History and Timeline

History and Timeline


A university-based research center dedicated to bridging the gap between academic ideas and real world problems, the Mercatus Center has been a source of innovative scholarship about how the world works since its founding more than thirty years ago. 

As part of Virginia’s largest university, Mercatus supports graduate students in George Mason University’s world-renowned department of economics.  Now in our fourth decade, former students who have benefited from Mercatus support are among the most creative scholars working at the intersection of economics and problem solving.

Mercatus research draws from a distinctive tradition of political economy, blending ideas developed by Nobel Laureates F.A. Hayek, James Buchanan, Elinor Ostrom, Vernon Smith, and Douglass North, and applying them to address society’s most pressing problems.  

Mercatus brings this research along with faculty from universities around the country to Washington, DC to educate public policy makers about how economics can help them address important public policy challenges. 

30 years in the making 

Originally called the Austrian Economics Program, the Mercatus Center was founded in 1978 by Rutgers University Economics Instructor Richard Fink, while he was still a graduate student in economics at New York University.  The Program hosted major conferences with leading economists from around the world and supported students and faculty studying market processes and the institutions that support sustainable prosperity and economic freedom.  A grant from philanthropist and entrepreneur Charles Koch made the program possible and started an important tradition for the Center, which remains privately funded thanks to the generosity of thousands of individuals who support its work each year.  

In 1980, a hiring freeze at Rutgers meant that in order to grow, the center needed a new university home.  George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia was a school on the rise fueled by an entrepreneurial university president, George Johnson, and a growing Northern Virginia community.  Johnson invited the newly renamed, “Center for the Study of Market Processes” to move to Mason. The fit was natural given the growing reputation of Mason’s Economics Department and its proximity to Washington, DC.  Shortly thereafter, James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock joined the department, cementing its place among the most intellectually vibrant and important sources of economic ideas. 

Fink relocated to Mason as a member of the faculty in the department of economics.  Tyler Cowen, then an undergraduate, was among a group of four of his students who followed to become the original class of students supported by Mercatus.   Thirty years later, Cowen is Holbert C. Harris Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Chairman of the Board of the Mercatus Center.

Integrating theory and practice

The Center for the Study of Market Processes had, since its founding, worked to blend the theoretical insights of Austrian economics with the empirical rigor and case study method of the Chicago School.  

In 1994, the Center for the Study of Market Processes was renamed the Center for Market Processes and shortly thereafter, the Center took on the task of applying that blend of economics to bridge the gap between academic research and public policy problems by offering occasional seminars on economics and public policy for congressional staff.  These occasional seminars revealed a pent up demand for economic education in Washington, DC and in 1999 Mercatus formally launched its “Capitol Hill Campus” to recreate the college classroom experience on Capitol Hill by bringing faculty and accessible academic research to congressional staff and to make academics aware of the need for relevant economic analysis of pressing public policy issues. 

As Mercatus faculty learned more about the type of research and education that was needed to help public policy makers work through challenges, Mercatus added leading scholars and practitioners – people who had applied economic ideas to improve public policy – to its ranks.  This tradition continues to this day.  As Mercatus faculty recognize a gap in the world of public policy that can be filled by economic scholarship, new research programs are added – whether on the economics of regulation, entrepreneurship in Sub-Saharan Africa, government transparency, policymaking after crises like Hurricane Katrina or the collapse of the financial sector, or the role of government spending in the economy.

The common thread that ties these research programs together is the unique blend of Austrian economics, Public Choice economics, and New Institutional economics pioneered in each case by the Nobel Laureates mentioned above, and a dedication to ensuring that the research blends theory and practice to help address important problems and advance social progress.

In 1998, the Center for Market Processes underwent its third and final name change. Cowen, by now Director of the Center, suggested “Mercatus,” a name derived from the Latin word for “markets.” 

Rising to the challenge

With nearly two decades at George Mason, Mercatus and the larger University were poised for growth.  In a bold move in 2001, Mason President Alan Merten recruited Professor Vernon Smith and five of his colleagues from the University of Arizona’s prestigious Economics Science Laboratory to Mason’s department of economics.  Once again, support from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation provided the critical funding for this formative move. Vernon Smith joined the Board of Directors at Mercatus, adding his innovative “experimental economics” methodology to the list of economic schools of thought in the Mercatus toolbox.  One year later, in 2002, Smith and by extension the field of economics he helped to pioneer, was recognized with a Nobel Prize. 

