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Fergus Hodgson

Is the Ivory Tower for You?
Is the Ivory Tower for You? 610 348 Fergus Hodgson

The Guide to Academia for Aspiring Liberals

The road to an academic career is a long one, and many individuals fall by the wayside. Before handing over many precious years of your life, you would be wise to get a precise sense for where this path leads and how to navigate it successfully.

This dilemma is particularly personal to me, since I have an affinity for academics and have been weighing various study options for longer than I care to remember. With three uncles working in Canadian higher education, I have also seen the highs and lows, with one rising to be a university president and another struggling for many years to provide for his family.

My triplet uncles at Trent University in Ontario: Paul, Leo, and Louis Groarke. (Trent Daily News)

For those who lean towards (classical) liberalism, there is the further complication that many fields, particularly the humanities, may seem hostile to your presence. This reminds me of my old job as a note taker in New Zealand — one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. In that role I attended and reviewed random classes all across the University of Waikato, and the weight of collectivism crushed my confidence in academia.

The problem is not fatal, but one should be aware that academia does have ideological gatekeepers. This is where the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) at George Mason University has such an important role to play. The nonprofit in Arlington, Virginia, offers financial support and career mentoring to libertarians and liberals, of which I have been a beneficiary. That includes the now defunct journalism seminar I attended back in 2010.

At another IHS seminar I picked up a book that I only got to recently, but which I should have read a long time ago. Written by fellow liberals, Scaling the Ivory Tower: The Pursuit of an Academic Career (Second Edition, 2005, 81 pages) is wisdom handed down from those who’ve been in your shoes and made it to tenured positions. You’ve likely heard of Michael Munger (political science) of Duke University and David Schmidtz (philosophy) of the University of Arizona; both contributed multiple sections to the book.

Scaling the Ivory Tower may be under 100 pages, but there is no fluff. It doesn’t waste time in delivering practical advice and addressing the difficult questions. It focuses solely on the path to academia, as opposed to studies for other purposes, and it compels you to think carefully about where you want to go and why you would or would not want to be an academic. Seemingly every few pages there is a tough-love warning: if you don’t like X, maybe the academy isn’t the place for you.

What struck me the most was the book’s detailed description of the many steps and the long-term planning necessary to scale the tower. As someone who wants results stat and who has no love for bureaucracy, this was not exactly music to my ears. However, the contributors make their case clearly and persuasively, and they speak from experience. They note how competitive academia can be, and how you have to be able to distinguish yourself from your rivals.

In addition to the expected sections on choosing a graduate school and conducting a job search, Scaling the Ivory Tower weighs in on “dealing with people” and “getting along.” These seemingly quaint ideas, along with how to develop your brand, constitute perhaps the most valuable and distinct part of the book. Schmidtz wrote this for liberals who lean towards polemics and whose attitudes will put them in awkward positions when engaging with other people in the field.

“There is a risk,” he writes, “that classical liberals will behave this way, just because they think they have something important to say which is being ignored.” He encourages people to think for themselves, engage with the field, and not hide behind all aspects of a pre-packaged “ism.” My friend Walter “the moderate” Block‘s path is illustrative here. The combative author of Defending the Undefendable is now chair of the economics department at Loyola University New Orleans, but his road has been arduous.

As a professional editor and English-language purist, one aspect of the book’s style did give me a smile. Not without irony, it carries plenty of awkward and inconsistent gender terms, with contributors flipping between he and she and his, her, and their in the same passage. This is symptomatic of political correctness in higher education, and inevitably the contributors trip themselves up: “When I talk to a junior person, and he (or she) tell [sic] me about their [sic] research agenda, he (or she) often say [sic] something like this…”

Aside from that distraction, the content of Scaling the Ivory Tower is not to be missed and a tribute to the work of IHS. There is no easy answer to whether the academic career is right for you, but at least this book explains “the rules of the game” you’re entering. Albeit annoying for those accustomed to shooting from the hip, these rules even encompass adherence to “netiquette,” so you don’t set off any alarms with hiring committees.

Regarding the final step of tenure, Munger writes that the question is “whether you are so committed to intellectual achievement, so devoted to the life of the mind, that you will continue to work hard even after you have absolutely no material incentive to do so.” You may not be able to gauge that before entering graduate school, but eventually you will have to resolve whether you meet that threshold.

Why ‘Rich Dad Poor Dad’ Keeps Selling
Why ‘Rich Dad Poor Dad’ Keeps Selling 1024 341 Fergus Hodgson

Government Miseducation Leaves Vacuum of Financial Illiteracy

The vast majority of us went through the government-education conveyor belt, and that includes me.* Since we learn little about anything there, and zero about personal finance in those dozen or so years, we rely heavily on our parents and the adult role models in our lives. A shortfall there will tend to leave us stuck, either poor or in the middle class, struggling to keep ahead of debt and the rat race.

