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Tuesday, January 1, 2002

A History of Economic Thought: The LSE Lectures

An Homage to an Open-Minded Thinker

In at least one respect, this is a remarkable book. It consists of the edited transcripts of a course of 33 lectures in the history of economic thought that Lionel Robbins delivered at the London School of Economics during the 81st and 82nd years of his life. A foreword by Professor William Baumol (a student of Robbins who later became his close friend) refers to the “dazzling intellectual brilliance” of these lectures, and to Robbins’s “command of language, his clarity of mind, and his incredible erudition assisted by an incredible memory.”

Given the age of the lecturer, these lectures are noteworthy indeed. This reviewer does not in any way quarrel with Baumol’s observations. And he is fully appreciative of the stroke of editorial genius that inspired the editors to undertake the publication of these lectures and to contribute valuable introductory and concluding essays to the volume. At the same time, he must record certain reservations.

There can be no question that these lectures contain a wealth of information and reflect an extraordinary familiarity with an enormous literature. The lectures must have been fascinating for the LSE students who heard them. After all, Robbins was one of the most famous British intellectuals and public figures of his time. This writer had the privilege of meeting Lord Robbins on one occasion and can attest to the kindness, open-mindedness, and generosity of spirit he displayed. The lectures in this volume reflect the sparkling humor and the “virtues of civilized behavior and scholarship” with which they were delivered.

Yet as a contribution to the history of economic thought, this volume is something of a disappointment in two respects.

First, despite the title of the volume, the lectures were never intended to constitute a treatise or textbook on the history of economic thought. The treatment of the many economists and other thinkers (starting with Plato and concluding well into the twentieth century) is often superficial and incomplete. Many of the expositions that Robbins provides of the ideas of the great economists seem far too sketchy to have been intelligible to his listeners (unless they had independently studied those writers). The lectures, despite some references to later writers, do not cover twentieth-century economics beyond the work of Alfred Marshall, Irving Fisher, and their generation. Except for a few lectures, they concentrate on specific economists or doctrines, with little attempt to trace broad developments in economic thinking or the growth and decline of major schools of thought.
These negative observations do not, of course, represent criticisms of the lectures themselves, which, as mentioned, never set out to offer an oral treatise on the history of economic thought. But they do represent a certain disappointment regarding the expectations generated by the book’s title.

The second sense in which the volume comes as something of a disappointment has to do with a question of substantive doctrinal import that is likely to be of interest to readers of Ideas on Liberty. I am referring to the pivotal role Robbins played in the twentieth-century history of Austrian economics. Almost a half-century before the delivery of these lectures, Robbins was one of the most influential British economists of his time. Much of his influence was exercised in a manner of great significance for the development of the Austrian tradition, under the spell of which Robbins seems, at least at that time, to have fallen. It was Robbins who invited Hayek to London for his famous 1931 series of lectures (and had him appointed soon afterwards to his professorship); it was Robbins who inspired the publication during the early ’30s of English-language versions of two important books by Ludwig von Mises, his 1912 work on monetary theory and his devastating 1922 critique of socialist planning. And it was Robbins who published his own extremely important 1932 The Nature and Significance of Economic Science, replete with Austrian insights and citations from Austrian writers. In other words, the Robbins of the early ’30s was a British follower of the Austrian tradition who introduced it into the mainstream of economic thought of his time. Alas, one searches in vain, in these lectures, for any trace of that Lionel Robbins.

To describe this as a disappointment is not entirely accurate. It is well known that Robbins distanced himself from the Mises-Hayek position decades ago—partly under the influence of Keynesian economics, partly as a result of other influences. Yet, as one opens these pages, one might have perhaps expected, in Robbins’s treatment of the Austrian School, that he might reveal some flicker of that excitement with which he had absorbed the ideas he learned in Vienna a half-century earlier. This reviewer could hardly detect any such flicker of excitement. It is true that Robbins refers with obvious respect to Ludwig von Mises, but he is careful and quick to note that “Mises is a very controversial figure in regard, let us say, to his views on methodology and in regard to his views on the possibility of calculation in a pure collectivist state”—thus indicating that he, Robbins, no longer stood for the Austrian positions on these very two subjects that he had staunchly defended during the ’30s.

Despite Robbins’s own abandonment of the central ideas that suffused his work in the early ’30s, the intellectual historian of the Austrian tradition must nonetheless record the timeless significance of that work for the subsequent development of that tradition. The slow but powerful influence that Mises and Hayek came to exercise on late twentieth-century Austrian economics, and the current significant revival of the Austrian tradition, could not have happened the way it did without Robbins’s contributions. In celebrating the brilliance of these lectures, therefore—and in spite of the volume’s disappointments—we pay homage, as well, to an open-minded thinker who, as a young man, possessed the intellectual acumen that enabled him to introduce the Austrian tradition onto the world stage of economics.