Paul A. Samuelson, 1915-2009

An announcement from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology informs us that Paul A. Samuelson died on Sunday, December 13, 2009, at the age of 94. The announcement also gives a good account of why Samuelson was for more than half a century a towering figure in the economics profession and, to some degree, in the wider world.

Although my one personal encounter with Samuelson was brief and not altogether pleasant, I was greatly affected by his influence on economics. In the 1960s, when I was being trained in economics, he was generally regarded as the greatest living economist, and his way of doing economics was generally regarded as virtually defining how to carry out economic analysis scientifically.

Having suffered through this Samuelsonian training, I immediately began to move away from it once I became an economist. In fact, I increasingly grew to believe that the worst aspects of modern economics owe more to Samuelson than to any other single economist. Eventually I became convinced that the modern mainstream’s so-called scientific economics is not truly scientific at all, but a species of scientism—the misapplication of methods developed for the study of material reality to the study of human choice and cooperation. Having had my say about Samuelson’s baneful influence in this regard (here and here), I need say nothing more upon his passing.

Except that however misguided I believe he was in his approach to economics, he was a man of enormous intellect and tremendous influence. I only wish that his great talents had been aimed in a different direction.

Robert Higgs is Retired Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Founding Editor of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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