Ideas On Liberty
Economics on Trial
by Mark Skousen
“The circle had come right round; it was as though Keynes had never been.”
“Textbooks have to be rewritten in the aftermath of each scientific revolution.”
-Thomas S. Kuhn2
In his third and final volume on John Maynard Keynes, Robert Skidelsky comes to the shocking conclusion that the Keynesian revolution was temporary, that Keynes’s General Theory was really only a “special” case, and that “free market liberalism” has ultimately triumphed. This is all the more amazing given that Lord Skidelsky has spent the past 20 years of his professional career studying Keynes and resides in Keynes’s old estate, Tilton House. Few scholars would have the guts to repudiate the theory of the man they adore.
It’s even tougher for old dogs to learn new tricks, and that refrain applies to Paul Samuelson, the “American Keynes” who introduced millions of students to the “new economics” of the master. He continues to hang his hat on the Keynesian cross, even as he publishes the 17th edition of his world-famous textbook. The pedagogical paradigm keeps shifting further toward the classical model of Adam Smith, and as each edition of Economics moves in that direction, Samuelson resists the change. He cites his mentor more than any other economist; only Keynes, not Adam Smith or Milton Friedman, is measured as a “many-sided genius.” His textbook still begins macroeconomics with the Keynesian model, even though most other textbook writers have adopted Greg Mankiw’s method of starting with the long-run classical model.3 According to Samuelson, Adam Smith’s invisible-hand doctrine-that laissez-faire behavior maximizes social welfare-“holds only under very limited conditions.”4 On the final page (755) of his massive textbook, he renders “two cheers to the market, but not three.”
Two Cheers for Hayek and Friedman
Having reviewed all 17 editions of Samuelson’s magnum opus, I conclude that his textbook has gradually shifted, albeit grudgingly, from one cheer to two cheers for the market. Much of this improvement is due to Yale’s Bill Nordhaus, his co-author since 1985. (He writes the entire text now, which Samuelson then reviews.)
What’s new about the latest edition? More free-market economists are cited, including Julian Simon, Ronald Coase, James Buchanan, Arthur Laffer, Robert Mundell, and Gary Becker. Samuelson and Nordhaus devote an entire page (41) to F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, “guardians of economic freedom.” They recommend Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, saying, “All thoughtful economists should study his arguments carefully.”
In chapter 2, “Markets and Government in a Modern Economy,” the authors highlight the benefits of globalization and the importance of property rights, noting that Russia and other former communist nations have suffered because of a failure to enforce “the legal framework.”
They also add an entire new page on the issue of lighthouses as public goods. For years Samuelson used the lighthouse as a prime example of market failure; only government could build and operate lighthouses. Several years ago I chided Samuelson for ignoring Ronald Coase’s famous essay, “The Lighthouse in Economics,” which proved that the Trinity House and other lighthouses in England were built and owned by private firms that imposed tolls on ships docking at nearby ports.5
Now, finally, Samuelson and Nordhaus have responded to Coase’s challenge in the 17th edition (pp. 37—38). They admit that privately operated lighthouses existed in England, but then point to the east coast of Florida as a case where “there were no lighthouses until 1825, and no private-sector lighthouses were ever built in this area.” According to Nordhaus, the only response to shipwrecks was a thriving private “wrecking” industry that charged high fees for “saving lives and cargo.” Nordhaus goes on to note that lighthouses have become obsolete, replaced by the satellite-based Global Positioning System, a service provided by the government.
In sum, the paradigm in economics has definitely shifted from Keynesianism to classical economics, but the case for complete laissez faire is still raging in the halls of academia.
1. Robert Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes: Fighting for Britain, 1937-1946 (London: Macmillan, 2000), p. 506.
2. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 137.
3. See N. Gregory Mankiw, Principles of Economics, 2d ed. (Ft. Worth, Tex.: Harcourt College Publishers, 2001). I still regard Roy J. Ruffin and Paul R.Gregory, Principles of Economics, 7th ed. (Boston: Addison Wesley Longman, 2001) as the best mainstream textbook on the market today.
4. Paul A. Samuelson and William D. Nordhaus, Economics, 17th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2001), p. 325.
5. Mark Skousen, “The Perseverance of Paul Samuelson’s Economics,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Spring 1997, p. 145. Coase’s article appeared in the Journal of Law and Economics, October 1974, pp.357-76.