From Intern to Board Member: Law Prof. Todd Zywicki’s IHS Story

As a freshman at Dartmouth College, Todd Zywicki took a class on “Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” which introduced him to classical liberal ideas through the writings of Robert Nozick, John Stuart Mill, and John Locke. His exposure to the classical liberal tradition continued through college and, after hearing a speech on campus from IHS alum Howard Baetjer — who worked at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) at the time — Zywicki decided to intern at FEE.

Todd Zywicki

That is where he first heard about IHS and, following his junior year of college, Zywicki joined IHS as an intern for two summers. As an IHS intern, Zywicki attended his first Liberty and Society Summer Seminar at Marymount University and became acquainted with two cohorts of Summer Graduate Research Fellows, which included Peter Boettke, David Schmidtz, Daniel Klein, and the late Steven Horwitz, among others.

“The Liberty and Society Summer Seminars were significant to me when I was an undergrad and I needed those foundations in the interdisciplinary project of liberty.”

– Todd Zywicki

When Zywicki launched into graduate school, he continued his relationship with IHS. He received several IHS fellowships and Hayek Fund grants to support his education and free up his time to focus on research and publications. “Especially when you are a junior professor or a graduate student, the most precious commodity you have is time,” Zywicki says. Financial support from IHS allowed Zywicki to focus on his studies and research, and even to spend summers interning, rather than worrying about finances and part-time jobs. “I in no way overlooked, not only the intellectual sustenance that IHS gave me through the years, but also the direct financial support that enables poor grad students to be able to spend our time making long-term investments,” Zywicki says.

Seminars and research workshops also strengthened his academic network and research success. One of the most impactful IHS programs for Zywicki was a Western Legal and Economic History Seminar in the summer of 1991, between graduate studies. He had just obtained his master’s degree in economics from Clemson University and was trying to decide whether to pursue a PhD or a law degree.

“Because of all the experience I had with IHS, and all the exposure I had to IHS, I understood what I was getting myself into — I understood what it meant to be an academic, what that mission meant, what a responsibility that was, and that it was a lot of hard work — and I felt really prepared to hit the ground running.”

– Todd Zywicki

The Western Legal and Economic History Seminar brought interdisciplinary scholars together to read and discuss books like “How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World,” by Nathan Rosenberg and L. E. Birdzell, Jr. Contemplating important questions of political economy in the institutional foundations of freedom, Zywicki considered both the legal and economic perspectives.

“What I’ve always thought that’s great about IHS is that it’s ‘retail’ not ‘wholesale’: that it’s designed to help all of us who want to understand these ideas better at all stages of our career, to not only understand the classical liberal tradition, but also think about how to be better scholars and teachers to convey those ideas to the world.”

– Todd Zywicki

While pondering those questions, Zywicki realized that he prefers to think verbally, through words, rather than symbolically, through math. This insight cemented his plan to attend law school. Reflecting on this decision, Zywicki says that the interdisciplinary seminar facilitated one of the most important turning points in his academic journey. “It was at that seminar with other grad students that I finally decided, ‘I think law school is the right thing for me,’” Zywicki says.

Instead of pursuing a PhD in economics, Zywicki went to the University of Virginia for law school, where he was a John M. Olin Scholar in Law and Economics, served as executive editor of the Virginia Tax Review, and obtained his JD. “Law is kind of where the rubber hits the road,” Zywicki states, “where we take all these academic ideas and we try to boil them down into common law, legislation, or regulation; understand how that actually works in practice, applying a public choice, and understanding and being attuned to the unintended consequences of all that.”

Following law school, Zywicki clerked for a federal judge and practiced law for a few years before transitioning into teaching. IHS continued supporting him through his early years as a junior professor, offering financial and academic support. One of Zywicki’s first publications benefited from an IHS Research Workshop, where a group of scholars, including Yale’s Akhil Amar and Northwestern’s John McGinnis, gathered to review his work.

