Question: Who was the first economist to win
a Nobel Prize?
Many economists, hearing this question, would know that it's a trick question,
but they would identify the small trick and miss the big one. The small trick
is that there was no first economist to win the Nobel Prize in economics because
two economists, Ragnar
Frisch and Jan Tinbergen, shared it in 1969, when it was first awarded.
If two people are chosen, how can one be first?
Now for the big trick: Although they were the first two economists to win
the Nobel Prize in economics, another economist was actually the first
to win the Nobel Prize. Frederic
Passy, a French economist, shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Jean Henry
Dunant in 1901. Indeed, they were the first recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize.
I point this out for two reasons. First, economists in the past have been some
of the most prominent advocates of peace and opponents of silly wars. Second,
it shows that the initial granters of the Peace Prize understood that it ought
to go to people who did something for world peace.
Frederic Passy, who lived from 1822 to 1912, was an admirer of Richard
Cobden, the famous British advocate of free trade and free markets and opponent
of war and imperialism. In 1867, Passy, worried that France and Germany would
go to war, spoke out against war and called instead for arbitration of disputes.
The fact that France and Germany went to war in 1870 did not stop him: he was
an advocate of peace for the rest of his life. According to Alfred Nobel's will,
the prize was to be awarded " to the person who shall have done the most
or the best work for fraternity between the nations, for the abolition or reduction
of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."
Thus it makes sense that the prize was awarded to Passy. It also makes sense
that in 1970 it was awarded to Norman
Borlaug, whose "Green Revolution" fed literally hundreds of millions
of poor people, saving that many lives, in Asia and Mexico.
But many of the people on the list
of past Nobel Peace Prize recipients are, to put it mildly, suspect. The
list of suspects starts early. Theodore Roosevelt won the award in 1906 for
helping end the Russo-Japanese War. Woodrow Wilson won the award in 1919 for
promoting the League of Nations. Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho won the award
in 1973 for the Vietnam Peace Accord, although Le Duc Tho refused the award
on the grounds that there was no peace in Vietnam. Menachem Begin and Anwar
al-Sadat won the award in 1978 for negotiating peace between Egypt and Israel.
That's just a sampling of the strange awards. Why strange? Because, though
they received the Nobel Peace Prize, everyone on the list was incredibly
warlike, imperialistic, or brutal, or all three. Theodore Roosevelt was one
of the first U.S. presidents to make the U.S. into an imperialist power that,
ever since, has gone around the world sticking its nose – and its arms – into
other people's business. Indeed, as Reason managing editor Jesse
Walker pointed out, Roosevelt described the Spanish-American war as "fun."
got the U.S. into World War I when there was no good reason for doing so. His
doing so made the German government realize it could never win the war, leading
the Germans to surrender. This led to the Versailles Treaty, whose terms were
tilted heavily against Germany despite Wilson's assurance to the German government,
before it surrendered, that this would not happen. The Versailles Treaty, in
turn, upset Germans so much that some of them, who probably never would otherwise
have done so, supported Hitler or at least acquiesced in his brutal moves, both
domestic and international. For that reason, Wilson arguably did more to create
war in the 20th century than any other American. Henry
Kissinger, while working for Richard Nixon, had a large role in the decision
to bomb the bejesus out of North Vietnam and the decision to bomb Cambodia.
Le Duc Tho defended North Vietnam but also attacked South Vietnam. Menachem
Begin was an Israeli terrorist who later became president of Israel and
invaded Lebanon. Anwar al-Sadat
started the Yom Kippur war, an attack on Israel, in 1973.
The moral seems to be, as Jesse Walker noted, that if you want to receive the
Nobel Peace Prize, first kill a lot of people and then stop. And don't think
that the candidates waiting in the wings for the prize haven't noticed this.
It's quite understandable why this happened. Imagine you're sitting in Sweden
and you're on the committee trying to choose the winner. You really do want
peace. You notice that some of the most brutal people in the world have stopped
being brutal and are suing for peace. You want to encourage that. And so you
argue for giving them the prize. That seems like a reasonable incentive. The
problem is that when people understand the incentives, they also understand
that to get into the position of stopping killing people, they have to kill
people first. The solution here would be for the Nobel committee to swear publicly
that they will never again give the prize to anyone who got his country into
anything other than strictly a war of self-defense. They should probably go
further and say that they would never give the prize to anyone involved in war.
Even wars of self-defense don't always have to be fought – some situations, as
Passy noted, can be negotiated.
For these reasons, I'm not as upset as many people are that the 2007 Nobel
Peace Prize went to Al Gore. I don't think he deserved it, for two reasons.
The first is on the issue of global warming itself. Although Gore professes
certainty about global warming, he first accepted an invitation to be interviewed
along with Bjorn Lomborg, a skeptic about the importance of global warming,
and then, with little notice, turned
down the invite. If he prevails in the policies he advocates on global warming,
and if he's wrong about the global warming problem, he will have succeeded in
making the whole world substantially poorer – and possibly, therefore, less
peaceful. Second, as vice president under Bill Clinton, Gore went along with
Clinton's unprovoked attacks on nations in the Balkans. I don't recall hearing
a peep out of him about that. Still, though, Gore's record is not as bad as
Theodore Roosevelt's or Woodrow Wilson's.
Fortunately, one of this year's Nobel Prize winners has made some sensible,
pro-peace statements, and he's done it using the economic way of thinking. That
person is Roger B. Myerson,
who won one third of the prize for economics. One thing that distinguishes most
economists from non-economists is that they focus on the importance of incentives
in driving human behavior. As I wrote in my book, The Joy of Freedom: An
Economist's Odyssey, I noticed early in my study of economics that in almost
all the economics I read, incentives were key to understanding behavior. That's
why I made it one of my "Ten
Pillars of Economic Wisdom." Myerson is no exception. In his analysis
of an ominous trend he saw in the Bush administration, Myerson noted the incentives
that Bush was creating in the rest of the world, incentives that could come
back and bite us. In a Feb.
17, 2003, op-ed [.pdf] in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, written while
President Bush was planning to invade Iraq, Myerson criticized Bush's way of
thinking about war. One of his best paragraphs is the following:
"When American forces invade one country after another, people everywhere
must ask what keeps them from becoming another American target. In countries
where there is no clear answer to this question, politicians will seek military
deterrents against America, because people everywhere demand leaders who can
Myerson ends his op-ed as follows:
"Our government's policy of denying any need for foreign approval of
American military actions may seem bold and effective now, but in the long run
it can incite deadly rivalries to haunt our future. From a simplistic viewpoint,
it might seem paradoxical that a country with overwhelming military superiority
can become more secure by accepting some constraints from the international
community, to reassure its neighbors. Bismark [sic] understood this fact
well, but Kaiser Wilhelm II ignored it disastrously at the turn of the twentieth
century. For the safety of our civilization in the twenty-first century, American
statesmen need to understand it now."
Those two paragraphs are more important for world peace than anything Al Gore
has ever done.
Copyright © 2007 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to
reprint should be directed to the author