On Sunday evening, the Society for the Development of Austrian Economics (SDAE) held its annual diner in Charleston, SC where the Southern Economics Association meetings took place.
After diner, Sanford Ikeda, who is the President of the SDAE, gave an excellent speech on the use of Austrian economics in the understanding of the spatial dimension of market relationships. The evening continued with the SDAE honoring Professor Israel Kirzner with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
As Pete Boettke put it in his introductory speech, the values of true scholarship—especially integrity and dignity—define Kirzner’s work. Kirzner never took intellectual shortcuts and always (painfully) presented his ideas in the most detailed way possible. He never sneered at his intellectual opponents and always adopted the most charitable reading of the view he criticized. Having been around him at NYU and having had the immense honor to collaborate with him recently on a paper, I can attest that Kirzner has embraced these values more than anyone I know. Because of this—or as a result of this—he has been one of the most truly humble scholars around, not playing any intellectual game, but simply pursuing the idea of truth as he saw it. This has been true in his career as an economist but also in the way he has carried himself in his life and in his respect for others.
The motivations for scholarship are often diverse and unrelated to the Aristotelian search for truth. Scholars frequently make arguments for the sake of being heard. In an age where economics has become a game for clever people, Kirzner reminds us that true scholarship can be achieved and that virtues that seem out of this world can be practiced.
Kirzner goes even further, as he insists—following Mises—that the reason for doing economics does not only rest with the love for truth, but also in realizing the importance of (Austrian) economics in the survival of the human race. As Kirzner himself emphasized in his speech:
During my fifteen years as Mises’ students, I learned many lessons from him. And I learned even more lessons by painstakingly studying his published writings over the decades. As you may know, although I consider myself a disciple of Mises in economic theory, I have never subscribed to the overarching philosophical system within which Mises saw his economics as occupying the central place.
Yet, perhaps the most important lesson, which I have learned from Mises, was a lesson located outside economics itself. What Mises taught us in his writings, in his lectures, in his seminars, and in perhaps everything he said, was that economics—yes, and I mean sound economics, Austrian economics—is primordially, crucially important. Economics is not an intellectual game. Economics is deadly serious. The very future of mankind—of civilization—depends, in Mises’ view, upon widespread understanding of, and respect for, the principles of economics.
This is a lesson, which is located almost entirely outside economics proper. But all Mises’ work depended ultimately upon this tenet. Almost invariably, a scientist is motivated by values not strictly part of the science itself. The lust for fame, for material rewards—even the pure love of truth—these goals may possibly be fulfilled by scientific success, but are themselves not identified by science as worthwhile goals. What drove Mises, what accounted for his passionate dedication, his ability calmly to ignore the sneers of, and the isolation imposed by, academic contemporaries, was his conviction that the survival of mankind depends on the development and dissemination of Austrian economics.
…Austrian economics is not simply a matter of intellectual problem solving, like a challenging crossword puzzle, but literally a matter of the life or death of the human race…
Kirzner learned this great lesson from Mises and he carried the torch beyond him. He humbly reminded us at the event on Sunday why we are doing this job. Many economists know how deadly serious their discipline is, but few do the right thing. Kirzner has never faltered in doing his job; he is a real mensch. We all should be Kirznerians now.
Congratulations Professor Israel Kirzner for this well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award.