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Friday, February 2, 2024

In Memory of Dr. James Gwartney (1940–2024)

How Jim's life made the world a better place.

Image Credit: Gwartney Institute

A couple of weeks ago, I was informed of the passing of Dr. James (Jim) Gwartney. Professor Gwartney was a longtime professor at Florida State University, the director of the Gus A. Stavros Center for the Advancement of Free Enterprise and Economic Education for over a decade, a friend of liberty, a brilliant economic educator, and a committed Christian.

Many articles have been written since Jim’s passing, but I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight Jim’s contribution to economic education and the science of liberty.

Jim as Teacher to the Public

Jim was a rarity among scholars, taking time to compose an introductory economics text called Common Sense Economics co-authored with Richard Stroup, Dwight Lee, and Tawni Ferrarini. The book focuses on teaching a law audience the basic principles of economics. In the current profession, scholarly research is often viewed as the primary standard of success. Jim was a brilliant scholar and researcher, but Common Sense Economics highlights his desire to communicate ideas to a broad audience as well.

The book begins with basic economics principles such as “incentives matter,” “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” and “too often, the long-term consequences, or secondary effects, of an action are ignored.” This section of the book functions as a very basic microeconomics introduction highlighting the causes and consequences of choices.

The next section focuses on the causes of economic growth with a heavy focus on Jim’s work on economic freedom (more on that later). This section covers the basics of macroeconomics better than most modern textbooks.

Finally, Jim and his co-authors offer some basic insights on personal finance for lay readers who haven’t had the time or resources to learn about finance before.

No book that I know of covers so much material in such an easily understandable way. The world of policy would be a much more sound place if everyone read through Common Sense Economics at least once.

Jim as Scholar of Liberty

As previously mentioned, Jim is very well regarded as a scholar. His most well-known contribution is in his work in developing the widely cited Fraser Institute Economic Freedom of the World Annual Report.

Early in Jim’s career, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman invited Jim to a conference discussing the development of a measurement of economic freedom. Jim attended and became the key figure in the development of the index.

The idea behind the index is simple. If we can measure economic freedom, we can compare the results of more economic freedom in a clear, consistent way. The index that was developed measures economic freedom according to five categories:

  1. Size of Government: Larger government means less economic freedom.
  2. Legal System and Property Rights: Judicial systems with better property rights protection mean more economic freedom.
  3. Sound Money: Unstable, rapidly growing currencies deteriorate the ability to make plans and contracts, thereby degrading economic freedom.
  4. Freedom to Trade Internationally: Fewer trade restrictions mean more freedom for economic actors.
  5. Regulation: More regulations are a sign of less freedom economically.

Each of these five categories is measured with several different aggregated data points. Countries get a score in each category based on the data, and then one aggregate score is given for every country. Countries are then ranked from most free to least free.

The results may not be surprising to FEE readers, but they are powerful evidence to support what economic logic tells us. The most economically free countries are wealthier and healthier, and the inequality between the richest and poorest in free countries is no greater than the inequality in unfree countries.

The index is a living project and will continue to be compiled and cited for the foreseeable future. I encourage you to check it out if you haven’t already.

Jim’s Other Scholarship and Teaching

Jim’s scholarship and role in educating the public extend beyond his two most well-known contributions. Jim published dozens of scholarly articles over his lifetime on topics including economic freedom, tax policy, baseball, monetary policy, income inequality, discrimination, and central planning.

But Jim didn’t merely keep his knowledge to journals. He went out and educated the populace about these ideas throughout his career. Decades ago, Jim published an article defending why Christianity and Capitalism were compatible in FEE’s very own magazine The Freeman. You can read that here.

In February 2021, Jim boldly and correctly predicted that the US would have significant post-pandemic inflation. It’s well-known among economists that inflation tends to be over-predicted, but Jim’s understanding of basic economics, monetary policy, and the Federal Reserve gave him the confidence and ability to anticipate inflation correctly.

Towards the end of his life, Jim’s worry about the Federal Reserve’s perverse incentives was apparent. In a guest lecture he gave to my macroeconomics class a couple of years ago, Jim spent much of his time explaining the perverse incentives which he believed were leading us to an increasingly politicized Federal Reserve.

Jim was an academic, but he did not live in an ivory tower. His life work represents what it means to be a relevant, well-rounded scholar who cares about sharing findings with students and ordinary people.

Jim Gwartney the Man

Not enough can be said about Jim Gwartney as a person. We’re fortunate that recently a long-form interview with him was published which you can read about here. Well into his adult life, Jim was told by doctors that he was going blind. He lived the last few decades completely blind, but without slowing down.

In a profession like academe where tenure dominates, it would be easy to imagine someone facing a hardship deciding to coast through the end of a career. But Jim refused to slow down. With the help of his wife, Amy Gwartney, Jim continued to publish, teach, and travel the world.

Together they helped found and grow a church in Tallahassee. You can’t talk to a group of his students without hearing about the various kindnesses he offered, including invitations to holiday dinners.

I knew about Jim’s work longer than I knew Jim. I was fortunate to meet him when I accepted a position as professor in an institute bearing his name at his alma mater, Ottawa University, in Kansas. I only wish I had met him sooner.

Jim’s work will continue to influence economics and the science of liberty for years to come. But I suspect his influence on the personal lives of those around him will outlast even that.

  • Peter Jacobsen is a Writing Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education.