Profiling the talented economics professors who are inspiring the next generation of libertarians.
A Kid in a Candy Store
Many libertarians experience a gradual migration to the movement, perhaps beginning with Atlas Shrugged or a lecture by a prominent libertarian, and then becoming more deeply informed and active in the movement. But Donald Boudreaux can remember the very day he became a libertarian, though he did not know the word at the time.
It was January 17, 1977 when he first stepped into his microeconomics class at Nicholls State University in Louisiana. Boudreaux wasn’t particularly interested in economics but needed a class in that timeslot to fill out his schedule. It was a humble beginning for what would become a lifetime love of the subject.
Boudreaux, who grew up in a working-class family near New Orleans, was only attending college to please his parents, who both worked in the local shipyard, his father a pipe-fitter and his mother a secretary. On days he did not have class, he worked there alongside his parents.
But after taking his first microeconomics class Boudreaux knew he wanted to make a home of academia.
Boudreaux remembers the class well: “I was in this class, and it was maybe the third or fourth class and the professor . . . put up supply and demand curves and they made sense to me. . . . The power of supply and demand curves just figuratively blew me away. By the end of that semester I knew I wanted to get a Ph.D. in that stuff, I loved it that much.”
From there Boudreaux voraciously consumed libertarian theory. With help from professors, Boudreaux read books by Friedrich Hayek, Frédéric Bastiat, James Buchanan and Gordon Tolluck.
After graduating from Nicholls University, Boudreaux moved on to New York University and then Auburn University for his graduate studies. After graduating from Auburn, Boudreaux had what he called his “first big break” working as an assistant professor at George Mason University in 1985, but shortly later decided to study law at the University of Virginia.
After graduating from UVA in 1992, Boudreaux began working at Clemson University teaching economics and law. But in 1997, Boudreaux gave up tenure at Clemson and became the president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), one of the oldest organizations that promote libertarian ideals. At FEE Boudreaux first experienced running a business, though FEE is a non-profit organization. He was tasked with hiring and firing people, creating a budget and fundraising, and while the job was prestigious, Boudreaux yearned for the intellectual rigors of academia.
In 2001 Boudreaux was offered a way to mesh both kinds of work, as chairman of the economics department at George Mason University. “[It was] a nice mix of two worlds, a nice mix of personal responsibility where you’re not just an academic, tenured, with really nothing to do but teach classes, but you have to go to these administrative meetings, make departmental budgets, you have to deal with personnel problems and raise money.” Boudreaux held the position until 2009, though he still is responsible for raising money for the department.
Currently, Boudreaux spends his time mentoring students and teaching basic principles of economics as well as writing a book. “My goal when I teach is truly not . . . to create libertarians. . . . My goal is to inoculate. I teach the principles of microeconomics class as if it is the only economics exposure these students will ever have, and for a lot of them it’s true,” he explained. “I teach that class not to prepare them for intermediate microeconomics. . . . My goal is to inoculate young students against susceptibility to some of the more rampant and dangerous economic misconceptions around.”
Widespread economic illiteracy is daunting, indeed. But among young libertarians, Boudreaux thinks the atmosphere is conducive to spreading ideas and is even better than when he became a libertarian thirty years ago. “It’s definitely a better place, and definitely more mainstream. . . . You see the word ‘libertarian’ now used in the mainstream media more so than you did when I was young, and you see it used in, and even embraced, or much of it embraced, by mainstream figures,” said Boudreaux. One factor driving this general acceptance is modern technology, which has been enormously beneficial to the movement.
“Social media and the internet makes the ability of libertarians to communicate with each other and connect with each other so much easier now—of course it makes the ability for young socialists to [connect] so much easier, so it’s probably better for all of them,” he said. “But if we can indulge in a least a little romanticism of the power of ideas, if our ideas are truly powerful and better than competing ideas, we can muster the facts of history to show that look, you know libertarian ideas when implemented, to the extent that they’re implemented, generally work better . . . to produce a better, more peaceful, more prosperous, more open society.”
When Boudreaux was young he had to order dozens of books and wait weeks for them to be shipped to quench his thirst. Now one only has to turn on a computer to be inundated with thousands of pages of libertarian philosophy. “The ability to feed your intellectual curiosity now is much easier than it was back then in lots of different dimensions: Getting books, getting articles online, talking to people. It’s just so much easier now. . . . I still feel like a kid in a candy store.”
But Boudreaux says the movement is still small for those who identify as libertarians or classical liberals, noting that these movements take time, and calling for patience. “No one can expect to change the world overnight,” said Boudreaux.
One issue with the movement, he observes, is the “uneasy alliance” that libertarians have with conservatives. Many libertarians find themselves relating to conservatives more than to left liberals, though the two groups still have large ideological differences. Boudreaux cites immigration issues and the war on drugs as two examples of where libertarians and conservatives clash.
Boudreaux finds that as he ages he becomes more radical, though he classifies himself as a “little L libertarian,” meaning that ideologically he believes in libertarian ideals, but does not get involved in party politics.
Boudreaux believes that while it is not logical to remove Uncle Sam in one day, society would be better off with private law, police and fire departments, and he calls himself a “philosophical anarchist.”
Besides teaching, Boudreaux blogs for Café Hayek along with fellow George Mason professor Russ Roberts, and is putting the finishing touches on his upcoming book, Half Truths and Hypocrites: A Daily Dose of Sanity from Café Hayek, a compilation of 100 of his best letters to the editor.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire