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Most Influential Economist?

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For a classroom exercise, my daughter just asked me to define influence and to name the most influential person in world history. My definition of influence was, "the ability to change people's minds," and I chose John Locke, although I gave serious consideration to Adam Smith. My rationale is that Locke was a major influence on the American revolution and Constitution, which in turn were major historical events.

In retrospect, perhaps I should have chosen Karl Marx. But for a high school student, better to pick someone whose influence was for the good.

UPDATE: I enjoyed reading The Most Influential People are Generally Bad over at Mahalanobis.

For Discussion. Leaving aside Marx, which pre-20th-century economist should be considered the most influential? Which 20th century economist?

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The author at Mahalanobis in a related article titled The Most Influential Individuals are Generally Bad writes:
    Arnold Kling asks who is the most influential person in world history, and suggests names like Locke, Smith, and Marx. In my opinion... [Tracked on August 30, 2005 2:53 PM]
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hedged writes:

pre-20th: Walras, for introducing the importance of marginal analysis

20th century: Milton Friedman, for elucidating the moral necessity of free markets

Scott Scheule writes:

The most influential 20th century economist is probably Lord Keynes.

monkyboy writes:

For pre-20th-century: Thomas Jefferson. Strong champion of small government, but not such a pendant that he'd pass up a deal like the Louisiana Purchase...

20th century: None qualified.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Seems like a dumb question to begin with. Historically, there is most definitely a "long tail" of influential people. A better question would have been "pick an influential person and explain what they influenced, the scope of their influence, and how they did it."

To that question, I would answer Copernicus. Dude singlehandedly sparked the Enlightenment by showing that the dominant intellectual power of the time was full o' beans.

D O writes:

No comment on pre-20th, but for the 20th century I would say Friedrich Hayek. Having such a heavy influence on Reagan and Thatcher is no small feat.

Danno writes:

That's a tough question and more grounded in opinion than anything else.

I could see reasonable arguments for a lot of people pre-20th century. Y'got your Jesus, your Aristotle, your Isaac Newton, etc etc.

And 20th century is large in number too. However, I should like to put forth a name that has probablly touched most of humanity and will doubtless continue to be relevant until we evolve into beings of pure reason that lack physical bodies: Alan Turing (I know, I know, lots of people were involved with computers, but they call it Turing-Complete for a reason).

PrestoPundit writes:

Malthus must be counted the most influential pre-20th century economist -- among other things Malthus helped inspire the Darwinian revolution in biology, which changed everything.

The most influential economists of the 20th century?

For the good -- Friedrich Hayek.

For the bad -- John Maynard Keynes.

Hayek transformed economics -- and public policy around the world -- by putting price signals and the division of knowledge at the center of social thinking.

Keynes helped wreck modern economic thought with the creation of an economics incompatible with all that economists had previously known about scarcity, savings, capital goods, money, and economic coordination through time in an open economy. Mathematical "model building" came to replace economic thinking among professional economists, leading to the current and continuing age of deficits and inflation for as long as the eye can see.

DrTaxSacto writes:

This is not an easy question. Your comment about Marx is certainly on the mark - he was not a positive force. Groucho was but I suspect you mean Karl.

But on the serious side I would offer Hayek first. Hayek comes back to me frequently on a daily basis. He did some of the best work on economic knowledge and how individuals function in markets. He blew Keynes away consistently. He thought carefully about the risks of making economics a numbers based profession. and he pointed out the moral hazards of socialism and bureaucracies.

But Smith would certainly be a close equal or second. My problem is that most people quote him without reading him. They do not understand his truly moral notions. He was a profound thinker.

In a clear place of second is James Buchanan. That might be limited to this century but he would be up there. Buchanan and Tullock changed the way we think about bureaucracies and political behavior. They spawned a group of economists who for the most part continue to help our understanding of human behavior in these areas. But as I think about it Hayek keeps coming back for his contributions across such a wide range of areas.

John Whitehead writes:

Reagan read Hayek?

Keynes created deficits?

Robert Schwartz writes:

"Walras, for introducing the importance of marginal analysis"

Yes and he demonstrated the existence of a general equilibrium, which should have lead everybody to realise that Marx did not know what he was talking about. But he lived and died in obscurity, and his best known student Pareto did not champion his work. He was right, but not influential.

Copernicus died 1543. the enlightenment dates, at the earliest, from the end of the 17th century. P.S. Copernicus did create a heliocentric system of astronomy. But, it was still an exercise in mathematics and geometry. It was Kepler who created a mathematical system that allowed astronomy to become a physical science.

