Reminiscences of Murray

This talk was delivered on the occasion of Mr. French’s receiving the Center for Libertarian Studies’ Murray N. Rothbard Award in recognition of his generous dedication to the ideals of liberty in the Rothbardian tradition.

It was only through a series of lucky breaks that I studied under Murray Rothbard.

After moving to Las Vegas in 1986, I decided to go back to school and pursue a Masters degree in Economics in the fall of 1989. Why economics? I minored in the subject as an undergrad and kind of liked it. But, at the time MBA degrees were all the rage, and I was advised that an MBA would be better for my career, but I decided on economics. This was my first lucky break.

By the fall of 1990, I had taken 12 hours worth of Masters’ courses and was trying desperately to stay away from statistics and econometrics classes. I spotted "History of Economic Thought" with Rothbard as the instructor in the UNLV course catalog and thought — perfect!

I mentioned to one of my classmates that I would be taking the course with Rothbard and he strongly advised against it, contending that Rothbard was "a kook." He said I should take the course independent study with another professor.

I didn’t know who Murray was, or what Austrian Economics was, nor had I heard of the term Libertarian. But, since I worked all day and took classes at night I didn’t have time to hassle with lining up an instructor for independent study so I went ahead and took Rothbard. My second break.

The first night of class, Murray hit the door and started talking immediately, something about dumb politicians threatening the evil oil companies that were raising gas prices. From that thought, he just continued right into his History of Economic Thought lecture. He didn’t take roll, or hand out a syllabus. Murray didn’t have time for that; he had centuries of history to cover.

So the 8 or 10 of us in the class furiously took notes trying to keep up. I didn’t know it at the time, but only half of us were taking the class for credit, the other half were just auditing the course, having taken it previously for credit. Murray changed his History of Thought lectures each semester, so students took it as often as it was offered. In the fall of 1990, the course had a financial history emphasis.

I also took Murray for US Economic History the following semester. But, I still didn’t know Murray at all. The only time we spoke was one night when there was a bomb scare at Beem Hall where our classroom and the school of business instructors’ offices were housed. Not being able to enter the building I went to the student union and saw Murray sitting with one of my classmates. I asked what was going on, and Murray mentioned the bomb scare. I sardonically suggested to him; "We should send some underclassman in there to find it." "I like the way you think, Douglas," Murray shot back, cackling.

At this point I needed to decide whether to take a comprehensive test to complete my Masters or write a thesis. I was actually leaning toward the testing route but someone talked me into writing a thesis. My third break.

But, other than the bomb scare conversation and taking him for two classes, I still really didn’t know Murray all that well and wasn’t comfortable asking him to be my thesis advisor.

So, I spoke with Professor Rick Tilman about writing a thesis. However, Tilman couldn’t do it; he was not an instructor in the school of business. Break number four.

My fifth break was that the "Theory and Policy track" was still available in the Economics Masters degree program. I believe that I was the last student to graduate via Theory and Policy. Subsequent to my completion of the program, the economics department graduate coordinator and others managed to dump the "Theory and Policy Track" to keep students from coming to UNLV to study under Murray and Hans Hoppe.

I then went to Murray and re-introduced myself to him. I asked if he would be my thesis advisor and proposed a subject. Murray welcomed me with open arms. He proceeded to rattle off about 20 sources on speculative bubbles to get me started and away we went.

I got to know Murray during the researching and writing of my thesis. But, I really still didn’t realize his greatness. To me he was just a good guy.

Over time I realized how brilliant he was. As a banker, I meet a lot of people — other bankers, customers, regulators, etc. who think they are brilliant, and are anything but. They constantly work at convincing you that they know everything.

Murray was a guy who actually did know everything — but he didn’t act like it. He was never pompous, nor did he ever talk down to me or anyone else that I know of.

When I asked him a question he would start his answer almost humbly with "Well, in my view…"

He didn’t act like he had all the answers…but he did.

Inexplicably though, he would occasionally ask me for advice: like whether he should get a 15-year or 30-year mortgage.

As for his professional stature, I didn’t have a sense of it until I attended a Mises conference at Stanford. When I told some people I was from Las Vegas and studied under Murray these folks proceeded to beg me for my class notes.

Of course Murray was a walking bibliography. Every time I would meet with him he would give me more sources for my project. He provided not just the title, but author, publisher and often the year published. I can’t imagine having a better thesis advisor.

