by Shruti Rajagopalan
The occasion of Mario’s 70thbirthday gives me an opportunity to reminisce and write about his influence and our association.
As a law and economics student in Europe, I was fascinated by the Chicago school; both the ‘law and economics’ tradition and the ‘economic analysis of the law’ tradition, but my ideas never fit cleanly in either. During this time, I came across Mario’s work in law and economics, which was at the time, and still is, a breath of fresh air. In The Economics of Time and Ignorance Mario and Jerry O’ Driscoll write that Austrian economics is the economics of individuals coping with real time and radical ignorance. This was quite absent in traditional law and economics, and Mario provided the missing link. Law Amid Flux was eye-opening to me in many ways. Until then, I found the standard assessment by economists in one of two categories – (1) either dismissive of the inherent complexity of the real world and thereby using simplifying assumptions to create linear models imposing the efficiency criterion; or (2) they seemed confounded by the complexity in the world and assumed that individuals are too limited, ignorant, and foolish to navigate their lives, consequently giving us complicated cost-benefit interventions. Following the Austrian tradition, Mario’s work in tort liability discussed the process by which individuals navigated the complex world and consequently redefined the question and challenged the efficiency criterion, then in vogue. And with this Mario started the tradition of Austrian Law and Economics, which emphasizes both legal and economic processes.
The emphasis on both legal and economic processes while studying the world has informed most of my own research. To sufficiently explain the messy and entangled Indian economy at the peak of socialism, one must endogenize institutions – slaying a sacred cow in much of economic thought. Eventually, I went a step further and endogenized constitutional rules, an idea that is unthinkable to most. It is Mario’s work – extending Hayek and Lachmann- that paved the way for my work and for many in my generation.
Another theme in Mario’s work is to highlight the knowledge problem of paternalists, judges, and bureaucrats. He has time and again knocked out the as if assumption, where economists and paternalists suggest models and interventions as if they had the relevant knowledge. While recognizing and tackling the knowledge problem is a go-to move for Austrian economists, Mario’s deftness in knocking down this assumption makes him a master of the Austrian tradition.
Mario’s work over the decades has tackled a range of areas within economics – complexity, law and economics, behavioral economics and paternalism, and ethics and economics. In each of these areas, Mario’s mind always unpeels the superficial lawyers and tackles the foundational issue. I was introduced to this aspect of Mario’s thinking as a graduate student in Spring 2010 when he visited George Mason University. His course – called The Political Economy of Welfare, Justice and Ethics was an incredible discussion on the positive and normative aspects of the relation between economics and ethics. It is one of the best courses I have taken (which is really saying something given the GMU graduate economics program), and I still find myself looking up my notes on Mario discussing Robbins, Rawls, or Harsanyi. His depth of understanding on the subject is no secret, but his articulation was remarkable. At times I found myself making a note of every word he said, because it was so profound and eye-opening to me, and yet, I also knew at the time that I didn’t grasp the entire significance of his discourse.
This course was also my formal introduction to Mario. At the time, I was planning to move to New York City and at the end of the course, Mario offered me a fellowship to visit NYU and also participate in the weekly colloquium. And since January 2011, I have had the good fortune of interacting with Mario every week either as a fellow of the NYU Austrian program or later as a Fellow of the Classical Liberal Institute. In the process, I have realized that Mario is one of the most open-minded economists in the business. Every assumption and sacred tradition is up for examination, and every new area of exploration is encouraged. Mario’s students work on such a broad range of ideas, it boggles the mind that they have the same source.
As a graduate student, Mario would meet me for coffee every week and dedicate the time to discussing the ideas I was working on that week. Mario patiently read every one of my early drafts, and held my hand through my dissertation writing, with a lot of empathy, support and humor. A privilege I continued to abuse during my journey as an assistant professor.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Mario is one of the kindest people I know, and a gentleman from another time, and a gentleman for every age. Happy Birthday, Mario!