Disciples, Followers, and Cheerleaders

In every movement, we find these three classes of adherents. It is not always clear in the early stages of a movement which adherent belongs in which category.


A disciple is an early convert. He decides that a master teacher has something to say that is both unique and important — so important that the disciple publicly abandons his commitment to the status quo. He establishes a personal relationship with the master.

At this early stage, the master must be careful in the selection of disciples from the pool of enthusiastic candidates. The more attractive he is, or the more attractive his doctrine, the more people he will attract. The character and commitment of the would-be disciples are not tested. Out of 12 disciples, Jesus attracted a ringer. “Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, which should betray him, Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein” (John 12:4-6).

Ludwig von Mises had two sets of disciples in his career. The first group came to him in the aftermath of World War I, when socialism was attracting the best and brightest of a generation. Mises’ challenge to the economists and intellectuals of his day was comprehensive. In “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth” (1920) and Socialism (1922), he threw down the gauntlet to socialists everywhere. Socialism is economically irrational, he argued, because it abolishes private property and therefore abolishes capital markets. Men cannot know what any resource is worth without free markets to inform them. They cannot know what the most valuable use is for any scarce resource.

A group of very intelligent young men switched their allegiance from socialism and identified with Mises. These included F. A. Hayek, Wilhelm Röpke, Fritz Machlup, Gottfried Haberler, and Lionel Robbins. They adopted Mises’ views in the 1920s. They established personal relationships with him.

In the 1930s, as a result of a prolonged worldwide depression, all but Hayek and Röpke switched allegiance again, this time to the mixed economy, especially as articulated by John Maynard Keynes. Hayek had attracted his own followers in the early 1930s: John Hicks, G. L. S. Shackle, Kenneth Boulding, Nicholas Kaldor, and Abba Lerner. All switched to Keynes and away from Austrianism. Murray Rothbard discusses this in his 1988 essay, “Keynes, the Man.”

Mises’ second group of disciples assembled in the post-World War II period, when Mises was living in New York City. His evening seminar at New York University was the equivalent of his by-invitation-only seminar in Vienna. Among these disciples were his four Ph.D. students: George Reisman, Israel Kirzner, Louis Spadaro, and Hans Sennholz. Then there were Bettina Bien, her future husband Percy Greaves, and Rothbard. Henry Hazlitt at the time was the most influential disciple. At a distance, 25 miles up the Hudson River, were senior staff members of the Foundation for Economic Education.

Disciples go out and recruit more people. Some of these recruits become disciples of the disciples. They recruit followers.


The follower has little or no direct contact with the founder. Followers are attracted by the founder’s books or other written materials. They may be attracted to one of the disciples. They remain at a distance. They do their best to think through the principles of the founder. They begin to view the world through his glasses.

The followers extend the founder’s message to the world at large. They may write or teach. They may merely read and apply what they have read to their immediate circumstances. Their goal is to extend the founder’s innovative vision of the world to those around them, by word and deed.

They receive little applause. This does not bother the ones who are truly dedicated. They are not after applause. They may get opposition. This also does not bother the hard core. They expect opposition. They go about their business, day by day. If anyone asks them why they do things differently, they provide an answer. Peter, a disciple of Jesus, told his readers, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15). The follower understands this principle. He hands out articles. He suggests web links.

These are the people who were described by Albert Jay Nock in his 1937 essay, “Isaiah’s Job.” They are attracted to the master or the “prophet.” They like his message. Somehow, they hear about the ideas of the master. They come, one by one, to read the writings of the master. They do not join anything openly. They do not think of themselves as organizers or part of an organized movement. They internalize the message and begin to apply it.

We see this process at work in the success of LewRockwell.com and Mises.org. There are no better examples of Nock’s principle of attraction. Word gets out. People come. There is no way to trace how they come or why they come, but they come. They are the backbone of any transformation of public opinion. Through them, word gets out.

From 1956 until the arrival of the Internet, The Freeman was a main recruiting tool. (It ceased to be a primary recruiting tool when it became a paid-subscription magazine. Subscribers would hand out free copies.) Handout by handout, word got out. This was the strategy of Leonard E. Read, who ran the Foundation of Economic Education from 1946 until his death in 1983. FEE published The Freeman. It still does.


A cheerleader seeks attention. He wants to be seen. It is not clear to him or anyone else why he should be seen. His means of gaining attention is to attach himself to a team. He wants to be on the winning side. He wants to be seen on the winning side.

Cheerleading is an American institution. It serves no useful purpose, but it is always there at high school and college football and basketball games. Where there is a large crowd to see the team, there will be cheerleaders. With sports where there is no crowd, there are no cheerleaders.

Cheerleaders pretend that they control the crowd. The crowd pretends that their organized cheers in some way help their team or thwart the opposing team. They stand, they sit, they cheer in an organized way. They do what the head cheerleader tells them to do. These efforts have no effect. The team pays no attention. The outcome of the game is not influenced by organized cheers.

