Liberty Matters

Forbidden Metaphors, Empiricism, and another Case Study

"So different is the world of ideas from production of physical goods that one should not even in a metaphorical sense speak of the structure of production of ideas.""The influence of classical-liberal theorists on classical-liberal policies is an empirical question, not one to be settled by a priori reasoning."
On Answering Empirical Questions
I couldn't agree more with David Gordon about the need to ask empirical questions about how ideas are produced and distributed, and how they influence public policy. My current research and publishing interest in the Leveller Tracts of the 1640s and 1650s, and the French classical- liberal economists around Frédéric Bastiat and Gustave de Molinari in the 1840s and 1850s deal precisely with these matters.[130] I would also add that the previous Liberty Matters discussions of the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Anti-Corn Law League, and the work of Deirdre McCloskey on the intellectual origins of the Industrial Revolution also focus ed on this same thing.[131] It was a result of these empirical studies that I came to think that Austrian capital theory might provide some insights of a more abstract nature which might help explain how ideas and their means of transmission come to be produced and distributed over long periods of time, and to help us see if there are any glaring gaps in our own activities in the present.
I had hoped that David Gordon would have told us more about the strategies adopted by the Mises Institute for its programs, especially its online Academy -- why it chose this strategy over others (there are opportunity costs related to ideas and strategies as there are to goods and services), in what ways it improves on strategies used in the past, and where it sees this form of the dissemination of classical- liberals ideas heading in the future.
Ideas might be Free but Books are not: the Production and Distribution of the Ideas in Rothbard's Man, Economy, and State
Ideas may or may not be immortal, but they are embodied and transmitted in physical objects like the pages in a book, or dots of light on a computer screen or tablet, which do decay over time. Books have to be edited, published, distributed, and sold in the market place, and re-edited and republished in different formats as the times dictate. E-books in many cases are a product of printed books which have been coded to HTML, formatted by programmers and designers, and then distributed via a website. That more than one person can think "Rothbardian thoughts" at the same time is not disputed; nor is it disputed that that one can reproduce these same "Rothbardian thoughts," at least in theory, at a negligible cost by pushing a key on a computer keyboard. But to teach these thoughts to another person and to assist him in understanding them requires a thoughtful editor, a knowledgeable teacher, a classroom (which may be virtual), some willing students, and suitable teaching materials -- as well as funders and organizers who make all this possible. These latter things are precisely what the Mises Academy has been providing since its founding in 2010.[132]
To take one set of ideas as an example, Rothbard's Man, Economy and State (1962), we can draw a line from its origins in the 1950s to its use in one of the Mises Academy's online courses today. Its publication, distribution, and use was the result of the purposeful action of many individuals over a long period of time and at considerable cost, and involved the activities of a number of far-seeing and patient investors and entrepreneurs of ideas.
Rothbard of course attended Mises seminar at New York University in the 1950s and learnt at the feet of the master. Rothbard's book was conceived by some far-seeing intellectual entrepreneur in the William Volker Fund who thought there should be a more accessible version of Mises's magnum opus Human Action (1949) in order to reach a broader market for ideas. That entrepreneur persuaded the investors and managers who ran the Fund that there might be a market for such a book and that Rothbard was the man to write it. Funding was arranged for Rothbard to write the book, which he did during the 1950s. The project grew in scope and became much more than a textbook (as originally intended) but a major Austrian economics treatise in its own right. The intellectual entrepreneurs of the Volcker Fund were persuaded that this change in plans for the book was sound and that that they should continue funding Rothbard until it was completed. The conception and undertaking of this book project is an excellent example of the highest order of production of ideas by an original thinker. The project was interrupted when it was decided (under quite strange circumstances) to wind up the Fund in 1963. Rothbard's textbook-turned- treatise became Man, Economy, and State, which was published in 1962 but still in an incomplete form. The final section, Power and Market, appeared later in a separate volume in 1970 published by the Institute for Humane Studies, a spin-off from the now- defunct William Volker Fund.
Another group of investors and entrepreneurs of ideas who were unhappy at how poorly Austrian economic ideas, especially those of Mises and Rothbard, were being promoted, decided to form the Ludwig von Mises Institute in 1982. They raised money to fund the Institute and began republishing and selling a large number of books and journals dealing with Austrian economics ; the institute has also sold and given away books in electronic versions via the website.
