George Stigler on Prisons
By David Henderson
In a comment on my last post, John Goodman went in a different direction from mine. I had pointed out that prisons make people poor or keep them poor. My idea was that many of the people in prison shouldn’t be because they had committed victimless crimes. John pointed out that, whatever their reason for being there, they should be able to work at productive jobs.
That reminded me of a line I remembered from the late George Stigler. In a famous speech, “The Economist as Preacher,” Stigler said:
An economist is a person who, reading of the confinement of Edmund Dantes in a small cell, laments his lost alternative product.
By the way, it took me over an hour on a Sunday afternoon to find that quote. But the search was pleasurable. For those who have never read Stigler, you have missed a real treat. I think he was the most-humorous good economist of the last half of the 20th century. His humor was always insightful and almost always caught one by surprise. For that reason, I quoted some of his lines (both humorous/insightful and simply insightful) in my bio of Stigler in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. I had trouble narrowing them down. So here are a few I didn’t use.
From “The Intellectual and the Marketplace”
At least four out of every five [intellectuals] owe their pleasant lives to the great achievements of the marketplace. Professors are much more beholden to Henry Ford than to the foundation that bears his name and spreads his assets.
[I]nquiry has been most free in the college whose trustees are a group of top-quality leaders of the marketplace, men who, experience shows, are remarkably tolerant of almost everything except a mediocre and complacent faculty. Economics provides many examples: if a professor wishes to denounce aspects of big business, as I have, he will be wise to locate in a school whose trustees are big businessmen, as I have.
But our greatest problem would be that inheritance extends far beyond a safe deposit box full of bonds and stocks. I have told you that you are intelligent; I now add that the chief reason you are intelligent is that your parents are intelligent. . . . But inheritance of ability is important, probably more important in its effects on the distribution of income than is the inheritance of property. So a full account of the proper role of inheritance would have to extend to ability, and perhaps to name and reputation, as the senior senator from Massachusetts might agree.