Robert William Fogel (July 1, 1926 – June 11, 2013)

Robert Fogel died a few days ago. He was a prominent figure in the academic economic history profession for five decades, virtually from the time he burst onto the scene with the publication of a polished-up version of his Johns Hopkins Ph.D. dissertation, Railroads and American Economic Growth, in 1964. This book was the most impressive accomplishment to date of the type of research espoused by those who participated in a research program known as the new economic history, econometric history, or cliometrics, which had begun to take shape in the late 1950s. The hallmark of this program was the systematic application of neoclassical economic theory and the methods of statistical inference in the study of economic history.

In his book, Fogel undertook to determine how important the railroads had been as contributors to U.S. economic growth by calculating what he called their “social saving,” essentially the amount by which GDP would have been diminished if they had not existed and Americans had been compelled to use the next best means of transporting goods—by horse-drawn wagons on the land and by canal boats on a national system of canals. His conclusion that the social saving had been equal to less than 3 percent of the national product in 1890 cast great doubt on the beliefs historians had previously held about the railroad’s great importance. Although many objections were raised subsequently to Fogel’s approach, his specification of the no-railroads counterfactual, and his data, the book became an instant cliometric classic.

Having entered the economic history profession at the very top, Fogel then proceeded, along with his Johns Hopkins classmate Stanley Engerman, to tackle the subject of slavery in the United States. This time the target was the widely accepted idea that prior to the War Between the States slavery had been on its economic last legs, and therefore had the war not led to slavery’s destruction, this labor system would have died a natural death before long. In 1974, Fogel and Engerman brought their findings together in Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, a book that probably made a bigger splash than any economic history book ever published in the United States. The main claims this time were that slavery had been economically thriving on the eve of the war, slave-plantation productivity had exceeded the productivity of comparable free-labor production, slaves had received much better treatment than generally believed, and the system had yielded handsome returns to the slave owners, in most cases at least as great as the returns that feasible alternative investments would have yielded them. The reaction to these findings bordered on academic violence as historians and fellow economists rushed to challenge Fogel and Engerman’s methods, data, and conclusions, and to indict them for omissions and errors of various sorts.

Fogel, who believed that any research project that required less than a decade was scarcely worth undertaking, then spent much of the next decade and a half in accumulating additional evidence and carrying out additional analyses, often in collaboration with colleagues or graduate students, to support the initial findings. The fruits of these follow-up efforts appeared in a two-volume work, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery, published in 1989.

From the 1980s onward, however, Fogel devoted the lion’s share of his research efforts to work that relates more closely to demographic changes in history than to economic history, although he always maintained that critical interrelations existed, for example, between improvements in nutrition and increases in labor productivity. I did not follow closely the mass of research that emerged from this project, much of it by other researchers in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. I found that I could stand only a certain number of calculated height-by-age profiles and that I could not always accept the conclusions drawn on the basis of such data. In any event, many publications by Fogel and other economic historians grew out of this project.

Fogel taught mainly at the University of Chicago and, for a few years (1975-81) at Harvard. In 1993, he and Douglass C. North shared the Nobel prize in economics for their work as leaders of the new economic history. Fogel’s work was also recognized by his election to prestigious scientific bodies and by the award of honorary degrees by leading universities in the United States and abroad. Yet he never rested on his laurels and remained engaged in research and writing until the end.

I got to know Bob in the early 1970s. At that time I was carrying out research on what had happened to the U.S. freedmen and their descendants during the half-century after the War Between the States, and I imagined that my book on this subject might be seen as a sequel to Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross. In 1977, Cambridge University Press published my book titled Competition and Coercion. Although it failed to receive anything like the gigantic recognition that Fogel and Engerman’s blockbuster had received, Bob was gracious in his own reception. He rarely wrote book reviews, but he did review my book in 1978 for the Business History Review and gave it high marks. Shortly afterward, he invited me to Harvard to make a presentation at the economic history workshop (where I first met Robert Margo, then a graduate student and later a friend and coauthor of mine), and he and his wife Enid entertained me at their home for dinner with some colleagues from the Harvard Department of Economics. In the late 1970s Bob used to encourage me when I complained that my book had been largely neglected, assuring me that in fifty years, it would still stand up.

Bob never showed any indication that he understood Austrian economics or cared to understand it. He was a Chicago School economist, and he enjoyed immense professional success as such. At Chicago and Harvard he oversaw the training of many excellent graduate students, who are now among the leading economic historians in the world. He had no incentive to cut loose from his Chicago-School moorings, which in his mind were those of science, however much some of his work might now seem to me to be more scientistic than scientific. At a symposium to honor my dear friend Max Hartwell, held at the University of Virginia in 1991, Bob became publicly angry with me for challenging, on Austrian grounds, his computation of “slave incomes.” I left academic employment in 1994 and never had any personal contact with him afterward. He must have got over his pique eventually, however, because in 2011, when I was honored with the Alexis de Tocqueville Award, he sent a very gracious video to be shown at the event in which he recalled my early days in the profession and praised my contributions to it.

It is difficult to imagine what academic economic history might have looked like during the past half-century without Bob Fogel. With the possible exception of only Doug North as a comparably influential figure, he did more than anyone to set the profession’s standards, determine its leading topics and methods of research, and train its most highly regarded practitioners. Especially considering that he had become a Communist during his undergraduate years at Cornell and had worked afterward as a Party organizer for eight years before abandoning communism as an unscientific doctrine, one must say that he had a truly amazing career.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
Beacon Posts by Robert Higgs | Full Biography and Publications
  • Catalyst