Navigation – Plan du site
Revues des livres
Essais critiques

Pigou, The Novel

About Ian Kumekawa, The First Serious Optimist: A.C. Pigou and the Birth of Welfare Economics
Nahid Aslanbeigui et Guy Oakes
p. 93-105
Référence(s) :

Ian Kumekawa, The First Serious Optimist: A.C. Pigou and the Birth of Welfare Economics, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017, 352 pages, ISBN 978-069116348-2

Texte intégral

A. C. Pigou and the Birth of Welfare EconomicsAfficher l’image
Crédits : Princeton University Press
  • 1 Entries in this genre include Damrosch (2005), Shorto (2009), Bakewell (2011), Nadler (2013), Bakew (...)

1The First Serious Optimist fits smoothly in a genre of intellectual history, fashionable for some time, that treats ideas with a relatively light touch. The stress is rather on the circumstances under which ideas are produced: the respects in which intellectual work is embedded in the vicissitudes of personal lives and careers, political and economic conditions, and the conflicts they exhibit. The point is to document how the world of thought intersects with the world of action and passion. Accounts of ideas are contextualized by matching them with aspects of the extra-intellectual world that are said to bear on them. The more persuasive entries in this genre achieve a balance between thought and context by showing how thinkers are enmeshed in the history of their times. Because intellectual intentions are defined in the extra-intellectual world, context in some sense becomes constitutive of intellectual work.1

  • 2 Henceforth, all references to Kumekawa’s book are with page numbers only.

2If prizes were awarded for sitzfleisch in pouring through voluminous primary sources and a formidable array of secondary works as well as diligence in archival spadework, Ian Kumekawa should receive very high marks for his new biography of the Cambridge economist A.C. Pigou (1877-1959). All readers, including the small community of Pigou scholars, will surely learn from his work. Noting that he is not an economist, Kumekawa situates the book outside the history of economic thought, undertaking to “answer general historical rather than economic questions” by providing “a portrait of an economist in his wider contexts” (6).2 In light of this objective, perhaps it is not surprising that the book offers no new analyses of Pigou’s economic writings. Although Kumekawa claims to address “the full range” of Pigou’s work, it seems fair to say that The First Serious Optimist stands or falls with the project of “situating Pigou in context” (ibid.). His narrative of Pigou’s life and career is a story that falls into three parts and can be simply told. It is engaging when considered on its own terms, which we do in Part I, reserving criticisms for Part II.

Kumekawa’s Narrative

The Young Academic Virtuoso: From Harrow to Wealth and Welfare

3Pigou’s many academic successes are recounted, from his early education at Harrow, the prestigious English public school, through his undergraduate years. At Cambridge, Pigou began by reading history. After achieving first-class honors in the History Tripos, he gained another first in the Moral Sciences Tripos with special distinction in political economy. He was the first Girdlers’ lecturer in economics until 1908, when, with Alfred Marshall’s support, he succeeded him in the Chair of Political Economy at the age of thirty. Kumekawa’s discussion of Wealth and Welfare (Pigou, 1912), the systematic treatise that provided the theoretical and analytical bases of welfare economics, stresses the foundation of the book in Pigou’s ethics as well as its affinities to British New Liberalism. On his reading, Wealth and Welfare was a “comprehensive expression” of the social welfare and tax policies of the Liberal Party (67). Pigou’s moral philosophy is represented as “eclectic”: Sidgwickian utilitarianism tempered, or perhaps compromised, by the moral intuitionism of G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica (1903). By 1914, Pigou’s life was undeniably good. He was an academic success, celebrated as an important new economic thinker, and financially secure. The disciplined life of hard thinking was balanced by bonhomie, relaxing as well as mountaineering in the company of favored young Kingsmen.


4Pigou’s Edwardian idyll ended with the Great War. Not a combatant, between terms he served in a volunteer ambulance corps for medical relief behind the front, first in France and Belgium and later in Italy. Much of his time was devoted to writing on the economic problems the war posed for the British state and serving, both before and after the Armistice, on commissions formed to advise the government on managing the transition to a peacetime economy. The war left Pigou “disheartened by the human capacity for atrocity” (84). His work on government commissions shook his faith in the seamless relationship between economic expertise and state power. In the vision of Wealth and Welfare—which Kumekawa calls “Pigou’s dream”—economists analyze policy alternatives, clarifying their costs and benefits. Political leaders then make intelligent policy choices based on the best economic knowledge at hand. By the mid-1920s, however, “something had happened to Pigou.” Although Kumekawa does not spell out exactly what this was, it “soured him on advocacy, turning him from a believer in the capabilities of governmental administration into a skeptic” (95). His postwar conception of the competence and political responsibility of the state was “a hollow echo of his former aspirations” (110). By the late 1920s, Pigouvian economics “had been hollowed out” (128). Taking his ‘hollowing’ metaphor to its ultimate conclusion, Kumekawa holds that these changes in Pigou’s thinking finally “hollowed Pigou out” (84).