By this time, Mercatus was supporting research on the institutions that underpin a free and prosperous society by over two dozen Mason faculty members, primarily in the department of economics.  They were extremely prolific, publishing books and scores of academic articles.  Each year, twelve of the best graduate students at Mason received fully supported fellowships from the Mercatus Center so they could focus on their studies and prepare for careers as faculty members and researchers. 

The growing reputation and the addition of accomplished faculty members like Cowen, Smith, Peter Boettke, Russ Roberts, Dan Houser, Kevin McCabe, Dan Klein, Alex Tabarrok and several others along the way meant that the number of students interested in enrolling in graduate studies at Mason skyrocketed.  Mercatus answered with a commitment to more than triple the number of students it supports each year – a commitment that went back to Mercatus’s founding and is now responsible for over 100 students having received a PhD from George Mason University.  In 2007, Mercatus began a parallel fellowship program to support students pursuing a Masters degree in economics at Mason.   

As decision makers increasingly turn to economics to comprehend and address public policy challenges, the Mercatus Center is committed to making sure university economists are there to answer the call.  Whether through books, journal articles, academic association meetings, blogs, the media, policy publications, congressional testimony, or classroom instruction, Mercatus faculty and students are working to advance knowledge about the institutions that underpin a free and prosperous society, and bring that knowledge to the public policy makers charged with maintaining those institutions for future generations.  

And though the world’s problems have changed, Mercatus’s commitment to innovative, problem solving economic scholarship rooted in a robust tradition of economic thought, and world-class education has not. With over thirty years of tradition, Mercatus remains a steady source of innovative ideas, as we bridge the gap between academic ideas and real world problems.  


1978-79 Austrian Economics Program established at Rutgers University.
August 1980 Austrian Economics Program moves to George Mason University—name changed to the Center for the Study of Market Processes (CSMP).

CSMP supports graduate student education
and faculty in economics.

1983 James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock join economics faculty at Mason.
1986 James Buchanan awarded Nobel Prize in Economic Science.
1987 The Center for the Study of Market Processes is officially incorporated in the State of Virginia as a 501(c)(3) non-profit, education and research organization.
1989 Tyler Cowen joins the economics faculty at Mason.


The Center for the Study of Market Processes, changes its name to the Center for Market Processes.


Tyler Cowen is appointed director and the Center briefly becomes part of the James Buchanan Center along with the Center for Study of Public Choice. 


Peter Boettke joins economics faculty at Mason. 

1999 Capitol Hill Campus launched.
1999 Center for Market Processes changes name to Mercatus Center and Mercatus relocates from Fairfax to Mason’s Arlington campus.


Maurice McTigue and Wendy Gramm join Mercatus and Regulatory Studies Program and Government Accountability Project are launched.


Vernon Smith, Dan Houser, Kevin McCabe and others join economics faculty at Mason and launch Interdisciplinary Center for Economic Sciences (ICES).


Vernon Smith awarded Nobel Prize in Economic Science.


Russ Roberts joins economics faculty at Mason.


Global Prosperity Initiative launched; graduate students conduct field research on five continents.


Former Congressman Tim Roemer (D-IN) joins Mercatus.

2004 Jack Goldstone joins the faculty at the School of Public Policy at Mason.

Enterprise Africa project launched.


Gulf Coast Recovery Project launched.


Mercatus increases the number of graduate students it supports at Mason, to 40 students annually.


Chris Coyne, Noel Johnson, Garett Jones, Mark Koyama, Peter Leeson, John Nye, Lawrence White, Omar Al-Ubaydli join department of economics at Mason.

2008 State and Local Policy Project is launched.
2009 Financial Markets Working Group, Technology Policy Project, and Spending and Budget Initiative are launched.
2012 The Adam Smith Graduate Student Fellowship is established. The number of graduate students Mercatus supports annually increases to more than 60.
2012 The Project for the Study of American Capitalism is Launched.
2012 Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok launch a new online education platform, Marginal Revolution University.
2012 Mercatus establishes the Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics under the direction of Peter Boettke.
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