Don Lavoie: Scholar, Teacher, Utopian (By S. Horwitz)

Good evening. I find this a very difficult talk to give, for a variety of reasons. First of all, I hate death. I hate it with a passion, and even more so when it seems so unfair and so premature. Finding words when someone dies too young is always hard. Capturing something important about someone who meant a lot to what we do, and to me personally, can be equally difficult. And, frankly, having seen a copy of the remarks Pete made at the memorial service for Don in DC a week ago Friday, I’m not sure I can do any better (which is unusual after I read something of Pete’s).

Just about everyone here is aware of Don’s written contributions to Austrian economics. His Cambridge book marked him as one of the leading lights of the post-revival generation. In the eyes of scholars on all sides of the calculation debate, Don’s book changed the terms of that debate forever. There is no question that his book, and some of his work that followed it, should get significant credit for changing the scholarly atmosphere around the discussion of capitalism and socialism, particularly in the context of the calculation debate. His work put Austrian ideas back on the table in a powerful way, and did so not just by reiterating what had been said before, but by pushing those ideas forward with a recognition of the latest work in the profession and relevant ideas from outside economics. And for those of us who care deeply about human freedom, the Cambridge book and the companion book National Economic Planning: What is Left? were inspirational in showing us how one could marshal the scholarly endeavor of economics in the service of causes we believed in passionately.

That contribution would have been enough to put Don on the Austrian economics map. However, it’s not what I want to talk about tonight. Tonight I want to talk about what I think was Don’s possibly greater contribution to Austrian economics – his work with graduate students, the values he cultivated in them, and their relationship to this Society. By my count, there are 9 members of this organization who wrote, or intended to write, dissertations under Don’s direction. One of those is our outgoing president, another serves as an officer of the Society, and yet another is finishing a term on the Executive Committee. Most are in teaching positions at quality universities, and most have published in a variety of outlets, all forwarding the ideas that Don cared about. And many of them seem to have an ability to reach out to groups of scholars, either in economics or out, who one wouldn’t automatically think of when trying to communicate or forward Austrian ideas. This dedication to the ideas of Austrian economics and this willingness to engage openly in conversation with people from all over the disciplinary map can be traced back to Don.

If I can take a few moments to reflect back on my own history with Don and then tie it back to my main theme … I first met Don at a Cato Institute summer seminar in 1984, before my senior year in college. I knew I wanted to go to grad school and study Austrian economics, but the question was where. At that Cato seminar, I had a chance to spend some time with Don and he gave me what I thought was a fair appraisal of the NYU vs. GMU question (as, I might add, did Israel when I, in my own inimitable fashion, cornered him and pestered him about it after the one talk he gave). But the one thing that Don conveyed to me was his own excitement about having a group of students at GMU who were interested in pushing forward Austrian ideas in a sustained and deeply committed way. That was important to me. When I visited campus to check things out, I wound up eating lunch with Pete, Dave, and Deb Walker. I think they thought less of me than I did of them (at the time), but they all conveyed that same sense of excitement about working with Don.

The following four years working with Don at GMU were, without question, the most intellectually challenging and enjoyable years of my career. Don created an environment for grad students that was, well, utopian. His door was always open and his patience with Pete, Dave, and me was, as you might imagine, pressed to the limits. However, as Pete has said, Don never made us feel as though we were interrupting him or interfering with his work. We may well have, objectively, been pests, but we never were made to feel that way. In fact, the overriding sense was one of camaraderie. Not camaraderie in the superficial sense of having a good time (although that we surely did), but in the deeper sense of being comrades in the same enterprise. Don took graduate students seriously and treated us, to the degree possible, as intellectual peers. He made us feel, I think, that we were contributing as much to his work as he was to ours.

I think it was that aspect of Don that filled his graduate students with confidence in our ideas and in that we could cut it as scholars. I think it’s fair to say that few of Don’s graduate students lacked self-confidence. In fact, some of us were downright cocky! What I think we really were was fearless. One result of that fearlessness was our demand to be taken seriously, often manifested by writing for professional outlets – early and often, as they say. It was Don, for example, that pushed Pete, Dave, and I to write the 1986 Market Process piece on equilibrium economics. Whatever its substantive flaws in retrospect, Don’s encouragement and decision to publish that paper in the journal he edited, made us feel like we were players in the game. So to did his later decision to include it on the reading list for the graduate level Austrian II course. Don didn’t have to take us seriously. He could have tried to “break” us and attempt to elevate himself in the process, but he chose a different path. And I think it was a better one, as there is no doubt in my mind that his attitude toward us, toward me, has played a crucial role in my own development as a scholar.