Marginalization: the Twilight of Pigouvian Economics

5The 1930s brought Pigou no consolation, only deepening pessimism concerning economics and its social value. In 1936, John Maynard Keynes published The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, singling out Pigou as the chief architect of the classical “citadel” he was determined to undermine. Even before publication of the book, the most promising younger Cambridge economists had become Keynesians—principally Richard Kahn and Joan Robinson, but also Austin Robinson and David Champernowne (at the time, a research student). After publication of The General Theory, Dennis Robertson, a Marshallian who had worked closely with Keynes in the 1920s, became demoralized over his treatment at the hands of younger Keynesians and disheartened by Keynes’s abandonment of their earlier shared views—the “Cambridge Front.” When he left Cambridge to accept a chair at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1939, Pigou’s isolation seemed complete. In tracking the alleged decline of Pigou’s status at Cambridge, Kumekawa places considerable weight on a controversy between Keynes and Pigou in the pages of the Economic Journal, which Keynes edited. In “Real and Money Wages in Relation to Employment” (Pigou, 1937), Pigou defended the view that an increase in employment depended on a fall in real wage rates independent of interest-rate movements, a thesis inconsistent with the analysis of The General Theory. Keynes and his adjutants responded with an organized if somewhat frenetic counterattack. Keynes received unexpected support from Nicholas Kaldor at LSE, who in Kumekawa’s account questioned the logic of Pigou’s argument. The result: “Pigou folded, expressing doubt in his work and even in his mental capacities.” Thus the phenomenon of the Pigouvian “retreat,” which left Pigou “increasingly isolated in his department, overlooked by his former students” (151).


6Unmanned by Keynes’s “coup de grâce” (164), suffering a “diminished academic status” (169), experiencing an “aching despair” (174), “cast out from the faculty of economics and politics at Cambridge,” and “unable to continue working as a scientist at a university” (183)—in the end Pigou was granted this-worldly salvation, and from an unlikely redeemer: the Labour Party. In Kumekawa’s improbable resurrection and apotheosis of Pigou from irrelevance and despair, he finally consummated a shift, years in the making, from the reformist paternalism of the Edwardian period—the New Liberalism or “Government House Utilitarianism” of his youth—to a more authentic democratic sensibility, embracing the British people as they were conceived in the propaganda of the postwar Labour government.

7In Kumekawa’s script, Pigou cultivated a broader readership of nonspecialists in the mid-1930s, after he had been marginalized at Cambridge and “had no other option” (172). Economics had “moved past Pigouvian thought.” His response was “to seek a new readership that could furnish the respect and reputation he had once enjoyed” (164-165). In the 1930s, his writings for the public retained the condescending style of the earlier Pigou, who supposed that the British people would remain incapable of elementary economic thinking unless they were enlightened by experts—de haut en bas. Near the end of World War II, his tone changed. The midwife in this process was Philip Noel-Baker, a Cambridge friend from Pigou’s days as a young professor and Noel-Baker’s [then Baker] as an undergraduate. Now a Labour MP, he saw that the end of the war would create opportunities for a comprehensive reform of British economic policy. However, reform presupposed an enlightened public, instructed in elementary economic reasoning by economists such as Pigou. Noel-Baker encouraged his friend to begin the work of enlightenment. Buoyed by Labour’s triumph in the 1945 general election, Pigou responded by writing Income (1946), which Kumekawa reads as “a clear stand in support of the Labour government” (191). In Income Revisited (1955), Pigou stated “the most radical, ethical opinion he had ever espoused” (205). Taking up the old Labour slogan “Fair Shares for All,” he declared himself an egalitarian. In Kumekawa’s text, Pigou’s “new egalitarianism” was inspired not only by his “disenchantment with elites” but also his “renewed hope” that the state in tandem with the profession of economics could “change the world for the better” (206). This fundamental “shift in Pigou’s thinking” is credited in large part to the Labour Party. Labour’s success in introducing a limited program of central economic planning “reawakened Pigou’s dream” of a political class endowed with the competence, ethical principles, and will to initiate policies grounded in the most advanced results of economic analysis (206).


