Columbia’s Economics Blackout

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My article arguing for the inclusion of Austrian economics at Columbia University was scheduled to appear in the Daily Columbia Spectator on September 10th, but was pulled at the last minute. After several days of waiting for a response to my inquiries, the editorial page editor who removed it (an Economics major who incidentally has a picture of Fidel Castro as his Facebook cover) sent me a list of objections which only confirmed how Econ students are being trained to be closed to diverse intellectual thought. Since the situation at Columbia, as I’ve found, reflects the general state of Economics in most American universities, I think it is all the more urgent for students themselves to call for courses in Austrian economics rather than resigning themselves to the indoctrination of mainstream academia. Below is what I was prevented from saying to the Columbia University community via the daily student newspaper:

While trying to find classes to take and potentially a subject to major in at the Academic Resources Fair, my incoming freshman brother asked an Economics Department representative if they offered courses in Austrian economics. The professor gave him a surprised look and, trying to be helpful, responded: "We offer international economics." She then turned to her colleague who responded tersely: "Not at Columbia."

Columbia, however, would seem the perfect place for the Austrian school, since concepts that we all read about in Contemporary Civilization, such as John Locke’s private property, Adam Smith’s invisible hand, and John Stuart Mill’s individual rights, prepare us for Austrian analyses of the free market in opposition to central banking and other aspects of government intervention in the economy. Like Enlightenment thinkers David Hume and Edmund Burke who placed natural behavior and empirical evidence above the abstract reasoning and rational mathematics of René Descartes, Austrian scholars recognize the primacy of human action above artificial statistical theoretical models.

Moreover, Austrian economists such as Peter Schiff and Thomas DiLorenzo were able to predict the housing bubble and subsequent financial crisis, which came as a surprise to mainstream (Keynesian) economists. Using praxeology and empirical evidence, they demonstrated that the banks' malinvestments and risky speculation would backfire, years before this occurred. It seems more urgent than ever for this mode of thought to be introduced into the curriculum so that future Econ majors will have another perspective with which to understand the effects of state interference in the free market and thereby refrain from making the same mistakes that has led to the ongoing economic crisis.

One of the main proponents of Austrian economics, Murray N. Rothbard, was a graduate of Columbia in the 1950s where he earned both his B.A. (mathematics) and his Ph.D (economics). During his time here, however, he did not learn anything about the Austrian school and was compelled to seek guidance from Ludwig von Mises, an NYU professor at the time. Walter Block, another notable Austrian economist to receive a Ph.D. from Columbia (1972), states: "The Columbia University economics department is cheating its students by not being open to intellectual diversity, by not offering even one course in the Austrian school of thought; the Austrian economics of Mises, Rothbard and Hayek is part of the economics conversation whether the mainstream Keynesians appreciate this or not." Historian Thomas E. Woods, Jr. learned about the Austrian school not at Columbia, where he earned his Ph.D., but at the Mises Academy in Auburn, Alabama: "The Mises Institute’s week-long summer program for students, was without a doubt the highlight of my academic career […] I knew I had just been taught the truth" (memo, May 17, 2012).

Today's absence of courses in Austrian economics at Columbia is certainly not due to a lack of Economics faculty. In 2005, President Bollinger hired thirteen new professors in the Economics Department, all of them of the Keynesian persuasion. Austrian economics has not always been off the Columbia radar screen, however. Prof. Satyajit Bose, Columbia Ph.D. in economics (2006) and current Lecturer at SIPA, remembers first reading Carl Menger and Ludwig von Mises at Columbia in a history of economic thought course in the early 1990s. As he recalls, although it “was not a popular class and most economics majors would not have had to read these authors, many of their ideas are central to economics.” Today, he is the only professor I found to assign an Austrian author to his class: 1974 Nobel Prize winner Friedrich Hayek.

True to the purpose of the Core, Contemporary Civilization encourages critical thinking by presenting students with completely opposing viewpoints from across the spectrum of political ideology so that we can make our own decisions on each topic, rather than expounding a particular philosophical system. Why wouldn't this same practice be applied to the field of economics rather than teaching a largely Keynesian model as the only viable one?

In the end, it is irrelevant which economic theory the Columbia Economics Department deems more correct, since challenging alternatives should be taught out of principle. In this way, students can broaden their perception of the subject and at least become more convinced in their own beliefs, rather than taking them on faith. Columbia has a real opportunity to be a safe-haven for the intellectual freedom and academic diversity it claims to offer. Our university should provide students with an introduction to Austrian economics so that we do not have to first hear about this school of thought elsewhere, as occurred in the case of the famous Columbia alumni mentioned above.

Maria Giménez Cavallo [send her mail] is currently a junior at Columbia University majoring in Film Studies. This year she attended the Austrian Scholars Conference at the Mises Institute and completed the on-line course “The Road to Serfdom: Despotism, Then and Now” offered through the Mises Academy. Her most recent article for the Columbia Spectator, “Using the Core in Politics,” can be found here.

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