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Sending the Signposts

by , Editor in Chief, Free Liberal

First in a series of posts about Peter Boettke’s Living Economics: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

In the study of any subject it is helpful to have the guidance of someone who has gone before, walked many paths, and can point the student to the most useful paths and points of learning. This guide can warn the student against intellectual cul-de-sacs that waste time and have no exit; or worse, sinkholes that can swallow a scholar wholly.

An unwise guide might teach many interesting lessons, but these lessons might not cohere together, or even mislead the student, and therefore leave the student unable to journey alone, the student having no map to navigate by. Such a student is always dependent on the experts to read the signs.

Living Economics: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (book cover) Economics, being both a descriptive and analytic science of human choice and human institutions, makes the choice of a human (and humane) guide even more paramount. It becomes a reflexive and recursive problem, a strange loop of decision-making. Many forks in the road will be met, as frameworks and theoretical worldviews organize to their own focal points. That is, when you put on a pair of goggles, you begin to see the world according to the goggles. The choice of goggles is a fork in the road. Thus prior choices can limit future choices.

Prof. Peter Boettke has been studying economics for over 30 years, slightly longer than your humble correspondent has been on this Earth. Not only is Boettke long experienced as an economist, he has played a vital role in shaping the modern school of Austrian Economics (of the GMU/Cato variety) and is known for shepherding many projects and scholars in the broader liberal (or libertarian) intellectual movement.

Peter Boettke (right) received a standing ovation as he received the Adam Smith award at the 2010 Association of Private Enterprise Education, a free-market economics association. (Photo from

Anybody seriously interested in economics, whether she be a free-marketeer or not, can benefit from delving into Boettke’s Living Economics. As Daniel Kuehn says in his forthcoming review of the book, Living Economics provides a map of Boettke’s inspirations and points to a specific canon of free-market thinking:

Living Economics presents itself as a sort of applied intellectual history; an intellectual history with a moral to the story, if you will. It is actually more of an intellectual autobiography. Billed as a guide to good economics, passionately practiced, it is really a window into the way economics is done at George Mason University and affiliated institutions. This isn’t meant to diminish the book. Even as an intellectual autobiography it is a fascinating read.

[Editor’s Note: Read Daniel Kuehn’s review in full here ]

Boettke lays out his family tree—the “mainline” of economics that places the Invisible Hand, the power of the market to organize society, as its cohering principle. This mainline stands against the Keynesian “mainstream” that is politically convenient, politically popular, and politically connected.

Boettke asserts that Adam Smith, a major figure in the mainline, has, in The Wealth of Nations (Liberty Fund print edition, Online at EconLib), provided us a positive science of how to run a government fitted to a liberal society (Book V). This kind of assertion is an invitation for us to enter into his reading, or to challenge his assertions based on our own reading of Smith, alternative theories, and experience.

If Boettke is correct in his signposts, then Living Economics is an important guide to what is best in economics. Even if one disagrees in parts, it is a helpful syllabus to a serious student.

If he is largely wrong, the unconvinced and the hostile can find their way to some of the strongest (or at least most strident) arguments for the free market and meet them toe-to-toe, rather than against the many distortions, as well as the tide of infantile and ill-informed arguments that pollutes the Internet, cable news, and common discourse.

To begin, I invite you to read the Preface [PDF] and Chapter 1: Economics for Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow [PDF] from Boettke’s site:


Comrade Führer Kevin Rollins faces the world with an open heart and an open mind.
Kevin Rollins is the founder and editor of Free Liberal and principal of Kevin Rollins Consulting. He was formerly the managing editor of Econ Journal Watch. He holds a master’s in economics from George Mason University.