It’s also important to point out that our fearlessness was tempered by another Lavoie virtue – an openness to conversation with anyone about almost anything. And that openness was not just a “willingness” to converse, but a genuine openness to what the other had to say, and a belief that such conversation was, in the best spirit of economics, ex ante mutually beneficial. Watching Don talk to other economists and to scholars in other disciplines, one saw his own willingness to listen to what others had to say and to digest it and then find ways to make use of it, where appropriate, in his own work. Dialogue, for Don, was not just about convincing other people that you were right (although that was certainly an element of it), rather it was a Hayekian discovery process. It was a mode of learning, both social and individual, and one that was fueled by a recognition of one’s own limits as a scholar. Given the sort of self-confidence Don instilled in grad students, it would have been easy for us to be holy terrors, but I’d like to think we weren’t (and aren’t!) because he also instilled in us a sense of respect for what others had to say. If it’s possible to be both self-confident and humble, Don tried to convey that combination to us.

I know that in my own career at St. Lawrence, I’ve tried very hard to forge relationships outside of my department and, in doing so, to “bring” economics to the other social sciences and the humanities (and to learn from them in the process). I did these things, in my own mind, because I thought that it was important both for improving my own understanding of the world and for making the case for human freedom. I often find myself learning a great deal from these encounters and finding ways to incorporate them back into my own work. It wasn’t until I heard that Don was sick, and I started thinking back on my relationship with him, that I realized how much of that behavior was reflective of an attitude and values that I had absorbed from Don. As frustrating as those encounters can be at times, they have enriched my professional and personal life in innumerable ways, and for cultivating that side of me, I will forever be grateful to Don.

All of these reflections bring me back to this room. I’d like to think that the SDAE reflects these two Lavoie values of self-confidence and openness to dialogue in profound ways. The creation of this Society five years ago was, perhaps, a sign of collective self-confidence. We, as Austrians, were ready to be organized, to create panels, to get ourselves a journal, and to stake our claim in the profession. Way back when, Don and us grad students created a short-lived Society for Interpretive Economics. The intellectual marketplace ruled that a failure, but it wasn’t for a lack of confidence on Don’s part. The time was ripe ten years later and the environment for Austrians was better, to some degree due to the successes of Don and the GMU program in generating work and students that were more visible in the profession. And now five years after our birth, we have over 100 members and 10 panels at these meetings. Our self-confidence was indeed justified.

In addition, I think we as a Society have tried to cultivate a spirit of openness to dialogue with other economists. This was not one of Don’s strengths; he was much more comfortable with people outside economics than within it. Even so, I know that his willingness to engage with those who differed from him, and to do so in a spirit not of “colonization” but of mutual benefit through exchange, is an idea that drives me every day of my professional life. And it is one that I value deeply in people and organizations that I work with.

So for these reasons, Pete’s decision to name the SDAE graduate student paper competition in Don’s memory seems so very appropriate. I can think of no better way to honor Don than through a competition that rewards graduate student scholarship and offers opportunities for graduate students to engage in conversation with the profession.

I think all of us who worked with Don have our own memories of him, both personal and intellectual. When I think of Don, I can still see his Don Johnson rolled-up sport coat sleeves and Australian bush hat, his felt-tip pens and index cards in the shirt pocket, and that piano keyboard scarf. But when I move beyond the visual, the thing I think of most is what I’d call Don’s “utopianism.” I mean that both in the “Hayekian” sense of a “grounded” utopianism, but also in the more colloquial sense of a sort of unbounded, and perhaps sometimes unwarranted, optimism that the world’s problems could be solved once and for all. Don’s dedication to scholarly inquiry and to cross-disciplinary dialogue flowed from this utopianism. If I had to capture this in one phrase it would be “if only they’d talk with us …” If only they’d talk with us … then we could make better. Maybe it was economics, maybe it was social science, maybe it was the human condition. Whatever it was, Don’s faith in people, in scholarship, in dialogue and in freedom was unbounded and unshakeable. It’s a faith I share, and a faith (and it is a faith, at least in the Polanyian sense of the term) that I think we need to have both as Austrian economists and as citizens of the world in these increasingly trying times.

There are no answers for why someone gets taken from us before what we think is his time. However, I hope that Don’s legacy goes beyond his work and beyond the students who he has trained, and also comprises a set of values that underlied both of those endeavors. Don’s optimism, his confidence in our ideas, his openness to others, and his respect for his students are what made him special as a teacher and as a human being. That we had him for the time we did makes us fortunate indeed.

Please raise your glasses and join me in a toast. To Don Lavoie.

* Remarks read by Steven Horwitz at the SDAE annual dinner November 18, 2001.