Interview with Tho Bishop: Economic Populism and the Role of the Mises Institute

The following is the first part from an interview between William Yarwood (WY), digital media officer for The Mallard, and Tho Bishop (TB), assistant editor at the Mises Institute. The article has been edited for clarity, originally published at MallardUK.com.

WY: So, I thought I would start off with just by asking you a simple question—how did you come into libertarianism?

TB: Yeah, well I’m definitely a Ron Paul baby in that regard. Uhm, you know, there is a lot of things that kind of happened at the same time. I was a young conservative that kind of moved from Sean Hannity conservatism to Glenn Beck conservatism to then recognizing that the Iraq War was a sham, a disaster. We started seeing the economy collapse around us, as well as the Republican leadership, and I realized that mainstream conservatism wasn’t enough. So I decided I needed to go deeper on these issues.

The Iraq War aspect made it very easy to move towards a libertarian direction. And then Ron Paul came around and the way that he talked about economics was at the same time where I was beginning to find interests in economics. That was the radicalization point! Particularly there was this one essay by Ayn Rand that I was reading at the time. I think it’s something about the history of laissez-faire capitalism, think it’s called “Leave Us Alone” and in it, she writes like it was 2009. [The essay Tho is referring to is Rand’s “Let Us Alone” article from her syndicated Los Angeles Times column from the 1960s]. She talks about the president trying to pass a stimulus program and how bad it was. And it’s not like until the last page that you read that she’s actually talking about LBJ! Yet it was so word for word relevant for what we were seeing in 2009. That’s when I realized, man we haven’t learned any of this stuff.

So, you get that kind of the combination: antiwar sentiment, skepticism towards state power, free market economics, etc. and then you know, particularly the social issue aspect of politics at the time, I mean, everyone in my generation was, you know, liberalizing on those fronts too. It all pushed me into libertarianism. There and then, of course, once you get into libertarian movements, you realize why libertarians start fighting with each other so much. You start going down the rabbit holes of deeper ideology and then again, the focus on economics kind of brought me more and more to the Austrian school.

I read Friedman. I even read Krugman’s The Return of Depression Economics, and just the more I read the Austrian school it always looked better by contrast—so that kind of made me interested in the Mises Institute. Which then brings in additional rabbit holes in history and things like that. And so really, it was the political stage of 2008 Ron Paul campaign and losing faith in various institutions that all pushed me in that libertarian direction.

WY: Yeah, I think that is, uh, that’s quite a universal case study. I think for most Americans at that time you know, the of the height of the Iraq War in the late Bush era and the 2008–2012 sort of period was when a lot of people came to the libertarian movement. And I think that you are correct in the sense that once you get into libertarianism, you sort of realize all these splits within it and how it essentially paralyzes the movement. You talked about Austrian economics, and you said you’d read a bit of Chicago stuff too. I was wondering, why specifically did you like Austrian economics?

TB: One of the reasons that I initially found myself interested in Austrian economics is because Austrians had this great PR campaign in 2009. Mainly because they were right! Also, you had others like Peter Schiff, who was producing videos at the time on economics which were good fun. And of course, you had Ben Bernanke as a student of Friedman not seeing the financial crisis coming. So mainstream economists were humiliated, Austrians looked vindicated, and that made me very interested. Then you discover the works of Mises and Rothbard and find out that it’s not simply a disagreement over policy, but a larger disagreement of the underlying economic methodology. So, you start appreciating that there are many unrealistic assumptions about mainstream economics and appreciate the humility of Austrian economics.

There’s something you see in the economic history as well alongside this. You learn the history of the corruptive influence of central banking—in the US and other countries—and that’s so much of Rothbard’s content. Rothbard provides a great narrative and is very compelling. So, you know, the more I appreciated the differences between different economic schools, the more the Austrians just seem obviously right—which is kind of a dangerous sentiment at some point but it just really became stark!

WY: And why specifically the Mises Institute rather than [Beltway libertarian organizations]?

TB: Regarding the Mises Institute, I think one of the things that make the Mises Institute such a unique entity is that we’re not pushing libertarian policy. We’re not pushing the libertarian movement per se as an ideological force. We are really promoting a very specific school of thought, and it allows us to go deeper. It narrows our focus, so we don’t have scholars kind of shooting over their skis and disciplines that they don’t really understand.  

Also, we’re not trying to publish policy papers, so we don’t have to worry about that kind of stuff. We’re not located in DC, which is a corruptive influence in itself! We don’t have a lot of friends in powerful places per se, but it’s allowed us to actually build a foundation and restore an entire school of thought, which I think is really a powerful force when done right, and I think we’ve done that right.

WY: I think you’ve done that right Tho and I think the institute has been really taking off in the last ten years or so. Mainly because of you pushing a specific school of thought rather than attempting to [influence] the Cathedral. What is your, uhm … weekly view count? Does it keep rising? What is membership of the institute like, does that keep rising as well?

TB: Twenty twenty was incredible. Mises had the highest amount of content we’ve ever had and the highest traffic by miles. We had been trending upwards for years and then 2020 was just a rocket. Uhm and yeah, I think that we have something unique to say in a world of a lot of “hot takes”—if you get me. Which is good, but just as important though, is recognizing that it’s not simply the American audience we’re trying to reach but the international audience. And that’s one of the things that’s really exciting, how we’re spreading internationally.

