete Boettke, Robin Hanson, Don Boudreaux, Alex Tabarrok - they are among my favorite intellectuals on the planet. We argue non-stop, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Once we agree, it is time to change the subject.
The last two years, I have been writing a book on voter irrationality, plus half a dozen other projects. I should officially have tenure by May. Research has slowed down a bit since my twin sons Aidan and Tristan were born, but that doesn’t worry me. I am looking forward to a lifetime of thinking about the Big Questions and going wherever my curiosity takes me.
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 Kelley's monograph has recently been republished in revised form as Kelley (2000).
 I paid no attention to Kirzner’s objections to probability theory until years later. (Kirzner 1997) In one respect, Kirzner is more reasonable than Mises and Rothbard. He recognizes that probabilities can be legitimately assigned outside of games of chance and actuarial tables. But his invocation of “sheer ignorance” strikes me as pure obscurantism. The Mises-Rothbard position is intelligible but wrong; the Kirzner position is plain incoherent.
 Rothbard (1980, p.5). Rothbard also noted the empirical weakness of Clark's position: "Undocumented aliens, including Mexicans, have not gone on welfare for the simple reason that they would have exposed themselves to arrest and deportation. These 'illegal' aliens, as in the case of most immigrants in the past, have proved themselves to be among the most productive, hard-working members of society. Clark kicks them in the teeth, and unjustly." (ibid) For a more empirically sophisticated defense of Rothbard's claim, see Simon (1995), pp.31-42.
 I lost more respect for Rothbard when I learned about his alliances with full-blown communists in the 60's, including the Maoist Progressive Labor Party during the height of Mao's infamous Cultural Revolution. (Raimondo 2000) What was he thinking?
 During my first year as an assistant professor, a passage in Rothbard's biography of Mises strengthened my resolve to use my opportunity at Mason well: "What could he have done, and what would the world have gained, if he had enjoyed the leisure that most academics fritter away?" (Rothbard 1988, p.9)