As a young man aged 32, Julius Caesar is supposed to have wept before a statue of Alexander the Great, despondent over the fact that by that age Alexander had conquered a vast empire while Caesar had done nothing of note. It’s hard not to have the same reaction looking at the prodigious output of the economic historian Robert Higgs, who turns 77 years old today.
Higgs earned a PhD in economics from Johns Hopkins University in 1968 and joined the faculty at the University of Washington, where he would work alongside colleagues like Douglass C. North (Nobel 1993), Yoram Barzel, and Steven NS Cheung. The university was a leading center for the study of economic history, institutions, and transaction costs, and Higgs had a hand in the training of a generation of influential economic historians like Price V. Fishback, Lee J. Alston, John J. Wallis, and Sumner La Croix.
Higgs entered academia as the Cliometric Revolution was maturing. “Cliometrics,” an approach named for Clio, the muse of history, was a path-breaking research program that changed a lot of things we thought we knew. Scholars like North and Robert Fogel (with whom North shared the Nobel in 1993) were revolutionizing the study of economic history by using neoclassical price theory to frame testable hypotheses about the past and using state-of-the-art statistical tools to test those hypotheses. Railroads, for example, were not indispensable for American economic growth. Slavery was profitable and viable. Declining piracy and better economic organization rather than technological change explained increases in shipping productivity. And so on.
Higgs was right in the middle of it, explaining, for example, that differences in skills rather than “exploitation” explain differences in earnings among immigrant groups. In papers on inventiveness, agricultural organization, and property accumulation among African-Americans before World War I, Higgs did more than pick low-hanging fruit. He discovered that the fruit–mostly previously unexplored or underutilized data–was there to be picked in the first place.
This year is also the fiftieth anniversary of Higgs’s first book, The Transformation of the American Economy 1865-1914, a remarkable achievement for any scholar but made all the more impressive by the fact that it was published as Higgs was entering his late twenties. As he would spend his career doing, he took what “everybody” knew about exploitation, inequality, and Robber Barons during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and showed that it was wrong. The book stands up well even five decades later.
In 1977, Higgs published a pathbreaking book on the economic history of race, Competition and Coercion: Blacks in the American Economy 1865-1914. Competition, Higgs argued, helped explain black economic advancement while coercion held them back. In his recent book Discrimination and Disparities, Thomas Sowell refers to Higgs by name and cites Competition and Coercion in an analysis of how competition can thwart people’s worst impulses. Here is Sowell (p. 34 of the 2018 edition):
“Too many other observers, including some academic scholars, reason as if intentions automatically translate directly into outcomes. … By contrast, economist Robert Higgs, who researched the actual consequences of those efforts of white employers and landowners in the postbellum South, found that such organized efforts often collapsed, as a result of competition among white employers and landowners for black workers and sharecroppers.”
Just because Southern landowners tried to collude doesn’t mean they succeeded. Higgs explained how market forces are powerful checks on racism, and merely wanting to behave horribly does not mean one will be able to behave horribly.
A decade after Competition and Coercion, Higgs published what is probably his most famous book, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government. In a detailed study of the World Wars and the Great Depression, Higgs explains how governments grow in size and power in response to crises. Governments expand rapidly in response to the call to “do something” about the crisis du jour, and while it recedes a little bit it gains ground, on net, because it creates vested interests in the new power structure. Higgs’s argument in Crisis and Leviathan has been used to explore the dynamics of the US government’s response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, responses to natural disasters, the Great Recession, and now the Covid-19 pandemic.
In 1994, Higgs joined the Independent Institute as a Senior Fellow in Political Economy. He was the founding editor of the Institute’s journal, the Independent Review, and in the journal’s fourth issue he published an important analysis of the length and duration of the Great Depression. He introduced the idea of “regime uncertainty” and argued that confusion about property rights explains why private investment was depressed through the 1930s and why it increased after World War II ended. In 2006, he combined this paper with several others to produce a reinterpretation of the twentieth century titled Depression, War, and Cold War. In addition to his analysis of regime uncertainty during the 1930s, Higgs also overturned the conventional wisdom about how World War II saved the American economy by showing that “the well-being of consumers deteriorated during the war.”
Higgs’s virtuosity as an economic historian stems from clear and careful analytical thinking combined with an understanding of what the state is and what the state is not. He is not a romantic about war and the state, to put it lightly, and he has never shied away from calling a government exactly what it is: an organization that gets what it wants by threats and violence. Higgs’s clear-eyed understanding of the nature of the state keeps him from falling into wishful thinking about how this or that problem would be fixed if only the right people had the right amount of power. He knows, as George Washington is erroneously believed to have said, that “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force.” This simple insight has informed Higgs’s work for five decades, and he has used it to help us better understand the world we inhabit.