Henderson on Alchian
The Wall Street Journal published my piece this morning on the late Armen Alchian and some of his important contributions to economics. Some excerpts follow. The intro:
In 1975, I attended a week-long conference in Connecticut at which the star attraction was Friedrich Hayek. Hayek, who had shared the 1974 Nobel Prize in economics with Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, was doing a kind of victory tour of the United States. I told him that I thought Armen Alchian, one of my mentors when I earned a Ph.D. at UCLA, also deserved the Nobel Prize. I asked Hayek what he thought.
Hayek gave his characteristic wince, paused, and said, “There are two economists who deserve the Nobel prize because their work is important but won’t get it because they didn’t do a lot of work: Ronald Coase and Armen Alchian.”
Sixteen years later, in 1991, Ronald Coase did win the Nobel Prize. When I got the news, I called Armen and told him the story. He got a kick out of it and seemed to have a new hope that he would win. He didn’t, and now he can’t. Armen Alchian died on Tuesday at the fine age of 98.
What was so important about Alchian’s work? There were three aspects. First, he was one of the last economists of his generation to communicate mainly in words and not equations. Second, although economists often use the word “unrigorous” to refer to communication in words rather than math, Alchian was profoundly rigorous, writing clearly and carefully and using basic logic to reach sometimes-startling conclusions. As a result, many of Alchian’s papers, even those from the 1950s, are still widely cited.
Third, Alchian is known for his textbook, “University Economics,” first published in 1964 and later called “Exchange and Production,” coauthored with UCLA colleague William R. Allen. That text is unique in economics. It is much more literary and humorous than any other modern economics textbook that deals with complex issues for an undergraduate audience. Example: “Since the fiasco in the Garden of Eden, most of what we get is by sweat, strain, and anxiety.”
I also quote from my personal favorite of his articles, “The Economic and Social Impact of Free Tuition.” It’s here on Econlib. Go to the link and scroll down. I first read it when I was 18 and in college and it so persuaded me that I wrote a submission that I delivered to a committee at my undergrad school, the University of Winnipeg, in which I took his argument and argued that the University should raise tuition.
BTW, a hat tip to Armen’s daughter, Arline, and his son, Allen. The Wall Street Journal wanted a high-res photo and the ones I found for them on the web weren’t good. So I e-mailed Arline. Her brother sent me a photo within 15 minutes. Isn’t the web wonderful? I know Armen would have appreciated it. He had a childlike delight in new technology.