These remarks were delivered on October 7th, 2022, at the Mises Institute’s 40th anniversary supporters summit in Phoenix, Arizona.
Today I am giving a talk that Lew Rockwell would not want me to give.
That’s why we kept the luncheon talk nameless.
But it’s called “The Lew Rockwell I Know.”
Lew wouldn’t have wanted a talk like that, and in this he resembles Ron Paul, who likewise generally avoids praise or calling attention to himself.
Well, doggone it, Lew, you’re just going to have to sit there and take it.
I met Lew in 1993 at the Mises University summer program. I didn’t get to know him very well at first, but I admired his writings. I once watched him deal very graciously with a student, who obviously didn’t know who Lew was, who asked, “Can I please get a couple more pillows for my dorm room?”
In 1995 I was one of the very first summer fellows of the Mises Institute. That summer my grandfather fell ill. He was asking family members how much longer it would be before I came home from Alabama. When they told him August, he said to himself: “I’ve got to hang on until then.”
Lew paid for me to fly home to see my ailing grandfather before he died.
Lew has done private, unknown kindnesses like this his whole life – kindnesses, that as we all know, are not always reciprocated.
Now Lew and his work have great personal significance for me, as I will explain in a few moments, but the significance of his work for the Austrian School and for the world, being of more general interest, is what I will begin by discussing.
The towering intellect and prolific writing of Ludwig von Mises can have the effect of obscuring just how desperate the Austrian movement was after World War II.
Mises himself held only an unpaid position at New York University, where he directed his small seminar. Hayek, although he did not withdraw entirely from economics, as The Denationalisation of Money and his essays in A Tiger by the Tail remind us, had nevertheless moved into related but distinct fields by this time.
There was no institutional support for the Austrian School, and the number of people actively working in the tradition was desperately small.
The School got a major shot in the arm – I feel funny using that expression after 2020 – when Hayek won the Nobel Prize in 1974, the year after Mises’ death.
That same year, the South Royalton Conference was held in Vermont. The remnant of Austrian scholars met there, and it is from that event that we often date the Austrian revival.
But as Joe Salerno notes, we cannot overlook the significance to the Austrian movement of Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State, which everyone had read and Mises had praised (we know from his private papers that his praise of Rothbard’s work to individual correspondents was even greater than the effusive praise he had given in public). That book had kept the Austrian School alive.
I think we can say that Lew Rockwell’s founding of the Mises Institute was a watershed event of similar significance.
As Joe writes:
When Rockwell founded the Ludwig von Mises Institute in 1982, he had singlehandedly laid the institutional foundations for the restoration of sound Austrian economics—Austrian economics unabashedly inspired by the scientific vision of Ludwig von Mises. The Mises Institute was indispensable for rescuing the modern Austrian movement that had been initiated by Rothbard in 1962 and by the early 1980s was manifestly foundering. When Rockwell suggested the idea of an Austrian journal as an integral component of this institutional rescue effort, Rothbard immediately saw merit in the idea and seized upon the journal as the main instrument for reclaiming Austrian economics from those who had stripped it of its essential Misesian content in search of acceptance by mainstream economists. Hence Rothbard pushed for a distinctive and bold name for the journal that would proudly and explicitly proclaim Austrian economics as an alternative to the prevailing neoclassical-Keynesian synthesis. He was opposed in this by a number of younger Austrians who argued for a less provocative and more nondescript name like the Journal of Market Process. But Rothbard perceptively recognized this concession on the journal title as a cover for and first step toward watering down the praxeological core of Austrian economics.
I’m reminded of an incident some years ago in which a New York Times reporter showed up at the Mises Institute. Now were this a typical libertarian institution, why, the red carpet would have been rolled out for that reporter. But when Lew, up in his office, found out that a New York Times reporter was hanging around the Institute, he came down the stairs, told the reporter that he was a mouthpiece for the regime and would have to leave, and then went back up to his work.
Nowadays we observe many thousands of people working in the Austrian tradition and the great works of the School being read by millions, and we take this for granted.
But this itself is an outcome of the work of Lew Rockwell and the Mises Institute.
And in 1982 there was no guarantee that the Austrian School would continue to grow and flourish instead of wither and fade.