This is boola-boola in action. This is a system of pretense: layers of pretense. The cheerleader thinks of himself as part of the team effort. He isn’t. The individuals in the crowd think of themselves as part of the team effort. They aren’t.

When cheering really matters, there is no organized direction. Individuals get excited by something on the field, and they cheer. This unorganized noise may actually have an effect on the team. But that which is organized doesn’t.

Cheerleaders want to bask in the glory of the team. They want to think that the public recognition accorded to team members will be accorded to them, as part of the team. But a cheerleader is easily replaceable. If he is replaced, there will be no perceived difference in the actions of the crowd or the team. No cheerleader wants to admit this.

The cheerleader is part of the game’s environment. He is not part of the team. But he wants to be part of the team. He does not have the talent to make the team. Above all, he does not want to be part of the crowd. The office of cheerleader exists for the sake of cheerleaders. It has no useful function other than this. It is for public amusement and personal ego gratification.

Occasionally, cheerleaders do acrobatic stunts. They deserve recognition for this. But these skills have nothing to do with the outcome of the game. The cheerleaders are there for the amusement of attendees when nothing important is happening in the game. For those fans who are paying close attention to the game, cheerleaders are a distraction.

In every ideological movement, there are cheerleaders. They want to be part of the disciples, but they are not sufficiently gifted or committed. Or maybe they showed up late. Access is closed to them.

They do not want to be part of the crowd. It is not enough for them to be followers, grubbing out a daily existence in terms of the founder’s precepts. They want to be seen by all as almost a team member, almost important to the cause. They see the conflict of visions as a game.

What they fear most is rejection. They fear rejection by the captain of the team. Rejection exposes them as peripheral to outcome of the game. They do not want to be peripheral to the game. But they cannot get on the field. Besides, those opposing linemen are bruisers.


The disciple pays a heavy price for his commitment. The status quo offers benefits. The founder can offer only the sense of being part of the wave of the future, or maybe the truth that will get swamped by the future. The founder has no tenured offices to grant. Whatever fame he has is mostly negative, especially with the Powers that Be.

Mises could not get a job as a professor at the University of Vienna. His professorship at NYU was peripheral to the department. His salary was not paid by the university. His colleagues regarded him as an eccentric, and an obsolete one at that. His students were not part of the establishment. He was a fringe member of both the department and the economics profession. He was a pre-Keynesian has-been who had stayed around too long. He was a man without equations and calculus.

What distinguishes the disciple is his level of commitment. Without disciples, a movement dies with the founder. Most of Mises’ Vienna disciples failed to carry through. The same was true of Hayek’s. The Great Depression demoralized them. They really did not believe that such an enormous catastrophe of unemployed resources, especially workers, was the result of something so seemingly minor as government-imposed price floors, tariffs, and other trade restrictions. They could not believe that fractional reserve banking had been the source of the misallocation of resources in the boom phase. Lionel Robbins’ 1934 book, The Great Depression, argued along these lines, but he repudiated this book decades later. They abandoned Mises’ ideas.

In his parables of the kingdom, Jesus described this phenomenon.

And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow; And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold (Matthew 13:3-8).

Mises’ early disciples had fallen among thorns. The Great Depression was a thorny field for Misesians. It tested the disciples’ commitment to the principle of voluntarism. Most of them succumbed. They turned to the state as the agency of economic redemption.

The second group of disciples constituted the good ground. Some of them are still writing, most notably Kirzner, Sennholz, and Reisman. Rothbard’s work lives on, more important than it was in his lifetime, because of the Internet. Sennholz, now in his eighties, is on-line, and has more readers than ever before. The technology of the Internet is the most perfect manifestation of Isaiah’s job that the world has ever seen. It is ideal for good ideas that receive a bad press. The press is now being superseded.

Rockwell was Rothbard’s disciple. Mises was dead by the time Rockwell gained his skills as a distributor of ideas. But Mises benefits as a “free rider” from Rockwell’s efforts. Mises’ legacy has the largest audience ever, and growing.

In this process, the cheerleaders play no crucial role. They are the white noise of life as far as team members are concerned: noise that is automatically blocked out. They do not really understand the game. They do not understand the team’s strategy. They do not care about the subtleties of X’s and Y’s on the coach’s blackboards during the week. They know only this: something big seems to be going on, and they don’t want to sit in the stands.

Some of them would transfer to a larger school if they could be sure of becoming head cheerleader.


Founders need disciples to extend their vision. Disciples need to recruit more disciples. They also need followers, who will cheer them on when the going gets tough, or when victory is in sight.

There is therefore a role for the person in the stands who knows which team he is cheering for. At key times, his cheering may actually help the team, when combined with unorganized cheering of those in the stands on his side of the field. Movements need committed followers.

As far as I can determine, nobody needs cheerleaders. It is nice to win the big game, but boola-boola has nothing to do with the victory. Neither does ziz, boom, bah.

August 26, 2004

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.freebooks.com. For a free subscription to Gary North’s newsletter on gold, click here.

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