Claire Friedland, who served as George Stigler’s research assistant from 1959 until his death in 1991, reminisces about her decades of pioneering work with Stigler and her own, as well as other women’s, contributions to economics and the professions.

Claire Friedland in her Michigan garden (Photo courtesy of the interviewee)

Among the intellectuals who came together in early November for 40th anniversary event of the Stigler Center to commemorate the work of first Nobel prizewinner from the School of Business at UChicago, a sparkling presence among them was Claire Friedland, who served as George Stigler’s research assistant from 1959 until his death in 1991.

Now an octogenarian, Friedland remains eager to reminisce at any opportunity about her decades of pioneering work with Stigler and tout the virtues of her longtime boss, whom she has described as “really a great man.” (“I hope I’m not misrepresenting George as a perfect human being?” she once fretted. “I don’t mean to make him out as perfect.”)

Her natural modesty, however—(“a rare trait in an economist of any type,” one of her interviewers once noted wryly)—makes it more challenging to induce her to talk about her own achievements. Following the conference, she agreed to a correspondence in which she revealed details about her differences with Stigler on matters of politics and gender equality, as well as her decades of self-doubt before coming to appreciate her own contribution to the field of law and economics.

The correspondence has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

You have discussed in earlier interviews how Stigler, especially late in his career, wrestled with philosophical questions on the proper economic role of the state in a democratic political system and what he called “the paradox of legitimacy.” You’ve spoken less about your own conclusions on this question. To what extent should economists committed to liberal democracy worry about the legitimacy of economic policy?   

I think I mentioned at the conference that Frank Knight in his classes and Henry Simons in his Economic Policy for a Free Society were not just thinking about the free market’s role in achieving efficient use of resources but also in assuring the autonomy of the individual, that is freedom. In my mind (you suggested I answer for myself) there is always some trade-off between efficiency and autonomy, which opens the door to a role for government.

Stigler reflected, late in his life, on what he called “The Problem of Legitimacy,” that is, “that for the income redistribution Americans expect from their governments, look to the actual (regulatory) practices of the times…who has a better right to interpret the public interest than a legislator (democratically) chosen by the people?” Thus Stigler seems to be relying on an analogy between the sovereign consumer (who collects his optimal amount of information) and the similarly sovereign voter. This position seems to intersect with that of Knight and Simons and again opens a door to government intervention to achieve social rather than efficiency goals. 

Now the question on my mind is as follows: doesn’t freedom mean freedom to fully participate in economic society? And if the disadvantaged members of society do not participate up to their optimum potential, are we not also losing the full value of their human capital?

And where but the government can we look for that participation when the cycle of poverty (I assume you agree that it is a cycle) prevents the market place from fully supporting that participation? Yes, I am thinking about goals like education, skill-acquisition, and racial and ethnic and gender equalization of opportunity. I hope that doesn’t sound like the Communist Manifesto.

In the short time since I started out in economics in the fifties, for example, haven’t women (whose place was once thought to be “in the home”) astounded everyone with the progress they’ve made in the professions?

To get back to George Stigler, he would have said it was the dish-washing machine that liberated women. He knew that I voted Democratic (he called Kennedy “your president”) but never used his famous powers of persuasion to try to change my mind.

Q: Since the days you began doing economics—and to a small extent you contributed to this trend yourself in your work with George—the discipline has taken a turn towards an extraordinary empiricism that for practical purposes often serves to sequester it from dialogue not just with the other social sciences but also with the public at large. Are you concerned about this?

I can’t think of anything I feel qualified to add here. I thought the other social sciences were already moving toward the deductive-inductive method on which I happily spent so much of my life.

It’s certainly nice that you care about my opinions. I’m used to being ignored. (Maybe that’s my response to your final question below.)

Q: You’ve talked before about the trials of doing data work in the pre-Internet era, about how conscious you were of the holes in your own datasets, and about that decimal error in your seminal 1962 paper with Stigler on regulation that was discovered some 20 years later.

Did your concern with the integrity of your data ever lead you (or George) to a state of paralysis? And how did you overcome that to carry on producing?

With regard to my incredibly stupid error in our 1962 electric utility article (Journal of Law and Economics, October 1962, p. 1), I was, for the first time in my life, nervously handling a large box of cards in the middle of a room-size computer, with no one in that room to advise me. That’s my only excuse. 

However, that error spawned an entire industry of research on the capture and special interest theories of regulation. So I’ve finally recovered from many decades of self-doubt and now think of myself as a pioneer in the field of law and economics. (How’s that for positive thinking?)

I wish to thank Kevin J. Murphy for bringing my error to my attention as well as George Stigler for being very understanding and Sam Peltzman for publishing the corrected coefficients (Journal of Political Economy, October 1993, p. 821).

Q: You mentioned a bit about George’s thoughts on gender and have at other times called him “an old-fashioned guy who … saw women in an old-fashioned way.” Did you ever feel constrained in your own work with him because of his approach to women’s liberation?

In general were there specific tactics you used to build yourself a home in a discipline that remains in many ways inhospitable to women to this day?

I am thinking about what I have to add to my answer to your first question when I apply it to women.

I argued with Stigler in my usual teasing way about the assumptions he made in those days about the potential of women. (Teasing is perhaps the answer to your question about my adjustment mechanism.) He had no evidence to support his position at that time and in my view the best working hypothesis was that they had the same potential as men. Women moved the paving stones to build the Moscow subway, to take an extreme example. Stigler had made some old-fashioned statements that implied he knew something about the subject and enraged some women as a result. But my working hypothesis gains more support every day and perhaps now he would accept my position.

To give Stigler credit, he trusted my judgement, gave me lots of freedom in data collection, and made me joint author of many of his articles.

He offered to make me senior author of our calendars but I accepted his alternative offer of a full share in their profits. (Profits defined as valuing our labor at zero.)

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