The son of a high school dropout, Professor North traced an unlikely path to academic renown and the halls of government in China, Latin America, Eastern Europe and elsewhere, where he was a sought-after consultant.
In academia, where his teaching career spanned seven decades, and in his many books and articles as an economics historian, he became known for challenging traditional methods of economic analysis, in which markets hold sway, finding that they often fell short of explaining long-term economic growth.
In casting his net wider, he took into account, among other things, the economic impact of social and political institutions, of laws and customs regarding property rights, and of religious beliefs and human cognition.
He hypothesized, for example, that when various economic groups — farmers or bankers or railroad companies — find that institutions inhibit them from making bigger profits, they will come together to change the institutions.
“North’s genius is figuring out what question to ask next, which often comes as an answer to the question ‘What can’t I explain with my current conceptual framework?’” John Joseph Wallis, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland and a North protégé and collaborator, wrote in a paper he delivered in celebration of Professor North’s 90th birthday. “To do this requires a very unusual combination of humility and confidence.”
While at the University of Washington, in St. Louis, where he taught for 33 years, Professor North helped found a branch of inquiry called cliometrics, named for the muse of history, Clio, after he and others had concluded that traditional market-oriented economics faltered in measuring some aspects of economic performance quantitatively.
Professor North contended that traditional economics did not fully recognize that markets are embedded in institutions, which evolve slowly and can be understood only by studying the cultural phenomena behind them.
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