Happy Birthday, Professor Rizzo!

by Pete Boettke

I want to wish Mario Rizzo the very best on his 70th birthday. To this day, the phone call I received from him in March of 1990 remains the highlight of my professional career. Mario called me at my office at Oakland University to tell me I was going to be offered an Assistant Professorship in the Economics Department at NYU.  I ran home, rang the doorbell, and did my best Frank Sinatra impression of “New York, New York” for Rosemary and we hugged and jumped up and down.  The next 8 years of my professional life were critical in so many ways, and I owe that to Mario and Israel Kirzner, their mentorship and their guiding example. So, on a personal-professional level, my debt to Mario is very deep, and my friendship with him at an intellectual and personal level is something I cherish greatly.

When I moved to NYU, Mario was working on philosophical issues more so than his earlier work in either Law-and-Economics, Industrial Organization, or The Economics of Time and Ignorance, that I had read so diligently while in graduate school.   I can remember like it was yesterday, however, reading an early draft of Mario’s paper on “The Genetic-Causal Tradition in Modern Economic Theory” as well as an early version of “Equilibrium Visions”, and just listing those titles reminds me of the intellectual excitement I had in reading and discussing these issues with Mario.  He was doing economic theory in a philosophically sophisticated manner, and I wanted to learn to do that.  My teachers in graduate school — James Buchanan, Kenneth Boulding, and Don Lavoie — did that, and now with Israel and Mario I was able to get a steady diet of this sort of work as well.  It was an intellectual experience reading his paper, and discussing ideas in his office, over lunch, and grabbing a coffee has left its imprint on me in numerous ways for which I am very grateful. In fact, one of my most vivid experiences was discussing with Mario and Fred Sautet the nuances of welfare economics and market process theory over lunch at the Sardinian restaurant near NYU.

I think it might be valuable to relay a story that might capture aspects of my relationship with Mario to readers.  20 years ago, as we were preparing for the Advanced Austrian Economics Summer Seminar, Mario told me a funny story. He called his Mom and said “Mom, can you believe I am turning 50?”  But his Mom simply responded, “Of course I do, I am turning 80.”  I always loved hearing stories about Mario and his Mom. She didn’t like the salty language too often used in today’s movies, and of course, I loved hearing about the delights of food that Mario shared with his Mom.  I married into a NJ Italian-American family, so Mario’s stories were so wonderfully familiar.

The importance of this familiar connection to cultural roots is hard to communicate to academic folks.  Mario Rizzo had a sort of mythical status in my mind before I ever met him.  He was among the rising stars in Austrian economics within the economics profession as I first started to study seriously.  Mario, along with Gerald O’Driscoll, Roger Garrison, Richard Langlois, Bruce Caldwell, Don Lavoie, and Larry White represented a new generation of Austrian economists who were publishing articles and books in leading academic outlets as I was deciding to attend graduate school to pursue a Ph.D.  Austrian economics, in their hands, was not a settled wisdom from an earlier age of economic thinking, but a progressive research program in the economics profession today.  At the time, as for many of my peers, I was deeply influenced by Murray Rothbard’s writings, as well as Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt and Hans Sennholz (my teacher).  I was suspicious of Hayek, barely aware of Lachmann, and didn’t quite know how to read Kirzner (though I understood he was the real deal as a professional economist), but it became apparent as I studied economic thinking in more depth that these writers had insights I would pass over in the comfort of my Sennholz training and Rothbardian reading at my own intellectual detriment. So, when Walter Grinder of the Institute for Humane Studies told me of the opportunity to study with Kirzner, Garrison, O’Driscoll and Rizzo for a week in the summer of 1984, I was elated. IHS paid for me to travel to Milwaukee and attend the Austrian Economics Summer Seminar. Mario Rizzo was giving a lecture on monopoly theory and public policy, and I was excited to ask him challenging questions from my Rothbardian position; he challenged me right back. It was a vital experience in my education.  I was a goofy kid no doubt, but Mario’s responses to my questions made me think the distance between us was too far for me to ever travel, and I had up to that point never experienced that.  But off to GMU I went and studied with Buchanan, Boulding and Lavoie, and developed a deeper appreciation of economics and political economy.

Sometime in 1985, Mario was at the Cato Institute for the release of The Economics of Time & Ignorance, and I was 2nd in line — so officially I owned the second copy of this classic work and got Mario’s signature.  For my generation of students of Austrian economics, Rizzo’s work from his “Praxeology and Econometrics” to “Law Amid Flux” to the circulating unpublished paper “What Is Austrian Economics?” that was presented at the ASSA meetings in 1980 and the subsequent circulating pre-publication manuscript of Time & Ignorance played a foundational role in our development as economic thinkers.

Since that time, the growth of Austrian economics has in many ways simply been spectacular.  The Society for the Development of Austrian Economics, which was founded in the 1990s and started with roughly 20 attendees, now holds an annual dinner that attracts close to 150 attendees, as well as meetings that have roughly 20 sessions over the course of 2 ½ days each November.  Mario served as the 2nd President of the SDAE. At NYU, Rizzo still runs the weekly research seminar that has served as a focal point for research in market process economics for over 40 years.  In addition, Mario along with Richard Epstein initiated the Classical Liberal Institute at the NYU School of Law, which has had a significant influence in promoting serious thinking in economics, law, politics and social theory.

For the past decade, Mario has worked on foundational issues regarding the rationality postulate in economic theory, and a critical examination of behavioral economics.  This has produced several articles published in law reviews and social science journals, culminating in a book being published with Cambridge University Press.  A few years ago, Mario came to GMU and gave a series of lectures on rationality in economics to the Ph.D. students, and just last year Mario was the F. A. Hayek Distinguished Visiting Professor at GMU.  His work continues to inspire, and his mentorship continues to prove invaluable to the emerging generation of economic thinkers just as it did all those years ago to those in my generation.  And, for those who have come within his universe at NYU and elsewhere, his friendship is to be valued and cherished.

So July 6th, 2018 is a day to wish Mario Rizzo a very happy birthday, and wish him many more years of inspiring and mentoring generations of students and young scholars, and to thank him for his wonderful friendship where in addition to deep philosophical insight and penetrating scientific analysis one can experience the opportunity to share great food and wine, and fantastic stories of life.

4 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Professor Rizzo!

  1. Happy birthday, Mario! It’s been nearly 30 years, and I’m in the business world, but I still regularly think about things you taught me, and pass those lessons to younger actuaries I’m mentoring. The true measure of a great teacher.

  2. Pete,

    Thanks a million. It is hard not to think of one’s parents when you reach an “advanced” age. After all, that is why you are here.

    Those years when you were at NYU were great. You brought needed energy to the program and are responsible for the current successful format of the colloquium. So you live on at NYU. I have often thought that if you had stayed at NYU the state of Austrian economics would not be nearly as good as it is now. So things really did work out for the best. I look forward to working with you for more years to come.

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