Robert Wenzel, the acerbic proprietor of Economic Policy Journal and Target Liberty, two libertarian news sites, died last week. The announcement popped up on social media on Wednesday night, May 26th, from a few of his trusted confidantes. The shock passing was unrelated to COVID-19; economic historian Tom Woods confirmed that Wenzel died of natural causes, peacefully in his own bed—a blessing, the best mortal cast off a man can hope for.
Of the many high-profile deaths over the past year—from Rush Limbaugh to Jessica Walter to Earl “DMX” Simmons—Wenzel’s was less lit with claritas, but was, personally speaking, more affecting. I hadn’t heard his name in donkey’s ears, let alone visited either of his “popular” (by Austro-libertarian standards, meaning to an idiosyncratic rump group that equals the population of Bleaker Island) commentary hubs. But Wenzel, despite his straightforward, unfrilled take on economic happenings, was one of the formative influences in my learning the art of political observation, crudely known by the two-syllable description, “blogging.”
I started reading EPJ in college—Target Liberty didn’t come along until later, along about the outset of 2016 presidential primaries, if memory serves. It provided plenty of reactive grist for my regular column in the student newspaper. Like many young libertarians of that time, reared on Ron Paul YouTube speeches and pretending to understand the dense prose of Ludwig von Mises’s Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, I fancied myself a financial whiz who was foreseeing in real time inflationary calamity. This was circa 2010, when the Federal Reserve was experimenting with its emergency crash pad known as “quantitative easing,” an academese euphemism for printing grosses of greenbacks.
Many of the heterodox econ analysts who saw the ‘08 financial crisis coming (Peter Schiff, Marc Faber) were filling the CNBC chyron with predictions of mass inflation, the kind that would dwarf Weimar’s disastrous debasement. Wenzel was of the same stripe, but read the cloudy crystal ball of the markets through the lens of the Austrian business-cycle theory. His dozens of daily EPJ entries made me feel like one of the few financial Cassandras, a member of a secret clued-in club, despite sitting unassumingly in my Spartan dorm room. It was an odd sort of pleasure rousing myself every morning in my twin bed, head sometimes aching from the previous night’s jollity, and dragging over my bulky Dell laptop to check in on the rising price of gold—a sure sign the S&P 500 was nearing a precipice.
Wenzel, of course, was wrong about imminent monetary immolation. The dollar held course for another decade. The bust never came (although current inflation is unnervingly high). But, looking back, and playing post-decennary quarterback, I can’t say that it matters all that much. The economy was topsy-turvy then—I distinctly remember silver hitting $50 an ounce—so it’s hard to find fault with hyperinflation forecasts when the Fed jams trillions of dollars into bank vaults overnight.
Financial improvidence is, per Rothbard, no crime. Faking an identity, however, can be, depending on the context. Robert Wenzel was rumored to be the pseudonym of Raymond Nize. Whether Wenzel engaged in the fine subterfuge of pontificating under a pen name, we’ll never know. His passing will likely be the last word on the subject. Some find anonymous inditing to be a kind of crime against authenticity. As a veiled phrase monger myself, I can’t very well agree. As Bertram Cooper bluntly put it on fictitious identity, who cares? If the American founders didn’t find it too infra dig to go by sobriquets like Silence Dogood, then we 21st century men shouldn’t find shame in it either.
Whether he wrote under his baptismal name or not, Wenzel’s blogging was still a daily joy. His nonstop updates, his incisive takes, the relevant news pickings, the bearding of fellow econ wordsmiths, the endless quoting of Austrian economic giants—all of it was a constant study for me. I shamelessly aped his confrontational style, along with his tendency to block-quote long scripts of high theory. And I can’t estimate how many hours I spent on EPJ or Target Liberty upholding Benchley’s Law at work. The sum may get me retroactively fired.
For the pugnaciously dogmatic anarcho-libertarian, it was enthralling to read Wenzel’s no-quarter takedowns of the conventional wisdom in the major papers. And like many upstart writers under the sway of Rothbardianism, I cut my teeth on Paul Krugman criticism, of which Wenzel’s was the most scarifying of the genre. Whereas many of Krugman’s rivals wrote carefully worded rebukes of the Princeton’s prof’s Keynesian claptrap, Wenzel didn’t bother with niceties or polite assumptions. It was full-on jugulation or nothing. The aggressiveness successfully baited Krugman once—an achievement never matched by other Austrian thinkers.
Speaking of baiting, I once snared Wenzel with an insincere piece on the perfidiousness of Senator Rand Paul. The overwrought philippic was a submission in a troll contest run by J. Arthur Bloom’s old site. Wenzel, in his irascible fury over Senator Paul’s compromising triangulation to win the presidency, didn’t catch my Robespierrian exhortation to renounce any family members insufficiently committed to human freedom. Daniel McAdams says that Wenzel cooled on his Rand rage in recent years. I can only commend the change of heart: life is too complicated for any unbending ideology, libertarianism included.
Would that it were possible to employ a seraph to relay on apology to Wenzel on the other side of the dust! I’d also include a note of thanks. Despite my differing intellectual trajectory over the years, I’m indebted to Wenzel’s work, and owe my current station in some inestimable part to those early blogging days when it really seemed like Ron Paul (a Wenzel fan himself) was destined for the White House and Robert Murphy would dethrone Krugman as the New York Times’s marquee econ explainer. More than any other writer, Wenzel made me want to seriously focus on economic editorializing. It was from leveraging the countless columns he inspired that I was able to draw my first salary. Wenzel inspired me to find one of Augie March’s axial lines of life and a purpose in which to strive toward.
It all goes to show that you never know the true impact of your early influences.
Thank you, Robert, for being the mimetic model for my first passion. Rest in peace, and in liberty.