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The Elgar Companion to the Chicago School of Economics

The Elgar Companion to the Chicago School of Economics

Elgar original reference

Edited by Ross B. Emmett

Many know the Chicago School of Economics and its association with Milton Friedman, George Stigler, Ronald Coase and Gary Becker. But few know the School’s history and the full scope of its scholarship. In this Companion, leading scholars examine its history and key figures, as well as provide surveys of the School’s contributions to central aspects of economics, including: price theory, monetary theory, labor and economic history. The volume examines the School’s traditions of applied welfare theory and law and economics while providing a glimpse into emerging research on Chicago’s role in the development of neoliberalism.

Chapter 5: The Chicago School of Welfare Economics

H. Spencer Banzhaf

Subjects: economics and finance, economic psychology, history of economic thought, methodology of economics


H. Spencer Banzhaf* Introduction Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, applied welfare economics of the type now used routinely in policy analysis was viewed by most Anglo-American economists to be a futile task. Even as government requirements for measures of the benefits of public projects grew in parallel with economists’ skills in econometrically measuring demand, economists avoided even simple measures of welfare. But during the 1950s and 1960s, across a broad spectrum of schools, economists slowly began to lose their reluctance. Operations research, which met economics at such institutions as RAND, Cowles and the Harvard Water Program, formulated problems around an empirical pay-off function to be maximized, which in turn gave rise to welfare measures. Agricultural economics, with its tradition of empirical estimation of demand curves, began to estimate demand for public goods such as outdoor recreation for purposes of benefit–cost analysis (Banzhaf 2005). And, during the same period, key members of the Chicago School of Economics like Milton Friedman, George Stigler and especially Arnold Harberger began to turn to applied welfare economics as well. Chicago, admittedly, seems an unlikely place for such a development. Representing the ‘old Chicago’, Frank Knight expressed the belief that on the one hand Marshallian demand curves, which do not hold utility constant, are not an appropriate tool for welfare measurement, while on the other hand Hicksian demands are a mere intellectual construct, unrelated to observable behavior and hence unmeasurable. Consequently, according to Knight, consumer surplus is a concept of ‘extremely little...

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