David R. Henderson  

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Last night, I asked:

Who was the first economist to win the Nobel prize? It's not as obvious as you might think. A hint (it's a very subtle hint) is in the category in which I listed this post.

Commenters blake r, kevin, and Liam got it: it was Frederic Passy who, in fact, was not only the first economist to win the Nobel Prize but also one of the first two winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. I wrote about it at length in "Economists and the Nobel Peace Prize" in October 2007. In that article, I pointed out that the awarding of that first prize to Passy and Jean Henry Dunant showed "that the initial granters of the Peace Prize understood that it ought to go to people who did something for world peace." Over time, though, the awarders, perhaps unwittingly, have set up an incentive for politicians to make war.

I wrote:

But many of the people on the list of past Nobel Peace Prize recipients are, to put it mildly, suspect. The list of suspects starts early. Theodore Roosevelt won the award in 1906 for helping end the Russo-Japanese War. Woodrow Wilson won the award in 1919 for promoting the League of Nations. Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho won the award in 1973 for the Vietnam Peace Accord, although Le Duc Tho refused the award on the grounds that there was no peace in Vietnam. Menachem Begin and Anwar al-Sadat won the award in 1978 for negotiating peace between Egypt and Israel.

That's just a sampling of the strange awards. Why strange? Because, though they received the Nobel Peace Prize, everyone on the list was incredibly warlike, imperialistic, or brutal, or all three. Theodore Roosevelt was one of the first U.S. presidents to make the U.S. into an imperialist power that, ever since, has gone around the world sticking its nose - and its arms - into other people's business. Indeed, as Reason managing editor Jesse Walker pointed out, Roosevelt described the Spanish-American war as "fun." Woodrow Wilson got the U.S. into World War I when there was no good reason for doing so. His doing so made the German government realize it could never win the war, leading the Germans to surrender. This led to the Versailles Treaty, whose terms were tilted heavily against Germany despite Wilson's assurance to the German government, before it surrendered, that this would not happen. The Versailles Treaty, in turn, upset Germans so much that some of them, who probably never would otherwise have done so, supported Hitler or at least acquiesced in his brutal moves, both domestic and international. For that reason, Wilson arguably did more to create war in the 20th century than any other American. Henry Kissinger, while working for Richard Nixon, had a large role in the decision to bomb the bejesus out of North Vietnam and the decision to bomb Cambodia. Le Duc Tho defended North Vietnam but also attacked South Vietnam. Menachem Begin was an Israeli terrorist who later became president of Israel and invaded Lebanon. Anwar al-Sadat started the Yom Kippur war, an attack on Israel, in 1973.

I also pointed out that it's quite understandable why the incentive to make war happened:

Imagine you're sitting in Sweden and you're on the committee trying to choose the winner. You really do want peace. You notice that some of the most brutal people in the world have stopped being brutal and are suing for peace. You want to encourage that. And so you argue for giving them the prize. That seems like a reasonable incentive. The problem is that when people understand the incentives, they also understand that to get into the position of stopping killing people, they have to kill people first. The solution here would be for the Nobel committee to swear publicly that they will never again give the prize to anyone who got his country into anything other than strictly a war of self-defense. They should probably go further and say that they would never give the prize to anyone involved in war. Even wars of self-defense don't always have to be fought - some situations, as Passy noted, can be negotiated.

Towards the end of my 2007 piece, I quote some thoughtful comments on war and peace and incentives by Nobel prize winner Roger B. Myerson.

Update: Commenter Erich Schwarz claims that I don't remember the Zimmerman Telegram. I have no idea why he claims that: I do remember it. Zimmerman was proposing an alliance with Mexico if United States decided to drop its neutrality and declare war on Germany. He seems to think that was a good reason for the U.S. government to go to war with Germany. I don't.

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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory

COMMENTS (17 to date)
Richard writes:

Sorry David, but Passy is not the correct answer to your question.

Passy would be correct if you had asked who was the first economist to win "a" Nobel Prize.

But that's not what you asked. You asked who was the first economist to win "the" Nobel Prize.

There are several Nobel Prizes in different categories. So when you say "the Nobel Prize" you are clearly referring to a specific category, and the category you mean has to be inferred from context. Since your question referred to an economist, the natural inference is that you were referring to the Nobel Prize in Economics.

The first economists to win "the" Nobel Prize were Ragnar Anton, Kittil Frisch and Jan Tinbergen.

John Jenkins writes:

Sorry Richard, since you want to be hyper-technical, by referring to "the Nobel Prize," Prof. Henderson automatically excluded every recipient of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel from consideration, since they are not recipients of any Nobel Prize.

Ray Lehmann writes:

There is no "Nobel Prize in Economics." It's the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences.

Don writes:

Not to worry too much about the recipients of the Peace Prize, David. In case you haven't heard, it's been announced that all future years have already been awarded to Barack Obama.

Richard writes:

Nice try John Jenkins, but in common speech the Economics prize is called a Nobel prize, and my post was all about the conventions of common speech. Nothing hyper-technical about it.

John Jenkins writes:

Except that your post is simply wrong. You chose to make an inference that the answer space was smaller than it is by arguing with the question.

