Thursday, June 13, 2013

RIP Robert Fogel, 1926-2013

The great economic historian Robert Fogel has died. Fogel, who was co-recipient with Douglass C. North of the 1993 Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, was most famous for his book (co-authored with Stanley Engerman) Time on the Cross (1974), in which he argued that slavery in the American south had been an economically efficient institution. That argument, which remains controversial on its own terms, was unfortunately construed as a defense of the "peculiar institution," which it certainly was not. Fogel's critics failed to distinguish, as Fogel himself did, between economic efficiency and morality. Fogel responded with a two-volume historical study, Without Consent or Contract (1994), which explained that slavery was abolished in the US not because it was inefficient but because it was immoral. As he often observed, what is economically efficient is not always moral, and morality is more important than efficiency.

Even before his works on slavery, Fogel was challenging the conventional wisdom. In 1970 he published Railroads and American Economic Growth, which questioned the widely held belief that railroads were the main driver of economic growth in the US in the nineteenth century. He found that their development contributed not more than three percent to GDP, far less than any economist at the time supposed.

My personal favorite among Fogel's books is the relatively recent The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100: Europe, America, and the Third World (Cambridge 2004). In it, Fogel demonstrates the great value of economic history for demonstrating longitudinally how institutional and technological changes affect people and how they live in the world. In this case, he showed how the development of modern agricultural techniques contributed to healthier, larger, longer-lived, and more productive people, capable of overcoming many of the limitations that nature previously had imposed upon them. It is a short but very powerful, valuable and, what is rare these days, optimistic work.

Fogel's works should be better known than they appear to be among all social scientists and historians. Hopefully, they will become more influential as his legacy lives on.

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