MADISON, Wisc., March 24, 2013 ― Dr. Mark Thornton is a Senior Fellow with the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. Described as “one of America’s experts on the economics of illegal drugs,” much of his work centers on the topic of prohibited goods, including his career-defining treatise, The Economics of Prohibition. He has also written extensively on the business cycle, American history, and libertarian theory. Besides being a prolific author, he is currently the Book Review Editor for the Quarterly Journal of Economics.
Thornton grew up in Geneva, New York. In his own words, he was, “born and raised there in a family that was Irish in extraction, Catholic in religion, entrepreneurs by occupation, and thoroughly Democrat in politics. I now realize that by the time I left Geneva for college I was already a libertarian, a fact I credit to my family, especially my mother and father.”
After studying economics at St. Bonaventure University, Thornton pursued graduate studies at Auburn University. By that time he was “already very much interested in Austrian economics.”
I spoke with Dr. Thornton recently about a wide variety of things; our conversation follows.
Joseph S. Diedrich: What exactly do you do at the Mises Institute? What is your favorite part of the job?
Mark Thornton: I am a researcher, a book review editor, and a lecturer. I also help people with economic questions. My favorite part is working with students. We have all sorts of programs for students at Mises. The Mises Academy is available to students at a low cost to get access to professors who are teaching their favorite subjects. Then, of course, there’s the Mises University and Mises Circles. For graduate students, we have the Rothbard Graduate Seminar and Summer Research Fellowships. Furthermore, if you’re investigating just about anything in economics, politics, or history, you can go to Mises.org and find some great resources. It’s an amazing amount of materials; you can listen, watch, and read. And it’s free.
JSD: People are most familiar with your work on Prohibition and prohibited markets. Why has that been a great source of interest for you?
MT: My mother’s family was mostly bartenders and liquor store owners. My father’s family was mostly pharmacists. Prohibition seemed like a natural topic to investigate. You could say it was the families business. During Prohibition, my great-grandmother was involved in the smuggling trade. A truck carrying whiskey would show up at her house and [whiskey] would be stored in there. Then a person who smuggled it from her house to the various speakeasies would come after dark, get a case of liquor, and distribute it around the city. Apparently the police knew this, but didn’t want to arrest her because she was a widow with nine children.
JSD: How do you view politics in relation to libertarianism? Is the political world a relevant thing for libertarians to concern themselves with?
MT: I was the first person in Alabama elected on the Libertarian Party ticket—I was a constable from 1988 to 1992. When I was campaigning, I got asked what my platform was; I said I wanted to abolish the job. I never ran for public office with the idea of winning. The only reason I did it was to be able to discuss things with the general public outside of my classroom. Without much money and energy invested, I received a lot of publicity. In that sense, I think politics can be a productive thing. That’s the reason I was willing to run—to get attention for libertarian ideas. When I became a libertarian in college, nobody knew what that meant. That has changed.
JSD: Speaking of college, what is your greatest memory from that time in your life?
MT: This is going to sound real geeky, but I saw the five-minute TV commercial for the Libertarian [Party] presidential candidate Ed Clark in the dorm and I finally had a political home. I had never heard the word “libertarian” before. After that, when I’d tell people I was a libertarian, they were stunned. They thought I was a communist. Today, being a libertarian is the cool thing.
JSD: What in the world are you most afraid of?
MT: I am afraid of what Ben Bernanke has done to the economy. He has taken the idea of central banking and fiat currency to a much higher level than anything we’ve seen in the past. We could have gone through this crisis and thrown things like fiat money and Fannie Mae out the window and ended up with a much more stable economy. Instead, all of those problems have been made worse. History tells us that the types of things he has done, including facilitating trillion dollar deficits, could have dramatically negative fallout affecting both the American economy and the entire world economy. He’s brought us into a currency war, which is very often a prelude to actual war. I don’t know what is going to happen, but he’s created the ingredients that could be disastrous. And it’s not just him, obviously.
JSD: I’d like to ask you a few questions about you as a person outside of politics. What type(s) of music do you listen to?
MT: I listen to many types of music from classical to classic rock. My tastes are very eclectic. Yesterday, I was listening to a series of albums by Dr. John. My iPod is full of all sorts of stuff. I like listening to all types of music, including live performances—blues, jazz, everything. Unless it’s really heavy metal, punk, or disco.
JSD: What is your favorite cocktail?
MT: Every once in a while I will make myself a Zazarac [also, “Sazerac”], which was invented in New Orleans more than a 100 years ago. It has absinthe. Of course, absinthe is a classic case of prohibition—government tried to prohibit it from being imported into the country until just recently. Now you can actually get absinthe in stores.
JSD: Describe your perfect meal.
MT: Oysters Rockefeller, Eggs Sardou with crabmeat, and chardonnay. Eggs Sardou is a famous recipe from a landmark restaurant in New Orleans called Galatoire’s on Bourbon Street. It’s like stepping back into the nineteenth century in terms of the elegance and the environment; all the waiters have tuxedos and you’re required to have a jacket. It’s like a window going back into America’s classical liberal time of the late 1800s. Plus it’s really good.
JSD: If you weren’t doing what you are now (as a career), what might you likely be doing instead?
MT: I would be rich, retired, and attending Mises Institute events.
JSD: And finally, what do you think has been the greatest invention of the last two years?
MT: The “coolest” invention is the Google Car and the idea of not having to drive your car or being able to send your car home if there’s no parking space. I’ve always been curious about what the next mode of transportation is going to be. That’s just my natural curiosity.
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