This fundamental problem is so ubiquitous one cannot be surprised at the historic success of Robert Kiyosaki’s book Rich Dad Poor Dad (274 pages). Subtitled What the Rich Teach Their Kids about Money — That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not, he offers a relatable contrast between the advice of his own educated but poor father and that of his good friend’s father. The rich dad had a limited conventional education, but he imparted the financial wisdom that counted.

Not only is this parallel familiar, particularly for those of us who grew up in the middle class, Kiyosaki has gone to great efforts to make the story extremely accessible and entertaining, injected with plenty of US humor and anecdotes. At times the style is repetitive, and some of the motivational-speaker talk comes across as condescending. However, just like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, he has found the sweet spot for mass consumption, and the two books have a similar feel.

Despite legitimate criticisms that he may have embellished his story, as a gateway Rich Dad Poor Dad stands up to scrutiny. At very least it identifies the root problems of faulty education, misplaced priorities, and demonization of the rich. The author perks one’s curiosity for more, and emphasizes that financial education is a long-term process and will require a healthy allocation of one’s time.

In some ways this book elucidates the sense many of us have that we are treading water in a regular job, even if we do not know the precise alternative. Kiyosaki explains that as soon as possible we should focus on building assets that stay with us and generate passive income — what he calls “minding your own business” — while working productively and maintaining employment in the meantime.

That leads to one of his pivotal points: do not delay! There is going to be a transition period and learning process, so one best start down this road as soon as possible. As someone who only read this in his early 30s, I cannot help but relate, since I am late to the party of financial education.

Aside from the repetitiveness, the major annoyance in the book is his eagerness to sell more of his books and his own board game. Presumably he has succeeded, but it distracts from the content at hand and comes across as cheap. Sure, he acknowledges that he is a book seller and not so much of a book writer, but this limits the otherwise timeless appeal of Rich Dad Poor Dad.

*My mother homeschooled me for a short period, but otherwise I attended a rural elementary school and a Catholic boarding school, integrated into New Zealand’s Ministry of Education and taxpayer funded.

‘Rational Individualism’ Puts Collectivists in Their Place
‘Rational Individualism’ Puts Collectivists in Their Place 710 349 Fergus Hodgson

Mike Beitler Delivers the Deathblow with Academic Precision

Mike Beitler is a soft-spoken gentleman. Yet his book on capitalism skips pleasantries and cuts collectivism to shreds as antithetical to individualism, productivity, freedom, and reason.

I first came to know Beitler via his Free Markets radio show and podcast, where I was a guest a few times. When work prospects brought me to North Carolina, we ended up crossing paths at Ron Paul campaign events and the John Locke Foundation offices. Few men impress me as Beitler did, particularly with his economy and clarity of thought, so his success in finance and consulting came as no surprise.

These days he is a management consultant and business professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, and his most known book is Strategic Organizational Change. That is his textbook for managers, but he has also written Rational Individualism (128 pages, 2008). It crystallizes why he holds strong convictions in favor of individualism and why he fails to fit into the prevailing left-right dichotomy of political rhetoric.

Given its lack of fanfare, the quality of Beitler’s lesser-known book took me by surprise. It sat in my collection for a few years, but then exceeded my expectations when I got to it this year.

As the subtitle suggests, A Moral Argument for Limited Government & Capitalism, his objective is to explain why capitalism has the moral high ground. Although written in a relatively formal, academic style, he leaves no doubt about his derision towards the incessant desire of collectivists to take from their betters.

This passage, for example, gave me a chuckle. He lets loose more and more as the book proceeds:

Since the majority of people are unproductive, socialist ideas and politicians will always have great power in an unlimited democracy.… [and the] morality of stealing from productive people will never be discussed by socialist politicians.… Without productive people, unproductive people and their socialist politicians would starve to death.

But the question then is why this book merits one’s attention, over the works of Frederic Bastiat or Ayn Rand, for example — both of whom he quotes extensively (along with a detailed bibliography for further reading). Although Rational Individualism was not intended to shake up or reform classical liberalism or libertarianism, it offers a clean, accessible distillation of the major thinkers in the tradition.

The most compelling portion is his two brief chapters on the history of political philosophy and economics. While discussions of a thinker’s character can distract from the content of his ideas, Beitler ties the two together and lays waste to the lives of collectivist stalwarts such as Karl Marx and Georg Hegel. Their life stories suggest they believed contrary to what they preached, to say the least.

These chapters are useful because they connect the dots of history, of how individualism and collectivism have evolved over time. Beitler offers a sharp contrast, going so far as to include tables and lists that position the two philosophical traditions at odds with one another.

