The Way the World Worked

As Hunter Baker posted below, Jude Wanniski unexpectedly passed away Monday afternoon after he suffered a massive heart attack. I’ve heard our esteemed co-blogger Alan Reynolds tell many stories about Mr. Wanniski and Polyconomics, but I’ll let Alan tell those stories himself if he’s so inclined. I want to tell a story about the effect a small group of men, including Alan and Jude, had on my generation of economists, social scientists, and policymakers.

When I started graduate school in the fall of 1980, it looked very much as though the country would be run by Jimmy Carter for four more years. When I looked back over my life from what then seemed the impossibly mature vantage point of 22 years on earth, I saw little but anxiety, conflict, and pessimism. I started paying attention to the outside world at about age ten, so my memories were bookended by Soviet tanks in Czechoslovakia and Soviet tanks in Afghanistan. Sandwiched in between were domestic political assassinations, oil embargoes, hostages in Iran, Watergate, double digit inflation, double digit unemployment, and the bankruptcy of New York City. I don’t even remember now why I wanted to be an economist then. Economists were responsible for the splitting of ever smaller pies at home, and negotiating surrender to whichever economy would overtake us abroad.

Then Reagan beat Carter at the last minute. And we discovered that some of our professors were closet free market libertarians. Austrian School, even, a couple of them. They started lobbing ideas among themselves, and then at us, that first seemed silly, and then subversive. Critiques of Keynes, Samuelson, Kuznets, and Myrdal that undermined everything we’d learned as undergrads. Hints that macroeconomics would never be intellectually solid until it was reintegrated with microeconomics. Proposals that all sorts of behavior, not just commerce, could be explained with economic principles.

We starting passing a few books around among ourselves, on the QT; we were a little abashed that we were studying popular works instead of articles from JPE and Econometrica. But the stuff made sense, and kept on making sense the farther we pushed it: Thomas Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions. George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty. Julian Simon’s The Ultimate Resource. But before all those, anticipating them and paving the way, was Jude Wanniski’s The Way the World Works. These books opened our eyes to an economics that was hopeful and exuberant, that placed human creativity at the center of wealth creation, and that gave the economist something valuable to do: help arrange civil society so that creative force can be free to make things better.

And things did get better, all through the 1980s. It was men like Alan Reynolds and Larry Kudlow who gave us the proof that Sowell and Gilder and Wanniski were right, by putting those ideas to work during the Reagan years.

Twenty-odd years later, even though I’ve spent few of those intervening years working as a professional economist, I’ve never again forgotten why I wanted to be an economist in the first place. Rest in peace, Jude Wanniski. Your place in this world is secure, go forth into the next.

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6 thoughts on “The Way the World Worked

  1. Kathy, it is amazing how much the discipline of economics has changed since then. I attended Florida State as an undergrad and had my mind shaped by the brilliant free marketeers I found there. Something else was different, too. These men, like Randall Holcombe and James Gwartney, were interested in making disciples. It worked on me and probably countless others.

    You’re right that econ has begun to impact many other fields. Sociology of religion is one that has been revolutionized. Economic analysis largely killed the secularization thesis that once dominated the field.

  2. Of course, and then there was Jude Wanninski the defender of Saddam Hussein, Louis Farrakhan, and Slobodan Milosovic. But who’s keeping track, really?

  3. just as Saddam was too important. And Noriega. And the mujahadeen. And Uzbekistan.

    When will you learn that choosing the lesser evil is still choosing evil?

  4. You know, it’s not as though I’m nominating Wanniski to lead the nation. I’m just acknowledging his contribution to conservative thought.

  5. I wonder if James or tlaloc would agree with Kathy’s worldview of the Carter 70s? Or what should have happened next, according to their world view, to usher in a better era? Simply put, can you be constructive or are you limited to putting others down?

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