Religion & Liberty Online

Brady, Jordan, or Hayek: Who’s the Real GOAT?

Nobel prize winning economist Professor Friedrich Hayek (Image credit: Associated Press)

There may not be many barroom debates over who the greatest economist of all time is, but there probably should be. George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen breaks down the stats for you.

Read More…

Trendy title aside, Tyler Cowen’s new book, GOAT: Who Is the Greatest Economist of All Time and Why Does It Matter?,is a mini masterpiece. Cowen takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of the life and works of the greatest economists of all time (Milton Friedman, John Maynard Keynes, Hayek, J.S. Mill, Thomas Malthus, and Adam Smith), plus some notable figures who didn’t quite make the final cut (Alfred Marshall, Paul Samuelson, Kenneth Arrow, Gary Becker, and Joseph Schumpeter), on a quest to crown a king. He might also be the only person who could have written this book, since the topic requires such extensive reading combined with a deep knowledge of economics and the economics profession. Plus, GOAT is not only a book—the project includes a website with AI services that allow the reader to interact with the text. (And no, ChatGPT did not write this review … although that would have been fitting!)

Yet the reader should be forewarned. Followers of Cowen and Alex Tabarrok’s popular blog, Marginal Revolution, will know that Cowen is a fan of chess, and his constant position-shifting in the book can make the reader feel like there is a game afoot. This likely has to do with his complicated definition(s) of what constitutes the Greatest Economist of All Time: originality, historical import, creating and carrying big ideas, practicing both theory and empirics in the areas of microeconomics as well as macroeconomics, not being too wrong on the substance of issues, and finally, being “a pretty good economist!” The many and varied traits under examination often don’t add much to the final evaluation. For example, he is critical of the seeming dullness of Friedman’s married life and contrasts this with Keynes’ more unusual conquests. But this comes off as quite naive, as G.K. Chesterton reminds us, “Surely one might pay for extraordinary joy in ordinary morals.” Cowen also reveals some confusion about what constitutes human greatness.

The book is broken into nine chapters, beginning with an introduction in which Cowen’s intellectual humility and genuine love of economics really shine. He shares that the biggest influence on GOAT was The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy: “You can call it juvenile, or overly hierarchical, I say it will force you to think.” The next three chapters cover the cases of Friedman, Keynes, and Hayek for the title of “Greatest.” In chapter 5, Cowen considers why Marshall, Samuelson, Arrow, Becker, and Schumpeter did not make the cut. He then spends two chapters (one each) trying to convince the reader that perhaps Mill or the Reverend Malthus should be considered the GOAT. Finally, he explores the case for Smith (the obvious choice to many) and concludes with a chapter titled “The winner(s): so who is the greatest economist of all time?”

The chapter on Hayek opens with how his profound insight—conveyed in different ways by his “three best articles [which] are better than any three articles from any other economist”—revolutionized our understanding of economics and inspired a host of pragmatic world changers. The best known of these articles is “The Use of Knowledge in Society” (Hayek 1945), and Cowen is not exaggerating when he claims it is a “revelation” when one reads it for the first time. The gist is that “scientific knowledge is not the only form of knowledge but rather the knowledge of particular circumstances of time and place is critical as well.” The beauty and power of markets is that they allow the decentralized knowledge of ordinary people to be leveraged for the good of all. Hayek’s insights have inspired an impressive list of businesspeople: Whole Food’s John Mackey, Charles Koch, Stripe’s Patrick Collison, Overstock’s Patrick Byrne, Jimmy Lai, and the co-founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales. Hayek’s unique intellectual contributions also continue to shape the way economists approach their own work. For instance, Cowen is right to note that Hayekians are concerned about the current state of the economics profession, which emphasizes the modern techniques of data analysis over the core logic and content of ideas (often called price theory). In Cowen’s words, “They think about the economy as an engineering problem when in fact it is a discovery problem.”

Economists have a penchant for shocking their audience, which is essential if it is often your job to deliver bad news to politicians and the general public. In his chapter on Malthus (most famous for his prediction that population growth will always outstrip food supply), Cowen indulges that tendency. While it is increasingly obvious that we don’t live in a Malthusian world—low fertility may be the biggest problem of our era—the reader is asked to consider the case for Malthus as GOAT. This is a tough sell since the work of Malthus inspired some of the worst possible policies with respect to human dignity (and sustainable economic growth) in China and India. Moreover, Malthus completely missed how population growth can foster economic growth, as Julian Simon, a much better candidate for GOAT, tirelessly argued. One only needs to glance at a new project from the Cato Institute, The Simon Abundance Index, as a testament to this fact.

Still, are we missing something? Cowen suggests that we should consider how Malthus predicted that “all the checks to population may be resolved into misery or vice.” Using the example of contemporary college dorms with copious birth control and casual sex, Cowen argues: “You thus can see that the prosperity of the modern world does not refute Malthus. We faced the Malthusian dilemma and opted for one of his options, namely vice. It’s just that a lot of us don’t find those vices as morally abhorrent as Malthus did.”

Here Cowen is wrong. Economists have shown (here and here, for example) that increased access to abortion and contraception actually led to an increase in nonmarital births. Moreover, if you adopt the view that human nature is consistent across time and space (as economists tend to do), then referencing our contemporary vices amounts to little more than a “kids these days” complaint. Malthus was wrong about population growth and resource constraints because he failed to recognize a core insight of economics: positive-sum games exist. Ultimately, the contrast between the worldviews espoused by Malthus and Simon is as stark and serious as that between a suicide and a martyr. As we face a century of population decline today, it is essential that we distinguish between the suicide of refusing to reproduce and the martyrdom of raising our offspring.

So who’s the champ? In the final chapter of the book, Cowen awards Milton Friedman with the prize for being the “best economist of all the GOAT contenders,” although Adam Smith and J.S. Mill also receive awards for being the most original and deepest thinkers, respectively. This comes as little surprise since, after all, Friedman ends up being right about most things! He also possessed the confidence and skill to persuade others to his positions, as Cowen notes, “Above and beyond the collapse of communism, market-oriented reforms came to most of the democratic world in the 1980s and 1990s, and it is remarkable how many of the reformers cited Friedman, were influenced by Friedman, or in some cases worked with Friedman directly.” Cowen also discusses Friedman’s institution-building efforts for the University of Chicago and successful outreach to popular audiences. As Cowen shows, it is not enough to have talent—generosity in sharing one’s talents, especially with future generations, is a sure sign of greatness.

At the outset, Cowen states two primary purposes for the book: 1) to “teach the reader some economics” and 2) to “present economics as a vehicle for carrying ideas about the world.” Despite my opposition to some of his takes, the text achieves both these stated goals brilliantly, and I am especially grateful for his attention to the latter. Like Cowen, I believe it is essential to remember that economics is not foremost a set of statistical techniques nor a method of policy analysis. It is part of the human quest for truth, which comes in the form of competing ideas—often championed by competing minds—throughout space and time. Perhaps, in his emphasis on the importance of ideas, Cowen reveals that he is ultimately a Simonian. After all, the human mind is the ultimate resource.

Clara Piano

Clara E. Piano is currently an assistant professor of economics at Austin Peay State University. Her primary areas of research are family economics, law and economics, and public choice. Prior to Austin Peay, Clara was an assistant professor of quantitative analysis at Samford University. She has also been a lecturer of economics at the Catholic University of America and George Mason University.