Reflections on the Rothbard Graduate Seminar

  • January 1, 2024
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I had the good fortune of attending the Rothbard Graduate Seminar (RGS) twice in succession, during the summers of 2020 and 2021. By that time, I was already quite familiar with the ideas of the Austrian School thanks to the many podcasts and recorded Mises University lectures, among much more, the Mises Institute has made freely available online. However, I likely never would have realized my own understanding of Ludwig von Mises’s economic works was so deficient without twice undertaking a close reading of Human Action for RGS.

Further, and importantly, the opportunity to engage in critical conversation about Mises’s masterwork with Mises Institute scholars as well as the other highly motivated attending students makes RGS a priceless experience for those interested in studying the Austrian tradition of economics. It is not an exaggeration to say that I owe most of my present knowledge of praxeology to my time at Auburn over the course of those two summers.

Why I Wanted to Attend RGS

While it is possible to access practically everything published by the great Austrian economists for free on the Mises Institute website, it would take a truly disciplined person to carefully read, cover-to-cover, the numerous tomes published in the Austrian tradition even once, let alone multiple times. Before attending RGS for the first time, I was already quite familiar with the basic tenets of the distinctive Austrian approach thanks to years of listening to The Tom Woods Show and sampling the annual Mises University lectures. However, I lazily shirked reading the systematic treatises like Mises’s Human Action or Murray Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State, opting instead for shorter works and summary materials such as Bob Murphy’s excellent study guides on both Human Action and Man, Economy, and State, among many others.

Upon enrolling in the economics PhD program at George Mason University in 2019, I knew it was time to finally tackle the major tomes in the Austrian tradition. It was then obvious that I should apply for RGS, as it would not only encourage me to read Human Action—which was the required RGS reading for 2020—but also afford the opportunity to finally visit the Mises Institute in person and meet the scholars, staff, and fellow students passionate about the Austrian tradition. My experience there would exceed my already high expectations.

Outcomes Gained from Participating in RGS

There are several facets of RGS that I found particularly valuable, including the lectures, the discussion sessions, the conversations during meals, and the conversations after the day’s sessions had concluded.

Each RGS I attended spanned ten sessions over five days. Each session began with a lecture by RGS faculty—namely, Drs. Joseph Salerno, David Gordon, Jeffrey Herbener, Peter Klein, Patrick Newman, and Mark Thornton—covering key aspects of the chapters from the required reading. The lectures were illuminating, rigorously yet concisely conveying the fundamentals of praxeological reasoning in a logical step-by-step fashion. While resembling Mises University lectures in content, I felt that the RGS lectures were more targeted toward graduate students and were therefore especially helpful for me to check my own understanding of the material. Importantly, the lectures also oriented the subsequent group discussion to be focused and productive.

In my experience in academia, student discussion groups can sometimes involve talking in circles with little clarity achieved by the end of the discussion period. I thankfully found this to not be the case with RGS. Not only did the lectures effectively anchor the discussions, but the students better read in the Austrian literature—typically summer fellows—were able to jump in and attempt to clarify open questions or misunderstandings that came up in the course of the discussion.

While I cannot claim to have produced more clarity than confusion in the first RGS I attended, I was naturally far better prepared for the second, in which I was also fortunate to serve as a summer fellow at the Mises Institute. Both experiences were helpful, however. My first RGS, while humbling, spurred me to read Human Action a second time on my own during the school year. Following a third cover-to-cover reading in advance of RGS 2021, I found the exercise of trying to explain Mises’s ideas good preparation for my own teaching at the undergraduate level, which I began in the next academic year using Human Action as a key text.

Of course, discussion sessions were not the only time to chat with the other student attendees, whether about the finer points of praxeology or otherwise. The two daily sessions were split by lunch, which was catered at the Institute and provided the opportunity to casually network with the other student attendees from various universities and learn about their experiences in graduate school. Dinners were held at a variety of nearby restaurants and usually involved even more exciting discussions than at lunch, as the topics strayed further from the core reading. RGS faculty also attended lunches and dinners, providing even more opportunities to pick the brains of some of the most learned scholars in the Austrian tradition. After all, who could pass up the opportunity to sit with David Gordon and chat about philosophy over Mexican food and southern barbecue on successive nights? Okay, I admit I couldn’t.

The last aspect of RGS I’d like to mention, though certainly not the least, is the wide-ranging discussions informally held at Rothbard Village—the apartments designated for student attendees—that sometimes went deep into the night. Being passionate about Austrian economics can often be a lonely endeavor, both within and outside academic settings, so fraternizing with fellow graduate students who shared my interests was an exceedingly rare opportunity that motivated me for months thereafter and have missed ever since.

How Mises’s Human Action Has Affected Me as a Scholar

I can only say with hindsight that I did not truly understand the power of Mises’s insights until my second full reading of Human Action and was not prepared to properly teach praxeology until my third. Even though I had immersed myself in Austrian ideas for several years before I first attended RGS, I did not properly perceive the important epistemological and methodological differences from the positivistic mainstream. Instead, I unconsciously treated Austrian ideas as a basket of conclusions that could be taken or left individually. It was not until I attended RGS and read Human Action that I truly grasped the systematic approach that Mises, following Carl Menger, brought to the study of economics, as well as how that approach contrasts with the slapdash “field”-oriented mathematical approach now prevalent in academia today.

Dr. Salerno has drawn attention to Mises’s understanding that “Economics does not allow of any breaking up into special branches. It invariably deals with the interconnectedness of all the phenomena of action.” This was not simply a quirky preference of Mises but followed naturally from what he understood to be the correct epistemological approach to the study of the sciences of human action.

Therefore, it is difficult to think of ways that reading Human Action has not affected me as a scholar. Practically everything I have done academically since my first RGS in the summer of 2020, and especially after my second in the summer of 2021, has followed from my understanding of the fundamental divergence in approach to economics best illuminated by Mises in his later works, and I have already accepted that I will have to constantly defend the Misesian approach from its (often uninformed) critics throughout my career to come.

The Ideal Candidate for RGS

While, at least in my experience, RGS tends to naturally attract economics majors, those familiar with the lives and writings of the great Austrian economists will be aware of the unusually interdisciplinary nature of their interests and works. In addition to economics, I interacted with students specializing in history, political science, and sociology during RGS, all of whom participated eagerly in seminar discussions and benefited from Mises’s insights about human society. For example, I recall a conversation at Rothbard Village with a PhD student in history about the importance yet widespread neglect of scholars working in the so-called social sciences in understanding the distinction that Mises draws between theory and history.

As such, I believe the most important criteria that make for an ideal RGS candidate are a genuine passion for studying the sciences of human action and an open mind willing to consider a perspective considered “heterodox” by the presently dominant positivist mainstream. If you fit that description, I highly recommend applying for RGS and discovering for yourself the ideas that, if widely understood, could transform our world into one of peace and unheard-of prosperity.