David R. Henderson  

Alchian Didn't Do a Lot of Work?

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In my Wall Street Journal piece, I quoted Friedrich Hayek saying to me, in 1975:

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.

In the piece, I left that quote unchallenged. I shouldn't have. Frequent Econlib Feature Article writer Dwight Lee, quite correctly, called me on it:
Was Hayek correct that Alchian did not publish a lot? It seems to me that he did. I remember being impressed with his work on costs, and he must have had quite few papers on property rights.

Absolutely right. Indeed, when the Journal editor asked me to come up with a "Notable and Quotable," I had an embarrassment of riches, because not only did Armen write a lot but also he wrote unusually well for an economist. As evidence of quantity, consider the fact that Liberty Fund put together 2 hefty volumes of his work that total over 1,500 pages. Most of us would think of that as "a lot."

After receiving Dwight's e-mail, I wrote his daughter, Arline Alchian Hoel, yesterday, saying:

You know, there is one thing that I shouldn't have left uncorrected--Hayek's idea that your Dad was not prolific.

She replied:
[T]hat's a nice article as is -- and captures Dad well. It's not the pages or pounds -- it's the ideas and how well they are presented that was important to him (despite what most of the profession does or says when it comes to pages and more pages)-- and you are on target about that. I grew up seeing him write and rewrite and rewrite articles. I don't know how many pages went into the waste baskets that were filled, emptied, filled and reemptied.

In a later post I'll share, with no attribution when appropriate, some of the many e-mails I've received from former Alchian students and academics and even one federal judge who attribute their understanding of, and excitement about, economics to the late Armen Albert Alchian.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Education



COMMENTS (6 to date)

How much of Alchian's work you know was available in 1975? Maybe Hayek's comment is only true for his time.

Dwight Lee writes:

Jonathan,
Good question. I looked at 26 selections from the two volumes of Alchian's collected works, rather randomly, and found that 18 were published before 1975, 5 were published after 1975 and 3 were undated manuscripts. And the work which established his scholarly reputation seems to have been published mostly before 1975, including the first edition of University Economics.

Bob Murphy writes:

I don't know Alchian's work enough to say myself, but in light of his grouping him with Coase, is it possible that Hayek was thinking of a particular subject for which Alchian would plausibly win the Nobel, but Alchian's actual work on it was fairly sparse?

In other words, if he wrote on all kinds of stuff, but didn't write more than a paper or two on his really important contributions, then would Hayek's quote make more sense?

(Again, I'm not saying this description is accurate, I'm just wondering if that's what Hayek meant?)

David R. Henderson writes:

@Bob Murphy,
That could be what Hayek meant. If so, Hayek was wrong. He had made most of his outstanding contributions on property rights--and there were way more than 2 articles--before 1975. I was uninformed enough about the volume of work needed for a Nobel that I had no comeback to Hayek. Also, I respected Hayek and, given that I had asked his opinion, I wouldn't have, enough had I known more, argued with him.

Jeffrey Rae writes:

Hayek was undoubtedly wrong but does it really matter?

Hayek (correctly) considered that Alchin deserved a Nobel. The fact that Hayek (erroneously) believed that Alchin had published relatively little to that point only emphasises how how good Hayek thought Alchin's work was. On that basis Hayek surely would have been happy to have been made aware of the true volume of Alchin's ourput.

Perhaps the most notable issue raised by the Hayek quote is that he was wrong about Coase getting a Nobel but right about the relatively small amount that Coase published. Lets hope the Riksbank's decision to ignore volume and focus on quality in awarding the 1991 Prize is not a one-off but I am not holding my breath.

Ken B writes:

Harper Lee wrote one book.

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