In addition to the publishing and online ventures, the Mises Institute also has promoted the ideas via annual Austrian economics conferences, a Mises University, newsletters, and discussion circles. All these are costly undertakings, which the managers of the Institute thought would best further their goals. The scholars who participated in these activities were engaged in a lower but still high- order of production and distribution of ideas.
The Mises Institute also undertook the task of completing the production of Rothbard's magnum opus . The third and final stage in the long story of the production of Man, Economy, and State was the appearance of the "Scholar's Edition" in 2004, in which the two parts were finally reunited and published as originally planned in the early 1960s, along with a thoughtful introduction by Joe Salerno.[133] This intellectual project was made possible by the financial investment and support of dozens of p atrons (investors), whose names take up an entire page at the front of the book.
Recently, the institute’s board decided to revamp the website at considerable cost and to more heavily promote online learning, with courses taught by leading scholars of Austrian economic and social theory, such as David Gordon himself. There is even a course entirely devoted to Rothbard's Man, Economy, and State taught by Robert P. Murphy, among the more than 50 courses on offer.[134] It would be interesting to know how many copies the Scholar's Edition of Man, Economy, and State has sold, how many copies were downloaded for free, how many students have enrolled in the online course, the completion rate, and what the feedback has been. These outreach programs are another order closer to the final consumption of ideas by students and other individuals who are not scholars but who might become scholars, teachers, journalists, congressional aides, or whatever, sometime down the road.
The next stage of our analysis will be to track the impact of the lengthy structure of production and dissemination of the ideas in Man, Economy, and State from the mid-1950s to 2015 on the intellectual and political climate of our times -- perhaps someone will be able to do this in 2032, following Peter Mentzel's 70-year rule of thumb between publication of a key text and the implementation of some of its ideas. In the shorter term, we do know that Austrian economics has influenced the thought and behavior of Ron Paul, especially with his sustained criticism of the Federal Reserve and his calls for it to be audited. He in turn has influenced many younger voters . However, at this stage there is no evidence that any legislation has been enacted (or repealed) as a result of this interest in Austrian economic s, but the potential is very much there for this to happen in the future. Perhaps our hypothetical future historian of liberty might be able to show that the b ill repealing the Federal Reserve was put forward by the head of the Anti-Federal Reserve League, who had completed Robert Murphy's online course when she was a student.
In conclusion, I would say the history of Rothbard's Man, Economy, and State provides us with another good empirical example of my thesis.
[130.] Tracts on Liberty by the Levellers and their Critics (1638-1659), 7 vols. Edited by David M. Hart and Ross Kenyon (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2014). </titles/2595>; also on the Levellers </collections/139>; The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. 6 Vols. Jacques de Guenin, General Editor. Translated from the French by Jane Willems and Michel Willems. Annotations and Glossaries by Jacques de Guenin, Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean, and David M. Hart. Translation Editor Dennis O’Keeffe. Academic Editor, David M. Hart (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2011). </titles/2451>; also on Bastiat </pages/bastiat>; and Books by Molinari </people/gustave-de-molinari>.
[131.] Liberty Matters discussion of John Blundell, “Arthur Seldon and the Institute of Economic Affairs” (November, 2013) </pages/seldon-and-the-iea>; Donald J. Boudreaux, “Deirdre McCloskey and Economists’ Ideas about Ideas” (July, 2014) </pages/lm-mccloskey>; Stephen Davies, “Richard Cobden: Ideas and Strategies in Organizing the Free-Trade Movement in  Britain” (January 2015) </pages/lm-cobden>.
[132.] The Academy of the Mises Institute <>; The Mises Curriculum of courses <>.
[133.] Murray N. Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State: A Treatise on Economic Principles, with Power and Market: Government and the Economy. Scholar’s Edition. Introduction by Joseph T. Salerno (Auburn, Ala. : Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2004. Second edition 2009). Online version <>.
[134.] "Complete series of courses covering Murray Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State, with Robert P. Murphy: Praxeology Through Price Theory (All beginning chapters) <>; Production and the Market Process (All middle chapters) <>; Money, Monopoly, and Market Intervention (All ending chapters) <>".