However the department chair Dr. Thayer didn’t give Murray high marks for his 1991 annual evaluation

Although the chairman rated Murray satisfactory in the area of teaching, he criticized Murray for having "only limited contact with most economics students." Incredibly, in the area of "Scholarly Research or Creative Activity" Thayer wrote; "Professor Rothbard’s performance in the area of professional growth has been disappointing." Thayer also wrote that Murray was disappointing in the area of "Service."

Chairman Thayer gave Murray an overall Satisfactory rating, but concluded his evaluation with: "Also, we expect professor Rothbard to participate in departmental affairs, to teach more students, to be available as a role model for junior faculty."

As one would expect, Murray blasted Thayer with a 3,000 word "comment" calling Chairman Thayer’s evaluation an "outrage." Murray pointed out 11 of his scholarly accomplishments for 1991 that for some reason Thayer had overlooked.

Commenting on Thayer’s rating him disappointing for service, Murray wrote:

In the economics department, I have attended and participated in all department meetings, and I have not refused appointment to any department committees. I don’t know what Chairman Thayer means by "seldom participating in the daily life of the department." Teaching courses, advising students, keeping office hours, attending department meetings: what other "daily life" am I supposed to be missing?

The only clue in Chairman Thayer’s remarks is that I am supposed to be "available as a role model for Junior faculty." Apart from wondering why Mr. Thayer should possibly want someone of "limited professional growth," to serve as a "role model" I must say that the best way someone, including myself, can so serve, is to be allowed to go about his business as a scholar and teacher without being subject to harassment.

Along with Chairman Thayer, the Graduate Coordinator Tom Carroll was also antagonistic towards Murray and his students. After I had completed my thesis defense, Murray handed me a sarcastic memo that Carroll had circulated to the economics department faculty.

On Thursday, April 2, at 3:00 PM, Doug French will defend his thesis in room 518. Since he has not shared his thesis topic with me, you will have to learn that on Thursday. As far as I know, his committee consists of Murray Rothbard, Hans Hoppe and Terry Ridgway. Nevertheless, all graduate faculty from the department are permitted to attend the presentation, ask questions, and to make recommendations to the candidate’s committee.

Of course the idea that Carroll, as Graduate Coordinator didn’t know what my topic was, or who was on my committee was complete nonsense. He signed off on my Thesis Prospectus form on October 2, 1991 approving my topic, and signed my Appointment Of Examination Committee form on November 21, 1991 approving my committee members.

Carroll’s memo clearly bothered Murray, but he didn’t want me upset so he didn’t show it to me until after I had completed my defense.

Murray’s mentoring didn’t stop when I completed my thesis and graduated. I moved to Reno but we stayed in touch by mail.

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 shared Murray’s view.

In a December 1992 letter Murray wrote:

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. Hence, I rarely submit stuff to the journals anyone.

But, Murray wanted me to continue trying and mentioned three other journals to submit to.

A year latter Murray wrote:

That’s monstrous about these rejections; I might have told you that I’ve never received a rejection letter that furthered the alleged purpose of offering helpful criticisms, and I guess it’s still a perfect record. If you haven’t tried Economic Inquiry, and the Southern Economic Journal, you might try them, if Journal of MCB turns it down. I f all else fails, don’t forget the Review of Austrian Economics, which will certainly be receptive. [It wasn’t]

I was back in Las Vegas in December 1994, and went to see Murray. I waited over an hour for him to show for his office hours. I gave up and took the elevator down to leave. But, as the elevator doors opened on the ground floor, there he was on his way to his office. We chatted for a while before he had to give one of his finals and (as was his custom) catch the red-eye to New York that night after grading all of his final exams and term papers.

I told Murray about a Liberty Magazine conference that I had attended that fall and a talk given by Bill Bradford entitled "Why Libertarians Love to Hate." The speech was about Ayn Rand and Murray. Murray howled with laughter when I told him about it. I had ordered a tape of Bradford’s talk and we made plans to get together after he returned from New York to listen to it — what fun that would have been.

Unfortunately that’s a laugh we were never able to share. But, I consider it another lucky break that I waited around long enough to see him for — as it turned out — the last time.

I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have known Murray and have the rare privilege to study under him. It is because of my good fortune that I feel an obligation to help Lew and Burt continue Murray’s work and further his legacy.

Thank you for this magnificent honor and for this wonderful evening.