Peter the Great

Last summer, former Mackinac Center for Public Policy research intern Peter T. Leeson — now a Center adjunct scholar — earned his Ph.D. in economics at George Mason University in Virginia. Dr. Leeson’s story and his association with the Mackinac Center are worth sharing with our friends.

In 1997, Center President Lawrence W. Reed read an articulate letter to the editor in the Midland Daily News that scolded a previous writer for poor economic analysis of a public policy issue. Reed contacted the writer, assuming that he was a professor of some sort. In fact, the author was a 17-year-old Dow High School student, Peter Leeson. A friendship ensued, and the Mackinac Center offered Leeson a summer internship.

Stay Engaged

Receive our weekly emails!

Every year, the Mackinac Center brings college students to our headquarters to conduct research and contribute to scholarly papers in various policy arenas. Leeson was such a productive and intelligent addition to the Center staff that he was invited back in the summers of 1998, 1999 and 2000. During the school year, Leeson was an undergraduate economics major at Hillsdale College in Michigan.

Within economic science, Leeson had a particular interest in the Austrian school of economics. In fact, before graduating from high school, Leeson had read Ludwig von Mises' well-known Austrian tome "Human Action" three times. Intern Leeson was so skilled in this area of economics that the Center asked him to provide a lecture on the subject to his fellow interns at the Mackinac Center's annual "Haywood Internship University" seminar.

The Haywood seminars are lectures to each summer’s intern class on economic, historical, political and legal issues. The seminar series is named after Center scholar and Northwood University professor Dale Haywood. In the Mackinac Center’s 18-year history, no other intern has been accorded the privilege of lecturing to other interns. Haywood twice invited Leeson, still at the tender age of 18, to lecture his economics students. In 1997, at an Indianapolis event sponsored by Hillsdale College, Reed even predicted Leeson would some day win the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

Leeson authored nine articles while an intern with the Center, including the influential "Opposing Judicial Philosophies Court Michigan Voters," and "What Indianapolis Can Teach Michigan." He also contributed to scores of other pieces. While doing field research in Romania as a graduate student, Leeson co-authored the Mackinac Center paper "Draculand: Romanian Central Planners to Subsidize Dracula Theme Park." The article cleverly compared the Romanian government’s attempts to stimulate economic growth by subsidizing entertainment with the state of Michigan’s attempts to do likewise.

* * *

In 2001, Leeson graduated summa cum laude from Hillsdale College and moved to Virginia to begin his doctoral work. George Mason University’s economics department is home to two Nobel Laureates in economic science: James Buchanan (1986) and Vernon Smith (2002). The school is widely recognized as one of the world’s top programs in classical liberal political economy. At GMU, Leeson studied under Peter Boettke, the leading advocate of the Austrian school of economics; Tyler Cowen, a prominent figure in the debate surrounding globalization; and Richard Wagner, who, along with GMU’s James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, helped pioneer the field of public choice economics.

In 2003, Leeson spent a year conducting research as a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University before moving to London, where he was the F.A. Hayek Fellow at the London School of Economics. Leeson completed his doctoral work in the spring of 2005.

The third chapter of his doctoral thesis, "Trading with Bandits," won the Israel M. Kirzner Award for outstanding doctoral dissertation in economics at George Mason University (Kirzner is a renowned economist from New York University). "Trading with Bandits" was an analysis of the ability of merchants to engage in free exchange for mutual benefit without government’s presence as an enforcer of contracts. Leeson found that mutually beneficial trade could result even between a stronger and weaker party without government involvement.

Since 2001, Leeson has authored or co-authored more than 21 scholarly articles, edited one book, and published three book reviews and 10 public policy papers, most of them through the Mackinac Center. Dr. Leeson has also served as a "referee" with five scholarly journals, including the Journal of Institutional Economics and Southern Economic Journal. In that role, he has helped determine which papers will be accepted for inclusion in the journals.

Many universities interviewed Dr. Leeson for employment, but he chose to work at West Virginia University, where he is now teaching both undergraduate and doctoral students as an assistant professor of economics.

* * *

At the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, we have been collecting "farm team" members for years. As we develop young talent, we believe we leave a stamp on society as a whole. These young people take the knowledge and experience they gain at the Center and share it with others, creating a stronger and freer world for us all.

Today, Oct. 10, the winner of the 2005 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences is scheduled to be announced. It is probably too soon for Dr. Leeson to be named a winner — but knowing Peter, I’ll be listening anyway.


Michael D. LaFaive is director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.