by Glen Whitman
When I arrived at NYU in Fall of 1994, I knew Mario only as a distant scholarly figure, someone whose work I had read along with Hayek and Mises. He seemed as unapproachable as those intellectual giants – which is really something, given that both Hayek and Mises were already dead. Fortunately, the Mario I met in person was neither dead nor unapproachable. He invited me into the Austrian Economics Colloquium, as it was then called, where I met many other living-and-breathing Austrian thinkers and fellow travelers. In the years that followed, Mario became my teacher, then my dissertation advisor, and finally – I’m proud to say – my coauthor, with five published articles and counting. Not to mention the long-awaited book on behavioral paternalism that we will submit to the publisher later this month. (Mario would probably tell me to stop wasting time on a silly blog post and get back to editing.)
Many have noted Mario’s intellectual rigor and dedication. But few have commented on what I’ve always found to be his most salient characteristic: his wry sense of humor. Mario constantly amuses with his curmudgeonly commentary on the world and our profession. Like any good curmudgeon, he sees clearly the foibles and vices of his fellow men – particularly those who would use their power and influence to control others, as though they were somehow immune to error. But rather than ranting and railing, Mario assesses them with a shrug, a pained sigh, a shake of the head. “This too shall pass,” he is fond of saying.
The vice of the curmudgeon, of course, is excessive regard for the past, a tendency to think all change is bad and the old ways are always the best ways. Mario is surprisingly free of this vice, at least in his scholarly pursuits (his personal habits are another matter). As a product of the University of Chicago, Mario wasn’t “raised Austrian.” Nevertheless, he discovered the blind spots of the Chicago school and found his way to the Austrian school, which he thought broad enough to incorporate insights from New Institutionalism, public choice, and other traditions. Perhaps that’s why he tolerates my tendency, as an Austrian-neoclassical fence sitter, to commit occasional heresies against Austrian thinking. His open-mindedness has become clearest to me in our joint work on behavioral economics and paternalism. For the anti-paternalist, a natural reaction to the behavioral paternalism advanced by Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein, and others would be simply to reject behavioral economics wholesale: “We had it right all along. People are definitionally rational, end of story.” I’ve met dogmatic Austrians who have taken precisely that position. Instead, Mario has found much to learn from behavioral economics, while still exposing it to a critical eye. That process has led us to challenge long-held presuppositions about rationality shared by both behavioral and neoclassical economists – and often Austrian economists as well. Mario has the admirable capacity to see what is genuinely worth saving from older traditions and modes of thought without stubbornly clinging to them.
But back to Mario’s personal qualities. When we first met, I already knew Mario as a scholar. Now I’m pleased to call him a colleague and a friend. I have benefited immeasurably from his insight, moral support, good humor, and patience – and based on the other entries in today’s tribute, I’m clearly not alone. Happy birthday, Mario!