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The origins of the Chicago School

The basic characteristics of this Chicago Tradition are: a strong work ethic, an unshakable belief in economics as a true science, academic excellence as the sole criterion for advancement, an intense debating culture focused on sharpening the critical mind, and the University of Chicago's two-dimensional isolation. Much of the credit for the creation of this Chicago Tradition has to go to the University's first president, William Rainey Harper.

That is from Johan van Overtveldt's The Chicago School: How the University of Chicago Assembled the Thinkers Who Revolutionized Economics and Business. I enjoyed this book very much. Instead of stopping at Friedman, Coase and Director, it also offers a comprehensive treatment of the entire Chicago history, including such neglected figures as Herbert Davenport, Laurence Laughlin, H. Gregg Lewis, Albert Rees, Theodore Yntema, and Jim Lorie, in each case noting their roles in the broader story.

There is a separate chapter on each the business school and yes the law school. It is also noted that Friedman (among many others) really didn't want Hayek in the economics department. I wish this book had more analysis of how Chicago succeeded in changing the policy world, but it is a landmark in the history of economic thought and of course also law and economics. I can't recommend it to non-specialists, but anyone who cares about Chicago thought should buy it.

A modified version of this post has appeared at www.marginalrevolution.com.

Cornellian (mail):
I object to the insufficient irony. The Chicago school should have originated in San Diego.
6.15.2007 1:22am
Cornellian (mail):
And why is it so hard to find a copy of "Free to Choose" in a bookstore?
6.15.2007 1:25am
r78:
<blockquote>
And why is it so hard to find a copy of "Free to Choose" in a bookstore?
</blockquote>
Go to the Seminary Co-op Bookstore on 57th Street in Chicago - last time I was there they had hundreds of copies.
6.15.2007 1:36am
Cornellian (mail):
I'm sure they've got tons of copies at a bookstore located on the U of Chicago campus but I don't live in Chicago. Last time I was in the local Borders they didn't have any.
6.15.2007 1:59am
Andrew Okun:
The basic characteristics of this Chicago Tradition are: a strong work ethic, an unshakable belief in economics as a true science, academic excellence as the sole criterion for advancement, an intense debating culture focused on sharpening the critical mind, and the University of Chicago's two-dimensional isolation.

There is a little bit of stroking their backs going on here. You cite the characteristics of a tradition to distinguish it from other traditions, tendencies and schools. Things particular to the Chicago School I thought were like broad application of market concepts, rigorous price theory and development of libertarian ideas of political economy. I don't know what "two-dimensional isolation means," but the rest of it just seems self-congratulatory.

"a strong work ethic" - so other economists don't work hard?

"an unshakable belief in economics as a true science" - People go into economics who believe it is not a science?

"academic excellence as the sole criterion for advancement" - so other economics departments promote time-serving seat fillers notwithstanding their failure to produce original work? Perhaps some schools only promote leggy blonds?

"an intense debating culture focused on sharpening the critical mind" - Whereas other departments discourage debate and, in an effort to avoid disturbing dissension, dull the minds of their members?

Chicago was full of brilliant people, doubtless, but the above passage seems to speak more to the author's dismissal of the rest of the economics world than to how great the Chicago School was. I'm sure some people believe that UofC was the only place where actual economics was being pursued, and may even attribute this to it being the only department where "a strong work ethic" or "academic excellence" were valued, but that seems insulting to the rest of the economics profession.

No?
6.15.2007 2:33am
Econ Student:
an unshakable belief in economics as a true science

Ironically, it seems like the Chicago people were the first to take advantage of the fact that it's not. e.g. Friedman's controversy with Patinkin and Johnson.
6.15.2007 3:15am
dearieme:
"an unshakable belief in economics as a true science": in German, perhaps, but not in English. Surely it's just footnotes to Smith and Ricardo? True Science is not just footnotes to Newton.
6.15.2007 8:27am
ATRGeek:
Andrew,

Having attended both Chicago and other universities, I somewhat have a sense what that claim might mean (except the isolation part), and it strikes me as roughly true. Obviously, you are right that all of those things would likely be considered virtues at any university, but at Chicago they are prioritized (a typically Chicago-style process over substance decision, I might note), and I think it would be fair to say that Chicago tends to be on the far end of the relevant spectrums when it comes to those dimensions.

For an example which goes to the debating culture, at the Law and Economics Workshop at Chicago, it was basically a running joke among the visitors presenting their working papers that they expected the Chicago audience to be the most hostile (or, more positively, the most "constructively critical") that they would encounter. For an example that goes to work ethic and academic excellence, I recall that when Brian Leiter was doing per capita faculty productivity and citation studies for the law schools, Chicago tended to be way off the top of the charts.

Now does all that mean Chicago necessarily has the best approach to overall excellence? Not necessarily. But as far as a description of what Chicago tends to prioritize, at least for me that set of claims seemed pretty accurate.
6.15.2007 9:01am
neo-nerd (mail):
I was taken aback by this line: "It is also noted that Friedman (among many others) really didn't want Hayek in the economics department."
Tyler, or anyone else, could you say more about this? What was Friedman concerned about?
6.15.2007 10:00am
whackjobbbb:
Economics may be a soft science, but it sure ain't hard science, not as I've seen it practiced. Perhaps that's what the Chicago people recognized and sought to stiffen up, as they constructively criticized others' work. The part about them seeking 2-dimensional isolation resonates with me... because many economists today seem to introduce about 16 different dimensions to things... and that ain't science. When you gotta stick with just those 2 axes, you don't have much room to blow smoke and invent a bunch of blowfunk.
6.15.2007 10:58pm
orson23 (mail):
neo-ner asks for more about the line "It is also noted that Friedman (among many others) really didn't want Hayek in the economics department."

Al that immediately occurs to me is that Hayek wound up on the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago, not in the economics department - despite ultimately being awarded the Nobel Prize in economic science.

SEE http://socialthought.uchicago.edu/Introduction.htm
6.16.2007 5:37am

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