Biography of Harold Demsetz
By David Henderson
In a 1969 article, “Information and Efficiency: Another Viewpoint,” Demsetz accused fellow economist Kenneth Arrow of taking the “Nirvana approach” and recommended instead a “comparative institutions approach.” He wrote, “[T]hose who adopt the nirvana viewpoint seek to discover discrepancies between the ideal and the real and if discrepancies are found, they deduce that the real is inefficient.” Specifically, Arrow showed ways in which the free market might provide too little innovation, but then simply assumed that government intervention would get the economy closer to the optimum. Demsetz conceded that ideal government intervention might improve things, but he noted that Arrow, like many economists, had failed to show that actual government intervention would do so. Economists have slightly changed the label on Demsetz’s insight: they now refer to it as the “Nirvana fallacy.”
This is from “Harold Demsetz, 1930-2019,” in David R. Henderson, ed., The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. It was recently put on line.
I had a good time writing it. Demsetz was the person who persuaded me, when I was just 19 years old, that I could make it at a top U.S. graduate school.
One of my other favorite paragraphs because it’s so Demsetz:
In 1963, when Demsetz was on the UCLA faculty, a University of Chicago economist named Reuben Kessel asked him if he was happy there. Demsetz, sensing an offer in the works, answered, “Make me unhappy.” The University of Chicago did just that, and Demsetz moved to Chicago for eight productive years.