Robert L. Formaini (1945-2024): A Defender of Letting the Individual Choose

The Independent Institute reported on Friday, July 5th, that free market economist and Institute Research Fellow Robert L. Formaini, had passed away the day before, on July 4th, at the age of 78. Born on September 15, 1945, in Ithaca, New York, Bob received both his PhD (1989) and M.A. (1984) in political economy from the University of Texas in Dallas, as well as an M.A. in economics from Virginia Commonwealth University (1980). He had earlier earned a B.A. in Fine Arts from Ithaca College, New York (1968).

He spent an early part of his professional life devoted to the cause of liberty and free enterprise in the think tank sector, including as vice president and chief executive officer at the Cato Institute (1978-1981), where one of Bob’s accomplishments was being the first editor of the Cato Journal in 1981 and the associate editor of the Cato Institute’s monthly Policy Report. He also was a co-founder and first executive officer at the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas, Texas (1983-1984).

Though I had first met Bob in New York in the late 1970s, I knew him the most between 1984 and 1988 when I was teaching at the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas, where he also briefly taught. We occasionally socialized, sometimes at wonderful pool parties at his home in Plano, Texas, and interacted at various free market events in the greater Dallas area. 

At first, meeting him, Bob could seem a bit distant and severe in his manner. But once you got to know him, you realized that he was a most warm and delightful person with a very dry sense of humor. One of the things that stood out to me the most was that he had none of the narrowly technical focus that, unfortunately, too many mainstream economists possess. Bob certainly knew all the models and mathematical techniques of the academic economist, but he also possessed a rich and deep knowledge and understanding of the history of economic, social and political ideas, which he easily brought to bear when discoursing on contemporary economic and social policy issues. 

I was never privy to what Bob’s daily duties and responsibilities may have been at the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas after he became an economic research analyst there, but one feature of his time was writing a series of concise and clear essays that he periodically wrote on some of the notable economists of the past and the present, including David Hume, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Jean-Baptiste Say, Frederic Bastiat, Henry George, Knut Wicksell, Irving Fisher, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, James M. Buchanan, and Ronald Coase. Each is a gem, giving the individual’s biography, important contributions to economics and its relevancy to economic theory and policy today, with brief box quotes from the author discussed.[1]

An element in Bob’s writings was an insistence on facing the truth of the matter head-on. For example, in his 1993 essay, “The Advance of the Androids,” he already was pointing out just how far the United States had drifted from its founding principles with government economic and social command and control, along with surveillance methods and mind manipulation through the political abuse of language and thought with such legal categories as hate crimes and hate speech. The country was adrift more than most Americans understood or appreciated from the ideals of personal freedom and free enterprise. 

At the same time, Bob was a forward-looking optimist. In spite of people becoming used to and, indeed, expecting the government to do far more things for them via the interventionist welfare state, he believed that reasonable arguments might still persuade the people of the country to move in a more limited government and free market direction. He had confidence in the power of ideas, as he articulated in a talk on “Economic Theory and Public Policy: Do Economists Actually Matter?”

For instance, in a paper that he delivered at Hillsdale College as part of the Ludwig von Mises Lecture Series in 1998, on “Laissez-faire: Let Each Individual Choose,” he presented a radical reform plan that would reduce federal government spending to around 4 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)—about the size of the national government in 1913 before the First World War. And to ensure that the politicians in Washington, D.C. could not easily get their hands on the citizen’s hard earned money, he called for the repeal of the Income Tax Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

A particularly important contribution by Bob Formaini, in my opinion, is to be found in his book, The Myth of Scientific Public Policy (Transaction Publishers, 1990). He challenges the assumptions and presumptions of mainstream economics both then, and I would argue now, that the pursuit and development of statistical and related “empirical” quantitative methods by economists provide the “scientific” tools and precision to successfully manage and manipulate the economic processes at work in the marketplace for better results than from an unhampered free market system. 

Through a series of “case studies” of attempts to apply such policy tools to economic and social “problems,” Bob demonstrated the flaws in the measurements, the errors in the techniques, and the often harmful or even disastrous consequences that have resulted from this “new secular theology” of supposedly “scientific public policy.” In a series of episodes, he recounts the use of inoculations by government in the attempt to reduce the spread of several viruses. He shows how often the use of various vaccines were instances of faulty research influenced by political pressures that even caused death among those supposedly to be helped. These examples in the book ring true and are highly relevant after the government-created COVID crisis of 2020-2021.

Bob concluded that behind the growth of government intervention, regulation, control, and redistribution, there was a presumption and arrogance among the political public policymakers that they know better than the ordinary citizen what is in their best interest. Part of the reason for this attitude among the policy elite is the confidence that they have the scientific methods and right-thinking moral objectivity to impose their vision of a properly reordered society on everyone else. His purpose in The Myth of Scientific Public Policy was to debunk this wrongheaded and dangerous mindset that threatens personal liberty and the free society. This book, alone, is Robert Formaini’s lasting legacy in defense of what he called for, Laissez-faire: Let Each Individual Choose. 

[1] These essays have been collected, along with others, in a forthcoming volume from the Independent Institute, Great Minds of the Market.

Richard M. Ebeling, is an AIER Senior Fellow and is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.
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