Archives of two giants of economics

Gifts of the papers of George Stigler and Harry G. Johnson will expand our understanding of economics at Chicago

George Stigler in front of Rosenwald Hall and a headshot of Harry Johnson

George Stigler (left) and Harry G. Johnson (right). Special Collections Research Center, The University of Chicago Library.

The University of Chicago is world renowned for the “Chicago School of Economics” and the 30 Nobel laureates in economic sciences who have been UChicago faculty members, students, or researchers. Yet, among historians of economics, definitions of the “Chicago School” continue to be debated.  Three recent gifts to the University of Chicago Library—the papers of Nobel laureate George Stigler, PhD’38, the papers of international trade expert Harry G. Johnson, and funding to organize the Johnson papers and create an online finding aid—will expand scholars’ understanding of the many ways Chicago has shaped the field of economics.

The University of Chicago Library is home to collections of more than 30 economists and 21 Nobel laureates, including seven Nobel Prize-winning economists:  Gary Becker, Ronald Coase, Robert Fogel, Milton Friedman, Merton Miller, Theodore Schultz, and George Stigler.   “These three generous new gifts will enable scholars to explore the history of economics in new ways,” said Brenda Johnson, Library Director and University Librarian.  “They strengthen our University Archives and demonstrate the Library’s ongoing commitment to being a vital center of University of Chicago history and the home of Nobel Prize winners’ research.”

Nobel laureate George Stigler’s papers

Draft of Nobel Prize speech, "The Process and Progress of Economics" with edits

Draft of Nobel Prize speech, with black handwritten edits by George Stigler and red printing by Stephen Stigler, November 29, 1982. Special Collections Research Center, The University of Chicago Library.

Frequently thought of as one of the leaders of the “Chicago School,” George Stigler came to the University of Chicago as a graduate student in 1933, received his PhD in 1938 and returned to Chicago as a professor from 1958 until his death in 1991.  He was awarded the 1982 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences “for his seminal studies of industrial structures, functioning of markets and causes and effects of public regulation” and was hailed by the Journal of Law and Economics as “a towering figure in the history of law and economics” and the first to win a Nobel Prize for work in the field.

Stigler is widely known for developing the “Economic Theory of Regulation,” which argues that political and economic interest groups use the coercive and regulatory powers of government to shape laws and regulations that benefit them.  He also shaped the education of a generation of undergraduates as the author of The Theory of Price, a textbook on free market economics that places its subject in historical context.  He initiated the study of the economics of information as a field, arguing that knowledge is costly to acquire and that consumers and businesses therefore must make decisions about how much information to acquire, as they do with goods and services.

Handwritten letter from Milton Friedman to George Stigler

Letter from Milton Friedman to George Stigler, August 23, 1946. Special Collections Research Center, The University of Chicago Library.

George Stigler’s son Stephen M. Stigler also became a faculty member at University of Chicago.  Currently the Ernest DeWitt Burton Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Statistics and the College and member of the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science, Stephen donated his father’s papers to the University of Chicago Library, where they are available for research in the Special Collections Research Center.  A long-time supporter of the Library, chair of the faculty Board of the Library from 1986 to 1989, and chair of the University of Chicago Library Society from 2011 to 2014, Stephen said the papers clearly belonged here: “I never had a thought that they’d go anywhere else because the University of Chicago was such an important part of my father’s life.”

The papers include 70 linear feet of research and teaching materials, correspondence with economists such as Milton Friedman, photographs, and ephemera. Stephen Stigler anticipates that scholars may be particularly interested in some of the short, unpublished pieces that explore economic issues and, in some cases, politics.  “He was very interested in politics—not politics as something to push forward, but he thought when people voted a certain way or acted a certain way politically, they were furthering their own interests, and that’s not always obvious from what they did,” Stephen explained.  “People sometimes do what could at first glance look foolish, and you wonder why they did it, but if you study it enough, you can find that there is a rational story you can tell to explain what they’re doing.  You learn a lot about human behavior in the process.”

International trade expert Harry G. Johnson’s papers

Harry Johnson with others seated around a table with plates and cups

Harry G. Johnson (second from left). Special Collections Research Center, The University of Chicago Library.

A contemporary of George Stigler’s, Harry G. Johnson came to the University of Chicago in 1959, holding the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professorship in the economics department from 1969 until his death in 1977. He was extraordinarily prolific, writing 19 books and 500 scholarly papers and editing 24 volumes before his early death due to a stroke at age 53.  Focusing primarily on international economics and economic theory, he played a leading role in the development of the Heckscher-Ohlin model of international trade.  He was known for articulating the connections between the ideas of major postwar economic innovators and, according to biographer D. E. Moggridge, defined the vital issues that “set the profession’s agenda for a generation.”  An influential editor of the Review of Economic Studies, the Journal of Political Economy, the Manchester School, and Economica, Johnson was considered so important to the field that Nobel laureate James Tobin called the third quarter of the 20th century “the age of Johnson.”

A large group of people standing on a staircase, including Harry G. Johnson

Attendees at the International Economic Association South-East Asia Refresher Course in Economics, Singapore July – September 1956, Nanyang Siang Pau Photo Graphic Department. Harry Johnson (first row, far right). Special Collections Research Center, The University of Chicago Library.

Professor Johnson’s papers were donated to the University of Chicago Library by his children, Karen Johnson and Ragnar Johnson.  The 100 linear feet of materials include research and teaching papers, correspondence, and photographs. An additional gift, from David Levy, AM’70, PhD’79, will support the in-depth work of organizing the papers into an archival collection that will be ready for research. Additionally, an online finding aid, or guide, to the organized papers will provide a clear understanding of the contents of the collection.  “The power of the University Archives can’t be fully appreciated without finding aids,” said David Levy, a professor at George Mason University specializing in economics and the history of economic thought.

Professor Levy recalls his UChicago graduate school days enthusiastically. George Stigler served as the chair of his thesis committee, and Johnson acted as an additional reader.  “Every time I would talk to Harry, he would remind me that his first article was on David Ricardo, and my dissertation was on David Ricardo,” he said. Levy was particularly proud when, after a painful meeting with the committee, Johnson showed confidence in him by citing a paper he wrote in The Two-Sector Model of General Equilibrium.

Folded newspaper showing article on "The consequences of Keynes" on top of folder

Harry G. Johnson, “The Consequences of Keynes,” Times Literary Supplement, February 7, 1975. Special Collections Research Center, The University of Chicago Library.

Levy expects his gift will help future scholars better understand Johnson and his impact.  “Harry is one of the most important teachers at Chicago, but he’s not considered ‘Chicago School,’ which is actually sort of a problem for the history of ideas.  He’s not noted for free market advocacy,” Levy said. “Harry helped make the distinction between Keynes and Keynesians. He would combat myths wherever he saw them.  From my point of view, that’s his greatest contribution.”

A conference on “The Legacy of Chicago Economics” held at the University of Chicago in 2015 made it clear that the common perception of the “so-called Chicago School” has changed over time. At its origins in the 1930s, economics at the University of Chicago was not focused on promoting a single point of view or ideology, but rather about “finding an approach to studying economics.”  The gifts that make the archives of George Stigler and Harry G. Johnson part of the Library’s collections have the potential to change future researchers’ understandings of what the “Chicago School” was and how the University of Chicago—in the broadest sense—influences the future of economics.

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