Fisher was also a lesser polymath, in that he scribbled poetry, finagled numbers, and occasionally "invented" new ideas. (Fisher is often wrongly credited for inventing the rotary card file trademarked as Rolodex, which was invented a decade after his death by Arnold Neustadler.) Fisher was one of the first economist to advocate tooling the economics trade with concepts and measures borrowed from classical physics. Fisher managed to meld the two into one heaping deceptive skein, which dominates economics to this day.
Armed with science, Fisher went forth to do utilitarian good, starting with the temperance movement. Fisher calculated that "the productivity of labor would be increased from 10 to 20 percent by effective prohibition." Fisher put his math bona fides to work by daydreaming, "each daily glass of beer reduced productivity 2 to 4 percent, it follows that the productivity of labor would be increased from 10 to 20 percent." What is more, the grain rescued from the brewer's kettle and the distiller's still would produce "eleven million loaves of bread a day."
Fisher's downfall -- and the downfall of so many disillusional intellects and math-tidy economists to this day -- was his myopia on what is seen. The unseen -- the unintended consequences and opportunity costs -- are always lost in the ornate, deterministic algorithms. In Fisher's temperance movement, the unseen was the concurrent increase in crime, homicides, corruption, alcohol poisonings, moral decay, government intrusion, and flouting of the law that occurred during prohibition. We can be thankful Fisher was less successful in popularizing his other hobby -- eugenics. His puerile doggerel "Breed out the unfit and breed in the fit" never quite caught on with the great unwashed.
The drive to improve on Brobdingnagian scale can often be traced to fecklessness on an individual scale. Irving Fisher wrote How to Live: Rules for Healthful Living Based on Modern Science,which was published in 1916. Three years later, that same modern science would kill his daughter, Margaret. Fisher believed the modern science of Henry Cotton, who hypothesized mental illness was a by-product of infections residing in the roots of the teeth, recesses in the bowels, and other nooks and crannies of the body. Surgically removing the infections would remove the mental illness.
As fate would have it, Margaret was diagnosed with schizophrenia; Fisher consented to Dr. Cotton removing numerous sections of his daughter's bowel, colon, and uterus. Unfortunately, Margaret's organs were exhausted before her schizophrenia; she died on Nov. 7, 1919. For her, the science truly was tragically settled.
Despite his many failures and and propensity for dreadful prognostication, Irving Fisher is held in high regard by many Chicago-School economists; no doubt because Fisher legitimized the models so many of them employ to champion their own efforts to remake the world. Fisher also proved -- unintentionally and courtesy of daughter Margaret -- that experimenting with other people's lives is a helluva lot preferable to experimenting with your own -- a notion today's utilitarians and science-addled economists have taken to heart.
Democratic societies, more than others, are plagued with Fisheresque utilitarian schemes backed by smock-wearing economists.
Today, we are overrun with Fisher's utilitarian epigone, many of whom are locked and loaded with ridiculously precise statistics: a $0.35-per-pack cigarette tax will lower average individual consumption by 12.35 cigarettes per day; a ban on trans fat will lower LDL cholesterol by 13.83 points; one additional ton of anthropogenic CO2 output will melt 7.345 liters of arctic ice. Want statistics to show that $500 billion in government spending will produce $673.37 billion in gross domestic product while preserving 2.8795 million jobs? No problem, an econ professor at Chicago, Princeton, or Stanford will conjure the numbers to prove the outcome.
But the real attraction of macro-scale science-based economics, like that espoused by Fisher, is that reverence and reputation (along with earning capacity) survive long after the grand scheme's unintended consequences and opportunity costs have rendered the initial hypothesis into idiotic rambling.
To wit: Paul Samuelson wrote in his magnum opus, Economics, "[Karl] Marx was wrong about many things...but that does not diminish his stature as an important economist." To which P.J. O'Rourke offered the obvious riposte, "Well, what would? If Marx was wrong about many things and screwed the baby-sitter?"
Fisher didn't screw the baby-sitter, as far as we know; he only supervised the evisceration of his daughter. Off putting, to be sure, but still insufficient to diminish his stature with Chicago-School economists.
Unfortunately, the baby-sitter always gets screwed and many people are figuratively eviscerated when economic science imposed from above trumps what organically blooms from below.