2017 IHS free speech event panelists (L-R) John Hasnas, Todd Zywicki, Nadine Strossen, and Jonathan Rauch

Zywicki attained tenure early in his teaching career, which he says is likely due to his strong publication record. Then in 1998, after teaching at several other academic institutions, Zywicki arrived at George Mason University, where he continues teaching in the Antonin Scalia Law School today. His research program draws from Friedrich Hayek and James Buchanan’s ideas of common law and spontaneous order, along with the public choice dynamics of the state and more.

“One of the things that’s always been a strength of IHS is the interdisciplinary focus that it takes and the networks that it builds,” Zywicki says. That IHS network provided Zywicki with lasting friendships and the opportunity to learn from like-minded scholars in other disciplines, like philosopher David Schmidtz.

“I have always had an interdisciplinary focus, and one of the reasons I was always drawn to IHS was because it focuses on the interdisciplinary project of liberty.”

– Todd Zywicki

He has collaborated with other IHS scholars in adjacent fields, such as economist Peter Boettke, with whom he taught classes and co-edited the “Research Handbook on Austrian Law and Economics,” a book on Austrian law and economics. Zywicki also participated in IHS programs with economists like Vernon Smith and the late James Buchanan, sharing the podium with them and others at IHS seminars.

Through IHS, Zywicki also established a long-term friendship with John Majewski, who is now a distinguished history professor and dean at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Their friendship began when they interned together at IHS, and has deepened over the years.

He says he has been thankful to learn from these brilliant people, “whether it’s collaborating with them or being able to understand their ideas and bring them to bear on what I do in law.”  Law has become an applied social science, Zywicki explains, so it requires an understanding of history, economics, philosophy, and other disciplines.

Law is no longer an autonomous discipline. Throughout his career, Zywicki has focused much of his work in law on its application of economics. He enjoys teaching public choice economics as well as common law and natural rights, and he even runs a seminar applying public choice theory to law. Zywicki also coauthored the only existing law school course book on public choice in the law, “Law and Economics: Private and Public.” “I believe when people are given the opportunity to solve their own problems, they do that pretty well,” Zywicki says. “And when they are given the task of solving other people’s problems, they do that very poorly.”

“IHS has really been the pivotal institution that has changed my life, that has been the vehicle by which I’ve made a lot of my best friends, that has not only enriched my mind, but enriched my soul, through the inspiring people I’ve met.”

– Todd Zywicki

A lot of his research revolves around consumer finance and financial regulation. Zywicki says that what underpins his perspective is the fact that he trusts people to not only make mistakes, but also learn from their mistakes. “Humans are complex, fallible creatures,” Zywicki says, “But we do a lot better taking care of ourselves than we do trying to push around and improve the lives of people we’ve never met and never will meet.”

Outstanding IHS Alum Award winners John Tomasi (left), Kristina Kendall, and Todd Zywicki (right) with Charles Koch at the 2011 IHS 50th gala

Being a professor who believes in the free society can be lonely and discouraging, but Zywicki expresses gratitude for the brilliant, compassionate people he has met through IHS. The community that IHS fosters is even more needed now, Zywicki says, given the added isolation from the pandemic.

“To be able to find a community, mostly this past year online, of people who still believe in the classical liberal project — who believe in the power of individuals rather than the power of the state and centralized, coercive institutions to solve human problems — has really been a lifesaver.”

– Todd Zywicki

Zywicki has run the full gamut of IHS, starting out as an intern and student and eventually becoming a faculty partner and board member. “I transitioned from being a student to grad student to a faculty member,” Zywicki says. “And I’ve been thrilled through the years to be a frequent lecturer and teacher at IHS programs.” He says that now, as a member of the IHS board of directors, he is thinking about how to pass this tradition and experience down to the next generation of scholars. “One of the great thrills for me is… the opportunity to meet younger IHS scholars who help me to stay abreast of these fields, and know what’s going on, and see what the exciting ideas are,” Zywicki says. For his excellent contributions to the liberal tradition and community, Zywicki received the seventh annual Outstanding IHS Alum Award.

The Institute for Humane Studies is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2021. For more scholar spotlights, video interviews, and conversations about classical liberal ideas, visit TheIHS.org/60

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