The Intellectual Portrait Series: A Conversation with Armen A. Alchian

Armen Alchian discusses his contribution to economics as the founder of the “UCLA tradition” of economic thought with its emphasis of the rational, self-seeking behavior of individuals.

Watch the video and explore related resources at Econlib Videos.

The Intellectual Portrait Series: A Conversation with Armen A. Alchian (Iindianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).

Below are some prompts for further conversation:


Childhood, Family & Education

1- How did the Great Depression influence Alchian’s views and career trajectory?

2- What does Alchian regard as his most important work and why? What should a scholar focus on in your opinion, writing for students, the general public, or the profession? Why?


Uncertainty, Evolution, and Economic Theory

3- According to Alchian, do businessmen really maximize profits? Explain.

4- In his research, what did Alchian discover about the way airplane engineers measured the costs of production versus the way economists measure the costs of production? What makes this difference so impiortant?


Property Rights

5- How does Alchian distinguish between public and private property?  Is his distinction is specific enough? Why?

6- What does Alchian mean when he says, “If you’ve got property rights, you don’t have to talk about free speech.”? What constitutes free speech, according to Alchian?



7- Why does Alchian suggest it is important to distinguish between anticipated and unanticipated inflation?

8- Alchian argues that inflation can serve to transfer wealth between classes. How can this happen, and what effects can this have?

9- Alchian says you can learn different things from “stories” versus data. What does he mean by this, and how does it help to explain why shopping during times of inflation can be like a part-time job?


Information Costs and the Firm

10- What are search costs, and how can they explain unemployment, according to Alchian?

11- What does Alchian mean when he asserts that a firm is an attempt to subvert the market? What aspect of Coase’s work on the theory of the firm does Alchian believe is wrong, and why?


University Economics

12- Alchian says he’d like to change the title of his co-authored textbook to Universal Economics. Why does he think this would be a good title change, and to what extent would you agree? (Note: In 2018, Liberty Fund books published Alchian and Allen’s text as Universal Economics.)

13- Alchian notes the trade-off of time spent on his textbook. Did he make the right decision, in your opinion? Why?

Economics, Individuals, and Clans

14- What might a greater attention to human gene structure contribute to economics, according to Alchian? To what extent have you seen this trend in recent scholarship, and to what extent does it confirm Alchian’s suppositions?

15- What does Alchian mean when he says economics is fundamentally about groups? How does the individual factor into his view of economics?

16- Benjamin asks Alchian whether markets enhance freedom. How does Alchian reply? Describe how satisfactory you find his answer.

17- Alchian is known as the founder of the “event study.” What does this mean, and how are such studies used today?

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