If you want to take context into account, it is obvious that the question was not referring to the Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, because that would be a trivial lookup question (That you managed to get wrong, BTW: Ragnar Frisch was one person). Since it is unlikely Prof. Henderson would post a trivial lookup exercise, the reasonable inference is that some economist won a Nobel Prize before the Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences was established in 1968 (and first awarded in 1969). Your failure of imagination is not an error on Prof. Henderson's part.

Johan writes:

I do have one question. Why would a member of the Norwegian committee that chooses the Peace Prize winner be sitting in Sweden?

Richard writes:

John Jenkins, your gallant defense of "Prof. Henderson" (whom I and other commentors presumptuously call David) and your punctilious repeated references to the "Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences," not to mention the passion displayed by your aggressive phrasing ("hyper-technical," "managed to get wrong," "your failure of imagination"), establish that you deserve to wear a crown. I withdraw my original post. Thank for setting me straight.

Alex Tabarrok writes:

Good one, David!

David R. Henderson writes:

@Alex Tabarrok,
Oops. I learned something new. Thanks.

Zubon writes:

How large would you estimate the marginal effect of thinking, "I could get a Nobel Peace Prize when I end this," is as a component of "the incentive to make war"?

David R. Henderson writes:

Measured how?

Erich Schwarz writes:

"Woodrow Wilson got the U.S. into World War I when there was no good reason for doing so."

I don't really expect most Canadians to remember the Zimmermann Telegram or unrestricted submarine warfare, but would it really be unreasonable to expect a Canadian professor at a U.S. military postgraduate school to do so?

Zimmermann, by the way, was responsible for not one but two disastrous decisions that helped ensure misery throughout the 20th century -- the second one was his decision to send Lenin back to Russia from his exile in Switzerland. One can make a reasonable case that, if going back by time-travel to murder people were both feasible and ethical, he'd be a far better candidate for assassination than young Adolf Hitler.

rpl writes:


I have to agree with Zubon here. I can see how awarding the prize to ex-brutes creates some incentive to become a brute, but surely it must be tiny compared to the other forces at work. After all, most people who cause wars don't end up winning the Nobel Prize. Moreover, if a person is naturally averse to starting wars, it seems unlikely that the prospect of winning the prize would overcome that. And if a person is naturally disposed to starting wars it seems unlikely that he needs the incentive of a Nobel Prize to indulge his passion for brutality.

At the margin, consider the set of people we're talking about. For them, defending the homeland against a (real or imagined) threat, gaining power and influence at home, and beating the crap out of those dirty so-and-so's on the other side of the river isn't enough to induce them to start a war. However, all of that plus a (probably rather remote) chance at a Nobel Prize is enough to set them off. I doubt there are very many people who fit that description.

Carl The EconGuy writes:

Arguably, Nobel Prizes in the sciences and the wanna-be science of economics incentivize better efforts and raise overall achievements. The rewards are big enough relative to the efforts, for each individual involved, and so serve as a marginal motivator of effort. It certainly makes a lot of potential candidates travel to Sweden to make friends, and therefore possibly exposes Swedes to better scientists than otherwise would be the case.

That's hardly true for the Peace Prize. The selection committee appointed by the Norwegian Parliament clearly realizes this, and therefore makes selections just on whatever whim is pop-de-jour, witness the outrageously silly award to Obama. Of course, now that he already has the Prize, why would he ever stop the bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

For real peace makers, if there are any left, the relationship between effort and result is so tenuous that the incentives of possibly qualifying for the Peace Prize are non-existent. Therefore, the Peace Prize is a silly award, as currently administered. They'd do well to give it, every year, to some active and demonstrably effective NGO, like the Red Cross or Physicians Without Borders -- people who go where no one else will and do what no one else has the stomach for. They don't do what they do for the money, but they could sure use some more.

Erich Schwarz writes:

"Commenter Erich Schwarz claims that I don't remember the Zimmerman Telegram. I have no idea why he claims that: I do remember it."

The reason I assumed you'd forgotten it is that, historically, that was the event which decisively flipped Woodrow Wilson from being opposed to entering WWI (as he had strongly been, for years) to being (reluctantly) convinced that he had to go to war. As I'll now assume you also remember, Wilson was not originally in favor of entering WWI! He argued in 1914 that Americans should not merely be legally neutral, but "... neutral in fact as well as in name ... impartial in thought as well as in action." Later, Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 on the slogan, "He Kept Us Out of War."

Not exactly the behavior of somebody eager to be "incredibly warlike, imperialistic, or brutal, or all three."

Since you remember that too, can you explain why you think that -- with the luxury of having almost a century of distance from Zimmerman's leaked promise to support Mexico's invading and reconquering the southern U.S. -- your judgement is more likely to be valid than Wilson's was about whether the Telegram (along with unrestricted submarine warfare, which you haven't mentioned yet) was a valid casus belli?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Erich Schwarz,
I just noticed your second comment. I'll be happy to answer, but it will be in a later post. One hint, though, about what I'll be saying: I'll challenge your claim that Wilson wanted to be neutral. He did early on, but well before April 6, 1917, when Wilson entered the war, he had dropped neutrality.

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