Memories of Rothbard at UNLV

By: Joseph Becker
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Returning today to Mises University 2018, it’s difficult and even a little scary for me to accept that thirty summers have gone by since my first Mises University in 1988 on the Stanford campus. And it’s been twenty five years since I graduated from the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) with a master’s degree in economics, earned under Dr. Murray Rothbard and Dr. Hans-Hermann Hoppe.

My “informal” instruction at UNLV is what I remember most. In the early 1990s we had an incredible group of Rothbardian and proto-Rothbardian graduate students, all gathered at one of the few Austrian-friendly economics programs in the country. Sadly, Rothbard died and Hoppe left UNLV before a PhD in economics was established. But for those few brief years the Nevada desert was home to an outstanding cadre of Austrian thinkers.

Both Rothbard and Hoppe were incredibly accessible, friendly, and willing to engage ideas. Office hours were opportunities to learn and grapple with issues, not the kind of rote meetings most students have with professors. Our ideas were considered important, and even debated, despite the tremendous disparity in knowledge between us and our interlocutors. We were never made to feel like stenographers receiving one-directional knowledge from authority figures.

Best of all, Professor Hoppe frequently joined our gang at the “Stake-Out,” a downscale burger and video poker joint well off the Las Vegas strip (still in business!). Those evening sessions remain among my best memories of those years.

Rothbard’s affability, however, did not mean he held low expectations for us or demanded little academic rigor. Just the opposite was true. Both as an instructor and thesis chair, he turned out to be as academically demanding as he was generous with his time.

I still recall the unanticipated sting of long hours spent charting out the timeline of such thinkers as the Spanish Scholastics and Turgot on large poster boards, attempting to fully synthesize each theorist’s contribution and the chronology of their work for an upcoming exam in Rothbard’s History of Economic Thought class. Clearly (and fortunately), this was not a class wedded to Heilbroner’s Worldly Philosophers, the text foisted upon most students by most departments. We quickly set it aside, ready for return to the university bookstore. No, our instruction came from a stack of handwritten notes scribbled on unbound and disheveled pages torn seemingly eons ago from a yellow legal pad, yet magically transcribed in perfect order by Rothbard onto the chalkboard before us.

Despite his physical stature, Murray was an intellectual giant, a bigger than life character, and huge icon for certain writers with the Las Vegas Review Journal newspaper. One of the few big city newspapers with a slight libertarian bent, the Review Journal ran a front page caricature of him as a dragon slayer. His labeling of Clintonomics as “sort of psychotic” in that that same paper is forever etched in my mind.  

Not surprisingly, Murray went greatly underappreciated by his UNLV economics department “peers.” It may have been envy on his colleague’s part (no students were flocking to UNLV from anywhere to study under them), or his colleagues’ devotion to mathematical modeling. But it’s safe to say they didn’t much appreciate the genius in their midst.

In many ways Rothbard was the prototypical eccentric university professor. Murray, a night owl who eschewed early mornings, would awaken just in time to teach his night classes. As a Manhattanite he had never bothered to drive a car, making him dependent on one particular student to drive him to campus in his early-model-yet-still-somehow-running-vehicle (an experiment in hyphenation that perhaps only Murray would truly appreciate). After being returned home, Murray would commence writing all night long on a manual typewriter before turning in at sunup.

One of my task as a graduate assistant was serving as an unassuming communications conduit between the Austrians and the rest of the professors in the department, who despite working together in a relatively small office space seldom spoke to one another (and especially not about economics). Luckily for me, when I would bring an empiricist’s refutation of something “Austrian” to Murray he always patiently explained their error– and taught me a lesson in the process.

Twenty five years later I still treasure Murray’s devotion of his time to improve my understanding of economics.

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