Jacob Viner’s critique of Chicago neoliberalism

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While at the University of Chicago from 1916 to 1917 and from 1919 to 1946, Jacob Viner became famous for his teaching of “Economics 301,” a price theory course, which, as Paul Samuelson (, 6) remembered it, was “celebrated for Viner’s ferocious manhandling of students, in which he not only reduced women to tears but on his good days drove returned paratroopers into hysteria and paralysis.” The folklore of the Chicago School claims that through this course Viner enlightened and inspired future Chicago economists, such as Milton Friedman, George Stigler, and Aaron Director. For example, about Director, Ronald Coase states that Jacob Viner’s price theory course “swept away like chaff in a windstorm the nebulous idealism … of [Director’s youth]” (1998, 602). Although Viner may have initially inspired the leaders of the postwar Chicago School, it would be a mistake to assume that Viner was in full agreement with or closely tied to this school. About twenty years after he left the University of Chicago, Viner recalled that he had heard “rumors about a ‘Chicago School’” that was engaged in an “organized battle” against collectivism. Viner stated that he “remained skeptical” about this until he attended a 1951 conference at the Chicago Law School, which Aaron Director and Edward Levi headed and the Volker Fund financed. “From then on,” Viner wrote, “I was willing to consider the existence of a ‘Chicago School,’ (but one not confined to the economics department and not embracing all of the department).” Viner added that: “But at no time was I consciously a member of it, and it is my vague impression that if there was such a school it did not regard me as a member, or at least a loyal and qualified member.”

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Building Chicago Economics: New Perspectives on the History of America's Most Powerful Economics Program