Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending, for the second time, the Austrian Student Scholars Conference at Grove City College. 22 students from various colleges gathered together to present and discuss their research. The topics ranged from abstract philosophical considerations of methodology and libertarianism to more concrete applications of theoretical insights to history and current political and social issues. As compared with last year’s conference, there was a marked shift towards more applied topics and away from relentless assaults on John Maynard Keynes and the General Theory (a forgivable sin of omission that I trust will be corrected in future years).
It is critical for the future of the Austrian school and the movement for liberty that like-minded students come together at these sorts of events; I would like to discuss three related reasons why this is important: present productivity, future productivity, and networking.
The present productivity of undergraduate and graduate students alike is a crucial step in the path ahead for Mengerian economics.
Even if we feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the thinkers we are agreeing or disagreeing with, it is crucial that we throw ourselves at the task with all the tenacity and vigor we can muster. We cannot afford to be timid if we ever wish to get to a point of understanding from which we can make significant contributions to Austrian theory.
We will no doubt make mistakes along the way, but it is better to take our lumps and learn from them than to never stick out necks out.
This present productivity is facilitated by interactions with other students, the opportunity for which is presented by events like the ASSC. In a social science based on qualitative understanding, the classical method of dialectic used by Plato and Aristotle is the best means of discovering truth, uncovering nuances, and refining our understanding. We must subject our arguments and those of our theoretical forebears to perpetual scrutiny in order to advance our science, dipping our ideas in the “acid bath of reason.”
Even at the beginning stages of our intellectual development, young thinkers can still contribute in an important way to the growth and refinement of economic science by way of the division of labor. As a science of verbal logic rooted in an understanding of real phenomena, praxeology advances by way of making new and better distinctions.
Our understanding of economic history improves by the application of Austrian insights to more and more situations and up-to-date historical evidence. In both of these cases, there is ample room for specialization and for even green scholars to make contributions on the margin. The division of intellectual labor, however, is limited by the extent of the market; developing and extending coherent theories requires being nested in a network of scholars into which one’s individual research agenda is one part of a more integrated whole.
Dialogue with fellow Austrians, especially those of the younger generation, is also important for future academic productivity. As important to future lines of research as the ideas of our intellectual predecessors are, equally important are discussions among our peers. Every conversation between two aspiring scholars, especially in a field as small as Austrian economics, helps to shape the future atmosphere of research. The range of debate evolves according to what is on the minds of those who are actively discussing economic ideas, and in this regard student conferences now can lay the foundations of future research; just ask those who attended the South Royalton Conference in 1974.
In addition to being on the ground floor of the prevailing dialogues in the discipline, interaction with other young Austrians gives us the chance to get to know who is becoming an expert in what field. If, twenty years hence, I need a question answered on imputation, I will know who to go to.
This of course draws out the third reason for interaction, networking. Besides the importance to scholarship mentioned above, networking has other, pragmatic functions as well. Both in finding jobs and in forming programs in which Austrian ideas can play a major role, being tapped into a web of sympathetic scholars with similar interests is indispensable. Similarly, these connections will help us to avoid fruitless infighting among all those who sail under the flags of praxeology and market process economics.
Finally, networking is also crucial for non-academics who share a love of Austrian and libertarian ideas. Economics is a science imminently concerned with the goings-on of the world outside the window, and thus a mutual network of support between academics, policy analysts, businessmen, and non-profit organizations is fundamental for advancing the cause of liberty. Lovers of freedom from all these walks of life have much to learn from each other, and so it is surely a mistake for only those with plans for graduate study come to conferences like the ASSC.
The conference at Grove City really does fill this niche; it provides an opportunity for students to present their ideas, have them criticized, and to socialize with each other. There were several highlights from this year’s conference that stand out. Peter Klein and Ralph Raico delivered the Hans Sennholz and Ludwig von Mises lectures, respectively (both speeches should be available online).
Dr. Klein addressed the institutional factors that provide incentives and create selection processes that are responsible for the interventionist biases observed in universities. Dr. Raico, founder of the illustrious Cobden Club, graced us with a discussion of the life and work of Mises, presenting his take on both Mises’ accomplishments and his shortcomings.
A few of us got a special treat and, thanks to the generosity of Dr. Herbener, were able to visit the Mises archives housed at Grove City. Our inner geekiness got the best of us as we gleefully thumbed through Mises’ correspondence with Hayek, Kirzner, and Lachmann, among others.
Dan D’Amico and I also managed to put together an overdue comeback episode for the MISEScreants podcast while at Grove City. We were able interview Dr. Herbener on the history of Grove City’s involvement in Austrian economics and Peter Klein on issues related to his talk (probably the best segment we’ve done on the show thus far).
We were also able to speak with two Grove City undergraduates who participated in the conference: Sarah Gruen (whose paper deservedly took the 1st place Richard Fox award), who presented a paper on the history of monetary policy in China, and Abigail Johnson, who discussed the privatization of airport security. They were a perfect example of the variety of students that contribute to making conferences like the ASSC a success.
Sarah wishes to pursue studies in Chinese history and bring economic insights to bear on it, and will no doubt contribute much to our understanding of China and how its history manifests the lessons of economic theory. Abigail is considering a career in writing (both fiction and non-fiction) and working at a think tank, where her articulate arguments and felicity of expression might just make her the next great popularizer of economic ideas. So head on over to the MISEScreants page and check out the show.
I would like to extend my gratitude to Dr. Jeffrey Herbener, Dr. Shawn Ritenour, and Grove City College for providing a forum for young scholars to have such a meeting of the minds-minds that are still in the midst of a very formative period, which makes their interaction all the more important.
In closing, my hope is that in years to come more students will take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the ASSC. It is a rewarding experience that is well worth your time, and I hope I have made some impression of the importance of these kinds of events; they are mustard seeds waiting for mountains. See you there next year.