Don Lavoie’s Legacy: Cultivating the Virtues of Academic Life

Don Lavoie

I remember, precisely, where I was on November 9, 1989, the night that the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

I was at George Mason University, in a temporary classroom building erected to alleviate the university’s growing pains. My friends and I had just returned from the 15-minute break that split up our three-hour graduate course in comparative economic systems. Somebody had (if you can believe it) a transistor radio. In stunned silence, we gathered around as the drama unfolded. Our professor, the late Don Lavoie huddled with us.

When the reporter signed off, we staggered back to our seats. Don made his way back to the front of the room. He gazed at the thick stack of note cards he’d prepared for that evening’s lecture, searching in vain for what to say next. As his eyes welled up, he tossed the notes aside and leaned back on the front table. This was not like him. His longish hair, Converse tennis shoes and invitation to call him “Don” gave him an informal vibe, but make no mistake. Every lecture was exquisitely prepared and delivered. But that night, the lecture would have to wait. With a sense of wonder and awe, we exchanged stories about how the Cold War had shaped our lives and perspectives and mused about the meaning this moment held for the world.

A student of Israel Kirzner, Don Lavoie was a central figure in the modern revival of the Austrian school of economics. The author of Rivalry and Central Planning and National Economic Planning: What is Left?, Lavoie was among the most prominent contemporary critics of socialist planning and economic nationalism. But he was no hawk. Don was all dove. He envisioned a peaceful end to Cold War hostilities. He imagined a future in which all peoples in the Eastern Bloc would slip the grip of communist oppression. And it wasn’t going to be through power politics or military might; it was going to be through the peaceful exchange of ideas.

Don’s deep optimism was his calling card. But the history of the Soviet experience was so locked in, so entrenched in the power politics of Communist Party rule, he was resigned to the fact that the peaceful solution, if we had the patience to pursue it, would be a long game. To expect that the collapse of Soviet dominance was imminent would have been wishful thinking… until that newscast. In that moment, everything changed. Don’s astonishment and guarded joy was infectious.

Don invited us into the life of the mind.

Don was the reason I became a professor. In fact, it was the undergraduate version of his comparative systems course that made me realize how important economics is to the human condition.[1] On the first day of class he asked us, “How is it that the same civilization that gave us Bach and Mozart and some of the world’s greatest philosophers and artists could systematically murder six million of its own people?” He asked, “Why is it that societies claiming the mantle of human emancipation under the banner of Marxist socialism so predictably lead to the state violence perpetrated under Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Mengistu, and others?”[2] Then he said, “If there is any systematic connection between these atrocities and the economic policies that were pursued in the name of socialism and national socialism, it is our duty as economists to understand these connections.” You could hear a pin drop.

The first order of business, he declared, was to understand the economics and philosophy of Karl Marx, and to understand it deeply. Don made no secret of his conviction that market society was the soil from which human flourishing springs. But, he cautioned, if we fail to understand the radical emancipatory appeal of Marxism, we will not understand the history of the 20th century or our place within it.

I was hooked. I wanted in.

That night was a sleepless one, in which my life took a decisive turn. The same thought kept coming back to me. “I want to do what Don Lavoie does… And I want to be as good at it as he is.” Stating the obvious, the voice in my head said, “Well, that means you have to get your PhD in economics.” Pause. “Damnit,” came the response. Spending the next five years in grad school had-not-been-my-plan.

It was now. 

Don Lavoie Teaches

Don practiced and taught the academic virtues.

My story is just one among many of how Don inspired generations of young professors. Before me, Don taught Roy Cordato, Peter Boettke, Steve Horwitz, Dave Prychitko, and Howie Baetjer. After me came Virgil Storr.[3] From these generations came dozens more “grand students,” who studied at GMU and other institutions where his intellectual offspring settled.

I’m proud to be a part of the Lavoie lineage, in part because the ideas he advanced are needed now more than ever. As the world increasingly gravitates toward top-down authoritarian solutions to complex problems, Don’s work reminds us of the rich potential for bottom-up solutions to emerge when people are afforded the freedom to experiment and seek peaceful, collaborative solutions through commerce and civil society.

But even if you believe that it’s a different set of ideas that the world needs most urgently, if you are someone who has been called to live a life of the mind, if you are someone who is deeply concerned about the state of the academy today, Don’s example is one that you’d welcome.

Influenced by the works of F.A. Hayek, Don understood that learning is a deeply social process. Knowledge of a complex social world can never be given, in total, to a single mind. Such knowledge is fundamentally dispersed across countless knowers. While some knowledge, like the principles of mathematics and Newtonian laws of motion are universally accessible, much of the knowledge we generate and use in the social world is context dependent, tacit in nature, available directly to some but not everyone. Every human knower, therefore, brings something different and potentially valuable to the intellectual enterprise. If our purpose is to learn, we’ll need one another.

