International Economic Policy in the Interwar Years: The Special Contribution of ILO Economists

Article excerpt

The economists in the ILO perform many of the same tasks as their counterparts in academic institutions. The ILO economists have a

strong independent research function - independent, that is, by comparison with economists employed by national governments. In addition, their special knowledge of economic conditions on an international scale, their access to data, their penchant for reconciling differences in national approaches to pressing international problems render their perspectives distinct from the viewpoints of academic economists. This article considers the published work of economists employed by the ILO from its inception up to the late 1930s which, we submit, made a significant contribution to debate on several major international economic issues, many of which pertain to concerns of the present. The ILO economists actively promoted their ideas in published work, including on the pages of the International Labour Review (ILR).' Some of this work is mentioned briefly in the editorial overview contained in the 75th Anniversary Issue of the ILR - work which was said to have "marked or even influenced some historic shifts in thinking and policy analysis on labour and social issues." 2 We would add that ILO work contributed to thinking on a range of major international economic problems.

Our objective here is to sketch the ILO economists' perspectives in the light of growing interest by intellectual historians in the ideas of economists

as one "recognizable professional cadre" in international agencies.3 G. D. H. Cole and Margaret Cole judged, in 1933, that "the ILO has done much useful work, though this has been rather in the field of promoting international discussion and spreading information about the various countries than in the direct improvement of industrial legislation." 4 Indubitably, as Herbert Feis observed in 1927, the work of the ILO was "primarily educational".5 But in our view the ILO economists did not merely promote discussion, disseminate information and perform an educational function: they were active advocates of particular perspectives on the operation of international economic processes and on the methods which might be used to stabilize and harness those processes for the purposes of economic and social progress. The contributions of the economists became engines of advocacy in the pursuit of a broad concept of economic and social justice. Justice was to be pursued through the coordination of international economic policy to deliver high levels of employment and high living standards. …