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Armen Alchian’s Economic Forces at Work

Summary:
Alchian’s work spanned a number of disciplines within economics. Though generally thought of as a microeconomist—using economics to explain and predict behavior in individual markets—he also wrote or co-authored important articles on macroeconomics, especially in the areas of inflation and unemployment. This volume [Economic Forces at Work] is a nice compendium of his articles in both areas. In this review, I highlight six areas in which Alchian had important insights: (1) unintended effects of regulation on racial discrimination; (2) the faulty rationale for taxpayer subsidies of higher education; (3) why collusion by electrical equipment manufacturers was successful mainly against government buyers; (4) why non-profit entities behave the way they do; (5) how

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Armen Alchian’s Economic Forces at Work

Alchian’s work spanned a number of disciplines within economics. Though generally thought of as a microeconomist—using economics to explain and predict behavior in individual markets—he also wrote or co-authored important articles on macroeconomics, especially in the areas of inflation and unemployment. This volume [Economic Forces at Work] is a nice compendium of his articles in both areas. In this review, I highlight six areas in which Alchian had important insights: (1) unintended effects of regulation on racial discrimination; (2) the faulty rationale for taxpayer subsidies of higher education; (3) why collusion by electrical equipment manufacturers was successful mainly against government buyers; (4) why non-profit entities behave the way they do; (5) how costly information explains unemployment; and (6) why it matters whether inflation is anticipated or unanticipated.

The paragraph above is from David R. Henderson, “Economics Works,” Liberty Fund, May 2019. It’s my review of Economic Forces at Work: Selected Works by Armen Alchian.” It’s a one-volume work but when I was asked to review it, I thought I was to review the much-more-comprehensive two volumes that contained almost everything Alchian had ever written. I read about 50 to 60 percent of those two volumes before realizing my error. Having done so, I think the shorter volume is a very good choice from his longer works: It contains almost all the A+ articles.

Armen Alchian was the first person who taught me, both in class and in his tough grading, that one can be rigorous and non-mathematical. I wish more economists understood that. As probably is obvious from my review, I highly recommend the one-volume book.

David Henderson
David Henderson is a British economist. He was the Head of the Economics and Statistics Department at the OECD in 1984–1992. Before that he worked as an academic economist in Britain, first at Oxford (Fellow of Lincoln College) and later at University College London (Professor of Economics, 1975–1983); as a British civil servant (first as an Economic Advisor in HM Treasury, and later as Chief Economist in the Ministry of Aviation); and as a staff member of the World Bank (1969–1975). In 1985 he gave the BBC Reith Lectures, which were published in the book Innocence and Design: The Influence of Economic Ideas on Policy (Blackwell, 1986).

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