PrestoPundit writes:

Yes, it's well established that Reagan read Hayek. Reagan also refers to Hayek in various of his speeches. And during his Presidency Reagan invited Hayek to the White House. Many on Reagan's staff where also influenced by Hayek. For details, see for example Martin Anderson's _Revolution_.

Paul N writes:

Can I vote for JS Mill as an economist? I definitely think Keynes for 20th Century, by a long shot.

monkyboy writes:

If you are gonna hang Marx for how Russia turned out then you have to give him credit for China.

I'm sure the spectacle of America surviving on charity from a Communist country has Marx smirking in his grave...

Tracy W writes:

Your justification for the most important person in world history is John Locke because he was a major influence on American revolution and constitution! How provincial! I agree that the American revolution and constitution are major historical events, but so were the French, Russian, Chinese, English revolutions, the European empires, etc.

In terms of the biggest influence on world history I would tend to go for Aristotle and his development of enquiry about the natural world (or maybe Francis Bacon for his formalisation of the scientific method. The development of science is of far more importance to the modern world than any number of political revolutions and constitutions.

Tracy W writes:

As for influential economists:
- pre 20th century - Adam Smith because he got it all started and had the "invisible hand" insight.
- 20th century - Lord Keynes. Gave an intellectual justification to governments doing what they loved.
However while I think Lord Keynes was the most influential economist in the 20th century, I do not think he will prove to be the most influential of the 20th century economists in the long-run. I'm inclined to pick out Hayek, Becker, Lucas for that second title.

Kev writes:

Alfred Marshall is almost pre 20th century, right?

I think it might be easier to do a "10 Most Influential All-Time" list: Smith, Mill, Keynes, Samuelson, Ricardo, Marshall, Hayek, Walras, Marx, Velben is my list, though I'm sure I've forgotten someone.

I'd also note that these lists tend to have a Western bias, and I mean this in a real and not in a "let's be PC" sense. For instance, a list of mathematicians or scientists would surely include a handful of non-Westerners, and a list of "top explorers" would be something like Zhang Qian, Lewis/Clark, Gagarin, Magellan, Cook, de Gama, Zheng He, Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Columbus, with apologies to Drake, Erikson, Dezhnev, Mackenzie, Amundsen and Balboa. That's a top 10 with 4 from outside W. Europe. Surely there's been an influential economist from outside the Western schools?

Roehl Briones writes:

Pre - 20th most influential: Adam Smith. For singlehandedly initiating the distinct discipline of economics.

20th century most influential : John Maynard Keynes, for better or for worse.

Outside the West? Dude, I'm Filipino, and from where I stand that's like asking which non-Western was most influential in the history of physics. Interesting, but empty.

jaimito writes:

Ronald Reagan was possibly the most influential. He had a degree in economics, his portrait is on the Chicago Boys blog. He also won the cold war against the Russians, with great economy of lifes and resources. A great economist if there was ever one.

Harry writes:

Unless i'm mistaken you've asked for the most influential 'economists', however i'm seeing replies with Jesus and Newton in them!! Correct me if i'm wrong but they're anything else but economists!

Lancett writes:

Louis Bachelier, right in 1900. Although he probably never intended to contribute anything to economics.

Michael H. writes:

I think the most influential 20th Century economist would be Paul Samuelson for a very obvious reason: he wrote the standard economics text that most people read for 50 years. I'm sure a lot of people around the world first encountered economics via Samuelson's text and that has had an impact.

Miguel Angel Martinez writes:

Pre-20th century: I vote for Jean-Baptiste Say. His immense influence has yet to be recognized, because it matches that of Adam Smith and surpasses Ricardo in modernity.

20th Century: I can't name one, but give a semi-chronological list. Marshall, Keynes, Samuelson, Friedman, Lucas, Hayek... All of them have had enormous influence.

pj writes:

As Chou En-lai said about the influence of the French Revolution, "It's too early to tell."

20th century: Keynes took the early lead but I think in time Hayek and Coase will overtake him.

pre-20th century: Leaving Marx aside, it's Smith, no question. Alfred Marshall and David Ricardo are possibilities, but neither ranks near Smith.

nn writes:

If we're talking influential economists with an influence through economics and not simply through policy couched in economic terms (leaving out Malthus and Marx) -- a non-obvious candidate would be Cournot.

