Mario Rizzo, Innovator and Master Teacher

by Jeffrey Tucker

For one day last week, this blog ran a wonderful succession of articles that provide deep insight into the life and work of an influential intellectual. His name is Mario Rizzo, economist and author at New York University. I’m also proud to call him a teacher, however briefly, and friend through the years.

These pieces kept popping up on my feeds, and I had to stop everything and devour them. It’s absolutely fascinating to observe the influence of one person on so many, and the widening circles of influence of his students in turn. It’s an amazing thing suddenly to realize: I briefly studied under a true master.

The stream of tributes that appeared on Professor Rizzo’s 70th birthday followed many decades of teaching, and they come from students all over the world. The results are an extremely powerful testament to the influence of one man, and also a great insight into the mysteriously beautiful way ideas can take hold in the mind and translate into a changed world.

So far as I can tell, all of this outpouring of appreciation came as a surprise to Professor Rizzo, as is the tradition of the Festschrift, a volume of tributes to a great thinker. The style of this one is innovative, a flurry of posts that people actually read instead of a fat book that sits on a shelf. The approach produced a more informal, and much more approachable, series of tributes than you would find in the usual Festschrift.

Time and Ignorance

Many contributors mention Mario’s masterwork The Economics of Time and Ignorance (coauthored with Gerald O’Driscoll), a book that had a huge influence on my own thinking. The book came out in 1985, and spawned a research program that lasted decades. It was the year of my very first academic seminar on economics, sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies. It was taught by Mario and his coauthors Gerald O’Driscoll and Roger Garrison. Looking back on it, I had no idea just what a remarkable moment that was, and had no idea of the good fortune I had.

Mario’s book was dedicated to a deep exploration of a facet of Austrian theory that emphasizes the market as a process, the role of discovery and imagination in human action, uncertainty in the face of the forward motion of time, and a reconceptualization of the concept of time itself along Misesian lines. Mainstream economics had long ago adopted a static view, in service of mechanical models that necessarily freeze the market process and lack uncertainty and surprise.

For those trained in this mechanical way of thinking, modeling economics as if human beings aren’t part of the equations and the uncertainties of life play no serious role in economic decision-making, Mario’s book was strong medicine. He had taken insights from Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, and Ludwig Lachmann further than their own works to provide a radical critique of conventional economic modeling, and a provocative new way to think about economic behavior. His theoretical explorations both expanded on and departed from those of his own teachers, Murray Rothbard and Israel Kirzner, and came to shape the thought of a new generation.

Looking back to 1985, it does seem in retrospect like a Wordsworth moment: “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven.” In that brief moment, too, I can recall that the state of the Austrian School itself was different than today. There were schools within schools, but also engagement between them as well as shared learning in seminars and publications. Within a few years, these elements of schools had hardened into factions and then finally to warring tribes, with battlegrounds being not so much ideas and principles but personalities and associations.

This change had something of a demoralizing effect on those of us around in 1985. What had seemed like a happy, flourishing, burgeoning, and brave band of curious radicals became fractured, politicized, and internally and externally defensive. None of this was true of Mario, however: he remained as a model. I recall making a pledge with some of my colleagues. Should the time come when we could be instrumental in ending these destructive personal and institutional fights, and get back to the path that scholars like Rizzo had shown us, we would do so. It still remains a hope.

Austrianism and the Future

What was the way of Rizzo? He demonstrated what it meant to grapple with high theory with integrity, seriousness, attention to detail, respect for other points of view, a love of the history of ideas, scrupulosity in the presentation of opponents’ ideas, and a willingness to revisit the foundations of even what is regarded as settled doctrine. There was always a fearlessness about his work. The mainstream was not the “enemy” to be defeated, in his view, but an opportunity for adventure for radicals such as ourselves to work harder, go deeper, and discover more and better ways to think. For example, he combed through the works of those who influenced Mises himself (mostly famously Henri Bergson) and found ways to present to a new generation a way of thinking that had been formative for Mises but which had been mostly lost on American students.

For students of the mid-1980s generation who were learning graduate-level economics, Mario’s way provided an intellectually robust alternative, bringing a level of respect for the Austrian tradition that the mainstream has always been anxious to deny. His book, and his hundreds of articles and edited books in the last 30 years, demonstrated that the Austrian tradition, with roots dating back nearly half a millennium, is strong enough to stand up with integrity in the modern profession, elucidating and expanding upon the profound complexity of the human mind and its always-experimental engagement with the material world.

Let me summarize what I took from his work. Economics cannot thrive as a science by constructing a model of life that is removed from the lived experience of real human beings. It needs to deal with real people and our penchant for error, our struggle to find a way forward in the face of ceaseless change, and our capacity for invention and acting on wild passions. It has to deal with high-end philosophical questions concerning the passage of time, the limits of knowledge, the gradual unfolding of insight, the process of learning, and the remarkable capacity of the market to coordinate economic plans among actors who know only bits and pieces of the whole that never stops emerging from their choices. The core problem with mathematical modeling in economics is not that it is difficult; it is that it is too simple to account for the infinite complexity of real life. As for the Austrian tradition itself, Mario demonstrated that it was and is far from closed.

