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The Grandest Trinket

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The Grandest Trinket

Evaluating the Nobel Prize October 29, 2019
Arts and Culture

Upon creating the Order of the Legion of Honor—the little red ribbon all aspirational French citizens dream of wearing—Napoleon declared without illusion that “one governs peoples with trinkets.” Of all trinkets, the Nobel Prize is the most desirable—because of the money that goes with it, the prestige it confers, and its worldwide resonance. But each year, the Swedish and Norwegian committee’s choices are perplexing.

In principle, these distinctions are supposed to reward world-changing innovations that advance the common good. For the “hard” sciences, where the notion of progress is almost beyond discussion, Nobel prizes are rarely disputed. The further we get from the hard sciences, the more the concept of progress becomes elusive. Medicine, for example, often stands on the border between art and science: Linus Pauling, rewarded in 1954 for his work on chemical bonds in biology, abused his fame by promoting Vitamin C as a cure-all, which it isn’t. In 1962, he received a Nobel Prize for Peace, this time for his fight against nuclear tests. He thus illustrated a principle often emphasized by Milton Friedman: the Nobel Prize authorizes every recipient to pronounce on any subject whatsoever, even those of which he is ignorant.

A recent unfortunate case was the Nobel Prize in Medicine awarded to the Frenchman Luc Montagnier for discovering the AIDS virus in 1983. Montagnier hadn’t discovered anything; it just happened that he was the director of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where multidisciplinary teams were responsible for the discovery. The Nobel remains an individual prize, but this no longer accords with the collective and multidisciplinary character of contemporary research. And as an illustration of Friedman’s theorem, since Montagnier received this distinction, he has mounted a campaign against vaccination, endorsed homeopathy, and claimed that AIDS can be cured through diet. Suckers credit his nonsense, since he is a Nobel prizewinner. Similarly, Kary Mullis won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his revolutionary invention of the polymerase chain reaction, which allows for easy duplication of DNA segments—then went on to become a prominent AIDS denialist. Clearly, one can be a genius and a crank at the same time.

As for literature, enough good authors exist around the world to guarantee that the list of recipients will appear to be, if not incontestable, at least honorable; the list of great ones overlooked is long, but inevitable. As for an author’s individual chances, it’s better to be translated into Swedish than Swahili—a fact not lost on editors.

As for the Nobel Peace Prize: it resembles those UN resolutions that have no practical effect but to demonstrate lofty intentions. This year, the committee really wanted to avoid discouraging Africans and to show, by the choice of the Ethiopian prime minister, that it is possible, on this continent ravaged by its leaders, to get beyond ethnic quarrels and border conflicts. And better Abiy Ahmed, who ended a tank war that killed tens of thousands of people, than Greta Thunberg—Saint Greta of Global Warming—whom we narrowly avoided.

I will conclude with the Nobel Prize for Economics, created more recently, in 1969, by the initiative of the Bank of Sweden. Is economics a science or an art? The prize committee has never picked a side in this debate, alternating awards between free-market and socialist economists: in 1974, Gunnar Myrdal, the godfather of Swedish socialism, shared the prize with Friedrich von Hayek, leading light of free-market thinkers. How on earth could they both be right, since they disagreed about everything?

I asked myself the same question this year about the three recipients, Adhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, and Michael Kremer. Their work is on its face admirable: they measure the effectiveness of humanitarian interventions on behalf of the world’s poorest inhabitants. For example, is it better to give mosquito nets impregnated with insecticide to threatened populations for free, or to sell them? If you give them away, the mosquito nets risk being unused or used for fish nets; when used this way, mosquito nets wind up destroying ecosystems, because their tiny holes scoop up all aquatic life. Field studies thus recommend selling them, even for a notional amount.

This type of research is particularly useful for humanitarian organizations that, believing they are doing good, sometimes, by inadvertence, destroy fragile equilibria of survival. But this Nobel Prize, awarded for small-scale studies of limited samples, carries what I consider a nefarious message: it gives the impression that humanitarian interventions, however useful they may be, can replace development policies. If hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in the last generation, it is thanks to global capitalism. But in their work, our three researchers mention none of the true causes of poverty, particularly in Africa: incompetent and corrupt governments and the repression of entrepreneurship and free trade. And something else goes unsaid: Esther Duflo is a militant anti-globalist and anti-capitalist. She has a right to her ideas, but she should honestly acknowledge that global capitalism eradicates malaria more effectively than does the distribution of mosquito nets.

The Nobel Prize for Economics fails to acknowledge that—this year as in 1974—it has celebrated two irreconcilable visions of development: generosity and effectiveness. It would be nice to know what the world’s poor think of this, but they are not included on any jury.

Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images

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