Bill Breit, RIP
By David Henderson
I just learned from Don Boudreaux that economist Bill Breit died on Thursday. He was 78. I first heard of him in the fall of 1971 when I was doing a make-up year in undergrad economics and one grad economics course at the University of Western Ontario. (I had graduated from the University of Winnipeg in 1970 with a B.Sc. and a major in mathematics.) In my intermediate micro course, we had a readings book co-edited by Breit and Harold Hochman. I remember at the time thinking what a great collection of modern classics this book was.
In 1986, I became a fan of his book, Lives of the Laureates, co-edited with Roger W. Spencer. It went through multiple editions. He would have a Nobel-Prize winning economist down to Trinity College in San Antonio to give a talk about, basically, “My life and how I won the Nobel prize.”
Finally, in 1994, I met Bill at the Mont Pelerin Society meetings in Cannes. At one lunch, I sat beside him as he told us younger economists (I remember Pete Boettke and Steve Horwitz being at the table too) funny stories about some of the famous economists he had speak at Trinity. Bill was a marvelous story teller and had us howling with laughter. From then on, I made a point of sitting beside him when I could so I could hear more stories and sometimes asked him, “Tell me again the one about so and so.”
The next–and only–time I saw him was at a Liberty Fund symposium in Key West in June 2000 on communicating economics to the public. This still ranks as the best Liberty Fund seminar I’ve attended, mainly because it motivated me to do even more writing for the public than I had been doing and get off my butt and finish my book, The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey. Russ Roberts and I still occasionally talk about how great that symposium was.
My wife and I visited San Antonio a few times in last half of the 2000s and each time I called him in advance to see if I could visit him. He sounded ill on the phone and said that he didn’t really want to visit. So I never saw him again.
When I wrote my co-authored book with Charley Hooper, Making Great Decisions in Business and Life, I retold a story that he had told me about one such famous economist. I got his permission to tell it on condition that I not reveal who had told the story or which economist the story was about until both had died. I’ll retell it in a later post.