After all he pioneered the graphical demand curve, standard monopoly analysis, oligopoly analysis, rudimentary game theory, and arguably Cournot's work is the only work in the pre-Walrasian age which resembles what is now the standard micro core.

John writes:

Pre 20th Century: Smith.

20th Century: At least one vote for Samuelson.

Timothy writes:

Pre-20th: Walras, Marshall, Mill, Smith, Marx, Malthus...all good picks, but mine is a toss-up between David Ricardo and Thomas Munn.

Ricardo's thoughts and work on the productivity of English farming really laid the ground work for the entire marginal revolution, which we all know makes economics work.

Munn I've always thought of as sort of the father of mercantilism. And, just looking around the world today, it's obvious the mercantilism is quite well thought of in many places.

Neither is particularly famous, but influence is different than fame.

20th Century: I'm going to have to go with Maynard Keynes, hands down. His ideas might've been pretty bad, on balance, but there's no question that he was the most influential. All western governments use Keynesian maneuvers, even supposed "conservatives". Bush's tax cuts and spending increase during recession are exactly what a Keynesian would order.

English Professor writes:

It seems to me that "most influential" should go to the person whose ideas had the greatest impact. The impact of Marx was almost wholly political. When I tell my Marxist colleagues in the humanities that Marx's economics was nonsense, they say it doesn't matter (of course, it mattered to him!), that his important insights were philosophical or social.

For world changing insights, there seem to be 2 of utmost importance--Smith's "hidden hand" and second, marginal utility theory. The latter, if I recall correctly, was developed almost simultaneously by Menger, Jevons and Walras. And all three were building on insights by Ricardo. I haven't read Marshall, but I am under the impression that he put all of this stuff together and taught it to generations of economists. So Smith has to be first, with any of the others second.

As for the 20th century, it has to be Keynes. Keynes begat Samuelson, and on to the n-th generation. When I open a contemporary econ textbook, I still find it dominated by Keynes.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Yeah, but Kepler had it easy. Copernicus was labeled a heretic. The Enlightenment does not start without a bunch of things (printing press, circumnavigation of the globe, etc.). Copernicus came from the ranks of the church. He observed that the teachings didn't jibe with reality. He called them on it and broke their monopoly. He made the world safe for Isaac Newton more than a century later.

Reuben writes:

I'd say it's a toss-up between Lord Keynes and Hayek. If I was forced to choose, I'd say Keynes, by a whisker.

Robert Schwartz writes:

Brad Hutchings writes:

"Copernicus was labeled a heretic. ... He made the world safe for Isaac Newton more than a century later."

This is not so:

Copernicus, Nicolaus (Sheila Rabin), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Sec. 2.6 Sixteenth Century Reactions to On the Revolutions:

"Thus, in 1600 there was no official Catholic position on the Copernican system, and it was certainly not a heresy. When Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was burned at the stake as a heretic, it had nothing to do with his writings in support of Copernican cosmology."

The astronomy of Ptolemy was not a teaching of the Catholic Church. Copernicus' difficulties were exclusively intellectual, which were resolved by Kepler. Do Not conflate Galileo with Copernicus. Newton of course lived in a Protestant and relatively tolerant country 140 years later, the Catholic Church presented him with no obstacles at all.

Chris Bolts writes:

John Stuart Mill and David Riccardo are up there on my list of most influential economists. One helped fight slavery and the other established the single economic theory that cannot be easily challenged (at least where politics are not involved).

' daughter just asked me to define influence and to name the most influential person in world history. My definition of influence was, "the ability to change people's minds,"...'

Then you should probably answer, Christ or Mohammed.

For more or less inventing the English language as we know it; Shakespeare.

If we insist on someone to give credit to for economics, this guy was probably the first:

Justin writes:

Adam Smith has to be the obvious choice for pre-20th century.

How's about Frank Knight for the 20th century?

Tom writes:

Why hasn't anyone mentioned Alan Greenspan -- for better or worse?

AJ writes:

The other reason you shouldn't include Marx is that he was not influential as an economist. Is ideas on the dynamics of capitalism are so inconsistent and wrong, they are not even known by most marxists. His chief contribution was in political dialogue where he established the cult of victomhood and that people who are successful economically are the reason that some people are not successful (i.e. economic oppression).

AJ writes:

Pre 20th century - Adam Smith

20th Century -- John Maynard Keynes. Keynes was most influential, not necessarily best or most important. Unlike Marx, it was his economimc ideas which were influential.

I don't think Friedman or Hayak were all that influential.

