In the summer between his junior and senior years at college, Don worked on the railroad. He took the place of a union worker, whose job consisted of raising and lowering a gate to let rail cars pass by. In olden days, the job required the gate to be physically raised and lowered, but by the 1970s the job was automated, so there was really not much to do. The union worker who tended the gate went on vacation for a month and the union didn’t want management to know how little work was involved in the job. So they hired a non-union college student–Don.
Don decided to learn some economics. He was a computer science major at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, but he had an interest in political issues and decided that he needed to know something about economics. The first book he took to the railroad shack was Economics in One Lesson, written by Henry Hazlitt, a journalist for the New York Times. He picked the book because he thought that one lesson was about all he wanted on economics, but he liked the book so much that he went to the library and checked out all the books that Hazlitt recommended for further reading. He took a stack of books to his gate shack, but he spent all of his time reading and re-reading just one of them Human Action by Ludwig von Mises. What captivated him about the book was the first couple of hundred pages, where Mises places economics within the general framework of scientific knowledge. It was the integration of philosophy and economics that captured Don’s imagination.
The month spent in the railroad shack was a transforming experience for Don. Instead of continuing his study of computers, he decided to go to graduate school in economics. It was not an easy decision. He loved computers, which were new and exciting. Don was in Worcester Polytechnic’s first graduating class in computer science. He also seriously considered going to graduate school in philosophy, but finally decided on economics instead. In 1973 he enrolled as a graduate student at New York University, to study with Israel Kirzner, a student of von Mises. He worked full time as computer programmer during the day and took economics courses in the evening. NYU was a fortunate choice for Don. The University started an Austrian economics program within a year or two of Don’s arrival. In addition to Kirzner and Fritz Machlup, who were already on the faculty, the program brought in Ludwig Lachmann to lecture for a part of each year. Lachmannn introduced Don to Max Weber and to continental philosophy. The program also attracted aspiring economists who, like Don, were interested in the ideas of Mises and Hayek. I spent the 1976-77 academic year at NYU. It was in this setting that I got to know Don and it was a stimulating intellectual environment. Don and I and about a dozen others formed a study group. Each week we would assign readings and meet to discuss them. We worked our way through Mises Human Action and Hayek’s Collectivist Economic Planning. These study groups were a grand way to learn. Meeting with a group of like-minded scholars, arguing about what an idea meant, whether it was true or not, how it related to other writing on the same subject, is a powerful learning technique. We found that we could learn difficult material without benefit of an instructor.
NYU was a fortunate choice for Don for another reason. The university had a program on Marxist economics. This enabled Don to study the works of Marx, another difficult economist, with the same depth that he studied Mises.
Even at this early point in his career, we can see the character traits and external influences that would shape Don’s career for the next 25 years. In retrospect, his professional life seems like a natural growth of roots already put down by 1977.
Don’s first sustained scholarly research was on the socialist calculation debate. This was a natural topic for someone interested in both Marx and Mises. What made Don’s approach to the subject so interesting was his sympathy for Marx’s position. It is unusual for someone to be so opposed to socialism yet so sympathetic to the socialist. Don developed that sympathy, I think, because Marx, like Mises, was a philosopher as well as an economist. Marx’s broad outlook on social and historical processes appealed to Don. If only Marx had not been thwarted by an erroneous theory of value (the labor theory), he would have arrived at a different position on capitalism, would have been, in fact, the profession’s first advocate of anarcho-capitalism. At any rate, from his reading of Marx, Don developed a respect for the radical left that never tarnished.
Another noteworthy aspect of Don’s first research topic was his willingness to take on the economics profession. It didn’t really matter to him that most of the profession believed that the Socialists had won the calculation debate and that most economists believed that Socialism was a workable, if not superior, economic organization for society. His own reading of Marx and Mises had convinced him the market socialists had not really understood either, and he said so. As a result of this courage, some might even call it hubris, Don and his students were some of the few economists that were arguing that socialism was unworkable in the 1980s, just before the Berlin wall fell. He was remarkably prescient and in some distant decade, when capitalism finally triumphs in the old Soviet world, someone ought build a statue to Don in the European bourse.
From the socialist calculation debate, Don moved into hermeneutics. Again, we see how his early interests and training at NYU would draw him in this direction. Lachmann had introduced him to Wilhelm Dilthey, who is one of the founders of modern hermeneutics, and Don had a strong attraction to philosophy, anyway. Also, we can see how someone who is interested in how knowledge is created and how it diffuses through a social system would be drawn to hermeneutics. But there are other influences at work. Don is entering a new and difficult discipline, philosophy, without benefit of much instruction. He is able to do this partly because of his skill in reading, a skill that he apparently developed at an early age and that we have already seen at work in the railroad switch house. I asked him once where he developed his reading skills, and he attributed it to his family, especially his mother and sisters. They read a great deal to him when young and encouraged him to read. He was rewarded for reading and felt even while young that he had a talent for it.