Lew brought the brightest students from around the world to the Mises Institute for entire summers, to participate in the summer fellows program, before they went off to become significant academics in the United States and Europe.
I was a resident scholar at the Mises Institute from 2006 to 2010, and during the summers I had weekly parties at my house. This gave me the opportunity to get to know, outside the confines of the Institute, the summer fellows – and I can tell you, these were truly the cream of the crop. Year after year brilliant minds came through the Mises Institute and worked with Joe Salerno and also Mark Thornton on their research. The idea was to take their work and forge it into a publishable article by the end of the summer, thereby giving those students a massive academic and career advantage over their peers.
I remember one student in particular, who was being examined by the faculty at the Mises University program, being told by Walter Block: you belong on this side of the table, with the faculty.
The Mises Institute’s website, meanwhile, is the greatest online resource for libertarianism ever created. All the major books are there. The entire print runs of journals like the Journal of Libertarian Studies and the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics are available there, as are all the issues of The Libertarian Forum, and even Left and Right, the short-lived but highly interesting publication Murray Rothbard edited with Leonard Liggio.
Lew solicited courses from some of our top scholars and longtime libertarian stalwarts – scholars any libertarian in his right mind admires, like Robert Higgs, Paul Cantor, and Ralph Raico. These courses cover history, literature, economics, and philosophy, and of course are available for free viewing at Mises.org.
We find there also all the named lectures at every one of the Austrian Scholars Conferences, later renamed the Austrian Economics Research Conference, the annual event where the latest research in Austrian economics and related fields is presented.
Every year we have the Mises University, an intense week-long instructional summer program in Austrian economics attended by college students from around the world. It was this event that made me, intellectually, who I am today. You can watch previous years’ Mises University programs for free on the website.
And that’s not to mention the thousands and thousands of original articles that have been published on Mises.org, helping people understand current events in light of the Austrian School, or the Austrian Economics Boot Camp, that gives you a quick primer in Austrian economics, or Hunter Hastings’ important Economics for Business program.
All of this is thanks to Lew Rockwell.
Let me pause also to say that thanks to Lew’s good judgment the Mises Institute is currently in excellent hands, under president Jeff Deist. Jeff is a brilliant commentator, full of original ideas, and his achievements at the Mises Institute deserve a hearty “job well done” by everyone who cares about this institution.
These days in my spare time I’ve been reading the Stoics, particularly Seneca. Even though Seneca humanizes Stoicism to an extent, the strict principles he calls us to, although I recognize in them an undeniable nobility, often seem out of my reach.
And yet it occurred to me the other day: I know a Stoic. Lew Rockwell.
First, there’s his temperament. I have never seen Lew lose his temper, or appear distraught, or let his emotions get the better of him. I have never known anyone who is so consistently in command of himself, precisely as the Stoics urged.
Before I elaborate further, however, let me share with you a story drawn from the 1980s sitcom Taxi.
There’s an episode in which Ted Danson plays a snooty, arrogant, and expensive hairdresser who absolutely ruins the hair of Elaine, played by Marilu Henner, who saved up to go to him to get her hair done for a special event.
The Alex Rieger character talks her into going back to the salon and demanding her money back. He goes with her. Louie De Palma, played by Danny DeVito, also goes to the salon.
At one point Elaine is about to dump a huge bowl of red hair dye all over Ted Danson’s character. At the last second, Alex talks her out of it. If you do that, Elaine, you’ll be no better than he is, Alex says. So she stops and says, you’re right, I’m too good to do this.
And they walk out.
And then Louie says, “She may be too good, but I ain’t,” and proceeds to dump it on him.
Now let’s apply this tale to the life of our subject, Lew Rockwell.
The Stoic, you will recall, is unperturbed by outside events, and that includes the attacks of critics. I do not believe, in the nearly 30 years I have known Lew Rockwell, I have seen him respond to critics even once. Not even once.
Somebody who looks at the situation we face today and concludes that the real threat is coming from the right, rather than a left that controls all the institutions and the media and demonizes dissidents anywhere in the world where they emerge, is in some sense not intelligent enough to be worth responding to.
Somebody who has accomplished nothing, and has absolutely nothing to show for himself in terms of the libertarian movement, attacking someone like Lew Rockwell, who has made every single key text in the entire Austrian tradition available to the entire world, does not need to be responded to.
