Learning From the Master

The following story is part of Walter Block’s Autobiography Archive.

by Doug French

I should have known Murray Rothbard was something special the first night of class when I noticed a fellow student, James Philbin, following behind Murray as he entered the classroom carrying a stool for Murray to sit on as he lectured. Philbin, like others in the class, knew who Murray was; he was their whole reason for being in the University of Nevada Las Vegas economics masters program. This was the Fall semester of 1990, and despite being in my early 30's, I had never heard of Libertarians, Austrian Economics, Anarcho-capitalists or Murray Rothbard. I was just there working on a Masters degree in economics. Serendipity had indeed smiled.

As Murray immediately launched into his opening lecture for ECO 742 – History of Economic Thought, I knew that this was economics that way it should be taught. Forget the graphs, equations and other nonsense that I'd endured my first two semesters; this was the good guys vs. 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.

That semester was History with a monetary emphasis. Murray's notes ultimately became his two-volume work: Economic Thought Before Adam Smith and Classical Economics: An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought.

And to think that one of my fellow students had advised me to not take Murray, because he was, as this student described, "a kook." This guy had suggested that I take the History of Thought course independent study with one of the other, presumably wiser, professors. I didn't know any better, but it sounded like it would be a pain to line up a professor for independent study, so I gave Murray a shot, and the rest is history.

But it wasn't just Murray and Austrian economics that semester. I also had Political Economy with professor Rick Tilman, who fed his class a steady diet of his heroes, assigning C. Wright Mills' The Power Elite, Thorsten Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class, and Marx's Communist Manifesto.

After that semester, all I took was Murray, other than a forgettable Economic Fluctuations class. I soon began my Masters thesis entitled Early Speculative Bubbles and Increases in the Supply of Money with Murray as my thesis committee chair. Murray was an incredible resource and inspiration. He was literally a walking bibliography. I leaned heavily on his work and that of Mises, in addition to economic historians, Earl J. Hamilton, Charles P. Kindleberger, and Antoin Murphy. But, perhaps Murray's best advice was concerned my writing. My initial drafts were very wordy, with long complicated sentences. Murray told me, "If you want to learn how to write well, read H.L. Mencken. Start with A Mencken Chrestomathy."

I remember being quite apprehensive as the day for my thesis defense approached, knowing that all graduate economics department faculty were invited. Trying to quell my fears, Murray told me, "don't worry, you know more about bubbles than anyone in the room."

My long-winded 90-minute defense proved effective in emptying the room of any dissenters other than the guys who had to be there, my thesis committee members. The only challenge came from committee member Hans Hoppe. I'm sure I looked like a deer in the headlights upon professor Hoppe's questioning, but – and I didn't know a thesis committee chair could do this – Murray handled the challenge smartly, and that was, as I remember, the end of it.

Murray encouraged me to take the part of my thesis that dealt with Tulipmania and submit it as an article for publication in various mainstream economics journals. He felt that I had a good chance for publication, believing that I had made, as he put it, "a contribution." However, none of the seven or eight economics journals I tried (including the Review of Austrian Economics after Murray's death) shared Murray's view. Sharing my frustration, Murray wrote in one of his letters, "Your experience with the journals reminds me that every time I've been rejected by a scholarly journal, I've been infuriated, not because of the rejection, but because the referees all seemed to be a pack of morons who missed the point of the article."

Because of Murray's encouragement I've written articles and book reviews from a libertarian and Austrian economics perspective, appearing in Freedom Daily, The Freeman, The Free Market, LewRockwell.com, Liberty, Las Vegas Review Journal, Las Vegas Business Press, and the Nevada Policy Research Institute's Viewpoint.

There were not many students who had the privilege of studying and writing a thesis under the direction of Murray Rothbard. I'm thankful every day that I was one of those few. I became a libertarian relatively late, but I had the best possible teacher.