If there was a single "Einstein" who had most contributed to the revolution in financial economics during 1970-2000, I would have picked him, but there are numerous people who pushed that forward over 30-40 years.


AJ writes:

I agree with the several above comments that Keynes will not be all that influential beyond the 20th century.

Interesting question: which economist from the 20th century will be most influential in the 21st century? I'm not sure there is just one which stands out.

Ragingpundits writes:

Here’s another potential nomination for most (directly) influential economist ( at least on the US economy) — Lauchlin Currie and Harry Dexter, both of whom worked in FDR’s administration. These economists played a large role in forming the economic rationale for what eventually became a massive welfare state and for greater control over the economy. Also not a good influence to be sure.

jn writes:

If we're considering more direct effects, then Alvin Hansen was more influential than almost any of the 20th century economists that have been named. He was the American apostle of Keynesianism, and he was the man who pushed for Keynesianism as it was actually practiced in the US. Indeed, unlike Keynes, he often argued not for countercyclical spending but for permanent deficit spending as a necessary way to boost the economy. Which as it turns out -- mostly for the worse -- is what governments tended to do regardless of what the theorists or advisors said. [He believed that with the end of the frontier, lack of rapid population growth and slowing technological change that stagnation was nearly inevitable in the 1950s!!]

He had a great influence on teaching of economics at Harvard and elsewhere and Keynesianism as practiced by US bureaucrats was more Hansen than Keynes.

Pancho Villa writes:

Keynes observed the system, Hayek was a part of it.

Rick Gaber writes:

ONE and ONLY one U.S. President had a degree in Economics. WHO could that POSSIBLY be?? Hmmm?

Yup, Ronald Wilson Reagan. "Reagan read Hayek?" indeed.

Did Reagan read Hayek?

It is very likely that Ronald Reagan did read one of Friedrich Hayek's most famous works, The Road to Serfdom. First published in 1944 by the University of Chicago Press, this slender, readable book on the differences between individual and group thought and the consequences of choosing the latter--private property ownership versus communism, individuality versus centralized government or dictatorship, capitalism versus socialism versus naziism, and the experience of personal freedoms versus never-ending political encroachments--remains a terrific read today. Hayek won the Nobel Prize in 1974 (joint with Gunnar Myrdal), a good timing match with Reagan's educational interests, political interests, and runs for office.

All the same, to state without citation that Reagan read Hayek is probably disingenuous and a little misleading. By analogy, I've read Einstein, Bohr, and Feynman, Nobel physicists all. They each wrote published explanations of their academic work for the public, accessible to audiences of different levels, at various times in their careers! I don't have the time or energy to plow through Ph.D.-level physics literature, but I do read with pleasure publicly accessible books and literature surveys, and I am always inspired by reading the words of the best.

I should say here for clarity that I worked for Mr. Reagan at the Council of Ecomic Advisers, and met with him several times. I have no doubt that he was familiar with the best of economic thought, from micro to macro. He had a sophisticated understanding of markets, from everyday goods and services to monetary theory; and he also understood the analogies of how the invisible hand might work to organize both ordinary markets and less-understood social compacts like constitutions and laws--analogies that Hayek emphasized in some of his work.

But there is a big difference between grasping a concept and reading professional academic details in the original. Exaggeration serves no justice. It behooves neither Reagan nor Hayek to assert claims that suggest associations not supported by facts. Does anyone have an actual statement by Mr. Reagan on which works by Hayek he'd read? I'm interested in the facts.


PrestoPundit writes:

Martin Anderson could tell you what of Hayek Ronald Reagan had read. Anderson says that Reagan definitely had read his Hayek -- and Anderson tells us that he himself selected economic writings for Reagan to read in the 1970s. Reagan speaks of Hayek in speeches with the plain implication that he'd read Hayek and was familiar with the content of his works. Maybe Reagan was bluffing, but I doubt it.

Here's my honest guess. I don't doubt that Reagan read the 1945 condensed version of _The Road to Serfdom_ publish in the Reader's Digest.

I'm guessing that in the 1950s Reagan read _The Road to Serfdom_ itself, and that in the 1960's he read some parts of _The Constitution of Liberty_. A research of Reagan's library and private papers will no doubt confirm or refuse these guesses.

I'm also guessing that Reagan read some of Hayek's popular pieced on Keynes and inflation written in the 1970s.

Until folks have researched Reagan's library and personal papers, the one to ask is Martin Anderson -- he's at the Hoover Institute, I believe.

Richard writes:

Why hasn't anyone mentioned Mises?

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