Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Boettke on the Next Babe Ruth (Sort of)

Peter Boettke follows up on the Dan Klein story dooming economics to an era of no new classic liberal economic super stars. Boettke titles his post, Was Michael Jordan the Greatest of All Time? Is Roger Federer's record unbreakable?

In the post he then writes:
Could Babe Ruth dominate baseball today as he did then?
But the question shouldn't be could Ruth dominate today's game. What Babe Ruth did was take baseball and sports to a new level. The successor to Babe Ruth was Michael Jordan. Sports fan or not, everyone on the planet pretty much recognized the names Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan, in their prime. Greatness never comes back in the exact same form. The elements that made Ruth great were the same ones that made Jordan great, even though one bounced the ball and the other hit it with a piece of wood.

Transferring this thought to economics, the next economic superstar won't be an exact replica of Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, FA Hayek or Milton Friedman. The next economic superstar will rock the economic world in his/her own way. Boettke seems to get this:

....the idea that greatest will never come again seems to be a strange position to hold. As soon as we announced that Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player of all time, an emerging star Kobe Bryant and an even younger LeBron James came along. James is 6'9" and 260lbs, sort of a cross between Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan --- in short, pretty damn special. Progress is made...

Greatness in all human endeavors always rises to the challenges specific era demand. Milton Friedman met the challenge of his day, just as Adam Smith did in his day. In sports there are specific goals --- score the basket, hit the ball, slice that backhand down the line, win the game. Bill Tilden sliced his backhand approach down the line, so does Roger Federer.

In the scientific life of the policy sciences there are similar specific goals -- most notably the effective communication of one's ideas to peers, students, policy-makers, and the general public. Milton Friedman was a master at all 4 levels of communication, but he is not the only person in the history of discipline to have done so, and he will not be the last. Someone will rise up to meet the challenges of the age, and do so effectively. Science will progress, and the argument for liberalism will
be restated. The culture of our day presents us with challenges, but they will
be met by those with the talent, skill and enthusiasm for the challenge...

Is it going to be hard for that break-through to come? Yes it will, but someone will rise to the challenge. That person will not be a clone of Milton Friedman anymore than LeBron James is a clone of Michael Jordan, or Roger Federer is a clone of Pete Sampras. No, the ball will be moved forward with some new manifestation of greatness in the discipline of economics and the effective communication of the argument for economic liberalism. But like the curmudgeon in the bar who talks endlessly about the good old days before night baseball, or before the 3 point line, many of us will miss the spectacular show before our eyes because we continue to marvel at black and white tape on You Tube of the great Milton Friedman or continue to remember our college excitement at reading Capitalism and Freedom, or Free to Choose.

It is very important for us to have heroes and have reverence for greatness. What isn't good is when our reverence for the past undermines our appreciation for the present, and our hope for the future.

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