Many happy returns to a 21st century Whig

by Nick Cowen

I met Mario Rizzo in person for the first time just two years ago when I joined the Classical Liberal Institute. I have since had the pleasure of teaching alongside him on his course on Classical Liberalism at the NYU School of Law. For much longer, I have benefitted from his influence from his public writing and through the academic networks that he has helped establish.

In my home, the United Kingdom, classical liberal thought has until recently been virtually unheard within much of academia. As a student and think-tank researcher ravenous for liberal approaches to public policy, I gorged on Mario’s blog posts from Think Markets. Together with Marginal Revolution and Cafe Hayek, ThinkMarkets was a critical lifeline for me facing an intellectual world dominated by various visions of authoritarianism and only slightly more benign variants of paternalism.

Thanks to Mario’s selfless contributions to the revival of Austrian economics, that intellectual world is changing, even in the UK. His co-founding of the Society for the Development of Austrian Economics and hosting the Program on the Foundations of the Market Economy at NYU has provided support and inspiration for countless young scholars, including some that went on to establish the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London. This was the only place in the UK where I could have conducted my doctoral research.

What I find compelling about Mario’s perspective is the way that his commitments to liberty in both the economic and personal spheres of human activity are not just logical parallels but deeply entwined. They both emerge from recognizing the deep challenge of ignorance in all human affairs. For Mario, the value of individual choice in the face of inevitable uncertainty is both what makes fraud within markets a wrong in need of legal correction but also what makes lies and manipulation from policymakers (even on the basis of benevolent paternalism) a wrong.

His perspective is all the more critical given the current political climate. Progressives, some of whom still nominally hold onto the label ‘liberal’, have for decades been comfortable with interventions in economic life and personal health in order to protect people not so much from the predations of others, but from the long-term consequences of their own supposedly bad decisions. Now, with some of their political visions of the future upset, they increasingly turn to more straightforward ‘moral’ regulation including in areas of speech and belief – an intellectual slippery slope that slowly turns progressives into conservatives.

While today’s conservatives of all parties defend personal freedom in equally selective areas, it is left to Whig individualists like Mario to uphold a principle of moral autonomy for humans in all their fallibility and lived experience.



2 thoughts on “Many happy returns to a 21st century Whig

  1. Thanks very much, Nick.

    I did “research” on the British Whigs after reading your generous post. By the nineteenth century they seem to have become pretty good. I guess this is what Hayek meant when he said that he could be called an “Old Whig.” Maybe we should find something simple for the liberalism students to read on the Whigs. (Even more radically, I wonder what enrollments we would get if we changed the name of the course to “Seminar in Old Whiggery”?)

    It has been wonderful to have you at the Classical Liberal Institute. You really have been a great asset — so active, so articulate, so insightful. Teaching the liberalism course with you has been a fine experience for me. You are the first person with whom I have done this.

    I hope that we will continue to work together for a long time to come. In any event, you will make important contributions on your own accord, no doubt.

  2. […] Last week my friend and colleague Mario Rizzo, a scholar central to the revival of  contemporary Austrian economics, turned 70. This occasion prompted a spontaneous outpouring of praise for his work, as well as messages of gratitude for his support of students and fellow academics over his decades as an intrepid professor with his home firmly at NYU. They are collected over at ThinkMarkets. Jeffrey Tucker has written an excellent summary of Mario’s intellectual contributions at the American Institute for Economic Research. Below is a segment of my birthday message: […]

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