Libertarian economist Hans Sennholz was a World War II fighter pilot under the Luftwaffe, but for anyone who knew him, he spoke and wrote like a drill sergeant. Dogmatic, zealous and driven, he delivered with a thick German accent an unmistakable message of “Austrian” economics: Fight inflation by returning to the gold standard.
Above all, Sennholz was a monetary economist, but more a follower of Ludwig von Mises than Milton Friedman. He wrote books with titles such as Inflation or Gold?, Debts and Deficits, The Age of Inflation and Money and Freedom. When Milton Friedman died late last year, Sennholz took the Chicago school to task for advocating monetary inflation. “In its search for stability,” wrote Sennholz, “the Friedman [prescription], unfortunately, proceeds on the old road to nowhere. There is no absolute monetary stability — never has been and never can be.” For Sennholz, a true Misesian, there was only one solution to inflation: Return to the classical gold standard, where the dollar is backed by gold.
Sennholz’s plane was shot down by Allied troops, and he spent several years as a POW in the United States. After the war, he discovered Mises and returned to the United States to earn his Ph.D. in economics in 1955 from New York University, where Mises taught. For 37 years, Sennholz taught some 10,000 students Austrian economics at Grove City College in Western Pennsylvania. (Peter Boettke, top Austrian economist at George Mason University, was one of his students.)
Sennholz was a prolific advocate of the Austrian school, writing 17 books and more than 500 articles during his career. He wrote regularly for The Freeman, Human Events, and financial publications such as The Inflation Survival Letter. Since 2000, he wrote online columns (www.sennholz.com/current.html). He and his wife Mary (also an editor and writer) once met Ronald Reagan, who said, “I’ve been plagiarizing you for years.” But Hans Sennholz was best as a powerful, electric speaker with that unforgettable German accent. He flew his plane all over the country, giving speeches on the evils of inflation, deficit spending and the falling dollar before bankers, stockbrokers, businessmen and religious leaders. I first met him at a Howard Ruff conference in the late 1970s. After hearing him for only a few minutes, one was smitten by this true-believing gold bug. He was the Douglas McArthur of free-market economics. He regularly received a standing ovation.
Like Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Murray Rothbard, Gary North and other Austrian economists, Sennholz was a pessimist. In the 1970s, he warned that America was headed toward an inflationary Armageddon. During the inflationary Seventies, he debated John Exter, a former Citibank executive, on “Inflation or Deflation?” While Exter predicted massive deflation, Sennholz warned of triple-digit inflation. Both were proven wrong and did not anticipate the supply-side revolutions of Reagan and Thatcher, which brought sanity back to the global economy.
Even then, Sennholz thought the Reagan-Thatcher revolution was temporary and remained a pessimist. In his final column, “Money Is Flooding the World Markets,” written May 19, he stated: “A few pessimistic economists are convinced that a devastating economic cataclysm lies ahead. They usually point to three threats that may have a serious impact on the American economy: There is the burgeoning tower of public and private debt resting on a foundation of greed and overindulgence. There are a multi-million-dollar list of promises to a retirement system and a vast building of government guarantees and promises that are bound to be unkept. There even is a world of complex derivatives, the value of which depends on something else, such as stocks, bonds, futures, options, loans and even promises. They all, according to these economists, will be the victims of the coming cataclysm. This economist, who has observed central bank policies since the 1950s, is in basic accord and feels sympathy for these pessimists.”
Despite his negative outlook, Hans Sennholz was an astute investor. He wasn’t especially keen on investing in stocks and bonds and seldom did well trading commodity futures, but he was a clever real estate investor and became a multi-millionaire by specializing in small-town rental properties. He was probably the largest landlord in Grove City.
After retiring from Grove City College at the age of 70, he and his wife took on the daunting task of reviving the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). FEE was the first free-market think tank, founded by Leonard Read in 1946 in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. After Read died in 1983, FEE struggled financially and lost its influence. Sennholz came in and, over the next five years, righted the ship and got it back on course. In 1996, FEE celebrated its 50th anniversary by having Margaret Thatcher as the keynote speaker.
It was during his tenure as president of FEE that I got to know Hans Sennholz personally. He frequently invited me to speak at FEE’s monthly lecture series. I invited all my subscribers to come, and we had big crowds at the FEE mansion. At the beginning of my talk, I’d turn to Hans and ask him to tell my subscribers all about FEE. In that unmistakable German accent, he spoke eloquently for 10 to 15 minutes and convinced people to donate to a good cause. Later he asked me to be a columnist for The Freeman. He also had FEE publish the third edition of my book, Economics of a Pure Gold Standard. I am convinced that my becoming the president of FEE in 2001-02 was directly the result of Hans Sennholz’s unwavering support. I was privileged to participate in writing a collection of essays in honor of Sennholz when he retired from full-time teaching at age 70: A Man of Principle (Grove City College, 1992). My favorite book by Hans Sennholz is The Politics of Unemployment (Libertarian Press, 1987). His books are available at www.libertarianpress.com, run by his son Robert.
Douglas McArthur used to say, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” Hans Sennholz may have faded away, but he shall never be forgotten.