Robert Nelson: Taking Economics Seriously, but Still Having Fun.

Author:Morriss, Andrew P.
 
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Robert Nelson (1944-2018) was one of the most interesting economists in the past (name your period here) years. He deeply understood economics but did not hesitate to challenge fundamental precepts. He deployed economic ideas to great effect in analyzing governments, regulatory programs, public lands, private neighborhoods, and the world at large but also pushed the boundaries of what it meant to be an economist by applying theological concepts to explain and understand the development of economics itself. Spending time with Bob at a conference or over dinner was always an adventure--it seems impossible to me for you to have had a conversation with him that didn't leave you thinking deeply about an insight Bob had or seeing something from a different perspective. And you always left with a smile because conversations with Bob were not just intellectually stimulating but fun as well. I cannot think of a better person to make a conference panel interesting and entertaining, to turn a meal into an exciting exploration of ideas across almost any possible topic, or to be a better sounding board. Bob took the dismal out of the dismal science better than almost anyone I have ever known.

Bob earned his Ph.D. in economics at Princeton in 1971, worked for the U.S. Department of the Interior for almost two decades, and taught in the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy from 1993 until his death in December 2018. His work spanned a wide array. He published nine books and more than a hundred articles and book chapters. Summing up the impact of his widely ranging intellect in a brief essay is impossible, so I'll focus on three key areas: property rights and land, environmentalism and environmental regulation, and economics as a discipline. Bob's work in these areas is not neatly separable into three distinct fields, of course, for one of his most impressive talents was the ability to make connections across subjects that did not have as obvious a connection as appeared after he made it.

Property Rights and Land

In Zoning and Property Rights (1977), Public Lands and Private Rights: The Failure of Scientific Management (1995), and Private Neighborhoods and the Transformation of Local Government (2005), Bob tackled many of the major issues in the economic analysis of property rights in land. His zoning book was one of the first to note that what most textbooks (and, unfortunately, most scholars at that time) assumed was a public activity was being increasingly privatized. Bob didn't just bring public choice and economic theory to bear on zoning--he figured out what was actually happening in zoning and used economic tools to think about what that meant.

When Bob took a job with the Department of the Interior's Office of Policy Analysis (which he described as "an in-house think tank") in 1975, he started learning the details of how the government handled the lands it owned. One key result was Public Lands and Private Rights, which was a thorough demolition of the mythology of the "scientific management" of public lands. That mythology's origins in the Progressive Era sparked a career-long interest in the intellectual impact of Progressive ideas, in particular their impact on the field of economics.

Private Neighborhoods brought public-choice theory to the increasingly important subject of the substitution of private neighborhood associations for many functions that had been the...

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