John Brätland lives with his wife Rose Marie in Bethesda, Maryland. He is currently employed as a senior economist in the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, DC. Although he is a critic of war in general, his army experience earned him the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star (with the ‘v’ for valor) for his service in Viet Nam.
His work has focused on economic research and policy analysis. John is devoted to research on the ways in which private rights of property can serve as critically important institutional alternatives to current governmental ownership and political management of the nation’s natural resources. He has published on the subjects of property rights, privatization, eminent domain, exhaustible resources, entrepreneurship, intergenerational equity, intergenerational sustainability, industrial organization, environmental economics and federal land policy. His articles have appeared in The Independent Review, Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Natural Resources Journal and the Journal of Libertarian Studies.
Probably the most obvious question for you John is: why are you working in the Federal government? It would seem to be a strange career path for someone doing research in Austrian economics.
When I’m asked this question by someone from the Austrian school of economics, I feel somewhat embarrassed. It’s a question with possibly several different answers. Almost every Austrian economist that I know is an academic. Perhaps I should be an academic. I was not an Austrian economist when I entered government. I was a neoclassical believer who thought that governmental intervention was usually desirable to rid society of every dreaded and omnipresent market failure. I need to admit that my own graduate work in economics seemed reinforce these notions. But along with my eventual reading of Hayek, Mises and Buchanan and my exposure to what was passing for economic analysis in government, I first became a skeptic and then a more vocal critic within my working environment. I was naive and probably egotistical enough to think that I could work on the inside and, through an erstwhile cooperative effort, make at least a small difference.
In my work, I have become convinced that economic method must be central to any analytical undertaken by government in addressing a presumed policy concern. With that focus in mind, my research is focused on the application of Austrian method to the examination of presumed policy issues and on public-policy implications of legitimately defined private property rights. Much of the time, my research is not necessarily greeted with favor. But that in itself is an inspiration and an indication that I have done something right. In having papers published in professional and academic journals, I do not submit them to Federal clearance. From time to time, this pattern of activity on my part has made the working environment hostile. But tellingly, I do not receive any coherent rebuttals on what I have had published. While I have never been part of the inter circle of decision making, I have been given a surprising degree of latitude in choosing the direction of my work. This fact in itself has made my work rewarding.
If you were not a scholar then what do you think you would be doing now? Do you have any hobbies?
Quite frankly what I would like to be a radio announcer (disc jockey) on a classical music station. For me, it’s a possible avocation that I may pursue in retirement years. My hobbies include listening to 20th Century Symphonic music (Mahler, Hindemith, Bartok, etc.), astronomy (cosmology), collecting rare books in economics, collecting Bowie knives and reading mostly nonfiction.
What drew you to the Austrian school?
My graduate school training was strictly in the neoclassical tradition with its attendant mathematical modeling and econometrics. My doctoral dissertation was neoclassical and relatively mathematical. It even had a centralized regulatory theme. But even though I completed the dissertation and successfully defended it, at a personal level, I was never able to deal with my own intuitive unease over the ‘information issues’ that were necessarily associated with such a regulatory scheme. I found myself reading Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society” and Hayek’s “Economics and Knowledge.”
At about the same time, I had a brief conversation with a fellow graduate student who was reading a book titled Cost and Choice by James Buchanan. She remarked on his emphasis on the ex ante, subjective nature of opportunity cost. My initial readings of Buchanan’s book were very unsettling because to accept the full implications of Buchanan’s approach to opportunity, I would need to jettison much of the objectivist structure of neoclassical economics. But nonetheless, I was eventually won over to Buchanan’s perspective. In his book, Buchanan described Mises’ Human Action as a “monumental polemic.” My curiosity was piqued. I promptly ordered Human Action and began to study it but initially with some difficulty. I’ve been an Austrian economist ever since. In retrospect I would need to say that I didn’t really become an economist until my exposure to Mises, Rothbard and other Austrian economists.
Who is your greatest inspiration?
If I had to focus on hero figures, I would need to say that Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard come closest. Ludwig von Mises’ life is an inspiration in itself. I particularly enjoyed Guido Hülsmann’s biography of Mises. Hans Hoppe’s books have also been an inspiration. His Democracy: The God that Failed erased any naive notions that constitutional democracies can protect rights of private property and personal liberty. But in addition, I have admired and appreciated Richard Epstein’s research agenda since the publication of his book Takings. I say this even in light of the apparent fact that Epstein’s embrace of Lockean property theory seems to be utilitarian rather than ethical.
What kind of insights has the Austrian school brought to your latest paper, “Capital Concepts as Insights into Neglect of Public Infrastructure”?
The paper melds Austrian and Public Choice themes and appeared in the summer 2010 issue of The Independent Review. Neglect is an inherent part of governmental provision of the facilities that are part of what is currently viewed as part of ‘public infrastructure.’ No such focused and coordinated plan is possible in the case of public-infrastructure maintenance when viewed as a comprehensive whole. The absence of an integrated income stream makes ‘capital calculation’ impossible meaning that neglect is an intrinsic feature of so-called public provision. But public infrastructure neglect is also found to be a likely consequence of the longer-term career strategies of legislators and executive bureaucrats. These career strategies are seen to be a form of metaphorical capital in which self-serving acts of ‘capital maintenance’ can logically result in infrastructure neglect. These actors find themselves employing and managing the resources (metaphorical capital goods) at their disposal in pursuit of goals in which infrastructure maintenance may be, at best, only an ancillary concern. They will only be strong supporters of public infrastructure maintenance if doing so is complementary of their longer-term career ambitions.
But also I would like to call attention to another recent paper published this last summer: “On the Impossibility of ‘Just Compensation when Property is Taken: An Ethical and Epistemic Inquiry.” It is a chapter in a book published by The Independent Institute. The book is edited by Ed Lopéz and titled: The Pursuit of Justice: Law and Economics of Legal Institutions. The paper examines one question: can the concept of ‘just compensation’ be reconciled with the coercive taking of private property? More specifically, can the concept of ‘just compensation’ for private property be reconciled ethically or epistemologically with the coercive taking of such property by a governmental authority? From both an ethical and epistemic perspective, the answer is a clear no. From an ethical perspective, one can assert without risk of refutation that if the surrender of property by a property owner is not voluntary, the presumption of ethical breach is evident. But even from an epistemic perspective, the absence of assent bars any conceivable inference that compensation can be just in a transfer of property. In addition, no epistemic means are available to make any such determination. Market based benchmarks or professional appraisals are epistemically relevant to those willing to sell at a so-called market price. However, these estimates or surveys have no relevance what ever in gauging just compensation for the un-assenting owner. Reservation prices and efficient premium are equally empty from an epistemic perspective.
Do you have any new works on the way?
I am doing research on two papers. One is titled “Entrepreneurial Strategy vs. Accounting Accuracy in Calculating Capital and Income” and the other is titled “Blackstonian Obstacles to Resource Conservation: Coasean verses Lockean Remedies.” I have not decided on what journal would be most appropriate for these papers.
What kind of impact do you hope to make with your work?
I would be content with the realization that something I’ve written made someone rethink an old idea in economics.
Are there any words of wisdom you wish to pass onto the next generation of Austrian scholars?
My sense is that today, mainstream economics is being viewed with more skepticism than at any other time during my professional lifetime. At the same time, Austrian economics is being taken much more seriously than at any time that I can remember. I would urge younger Austrian economists to take advantage of this current trend in addressing issues that activist governments view as policy concerns.
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