For one day last week, the blog ThinkMarkets ran a wonderful succession of articles that provide deep insight into the life and work of an influential intellectual. His name is Mario Rizzo, economist and author at New York University. I’m also proud to call him a teacher and friend.
These pieces kept popping up on my feeds, and I had to stop everything and devour them. Absolutely fascinating to observe the influence of one person on so many, and the widening circles of influence of his students in turn. It’s an amazing thing suddenly to realize: I briefly studied under a true master.
The stream of tributes that appeared on Professor Rizzo’s 70th birthday followed many decades of teaching, and they come from students all over the world. The results are an extremely powerful testament to the influence of one man, and also a great insight into the mysteriously beautiful way ideas can take hold in the mind and translate into a changed world.
Here is a complete list of the tributes:
So far as I can tell, all of this outpouring of appreciation came as a surprise to Professor Rizzo, as is the tradition of the Festschrift, a volume of tributes to a great thinker. The style of this one is innovative, a flurry of posts that people actually read instead of a fat book that sits on a shelf. The approach produced a more informal, and much more approachable, series of tributes than you would find in the usual Festschrift.
Time and Ignorance
Many contributors mention Mario’s masterwork The Economics of Time and Ignorance (coauthored with Gerald O’Driscoll), a book that had a huge influence on my own thinking. The book came out in 1985, and spawned a research program that lasted decades. It was the year of my very first academic seminar on economics, sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies. It was taught by Mario and his coauthors Gerald O’Driscoll and Roger Garrison. Looking back on it, I had no idea just what a remarkable moment that was, and had no idea of the good fortune I had.
Mario’s book was dedicated to a deep exploration of a facet of Austrian theory that emphasizes the market as a process, the role of discovery and imagination in human action, uncertainty in the face of the forward motion of time, and a reconceptualization of the concept of time itself. Mainstream economics had long ago adopted a static view, in service of mechanical models that necessarily freeze the market process and lack uncertainty and surprise.
For those trained in this mechanical way of thinking, modeling economics as if human beings aren’t part of the equations and the uncertainties of life play no serious role in economic decision-making, Mario’s book was strong medicine. He had taken insights from Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, and Ludwig Lachmann further than their own works to provide a radical critique of conventional economic modeling, and a provocative new way to think about economic behavior. His theoretical explorations both expanded on and departed from those of his own two teachers, Murray Rothbard and Israel Kirzner, and came to shape the thought of a new generation.
Austrianism and the Future
For students of the 1980s generation who were learning graduate-level economics, Mario’s way of thinking provided an intellectually robust alternative, bringing a level of respect for the Austrian tradition that the mainstream has always been anxious to deny. His book, and his hundreds of articles and edited books in the last 30 years, demonstrated that the Austrian tradition, with roots dating back nearly half a millennium, is strong enough to stand up with integrity in the modern profession, elucidating and expanding upon the profound complexity of the human mind and its always-experimental engagement with the material world.
Let me summarize what I took from his work. Economics cannot thrive as a science by constructing a model of life that is removed from the lived experience of real human beings. It needs to deal with real people and our penchant for error, our struggle to find a way forward in the face of ceaseless change, and our capacity for invention and acting on wild passions. It has to deal with high-end philosophical questions concerning the passage of time, the limits of knowledge, the gradual unfolding of insight, the process of learning, and the remarkable capacity of the market to coordinate economic plans among actors who know only bits and pieces of the whole that never stops emerging from their choices.
The core problem with mathematical modeling in economics is not that it is difficult; it is that it is too simple to account for the infinite complexity of real life.
Are there political implications of this way of looking at economics? Absolutely. They all point to the indispensability of adaptable institutions of a liberal political order — a society not locked down by law, regulation, and bureaucracy, much less one ruled by an appointed class of planners, but rather a world of freedom that allows for continual change and discovery. And anyone who knows Mario becomes profoundly aware of and convinced by his libertarianism.
The extent to which this open-ended approach to doing economics inspired a whole generation, and built a social and intellectual foundation for the future, is illustrated by these essays. Mario demonstrated that the Austrian tradition is far from closed. As Andreas Hoffmann, the editor of this series of posts, says: “There are very few economists who are as important to the development of contemporary Austrian economics as Mario.”
You think ideas don’t matter, that intellectuals aren’t really relevant to the shape of the modern world? Read some of these tributes and you will see otherwise. Mario Rizzo is for the ages.
The video below gives you a sense of his lecturing style, the agility of his mind, and the nature of the influence he has had on so many.