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David Henderson (and also Fred McChesney) on Armen Alchian

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In today’s Wall Street Journal, David Henderson remembers his teacher, the great Armen Alchian [2].  Two slices:

First, he [Alchian] was one of the last economists of his generation to communicate mainly in words and not equations. Second, although economists often use the word “unrigorous” to refer to communication in words rather than math, Alchian was profoundly rigorous, writing clearly and carefully and using basic logic to reach sometimes-startling conclusions. As a result, many of Alchian’s papers, even those from the 1950s, are still widely cited.


My personal favorite of his published papers is “The Economic and Social Impact of Free Tuition” (1968). Alchian pointed out that government aid to higher education is a transfer to the relatively rich. That’s because people who can make it through college, even though they may have a low current income, have a high wealth.

He compared subsidizing college to subsidizing drilling expenses for someone sitting on a large pool of oil. The untapped student’s potential is the analogue of the untapped oil. Alchian argued that lack of current income might be a justification for loans to aspiring college students but not for outright subsidies.


My favorite Alchian article is his 1959 study “Costs and Outputs.”  If this article – which, amazingly, Alchian pulled from its forthcoming publication in the American Economic Review in order to put it into a festschrift for Bernard Haley edited by Moses Abramovitz (The Allocation of Economic Resources [3]) – were more widely known and grasped, it would completely upend, and vastly improve, the standard textbook treatment of production costs and cost curves.  Among many other benefits of such an Alchianesque improvement would be that economists would no longer be able so easily to confound themselves, while pleasing the antitrust-plaintiffs’ bar, by using familiar costs curves and concepts (e.g., “AVC”) into supposing that so-called ‘predatory pricing’ is a coherent notion.


And here is Fred McChesney, from a few years back, on Alchian [4].