The year 1982 was life changing for me. It also was the year that I met Murray Rothbard and toured what then was East Berlin with him and his wife—and a host of others. And thanks to Rothbard and others in the Austrian school of economics, I was able to understand just why the Communists found it necessary to build a wall to keep people from leaving their country.
I have put a lot of material in that first paragraph and need to explain a few things. In early 1982, I was a social studies teacher at Rossville (Georgia) Junior High School and decided to enter an economic essay contest sponsored by Olive Garvey whose winners would present their papers at the Mont Pelerin Society meetings to be held in West Berlin in September of that year. I had been introduced to Austrian economics a year earlier by the late William H. Peterson, and while I knew I had no chance to win anything, I was game anyway.
Luckily for me, we were hit with a rare snowstorm that kept schools closed for a week and gave me time to write draft after draft. I finally typed the copy I liked and sent it in—and then completely forgot about it. A few months later, I received a phone call telling me I had won, so we made plans to travel to Germany. That I took first still amazes me, given that I really knew very little about economics and the Austrian school and graduate school was not on my radar screen.
During the summer before going to Germany, I read Rothbard’s classic America’s Great Depression, as well as writing a number of articles that were accepted by The Freeman. Having also read Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose, I quickly realized that the Rothbard thesis differed greatly from the standard “the Fed didn’t inflate enough” narrative that was the mantra of Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke when they faced crises of the Fed’s own making. Rothbard’s book was an educational experience for me that I’ve not forgotten, and nearly forty years later, I still use it as a teaching tool.
Because I was very new to economic thinking (and writing), I was unfamiliar with many of the “big names” in economics at that time. I had read Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek (thanks to Bill Peterson, who regarded me as a protégé) as well as just about anything else I could find on Austrian economics in this preinternet age, but my economic education was in its infancy and I had much to learn.
Having read many of Rothbard’s columns in Reason magazine (I became a subscriber), I became familiar with both his libertarian views and his economic analysis and came to understand that he was a consistent thinker, and I looked forward to meeting him. I would have that chance in Berlin.
We arrived in Berlin, fully jet-lagged, with two hours of sleep over a forty-hour period. After checking into our room in the Intercontinental Hotel, we went to the opening meeting, where Hayek was one of the speakers. I previously wrote about the madhouse of a dinner we had at the close of the meetings, but at least I had the opportunity to meet the late Walter Williams.
Later that week, I finally had the opportunity to meet Murray N. Rothbard, and he was unlike what I had imagined. Where I had expected a firebrand, I found, instead, a pleasant fellow who laughed with a cackle. We didn’t talk for very long and I doubt he was impressed with my questions, but I finally was able to meet him. I never saw him after that week.
Included in the week’s activities was a bus tour of East Berlin. My wife and I knew what to expect, having talked to others who already had been there, but even mental preparation was not enough, and a bus full of conservative and libertarian economists and writers was not going to take a very sympathetic view of the communist paradise on the other side of the wall. Not with people like Murray Rothbard, Henry Manne, and Morgan Reynolds on board.
Neither Murray nor his wife, Joey, said very much during the tour and I don’t recall saying anything to either of them. For me, reading Rothbard and the Austrians had proven valuable to me as I saw the neglect and decay that was East Berlin and understood why that was the case. Why? The Austrians from Mises on had explained the concept of economic calculation and how socialism as envisioned by its supporters could not survive.
In other words, Murray Rothbard didn’t need to explain to me on the bus why East Berlin, the so-called Paris of Eastern Europe, was a broken-down dump. He already had explained it to me in his numerous writings.