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Who is the Greatest Economist of All Time?

Milton Friedman, Thomas Malthus, Friedrich Hayek, and John M. Keynes

GOAT: Who is the Greatest Economist of All Time and Why Does it Matter? Even if you have never thought about that question before, now you want to know the answer. Indeed, you may even be set to argue that the given answer is wrong. The GOAT question is the greatest bar argument of all time. Who is the GOAT shortstop? Rock vocalist? American novelist? Greek philosopher?…pick the category, and a lively debate ensues. But, the GOAT economist? You probably have not had that debate. Until now. Pull up a barstool. 

Tyler Cowen wrote a book using that question as the title. (The book is free to download here.) Since he wrote the book, he gets to set the ground rules, the most important of which is the definition: 

To qualify as “GOAT the greatest economist of all time,” I expect the following from a candidate. The economist must be original, of great historical import, serve as a creator and carrier of important ideas, have a hand in both theory and empirics, have a hand in both macro and micro, and be “not too wrong” on the substance of issues. Furthermore, the person also must be a pretty good economist! That is, if you sat down with the person and discussed economic issues, you would be in some way impressed. That is a pretty all-encompassing definition and most importantly, it allows for lots of room to debate. 

Who are the candidates? Cowen identifies the Big Six: Milton Friedman, John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Malthus, and Adam Smith. He also gives us the also-ran list, all of whom he quickly dismisses in a single chapter: Paul Samuelson, Kenneth Arrow, Gary Becker, Joseph Schumpeter, Alfred Marshall. (Curiously neither David Ricardo nor Karl Marx even makes the list of people not worthy of being fully considered.) 

The bulk of the book is a chapter each on the six candidates. You will be pardoned if you assume that each chapter is a straightforward discussion and assessment of the economist’s most important work, but your assumption is wrong. I’ll say upfront because I don’t want to be misunderstood that the chapters are fast-reading, enjoyable, and have many interesting tidbits. But, to say they are an organized and thorough discussion of the merits and failings of each of these economists would be inaccurate. 

The chapters are a random stroll through the economists’ lives. There are gossipy personal details, overviews of important books or in some cases assorted parts of important books, cursory ruminations about a seemingly random set of the economists’ minor works, harsh critiques of things Cowen doesn’t like and love, odes to things Cowen does like, extended discussions of what the economist said about India (why India? I have no idea), descriptions of the effect the economist had on the institution where he worked, examinations of both work in and advice to governments, brief accounts of any time Cowen met or almost met any of the candidates, and lists of the politically incorrect things the person said. To be clear, these assorted items are not organized in the same fashion across chapters or even given the same weight across chapters. It is one of those rare books where when you finish one paragraph, you have absolutely no way of guessing what will be discussed in the next paragraph. 

Enough delaying. What is the answer? Whom does Cowen declare to be the GOAT? Nobody. That’s right. He declines to decide. (If you read this book and are ever at a bar with Tyler Cowen, he owes you a beer for raising the question and then punting.) Cowen does drop three of the six from consideration as GOAT. Keynes was lousy at microeconomics, Hayek didn’t do empirical work and only has five good articles (though three of them Cowen says are the best three economics articles ever written), and Malthus was wrong about many things. 

What about the final three? Why can’t Cowen declare one of them to be the GOAT? Start with Adam Smith. As Cowen says, “You can imagine an alternative version of this book that ends on page one with a single sentence ‘Obviously the answer has to be Adam Smith.’” Why isn’t that Cowen’s answer? Of all the candidates, “Smith seems to be clearly the worst economist, with the possible exception of Malthus.” The worst economist? Really? Cowen explains that Smith would have a hard time carrying on an insightful discussion if asked something like, “Adam, should the Fed cut or raise interest rates right now?” Cowen is right on this: it is true that for some strange reason, Smith never got around to commenting on Federal Reserve interest rate management problems and might be a bit confused if asked about them. 

Using that Adam Smith criteria for GOAT, then Friedman must be the winner. He, after all, can talk about Fed policy! But Friedman is also out because “on originality he just isn’t quite good enough.” There are traces of most of Friedman’s ideas in earlier economists. So, if you are coming late to the economics discussion and you didn’t actually invent the field of economics, you really can’t be the GOAT. 

So, if Smith’s problem is that he was too early and original to have thought about all the issues you might want to discuss these days and Friedman’s problem is that he was too late to say things about economics that literally nobody before him had ever thought, then maybe John Stuart Mill, who comes in the middle is the answer? Nope. First off, he wasn’t very good at the type of marginal analysis that economists started using after he died. He also failed to do really interesting statistical work. And, probably most importantly, his “very long book on political economy” is not very good. Given that, why is Mill even in the discussion? Mill wrote lots of other interesting books on topics that interest Tyler Cowen. 

That last observation is the key to the book. Look back at the definition of the GOAT and then consider  the random assortment of things Cowen discusses throughout the book. The argument he presents was never really about defining the GOAT Economist. It was about determining the GOAT Economist Like Tyler Cowen. If you look at the body of work Cowen has done, the first thing that jumps off the page is the wide variety of topics covered. Cowen is not a narrow technical specialist. He would probably be happy to talk with you about any topic you can dream up. He will happily trace his arguments back to his training in modern economics. When Cowen reads through the work of the great economists of the past, he is attracted to clear, innovative, and original thought whether or not it is in the realm of economics narrowly defined. The GOAT Economist Like Tyler Cowen is really the economist with whom Tyler Cowen would most want to have many long rambling conversations. That was the underlying criterion all along. 

In the last few paragraphs of the book, Cowen makes this conclusion really clear. He asks “Might a new GOAT lie ahead of us rather than behind us?” The answer is “No.” Why? Modern economics has become too specialized. Modern economics training does not include thinking about the world “in the biggest broadest possible terms.” The GOAT Economist could never be a brilliant applied microeconomist using sophisticated statistical techniques to torture answers out of impressively large data sets. 

The economics world has now split into two camps: “carriers of ideas” and “testers of economic hypotheses.” The former group are people like Cowen, people who want to be “a successful generalist at the highest levels of professional achievement.” But, given the specialization in the modern academic world, a “successful” generalist cannot be defined as someone who works at the cutting edge of any of the specializations. On the other hand, if you want to be a cutting-edge specialist, you might get tenure in the Ivy League or win a Nobel Prize, but you won’t have the time necessary to become a successful generalist.  

In the end, the question Cowen’s book is really asking is not “Who is the GOAT?” but rather “Whither Economics?” If you enter a Ph.D. program in economics, you will be led down the path of one possible answer. Cowen is striving to be a guide for people who want to entertain another path. Cowen wants to encourage you to expand your horizons. No matter what your specialization, whether in economics or in any other field, Cowen has written a book which is trying to convince you to break out of your specialization and rediscover the broader world of ideas. In that journey, Cowen is a fun and interesting guide.  On the question of who is actually the Greatest Economist of All Time, however, Cowen is wrong. It’s Adam Smith. No question about it. It is Smith.

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