In Defense of Stigler

I recently discussed Paul Romer’s criticism of Robert Lucas for shifting from the Feynman integrity that, in Romer’s view, characterized Lucas’s early work, to the Stigler conviction that Romer believes has characterized Lucas’s later work. I wanted to make a criticism of Lucas different from Romer’s, so I only suggested in passing that that the Stigler conviction criticized by Romer didn’t seem that terrible to me, and I compared Stigler conviction to Galileo’s defense of Copernican heliocentrism. Now, having reread the essay, “The Nature and Role of Originality in Scientific Progress,” from which Romer quoted, I find, as I suspected, that Romer has inaccurately conveyed the message that Stigler meant to convey in his essay.

In accusing Lucas of forsaking the path of Feynman integrity and chosing instead the path of Stigler conviction, making it seem as if Stigler had provided justification for pursuing an ideological agenda, as Romer believes Lucas and other freshwater economists have done, Romer provides no information about the context of Stigler’s essay. Much of Stigler’s early writing in economics was about the history of economics, and Stigler’s paper on originality is one of those; in fact, it was subsequently republished as the lead essay in Stigler’s 1965 volume Essays in the History of Economics. What concerns Stigler in the essay are a few closely related questions: 1) what characteristic of originality makes it highly valued in science in general and in economics in particular? 2) Given that originality is so highly valued, how do economists earn a reputation for originality? 3) Is the quest for originality actually conducive to scientific progress?

Here is Stigler’s answer to the first question provided at the end of the introductory section under the heading “The Meaning of Originality.”

Scientific originality in its important role should be measured against the knowledge of a man’s contemporaries. If he opens their eyes to new ideas or to new perspectives on old ideas, he is an original economist in the scientifically important sense. . . . Smith, Ricardo, Jevons, Walras, Marshall, Keynes – they all changed the beliefs of economists and thus changed economics.

It is conceivable for an economist to be ignored by contemporaries and yet exert considerable influence on later generations, but this is a most improbable event. He must have been extraordinarily out of tune with (in advance of?) his times, and rarely do first-class minds throw themselves away on the visionary. Perhaps Cournot is an example of a man whose work skipped a half a century, but normally such men become famous only by reflecting the later fame of the rediscovered doctrines.

Originality then in its scientifically important role, is a matter of subtle unaccustomedness – neither excessive radicalism nor statement of the previous unformulated consensus.

The extended passage quoted by Romer appears a few paragraphs later in the second section of the paper under the heading “The Techniques of Persuasion.” Having already established that scientific originality must be both somehow surprising yet also capable of being understood by other economists, Stigler wants to know how an original economist can get the attention of his peers for his new idea. Doing so is not easy, because

New ideas are even harder to sell than new products. Inertia and the many unharmonious voices of those who would change our ways combine against the balanced and temperate statement of the merits of one’s ” original ” views. One must put on the best face possible, and much is possible. Wares must be shouted — the human mind is not a divining rod that quivers over truth.

It is this analogy between the selling of new ideas and selling of new products that leads Stigler in his drollery to suggest that with two highly unusual exceptions – Smith and Marshall – all economists have had to resort to “the techniques of the huckster.”

What are those techniques? And who used them? Although Stigler asserted that all but two famous economists used such techniques, he mentioned only two by name, and helpfully provided the specific evidence of their resort to huckster-like self-promotional techniques. Whom did Stigler single out for attention? William Stanley Jevons and Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk.

So what was the hucksterism committed by Jevons? Get ready to be shocked:

Writing a Theory of Political Economy, he devoted the first 197 pages of a book of 267 pages to his ideas on utility!

OMG! Shocking; just shocking. How could he have stooped so low as that? But Bohm-Bawerk was even worse.

Not content with writing two volumes, and dozens of articles, in presenting and defending his capital theory, he added a third volume (to the third edition of his Positive Theorie des Kapitals) devoted exclusively to refuting, at least to his own satisfaction, every criticism that had arisen during the preceding decades.

