George J. Stigler’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, December 10, 1982
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Even upon so joyous an occasion as this, an economist is entitled to feel sorry for himself.
Unlike the members of the physical and biological sciences, the economist is asked to explain his work in a manner that is interesting and convincing to a weary listener. Yet there is no reason to believe that the explanation of our economic and social world is inherently simpler than the explanation of our physical world. The delicate and intricate pattern of competition and cooperation in the economic behavior of the hundreds of thousands of citizens of Stockholm offers a challenge to the economist that is perhaps as complex as the challenges of the physicist and the chemist.
Again, we economists are held responsible for the failures of economic policy. Each surge of inflation, each wave of unemployment is laid at our doors. The physicist is not blamed when a meteor hits the earth; the chemist is not held responsible for the misuse of poisons; and the medical sciences do not apologize for the common cold. Why then are the economists blamed for the misdeeds of government and ultimately the misdeeds of voters? We have no more power over parliaments than our fellow scientists have over meteors and poisons and common colds.
And yet I would not freely exchange my science for those of my fellow laureates. They are forever confined in their professional discussions to the small numbers of their fellow scientists. A Swedish physicist can not discuss his work with fifty people unless he goes abroad. A Swedish economist can get opinions and instructions in his native language from thousands upon thousands of his fellow citizens. Nor will these discussions be about narrowly specialized subjects; no, they will be concerned with the policies that may eliminate poverty, indeed with the conditions for national survival and prosperity.
So, on reflection we economists have less cause for lament. I am personally honored in the highest degree by the award I have received. I rejoice equally that with all the faults that you find in us, you recognize the gravity of our concerns and honor our science for its endeavors to strengthen the economic foundation of civilization.
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