Bill MacLeod: A Personal Reflection on Fred McChesney

Geoffrey Manne —  7 November 2017

William C. MacLeod is a partner at Kelley, Drye & Warren LLP, where he chairs the firm’s Antitrust and Competition practice group. He is a former director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the FTC.

It is only with hindsight that we can appreciate the naïveté of conventional wisdom. In 1970, when Fred McChesney left Holy Cross College, serious economists were advocating the dismantling of large American companies, supposedly because they had grown too large to compete effectively.  Regulations were multiplying, as were the bureaucracies Congress created to impose them. OSHA, EPA, CPSC, to name a few, were reordering behavior from the factory floor to the family room. A Republican president outdid them all with an executive order freezing wages and prices across the economy, divorcing the dollar from the gold standard, and taxing imports to protect US producers. These measures met the acclaim of the intelligentsia and the media by and large. The learned classes were already concerned that communist economies were performing better than the capitalism in the US.

The legal profession offered a coveted career in those days of expanding government. A regulatory state needs tens of thousands lawyers to promulgate, enforce, observe and resist the rules that direct economic activity and restrict property rights. Fresh out of college, Fred wanted to be a lawyer. He left for the Ivy League and entertained visions of practice in elite institutions of law. The visions evaporated in the drudgery of cases. Fortunately for us, Fred found that preparing for a traditional practice neither challenged his intellect nor inspired his passion.

For those who knew Fred, whose passion for good people and great ideas was unmatched, it is no surprise that the encounter that changed his life came in an economics class. Nor is it a surprise, for those who have heard Louis DeAlessi, that the class was his course in price theory. There Fred started to explore the myriad ways in which people enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (or maximize utility within budget constraints, as the economists eloquently put it). Many of those pursuits, this young Washingtonian saw, found riches and faced ruin on Capitol Hill.

Louis told Fred of a place not far away where a future Nobel laureate, James Buchanan, had broken ground in the largely uncharted territory of public choice. Fred packed his bags for Charlottesville and the University of Virginia. By that time, Buchanan had decamped, but UVA remained a hub of the discipline that explored the economic implications of public and private ownership of property, and the costs of collective control of the means of production. Among their many accomplishments, the economists in Rouss Hall examined the Soviet economy through the lens of their new learning, and they were among the first to predict the economic decline of that supposed juggernaut. Rumor has it that they were working for the CIA, economic spies at your service. If you wanted to learn the economic consequences of government activity, UVA was a great place to go.

That is why I went, that is where I met Fred, and that is when he became my friend for life. Together we studied, wrote, worked, and spun rock and roll records, sometimes all at once, as we tried to absorb the wisdom of Bill Breit, Ken Elzinga, Roland McKean, John Moore, Warren Nutter, Roger Sherman and Leland Yeager. We treated the radio station like a lending library for oldies unattainable anywhere else. We took our final exam in public finance the gray day after Bobby Darren died. And we learned to appreciate the magic of markets. Perhaps most gratifying, we saw weary refuges return from Washington’s war on free markets, every one sadder, wiser, and ready to teach a new generation that Hayek and Friedman were right. Not even brilliant believers in the market can run it better than free customers and competitors can.

Charlottesville was paradise, but it couldn’t hold Fred. That great academic entrepreneur and talent scout, Henry Manne, looked to UVA for the core of his team at the Law and Economics Center in the University of Miami. Fred was one of Henry’s first recruits. A year later, I was one of Fred’s. He returned to Charlottesville, helped me pack my old Ford, and joined me for a twenty-four-hour rolling concert with Dion, Chubby, Fats, the Marvelettes, Ronettes and Searchers serenading the countryside all the way.

We enjoyed every minute of L&EC. When judges and professors came to Miami to teach and learn economics at Henry’s Institutes, we welcomed them, and Fred made more friends for life. He wrote his dissertation and published a pathbreaking study with Tim Muris on the economic effects of legal restrictions in the legal profession. Fred joined the law review, played with the champions of UM Intramural Softball, acquired academic honors, and landed a clerkship in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Then the elite law firms came calling, but a life of law practice had gained no power over Fred after he’d seen economics. Tim Muris lured him to the FTC, where Fred evaluated enforcement proposals with the eye of an economics professor and supervised the Commission’s advocacy of competition where public and private barriers had kept it at bay. A career capstone for many a student of law and economics, wielding the power of the government was not what Fred wanted to do. He wanted to explain it. He left the FTC and embarked on the career that would make his own name in public choice economics.

I cannot do justice to the body of Fred’s prodigious scholarly contributions in this note. Instead, I will describe just one and invite you to sample another.

To frame the first, remember (as Ken Elzinga’s students all do) Alfred Marshall’s famous illustration of supply and demand: the two forces are like blades of a scissors, neither of which can serve without the other. Public choice for years had recognized how the economic incentives of individuals in the private and public sectors could create thriving throngs of rent seekers, bent on shaping rules to their benefit. One would have thought that the counterpart would have been equally obvious to political economists, but it wasn’t. The literature had largely neglected the other blade of the scissors, until Fred described it in Money for Nothing, Politicians, Rent Extraction, and Political Extortion, which explained that rent seekers need scarce resources. Of course, no entity can create scarcity better than government can. Its ability to do so, Fred observed, spawned eager rent extractors, as well as rent seekers. People with the power to take property or impair its full enjoyment could exact payments simply by threatening to do it. They could even forbear – do nothing – and still reap rewards of extraction, just by posing the threat. If scarcity can be made, and government has been doing it for centuries, markets will form on both sides of it. A young Fred McChesney had lived through a painful episode of socially engineered scarcity in the 1970s. He wrote the book on it twenty years later.

Finally, for an invitation to the economics of property rights, here is a link to a lecture Fred gave thirty years ago in the heart of a country he loved but could not explain. The setting was France, and at the time a socialist government was taking property rights from the private sector and appropriating them for a public purpose. You can see in the lecture that Fred was pondering the mystery he later solved in Money for Nothing. French rent creators were keeping seekers and extractors fully occupied. Consumers and sellers of goods and services suffered the consequences.

A new administration in France is still struggling to repair the damage of the rent creation in the 1980s. Meanwhile, back in the USA, as a new tax code makes its way through the halls of Congress, we all would do well to watch out for politicians, extortion, and rent extraction. They could be coming to a wallet near you.

Thanks, Fred.  We owe you a lot of rent.

Yours always,

Bill MacLeod

Geoffrey Manne