With references to so many of the greats, such as John Locke and Adam Smith, he also invites the reader to explore further. More than invite, he warns rational individualists that they “must be vigilant.” The political rhetoric of a socialist society “will rob you of your individual rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.” He doesn’t want to see more people become the “cattle” of socialist rulers, as is all too often the case.

The only drawback of Rational Individualism is that it is a touch dry, particularly in an age of digital media that provides instant gratification. That is tough competition, and Beitler could have included more contemporary and relatable examples, as Jacob Huebert did in Libertarianism Today, published in 2010.

Then again, you take your pick between timeliness and timelessness. Huebert’s book, which gave considerable attention to the presidential campaigns of Ron Paul, will become dated more rapidly. Beitler’s book, albeit less entertaining, has aged well, and the real gold is in the final half, so encourage newcomers to hang in there. It will pay dividends.

The Heroic Gold Bug You Never Heard Of
The Heroic Gold Bug You Never Heard Of 710 447 Fergus Hodgson

Jim Blanchard Ended the Federal Ban, Won His American Dream

When we hear of sound money, the gold standard, and precious-metals investing, various names come to mind: Murray RothbardRon PaulDoug CaseyMark Skousen, and Harry Browne. There is, however, one man who can take almost single-handed credit for the 1974 legalization of gold ownership in the United States: James “Jim” Blanchard of New Orleans, Louisiana (1943-1999).

Jim Blanchard’s outlook on life, gold, and the American dream is preserved in his 1990 autobiography.
Jim Blanchard’s outlook on life, gold, and the American dream is preserved in his 1990 autobiography.

Such were Blanchard’s larger-than-life adventures and advocacy endeavors spanning the globe, his low profile is both a surprise and a shame. I only came across his story fortuitously by living in New Orleans and attending the annual investment conference he started there all the way back in 1971.

The good news is that his outlook on life, gold, and the American dream is preserved in his conversational 1990 autobiography, Confessions of a Gold Bug (much of it dictated).

Futher, his son Anthem, to whom the book is dedicated, is one man who has not forgotten. He is taking on the new frontier of currency, promoting gold-backed digital units through his precious-metals storage company, Anthem Vault.

What makes Blanchard’s story particularly unique is that he was paralyzed in a car accident at the age of 17. Already he had an affection for US history and ideals, but the rehabilitation — including a year in Mexico — catalyzed that by giving him time to read.

He decided to become a history teacher, while pursuing ventures on the side, both political activism and a foray into investment with his own bulletin. Eventually the job gave way entirely to his precious-metals business, and this entrepreneurial rise is the dominant theme in Confessions. He even includes a chapter titled “Your Business Is Your Best Investment.”

Beyond his business prowess, though, there is the story of a man who took on what appeared to be invincible opponents in the US federal government and the Federal Reserve. Blanchard’s innovative civil disobedience and diversified outreach — as a young man ahead of his time — managed to embarrass federal legislators into lifting the ban on private gold ownership.

During President Richard Nixon’s second inauguration, for example, he contracted a plane to fly over the scene with the words “Legalize Gold.” And a friend smuggled in a gold coin from Canada that he displayed at all protests, daring police to arrest him and show the absurdity of the law.

But the legalization effort was just the start. Blanchard yearned for a return to the hard currency set forth in the US Constitution, and free-market capitalism in the nation that he loved. (See Fixing the Dollar Now by Judy Shelton for concise analysis on the breakdown and potential revival of sound money.) In that vein, he brought together both academic leaders and the most prominent gold bugs of the era to brainstorm at his conferences.

From Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman to Edward Harwood, a mentor who founded the American Institute for Economic Research in 1933, Blanchard seemingly spared at nothing to attract the top thinkers of the day. In fact, Ayn Rand gave her final speech at his 1981 event, and he writes with poignancy about his meeting with the lady whose novel title became his son’s name.

Of course, a lot has happened since 1990, so much of the later parts of the book have become out of date. One can easily skip his chapter on the various crises of the 1990s, and you’ll have to look elsewhere for new developments such as cryptocurrencies.

But the value in Confessions is not so much in its practical advice for aspiring investors and businessmen. Rather it is in offering inspiration, from a man who has risen from depths to achieve both noteworthy success and a life to be reckoned with. His tales range from Central America to Africa to the Arctic, and one of his unconventional tips for success is “mixing business with pleasure.”

All the while, he wants readers to be aware of what motivates him and of the threats to the American dream. Collectivism is the “root enemy,” he writes, and his example shows how each person can stand as a defiant and proudly self-interested individual. Although he died in the 1990s, his book remains as a gift and invitation — including a long list of recommended publications and organizations — to the next generation, those willing to carry on the banner.