Arts & Culture & Economics 101

Remembering Dr. James G. Gwartney

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We at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics were deeply saddened to learn of the passing of James G. Gwartney, Ph.D, on January 7, 2024. Dr. Gwartney’s work was foundational to the scholarship and ideas IFWE espouses, and we quoted him often in the course of teaching Christians about the economic ideas that lead to human flourishing. We were honored when he endorsed Set Free: Restoring Religious Freedom for All. In his life and work, Dr. Gwartney embodied the whole-life stewardship to which God calls us. 

As a professor of economics at Florida State University, where he taught for 53 years, Dr. Gwartney was what Peter Jacobson calls “a rarity among scholars.” He earned this moniker for not only producing authoritative scholarly texts such as Economics: Private and Public Choice (entering its 18th edition and 50th year being taught in college classrooms) but also writing for popular audiences new to the study of economics. His primer, Common Sense Economics, is one of the best books for Christians looking to learn basic economic principles. It cemented his reputation as a “relevant, well-rounded scholar who [cared] about sharing his findings with students and ordinary people.” 

The American Institute for Economic Research echoes this sentiment in their tribute to Dr. Gwartney: 

Gwartney was never content just to publish journal articles for other economists to read. He wanted to reach the general public and influence policy.

Economic truths weren’t abstract to Dr. Gwartney. He knew they could have real-world impact if taken seriously. This belief led him to serve as chief economist of the Joint Economic Committee, a role that gave him the opportunity to visit Russia and attempt to sway the country to accept free market economic reforms for the good of its people. 

His other well-known contribution to human flourishing is the Economic Freedom of the World index, which he helped create nearly 30 years ago. This annual report measures the level of economic freedom and well-being in nearly 150 countries, giving policymakers a clear picture of which policies best help people and nations thrive. 

Dr. Gwartney didn’t just advance flourishing with his ideas; he did so with his actions, too. He and his wife, Amy, were renowned for inviting students to holiday dinners. He taught a marriage class at his church for 20 years. As a testimony to the number of lives he affected, Tarah Jean, in her accounting of Dr. Gwartney’s life for the Tallahassee Democrat, mentions the number of people who traveled from across the country to see him before he died:

Scott Gwartney, an attorney at the Brooks, LeBoeuf, Foster & Gwartney law firm in Tallahassee, described his father as a “world renowned economist.”

He says many of his father’s professional contacts — some who traveled from as far as Michigan and Texas to visit while he was ill — often expressed that he was like a father to them as well.

“In the last couple of days, there have been multiple people from the professional world who flew to Tallahassee or drove significant miles here to see and spend time with dad before he passed,” said Scott, 60. “Who does that other than family? That gives you a little bit of a glimpse about what kind of man he was.”

Hunter Baker, provost and dean of faculty at North Greenville University recalls studying under Dr. Gwartney in personal communication with me, which is by no means an outlier:

The first economics course I took in college was taught in a large auditorium by a man who was already a star in the firmament of American economics. James Gwartney absolutely commanded the attention of our class with his obvious confidence and knowledge of the material. He stimulated my mind in a way that few professors ever have by showing me just how much economics can help us better understand our own world. I happened to meet him decades later when he’d become almost totally blind. It was a wonderful experience to be able to tell him how much he and some of his colleagues at Florida State meant to me.

Much has been said of Dr. Gwartney’s ability to impact so many lives while overcoming struggles in his own, especially his blindness. “The key to his perseverance,” Randall Holcombe wrote in his obituary for Dr. Gwartney, “was his strong faith in Jesus Christ.”

Our hearts grieve for Amy, to whom Dr. Gwartney was married for 61 years, and their four children, nine grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. The world has lost a great scholar and steward who lived his vocations as a professor, public intellectual, husband, and father to the fullest.

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