Monday, April 15, 2024

South Royalton, 50 years later

Fifty years ago I had the honor to serve as the organizer of a conference on Austrian economics, held in the small town of South Royalton, Vermont. Recently the Mises Institute hosted a retrospective on the conference, which included a panel with five of the surviving participants in the conference, hosted by Peter Klein. The panel is posted on YouTube, along with a transcript. I recommend that anyone interested in Austrian economics take a look at it: South Royalton: Looking Back.

In the course of the panel, the question came up as to why the event was held in South Royalton. The hypothesis Peter gives about Dartmouth is essentially correct. I was teaching at Dartmouth at the time. When I was asked to organize the conference, I first approached the proper authorities in the administration at Dartmouth to see if their facilities were available. I was assured they would be. Unfortunately, it did not occur to me that I needed to get ideological clearance from my colleagues in the econ department. Except for Colin Campbell, a Chicago PhD who was enthusiastic about the project, the rest viewed Mises and Hayek as too far to the right for academic respectability. I was urged to drop the idea of the conference in order not to bring disrepute on the department.

By that time, plans were well advanced and it was clear that there was a lot of interest among potential participants. It seemed a shame to cancel the conference altogether. My wife and I had lived on and off in South Royalton – a picturesque, charming, and friendly village that we much preferred to Hanover NH – and we knew the owner of the South Royalton Inn. He and I patched things together as best we could. As the date approached, interest in the conference continued to grow. I remember being repeatedly pressured to enlarge the list of participants beyond what the facilities could reasonably hold, but our host at the Inn did his best. By arranging with neighbors to use their spare bedrooms, and by putting some of the overflow in housing where no one had recently been living, we did not have to turn anyone away.

Fifty years later, listening to some of the remarks about the town and the facilities, I am reminded of how, at the time, my wife and laughed about the way some of the visitors from Planet New York reacted to the experience of life on Planet Earth. Imagine the horror! Life without subways! Without all-night delis! Without multiple deadbolts on every bedroom door! I guess we can all laugh about it now.

The panelists also mention Milton Friedman’s unexpected visit to the opening banquet. My recollection is that it was Colin Campbell’s last-minute idea to invite his former dissertation adviser, who had a summer house nearby. I okayed the idea. Friedman was in no way “crashing someone else’s party.”

What everyone remembers now was Friedman’s famous quip, “There is no Austrian economics – only good economics and bad economics.” I have always thought that Friedman was right. I am happy that over the years participants in the South Royalton conference, and their students in turn, have produced much work that we all can recognize as “good economics.” 

If there is anything that disappoints me, it is that some Austrian economists make too much effort to build fences rather than bridges between themselves and the rest of the profession. As fondly as I remember Murray Rothbard as a mentor and a friend, I am afraid that by temperament, he was more of a splitter than a unifier. Going forward, Austrian economics could use less Rothbard and more Hayek.

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