IT WAS FORTY YEARS AGO TODAY...
I first got interested in libertarianism around the time of the Ed Clark campaign in 1980. How I got there is a story for another time, if I am so requested. I was in high school at the time and had no idea what I wanted to do with either my new-found politics or the rest of my life. I enrolled at the University of Michigan in 1981, planning to do something in computer science. Thanks to taking economics on a bit of a lark (I needed a fifth course, and I figured I should know some if I was going to keep having to defend this liberty stuff), those plans soon changed. But my life story is not the issue here...
At that time, and then in four years of grad school at George Mason, the future of liberty seemed dim indeed. The Berlin Wall still stood, and the intellectual breakthroughs that would happen in the 80s were underway but had yet to filter down to the rest of the intellectual structure of production. It was also the early days of the so-called "PC" movement on college campuses (we fought off an early speech code at Michigan). And while Reagan sometimes talked the talk, there wasn't much sense he walked the walk on free markets, and certainly not on social issues. Of course there were some positive signs - I'm proud of the fact that two of the first published pieces I ever wrote were in the first few issues of The Michigan Review, one of the first papers intended as alternatives to campus leftism.
Even in grad school, my colleagues and I were generally pessimistic about the future of our ideas, both libertarianism generally and Austrian economics specifically. Of course my good friend Pete Boettke had a 50 year plan, but we figured that was the product of his "engine of creativity without a clutch" (to borrow from Kenneth Boulding's description of Frank Knight). And we were all concerned about whether, as out of the closet Austrian economists, we could even find tenure-track jobs in economics.
But here I am at age 40, and almost everything we worried about has not come to pass. The intellectual world has changed mightily and free market, libertarian, and Austrian ideas have a respect and legitimacy that I don't think any of us imagined they would. Pete and I and others who were at GMU in that period have all, more or less, found great jobs and have tenure, with many of us having various administrative or programmatic responsibilities, suggesting a level of trust in our abilities that transcends any concerns about ideology. Libertarian academics have published and made contributions not just to libertarian thought, but to their own disciplines and research areas in ways that I don't think any of us would have dreamed possible in the early and mid 80s. Libertarian and related ideas have spread beyond their early narrow life in economics, political science, and philosophy to the other social sciences and humanities, as well as the arts and sciences. There is a virtual tidal wave of work on Hayek that's coming from all over the intellectual map. These are amazing developments that have exceeded what were my most optimistic expectations as an undergrad and grad student. And I do think the world is a freer place, in total, than it was 20 years ago when I began my career.
When I look at my own career to this point, I actually have the same feeling of having exceeded my own expectations, but I think that success is at least as much about very good changes in the world that have made that success possible.
I am by nature an unrelenting optimist, about both people and the future. I'm also convinced that we live in the best of times right now. We are, I would argue, freer, more prosperous, and more secure than any time in human history (despite the threat of terrorism, etc.). If I could raise my children at any time in human history, it would be right now.
Forty, shmorty. There's no time for moping when there's a world to enjoy and more progress to be made.
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