Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

The Importance of Deviance in Intellectual Development: Especially at Virginia Tech in the 1970s

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

The Importance of Deviance in Intellectual Development: Especially at Virginia Tech in the 1970s

Article excerpt

Getting my doctorate at Virginia Tech has been both the boon and the bane of my academic career. The source of the boon is well known. I was here at the start of a major intellectual revolution in the study of economics, specifically, public choice economics. Over the intervening three decades, that revolution has been so successful that the basic tenets of public choice have become tightly woven into the fabric of mainstream economics, so much so that newly minted graduate students from across the country often do not now appreciate how revolutionary those tenets once were.

Of course, I had the good fortune of being able to arrive on campus at about the same year James Buchanan did and a year after Gordon Tullock took up residence. As everyone here understands, the revolution could not have happened without them. As only I know, my academic career would likely never have progressed the way it has had I not, fortuitously, crossed paths with them. By being able to interact here at the Center with Buchanan and Tullock--and with Charles Goetz, Richard Wagner, Robert Staaf, Winston Bush, and a flow of other very talented people, including my long-time friend and co-author Dwight Lee, each of whom had a touch of insanity--the way I looked at the world, and my place in it, shifted radically in those three short years. I entered the Ph.D. program as a devotee of John Kenneth Galbraith's view of the universe. I literally did not care who was on the faculty. Blacksburg was close to Radford, which is where I started my academic career. I was committed to getting my "union card" and returning to a life of teaching, sans research, at Radford College. I left amazed at how, before coming here, I could have taught a course on Galbraith's New Industrial State. I also left committed to exiting this profession with a paper trail that would at least be lengthy, if not particularly worthy.

Ironically, the bane of my career has emerged from the same source, my having grown accustomed to academic life as it was practiced here in those early years. I came to take for granted that life elsewhere in research universities would be energized by aggressive daily interactions with colleagues who were driven by an unacknowledged arrogance--that with enough stamina, persistence, and ink, they could and would change the way the world thinks. I grew to believe that professors would be in their offices and at their typewriters (or computers) or, if not there, would be in other people's offices or meeting more spontaneously in hallways, constantly jousting over some new idea. I came to expect that if a colleague left a paper on someone else's desk at 8:00 in the morning, the paper would be returned by late afternoon--with two pages of typed comments (on cheap yellow sheets, no less!). I grew to see economics as a mission to come up not only with good ideas that were publishable but with interesting ideas that were worthy of discussion and that would push the revolution forward. I came to understand that the goal of an economist should be to search for the counterintuitive, to think outside the box, and to establish an intellectual beachhead in some discipline heretofore untouched by the economist's mindset.

Here at Virginia Tech, I was sheltered. I didn't understand the constricting power of academic elitism evident elsewhere in the profession. I grew to assume that journal standing was important in evaluating publications, but that the quality of the underlying ideas was far more important. I naturally presumed that the power of ideas would always trump academic politics. I grew accustomed to believing that publishing 15 articles and a couple of books a year was nothing unusual, just good, honest labor for a year's pay. I didn't understand for years what Robert Staaf really meant when he described the Public Choice Center as "a wagon train fending off the rest of the profession."

Boy, was I ever naive.

My experience here at Virginia Tech has been the bane of my career because economics became more than a discipline or way of thinking; it became a disease, taking over much of how I thought about everything, whether boiling an egg, mowing the grass, or taking a shower. …

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