What a sordid character that loathsome Austrian aristocrat must have been! Publishing a third volume devoted entirely to responding to criticisms of the first two. The idea!

Well, actually, they weren’t as bad as you might have thought. Let’s read Stigler’s next paragraph.

Although the new economic theories are introduced by the technique of the huckster, I should add that they are not the work of mere hucksters. The sincerity of Jevons, for example, is printed on every page. Indeed I do not believe that any important economist has ever deliberately contrived ideas in which he did not believe in order to achieve prominence: men of the requisite intellectual power and morality can get bigger prizes elsewhere. Instead, the successful inventor is a one-sided man. He is utterly persuaded of the significance and correctness of his ideas and he subordinates all other truths because they seem to him less important than the general acceptance of his truth. He is more a warrior against ignorance than a scholar among ideas.

I believe that Romer misunderstood what Stigler mean to say here. Romer seems to interpret this passage to mean that if a theorist is utterly convinced that he is right, he somehow can be justified in “subordinat[ing] all other truths” in cutting corners, avoiding contrary arguments or suppressing contradictory evidence that might undercut his theory – the sorts of practices ruled out by Feynman integrity, which is precisely what Romer was accusing Lucas of having done in a paper on growth theory. But to me it is clear from the context that what Stigler meant by “subordinating all other truths” was not any lack of Feynman integrity, but the single-minded focus on a specific contribution to the exclusion of all others. That was why Stigler drew attention to the exorbitant share of Jevons’s book entitled Principles of Political Economy devoted to the theory of marginal utility or the publication by Bohm-Bawerk of an entire volume devoted to responding to criticisms of his two earlier volumes on the theory of capital and interest. He neither implied nor meant to suggest that either Jevons or Bohm-Bawerk committed any breach of scientific propriety, much less Feynman integrity.

If there were any doubt about the correctness of this interpretation of what Stigler meant, it would be dispelled by the third section of Stigler’s paper under the heading: “The Case of Mill.”

John Stuart Mill is a striking example with which to illustrate the foregoing remarks. He is now considered a mediocre economist of unusual literary power; a fluent, flabby echo of Ricardo. This judgement is well-nigh universal: I do not believe that Mill has had a fervent admirer in the twentieth century. I attribute this low reputation to the fact that Mill had the perspective and balance, but not the full powers, of Smith and Marshall. He avoided all the tactics of easy success. He wrote with extraordinary balance, and his own ideas-considering their importance-received unbelievably little emphasis. The bland prose moved sedately over a corpus of knowledge organized with due regard to structure and significance, and hardly at all with regard to parentage. . . .

Yet however one judges Mill, it cannot be denied that he was original. In terms of identifiable theories, he was one of the most original economists in the history of the science.

Stigler went on to list and document the following original contributions of Mill in the area of value theory, ignoring Mill’s contributions to trade theory, “because I cannot be confident of the priorities.”

1 Non-competing Groups

2 Joint Products

3 Alternative Costs

4 The Economics of the Firm

5 Supply and Demand

6 Say’s Law

Stigler concludes his discussion with this assessment of Mill

This is a very respectable list of contributions. But it is also a peculiar list: any one of the contributions could be made independently of all the others. Mill was not trying to build a new system but only to add improvements here and there to the Ricardian system. The fairest of economists, as Schumpeter has properly characterized Mill, unselfishly dedicated his abilities to the advancement of the science. And, yet, Mill’s magisterial quality and conciliatory tone may have served less well than sharp and opinionated controversy in inciting his contemporaries to make advances.

Finally, just to confirm the lack of ideological motivation in Stigler’s discussion, let me quote Stigler’s characteristically ironic and playful conclusion.

These reflections on the nature and role of originality, however, have no utilitarian purpose, or even a propagandistic purpose. If I have a prejudice, it is that we commonly exaggerate the merits of originality in economics–that we are unjust in conferring immortality upon the authors of absurd theories while we forget the fine, if not particularly original, work of others. But I do not propose that we do something about it.

