If you are interested in the history of ideas, at some point this question will occur to you: “How is it possible for someone to gain influence, yet at the same time retain his independence?” If you traffic in ideas, you have to be able to do both.
A crackpot can go online today and argue for his favorite theory. He is completely independent. He is also completely ignored. His independence does him no good, because what he writes has no influence.
I suppose my two favorite recent examples of people who have maintained their independence, but whose ideas have had considerable influence, are Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard. They are more influential today than they were at the time of their deaths. Mises died in 1973. Rothbard died in 1995.
Mises had the great advantage, in the final phase of his intellectual career, in the fact that Yale University Press published his books from 1944 to 1957. This gave him an audience. The editor of the press was not part of the Yale University faculty. Nobody holding the ideas propounded by Mises was employed by Yale University in the 20th century. For that matter, no one holding his views has been employed by any first-tier American University. Two professors who did make it into top schools, and who had studied under Mises, informally were Gottfried Haberler and Fritz Machlup. Neither of them defended Mises’ theories by the time they were offered jobs at their respective universities, Harvard University and Princeton University.
In Rothbard’s case, he was employed by Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, an engineering school that did not offer an economics major. It was so far off the radar of liberal arts education that no one knew that Rothbard was on the faculty, except for other faculty members, and most of them did not know anything about him. Only late in his career did he get a position at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
The same thing was true of Mises. New York University did not pay his salary. They granted him only the honorary title of visiting professor, a position he held for 20 years. He already had an international reputation at the time when New York University hired him. His salary was paid by private individuals and the William Volker Fund. It did not cost the university any money to keep him on the payroll. Universities are usually content to get free teachers.
Rothbard received no benefits, other than money, for teaching at Brooklyn Polytechnic. Mises received no benefits, other than a classroom of graduate students, for teaching at New York University. The spread of Mises’s ideas had only a little to do with his position at New York University. He was able to grant four men a Ph.D. Three of them continued to have some intellectual influence, but only one of them, Israel Kirzner, had anything like academic influence within the world of professional economists.
Rothbard was never in a position to work with Ph.D. students, and I can think of only one student who has had much influence: Doug French. He studied with Rothbard in Nevada.
Mises gained his academic reputation before World War I. His ideas were abandoned after World War II. He had very little influence in American academia. But his books sold well among economic laymen. He wrote in clear English, which meant that intelligent people could understand what he said. His system was logical. It was far more easily understood than Keynesianism. These book sales did Mises no good whatsoever in any undergraduate institution except Grove City College, whose chairman was Hans Sennholz. Sennholz received his Ph.D. under Mises. Sennholz had the backing of Sun Oil’s chairman, J. Howard Pew, who got what he wanted at Grove City College. Pew was a graduate of the institution, and was its major donor. He told the president of the college that he wanted Sennholz to head the economics department, and that was what he got.
(For the rest of my article, click the link.)