by Gary North
On Saturday, June 23, Hans Sennholz died at the age of 85. He was one of four men who earned his Ph.D. in economics under Ludwig von Mises at New York University. (The others were George Riesman, Israel Kirzner, and Louis Spadaro.) Earlier this year, he wrote an article for Lewrockwell.com on the influence Mises had on him, which was enormous. Unlike the other three, he arrived in class with a doctorate in political science, earned at Köln.
In a collection of essays written in honor of Sennholz when he retired from full-time teaching at age 70, A Man of Principle (Grove City College, 1992), I wrote of his influence as a transmitter of Mises' economics to a younger generation: mine. I stressed the fact that for 37 years, he had served as the chairman of the economics department at Grove City College. He taught undergraduates at a Presbyterian four-year college whose name sounded like a community college.
Grove City College was the perfect school for Sennholz. Its primary donor was oil magnate J. Howard Pew, who recommended that Sennholz be hired in 1955. Throughout the twentieth century, Pew's Sun Oil Company had withstood competition from Rockefeller's oil companies and had prospered. Pew was a dedicated Presbyterian layman who was happy to have Lutheran Sennholz run the economics department. Pew also provided the funding for Christian Economics, a fortnightly tabloid sent out to every Protestant minister in the country free of charge. Sennholz often wrote for it.
Teaching undergraduates, except in approximately two-dozen elite private colleges, is regarded by the academic guild as drudgery that is justifiable only because it is the required path to teaching graduate students. As for teaching introductory, lower division courses, this is a task assigned to untenured assistant professors, who have a team of graduate students to grade the exams, grade the term papers (if any), and lead the discussion groups. Not at Grove City College. Sennholz always took his turn teaching the introductory economics course, as did every member of the department, none of whom was ever granted tenure.
Grove City College did not grant tenure to anyone, and when the school fired a professor in 1962, the American Association of University Professors censored the college. That censure remains in force. The effect on Grove City College's reputation was so negligible — invisible, in fact — that the AAUP has had a major problem for over four decades: how to explain the organization's utter impotence. Grove City College was Sennholz's kind of place.
In addition to teaching four classes every term, Sennholz also wrote. The volume of his output was legendary by 1990. He wrote for The Freeman, American Opinion, and dozens of other free market publications. He wrote over 500 articles, plus 17 books. Yet he was unknown by the economics guild. He did not publish in the unread and generally unreadable professional journals that serve as the career stepping-stones to tenure at the major universities.
In the fall of 1955, when Sennholz arrived at Grove City College, the dominant school of economic thought in America was Keynesianism, which placed the state at the center of the economy as the great reconciler of individuals' plans. The Keynesians taught that government officials, operating with the support of other government officials with guns, alone can bring economic stability to a capitalist economy.
The Keynesians' only academic rivals — just barely — in the free market camp in 1955 were Chicago School economists, who taught that fewer government officials, operating with the support of economists with a government-licensed printing press, alone can bring economic stability to a capitalist economy.
Sennholz denied both positions. Extending the insight of Mises' 1920 essay on the impossibility of rational economic calculation in a socialist economy, Sennholz denied the possibility of socially rational intervention by government planners, whether they coerce people through taxation, regulation, or counterfeiting. He defended the freedom of contract, the gold coin standard, the abolition of the Federal Reserve System, and the de-funding of the welfare state.
He was isolated. He was isolated geographically: Western Pennsylvania. He was isolated institutionally: an undergraduate college. Most of all, he was isolated methodologically. He taught unadulterated Austrian economics. His students were not required to run the gauntlet of Keynesian and Chicago School equations, all based on the concept of equilibrium, a concept imported from physics. Mises' epistemology denied the theoretical basis of equilibrium, namely, the omniscience of mankind. Without the assumption of omniscience, the conditions required to establish equilibrium do not exist.
There are no profits or losses under equilibrium, for both stem from the effects of men's attempt to deal with uncertainty regarding the future. Sennholz, following Mises, placed the profit-and-loss system as the operational command post of the free market. The entrepreneur is the person who puts his own money and reputation on the line in his own plans to overcome future uncertainty. He seeks ways to help buyers and sellers reconcile their plans.
For anyone familiar with Austrian economics, it seems beyond belief that economics could be taught apart from the methodological assumption of universal uncertainty. But it is. Everywhere. Still.
He stood almost alone in academia in 1955, and he remained alone in undergraduate education until the mid-1970's, when the visible failure of Keynesianism to overcome rising unemployment and price inflation, coupled with Hayek's winning of the Nobel Prize in 1974, helped to launch a revival of Austrian economics. We live in the midst of that revival.
Leonard E. Read, who founded the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in 1946, and who hired as his secretary the woman who would later marry Sennholz, had one supreme word of praise for someone: "He doesn't leak." Hans Sennholz did not leak. He did not, as Read once put it, sink in a sea of "buts." He defended free market principles in every area of life throughout his career. At the age of 70, he took over FEE and brought it back from an ocean of red ink. He served as FEE's president for five years.
He was never a man to let a bad argument pass unchallenged. He would begin his refutation with this phrase: "Wait a minute." The listener could be sure of one thing: it would take more than a minute.
In the final years, he went on-line: www.sennholz.com. There, he published detailed and lively essays that were as insightful as any that he had written three or four decades earlier. In his view, the Web was another tool to be used to communicate his message. He mastered this tool.
He was still on duty when he died.
He was my academic role model for over 40 years: "Just keep writing!" You could do worse.
Someone should write his biography — someone with the skills of Leonard Read's biographer, or J. Howard Pew's: Mary Sennholz, his wife. I just cannot imagine anyone else writing it.
June 25, 2007
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