Robert Lawson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Finance at Auburn University. He is also a co-author of the widely-cited “Economic Freedom of the World” annual report which provides an economic freedom index for over 140 countries. He has publications in journals such as Public Choice, Cato Journal, Kyklos, Journal of Labor Research, Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics, and European Journal of Political Economy. He is also a member of the Mont Pelerin Society.
What do you like to do in your free time? Do you have any hobbies?
I am an avid runner. I’ve run many marathons, but I run trail ultra-marathons more often than road marathons these days. I also like mountaineering and peak-bagging. The highest peak (but not the hardest) I’ve scaled is Kilimamjaro which I did with Austrian economist Ben Powell a few years ago.
What drew you to the Austrian school and to the Ludwig von Mises Institute?
With the encouragement of my undergraduate mentor, Richard Vedder, at Ohio University. I attended the second-ever Mises University (before it was even called Mises U!) at Stanford in 1987. Murray Rothbard was there and one of my fondest memories is of staying up very, very late in the evenings listening to him. I was too afraid to say anything myself but it was an honor to meet him. I also met my friend and eventual co-author Walter Block there, though he wouldn’t remember that meeting. In more recent years, I’ve come to self-identify as an Austrian in large part because of the influence of Ben Powell. During our many treks and mountain climbs he has convinced me that I am an Austrian even though I didn’t identify as such. I thought I
was just being a good economist. It turns out they’re the same thing!
Who is your greatest inspiration?
This is a hard question. At the risk of getting some hate mail from Walter Block, I have to say the dead economist I respect the most is Adam Smith. For his era, I am still amazed at how much he got right (and how little we’ve learned since then). Among living economists, it has to be my graduate mentor and now long-time collaborator, Jim Gwartney at Florida State. As many know, Jim has lost his eyesight in the the last years, and I am amazed and truly inspired by his work ethic and ability to persevere in the face of such a challenge.
How does the banning of consumer products interfere with the insights of the Austrian microeconomics?
Value is subjective right? Unlike too many economists, Austrians take the subjectivity of value seriously. If we observe someone buying something it must be because that person subjectively values that thing more than the cost (which is also subjective). If the state bans that sale, it has harmed that person. Period. It is easy to parrot the idea that value is subjective, but it is hard to consistently apply in practice. We all as humans (as opposed to Austrian economists) see people doing what we think are stupid things, and there is a natural instinct to want to stop them from doing this. This is natural as humans, parents, friends, etc. But as
economists, we can not substitute our vision of the good for another person’s. It’s simply against the rules of the discipline.
Do you have any new works on the way?
In addition to continuing my work on measuring economic freedom (www.freetheworld.com) I am starting a new line of work trying to measure restrictions on human travel (such as passports and visas) and more generally migration. It seems tragic to me that we have spent so much time extolling the virtues of free trade in goods but as a profession we have paid little or no time thinking about the restrictions in place limiting human mobility. We need to do more on this and I hope I can be a part of that.
What kind of impact do you hope to make with your work?
Honestly, I try not to think about this. To use an American football metaphor, I don’t think we should think too hard about getting to the endzone. Instead, focus on winning the little battles, that is on getting
first downs. If you win these you’ll score eventually. I have faith that if I do good work, it’ll help the cause of human liberty and prosperity, but I don’t think about the end goal as much as the means of getting there.
Are there any words of wisdom you wish to pass onto the next generation of Austrian scholars?
Yes! Please spend at least as much of your time, energy and talents fighting the socialists, leftists, etc. of the world as each other.
See Robert Lawson’s media
If you have any recommendations for Faculty Spotlight, please contact me at Andrewcain@mises.com