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Samuelson and Buckley at Yale—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on Sept. 5, 2008.

Samuelson and Buckley at Yale
By Ian Ayres ’86

Wolfers’s view that Paul Samuelson’s Economics text book is “the greatest economics textbook ever written” is not universally shared.

In fact in 1951, before the book gained its iconic status, a young William F. Buckley Jr. devoted considerable energy to attacking it. A core part of Buckley’s book God and Man at Yale is an extended criticism of Yale’s decision to use Samuelson’s text in introductory economics.

Buckley was worried about the pernicious impact that Samuelson’s words could have on young minds. The Samuelson entry in Buckley’s index is larger than any other — and Buckley even included an appendix listing in column after column the names of universities that have adopted the wrongheaded text.

So what did Buckley find repellent in Samuelson?

In short, it’s that Samuelson’s analysis was tilted against free enterprise and in favor of government regulation. Buckley said that Samuelson’s “reliance on the state is complete.” (Page 51)

Where Wolfers praised Samuelson’s rhetorical power, Buckley viewed the sometimes homiletic argument as insidious. Here are a few of the Samuelson passages that drove Buckley to distraction:

Samuelson on the inheritance tax:

A naïve and uninspired physician in examining the two women in question [the heiress Barbara Hutton and a Woolworth salesgirl] might find little to choose from with respect to physique, I.Q., or temperament.

But, although each was equally endowed by her parents as far as arms and legs, one was not so generously treated with respect to lockboxes and property. Under our common and statute law, any owner of private property has the right to give, bequeath, or sell it to whomever he pleases (subject only to taxation), and few will criticize père Hutton if he felt that “blood is thicker than water.”

But everyone will be curious about the workings of an economic society which enables a few individuals to amass such large accumulations of wealth and power and to perpetuate them by inheritance. (Buckley’s italics on Page 60 quoting Samuelson on Page 72)

Samuelson on free competition:

A cynic might say of free competition what Bernard Shaw once said of Christianity: the only trouble with it is that is has never been tried. There never was a golden age of free competition, and competition is not now perfect in the economist’s sense; probably it is becoming less so every day, in large part because of the fundamental nature of large-scale production and technology, consumers’ tastes, and business organization. (Buckley on Page 50 quoting Samuelson on Page 36)

Samuelson on monopoly power and unionization:

[A monopolist is not] a fat, greedy man with a big mustache and cigar who goes around violating the law. If he were, we could put him in jail. He is anyone important enough to affect the prices of the things that he sells and buys. To some degree, that means almost every businessman … (Buckley’s italics on Page 75 quoting Samuelson on Page 39)

For good or evil, American labor has declared itself a silent partner in every business. With the acquiescence of the public and the government, workers ask for, and usually succeed in getting, some fraction of corporation profits. The moral for the self-interested laborer is to apprentice himself to a profitable quasi-monopolistic industry which has plenty of gravy to share. (Buckley on Page 76 quoting Samuelson on Page 531)

Samuelson on unemployment and deficit spending:

[I]t is as hard for a wealthy nation to avoid unemployment … as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. (Buckley on Page 65 quoting Samuelson on Page 17)

[During depressions, government spending of any sort is a stimulus because] wise domestic investment is no more powerful than ultimately foolish investment … because of the favorable respending effects on those who receive government expenditures. (Buckley on Page 67 quoting Samuelson on Page 371)

In short, there is no technical financial reason why a nation fanatically addicted to deficit spending should not pursue such a policy for the rest of our lives and even beyond. (Buckley on Page 69 quoting Samuelson on Page 433)

Writing on the heals of the Keynesian deficit-spending success story and the massive market regulation “needed” during the second World War, Samuelson had the temerity to write:

No longer is modern man able to believe “that government governs best which governs least.” [W]here the complex economic conditions of life necessitate social coordination and planning, there can sensible men of good will be expected to invoke the government. (Buckley’s italics on Page 81 quoting Samuelson on Page 152)

If there is a single snippet that provoked Buckley to write God and Man at Yale, I’m guessing this was it. For Buckley, sensible, modern men could still embrace the minimalist state. Samuelson, in contrast, was willing to consider the contingent usefulness of government intervention:

[T]he remarkable fact is not how much the government does to control economic activity … but how much it does not do. (Buckley on Page 80 quoting Samuelson on Page 35)

This was a dangerous message that needed to be removed from our core curriculum.