James D. Gwartney: 1940-2024

The world lost one of its most effective academic champions of freedom and free markets when Jim Gwartney passed away on January 7. Jim rarely wrote for popular audiences, so people unfamiliar with his academic work may not realize the influence he has had. Even those familiar with his academic work may not realize the extent of his influence.

Jim Gwartney was a scholar and first-rate economist. He published more than 100 scholarly articles in The American Economic Review, The Journal of Political Economy, The Southern Economic Journal, and The Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics, among others. His academic publication record alone places him among the most accomplished academic economists. More noteworthy, he has spearheaded three large projects that have had substantial impacts in spreading free market ideas.

The earliest of those is his textbook, Economics: Private and Public Choice, which was first published in 1976 and is now in its 17th edition. After writing the first edition himself, he took on Richard Stroup as a co-author and has since added Russell Sobel and David Macpherson as co-authors. Economic textbooks at the time tended to depict government as an organization that would correct the shortcomings of the market. Economists would identify problems, derive solutions that were optimal in theory, and hope that governments would implement those solutions. Jim’s textbook took a more realistic look at government interventions, explaining that while markets might not be perfect, governments weren’t either and that government interventions often made matters worse.

His textbook has influenced generations of students for 45 years. It has also influenced the textbook market as other books have picked up on that theme that was absent from textbooks when Jim’s book first appeared. He did tell me, however, that he was disappointed that the message of that book was not more widely accepted. As he saw it, once the shortcomings of government interventions in market economies were pointed out to people, it should be so obvious that everyone should be a skeptic about government interventions in the economy. That lesson has not taken hold in many quarters, and Jim’s disappointment encouraged him to look for other ways to spread the message.

One of those ways is his project on common sense economics. That project was spearheaded by a book with that name, aimed primarily at a pre-college level. It is suitable for students but also aimed at K-12 economics teachers, many of whom did not study economics in college. 

Jim and his co-authors held workshops to accompany the book. The book and the workshops were oriented to teachers disseminating economics to people with no background in the subject and offering effective teaching strategies to those who know more.

Jim’s Economic Freedom of the World project has been hugely influential. The idea for this project was developed at a Fraser Institute conference led by Milton Friedman and Mike Walker. Gwartney led the development of a measure of economic freedom with his student Robert Lawson and others. The index they developed has been published since 1996 and has been updated annually. The development of that index has led to a substantial body of academic research showing the positive impacts of economic freedom. It raises incomes and is associated with many other positive outcomes, including health, life expectancy, education, and the protection of individual rights.

Jim was also instrumental in establishing the James Madison Institute, a Florida-based think tank that deals with state and local public policy issues. The Institute was established in 1987 by Stanley Marshall, a former president of Florida State University, and Jim was Stan’s principal advisor during the Institute’s early years. Jim was with the Institute from its beginning. When it went through some lean years early in its life, it is no exaggeration to say that it would not have survived without Jim’s efforts. Today, the James Madison Institute is on sound footing and is very influential in promoting the ideas of free markets, limited government, and economic liberty.

As a lifelong educator, Jim’s influence extends to the many students he taught over the years. I know from talking with his students and especially seeing the work of his graduate students that his ideas became the foundation for their ideas.

I was privileged to know Jim as a friend, a colleague, and a mentor for more than three decades when we were both faculty members at Florida State University. His productivity, his insight, and his even-keeled personality were inspirational. Jim was a natural leader. Jim took the lead and was the entrepreneur on all the projects I discussed earlier. On those projects, he enlisted the help of a competent group of associates, amplifying his productivity and influence. His enthusiasm for economics and life was contagious.

People who didn’t know Jim might be unaware that he was blind for the last quarter-century of his life. As he was losing his eyesight, he adopted computer technology to compensate. He continued his productive scholarship right up until his final weeks. His fading eyesight never seemed to affect his disposition or his productivity, and I never viewed it as a handicap. I don’t think Jim did either. Some people are tall. Others are short. Some people have red hair. Some people are bald. Jim happened to be blind. He didn’t let that hold him back.

I lost a good friend with Jim Gwartney’s passing. The world has lost an effective champion of freedom and free markets.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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