Fred S. McChesney In Memoriam: Honorable Man and Incisive Scholar

Richard Epstein —  8 November 2017

Richard Epstein is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at NYU School of Law, the Peter and Kirstin Bedford Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law Emeritus and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago.

It was with much sadness that I learned of the all-too-early death of Fred McChesney, whom I have known since the time that he spent at the University of Chicago Law School in the early 1980s when he visited on our faculty. At the time, Fred was at the peak of his powers and he displayed a legal imagination and economic sophistication that few have been able to match, either before or since. Fred’s great skill was being able to take a tough-minded public choice perspective to just about any mundane problem that one might encounter, and then give the entire issue a spin that seemed improbable but made sense. In conversation he was a fount of intellectual energy who had an endless curiosity, and who exhibited a palpable sense of excitement whenever the discussion took an unexpected turn into unknown territory. Those were heady days together, and I still remember the many discussions that we had about Volunteer Fire Fighting in the Nineteenth Century and the wonderful article on the topic that he published with me in the Journal of Legal Studies. I am still grateful over 30 years later for the opportunity to work closely with him during his all too short stay at the University of Chicago.

Fred was a man of exceptionable energy and character.  But there was always a powerful disjunction between the way he carried himself, and the way in which he thought about the larger economic issues that dominated his intellectual life. Fred was not a man for needless subtlety in dealing with human nature. He was always one of the kindest and most communicative of colleagues, but he well understood that while these personal virtues have a great deal to do with the way in which good and honorable people lead their lives, they have far less to do with the way in which various actors, both private and public, act when their function in the political arena, where the stakes are far higher, and their own personal livelihood and success is on the table. In these settings, Fred was of the general view that the fine points washed out, and the dangers of factional politics loomed larger.  

Let me give one example. In his book Money for Nothing, the title expresses with his usual bluntness the dangers that he saw in public affairs. I am happy to report that I was still the editor of the Journal of Legal studies in 1987 when Fred published his widely-cited article Rent Extraction and Recreation Creation in the Economic Theory of Regulation. Like all great articles, Fred’s contribution in this paper had one great idea that seems obvious once it is stated, even if it had never been stated before. Fred well knew that the standard theory of regulation was how well-organized interest groups could pull the political levers in order to gain special favors from the government. He was indeed an ardent believer that actions like that did and could take place on a common basis. But Fred saw that the extraction game was a two-way street. The well-organized group that could extract benefits was also subject to extraction itself—precisely because it was so well organized. Politicians were aware of these possibilities and thus could propose what were called “milker bills” which threatened to impose taxes or regulations on a well-organized firm or industry unless they came across with some campaign contribution, direct or indirect, to the political power groups. Being well organized was a double-edged sword. Once the point is made it cannot be forgotten. The potential domain of political bargains does not have $0 as a lower bound. The payments in question can go in both directions.

Once this simple point is seen, the entire fabric of political negotiation has an extra dimension that we ignore at our peril. The use of this tool helped explain why Fred, with good reason, was so skeptical of so much of behavioral economics. The forces that he was talking about were so pervasive and so powerful that it is hardly likely that they could be displaced by behavioral anomalies, which, if they exist at all, are first found in the laboratory and then are rarely observed in nature. Fred was fond of saying that the behavioral issues were at best a second-order issue, an epicycle on the basic rational choice theory, upon which he was able to deploy neoclassical tools so effectively to explain away many of the more dramatic findings in a 2013 recent article that treated the subject as dealing with “Old Wine in Irrelevant New Bottles.”

Speaking about Fred’s affection with public choice does not negate his many other skills. When I taught antitrust law once some years ago, I gravitated to the book, now in its Fifth Edition, that Fred had prepared with Charles Goetz, which dealt with antitrust law, its interpretation and implementation. The book was an ideal teaching tool, for it understood that it was important to deal with the historical evolution of antitrust law along with its neoclassical foundations in economic theory. Teaching from the book was a pleasure, learning from it was a greater pleasure still.

It is a source of some comfort that Fred remained intellectually active throughout his entire career. It is a source of much sadness to know that he is no longer with us. May his memory be a blessing.