8Critical observations on some of the chief points of The First Serious Optimist follow. Although the ensuing criticisms do not pretend to be comprehensive, they point out some of its important historiographic weaknesses.

‘The First Serious Optimist’

9Errors appear before readers open the first page of the book. In October 1932, Joan Robinson published a fourteen-page pamphlet on the epistemology of economics: Economics is a Serious Subject. Circulating the pamphlet among several members of the Cambridge economics faculty, she added a pithy dedication to each. Pigou was “the first serious optimist.” In Kumekawa’s reading of this epigram, she celebrated Pigouvian welfare economics because it was “built on the optimism that it could actually bring about a happier, more just world.” The pamphlet, according to Kumekawa, expressed Robinson’s hope that economics was not merely a rigorous discipline, but was also “deeply inflected with the moral project of the betterment of humankind” (131). This is not what Robinson wrote; nor were ethics or considerations of justice and human betterment at stake in her optimism-pessimism dichotomy. She argued that the economic methodology of her time could give only “unreal answers to unreal questions” (Robinson, 1932, 5). The questions are unreal because they are derived from the logical possibilities of economic methods, which abstract from the properties of economic phenomena and thus all issues of policy. The answers are unreal because their referents are not economic facts, but rather methodologically constructed artifacts. Any approximation of economic analysis to the properties of actual economies is purely fortuitous. In choosing analytical assumptions, the fundamental issue for the optimist is the criterion of “tractability”: on the basis of a given set of assumptions, can an analysis be conducted by using existing technique? The empirical status of these assumptions—and thus their bearing on economic policy—is irrelevant (ibid., 6). Pessimists, confronted by a choice between assumptions that are tractable but unrealistic and alternative assumptions that are realistic but intractable, choose the latter. Optimists are model builders, committed to the project of abstract theory construction for its own sake. This is the path Robinson took in The Economics of Imperfect Competition (1933), the book that established her international reputation. It is also the path she erroneously supposed Pigou had taken in The Economics of Welfare (1920) and why she mistakenly christened Imperfect Competition her “Pigovian book.” Robinson’s economic epistemology of the early 1930s created a world of artificial conceptual entities that could be mastered only by economists who risked the possibility of theoretical vertigo at great heights. In taking this risk, Robinson thought, Pigou became a master of model building. In achieving a level of methodological sophistication unprecedented at the time he wrote The Economics of Welfare, he became ‘the first serious optimist’, but not because of a conviction that economics could advance the human prospect (Aslanbeigui and Oakes, 2009, 41-45).


10Kumekawa writes as if his territory were historical fiction instead of intellectual history, presuming access to the inner life of Pigou as if he were Hilary Mantel writing about Thomas Cromwell. Creating a plot with an imaginary figure to whom he gives the name of the Cambridge professor, he then peers into the soul of Pigou, furnishing it with a full, active, and not altogether attractive mental life. Intentions, motives, agendas, and emotions heretofore hidden from students of Pigou’s work are mysteriously revealed to Kumekawa. ‘Revelation’ seems to be the term for this method, since Kumekawa’s reading of Pigou’s mind is purely speculative. He uses it to considerable dramatic advantage but without a shred of evidence that the claims made about the interior life of the imaginary Pigou bear any relation to the psyche of the man whose photograph appears on the dust jacket of the book. Probing the mind of a character is, of course, a staple of novelistic technique and can work beautifully in the sphere of historical fiction. However, when Hilary Mantel enters the psychic world of Thomas Cromwell, readers are expected to know that she is writing a novel. In Kumekawa’s observations on the Pigouvian psyche we learn that he wrote the nonspecialist work Economics in Practice (1935) “begrudgingly” (164-165). Pigou is said to have been “unnerved” by the increasingly positivist and quantitative turn of welfare economics during the 1930s (167). His presidential address to the Royal Economic Society in 1939 is represented as “a naked attempt on Pigou’s part to assert his own relevance” (170). In 1943, Pigou asked Keynes to use his influence in the Treasury to gain a hearing for his plan to fund Britain’s mounting war debt. When Keynes proved unhelpful, Pigou “tried to save face” by resorting to publication (183). Kumekawa provides no grounds for these characterizations of Pigou’s mental life.


