Though I never met Armen Alchian, he was a looming figure in my economic education. Upon embarking on graduate study in economics, admist the required readings of a technical nature was University Economics by Alchian and Allen. I learned quickly while it was necessary that we master the material from Henderson and Quandt, Varian, and Silberberg, it was not sufficient. The various micro professors I had, all stressed that we learn to reason as an economist, not just learn the formal language of economists. And to acquire that ability, they all pointed us to Armen Alchian. We studied his textbook, we read his articles, we listened to his former students relay stories about how he taught and what he taught. When we were studying for our microeconomics qualifying exam, my study partners often joked that we needed to do our best to become Alchian to succeed on the exam. And, the exam format did in large part take the form of the True, False, Uncertain questions which are in University Economics and the pass rate in those early years of GMU's PhD program did not get above 50% by design. If we could learn to reason like Alchian in tackling questions, then we could pass the exam. If we couldn't think like Alchian, then we would need to take the exam again. Many of my classmates needed a second or even third try.
That time spent studying Alchian (usually with Dave Prychitko, who taught me so much in the way that only peer-to-peer learning teaches) are some of my favorite memories from graduate school, and also have stayed with me throughout my career as the way I strive to reason through concrete problems in economics. Dave and I continue to try to "be like Armen" in our various editions of The Economic Way of Thinking. Paul Heyne in writing that book was heavily influenced by James Buchanan and F.A. Hayek, but he was also trying to fill a market niche that University Economics fell between. Alchian and Allen was perceived as too difficult for basic principles, but not technical enough for advanced courses. The Economic Way of Thinking from largely the same perspective of economics as a coordination problem, sought to provide the material in a way that was easier to digest for the student of basic economics. Alchian and Allen, however, remains the original text upon which The Economic Way of Thinking draws educational inspiration. We just finished the revisions for the 13th edition, and that influence is still evident. Paul's message was to "Teach the principles of economics class as if it will be the last class in economics your students will ever have, and it will turn out to be the first of many." The idea would be that students who have gotten a taste of the power of the economics from The Economic Way of Thinking, will now be encouraged to tackle University Economics by Alchian and Allen, as well as embark upon the study of thinkers such as Buchanan, Coase, Demsetz, Friedman, Kirzner, Hayek, Mises, North, Olson, Ostrom, Rothbard, etc. In short, welcome to the wonderful world of economics and Alchian was just a giant in presenting subtle economic arguments in the most straightforward of ways possible.
The older Liberty Fund edition of his papers, Economic Forces at Work, I believe captures his style and substance perfectly. Alchian was just a brilliant economic mind and a master craftsman of the exposition of economic ideas. Students today can get Alchian's Collected Works in 2 volumes through Liberty Fund. They can also listen to Liberty Fund's Intellectual Portrait of Alchian.
Alchian conducted interviews with F. A. Hayek in the 1970s that are also very worthwhile.
Today marks the passing of one of the true intellectual giants on the second half of the 20th century of economics.