Tyler Cowen on the Greatest Economist of All Time (GOAT)

 April 2, 2024

Competition is good, right? Buchanan looks at who the top contenders are in the battle to discover the great economist of all time (GOAT) using Tyler Cowen's book with generative AI. 
 AdamSmithWorks readers will be happy to know that Adam Smith made the short list of contenders for the designation of the Greatest Economist of All Time (GOAT) by the influential economist Tyler Cowen. In his book GOAT: Who is the Greatest Economist of All Time and Why Does it Matter? (free online at econgoat.ai), Cowen attempts to identify the GOAT of economic thought. He is the first author to release an AI, EconGOAT GPT-4, trained on his book that readers can chat with, in addition to the book manuscript. 

Debate persists in economics about which ideas hold the greatest merit. Cowen’s analysis underscores how several top contender economist's contributions shaped our understanding of markets, societies, and policymaking. To be on Cowen’s short list is a compliment. Of all the thinkers and writers in recorded history, Adam Smith is one of only six writers that Cowen gives serious consideration to. Next, readers will ask, “Did our guy win?” 

Adam Smith would receive the superlative for being "the most original and fundamental of all economists." He's often referred to as the father of economics, and for a good reason. His insights into the mechanics of capitalism and the division of labor are foundational to our understanding of modern economic thought. His work, especially in The Wealth of Nations, still resonates with how we perceive market operations, growth, and the behavior of economic agents.

One of Smith's contributions is effectively explaining the division of labor. He observed that when workers specialize in specific tasks, productivity increases, which leads to a greater overall output and improved standards of living. This insight predicted the industrial revolution's rise of factory systems and the increasing specialization in the workforce, which has been a driving force behind economic growth ever since.

Cowen admires Smith's broad and deep understanding of how individual actions, motivated by self-interest guided by empathy and social norms, come together to form complex economic systems that are more productive and beneficial than anything that could be designed by planners or monarchs.

Smith’s anticipations of later economic concepts, like his analysis of price and market dynamics, also highlight his visionary nature. He was ahead of his time, considering the absence of extensive empirical data and the mathematical tools that later economists would deploy.

Even though being the first to an idea is impressive, the first writer on a topic is not necessarily the best. 

Cowen holds Adam Smith in high regard, positioning him as a robust candidate for the title of GOAT in the realm of economics. Why isn't Smith granted the title of GOAT? It's important to recognize the complexity of determining "the greatest" in a field that spans centuries and encompasses an array of transformative ideas. While Smith laid the groundwork for economics and many of his ideas remain pertinent, subsequent economists have built upon, refined, and sometimes challenged his work. The evaluation of the greatest economist may also hinge on other criteria, such as the applicability of ideas to contemporary challenges.

The hesitancy in bestowing upon Smith the GOAT title stems from the sheer generality of his work. Despite Smith's original and fundamental contributions, his work does not alone offer the practical policy guidance that some of the other contenders provide, such as Milton Friedman with his monetarist policies or John Maynard Keynes with his fiscal policy prescriptions. Hence, Smith is one of Cowen’s top three picks but does not singularly take the title of the Greatest Economist of All Time.

Even if you have read other books and articles on Adam Smith, you will learn something new from Cowen on Smith. For example, reading Cowen’s book was the first time I considered Smith on the subject of the military and public finance. Cowen also relates military funding back to the bigger picture
We again see the importance of Smith’s distinction between the local and the global perspective. A local perspective might induce us to seek protection in our smaller communities, from the nearby “tough guys.” Smith looked beyond that point of view to see the greater efficiency of much larger political units, including as a means of protecting localities. By promoting the standing army idea, Smith is urging his contemporaries, in geopolitical terms, to think much larger than what they had been doing. (pg. 296)
Smith's views on education are often underappreciated. Smith's ideas, as recounted in GOAT, champion a practical approach to learning over the grand tours of the continent popular in his day. Cowen explains further
Too often these sections are read as a quaint poke at the bureaucratic institutions of higher education... But it is also Smith’s account of how a modern commercial society can hold together and overcome some of the most basic deficiencies of human nature, namely through good incentives for commercialized teaching and instruction. When it comes to the development of human character, the invisible hand still suffices. (pg. 299)
If Adam Smith’s insights on justice appeal to you, then, through the GOAT book, you might find a new appreciation of John Stuart Mill. Mill is a top contender for GOAT, though some people would not even think of him as an “economist.” Mill's The Subjection of Women is a strong testament to his commitment to equality and social justice, especially considering the time he wrote in. He viewed economics not in isolation, but as intertwined with the broader social fabric, like Adam Smith. 

In conclusion, I encourage fans of Adam Smith to check out EconGOAT and decide for yourself who should win.