The Austrian Economics Wars

Austrian economist Joseph Salerno in the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics is dissatisfied, to say the least, with my book’s handling of certain controversial questions regarding the career paths and mainstream success of Austrian economists.

He takes issue point by point with various claims and opinions of Peter Boettke, whom I quote at length on the topic. Amidst all of Salerno’s insisting I did the reader a grave disservice and failed in my duties as a historian in not quoting or grappling at length with the viewpoint of those who disagree with Boettke on certain points, he had a compliment or two in there, one right in the first sentence:

The outstanding merit of Brian Doherty’s book is that it contains a treasure trove of valuable information regarding the events, personalities, periodicals and organizations whose complex interplay influenced the intellectual and institutional development of the modern American libertarian movement.

Now that I have the blurb quote out of the way….

A bit of defense of the book (and there’s certainly a lot in Salerno’s review to get defensive about!). First, it is really a review of three pages of the book. In taking that tack, it’s misleading about the full picture of how the book handles Austrian economics and economists, and the intersection between Austrian economics and libertarianism (and remember, the latter, not the former, is the book’s topic).

For one example, you’ll have a much better understanding of the meaning of Boettke’s off-the-cuff comments about Rothbard’s vision of the connection between Austrian economics and libertarian politics if you grapple with parts of the book beyond those three pages. A fuller understanding of Rothbard’s career and thought, which the book as a whole gives even if those three pages do not, shows that it is perfectly fair to conclude that Rothbard imparted to many a young libertarian or Austrian economist the idea that a libertarian ought to be an Austrian, and that an Austrian ought to be a libertarian.

I didn’t see it as my duty in this journalist’s popular history to come to a authorial conclusion about every controversy; in most cases, I don’t have a conclusion that I consider settled and dispositive. I tried to be fair, given my space constraints, judgments as to relative importance, and undoubtedly my own beliefs and/or prejudices, about vital matters of important controversy in the movement. Salerno thinks I failed in regards to Austrianism in the academy, and makes a fair case for that belief. I will note that, as he himself notes, my book provides the information needed to come to an alternate perspective on Boettke’s comments, even if I failed to, neglected to, or simply didn’t spell out that perspective in the form of a presented alternate case where I quoted Boettke’s opinions.

There are certainly many ongoing controversies and questions about Austrianism and the academy, not all of which were thoroughly covered in my book, which focused mostly on the tradition’s intersection with the libertarian political movement. While I still obviously considered Boettke’s comments to be valuable and insightful given his role as a long-time insider in and student of the tradition’s operation in America (and had an overarching view based on my personal experiences and readings as an activist and watcher of the libt. movement in which Boettke’s views seemed to make sense–this was not a matter of my blindly believing Boettke with no awareness of alternate perspectives), Salerno’s critical viewpoint on Boettke’s perspective is an important contribution to that debate, and everyone interested in the topic should read it.

Boettke’s response to Salerno, and an interesting comment thread.

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