You know, I have a lot more hope, in the short to medium term at least, for places in South America and Eastern Europe that have seriously dealt with communism more than we have done in the West—specially when you see the growth in Austro-libertarian movements in places like Brazil and Lithuania. I see those in particular as giving me hope, there’s a very very large educational sphere within those movements as well. Then we also have tremendous networks of scholars being built in throughout Europe, both East and West, throughout South America even throughout Asia! So, we’re not simply fighting by trying to suck up the state and produce political power here in the US.

Yeah, seeing it all is really exciting. Seeing Austrian scholars take these ideas and identify their relevance in different unique cultural environments is awesome and you begin to recognize that there’s so much hunger for this sort of stuff out there. Like that’s one of the biggest ”white pills” for Austrian economics. It’s truly an international movement that is larger now than it’s ever been in its entire history.  

WY: Yeah, well, I think it’s brilliant. I mean, I’m especially aware of a lot of the Latin American stuff. I know Mises Brazil has big conferences.

TB: Oh yeah, it’s amazing to see. And I think like I said, the fact that Europeans, at least Western Europeans, have not really had to deal with communism as much as Latin Americans and Eastern Europeans have … it makes all the difference. They know the misery and decaying nature of life under socialism. They know what the reality of what a planned economy looks like and all the horrors that come along with the leviathans of socialist totalitarian states. So yeah, good luck to all of them.  

WY: So, you have talked about the fact that the message of the Austrian school is getting out there and it’s going even more international by the year. What would you say is the key importance of the Mises Institutes in the modern  day? Especially with covid and the centralization of power both here at home in the UK, and in the United States. Where do you think, the institute is going to go from now after this crisis? If this, you know, crisis ever does end.

TB: Well, I think the number one aim of the Mises Institute is to create a center for those that want to engage seriously in genuine intellectual rigor and understand the questions that underpin our civilization. There are not many places where you can do that in the world today, so we always want to be that place and that is always our number one focus. We encourage the growth and development of intellectuals in a broadly defined way also. Both laypeople that want to learn more, as well as professionals and scholars. I think that is always part of our core mission as well

But then we also have this equally important outreach mission. So, we push out our message by producing popular content on questions such as, for one, being anti-Fed [Federal Reserve] radically and you know repeatedly asking the question “What has government done to our money?” Because in a world where a lot of the economic commentary out there is so baked into the technocracy of the Fed and central banking, we must be a contrarian voice in all that

For politics broadly, the focus on decentralization rather than any sort of universalist political tract, including that of libertarian or liberal universalists, is core to the importance of the Mises Institute. Also, an appreciation that the threat right now is centralized globalist power, with the EU across the pond and then also larger multinational entities like the UN or the World Bank or the IMF. But I also think increasingly that the quasi-state corporate apparatus, that is so protected and subsidized by this financialized economy that we have, is a core enemy in our political battle.

So being a true liberal voice of opposition—in the traditional sense of the term. A breath of fresh air for many, hopefully. So, embracing a strong, you know, economic populist approach to these issues but never discarding the importance of liberty as an underlying value.

Ultimately, I think that is what separates us apart from almost everything else in the libertarian world. I think there is a lot of libertarians out there that mean well but are defending bad people with bad strategies. I think that if libertarians continue to do that, not only will it make them irrelevant and sterile, but it will diminish the quality of discussion on the right. Mainly because you will not have a free market, classically liberal or libertarian voice meaningfully engaging other areas of the right on some of the most important questions of the day.

WY: I absolutely agree. I think that the institute does all those things extremely well and I think the unflinching radical opposition to Fiat currency is key to that. I think a lot of the more conservative right-wingers, both here and in the US, often ascribe all the problems with modern-day capitalism to capitalism itself. When really their problem is, I think as you call it, “late-stage Fiat currency”—would you agree? That is a term I want to sort of drill into many a conservative’s heads.

TB: Absolutely. I think a lot of the popular political discussion of 2021 has been the direct product of an economically nihilistic society. Things have for decades now, in the West and particularly in the US, have made us this way. We have become materially richer and richer, no matter how much government screws us up, and when you can take prosperity as a given, even if it’s slowing down, you don’t really have to seriously engage with economic questions. This includes even, you know, aspects of the populist American right who are trying to say that their views are a reaction to the destruction of the middle class.

What I would say to them is, OK fine. But if your answer is more subsidies and embracing left-wing economic policies, you are assuming that government can spend without a problem and that you are the one who is going to be in power. When in all reality, you are not going to be.

That is something that the state and its allied elites have been able to do for decades now. But if that no longer happens, then 95 percent of the content on the economic right no longer has value. And so, I think that it’s the money side of it is something that’s been neglected in most intellectual arenas. But I also think it is not only important for economic analysis, but I think it is fundamentally going to be the most important populist political battle going forward. Especially when people begin to recognize that the elites, who are responsible for the currency crisis, are going to further centralize money come to the crisis. Then they’ll see how close and corrupt state and banking elites are.

You know, we are going to go from the Fed bailing out the world to the IMF bailing out the world. The emergence of global money is going to be the greatest attack on national sovereignty and political self-determination that we have ever seen. So, if you do not appreciate the money issue, I think you are going to end up missing the real end game and also miss a variety of larger political topics.

WY: I completely agree. And just as a just as a final point on this money question, would you say that, uh, Rothbard’s What Has Government Done to Our Money? is the best way to get into this topic?

TB: Definitely, I think it is a great beginner exercise. I mean, obviously, it’s focused on American monetary history in particular, but you know, American monetary history has ended up being one of the shapers of the world since the 70s … often for worse rather than better. I do think Rothbard’s What Has Government Done to Our Money? is one of the best books out there to read, in order to understand the current state of our financialized economy.

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