I am an undergrad majoring in economics who has long planned on going to law school and practicing as a profession. However, after the past year of intense reading of Austrian economics, I have become a full-blown Austro-libertarian, and I am beginning to question my previous career choice. Would it be possible for me to remain a good libertarian while engaged in a profession (lawyering) thats very existence (in its current incarnation) depends on the state? Are there any real contributions to the cause of liberty that I could make as an attorney, or would I be better served to get a PhD at George Mason or some other Austrian-teaching economics program? I'm just kind of thinking out loud here, and I would really appreciate someone to bounce my thoughts off of. Any advice would be much appreciated.
If you do criminal defence, you're pretty much guaranteed to be contributing to the cause of liberty. There's also plenty of civil work you can do against the government, including administrative and constitutional law. And there are business firms that do a lot of private arbitration (which is ultimately backed by the state, but it is a more private form of dispute resolution). Of course, it could be really hard to get a job at a firm that does the sort of work you want to do.
You should also consider what you'd accomplish as an economist in terms of fighting for liberty.
I'd point out that even the PhD program at George Mason is likely to include some emphasis on the techniques used by the mainstream. They'd be doing their students a profound disservice if they sent them out into the job market with a PhD in economics, but without any of the skills that are expected of economists in our society. So you'll likely want to switch to a major in economics now if you plan on pursuing a doctorate in the subject, even if your school doesn't focus on Austrian theory; I'd be surprised if you could gain admission to any PhD program in economics without an undergraduate degree in the discipline, and it would be a good idea to make sure you can tolerate the "normal" study of economics, as it'll likely characterize your graduate work as well.
If you're specifically interested in studying the philosophical side of economics, however, you might be more interested in considering a major in philosophy. That's what I studied, and oddly enough I got to focus a lot more on the kinds of economics issues that interest me than I did in the few semesters when I was working towards my economics major. So if your philosophy department is strong in economics, you might be interested in exploring that route (especially since a philosophy degree is in line with the pursuit of a JD).
On the alternative of going to law school, I'd say that you shouldn't be worried about whether or not you can be a good libertarian and a lawyer at the same time because of the connection between law and the state. It's entirely plausible that lawyers would continue to exist in a free society. But in any case, you don't have to be a lawyer: arbitration is an extremely libertarian concept, and I take it that a good background in law is critical for arbitration. There are ways of getting out of dealing with the state if you're interested in law, don't let that be the reason that you drop that goal.
I like to think that this country -- which was the freest society ever -- was founded by libertarian lawyers.
I'd lean toward law so you can unravel the labyrinth of bureaucracy. What you do with your degree matters more than which one you pursue.
In terms of career opportunities, law is terrible. There is a glut of lawyers, and if you aren't picked up by a good firm right out of school, you won't be picked up later, most likely. The JD is seen as a key to all sorts of jobs, so people have been charmed into taking it without paying attention to the pay of lawyers, as that declined. Some lawyers are very rich, but many don't make enough to justify the cost of their degree. If you go into the less glamorous, poorly-paid aspects of the law, you will be able to find a job, but not for decent pay. If you don't attend a name school, you might find yourself out of work, or doing work unrelated to your degree.
In fact, there's only one thing worse than the job market for lawyers - that for PhDs. So you're in a bit of a bind there. Overall, I'd say opportunities as a PhD are worse, but it's close. Whichever one you do, it might be good to have a second degree to help. For instance, add a masters to your JD, or while doing a PhD, also get a masters in law.
Can you do libertarian work in law? Absolutely - criminal defense. Just talk to some criminal defense attorneys first and make sure you're comfortable doing what they do. Learn what it's really about, not the tv version. Understand that the job involves a lot of making personal friendships with DAs and judges, and then using those social connections to get plea bargains for your clients, innocent or guilty. Ask yourself how you will feel advising your client, whom you believe to be innocent, to plead guilty because he'll lose at trial - and how you'll feel pleading a murderer whom you know to be guilty to a much reduced offense. What kind of attorney are you willing to be? Are you willing to play ball in order to reduce the harm done to your clients, or will you strive to be a star defense attorney, being brought in for cases that go to trial? If the latter, are you prepared to lose at trial? Make sure this is something you can handle.
Another area is tax law, but many of the same concerns apply, except that in tax court, the prosecution's burden of proof is lower.
To be a lawyer, you have to work in the system as it exists, day in and day out. Are you prepared for that?
As a professor, you can advocate for your position, and influence your students. Realize that all your colleagues will be telling those students what a nut you are and how lucky you are for tenure. Your coworkers will answer your comments with absurd non-sequitors - economics and history faculty at my school tell my students that I might as well be a communist, since freedom only works on paper. I'm at a very friendly school as regards toleration of ideas outside the comfort zone - this is a tame response to someone who dares speak about freedom. I'm also referred to as biased - but teachers who tell their students that Lincoln was the greatest President ever, or that habeas corpus is outdated, or that global warming is a proven fact, or that free-market money is absurd and gold is a barbarous relic, are referred to as unbiased and reasonable. Such is the state of the world. Still, you might get through to some of your students, and send them out to advocate those positions -this is more than you can accomplish as a lawyer.
Law is saturated - if you can handle the math (and the nonsense), go for econ.
Freedom of markets is positively correlated with the degree of evolution in any society...
I really appreciate all the advice everyone, especially since it is so mixed and I am getting to see the pros and cons of both sides. Seeing as how I am just entering my sophomore year at college, I still have plenty of time to make my decision, but it's never too early to be thinking about it I guess.