Don’s epistemology had profound implications for how he inducted his students into the community of scholars, beginning with the fact that he treated us like colleagues.[4] Alongside his graduate courses Don convened readings groups in which he and a small cluster of grad students worked through challenging texts. In these conversations, there was no front-of-the-room. There were no lecture notes. He was learning with us.

When it came to our written work, he didn’t merely grade. He engaged the argument, as one scholar engages another serious mind. The better the paper, the more red ink was spilled. Copious notes in the margin meant that you had made him think; you were on to something. Most importantly, he made time for us, to work through our ideas.

The devotion that Don inspired in his students was directly tied to the intoxicating sensation of being taken seriously, the sense that he was learning from us just as we were learning from him. There may have been times when our status as colleagues was a kindness on his part, a polite fiction. But if it was, he never let on.

…Which brings me to the other important implication of Don’s philosophy of knowledge. Because learning is a social process, rules of just conduct matter. One should seek out serious scholars on the other side of the intellectual and ideological divide, read their work sympathetically, assign and discuss it with one’s students, and if possible, invite them into real-time conversation… not just once and not only to formal settings, but often, over lunch, coffee, or a glass of red wine.

He recognized that the habit of taking opposing ideas seriously did not always come easily for students. Such norms need to be cultivated deliberately. He taught us how to read a text charitably. He taught us how, without devolving into flaccid relativism, to take the moral and intellectual commitments of our opponents seriously, so that we could fulfill our responsibility to engage our conversation partners in good faith.

In other words, Don took the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor seriously. Really seriously, not just the “thin” concept of exchange as anonymous transaction, but as a marketplace, a real place, that is “thick” with relational life. In the thick marketplace of ideas, we look forward to repeated encounters with familiar faces. We anticipate every exchange as an opportunity to contribute, persuade, challenge, or grow. We respect our rivals, from whom we learn. And as with all thick social environments, a reputation for hospitality and fair dealing matters.

Don’s story is woven into the IHS story, what we value, and who we are.

As the Institute for Humane Studies launches its 60th anniversary year, we’ve been taking stock of the extraordinary community of scholars who have shaped our history. 

Don’s affiliation with IHS began at the very start of his career. In 1974 he attended our South Royalton conference on Austrian economics, widely credited as marking the modern revival of the Austrian school. In 1977 he was an IHS Summer Graduate Research Fellow. Over the decades he continued to participate in IHS conferences and seminars until 2000, the year before he died, when he spoke at a seminar on “The First Amendment and Beyond.” In the years that I taught at IHS summer seminars, I often heard IHS staff say that when they needed economists capable of reaching across the ideological divide, they turned to the Lavoie Diaspora. I took this as a high compliment.

When people ask me what IHS stands for, I talk about the ideas that underlie the good society, ideas that Don explored and advanced throughout his career. I also talk about the values that serve as the foundation of academic life. When higher education is at its best, we cultivate, in equal measure, expertise and humility. We welcome intellectual challenge with a spirit of genuine curiosity. We are honest traders in the exchange of ideas, insisting upon the open, fearless, and collaborative search for truth. For any scholar worthy of the name, practicing these virtues is no sacrifice, it is a source of joy.

Like many, I worry a great deal about the current state of the academy. Like many, I feel the exhaustion that comes from virtue signaling run amuck. But as we search for ways to correct course in American higher education, let us not confuse virtue signaling with actual virtue. Following Don’s example would be a good place to start, cultivating in our students, in our relationships with our colleagues, and in ourselves the virtues of openness, humility, and fairmindedness. When the academy is at its best, these virtues are not merely signaled, they are practiced.


[1] I relay this story in “Cultivating the Economic Imagination,” in Journal of Economics and Finance Education, 10(2): 41-53.

[2] See Stephan Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panne, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, and Jean-Louis Margolin (1999) The Black Book of Communism. Cambridge, Mass: President and Fellows of Harvard College.

[3] Peter Boettke, University Professor of Economics and Philosophy at George Mason University, serves as IHS distinguished fellow. Virgil Storr, Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University, serves as IHS senior fellow. I’ve discussed Don’s impact on his students and the broader world of idea with Pete and Virgil in Hayek Program Podcast episodes (here and here). Also see Pete’s reflections on Don here, Virgil’s here and here, and Steve Horwitz’s here.

[4] Again, see Virgil Storr on this point here.


Dr. Chamlee-Wright’s piece is one of many feature stories comprising the Institute for Humane Studies’ 60th Anniversary in 2021. For more spotlights on scholars, videos and interviews, retrospectives, and photo galleries, visit TheIHS.org/60.

See more posts: 60th AnniversaryFacultyIdeasIHS at 60 

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