12 Responses to “In Defense of Stigler”


  1. 1 sumnerbentley August 25, 2015 at 4:58 pm

    Very good post. I don’t know enough to comment on Romer’s criticism of others for mathiness, although I suspect he has found some weak arguments in the Chicago school. But I thought he was misreading Stigler, and I’m glad you spent the time confirming that hunch.

  2. 2 David Glasner August 25, 2015 at 6:30 pm

    Thanks, Scott. Just wondering, did you get to know Stigler at all when you were at Chicago. When I taught at Marquette University in Milwaukee, I once went to Chicago to hear a public lecture that he gave. I vaguely recall that it had to do with whether economists could make a positive contribution to public policy. I think the gist of his argument was that it was unlikely because the outcome of the political process was determined by competition in the political process and it was very unlikely that economists pronouncements would make much difference in the equilibrium outcome of the political process. It was not exactly the kind of red meat that right wing ideologues would have enjoyed devouring. It seemed quite similar to how Earl Thompson would have put it, except that Stigler did not make any claim, as Earl always did, that the political equilibrium was very likely to be optimal. After the lecture I went up to him and had a very pleasant little chat, though I can’t remember anything about what I said to him. Stigler did have a reputation for nastiness, possibly because his wit was so sharp, but perhaps because he had a nasty side to him, but I always thought of him as being the most charming member of the Chicago school.

  3. 3 rhmurphy August 26, 2015 at 8:49 am

    To be uncharitable, which is only fair because Romer has been nothing but uncharitable ever since his paper was published, can we say that this gross misrepresentation of Stigler’s views can be characterized as Romer’s “Willie Horton” blog post?

    Also, my understanding was that Stigler was very fatalistic when it came to politics, to the point that he believed trying to impact political debates was pointless. He contrasted strongly in that respect to Friedman, at least is what I remember reading. I couldn’t recall exactly where I had seen this. But this seems to be what you are saying as well, David? In that case, it becomes a bit rich that Stigler is Romer’s ultimate example of Chicago school running off the rails for political reasons, when impacting practical politics was the last thing on Stigler’s mind?

  4. 4 Tom Brown August 26, 2015 at 11:20 am

    David, interesting post. I always learn something here. I accept your expert assessment of Stigler. However, while reading your post here a little voice in my head kept saying “But what about the evidence?” Ultimately isn’t that a fundamental, unavoidable part of any science? The highlights of Stigler’s writing that you’ve discussed here don’t seem to touch on that at all. He could just as well be describing theologians, meta-physicians, ethicists, moralists, artists, literary critics or any other profession having to do with either the purely subjective or arm-chair rationality rather than a field reliant on empirical evidence about what’s objectively real. Perhaps that’s entirely an accident of what you’ve chosen to highlight. I have not read Stilger’s work directly, so I don’t know. For example, Einstein was clearly an original thinker who’s ideas had an impact. But regardless of the beauty and elegance of his ideas or his conviction, self-promotional, debating and rhetorical skills, they’d be close to worthless if the empirical evidence was even one time (for just one kind of test) in conflict with them.

    Also, although I’m in no position to dispute anything you’ve written here, it occurs to me that the mythology associated with what Stigler calls “original people” could have a (useful?) life of it’s own. For example, the phrase “Feynman integrity” is a wonderful way to highlight a concept that Feynman addressed. However, do I actually know that Feynman was always a model practitioner of this same integrity? For all I know he was a lucky self-promoting bully and huckster. Why lucky? Because the evidence was not in conflict with what he “promoted” when other scientists went and checked.

    Even if out of context, this paragraph of Stigler’s does stand in sharp contrast to what Romer called “Feynman integrity:”

    “Instead, the successful inventor is a one-sided man. He is utterly persuaded of the significance and correctness of his ideas and he subordinates all other truths because they seem to him less important than the general acceptance of his truth.”

    If it’s unfair to call that “Stigler conviction,” I’ll accept your assessment on that. Whatever it is though, on it’s own, it sounds to me like the opposite of science (in fact, it sounds more like religious fundamentalism)… that is unless you follow that up with something like this:

    “Of course the instant it’s clear that the empirical evidence conflicts with his ideas (even once!), he changes his mind YESTERDAY, issuing a profusion of mea culpas* and not hesitating to acknowledge publicly that his ideas, however beautiful, elegant and well thought out, were nonetheless completely wrong.”

