WSJ on Alabama's World-Class Institute
By Kyle Wingfield
Wall Street Journal Europe
August 4, 2006
Growing up, I never thought of Alabama as a beacon of academia. Living in its capital city of Montgomery for two years didn't exactly change my mind. It wasn't until I moved to Europe that I realized the Heart of Dixie was a wellspring of sensible economic thinking.
One by one, I met young, capitalist Continentals who had studied in Auburn. Not at Auburn University, mind you, which is Alabama's largest college but is associated more with physical specimens like Bo Jackson than with free-market philosophers. Rather, they had flocked to the Ludwig von Mises Institute, a think tank located just off campus that preaches the works of Hayek, Rothbard and other economists from the Austrian School — including, of course, the institute's namesake.
In the 1920s and '30s, Ludwig von Mises was a leading light of Austrian economic thought, which sought to counter the growing trend toward socialism by arguing for limited government, lower taxes, stronger private property rights and less business regulation. In 1934, though, Mises fled the Nazis in Vienna — first to Switzerland and later to America, where he was a prolific thinker and writer until his death in 1973.
Nine years later, the Mises Institute opened its doors, publishing free-market texts in a variety of languages and drawing scholars for research sabbaticals and formal programs such as its weeklong Mises University, which ends tomorrow. "It's like a combination [between a] monastery and software firm," Jeffrey Tucker, a vice president of the institute, explained when I visited.
Mises counts free-marketers from more than 30 states and at least 22 other countries — including people on all six inhabited continents — among its senior or adjunct faculty. Its students' homes are equally far-flung: Poland, Peru, Argentina, Canada, France, China and beyond this year alone. "It's a little funny, I think," says Alberto Mingardi, an Italian free-marketer who has visited the institute twice. "How can you even imagine meeting somebody in Europe who knows about the Auburn Tigers?"
How did Mr. Mingardi pass the time in "the Loveliest Village on the Plain"? "Just following the lessons and browsing the [institute's] library the rest of the day. And of course I was enjoying the many cultural attractions of Alabama." Uh huh . . . and which of these attractions draw the interest of a man from Milan? A pause. Two beats. "Southern food," he finally concludes. "I like fried stuff, so that was my thing."
Amen to that. But a nagging question remains: How does a world-class think tank end up in east Alabama?
Mr. Tucker notes that, back in 1982, Auburn University had one of the few Austrian-tolerant economics departments. (Mises might not be affiliated with the university, but its founders likely anticipated a healthy intellectual exchange. A hostile faculty wasn't desirable.) He also points out that the city of Auburn has many redeeming qualities: a charming downtown, low prices for room and board, quick access to Atlanta's international airport, good ol' Southern hospitality (and cooking), and few distractions.
All true. But allow me to make an additional case. At the heart of Austrian economics is a skepticism of powerful, central authority. And Southerners have always been distrustful of government. Our libertarian streak — which flares up from time to time, for reasons both good and very bad — makes us natural allies for the Austrian tradition.
The institute's location also says something about the quality and depth of American intellectual life. America is lampooned as philistine in many quarters, especially in Europe, yet its bastions of learning are not limited to its Gothams. In fact, having such an outfit so far away from the country's usual hubs is in itself a rejection of the central planning and authority Mises spent his life fighting. He might never have visited Auburn, but something tells me he wouldn't have put this institute any other place.
Mr. Wingfield, who hails from Georgia, edits the Journal's Business Europe column.