Why I’m a Raging Optimist

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by Mark Thornton

Previously by Mark Thornton: Welcome to Needle Park

     

I have been working at the Ludwig von Mises Institute as a senior fellow for the last ten years. I answer economic questions from students, Mises Institute members, and the media. I also work in all the Institute education and scholarly programs and do research. It is probably the best job in the world.

We have teaching programs that benefit high-school students, homeschool students, college students, graduate students, instructors, and professors, as well as the general public. These programs are effective because they are well crafted, time tested, and the staff is incredibly efficient and frugal in terms of execution.

My job is to lecture and sometimes to serve as master of ceremonies, so each and every one of these events is a real nail-biter for me. They are all so important. However, they always seem to turn out fantastically. The key is that we have the best speakers talking about the most important issues of the day to people, mostly students, who see that learning Austrian economics is vitally important to them.

That was not always the case. When I came to Auburn University to go to graduate school in 1982, I was told that there were probably only eight to ten graduate students interested in Austrian economics in the entire world. One of my professors even told me that there was no longer an Austrian School, there were only a couple of Austrians teaching in universities that offered a PhD, and that the Austrian School was just a fact of history, with no future.

Things were pretty miserable that first year. I entertained thoughts of dropping out and getting a job. Then toward the end of my second semester Professor Roger Garrison invited me into his office. He told me that Lew Rockwell was moving the Ludwig von Mises Institute to Auburn University. He said that Lew was going to publish newsletters, journals, and books and that he was going to invite all the leading Austrian economists to come to Auburn to lecture.

I had never heard of Lew Rockwell or the Mises Institute before that point in time, but I realized right away that things would be better. Next Professor Garrison told me that I would probably receive funding for my studies at Auburn University from the Mises Institute. Given Garrison’s reputation for pulling people’s legs, I naturally started to get suspicious, but he assured me that it was all true.

After leaving his office I was a bit dumbfounded, but I soon realized that I might be as close as I ever would be to an event that might change history. Back then, learning anything about Austrian economics was incredibly difficult, but I was convinced that Austrian economics was the solution to our problems. Having grown up in the 1970s, the list of problems was long.

Nixon had taken us off the gold standard and imposed wage and price controls. Our economy was experiencing high unemployment and high inflation. There had been waiting lines for gasoline. The country was decaying, and we were told that the Soviet Union was the wave of the future. My last two years in college could best be described as an economic depression.

With all that bad experience and with the country at its lowest point, I suddenly found myself magically turned into a raging optimist by Lew Rockwell. I have always sided with the underdog, and this was the biggest underdog situation since David and Goliath. Lew, Mardi, and Pat were stationed in small quarters with nothing to assist them but an electric typewriter and two graduate students to stuff envelopes. It did not appear that the entire Keynesian-socialist state had much to worry about.

Indeed, it’s been nothing but a steep uphill battle. The distance yet to travel seems enormous. There have been difficult times and the state is bigger than ever. However, my optimism has never wavered and has indeed only increased. Austrian economics is a message that the establishment now has to deal with.

We are still the smallest school of economics, but we are the fastest growing. We are one of the oldest schools of economics, but the average age of Austrian economists continues to decrease. We still work on the fringe of the profession, but our work is having an ever-bigger impact in the real world. We have the growth, the youth, and the impact. Much of this success is the result of Lew Rockwell building an institutional foundation for Austrian economics to thrive.

Individual professors can do fine work, but putting together large instructional conferences is beyond their means. Lew has also made it possible to publish or to bring back into publication books that were too radical for other publication outlets. Generally put, the Mises Institute is the hub network through which the Austrian School grows in size and impact. More than 20 other Mises Institute–like organizations have been established in various countries, most of which are modeled after and inspired by Lew’s design.

As an economist, many people ask me where they should invest their money. My response is that if you care about the future, if you care about the free society, then the best place for your money is the Ludwig von Mises Institute. We have had 30 years of growth and increasing impact thanks to Lew, the ideas of Mises and Rothbard, and to you, the members of the Mises Institute.

Frankly, there are few people who could have anticipated this success. I remember talking to fellow graduate students in the 1980s at the Mises University conference. Someone wondered aloud, "How many more years do you think they will hold the Mises University before everyone who wants to has already attended one?" Well, it doesn’t look like we are stopping anytime soon. Last summer we were at full capacity, with four times as many people watching live on the Internet.

Having seen programs like Mises University and the Summer Fellows Program in person, I can tell you that they change people’s lives. Of course these programs instill knowledge, but more importantly attendees gain a better grasp of reality that only Austrian economics can provide. In addition, with the state fouling up everything it touches, creating chaos everywhere, attendees come away from our programs with a newfound optimism and new zeal to learn as much as they can.

As a donor, the Ludwig von Mises Institute has always been my biggest charity. I know it is easy to feel helpless against expanding evils of the state, but I can tell you that knowing that my money is going to the Mises Institute programs has always provided me with a great deal of satisfaction. We share the right ideas, and the history of man has shown that the power of ideas is all that really matters.

Help us take down Goliath. Be David. Donate today.

Mark Thornton [send him mail] is a senior resident fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, and is the book review editor for the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. He is the author of The Economics of Prohibition, coauthor of Tariffs, Blockades, and Inflation: The Economics of the Civil War, and the editor of The Quotable Mises, The Bastiat Collection, and An Essay on Economic Theory.

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