Allan Meltzer, libertarian institutionalist
By Alberto Mingardi
Chris De Muth has written a wonderful tribute to Allan Meltzer. It is a piece that accounts for a strong bond of personal friendship that goes beyond intellectual esteem. DeMuth brought Meltzer to the American Enterprise Institute as a Visiting Scholar when the latter left President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisors: “It took us perhaps four minutes to settle on business arrangements, sealed with a handshake and never any sort of written contract”. Well, those were the days – and those were the gentlemen who could be happy with such trustworthy informality!
DeMuth defines Meltzer as “that rare and wonderful intellectual avis, the libertarian institutionalist”. The word “institutionalist” here is happily ambiguous. On the one hand, DeMuth remarks, Meltzer understood that “liberty is an artifact of human institutions, from banks to nations to the rule of law”. That is not particularly rare, among libertarians. What is rarer is that from the understanding that “our institutions may rise and fall through evolutionary trial and error, but they are also subject to human reason, criticism, and purposive reform” Meltzer derived a passion for directly engaging in this very activity of criticism and purposive reform.
Meltzer joined committees, advised politicians and institutions, all of this while writing his masterful History of the Federal Reserve. DeMuth alludes to the fact that this willingness to engage with reality did show a profound optimism but not an eagerness to settle on intellectual compromises. (Political compromises are a different matter).
So concludes his tribute to Meltzer:
Allan Meltzer led a life of complete integrity. He devoted himself to the most difficult and consequential of policy conundrums; subjected them to the highest levels of intellectual scrutiny over sustained periods of time; solved more than a few of them; promoted his solutions with indefatigable zest; and selflessly encouraged the like efforts of many others. It is only fitting that he left us with a few unsolved conundrums to wrestle on our own–along with a shining example of how to go about it.