Douglass North Obituary

Douglass North, who died on November 23, 1995, was one of the great economists of modern times. Despite being a careful empirical research, Doug was impatient with what he considered to be the excessive reliance of many economists on formal mathematical models. I was honored to be Doug’s collaborator on a joint paper with Barry Weingast, which used formal formal modeling to study the institutions that supported trade before the emergence of states that could enforce contracts. (See “The Role of Institutions in the Revival of Trade: The Medieval Law Merchant” in the publications section of this website.) In our collaboration, I emphasized that the role of formalisms was to highlight the assumptions in any argument and to be sure that the conclusions followed from those. Along with Barry Weingast, we sought to write a paper that was simple, stayed focused on what was important, and made arguments that were clear and tight.

Barry Weingast and Margaret Levi have written an obituary about Doug for the Washington Post. It includes a friendly paragraph about Doug’s interactions with me, which I quote below:

“Doug revealed yet again at Stanford his rare knack for listening to the ideas of others. Never a fan of the growing mathematization of economics, Doug admitted that he didn’t like all the game theory being used at Stanford, but since Stanford was known for it, he wanted to learn more. They met with Paul Milgrom to discuss these issues. Paul impressed Doug, not only for his brilliance, but for his attitude about economics and research. In discussing the role of mathematics in economics, Paul said, “first we get the economics right, then we build the models.” This suited Doug’s philosophy, and the three collaborated to produce a paper on the medieval “Law Merchant” (1990). This paper sought to understand the role of law and judges prior to the rise of the nation state with an ability to enforce laws across a larger territory; it also demonstrated how institutions could be emerge endogenously as part of the equilibrium of a game.”

He will be sorely missed.