John E. Murray (1959-2018) was not famous like Ludwig von Mises, FA Hayek, Deirdre McCloskey, Elinor Ostrom, Walter Williams, or some of the other economists I have described here and elsewhere. He earned an undergraduate degree at Oberlin College, a master’s degree in mathematics at the University of Cincinnati, and then a doctorate in economics under eminent economic historian Richard Steckel at The Ohio State University. He spent his college career at the University of Toledo and then at my first graduate school employer, Rhodes College, where he was the first JR “Pitt” Hyde III Professor of Political Economy. He died in March 2018, shortly after I presented a paper on the political economy of school desegregation in Virginia and the role—indeed, the lack of a role—of 1986 Nobel laureate James M. Buchanan. Murray was a serious economic historian and a very kind and generous colleague. As some of his aides have said, he took both the economy And the story very seriously and worked hard to integrate the two.
My favorite piece of Murray’s scholarship is his underrated 2007 book. Origins of American health insurance. It was particularly timely during the Obamacare debate and in light of narrower historical debates about risk management and the provision of health care to the indigent. In a contribution that goes well with David Beito’s 2000 From mutual aid to the welfare state and Dora Costa’s study of California health insurance in 1910, Murray argues that contrary to what many progressives believe, the market for health insurance worked quite well.
It’s actually kind of a mistake to say that “the market” worked quite well because a lot of assurances were provided through civil society institutions (churches, for example), private clubs like Odd Fellows and occupational sickness funds. The history of health insurance, according to Murray, is not the story of exploitation, but rather the story of reasonably well-functioning civil society institutions. “Reasonably well” is important: imperfections are easy to spot; however, identifying an imperfection is not the same as identifying something better.
He was a serious and dedicated scholar and teacher who, as others have pointed out, took economics and history equally seriously. He publishes regularly in the best journals of economic history and, for several years, he was editor-in-chief of the literature review Journal of Economic History.
I was very fortunate to have been John E. Murray’s colleague for a year at Rhodes College before moving to Samford University to be closer to my family. As a colleague, I was fortunate to see him bring his passion for ideas into the classroom and discuss his new ideas as he developed them. I also had the chance to discuss matters of vital importance with Dr. Murray, who had studied theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminar in Detroit in his spare time during his years at the University of Toledo.
John E. Murray was an exemplary scholar and a dearly missed good friend. It seems appropriate to enjoy it on what would have been his 64th birthday.
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