11Kumekawa’s redemption thesis rests mainly on his reading of how Pigou’s Income (1946) and Income Revisited (1955) are related to the body of his work produced before the final years of World War II. His statement that The First Serious Optimist “addresses” the entire Pigouvian oeuvre is a risky claim to make about a narrative of 211 pages on a thinker who published at furious pace and often at great length for more than four decades, making contributions to most of the economic sub-disciplines of his time. Because of the intersection of Pigou’s career with the increasing professionalization and specialization of economics, he was perhaps the last encyclopedic economist. Under what conditions can readers be expected to take Kumekawa’s claim seriously? Minimally, it calls for a working knowledge of the fundamentals of Pigou’s economics and the areas of the discipline in which he wrote. In several respects, The First Serious Optimist does not meet this requirement.

12Kumekawa states that the readership Pigou targeted in Income was the British voter. In fact, the book was a series of lectures given at Cambridge to engineering students in January-March 1945 (Pigou, 1946, v). In other words, before the end of World War II in Europe, before the surprising victory of the Labour Party in July 1945, and of course before nationalization of key industries such as coal (1947), the railways (1948), and steel (1949). Kumekawa finds the “tone and content” of Income “markedly different” from Pigou’s earlier works, a change one would expect to see had Pigou been “explicit” in endorsing the agenda of the Labour government—“particularly its policy of nationalization”—as Kumekawa says he was. By way of evidence, he quotes a passage that he attributes to Pigou in Income (1946, 76-77). We reproduce it in full as it appears in The First Serious Optimist (171).

For technical reasons [of economy], ... services providing water, gas, electricity, telephones, tramways and railways, and communication, cannot be run as competitive enterprises, but must in the main, in each district, function as monopolies. ... [These industries require] great government oversight or ownership.

13The sentence fragment “great government oversight or ownership” cannot be found in Pigou’s text. Linked with the fragment he adds in brackets, the nonexistent quotation conveniently states the view Kumekawa needs to support the redemption thesis: Pigou’s agreement with nationalization. In performing this exercise and heralding the rebirth of Pigou as an advocate of the Labour government, Kumekawa adds yet another myth to the literature on Pigou, already replete with distortions, caricatures, and burlesque misrepresentations.

  • 3 On the origins of the concept of natural monopoly, see Mosca (2008).

14Setting Pigou’s ideas in context presupposes an elementary understanding that the industries he identified as “public utility concerns” (Pigou, 1946, 78) are, in the language of subsequent economists, natural monopolies. Prior to Pigou, many economists—including John Stuart Mill, Alfred Marshall, and Francis Edgeworth—had discussed the concept without using the term.3 Pigou’s account in 1946 follows this tradition and hews closely to his own analysis thirty-four years earlier in Wealth and Welfare (1912, 180-181). In his treatment of public utilities, considerations of efficiency, such as large economies of scale, were decisive for the monopolistic structure of a market. He argued that there was a consensus on the objective of refusing to allow monopolies to “mulct the public in unreasonable charges” (1946, 77). How could this objective be achieved? Kumekawa has the answer: by nationalization as introduced by the Labour government and supported by Pigou. This was not Pigou’s answer in Income. In fact, he did not even use the term ‘nationalization’, nor did he advocate any other course of state action. In surveying the range of policy options at the time of his lectures to engineering students, he highlighted two broad possibilities: private provision of public utilities under public control and public operation of services by the state—the latter possibility did not entail nationalization. He was reluctant to settle “in categorical fashion” the question of which possibility to pursue (ibid., 77). Why? True to form, his answer was recondite.

15Private concerns can be controlled by several different methods; the same holds for those publicly held. It follows that the problem at stake is not a matter of comparing public control and public operation in general terms. “A balance must be struck,” and there is no general principle dictating how to do this. As always in Pigouvian economic reasoning, it is necessary to undertake case-by-case analyses because there is no balance simpliciter that holds for all cases. “The comparative advantages of control and operation may be different in different conditions for different types of concern: and different again for the same type of concern in countries with different traditions and different political organisations. Actual practical decisions, therefore, can only be made after close study of the details of each case.” In a “general discussion,” which was Pigou’s purpose in Income, the economist can only set out “the principal types of public control on the one hand and of public operation on the other that have been widely practiced or advocated” (ibid., 78; emphasis in original).

