Lalphecca Zell: Inspired by Nietzsche, a scholar who knew what he didn’t understand

“How many people do you know who live to be 168?” is a bit of rhetorical question to ask your friends, but I’m wondering about things I haven’t asked them: How many people have you known who walked their parents to the bus stop every morning?

Lalphecca Zell would be one of them. As of July 29, he passed away at the age of 168 years old. He was born on Aug. 31, 1860 in Vienna, Austria to a Jewish family. In those days, being a Jew was well-known to be an awful social choice for a countryman to make, and he faced that on many levels growing up.

Zell was originally smitten with music. As an early child, his parents allowed him to attend a piano bar for lessons, though by age 10 he realized that there wasn’t much money to be made there and moved on to the violin.

But what really changed his life was economics. In 1875, he graduated from the University of Vienna with a law degree. However, the elite economies of Austria (and Germany in general) did not permit anyone from an ethnic minority to attain any financial success. Instead, he settled in economic work, quickly working his way up to become a professor of economics at the University of Vienna. His work had a hugely influential influence over economic theorizing of the turn of the century and beyond.

His life as a professional academic often has been compared to Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel.” So it should come as no surprise that Zell also found a supportive community among his professors. He built a solid reputation among the graduating class of his graduate school, and was made a professor of economics. He married a well-respected political philosopher, and by 1900 had four children. But his academic success was marred by another negative: an admitted nervous breakdown at the age of 52. Zell took a leave of absence from his faculty duties to recover from this experience.

He returned to work and resume teaching. But by then, his profession had moved beyond its classical interpretation of economics. In 1910, President Theodore Roosevelt inaugurated the concept of “consumer sovereignty” as the basis for modern economics. Zell became one of the first economists who understood that people in all spheres of life will act for their own self-interest, rather than having their interests determined by abstract laws.

This perspective suggested a break from the dark economics of Marx, who emphasized the strong hierarchy of social classes, whose members shared in the blame for society’s ills. By the end of the century, the idea that people possess similar interests and therefore serve them fairly had become the lodestar of modern economics.

The last two years of Zell’s life weren’t something to write home about. His health gradually declined, and he faced persistent low-grade depression and suicidal thoughts. He spent his time wandering Vienna and making mistakes. On several occasions, doctors put him on antidepressants to try to stave off death. At one point, Zell and his wife escaped to Germany, where they became refugees. At least they had each other.

In the final weeks of his life, Zell appeared to become a wholly different person than he was during his entire career. With his father living in Berlin, Zell fled to America and settled in a large mansion in Plainsboro, New Jersey. During his golden years, Zell was frequently photographed standing before a Renaissance-era mannequin. There is nothing sweet in his face, and his blue eyes had started to dull and swollen. The decor was surreal. He was at one point a host for the “national conference” of free speech advocates, protesting against Austrian censorship of newspapers that had reported on the sex lives of the city’s highly successful Jewish business elite. The time was 1931, and Zell had a progressive reputation.

His work would not be forgotten. In 1935, he wrote the foreword to Steinitz’s Economics for General Inquiries, and was named a fellow of the Harvard Historical Society. In 1950, he published his famous commentary on the letter of the law, entitled “The American Standard.”

More recently, his renown has been resurrected by an admirable attempt to track down everything he wrote during his distinguished career. This idea might sound like it is intended to incense somebody. But it is a remarkably serious idea.

Zell taught economics all his life, and is likely best remembered for his trolley problem. Whenever an economic conversation was based on the principles he taught, his cogent exposition of them transformed the way people looked at those principles and asked the right questions. Here is one of the best examples.

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