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Susan Howson, Lionel Robbins

Lawrence H. White
p. 419-422
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Susan Howson, Lionel Robbins, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, xiii+1161 pp. ISBN 978-1-107-00244-9.

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Crédits : Cambridge University Press

1Susan Howson expertly constructs a detailed scholarly biography of Lionel Robbins, the well-known midcentury British economist, from a wealth of source material: not just publications but also diaries, letters, lecture notes, marginalia, and ephemera. There is so much detail in 1161 pages that no reader can reasonably be expected to find every part of it fascinating, although Howson’s writing style is pleasant. The work is neither hagiographical nor critical, the author rarely passing judgment on Robbins’ theoretical views and policy positions. Likely to be of particular interest to historians of economic thought are Robbins’ interactions with the great economists of his age, including Ludwig von Mises, his LSE academic colleague Friedrich Hayek, and his wartime government colleague John Maynard Keynes.

2Born in 1898, Robbins served in the First World War. We learn that after the war he was attracted to the ideas of guild socialism and social credit by reading and hearing lectures from G. D. H. Cole and Major Douglas. But he soon had doubts, followed by outright rejection of such ideas. Entering the LSE as an undergraduate student, Robbins studied with socialists (William Beveridge, Harold Laski, Hugh Dalton) and with classical liberals (Edwin Cannan, TE Gregory). He sided with the latter. Howson (91) unearths the following nugget from Robbins’ student diary, late in 1922: “Talked to Laski about Socialism today. Most disappointing. I am convinced he knows little or nothing about Economics.”

3Robbins visited Vienna for an International Summer School in September 1922, which in his words (88) “inaugurated … a love-affair with Vienna.” He came away having learned German, a skill that would pay dividends by giving him access to the contemporary work of Ludwig von Mises and others of the Austrian school.

4After graduation in 1923 with first-class honors, Robbins nearly embarked on a career as a lawyer. But he accepted Beveridge’s offer of a research assistantship and returned to the LSE for graduate study in economics in January 1924. He married Iris Gardiner in August of the same year. As a graduate student he had his first teaching jobs: a visitorship at Oxford to fill in for faculty on leave, a lectureship at LSE, another stint at Oxford. His teaching was popular, but his scholarship was barely underway when, in June 1929, aged 30, he was appointed professor and head of department at LSE.

5Robbins’ classic essay The Nature and Significance of Economic Science was published in 1932. As Howson explains, and its own preface acknowledges, it synthesized methodological ideas from Mises and Philip Wicksteed, among others. Robbins famously noted that the diminishing marginal utility of consumer theory is not Benthamite utility, and so does not support a case for wealth redistribution. It is a strictly personal preference ranker and not a vehicle for interpersonal hedonic comparisons, a point often missed even today. But he did not reject Benthamite utilitarianism, which requires interpersonal comparisons; he only insisted that such comparisons be recognized as not derivable from economic theory. He indeed identified himself as early as 1923 as a “provisional utilitarian” in political philosophy, an outlook that Howson notes (96) “he was to retain for the rest of his life.”

6Before reading the Austrians, Robbins read Dennis Robertson’s work on monetary theory. In a student essay Robbins denounced the UK government for having seen “fit to debauch the normal currency of the country with floods of meretricious paper” during the First World War, stimulating “a totally fictitious state of prosperity” that eventually had to crash (99). His second book, 1934’s The Great Depression, echoes this theme, but as Howson notes, it is fundamentally “an Austrian work in that an Austrian monetary overinvestment theory is used to explain the downturn of 1929-30 and to criticize most policy reactions to the slump” (1081-82).

7In addition to the Austrian business cycle work of Mises and Hayek, Robbins also read Mises’ Die Genmeinwirtschaft [Socialism] (1922) in 1923, and later worked on translating a number of chapters into English before turning the job over to his former classmate Jacques Kahane. Howson records how Robbins often met with Mises during the late 1920s and early ‘30s, even during vacations. We learn from his LSE syllabi that Robbins taught from Mises’ Theory of Money and Credit (2nd ed. 1924) as well as from the work of Cannan and Robertson. From his correspondence we learn that Robbins even recommended Mises’ book as “a good book on money” to Ezra Pound in an amusing correspondence over Pound’s crackpot monetary views.

8Although Hayek much later told interviewers that Robbins brought him to the LSE to serve as an intellectual opponent to Keynes, Howson reveals that the facts are different. Impressed by Hayek’s 1929 monograph Geldtheorie und Konjunkturtheorie and his essay “The Paradox of Savings,” but never having met him, Robbins suggested to Beveridge that Hayek be invited to give the University of London Advanced Lectures in Economics for 1930/31. Hayek arrived in the last week of January 1931 to give the four sensational lectures that became Prices and Production. We learn that Robbins later helped to revise Hayek’s lectures for publication, which were initially written only in a form that Robbins later described as “very inchoate notes” (198). The following year Robbins proposed that Keynes be invited to give the Advanced Lectures (Keynes declined as he was too busy), so ganging up against Keynes was evidently not really his agenda.