Are there political implications of this way of looking at economics? Absolutely. They all point to the indispensability of adaptable institutions of a liberal political order — a society not locked down by law, regulation, and bureaucracy, much less one ruled by an appointed class of planners, but rather a world of freedom that allows for continual change and discovery. And anyone who knows Mario becomes profoundly aware of and convinced by his libertarianism.

Publishing and the Commons

My brief association with Mario and this 1985 book sent me out on an intellectual adventure that came to define my life and career. So many others at that seminar chose academia while I ended up taking the path of editing and publishing. Keep in mind that this was ten years before the invention of the web browser. Books were still scarce goods. You had to possess them as property, check them out of the library, stockpile them everywhere you could.

It was eleven years later when we discovered the power of the Internet commons for getting the word out. A book in your private possession could be given flight to reach millions simultaneously. The sheer magic of that acted like a drug on my brain. At the Mises Institute, I spent seemingly endless days and nights putting online as much of the Austrian literature that I could get my hands on: nearly everything by Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard, made possible because copyrights were looser for these authors. It was more difficult with F.A. Hayek, almost impossible with Israel Kirzner. But there were others in the proto-Austrian and American libertarian tradition that were open and available for digitization and free distribution: Benjamin Anderson, Herbert Davenport, J.B. Clarke, Frank Fetter, Albert Jay Nock, Garet Garrett, as well as all the writers and thinkers associated with the Foundation for Economic Education from the 1950s and following. In addition, the Institute for Humane Studies was generous with permissions so that we could put online many works from the 1960s and 1970s that had been important to the rebirth of the Austrian school following Hayek’s Nobel Prize.

Eventually, we had hundreds of works online, as many as a thousand even, but there was always a gap: it was the books from the 1980s that were locked down under copyright. Sometime in the mid 2000s, I contacted Mario to see about putting Economics of Time and Ignorance into the commons, but it would not be possible for the usual reasons: the authors held that copyrights but the publisher had the distribution rights. Eventually technology solved part of the problem. At the very least, an electronic edition is now available but at far too high a price.

(To what extent has the availability of literature affected the shape and status of the Austrian School today? Access to some sectors of thought remains instant and free, while other variants to thought are protected behind paywalls and blocks. I’ve variously wondered to what extent this different publishing arrangement has impacted Austrian students in the digital age.)

Fortunately, we are blessed to have many lectures by Mario online. This video, for example, gives you a sense of his lecturing style, the agility of his mind, and the nature of the influence he has had on so many.

The Dream Lives

What about the dream that Mario helped inspire, that idea that the Austrian school could come to be associated with scholarly engagement, a principled radicalism, a love of science, a confidence in the intellectual integrity of the tradition such that it could be fearless and even happy in the face of every manner of academic combat? It is still with us.

It is my privilege to be working with Edward Stringham at the American Institute for Economic Research, founded in 1933 by E.C. Harwood (whose writings show so much Austrian influence). Mario selected some of Stringham’s work on law and economics to be part of a two-volume series on the topic – what is likely to be the definitive collection for years to come. At AIER, we have big plans to begin anew with publishing, seminars, fellowships, research, and teaching, applying everything we’ve learned from professional and intellectual experience to giving new life to the liberal idea. We are both wildly optimistic that it can happen.

I think back to the 1985 seminar, so green and naive, even confused, listening as this virtuosic scholar regaled us with dazzling theoretical speculations concerning time, uncertainty, and economic order. I could follow only a small amount of the substance at the time but what stuck with me was the style and approach. It was beautiful to watch and hear, as exciting and energetic as a great action movie. You never forget such an experience. It will always be for me a model.

Thank you, Mario Rizzo, scholar, innovator, and master teacher.

2 thoughts on “Mario Rizzo, Innovator and Master Teacher

  1. In more friendly days, the essays in Time, Uncertainty, and Disequilibrium, published in 1979, set the stage for the 1985 Rizzo and O’Driscoll The Economics of Time and Ignorance. In fact, being a layperson on the subject, when this book first appeared, I saw nothing controversial about it — it did not seem anything that did not follow what had gone before.

  2. Thank you, Jeff, for your overly-generous post.

    A few thoughts. In retrospect the initial publication of The Economics of Time and Ignorance in 1985 may seem to have been a “Wordsworth moment.” But at the time we were attacked by many people we respected. So there was a period of disappointment and unpleasantness. I remember Chuck Baird initially writing a poor review of the book but then, years later, changing his mind and saying that the book was good, after all. Murray Rothbard never liked it. Israel Kirzner initially did not but later came to see some merit in it — even if he still has “profound disagreements.” One can also detect in his writings over the years subtle changes in emphasis under perhaps the (unconscious?) influence of Lachmann. I dare not say of Time and Ignorance.

    I am deeply appreciative of all the work you have done making the classics of Austrian economics and libertarian thought available to people — especially the young generation. The challenge is to see that they actually read these works. In a world in which there is much pressure among academics to publish and come up with new ideas, many people would be pleasantly surprised at how many “new” ideas are in old books. There are many lines of throught that have not been fully exploited. Unexploited profit opportunities in the world of ideas! Much of my inspiration in Time and Ignorance came from reading the dusty old work of Bergson and others.

    So thanks again, Jeff. Here’s to new ideas from old books!

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