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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Financial Independence and Intellectual Influence

 If you are interested in the history of ideas, at some point this question will occur to you: "How is it possible for someone to gain influence, yet at the same time retain his independence?" If you traffic in ideas, you have to be able to do both. 

A crackpot can go online today and argue for his favorite theory. He is completely independent. He is also completely ignored. His independence does him no good, because what he writes has no influence.
I suppose my two favorite recent examples of people who have maintained their independence, but whose ideas have had considerable influence, are Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard. They are more influential today than they were at the time of their deaths. Mises died in 1973. Rothbard died in 1995.
Mises had the great advantage in the final phase of his intellectual career in the fact that Yale University Press published his books from 1944 to 1957. This gave him an audience.
The editor of the press was not part of the Yale University faculty. Nobody holding the ideas propounded by Mises was employed by Yale University in the 20th century. For that matter, no one holding his views has been employed by any first-tier American University. Two professors who did make it into top schools, and who had studied under Mises, informally were Gottfried Haberler and Fritz Machlup. Neither of them defended Mises' theories by the time they were offered jobs at their respective universities, Harvard University and Princeton University.
In Rothbard's case, he was employed by Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, an engineering school that did not offer an economics major. It was so far off the radar of liberal arts education that no one knew that Rothbard was on the faculty, except for other faculty members, and most of them did not know anything about him. Only late in his career did he get a position at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
The same thing was true of Mises. New York University did not pay his salary. They granted him only the honorary title of visiting professor, a position he held for 20 years. He already had an international reputation at the time when New York University hired him. His salary was paid by private individuals and the William Volker Fund. It did not cost the university any money to keep him on the payroll. Universities are usually content to get free teachers.
Rothbard received no benefits, other than money, for teaching at Brooklyn Polytechnic. Mises received no benefits, other than a classroom of graduate students, for teaching at New York University. The spread of Mises's ideas had only a little to do with his position at New York University. He was able to grant four men a Ph.D. Three of them continued to have some intellectual influence, but only one of them, Israel Kirzner, had anything like academic influence within the world of professional economists.
Rothbard was never in a position to work with Ph.D. students, and I can think of only one student who has had much influence: Doug French. He studied with Rothbard in Nevada.
Mises gained his academic reputation before World War I. His ideas were abandoned after World War II. He had very little influence in American academia. But his books sold well among economic laymen. He wrote in clear English, which meant that intelligent people could understand what he said. His system was logical. It was far more easily understood than Keynesianism. These book sales did Mises no good whatsoever in any undergraduate institution except Grove City College, whose chairman was Hans Sennholz. Sennholz received his Ph.D. under Mises. Sennholz had the backing of Sun Oil's chairman, J. Howard Pew, who got what he wanted at Grove City College. Pew was a graduate of the institution, and was its major donor. He told the president of the college that he wanted Sennholz to head the economics department, and that was what he got.
Mises and Rothbard, like Sennholz, gained their reputations through their writing. Sennholz also gained his reputation by speaking continually to nonacademic groups, such as dentists. He was a very good speaker. All three gained their leverage outside of academia.
In this sense, their academic positions provided income, which meant that academia gave them jobs. Their callings were different. I define calling as the most important thing that you can do in which you would be most difficult to replace. Here, all three of them devoted their callings to writing. Sennholz did make money speaking to nonacademic groups, but Rothbard and Mises did their work for free, or close to it. They were given support by the Volker Fund for a time, but that was about it. They received little support from foundations.
They gained their influence by their writing. It was fortunate that there were two publishers that would publish their materials. Yale University Press published Mises's books, and the Volker Fund funded their publication by Van Nostrand, a small publishing house. After 1962, the Institute for Humane Studies helped finance some of Rothbard's books. Volker ceased to give him support.
Both of them were able to maintain their academic influence, which was zero, which is exactly what they needed. They had no influence, so they could not be threatened by the educational bureaucracy. Their influence could not be taken away by the academic community. They had none. The academic community barely knew they existed. At the same time, they gained considerable influence, and continue today to gain influence, by the power of their writing. Their books survive. The books are now kept in print and online by the Mises Institute. The two both have far greater audiences and they did prior to the development of the World Wide Web and graphics browsers in 1995.
Both men gained academic financing, either directly in the case of Rothbard and indirectly in the case of Mises. The academics who employed them did not care what they taught in class. In the case of Rothbard, neither did the students. They just wanted to get through the course. In the case of Mises, those few NYU students who enrolled in his graduate seminar were interested in his ideas, but the most influential members of that seminar were not enrolled at New York University. Rothbard was one of them.
Their callings were not related to their jobs. Their callings were not funded by their jobs. Their jobs put food on the table, but they gained their influence by their writing. They could not have afforded to live on the royalties generated by their writing. Their jobs did gain them leisure, including the time to read and write. Academics are paid to read. Very few of them publish much after they publish their dissertations and a few articles based on their dissertation, but at least they are given money to read. In the case of Mises and Rothbard, they both read and wrote. The world is better off because they did. But they were not paid to do either. They were not encouraged by the academic world to do either.
Their callings were self-funded. They earned money, either directly or indirectly, from their performance in the classroom. They gained their influence mostly outside the classroom. It was the separation of academic income from their writing that enabled them to have great influence. Their jobs gave them independence, precisely because the academic community had no interest in what they were teaching. Their readers did not read them because of their respective academic positions. Their readers read them because of the intellectual power which their writings conveyed.

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