Rationalizing Human Organization in an Uncertain World: Jacob Marschak, from Ukrainian Prisons to Behavioral Science Laboratories

An old paper of mine. Final draft here, published paper here.

Abstract: Jacob Marschak (1898–1977) had an enormous impact on the development of postwar economics, both as an intellectual mentor of Nobel Prize winners such as Kenneth Arrow and Franco Modigliani and as forerunner and institutional organizer of several research programs, most famously at the Cowles Commission. Nevertheless, he remains understudied by historians. This article uncovers the salient characteristics of his scientific vision in the forties and fifties, at the apex of his influence on the profession: his definition of economics as the science of rational choice; his emphasis on mathematization, experimentation, and interdisciplinarity as the proper methodology; his view of uncertainty as the main characteristic of the social environment; and his claim that economists should be “social engineers.” The development of such a vision is studied against the background of Marschak’s biography and of his understanding of the vicissitudes of the twentieth century, in particular his socialist beliefs and his repeated experience of emigration.

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