9Nor did Robbins, contrary to legend, initiate the idea to offer Hayek a job at the LSE. Robbins’ first choice for the vacant Tooke Chair was Jacob Viner. After visiting lectures by Viner in December 1930, Howson notes, “Lionel suggested to Beveridge that Viner might be offered the Tooke chair” (195). Beveridge offered Viner the chair in February 1931, just after Hayek’s lectures. Robbins wrote to Viner to urge him to accept. Viner received a counteroffer persuading him to stay at the University of Chicago: “It was Beveridge who then came up with the idea of offering Hayek a visiting professorship,” Howson reveals (199). In April 1931 Robbins surprised Hayek with a letter offering him a visiting professorship for the next academic year. Beveridge sent the official invitation on 27 April for a two- or possibly three-term visiting professorship using the Tooke line. After two terms as a visitor, Hayek in 1932 was offered the Tooke chair permanently.

10Howson details the Robbins-Hayek friendship, including the personal rift beginning 1950 over Hayek’s divorce (Robbins considered Hayek’s treatment of the first Mrs. Hayek “shameful”), and their reconciliation after 1961. In 1963 Robbins commented to his sister about Hayek: “we get on very well again although intellectually our paths are somewhat further apart” (847).

11Keynes invited Robbins to join an economists’ committee to advise the Labour PM Ramsay MacDonald in summer 1930. Keynes became unhappy when Robbins refused to endorse protectionism or public works. Howson correctly notes (3-4) that “Lionel later came to regret his negative attitude to public expenditure in depressed conditions and to reject the ‘Austrian’ theory he used to analyse the 1930s slump in his second book.” But unlike Keynes and others he never backtracked on free trade. In notes to himself on the committee’s proceedings, Robbins commented about Keynes (192): “Having broken with Free Trade [he was] determined to vilify it. One could not dislike him. One could only wish that Providence had combined such a noble brain with a temperament less mercurial.” Robbins described A. C. Pigou’s committee behavior less charitably as that of a “lofty old woman.”

12During the Second World War Robbins played an important role in economic policy-making, which Howson details. In 1942 he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy, nominated (along with John Hicks) jointly by Keynes, Robertson, Hawtrey, Pigou, and John Clapham (419). Howson notes (1084) that during these years “Robbins was one of Keynes’ most powerful allies within the government machine.”

13After the war Robbins returned to again head the LSE Economics department (which Hayek had been running up at Cambridge during the war). He was still a free trader, still against socialism and nationalization of industry, but not a laissez-fairist (as a case-by-case utilitarian he never had been), and was now a Keynesian in macroeconomics. In Robbins’ lecture notes Howson finds the view that the “shortcomings of the laissez-faire system” included, in addition to the problems of skewed income distribution, monopoly, and underprovision of public goods, “the problem of inadequate aggregate demand with resulting involuntary unemployment.”

14In this context it is not surprising that at the first meeting of Hayek’s Mont Pelerin Society, in April 1947, Robbins found Mises’ laissez-faire policy views extreme, writing to Iris that “when I hear him talk I feel almost a red.” In a subsequent letter Robbins reported that Mises “made a most dreadful exhibition of himself—attacked us all calling us Socialists & Interventionists” (662). Robbins added: “I find myself in the reverse position to Professor [Wilhelm] Roepke, who was Keynesian, and is so no longer. There was a time when I thought Keynesian stabilization schemes utterly reprehensible, but I have gradually been forced to believe that these ideas were not so wrong.”(663)

15The last third of the biography deals with Robbins’ career after 1947. It describes Robbins’ work as a historian of economic thought, and details of goings-on at the LSE, including visiting lecture series from Walter Eucken, George Stigler, Frank Knight, and Paul Samuelson. Chapters deal with Robbins’ role as a trustee of the National Gallery in the 1950s; his elevation to the peerage in 1959; his chairmanship of an official Higher Education Committee in 1960-62, whence issued the famous Robbins Report calling for major expansion of British universities; and his chairmanship of the Financial Times 1960-70. Having resigned his chair in 1961, Robbins retired from LSE teaching in 1966. In retirement he continued to lecture around the world until he suffered a stroke in July 1982, passing away in May 1984. After Susan Howson’s thorough account, it is hard to imagine that much more remains to be said about Robbins’ career.

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Lawrence H. White, « Susan Howson, Lionel Robbins  », Œconomia, 5-3 | 2015, 419-422.

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Lawrence H. White, « Susan Howson, Lionel Robbins  », Œconomia [En ligne], 5-3 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2015, consulté le 16 janvier 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/oeconomia.2104

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Lawrence H. White

George Mason University.

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