Armen Alchian: Teacher
By David Henderson
I’ve written between 45 and 50 op/eds in the Wall Street Journal but never before have I had the intense response–all positive, by the way–that I’ve had to my Wednesday piece on the late Armen Alchian. I heard from Alchian’s students who studied under him, some as early as the mid-1960s; from people who learned economics from his and William R. Allen’s textbook, University Economics; and from academics who learned from his academic articles. What comes across is that Alchian–whether in his classes, his textbook, or his academic articles–was, first and foremost, a teacher.
Some of the stories jogged my memory about ways in which he showed that when I studied under him at UCLA. I remember in the 1974-75 academic year, some of us were going on the market and getting serious looks from top schools. We were feeling our oats because at that time, UCLA was close to its peak reputation. This particular story I’m about to tell happened at one of our regular Friday afternoon coffee-and-doughtnut hours. One of us–I hope and think it wasn’t I–said disdainfully that he couldn’t imagine teaching at a Cal State school where you had to teach–gasp!–3 or 4 courses a semester. Alchian responded, gently, by the way, that that’s not how he saw it. He said that we should take the best academic job we were offered and if that happened to be a Cal State or its equivalent, then, at least you got to teach.
This attitude reflected his humility. He never seemed to care whether he was touted the way Samuelson or Friedman were. To him, economics was a calling and we were all in this together, trying to figure things out. And I think that explains why one person who called me–and we talked for half an hour Friday night–who had Alchian for a class in the 1960s, had no idea that Alchian was so highly thought of in the profession. By the way, I think it is this humility, more than anything else, that accounts for his not getting the Nobel prize. He didn’t push himself or make his own work front and center in conversations. I still remember the first day in class in 1972 when he had recently seen Friedman and Samuelson at a conference and spent a minute telling us what amazing economists they were and how much fun it was to watch them at the peak of their careers.
Although I think the Wall Street Journal editors did a fantastic job of deleting about 400 words from my bio, I want to quote one paragraph that I wish had remained:
Because of its literary quality and complexity, their text generally did not work with undergraduate or even M.B.A. classes. But its impact was out of all proportion to its sales. Many graduate students, particularly at UCLA, where Alchian began teaching in 1946, and at the University of Washington (where Alchian student Steven Cheung taught), learned their basic economics from this book [University Economics]. Some of the University of Washington students went on to write best-selling textbooks that made many of Alchian and Allen’s insights more understandable to an undergraduate audience. Alchian and Allen’s textbook was truly a public good, a good that created large benefits for which its creators could not charge. And while Alchian played the role of selfish cynic in his class, some of us who studied under him had the feeling that he put so much care and work into his low-selling text–and into his students–because of his concern for humanity.
A couple of quotes also from people who contacted me with their stories.
First, a federal judge who asked that his name and other identifiers not be mentioned:
I took his course, called “Law and Economics,” though it was really intermediate micro, and learned probably more than in any other course I’ve ever taken.
Your review reminded me that it’s been some time since I looked at his book with Bill Allen. I hope the answer is that I’ve completely internalized it. It is still definitely on my shelves.
In response to my question about whether what he learned from Alchian had influenced any of his decisions:
I would guess that it has; certainly the wording of some of them, but most likely the outcome as well. That said, I can’t point to any particular one, but given its pervasive influence over my view of markets, some effect on outcome seems likely.
Second, a woman who took a special sequence from him in the late 1960s. This is my favorite but because she didn’t respond to my request for permission to reprint, I’ve edited one part that might otherwise identify her:
In 1969 or 1970, Dr. Alchian offered an intensive 5 quarter course to UCLA undergraduates which would meet the requirements for a major in economics. It met 4 or 5 times a week and he personally taught 4 of the quarters. A Dr. Baird (I think) [DRH note: Bingo. It was Chuck Baird] taught the one quarter on macro. I was one of 20 or so students who took the course. I started UCLA as a psychology major with no perspective on economic theory or property rights. I came out of that course with a whole new vocabulary and a much heightened awareness of relationships between scarcity, choice, demand and how government laws can have unintended consequences. What I liked best about your piece was your description of the way Dr. Alchian used language rather than numbers. My son was an econ major at Princeton and he could not believe me when I told him I studied econ without equations. Above all I learned to approach factual analysis without value judgments.
Dr. Alchian wrote a recommendation for me to [one of the country’s top 10 law schools], and I remain grateful to him for my three years there (and my husband who I met in law school). After facing him in the classroom on a daily basis, the law professors could inspire no fear.
After reading your essay, I pulled out my college copy of University Economics with fondness. I never saw Dr. Alchian after I graduated and could never thank him, so I guess I am thanking you instead.
This is quick and I’m off to my Sunday walk. But I think it gives a feel for Armen Alchian’s passion for teaching.