On some level I get that, and I admire Lew for not wasting his time and simply continuing his work. It must make them crazy that not a single thing they say appears to affect him at all. They want him to lash out. And yet he doesn’t. He doesn’t even swat them away, as he would an ordinary bug.
That, my friends, is what they call a boss move.
But remember: there’s Alex Rieger, and there’s Louie De Palma.
Lew may be too dignified to reply to his critics – but I ain’t.
I’ve responded to Lew’s critics, I can tell you that.
No, they don’t deserve a response, but they’re losers and for some reason I feel compelled to make them know they’re losers.
Oh, Lew’s critics are just so concerned about police abuse. But who was it who featured and promoted the late, great Will Grigg, by far our greatest voice on that subject, when official libertarianism pretended he didn’t exist?
Oh, Lew’s critics are just so profoundly concerned about the fate of nonwhites around the world. Yet for many of them, supporting wars that led to hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths of nonwhites is not disqualifying.
Lew’s critics have every possible advantage: they hold only officially approved opinions, which means they don’t face the withering hostility of every major institution the way Lew does. Some of his critics have funding sources at their disposal that should have helped propel them to superstardom. Yet I know one think-tank official who in effect has to bribe conferences to let him speak, since nobody would so much as cross the street to hear this guy.
And yet even though Lew’s critics have sheepishly followed all the rules laid out by the establishment, being careful to avoid certain topics, making sure to demonize dissidents as the regime demands, honoring the state’s anointed like Dr. Fauci, Lew is still vastly more popular among libertarians than they are.
This makes them crazy. Why, we’ve done everything we were supposed to, and we still can’t touch this guy!
But maybe, dear critics, that’s precisely why you can’t touch him.
Lew described the regime-bootlicker libertarian in these unforgettable words:
The regime libertarian believes in the market economy, more or less. But talk about the Federal Reserve or Austrian business cycle theory and he gets fidgety. His magazine or institute would rather invite Janet Yellen for an exclusive cocktail event than Ron Paul for a lecture.
The regime libertarian loves the idea of reform – whether it’s the Fed, the tax code, government schools, whatever. He flees from the idea of abolition. Why, that just isn’t respectable! He spends his time advocating this or that “tax reform” effort, instead of simply pushing for a lowering or repeal of existing taxes. It’s too tough to be a libertarian when it comes to antidiscrimination law, given how much flak he’s liable to get, so he’ll side with left-liberals on that, even though it’s completely incompatible with his stated principles.
He is antiwar – sometimes, but certainly not as a general principle. He can be counted on to support the wars that have practically defined the American regime, and which remain popular among the general public. He sups in happy concord with supporters of the most egregiously unjust wars, but his blood boils in moral outrage at someone who told an off-color joke 25 years ago.
When my phone rings and I see it’s Lew, I always race to answer it. He’s always got something interesting to tell me – or, truth be told, sometimes a bit of gossip from our crazy movement. A couple of times this year I have answered the phone only to be told that he had called by accident, and I cannot tell you what profound disappointments those moments were.
As I mentioned earlier, Lew never calls attention to himself, and never boasts of his achievements. Today I more or less had to trick Lew into sitting down and letting himself be praised.
But Lew, I hope you will forgive my doing this one thing, presumably against your will. I lost my father tragically in 1996, and since that time you have been very much a father figure to me. You have supported me through thick and thin.
And no matter what happens, I’ve always thought: Lew will know what I should do. Few people are so fortunate to know someone as consistently wise. I have so often been a parasite on your strategic brilliance as I have gone to you again and again for advice. You and Roger McCaffrey are the two people I consult when I want to be absolutely certain of the path I should take.
With the Mises Institute you built something lasting, which thanks to your good judgment is in good hands, and which has boldly and courageously resisted the evils of the age – while setting them against an appealing alternative of freedom, prosperity, and peace.
Those of us who have had the good fortune to know you personally have encountered one of the kindest and most generous souls they are ever likely to meet.
Lew, you are a true gem, and my life has been greatly enriched by having you in it. I speak for libertarians everywhere when, surveying your accomplishments, I declare you one of our great benefactors and say: thank you for a job well done and a life well lived.