Mason produces competitive number of Nobel Prize-winning economists

by Yu Bai

Mason has ranked among the top schools in the world in the amount of Nobel Prize winning economists it has produced.

The first of these two prize-winners is James Buchanan, considered by many to be an expert in public choice economics. In 1983 Buchanan moved the Center for Study of Public Choice from Virginia Tech to Mason and served as the executive director of the center until his death in 2013. Buchanan became a Nobel laureate in 1986.

Almost two decades later, in 2001, former Mason professor Vernon Smith left the University of Arizona to continue his study of experimental economics at Mason. Smith recalled his years at Mason as “the best 14 years” of his life. On winning a Nobel Prize in 2002, Smith said “the prize came along as a surprise.” He did not expect to receive the honor but said that his friends had been expecting it for a long time and that he “did not want to let them down.” Smith has now retired from Mason and is living in California.

As stated on the department’s webpage, “Masonomics,” that is, economics taught at Mason, is very unique in that it “is neither politically left or right. Rather, it is founded in principles that stress the value of free markets in promoting peace and prosperity.”

According to Daniel Houser, chair of the department, both Buchanan and Smith have contributed to the department’s uniqueness and notoriety.

“It was very important for George Mason, as an institution, to have the sudden attention and the prestige of having a Nobel Prize Winner,” said Houser on Buchanan joining Mason in 1983.

Mason only became an independent university in the early 1970s and did not admit doctoral candidates at that time. However, the arrival of Buchanan changed that.

“It was his [Buchanan’s] decision to relocate, along with his research center, at GMU that put the PhD program on the map,” said Peter Boettke, director of the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center in Arlington, Va. Buchanan was one of Boettke’s professors when he was a doctoral candidate.

Boettke continued that Smith also left a long-lasting influence on how economics is taught and researched at Mason. He blended the Austrian market process economics of Friedrich Hayek with the Scottish Enlightenment theories of Adam Smith and David Hume. Smith also invented methods for experimental economics analysis, which continue to permeate Mason’s program.

Top economics schools list from U.S. News ranked Mason at number 64 in 2013. Does Mason only hire Ivy League professors today to maintain its competence? The answer from Daniel Houser is no: “We simply hire the best candidates.”

Kennedy Patterson is the president of the Economics Society, a student group at Mason. “[The Nobel Prize winners have] attracted and inspired talented students and faculty, and the accessibility of these resources makes it easier for students to find research and work opportunities that they’re really passionate about,” Patterson said.

Will Mason be celebrating another Nobel Prize laureate down the line? Vernon Smith said he is “not so good at forecasting,” but Houser and Boettke are quite hopeful.

“I do think many of my colleagues are bold and original thinkers,” Boettke said, “perhaps some of the boldest and most original thinkers anywhere.”