A Scholar's Lessons Live On Through Their Students

Don Lavoie, Emily Chamlee-Wright, and The Importance of Mentorship

On November 10, 2016, my teacher, frequent co-author, and dear friend Emily Chamlee-Wright became the President and CEO of the Institute for Humane Studies. Started by Baldy Harper in 1961, IHS is an organization based at George Mason University that is committed to encouraging the study and advancement of a free society.

It’s hard to imagine a more natural fit for Emily or to imagine IHS finding a more natural successor to Marty Zupan. As Emily and I discuss in an interview I conducted with her several months ago (long before the possibility of her taking over IHS was in the cards), both her teaching and scholarship reflect a deep commitment to understanding how it is that individuals can and do live out their lives as free and responsible individuals. This is exemplified by her focus on social learning processes, her recognition of the role that culture plays in shaping the actions and orientations of individuals, and her insistence on doing fieldwork to study social phenomena and human action.

I encourage you to check out Emily’s work on culture and entrepreneurship as well as her work on post-disaster community recovery. See especially,

In our conversation, Emily and I also spend a lot of time talking about our shared mentor and teacher Don Lavoie. This was perhaps the least surprising thing about that conversation. I have told the story before but the first time I saw Don was through Emily’s eyes. The dissertation chair of my undergraduate advisor was coming to speak to her comparative economic systems class and she was, in a word, giddy. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t get it. At the time, I wasn’t as close to Emily as I am now (and I hadn’t gotten to know Don yet) and so I didn’t understand the love that a student has for their mentor. I didn’t understand how great it would be to have the person whose footsteps you were following in to see you walking along that path. I understand it now.

Don was a great man, a wonderful teacher, a true mentor, and a good friend. Don was an even more amazing scholar. As my colleagues Peter Boettke and Chris Coyne describe, Don’s work in comparative economic systems rehabilitated the Austrian school of economics’ critiques of socialism and interventionism.

In 1985, Don published two books that have been republished as a part of the Advanced Studies in Political Economy series by the Mercatus Center.

As Don pointed out in these books, top-down (comprehensive or non-comprehensive) planning efforts suffer from

  • (1) a knowledge problem … central planners don’t and can’t know enough to effectively engage in top down planning.
  • (2) a power problem … central planners necessarily end up with tremendous control over the lives of ordinary citizens.
  • (3) a militarization problem … because top-down planning necessarily fails we risk a militarization of not just the economy but the whole of society.

Don’s work shouldn’t be viewed as just a commentary on the past but as a guide for how we should engage in social science research.

In fact, it’s Don’s vision that informs the approach to social science scholarship and training that we’ve adopted at the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. As Emily discusses in my interview with her, Don believed that students should be treated like colleagues and that the best way to learn together was to carefully read and then discuss the key texts in a subject. The pedagogical approach is at the center of our student fellowship programs.

Similarly, Don’s commitment to multi-disciplinary research drives the way we approach research topics. The research that grew out of the Mercatus Center’s Gulf Cost Recovery Project, for instance, employs concepts, tools, theories and empirical strategies from a variety of disciplines.

To learn more about the Hayek Program, visit ppe.mercatus.org and sign up here to receive updates on Hayek Program research and events.

Virgil Storr is a Senior Research Fellow and Senior Director of Academic and Student Programs at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He is also the Don C. Lavoie Senior Fellow in the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics and Economics.