All Commentary
Saturday, March 1, 1997

Russell D. Shannon, In Memoriam

A Dedicated and Masterful Teacher and Friend of Liberty

The ranks of those dedicated to the principles of a free society are too few to permit the loss of any champion of freedom to go unfelt. Sadly, Thanksgiving Day 1996 brought the untimely death of Russell Shannon—a man committed to his core to liberty and to human decency. He was quickly felled, at the too-young age of 58, by spinal cancer. This is a tragic loss to his family, friends, colleagues, and students.

After graduating from Duke University, Russell earned his doctorate from Tulane in 1965. That same year he began his career teaching economics at Clemson University. He never left. During his 31 years of teaching he inspired countless students, adeptly sharing the power of sound economic thinking. More importantly, Russell conveyed a sophisticated appreciation of the creative and coordinating might of a free society. He was, truly, a gifted and dedicated teacher.

Russell was also a talented expositor in print of economic ideas. Since January 1978, he contributed 29 articles and reviews to The Freeman. Indeed, his final contribution to The Freeman—a fine piece recounting the benefits of telephone deregulation—appeared in the December 1996 issue. This issue was printed only days before Russell died.

I met Russell when I joined the Clemson faculty in 1992, although I’d long before known of him through his contributions to The Freeman. Russell, several faculty colleagues, and I immediately began a monthly reading group. We started with several of Hayek’s essays, and moved on to Hayek’s Fatal Conceit. During the past few years, we also read and discussed articles by Ronald Coase, John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, Henry Hazlitt’s Foundations of Morality, Richard Epstein’s Simple Rules for a Complex World, and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. We were in the midst of Tocqueville’s masterpiece when Russell’s illness struck.

It was Russell who suggested that we read Tocqueville. If, during our dinner meetings, the conversation strayed too far from the substance of the book, Russell skillfully brought our conversation back to germane issues in the text. He rightly insisted that Tocqueville’s insights are too numerous and too deep to be treated summarily. Reading—no, studying—Tocqueville was for Russell a labor of love. He generously spent a good deal of time finding enlightening articles on Tocqueville and passing copies of these to each member of our group.[1]

Our reading group has a few chapters of Tocqueville remaining to be read and discussed. Whatever insights we glean will be fewer and duller than they would have been if Russell were still alive to lead and inspire our discussions.

More regrettably, Clemson’s students will be poorer without Russell. In September, Russell walked into my office wearing as big a smile as I’d ever seen him wear. He announced that he’d been given permission to teach a semester-long course on Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. He planned to teach it as a great-books course. He and his students would read and discuss Smith’s great book from cover to cover. I’m sure that he would have taught the students in the class enormous amounts about Smith’s famous work.

My wife, Karol, and I visited Russell less than 36 hours before he died. His spirits were remarkably upbeat. And, as always, his mind was on economics. He told us of how he planned to write an essay on the economics of the modern hospital. His several days in the hospital reinforced for him the power of Adam Smith’s insights about wealth springing forth from the division of labor. The modern hospital, Russell realized, is an urban microcosm. He was impressed with its smooth operation, and with the large number of physicians, technicians, nurses, and other staff members who each play an important role. Russell pointed out that the modern hospital features public transportation (moving vertically rather than horizontally!), common areas, a police force, a mayor (called administrator), churches, shops, thruways, and, most importantly, a welter of people each highly specialized in performing tasks that redound to the benefit of multitudes.

Russell will not write that essay. How unfortunate for those of us who stood to learn from the insights he would have conveyed.

Before closing, I want to relate one final anecdote involving Russell. A few months before Russell took ill, Bill Dougan, the chairman of Clemson’s economics department, recollected some of the fine graduate students that this department has trained over the years. Among the best of these students is Todd Zywicki, who, after receiving his master’s degree in economics from Clemson in 1990, earned a law degree from the University of Virginia. Todd now teaches law at the Mississippi College School of Law, and is compiling an impressive record of scholarly research. Bill recalled that when Todd first arrived at Clemson, Todd (a former FEE intern) was familiar with only one name on the faculty. That name was Russell Shannon. Todd knew Russell’s name through Russell’s essays in The Freeman.

Russell was first and foremost a dedicated and masterful teacher. He valued nothing more highly than success in inspiring the likes of Todd and myriad other students to appreciate both scholarship and the free society. He will be missed.

  • Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a Mercatus Center Board Member, and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University.