    *I stole that from “Sci Babe” in her dismantling of “Food Babe”.

  5. 5 David Glasner August 26, 2015 at 2:23 pm

    rhmurphy, I remember Willie Horton, but I don’t exactly see who is supposed to be playing the role of Willie Horton in this scenario.

    I agree with your take on Stigler’s view of the potential for economists to have a positive effect on the political process, and that is indeed what I was alluding to in my response to Scott’s comment. And I agree that Stigler seemed to be far less ideologically committed than Friedman. From one or two remarks Romer made in his series of posts, I gather that he and Stigler were at odds over relevance or the usefulness of monopolistic competition models. Stigler did not like monopolistic competition models and Romer does, so there was a basis for mutual antagonism there. It seems that Romer was attributing Stigler’s dislike of monopolistic competition to a political or ideological bias. I can’t comment on that, but in his published writings, Stigler attributed his distaste for monopolistic competition models to the difficulty of deriving testable implications from those models. That would be a fairly typical Chicago School criticism, but Romer thinks there was a deeper bias at work. He may be right, but that seems to be pure speculation on his part.

    Tom, Haven’t you learned enough economics yet to know that evidence in economics is almost never conclusive because it can always be interpreted or rationalized in a way that is consistent with the model one likes on theoretical or other grounds. There is nothing necessarily sordid or dishonest about that. It just is what it is. There are plenty examples, I am sure, where hard scientists have argued about theories and about evidence, so, if you’ll pardon my saying so, I think you are looking at science through rose-colored glasses. If you don’t think that scientists have any personal stake in their theories, then let me tell you about a bridge that I would like to offer you at a bargain price connecting Manhattan to King’s County.

  6. 6 rhmurphy August 26, 2015 at 7:54 pm

    Regarding Willie Horton, I was referencing this blog post of Romer’s: http://paulromer.net/protecting-the-norms-of-science-in-economics/

    He’s encouraging shunning whenever someone writes a single paper Romer considers to be indefensible. And Romer’s reading of Stigler seems to be indefensible.

  7. 7 The Arthurian August 26, 2015 at 11:39 pm

    Yikes! $43 for a ten-page excerpt? Long live JSTOR, but not on my dime.

    DG, I thought In Defense of Stigler was fascinating.

    “Wares must be shouted,” Stigler says: “new economic theories are introduced by the technique of the huckster”. And “Mill’s magisterial quality and conciliatory tone may have served less well than sharp and opinionated controversy in inciting his contemporaries to make advances.”

    I am reminded of TGT Preface, where Keynes wrote:
    I cannot achieve my object of persuading economists to re-examine critically certain of their basic assumptions except by a highly abstract argument and also by much controversy. I wish there could have been less of the latter.

  8. 8 Steve McIntyre August 28, 2015 at 8:00 pm

    I had an amusing encounter with Stigler when I was 13 or 14. He used to vacation in Muskoka in Canada and played golf at Muskoka Lakes Golf Club.

    One day, my friends and I were playing behind his foursome, who were taking forever to put out on the 11th hole, a par five – which could not be hit in two routinely in those days. I recognized Stigler because I had caddied for my father one day when he played against Stigler.

    We got tired of waiting and hit our seconds while they were still on the green. I had a terrific shot and rolled it about 10 feet from the pin, inside Stigler’s putt, leaving me with a great chance for an eagle. However, Stigler had other ideas. He picked up my ball and threw it into the woods. I remember my surprise and annoyance to this day.

    I later played him in the club championships (match play) and made a point of smoking him.

  9. 9 David Glasner September 1, 2015 at 8:48 am

    The Arthurian, Every scientist has to promote his ideas if he wants his ideas to be paid attention to. There are various ways of doing that.

    Steve, Nice story. Thanks for sharing. After you played him, did you remind him about your earlier encounter?


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About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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