Although Don was a dedicated reader, I doubt that he would have made as much progress in hermeneutics as he did without the help of his students. When he decided to study this field, he organized a readings group and tackled works by Habermas and Gadamer in the same way that we had done at NYU to study Mises and Hayek. In this way, Don’s students were a crucial part of his research agenda. When Don first moved into the School of Public Policy, one of our deans, Jim Finkelstein, remarked to me that he had never met anyone so dedicated to research and to teaching as Don was. This is because the way Don did research was also the way he taught. He would gather together a group of like minded students, and they would explore a new topic. He did this with hermeneutics, with cultural studies, and with information technology. In these readings groups he did not lecture, he did not give exams, I think he usually did not even conduct the seminars for credit. He treated his students as equals in an expedition of discovery. This is why Don was not only a prolific author, but a revered teacher. Twice he won a Best Teacher of the Year award at George Mason University, and you have seen the results of his teaching at this conference.
Don’s work in hermeneutics and socialist calculation also led him into cultural studies. He was enthused about cultural studies; he did not feel, as do some conservatives, that cultural studies was something to be opposed. On the contrary, he thought it was an opportunity to be embraced. He believed that the cultural aspects of markets were as important as their economic aspects. He wanted to integrate economics and cultural studies because he thought it would give us a deeper understanding of the market order. Although much of his attitude toward the market and culture developed from his professional work, I think that there was also a personal element to it. Don’s father was a businessman; he started and managed his own engineering firm. Don said that his father loved engineering design, the innovative part of the business, and was also adept at organizing and managing. Don watched this through childhood and into adulthood. He came from a close-knit family, and it would have been hard for him to draw sinister conclusions about businessmen from his early experiences. His respect for cultural studies, despite the fact that many prominent contributors to cultural studies were critical of markets, is typical of his attitudes throughout his academic career. He was always open to work whose conclusions differed from his own, as long as he felt that important questions were being addressed. This is why he held much of the writing of the political left in such high regard. For him, they were asking the right questions and they were searching for answers in the right way. Their mistakes, he thought, were mostly that they did not understand that our economic life was as much an expression of our values and our humanity as our political or religious life. This is also why he was not much interested in mathematical economics, or neoclassical formalism, as he called it. He thought that, for the most part, they were not addressing the important questions, and that their techniques were not conducive to penetrating very deeply into social processes.
Another of Don’s research and teaching interests, information technology, had its origins in Don’s early background. He graduated as a computer science major. Even more, he was a programmer. He wrote assembly language code, which means writing code to be read directly by the computer. In techieland, this means that he was a programmer’s programmer. He loved working with computers but this by itself would not have drawn Don back into this field. What drew him were his students and a group of techies who were familiar with economics, in particular the writings of Friedrich Hayek. These techies had discovered that economic principles applied to software code. They framed software programming in the same terms that Don had framed the socialist calculation debate. Computer programs written by a single person were much like an economy planned by a central committee. Code would contain more information and advance more quickly if it were decentralized, which means that code needs to be written in modules that can interact with each other, the way that firms in an economy do. Once he re-entered the techie-world, he found much fascinating work going on, some of which we have seen here today. Don and his student-colleagues were enthused about this work, and contributed to it. They also realized that the improvements in software and the commodification of the Internet could be exploited for teaching. Don and his colleagues became pioneers in on-line education.
Although much of Don’s later life was evident in his early interests, one part was not evident early, at least not to me. I had no idea when were at NYU together that Don would be such a devoted husband and father. Although I used to see Don and Charlie Fowler and Roy Childs socially, in their famous den on Peirrepont Street in Brooklyn, and although we shared some common social interests—music, movies, theater—girls were never on the radar screen. I never saw a woman at Peirrepont street until my last night in New York. The guys threw a party for me, and about midnight, Roy Childs told me that a beautiful woman had moved into the apartment. He promptly organized a mission to wake her up so I could meet her before I left, and that is how I met Mary Gialdo. I later had the pleasure of seeing Don happily married to Mary, and watching them raise their children. When their oldest, John, was in the first or second grade, they decided to begin home schooling. I asked Don if he was unhappy with the public school and he said no, that he and Mary thought home schooling would enable them to spend more time with their children. It did, and of all Don’s teaching experiences, I think that teaching John, Mark, and Gabby was the most rewarding for him.
If I were asked to sum up Don’s life in a word, I would say passion. Beneath that laid-back exterior, he was passionate about philosophy, about economics, about liberty, about research and teaching, and about his family and friends.
If I were asked to judge his professional life in a sentence, I would say that he was one the best worldly philosophers of his generation. He lived in an age when philosophy was not valued, as it was when Adam Smith or John Stuart Mill or Karl Marx or the Keynes’s wrote. In the post WWII period, philosophy and history were replaced by mathematics as the core training for economics. I don’t think that will last. Don convinced me that economics is a discipline whose natural affinities lie with the humanities. The greatest advances in understanding human society, of which the economy is a part, will come from integrating economics with epistemology, ethics, anthropology, sociology, culture, history, and literature. The physical sciences, mathematics, computers will play their part, but only if they help to integrate economics with the humane disciplines. These beliefs animated Don’s work, and like most of his ideas, they were ahead of his time, or at least ahead of his profession. We can now all watch with interest to see how long it takes for his profession to catch up with him.
* Closing remarks delivered at The Fund for American Studies and George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, “Economics, Philosophy & Information Technology: A Symposium Honoring Don Lavoie,” Fairfax, VA, September 2002.