16Which is to say: Pigou did not endorse nationalization in any sense. Nor was his approach in Income a departure from his earlier writings. Monopolistic markets—including public utilities and public utility policy—were explored in detail in Wealth and Welfare Part II, Chapters IX and XV-XVII. Here he spelled out conditions under which monopolies develop as well as circumstances under which policies of public control or public operation might prove successful. In his discussion of Income, Kumekawa makes three moves. First, he distorts Pigou’s treatment of monopolies as advocacy of nationalization. Then he supposes, not unreasonably, that this misreading represents a dramatic break from Pigou’s earlier work. Finally, he uses this misreading as crucial support for the redemption thesis. Once it is understood that the idea of a break derives from a misunderstanding—there was no break—support for the redemption thesis collapses.

17Kumekawa’s account ignores Pigou’s Essays in Economics (1952), a mélange of mainly nonspecialist pieces, several of which bear on the conversion and redemption thesis. Three of the essays, all published during the years of Labour government, are especially significant in this regard: “Central Planning” (February 1948), “Control over Prices and Distribution of Income” (December 1950), and “One way of Looking at Economics” (January 1951).

18After World War II, Pigou maintained, there was a general presumption that extracting resources from the rich to improve the lot of the poor was advantageous—but only “up to a point.” Progressive taxation in the interest of an egalitarian redistribution could end in a political paradox: the beneficiaries of a redistributive policy would receive a larger portion of national income but a smaller absolute amount. Although this caveat did not, in his view, rule out heavily graduated income taxes and surtaxes, it did “suggest that there is a limit beyond which they can’t be pressed with advantage” (Pigou, 1952, 77). The Pigouvian limit was determined by how egalitarian distribution affects incentives to work, save, and invest. Here it may be useful to introduce a distinction between two species of egalitarianism: categorical egalitarianism as an unconditional axiom of policy; and instrumental egalitarianism as a contingent premise of policy, the validity of which varies from case to case depending on its economic consequences. From Wealth and Welfare to his final economic writings, Pigou wrote as an instrumental egalitarian. In “Control over Prices and Distribution of Income,” he grappled with conceptual ambiguities in the Labour Party slogan “Fair Shares.” Concluding that the term should be abandoned, he introduced a pragmatic and informal policy of fairness: once the expenses of state operations are funded by steeply progressive taxes, additional revenues should be collected from “better-to-do people and used for the benefit of poorer people” (ibid., 157). This loosely defined policy is contingent on “injurious side effects,” a consideration that complicates egalitarian distributions in several respects. Because such side effects are always possible, it is necessary to include their probable weight in policy making. Even if there were a consensus on a certain level of redistribution, various methods of achieving it are possible, each with its own side effects that would have to be factored into a Pigouvian policy calculus. It is also necessary to consider how far egalitarian policies can be reasonably pursued irrespective of method. The critical threshold is the point “at which to press them further would do more harm through their side effects than it would do good directly” (ibid.). The “live issue” on the question of distribution, Pigou insisted, “is not whether any transfers can be made with advantage, but at what point the net benefit from further transfers ceases” (ibid., 160; emphasis in original). This is instrumental egalitarianism, not the categorical doctrine Kumekawa ascribes to Pigou following his supposed conversion to Labour Party doctrine.

19Pigou returned to the idea of egalitarianism in his last book, Income Revisited (1955), which Kumekawa regards as an “inherently political work with clear ethical arguments.” His evidence for this reading is its final chapter—“’Fair Shares for All’.” Pigou consistently placed this expression in single quotation marks, signaling that it did not state his own views. Kumekawa claims the contrary, using the title of the chapter to argue that Pigou had accepted the egalitarian ethos of the Labour Party. Conventions on single quotation marks aside, it is not difficult to dispose of the use Kumekawa makes of Income Revisited. Two points are in order.

