Who Is Eric S. Maskin?

Eric S. Maskin is an economist, mathematician, and Nobel prize winner. His areas of research include game theory, incentives, auction design, contract theory, social choice theory, political economy, and intellectual property. In 2007, he shared the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences with Leonid Hurwicz and Roger Myerson for their work on the foundations of mechanism design theory. This theory explores how institutions can achieve desirable social or economic goals given the constraints of individuals' self-interest and incomplete information. 

Key Takeaways

  • Eric Maskin is an economist and mathematician who was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in mechanism design theory.
  • Maskin has served as a professor at Harvard, Princeton, and MIT.
  • His contributions to game theory and mechanism design theory include the concept of Maskin monotonicity; he has also conducted research in several other areas of economics.

Understanding Eric S. Maskin

Eric S. Maskin was born in New York City on Dec. 12, 1950, and grew up in Alpine, New Jersey. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1972, his Master of Arts degree in 1974, and his PhD in applied mathematics in 1976, all from Harvard University. At Harvard he was first exposed to early ideas on mechanism design theory. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge University. During his time at Cambridge, he collaborated with Leo Hurwicz on developing mechanism design theory. 

In 1977, he joined the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Following his time at MIT, he returned to Harvard from 1985 to 2000 to pursue his research agenda. He left Harvard to join the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) from 2000 to 2011. While at IAS he also taught at Princeton University. He rejoined the faculty at Harvard in 2012.


Maskin's most important contributions to economics have been in game theory. He has also conducted research on software patents, political economy, and other areas of economic thought.

Mechanism Design Theory

While at Cambridge, Maskin worked on advancing mechanism design theory. Mechanism design theory can be characterized as a kind of reverse game theory, where the desired outcome of a cooperative game is given, and the goal is to design a set of rules for a game that will achieve that outcome. His goal was to determine mathematically when it is possible to design a procedure or game that would implement a given social goal. Maskin demonstrated the mathematical properties of a cooperative outcome that make designing a mechanism to achieve that outcome possible. In the context of designing a voting rule that would satisfy voter preferences, this requires that if any voter's preferences for the outcome changes, then it means that they prefer the new resulting outcome higher than the old one. This would come to be known a Maskin monotonicity.

Software Patents

Maskin has done applied research arguing against the use of patents in software development or, by extension, other similar industries. He argues that if innovation is "sequential" ( each successive invention builds on its predecessors) and "complementary" (each potential innovator takes a different research line), then patent protection is not useful for encouraging innovation. Society and inventors themselves may even be better off without such protection because progress may actually be enhanced by greater competition and imitation. 

Political Economy

In an influential 2004 paper, Maskin formally modeled the effects of making public officials accountable by making them subject to re-election. Such accountability allows the public to discipline officials, but it can also induce those officials to pander to voters and favor the voting majority over the rights of a minority. He argues that not holding officials accountable through re-election is desirable when voters are poorly informed, acquiring relevant information is costly, the impact of official actions takes a long time to become known, and the majority's preferences are likely to inflict severe costs on a minority. This suggests that highly technical decisions should be left to unelected judges or bureaucrats, but he argues that their discretion should be sharply limited and important general decision making power should be reserved to elected officials.