20First, Kumekawa employs a severely truncated version of Pigou’s analysis, neglecting to note that he maintained the concept of fairness to be too “loose and rough” to “draw up any sort of blue-print to suggest in positive terms what a fair state of things would be like.” Without a criterion of fairness, it is unsurprising that he did not adopt the Labour position, instead making some general comments on the state of the economy at the time and its “notable defects” (Pigou, 1955, 81-82). Although postwar rates of poverty and income inequality were lower than prewar rates, “protagonists of fairness” could promote equality by reducing the high concentration of property ownership and taxing capital gains from stock trades. However, he did not conclude that “changes which would make towards fairness are necessarily desirable” (ibid., 85; emphasis in original). Consistent with his instrumental egalitarianism, he considered objections to redistributive policies, one of which he took quite seriously: a reduction in the incentive and ability to invest. “Reactions of this type, so far as they occur, are especially important because they are cumulative.” Although he did not suppose that the “indirect threat to production” posed by redistributive measures could be ignored, he expected production to increase as a function of technological progress. His muted conclusion: redistribution in the interest of fairness was unlikely to have catastrophic effects on production; at worst, it would diminish the rate of economic growth (ibid., 86-87).

  • 4 In an acute review of this book published in the Journal of Law and Society, David Campbell also ar (...)

21Second, Pigou’s “’Fair Shares for All’” chapter does not depart from his writings of the previous decades. In Wealth and Welfare (1912) and several editions of The Economics of Welfare (1920, 1924, 1928, 1932), he had attempted to substantiate the general proposition that if the share of national income allocated to the poor increased without reducing its size, economic welfare would increase. He devoted several chapters of both books to analyzing a variety of redistributive steps—including income and property taxes as well as death duties—and their impact on the size of the national dividend (see, for example, Pigou, 1912, 320-398; 1920, 743-796). The same ideas were elaborated in all editions of A Study in Public Finance (1928, 1929, 1947). One conclusion on this point is evident: a rudimentary understanding of Pigou’s writings shows that “’Fair Shares for All’” recapitulates a lifetime of arguments, modes of analysis, and idiom. It follows that the act of redemption that concludes Kumekawa’s portrait of Pigou is never consummated. The Damascene event that he supposedly experienced in writing Income and Income Revisited did not happen, in which case Kumekawa’s story of disillusion, failure, embitterment, and redemption collapses. If Pigou achieved salvation in this world, it was not due to his discovery of ‘the people’, his embrace of the Labour Party, or his conversion to radically new views.4

22In summing up a lecture he delivered at the University of London in September 1950—“One Way of Looking at Economics”—Pigou drew a conclusion grounded in his early ethics of science and his training with Marshall: the economist should not be a partisan of a political ideology or an apologist for a political party, faction, or movement. The basis for this conviction was anchored in a foundational premise of Pigou’s philosophy of science. Economists were bound by “one clear duty”: commitment to truth, an unconditional imperative to “carry out their work with single-eyed veracity.” Above all other considerations, “they must not look about for arguments designed to support some particular set of politicians” (Pigou, 1952, 82). Thus the Pigouvian prohibition against political partisanship on the part of economists. Because he is “a servant of society,” the economist “must own no unconditional allegiance to any party” (ibid., 84). Because his sole commitment is to the ethics of science, his only allegiance is to the truth to which his investigations lead. In light of these convictions, it is not clear how Pigou could have taken the role in which Kumekawa casts him. On pain of blatant and grotesque self-contradiction, Pigou could not have been both a convert to the Labour Party and an advocate of its policies at the same time that he followed Marshall’s uncompromising strictures on the nonpartisanship of economists.

“Pigou in Context”?

23The First Serious Optimist is marred by errors of fact, misreadings, and construction of a Pigouvian interior life for which there is no evidence. The range of factual errors alone is impressive. Pigou was not “the originator of externality theory” (2); in this area, he borrowed heavily from Henry Sidgwick. As the Cambridge Professor of Political Economy, Pigou did not supervise students (85). Austin Robinson, not Dennis Robertson, was assistant editor of The Economic Journal (150). Keynes’s editorship of the journal began in 1911, not 1913 (153). Pigou’s authority in King’s College during the 1930s was not “slipping,” as his work on the College Fellowship Committee documents (154). Pigou was not “cast out” of the Cambridge faculty of economics and politics in 1943 (183). He retired. Since he continued to publish articles in economics journals during his post-retirement residence at King’s, it is a mistake to claim that he was “unable to continue working as a scientist at a university”. It is not true that Pigou’s publications of the 1940s and 1950s avoided “any controversy around interpersonal comparisons of utility” (199). His 1951 article in the American Economic Review—appended to the 1952 reprint of The Economics of Welfare—was a vigorous entry in precisely this controversy.

24This account is not exhaustive. Adopting a liberal principle of charity, each of these errors, regarded individually or piecemeal, may seem innocuous. Taken together, their effect is destructive. The aim of The First Serious Optimist is to produce a portrait of Pigou “in his wider contexts,” in part by answering “general historical rather than economic questions” (6). The general historical questions are left unstated. If the “context” is composed of factual errors, speculation, and misreadings held together by an informal metaphysics of the Pigouvian interiority, then it is not clear what remains of the book.

We are grateful to Professor Ryo Hongo for advice. Work on this essay was supported by the Jack T. Kvernland Chair, Monmouth University.

Haut de page


Aslanbeigui, Nahid and Oakes, Guy. 2009. The Provocative Joan Robinson. The Making of a Cambridge Economist. Durham: Duke University Press.

Aslanbeigui, Nahid and Oakes, Guy. 2015. Arthur Cecil Pigou. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bakewell, Sarah. 2011. How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in one Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. New York: Other Press.

Bakewell, Sarah. 2017. At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails. New York: Other Press.

Campbell, David. 2017. The First Serious Optimist: A.C. Pigou and the Birth of Welfare Economics by Ian Kumekawa. Journal of Law and Society, 44(2): 719-725.

Damrosch, Leo. 2005. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Kaldor, Nicholas. 1937. Prof. Pigou on Money Wages in Relation to Unemployment. Economic Journal, 47(188): 745-753.

Keynes, John Maynard. 1936. The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Keynes, John Maynard. 1937. Prof. Pigou on Money Wages in Relation to Unemployment. Economic Journal, 47(188): 743-745.

Moore, George Edward. 1903. Principia Ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mosca, Manuela. 2008. On the Origins of the Concept of Natural Monopoly: Economies of Scale and Competition. European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 15(2): 317-353.

Nadler, Steven. 2013. A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Pigou, Arthur Cecil. 1912. Wealth and Welfare. London: Macmillan.

Pigou, Arthur Cecil. 1920. The Economics of Welfare. London: Macmillan.

Pigou, Arthur Cecil. 1928. A Study in Public Finance. London: Macmillan.

Pigou, Arthur Cecil. 1935. Economics in Practice: Six Lectures on Current Issues. London: Macmillan.

Pigou, Arthur Cecil. 1946. Income: An Introduction to Economics. London: Macmillan.

Pigou, Arthur Cecil. 1951. Some Aspects of Welfare Economics. American Economic Review, 41(3): 287-302.

Pigou, Arthur Cecil. 1952. Essays in Economics. London: Macmillan.

Pigou, Arthur Cecil. 1955. Income Revisited: Being a Sequel to Income. London: Macmillan.

Rasmussen, Dennis C. 2017. The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Robinson, Joan V. 1932. Economics is a Serious Subject. The Apologia of an Economist to the Mathematician, the Scientist and the Plain Man. Cambridge: Heffer.

Robinson, Joan V. 1933. The Economics of Imperfect Competition. London: Macmillan.

Shorto, Russell. 2009. Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason. New York: Vintage.

Haut de page


1 Entries in this genre include Damrosch (2005), Shorto (2009), Bakewell (2011), Nadler (2013), Bakewell (2017), and Rasmussen (2017).

2 Henceforth, all references to Kumekawa’s book are with page numbers only.

3 On the origins of the concept of natural monopoly, see Mosca (2008).

4 In an acute review of this book published in the Journal of Law and Society, David Campbell also argues that Kumekawa’s thesis of a postwar Pigouvian conversion makes little sense, in part because of the dubious egalitarian credentials of the postwar Labour Party (Campbell, 2017, 724). For an investigation of how Pigou maintained the long-term consistency of his analytical framework within the limits of a historicist epistemology of economics, see Aslanbeigui and Oakes (2015, 97-135).

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Nahid Aslanbeigui et Guy Oakes, « Pigou, The Novel », Œconomia, 8-1 | 2018, 93-105.

Référence électronique

Nahid Aslanbeigui et Guy Oakes, « Pigou, The Novel », Œconomia [En ligne], 8-1 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2018, consulté le 25 mai 2018. URL :

Haut de page


Nahid Aslanbeigui

Monmouth University,

Articles du même auteur

Guy Oakes

Monmouth University,

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Les contenus d’Œconomia sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo Association Œconomia
  • Logo CNRS
  • OpenEdition Journals